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La Belle Suisse

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“Mahina is a fantastic tale involving multiple storylines from both historical times and the present… beautiful and complex, like the threads of fine tapestry… a memorable and well told story, full of adventure and romance… Someone should turn this book into a motion picture. You should read the book.” Kathy Olson

 

“Paradise Warrior is an amazing book. It makes you laugh, cry and reflect. It is a book that when you finish you wonder about life around you. God’s plan in our life… amazing gift…” Fernando M.

 

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[Paradise Warrior] “I’ve finished THAT BOOK and will now have to do something constructive!!!… if book number three is as riveting as the other two, I will need pulse-reducing medication. I can’t believe the depth of all that he was able to bring in to that story!!! (I’m thinking that I will have to stick to “Little Women” and “Heidi” in future.)” Maureen

 

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[The Legend of Ataneq Nanuq] “…gripped me right to the end… fabulous job.” Phil

 

[The Legend of Ataneq Nanuq] “…exciting… incredible. A NY times best selling author couldn’t do it better. It is real. It is engaging. It is captivating… just comes off the page… and it will keep you guessing until the end when he skillfully ties all the lo°se ends into a satisfying knot. Don’t miss this exciting adventure.” Kathy

 

“…amazing, delightful, absolutely intriguing, WONDERFUL book… PARADISE WARRIOR!!! I can’t put it down…” Gwennie Simpson

 

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[Mahina] “I was up reading half the night last night…” Kathy

 

 

 

~

 

 

LA BELLE SUISSE

by

DODIE LA MIROUNETTE

and JACK DEY

 

 

~

 

4-BOOK SET

 

Shakespir EDITION

 

PUBLISHED BY:

C.D. & A.R. Day at Shakespir

 

COPYRIGHT 2014 C.D. & A.R. Day

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means–electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or otherwise–except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the owner of the copyright.

 

Original Cover Design: C.D. & A.R. Day

Cover images: Book 1: C. Girod, D. Walther; Book 2: G.T. James; Book 3: D. Walther; Book 4: pixabay.com

 

Shakespir EDITION, LICENSE NOTES

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with others please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This book is also available in print.

(paperback)

For further information please contact:

URL: jackdey.com

Email: [email protected]

 

 

~

 

Dedicated to: Papa

For Your Honour and Your Glory

 

~

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Book One

Book Two

Book Three

Book Four

 

BONUS / END NOTES

Authors’ Note

About the Authors

Connect with Dodie and Jack

Discover Other Books by Jack Dey

Mahina

Paradise Warrior

Aunt Tabbie’s Wings

The Secrets of Black Dean Lighthouse

The Legend of Ataneq Nanuq

The Valley of Flowers

Exclusive Preview of Jack Dey’s New Novel – Zero

 

 

 

~

 

Note from Dodie and Jack

 

La Belle Suisse is a fast paced mystery set in Switzerland and outback Australia. Full of intrigue, fun and romance, it will lead you into familiar places where normality seems to exist… or does it? Don’t let your guard down, for once ensnared, there are a number of choices and many doors to escape the terrifying labyrinth, but only one leads safely back. Who can you trust and will they guide you out or send you spiralling deeper into despair?

This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, incidences, places or events, past or present, unless otherwise stated, is purely coincidental. Poetic licence has been taken in writing this fiction.

We hope you will enjoy reading it as much as we have enjoyed writing it.

 

Dodie and Jack

 

 

~

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

In loving memory of Gina Puppy

 

We would like to thank the following for their tireless support in bringing La Belle Suisse from a thought to a finished work.

Papa God, for allowing us to be a pencil in His hand.

Jack’s wife, the Editor, for turning our full stops into commas, encouraging us to keep going and using words like ‘disturbing’ to keep us on track. Constantly filling Jack’s cup with tea and love. Dodie would also like to thank her family for their supportive attitude full of humour and imaginative ideas. Our assistant editor, the very charismatic Phil Hollett, for never letting us get away with anything.

The ever vigilant prayer team.

Finally, you, the reader. We pray for you as you take Papa’s hand and sojourn through this story. May you never forget the journey you are about to take and judge everything against what Papa tells you.

 

Dodie and Jack

 

 

 

~

 

LA BELLE SUISSE

 

If you have a price, the devil has a cheque book.

Author Unknown

 

~

 

 

BOOK ONE

 

 

Chapter 1

 

A small, battered brown case, grasped in a weathered hand, protected Philippe de la Calle’s meagre worldly belongings. As he stepped from the crowded train, pondering the rising apartment towers and the lavish streets of his once boyhood home, he considered he hadn’t been back here in almost thirty years. Now the memories sealed in the timeless corridors of his mind collided heavily with the opulence that flaunted itself in the unrecognisable streets where poverty once gripped his hand and kept his family prisoner. Somewhere in his tangled thoughts, wooden shanty housing leaned together in a mass for communal support, and if one stick was removed then the whole town would collapse; so it had been with the simple community structure of poor families living and relying on each other to survive.

A storm of wealthy, influential invaders had seen the potential of the small seaside hamlet as a tax haven and playground for the rich and famous. With the casual stroke of a pen on a blank cheque book stub, life had changed drastically for the poor, stealing the land from under their feet in a desperate greedy grab and displacing families who had depended on it to survive for centuries. Philippe gawked around at the ordered lavish streets bordered by sandstone buildings, groomed with gold leaf architecture and emblazoned with impish statues. Walk paths of rich, intricately cut Italian stone meandered lazily between millionaires’ villas, diverting here and there through an ornate and expensively decorated park. Fountains splashed and gurgled on every profligate street corner. Where once there was thirst, now water seemed to bubble up from under every manicured rock.

An incredulous sweeping gaze at the tidy harbour, protected from the Mediterranean’s boisterous moods by heavy rock barriers, abruptly halted Philippe in mid glare. In a time gone by, a great and proud natural granite seawall had protected the village from the ocean’s wrath. Now it stood impotent and tamed as a backdrop to a fester of towering apartments. The sea in front of the buildings, reclaimed and pushed back, today accommodated meandering streets and a circus of harbourfront villas. Beyond the reaching luxury, a fleet of magnificent private floating palaces lay at anchor, neatly moored in million dollar pens. Polished and watched over by zealous crews, the palaces lay idle until their millionaire masters were ready for another lavish fling to impress the latest sports or movie stars, showing off their abundant wealth in another partying sea jaunt going nowhere.

Philippe swivelled on his feet and slowly completed a 360 degree scan. All about him, trillions of euro lay buried in a hoard of personal greed while the people he lived and worked among died in droves from lack of a daily meal, clean drinking water or a few euros of antibiotic medicines.

Excusez-moi, Monsieur!

A petite, well dressed young woman drew Philippe back to earth. “Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle,” he apologised and stepped aside so she could navigate around his disbelieving frame. With a large group of chattering, awestruck tourists approaching from behind and cameras catching images from every direction, Philippe’s train of thought dissolved and he began to follow the young woman along the path lest he be swept up by the wave of envious humanity.

It took some time to orient himself in the unfamiliar streets, but as his thin and tall, fifty-year-old frame came to an abrupt stop in front of an opulent structure, the bitter memories came flooding back. Intending to step from the ordered kerb and cross an immaculate street to face his nemesis, a red and black Bugatti-Veyron sports car blared its horn in warning and then quickly slipped away in an expensive plume of racing formulae fuel. Philippe stared after the vivacious vehicle, realising he’d just missed being run over by 1.1 million euro. Checking for further fast moving indulgent drivers, he quickly scampered across the street before a yellow Lamborghini driven by a sports model blonde approached and roared past in a flash of vibrating noise.

Safely across the roadway of spoilt disdain, Philippe stood silently, contemplating the extravagant building threatening to engulf him in a tsunami of past regret and shame that had divided his family and destroyed the people he loved. Philippe’s father, the village leader, had colluded with the wealthy invaders and engaged with them in a despicable bid to defraud his people. Ancestral land and homes had disappeared in a sanctioned and swift, vacuous grab with little recompense. And for his efforts, Philippe’s father was rewarded with a small fortune by poor people’s standards. Seeing the need for a rich man’s playhouse, Philippe’s father had invested all he had in a gambling den for the wealthy and now after thirty years, he was one of the wealthiest men among the wealthy.

As a young man, Philippe had sensed the rising tide of affluent evil gripping at his bones, stifling the overwhelming desire to make a difference in a lopsided world, ignoring the cries of the suffering and filling his mind instead with the rich man’s disease. But no longer able to survive an audience with his conscience, Philippe, along with his mother, had left his father and brother to live their lives of indulgent riches. Now, as a fifty-year-old missionary and after working in abject poverty in some of the poorest hot spots of the world, it had been nearly three decades since he’d seen his wealthy and elderly father and the place he once called home. Philippe took a last glance at the opulent casino, patted down his ragged clothing and started to climb the hill to his father’s house bulging out onto a nearby hillside. As he approached the sprawling driveway, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter that had started him on his latest pilgrimage and began to read again.

Philippe

Your father is not well and the doctors suggest he has only weeks or possibly months to live. I am not sure why he requested to see you and Mother one last time before he dies, but you owe it to him for giving you life to at least make some kind of effort and fulfil his dying request. I still can’t forgive you for walking away from the family when Father invested his complete fortune in the casino and it looked like we would be poor again; but as you will see, Father is exuberantly wealthy now and I only hope he has kept his promise to cut you out of his will. Just so you know, it is my intention to contest any favours he has set aside for you in his last testament, and I can afford the best legal team possible. Personally, I couldn’t care if you don’t come, but Father asks every day after you and I urge you, for his sake, to make a concession in your selfish lifestyle and fulfil a dying man’s request.

Once again, I remind you I am the firstborn son and I am entitled to every bit of Father’s substantial estate, simply because I stayed and supported him in his decisions and I will see to it you receive nothing from this incredible self-made man.

As agreeable as ever, your older brother Robert.

Philippe folded the tattered letter and placed it reverently back in his threadbare shirt pocket. From the moment he’d received the news of his father, it had taken him nearly a month to travel across some of the most inhospitable territory on Earth, calling on favours with grateful people to help him traverse across continents just so he could reach his ailing father’s side. But now he wasn’t sure his foolhardy journey had all been for naught and whether he was too late to fulfil his father’s dying wish. After the nerve-racking trek, he stood in the sun tiredly blinking down a lavish driveway and into the haughty eyes of extreme opulence. He paused for long moments, considering the final few metres of his sojourn and what lay in wait for his arrival. With a quick prayer for strength, he pushed his feet on toward the enormous front doors, staring at a plethora of closed-circuit cameras watching him, watching them. Philippe lifted his hand to knock but before his knuckles made contact with the expensive paintwork, one half of the massive doors opened and a maid met his eyes with a disdainful frown.

Eh, vous là-bas, le vagabond, get away from the door before I have security run you off!

“If you please, Mademoiselle, I am Philippe de la Calle and I have come to see my father, Henri Rousseau!”

The maid’s eyes suddenly clouded with fright. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, I did not know! Your father told us to expect an unusual person in the form of a fils prodigue.”

Philippe smiled at the quavering maid. “Oui, Mademoiselle, I guess my attire does suggest the presence of a prodigal son.”

The front door soon gave way into a mammoth echoing amphitheatre with full length windows traversing two storeys above to the ground floor below, and giving an unhindered view of the impressive harbour and the millionaire’s paradise perched at the foot of the mountain. Gold staircases led to ornate balconies far above Philippe’s head, while each unintentional sound amplified and distorted in the clinical ambience of splendid white marble floors and ceilings.

A booming voice originating from one of the opulent staircases overpowered Philippe’s awestruck gaze and he turned to meet the unmistakable owner. “So, you have disowned my name as well as my family, Philippe de la Calle! Why are you known as Philippe of the Streets?

Philippe’s shocked countenance stole the ability to respond to the spritely elderly gentleman walking effortlessly down a flight of stairs to greet him. “I… it is an identity with the people I live and work among, Father. The poor of the world!” Philippe’s voice echoed around the palatial surrounds as his incredulous eyes asked a silent question of the apparently healthy older man.

“Arr, the poor of the world,” the disgruntled voice resonated, pursuing Philippe’s dialogue in a fading game of chase. “People who refuse to take advantage of the wealth the world offers.”

“No, Father, you have it wrong. These are people who have no opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of the world, when you consider that one percent of the world’s population controls fifty percent of its wealth.”

“Statistics, Philippe, that mean nothing. You grew up with the poverty of this place and look at me now. I have power, recognition and everything I could ever want.”

“But are you happy, Father?”

“ARE THE POOR HAPPY, PHILIPPE?!” the booming voice reverberated again, bouncing forcefully off the clinical walls and shocking the younger man.

“They are among some of the happiest people I have met, especially when they know our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” Philippe’s words were a little more subdued, showing respect to the man he called father and hadn’t seen in years.

“You always were a simpleton child, filled with the superstitions of religion. But there is no religion except wealth and fortune. Look what it can do for you!” the elder man swept his arm around the opulent surrounds.

“And what of your impending death, Father?” Philippe whispered with concern.

“I will not die, Philippe. You can see how healthy I am and I have many beautiful young women around to keep me young.”

“Everyone dies, Father, and yet we are eternal beings. Our spirit is alive for ever. You may be rich now, but what awaits you without Jesus is eternal agony and poverty.”

“Huh! More of your confounded brainwashed idealism, Philippe! Robert told me I was wasting my time trying to make you see reason. The only thing that exists is now and today. And today, I am a king!”

A ruthless, calculating stare settled in the old man’s eyes as he bored into his wayward son. “Here is my challenge to you, Philippe de la Calle. Stay with me and in my home for six months and I will show you the power money wields and the truth of its idealism… instead of your toothless God.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Naples, Italy, 3 July 2014

Angelina Maerorte slipped her hand around the gossamer curtain and drew it aside just enough to view the animated crowd; then changed her undercover position slightly to expose the grinding silhouette of a young rising rock star tormenting a helpless microphone and backed up by a thunderstorm of rumbling instruments and band members. The music was so loud it hit her in her chest and made her ears crackle with pain, while the gyrating and bumping mass on the dance floor of the club, L’Arenile di Bagnoli, bore testament to the gamble she had just taken. Now in her early thirties, Angelina’s days of groupie hysteria and following rock stars were over. Although her journey with these energetic illusions gave her the experience she needed to spot a rising star, make the required connections and maybe a small fortune on the side for herself in the process. The hardest job for her as manager was keeping the young exuberant rock group focused on their limited popular career, with the ever-present need to keep a pin handy, popping expanding egos and preventing their heads from swelling too far and too fast before the crowds lost interest and moved on to the next upcoming idol.

Niccolo Visintino was a captivating all-Italian, hard living, twenty-two-year-old male. Specifically chosen from a choir of ragtag and cannoned onto the popular music scene with a little help from some very powerful and impressive people, they wanted immediate results from their investment. Niccolo had transformed from the backstreets of Naples and burst onto the club scene like Mount Vesuvius, erupting with such charismatic passion the young fans followed him in droves and couldn’t get enough of his vibrant energy and heavy rock music. Tonight was no exception. Angelina smiled at the response from the young crowd and could almost smell the euro hitting the walls of her bank account and the accolades coming from the hard to impress and stringent financiers. The decision to take Niccolo and his band, the Sticky Lizards, to Switzerland and the popular Montreux Jazz Festival was hers, and now it seemed to be destined for success. But she’d had to do some fast talking to get approval first.

Niccolo, the efflorescent star, carried his backstreet poverty with him while his growing repertoire of single phrase songs, enfolded and punctuated by a solid wall of noise, reflected his experiences living and growing up on the streets of Naples. Angelina shook her head in dismay. Niccolo’s talent sounded more like someone vomiting into a microphone and then throwing a piano down a mine shaft.

“You’re getting old, girl,“ she chided. But the young crowd loved it and were lining up for kilometres with euro burning in their hands just to see him in person. It was hard to believe only twenty years ago she was a young adoring fan too, throwing herself at the feet of people like Niccolo. She had to admit, the young Niccolo with his long, curly black hair and Italian fine looks was a lethal cocktail for any young woman.

Having to move quickly once the band finished their performance, Angelina let the curtain slip from her hand and disappeared quietly and unnoticed into the backstage arena to prepare. Her sudden appearance caught a group of idling roadies by surprise, indulging in an unscheduled break, yet with a crisp whispered hiss from Angelina they all scampered back to work and found their momentum again. Someone had to keep the loafers on edge and make sure the preparations were on schedule for Montreux later in the same day, transporting the group’s essential music equipment. The club, L’Arenile di Bagnoli, closed at 2 am and everything and everyone associated with the band had to be on a plane by 10 am for Montreux… without fail.

Two burly Italian doorkeepers escorted the partying crowd from the venue just after 2 am and as the club doors closed, Angelina attempted to send the stars to their rented accommodation just above where they were performing. With limited response from the keyed up band, she left strict instructions for the hotelier not to let any of the adoring fans access to the young stars or their rooms. The group needed to rest their voices and regain their energy if they were to wow the crowds attending the Montreux Jazz Festival and generate credence for her decision to take them there.

Niccolo was talking to a group of pretty teenage girls who had escaped the bouncers’ attention when Angelina approached.

“Niccolo, you need to get to bed. Today is an important day for all of us.”

“You sound like my madre, signora,” Niccolo protested. “I was just about to pick one of these beauties to be my teddy bear,” Niccolo’s hand did an animated sweep over the adoring young fans and an excited squeal rippled through the group of girls in response to his gesture.

“As far as you are concerned, Niccolo, I am your mother. If you mess up in Montreux, that will be it for the rest of your career and my head will be on the chopping block, too!”

Niccolo was about to argue, but Angelina placed her hand on her hip threateningly while her expression openly challenged, ‘Go ahead, punk! Make my day!’

Niccolo swept his fingers across the face of the closest pretty girl and teased, “Later, my beauty.”

Angelina watched the teenage girl’s euphoric face turn red and contemplated whether she was going to faint. Was I really this stupid? Angelina chided silently, stunned at the immaturity of the infatuated girls.

Unexpectedly, Angelina’s mobile phone vibrated in her skirt pocket and drew her attention to an incoming call. “Who would be ringing me at this time of the night…? Yes, Angelina Maerorte.”

“Angelina, it is Carlos. The airline is refusing to take the band’s equipment or transport your stars.”

What?! Why?!” Angelina huffed with intense frustration and began to pace, unable to believe this sudden new development.

“They are agitated about some type of perceived terrorist threat.”

“What…?! Let me talk to them!”

“It won’t do any good. The manager is involved now and he has refused, point blank.”

“Oh, great! Our big debut and some petty manager decides to throw a spanner in the works at 2:30 in the morning on the day of our performance and I don’t even have a chance to rebook the flights!” Angelina chafed impatiently and searched for something to divert her frustration.

“Maybe all is not lost, signora. I have a cousin who has an early-model, very-fast Learjet and I am sure it would do the job perfectly,” Carlos was looking for an opportunity to cash in on Angelina’s situation.

Angelina thought for a moment. She didn’t like the sound of this, but there weren’t too many options open to her at 2:30 in the morning and now it appeared Carlos was her only hope. “O…kay, get your cousin ready to fly by ten o’clock and he had better be there!

Grazie, signora. I will get him organised immediately.”

Angelina could almost hear Carlos rubbing his hands together in delight as he terminated the call. “I hope I’m not going to regret this,” Angelina worried.

 

~

 

By the time Angelina had Niccolo and the band safely bundled into a limousine and en route to Naples airport, she was shattered. She had only managed to grab an hour’s sleep just before the hotelier rang and announced the arrival of the stretch limousine, leaving pure adrenaline coursing through her exhausted veins. She laid her tired head against the padded car seat and tried to relax, taking advantage of a few minutes with her enervated eyes closed and grabbing a quick nap as the limo battled against Napoli traffic.

An abrupt screech and a catapulting action sent her body slamming into the seatbelt, while the near miss with a truck concluded her attempts at closing her eyes and now she gripped at the seat and hung on instead. Even though she was used to Napoli traffic—the constant honking of car horns and the ability of Italian drivers to make up the road rules as they went—she still couldn’t relax or dare close her eyes again.

As the limousine slowed and then came to an abrupt halt at the front of the airport building, she was a bundle of nerves and just stepping out onto solid ground again was a hazardous proposition. Her black stilettos made contact with the concrete driveway and as she tried to stand, her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor. Even approaching mid thirties, Angelina’s appearance still turned adoring Italian male heads and many willing hands came from admiring Italian men, helping her to her feet again.

From some distance away, Carlos caught sight of the group entering the main building and after a brief chase, he offered an informal panting greeting and escorted the party to a door leading out onto the tarmac. Angelina stopped in mid stride, stunned and her mouth hung open in shock, staring at the apparition Carlos’ cousin intended to fly the group across the mountains to Montreux in.

“Something wrong, signora?” Carlos followed Angelina’s stupefied gaze.

“I knew this wasn’t going to be a good idea!” Angelina retorted. “If I had any idea what I was accepting, we would have taken the train!” Holding her hand to her forehead, a pain flashed behind Angelina’s eyes and her head began to ache from lack of sleep.

“It does not look pretty, signora, I agree, but I can assure you it is very comfortable and very fast. It normally takes an hour and forty minutes by plane to Montreux, but my cousin says he can do it in just over an hour,” a bragging smile creaked across Carlos’ dark hairy features.

Once the band had tuned in on the focus of Angelina’s staring glare, Niccolo filled the air with an incredulous disdain-filled squeaky voice, “You’re not serious, signora?! Transporting us and our equipment in a flying coffin!”

Angelina’s ire was rising and she could feel the lack of sleep mix with a volatile explosive cocktail of betrayal. She had a ruthless older man on one side, selling her a seat on a death trap, and a brat on the other, whining about the transport. However, the time to pursue alternative plans had come and gone and they were committed to the current circumstance. Keeping a wary eye on the ancient flying machine, she swallowed heavily and then turned to Niccolo, deeply antagonised.

”What’s wrong, Niccolo? Are you afraid to die?! Just get on the plane! You don’t succeed unless you take some risks,” Angelina’s horrified stare returned to the geriatric bird sitting exhausted on the warming tarmac, hoping her words wouldn’t come back to haunt her.

Niccolo was just about to reload and argue once more when Angelina refocused her piercing scowl onto the performer and as if to back up her growing intolerance, her head tilted to one side and the hand rested threateningly on her hip again. Without another word, Niccolo obeyed and flounced off towards the arthritic grandfather jet.

Angelina waited for the band members to find their seats and made sure they were buckled in before she found a seat for herself down towards the back of the aging aircraft. She wasn’t a person of faith, but today she wished she was.

As the group settled into their seats, a small fat man appeared from the cockpit and pushed a button by the entrance and raised the access door. It groaned under its own weight and took four attempts for it to finally bump the latch mechanism and lock securely, sealing the passengers inside the long, cylindrical tube. With obvious sweat appearing on his brow, he swiped at his forehead using the white sleeve of his uniform shirt and smiled back at his passengers, then disappeared again into the cockpit. A partition between passengers and cockpit slammed shut and rattled the empty front row seats, and soon an anxious voice stumbled over the internal intercom welcoming them aboard.

Buongiorno! This is your captain-a speaking and we will be on our way very soon-a. I’m a just having a l-i-t-t-l-e trouble lighting the starboard engine-a, but-a no matter; it has been a very troublesome of late, but usually starts after a while.” The short fat captain forgot he was on intercom and his frustration mounted at the non-starting engine. “Come on-a, stupidaggine!”

Suddenly, a vibration rattled through the aircraft as the stubborn engine finally fired. The apprehensive captain excitedly exclaimed, “Bellissimo…! Please-a you relax. We-a go now.”

As the ancient Learjet began to taxi, the cabin partition rattled open, exposing the busy captain to the passengers and allowing all radio contact with the tower to be clearly heard in the cabin area. Angelina’s breath caught in her throat when she heard the tower respond to an obvious request from the small jet.

Roger, Tango-Whisky-Romeo-9-9-7-6, as requested, fire services will be standing by at Geneva Airport.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

A white-knuckled Angelina Maerorte viciously gripped her torn and faded passenger chair, no longer concerned with Niccolo or the Sticky Lizards. After much mental coaxing to release the seat with her trembling hand, she pulled the fraying seatbelt as tightly as she could against her waist before returning her death grip to the seat. Haunted eyes from shocked band members stared silently into the open cockpit, watching the pilot manipulating switches and levers while the minute antiquated jet vibrated its way along the tarmac until it finally reached the turnaround point at the end of the runway.

Suddenly and without warning, the engines flared violently, causing the pilot to swat at throttle levers and wildly stab them back and forward until the misbehaving jet finally obeyed the pilot’s commands. In his haste to control the aircraft’s movement, the captain accidentally jabbed at the brakes, sending the passengers ricocheting off their seatbelts and bouncing back into their seats with a horrific jolt.

Realising his mistake, the pilot sheepishly turned in his seat to face the stricken passengers. “Atsa a l-i-t-t-l-e too hard, Pinocchio!”

No one spoke, but all eyes followed the rotund little captain as he swivelled in his seat to face the controls again and complete the jet’s change of direction at the runway’s end. As the geriatric plane turned sharply, the nose wheel squealed and clunked until it straightened, facing the jet directly down the runway. Angelina, concerned for her own life and no longer worried about the band’s Montreux appointment, had almost convinced herself to speak up and abort the ill-fated mission. However, her voice rattled against her dry throat, tangling the words around her tonsils, expressing itself as a terrified squeak. Before she could gain courage, attempting to call out again, an air traffic controller’s voice rumbled across the airwaves, cutting her off and sealing their fate aboard the cylindrical coffin.

Tango-Whisky-Romeo-9-9-7-6, this is Napoli Capodichino Tower, you are cleared for immediate takeoff.

When the small jet’s engines rumbled to full power, the noise made any communication within the cabin area impossible. Before anyone could move, the tiny jet careened down the runway like an overweight albatross flapping its wings wildly, waddling and bumping, trying to jump into the sky. Finally, the bone jarring rattling stopped as the jet lifted precariously into the air.

As if the aircraft had a mind of its own, the nose abruptly launched for the sun and climbed like a jetfighter instead of a passenger aircraft. Silent mimed hysteria erupted throughout the passenger cabin. Tense hands gripped fraying seats while the nose of the aircraft lingered precariously, directly above the passengers’ feet and their heads dangled intensely into weighted oblivion somewhere below them. The fat captain pounded the control stick with a clenched fist and wrestled with the beast, trying to bring the ardent banshee-rocket back under his control.

Eventually, the jet conceded an uneasy truce and levelled out while terrified eyes riveted on the captain and watched him swipe at his brow with his shirt sleeve. As if Nonna was taking the family car on a leisurely drive to the markets, the captain’s voice calmly entered the passenger’s airspace, “Apologies for-a the delay. I’m-a gonna put on-a some speed. We be on-a the ground at Genève in a short-a moment. Enjoy you-a flight, Pinocchio.”

Climbing over Napoli, skirting the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius and with Pompeii just to the south, the itinerant aircraft seemed momentarily willing to obey the pilot, surrendering domination and making a controlled bank. Out over the pristine waters of the Bay of Naples, the small mischievous jet obediently followed the coastline over the boot of Italy and on towards Geneva. As promised, the airspeed suddenly increased and with that, so did the cabin noise accompanying the sprinting grandfather Learjet, making it almost impossible to think, let alone communicate. If any one of the band members were having difficulty with airsickness or panic attacks, they were out of luck as far as comfort from Angelina was concerned. She had frozen into her seat, unable to move. Punctuated with strange noises, bangs and squeaks, the short journey continued on in a terrifying spiral of escalating fear.

Halfway into the flight, a sudden rapid descent caused Angelina to scream and then seize the chair in a death grip. She was sure she heard Niccolo scream in unison with her, while someone else close by made the sign of the cross over their chest and babbled deliriously, “We’re all going to die!

Then as if guided by the watchful eye of an external policeman, the tiny jet appeared to settle into a few minutes of distracted uneventful flight and concentrated instead on sprinting faster, rather than taking extreme delight in scaring the passengers out of their wits with its sudden surprises.

Lulled into an unguarded frame of mind and in a moment of utter courage, Angelina relaxed her grip on the sagging seat and swivelled her head to face a foggy window by her chair, and glanced down at the majestic Swiss Alps looming just below the speeding plane. The ice-cream-covered, tall white peaks widened out at their majestic base to brown and green, trying desperately to hide the treachery of razorbacks, seemingly supporting the boundaries of inaccessible steep-walled valleys and holding the summits from toppling over. Occasionally, a patch of isolated lake water reflected in the morning sun, glistening in a green valley yet trapped on all sides by towering monoliths, unable to escape through the rocky terrain and find an outlet to the sea many kilometres away. Small settlements began to dot among the valleys, outlined by a patchwork of cultivated farmland and giving the impression of an elaborate quilt lying in a giant clothes basket and bordered on all sides by the basket fringe. The sight was breathtaking. For a short time, Angelina forgot the unruly pilot and his flying death trap, awed instead by the mountainous scenery slipping past her window.

Only when a sudden loss of altitude left her stomach in her mouth and then the engines reduced power significantly did Angelina break her gaze from the window and worriedly search around the jet’s interior, wondering what new catastrophe was about to attack her sanity. From the rear, a popping noise suddenly announced the aircraft’s decision to misbehave once again and challenge the pilot to a duel for control. The popping descended into a nerve jangling backfire until the fat captain manipulated the throttle levers again, forcing the jet to gain speed rapidly.

As if the war of wills was to take on an even more surreal approach, the nose once again pitched nearly vertical and the jet climbed for the stars, leaving the passengers’ bodies deformed and struggling with the g-forces. Angelina sat paralysed in her seat, her body forced back into the fabric with the weight of gravity encapsulating her like a giant hand and attempting to squash her against the seat back. This time, Niccolo and the band found their scream in the performance of their lives and if they had fans around them to listen, it would be a new hit record.

Suddenly, the engines quit and the jet plummeted like a rock from nose up to nose down, reversing the situation in a violent flip over. The sound of speeding air passing the plane’s fuselage seemed to last forever while the passengers struggled desperately against the lap belts trying to sever their bodies in two. Panic erupted in a noiseless scream, with those trapped in their seats all too aware the nose-down situation wouldn’t last very long if the fat captain couldn’t rectify the power outage… and quickly.

A familiar rumble echoed through the passenger cabin as the jet’s engines finally fired again accompanied by squeaks and bangs while the ancient aircraft decisively levelled out and settled into a subdued drone, as if nothing of consequence had just taken place. Relieved, Angelina’s terrified glance wandered into the cockpit just in time to observe the fat captain swipe at his brow and then casually, his voice entered the cabin airwaves via the intercom.

“Approaching-a Genève airport-a; please-a buckle up you seat-a-belt for the landing. I hope-a you enjoyed your-a flight-a, Pinocchio!”

By the time the captain had finished the announcement, every one of the band members, including Angelina, was sure they were going to die. Sitting rigid in her seat with fear, yet managing to stiffly glance through her cabin window using her periphery vision, the crescent-moon-shaped Lake Geneva flashed into Angelina’s view. Daring to swivel her head slightly, she tentatively glanced at Geneva’s beautiful bustling city located on the southwestern shore, assured this would be last time she would ever see any city at all. The little jet abruptly lost altitude and bounced and bumped on the air currents, causing the passengers to grit their teeth and hang on desperately, ready to assist in the right places with an appropriate scream response. To add to their panic, the engine noise suddenly cut right back into an eerie quiet, while the air on the fuselage hissed like an elevator on rocket fuel and the ground came up threateningly at the descending plane.

Unexpectedly, the jet lost altitude even quicker and then a heavy bang ground through the air frame as one wheel collided with the runway and bounced up into the air again. A further two heavy bangs, followed by another skip and then the brakes were applied so heavily the passengers had to push against the seat in front, preventing their seatbelts from becoming a permanent part of their bodies. A sudden spinning motion topped off the terror as the little jet spun off the runway and came to an abrupt and exhausted halt. Complete shocked silence drifted through the passenger cabin and cockpit as if eerie, ghoul-like smoke had encapsulated every breathing human being into a hazy, motionless and staring mania.

Resembling a sleepy town awakening on a Sunday morning, the captain and passengers took stock of their experience, not sure whether they were still alive. Angelina eventually plucked up the courage to unbuckle her lap belt and decided to check on the rest of the band members by struggling around the seat in front of her. One band member was seen making the sign of the cross over his chest and silently praying, when the elated captain’s voice abruptly interrupted the delirium with a message seemingly too surreal to be true.

“E…! We-a make it! Next-a time I don’t-a push the brake pedal-a too hard, Pinocchio!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

A circus of emergency services surrounded the ancient aircraft stranded on the grassed outfield of runway number five. Angelina and the band, trembling from their ordeal, were whisked away from the crippled jet via an airport bus and deposited into the security area of Geneva terminal. By the time Angelina had nervously satisfied the airport police that she and the band had a legitimate reason to be in Switzerland, and acknowledging their means of transport was… unfortunate and not a terrorist plot, the authorities released them into the mainstream of the airport terminal to go about their business.

The tentacles of fatigue locked Angelina’s mind into a vicelike squeeze while her body desperately craved sleep, forcing her thinking into a haggard metronomic swing and finding it increasingly difficult to function. However, the action wasn’t over yet. Angelina’s next dilemma was to get the band’s equipment off the crippled jet and on to Montreux before their evening’s performance. Just as she stepped away from the group and was about to engage with another airport official, a crowd of media encircled the band and excitedly fired questions at its members concerning their in-flight ordeal. With the cameras rolling and before she could gain control of the situation, Niccolo’s squeaky voice took centre stage.

“It was quite simple really. The pilot panicked and I struggled up out of my seat and coolly talked him through his attack and calmed him enough for him to land the plane. If I hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

A stunned murmur rattled through the jabbering paparazzi while Niccolo glanced around at the dumfounded band members, threatening them with his eyes to collude with his ridiculous story. Angelina pushed her way through the adoring crowd swallowing Niccolo’s nonsense in spoonfuls. She had only an instant to turn the fiasco into a plausible and believable scenario prior to the press shooting a hole in the Sticky Lizards’ bucket and turning their career to mud before it ever started. Angelina searched the smitten faces and in a split-second decision, she decided to play along with Niccolo’s preposterous fantasy.

“That’s right, people. If it wasn’t for our lead singer, Niccolo, we probably wouldn’t have a band to play at the Montreux Jazz festival tonight at 7 pm… I have free tickets for all members of the press,” she smiled a warm, innocent and inviting smile that proclaimed you can trust me.

As the tickets vanished from Angelina’s hand and a suitably impressed paparazzi disappeared back to their studios to prepare the heroic story, she glanced sideways at Niccolo. “You calmed the pilot?! As I remember, you were screaming alongside the rest of us, terrified and buckled firmly into your seat!”

Niccolo’s complexion flashed red with embarrassment. “No harm done, signora. It was just a little white lie to make me look good. When I look good, everyone looks good. Yes?!”

“Just you do the singing, Niccolo, and leave the looking good to me.”

Angelina’s attention suddenly turned to the glass windows overlooking runway five. In the distance, she could see the flashing amber lights of a large crane drawing alongside the ancient Learjet and wondered where the authorities were taking the injured aircraft and her music equipment. A quick glance up at a wall clock told her it was fast approaching midday and they still had a one-hour limousine ride to Montreux from Geneva if the traffic was unkind. Anxious for the band to be insulated from any further stress, Angelina needed to do some fast organising before the whole gig derailed and with a few quick phone calls, a limousine would soon be waiting outside to take the band to Montreux while she dealt with the band’s missing equipment. Searching an airport app, Angelina connected with a suitable contender and instructed the limousine company to take the entertainers to the Hôtel Fairmont Le Montreux Palace near the jazz festival to recover. She hoped Niccolo hadn’t used up all his shriek and energy on the petrifying plane journey and still had some scream left to entertain his new fans.

Observing a Mercedes stretch limousine arrive outside the terminal window, she turned to Niccolo and pointed to the door. “Niccolo, there is a limousine waiting to take you and the band to Montreux. When you get there, register with the hotel then go to your rooms and rest. I will follow with the equipment as soon as I can,” Angelina inculcated.

“Are you not coming with us, signora?”

“I’m sure you can handle registering into a hotel on your own, Niccolo; they are expecting you.”

A vulnerable grimace crossed Niccolo’s lips, abruptly affirming how much the band were relying on her guidance, but she was in no mood to play mummy to five immature young men. Angelina had a lot of work to accomplish before the evening performance and her mind wasn’t functioning well. Niccolo was about to attack from another angle when Angelina’s hand went onto the hip and her head tilted slightly.

“Okay! We’re going, signora; but you will be there tonight?!”

“I will be there, Niccolo, trust me; and stay away from any nosey paparazzi!” Angelina waved the band off as they exited the terminal and watched the five males climb into the limousine and then slowly drive away.

Now she could clear her mind and concentrate on finding the missing equipment.

 

~

 

The pain behind Angelina’s tired eyes had increased and pressure waves rippling across her brain were building to a crescendo of hammerblows, threatening to turn her aching sleep debt into the desperate poverty of a severe migraine. It was now close to 1 pm and there were still no signs of the band’s equipment and no one in the airport seemed to know what the immediate future held for the crippled jet or her coveted equipment. Angelina’s request for an audience with the airport manager was met with incredulous jest from an airport official until Angelina exploded into a tirade of angry Italian interspersed with a few French subtleties and rounded out with a good measure of bold English to get her point across.

The airport official melted under her tirade, but before Angelina knew what was happening, two large men in suits took her by her arms and began to lead her toward the terminal exit.

Hey…! What are you doing?!” Angelina protested. “Let go of me!” her exasperated words echoed around the terminal and caught the attention of gawking airport patrons passing by without concern, yet the men kept forcing her towards the exit.

As soon as the struggling trio breeched the terminal’s automatic perimeter doors, Angelina stared at a dark blue coloured Mercedes taxi standing alone with its back door open to the kerb. Realising this wasn’t an authorised eviction and wherever they were taking her she probably didn’t want to go, Angelina began to fight and struggle against her captors, firing a well aimed stiletto at her attackers’ shins and screaming for help. But before she knew what had happened, the lights went out on her world and she slumped into unguarded oblivion.

When Angelina’s eyes finally flickered open, her head was supported by two luxuriously soft and elegant pillows while a comfortable double bed supported the full length of her aching body. She glanced around, confused at her surrounds, and noticed the drapes and wallpaper of the lavish room matched the bedspread. An opulent chandelier above her head and two identical bedside lamps added to the well appointed ambience, with bright daylight streaming into her lavish prison cell through a large window overlooking Lake Geneva and the Jet d’Eau. The comfort and elegance of the room drew her tired mind like water to a thirsty sponge, yet she had to fight the sleep her body desperately needed and find a way out of her captivity.

Just as she was pushing herself into a sitting position, a loud knock at the door startled her and a maid entered, carrying a pitcher of cold water and some migraine tablets. “Good afternoon, Madame. Your husband left instructions to wake you and give you some migraine tablets. I’m so sorry your first visit to Geneva has been fraught with such a debilitating headache,” the French maid offered in well rehearsed and compassionate English.

“My husband?” Angelina mumbled and stared blankly back at the maid.

“Yes, Madame. He said you often woke up confused in your dreadful condition and left this recording for you to listen to. He said not to worry, the band’s equipment has already arrived in Montreux and Niccolo’s education was well under control,” the maid appeared unsure of the cryptic message but figured the woman would understand its full meaning. She placed the water and tablets on the bedside table and then handed Angelina the iPod.

“Where am I, Mademoiselle, and what time is it?” Angelina asked with a raspy voice as she took the iPod from the maid’s hand and tried to make sense of the new information.

The maid paused at the door and turned to face Angelina with her head tilted in confusion, but then remembered the husband’s speech. “Why of course, Madame, you are in Genève’s Hôtel d’Angleterre on the banks of Lake Geneva and it is a little after 4 pm.”

As the room door closed with a gentle thunk, Angelina stared confused down at the iPod and tried to come to terms with the maid’s strange message. She threw her legs over the edge of the bed and struggled to think. Her first priority had to be Montreux and find out what was happening with Niccolo. But the curious device she held in her hand demanded her attention and before she went any further, she swiped at the iPod start icon with a inquisitive tremble and wondered what strange new game she was about to be thrust into.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Lac Léman Foreshore, Montreux, 3 July 2014

The summer heat spawned by another perfect Montreux day seeped through the high ceilings of the chalet-like Covered Markets. Built in 1892 and tailored on the same grand concept as the Victor Baltard Halles in Paris, the unassembled Covered Markets arrived from France across the mountains and was given birth on the picturesque shores of Montreux’s Lac Léman. There were no walls to the impressive Covered Markets, instead stone pillars and steel arches supported the massive crown. The interior of the roof was raked with ornate metal trusses and covered with fine timber, while large cathedral-like windows applied sunlight to every square millimetre of the expansive floor space, easily accommodating several thousand people.

The ostentatious structure-–bordered by the Place du Marché, the Quai de la Rouvenaz and the Grand’ Rue—shared the same prestigious address and view as the animated time-frozen pose of the Freddy Mercury monument. Together, they kept watch over the enduring changing moods of the stately lake and the distant shores of Switzerland’s nearby neighbour, France. The calm, emerald green waters of Lac Léman lapped lazily against the jagged stone barriers separating land from water, keeping the petrified image of Freddie Mercury from getting his polished bronze shoes wet. With the backdrop of the majestic Alps in the distance, the mirror-like Lac Léman idled in the rising morning heat and reflected the sun’s rays in an eye dazzling glittering shimmer.

Compagnie Générale de Navigation’s impressive old lady, La Suisse, a magnificent century-old paddle steamer, serenaded a multitude of visitors ambling along the Quai de la Rouvenaz with the steamy, lonesome drawl of the paddler’s whistle reverberating off Montreux’s ancient belle époque architecture. The swish of the vessel’s tireless steam-driven paddle wheels dipping into the ancient lake water added another sleepy melodic note to the warming day. In a postcard image, the antique vessel cut an effortless wake through the glassy lake surface and mesmerised the ambling throng loitering among the festival preparations while they impatiently passed time until the celebrated Montreux Jazz Festival began.

Although the jazz festival in the summer heat of July attracts a partying crowd, Christmas time in Montreux would not be the same without snow hanging lazily over the massive Covered Markets’ structure. Stretching endlessly, glistening fairytale lights and decorations set the night alight in a frigid romantic hue, creating the colourful and flamboyant atmosphere of a snowy Christmas carnival. With children and adults alike dressed in warm fur hoods and fuzzy muffs, the happy throng meander among the glitzy canvas stalls stretching along the Quai de la Rouvenaz and huddling together in the frozen Christmas atmosphere. Tucked away and in the Christmas Markets’ shadow, the Place du Marché vibrates with the noise and intensity of a sideshow, where a Ferris wheel spins in a fruitless never-ending circle and excited children’s voices drift cheerily over the dark, frostbitten waters of Lac Léman. The festive ambience glows like the log fires burning furiously in and around the stalls, chasing away the chill but warming the hearts of the patrons lost in a wonderland of snow and cold while offering every good gift for sale that a Christmas shopper could possibly hope to find.

Yet far from Christmas and the freezing chill, the July jazz festival venue attracted popular music stars and the Covered Markets were usually employed to host a series of concerts and accommodate a rhythmic, bumping crowd. Today, however, it would take a break from musical intrigue and play host instead to a prestigious high school graduation ceremony, one that has been in the making for nearly a decade and a half.

 

~

 

Eighteen year old Ryan Tauxe stood gazing over the hazy morning scene. It was as if Lac Léman had read the confusion in his heart and reflected his mood perfectly in its dour disposition. Mindlessly searching across the water from the Quai de la Rouvenaz and the bridge over the Baye de Montreux, he raised his shiny black shoe to rest his foot on the intricate ironwork fence. Then leaning his elbows on the top rail, he rested his full body weight on the other leg and tried to figure out the strong emotions plaguing his thoughts.

What was his meaning and purpose in life? Get an education, find a job, marry and raise a family and then die, worn out from overwork and worry?

Ryan sighed in deep frustration, knowing he would be expected to follow the age old traditions and a tedious, monotonous life already mapped out for him in a never-ending blur. Water rushing down the Baye de Montreux, eager to end its journey from the mountains behind Montreux and empty into the sprawling Lac Léman, bubbled and gurgled enthusiastically, washing away a small part of Ryan’s tension and bringing a sense of peace to his disturbed musings with its watery language.

The heat of the sun even at this time in the morning was beginning to make him feel dolorous, but it was too early to expect a lake breeze to ease his discomfort. The suit he was wearing just added another degree to his anguish and it was almost time to join the other teens and the crowd gathering at the Covered Markets. He pushed a finger between his throat, the collar of his white shirt and the tie he was wearing, hoping to ease the stranglehold the cloth had on his oesophagus then gently eased his shiny black shoe back to the pavement. With a final glance at the mountains bordering Lac Léman, he drew in a nervous breath and gradually turned to face down the Quai de la Rouvenaz and the short walk towards the Covered Markets, leaving the restaurant, Le Palais Oriental, standing guard over the position he had just deserted.

Entering the bustling Place du Marché, Ryan stopped short of the noisy crowd waiting for the proceedings to begin, and for a moment his gaze diverted to the Freddie Mercury monument imbedded on the foreshore’s pavement. The gregarious statue arrested his attention and fleetingly, he wondered whether it would be possible to make a living from the one thing he loved above all else… music. Freddie Mercury’s story was to some degree an inspiration to Ryan, and if he could make it from rags to riches then surely Ryan could too.

Euphoria swept over the teenager, pondering the dream job he had organised for himself at the jazz festival in a few days. It was only cleaning the venue, but at least the position allowed him free entry to all the performances. As a younger teen, his parents had forbidden him from attending the festivals of the past but now he was eighteen, they hadn’t challenged his decision. Yet before he could entertain the dream of a music career, he had to get through the morning’s ceremony, after which the real excitement of the jazz festival could begin.

Glancing around the excited crowd gathered in family groups and nervously preening their exquisitely dressed teenage progeny, Ryan noticed the class of 2014 hadn’t yet assembled in their tuition groups and he still had some time left before he was required to join his peers. Squirming from the heat and feeling thirsty, his eyes settled on the golden arches of McDonalds, and with a determined gait, he made a beeline into the Place du Marché and the fast-food outlet.

Swallowing the last dregs of a fizzy boisson, he pushed open the door from the air conditioned store and caught a glimpse of his parents and grandparents eagerly searching the crowd for their son. He had to hurry. The class groups were being called to assemble and he knew his parents would want to have a few moments with him before the ceremony began.

Uncomfortable wooden benches adorned the Covered Market’s ornate interior floor space in regimented rows, while nervous graduates bustled to find their seats among classmates and in the correct tuition groups. Interspersed among the young scholars were proud parents and relatives keeping track of their progeny and ready to lavish unrestrained applause upon their young at the appropriate time as they accepted their celebrated High School Diplomas. Ryan found a seat on a crowded bench with other graduating students towards the back of the gathering, halfheartedly listening to the hubbub of names and distinctions being broadcast across the waiting school leavers from the official podium situated at the front of the audience.

His mind drifted back to the statue of Freddie Mercury, and it seemed the audacious deceased entertainer was inviting the young boy to think beyond himself and aim for the impossible. He scanned the crowd until his eyes settled on the familiar face of his father watching the podium at the head of the proceedings. Not-so-subtle hints over the past few months had alerted Ryan to his father’s expectation. It seemed he was being groomed to take over the leadership of the family farm, or distinguish himself further by attending Switzerland’s prestigious École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in life sciences… more study! Ryan’s fractured thoughts began to crowd out reason and his shoulders bent forward under the weight of family expectation. In an attempt to shrug off the oppression, Ryan momentarily turned in his seat away from the podium and glanced towards the back of the mammoth structure with his eyes riveted on the rear view of the frozen pose of Freddie Mercury.

“3M12!”

The announcement for his class boomed across the sea of faces from the official podium, forcing Ryan to refocus, then in a pack movement, the teens sharing his wooden bench began to stand and move forward towards the administrator, taking possession of an empty bench facing the official party.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

A murmur erupted over the vast audience, taking the opportunity to exercise restrained vocal cords with a close by neighbour while a new class group found their seats in front of the official podium. Ryan, intent on taking the remaining aisle seat, patiently waited for his classmates to shimmy along a long wooden bench and make room for those left standing. Finally, the vacant bench space beckoned the young man to sit, but before he took his position, he glanced over the heads of the considerable crowd to the waterfront and Freddie Mercury’s animated image one last time, as if he had come to a crossroad in his life and was being forced down a path he was more than sure he didn’t want to tread. Lost in a fleeting moment and gazing nostalgically at Mercury’s pose, he hadn’t noticed the silence engulf the Covered Markets until he sensed the eyes of thousands boring into his solitary standing figure, waiting for him to take his seat. Feeling the weight of embarrassment, he quickly settled on the end of the bench, awkwardly staring at the floor and tussling with a growing sense of derision and the future direction that apparently was being chosen for him.

Ryan was an intelligent, high achieving student but lately and coincident with the new rock group he was listening to, restlessness had entered his heart. He’d become increasingly jaded with endless study and wanting instead to invest his mind in a culture of adoring crowds; lots of quick, easy money; and the exciting heavy beat of popular rock music. The more he gave homage to the heavy beat, the more enslaved he became, resonating and stirring his unpredictable teenage emotions into a frenzy of discontent.

With the spectators’ attention refocused on the administrative party and no longer on the wayward teenager, the official proceedings recommenced, allowing Ryan to feel safe enough to avert his eyes from the floor and once again look up. It was extremely hot in the large structure with so many people crammed tightly around the official arena. Fidgeting as he waited for his name to be called, Ryan nervously ran his hands through his jet black hair, hoping to catch any cooling breeze wafting past. Sweat had begun to form on his brow, compounded by the heavy material of his black suit jacket and long trousers and intensified by the anxious tension.

A lone official voice boomed and reverberated across the multitude, droning on relentlessly and calling endless names that seemed to blur in Ryan’s hearing. The endless ceremony echoed around in his disinterested imagination and disrupted his thoughts. Then with the thunderous applause shivering in his distracted mind, he felt an abrupt nudge in his ribs from his neighbour alerting him to the fact he was being called.

“Ryan Tauxe!” the voice detonated again, sending a flush of embarrassment across Ryan’s face.

Ryan nervously stood to his feet amid thousands of eyes following his every move and walked tensely to the podium. Approaching the school officials in turn, he shook the hand of his director and then his headmaster. Clutching a large white envelope, he returned to his seat carrying his High School Diploma and stared blankly at the distinguished document, totally oblivious to the thundering applause. So this is it, he thought, turning over the diploma in his hands. Years of hard work culminating in a piece of paper and a couple of handshakes. Somehow he felt deflated and disconnected with his achievement, but in the flurry of nervousness he’d also forgotten about the beckoning image of Freddie Mercury. Even so, the harrowing emptiness and uncertainty gnawed relentlessly at his protesting stomach and kept him company throughout the remainder of the official ceremony.

 

~

 

Across from the Covered Market, a recalcitrant manager watched the crowded structure empty of its population, escaping and oozing from every open exit as well dressed teens made a beeline for the fast-food outlet. A homemade sign taped to the fast-food outlet’s glass entry door gave credence to the calculating mind waiting to relieve the teens of at least the price of a fizzy boisson in exchange for the use of the well preserved and extremely clean restrooms. The sign simply read: no purchase; no use of our restrooms.

By the time a multitude of teens had exchanged their finery for more relaxed and casual attire, the manager had made a quick and easy profit with very little outlay. Outside the small fast-food restaurant doors, parents waited to collect their progeny’s best clothes and in exchange, handed over a top quality homemade lunch contained within a proud Suisse-manufactured Rotho plastic lunch box. Now that the official part of the day was finally over, the graduating class of 2014 could gather together for the last time on the shores of Lac Léman and share the ultimate lunchbreak before throwing off the gawkiness of childhood and moving onto a high speed career in a competitive adult world. Some aspiring to higher education, while others desired a more hands-on apprenticeship in a multitude of expert Suisse industry.

With lunchbox in hand and intent on joining the graduating class at the foreshore Garden of Rouvenaz, Ryan stopped briefly at the water’s edge and stared up at the gaudy impression of Freddie Mercury once again. As gaping tourists joined Ryan in rapturous idolatry and worshiped at the monument to the famous singer, somehow the hollow uneasiness amplified in Ryan’s imagination. He stood motionless, staring at the statue’s intense face. The sculptor had seen through Mercury’s facade, capturing the flamboyance and the hidden pain, freezing the revelation and exposing the tyranny of the statue’s deceiving pose. Silently pleading with the sculpture and hoping to uncover the secret, elusive road to success, Ryan disappointedly averted his eyes from the graven image, more confused and hollow than ever and despondently walked away down the Quai de la Rouvenaz towards Clarens.

Dodging in and out of half constructed stalls, building tradespeople and a gathering throng of potential jazz festival attendees, Ryan’s melancholy mood abruptly changed as his attention diverted to a group of young people gathered near the bandstand. Enthralled by the mix of girls and guys laughing together and sitting on the manicured green grass of the Garden of Rouvenaz, Ryan considered he would be the envy of his friends when he disclosed the position and the benefits of working at this year’s jazz festival.

A lonesome steaming drawl pierced the early afternoon bustle and reverberated off the stately centuries-old architecture expertly crafted around the foreshores of the spectacular Montreux Riviera. La Suisse effortlessly powered away from the CGN’s landing at the port of Montreux, its paddle wheels dipping and swishing into the pristine aqua blue mood of Lac Léman as it made way effortlessly toward the Château de Chillon some five kilometres away. The sound of chuffing steam engines powering the Suisse icon momentarily caught Ryan’s eye and touched a wistful nerve as it gracefully gathered speed, defiantly ordering ambivalent snow white swans, squawking aggressively, from its determined path.

Ryan had strolled the Quai de la Rouvenaz and pondered Lac Léman many thousands of times in his short teenage life, but with the growing excitement of his news, it was like he was seeing its beauty for the first time. He ceased his sauntering amble in the middle of the path, causing annoyed pedestrians to veer around him, avoiding a collision while Ryan considered the lake shore. The distant blue hazy outline of the majestic Alps appeared to rise up sheer from the water’s edge and stood guard over the elegant lake and its people, while the distant La Suisse seemed to pose in the stunning scenery like a precious jewel in a noble woman’s crown, glistening in the perfect summer day and giving Ryan the first embryonic glimmering hint of hope.

The familiar voice of Ryan’s best friend, Samuel, wafted across from the nearby gathering and shook him from his wonder. “Ryan, come on! We’re waiting for you, daydreamer!”

Recognising familiar faces from his childhood class and realising he had something to brag to his friends about gave him a much needed boost, swiftly forgetting his musings and leaving the Quai de la Rouvenaz in a concerted effort to join the small huddle settled on the Garden of Rouvenaz’s grass. He had almost closed the gap to his school friends when he noticed the petite figure of Delphine among the group and suddenly his tongue tied and his mouth dried up.

She smiled directly at him and stunned him silent with her soft greeting, “Hi, Ryan.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

The relaxed and casually attired teenagers followed Ryan’s approach and a giggle erupted among the girls, noticing Ryan’s sudden and awkward silence at Delphine’s greeting. There were no secrets to Ryan’s admiration for Delphine, but Guillaume, Delphine’s older brother, had made sure Ryan’s admirations remained at a distance.

Before Ryan nervously answered Delphine’s greeting, he glanced around the small celebrating groups scattered around the garden’s grassed area, obviously searching for someone in particular. “H…hi, Delphine! Where’s your brother, and why wasn’t he there at the graduation ceremony?” Ryan stuttered.

Both he and Delphine understood the gravity of his question. Delphine smiled a cheeky grin and then glanced at her girlfriends, aware her information would be more than welcome. “He’s been conscripted already and left a week ago to perform his military service, but the army wouldn’t give him permission to attend the graduation ceremony. He did graduate though,” Delphine admitted protectively.

Ryan stared at the brown-eyed beauty and tried to avert his eyes, but he was drawn ever deeper into her adoring gaze and indulged in the alluring lines of her perfect features. Every Suisse male, nineteen years old, was conscripted into the Suisse military for training and service, but being conscripted was the last thing on Ryan’s preoccupied mind and for the moment, conscription was working for him. After processing Delphine’s unexpected message, Ryan’s demeanour relaxed immediately while she patted an empty space beside her on the grass. With the rest of the group gladly expanding their boundary and making room for him in their circle, Ryan settled in. But he couldn’t relax, still expecting Guillaume’s appearance and reprimand at any moment, continually glancing at the surrounds nervously, preparing to move in an instant and avert an unwanted berating from the lovely Delphine’s minder. Satisfied his nemesis was nowhere in sight, Ryan began to settle in and enjoyed being close enough to Delphine to indulge in her perfume and drown in her tantalising smile.

Wanting to draw Ryan’s attention back to the group and sensing he had a story to tell, Samuel, his best friend, laid down the opportunity for Ryan to impress the circle. “So, Ryan, what are your plans for this summer break?” Sammy casually asked, diverting Ryan’s attention away from Delphine and their two-person huddle.

Finally hearing the question he had been waiting for, Ryan’s face reddened with anticipation and he smiled so big he almost split in two. “I… have a job at the jazz festival starting tomorrow and I can’t wait! I get to see any performance I like and there will be some really cool bands, too! Who knows, maybe I will get to rub shoulders with some of the big name musicians,” Ryan’s voice squeaked unintentionally but his eyes sparkled as he contemplated his dream and knowing he had made an indelible effect on the impressionable Delphine sitting so close beside him.

“What about your parents?” Sammy suddenly interjected, knowing the Tauxe’s objection to the tenuous music emanating from the Auditorium Stravinski.

Ryan’s expression clouded and his face flushed red in embarrassment as Sammy’s question stole the glory from his tale. Glancing sideways at Delphine’s adoring gaze and trying to regain some of his dignity, Ryan’s body language conveyed annoyance to his friend while trying not to lose face in front of Delphine and the others. “I admit, previous years my parents wouldn’t let me go, but now that I am eighteen they can’t stop me. I’ve got two weeks work during the festival on offer and man, am I going to take it!” Ryan chafed defiantly.

The two friends locked eyes across the group for a moment, Sammy sensing Ryan was in no mood for what his parents held in esteem, particularly when he was attempting to impress Delphine. Sammy noticed Ryan’s mouth moving and it took him a moment to connect the movement of his lips with the question he’d asked.

“What have you got planned then, Sammy?” Ryan quizzed, attempting to redirect the heat off himself.

Sammy shifted on the spot and he knew Ryan would be looking for a chance to regain some of the ground he’d inadvertently lost with Delphine at Sammy’s innocent question. “I’m going to the jazz festival too, but in another way, and I am sure we will cross paths sometime on the quays. In fact, I’m joining YWAM, a Christian group, and we will be here throughout the festival to share our faith with passersby,” Samuel answered matter-of-factly, his brown eyes twinkling behind his glasses and baiting Ryan, but expecting the usual response when he shared his plan.

“Y-who?” Ryan teased.

“YWAM. It stands for Youth With A Mission.”

“Yeah, whatever rattles your cowbell, Sammy,” Ryan riposted ironically, causing Delphine and the other girls to giggle. Ryan’s ego exploded with exhilaration at the girls’ laughing response to his sarcastic reply, but at the same time he felt sorry for belittling his best friend with such a cheap shot.

Sammy was a tall, shaggy, brown-haired eighteen-year-old with a placid temperament and apparently not easily offended, even if he was persecuted or ridiculed for his stance. Ryan’s comment was no different to anyone else’s and it bounced off Sammy like a speeding soccer ball colliding with a goal post. Samuel didn’t appear to be the hero type, but finding Jesus a little over two years ago and keen to share Him with anyone who would listen, he’d never felt ashamed, hidden his faith or backed away from disclosing it.

A small daydreaming laugh bubbled up inside Sammy as he remembered the unconventional circumstances surrounding his newfound love and the way Jesus had rescued him from his own stupidity. Geneviève, a pretty and radiant redhead who lived in the same apartment complex as Sammy, had stolen his infatuated sixteen-year-old heart. She had invited him to attend a Christian ski camp at Grimentz—a spectacular but typical Swiss mountain village—during the winter school holidays and he’d almost fallen over himself accepting her offer, very certain she had amorous intentions. Sammy flushed red and giggled to himself as comedic images flashed into his mind, trying to impress Geneviève and the other kids with his skiing prowess, instead crashing stooge-like in a heap of tangled feet and arms. Even though the only injury he had sustained was to his pride, he was struck by the way no one had laughed and everyone had been concerned for his well being… including Geneviève.

Then, his most stupid act of all!

That night, he had been unabashedly bragging to a group of Christian girls around an open fire, capturing Geneviève’s attention fully with his embellished story. He’d boasted that he could ski across freshly fallen thick snow and drifts that weren’t cleared by the authorities as safe, but were in fact, avalanche threats. He could see the admiring looks on some of the girls’ faces as they’d followed his tale, riveted to each fantastic word. Then a man who had nothing to do with the camp, but listening close by, decided to put a pin in Sammy’s inflated balloon and embarrass him in front of his audience, challenging his incredulous story. Red with embarrassment and feeling cornered by the questioning faces of the group, Sammy was compelled to prove his tale, but hoped the weather wouldn’t give him an opportunity and allow him an excuse to bravely back down.

Just a few days later, however, a massive snowstorm raged during the night, closing the ski areas until the authorities checked for avalanche threats. Sammy had no choice but to follow up on his bragging, donned his heavy outdoor clothes, rigged his skis and mounted his camera on his helmet for proof. He’d slipped outside into the heavy mountain mist, checked his map for the most difficult ski ramp and pushed through the loose snow. As he climbed through the mountainous country, the fog began to lower and cut his visibility. A rumble like distant thunder caught his attention, and not too far away he could hear trees snapping under the force of some huge giant. Fearing the power of an avalanche, Sammy panicked and dug his ski poles into the thick snow and tried to backtrack the way he thought he’d come. But soon it was evident he was disorientated and lost in the growing cold and fog.

The hours passed and it became colder as Sammy began to shiver, losing body heat to the extreme winter environment. Gentle snow at first started falling, turning the white landscape into an unrecognisable sheet and deleting any footprints or landmarks while the wind started to increase, driving the snowflakes like stinging bullets into Sammy’s frightened features. Then the wind whipped violently through the trees in a sudden gust, dislodging more snow to add to Sammy’s misery and making it harder to see, frightening the young teen to his lying core and wishing he hadn’t told such a whopping story.

He remembered clowning around and trying to disrupt the camp leaders while the group endeavoured to listen to their talk on Jesus and how He loved and protected those He chose. But Sammy wasn’t buying their tale or believing any of what they said and spitefully determined he wasn’t going to let some Jesus spoil his bid for Geneviève’s attention. Shivering severely now, Sammy knew he was in deep trouble and tried to remember something of the leaders’ speech. As his teeth chattered together, an inspiration flashed through his mind and a voice whispered, ”Just call Him, Samuel.”

With nothing to lose, Sammy desperately pulled in a lungful of cold air and yelled in an act of sheer desperation, “JESUS, HELP ME!”

The sound of his own voice rattled around the treetops while frustrated and frightened tears formed in the corners of his eyes.

Samuel, is that you?!” a voice sounded back from the whiteout.

Over here!” Sammy couldn’t believe what was happening and began to sob in sheer relief.

Alex Dupont, one of the camp leaders covered in snow and with icicles hanging from his beard, pushed his skis out of the thick forest. “It’s alright, son,” Alex comforted. ”I heard your voice when you screamed to Jesus for help. Otherwise I wouldn’t have seen you and judging by the worsening weather reports, you probably would have perished out here, frozen to death. Follow me and I will lead you home.”

That night back at the camp and wrapped in a blanket, Samuel talked honestly about his attempts to impress and disrupt the camp. He also gave an accurate account of how Jesus had saved him from freezing to death and the small voice that urged him to yell at precisely the right instant for Alex to hear him. In a moment of surrender, he’d asked the group for forgiveness and requested his hero, Alex, to lead him to Christ. Sammy still remembered Geneviève’s warm hug and her kiss so soft on his cheek. Although the relationship didn’t go any further, Geneviève and Sammy were the best of friends even to this day.

“Lots of fun!” Ryan exclaimed sarcastically, his voice abruptly breaking into Sammy’s daydream and disrupting his thoughts. “You won’t be surprised if I pretend not to know you! I wouldn’t like people to think that I hang out with a religious nut!”

Sammy joined the lighthearted laughter rattling around the teenagers at his expense. “No problem, Ryan. I won’t bother you. But just know that I will be in the crowd if you need me.”

In a heartrending moment amid hugs and tears, the class of 2014 broke up and went their separate ways for the last time.

But with Delphine in Ryan’s company and no sign of Guillaume, the two were insulated from the sadness by the joy of finally being alone together. The couple ambled among the ever-present construction clamour along the Quai de la Rouvenaz towards Clarens, talking and laughing. Every year at this time, a massive white canvas pavilion, whose purpose it was to shelter the stalls of the jazz festival situated along the lakeside walk, had to be built; but today the language of the heart drowned out the ferocious activity and the noise wasn’t even noticed.

The flower beds were in full bloom, with the poplar, palm trees, Ginkgo biloba, mimosa and magnolia rolling across the summer scents and adding an urgency to the budding teenage romance smouldering just below the surface and waiting for the warm lake winds of passion to fan the emotions into flame. As they sauntered past the steamboat pier defining the port of Montreux, the pleasant garden walks of the Quai de la Rouvenaz gave way to the invigorating Quai Edouard-Jaccoud and almost unnoticed, the Quai Edouard-Jaccoud became the Quai de Vernex. Surprised to have walked the distance so quickly, Ryan anxiously pointed to the Auditorium Stravinski behind them, hoping to impress Delphine.

“This is one of the venues I’ll be working at.”

Delphine swivelled on her feet to face the structure and nodded, but something else was distracting her mind. She turned back to face Ryan, fidgeting impatiently with her small purse, her eyes dancing between her fingers and Ryan’s intense eyes. “I must leave you here, Ryan. My mother waits for me in the car park just across from the Avenue des Alpes,” Delphine prodded and then obviously checked her watch, hoping to spur the young man into making the decision she waited for and fulfil her romantic expectation.

Ryan‘s mouth dried up and his hands began to sweat, trying to work out if he should kiss the girl of his dreams or if she would object and become offended at his forward advances. In an instant of intense bravery and with his heart hammering in his chest, Ryan hesitantly stepped closer to Delphine, setting her emotions on fire and her eyes flashing with romantic anticipation.

Misreading her reaction and assuming he had made a mistake, Ryan stepped back again and bid her a fond adieu, deflating Delphine’s passion like a punctured balloon. With a frustrated flounce and burning cheeks, Delphine huffed loudly, turned away and stalked off towards her waiting parent, leaving Ryan chastising himself for the biggest missed opportunity of his life.

Close by and cautiously following Ryan’s disgruntled movements into Clarens and then onto the Gambetta bus station, another teen scoured the scene with dark piercing eyes and took note of the bus Ryan boarded. As expected, the bus turned up into the Rue Gambetta and gathered speed, rumbling towards the Route de Chailly in an aggressive climb as Ryan made his way home. Ten minutes later Ryan alighted the bus in Chailly, ‘a petit village’ above Montreux where he lived with his family in a little villa, still fuming with himself for failing with Delphine and completely unaware of the observer stealthily following his movements.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

“Anne-Claire… Anne-Claire! Take those things out of your ears and stop being so rude in front of our guests! I can hear that… noise from over here. Goodness knows what it’s doing to your hearing!”

W-H-A-T?!“ Anne-Claire bellowed. Her mother’s lips were moving vigorously and judging by the colour of her face, her blood pressure was on the move, too, although Anne-Claire couldn’t hear a word until she tugged on the little wires connected to her iPod. The earphones dropped helplessly from her ears to her lap, continuing on unperturbed with its distorted screaming concert.

With a nostalgic gleam of understanding, amused older passengers turned to stare at the interaction between mother and daughter, and the sixteen year old’s overemphasized reply. They, too, had trod the uneven stage of raising defiant teenagers, reading from an impossible real life script yet without the chance of an interval. However, once the final curtain fell, the embattled parent wore a crown of victorious grey hair while grandparent wisdom oozed from every pore and passed onto anyone foolish enough to ask for advice.

“I said…! Oh… never mind. Why don’t you go and find your grandpa if you can’t be sociable around your cousins.”

Anne-Claire’s face wrinkled in a popular sixteen-year-old pose, but the whatever didn’t slip out. She obeyed her mum, raised herself from her seat and headed unsteadily along the moving vessel’s railing toward the front of the old paddle steamer. Grandpa was full of great stories and he was the only one who made her mother’s impromptu tours of Montreux and Lac Léman bearable. Long lost cousins from Rouen, France, had decided to holiday with Anne-Claire’s family. Only trouble was, they were in their fifties and being the only teenager on tour made life unbearable. If it wasn’t for her iPod, her world would descend into an unrecognizable blur of wrinkly old people.

“Don’t be so hard on her, Jeannine. You were like that once,” Laurent whispered, perched beside his wife and watching his daughter climb the paddle steamer La Suisse’s ladder to the bridge.

“Exactly! And I am determined she won’t be like that, Laurent!” Jeannine responded. “I know how my behavior spiraled out of control when I started to listen to heavy rock music with a negative message. And Anne-Claire is doing the same thing, listening to the Slippery Eels or whatever they’re called!” the passion in Jeannine’s words flowed over into her demeanor and an unintentional sob caught in her throat.

“Has this got anything to do with the Frank Zappa concert and the Deep Purple thing?” Laurent whispered, trying to avoid an argument.

Jeannine met her husband’s eyes with a tinge of hurt, betrayed by his blunt reply and searching his meaning, wondering whether he was belittling her experience and accusing her of making too much of a traumatic past event. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it does. I was one of the last ones to get out of that concert and if it wasn’t for a quick thinking fireman, I would have died in there with a lot of other people.”

Just then, Christelle leaned into the conversation, intrigued. “What was that?”

Jeannine sighed. “It’s something I don’t really like thinking about, Christelle.”

Laurent caught Jeannine’s eye and rubbed her shoulders, communicating more than an affectionate gesture.

“Okay!” Jeannine threw her hands up and sighed dejectedly. Then drawing a breath and letting it out sharply, she realized her cousins were expecting an explanation and Laurent wouldn’t let her shrug off a reply. With an expression that could kill, she glanced sideways at her husband and almost spat out the first words. “It was a cold December afternoon in 1971 and Frank Zappa had a concert scheduled for 2 pm in the old casino complex here in Montreux. I was exactly like Anne-Claire and idolized a group of rock stars and wanted to see them live, but that was nearly my downfall. An older friend had bought an expensive ticket to the concert but couldn’t go, so she asked if I wanted to take her place and of course, at sixteen I jumped at the chance. However, I knew Dad wouldn’t let me within five miles of the casino—or Zappa. I remember treating that ticket like gold and kept it deceptively hidden from him… what was I thinking?! I knew it was wrong keeping it from Dad, but the pull to see my rock heroes was stronger, and I went.

“Anyway, about an hour into the gig, someone fired a flare into the rafters and the ceiling caught fire, burning the whole casino to the ground. Somewhere before the venue was fully engulfed the fire brigade came and chopped through the windows to get us out. Thankfully, no one was injured or died, but the casino was a write off. The band, Deep Purple were staying next door and they saw the whole thing happen from their hotel room window, inspiring the drummer to write the rock classic, Smoke on the Water from watching the casino’s destruction.”

“Oh… I loved that song!” Christelle interjected.

“Well, every time I hear it, it puts me right back inside that burning building again and I realize how close I came to death from a stupid act of disobedience. I can’t… stand… Smoke on the Water!

Laurent rubbed his wife’s shoulders lovingly, trying to bring comfort, calming the prickly emotions the memories were stirring up and deliberately detoured the ingrained disdain directed at their daughter’s rock heroes. All four adults stared across the calm and enticing aqua blue water of Lac Léman from the rear deck of La Suisse, watching the pretty municipality of Pully pass by in silence. It seemed their hearts beat in time with the sleepy swishing from the steam powered paddle wheels while silently contemplating Jeannine’s somber tale.

As if enticed along by their sober emotions, La Suisse’s solemn steam whistle broke into the silence, causing Jeannine to jump and shocking her out of her tragic past.

 

~

 

Searching the moving paddle steamer’s wheelhouse for her grandparent’s attention, Anne-Claire raised her voice from the access ladder so the old man could hear her. “Grandpa?! Am I okay up on the bridge with you?”

“Anne-Claire sweetheart, of course you are! Come on in and tell me what you have been up to.”

She stepped off the ladder and walked into the bridge where her grandpa was working, guiding La Suisse through the gentle waters of Lac Léman en route to Chillon Castle. She pulled on the earphone wires and the little discs dropped from her ears while she investigated the lake from the antique steamer’s wheelhouse.

“What are you listening to, honey?” Grandpa asked, pointing to her iPod.

“It’s a new Italian group and I like them a lot. You wanna hear them?” Anne-Claire teased, expecting her grandpa to decline.

“Sure. Let me have those ear things.”

Anne-Claire handed her grandpa the ear discs and then swiped the play button, astonished when his face went red and he appeared as if his eyes were going to pop out. Quickly realizing the problem, she immediately adjusted the volume down to minimum, forgetting she had set it at full for herself. What Grandpa heard was B-L-A-H!!!! and then a piano falling down an elevator shaft followed by someone destroying a guitar, pulling its strings out and bashing it on the ground, interspersed with the same words repeated over and over. Bastone i vostri occhi insieme con Sicad’.

Grandpa started to laugh and pulled the ear discs from his ears.

“What’s so funny, Grandpa?” Anne-Claire started to smile at the older man’s hilarity.

“Do you understand these words, Anne-Claire?” Grandpa kept giggling.

“No. I only listen to the music, not the words,” Anne-Claire flushed red with embarrassment.

Grandpa caught a giggle in the back of his throat and struggled to control another one trying to escape around his tonsils. “The song says, ‘Stick your eyes together with Sicad’. Sicad is Italian glue.”

Anne-Claire seemed scandalized and a little hurt at Grandpa’s description.

“Sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to belittle your favorite rock group.” Thinking he would make amends for his treachery, Grandpa asked, “What’s their name?”

Anne-Claire wondered whether she should surrender the next bit of information but felt she was committed. “Sticky Lizards,” she offered innocently.

Grandpa fell about the wheelhouse laughing and grabbed hold of the steam whistle cord to steady himself. La Suisse let out a raucous scream, mimicking Grandpa’s laugh. Regaining his composure, Grandpa wiped his eyes and turned to face Anne-Claire, but the hurt expression on her face melted the old man’s heart and activated his compassion, draping his arm lovingly over his granddaughter’s deflated shoulders.

“Anne-Claire, there are always messages in everything we see and hear, and when it is combined with music we like it can have devastating effects on our feelings and how we make decisions. What you’re listening to here is the thought processes contained in some young man’s head. If his thoughts are wholesome, then his music message will be wholesome. What do you think his message is in this song?”

Anne-Claire shrugged.

“To me, the message is a negative message, inciting his listeners into antisocial behavior. Listen, sweetheart. If the music we listen to and the people we associate with behave in a certain way, then it affects our behavior and we do things we normally wouldn’t. That’s why pressure advertising is such a dangerous tool. Romanticizing abject evil through music can—and does—influence people away from our well established values and cause us to make wrong choices, sometimes leaving us agreeing with the wrong side of an argument without us knowing it. You’re a smart girl, Anne-Claire. Be wise in who you let inside your head.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Anne-Claire stood on the port bridge wing next to her grandpa, deep in thought and pondering his explanation of hidden rock music messages. The iPod and its screaming earphones momentarily found a silent resting place in her Bermuda shorts pocket while she watched her hero work to bring La Suisse skillfully alongside the pier and allow the crew to tie up the vessel with a minimum of exertion and loss of scheduled time. So close to Anne-Claire’s ears, a laughing drawl escaping the ancient paddle steamer’s whistle made her jump. Holding her hand over her heart at the sudden commotion, she watched a plume of steam escape the sculptured pipe and caught her grandpa’s smile as he manipulated the vessel’s controls in a plethora of surgical manoeuvring.

A quick scan of the picture-postcard backdrop distracted Anne-Claire’s thoughts with the Château de l’Aile, the troubled but impressive waterfront castle-like structure filling the foreshore scene. From where she stood she had a bird’s-eye view encompassing the village of Vevey-Marché basking in the summer sunshine and bordered by the crystal clear waters of Lac Léman, while down below a large gathering of tourists waited on the Vevey-Marché dock to board the historic vessel. Under Grandpa’s expert handling, the paddle wheels glided to a calculated stop as La Suisse approached the pier. A rope, expertly thrown over a landing pylon by a deckhand and pulled tight against La Suisse’s deck bollard, allowed Grandpa to apply the engines in a slow-ahead-both configuration while the paddle wheels inched forward simultaneously. Gently and skillfully, La Suisse pulled against the midship’s mooring ropes and drifted peacefully against the dock without even the slightest bump. Once La Suisse had been tied up securely to the landing, the deck doors were opened and a gangway rolled into place, allowing disembarking passengers off first and then a new portion of anxious passengers to board.

“Wow, Grandpa, you really know what you’re doing,” Anne-Claire’s adoring eyes fixed on her hero.

Grandpa smiled at his granddaughter’s admiration, but continued working until the new group of passengers were aboard and the vessel was ready to leave again. The schedule only allowed him fifteen minutes to disembark one group of commuters and load the new guests for the afternoon dinner cruise to Château de Chillon and once that had been completed, he could relax again.

When Grandpa saw that the dock was clear of people, he signalled to the deckhands to let go of the ropes, followed by two long pulls on the steam whistle. Then with a calculated engagement of the bow thruster, La Suisse eased away from her berth. Once the seventy-eight metre long paddle steamer was clear of the shore obstructions, the powerful twin Sulzer steam engines quickly pushed the steamboat up to speed and on toward the Château de Chillon. The pretty lakefront village of Vevey lazily languished behind in the warm afternoon sun as La Suisse settled back into a steady chuffing beat.

It was a special cruise this afternoon. According to the ship’s purser the passengers were mostly in a tour group from York, so La Suisse would take a leisurely, unhurried pace to Château de Chillon. Grandpa breathed a sigh of relief and watched as the forward deck quickly emptied of captivated sightseers gawking at the sights and chattering excitedly in English. Summoned to the mid deck, the tour group hungrily made their way into the lavishly decorated first-class dining room for a five-star meal; and now that the paddle steamer had reached deeper water and the lake surface was calm, Grandpa cut back the power to the engines. The catering staff could now easily and comfortably balance drinks and meals on trays, arriving unspoilt at expectant tables from the kitchen area without the floor shifting unpredictably under them.

“What are your mum and dad up to, sweetheart?” Grandpa quizzed, knowing he could finally relax.

“They’re down the back giving our cousins a tour of Lac Léman,” Anne-Claire sighed.

“Christelle and Philippe?”

“Yeah, that’s them. We’re supposed to be getting off at the Château de Chillon and spending endless hours wandering around the castle. B-o-r-i-n-g,” Anne-Claire groaned.

“I love visiting Chillon castle,” Grandpa confided. “It’s one of my favorite places and full of our ancient history, too.”

Anne-Claire sighed again. “It’s okay, but I’ve been there so many times and we even had to study it in school. I guess though when I think about Danica’s life-–that’s my internet friend who lives in Central Australia—I have it so much better than she does.”

“Oh?” Grandpa quizzed. “Tell me more about Danica.”

‘Well, she’s my age and she lives on a cattle property somewhere in the desert regions of middle Australia with her Mum and Dad and sisters… do you know, Grandpa, their farm is nearly quarter the size of Switzerland?!”

Grandpa mimicked a silent whistle with his lips, astounded by the sheer size of a single cattle property.

Anne-Claire’s face wrinkled with concern and then she continued, remembering facts and figures the two girls had shared in their emails. “Danica and her family are so isolated, they use the internet to do their schoolwork; and they very rarely interact with people outside the borders of their farm. I know she gets terribly lonely so I try to send her as many pictures and videos of me and our beautiful Switzerland as possible, but their internet is so slow and it takes forever to download one photograph.”

An idea erupted into Anne-Claire’s mind and a smile lit her pretty face. “Would you tell me one of your exciting stories, Grandpa, and then I’ll write it down and send it to her. I’m sure that will lift her spirits.”

Grandpa grinned inwardly and considered his granddaughter’s request with an excited twinkle in his eye. It was time for one of his special tales. “Okay, come and sit with your old grandpa and let me tell you a story of the old lakefront castle, Chillon.”

He gestured Anne-Claire to a chair in the wheelhouse while his second-in-command took the helm, then gazed across the expansive lake, taking in the towering mountain panorama and the distant shores of France. Considering an appropriate place to start and finally agreeing with himself on an fitting beginning, Grandpa coaxed the story from his mind and into life.

“Back in the middle of the eighteenth century lived a fair maiden. She was so beautiful that many an admirer sought to gain her hand in marriage, but she considered only one man and unfortunately for him, he was detained by his service in the army.”

Anne-Claire shifted on her seat, unamused. “Grandpa, if this is about Nicolaïde de Blonay, I’ve studied this at school. Some think it is a fable and some think it’s the same work written by Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise in 1762. Nicolaïde gets abducted by her cousin, Jean-François de Blonay of the Savoie lineage from her home in Blonay castle and taken to Savoie and made to be his wife. Tavel, the man she was actually in love with and going to marry, gets into a scrape with Jean-François de Blonay and the Bernese rulers of the time are left to adjudicate the scuffle. Not wanting to take sides, they make a judgment and chastise the Baron de Blonay for his inept parenting… and that’s about it!” Anne-Claire huffed, unimpressed.

Grandpa marveled at Anne-Claire’s knowledge of her romanticized history. “Ah, quite so, Anne-Claire, but by Nicolaïde’s time the Château de Chillon was little more than a large island storage house for the Bernese.”

Anne-Claire’s face wrinkled, trying to remember her facts.

“You are mostly right in your description of Nicolaïde de Blonay and her abduction too, but most people don’t know about her younger sister…” Grandpa’s eyes sparkled.

“Nicolaïde did not have a younger sister, Grandpa!” Anne-Claire determined adamantly and just a little miffed.

Grandpa raised his eyebrows but continued unperturbed, “You’re also right in the Bernese ruling laid against the Baron de Blonay. However, because he was so distraught by the unfair judgment, he hid his second daughter from all society and she remained an almost unknown. Even so, the second daughter de Blonay was as handsome as her sister and keeping her from the public eye was easy at first when she was but a small girl, yet as she grew into a woman, her beauty was difficult to hide and the baron became more troubled.”

The second-in-command’s voice broke into the conversation, announcing over the ship’s intercom, “La Tour-de-Peilz on the port side of the vessel.”

Grandpa eyed his co-worker and nodded at his announcement, imagining the hungry passengers taking their minds off their meals long enough to glance at the picturesque village of La Tour-de-Peilz.

Anne-Claire’s curiosity suddenly burst. “So, what was this second daughter’s name, Grandpa?”

“Dominique de Blonay,” Grandpa offered.

Anne-Claire’s cynicism wrinkled and distorted into lines across her elegant face, beholding her elderly grandparent with incredulous eyes and leaving Grandpa with the impression he was losing his audience to unbelief.

“Don’t you want to hear the rest of the legend, Anne-Claire?”

“I am all ears, Grandpa,” folding her arms, Anne-Claire stared at her hero sympathetically as if he had slipped a cog.

“Well, the tale is set in the beautiful lakeside island castle, Château de Chillon four years after Nicolaïde’s abduction.”

Anne-Claire shifted in her seat and settled her back against the wheelhouse wall and listened sceptically to her grandpa’s story. Before long, the eloquent old man had captured her attention and her imagination had been transported back several centuries in time.

“Droplets of water plinked into concealed pools hidden in the musty darkness and echoed against the stone walls. The cavernous chamber, dank and cold, made her shiver and with the absence of light came the absence of warmth and hope. Dominique de Blonay’s hand ached from the cold steel of the chain that pressed ruthlessly into her skin, holding her captive to the underground dungeon pillar. The pillar towered over her in the darkness and in a fit of desperation, she pulled hard against the chain, whipping her off balance and slamming her body into the unmoving stone sentinel. She sighed heavily in frustration, tears slipping from her young face at her folly, gently rubbing the injury site left by the unexpected contact with the stone pillar.

“It had been a mistake, attempting to leave the security of the Château de Blonay on a hapless secret mission to visit her captive older sister, Nicolaïde. Father had strictly forbidden her to abandon the protection of the Château for fear of abduction, and now she was suffering for her folly. She couldn’t work out where she was, or how long she had been prisoner in the darkness of her dungeon, only that it had happened so quickly. Dominique had ridden sidesaddled on her chestnut stead, Rustic, slowly walking through the forested hills toward the lakeshore in brilliant sunshine. Then without warning, a large hand grabbed her around her face, pulled her from her mount and then… DARKNESS!”

Anne-Claire flinched and almost screamed when Grandpa’s ascending voice suddenly pitched up, at the same time making an animated grabbing action to emphasis his story and leaving the young woman’s face alight with tension.

“Alas, she awoke some time later, captive in her dark dungeon prison,” Grandpa’s hoarse whisper tapered off as he reloaded another part of his tale and prepared to awe his granddaughter again.

Grandpa whispered slowly and mysteriously, drawing Anne-Claire’s captivated mind into a frenzy of conflict, “Baron de Blonay paced nervously in La Grande Salle situated at the front of the hillside castle, the Château de Blonay. Dominique’s chestnut stead, Rustic had returned to the castle stables riderless and the young beauty had been missing now for twenty-four hours, setting the old baron to a painful worry.

“‘My Lord,’ a servant interrupted the baron’s disquiet.

“‘Yes. What is it?!’ the baron snapped.

“‘Baron Willy de Bad has arrived from Rougemont.’”

“Baron…Willy…de…Bad?!” Anne-Claire raised her eyebrows incredulously at her grandpa, tearing her imagination into shreds and forcefully depositing her mind back into the present time with an abrupt slam dunk.

La Suisse’s steam whistle laughed hysterically, acknowledging a passing steamer and rocking gently on its wake.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

The finely manicured ancient stone facade, a gateway guarding the impressive sprawling grounds of Zurich’s ETH campus, gave the ominous notion of no-nonsense learning. But with it came the unwritten expectation that with acceptance into these prodigious halls, pupils like Zilla Swartz were understood to be more than just a serious high achieving student. In her final year of PhD studies at Switzerland’s Eidgenössische Technische Hoschschule or ETH, Zilla Schwarz’s area of study concentrated around seismic geography, closely tied to Schweizerischer Erdbebendienst or SED, Switzerland’s earthquake monitoring facility. On a perimeter boundary isolated from the university’s main hub and alone in a small isolated chalet, her perceptive blue eyes rimmed by black framed spectacles scanned a sophisticated interactive computer screen.

State-of-the-art software gathered information from sensors all over Switzerland, transforming it into a moving coloured line graph and stretching the information across the liquid crystal display monitor in an easily readable format. Swiss territories are a trivial hotbed for constant seismic activity, however, seldom reaching over 3 and more often hovering around 2, a minor classification on the open ended Richter scale by world standards. The seismic activity for today had been unusually quiet, making Schwarz’s voluntary four-hour shift drag. All PhD students who gave their time volunteering to help monitor the earthquake activity in Switzerland could expect extra credit toward their final doctorate, but coincidentally, the student shifts concurred with the cold and lonely late night hours, weekends or public holidays.

Zilla Schwarz turned away from the screen briefly, impatiently glancing at the entry door and contemplating finishing her shift in only moments. Being a conscientious student, her time was partitioned into an elaborately orchestrated schedule, while a tardy and late member of the faculty could seriously disrupt her ordered world if they failed to show up according to plan and sign off on her latest contribution. The strict schedule dominated her young life and partitioned her day into precisely calculated time slots, with each regimented discipline having one goal in mind: finishing her overarching seismic thesis with honours.

A small, high pitched piezo alarm built into the seismic computer hardware screeched and redirected Schwarz’s attention back to the screen with renewed interest. Earthquake sensors all over Switzerland were firing off and reporting back to the SED computer. She stared dumbfounded as the activity began to swarm around Geneva, but the swarms were only relatively small, about 2.1 on the Richter scale and seventy-three kilometres deep. Too deep to be of real concern. Drawing on her knowledge and watching the line graph twitching dementedly, Schwarz studied the information carefully before making a final conclusion. On the whole the activity wasn’t a major threat but it was difficult to predict what earthquakes could do. It could be nothing, or it could be a precursor to something unusual lurking deep within the fractured fault lines crisscrossing Switzerland’s rugged mountainous topography.

 

~

 

Grandpa shifted slightly on the spot, again trying to evade the sceptical gaze of his beloved granddaughter staring up at him and obviously disturbed by his choice of characters in the latest tale. He was just about to offer a defence of his selection when his second-in-command interrupted Grandpa’s train of thought with a worried murmur, raising his voice and speaking loud enough in the hope Grandpa would take notice of his concern and relieve him of the responsibility for the unfolding situation.

The vessel’s radar screen showed two small, fast moving blimps approaching from the stern and then in the distance, the unmistakable whomping pulse of rotor blades as an approaching helicopter beat the surrounding air in a disturbed urgent tempo and making a course directly for the steamboat. La Suisse was close to a kilometre from shore and almost directly in line with the small village of Clarens. Concerned at the unusual sight, Grandpa made a grab for the ancient honey coloured wood surrounding the vessel’s control panel, locating his binoculars with stumbling haste. Focusing the field glasses over the stern and to the distant horizon, Grandpa locked onto the approaching craft speeding from the locality of Lausanne and wondered whether La Suisse was the intended destination.

Intensely magnified, the field glasses caught the name on the side of the helicopter, causing another anxious irritation. “I wonder what they want?” Grandpa murmured with his mind focused on the boat’s severe schedule.

“Who is it, Grandpa?” Anne-Claire sheltered her eyes from the sun with her hand, straining to focus in the direction of the approaching disturbance.

“Gendarmerie!” Grandpa answered, keeping his binoculars focused on the approaching fray.

Before Grandpa could formulate a plan, the ship’s radio burst into life, transmitting the obvious sounds of helicopter rotor blades along with an authoritative voice demanding the vessel come to a complete stop. Intending to obey the directive, Grandpa nodded to the anxious second-in-command, but before he could reach for the engine room telegraph and shift its handle to all stop, an anguished shriek floated up from the forward deck and a distressed crowd gathered on the port railing. Pointing at the water, gaping up at the wheelhouse in horror and willing the capitaine to avert a tragedy, the crowd watched helplessly. It seemed to take hours, but in reality it was only seconds for the engine room crew to respond to the emergency stop order from the wheelhouse.

Disorientated by the cold water and in plain view, a stunned floating figure glanced around confused until the momentum of the heavy vessel drew closer and before he could react, the paddles drew him into their swishing beat. As if time hovered in slow motion and anguished screams echoed over La Suisse’s deck, the figure disappeared into the steamer’s foaming wake, only to resurface some distance behind, face down in the chilling lake water.

Stricken by helplessness and paralyzed with horror, the passengers and crew watched and pointed as police boats acknowledged the motionless figure, halting the speeding chase just short of La Suisse and silencing the roar of their powerful outboard engines. Throttling back, the pursuit immediately concluded with the two small craft instantly pitching their noses down, bobbing on their own wake and gliding to a stop like a graceful swan. Surrounding the floating figure, the gendarmes dragged the unmoving body onboard their vessel while the police helicopter hovered overhead.

Sickened by the scene and shocked to her core, Anne-Claire couldn’t avert her eyes, scrutinising the gendarmes heaving the listless body into their vessel before accelerating away towards Montreux at high speed. She’d never been subjected to such awful violence in her short life before and only on television did this sort of thing exist, not in her neat ordered world. As she studied the disturbing view over the wheelhouse railing from the now stationary La Suisse to the police watercraft speeding away, she began to feel bilious, trying to swallow down the shock while vulnerability and the need for reassurance overtook her. Grandpa noticed his granddaughter’s traumatized and staring expression, no longer appearing like a composed and mature sixteen, but an emotionally struggling six. He quickly reached for her and enfolded her in his arms, pressing her tightly into an embrace. Grateful for the comfort, Anne-Claire accepted Grandpa’s reassurance, but her truant eyes remained firmly riveted on the departing gendarmes.

The EC635 Eurocopter gracefully hovered over the rear deck of La Suisse, sending a cloud of spray across the passengers gathered around the stern railing. A voice crackled over the radio, requesting permission from the captain to come aboard. Grandpa nodded to the second-in-command and he responded with a sharp, ‘Granted,’ into the receiver.

Still holding his granddaughter, Grandpa watched incredulously as a heavily fortified Détachement d’Action Rapide et de Dissuasion (DARD) specially trained gendarme dropped down a rope from the police helicopter and onto the deck, interrogating witnesses as he moved about the vessel. The underbelly of the Eurocopter proudly displayed the Suisse flag, neatly stenciled in place and the only indication Grandpa was still in peaceful Switzerland and not in a war zone. The event must have had some far reaching concerns for the Special Weapons and Tactics branch of the Vaud police force to entangle themselves in the situation, inciting Grandpa to ask questions of the gendarme interviewing him and Anne-Claire. But all the special policeman would offer, the person involved was wanted by the Vaud gendarmerie and had stowed away aboard La Suisse in an effort to escape capture in Lausanne. The deliberate stone-faced silence that followed indicated there was more to the story, but he wasn’t authorized to offer any further information.

As the young gendarme concluded his strange interrogation, he left the same way, winched back aboard the Eurocopter. Guided by the pilot’s rudder pedal, the sleek machine turned 180 degrees and quickly set a course towards Montreux. Grandpa sighed loudly, still processing the bizarre event in his mind, but forcing himself to think rationally and take command again. Firstly, he needed to sooth distraught passengers with his rich calming voice over the ship’s intercom, then re-establish La Suisse’s schedule and restore her ordered passage to the Château de Chillon still five kilometres away.

A quick glance over his shoulder and towards his seated granddaughter, Grandpa noticed Anne-Claire slumped forward, deep in thought and most probably reliving the whole fantastic episode. Concerned for her wellbeing and satisfied La Suisse was in order once more, Grandpa relinquished command to his second officer and then wrapped Anne-Claire in his arms to comfort her. Anne-Claire returned his cuddle with affection, assuring the old man she was okay and allowing him to relax while her quiet voice bravely responded in jest.

“I think I could handle the story of Dominique de Blonay and Baron Willy de Bad now, Grandpa,” Anne-Claire whispered, her eyes soft and uncertain.

Grandpa broke out into a belly laugh and Anne-Claire willingly joined him.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

A flock of native pink and grey galahs screeched and jostled for prominence in the sprawling branches of nearby red river gums. Vying for territory in the crowded community and hoping to relieve the escalating morning heat, they hid behind the eucalypts’ generous shading foliage. The massive trees overlooking Yan Yani Billabong had thrived throughout eons of drought and flood, in turn sustaining life for countless native species desperately searching for shelter in Australia’s expansive and unforgiving dry red heart. The considerable stand of trees surrounding the waterhole seemed out of place in the stark arid environment, but where there is permanent water in the desert, life in abundance also exists. In a comedy of aerobic tumbling, flapping and shrieking, the pink and grey galahs eventually settled into the red river gums’ substantial limbs and cooling shade, preparing to ride out the heat of the day until sundown. Then other timid species would appear from their desert hideouts and join forces with the frolicking galahs swooping across the surface of Yan Yani Billabong in a thirsty, but guarded bid to drink. The need for water made this the most vulnerable time a small wild bird on the wing could be to a predator attack, with the sheer numbers contained within the massive diving flocks awarding anonymity and the only protection the desert could offer.

Michelle Slater glanced through the open kitchen door and down into the house-paddock not less than half a kilometre from where she stood. On the outer edge of the house-paddock, the shrieking galahs had finally settled, returning her morning environment into a clumsy but encompassing silence. The mercury would steadily climb through 41 degrees Celsius and finally hover around 48 degrees for the duration, until the night’s chill reversed the trend and sometimes plummeted to freezing in the grips of a black frost.

Mishy’s intense gaze followed another desert phenomenon with concern, already developing in the stifling dust of the house-paddock. A spiralling gust of dry, heat laden wind—baked in the oven of the unbearable early morning calefaction—began to swirl on the wings of a silent deceptive fiend. Mishy knew all too well this innocent hot breeze could turn into a destructive gyrating ‘cockeye bob’ in a matter of moments. Cockeye bobs—or dust devils—often formed in an instant, and strong enough to engulf the whole homestead in a curtain of red smothering powder. Anything not bolted down could be caught up in the maelstrom and lifted many hundreds of metres into the air in a swirling melee.

As the gentle eddy abruptly turned into a spiralling, dark red wall towering high above the building and aiming directly for the homestead, Mishy made a panicked dash to close the doors and windows. The fine red dust was like choking talcum powder and spread into every nook and cranny and every exposed surface, leaving smudging red marks wherever it lay and taking many hours of backbreaking work to clean up the staining mess.

“Close your doors and windows, girls!” Mishy’s alarmed voice rang throughout the homestead’s stone passageways, hoping her daughters would hear her plea in time. It was a familiar cry and an added burden, a burden Mishy didn’t need.

She heard her children responding with an orchestrated symphony, slamming doors and windows just in time to observe a wall of turbid red engulf the homestead. Watching from the kitchen, Mishy focused on the only green lawn for hundreds of kilometres while the escalating red juggernaut violently thrashed the garden furniture left exposed and unsecured. When the cockeye bob defiantly moved on, Mishy dashed over to the opposite side of the house and followed the mini-tornado’s progress through a homestead window, aiming its destruction for the cattle yards and the large wheel of the cattle yard windmill. She willed away the spiralling red dust funnel stretching hundreds of metres into the baking blue sky, hoping it wouldn’t destroy the cattle yard’s only water source.

The swirling fusillade passed over the house-paddock windmill like a giant spinning top, catching the massive wheel in a tearing eddy, and spinning the ancient sail in a shrieking groan. Totally out of control, the windmill wheel spun at high speed and wastefully pumped groundwater at a harrowing rate, completely missing the concrete troughs and drenching the cattle yard soil, instantly turning the hot dry dust into sticky, red coloured mud. As the nonchalant despot finally tired of its destructive game tormenting the ancient windmill, and turned its attention to another part of the desert floor, the massive wheel arthritically slowed and finally stopped in a screeching bawl, leaving artesian water dribbling from the outlet pipe and dripping into the overfull concrete cattle trough.

Mishy sighed in relief.

Another disaster they didn’t need thankfully had been averted.

The heat dragged on relentlessly, like a tired old man dragging his feet throughout the day and as Mishy prepared the evening meal, she glanced through the kitchen window and across the house-paddock to the cattle yard windmill. After the traumatic ordeal, the timeless towering machine stood stiff and silent, silhouetted black against a fiery golden sunset. The birds began to shake off the oppressive heat in a cacophony of birdsong, welcoming the night time reprieve, and swooping down on the wing to drink from the waterhole before roosting for the night after an exhausting day dodging the sun’s treachery.

Butch will be home soon, she thought, bringing a smile to her lips.

The kitchen VHF radio suddenly scrambled to life, causing Mishy to jump and abandon her musings. “Mishy, do you copy?”

Mishy closed the distance to the receiver in an enthusiastic stride. “Receiving, Butch.”

“I’m thirty kilometres from the homestead, about half an hour away.”

“Okay, Butch. Have you had a good day, honey?” Mishy questioned, eager to learn of his routine.

“I’d have a better day if this confounded drought would break.”

“Chin up, sweetheart, we’re in this together,” Mishy knew the drought was a constant dark reproof attacking Butch’s mind. “Is Eddie joining us for tea?”

There was a pause before Butch answered again. “He wants to know what’s on the menu.”

Mishy laughed before responding. “Beef steak pie and wine dumplings!” she offered, knowing Eddie wouldn’t be able to resist his favourite dish.

Butch’s laughing reply answered her question, “Says he’s only coming if he can have seconds.”

Mishy giggled in response. She loved having the elderly Aboriginal head stockman around. “Of course…! See you soon, honey.”

 

~

 

After the meal and while the girls helped Mishy clean up, Malcolm Slater comfortably positioned himself in his favourite leather recliner. Surrounded by rich dark polished timber floorboards and a well used open fireplace of blackened stone, Mishy’s tasteful homemade drapes decorated large commanding windows overlooking the house-paddock and giving the historic lounge room a relaxing, intimate feel. Family portraits—captured in black-and-white stills and frozen by time, hung in frames on the historic walls—narrated the family history stretching back nearly 150 years in a parade of antiquity. Malcolm, Mishy and their three children—Danica, the oldest; then Jessica; and Molly, the youngest—were the latest addition to a pictographic generational ballad representing a long line of descendants occupying and working Pearl Springs.

Lost in a nostalgic world of the past, Butch pulled the recliner lever and pushed his heavy outline back into the leather chair’s ancient comfort and gazed around the timbered walls. A deep sense of regret and shame settled over his forty-year-old frame. Until recently, the family museum had been a source of great pride, but the long running drought had turned the athenaeum into a haunting reminder of his failures. Butch’s grey mood intensified when his gaze settled on a childhood photograph of himself and his father; a happy time for Butch then, but a constant, harrowing reminder of deep loss now. He could sure use his esteemed father’s wise counsel on the intensifying drought and the financial burden Pearl Springs was now suffering under. Malcolm senior had been deceased now for twenty years, leaving Butch with the full responsibility of running Pearl Springs alone, aside from his aging Aboriginal head stockman and one time idol, Eddie Namitijarra.

Malcolm senior had had a sixth sense with Pearl Springs and he could read the property’s needs with an uncanny knack. He’d prepare things, like overstocking the land with cattle in a lean year, only to have an unseen bumper wet season the following year and reap a huge reward. Even Eddie couldn’t foresee some of the things Malcolm senior did, but had to admit the crazy white man had his finger on the pulse of the land.

Leaving the distant memory to linger in a long forgotten chamber of his heart, his wandering eyes settled on a new distraction, studying an aerial photograph hanging in a prominent position over the fireplace and undergirded by a rugged stone mantelpiece. The framed image had been proudly placed there by his father in better times, proclaiming a family heritage for generations to come. The homestead photograph depicted a small cluster of tiny boxes compared to the stretch of land that constituted the spreading outback station property, and stood between the Georgina and Diamantina rivers on the banks of a dry tributary of the Georgina. Fed by an artesian spring, the expansive Yan Yani permanent freshwater Billabong—and the homestead’s water supply—stretched for a kilometre in each direction before being swallowed up into the arid red landscape. An oasis in an otherwise relentless and unforgiving environment, where summer daytime temperatures more often than not exceeded 40 degrees Celsius.

Spanning 10,000 square kilometres, Pearl Springs was named after his great, great grandmother and was amongst the largest family owned properties still left in central Australia. It was specifically chosen by his great, great grandfather from a list of allotments offered by the then Australian government hoping to attract families into the sparsely populated and harsh central Australian topology, taming another part of the dry red heart under relentless human occupation.

Until recent years, Pearl Springs had proven to be a gold mine for the Slater family, supporting in excess of 30,000 head of longhorn cattle, finely bred to survive in the arid landscape. But the latest drought had lasted for ten years, turning areas of natural grass feed into a red trampled dust bowl and permanent water into cracked mud flats, leaving the property struggling to support 12,000 head. The stubborn stationary El Niño was crippling Pearl Springs’ bottom line and spiralling the family into breathtaking debt, handfeeding the struggling and hungry cattle with vast amounts of expensive imported chaff.

Dejectedly, Butch felt for the recliner lever and pushed it forward, collapsing the prone divan into an armchair again and forcing him to sit upright, staring directly through the lounge room window and out into the swarming insects flying dementedly around the floodlight illuminating the milieu of the front lawn. Mishy had watered the homestead grass meticulously, and it was the only green place on the property among a sea of red choking dust. The deep green luxury and the cool moisture rising from it drew his gaze, and he struggled from the recliner and ambled over to the open window, his shoeless feet sliding effortlessly over the polished timber boards. The exquisite lounge room floor was a legacy from Malcolm senior, and as a child, Butch was expressly forbidden to walk into the room with shoed feet. Even today, Butch respected his father’s wishes and taught his children the same reverence.

Hoping to find a connection with his father’s skill when he was making difficult decisions, Butch took the same stance he had witnessed Malcolm senior take many times, and peered through the very window he had seen him gaze through. Staring beyond the homestead lights as far as the flyscreen would allow, he could just make out the dark silhouette of the eucalypt treed shoreline of Yan Yani Billabong nearly two kilometres across the flat red dust of the house-paddock. With a sweeping gaze to the other extremity, he followed the scarlet dirt road crossing a dishevelled cattle grid then disappearing beyond the reach of the floodlight and leading away from the homestead into the darkness. The unpaved homestead access road eventually met up with a thin single-lane blacktop road a hundred kilometres to the southeast, crossing through some of the harshest terrain the desiccated continent could offer. Butch leaned his head against the wooden window frame and sighed loudly, weighing his thoughts and considering his options, hoping the copied stance of his father would give him some inspiration.

Over the years there had been many attempts from pastoral companies to entice Butch to sell Pearl Springs and for the first time, he was seriously contemplating taking them up on their offer. He had seen droughts come and go before, but never like this one. Butch was in a precarious position. He couldn’t afford to take on endless debt, but because of the debt and the drought the property had dropped in value, leaving him without bargaining power among the high powered and aggressive corporate negotiators who ran the pastoral conglomerates. They constantly reminded him of his perilous situation, prophesied continuing drought and foretold of imminent bankruptcy, repeatedly trying to bully him into selling the valuable property far below its true value. Butch knew the game they were playing and if he could only ride out the stubborn El Niño

A small and tender hand lovingly caressed his tense shoulders. “Honey, are you okay?” Mishy whispered.

He turned to the sweet, gentle voice and pulled her into an embrace. “Yeah, Mishy, I was just contemplating the future and hoping Dad could give me some ideas with this accursed drought.”

The tenderness painted across Mishy’s face spoke of deep concern for her struggling man. She knew the stress Butch was carrying and she knew he was missing talking with his dad. “There’s nothing we can do about it, honey. I know it’s tough but somehow we will make it,” she whispered, speaking to herself just as much as to him.

He gazed at the beauty he’d married, contemplating her words and enjoying her fine features once again. Even after twenty years of marriage, Mishy was beautiful and could still steal his breath away. As a pretty twenty-year-old single and nearly two decades ago, Mishy and her aging parents were visiting central Australia from Sydney when she met Butch at a country dance raising funds for the Royal Flying Doctor in The Alice. They fell in love on their first dance and Butch pursued her relentlessly after that night until she consented to become his wife twelve months later; and now they had a family-–three stunning girls. It was a big ask for any country-bred girl to marry into the station lifestyle, let alone a born and bred city girl. The life was lonely and isolated with the closest neighbours hundreds of kilometres away, making socialising with outside people rare and the work tedious and impossible to separate from family life, but Mishy never complained and took to her surrounds like she was born to it.

Mishy suddenly interrupted his thoughts and pointed to the luxuriant green lawn. “Take me outside and sit with me, husband. Everything always seems better after staring at the stars.”

The highlight of the day was spending time relaxing outside with Mishy and the girls, lapping up the cool evening air and gazing up at the myriad of stars above them before the chill of the night settled over the desert oasis.

In recent times, strange purple flashes appeared in the sky and disappeared over the horizon. Butch couldn’t remember seeing this phenomenon before in his life, until this extended drought suddenly turned up ten years ago and sucked the life out of Pearl Springs. Eddie’s superstitious mind blamed the strange purple flashes for the drought and wouldn’t even talk about the phenomenon. In the rare occasion he did offer an opinion, all he would say was, “Bad sky, bring nothing but bad luck to the country!” and he’d stalk off.

Butch extinguished the floodlight, settled into a garden recliner on the lawn and reached for Mishy’s tiny frame, settling her on his lap and wrapping her in his embrace. As they gazed silently to the spectacle above them, the cacophony of crashing and disoriented flying insects—searching for the floodlight and their food source—soon abated and settled into an ear piercing silence. A lone dingo howled from a secluded ridge, his yearning bawl smothered by the vast desert plain, mournfully disrupting the absolute night time calm and intensified the feeling of isolation. Mishy shivered in Butch’s embrace and her quiet voice drew his attention from the sky to her dark silhouette.

“Even after twenty years of living in the bush, that sound still haunts me,” she whispered.

Butch’s arms tightened around Mishy, reassuring her she was protected. A fiery meteor distracted her concentration and held her attention as it streaked across the exquisite painting hanging above them, while Butch contemplated the starlight reflected in Mishy’s innocent eyes and fell in love once again. She suddenly realised he was staring at her and turned to meet his gaze with an adoring smile.

“What?” Mishy whispered.

“I love you, Mrs Slater.”

“I love you too, Mr Slater.”

The emptiness and isolation of the bush at night could be a threatening place but in Butch’s arms she felt content and safe, with the warmth of his kiss intensifying Mishy’s depth of emotion. Somehow the stars seemed brighter tonight and her fear drifted away, but something kept niggling at her. For reasons she didn’t understand, Mishy felt a deep sense of uneasiness and the dark desert night seemed to reflect it, too. Awed by a display of streaking meteors graffiting their fiery tails upon the darkened heavens and finally extinguishing their impressive light in the thickening protective atmosphere, Pearl Springs appeared to be the centre of a intuitive cosmic light show.

Toward the west, a sudden flash of purple erupted across the sky and lit up the horizon like a welder’s arc. Following the strange event closely, Butch and Mishy stared at the phenomena in silence until Butch suddenly whispered, “No one has been able to satisfy me with a plausible explanation for those purple flashes yet.”

Before Mishy could speak, another flash erupted across the dark sky, reflecting in her wide and staring eyes. “Wow, that sure is eerie!” Mishy responded, dazzled by the brightness of tonight’s display.

Their attention was suddenly diverted by a white glow on the horizon, the unmistakable signature of an approaching vehicle.

“We’re not expecting visitors are we?” Mishy verbalised what Butch was thinking.

“No, not that I am aware of,” Butch replied, staring at the horizon in the direction of the intensifying light and watching the beam weave and dip as the vehicle negotiated the multitude of dry river crossings and the rough gravel road surface. It was usual for people meaning to visit from other stations to call ahead and announce their intentions before making a substantial trip to a neighbour’s property, minimizing the possibility of a shotgun pellet greeting.

But visits rarely, if ever, occurred at night.

“Better get back inside with the kids,” Butch demanded, his demeanour suddenly turned serious. “I don’t like this; it may be trouble. Take the girls and lock yourselves in the bathroom until I give the all clear. I’ll get the shotgun!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

The homestead flyscreen door slammed shut behind Mishy, reverberating up the passage and sealing outside the menace of an unknown and unexpected visitor as well as a cloud of swarming insects attracted to the kitchen lights and the thick cooling night air. Butch’s warning struck terror into her heart. Seldom did visitors come to the homestead unannounced. But never at night. Urgent footsteps hurried past the open kitchen door, Mishy’s gait breaking from a brisk walk to a subdued run and making the floor beams squeak and clack loudly under her sandalled feet. As she made her way hastily up the stone-walled passageway and towards the girls’ bedroom, Mishy pushed the door open with such ardour, the sudden appearance of the girls’ mother—obviously panicking—caused Danica and Jess to jump with fright.

“Quickly, girls, get into the bathroom! Where’s Molly?!” Mishy’s flustered voice demanded.

“She’s in the lounge room, Mum. What’s going on?!” Danica’s voice cracked with concern, glancing up from her prostrate position atop her bed.

“I’ll explain in a minute; just get into the bathroom while I round up Molly.”

The two girls rushed down to the bathroom herded by their mother and once they were safely behind the solid closed door, Mishy made a beeline for the lounge room to find Molly.

“Molly! Sweetheart, where are you?!”

“In Daddy’s chair, Mummy,” Mishy’s youngest daughter called back, wondering whether she was in trouble for climbing into her father’s chair. Molly gazed at her unshod feet, then focused on her pink socks, determining her innocence and absolutely certain she had kept the ‘no shoes in the lounge room’ part of family law.

Relieved to have found her missing child, Mishy swooped up the six-year-old from Butch’s recliner and then hurried towards the bathroom, hugging her daughter tightly. Finding the bathroom door, Mishy swung it wide, entered with Molly and threw it shut with a resolute bang, then shifted the substantial bolt across into the locked position with a sturdy thunk. Gazing around at the worried expressions of her daughters and mentally taking stock, Mishy threw the light switch off with an abrupt click, stealing the light from the room and plunging the occupants into fearful darkness.

“Mum, I’m scared. What’s happening and where’s Dad?!” Danica pleaded, her voice quavering in the darkness.

“There’s a car approaching along the access road and your father has taken his gun and gone to investigate. Like he’s always said, he wants us safe and locked in the bathroom until he has made sure our visitors mean us no harm.”

Danica’s paused as she chewed on the significance of her mother’s words and pondered her father’s demands. Were they really so vulnerable to strangers?

Many moments dragged past as the four women listened in complete silence to the noises of the house from within their protective bathroom sanctuary. For a long time, the only sounds were their own strained breathing and galloping heartbeat pounding in the deafening quiet. Mishy leaned closer to the door, trying to determine what was happening outside. The unbroken silence seemed to stretch on relentlessly until the unmistakable sound of an approaching vehicle divided the still night.

A sudden loud blast tore through the calm, making the girls jump with fear and whimper in terror. Trying to reign in her own panic and keep the girls calm and quiet, Mishy’s trembling voice hushed their frightened cries lest they give away their hiding place. Mishy’s heart was still pounding as she tried to reassure the girls and gauge what had just happened, drawing her children into her protective embrace and silently praying for Butch while trying to remain calm and decide what to do. Butch had repeatedly drilled the women for just such an occasion and he was adamant they weren’t to come out of hiding until he had given the all clear.

 

~

 

Loading two shotgun cartridges into their respective barrels, Butch nervously and determinedly shifted the safety to off. Holding the gun in one hand and pointing the business end towards the darkened sky, he expected the approaching vehicle driver would see the menacing weapon in his headlights and advance with utmost caution. He stood in the centre of the access road some distance from the homestead just prior to the cattle grid and waited, watching the approaching spotlight beams cutting through the darkness and painting eerie bouncing shadows on the homestead roof.

Then as the vehicle came closer, its focused powerful beams picked up on Butch standing in the middle of the road, momentarily blinding him while the vehicle came to a panicked skidding stop. Clouds of red dust engulfed the vehicle lights in a plume of choking smoke-like powder, making it difficult to see past the lights.

In a moment of decision, Butch discharged his shotgun into the air, proclaiming a serious warning and his intent to defend his family and home without regard for his own safety, or the vehicle occupants.

Immediately, the lights dipped to low beam, followed by a chorus of flashing blue light from a light bar attached to the vehicle roof, reflecting eerie disco-like blue shadows.

“Butch! It’s Sergeant Bob Maxwell, Birdsville Police,” the driver yelled from the window of his dust smudged, white coloured Land Cruiser.

Recognising the police vehicle and long time friend, Butch breathed out an anxious breath and dropped the business end of the barrel to face the ground. “Bob! What on earth are you doing out here at this time of night?! You about scared ten years life out of me and nearly scored a couple of rounds of buckshot into the bargain!”

Bob knew the unspoken law about approaching isolated properties in the dead of night and unannounced. His job sometimes required him to take risks like this in extreme situations and possibly bring him into unintended conflict with the very people he was trying to protect. “Sorry for coming unannounced, Butch, but I couldn’t get through to anyone here and there is some nasty business going on in the neighbourhood of late and I just didn’t like the feel of things. You and the girls are a long way from anywhere here and your phone appears to be out. None of your neighbours could raise the homestead by email or VHF either.”

Butch approached the idling Land Cruiser and leaned down on the open window in line with the familiar policeman’s tired face, puzzled at his disclosure, but thankful he had friends like Bob Maxwell who would drive six hours on deteriorating outback roads at night just to satisfy a whim and make sure Butch and his family were okay.

“Come on in, Bob, and I’ll get the girls out of hiding. Then you can have a shower and freshen up while Mishy throws some food together for you… that’s if she’s still talking to you after scaring the life out of her.”

Bob smirked briefly at Butch’s remark, fully aware Mishy couldn’t hold a grudge against anyone; but his reasons for being here were not a laughing matter. The police Land Cruiser squealed to a stop just short of the homestead door, dowsed its lights and extinguished the engine while Bob eased his big solid frame from the driver seat and then shook hands with Butch in a relieved greeting.

“You are staying the night with us, Bob?”

Bob nodded. “If it’s no inconvenience, Butch.”

 

~

 

Mishy caught her breath and hushed the girl’s whispered whimpers, listening to footsteps approaching the wooden verandah and then the unmistakable screech of the flyscreen door as it opened, allowing whoever into her home. She sighed in anguished relief when she heard Butch’s relaxed speech talking to someone else, while the other voice seemed somewhat familiar but she couldn’t place it.

Mishy, sweetheart, it’s all clear. We have a visitor all the way from Birdsville!”

Mishy sighed in relief, flicked on the light and pulled back the bolt, releasing the four women from their protective sanctuary.

Uncle Bob!” Molly squealed, recognising the visitor immediately and running as fast as her little legs would carry her towards the esteemed caller, blissfully unaware of the drama that had led to his arrival. Bob caught the exuberant six-year-old rocket in mid flight and swung her over his shoulder in a happy greeting while Molly giggled excitedly, loving the attention from her favourite policeman.

“Thanks for the evening entertainment, Bob,” Mishy jested sarcastically as she welcomed their visitor with a hug. “What brings you all this way?”

Bob scanned the room, scrutinising the inquisitive faces. In turn, they returned his expression, expecting an appropriate answer for the unconventional visit. “I need to talk to you and Butch. And just to set the record straight, madame, I did try to ring and send emails, but even the VHF wouldn’t work. I even called your neighbours to relay a radio message, thinking the Birdsville signal may have dropped into solar flare void. When no one could reach you, I set out, thinking something untoward was at play.”

Mishy turned to face Danica with a questioning gaze while her daughter’s red-faced response answered Mishy’s question. “I would guess Danica has been downloading pictures from her friend in Switzerland; and our phone sometimes doesn’t work when the internet is downloading to our computer. As for the VHF, I’m sure that was working.”

Followed by a curious crowd, Mishy made a track for the kitchen shelf and the VHF radio set occupying its greatest portion. The power light was green indicating the set was on, but when she examined the settings, the volume had been turned right down.

“That’s odd,” Mishy puzzled and then she remembered. ”I must have bumped the volume control when I was dusting earlier. I remember the duster caught around the dial but I didn’t think to check its position afterwards.”

Now it was her turn to wear a red face. She turned up the volume again and reached for the receiver and did a test call to a nearby station, immediately receiving a relieved response from an anxious neighbour. Returning the receiver to its place and satisfied all was well, Mishy glanced sheepishly at Butch and then to Bob with an apologising expression; but before she could speak, Butch filled the silence.

“We owe you an apology, Bob, for a wasted trip,” Butch offered. “But surely a visit from a neighbour in the morning would have avoided a long trip for you?”

Bob uneasily glanced at the girls and then back to Butch and Mishy. “As I said, I need to talk to you, preferably not in the presence of the kids.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

After a soaking hot shower, Sergeant Bob Maxwell’s navy blue police uniform had been exchanged for a relaxed sweat shirt and strides. With his heavy frame mushrooming over a sturdy wooden kitchen chair and pushed up to the table as far as his munificent midsection would allow, Bob hungrily shovelled generous amounts of Mishy’s home cooking into his masticating jaws, momentarily captivating famished tastebuds in a delectable salivating delivery. With a massive groaning belly cavity demanding food, the sumptuous meal didn’t stay long enough around protesting taste buds to savour the delight, before the mix prematurely disappeared down a cavernous slippery slide and into the realms of Bob’s vast stomach. A damp red fringe hung lazily over his eyes and tickled the bridge of his nose, until he lost patience with the annoying strands and swiped it from his face like swatting at a persistent bush blowfly. Only to have it fall down across his nose once again when he leaned over his plate and shovelled another high-performance forkful, repeating the amusing scene over.

Mishy attended their guest like a good hostess would, offering another helping of food or another glass of cold water while in each case and with extremely well rehearsed manners, he would oblige the lady of the house and courteously devour anything she put in front of him. Bob Maxwell had been remote Birdsville’s only policeman for nearly twenty years and everyone in his vast, but sparsely populated desert policing district knew and loved the esteemed bachelor. He would do anything—and often placed his own life at risk—to assist a friend or neighbour; but do the wrong thing by the law, mess with the people he loved or get on the wrong side of the eccentric law enforcer, the red-head-switch would abruptly overload and shift to pernicious in less than a heartbeat.

From down the passage, an eager figure skipped into the kitchen, bathed by her sisters and clothed in her nightgown and slippers, ready to wish her favourite policeman a hearty goodnight before turning her attention to her mum for a kiss and then a much coveted cuddle from her daddy. Moving from adult to adult until satisfied her nightly routine had been fulfilled, Molly skipped back up the passage singing, “G-n-i-g-h-t!” as she left.

“Molly?!” Mishy’s voice followed her youngest down the passage.

“Yes, Mummy?!” the skipping stopped and a tiny voice answered.

“Tell Danica and Jess we’ll be in to say goodnight in half an hour then lights out, okay!”

“Okay, Mummy!”

The sound of the girls’ bedroom door closing and then Molly’s intense muffled instruction reverberating down the hall brought a stifled laugh to the three adults gathered around the kitchen table.

“So what’s been happening, Bob, to cause you so much concern?” Butch’s sudden change of direction took Bob off guard, asking the question across the table both he and Mishy were anxious to have revealed.

Bob halted a loaded fork halfway to its destination, closed his mouth and reluctantly placed the implement back to his plate with a clatter. Picking at his teeth with his tongue and dislodging recalcitrant food particles wedged deep into ancient cavities, he painfully searched Butch’s inquisitive expression then glanced over to Mishy. Leaning back in his chair and breathing out a deep sigh, he searched the ceiling for a place to start. “Do you remember ol’ Tom Wiley from Balloolla Downs Station?”

Butch gazed around the room, searching the name in his memory. The name rang a bell but he couldn’t recall the face. “Balloolla Downs… isn’t that just the other side of the Diamantina Lake National Park?”

“Yep, that’s the one. His family raised the alarm when he didn’t come home and was found a week later with a surgically placed bullet wound in his chest. He’d been working on windmills in a remote part of his property, but I smelt a rat and spent a whole week out there with some fellas from the CIB in Brisbane.”

Mishy’s petrified expression held Bob’s in utter disbelief, while a kaleidoscope of explanations for the shooting rattled around in Butch’s shocked brain. “Surely it was a tragic accident, Bob? Most station people carry guns in their vehicles to shoot vermin.”

“Yeah… well, that one was quickly discounted when a few days later someone took a potshot at Miles Kilaney.”

“Miles Kilaney! He’s one of our neighbours a hundred and twenty kilometres directly east of here! He manages Dingo flats. What happened there?!”

“Apparently he was doing the same thing, but this time, Miles happened to drop a spanner from atop the windmill tower and jolted down to grab at it just as the sniper let rip. There’s a bullet hole in one of the windmill blades, right where his head was only seconds before. Just wanted you to be aware, Butch, there’s someone out there who doesn’t seem to like station people.”

Butch’s shocked gaze fell to the floor, staring at the linoleum and trying to make sense of Bob’s words. When he looked up, Mishy’s face was red with concern and her eyes were haunted with fear, staring back at her husband.

“How come we haven’t heard any of this on the news or on the bush telegraph?” Butch demanded.

“Trying to keep it out of the news for the moment. Only people who need to know are being told. My friends at the CIB think this might be someone roaming around looking for fame and they don’t want to give him what he wants until we can flush him out.”

“Flush him out?! What about the station families and our safety, Bob?!”

Bob Maxwell sighed heavily, the weight of responsibility for the people he loved crushing his broad, well padded shoulders. “We have a whole platoon of infantry soldiers spread across 500 square kilometres. Specially trained plainclothes police are swarming like flies over the area, too. We’ve identified the type of weapon from the bullet recovered from Tom’s body and it’s just a matter of tracing the owner before we nail this sicko. We have to wait for him to make another move and give away his position, then we’ll be all over him. You just need to be aware and not allow yourself or your family to become an unwilling target and of course, keep this off the airwaves.”

 

~

 

Two little feet tiptoed nervously down the dark passage, feeling the way with her hands and using the valleys and mounds of the familiar stone wall as a guide for her journey. She hurried past the lounge room door and pressed awkwardly against the rocky partition just as another frightening, gasping snore emanated from the prone figure of the visiting policeman. The brave little girl stared nervously, teetering on losing her courage and wide eyed at the silhouetted outline fast asleep on the floor, tearing the family entertainment room apart while attempting to fill his tired lungs through overtaxed and resonating human alleyways.

Safely past the unfamiliar disturbance, she turned back momentarily and stared down into the darkness from whence she had just come, compassionately remembering the cause for her anxious mission. Gripped with concern, the tiny figure pushed on determinedly towards her intended destination and nearing the end of the passageway, she could hear the comforting sounds of her parents’ sleeping breaths escaping through the open bedroom door. Standing at the door to their room, she anxiously pondered the consequences for her mission. Waking her parents for something trivial may carry unpleasantness for her if she misunderstood the situation, but her heart was overcome with empathy that overrode the fear of a possible rebuke. Then mustering all the courage she could gather, “Mumma…! Mum!” the small voice whispered.

Mishy stirred from a deep sleep, instinctively waking at the sounds of her distressed daughter. “Jess! What’s up, honey?” Mishy whispered, trying to shake off the grasp of sleep.

“Danica’s crying and she won’t tell me what’s wrong,” Jessica’s worried whisper caught in the back of her throat. Even though there were four years between Danica and Jess, they always confided in each other but tonight, Danica had firmly locked Jess out and she was worried something was badly wrong.

Mishy threw her legs over the bed in response to her daughter’s alarm and reached for her dressing gown, concerned Danica may be in pain and needing urgent medical help. The Royal Flying Doctor Service base at Mount Isa was an hour flight to Pearl Springs, a lifeline that the Slaters and all remote Queenslanders used often and relied upon for prompt lifesaving assistance. Throwing her dressing gown over her shoulders, Mishy glanced towards Butch’s sleeping figure checking to see if he had stirred from sleep, but the gentle rise and fall of his chest and heavy breaths indicated he hadn’t been disturbed. Mishy contemplated waking him, but thought better of it until she had investigated Danica’s predicament. All hands would be needed if a medical emergency was to be declared.

Grasping Jessica’s hand, Mishy hurried along the passage past Bob’s raucous performance and down to the girls’ bedroom. Gently, Mishy pushed the door open and listened to the sounds of the darkness. Restrained sobs punctuated the quiet from the direction of Danica’s bed and melted Mishy’s heart with concern.

“Danica, are you alright, baby; are you unwell?” Mishy knelt by her daughter’s bed and placed a hand on her back, then gently rubbed the tension from her shuddering shoulders.

Danica’s sobs subsided momentarily, listening to her mother’s soothing voice and enjoying her gentle and loving touch. But she was troubled and didn’t know how to communicate the perplexing quandary disturbing her heart without adding to her parents’ already burgeoning load. “I love you and Dad so much, Mum,” a watery voice quietly confessed.

Mishy smiled in the darkness at her firstborn daughter’s declaration, stroking her soft hair but aware Danica was struggling with something that wasn’t going to go away. “Dad and I love you too, more than you realise. Can you tell me about it, sweetheart, woman to woman?” Mishy settled cross-legged on the floor beside Danica’s bed, coaxing Danica to unburden.

By the time Mishy made her way back to her own bed, it was close to three in the morning and she was stiff from sitting so long in one position listening to her daughter’s heart. Danica had dropped off to sleep after explaining the dilemma, but leaving Mishy with an ache and an impasse she wasn’t sure how to overcome. With this new dilemma and a homicidal maniac stalking the area, Butch and the family finances were stretched to breaking point. But their children were suffering in silence and only now did Mishy understand how much. She would have to pick the time to broach it with Butch and see whether he could figure out a solution.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 14

 

Pressing her finger to the back of a tiny earphone, Angelina listened intently to the device left by her purported husband, trying to work out what game her abductors were playing. She turned the device over in her hand, studying its neat case and looking for any clue, but still the silent electronic machine remained defiantly dumb. Raising her tired body with a groan from the plush mattress, she glanced around the well appointed room and then began to explore her surrounds. With the silent earphone remaining firmly pressed to her ear, she expected at any moment to hear some form of instruction or explanation for her incarceration. She stole around a small division in the wall only to be confronted with a delightful oak door leading into a luxurious well-appointed bathroom, while the total absence of a guard anywhere in her captivity confused the situation even further.

Angelina’s thoughts began to tumble over each other. Was she a hostage or wasn’t she? And if she was, why had they picked one of the finest hotels in Geneva to keep her confined? Maybe they were trying to impress her and convey to her that they had class and just maybe her ‘husband’ would be worth meeting after all. Angelina laughed at her own absurdity and continued her search.

As she concluded the investigation exploring her room, it was apparent she could leave at any time and wasn’t being held by force against her will. Suddenly catching a glimpse of the glass door opening onto the balcony, she wondered whether a minder was stationed on the landing, keeping well out of sight but clearly able to watch her movements without hindrance. She cautiously wandered over to the glass doors leading to the outside and guardedly glanced out, but the only occupants of the second-floor loggia were two steel lacework chairs and a matching table. Pulling the earphones from her ears in frustration, she gave up on the device but left the machine running in her hand. She was too tired to play the captors’ strange game, her attention drawn instead to the impressive view of the Jet d’Eau in the middle of La Rade, one of Lake Geneva’s beautiful harbours.

The 140 metre tall waterspout pumped an impressive half a cubic metre of lake water a second, projecting the spray high above Geneva’s unique skyline. As Angelina cracked open the door to her balcony and cautiously gazed around, a slight breeze carried the spray from the towering fountain across the harbour and gently teased her face with its cooling mist. She glanced down from her view at the neat manicured lawns of the foreshore, the alluring white sand of the Baby Beach and the ordered roadway of the Quai du Mont-Blanc ambling in front of the hotel. People, Angelina assumed were tourists, slowly sauntered along the lazy roadway, snapping pictures of the luxuriant hotel facade and the fairytale-like ambience of the elegant Swiss city.

A sudden unnerving thought flashed across her mind and distracted her attention from the relaxing vista. If her minder wasn’t inside her room or on her balcony, then obviously the thug would be guarding her room from the corridor outside her door. With a new flurry of determination and adrenaline coursing through her tired veins, Angelina strode across the room, throwing the iPod onto the bedspread and ready to give any hood preventing her from going about her rightful business a surprise they wouldn’t forget. Focusing on the untouched pitcher of cold water the maid had just delivered, she quickly dismissed it as being too light in construction and grabbed for an expensive looking vase from an entry table instead. Approaching the room door on tiptoe, Angelina restrained her breathing, hovering close to the access and listened for sounds of movement.

Hearing a slight disturbance outside her room, she grabbed for the handle and reefed open the door, giving a bloodcurdling shriek as she lunged at her jailer. A stunned bellhop, blinking excessively, squinted in disbelief at the attacking crazy woman and fortunately for him, she avoided making contact. Gawking around the terrified man in all directions, Angelina stared at the empty corridor in utter contempt then with a sheepish expression lowered her weapon.

Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît!

Highly embarrassed and as fast as she could, Angelina retreated back into her room and slammed the door shut. This was indeed a weird game she had been forced to play and it was draining the remaining reserves of energy she had left and fast turning frustration and fear into anger. Flopping exhausted to the bed and making the soft and well sprung mattress bounce under her slender weight, she blew out an irritated breath and gazed around the room’s finery, forming an escape plan.

“Well, if I’m not a captive, then there’s nothing stopping me from just walking out of here… is there?!” Angelina’s bold thoughts were quickly assuming the consistency of a war cry, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to step into her path attempting to block this boiling Italian donna.

Just as she was about to enact her plan and simply walk out, a screeching clamour bellowed out from underneath her horizontal frame. With a searching hand, she felt beneath her back and found the rectangular box shape of the iPod and its tentacle-like strings connecting it to the unimpressive earphones. Struggling strenuously with the device trapped below her body and without concern for its well-being, the contraption finally appeared in her grasp, still playing, but this time a familiar screaming sound bellowed out from the iPod’s earpiece laying dishevelled across her lap. Swiping at the annoying box, she found the volume control and decreased the singer’s intensity, wishing she could turn Niccolo down in real life with the same ease. Implanting the earpiece into her ear, she recognised the voice of the lead singer in an instant, but she couldn’t identify the song; and she knew every one of his money-making screeches by heart. Striking at the iPod controls, Angelina searched the memory of the contrivance looking for another clue, but there was only Niccolo’s screech recorded in the middle of the substantial memory card with no other explanation and it wasn’t making sense.

Until…

“That little rat! How dare he cut me out of any deal and record a new song without my permission!” Fire erupted in the Italian woman’s eyes while the boy Niccolo was about to learn how a scorned femmina could seriously affect his fledgling career and damage his puny body.

More determined than ever, Angelina calculated the time as best she could. It’d only been half an hour or so since the maid had delivered her message; that made it around 4:30 pm. Searching the room antagonistically for her cell phone in an attempt to organise a limousine to take her to Montreux in time for the evening’s performance, she abruptly changed her mind in mid wrath and decided to use the hotel courtesy limousine instead. Deliberately adding the cost to her husband’s bill and while she waited for the limousine, she would make use of the invigorating and revitalising hot shower in her plush prison cell to regain her strength before tearing Niccolo to pieces… on stage, if necessary.

A cloudy curtain lifted from Angelina’s mind. Niccolo and her husband were in cohorts in her abduction, trying to keep her off the scene while Niccolo and his friend launched the Sticky Lizards into a successful career, cutting her out of a rightful share in the profits.

That’s why she had never heard this latest song!

Feeling the passion rising in her intense Italian blood, she flounced to the bathroom, intent on adding as much as possible to her husband’s account with the hotel and indulge in the wildly expensive perfumes on offer.

Angelina’s fuming subsided a degree as the soothing hot water knocked the prickly edges off her fractured feelings and numbed the sleepiness haunting her mind. As the enticingly expensive silky soaps and perfumes on tap from the room’s vanity flowed over her body liberally and pleased her lavish tastes, she washed off the spiteful cares with the opulent luxury, making her feel feminine and desirable again.

As she reached for the faucet and reluctantly shut down the luxurious hot water, the room phone jangled insistently, beckoning her from the shower. Reaching for a sumptuous white fluffy shower robe and still dripping from the relaxing treat, Angelina hastily found her way to the phone, forcefully swooped up the incessant receiver and finally silenced its demanding fray.

Bonjour!” After rehearsing Niccolo’s unfortunate demise all throughout her shower, Angelina’s voice was a little icier than she intended.

“Bonjour, Madame. The hotel limousine is waiting to take you to Montreux. Your driver will meet you in the foyer, but I must apologise; the outfits your husband ordered for you from L’Apollinaire in Geneva have only just arrived and if I may be so bold, Madame, your husband has exceptionally good taste in fashion… Madame?”

Arr… um… merci beaucoup, Mademoiselle. You will of course accept a generous tip, compliments of my husband,” Angelina’s eyes sparkled with perplexed treachery, still trying to grasp at reality and make sense of the whole bewildering affair.

“It will be as you say, Madame, but he has already authorised a more than generous tip to accommodate all the staff here at the Hôtel d’Angleterre with the obvious proviso of taking care of your every whim. We are extremely grateful for you and your husband’s generous patronage and we hope you both will stay with us again.”

Angelina placed the phone back onto its receptacle, dumbfounded and somewhat confused by the receptionist’s matter-of-fact reply and her husband’s apparent generosity. The whole debacle was making her head ache and it was as if the staff were pre-warned and waiting for her to make use of the hotel’s facilities and in particular, the limousine.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 15

 

Anxiously pulling the door to her room closed behind her with a gentle plunk, Angelina searched the extensive and luxurious passageway with suspicious eyes. Finding nothing to escalate her scepticism, she took a couple of unsteady steps towards a sign brightly illuminating the word SORTIE and below that, EXIT. The plush green carpet tangled with her tall stilettos, almost tripping her and for a brief moment she contemplated kicking them off and carrying them in her hand. Deciding it was necessary for her escape, she took hold of a highly polished brass handrail and lifted her foot to slip the treacherous fashion statements from her feet, when a maid suddenly appeared from a room, eyeing Angelina with distrust.

Then as if someone had whispered into her ear, the maid’s expression promptly changed and she rushed to Angelina’s side. “May I help you with something, Madame; are you needing assistance?”

Angelina immediately dropped her foot to the carpet, feigning an adjustment to her straps. “Non, Mademoiselle, mais je vous remercie. I was only adjusting my strap. Is this the way to the foyer?” Angelina pointed down the lavish corridor and toward a gently spiralling and highly ornate staircase.

Oui, Madame,” the maid’s expression was concerned and a little puzzled by her question.

Angelina turned cautiously, using the polished handrail to guide her unsteady steps, leaving the maid staring after her. Halfway down the gold and green staircase, Angelina’s heel dug into the fluffy grass, throwing her off balance and causing her to stagger forward; but a furious grab for the shining rail averted a stumbling tumble and possibly injuring her dignity in an unladylike heap at the base of the staircase and in full view of the staff and patrons of the expensive hotel.

As she finally stepped onto the foyer’s solid level ground, an immaculately dressed blue-suited mountain met Angelina with a courteous smile and gently offered her his arm. In the other hand, he carried a small rack of plastic covered fashion clothes with the exclusive insignia of L’Apollinaire unashamedly blazoned across the plastic wrap. Angelina’s puzzled gaze did nothing to perturb the handsome muscled man, reaching out his arm to her as if he’d done this many times before and her confused gaze was a normal part of his everyday routine. Reluctantly, but thankful for the support, she reached for the suited arm offered and enfolded her hand around the strong muscled limb. For a moment, Angelina suspected the gentle giant to be her elusive and benevolent husband, but as the hotel staff gathered excitedly and admiringly around her, a “petite” member of the staff handed the mountain a piece of paper.

“Your receipt for Madame’s stay, Clayton.”

Merci,” the rich baritone voice replied, taking the paper from the woman’s hand.

“We hope you have had a pleasant—if only brief—stay with us, Madame,” the woman turned her attention and directed a well rehearsed plum speech towards a deeply confused Angelina.

The soothing effects of the hot shower had worn off and so had the intense desire to commit a felony on the writhing Niccolo’s skinny frame, but with this new skit playing out, she was beginning to feel the profound biliousness of a lurking migraine stalking the sleep-deprived hallways of her spinning mind.

“Please offer our sincere gratitude to your husband for the gifts to our staff and we hope you get well soon.”

Sensing Angelina was about to faint, Clayton protectively brushed aside the adoring onlookers and led the waning celebrity to a waiting black Rolls-Royce Phantom and gently placed his charge in the back seat and then closed the door. Finding the driver’s seat, Clayton’s immense frame easily slipped behind the white leather and polished mahogany’s interior controls, before hanging Madame’s fashion accessories onto a cabin hook. Commanding the aggressive but well behaved power module into life with a fingerprint to a touch screen and gazing back at the struggling woman via the rear vision mirror, Clayton adjusted the air conditioning stream to whisper gently into Angelina’s face with the touch of a sensor. The opulent vehicle obeyed the driver’s command with precise accuracy and brought immediate euphoric relief to Angelina’s bewildered and aching mind.

As if orchestrating a well rehearsed manoeuvre, Clayton manipulated the cabin accessories again and a darkened screen closed, separating the driver compartment from Angelina’s space, filtering the light entering the back seat while another exacting control adjustment extended the comfortable soft leather seat she was sitting on into a semi-reclining position, gently stretching her aching body into a restful sleeping pose. Then as if the vehicle had a mind to obey the driver’s thoughts, the window curtains surrounding the back seat automatically closed; the cabin lights dimmed to a dull murmur and gentle, soothing piped music lulled Angelina’s heavy eyes to close. With the opulent smell of expensive leather exuding from the vehicle’s polished interior and caressing her struggling mind, she heard a deep, gentle muffled voice enter her thoughts just before she fell off the cliff of consciousness. “Sleep well, Madame.”

Clayton engaged the velvety transmission without the slightest hint of disturbance to the vehicle’s interior and soon the black Rolls-Royce Phantom, prowling with prowess, glided into the Quai Wilson from the Quai du Mont-Blanc, leaving the pleasantries of the Hôtel d’Angleterre on the shores of Lac Léman slipping silently behind them. Following closely to the shoreline of the picturesque lake, Clayton effortlessly navigated the Avenue de France before turning right into Rue de Lausanne and swiftly accelerated up to speed along the A1 en route to Montreux, their final destination, leaving Geneva as a fading memory in the clear haze of the luxurious vehicle’s exhaust.

After thirty minutes and a lane swap at the Lausanne interchange connecting the A1 and the A9, the distant imposing barrier of the Alps rose up majestically above the autoroute, signalling the stunning beauty of Montreux would soon be in reach. Taking a glimpse into the darkened passenger cabin from the rear vision mirror, Clayton smiled at the hazy outline of an exhausted figure fast asleep in the protected sanctuary of the Phantom. Then with a quick glance at an expensive Rolex and a brisk survey of the traffic intensity, Clayton calculated they would arrive in Montreux exactly as planned.

 

~

 

The sleek and stately black Rolls-Royce Phantom stealthily entered the Grand’ Rue and turned its shimmering majestic lines along the lakeside boulevard until it came to a smooth hovering halt directly opposite the lavish foyer doors of the Hôtel Fairmont Le Montreux Palace. Clayton glanced into the rear view mirror and checked his charge. She was still fast asleep. The corners of his mouth turned up in a half smile while the concierge met him at his window, obviously expecting the party’s arrival. As Clayton opened his door and forced the concierge back from the vehicle, the brightly attired doorman began to babble.

“The suite is ready and waiting, Clayton. Can I assist you to move Madame?”

Clayton shook his head vigourously. Madame was his concern and no one would handle her excepting his tender care.

Just then a strikingly attractive, intensely piercing blue-eyed young woman burst from the hotel foyer and with a worried flurry, ordered Clayton to immediately convey Madame to the waiting presidential suite. “Quickly, you big oaf, take Madame into her room and away from all these prying eyes!”

Chantal had a way with people and always managed to upset Clayton, but he knew Madame would be in good care with her fastidious personal handmaid. Clayton opened the passenger door, but before he could reach in to convey Madame to her room, Chantal squeezed in around him and gently fussed over the sleeping form, very careful not to wake her. Grabbing Chantal by her designer belt encircling her stylish uniform, Clayton lifted her effortlessly from his path, kicking and hissing, threatening the big man with all sorts of trauma if he didn’t immediately put her down. Ignoring her threats, Clayton gently reached in and slid his powerful arms under Angelina’s peacefully sleeping form and tenderly drew her from the back seat. He paused as Angelina groaned, but when she settled again he continued the precise extraction and with one arm under her knees and the other supporting her back, her head rolled slowly against his large arm while Chantal lightly placed a silk coverlet over Madame’s legs, keeping her modesty safely intact.

Swiftly, Clayton entered the foyer with his precious cargo while a receptionist pointed the convoy down a passage and into the presidential suite, all the while Chantal hissing orders from behind like an overemphatic Chihuahua. As he approached the door to the suite, Chantal raced in front and threw the expensive barrier open just in time for Clayton to enter the large hotel apartment carrying Madame. Angelina’s blue-suited minder turned sideways to allow her feet and head to enter unhindered, avoiding the substantial door and its frame without disturbing Madame’s sleep, while Chantal sizzled, whispering aggressively, “CAREFUL!”

Once inside, Chantal pointed him to a lavish bedroom and then with utmost care, Clayton lowered the sleeping form to the soft, springy mattress. Angelina groaned again and then rolled over, allowing Clayton to remove his arms from under the sleeping figure without disturbing her, but as soon as he had removed his arms from under her body, the chastising Chantal ordered him out of the room.

“You may go, Clayton! I… will take care of Madame from here!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

Chantal ambled around the ostentatious presidential suite, hovering by the main bedroom door from time to time and sipping from a steaming hot cup of coffee, watching the drawing breaths of the exhausted woman deeply asleep in the semi-dark room. Distracted by a muffled metronomic timbre, she turned her attention to a tall grandfather clock standing proudly by the opposite wall, watching the pendulum through an ornate glass door swinging from side to side. Occasionally, a stifled baritone dong bellowed out from its highly polished carved oak cabinet signifying the top of another slowly passing hour. It had been a challenge getting Madame into bed without waking her, but as usual, Chantal prevailed and her task succeeded without losing focus or waking her esteemed protégé. After all, she was a professional and well rewarded for her professional abilities.

She glanced back into the master bedroom momentarily, then satisfied Madame was in no danger of waking, Chantal dawdled back into the expansive and magnificently appointed entertainment room and settled in a comfortable recliner. Placing her cup down on a glass coffee table, her attention was drawn to the lakeshore and the meandering crowds milling around the jazz festival’s temporary vendor stalls. Surrounded by an artificially lit and manicured Quai de Vernex, the endless crowd slowly moved on from stall to stall, making an unhurried trail for the entrance to the Auditorium Stravinski and the first night of the celebrated Montreux Jazz Festival.

Breathing out heavily in an attempt to relax, the unusually warm summer day had taxed Chantal’s high octane energy levels. Drained and feeling the desire for some fresh and cool lakeside night air, she wriggled from her chair and pushed open a sliding glass door onto the first floor balcony, but was immediately hit with a solid wall of noise emanating from the Auditorium Stravinski just a few hundred metres away. Fearing the sudden onslaught would wake Madame, she quickly slammed the door shut again, locking the passionate screaming and high intensity rock music outside. Tiptoeing towards Madame’s open bedroom door, she glanced in just in time to see her roll over and moan slightly, before settling back into a rhythmic deep sleep. Chantal held her breath momentarily and then sighed with relief as Madame’s breathing deepened further, but waited just in case, making sure the attractive woman hadn’t been disturbed.

Convinced Madame hadn’t been troubled, she returned to the recliner where a hotel magazine laying across the glass coffee table and directly in her line of view caught her eye. Reaching for the glossy pages, she had only just managed to grasp its cover when a metallic beep signalled an incoming text message. Because of her high profile job, Chantal had few friends, but those she did have knew not to contact her when she was working. Monsieur was a kind and generous employer, although he would never permit anyone to distract an employee, especially when he was paying such a large salary and with such an important lady in her care.

Meaning to switch off the device, she accidentally glanced at the sender’s name instead, immediately raising her antagonised hackles. “What does he want?!” she hissed vehemently, then deciding it may be significant, she opened the message and read.

peace offering. la rouvenaz pizza + wine. share with u. let me in at door now.

Chantal’s stomach growled with hunger. She could easily reach for the hotel phone and order something from room service on Monsieur’s account, but a hot La Rouvenaz pizza enticed her eager taste buds and her resolve faltered, before collapsing altogether. The source of company, however, didn’t meet her stringent convention and she hoped she wouldn’t be caught dining with someone of such despicable character. A new text chimed its way into her decision making process and the single word… please…! sealed her decision. She loved it when she had control, and lower class people were forced to beg from her hand.

Chantal tiptoed past Madame’s room and unlocked the substantially secured presidential suite door, fully aware hotel security cameras were watching the hallway outside the room. Then quietly, she pulled the rich wooden barrier open to expose the blue-suited giant holding the offering he had enticed her with.

“Took your time, didn’t you?!” Clayton chafed.

“Sssh! If you wake Madame, I swear I’ll…!”

“Yeah, yeah, heard it all before,” Clayton pushed past Chantal but stopped, mesmerised outside Madame’s bedroom door, staring in at the woman with an obsessive glower. Feeling an animated shove from the little Chihuahua and a hand waving him past the bedroom door, he followed Chantal into the entertainment room and settled his peace offering onto the coffee table.

Hungrily biting into her first piece, Chantal mumbled through a mouthful of pizza, but the confused expression from her dubious dinner partner only confirmed he couldn’t understand her pizza speech. Swallowing down the sumptuous bite, she once again attempted to chastise the annoying brute. “I said… I wouldn’t let Monsieur catch you gawking at Madame that way!”

As if Clayton had been caught doing something wrong, he abruptly averted his eyes from Chantal’s and changed the subject. “Niccolo’s performing his new song at the auditorium right now and if you open the door, you’ll be able to hear it.”

“Is that Niccolo performing?” Chantal suddenly realised she had been baited and changed her tone. “Yes, I already have opened the door and almost woke Madame in the process. Does it sound good? The new song, I mean,” she reached for another piece of pizza, but her eyes never left Clayton’s.

Clayton shrugged. “If you like that kinda thing; doesn’t do anything for me though, but the crowd seemed to be enjoying it.”

“I’m sure Monsieur would be pleased,” Chantal offered.

Clayton’s eyes met hers and an uneasy expression passed between the duelling rivals.

 

~

 

Chantal’s eyes blinked open in shock and squinted in the bright sunshine reflecting in through the suite’s expansive windows facing the hotel’s manicured grounds and the sultry aqua blue water of Lac Léman. She quickly extricated her stiff body from the recliner, staring around the scene and figuring she had fallen asleep while sharing a glass of vino with Clayton; but thankfully, after she’d dozed off he’d had the insight to clean up after their unscheduled supper. Swiftly, she strode towards the main bedroom fearing Madame was already awake, but relief overtook her when she checked in to find Madame still asleep with some of her jet black locks restlessly tangled around the peaceful lines of her attractive face.

Then from out of nowhere, an incessant pounding echoed into the presidential suite and drew Chantal’s flustered attention. The loud knock would almost certainly wake Madame. Chantal’s ire had risen above boiling, ready to give the guilty party a well sharpened piece of her mind; and if this was Clayton’s idea of a payback, then he would not only face her ire, but Monsieur’s as well. Unlocking the heavy sentinel, Chantal threw open the door only to be greeted by a group of frenetic young men.

“Sssh! What is the meaning of this outrage?!” Chantal demanded, letting her hair down and bellowing at the astounded party, assured Madame would most likely be awake now.

The stunned faces collapsed into silence at the enraged attack from the small pretty woman. “Mi scuso, signora! We did not mean to offend, but we know Madame Trudeau is here and we are eager to see her,” the spokesman for the group, a curly, black-haired heart throb seemed to be familiar, but Chantal didn’t care.

“Madame Trudeau is not well and if your brutish greeting has woken her, you will be in deep trouble!”

From somewhere behind the snapping guard dog, a forlorn and shattered voice drifted out into the passageway. “Niccolo… is that you?”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

Philippe stood nervously before the banquet hall door and with an uncertain hand, patted down the fraying cloth of his meagre attire, convened to an audience with his father. Henri Rousseau, a ruthless self-made mogul and an extravagantly wealthy man, had it in his mind to break his wayward son’s devotion to the poor, and the God who had captured his heart and mind, bringing unending embarrassment and displeasure to the wealthy tycoon. This would be another extreme battle of wills and Philippe silently prayed for strength and wisdom before the game began. Taking a deep breath, Philippe held it for a few seconds and then exhaled, gaining strength to knock and announce the beginning of another round of sharp reproof.

“Come in, Philippe, and join me in a hearty wealthy man’s breakfast.”

The first cheap shot had already been fired even before Philippe entered the arena. The doors to the banquet hall slowly crept open before the gaping hobo, held ajar by two stunningly attractive young women, shapely and scantily dressed, making Philippe feel dirty and trying to avert his eyes. The game had indeed begun and his foe was using tactics unbefitting a gentleman, but at this point Philippe felt powerless and unable to defend his position.

“Ah! You find my two… hostesses alluring. These are some of the trappings of a wealthy man, Philippe,” Henri waved an annoyed hand at the two women, ordering them to leave the older man alone with his ragtag guest.

Not trusting his eyes, Philippe stared at a vast white tablecloth covering a huge table and spread with every type of extravagant food conceivable until he heard the door at the other end of the hall close and the two ladies of the night had left the room.

“Sit down, Philippe, and join me.”

“I will sit with you, Father, but I will not indulge in your table until I can pay my way.”

Henri Rousseau stared at his son from across the table. The man could be as stubborn as his parent when he dug his heels in. “How do you intend to pay me for my food, Philippe? You are poor and homeless. The head of the cleaning staff told me the spacious apartment I set aside for you has not been lived in, and a stranger has been found sleeping on the bare concrete floor of the servants’ quarters and begging food from their table. Is this any way to treat a man of my stature’s generosity? My own flesh and blood reduced to such behaviour! It’s a good thing no one knows who you are.”

“I am well versed with poverty, Father, and I have no fear of homelessness. The people I live among…”

The people you live among, Philippe! When will you realise that all your efforts to comfort the poor are nothing and they are—and always will be-–poor! There is no reason to join them in their squalor when you have all this at your fingertips!” Philippe’s father’s red face indicated the depth of antagonism toward the prodigal standing before him.

Philippe’s head slumped forward. It was as if his father had read his mind and the beleaguering thoughts that had plagued his conscience so many times when he lost hope out on the mission field, usually after someone close to the missionary had died, succumbing to the dreadful attacks of poverty.

Observing his argument had touched a nerve, Henri Rousseau drove his point home with an animated whisper, “There is no God but wealth, Philippe. A rich man can manipulate people and make them believe whatever he chooses. Every man has a price. And every man can be deceived to play along as a rich man’s pawn. Even the highest human moral guardians of faith who are capable of the greatest good, are also capable of the wickedest evil. I have that power at my disposal to control my circumstances and the circumstances of whomever I want.”

Philippe lifted his head to face the new tactic of his father. “I know it to be different to what you say, Father. There is a God, and I know Him. But I will not indulge myself on something I have not earned, even if it is from my own flesh and blood. Anton has generously offered me a position with your gardening team, and as I have committed to stay with you for the six months you desire, I will not indulge in your path that leads a man to the very doors of hell itself.”

Henri Rousseau’s blood was boiling and his face turned crimson, trying to hold down the volcano rumbling out of control in his belly. “GET OUT AND GO BACK TO THE PIGS! HOW DARE YOU CRITICISE ME AND PREACH HELL TO A MAN WHO IS FAR MORE RIGHTEOUS AND GODLY THAN YOU WILL EVER BE!”

Staggering under the verbal assault, Philippe stood abruptly and turned, opening the banquet hall doors and once outside the vast room and protected by the closed barriers, he stood, shaking violently. Maybe his father was right and maybe he was more righteous and Godly than Philippe. Glancing down over the affluent staircase and to the sterile wealth garlanded all around, Philippe pondered his life, desperately trying to weed out the seeds of despair his father had so eloquently sown and then whispered brokenheartedly, “Who are you, Philippe de la Calle?”

 

~

 

Anton Geber kicked off his dusty work shoes before entering the main house, careful not to leave boot prints in any part of the lavish white and gold landscape, while precariously avoiding a severe scalding from the meticulous head of cleaning staff. Standing in the massive foyer and staring through magnificent two storey panes of bulletproof glass down onto the millionaires’ harbour far below the sprawling house, he felt overawed and out of his comfort zone, almost afraid to breathe. The sterile opulence and gold plated waste didn’t sit well with the head groundsman, knowing the staircases alone cost more money than he had earned throughout his long, difficult working life. A sickening feeling rose in his stomach, anxious to leave the hostile unfamiliar opulence and the sterile surrounds, eager for the dusty comfortable environment where he belonged.

Pulling in a deep breath, Anton steeled himself to answer the summons from Monsieur Rousseau, his billionaire boss, wondering why the eccentric image of affluence required a personal audience with his lowly staff member. Fearing he had done something to upset the wealthy man and that his job hung perilously in the balance, he nervously chose one of two identical gold plated staircases and began to climb the marble steps, clinging awkwardly to the shining banister rail as it spiralled him in a semi-corkscrew before depositing him on a lavish landing, facing the impressive open plan first floor.

It didn’t take long before Isobel—one of Monsieur Rousseau’s many ‘personal assistants’—caught a glimpse of the gardening tradesman and aggressively made a beeline for the lowly worker, intent on scolding him for his presence and swiftly returning him to his correct station… outside.

Interrupting Isobel’s steaming tirade and explaining Monsieur Rousseau had called for him, she flounced off and beckoned threateningly over her shoulder, “Don’t move!”

Finding a place between a nest of gawking young women behind a shining white reception desk, Isobel chatted haughtily to her exquisitely dressed young companions while grabbing for a telephone. Her demeanour abruptly changed once she had confirmed Anton’s story and that Monsieur Rousseau had indeed summoned the gardener. With a smile creaking across richly painted lips and a high-heeled waddle that over pronounced her hourglass figure, Isobel returned to the spot Anton had been ordered to occupy and pointed the shoeless gardener to the expansive second floor and Monsieur Rousseau’s private quarters.

Once again climbing a spiralling staircase, this time to the second floor, Anton nervously stood in front of two enormous carved doors overlaid with ivory and shining to the degree that Anton could see his features reflected faultlessly in its expensive image. A tentative knock drew attention from the other side of a heavy door.

“Yes!”

Anton grasped the gold handle and slowly cracked the overbearing barrier open. Feeling his mouth dry up, he cautiously leaned in and announced, “You wanted to see me, Monsieur?”

“Yes, yes, come in, Anton.”

 

~

 

After a frustrating meeting with Anton and as the door to the opulent office plunked closed under the hand of the head gardener, Monsieur Rousseau resisted the desire to have the cleaning staff meticulously polish away any hint of the tradesman’s presence, thus avoiding catching anything from the poor gardener that may jeopardise his substantial empire. Leaning back in a black leather chair and away from a massive highly polished teak desk, Henri Rousseau contemplated a forming idea. Then as the idea took shape, he reached for the desk phone and when it answered, bellowed into the receiver, “Isobel, get in here now!”

 

~

 

Around the reception desk populated by a handful of desirable young women, Monsieur Rousseau’s brisk bark was easily heard by all his personal assistants. A self-aggrandising chatter erupted among the women. “Looks like Monsieur wants to play, Isobel, and he has singled you out!”

Isobel smiled, checked her face in a hand mirror and then patted down her revealing attire. “Anything out of place, girls?”

A babble broke out as the chattering sirens examined their offering, and satisfied Isobel’s appearance could kill, they gave her the thumbs up.

A seductive knock alerted the old man to the arrival of his request. “Come in, Isobel!”

The door closed quickly while Isobel attempted to ply her trade, but the old man was in no mood for games and barked a rapid fire of orders at the substantially younger woman. “I want you to find Mademoiselle Baudin and then locate my son, Robert for me. I have a task for them!”

Isobel stiffened at the mention of Janelle Baudin’s name. Her eyes thinned in jealousy and a scathing expression erupted across her features, cracking the acres of makeup plastered over the young woman’s face and a deliberate voice erupted from her lips. “Are your love cats not enough of a siren for you, Daddy? Do you have to employ such a tramp as Janelle Baudin?!”

Henri Rousseau’s eyes flicked up to meet Isobel’s, realising how much of a threat Mademoiselle Baudin was to his entertainment staff and only confirmed his choice for the task ahead. He was about to indulge in Isobel’s sordid game but lost interest and became angry. “Get out and do what I told you to!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 18

 

Philippe dug his robust weeding hoe deep into the hard soil of a long bed of vibrant happy faced roses, but the fine edge of the sturdy hoe struck something hard, arresting the metal blade solidly. The handle couldn’t withstand the gardener’s strong action and with a cracking cry, severed its long grasp into two jagged pieces. Anton heard the destruction from another part of the garden and with an anxious glance up to the main house windows, made a disturbed gait over to a stunned Philippe. Arriving at the scene of the crime, Anton sighed deliberately, annoyed at the broken tool but trying hard not to attribute the blame directly to his new starter.

“Monsieur Rousseau makes us pay for any broken tools, Philippe, taking a far greater slice from our meagre salary than the tool is actually worth.”

“What?! But that is treachery!” Philippe complained.

“It may be so, Philippe, but who is going to challenge the wealthy man? Even the police won’t stand up to his strong-arm tactics and if they do, he has people in high places benefiting from his wealth who act when he pulls the strings, making the troublesome law enforcer and his complaint simply vanish.”

Philippe sighed loudly and glanced up at the tenacious house, but as he did, an obvious shadow crossed a window on the second floor in an attempt not to be seen. “Is there a maintenance shed, Anton, where I can repair my heavy handedness?”

“Yes, but you will have to fix it in your own time. We are constantly being monitored and if we are considered to have had too much of an easy day, that too is deducted from our salary.”

Philippe gawked at the old man incredulously while a storm of pent-up fury bubbled under his skin.

“You will have to pull the weeds by hand until the hoe can be fixed.”

Philippe nodded and lowered himself to his knees and began to crawl among the sharp stems of the healthy roses, pulling clumps of determined weeds from the ground by the handful and making sure the roots came up with them. By the time the day had finally come to an end and Anton had dismissed his staff, Philippe’s hands were raw and bleeding, his only clothes were ripped from the sharp thorns, and blood stained his arms from deep scratches.

“Philippe!” Anton called after his new employee.

Turning to face the older man and with the broken hoe in his hands, he tiredly replied, “Yes, Anton?”

“I believe you are sleeping on the floor of the servants’ quarters and you eat what is left over from their table?”

Philippe’s eyes were full of questions while a guarded expression demanded, ’How did you know?’

Anton read the inquisition in Philippe’s eyes before reassuring the suspicious man. “The head of housekeeping is a very good friend of mine and not much happens in Monsieur Rousseau’s sprawling estate that she doesn’t know about.”

Philippe’s suspicion evaporated and he laughed. “Yes, what you have been told is true, but I am not ill at ease with the situation and in fact, prefer it this way.”

With a compassionate glimmer Philippe had grown to recognise in the eyes of poor people, Anton placed his arm over the younger man and squeezed his shoulders. “You will come and live with us and share at my table, Philippe. My daughter has been talking about moving into the larger attic space for a while, and will be more than happy to give you her small room. I have another older set of clothes that will fit, too; but I couldn’t sleep at night knowing you live in such menial conditions while we live well… so it’s all organised!” Anton smiled, shaking Philippe affectionately with the wiry arm draped around his shoulders.

Philippe was about to argue until Anton straightened and insisted, “That’s an order, Philippe.”

The time-recognised camaraderie among the poor was at work in Anton’s generous heart and although Philippe felt accepted among the poor people he called his own, he carried a dreadful secret that ate at his gut and separated him from the gentle folk he loved.

 

~

 

Repairing the disabled hoe the best he could, Philippe closed the door to the maintenance room and carried his renovated prize to show Anton. Using the directions Anton had given and approaching the door to a small apartment attached to the Rousseau estate, Philippe knocked loudly, expecting Anton to answer; but instead, a stunningly beautiful young woman in simple dress answered the door and shocked Philippe silent.

“You must be Philippe de la Calle,” she smiled, lighting up her striking features in a warm glow. “Father! Monsieur de la Calle is here!” she called back behind her.

Soon Anton appeared at the door with a hand resting affectionately on the young woman’s shoulder. “This is Petrisce, Philippe, my only daughter and my last living relative. Isn’t she delightful?”

“Father, stop, you’re embarrassing me! Take no heed of him, Monsieur de la Calle, and please come in.”

Philippe stood the hoe against the outside wall, abruptly forgetting about the repaired implement but instead, mesmerised by Petrisce’s elegant walk and following Anton’s beautiful daughter into their humble home.

Petrisce paused outside a doorway and pointed into a small room. “It’s not very big, Monsieur, although I think after time you will come to appreciate its cosy feel. It has served me well most of my life, but now I have the grand loft to explore and call my home.”

“Thank you for your kindness, Mademoiselle, and I hope I won’t be a nuisance to you or your father.”

A cheeky grin erupted over Petrisce’s lips. “If you are, Monsieur, and the door is locked when you come home, then you will be aware of your folly,” Petrisce excused herself, still smiling impishly and squeezed past Philippe in the small passageway as Anton arrived holding a set of clean clothes.

“The shower is a communal one I’m afraid, Philippe. We share with the other gardening staff, but because I am boss, we get first preference. Take a shower and freshen up and by then Petrisce will have some dinner ready for us.”

Anton’s face unexpectedly fell, leaving Philippe wondering if he was suddenly ill.

“Oh! By the way, Monsieur Rousseau has one of his charity cruises organised for tomorrow and all staff are expected to attend. I think this is his way to salve his conscience for the dreadful treatment his staff are subjected to, but I hate the facade and his pretentious yacht, especially when our families are excluded and we are expected to rub shoulders with his snobbish personal assistants and executive staff.”

Holding the fresh clothes, Philippe stood gazing past Anton for a moment, wondering what new tactic his overbearing father had planned.

“Are you alright, Philippe?” Anton quizzed.

“Ah, yep, Anton. Not much of a sailor, I’m afraid.”

 

~

 

“Did Isobel resign?!” a whispered hiss rippled around the group of Monsieur Rousseau’s personal assistants gossiping around the first-floor reception desk.

“No, she’s paid too much for that and has too many perks to leave Monsieur. I think she’s taken leave until this whole Janelle Baudin thing is over.”

“Who’s Janelle Baudin?!”

“Are you simple?! She’s only one of the biggest tramps to hit the rolling hills of this wealthy city!”

The group of testy women fell into deep, reverent silence while each woman contemplated the question perplexing their inquisitive minds, but not foolish enough to be the first to open their mouths and display their total ignorance. Then a brave contender, bursting with curiosity, threw the verbal missile into the group and cringed, waiting for the insulting backlash.

“Has anyone ever seen Janelle Baudin?”

A tumult of disbelief ricocheted around the group and each woman acted as if the enquirer was stupid, until each one was singled out in turn and made to confess the truth.

“Just as I thought. None of you has seen her either. Isobel was the only one who knew her by sight and if this Baudin tramp can reduce our strong Isobel to tears and make her take leave just to avoid being around her, then we had better watch our backs! This gal is obviously a stunner and a real pro, yet from what I can gather from Isobel before she left, she’ll walk over anyone and do anything to achieve whatever she has in her mind to do.”

The entertainment staff stumbled into fearful silence, each personal assistant glancing to her neighbour, hoping for strength to conquer the dilemma but the forlorn and nervous expressions straining back only drew deeper fear.

Then one of the group remembered hearing a delightful snippet of gossip when she was visiting Monsieur Rousseau while he was talking on the phone. “Hey, there is some good news though, girls.”

“What’s that?!” the voices joined together in a fervour of clucking camaraderie, hoping for a lift.

“I hear Monsieur Rousseau’s son will be aboard the yacht tomorrow. Robert will liven things up, instead of all these poor bumpkins wandering all over the boat and drooling over things they can never afford.”

A pleased squeal reverberated around the entertainers, jumping up and down on the spot and clapping their hands together with relieved and over emphasised delight.

 

~

 

Henri Rousseau’s motorised palace pushed headlong into the Mediterranean’s heaving blue water swell, slicing through the turbulent surface with hardly a movement to affect the comfort of all those onboard. Most of the executive staff congregated around the sparkling pool at the rear of the vessel, champagne in hand, but the blue collar staff were confined by choice to the safety of the vast open decks at the front. Monsieur Rousseau’s personal assistants were confused by the absence of the billionaire tycoon and had been watching for him, secretly whispering to executive staff in a bid to understand his truancy. It soon became evident the old man had engaged in private business, excluding all but those who needed to know, in the privacy of his extensive and ostentatious cabin.

After a few impatient hours, a stunning slender woman wiggled up the stairs to the pool deck, closely followed by the eccentric billionaire, finally making their way into the executive crowd from the deck below. Incredulous, haughty and jealous eyes followed the siren off the stairs and into the pool area, examining every curve and bulge in a contemptuous attempt to find fault in her near perfect features; but Monsieur Rousseau soon settled the fervour with a castigating introduction.

“Ladies, this is Gigi Baudin and she is a friend of Monsieur Robert. She will step in for Isobel until she has returned from leave. Make her welcome!”

A disgruntled shimmer rippled through the staring huddle of disapproving women, confused at an apparent conflict and whispering maliciously. Is this the tramp Baudin or is this someone else? Maybe Isobel had been mistaken and taken leave for no reason? Apart from her killer looks, she appeared harmless enough. The bewilderment only increased as the siren elegantly ambled past the gaping executive staff congregated at the rear of the vessel and disappeared from view, but apparently making a beeline for the blue collar workers gathered at the front of the vessel.

Determined to keep the charismatic enchantress in view, one of the group slipped away from the executive staff and followed close enough to keep watch and deliver what they saw back to the rest of the personal assistants keeping Monsieur pampered and entertained. It wasn’t long before a group of blue collar workers gathered around the woman, eagerly listening to her sweet words, laughing along with her jest and completely comfortable in her breathtaking presence.

 

~

 

Philippe observed discreetly, hidden by the crowd from a vantage point out of view while the brown flirting eyes scanned his co-workers until her searching gaze settled directly on him. A calculating flutter adorned the sultry eyes and as recognition settled, an exaggerated smile lit the siren’s lips, locking onto the focus of her visit and ambling through the delighted onlookers parting to give the exquisite woman an unhindered path. When she stood only feet from Philippe, she took advantage of a rogue swell that jostled the boat and deliberately fell into Philippe’s arms.

Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur. Please excuse me for my clumsy feet,” came the exhilarating voice, soft and dripping with sweet temptation.

The exquisite brown eyes were only inches from his, stirring something deeply unsettling in the older man and helplessly pulling him into her gaze. Losing himself in a confusion of disturbing overpowering desires and feeling trapped and drawn, Philippe fought with all he had and in a sudden desperate bid for freedom, he broke from the hypnotising stare.

Trembling violently, Philippe excused himself, brushing her aside. Breathing heavily and escaping among a throng of envious onlookers, he eventually secured a lonely spot, finding comfort in anonymity while crashing realisation sharply dawned.

So this is Father’s new game.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 19

 

A passing rainstorm rattled down on the Tauxe family roof, followed by a far off rolling rumble echoing around the semi-darkened chalet’s interior, waking Ryan with a start and instantly refuelling a recent musical memory with its crashing beat. He rolled over, dragging the tangle of blankets and sheets with him and glanced at the bedside clock with bleary eyes. It was just past noon but even after eighteen hours, he still couldn’t get the flamboyant opening number from the Montreux Jazz Festival out of his mind.

The gyrating chords of a spastic highly polished electric guitar swirled around the stage, leading the straining guitarist like a snapping dog on a chaotic lead. Catching the glint from burning coloured spotlights far above their heads, the flashing guitar manipulated the crowd into an uncontrollable frenzy with its energetic electronic warble. As the guitarist attempted to restrain the pouncing dog, holding its collar high above the crowd, the chords wobbled and faltered on a note seemingly too high for the guitar to achieve.

Sticks flashing and staring down the guitar’s ferocious snarling chords with an eruption of bass, the drummer crashed the scene, stealing the guitarist’s thunder and replacing it with a thunder of his own. The drummer and guitarist flew into a manic rage of fingers and sticks, challenging the atmosphere to hold their vibrating warfare while the crowd, overpowered by the crashing melodic concussion, screamed and chanted for more, copying the duo’s movements precisely in a mimed frantic battle using imaginary instruments of their own.

Just when it seemed the hysteria couldn’t build any higher, a barrage of percussion and electric guitars joined the fray, whipping the sea spray of frenzied teenage adoration into a dark explosive storm. Moments later, the electric atmosphere tingled with high voltage static while the shrieking charismatic voice emerged into the gloom and screeched high above the frenetic melee. Instantly, a searching spotlight erupted with a blinding flash and powered down onto the glittering culprit, following his handsome dark features as he pranced across the stage, drawing a chorus of rippling hysterical screams from infatuated female voices. Over and over, the single phrase song spewed out across the worshipping teenagers in a violently choreographed spasm orchestrated by the enigmatic ear-piercing figure and backed by the wildly pounding beat.

Soon, the repeated words caught alight, burning from teen to teen and echoing around the vast auditorium, unravelling desperate teenage emotions, coaxing and manipulating young minds with a solid wall of meaningless nothing. Once the music stopped and the delirious hormonal high fractured, it left punctured emotions raging at the idol’s feet and begging the charismatic performer for more, willing to offer anything to regain the feverish lusting torrent and to feel the hypnotic musical drug coursing through hyperactive teenage desires.

“Ryan, get down off your bed! Standing on your mattress like that will only break the slats supporting it. What’s gotten into you and what are those words you keep repeating?!”

Strangely, Ryan wasn’t perturbed by his mother’s castigation and lowered his imaginary guitar silently to the quilt and climbed down off his divan. Still hearing the gasping hysteria wildly playing in his head, Ryan resented the intrusion from a voice dragging him back to the brink of reality and sighed contemptuously. “The Sticky Lizards’ new song, Mum, and it’s called Sfidare il Male. Way… way… cool!”

“What does it mean, Ryan?” the matriarch was becoming disturbed at her son’s unusual passion for something she didn’t understand.

Ryan shrugged defiantly. “I dunno! They’re an Italian group. I guess it’s something in Italian!”

“It means, challenge evil!” the disgruntled voice of Ryan’s father appearing at the bedroom door brought the teenager back to earth with a thud. “And don’t you ever talk to your mother like that again, boy, or you and me will have more to sing about than Sfidare il Male.”

Ryan’s chin dropped to his chest in embarrassment. He hadn’t intended to be so rude to his mother, but a stern word from his respected father soon brought the whole situation back into context.

After Ryan’s father had left the scene, his mother embraced her progeny and whispered, “It’s time for dinner, son. What time did you get in this morning?”

The realisation that Ryan’s mother knew he hadn’t arrived home before the small hours of the morning and the suspicion she’d probably been awake all night, prompted a guarded reply. “I stayed until the Rock Cave closed and caught the last pyjama bus at 5 am,” he whispered and then glanced to the door, hoping his father hadn’t heard his reply.

A concerned expression flashed across Ryan’s mother’s face but she held her tongue. Her boy was fast becoming a man, but the time to speak into the boy’s life had come and gone, relying instead on the many years of positive parenting that both she and Ryan’s father had meticulously exhibited and drilled into their children. The lonely test of adulthood was a trying time for both teen and worried parent hoping their progeny would survive, leaping across the troubling gap between the turbulent teens and mature adulthood. The perilous rocks of destruction waited at the chasm’s floor for all those who couldn’t make the leap. To render greater panic, there was always an impenetrable wall of malevolent adults waiting on the other side, ready to trip up the jumping teens and shove them ruthlessly backwards into the chasm, laughing callously as the struggling adolescents self-destructed on the rocks far below.

Ryan ambled through the chalet from his room to the dinner table and yawned, filling his tired lungs with fresh mountain air but eager to repeat the previous night’s experience all over again tonight.

Ryan’s father looked up from the table and smiled at his son, waiting to be joined by the remaining family members for the midday meal. “Tell me about your work at the festival, son,” Ryan’s father quizzed as Ryan pulled out a wooden chair and took his place at the table.

Ryan fidgeted with his dinner utensils for a moment, trying to highlight the acceptable aspects of his first night at the jazz festival while trying to turn down the raging musical torrent still pounding in his head. “I… I work with one of Samuel’s friends cleaning the Rock Cave. His name is Alex but I can’t remember his surname.”

A sudden light of hope shone across his father’s face. “Alex Dupont?!

Ryan thought for a while; the name appeared to be familiar. “I think so. Yes, I’m sure that’s it.”

A gazing unspoken epistle erupted between his parents, answering questions with just a glance but the smile from his mother would’ve given away the obvious delight for Alex’s presence in Ryan’s world, if Ryan had lifted his head to engage her.

The meal time around the Tauxe family table had been unusually quiet and once the remains had been cleared away, Ryan kissed his mother on the cheek and signalled his intention to catch a bus back to the festival before starting work at 5 pm. Ryan’s mother apprehensively watched her son walk away from the front door, feeling a deep sense of growing uneasiness.

She flinched when her husband wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and shocked her out of her thoughts. Leaning back into his embrace and feeling the comfort of his arms, she almost whimpered, “I’ll be so glad when the two weeks of this festival are over.”

Her husband turned her in his embrace to face him. “We can only trust him to our Lord and ask Him to walk with Ryan. Don’t forget, Alex is working with our son and that’s a God thing.”

An insignificant smile tried to light her face, slightly reassured by Alex’s presence, but she knew she wouldn’t sleep tonight until Ryan returned home safe.

 

~

 

Finally the lumbering bus from Chailly to Gambetta arrived in Gambetta and with a hiss the bus door opened, allowing passengers to disembark. Ryan waited for an elderly couple to wearily descend the steps to the pavement first before easily bounding down himself and overtaking the arthritic pair on his way to the festival.

As he strolled mindlessly along the picturesque undulating paths into Montreux, he reached into his shirt pocket for his cell phone. Holding the device in one hand, Ryan nervously searched the address book for a number. Not just any number, but Delphine’s number. He desperately wanted to talk to her and apologise for letting her down the last time they met, trying to explain he just wasn’t sure if she was expecting what he thought she was expecting and if she was, he had blown it and he wanted another chance with her. Ryan’s mind was in a confusing jumble and his jabbering tangled explanation only confused himself more, not knowing if he could string together a sensible account for his misdemeanour convincing enough for the lovely Delphine to accept.

As he walked, a shaking finger hovered anxiously over the call button while a storm of nerves sent pins and needles coursing through his body. In a desperate bid to end the comedy, he tapped at the enter insignia, too late to change his mind now. He apprehensively paused by an ancient wooden shelter and nervously listened to the persistent ring tone. Nearby, a bubbling stream of fresh mountain water splashed from a pipe into an ornamental trough, continually running over and spilling into a purposefully carved drain. A rectangular bed of happy flowers bloomed in appreciation of the spring water and the gardener’s meticulous care. The tone eventually rang out and an annoying voice stated the obvious, ‘The person you are trying to contact is not answering; try again later.

Ryan sighed an exasperated sigh, but feeling a desperate need to make amends and hear her sweet voice, Ryan loaded Delphine’s number again and tapped call, but this time the message was clear.

The person you are trying to reach has their phone switched off.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 20

 

Wandering along the Quai de Vernex’s curving bend from Clarens, Ryan suddenly encountered a stifling wall of frolicking people gathered around the Music in the Park Pavilion and moving in time to the rhythmic seduction of Brazilian salsa. He lingered on the spot and tried to imagine the deserted scene only two days previous, gloating to the impressionable and desirable Delphine about his employment with the Auditorium Stravinski while her disinterested and disappointed expression seemed to seal her latest decision to freeze him out. In his current frame of mind, Brazilian music just didn’t cut it and he needed something more in tune with the morose tone of his hollow feelings and the painful stab of missed opportunity for romance.

A heavy bump from a passing pedestrian and a subdued apology from the culprit brought Ryan back to his senses. Standing stationary, in the direct path of a gawking moving mass hypnotised by the rhythmic music and watching the scene rather than the direction of their walk, probably wasn’t a healthy thing to do. Besides, it appeared he’d have no further prospect today of capturing Delphine’s coveted attention, deliberately suffocating his attempts to contact her by switching off her phone.

Ryan took a few steps in an attempt to converge with the distracted horde, but a momentary glance at the dancing crowd unearthed a sight he wasn’t expecting. The unmistakable figure of Delphine’s exquisite outline some distance away, shuffling to the music, captured Ryan’s stare and left his mouth hanging open in shock. As her gyrating form turned slightly, she locked eyes with the staring Ryan, halting her moves and riveting her to the spot. Deciding to leave no doubt of her dissatisfaction with Ryan’s lack of performance, her head snapped backwards in a disgusted lilt and then turned away, at the same time reaching for the arm of a deeply tanned muscled man, complete with long dreadlocks dangling in an unwashed tangle. Forcefully bumped again from behind, Ryan willed his feet to move and leave the wrenching picture behind. There was now no doubt of Delphine’s intentions and his heart sank into his boots, leaving him wandering aimlessly among the crowded Quai Edouard-Jaccoud and gazing back brokenhearted.

The hot sun suddenly dimmed as a passing cloud waved a fluffy hand over the burning sentinel, causing Ryan to glance up at the sky instead of the concrete pavement. All around, street performers juggled and squeaked, hoping to gain the attention of passing party people and loosen the grip on their hard earned Swiss francs. A confusion of blaring music erupted from all parts of the lakeside walk and mixed in the unsettled summer atmosphere while enticing food smells wafted from squawking street vendors crying above the din and vying for a cut of the passing hungry public’s attention.

“Hey, Ryan!” a muffled voice called from somewhere close by, forcing the distraught teen to search the faces, identify the owner and affirm the shout was directed at him.

Ryan’s eyes settled on a familiar black bearded face and the image of a man hungrily biting down into a huge jumbo kebab. Alex Dupont beckoned the teen with an animated wave to a vacant seat beside him and just out of reach of the tangled milling crowd. Not feeling much like company, Ryan waved back at the older man and signalled his intention to keep moving, but the black bearded man was insistent and Ryan reluctantly complied.

Alex stole another hungry bite from a bulging kebab before Ryan ambled over and took a seat beside the ballooned-cheeked masticating man. It took a few seconds for the tasty brew to satisfy busy taste buds, and then being sufficiently lubricated to slip down the gaping trapdoor and toboggan around tight belly-bends before crashing into the previous mouthful.

Alex pointed at another paper bag and offered its contents to Ryan, “These kebabs are so delicious! Go ahead, son, and join me.”

Ryan shyly glanced at the enticing bag, his mouth watering from the aroma but courtesy forced him to deny his stomach the tantalising treat. “I’ve not long ago eaten, Alex. Besides, I don’t want to deny you of your lunch.”

Alex picked up the bag and placed it in Ryan’s hands. “You’ll offend me if you turn it down. Anyway, your face needs something better to do other than dragging along the pavement. We’ve got plenty of time before we start work and I’m the best listener.”

Ryan sighed loudly and stared at the paper bag. “Is it that obvious?” the dejected voice whispered.

“No, not if you’re a blind man,” Alex wiped his sprawling black-face-carpet with his hand and beamed while a cheeky glint made Ryan lighten slightly, disarming the reluctance to talk.

The salivating teen studied the massive bun occupying both of his hands and tried to work out an appropriate way to attack the mammoth feast. Throwing caution to the wind, Ryan opened his jaws as wide as they could possibly go and gnawed an impressive hole in the side of the roll and chewed the tasty mouthful, enjoying the rich flavours and thoroughly engaging narcissistic taste buds. Alex cracked the plastic top off a 500 ml Ovo Drink Choco and drained the flavoured milk in one thirsty swig, but at the same time glanced sideways at Ryan, watching the obvious pleasure in demolishing the jumbo kebab and expecting the young man to unburden.

“Mmmlllgrottenumped.”

Alex stared at Ryan, confused and then laughed. “What was that?”

“Sorry,” Ryan finished chewing and then swallowed hard. “I said, I just got dumped!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ryan. That’s a tough pill for any man—or woman, for that matter—to swallow. Did you know her long?”

“Yeah, we met first day of school and I’ve liked her ever since. Just the other day, we walked along the quays together and I thought I could sense her waiting for me to kiss her. I finally worked up the nerve and stepped forward, but then I thought she was objecting to me coming closer so I backed away. And that was it. She won’t speak to me again and has already found a Brazilian muscleman to take my place.”

“What, in just a few days?!” Alex asked incredulously.

Ryan nodded as he bit down into another breathtaking bite.

“Arr, yes, hidden messages and expectations can get us human beings into a lot of trouble!”

Swallowing another bulbous mouthful a little too early, Ryan almost choked trying to speak. ”You’re so lucky you have a career all mapped out, earning your own income and somewhere of your own to live and don’t have parents on your back all the time. Obviously the wife and family issue is settled too, and you can do whatever you want when you want.”

“I wish it was as easy as all that, Ryan,” Alex seemed a little distant and aloof with Ryan’s speech.

“What do you mean, Alex?” Ryan hesitated in mid bite.

“I know all too well the decisions and treachery facing teens making life decisions that affect your future when you’re still not much more than a kid. And more importantly, what happens when you get it wrong. As for caring parents…! Your mum and dad are the best parents I know and if I’d had someone like Marie-Laure and Jonas to guide me, maybe I could have spared myself and the people I loved a whole lot of pain.”

Ryan had completely stopped eating while his concerned and questioning eyes blazed into the older man with great curiosity, but trying not to pry into his private world. Nevertheless, he couldn’t avert his eyes, silently pleading for Alex to explain the path he had been forced to walk and maybe give Ryan a hint of what the mistakes were and how to avoid them altogether. Overwhelmed by curiosity and the need for someone to connect at his level, the words escaped Ryan’s mouth before he could grasp at their collar and restrain their entry into the audible universe.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Ryan’s embarrassment skyrocketed and he babbled, trying to recapture the words.

Alex halted Ryan’s awkwardness with a kindly grin and a reassuring gesture. “Sure, Ryan, I’d be delighted to share my journey with you, but be warned, it isn’t pretty!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 21

 

Looking for something to divert the uneasy silence, Ryan took another healthy bite from the kebab balanced in his hands, momentarily glancing sideways at Alex’s contemplative and empty stare. Alex almost seemed lost in another world, searching the bustling crowd as if he was seeking an unknown apparition or a blurry doorway back in time.

The busy gawking throng, probing the vendors’ stalls and shopping for another trinket or gadget, seemed blissfully unaware of the conversation taking place or Alex’s concerned eyes roaming their hollow expressions. In a captive bid for distraction, the world offered every kind of entertainment and pleasure, averting the need for people en masse to consider an endless eternity while the sands of time marched on relentlessly, drawing them ever closer to the abyss and permanent destruction.

Alex raised his voice above the noise and took Ryan off guard, bringing a startled but temporary halt to Ryan’s chewing and clicking jaws. “People need parental discipline, a sense of purpose and a place to belong, knowing they’re cherished and valued. But if we don’t find it in the secure boundaries of a family and under the guidance of a firm and loving hand, it becomes an endless lifelong obsession searching for a place to belong,” Alex articulated with a sweeping hand across to the milling crowd while Ryan’s eyes followed his gesture.

“Roaming from one relationship to the next, burying yourself in work, or perhaps worshipping an idol or rock star and so on, are all signs of a very basic discontent looking for fulfilment. Most people don’t realise—or care, I might add—that they have a divine destiny and a parent God who loves them above all creation and has a specific purpose—a job, if you like—that only they can do. That void you are sensing in your life, Ryan, is a space that can only be filled by the knowledge and presence of your ultimate parent, Papa God Himself. That’s the way He designed us.”

Ryan suddenly squirmed and a disbelieving expression crossed his face.

Alex saw the sudden shift but continued on regardless, “We spoke of hidden messages and unmet expectations. The reason you aren’t open to hearing of a loving God is because your mind has been taught by hidden subtle messages that God does not exist. Or if He does, He isn’t concerned about you personally and you are just so much evolutionary sludge, worthless and insignificant in billions of years of pain and death. But nothing could be further from the truth. So then, where do these hidden messages come from? The people you surround yourself with; the things you watch on television; the music you listen to; the video games you play; the schools and universities you attend; and the biggest one, the opinions of that respected someone you hold in high regard.”

Ryan stared uncomfortably at the concrete path, oblivious to the background noise and the mass of humanity just metres from where they sat.

“Once you’ve been powerfully indoctrinated into the purposelessness of worldly thought and firmly trapped into this vicious circus, you become like your lady friend.”

Ryan flinched like he’d been stung and searched the older man’s probing eyes, waiting for the revelation.

“Ryan, don’t you see? She’s searching for someone to fill her aching need and she will always be searching, going from this relationship to the next and spiralling further down into debauchery, looking for the experience to fill her emptiness right into her old age. You always would’ve been a stepping stone in that lost little girl’s world, never able to satisfy her; and although it’s impossible to see it now, you’ve been spared a harrowing path. To find the right woman—and to be the right man for her—is to find yourself and God first, before attempting to carry wrong thinking into a marriage and becoming yet another broken statistic. Strong, healthy and lasting relationships are far deeper and so much more complex than the ‘feel goods’ and the disastrous ideals of meaningless casual sex that so many young people are sold today.”

Ryan swallowed hard and almost choked, trying to talk. “How do you know all this, Alex, and how do you know you haven’t been deceived?!”

“Because twenty years ago, Ryan, I sat here where you are, a worthless and desperate individual listening to a Godly man, a gendarme who’d taken me under his tireless care just before he led me to Jesus and then into jail.”

Wide-eyed and trying desperately to digest Alex’s speech, Ryan pulled in a gasping breath as if he’d been punched, and stared at Alex in disbelief.

“Do you still want to hear my story, Ryan?” Alex’s kind gaze focused on the younger man.

Ryan nodded emphatically, balancing the half eaten kebab but too stunned to take another bite.

Alex gathered his thoughts, but this time he knew exactly where to start. “I wasn’t a bad kid, Ryan, just affectionate, undisciplined and searching for love. When that’s denied, a kid will take any form of attention-–good or bad—and that’s usually where things go wrong. Mum and Dad were firmly on that cycle we just talked about and neither wanted to take responsibility for their unwanted experiments… that’s me, of course. After years of being shunted from one relative to another and at the age of fifteen, I hitchhiked across the border to Italy and soon found a common goal among the street rats of Naples. Kids who had no parents, like me, stole to stay alive and fiercely defended each other, making a game of the authorities trying to eradicate us… the problem.

“At the age of seventeen, heavily into drugs and trafficking, I met a wonderful girl. She was like me, a street rat, yet beautiful and deep inside she was solid gold and looked after me like I was someone special. One Friday night, we were doing a mule run for my drug boss in a high powered sports car across the border into Switzerland, but unknown to me or my girlfriend, the Swiss police were waiting for us, acting on a tip-off. With the car loaded and the police in pursuit, I decided to make a run for it and pushed the sports car to the breaking point.”

Alex paused and drew a swift, shuddering breath, recalling memories too painful and sacred just to blurt out into a public arena without due respect. Then after wrestling with the haunting images, he grasped the high powered fast moving threads and tried not to burn his fingers—or enter the intolerable path of if only.

“I approached a sheer mountain bend at nearly 160 kilometres per hour, but the sports car couldn’t make the turn and rolled over and over until it came to a mangled stop halfway down a steep valley. Miraculously, I wasn’t hurt badly, although my girlfriend was and I can still remember her laborious and gurgling breathing. Yet the thing that really broke me just before she died, she managed a smile and then the most profound words I’ve ever heard and they still haunt me to this day. She said that she loved me and she was carrying my baby. When life escaped her beautiful broken body, I cried like I have never cried before, nursing her until the gendarmes pried her body from my embrace and convinced me to let her go.”

Alex hesitated, trying to regain his composure, restraining the strong emotions to a degree until the words escaped around the harrowing memories and allowed him to continue.

“In the weeks after the accident, I became introvert and violent, shaking my fist at the God I didn’t believe in and taking out my pain and frustration on anyone close enough to strike at. While I was in remand and waiting for sentencing, they moved me to isolation where I couldn’t hurt myself or anyone else. That’s when I met Capitaine Bisset, a big gendarme with an even bigger heart for wayward kids. To cut a long story short, Capitaine Bisset stood beside me as I raged at him for representing a cruel, heartless God. He visited me every day in the remand centre and was brutally honest with me about all the mistakes I’d made in adopting the wrong kind of friends. Helping me to see the company I kept led directly to the poor choices and decisions that ended in heartbreaking loss and incarceration.

“Just before I was sentenced, he brought me down here in handcuffs and sat me down where you’re sitting now, explaining the same things we’ve just talked about. The hidden messages. The God-shaped hole in our hearts. And our need to surrender the fight to a God who really does care. While the same but different aimless crowd, like you see here, painted me a harrowing picture of hopelessness and it all became so real to me. I know you can’t see it now, Ryan, but Papa God changed my life; and when I was finally released from prison, I was nearly twenty-five years old and eager to share what God had done for me and to help young people find their meaning in a purposeful life.”

“Wow! What a story! I almost feel shell-shocked,” Ryan bubbled. “So did you ever marry, Alex?”

“No, Ryan. I guess I felt honour bound to my girlfriend and never found anyone who fitted me like she did. But the thing that really tears at me… she died without Jesus.”

Ryan shifted uncomfortably on his seat, balancing the remainder of the cold kebab. “I don’t get it, Alex. What’s the big deal about Jesus, anyway?”

Alex turned to face Ryan and searched for an easy answer to a good question. “That’s the most important question of your life, Ryan. Who you understand Jesus Christ to be and what He means to you will determine everything else about you and your eternal destiny.”

Ryan pondered the bearded man but he still didn’t understand.

“Okay. A few important things that you need to grasp before you can understand the big deal about Jesus Christ. First, God is perfect and can’t tolerate any sort of imperfection in His perfect presence. Second, humanity is God’s pinnacle creation and all life is in the blood. Take away the blood and all you have is a dead body. Third, God gave us a set of rules to live by and ultimately, it depends on our performance against these rules as to whether we have an eternal destiny in God’s presence or an eternal destiny separated from God and languishing in the painful flames of hell… eternally! I’m sure you’ve heard of the ten commandments?”

Ryan nodded and confirmed that much.

“Okay. In God’s perfect eyes, at any time in your life if you break any one of these ten commandments you automatically head for hell.”

“That’s not fair, Alex! No one can do that!”

“That’s the point, Ryan!”

Ryan held Alex’s gaze, pondering the bearded man and feeling desperately condemned.

“Then how do we avert an eternity in hell if no one can live up to God’s standards?”

“Now that you understand the quandary from God’s perspective and that He doesn’t want any of us to perish in hell, you now have to grasp His atonement for breaking His rules.”

“So there is a way to be forgiven for breaking a rule? I guess I must break most of His rules every day,” Ryan offered honestly.

“Yes, there is. But to understand that, we need to take a little journey back into the past. God made man in a body form and gave him his life contained in the blood. Initially, He intended man to live forever on Earth and in a garden, and at that stage we didn’t know what sin was and didn’t need the ten commandments because we walked with God already. You need to grasp the importance that God places on life and the blood and the reason why He says do not commit murder, the sixth commandment. In understanding the cost of breaking any commandment to God, you have to understand that process which He calls sin and remember, He can’t tolerate it. To Him every time we sin it’s like a death, because that person is condemned to hell and so to offset that death requires another innocent and sinless death to take its place and release the sinner, and that’s the high price of redemption.”

“So someone else who doesn’t sin has to pay for me breaking a commandment with his life?” Ryan prompted.

Alex nodded. “It used to be done with the blood of animals in early times but as the population grew, so did sin and it just became a nightmare. People abandoned the redemption process and before long the devil had a steady stream of participants heading for hell. The pain of watching His creation choose the heartbreak of separation, with the all important life pulsing in man’s veins being wasted in hell, prompted God to find a solution once and for all. Sin was grafted onto man like a cancer and it wasn’t going away, ever.”

“So Jesus, being the Son of God and the only perfect sacrifice, shed his blood on the cross to pay for our sins!”

“Yep, that’s about it, Ryan. The wonderful thing is, and all we are required to do is to confess our sins, accept Jesus as our Lord and King, and turn our backs on our sinful behaviour.”

Almost as a deliberate distraction, a rowdy band began to belt out across the crowd, drawing their preoccupied attention. Alex could see the commotion was working with Ryan also, and the seeds he had just planted were being pushed into the mud and stolen before his eyes. Raising his voice above the clanging din and hoping to open another avenue for communication, Alex bellowed, “Who’s your favourite rock group, Ryan?!”

“The Sticky Lizards at the moment!” Ryan shouted back. “I love Sfidare il Male, their new single!”

“Yeah. They’ve come a long way since ‘Bastone i vostri occhi insieme con Sicad!’

Ryan appeared confused. “What?!”

“Stick your eyes together with Sicad… Italian glue!” Alex rolled his eyes.

“Oh, yeah, that one was a bit dumb! But this new one is way cool! How do you know so much about the rock groups, Alex?!”

“I like to keep track of the messages they’re singing. Often times, teen rebellion and crime waves are spurned in the wake of these musical geniuses.”

“Really!” Ryan bawled sceptically.

Alex nodded confidently, checked his watch and then beckoned to the teenager. “Come on, Ryan, it’s time we made our way into work. It’s almost 5 pm!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 22

 

Securely held by a lap belt into the back seat of a hovering Euronews helicopter, Julien Combarel gaped through the helicopter’s open sliding door and into the lens of a news camera waiting for the cameraman’s cue. The fearless cameraman, harnessed to the helicopter’s body one hundred metres above the lake surface and standing on the landing sled, leaned backwards over the vast empty heights and waited for the perfect shot, trusting the harness with his life before giving Combarel the go ahead.

At the cameraman’s instruction, the pilot skewed the machine, turning the tail slightly and capturing a portion of the rear deck of La Suisse in the camera’s outer field of view while keeping Julien Combarel as close to centre of the lens as possible. Focusing through the view finder with his hair blown violently by the rotor blades and satisfied with the setup, the cameraman nodded to Combarel, prompting the news anchor to unleash his embellished tale. Without missing a beat and needing to shout above the turbulence of the helicopter, Combarel’s dynamic windblown features entered lounge rooms all over Europe, delivering the breaking news with confidence while the facts he didn’t know were soon constructed in a carefully worded series of questions, leaving the audience to choose the ending they thought most appropriate.

“Today, in Switzerland, a dramatic and secretive police chase was undertaken entwining the Suisse icon, the steamboat La Suisse into a dramatic air and water pursuit attempting to apprehend an unknown felon stowed away onboard the ancient steam-driven craft. In a bid to elude capture, it is believed the felon jumped from the speeding vessel, only to be drawn into the furiously pounding paddle wheels and deposited some distance behind the powerful passenger boat. La Suisse, packed to capacity with tourists, only slowed down when a DARD gendarme heroically abseiled down a rope from a police helicopter and forcefully ordered the captain to a stop, begging a serious question. Was the captain in some way colluding with the terrorist group and benefiting from the drugs being sold onboard? However, we do know from eyewitness accounts that the felon was forcefully dragged from the water and deposited onboard one of two formidable Suisse police Zodiacs, the culprit brandishing a submachine gun and only surrendered when overcome by twenty gendarmes carrying pepper spray. Although the identity of the man or terrorist group he belongs to is not known, the police remain defiantly tight-lipped over the incident. But, strangely, the captain of La Suisse has been allowed to continue with his duties. When you need to know, we want to tell you and we will keep you up to date with this story and many others. This has been Julien Combarel reporting for Euronews, going to extremes to bring you all the latest in the breaking events affecting your community.”

 

~

 

A sober hand reached for the television remote laying idle upon a highly polished teak desk and pointed it at the monitor. The screen blinked and then blacked out, silencing the elaborate wall-mounted display in a sizzling hiss. A black leather chair, forced into an almost prone position under the guidance of its occupant’s redistributed weight, groaned as it stretched its padded cover and reflexive components to its utmost limits, holding the figure comfortably above the richly carpeted floor.

It is obvious by the news report things are still okay. It doesn’t matter that the young person has been captured and if they blab, who will believe them anyway?

The confident thoughts provoked a relaxed attitude as the man stared at the honey colored exposed ceiling beams. The scheme was still on track and there were plenty of willing contenders to take the place of the fool who’d gotten himself caught.

 

~

 

As La Suisse hastily cut through the calm lake surface, Grandpa could see the outline of the Château de Chillon on the distant shore of Lac Léman. The ordeal with the police had cost him valuable schedule time and put Grandpa behind for the rest of the afternoon. To make things worse, disgruntled passengers were being forced to leave the observation deck, avoiding an icy bath from the rotor wash as the presence of the Euronews helicopter hovering just above them and slightly to port followed their progress. Nonetheless, it was an annoyance he couldn’t do anything about and even Anne-Claire was distracted by the prying bird, wondering what the helicopter was so interested in, while it’s unwelcome presence interrupted her thought process as she replayed the shock and events of the past hours.

“Did you know there’s a secret room under the dungeon and running off a passage below the Château de Chillon?” Grandpa spoke as if he was just talking to anyone who would listen, but in fact he was trying to avert Anne-Claire, eager to distract her mind away from the traumatic event.

“Sorry, Grandpa, were you talking to me?” Anne-Claire glanced at him and then back at the Euronews helicopter still following close by.

“There’s a secret room under the dungeon of the Château de Chillon,” he repeated.

Anne-Claire’s gaze quickly returned to her elderly hero and stared at her grandpa with an incredulous frown, wondering whether she had heard right. The peculiar statement did the trick and as a consequence, she forgot the irksome noise created by the blade wash of the helicopter only a few hundred metres above them.

“Grandpa, I’ve been in Chillon Castle so many times and I can tell you there are no hidden rooms under the dungeon! Even if there were, it would be underwater anyway because the dungeon is at lake level! According to my school studies, there are over a hundred rooms in the ancient complex and I can assure you there isn’t anything hidden. We know everything there is to know about the castle!” Anne-Claire sounded a little more annoyed than she intended.

Grandpa raised his eyebrows and then smiled. “So, you know this for sure?”

Anne-Claire appeared confused, searching her memory for anything strange about the mysterious castle but knowing the long, turbulent history, she conceded there may be something lurking in its murky past worthy of a second look. Willing to at least listen to her hero’s explanation, she apologized for her terse comment. After all, Grandpa had never lied to her before, but now she was beginning to doubt her own sanity.

“Have you seen where Lord Byron in the early nineteenth century engraved his famous name into the dungeon’s support pillar?”

“Mmm, of course! It’s been preserved under a clear Perspex cover,” Anne-Claire was in familiar territory and gaining confidence again.

“Well, when we dock at the Château de Chillon wharf and you go on the castle tour with your mum and dad’s visitors, have a careful look at the pillar with Byron’s name carved into it. There are two fading names also carved into the pillar in small letters and in the shape of an arrowhead. You’ll have to look carefully to see them, but they are there. The names nearly intersect at one end and they point toward the hidden room.”

Grandpa watched for his granddaughter’s reaction, with Anne-Claire sensing the deliberate challenge. Her expression suggested she’d swallowed the hook and her curiosity was working overtime, forgetting the events of the past hours.

But confusion was at war with her mind. It has to be true, she thought. Grandpa doesn’t lie and it will be easy to debunk if Grandpa is just making up the story. But why hasn’t someone found it before? It must be a story. Anne-Claire’s mind grasped for truth, furrowing her brow as she tussled with the conflicting thoughts. Then it all fell into place with the suddenness of a thunder clap. Danica would have a great story to read, with Grandpa stirring Anne-Claire’s imagination into a fever to write. Watching the château looming ever larger as they came closer to the wharf, Anne-Clair stood and sidled over to her hero, thankful for the story and eager to revisit the scenes with a sharper and more determined eye and just for fun, check out the names she suspected weren’t there.

“I have to go and find Mum and Dad and the others now, Grandpa,” Anne-Claire suddenly confided and reached up to place a kiss on Grandpa’s cheek. “Love you, and thanks, Grandpa, I’m actually looking forward to the visit now.”

Grandpa hugged his granddaughter and returned her sentiments. A big smile crossed his lips as he watched Anne-Claire, bristling with eager curiosity, leave the bridge and run back to the rear deck.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 23

 

Impatiently perched on a concrete landing adjoining the Château de Chillon wharf, a Euronews crew stood ready with cameras rolling, capturing images of La Suisse as she skillfully and gently manoeuvred into position against the castle access dock just one hundred metres south of the ancient island bastion. As soon as La Suisse’s expert crew had secured her to the wharf and opened the railing gates, a flood of eager English tourists disembarked the steamer, gawking and babbling, pointing at the castle’s stone facade and the imposing structure lurking in its shadow.

Eddying around the camera crew like an annoying swarm of mosquitoes and swallowing the determined searching paparazzi in a tsunami of humanity, the crowd momentarily disrupted the view of the geriatric steam icon. Unable to focus and locate a newsworthy tale, the reporters dizzied into a frenzy of confusion, probing the milling horde and frantically trying to prevent the threads of a high profile breaking news story from simply walking away. Realizing the crowd had moved on and left the paparazzi empty handed, the reporters and camera crew tried to force their way aboard La Suisse but were repelled by staunch crew members, refusing to let them enter without an appropriate fare.

Anne-Claire nestled close to her parents and cousins, following the throng of tourists bustling along the lakeside walk, Quai Alfred Chatelanat from La Suisse to the entrance of the Château de Chillon. With a final curious glance, she turned back to face the deflated and defeated camera crew, then refocused her concentration to the mystery Grandpa had placed before her, convinced and confused all at the same time but eager to put this new piece of information to the test. She caught a glimpse of Grandpa on the starboard bridge wing, manoeuvring the lumbering vessel away from the dock to make the return journey with just a few new passengers. Anne-Claire waved animatedly above the crowd, hoping her hero would see her gesture and to her delight, Grandpa waved back.

Surrounded by a wall of old people, Anne-Claire studied the pavement as she walked, trying to write the opening lines of her story for Danica in her mind and adequately describe the scene for someone who had never been to her native homeland. High above their heads and embedded into the foot of the towering Alps but partially hidden by thick mountain vegetation, the incessant roar of speeding traffic drifted down over the lakeside walk from the A9, a classically engineered motorway and purportedly built over the ruins of an ancient Roman trade route.

Only metres away, the passing electric buzz of a uniquely Suisse passenger train threw off speed in a long, mournful groan as the powerful electric motors reversed effort, braking the moving carriages and bringing the speeding snake to a perfect squealing halt beside the timeworn castle. Then with equal intensity, the powerful motors gasped in electricity from overhead lines, exciting striving rail components into a symphony of mechanical stress. Not unlike like the solemn echo of times gone by when thousands of straining peasant men cried, ‘Yo-ho-heave-ho’, besieged together under an oppressive enemy, trying to move the daunting load of tyranny and emerge the free and proud Suisse people.

Opening an unrestricted view of the Avenue de Chillon, the train gained speed and disappeared further along the lakeside track just as squealing tyres and a blaring horn violently compelled Anne-Claire from her thoughts and forced her attention to focus on the close call with a pounding heart. With her nerves on edge, she tried to obscure the agitated voices drifting down from the roadside near-miss and concentrate on the towering castle walls.

To her delight, she caught a fading glimpse of La Suisse and the white cross surrounded with a red background—the Suisse national flag—flapping proudly from the stern flagpole. Then obscured by the overbearing castle’s southern wall, the steamboat quickly vanished from view, yet its massive size disturbed the lake surface, leaving the turbulent white wake as the only indication a large vessel had passed by. Soon the confused foamy water settled back into a chilled grey-blue, greatly emphasizing the borders of the island castle’s stronghold against the lake’s watery boundaries and adding a new degree of mystery to the Suisse fortress.

The imposing castle walls, built directly onto an impervious rock island, gave the impression of a fairytale personality. Square clock towers—finely crafted by medieval stonemasons—joined hands with rotund watchtowers, stretching along the full length of the landward side and giving its occupants a commanding view of all visitors and the time to discern favorable intent. On the lakeside, sheer walls extending four storeys vertically deterred anyone with malevolent purposes from attempting to infiltrate the enclosed and protected courtyard, making a marine assault virtually impossible.

With no time to stare, the crowd carried Anne-Claire and her family along until they entered the classic stone arches of the Quai Alfred Chatelanat garden, partially surrounded with finely manicured hedges facing the castle’s southern wall and leading to the only entrance into the timeworn fortress. A tourist bus slowly edged into a parking bay neatly arrayed along the Avenue de Chillon roadside, but separated from the castle access by the formidable electric train line. One hundred metres to the north of the castle’s approach, an ornate ancient timber bridge offered a protected covered passage above the busy train track and the high voltage death lurking in its wires. Once safely across, a sloping stone path delivered eager sightseers down into the southern entry, joining the group recently disembarked from La Suisse.

Another ancient covered wooden bridge spanned the castle’s moat, joining the island fortress to the mainland but mischievously, the structure became a bottleneck, forcing tourists into queues intent on relieving eager visitors of an entry fee. Discontentedly, anxious idling patrons, blocked from entering the historic castle by a solid line of ambling humanity, searched over the crowd trying to discover the obstruction to their anticipated visit, until hands reaching into deep pockets and fossicking for elusive Swiss francs gave away a vital clue. People mingled, waiting enthusiastically for their turn to pay and enter the historic Château, then carefully and reverently added their footsteps to the ancient halls with the intention to personally experience the relics and images of a romantic era long past.

The anticipated moment finally came. Laurent purchased two family tickets and the five people passed through the foyer, entering a small internal courtyard and stepping back centuries in time. Anne-Claire made no secret that her attention and intention was buried in the architecture of the cavernous ceilings and walls of the ancient dungeon. Intrigue burned in her heart and tingled every pore, anxious to find the dungeon pillar, the mystical names and the supposed secret room Grandpa had captivated her imagination with. Anne-Claire’s mother turned around just in time to see her daughter disappear across the first courtyard and through the weapon magazine room on her way to the dungeon.

“Anne-Claire!” she called perplexedly. “Can’t you stay with us?!”

But it was too late. In her haste to go exploring, Anne-Claire was already clear of earshot.

Cautiously picking her way around a group of ambling sightseers, Anne-Claire exited the magazine room and speedily swept through the arsenal chamber and then entered a small archway leading directly into the impressive floodlit dungeon. The five magnificent stone pillars separating floor, walls and ceiling had stood the test of time for well over 800 years. Skilled ancient hands had carved the stone into five giant octopi, their tentacles interlocking and overlapping the dungeon walls and ceiling in a graceful marvel of engineering excellence, while the strong backs of the rotund stone pillars anchored the structure to the bedrock floor. Purposefully built to be vigilant and constantly under stress, keeping the dungeon ceiling and walls in place, yet the architectural prowess struck awe into the heart of those fortunate enough to behold their stunning floodlit profile. Anne-Claire circled each pillar, searching for Lord Byron’s elusive signature but knowing full well where to find the carving, she savored the hunt with ardor, unwilling to dismiss any clue—no matter how small—and possibly overlook the key to the secret room Grandpa had so vehemently portrayed.

Eventually, after close scrutiny, she rejected four of the pillars conclusively, leaving the clear undisputed contender and finding the Perspex cover with the famous engraving protected behind it exactly where she’d suspected. All around the famous scrawl, decades of visitors had crafted their own insignificance beside the famous poet’s, hoping to borrow from the poet’s infamy and leave their own graffiti for generations to come. As the overzealous would-be artists encroached closer and closer to the famous scratching, it became necessary to safeguard Byron’s legendary work and preserve it for future generations to enjoy. Thus conserving a tangible and observable connection with the distant romantic past by the Perspex cover. Anne-Claire gazed at Byron’s timeworn and taciturn signature, but she wasn’t impressed with the poet’s insignia after seeing it so many times before.

Instead, she crouched to her haunches, looking for another jewel, avidly searching around the base of the pillar, brushing the surface with her fingers and blowing off the years of accumulated dust. Circling the carved structure again and again, vigilantly searching for the signature and watchfully checking each scratch and dent, Anne-Claire found nothing like Grandpa suggested. She raised herself to a standing position and sighed, frustrated, but understanding why her hero had embellished the story, giving her imagination a boost in drawing a vivid word picture for Danica. But Grandpa’s story would’ve been a greater adventure if she’d actually found the two names formed into an ancient arrow like he’d promised, even if the hidden room was pure fairytale.

Disappointed, Anne-Claire decided to check the pillar’s circumference one more time, just in case she’d missed something important. Bending over and moving around the pillar at the same time, she unexpectedly came upon something that looked like a series of insignificant faded scratches. Moving closer to examine her find, her heart began to race with expectation as she cleaned the dust from the pillar’s wound with her hand. Then with astonished disbelief, two light abrasions appeared under her fingers, delicately inscribed into the ancient stonework. Joined at the front to form an arrowhead, two faded names pointed directly to a rocky spot not two metres away, just like Grandpa had said. She crouched again, and wet her finger with her saliva and tried to clean the inscription further. Drawing closer to examine the strange find and staring with astonishment, Anne-Claire studied the arrowhead and the names making up the distinctive symbol in disbelief.

Baron Willy de Bad and Dominique de Blonay.

Jumping to her feet, bouncing on the spot and consumed with exuberant excitement at her discovery, the sudden movement from a crouching position left her dizzy and light-headed. Feeling unsteady, Anne-Claire stumbled, but as she tried to regain her balance, a violent tremor shook the dungeon palate, stealing her footing altogether in the pulsating quake. Unable to balance on the rippling floor, Anne-Claire crashed to the ground, hitting her head on a protruding rock.

As consciousness, teased by the gnawing pain, flickered between light and dark, she watched helplessly while a ghostlike trapdoor in the floor opened beneath her. With no control of her limbs, her semiconscious body rolled over like a rag doll and fell headlong into the yawning hole, settling her smarting frame into a numbing heap. A sudden deep blackness surrounded her, leaving only a few strands of coloured light dwindling from the dungeon above her. With the last bright rays of understanding dimming into twilight, the trapdoor began to close, scraping raucously as heavy rock dragged over heavy rock, entombing her into a dank, deaf world.

In the midst of rising panic and desperately trying to break free of semiconsciousness, she felt her last lines of resistance fail when a frantic scream for help dropped helplessly at her feet. Acting like strong smelling salts, the open pit’s clammy and musty stench roused her faltering mind to the rumbling rock trapdoor gradually closing, sealing her into a deep crawling darkness and slowly stealing what consciousness remained until her only escape route closed in a reverberating… bang!

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 24

 

As soon as the sun’s first burning rays of dawn peeked above the eastern horizon, Butch’s station bred body clock recognised the time and raised the blinds on his sleep, flooding his mind with the new day and regimentally calling his body to reveille. In the early morning hour he studied the familiar bedroom, resting his eyes on Mishy’s peacefully sleeping figure. The sight of the woman he loved and the mother of his cherished girls brought immediate joy to his heart. She was a station woman through and through, but her body just couldn’t adjust to the rigours of the station’s early routine and even after twenty years in the bush, she seldom rose before 8 am, lapsing hopelessly back into her city roots. All three girls were born with their mother’s aversion to morning, but on the other end of the scale and exactly mimicking their mum, their batteries hardly ever conceded defeat and purposefully settled into the charger much before midnight.

A movement from the next room drew Butch’s attention and he hurriedly dressed, hoping to catch Sergeant Bob Maxwell before he rolled up his swag, threw together his belongings and loaded his police Land Cruiser for the long and hot six-hour drive back to Birdsville.

“Morning, Bob,” Butch whispered cheerfully, peeping around the lounge room door.

The austere redhead threw his swag over his shoulder, rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his free hand and yawned heartily, trying to find an equally cheery greeting for his friend from somewhere deep inside, but all that seemed to roll out was a low, gravelly and disenchanting… “Butch!”

“You gonna have some breakfast before you head off, Bob?” Butch whispered again, hoping not to wake the girls.

“You cooking?!” Bob stared at his friend, absolutely resolute.

Butch glanced back at the bedroom door and listened to the gentle breaths escaping Mishy’s sleep. “I guess so, Bob.”

“In that case, I’ll make a stop at Bedourie and call in on Stephanie. Maybe I’ll get home without food poisoning!”

“Who’s got food poisoning?” a tired and croaky voice met the two men at the entertainment room door, tying her dressing gown’s fabric belt around her waist and running her hand through her long, thick black locks.

“Morning, Mishy!” Bob offered, glad to see the lady of the house was awake. “Butch’s got some cockamamy idea of cooking me breakfast, but I’ve tasted his handiwork before and almost died from the experience,” Bob glanced sideways at Butch with an unmoving sombre expression.

“I’m up now. Bob. But I’m going to need a strong coffee first to get me moving freely and I’m not letting you leave here without feeding you, so you won’t need a stop at Stephanie’s,” Mishy’s throaty voice rumbled tiredly, drawing in a huge breath to yawn; but before she could finish exhaling, Butch planted a kiss on her mouth, stifling the breath and painting a delighted smile across her face in its place.

“Okay you two, that’s enough! You’ll put a man off his breakfast!” Bob’s face broke into a pleased grin, wistful of the couple’s obvious love and looking forward to Mishy’s sumptuous feast.

Thankful Mishy had surfaced before he was forced to rattle the pots and pans, Butch followed her to the kitchen and when her hands were full, he wrapped his arms around her and embraced her tightly until she squeaked, showing his unspoken appreciation for sacrificing her sleep to serve another needy human being… even if it was only Bob Maxwell.

“What’s on the agenda today, Butch?” Bob leaned back into his kitchen chair and stretched his hands behind his head while waiting for Mishy to cook his breakfast.

“The bore’s playing up at Bella Creek and the cattle are getting thirsty. Might need some of the weed cleaned away from the outlet but I’ll have to do it before it gets too hot and the cattle start stressing.”

Bob searched the kitchen to see if Mishy had heard Butch’s plan, but she seemed intent on something in the sink. “Bella Creek? Isn’t that near your property’s northern boundary?” Bob lowered his voice, the tone flat and professional as if he was questioning a suspect.

“Yeah, Bob, it’s about an hour and half from the homestead and it’s a two-person job so Eddy and I will tackle it together.”

“Make sure you check around for tyre tracks and any signs of life before you start work, hey.”

Butch gave Bob a puzzled glare and then the penny dropped. “She’ll be right, mate. I’m a likable fellar. No one’s going to take a potshot at me.”

“I’m not asking you, Butch, I’m telling you! This crazy man with a gun is looking for remote and easy targets and I’d hate to be going to your funeral and watching that beautiful woman of yours chewing her heart out because her numbskull husband wouldn’t listen to a cranky old copper!”

Mishy turned from the sink at Bob’s animated warning and glanced at the two men with questioning eyes. “What’s this?” she prodded, still half asleep and shifting her glance from Bob to Butch.

“I’ve gotta visit Bella Creek this morning and Bob’s trying to spook me with this idiot running around taking potshots at station people,” Butch explained impassively and trying to play down Bob’s concern.

“You’re taking Eddy aren’t you, honey?” Mishy pleaded, knowing Bella Creek was strategic to Pearl Springs’ survival and Butch had to keep the bore flowing.

Butch nodded, trying to allay her fears and dislodge Bob’s pointed stare.

“What would I know? I’m only a veteran copper. All I’m saying, people! Take every precaution and don’t shrug off anything suspicious!” Bob warned through gritted teeth. “It may save your life!”

 

~

 

It was approaching 8 am by the time Bob Maxwell had loaded his gear into his police issue Land Cruiser, started the engine to warm up and set the air conditioner to maximum. Then, stepping away from the idling vehicle, he grasped Butch’s hand firmly in an affectionate handshake and then took Mishy in a bear hug. “Thanks for your hospitality, folks, and please stay safe and vigilant. You know where to find me if you need me.”

“Thanks for caring about our safety, Bob, especially travelling six hours all the way from Birdsville, too. I feel like we have a big brother watching out for us,” Mishy gushed and then smiled appreciatively at the hulking copper. “Next time, come for a week and we’ll take you out camping to Nanjilgardie and catch some of those overfed barramundi.”

The thought of relaxing with friends around a bush campfire, catching a fighting barra and eating the finest fish flesh in the world set Bob’s mouth salivating, but for the moment he had other concerns needing his immediate attention. Climbing into the late model vehicle, Bob Maxwell waved goodbye, closed the door and slowly motored away. Disturbing the road’s surface into choking clouds of dust, Bob drove down the station’s access road, crossed the cattle grid in a groaning b-r-r-m-m-p from the tyres and disappeared into the heat haze and out of view. Before Bob’s dust engulfed the couple, Butch draped his arm over Mishy and walked her out of the stifling heat and back towards the cool of the homestead.

He was about to speak when he noticed a worried frown settle over her fine features. “Penny for your thoughts, honey?”

“Huh? Oh, I need to talk to you about something, but I’m not sure whether this is the right moment,” she tried to smile, however the worry broke through instead.

Butch searched her disarming eyes and tried to reassure her, “If it’s about going out to Bella Creek…?”

Mishy interrupted him, knowing he had enough to think about for the moment. “That’s part of it, but not all. We need some time together to work this one out.”

“You’ve got me intrigued now,” Butch worried.

“Sorry, honey, I shouldn’t have even mentioned it,” Mishy’s eyes were dark with concern.

“Listen, when I get back from Bella Creek this afternoon and after tea, we can talk about it sitting on the lawn watching the stars together, just the two of us.”

Mishy smiled and leaned in to kiss her sensible man, reassured by Butch’s calming wisdom. “It’s a date, mister!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 25

 

From her position at the kitchen window, Mishy glanced up at the wall clock and then over to the barometer. It had just gone 9 am with the temperature was already edging close to 41 degrees Celsius and as usual, the sky was a cloudless burnt blue for as far as the eye could see. With her hands in dishwater scrubbing dirty dishes, she watched the station Land Cruiser ute disappear along the access road in a smothering curtain of red dust. Today wouldn’t be a good day to be working away from the homestead. However, Bella Creek was vital to their financial future, bolstering the station’s ability to bounce back once the debilitating drought eventually broke, but giving Butch an annoying headache trying to keep the troublesome bore functioning properly. Watching the dust settle and the view of the access track return to normal, Mishy tried to concentrate on the first round of breakfast dishes, but something kept niggling at her and unlike the settling dust, her intuition wouldn’t relax.

“Mumma!”

The small proclamation at the kitchen door startled Mishy, spinning around from the sink to face the voice’s owner. Recognising Jessica, her second daughter, Mishy held out her arms and took her in a cuddle. “Good morning, sweetheart, did you sleep well?”

Returning the anticipated cuddle, Jessica nodded her head vehemently, broke from her mother’s embrace and climbed onto a chair, squeezing up to the table for breakfast, at the same time noticing the stack of dishes on the sink. “Has Daddy and Uncle Bob gone already?”

“Yes, sweetheart. Daddy had to go out to Bella Creek and Uncle Bob had to go back to Birdsville.”

“Why is Daddy’s gun leaning on the passage wall?”

The innocent question conveyed an immediate sense of panic in Mishy. The children knew Daddy had a special place for his guns and they weren’t allowed anywhere near them unless he was teaching the girls how to handle them properly. Mishy’s heart sank as she stepped into the passage and confirmed Jessica’s statement. Butch had obviously planned to take the weapon with him, but in his haste he had completely overlooked it.

 

~

 

Eddie Namitijarra’s wiry frame had a permanent bend fitting perfectly into the shape of a horse’s saddle, but today he occupied the passenger seat next to Butch while the Land Cruiser ute rattled and shook along the dusty station access road. He’d already wound down his window, knowing Butch preferred the artificial cooling from the vehicle’s air conditioning, but Eddie was a full blood Aboriginal and couldn’t stand anything artificial, especially in his ancestral home environment. High temperatures, flies and dust were just a part of outback living and if you couldn’t cut it, you had no business being on the land.

Using peripheral vision, Butch glanced sideways at the white haired elder with his sun-hardened black face partially covered by a worn and dusty Akubra cattleman’s hat, waiting for the reproof Butch knew was coming.

“White fellar toys make station fellar soft! Can’t make connection with the land an’ read ‘er mood if ya ‘ead stuck in soft white fellar cold box!”

Butch smiled to himself and now that his ancient head stockman had had his say, the day could continue on and they could focus on the job at hand.

Apart from Pearl Springs itself, Eddie was the last remaining living link with Butch’s father, Malcolm senior and a large part of family history. He was a wiry old Aboriginal man who’d been born on Pearl Springs in Butch’s grandfather’s day and for as long as Butch could remember, Eddie had been a trusted and valued part of the furniture. As a child, Butch idolised the wise old black man and followed him everywhere. If Butch’s mother wanted to find Butch, all she had to do was find Eddie. Malcolm senior had encouraged the relationship and hoped some of Eddie’s prowess and skill would rub off on his son. What Eddie didn’t know about the country, horses or longhorn steers just wasn’t worth knowing; yet secretly, Eddie held Malcolm senior, a tough individual, in the highest regard, too. Malcolm senior’s finger felt the pulse of the land, often reading its changing moods with uncanny accuracy and if it wasn’t for Malcolm senior’s white skin, he would’ve plugged right into the rhythm of an Aboriginal nomadic lifestyle.

Butch finally relented, reaching for the air conditioner button and reluctantly switched it off. Within seconds, the temperature inside the vehicle cabin rose exponentially and forced Butch to wind down his window. A sudden blast of super heated air slammed into Butch’s face and found its way inside the four-wheel drive, stirring the work vehicle’s dusty debris scattered across the floor and forcing the stifling gritty air out through the open passenger window.

A pleased grin crossed the Aboriginal elder’s face, exposing decaying teeth and dark, sunburnt bloodshot eyes. Even to this day, Eddie would often try to guide Butch in situations, still seeing him as a young and impressionable boy, having no qualms in disagreeing with any decisions he thought weren’t in the best interest for Pearl Springs. Butch knew he was in for a lecture when Eddie would shake his head and vehemently state, “Badthing, little boss, ya thinkin’ wit’ da mind of a whitefellar, not da mind of da country.”

Apart from Eddie, who was family in Butch’s eyes, Butch didn’t have money for the hired help he desperately needed even though the workload was increasing as the drought continued. Eddie knew the financial situation wasn’t good, but also conceded Malcolm senior would’ve had difficulty managing the current unpredictable crisis and kept the criticism of Butch’s management to a minimum.

Coming to a junction in the red dirt road, Butch lifted his foot from the gas pedal, slowing the vehicle and reducing the intensity and amplitude of the corrugations while the suspension changed its rattling tone and enjoyed a much needed break. Yet a continuous plume of choking red dust, kicked up by the tyres and stretching endlessly behind them, threatened to overtake the vehicle if the speed didn’t immediately increase and outrun the billowing curtain. Twisted and gnarly drought-toughened trees stood by the roadside, acting as a landmark and indicating the location of the turn. Huddling together in a clump and hoping to benefit from its neighbour’s cooling shadow, many years of passing traffic had painted the stand with red staining dirt.

With the debilitating dust cloud almost upon them, Eddie could see the decision process taking place within Butch’s thoughts. The inside track to Bella Creek was ten kilometres shorter but the terrain was rough, crossing many dubious dry river beds and diverting their path a long way off the main track. The outside track, although longer, was in better shape and bordered the access road, never veering far enough from the main roadway so that a passing vehicle couldn’t spot someone using the trail.

Expecting to hear a rebuff from his passenger, Butch quickly changed down two gears, pointed the vehicle down the inside track and then accelerated back up to speed and exited the gathering dust plume before it engulfed the vehicle completely. Eddie sniffed out loud, the signal Butch recognised, knowing his Aboriginal mentor didn’t agree with his decision but Eddie decided to hold his tongue. He knew what was coming.

The first two kilometres passed by smoothly, painting a haughty smile on Butch’s face until the road surface suddenly deteriorated so badly the vehicle bounced and shook until Butch lifted his foot from the gas and crawled down the trail. “Wow, this track has been chopped up so badly since the last time I used it,” Butch offered defensively.

“F’yud ask me, little boss, I coulda tol’ you that. I was out ‘ere last week checkin’ on those fences da cattle trampled,” Eddie smirked.

Two hours later after a bone-numbing ride and a number of sandy dry river beds almost trapping the Land Cruiser, they finally drove into the cracked mud pan of Bella Creek; a complete hour longer than it would have taken if Butch had chosen the outer track. With Bob Maxwell’s warnings still ringing in his ears, Butch anxiously searched the moist clay around the creek bed, drawing an enquiring and amused expression from Eddy. The obvious tracks of thirsty cattle had made a mess of the drying mud and obliterated any possibility of identifying another human being’s presence. Then shifting his gaze and searching the distant flat, shrubby horizon, Butch found nothing of concern other than the shimmering mind play of heat haze. Dismissing all concern, switching off the engine and reaching for the door handle, Butch positioned his Akubra over his head for maximum shading effect and stepped out into the overbearing late morning heat.

Joined by Eddie, the two men quickly identified the impedance to the water supply with thick slushy algae blocking the outlet pipe and stopping the flow of water. Reaching for a shovel and a pick from the vehicle’s tray, Butch handed Eddie the shovel. “Sooner we get this mess cleaned up and restore the cattle’s water, the sooner we can get out of here.”

 

~

 

Mishy had been busy attending to the girls’ schooling needs. Although the School of the Air in Katherine, Northern Territory offered a competent internet-based teaching system allowing the girls to interact with their teachers and classmates through satellite, she still had to fill the void when the girls needed more help. Today was one of those days and by the time the School of the Air signed off, Mishy was behind with her chores. After settling homework issues, Mishy drew in a breath and exhaled forcefully then started for the passage, exiting the classroom and preparing for another round of menial but necessary tasks in another part of the homestead.

Entering the kitchen, she glanced up at the clock and realising the time, a worried expression painted itself across her face. Butch had indicated he would be home by now. Trying not to worry, she convinced herself Butch and Eddie had been delayed due to work requirements, immediately dismissing anything untoward but still unable to shake the harrowing feeling eating at her nerves. She’d be relieved to see the work vehicle arrive home and put her concerns to rest.

As the pleasing odours from the evening meal began to waft around the kitchen, she glanced again at the kitchen clock and then down the access road, but there were no telltale signs of rising dust from an approaching vehicle, only the sun getting lower in the sky. Unable to concentrate on her work any longer, Mishy reached for the VHF receiver and called, “Pearl Springs base to Butch, are you receiving, over?” Letting the transmit button go, she waited for a response. After a few more minutes she tried again. “Pearl Springs base to Butch, are you receiving, over?”

Still nothing.

With fear rising swiftly into panic, Mishy felt her stomach knot and wondered what to do. With a trembling hand, she repeated the call again and again, but the same silence answered her appeal.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 26

 

Mishy’s hands were shaking, trying to find Bob Maxwell’s phone number in the telephone cabinet drawer. The sun had set and it was dark outside, but Butch still hadn’t answered any of her constant VHF transmissions; and the access road remained ominously quiet and bereft of distant headlights indicating an approaching vehicle. Fumbling through a stack of business cards, she eventually recognised the insignia of the Queensland Police and Senior Sergeant Robert Maxwell’s name and phone number. Feeling the gravity of the situation pressing down on Mishy’s nerves, the tremor running through her fingers amplified trying to extract Bob’s information, but instead of singling out the required data, the unruly deck slipped through her grasp and dropped to the floor.

Near to tears, Mishy squatted to locate the itinerant phone number, unconcerned for the rest of the deck lying scattered and unkempt across the passageway floor. Fighting back a flood of tears and grasping Bob’s card with a trembling hand, she raised herself from her haunches and stood next to the phone cabinet then reached for the receiver, reading the number at the same time and attempting to punch the digits into the phone. The seconds ticked by as the electronic device tried to decipher the numerals she’d entered and direct her to the desired destination, but confused by her selection, it gave up and returned an infuriating message. ‘The number you have dialled is not connected; please check the number and try again.’

Mishy sighed in deep frustration, feeling the curling force of a rising emotional tsunami wave about to engulf her, but this time she carefully read and punched each digit deliberately, following precisely the card’s prompting and then finally, the number connected. Seconds went by, curling her bottom lip under her top teeth as she anxiously waited for Bob’s answer.

“Birdsville Police Station, Sergeant Bob Max…“

Hearing the familiar gruff voice, the tsunami crashed to land and her emotions burst, swallowing Mishy in a spiralling torrent of relief. All she could do was blubber uncontrollably in Bob’s ear. It took Bob a few moments to identify the caller and another couple of gentle attempts before he could understand what Mishy was trying to say. Remaining calm and deliberate, Bob reassured her while setting in motion behind the scenes a well rehearsed response. Certain Mishy had calmed enough, Bob began to instruct her on what she needed to do.

“Okay, Mishy, I’ve got it from here. I need you to stay by the phone and keep the communications open. That means switching off the internet. Keep calling Butch on the VHF every half hour or so and listen for any strange crackles or hisses indicating they are listening and trying to respond… who’s your closest neighbour to Bella Creek?”

Mishy sniffed, trying to comprehend Bob’s question. “Um… arr… that would be the Clarksons from Valerie Downs,” Mishy’s voice cracked, trying to hold her emotions together while her nose ran and mingled with tears.

“Okay, got it… Don… Clarkson.”

Mishy heard the sounds of Bob scribbling on a pad.

“Now, what I am about to say is purely circumspect; the chances are Butch has just broken down, but I need you and the girls to be prepared. Do you know where Butch’s firearms are and how to load and use the guns?”

Mishy panicked again, reading Bob’s thought and intent perfectly.

“Calm down, Mishy, I just need you to be prepared. Do you know where Butch’s firearms are and how to load and use them?” Bob tried again more firmly.

Mishy sniffed away frightened tears. “I think so, Bob.”

“Okay, I’m going to put down the phone now, Mishy, but I want you to call me back every half hour until this is resolved. Do you understand?”

Mishy nodded, forgetting Bob couldn’t see her affirmation, then verbalised her comprehension when he asked again.

“One last thing. Stay calm and let me know immediately anything changes. I’m by the phone directing things from here.” Bob’s voice suddenly went quiet as if he was talking to someone in the background and then his voice returned to normal intensity. “Mishy, Police Communications have been onto the Clarksons already, but unfortunately, Don’s here in Birdsville at the moment. His head stockman, Jackson Reynolds and a station hand are already on their way to Bella Creek. We won’t be able to contact them though; the vehicle they’re in doesn’t have a working VHF.”

Mishy placed the phone back in its cradle, feeling sick but grateful Bob Maxwell had everything in hand and at least now the burden had shifted slightly and the full weight had been taken from her shoulders.

“Mumma!”

A worried voice startled Mishy. Seeing Danica’s wide and terrified eyes boring into Mishy’s, she pulled her eldest daughter into an embrace. There was no reason to say anything. Danica had heard the whole conversation and had pieced together the situation.

 

~

 

For five hundred square kilometres, the bush telegraph was vibrating with gossip, but nobody dared contact Mishy under threat from Bob Maxwell. He knew how things worked in the bush and had already been in touch with neighbouring stations, declaring an emergency on all frequencies and warning station people not to jam the communication lines with good hearted intentions into Pearl Springs.

 

~

 

A lone vehicle vibrated and shook, rattling like some demented baby’s toy, speeding over deep rutted corrugations and bouncing the vehicle’s back end. Travelling excessively fast for a dirt track, the vehicle began to rear-end steer, forcing the driver to overcorrect and fishtail on the dark slippery gravel roadway.

“Steady on, Jacko, we don’t want to be the next ones Bob Maxwell’s looking for.”

“You just keep that shotgun ready to fire and leave the driving to me. I’ve known Butch and Mishy for years. They’re decent people and if any mongrel has harmed Butch, then he can expect to be lynched.”

Troy Anderson anxiously gripped the cold steel of a loaded pump-action shotgun leaning against his left leg and pointing to the roof, while Jackson Reynolds drove like a man possessed, tearing down the skinny dirt track leading from Valerie Downs to the northern access of Pearl Springs. The night was completely dark, with every shadow hiding behind every bush holding sinister intent and making Troy Anderson jumpy.

Reflected by the headlights, a ghostly flash bounded from the low scrub beside the track and sent panic rippling through the speeding vehicle. Jackson’s sudden jab at the brake pedal followed by skidding tyres and a loud bang sent a shudder down the vehicle, exploding the left headlight and cutting down their available light by half.

“What was that?!” Troy glared over his shoulder to the track behind, but all he could see was a curtain of dust reflecting red tail lights.

Feeling annoyed with himself for the damage to the vehicle and the loss of valuable light, Jackson replied flatly, “Old man roo.”

“You gonna check the damage?” Troy asked, but he knew Jacko had his mind somewhere else.

 

~

 

Mishy’s three girls cuddled up to their mother as she stared through the kitchen window and down into the darkness where the access track should be. She’d grabbed Butch’s shotgun and with assistance from her daughters, loaded two cartridges into its firing chamber and leaned the weapon against the kitchen table, but unsure how to fire it. Feeling cold and numb, Mishy glanced up at the clock, noticing it was fast approaching midnight. Maybe it was the imposing chill of the night air or maybe it was the nagging certainty the man she loved and the father of her girls had met with foul play.

It had only been fifteen minutes since she’d last spoken to Bob, but like her, he had nothing to report and all they could do was wait and pray. She was due to make another VHF transmission to Butch, but somehow she knew he wouldn’t answer. Glancing up at the clock again, Mishy made a move to the VHF set, but Danica read her despair and asked if she could do the next transmission instead. Mishy nodded in exhaustion and let her eldest take a little of the load.

“Pearl Springs base to Dad, are you receiving, over?” Danica let the talk button go but as expected, the airwaves were dumb. “Pearl Springs base to Dad, please answer me, Daddy!” Danica’s voice trembled, but still no reply.

Mishy’s head slumped with her chin on her chest while grief went about its work and the walls of despair closed in around her.

“Mum!”

A sudden frightened voice called from Mishy’s side and she followed Jessica’s gaze into the darkness. A headlight halo bounced on the near horizon, the unmistakable signature of a moving vehicle lumbering down the access track. The women watched the approaching beam as hope and fear collided, not sure what to make of it. But as the vehicle came closer, the struggling engine tone was distinct and it carried on the cold silent air. One thing was for certain…

The tone wasn’t Butch.

Just as they were watching, a loud unidentified bang clattered through the night air and the light beam halo disappeared, plunging the near horizon back into complete darkness and total silence. Holding her breath listening for any sounds, Mishy became intensely worried. Maybe Bob’s masked warning was right. She ordered the girls into the safety of the bathroom, grabbing the shotgun on her way.

But this time, Butch wasn’t here to protect them and help was hours away.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 27

 

A superior expression forced its way across Niccolo’s features, staring down the aggressive Chihuahua guard dog blocking his path into the presidential suite and putting her back in her place by responding to Madame’s call in-spite of Chantal’s resistance. “C’est moi, Niccolo,” Niccolo shouted into the suite and forced his way past Chantal, leaving the rest of the band members trailing behind, but they heroically took a wider berth of the snarling young woman, watching her carefully lest she make an unpredictable move and attempt to sink her teeth into a passing limb.

It didn’t take long for the duelling couple to realise who each other was. Niccolo and Chantal hadn’t directly met before but their names, achievements and quirky personality attributes had been heard recited in company on occasion and now the tussle for control and admittance into Madame’s presence erupted with verbal clashing swords and sparking steel wit. With a victorious beaming grin, Niccolo hurriedly entered Madame’s bedroom and focused on the prone figure lavishly wrapped in fine linen and only just awake.

“How are you feeling after your ordeal, Madame?” Niccolo whispered compassionately, but before Madame could offer a reply, they were interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the band and Chantal.

“Make it quick, Monsieur,” Chantal barked from the doorway. “Madame needs her rest and you are preventing this from happening.”

Angelina glowered over at the bossy young woman with confused eyes, trying to recognise the face but coming up with nothing except more questions. “Who are you, Mademoiselle, and why do I need rest and why is everyone calling me Madame?”

Angelina’s confusion spiralled out of control when she saw the group glance at each other as if they were talking to a mad person, but as an incoming phone call abruptly deflected Chantal from the bewildering circus, she begrudgingly left Niccolo and the band with Madame.

“That reminds me… Niccolo!” Angelina’s face suddenly took on a stern expression, pushing herself into a sitting position against the ornate headboard, deciding to attack while she had the scrawny street kid in her grasp. “You’ve got some explaining to do, boy! What’s this new song and how come I’ve never heard it before? If you think for just one moment you can have me kidnapped just so you and whoever this flake is that’s pretending to be my husband can launch my group and cut me out of the game as your manager, then you’ve got another thing coming!”

Niccolo wilted under Angelina’s tirade and his face fell, glancing sideways at the other band members with concerned eyes. Dropping his head in a defeated pose, a wave of grief flooded his mind and he sighed as if he had walked this path before. “But you have heard it before, Madame,” Niccolo whispered dejectedly. “We were on our way to the launch when you took one of your turns. It was your idea for us to go on ahead so the band wouldn’t miss our opening spot at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I can still remember the very words you spoke. ’Leave me at the Hôtel d’Angleterre until I feel better and then Clayton will take me to Montreux.’ Chantal was already in Montreux and wanted to drive to Geneva to be by your side, but you wouldn’t let her.”

Red-faced with confusion, Angelina blinked a couple of times, trying to connect the story thread with what she remembered of the past twenty-four hours. She studied the room and the concerned faces, gazing from person to person, hoping to gain some semblance of understanding.

“No! That’s not what happened at all. I don’t know what your game is, Niccolo, and this Mademoiselle, whoever she is. I distinctly remember the last gig at the club L’Arenile di Bagnoli in Naples and the fact Carlos couldn’t get us and our gear onto a commercial airliner. Some perceived terrorist threat or something. Then Carlos arranged for his cousin to transport us and our gear onboard a pile of junk Learjet and nearly killed us landing in Geneva.”

Niccolo flopped to a nearby bedroom chair and hung his head in dismay, listening to the tale Madame was telling.

I… sent you ahead to the hotel to book in and rest, preparing for your first night on the festival scene and your Suisse debut, not this man you are trying to pass off as my husband! Once you and the band had left in the limousine… I hired, two thugs attacked me and took me to the Hôtel d’Angleterre and now you are trying to make me believe this was all in my head!

Chantal reappeared from the distracting phone call in time to hear the last of Madame’s distraught comments and whispered as if she had been broadsided, “I think it is time you and the band left, Monsieur Niccolo.”

Niccolo again sighed, perplexed by the crashing let down and Madame’s apparent loss of memory. He was eager to share their new song’s success, something he was sure would bring her joy. “We will leave, Mademoiselle, but not until I explain to Madame what did actually happen. You have been like a madre to us, Madame Trudeau, and to see you like this is distressing. I have no idea who this Carlos is whom you speak of, nor the pile of junk Learjet we purportedly travelled from Naples and were almost killed in. We have never played a gig at the club L’Arenile di Bagnoli and it’s been years since any of us have even been to Naples. However, we did travel with our equipment in a Learjet to Geneva, but it would be offensive to call Monsieur Trudeau’s private jet a pile of junk. You have encouraged us to write songs with meaning and Sfidare il Male was to be our first, fully endorsed by yourself. You became unwell as we were flying across the Alps, and as for being kidnapped by thugs, I am sure Clayton sometimes fits that description but I’d think he would be hurt knowing his first lady thinks so little of him.”

With a heavy heart Niccolo stood to leave, forcing the other shocked band members to spill out of the bedroom door.

“Please get well, Madame Trudeau. We are not a band without you,” Niccolo leaned over Angelina and kissed her cheek, sending further shockwaves up and down her body and colliding with the overwhelming confusion she was now tussling with. As Niccolo and the band left the presidential suite, Angelina slipped back down under the covers and pulled the soft blankets up to her face, staring across at the wall in bewilderment.

A gentle hand rested on her shoulder. “Is there anything I can get you, Madame?” Chantal whispered.

Angelina rolled over to face the concerned voice and whispered tiredly, “I’m so confused. I have no idea who you are, or this Clayton, or my husband for that matter.” Perplexed, Angelina lifted her arms from under the covers and laid them along her body, pressing the blankets tightly against her torso in frustration and trying to fit the pieces of the mystifying jigsaw into some sort of recognisable shape.

Chantal tenderly interrupted Angelina’s confusion and pointed to Angelina’s wedding finger. “Any man who buys a woman a diamond that big has to be worth knowing, Madame.”

Angelina stared bewildered at her finger and the huge sparkling jewel twinkling back at her. The sight of the expensive band made her gasp as if she had only just seen it for the first time, fingering the massive extravagance with her thumb and wondering if she really had lost her mind.

“Doctor Bonnet will be here soon, Madame, and I’m sure he will be able to help you get back to your normal self.”

Angelina nodded, but it was doubtful she’d even heard Chantal’s latest information and continued staring, dazed at the massive diamond ring adorning her wedding finger. Chantal fussed around the sprawling luxurious bedroom, tidying up the chaos of the Sticky Lizards’ visit and putting the room back into order. She straightened Angelina’s blankets and tucked the unruly ends back under the soft mattress then gently lifted Madame’s head and fluffed her pillows, lastly focusing on Angelina’s confused eyes.

“Is there anything you need, Madame?” Chantal ventured softly.

Angelina shook her head, her thumb still playing with the beguiling jewel and lost in a bewildering mind-numbing fog.

A loud chorus of tapping rattled against the suite door, drawing Chantal away from her charge and with a feisty whisper she attacked, “Now who wants to steal Madame’s rest?!” Making a hasty beeline for the door and intent on silencing the intruder, she threw the door open and hissed, “Ssshhh, Madame is trying to sleep!”

Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle,” a man in a floral shirt blinked nervously, taken off guard by the unexpected tirade. ”We have a delivery for Madame Trudeau!” the voice apologised.

Chantal raised herself on tiptoes and followed the procession behind the first delivery man and saw three other men in brightly coloured floral shirts, each holding a massive bouquet of a hundred red roses and accompanied by three matching antique vases. Chantal melted at the sight and immediately let the delivery men into the suite unhindered and decided to adorn Madame’s bedroom with the surprise.

Angelina’s face swiftly turned from shocked intrusion to delight as she watched the procession of sweet smelling Rosa floribunda Europeana fill her room. Then the head delivery man bowed and respectfully handed Madame a lavish card.

With deeply troubled eyes and a whispered, “Thank you,” Angelina took the expensively decorated envelope while Chantal barked and hustled the four men back into the hotel foyer.

As Angelina removed the magnificent greeting card from its envelope, a diamond studded bracelet dropped into her lap and stole her breath away, making it difficult to reorient her attention to the words on the note. Holding the extravagant gift and with her hand trembling, Angelina began to read.

I apologise, Chérie. I have been called away on important business but hope to be back with my angel soon. Please rest and get well. Chantal and Clayton have been told not to move from your side until I return and Doctor Bonnet will arrive by corporate jet number two and will remain at your disposal until you are completely well again. Your devoted amour, Armon.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 28

 

From the stage of the empty Auditorium Stravinski, Niccolo broke off in mid screech and waved his hand above his head to the sound desk tucked neatly into the back wall of the vast concert venue. “Too much feedback!” he bellowed through the microphone.

“Try it now!” a voice echoed over the intercom from the darkened sound booth.

Niccolo screeched again and this time he held up a thumb and bellowed through his microphone, “Bellissimo, signor!

Niccolo and the Sticky Lizards were again the first act up tonight, but he had no idea how Monsieur had arranged for a relatively new group to continually command centre stage. It seemed wherever they went success and adoration followed, but Niccolo was beginning to feel edgy and wondered how long his luck could possibly hold. They needed to strike hard while they rode the wave of popularity and surf right into the marketplace, cashing in on the current buzz and making as many gold records as they could.

If only he knew how.

Before the band could launch into another rapturous practised catastrophe, Niccolo bawled once again into the microphone, “Time please, anyone?!”

“11:45!” the replies came from all over the empty venue.

“I have to go!” Niccolo announced decisively.

“But what about practice? We are only halfway through!” disgruntled band members spat.

“I’ll be back. I can’t miss an opportunity to make a name for myself,” Niccolo answered, but then considered his words and realised they probably wouldn’t be welcomed by the other band members.

Roberto, the drummer, picked up immediately on Niccolo’s intention and fired a broadside at the screeching charismatic. “How come suddenly it’s all about you, Niccolo? We’re a team are we not? Born to the streets and struggling together as brothers, sharing everything throughout our difficult lives. Isn’t that our backstreet heritage, Niccolo? Or don’t you remember the poverty of Naples?!”

Niccolo held the drummer’s eyes for a long moment and then smirked. “I remember all too well the stench of poverty and I’m never going back there. My words were a little… unfortunate, Roberto, and yes, we are brothers struggling to be rid of poverty’s lifeless tentacles but we must take every opportunity to shake off the blanket of death and wrap ourselves in the life of riches.”

Roberto eyed the self-assured singer as he jumped down from the stage and walked toward the exit, suspicious of his motives and certain his words were full of duplicity. “Where are you going, Niccolo? We are right in the middle of practice,” Roberto demanded, intent on inflicting his will on the escaping reprobate.

“I have an appointment to collect something, but I doubt the person will show and I feel I am just the innocent victim of a vicious scam. It won’t take too long. I will be back.”

Acknowledging he had finished with the conversation, Niccolo waved his hand above his head but didn’t bother to look back. Eventually he disappeared through the exit doors and out onto the quays, leaving the band members gossiping about his mysterious rendezvous. Quickly donning a pair of dark sunglasses and wandering down the Quai de Vernex toward Montreux, Niccolo struggled through the festival crowds, slowing his walking pace and leaving him pondering whether a taxi would have been a better proposition. Once or twice he glanced at young women passing by pointing at him, whispering and giggling then gawking backwards, trying to establish the identity of the dark haired peachy dish nonchalantly striding in the other direction.

The midday sun seemed to be more potent than he imagined for this stage of year and by the time he entered the Quai de la Rouvenaz, he was tiring and wishing he had taken a taxi. Through the aimless crowded quay, the statue of Freddie Mercury gradually gained perspective and with each step, the gregarious image pulled tighter into focus. Niccolo’s ambitious gait slowed, passing by the busy Covered Markets and bringing Mercury’s graven image—cemented upon the picturesque walkway—starkly into view. As he slowed his pace further, Niccolo saluted the convivial statue in an expression of disdain and whispered under his breath, “You will be nothing but a faded memory, Signor Mercury, but the fame and legend of Niccolo Visintino will live on forever.

Pleased with himself and feeling secure and lighthearted in his future ambition, Niccolo increased his stride until he entered the access to Le Palais Oriental, searching the Arabian Knights’ interior for a hazy face and the dubious reward. Niccolo’s nefarious rendezvous was taking an extreme risk, with the possibility of being recognised by powerful allies, keeping Niccolo on edge. This new association could be a reckless connection, damaging his ambitious desires in a perceived but innocent doublecross, yet the promise of money was just too good to turn down.

Niccolo’s steps abruptly halted, staring at a face among two faces scrutinising him with eager interest from a table set for three. A man near Niccolo’s age beckoned him to the empty seat, yet Niccolo’s frozen gaze refused to shift from the older man perched opposite his younger counterpart. The older man wore a plain grey kaftan, long brown hair, a well kempt beard and two piercing blue eyes that drew Niccolo’s attention and disarmed his nervous doubt. The older man seemed well at home among the intense Moroccan surrounds and the spicy odours emanating from every nook and cranny, but the scene was completely foreign to Niccolo’s experience. Unable to resist the enchanting charismatic smile, Niccolo’s feet began to move without his permission and forcefully deposited him into the empty seat. The young man began to speak, but Niccolo couldn’t avert his look from the older of the two, the hypnotising blue eyes seemingly searching his soul and pointing out to his conscience every misdeed he’d ever committed.

“Mr Visintino?!” the young voice tried again with a little more volume this time.

Niccolo begrudgingly turned away from the smiling blue eyes and focused on the young voice.

“I see by your success with Sfidare il Male, you took my advice.”

“Advice? Oh, yes, it did work a treat,” Niccolo admitted, glancing back at the older man but playing it down and not wanting to give anyone credit for any part of the Sticky Lizards’ new song.

All eyes suddenly locked onto the older man’s unexpected clamour, bursting into raucous laughter as Niccolo attempted unsuccessfully to hide the glory.

“I see your band brothers were a little suspicious of your poorly timed disappearance, Niccolo.”

Niccolo stared at the bearded man, his mouth hanging open in shock, but he quickly brought the surprise back in check and tried to play his hand.

The younger man spoke, interrupting Niccolo’s gawk. “This is Robere Maccabaeus, Niccolo, and there isn’t much he doesn’t know,” the younger man introduced with obvious respect.

The older man ignored the young man’s attempts at flattery and continued on as if the young man hadn’t spoken, “Treachery, Niccolo, has many friends. But honesty, like his cousin integrity, stands alone.”

The profound words stuck in Niccolo’s mind and like a rattling washing machine, he churned over their meaning.

“We have a gift and a proposition for you and your band,” the younger man spoke. “First the payment you required for letting me… interfere, I think was the word you used when you and I met last.”

The young man placed a briefcase on the table and lifted a bulging envelope from within. Niccolo’s eyes were huge, watching in complete disbelief as an enormous sachet was placed in front of him.

“Fifty thousand euro I believe it was.”

Niccolo swallowed hard. The monetary figure had been a sudden impulse to rid himself of the annoying young teenager when he had approached Niccolo during a practice session and offered his suggestions for Sfidare il Male. Not only had the suggestion worked, but the crowd went wild with the young man’s ideas.

“It’s all there, Monsieur Visintino. Please count it if you so desire,” the teen urged.

“N… no, its alright,” stunned into silence Niccolo peeked inside to the wad of cash.

The blue eyed older man nodded to the teenager across the table and the young man spoke again, “I have several recording contracts here for you to choose from with the big four recording labels to cut as many songs as you wish. All it needs is your signatures.”

Niccolo stared in disbelief at the four separate official looking contracts, all signed by company executives with a blank space beside the artists’ signatures.

“I assure you they are quite real and I have a direct line to the executives if you want verification,” the teen pulled out an elaborate smartphone and offered it to Niccolo, but he waved the gesture away. “Although a recording contract maybe just a little premature at this point. I have direct access to the Eurovision people, too. One phone call and the Sticky Lizards will be a worldwide overnight sensation.”

Niccolo’s cheeks were red, trying to comprehend what was happening. “W… why would you do all this for me and my band?”

The blue eyed man’s face suddenly beamed and a charismatic smile tugged on Niccolo’s heartstrings, leaving no doubt the older man was completely trustworthy.

“It’s simple, Niccolo. God has chosen you and has His hand upon you for success. All you have to do is let the young maestro here write your music for you. It will be along your usual style and you will have the final say and the power of veto. Just so you can see that we mean what we say,” the older man nodded and another bigger bulging envelope was placed on the table in front of Niccolo. “One hundred thousand euro as a gift in good faith, Niccolo.”

Niccolo almost fainted as the new packet emerged. “I… I will have to speak with Monsieur Trudeau about this,” Niccolo stuttered, looking for a means of escape but his eyes wouldn’t leave the two bulging envelopes flaunted in grasping distance from his fingers.

“Armon Trudeau will agree wholeheartedly when he sees the success you will generate and the door sales. Your music style will not change, although it will be greatly enhanced. We are committed to God’s will, Niccolo, and helping you to achieve His will for your life.”

Before Niccolo could stop his lips from moving, he found himself agreeing to the older man’s terms before thinking through the consequences.

“Excellent, Niccolo! But just a little warning…”

Niccolo’s eyes were like saucers, thinking he had walked into a trap and now the door was being slammed behind him.

“In future, you will need more than dark sunglasses to hide from your fans, and walking alone in a public place will be a thing of the past.”

Niccolo smirked, pushing out the chair with his knees and grabbed the two envelopes from the table, feeling both pleased and unsure of what he had just done.

“Wait, before you leave… your gift, Niccolo,” the blue-eyed man nodded at the teen.

A slightly blurred black and white photograph of a pretty young woman in her early teens was placed on the tablecloth and it caught Niccolo’s attention immediately, staring at the long, curly black locks, the fine cheekbones and obvious sculptured features. The tired background looked vaguely familiar too, but he couldn’t place it.

“Who is this young girl?” Niccolo ventured and his curiosity piqued, but he had no idea why.

“Her name is Vincenza Morola, Niccolo, and her number is written on the back. Why don’t you give her a call and introduce yourself?”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 29

 

At the back of the Auditorium Stravinski’s fifth floor, the band-break-room walls reverberated with bad blood. Niccolo had been gone for over an hour now and Roberto had almost convinced the remaining band members to mutiny and leave Niccolo to practise on his own. Just as the deciding vote to enact the coup swung in favour of Roberto, the entry door crashed open and Niccolo’s confident stride broke in, startling the secretive warring factions. Niccolo, distracted by the new deal, didn’t notice the stern faces and announced an excited greeting, eager to explain the new sponsor and the deal he had offered.

Still bristling with the attempted coup, Roberto listened, unimpressed and with a quick glance around at the faces enthralled by Niccolo’s rhetoric, he tried to gauge the support for his argument. “So, we just let somebody we have never seen or heard of before, write and choreograph all of our material!” Roberto argued. “You fell for a line, enticing you with phoney recording contracts, Niccolo. And what of our current sponsor, Monsieur Trudeau? Do you think he will just step back and let you do this?!”

“I know it sounds too good to be true, Roberto, but Monsieur Trudeau doesn’t need to know. They have assured me our style will not change and it will be difficult to pick that someone else has written our content. All we have to do is sing, play and collect the rewards,” Niccolo hesitated, thinking carefully about his next thought before releasing it into public airspace. “They’ve already proven their ability with Sfidare il Male, and look how the crowds are reacting to that!”

A disgruntled murmur erupted across the group. “What do you mean, Niccolo? I thought the new number was all your idea?!” Roberto folded his arms across his chest in defiance, demanding their lead singer explain.

Niccolo sighed deeply, knowing he had to quickly come clean and divulge his treachery if the band were to accept the new proposal. “A young signor approached me during practice break one day a few weeks back and offered me some ideas, but I fobbed him off. Nevertheless, I was curious and tried some of his suggestions and they fitted perfectly. Even the guitar and drum feud was his idea and the crowd chewed it up and swallowed it, looking for more.”

Astonished faces, fanned by Roberto’s challenging attitude, informed Niccolo he was about to be lynched if he didn’t find a way to convince the band this proposal was a good idea.

“Does it really matter what we sing or who writes it, so long as it sounds good and the crowd buy it? Lots of famous bands have their content written and choreographed for them,” Niccolo could see he had chosen the correct words and won an important battle. The young band members were nodding agreement and starting to side with him against Roberto.

“So what do these people get out of it?!” Roberto glared as the band members eagerly waited for Niccolo’s reply and ready to cross the floor again if his answer wasn’t sufficiently convincing.

The question broadsided Niccolo. He hadn’t even considered what their motives could be. “Fame and a cut of the profits, I guess.”

Niccolo’s answer fell flat and the support turned in favour of Roberto again, leaving Niccolo frantically searching for a clincher and then suddenly he had the answer.

“I have a promotional gift from our new silent sponsor and I’m sure it will convince you of their sincerity,” Niccolo reached under his jacket and removed the larger envelope and placed it on the table, but kept the smaller one carefully hidden from view. “There, open it and see if this man is not good to his word.”

Roberto tore open the envelope and spilled piles of 100 euro bills onto the table, immediately drawing the band members around the counter in an astonished frenzy.

“Have you ever seen 100,000 euro before, Roberto?”

 

~

 

Band practice that afternoon seemed stifled and lifeless as the band members concentrated on the small divided fortune instead of the evening’s performance. One hundred thousand euro divided by six suddenly didn’t seem so awesome, while many thoughts of treachery stretched across musical minds, suffocating the natural rhythm and delivering a noticeable decline in the band’s performance. Niccolo called for a break, signalling the sound desk and almost immediately, the auditorium dropped into stunned silence. It was obvious the band were struggling, but Niccolo had no idea how to reverse the lethargy he was feeling too and instil the energy needed. Lowering his skinny frame to the stage floor and taking a seat on the drop off, his legs dangled over the edge, swinging in time with the distraction eating at his mind. He reached inside a shirt pocket and removed the black and white photograph given to him by the blue-eyed man and studied the graceful lines of the girl and her stunning dark haired features.

A voice beside him startled Niccolo and soon he was surrounded by other band members. “Wow, Niccolo, what a young beauty! Is this your sister?”

Niccolo studied the photograph, extending the awkward silence, and then turned it over and read again the number for the hundredth time. “No!”

The depth of emotion in the simple word surprised the young men encircling Niccolo. “Then who is she?” the suspense grew as they waited for Niccolo’s answer.

Niccolo pulled in a long breath and sighed. “She… is my madre, I suspect.”

A sudden booming voice bellowed over the venue’s internal intercom and drew Niccolo’s attention away from the photograph.

Niccolo, you’re required in the sound booth, please!

Niccolo glanced up at the slender darkened room attached to the rear wall, but couldn’t see into the structure. He lifted his hand and waved, acknowledging the voice, then tucked the revered photograph back into his pocket, struggled up to his feet and jumped down from the stage. Watching Niccolo picking his way through the empty seats and disappear through the lower auditorium doors piqued the band’s curiosity, but in the absence of another distraction they ambled back to their instruments and began to indiscriminately jam, hoping to gain enthusiasm for the approaching performance.

The clanging, jarring instruments dropped into silence once again as the band members watched Niccolo re-enter the auditorium’s vast lower arena and haul himself up onto the stage, grasping a package and smiling as if he’d been invited on television to tell his life story. With a gesture to follow him, Niccolo strode for the band restroom, the remaining members anxiously trailing. Pushing the door open, Niccolo dropped the package to the table irreverently and waited for the chattering musicians to catch up. Once the six were in a secretive huddle and the door was tightly closed against prying eyes and ears, Niccolo ripped open the package and feasted his attention on a note and began to read out loud.

Your new song, Niccolo and Sticky Lizards. Please follow the easy instructions deliberately and enjoy the sound. The chords have been designed to resonate with the developing brain patterns of young people and interact positively with the high level of hormones found in maturing brain matter, releasing huge amounts of dopamine into the brain’s pleasure sensors and ensuring you have another hit. Music to their ears. Robere has instructed me to leave you another encouragement package. Regards, Maestro.

Another bulging envelope stuffed like a pillow sat on top of the music sheets, drawing expectant drooling stares from band members. “Open it, Niccolo! Let’s see how much we got!”

An excited ripple urged Niccolo on, leaving no doubt the band had accepted the new sponsor’s terms. Niccolo placed bundles of 1,000 euro in 100 euro bills onto the tabletop, counting as he went.

“One hundred and twenty thousand euro!” he finally announced.

“Let’s see that music, Niccolo!” Roberto excitedly declared, grasping the pages from the tabletop and hearing the chords in his mind as he read. With a pleased smile, Roberto grinned back at Niccolo. “Hey, this is good! Let’s give it a try on the instruments.”

Before long, the auditorium was rocking along with an enthusiastic melodic beat reverberating with powerful tones and drawing stage hands from every part of the building to listen. As the instruments combined into a crescendo of crashing noise and then abruptly dropped off to background fill, Niccolo’s screech entered the fray, repeating over and over, “Sfidare Dissenso,” and drawing hypnotised adoration from around the venue until the instruments once again maxed out, deliberately taking mesmerised minds to the edge of sanity and the verge of hysteria.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 30

 

With an official staff ID card dangling from a fabric necklace, Ryan stared in awe at the band practising on the Auditorium Stravinski stage not more than fifty metres away, fully engrossed in their emotional music but waiting reverently for their practice to finish before switching on the backpack vacuum cleaner strapped to his back. Transfixed by an apparent new song and bringing the vast auditorium complex to a standstill, the enchanting rehearsal riveted its audience into worshipful silence, listening intently and hoping the moment would last forever. The chords wavered and tingled, striking the eardrum at precisely the right resonance, mingling with sharply erratic brain signals then smoothing and coaxing the rough electric pulsing patterns into a flowing and energetic emotional curve, opening up a doorway into the hypnotised listener’s psyche by the singer’s words and graffiting just a faint hint of suggestion onto the unsuspecting spectator’s heart.

Defeated by time, the group drifted into the final moments of rehearsal and all too soon they called a wrap, abruptly pulling the plug on their audience’s emotional ride and sending disappointed workers scurrying back to their work yet leaving the pleasing rhythmic throb continuing to tease distracted minds. Ryan sighed heavily, still dazed by the music and eager to hear more of the group that had so quickly made the number one spot on his top forty.

Watching his heroes desert the stage, Ryan reached behind his back to the chrome cylinder, searching for the switch to begin the arduous task of cleaning the vast music complex. Finding the protruding key, he swatted the toggle and the cleaner burst into life, drowning out every other recognisable sound. Over 2,000 seats in two levels crammed the expansive hall and it would take him every bit of the allotted ninety minutes to vacuum around the sprawling amphitheatre’s capacity. The time allowed had been strategically calculated by a boardroom brainstorming session, so Ryan couldn’t afford to stop or slow down. Paying crowds would be entering to see the Sticky Lizards’ performance soon and a dirty auditorium would result in Ryan’s immediate dismissal. The 800 seat upper mezzanine bulged out from the back wall, acting as an umbrella to the entry hall of the lower floor, seemingly protecting it from an imagined rainstorm that would never come. The upper mezzanine, small in comparison to the sprawling scene underneath, commanded an impressive view of the stage, performers and the 1,200 seat spaces less than ten metres below.

A snaking electrical cord just long enough to reach from the only wall plug on the mezzanine to its furthest corner tangled around seat frames, constantly pulling the plug and cutting the power, forcing Ryan to remove the pack from his back, walk the distance to the plug and reconnect the power. Being extremely careful not to miss anything, he worked each row meticulously, vacuuming around individual seats and concentrating hard. But he found the constant struggle dividing his attention between the dirty floor and the tangling cord to be a nail-biting challenge and frustrating his efforts to keep up with the cracking pace expected of him. Costing him vital minutes and pushing him ever closer to the looming deadline.

The honey coloured cherrywood floor made it easy to identify areas requiring the vacuum’s attention, but it also made it easy for a prowling manager to audit his progress and pinpoint an area he’d inadvertently missed, bringing about a stiff reprimand; or if the authority figure felt less benevolent, send him home for his misdemeanour. Developing a fail-safe mechanism in an attempt to avert the feared situation and as Ryan finished a row of chairs, he lifted the toggling seat bases into the raised position, giving him a tangible picture of where he had cleaned and an easy reference point to glance over his work, checking for anything unseen.

Reaching the forward extremity of the mezzanine, Ryan briefly glanced down over the safety railing, pondering the unattended band equipment and focusing on the flashy electric guitars as an ill-timed daydream unwisely settled across his mind. He wondered what it would be like to feel the sleek lustre of the flashy guitar, blending the highly polished instrument with his own magnetic fleshy fingers and coaxing the machine to sing within his semi-experienced grasp. Ryan could almost feel the spotlight burning down on top of his head whilst the guitar flashed and reflected, mesmerising his audience. With a solo looming, the guitar’s voice reached for the stars, vibrating and warbling with electric hysteria, drawing the crowd into roaring euphoric adoration and chanting, “Ryan…! Ryan…! Ryan!

“They’re good, aren’t they?!” a voice beside Ryan bawled above the vacuum’s noise, evaporating the daydream in a swirling mist of imagination and making him jump with fright as a teenager about Ryan’s age drew alongside and tried to engage him in a conversation.

Sorry, I can’t hear you!” Ryan shouted above the vacuum.

The teenager made a gesture with his finger over his oesophagus as if he was cutting his own throat. Ryan cottoned on and shut down the machine.

“I can’t stop! If I’m caught talking I’ll lose my job!”

The stranger smiled. “I won’t keep you. It’s Ryan, isn’t it?”

Ryan began to feel uncomfortable. “How did you know?”

The stranger smirked and pointed to Ryan’s ID and then backwards to the sound booth. “The techs watch you come in and then copy every move the Sticky Lizards make. They’re good aren’t they, the Sticky Lizards, that is?”

Ryan, keen to fob off the stranger and get back to work, stared at the teen, contemplating how to rid himself of the intruder but he couldn’t help bubbling over in adoration for his musical idols. “Way… way… cool! I wish I could play like that!” Ryan’s eyes sparkled.

“Can you play?” the stranger prodded.

“Yeah, but I’m not in their league,” Ryan admitted.

“They call me the Maestro, Ryan, and I’m sensing that God has a plan for you in music.”

“God?!” Ryan reacted as if he had been stung and surprised to hear the comment from someone so young.

The stranger held Ryan’s gaze momentarily, making Ryan feel uncomfortable. “It’s not so inconceivable that the master musician should have a plan for you. After all, these guys you idolise were taken from the streets as unknowns and now look at them,” the smirk reappeared across the stranger’s face, but he remained undeterred by Ryan’s disbelief. “I’m kinda like the Sticky Lizards’ unofficial advisor. Would you like to meet the band and maybe jam along with a couple of the guitarists?”

WOULD I?!” Ryan almost jumped out of his skin and the sudden exclamation drew surprised gapes from the sound booth.

“Leave it with me and I’ll arrange it. Meet you back here this time tomorrow and bring your guitar.”

Ryan coughed. “I… I don’t have a guitar. The one I had belonged to the school and I had to hand it back when I left recently.”

The teen smirked again. “No problem, Ryan, I’ll arrange one for you, too. See you tomorrow.”

Ryan swallowed hard, watching the teenager ascend the sloping floor to the back wall, push the exit doors open and disappear from view. “Yeah, right, Monsieur God-man! That’ll be the last time I see you, dude!” Ryan admitted bitterly, then turned to face the stage again, drooling over the flashy expensive guitars only metres away and hoped the stranger was able to keep his word. He jolted fully awake from his daydream and felt disturbed, as if he was being watched and switched the vacuum back on quickly before sweeping the auditorium with a guilty gaze and inadvertently locking onto Alex’s questioning glare boring into him from below.

Have you finished yet, Ryan? Alex mimed so Ryan could understand his meaning, but the concern was also conveyed.

Ryan shook his head then deliberately turned away and went about his work with renewed gusto, continually churning over the Sticky Lizards’ new song and replaying the teenager’s offer with growing dubious doubt, certain he had been scammed, but hopeful the Maestro character would come good with his promise.

 

~

 

Pushing the door open into the janitor’s room located at the back of the stage, Ryan hefted the backpack cleaner from his aching torso and placed the machine back in its locker. He glanced up at the clock and smiled; eighty-seven minutes it had taken Ryan to finish the job.

Alex came in seconds later, obviously concerned about Ryan’s unwise break right in full view of lurking managers. “Did you finish it?” Alex’s unease was evident in his sharp question.

Ryan smiled victoriously. “Yep, three minutes to spare.”

“Be careful stopping to talk, Ryan. There are people in authority roaming around searching for that kind of felony but they won’t ask questions. They’ll just send you on your way, regardless whether you’d finished the job in record time or not. All they see is someone not working and that could delay an expensive performance, causing scheduling delays throughout the night. A volunteer cleaner is far more expendable than an opening act… get my drift?”

“Yep, sorry, Alex. I’ll do better tomorrow.”

Alex slapped Ryan on the back affectionately, “Good lad,” then turned for the door to leave.

“Are you heading home, Alex?” Ryan’s voice cut short Alex’s exit.

“No, as a matter-o-fact I was going to find a staff seat at the back of the mezzanine foyer and listen to the Sticky Lizards. Do you wanna join me?”

Ryan nodded vigorously. “Do you mind?”

“Course not; let’s go.”

Just as Alex and Ryan settled into the last remaining seats of a vacant row expressly reserved for staff wanting to listen to performances but out of view of the main auditorium, Ryan’s face contorted with intense concentration and stunned Alex with a jaw-breaking question.

“Alex, does God have a plan for people’s lives who aren’t Christians?”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 31

 

A flashlight guided by an austere hand roamed the staff seating area, shining the light into faces and checking staff ID cards. His own face reflected in the straying torchlight beam, pale grey and stern like a train ticket examiner about to uncover a fare evader. As the manager recognised Alex, he smirked, most probably wondering why an older man would subject himself to a rock concert designed for teens and early twenties. Satisfied the row contained only legitimate staff and no one was trying to gate-crash, the manager shut down his flashlight and wandered away, looking for another unsuspecting group to harass.

Ryan redirected his attention away from the escaping authoritarian figure, peering over the safety rail some distance away and down onto the empty stage below. It wouldn’t be long before the band entered, ready to wow the expectant crowd. Ryan stifled a laugh as he imagined a scene, a mind picture he’d grown up with. The lower level of the Stravinski Auditorium resembled a cow shed just prior to milking time, with excited crowds holding expensive tickets, milling around seats and waiting with eager pain to find their allotted placement before the master herder arrived. With an amused grin still evident, Ryan glanced sideways at Alex, wondering whether he had heard his question, yet from the concentrated expression etched across the older man’s face, he felt certain Alex had comprehended and was entertaining some kind of reply.

Distracted by an approaching staff member shoe-horning between the back rests of the next row and seated patrons, Alex shuffled in his seat, turning almost sideways to avoid making knee contact as the excited fan took ownership of the last remaining seat. Once Alex had recovered from the knee gymnastics, he hesitatingly tackled Ryan’s enquiry. “That’s a deep question for someone who has just finished work. Where did this come from?”

Ryan wavered, tussling with Alex’s response and wondered whether he should disclose Maestro’s conversation and his offer, but felt sure to some extent at least Alex had already guessed.

“The teenager who interrupted you while you were vacuuming?” Alex suggested, hoping God had enlisted someone of Ryan’s age to come alongside him and engage with Alex in the battle for Ryan’s soul.

He nodded, holding Alex’s gaze with unmoving eyes.

“Tell me what he said and then I can try to answer you.”

Ryan shyly averted his eyes and stared at the floor, hoping Alex’s reply would give him the ammunition he so desperately wanted to justify a career in music. His troubled thoughts momentarily drifted back to the statue of Freddie Mercury and the tangled emotions just prior to the high school graduation ceremony. The strong pull still had Ryan torn by the expectations of his parents, pursuing his own encapsulating dream and finding authoritative justification to salve his conscience for the path he’d already chosen.

Ryan mumbled incoherently.

“What was that?” Alex laughed.

Ryan lifted his head from staring at the floor, faced Alex and tried again. “He said he was sensing God had a plan for me in music.”

Alex recognised the typical teenage expression pleading for an affirming answer. However, Ryan’s statement took Alex by surprise, stirring up a guarded thought. Although God does use specific individuals to speak into other lives, He rarely gives a third party such intimate knowledge of His plan for another human being. However, before Alex could attempt a reply, the dim venue lights momentarily blacked out, followed by the blinding coloured flash of spotlights from the stage and then the escalating roar of the crowd.

A crescendo of crashing instruments flooded across the rowdy audience, drowning out the adulation with a solid wall of noise, stretching the auditorium’s capacity to restrain the magnitude-three-earthquake with its epicentre concentrated on the auditorium’s stage. Just as the auditorium’s straining walls quavered and pitched wearily, heaving the load onto faltering shoulders, Niccolo’s impassioned screech belched across the crowd, almost seeming to cripple the structure’s will to hold the roof above the floor. With the strange bawling introduction complete, Niccolo and the band bowed, allowing the crowd’s adoring praise to wash over highly inflated egos before embarking on more familiar soundtracks.

The Sticky Lizards’ impassioned beat, accompanied by Niccolo’s fervent screech, wandered into familiar territory and when the vivacious rhythm of Sfidare il Male drifted across the horde, emotions exploded in a grinding dance and whipped the scene into a cathedral of worship. Surrounded by vastly younger people in a row designed for twenty individuals, Alex was the only body still in his seat. Even Ryan was on his feet waving his hands around animatedly, singing along with the words and copying every move Niccolo made.

When Sfidare il Male finally fell silent, the worshippers erupted, chanting and demanding more, prompting Niccolo to glance back at the band and signal. It was time to introduce their new number. Without stopping to allow the crowd to settle, the Sticky Lizards exploded into the introduction and before long, Sfidare Dissenso was wreaking havoc across the hypnotised audience. Needless for translation, the frantic crowd sang along with Niccolo, Defy Dissension, as if Niccolo had sung it in English. Stubbornly refusing to let the bracket finish, the crowd insisted he and the band perform the new song three more times until Niccolo found a strategic lull, quickly moving on to older, less enticing material. Exhausting their repertoire and under rapturous approval, the performance had reached a climax and the sweating performers grasped at the wild worship before reluctantly walking from the stage.

Alex and Ryan mingled in the foyer with the excited crowd, listening to the superlatives dripping from the lips of the young entranced audience. Enraptured by the concert too, Ryan’s constant jabbering… ‘way… way… way… cool…!’ resonated in Alex’s ears, amazed at the effect the music was having.

Passing close to a group of teenage girls, Alex was struck dumb when he overheard the gathering apologising to a member of their scene for causing her grief. The girls encircled their injured colleague and hugged her and then came the words that shook Alex to the core.

Remember the new song: Defy Dissension.

 

~

 

Alex wandered along the crowded Quai de Vernex deep in thought, with Ryan following close beside in an excited and semi-coherent frame of mind after the Sticky Lizards’ concert. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains, refracting rose coloured light into the balmy twilight summer evening. It seemed wherever he directed his attention, he could hear ecstatic praise for Niccolo and the band erupting among young people gathered together in huddles, followed by infatuated sighs among worshipping female fans. The group’s popularity was burgeoning and social media was crackling with all kinds of offers for the attractive, dark haired apparition if only he would come close enough to collect it.

It was obvious Ryan had heard the infatuated talk too, eager to push Alex for an answer. “S… so, do you think God has a plan for me in music, Alex?!”

The awkward question shook Alex, knowing Ryan was expecting some kind of answer, but this was a subject only God Himself could respond to. Hoping to delay Ryan’s enquiry and spend time silently praying, Alex offered to buy some carnival food from his favourite street vendor before delivering a conclusion that would hopefully lead Ryan in the right direction and come to the correct assumption for himself.

 

~

 

It had been a long walk from the Auditorium Stravinski to Alex’s favourite food vendor, only metres away from Freddie Mercury’s frozen image and the cavernous Covered Markets. The spicy food smells wafting on the still night air made Ryan’s stomach groan with hunger, while Alex’s answer to Ryan’s profound problem seemed further away with every impatient step he took. The mass of humanity mingling around the street vendor only made Ryan more edgy until finally, Alex chatted brightly to the vendor as he made up their food order. Finding a seat on the circular ponton suspendu, an observation deck built just off the shoreline over Lac Léman’s dark water and facing the bright busy hub of the Place du Marché, Alex drew in a long breath as Ryan bit down hard into a piquant roll.

“To answer your original question, Ryan… yes, God does have a plan for each person’s life whether they be Christian or not. Yet if you don’t know Papa God, then you can’t know His mind for the plan He has for you. It’s a difficult thing for any person to claim to know God’s will for someone else. Intimacy of this kind is usually and deliberately reserved for each child of God and their God alone. That’s why Papa God is so tough on judging others. Unknowingly you could be judging something strange that God is doing in that person’s life and inadvertently, you may end up judging God Himself and that’s a dangerous thing to do. Once you understand each person has been deliberately created in God’s image and every person has a God-purpose and a reason to be alive, then it’s simple to understand that God equips each one of His creation with the gifts and desires to fulfil that purpose. So, what you are good at, is usually a big clue.”

Ryan paused in mid chew and smiled. He had just heard what he was hoping to hear.

Alex saw the big smile and cautiously continued, “However, it is very difficult to find God’s will for your life when you are in rebellion to Him, Ryan.”

The smile suddenly disappeared from Ryan’s face. “What do you mean?!”

Alex shifted on his seat, ignoring the heat radiating through the paper bag containing his meal. “You can be directed and used by God to effect your purpose, but you can’t be truly at one with God’s purpose without first knowing Him. You have to know Him to approach Him in prayer and then He will eventually direct you to discover His purpose for your life. Anything other than relationship with your God and Creator is assumption on your part, and could lead to you missing the best and fulfilling the highest purpose for your life. I might add, it’s what we allow God’s Holy Spirit to do through us that counts, not what we do for God.”

Ryan held Alex’s glower with a confused expression. “Huh?!”

“Consider this, Ryan. A Christian mother seeks God’s will for her life with tears and heartfelt prayer. She longs to be used in some public office to bring people to Christ in large numbers, but all she is told to do is raise her family and teach them diligently about Papa God. She prays for her small flock and she does this year-after-year-after-year continuously. From her obedience and teaching, a Godly seed is planted among her offspring and a powerful man of God is raised and wins many people.

“Then there is the high profile wealthy businessman, still in rebellion to his Creator. He thinks he can win God’s approval by doing it his own way and sending vast amounts of money to the poor. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble thing to do, but God wanted him to be a Christian street evangelist using the business skills he was given to reach many lives, instead of building a successful secular company. Which one do you think is allowing the Holy Spirit to work through their lives, Ryan?”

Ryan went quiet. It seemed to him that someone was wrong in the conflicting advice he was getting and he was more confused than ever. The Maestro said he believed in God and thought Ryan was good enough to have a career in music. There was one easy way to find out who was right. If the Maestro didn’t show up tomorrow and make good with his claims, then he would know he wasn’t supposed to follow his dream.

But if he did…?

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 32

 

The unpaved forest road deviated and then made a gradual turn, leading quickly into a steep, uneasy climb and leaving Pensive struggling to find a sturdy place to position a hoof without stumbling and spilling the gallant rider to the gravelly surface. Openings in the heavily treed scenery offered a passing glimpse at the target of the nobleman’s journey and as a consequence, the high protected peaks of the fortified square watchtower drifted in and out of view, settling a pleasing smile upon the rider’s lips.

Château de Blonay, heavily defended and nestled high upon the sprawling mountainous terrain, commanded a breathtaking panoramic view to Lac Léman far below; but nurtured within the defining castle walls, abided another elusive breathtaking view even more pleasing to the nobleman’s eye. The beautiful Nicolaïde de Blonay had been a source of despair to many a determined suitor until she had met with a distasteful adventure, scandalously stolen from under Baron de Blonay’s very nose. Without so much as a donation to the family kit and to make trying matters worse, the Bernese overlords had taken the side of the thief, castigating the baron with unbending abuse for lacklustre parenting, although doing nothing themselves to return the sumptuous maiden to her rightful home.

A sudden stumble refocused the rider’s attention to the steeply graded path, grasping the saddle with anxious hands and encouraging his steed to wisely steel unsure fetlocks and limit an unsavoury end for both rider and beast. “Whoa…! Easy there, Pensive. It would not do to arrive at the castle hoping for an audience with a fair maiden and intending to pursue her hand, but only able to offer a poor sample of a bruised and bloody baron for a potential husband.”

As the towering stone walls of the Château de Blonay became more defined, the nobleman’s heart quickened, driven on by a consuming desire to feast on the beauty of the younger daughter de Blonay. Nicolaïde’s beauty was well known and celebrated, but Dominique, a flower of equal intensity, was not. Baron de Blonay had been to some degree successful in hiding his remaining jewel, but rumours had reached the aspiring Baron Willy de Bad; and intent on a wife, he had settled his fancy on the younger of Baron de Blonay’s daughters.

Arriving at the castle gate, Willy de Bad climbed down from his sweating and exhausted mount, leaving Pensive to recuperate in the capable hands of Blonay Castle’s expert stable staff. With a determined gait, the tall and handsome de Bad made a resolute path for the castle’s impressive front doors and announced his arrival to the attending servant. After hearing the introduction from the foyer hall, Baron Willy de Bad proudly strode into the Grande Salle and bowed his head toward the aging patriarch of Blonay Castle.

“I bring you greetings from the aristocracy of Rougemont. My father, Count Fredericke de Bad, enquires of your health and that of your household, and sends you a gift, a sack of the finest apples in the confederacy,” Baron Willy exclaimed in all good humour and boisterous confidence; but resting his eyes upon the downcast baron’s countenance, he ventured a question to the apparently morose older man. “What can possibly be of such a grievance to you, my lord?” Baron Willy’s concern for his intended future relative flowed over in exuberance.

The patriarch momentarily turned his attention from his grief and concentrated on the splendid young man gracing his home. His deeply sorrowful eyes searched the face of the athletic nobleman standing tall and proud in his presence. “It is uncanny, my young baron. You have a grave resemblance to the once famous Count Neilious de Diamonde.”

Baron Willy bowed at the compliment. “I am oft mistaken for the count, my lord. But what is the explanation for your downcast countenance?” de Bad persisted.

Baron de Blonay’s face fell into a contorted struggle with sorrow and then finally sighed aloud. “My youngest daughter, Dominique, has been abducted and has not been seen in two days!”

Baron Willy drew his cutlass from its scabbard in an act of sheer fury. ”Who would do such a scandalous thing?! Offer me the name of the cad and I will track him down and make dog meat from his unworthy carcass!”

Observing the young nobleman’s fire and his apparent interest in Dominique, it appeared resolutely possible the handsome man had more interest in the de Blonay household other than just their health and wellbeing. Maybe, de Blonay thought, the young baron’s resemblance was more like that of a suitor and perhaps the title described his intentions more honestly. With the stinging reproach from the Bernese overlords when Nicolaïde disappeared still haunting de Blonay’s mind and hoping to encourage the young hero to act solely for Baron de Blonay’s favour, Blonay enticed him with a near truth.

“I offer my daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings her safely back to me!” the reprehensible baron proclaimed, hoping to fuel the fire already burning in the chest of the brave Baron Willy de Bad.

“Then it is set, my lord! I will not rest until the fair Dominique once again graces the halls of this castle! But I warn you, Monsieur, prepare ye for a wedding for it is as good as done.” Baron Willy set off at an eager pace, determined to accomplish his objective while his heart burst at the thought of capturing the lovely maiden for his bride and tasting her new name in his mind as he strode.

Baroness… Dominique… de … Bad

 

~

 

An intense and steadily increasing chorus of pain quavered through Anne-Claire’s injured body. It seemed the more her mind became aware, the more frantically her muted pain sensors communicated with her brain, reporting in on suspected harm and urgently beckoning for the body’s repair mechanism to swing into damage control. Anne-Claire stirred, tasting the vile gritty dirt forced into her nose and mouth through her unconventional landing, but attempts to move or clear the offending matter brought an immediate aggravated response from her pounding head. Emphasising her brain’s dissatisfaction, her stomach enlisted its gurgling voice, threatening to purge its content should the brain’s wishes be overridden.

Slowly, two fragile grey eyes blinked open, only to be met by a forceful wall of blackness and the ever-present dank, musty smell of confined and uncirculated air. Straining to identify shapes in her silent black prison and threatened with the insistent demands from her brain, tiny pinpricks of streaking colour shot across struggling retinas, signalling her eyes were endeavouring a pointless adjustment and vainly attempting to focus on something… anything!

But instead, blinded by the absolute absence of light.

Anne-Claire silently prodded the confused hallways of her logic, drawing on her memory and pushing her chaotic mind to function coherently. Yet the dire situation stubbornly remained entangled in an unknown wall of perplexed brain fog. A deep throbbing ache pounded through her neck and head, using eager pain sensors to sharpen her thoughts and reluctantly forcing her brain out of the murky stupor from which it’d chosen to hide. The whole bizarre experience was making her feel desperately frightened and unwell.

Fighting the desire to sleep and overruling her brain’s demands to remain still and quiet, Anne-Claire attempted to rise from the sandy floor in an effort to make sense of the dubious sinister world she’d unwittingly fallen into. As she pushed herself into a sitting position, she felt something warm streaming down her forehead in a constant flow and dripping from the end of her nose. Beleaguered by an increasing wall of terror, her head pounded and her stomach wretched. Nevertheless, the turbulence of her dark, silent world gathered pace and spun out of control, threatening to shut down her conscious mind and slam her damaged body back to the gritty floor. Gasping air uncontrollably and forcing her mind to stay alert, she guardedly closed her eyes and waited, hoping the spinning would slow enough to calm her dangerously tilting world and exit the spiralling vortex.

After a while the violence subsided, allowing Anne-Claire to lift a shaking hand to her forehead and gently trace the profile of her skull with her fingertips, only to discover a sizeable wound beneath her hair. Smarting and impertinent pain sensors fired off like a jabbering crowd, protesting when her fingers gently explored the site, warning her that the injury was sensitive and demanding she do something to stem the tide of escaping lifeblood. In the gloom, darkness toyed with her mind and filled her imagination with all kinds of dread, deceiving her blurry consciousness and imploring it to believe the injury was more than serious. The unrelenting pain seemed to confirm her worst suspicions, making her feel weak and allowing fear to do its work, paralysing logical thought and forcing calm into a hasty retreat. For the first time in her life, she contemplated a lonely death; and with bags in hand, panic moved in, hoping for a prolonged, unhindered stay.

Grandpa’s wise and reassuring face abruptly flashed before her and as always, he seemed to entice her to fight on and not give up. With the corners of her eyes filling with torrents of despair and mingling with blood and grit, she took strength from her hero’s apparent encouragement, filling the young woman with a calm determination to fight for her life. With a new fire burning, she swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, displacing the tears along with a dubious slippery brew and then waved her hands around in the dark, searching for anything solid and recognisable. Her fingers brushed against something obstinate and after cautiously feeling the surface with her hands, she recognised the rough texture of an unyielding rocky wall. Relieved to have identified a little of her blind world, she dragged her aching body closer, backed up to the barrier and leaned her torso against the cold, unmoving stone while belligerently ignoring the violent hammering inside her head.

Just for a few seconds, the fog hiding lucid brain pathways lifted, exposing reason like a break in heavy cloud on a stormy day and allowing the warm, encouraging sun to shine through. With a sudden clear thought, Anne-Claire patted the pocket of her Bermuda shorts, searching for the handkerchief she always carried. Finding the folded cloth in the place she expected, her fingers worked feverishly trying to grip the uncooperative kerchief until she gradually wrestled the hiding material from her shorts pocket. The familiar soft feel of the folded fabric increased her hope and the darkness lost some of its sinister chagrin, allowing new courage to sweep through her mind.

After a lengthy battle with her leaking blood, Anne-Claire pushed a little harder against the wound, wincing with pain as the material found the sore spot and eventually the trickle conclusively stopped. Laying her head against the cold stone wall, she tried to find a comfortable position in which the pain seemed to be least, but no matter where she situated her injuries, some part of her body objected and complained until the ache demanded she shift again. Unconvincingly at first, relief began to cooperate after the cold numbed the tirade of exhausting complaints, eventually finding a position not too sore and also willing to bear the hurt the rest of her body would not. After a few tenuous hours the pain at last became manageable, allowing her to concentrate on her dilemma and clean the congealing blood and grimy grit from her eyes, nose and mouth.

This first act of re-establishing order out of chaos also became a catalyst for rational thought. Where am I now? Her musings began to reorient themselves in a fashion. That’s right! I remember searching the castle’s dungeon pillars for names engraved in the shape of an arrowhead. Lord Byron’s scratching I can recall. Then her memory stretched further and filled in the gap. The names… I found them! Just exactly like Grandpa said they would be. Dominique de Blonay and Baron Willy de Bad forming an arrow pointing to…? This must be the secret room that Grandpa had spoken of!

Anne-Claire gasped, but then logic’s haughty mouth entered the argument and cast doubt on her conclusion, forcing her to argue with herself. Get a grip, girl. The earthquake must have tripped the lights out and you’re probably still in the dungeon. But if that is so, then why hasn’t a castle guide come with a flashlight to help me and show me the way out? And how did I get this gash on my head? Anne-Claire strained her ears to listen for the sounds of rescue, but all she could hear was a far off… drip…drip…drip… as water forced its way into the stifling room.

Mesmerised by the water’s incessant song, an abrupt memory invited panic back and he settled beside Anne-Claire, fanning her imagination into a raging nightmare. The secret room must be below the surface of the lake…! Am I safe?!

From out of nowhere, a sudden distant movement rumbled around her as if reverberating off empty ancient halls and forcing her to hold her breath in fright… listening. Her eyes opened wide in the complete blackness, straining to recognise any moving shape and the author of her fear. But unable to discern fright from harm, Anne-Claire’s heart raced, pumping adrenaline through her injured body, throbbing through her mind and overtaxing the flimsy walls of consciousness. She flinched and stifled a scream, feeling reality draining through her fingertips while a gentle breeze wafted around her, caressing the softness of her skin as if someone had just walked past and disturbed the stagnant air.

Stretched beyond the realms of safety, Anne-Claire’s mind sought refuge in oblivion and shut down, opting to deal with the fallout from the sinister scene at a more congenial time.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 33

 

Awakening with a start, Anne-Claire stirred, fighting back waves of nausea and listening intently for the sounds of a challenge. Prepared to fight for her life, she held her breath for long moments, stressing her lungs and straining her ears, yet all she could hear in the inky blackness was her own heart pounding in a steady beat. Even the dripping water had stopped, leaving her dark world completely dumb. It seemed that whatever had threatened her had passed by unconcerned, or at least unaware of her presence and maybe in this instance the blanketing darkness had worked for her. She lifted an unsteady hand to the injury site and tenderly traced the outline of the wound. An egg-sized lump had formed but at least the blood flow had stemmed, leaving a rough, dry river bed as evidence to the trauma.

Diverting her attention away from the complaining lesion and stretching numb arms and legs in succession, she tried to gauge the depth of damage to her extremities. To her relief, all appeared sound and willing to cooperate. Anne-Claire’s mind had cleared to some extent too, lifting the black foggy curtain and making her feel calmer after the strange ordeal even though there seemed to be no explanation for the new vigour. Breathing deeply and considering a forming plan, she attempted to draw attention to her desperate plight and maybe bring rescuers scurrying to her aid.

A high-pitched scream rattled up and down the dank darkness, using every available muscle in her torso to lend its assistance to the volume and penetrate the encompassing prison walls. But holding her temples and trying to relieve the sudden onslaught of agony, her head began to complain in a barrage of pain. Caressing the injury with tender fingers and trying to allay the searing throbbing, Anne-Claire listened to the darkness in despair.

Not even a murmur or a breath of wind answered her desperate cry.

Then a sobering vision of the castle dungeon walls and roof entered her mind, figuring their sheer physical features were too overwhelming to carry the sound outside and with no sound able to penetrate into the strange solid rock prison. Frustration began to haggle against fear for dominance, but the seeping cold became a new contender in the race for Anne-Claire’s attention, causing the pain to amplify with every passing moment. She had to make an attempt to move from the numbing ground and force her cold limbs from their paralysed state, even with the possibility of stumbling over something unpleasant.

Cautiously pushing her palms to the floor, her fingers stumbled upon a hard, smooth surface. Anne-Claire winced and pulled her hand away from the unidentified article in a fearful act of revulsion, trying to distance herself from the object, unaware if the thing was alive and able to cause her harm. Cowering in the darkness, she listened intently for the sounds of scurrying movement, but nothing offered a clue, the atmosphere remaining intensely silent.

She swallowed hard and began to wonder what the thing could possibly be. Then with all the courage she could muster, she slowly reached down to the spot where she thought the vulgar object had been lurking and expecting an unpleasant response, cautiously searched the ground but ready to pull away if it inadvertently attacked. With a circular grasping motion, she searched the cold dark floor and jumped as her fingers brushed against its icy body; nevertheless she forced herself to continue the search, groping for the unmoving something and waiting for the feared response.

As her fingers cautiously gauged its cold frame, recognition slowly settled and a large grin flooded across her face. Turning the familiar item over, she felt for the stringy tentacles and followed the strands to their ends… they were still there. A huge sigh of relief echoed around the dark, pulling the thing into her grip and pressing it against her chest as if she had found a long lost friend. Fumbling with its face, she caressed it with a swiping finger until a small light broke into the gloom and filled her soundless world with… Bastone i vostri occhi insieme con Sicad!… repeated over and over and screamed at high volume from Niccolo’s tonsils and backed up by the crashing musical nightmare of the Sticky Lizards. Anne-Claire broke down and wept relieved tears. She had been infatuated with Niccolo ever since she’d first heard his music, but now he had saved her life and she was even more in love with the idol.

With Niccolo by her side offering a small light to divide the fearful darkness, Anne-Claire was no longer timid and frightened of the location. As the faint light emitting from the play function illuminated her surroundings, she could see she had stumbled into a winding passageway and the desire to explore became overwhelming. With Niccolo’s screech—filtered through minute earphones—rattling out into the unknown tunnel and the small LCD screen reflecting off the tunnel walls like a searchlight, Anne-Claire found the strength she needed to precariously lift herself from the floor into a unsteady standing position.

Supporting herself against the wall, she began to step along the corridor, picking her way with the aid of the tiny light. But a sudden giddy episode stopped her in mid tread and threatened to derail her adventure, sending her plunging back to the floor. Taking a number of quick breaths and with her head pounding from the exertion, the compelling biliousness finally settled into a dull throb. Eager to find shelter and a way out of the darkness, Anne-Claire lifted the screeching iPod above her head and noticed the corridor ahead deviated away from a straight line; instead turning sharply, as if surrounding something or diverting around a hidden hazard. Moving forward and sweeping the walls with her makeshift flashlight, Anne-Claire became aware that the corridor was leading to a narrow subway and appeared to descend deeply underground.

Approaching what seemed to be a hole in the ground but turned out to be a flight of ancient steps, she cautiously transferred her body weight to one leg and stepped down, her knee trembling under the strain as she descended. Reaching the bottom of the staircase, her last step splashed into a deep puddle and as she held the light above her head, she could see reflections of the light shimmering against the tunnel wall. Pondering the sight, she wondered if it was wise to continue, thinking maybe the water depth across her path wasn’t as innocent as it first seemed. The quandary of which route to take made her head ache. She shone the makeshift torch back the way she’d come and felt weak at the prospect of climbing the steep steps back into the darkness. Although the water across the path was an equal challenge without a gauge to measure its depth, she could be stepping into an unknown minefield but by then it might be too late and she didn’t feel strong enough to swim for her life.

“I must be under the lake by now,” Anne-Claire’s unsteady voice trembled with uncertainty into the still, musty air. Left with no other choice but to go on, Anne-Claire leaned against the damp tunnel walls for support and guardedly stepped into the unknown.

The water seemed cold at first and quickly the clear stagnant pools clouded over as her footsteps stirred up countless ages of dust and mud settled on the tunnel floor. As she stepped further, the sediment stuck to the bottom of her sandals and sucked down on her foot, making it difficult to lift her feet without substantial effort. Just ahead, the tunnel made a sharp turn to the right and jumped up slightly onto dry ground, but as she made the last struggling steps towards the darkened corner, the ground abruptly gave way under her feet, threatening to swallow her. A short, sharp scream escaped Anne-Claire’s lips as the sudden movement stole the dwindling courage from her resolve. The tunnel walls seemed to mock her, echoing her scream as she sank into the steadily deepening mud.

Struggling with all the strength she could muster and holding Niccolo above water, her foot contacted a solid rock shelf protruding into the sticky sludge and gave her a firm step to steel herself against. Breathing heavily and almost blinded by a throbbing headache, Anne-Claire waited for courage and strength to reunite in a marriage of cooperation, working together to free their dependant from a dire situation.

With a sudden burst of energy, Anne-Claire lunged from the mud, guided by courage and invigorated by strength with a little help from adrenaline’s surging stamina. Free of the cloying mess, Anne-Claire leaned heavily against the tunnel wall, panting and holding her aching head, at the same time taking stock of the situation and revulsed by the stench emanating from the clinging sludge caking her limbs. Quickly brushing as much of the slime from her legs as she could, the stench became overpowering and inescapable, adding to the pain throbbing through her brain. But as she tried to wash the staining chaos from her legs, it spread to her hands and arms, repulsing Anne-Claire to the point of gagging, putting an immediate halt to the mining operation and making it even more imperative to find an escape route. With anxiety and revulsion firmly onboard now, she quickly turned the bend in the tunnel and climbed the heavy sloping floor away from the pungent water.

A glimmer in the distance confused her. It looked like dappled daylight forcefully entering the tunnel, but just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming, she swiped the iPod and silenced Niccolo’s tinny screaming bawl and doused the light. Standing, staring at the invading light, Anne-Claire’s spirits soared and hope flooded her mind. She’d done it. She had escaped the dreadful darkness a-n-d found the secret room Grandpa had told her about.

Forgetting about Niccolo and the light source from the iPod, Anne-Claire hurried on towards the raiding daylight. Yet as she pressed on, the tunnel narrowed until it was barely wide enough for her to squeeze through. Committed to the narrow passage, she pushed against the dirt walls, thinking she was about to become stuck, but instead sucked in her stomach and made herself smaller. With a final concerted effort, Anne-Claire forced her way through a small opening hidden by a bush and into the bright daylight. Overwhelmed to be finally free, her emotions spilled over and she sobbed, tasting the fresh crisp air and squinting in the lazy warm sunshine through grateful whimpers.

A glance over her dirty blouse and stained Bermuda shorts, accompanied by the ever-present stench, pushed her on towards a glistening beach surrounded by the clear waters of Lac Léman hiding in the shadow of the great castle. Finding a shallow stretch of crystal clear water, Anne-Claire made a careful beeline for the shore and picked her way into the invigorating lake and began to wash away the mud, blood and stench before she was recognised by anyone she knew. Her heart sang as she cleaned away the filth from her face and limbs, while the cold lake water relieved her aching head and soothed her tired body.

The familiar sound of a steam whistle chortling through the quiet morning air made her glance up and smile, catching the fleeting image of a steamboat stern as it disappeared from view behind the castle’s towering walls. Waving enthusiastically in the direction of the disturbance, it was as if Grandpa was welcoming her back from her adventure, but she was sure he hadn’t seen her and in her present grubby state she was glad he hadn’t. Eager to be with her hero again and bristling with the news of her find, Anne-Claire couldn’t wait to capture her adventure and write it down for Danica and Grandpa to enjoy. Grateful for the rock group who had accompanied her through her trial, Anne-Claire sighed and hugged the iPod to her chest.

This would be a story of Niccolo and the Sticky Lizards, and how they had saved a damsel in distress.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 34

 

Amused by their antics and surrounded by circling schools of small inquisitive fish, Anne-Claire stood ankle deep in the chilling clear-blue-grey waters of Lac Léman, hidden by bushes from the roadway and in the shadow of the Château de Chillon. Taking great care and effort not to wash too much water and grime onto her clothing, she rubbed off the last of the dirt and blood from her head then gauged the extent of the wound with a tender hand. Her fingers gently traced the gash and relayed a desperate picture to her mind. She’d have to find her mother quickly before infection set in and complicated the injury, but she wasn’t looking forward to the expected lecture. Repulsed by the feel of a dirty scalp, Anne-Claire squatted carefully, placed one hand against the rocky lake bottom and dunked as much of her head into the shallows as she could, delicately washing her immersed locks. Then standing cautiously and with her hair soaking wet, she leaned backwards and squeezed long brown velvet strands with her hand and purged the excess water back into the lake, leaving a small remnant of moisture seeping down from her crown onto her blouse and dripping water droplets onto her Bermuda shorts.

Disgusted by the clouds of grime rinsed from her crest staining the clear lake water, Anne-Claire stared in wonder as frenetic fish boiled around her feet, looking for any morsel to eat in her discarded wash water. Although the sunshine was quite warm, the water was cold and it began to numb her feet. She couldn’t risk catching a dose of the flu and suffering the ire of her mother for bringing unwanted sickness into the chalet, so she’d have to find a place in the sun and tease out her wet locks until it dried. As her teeth began to chatter, she completed the grimy chore, feeling much better. Swivelling her head and torso, Anne-Claire did a final check and searched her body for remnants of dirt before exiting the chilling lake water. The seat of her shorts were almost black and she figured the back of her blouse would be, too; but until she found her family there wasn’t a lot she could do about it.

Then from out of nowhere, an incredulous voice called to her from the roadway, “Mademoiselle, do you have no shame?! Where is your gown?! It is not a ladylike or safe thing to do bathing in your underwear in such a public place. There are many scoundrels roaming these hills who would take advantage of an unchaperoned and unprotected beauty like yourself in such a state of undress!”

Anne-Claire frantically searched for the owner of the sudden voice, wondering whether the impassioned speech was directed at her. She gazed in awe at a young man mounted on a fine black horse, dressed in some kind of period costume and deliberately turning his head away, purportedly giving her a chance to regain her modesty and cover herself with her gown. There was something strange about this man that made Anne-Claire feel frightened. If this was a television stunt, he played the part eloquently, pulling her into the act against her will.

“A… are you talking to me?” Anne-Claire focused her attention unwaveringly at the man and managed to speak against chattering teeth as the cold lake water numbed her body.

“Yes, Mademoiselle, my speech is directed to you!”

He dismounted, careful not to look at Anne-Claire’s shame, removed his cape, dropping it from his shoulders and stepped backwards, holding the cape out towards her and behind himself in a gentlemanly attempt not to stare at her immodest and shameful condition. It didn’t take long for Anne-Claire to figure out what this guy was trying to do and it began to frighten her even more.

“What are you talking about, Monsieur? These are my clothes, not my underwear!”

It was then that Anne-Claire noticed the A9 directly above them was peculiarly quiet. She listened for sounds of passing cars and the ever-present electric railway that skirted the shores of Lac Léman. It, too, was bizarrely quiet. With a gathering sense of bewilderment and chaos, she anxiously gawked around the scenery looking for familiar landmarks, but as she stared everything seemed unusual. Even Chillon Castle appeared strangely different.

As panic overrode rational thought, she knew she had to give this guy the slip before she lost her mind completely. Certain the harrowing bump to her head was at the seat of her delirium and sure she was hallucinating, Anne-Claire decided to play along with the caped avenger until she could locate the tunnel entrance and escape safely into the castle’s deep interior. Then retrace her steps in search of the rescue party she was absolutely convinced would be probing the tunnels for her by now and could deliver her to medical assistance, disinfecting her wounds and helping her escape the confusion she was suffering. Feeling trapped by the presence of the caped horseman and needing to flee the bone-chilling water, Anne-Claire tried to keep her voice steady.

“Okay, I am coming out of the water; keep your eyes averted.”

She paddled through the icy lake water, taking small steps but never diverting her stare from the horseman’s back and the cape he held out to her, ready to take evasive action if he suddenly changed his stance. Reaching the spot where the stranger stood, Anne-Claire took the cape from his hand, feeling the velvety black cloth in her cold and numb fingers, but never dropping her gaze from the man’s back. With the cape in her grasp, she swept the area with a frantic gaze, searching for the small tunnel opening. Then with relief, she recognised the bush hiding the passage breach and without a moment of hesitation, stole across to the familiar landmark and lowered herself feet-first into the small aperture, wriggling until her body disappeared from sight and slipped back down into the confined darkness and out of view.

Holding her breath, the moments seemed like hours as Anne-Claire waited and listened for sounds that the caped horseman was following her. She flinched when she heard his muffled and inquisitive voice drift into her hiding place, ready to retreat further into her dark world should the threat increase.

“Mademoiselle, are you dressed modestly now so I can direct a proper conversation appropriately towards you and determine the extent of your behaviour? It would not surprise me to hear your confession that a member of the Savoie clan had abducted you and left you in such a despicable circumstance…!”

Anne-Claire took small, quiet breaths listening to the man babble on, understanding nothing of his impassioned rant.

Mademoiselle…? Mademoiselle…?!”

She heard a frustrated huff as the man searched around to find her, clattering over the pebbly shoreline and disturbing the water with his crunching boots. At one stage, the pounding feet came close to the tunnel entrance, forcing Anne-Claire to scurry backwards into the gathering darkness; yet just as quickly as the man approached, the clambering boots thudded away. The disturbing game quickly descended into an uneasy silence and left Anne-Claire desperate to understand what was happening above her.

The man’s intention became clear when she heard an annoyed, HAH! and then the unmistakable sound of speeding horse’s hooves clattering on cobblestones and becoming quieter as the rider hastily rode away.

Anne-Claire exhaled noisily and shuddered, trying to make sense of what she had just witnessed, discounting the incredulous game the stranger played. It all seemed so real, but it couldn’t be. After what she had seen outside and the strange man’s behaviour, a preposterous idea formed in her head but she immediately dismissed it, thinking she was going crazy. She closed her eyes, feeling secure in the confined squeeze of the cold stone tunnel wall and willing the strange dream to end when she reopened her eyes again. But the long moments with her eyes closed drifted into an exhausted haze and tiredness took its toll, making it almost impossible to pry open her uncooperative lids and soon, with her body demanding rest, she drifted off into an exhausted sleep instead of waking from the confusing dream.

A chill trifled with her skin and she shivered as the cold shook her from a fatigued nap. By the time she recognised the cold rock passage pressing into her back, it was completely dark outside and the temperature was dropping fast. Anne-Claire felt something soft in her hands and remembered the caped avenger who for some reason thought she was bathing in her underwear and wanted to cover her shame with his cloak, thus preventing her embarrassment and the reason she now held onto his garment. The whole experience wasn’t making any sense, but the velvet cape bore undeniable evidence of the charade and the confrontation with the weird stranger. She decided to wrap the soft cape around her and stay close to the entrance while she spent the night in the tunnel, hoping the morning would bring some answers to the vexing situation.

It didn’t take long for the warmth and security of the cape to close in on her and her eyes began to droop closed from exhaustion again, falling deeply asleep. In her dreams, she heard the sounds of a heavy door creak open and then a menacing voice calling into the darkness, “Your supper, my lady!” and then a booming sound as the door slammed shut, reverberating up and down the passageway.

Anne-Claire’s eye sprung open, shaken from the deep sleep and confused in the darkness. Her heart pounded with fear, finding it difficult to reason fact from fiction in her new environment and left her wondering what had disturbed her sleep.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 35

 

Cicadas chirruped in an unorchestrated choir as the balmy stillness of a late Mediterranean night closed in around his prostrate and sleepless figure. Shifting uncomfortably and rolling his tall physique on the lumpy mattress, his feet protruded from the small bed frame, too short to contain his full length. The small cottage bumped and groaned, settling in the thickening humid air after an exhausting day shading its occupants from the baking sun. Now as the deepest part of the night rapidly approached, its secure walls, always on sentry duty to protect its dependent residents, prevented intruders from gaining access to those trusting its gallant defences.

Still suffering from the pitching deck of his father’s floating palace and even after many hours back on land, Philippe’s body swayed uncomfortably as he lay in the motionless bed. A tingle excited his memory and shot uncontrollably throughout his body, remembering the brown eyed beauty who had so shamelessly flaunted herself at Philippe, pretending to have tripped and fallen into his arms. Leaning against him, she’d felt soft and enticingly magnetic, pleasing to look at and sweetly scented, taking every ounce of courage and will to tear himself from her seductive presence, knowing his father was behind her actions and using the temptress, enticing him to fall.

Trying to forget the incident with the voluptuous siren and turning his head to face a slender open window pane, Philippe gawked up at the moonless sky and watched the starlight silhouetting against the flying insects busily entering and leaving through the unscreened open space. The stifling, breathless night allowed the insects to navigate his room unperturbed, with ravenous female mosquitoes following the exhaled carbon dioxide from his breath to its source and droning around his ears and nose, ready to take advantage of any unguarded and exposed flesh. A hubbub of warning disturbed the air around his face and as a protective mechanism, Philippe pulled the thin frayed blanket covering his body up over his face, denying the attacking mosquitoes a host to draw much needed blood from. One thing the poor and wealthy shared alike: mosquitoes could inflict any number of life-threatening blood-borne diseases. Even in the prosperity of his father’s estate, unprotected flesh was a target regardless whether blue or red blood flowed within its veins.

Philippe drew in heavy breaths under the frayed blanket, trying to protect his head from the needle-like onslaught and as the blanket filtered the night air, its tattered threads released the faintest hint of a pleasing gentle scent. He recognised Petrisce’s soft perfume immediately, letting his mind unguardedly drift over Anton’s beautiful daughter and realising she had at some stage adorned her own body with the tired coverlet. Risking an attack of swarming insects, Philippe lowered the blanket from his face and stared at the roof above him. Just the thin wooden ceiling separated his room from hers.

Prompted by the siren’s unabashed flirting onboard his father’s boat, Philippe allowed his wildly wandering imagination to take him to dark places of unrestrained desire. But suddenly feeling convicted and ashamed of his musings, Philippe began to pray for Anton and Petrisce, confessing inappropriate thoughts, asking God to strengthen him and bless the two people who had so generously rescued him from his father’s lurid plans.

Trying to block the beguiling temptation, he concentrated on the young woman’s conduct, looking for a fault in her character that would lead him to understanding the inappropriate ruminations and maybe give a hint to the attraction he was feeling for her. But after examining himself and Petrisce’s integrity, he found no fault in her reputation. It seemed her actions were always guarded around Philippe and she hadn’t given him a reason for the betrayal his mind had so easily drifted into. She made sure her father was always in the room when Philippe was home and she kept her appearance indelibly modest but flawless. Her softly spoken persona seemed direct, but wise, and when she did speak her thoughts were upright and worthy to be heard.

As he examined the evidence, Philippe began to chide himself, believing his father’s attempts to corrupt his mind were at fault and quickly came to the conclusion he was way off beam, determining to restrain the unworthy thoughts and offer his hosts the respect his God would rightly require of him. Philippe remembered hearing Petrisce humming a hymn before she went to her room and the unmistakable sounds of the young woman’s voice by her bed, petitioning her God with prayers just before he saw the light between the cracks in the ceiling boards disintegrate into darkness as she settled onto her mattress for the night.

Respectfully averting his stare from the young woman’s room directly above him, Philippe rolled over, intent on finding sleep but an immediate annoying buzz hounded his objective and he pulled the tattered blanket over his face, trying to ignore the subtle allure of Petrisce’s scent.

 

~

 

A pounding knock at Philippe’s door drew him from the depths of disturbed sleep and into the bright light of a new day.

“Philippe…! Time to unsaddle your bed. We have work to do and it appears Petrisce has the breakfast already made!” Anton’s directness beckoned through the closed door, leaving no doubt where Petrisce had learned the art form.

Pulling open the door to his room, Philippe witnessed father and daughter’s affectionate morning salutation followed by a hug. Then dragging himself from the room and after greeting Anton with a sleepy, “Bonjour,” his guilty eyes locked onto Petrisce’s and offered a culpable, “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.

She responded with a coy, “Bonjour, Monsieur,” before looking away and continuing on with her busy morning routine.

“I see Monsieur Rousseau’s philanthropic boat ride has not agreed with you, Philippe,” Anton noticed the dark rings around Philippe’s tired eyes.

Flushing red like a naughty schoolboy and before answering Anton’s question, Philippe stole an awkward glance at Petrisce, feeling as if last night’s shameful thoughts were still on show and somehow written across his face. “You are right, Anton; I told you I wasn’t much of a sailor and I don’t think I slept at all last night,” Philippe offered tiredly.

“I don’t think I would have slept at all last night either, after that woman’s obvious and shameful attempts at flirting with you,” Anton smirked, and Petrisce turned to face Philippe with a strange expression.

“Are you a ladies’ man, Monsieur de la Calle?” Petrisce’s question was direct and to the point while her gaze seemed almost stern, but she softened as if she had deliberately restrained her feelings, trying to hide an unwanted telling expression.

Philippe’s guilty eyes held her enquiring hazel stare for a few seconds before he lost his nerve and looked away, more than sure she was searching the troubled hallways of his mind. “No, not at all, Mademoiselle. I have no idea who she was or why she did what she did. She must have mistaken me for someone else.”

Hmmm…!” Petrisce’s haunting hazel glare held his fleeting glance for a few seconds, searching for signs of treachery and mulling over his reply before turning back to her chores. “I have to go to the markets in Nice today, Father; I will need some money to buy food and my train pass will expire at the end of this month. Should I renew it today as well?” Petrisce asked, recovering quickly from Philippe’s defensive and embarrassed expression.

Anton reached into his pocket and drew out his money purse and placed a fifty euro note on the table. “I have fifty euro until I am paid. Can you stall buying another rail pass until then, chaton?”

Petrisce leaned over the table and kissed her father’s head. “Of course, Papa,” then turning her attention to Philippe, “Is there anything I can get you while I am shopping today, Monsieur de la Calle?” Petrisce smiled softly, stunning Philippe with her splendidly clear hazel eyes and perfect white teeth.

Philippe stuttered, wondering whether the beauty was searching his culpability and the polluted path his mind had recently taken, unwittingly challenging her integrity and calling her moral fibre into question with no evidence other than his scandalous fantasy. “N…no, thank you, Mademoiselle. I, too, must wait for payday before I can add to the housekeeping.”

Petrisce smiled again, obviously entertaining another thought. “I can see from the kindness in your eyes, Monsieur de la Calle, that you are trustworthy and a man of integrity. My father is also a trusting man and has often brought home people needing help, but sometimes these people become confused and try to take possession of more than just Father’s kindness.”

Petrisce left no doubt in Philippe’s mind she had seen into his muddy soul and was firmly setting her boundaries.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 36

 

Sergeant Bob Maxwell’s generous frame overflowed and taxed the police-issue office chair to its physical limits, groaning under the supersized policeman’s substantial physique while his red-dust-stained booted feet rested tiredly on Birdsville’s Police Station’s front desk. It had been a long day, but every indicator pointed to it being even longer still, and with every passing hour the possibility of the situation ending amicably disintegrated further. Communications into the remote police outpost had slowed considerably and trickled into silence, leaving the monotonous hours dragging by in a constant tedious line-up. There was still no word from Bob’s good friend, Butch and although Mishy, his frantic wife was keeping up a positive front for her children, Bob knew she was suffering terribly under the weight of not knowing the whereabouts and condition of her missing husband.

Bob’s mind drifted back to the conversation and warning he’d given Butch earlier this same morning, not realising his words—and the prophesied pain Mishy was suffering—would come to pass only hours later. An angry rasp bubbled up in the hulking policeman, but the trouble was directed at himself and not at Butch. If only he’d insisted Butch rethink his plan, the day would have finished quite differently.

A distraction outside the station’s walls pulled the police sergeant from the negative and defeated if only mindset; he had to remain positive and professionally detached just in case the situation turned down a street he wasn’t expecting. Diverting his tired eyes to the exposed front window, desert insects buzzed and collided against the glass, attracted to the light inside, an unusual event for the isolated police station. The small police annex located near the Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia borders rarely, if ever, blazed its lights into the night. However, tonight things were anything but normal and Bob had a sick, gnawing feeling a close family tragedy was in progress and he was powerless to intervene.

Bored and frustrated with the lack of information and the pace of the rescue effort, he concentrated on the crazy disturbed flight of crashing insects instead, searching for the pleasing illusion of light but finding a solid barrier to their quest. Bob sighed at the fruitlessness of their mission, banging their heads against the glass and feeling an affinity with their futile attempts, wondering whether the countless hours of stress was taking its toll on his anxious wits. In an attempt to regain perspective and looking for something to distract his troubled mind, he drained the last cold dregs from an oversized coffee mug then wearily glanced up at the police station clock standing guard over the entry door and noticed Michelle Slater was overdue with her latest half-hourly midnight check-in call. It was another worrying development, but he decided to give her a couple more minutes before he took the initiative and instigated a check, if for nothing else but to satisfy his own curiosity and make sure she had just overlooked the time, instead of facing a further crisis.

The wily policeman pushed against the desk with his feet, scraping complaining castors across the linoleum floor and struggled arthritically to his feet, hobbling around until the blood flow re-established restricted pathways and chased away stinging pins and needles, finally allowing his numb appendages to support his substantial frame. Bob sighed, limping around the tiny space and recalled the official police bulletin that had turned his tame and dull desert beat into a city-like crime scene. After numerous recent shootings around his jurisdiction, Bob Maxwell and the small police station were on high alert for another suspected homicide.

Closer to home this time, Bob’s good friend, Butch Slater was now almost eight hours overdue from a work trip with Mishy, Butch’s wife in hysterics after raising the alarm. Bob remembered the frenetic pain in her panic-stricken voice, taking a substantial amount of effort to calm her down. If it wasn’t for the maniac running around the outback taking potshots at cattle station people, Bob would have adopted a less serious approach, assuring Mishy Butch’s vehicle had simply broken down. Yet the lack of communication with Butch indicated something was seriously wrong and Bob was sure Mishy understood that too, with a simple breakdown appearing too remote to be a feasible explanation.

Pearl Springs was an hour and a half from their closest neighbours and at least six hours by road from police intervention, leaving the four women alone and unprotected. Knowing the killer’s ruthless strategy, sizing up his victims and then waiting hours for the perfect shot, Bob wasn’t taking any chances with the girls’ safety, mentally preparing Mishy for the worst and grooming her to use Butch’s guns if she needed to. Although police communications had contacted the special tactical forces combing the substantial outback and searching for the suspect, they were hours away from Bella Creek; and the only available helicopter equipped with night vision had to come from Amberley Airbase near Brisbane, and that was hours away, too.

The only bright spot on a dark horizon: Don Clarkson’s head stockman and a cattle hand were searching the back roads between Valerie Downs and Bella Creek looking for Butch, and by now they should have made contact with the situation and at least someone would know the harrowing outcome. Bob shuffled uneasily, aware the search party didn’t have a working VHF radio, leaving Jackson Reynolds and Troy Anderson vulnerable to another sniper attack and possibly a similar fate to Butch.

Bob’s mind drifted into a hazy memory. He didn’t know Troy Anderson very well, but a much younger Jackson Reynolds and the staunch human face of Queensland law in Birdsville had locked horns on frequent occasions, ending with Bob incarcerating Reynolds in the cooler after an alcohol-fuelled night at the Birdsville races. The unimpressed police sergeant eventually came to blows with the animated and wild youngster, giving Reynolds a hiding he hadn’t ever forgotten and gaining the younger man’s respect from then on. But it was Bob’s initiative to place Reynolds with Don Clarkson, a tough and disciplined individual who took wild youth and redirected the passionate energy for trouble, shaping it into a useful and fervent love for station life. Jackson Reynolds had found his niche and had been with Don Clarkson ever since, adopting the Clarksons as Mum and Dad, and becoming a valuable and respected member of the Diamantina region.

Alone with a mixture of traumatic thoughts and hazy memories, Bob walked around the police station counter and stood with his hands behind his back, anxiously gazing through the station’s front window past the cloud of busy swarming insects and across the desert street to the edge of town. Studying the small town’s felonious midnight activity, Bob followed the antics of a hungry dingo pup attacking the caravan park’s rubbish bin and searching for any morsel of food to satisfy a ravenous young wild dog, working the nightshift in anticipation of a much needed feed. Momentarily distracted, Bob glanced up at the clock again, nervously waiting for the prearranged phone call, but Mishy Slater still hadn’t responded. The worried police sergeant refocused on the stretching dingo pup pulling morsels from the open bin, making a mess of the free meal and spreading garbage across the red dirt pavement. Under normal circumstances he would have chased the native canine away, discouraging any dangerous interaction between wild dogs and human beings, especially when adult dingoes have been known to attack and kill small children.

Pulling in an anxious breath and glancing at the clock once more, he decided it was time to act. Mishy Slater was fifteen minutes overdue and now he was expecting the worst. Someone should have heard from the rescue party by now, too, but if the communication silence extended to sunrise, Birdsville’s only senior policeman may be involved in a gruesome and unwanted task. Striding for the phone and steering around the station counter, Bob grabbed up the electronic device with a swipe and began to dial, hoping Mishy would answer and allay his fears with good news. But as the device connected, the seconds extended into a minute before the line dropped out, signalling no one could offer a reply. Feeling a growing sense of foreboding, Bob tried again, waiting and hoping for the desired response.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 37

 

Out across the still desert night, a lone dingo howled at the crescent moon, hoping to encourage the waning celestial light into a bright hunter’s glow and making the task of searching the red sand dunes for food a more convivial chore. But the divine searchlight took no heed of the soulful bay, losing all strength of will and descending below the horizon before its slender beam faded altogether, leaving the chilly shadowy plains devoid of a friendly minder. In the absence of the beaming night watchman, all desert life fended for itself and took its chances in the encompassing gloom, as survival for man and desert creature alike depended on seeing and not being seen.

An incessant haunting chime echoed into the indifferent dark stone halls and carried across the eerie night, beckoning the deathly homestead for human attention, but without a hint of its prize the tone fell silent, only to fill the halls again with another persistent attempt.

Just twenty minutes prior, the homestead lights had flickered violently and then without a hint of remorse, plunged the family bastion into complete and fearful dread. The power supply on the remote homestead—generated by a diesel engine some distance from the house and contained in a remote shed—for years had been as reliable as the sunrise; but tonight for some inexplicable reason, the trusty machine had suspiciously failed, adding to the night time horror. Laboured, almost silent, breaths were laced with terrible fear, tense in the confines of the small fortified room while straining ears listened to the noises of the night through the solid bathroom door, stricken by terror and wondering who was lurking in the night, intent on unleashing their manic homicidal entertainment in a petrifying and deadly game of cat and mouse.

Mishy drew in another guarded and tired breath, adding to the discomfort from her pounding head, listening to the phone chiming in the creeping deadness of the homestead halls where once the family flourished accompanied by joyous laughter and love abounded.

But now only fear, tears and uncertainty prowled.

She decided to stay put in the protection of the strengthened bathroom and let the phone go unanswered, alerting Bob Maxwell to their dire situation and lessening the chance of a loitering fiend taking her off guard while she responded and raised the alarm with the policeman during the enquiring phone call. Feeling the cold metal of Butch’s shotgun in Mishy’s hands brought her some comfort. Her loving man had handled the gun and she felt his strength encompass her, enticing her heart into an excited leap, only to crash and burn when she contemplated his most likely fate.

A sudden distant screech reverberated across the midnight air and drifted into their protected space, followed by the unmistakable clatter of tyres slowing to a crawling pace, trying to disguise the vehicle’s arrival as it negotiated the access road grid. Holding her breath in sheer panic, Mishy’s attention diverted to the air space under the door and watched it burst into light and flicker as the headlight beam bounced up and down the gravel access track and reflected weird shadows into the darkened homestead halls. Pulling her whimpering children around her and grasping the barrel of Butch’s gun, Mishy’s heart hammered like a prisoner on death row just before her execution.

Then with the unfamiliar tone of an unknown vehicle drawing to a stop some distance from the homestead door and with its headlight beam steady now, its stable light leaked unmoving under the bathroom door, casting an eerie shadow over the four terrified occupants. A cold shiver ran up and down Mishy’s back and her heart stopped, watching a moving silhouette interrupt the light glow entering under the bathroom door, indicating someone had walked in front of the vehicle’s headlights and was cautiously approaching the house.

Feeling her hands sweating on the barrel of the gun, she aimed the weapon at the door and waited for the inevitable, unsure if she had the nerve to pull the trigger or whether the shotgun would react as it was supposed to.

 

~

 

Bob Maxwell’s blood ran cold trying to make sense of the new development as his repeated attempts to contact Michelle Slater by phone at their station homestead failed, leaving the worried copper’s gut knotted and tense like a drum. He had no way of confirming the safety of the traumatised women sheltering within the homestead’s protective walls, but he was sure something had gone severely wrong and now the wily policeman was out of options, knowing the closest help was over an hour and a half away. Pacing the police station floor and berating himself to come up with a plan, Bob tried to figure out the quickest response, but every idea led to the same conclusion.

It would take too long.

The stakes were high and the longer he procrastinated, the less chance Mishy and the girls had to come out of this new threat alive. He had to do something, but it may already be too late. Abruptly pivoting on his heels as if the dark night held the answer, Bob perused the police station window, mindlessly searching the darkness for a clue and then a flash of genius struck him with the subtlety of a thunderclap. Reaching for the desk phone, he dialled a local number and waited for the stinging rebuff he was sure would come. It took a while for the sleepy voice to answer and when he did, he was less than happy.

“H-e-l-l-o, Jim Strack,” the unimpressed voice threatened.

“Stracky, it’s Bob Maxwell. I need an urgent favour!”

“Fair go, Bob, it’s nearly one in the morning! Can’t it wait till later?”

“I think Mishy Slater and her girls either have been—or are in the process of being—murdered and I need to get out there quickly. I need you to fly me there in your plane now!”

The phone receiver dropped into stunned silence as Jim Strack digested the latest information.

“Stracky, you there?”

“Struth! I’ll meet you at the plane in ten minutes, Bob, but you’d better get in good with the big man upstairs. He’s the only one able to get us down safely onto Pearl Spring’s airstrip in the pitch dark. If it wasn’t Butch and Mishy in trouble, I’d say forget it!”

Bob threw down the receiver and quickly gathered his belongings then reached into the locked gun cupboard and withdrew his police-issue shotgun and ammunition. If he was walking into what he thought, then he’d have to be ready for a gunfight and possibly being shot down out of the sky as well, but he forgot to mention this tiny detail to Stracky. With a quick glance around the station and satisfied he hadn’t forgotten anything important, he grabbed his gear and reached for the light switch and threw it off, blacking out the police station into pitch darkness. Within minutes, the police Land Cruiser pulled into an aerodrome parking space, at the same time sandblasted by the prop wash from Stracky’s Beechcraft Bonanza already prepped and ready to fly while Stracky—in the aircraft’s cab light—animatedly beckoned the policeman to get a move on. Before Bob could haul his oversize frame into the tiny passenger seat and close the door, Stracky had begun to taxi onto the dark Birdsville airstrip.

Close by, the lights from the Birdsville Hotel blinked on, leaving disturbed patrons to wonder who the idiot was trying to take off from the desert runway in the pitch darkness and waking disgruntled paying hotel guests, no longer fast asleep in the comfortable hotel accommodation only a few metres from the isolated tarmac. As the Beechcraft’s engine roared to maximum power and the flaps set to full, Stracky released the brakes and barrelled along the straight tarmac at high speed, waiting for enough lift to develop under the wings and boost the small aircraft into the dark desert sky.

With the aircraft’s powerful landing light burning down the paved runway, several large shadowy figures ambled across the airstrip halfway along, unseen by the semi-alert pilot.

Watching the groundspeed indicator until they were travelling fast enough to take off, Stracky glanced up just in time to see a herd of wild camels dawdling unconcerned in front of the tiny plane and directly on course for a collision of massive scale.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 38

 

Bob Maxwell’s fingers grasped the passenger seat frame with an ironclad death grip, staring with horror at the tragic scene unfolding in slow motion and watching his own morose mortality stream past right before his very eyes. Rarely had he considered dying before, or how the seldom contemplated event would occur; but little did he imagine the end would come in an explosion of aviation fuel, camel hair and bone. Using great mental self-control, Bob did everything he could to restrain the ingrained reflex action—taking command when things went bad—urging himself not to wrestle the flight controls from the pilot and possibly crush any chance of survival, no matter how slim. Stracky was one of the best bush pilots in the Diamantina region and if there was an unconventional way to exploit an aircraft’s potential or escape a bad situation, he would know it.

Glancing at the groundspeed monitor and going too fast to abort takeoff before colliding with the desert ships, Jim Strack reacted immediately, forcing the throttle levers as far open as possible and pulling back on the stick as hard as he dared, willing the tiny plane to lift into the air and avert the painful destruction of his near new Beechcraft Bonanza. Losing valuable airspeed and lift after pulling the nose up before designed takeoff speed, Stracky could only hope and pray the camels would see the threat and take to the surrounding scrub while everything was still going their way.

But, defiant to the last, the camels stood their ground with an unmoving, arrogant stance, hypnotised by the approaching light and casually chewing their cud, challenging the steadily increasing buzz to go around them.

As the small plane shuddered to climb and helpless to avoid a collision, all Stracky could do he’d done, and now the situation had to take its course, leaving a mess of burnt twisted metal at the end of the dark runway; or if God was on their side, power to clear the impertinent runway obstacles and fly into the eerie desert night.

In time with Stracky’s measured heartbeat, the seconds seemed to slow down while he prepared for the inevitable explosion; but with inches to spare, the small aircraft skimmed the ignorant beasts, giving the tallest camel an undignified crew-cut as the labouring propeller struggled to clear the runway obstacles.

Many silent and strained moments went by in the cockpit as the small plane climbed and slowly the emergency ironed out, leaving both men speechless and knowing all too well they had just challenged death and somehow won. Stracky pulled back on the stretched throttles, giving the overworked engine a much needed break.

“Struth, that was a bit too close for comfort, Stracky,” Bob’s unsteady voice quavered in the dark as the plane bumped and bounced on the unstable night air, finally settling into a normal flight.

Stracky grasped the stick tightly, trying to settle his shaking hands and cleared his dry throat with an unexpected cough before speaking. “Nah, you just need to have a bit of nerve to do this kinda thing, Bob. I can see you don’t have what it takes to be a pilot, holding onto that chair like a squealing sheila!

“What d’ya mean, squealing sheila?! Try being a copper for a few weeks, mate, and then see who’s the squealing sheila!”

Stracky turned away from Bob’s indignant stare and silently blew out a huge relieved breath toward a dark window and hoping the cavalier passenger hadn’t seen the trembling expression.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Bob Maxwell complained.

“You pay for the fuel and I’ll have you on the ground at Pearl Springs in forty minutes,” Stracky pushed open the throttles again and now that their own emergency had passed, concentrated on the grim reason for their dangerous late night dash.

 

~

 

Although the moonless desert night surrounding the dark and quiet homestead had descended into an icy theatre, the small bathroom air grew steadily tense, humid with terror and clammy with the heat of approaching fey. The only protection between hunter and the hunted was the darkened homestead and a locked fifty millimetre solid wooden door, keeping the prey safe for the moment; but like a fox trapped in its den, once the beast knew where to find its quarry, the hunt was over.

Mishy’s forehead glistened with sweat, her face tense with fear and her hands locked onto the barrel of Butch’s shotgun. Knowing the options for rescue had been exhausted, the tussle with ideology over using the gun had been settled in her mind, while the rules were simple: the life of a cold blooded killer or the lives of her children.

Michelle Slater supposed the killer would search the house and every room, and once he found the bathroom door locked, that would be an indication something or someone of value was hiding behind its defences. Deliberately thinking through her options, she suddenly realised the felon would be armed and most probably use his weapon to neutralise the locked door and gain access to the frightened women cowering in the tiny room behind.

Mishy’s abrupt whisper panicked her daughters and she had to quickly quieten their whimpers. “Ssshhh! Crawl into the shower recess and huddle against the shower wall.”

“What about you, Mumma?” Danica’s anxious voice whispered into the quiet.

“I’m going to shelter in the bathtub. I should get a good shot from there and the tub sides will protect me from anything this person can throw at us,” Mishy’s voice unexpectedly became steady and determined to survive the life-or-death mission she’d been forced into.

Watching a shadow flicker under the door backlit by the vehicle headlights, Mishy repeated her whispered order and the girls obeyed their mother without question. The unmistakable s-q-u-e-a-k from the flyscreen door and then the muted shiver of booted feet on wooden floorboards entering their homestead domain alerted Mishy to the presence of the beast, sending her heart pounding in response and an uncontrolled tremor through her hands. Crawling as quietly and nimbly as she could and careful not to alert the fiend to their presence, Mishy slid over the tall inbuilt bathtub sides and settled into a flat, comfortable position; then with a groping hand, she felt for the shotgun barrel on the floor beside the tub and lifted it carefully and then rested the barrel against the porcelain side. Using the light beam under the door as a guide, she aimed the gun at the centre of the door, knowing she would only get one shot at immobilising the situation and surviving their ordeal.

Carefully measured footsteps creaked slowly past the bathroom door while the fiend’s weight disturbed the silent floorboards, groaning under his persistent and calculated steps and giving the hidden prey a narrated and accurate account of his search. While adrenaline surged through her body, heightening the desire for her and her girls to survive, Mishy held her breath and restrained the emotion leaking from every part of her traumatised mind.

As the footsteps began to retrace their careful path from the bedrooms and back toward the kitchen, it was obvious by the guarded sounds the hunter was expecting to find someone and every step brought him closer to discovering the traumatised women. Mishy tensed every muscle in her body, grasping the shotgun with a vicelike grip; and then as the shadow flickered under the door’s air space again, she held her finger to the trigger, sighting the barrel and ready to defend herself and her daughters, but also knowing the shot would alter her life forever.

As the shadow loitered and came to an abrupt halt outside the bathroom, the obvious outline of booted feet facing the door became surreal and the situation more unbelievable. With fear bordering on hysteria, everything in Mishy wanted to scream and abdicate the unwanted role as protector, but also knowing if she did, all four would perish.

Then the sound that made her flinch; the felon was tampering with the doorknob and finding the door locked, he seemed to step away and maybe preparing to shoot the lock open. Feeling the pressure of her finger squeezing against the trigger and wondering whether the weapon would discharge, an abrupt noise she wasn’t expecting confused her and her mind toppled over an emotional chasm.

 

 

~

 

 

 

[]BOOK TWO

 

 

 

Chapter 39

 

Scowling, bleak and dejected eyes pierced the second floor window, torturing a short path down to a solid stone seawall thick enough to deflect huge waves whipped up by winter storms and stave off the icy kiss of the famously chilling Bise wind. The full intention engineered into the antique carved barricade was to keep the tiny island property—not much bigger than a suburban block—comparatively safe from Lac Léman’s most treacherous of moods. It was difficult to imagine the peaceful expanse of relatively fresh and idle green water raising its delicate hand into a troubled clenched fist and battering everything in its path with antagonised winter waves of grey rage. The all too familiar seasonal storms wreaked havoc along Lac Léman’s expansive shoreline and turned the stunning beauty of the Montreux Riviera into a frozen splintered catastrophe.

A passing steamboat whistle drifted across the mirror-like lake and disturbed his morose thoughts, refocusing instead on the peaceful scene and allowing the storms of fancy to drift solemnly by. Then with a dismal flick of his head, he scanned every direction as far as the window pane would allow and traced the borders of the tiny island property. With Lac Léman zealously guarding the estate’s outline traced by her majestic watery hand, the island boundaries were easily discernable by an ornately crafted stone barrier hedge keeping the teasing emerald princess directly behind the stern protective dikes. Immediately in front of a commanding window pane and at the edge of the barrier wall, a set of impressive carved stone steps divided the island’s defences and gently descended from the villa’s front door, languishing down into the calm, deep and inviting waters of Lac Léman. Through the generations, the rocky manmade island existed aloof and detached a few hundred metres from the mainland and a stone’s throw from the village of Clarens. Its character remained guarded and shy while the only available access to the island’s protected borders was still by small boat.

Enticed by an unpleasant memory and from his position gazing around the extravagant island property, the teen’s mood had taken a deeper melancholy turn after an earlier antagonised battle with a hardnosed business man. Assured of his own tactical ability and with a purported gift of discernment, the teen seldom lost a business contest. But this time his opponent was a worthy challenger and had countered every move the confident youngster had made, trapping him in his own strategy. Replaying the humiliating defeat over and over in his dejected mind, he tried to redirect the awkward scene by contemplating why the expansive lake had two names: Lac Léman for the French Swiss and Lake Geneva for everyone else. Baffled and confused by the discrepancy, the teen’s mind unwillingly drifted back once again to the embarrassing battle, attempting to persuade the island’s proprietor to release his grip on the property’s deed, accept the offered price and transfer the ownership under the RoMac Family Discipleship’s banner.

Watching the interchange from a distance and with great amusement, Robere’s grey kaftan-framed image finally stepped in, placating the obstinate out-of-control vendor with a simple, but disarming, smile. At first the island’s owner took umbrage at the interference from the weirdly outfitted man. Seconds later, however, Robere had wooed the older man with his hypnotising eyes, calming presence and authoritative persona, gently prying the stubborn man’s grip from the title while salvaging the situation with great ease and immediately diffusing the tense standoff.

The deal had closed amicably with the older man gushing all over Robere and offering all kinds of further incentives, trying to pilfer from the enchanting rivers of charisma oozing from the tall, longhaired and bearded man and selfishly confining it in a psychological bottle for later enjoyment. But the older man seemed to be perfectly unaware that strong charismatic auras have a consistency of smoke and away from its source, the power evaporates into the unpleasant scent of betrayal and disappears abruptly into thin air.

Exasperated by his failure and Robere’s effortless rescue, the teen drew in a determined breath, assuring himself next time he would be more like Robere in his dealings: cool, calm and in control, never letting the situation get under his skin.

The second floor view offered a secluded and dreamy outlook. Unhindered vistas stretched across the expansive gentle surface of Lac Léman to the small Suisse border outpost of Saint-Gingolph located on the opposite shore of neighbouring France and less than fourteen kilometres away. The view was stunning and lulled the brooding teen until a downstairs door suddenly slammed, reverberating up the wooden staircase and echoing into the hall. He jumped at the sudden noise, rudely returning his thoughts to the lavish room.

Intent on giving the panorama a final glance before moving on to inspect another part of the luxury villa, he quickly swept the upstairs dining area with a searching glance and mentally checked the well appointed setting for thirteen people. Then the young professional made a purposeful gait for the dining room door heading for the bedrooms, kitchen, conference hall and lastly, the small island’s perfectly manicured gardens. Focussed on inspecting the ground floor bedrooms first, the teen navigated a wooden staircase deeply stained with the rich texture of dark walnut, highly polished and preserved with an ancient lacquered finish and velvety smooth under hand. His steps seemed hollow and exaggerated, amplified by the timber structure, announcing to the deserted villa his whereabouts and boisterously uncovering every purposeful step he took.

Reaching the ground floor rung, his eyes searched the vivacious surrounds, finally settling on a closed cherrywood door and the master bedroom. Outside, the wind had picked up a little and began to rattle the locked glass entry door, stirring the peaceful expression of Lac Léman into a disturbed tinder ash colour, driving a herd of small white-maned waves onto the crafted steps and splashing turbulent cold water spray against the villa’s resilient exterior. Breaking the seal from the vast entry hall into the main bedroom with a calculated twist of the door handle, the teen swept in, breathing deeply and tasting the confined and pent-up dank of historic walls. He knew something of the villa’s nineteenth century birth and the seedy exotic parties hosted in the isolated halls and it baffled him why Robere was so purposeful in acquiring the strange refuge and paying such a hefty price to secure it. But most things Robere did made no sense until the purpose was discovered much later, flooding the situation with profound wisdom and vindicating his actions with unbridled astuteness.

Searching the ostentatious bedroom centrepiece—a skilfully carved and imposing antique four-poster bed complete with luxurious velvet blackout curtains—gave the impression of a room within a room and leaving no possibility of being disturbed by prying eyes. Satisfied the space appeared to be in order, he closed the bedroom door with a reverent plunk, resealing the ancient crafted furnishings within its enigmatic boundaries.

On his way to the next arena and passing by a stately window commanding an unhindered view of the property’s private backyard, an odd sight arrested his steps and he stopped to investigate the scene. A man, seemingly covered by a grey blanket, lay face down and unmoving upon the manicured lawn, prompting outrage within the flabbergasted teen. How dare the homeless move in to the boundaries of the island property even before its rightful owners have inspected their new purchase. Seething with indignation, the young man grabbed the back door handle, preparing to evict the untidy addition to the property’s inventory and if need be, making the trespasser swim back to the mainland.

As the teen’s harsh footsteps approached the vagrant, recognition made a judgement call, planting the aggressive youngster solidly to the spot. “Robere! I… I didn’t know you were coming to the island. How did you get here? I have the boat.”

The tall, prostrate figure slowly shook off the worshipping pose and bounced to his feet, smiling broadly and drawing the younger man with his electric personality. “It’s beautiful isn’t it, Maestro?” Robere’s hands raised to heaven and his body swivelled on the spot, gesturing the property boundaries. “We should always show our appreciation and thankfulness to God and invite Him into any new venture we depart on. This will be our family’s new home and many good things will come from here. I can just feel it. Switzerland is a taste of the Father’s Heaven and a replica of His sanctuary on Earth. Did you know that, Maestro?”

The teen nodded at the older man with obvious awe, his heart and mind stolen by the encapsulating charismatic.

But then Robere’s expression changed to an emotionless poker face and demanded, “How are the preparations going for our new family?”

Stunned by the unexpected question, the teen was taken off guard and stuttered, “A… all is well, Robere, and going exactly as you prophesied.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 40

 

Chantal reclined in a black leather lounge chair, her bare feet resting on an expensive glass-topped coffee table and watching silent images dancing meaninglessly across an enormous flat-screened television. Inside the presidential suite, the monitor took up a complete section of a vast wall but the sound had been muted, allowing Madame to rest unaffected by the electronic garble leaking from the machine. The slender and attractive young woman had been on guard duty all morning, fielding visitors away from her unwell charge and patiently waiting for the arrival of Doctor Bonnet.

For a moment, her eyes diverted from the glamorous impressions flickering across the screen and focused instead on her tiny shoeless feet resting on the coffee table, her gaze resolutely examining her shapely toes while her memory recalled another image. The pleasing dark and contoured facial features, curly black hair and dazzling white teeth with an unassuming nose that turned up at the end in a cheeky, pixie-like pose all added to the allure. Niccolo Visintino was the typical image of a teenage rock star, smooth and deadly to any young woman foolishly drawn into the flashy vision. Although Chantal felt the stirrings of attraction, she didn’t appreciate his aggressive stance challenging her authority, especially around Madame. It seemed Niccolo’s popularity and personality had a manufactured feel to it. Everywhere she turned the paparazzi had captured another view of the impressive Italian performer and plastered it across every electronic billboard and radio space available. Yet the apparition remained unimpressive and relied on musical fantasy and hypnotised mass emotion to elevate the man into a laudable and treacherous idol.

A pleasant scent of happily blooming roses drifted into the lounge room and interrupted Niccolo’s character study. Monsieur’s extravagant gift to Madame of three hundred red roses and a diamond-studded bracelet had stolen Madame’s breath away and left Chantal wishing she could find a man like that to lavish his love on her. It had taken her many anxious moments to settle Madame’s questions, promising Doctor Bonnet would be here soon and all would make sense when he reinstated her medication regime. The busy morning had upset and confused Madame Trudeau, but she had easily fallen asleep again in the company of many red smiling faces and their exquisite perfume.

As sleep pervaded Madame’s conscious mind and pulled the blinds on the troubling situation, the diamond bracelet slipped through her gentle fingers and calmly settled beside her hand on the luxurious bedspread. Momentarily admiring the sparkling jewels, Chantal lifted the extravagant gift into her hand, realising the bracelet would easily be worth more than a lifetime’s wage for a working woman. Then placing the gift onto Madame’s bedside table and making sure Madame was peacefully asleep, she backed out of the oversized bedroom and steered a deliberate course for the lounge and the company of the television screen.

Close by, an elaborately decorated wall phone chimed into the peaceful scene, drawing Chantal’s attention away from her thoughts and causing her to jump from the leather chair to answer the interference before it woke Madame. Placing the receiver to her ear, Chantal’s ire quickly melted. “Oui, I see. Thank you very much and please tell Clayton not to bang on the door; Madame is asleep!” she hissed threateningly.

Moments later, the expected knock alerted Chantal to Clayton’s presence. Gliding through the lounge room and glancing into the main bedroom on her way to the suite door, Chantal confirmed Madame was still asleep and then continued on to allow Doctor Bonnet and Clayton access to the lavish hotel apartment. As Chantal opened the heavy access door, she was immediately confronted by Clayton’s mountainous blue-uniformed figure overshadowing the shorter and balding older man standing expectantly next to Madame’s hulking minder.

“Nice to see you sober and awake for once,” Clayton’s teasing voice gibed and unloaded a shot across her bow before Chantal could even raise her figurative weapon.

Shuddup, Clayton, you’ll get me into trouble!” Chantal whispered fiercely. ”Besides, you were the instigator of pizza and wine knowing full well it puts me to sleep,” Chantal flushed red trying to defend herself in front of Doctor Bonnet. “Please come in, Doctor Bonnet. Madame is in the master bedroom but she’s still asleep.”

Amused at the interplay between the two rivals, Doctor Bonnet nodded and then entered the suite; but before Clayton had a chance to follow the esteemed physician, Chantal tried to slam the door in his face. Swiftly jamming his foot in the door space, the door bounced off his shiny black boot and stuttered open again.

“Sorry, Clayton, I didn’t see you there!” Chantal smiled mockingly, but Clayton returned fire with a disbelieving twist of his head and a sly grin. Retribution would be sweet.

A three-person conference gathered around the door to Madame’s bedchamber, glancing in to the sleeping form and discussing the circumstances surrounding Doctor Bonnet’s latest visit. The lively discussion had an unintended effect and Madame stirred, twisting her body in a attempt to understand the annoying noise and find the gently sloping path back into dreamland. The sudden movement from the sleeping celebrity interrupted the huddle and the group moved to another room to continue their discussion. Doctor Bonnet listened intently to Chantal’s observations and on occasion she enlisted Clayton’s support and what he had seen, too. When it came to Madame and her wellbeing, both Chantal and Clayton were one in agreement and supported each other’s stories with eager participation.

“What’s all the whispering about?!” a tired voice startled the group from behind while the voice’s owner tied the rich fabric threads of a soft white dressing gown across her slender midriff.

All three people jumped to attention and began to talk over each other as if the queen had walked into the room and immediately fussed around Angelina, settling her into a comfortable chair as if she was about to keel over. Angelina recognised the tall handsome Clayton immediately, smiling directly at him and stunning him silent, still remembering his kindness and tender attention to her comfort and protection. Then her gaze settled onto Chantal kneeling next to her chair, taking Madame’s hand like an overprotective mother looking after a sick child.

“You shouldn’t be out of bed, Madame,” Chantal chided gently.

Accepting the younger woman’s hand as if she was searching for surety in a confusing world, Angelina asked the logical question but she figured she knew the answer. “Who is this gentleman?”

Doctor Bonnet scowled down at Madame and then searched his two colleagues. “It’s worse than I suspected. You have no recognition of me at all, Angelina?!”

Angelina examined the balding professional intently, looking for any signs of familiarity and then shook her head. “Should I?”

The doctor sighed heavily. “This is what happens, Madame, when you stubbornly take yourself off your medication against your doctor’s advice! Your condition needs to be steadily monitored and adjusted even when you are feeling fine!”

The annoyance in the doctor’s voice was evident, but Angelina wasn’t buying his drift and remained unconvinced. “And just what is my condition, Doctor?!” Angelina challenged heatedly, still holding Chantal’s hand for vital support.

Doctor Bonnet sighed again and knew in the next few moments he would most likely be fired by Angelina, only to be reinstated by Armon a few days later. With nothing to lose, his tone abruptly stiffened, “It’s obvious you’ve lost a certain portion of your memory, young lady, but that confounded Italian stubborn streak is still alive and well!”

Angelina appeared shocked at the doctor’s brash response, but the candid speech somehow won her confidence. Maybe there was something wrong with her and just maybe he could help to unravel the confusing mystery nagging at her mind. With a softer and less challenging approach, Angelina whispered, “Please help me to understand what’s happening to me.”

The bewildered and frightened, childlike voice stabbed at the hearts of those in the room with Chantal’s clasp tightening around Angelina’s hand in a shielding act of maternal tenderness.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 41

 

Long afternoon shadows hung lazily over the summer day, gradually toning bright orange hues to purple and then to delicate rose coloured twilight. Mountain peaks shaded the vast expanse of Lac Léman from the sinking sun and finally settled the Montreux Riviera into a stunning balmy peach hue. In the growing night the festival crowds ambled together, mingling from one musical distraction to another and stopping at every vendor’s stall along the congested stretching quays to investigate their wares.

The gossip resonating through Montreux’s music world centred on the success of the Sticky Lizards and Niccolo Visintino’s new songs. Owing to their rising popularity, some lesser attractive gigs scheduled for the Auditorium Stravinski had been ‘inadvertently’ cancelled, instead opening further opportunity for Niccolo and the band to wow the crowds and fill the coffers of the concert venue. Available seats sold out in minutes once the booking office advertised their intentions.

Chantal rested her finger on a touch screen and watched the heavy drapes close across the vast presidential suite window frontage, blocking out the musical noise and prying eyes from the quays. Photo happy tourists snapping everything that moved with flashing high powered smartphones also disappeared behind the fabric’s heavy wall. Angelina had reluctantly returned to her bed after Doctor Bonnet gave her a shot of medication and now he was talking to her in a semiconscious state. Chantal stood at the doorway and focused momentarily on Madame Trudeau’s prostate figure, listening to the doctor’s droning monotone speaking into Madame’s subconscious mind and trying to repair the damage to her memory through hypnotherapy. Chantal began to feel weary and realised she too was succumbing, lulled by the doctor’s voice, deciding to join Clayton, busy watching an international soccer match on the lounge room’s sprawling television monitor.

“Madame okay?” Clayton’s middle aged baritone voice drifted across the room but his eyes never left the screen.

“Yep, Doctor Bonnet’s doing therapy with her now,” Chantal offered tiredly.

“What do you think about the doc’s idea of taking her outdoors tomorrow?”

Chantal stared at the mountain occupying the next seat and pondered Madame’s condition with concern. “Personally, I don’t think it’s such a good idea!”

Clayton’s eyes flickered from the screen to Chantal’s and back to the screen as a strategic play came to a bungled and crashing end, causing grief to the enthralled fans. Clayton made no secret of his displeasure either, in a disgruntled moan and gritted teeth. Now that the strategy had been officially relabelled a contentious foul, he tore his eyes from the screen and turned slowly to meet the young woman’s gaze, answering her statement as if he’d been listening all along. “Why not? It would be good for her to get out of here. Plus it would give us something to do, too.”

“What did you have in mind, oh great bored one?! Perhaps traditional Suisse folk trouser wrestling!” a smirk crossed Chantal’s face, teasing Clayton with her absurdity.

“Now there’s a thought, but I think you’d win.” He casually picked up a tourist magazine and threw it across to the table in front of Chantal, landing open at a chosen page. “I like the look of this place, Les Rochers de Naye. It means the Snowy Rocks and its peak overlooks Montreux. Take a look at the pictures. Aren’t they stunning? Apparently the air is fresh, clean and cold and best of all it wouldn’t be too strenuous for Madame and she could rest all the way.”

Taking a contemptuous sideways glance at her rival, Chantal grabbed up the glossy magazine and stared in disbelief at the open page. “And how do we get there?!”

“Dah…! Cog Railway, like everyone else! It goes right to the door and we can catch it from platform eight here at La Gare de Montreux, Montreux’s transit station.”

Chantal threw the magazine to the tabletop, folded her arms across her chest and flopped her back against the leather seat, searching her thoughts for a mature answer to Clayton’s ridiculously childish suggestion, finally verbalising the only objection she could think of. “I don’t think Monsieur Trudeau would be too happy if you intend for Madame to rub shoulders with noisy tourists, especially if she isn’t feeling very well.”

Clayton sensed the rivalry in Chantal’s only objection and with a distracted glance back at the television monitor, he muttered, “Well, book out the whole train. That’s what Monsieur would do! Besides, a walk in the Alps would do Madame the world of good.”

Chantal huffed, knowing it would fall to her to arrange the adventure. Anyway, she conceded to herself, my objection was a valid complaint; and then another mischievous thought bent on revenge casually escaped her lips. “Sometimes I get a little suspicious of your motives around her, Clayton!”

What’s that supposed to mean?!” Clayton immediately averted his eyes from the soccer match. Chantal had touched a nerve and she knew it.

“Oh, never mind!” she was enjoying having the big teaser on the back foot for a change. “I’ll get the hotel reception desk to… book the whole train!” Chantal’s index finger and middle finger of both hands raised beside her head and made animated bunny ears, emphasising her irritation.

“Atta girl! I knew there was more inside that space between your ears other than Gruyère cheese.”

Clayton had to duck the magazine as it flew across the room, slammed into the wall and fluttered helplessly to the floor, skimming his head and missing by millimetres. Distracted by the interchange, the heavily muted sounds of a roaring crowd floated across the room from the television monitor. He’d neglected a crucial play and missed the chance to coach his team through the foul up.

 

~

 

The hotel desk had been efficient as usual when a request came from the presidential suite. They were familiar with ridiculous demands emanating from heavily pampered wealthy people, and to book out a complete cog railway carriage for personal use was a simple task to complete, but gave the railway schedulers a boorish headache. The game was simple: every time the request was denied, another inflated offer took the place of the previous until the pain was offset by a soothing price tag reflecting the cost and an enjoyable profit for the privately owned cog railway.

Chantal had been up before the sun. Madame’s breakfast had already arrived via room service, and a small leather carry bag had been packed for Madame’s comfort and needs for the day. As Chantal gently woke Madame from a deep sleep and placed her breakfast on her lap, Madame broke out in a broad smile and then a tender yawn.

“Mmm, I had a good sleep and I feel wonderful, Chantal. It seems as if my world makes sense again and I’m sorry if I have been a bit difficult lately.”

Taken aback by Madame Trudeau’s confession, Chantal quickly adapted to this new angle. “Apology accepted, Madame, but you are not difficult by any means and today we are taking a little outing into the Alps. It was Clayton’s idea and we hope you will enjoy it.”

“Isn’t he a dear man? Remind me to speak to Armon about raising his salary.”

A look of horror broke out across Chantal’s face, but she quickly drew it back into a pleasantly professional and detached expression. It didn’t seem Clayton could do anything wrong in Madame’s sight and even though she had done the organising, Clayton got the credit.

“Where are we going, Chantal?” Madame asked.

Les Rochers de Naye, Madame, and I believe they had a rare summer snowfall last night on the peak in honour of your visit.”

A gentle knock at the suite door beckoned Chantal away from Madame’s cheerful chatter and she excused herself to answer the enquirer. Judging by the time, Chantal expected to see Clayton’s towering blue-suited form loitering at the doorway. She wasn’t disappointed. With Madame’s glowing affirmation still rankling in her mind, Chantal huffed and turned away from the access, leaving Clayton to close the door while she returned to Madame’s bedroom and prepared to shower and dress her charge.

Clayton’s gaze set respectfully on the floor as he passed the open bedroom, concentrating on the path into the lounge room. Yet as he did, he heard his name being called.

“Clayton?!”

The blue-suited mountain turned to answer the caller and tentatively stood at the bedroom door, contemplating the smiling face and impish eyes gazing from the confines of her bed. “Yes, Madame?” Clayton returned her beckon with a respectful, fond expression.

“Thank you for your thoughtfulness and for caring for me when I was lost and confused.”

Chantal could see Clayton struggling to confine the adoration toward his first lady. The unusual flush of embarrassment and loss for words was so unlike Clayton’s annoying persona in Chantal’s company, yet completely evident in Madame’s.

Clayton bowed respectfully at the door and whispered, “It is a pleasure to serve you, Madame.”

Then with a wave of her hand, Chantal interrupted the scene, forcing Clayton away from the bedroom access and shutting the door gruffly in his face, preparing Madame for her day out.

Clayton relaxed his huge frame in the leather lounge chair and gazed blankly through the rambling suite windows, a fire of emotion running through his veins and the stunning smiling features of Madame replaying in his mind. A piece of paper laying on the coffee table caught his attention and he bent to read the note. It was from Doctor Bonnet.

Chantal, please be aware the drugs Madame has been given to help her condition may cause drowsiness. She will need to eat frequently and rest often; don’t be alarmed if she wants to sleep or catnap; this is all a side effect. She should understand more of her surrounds and be more able to grasp her past. If she lapses back into a fantasy world, return her immediately to her accommodation and give me a call. My number is below. Enjoy the outing… Doctor Bonnet.

Clayton held the note in his hand, staring at the words and then with a huff threw the note back to the tabletop.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 42

 

A white Rolls-Royce Phantom waited patiently at the front door to the Hôtel Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, sparkling in the early morning sun with its interior scented heavily with the freshness of brand new leather. Once Clayton had established that Madame would be resident in Montreux for the near future, he’d returned the black Phantom to the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Geneva and took possession instead of the Hôtel Fairmont’s Rolls-Royce Ghost. Unimpressed with the lacklustre interior of the cheaper luxury vehicle for Madame’s comfort and with the blessing of his employer, he’d scouted all over Switzerland looking for a suitably luxurious Phantom. Finding the only available contender to be an occupant of a luxury vehicle dealership, he’d used the gold credit card entrusted to him by Monsieur Trudeau to meet Madame’s expenses and casually handed over 350,000 Swiss francs, immediately taking possession of the brand new vehicle. Now assured Madame’s comfort would not be compromised, Clayton bristled with eagerness and pride waiting to show his first lady her new purchase.

The master bedroom doors crashed open, startling Clayton from his thoughts. The blue-suited giant stumbled in an effort to rise from his position seated in the lounge room, forcing himself to avert his stunned stare as Madame’s graceful presence pirouetted into the hall.

“What do you think, Clayton? My husband has good taste, yes?” Angelina’s figure turned a full circle, showing off a very expensive but attractive knee-length grey skirt and long sleeved jacket with a black veiled fascinator tilted slightly across her long dark hair, setting her dark eyes aglow and partially obscuring the shapely lines of her pretty face with its black netting. Then clinching the stylish parade with elegant, shiny black stilettos.

“Wow…!” Clayton grasped at the words, trying to drag them back but it was too late and he knew if Madame Trudeau took offence, he would be dismissed immediately. “I… I mean, it’s very dignified, Madame, and it suits you very well.”

A shocked expression crossed Chantal’s face, immediately flushing red and holding her breath waiting, wondering whether Madame would take umbrage at the big buffoon’s slip up. But Angelina didn’t seem to be offended and only giggled, smiling at the embarrassed appreciation, trying to think of the last time she’d felt truly feminine and had been noticed by a handsome man, but her memory remained blank.

Relieved by Madame Trudeau’s apparent lack of concern, Clayton ventured another risky suggestion, “It isn’t any of my business, Madame, but walking around on uneven alpine paths and the chill of mountain air might not be conducive to your present attire.”

Now it was Chantal’s turn to claw off the ravages of a perceived offence at the big man’s stumbling. “I have it all under control, Clayton!” Chantal growled. “Madame has a mountaintop outfit too, packed in her carry bag. Men don’t seem to understand that a lady needs to feel beautiful and appreciated wherever she goes.”

“My apologies,” Clayton bowed slightly and tried to back out of his faux pas, although remaining firm in his conviction. “I just didn’t want Madame to be uncomfortable, that’s all.”

“Stop fighting over me, you two! I will let you know if I am uncomfortable! Now, shall we go? I am eager to experience your surprise destination.”

Clayton bounded for the door and smartly drew the obstruction fully open, proudly watching his first lady pass him by and distinguishing the foyer with her presence, immediately drawing admiring accolades from the hotel’s reception staff. Dressed in an immaculately presented corporate uniform, Chantal followed Madame. However, Clayton’s eyes had mindlessly followed Madame’s graceful walk and he blocked the exit partially with his big frame. As she attempted to squeeze around Clayton’s gaping stare, Chantal smirked and then stole a glance at Madame who seemed to be distracted, and then quickly poked her tongue out at Clayton. Clayton made a swipe for the itinerant tongue with his big hand but Chantal was too quick.

 

~

 

Regally situated in the back seat of the stately limousine, Madame affirmed Clayton’s purchase with satisfied enthusiasm, leaving her minder beaming. Clayton turned the purring luxury motor vehicle onto the Grand’ Rue and accelerated, heading south, then reaching the Rue de la Gare he turned left until the vehicle reached a roundabout and turned right again. Following the Avenue des Alpes until the Rolls-Royce slowed and finally came to a stop in front of the Gare de Montreux, Montreux’s transit train station.

A small party of professionally dressed people idled in the slender off-street car park as if waiting for a celebrity and when the elegant Phantom ambled onto the scene, the group divided, revealing a motorcycle gendarme waving Clayton into a reserved parking space. Clayton brought the vehicle to a stop and silenced the engine with a tap of his finger to a touch pad and then bounded out of his seat, forcing his way through the gawking crowd and opened Madame’s door. As Angelina stepped to the pavement, the crowd gasped and murmured at her immaculately graceful presence.

“Madame Trudeau! Welcome to our humble business. My name is Pierre Beauparlant and I am president of the Montreux-Glion-Rochers de Naye railway, but we prefer simply MGN and its a lot quicker to pronounce, don’t you think?” Beauparlant’s diatribe finally took a breath, leaving a vacuous void in the surrounding air. Reaching in, he took Madame’s hand in a gentle grasp and eagerly shook it and then after the formal greeting, the spiralling vortex exploded and the void closed in like a thunderclap with Beauparlant’s monotone continuing unchecked.

“It is a great honour for our company to have such a generous benefactor as your husband, Monsieur Armon Trudeau watching and guiding our steps. When we were advised by the hotel that none other than Madame Trudeau herself was about to experience the beauty and awe of our service, we removed all the barriers and took the liberty of equipping your personal train transport for the day with a private steward and food service. It was also drawn to my attention that Madame is regrettably, unwell so we have made arrangements with the Grand Hôtel at the peak to offer their best room for Madame’s convenience and required rest. Also, we have acquired a wheelchair for your service, allowing you to freely move about Montreux Gare’s underpass without taxing your strength. Furthermore, a small motorised electric vehicle will travel with your train in the luggage carriage and be at your disposal upon reaching the mountain peak.”

Beauparlant finally took a breath and with as much diplomacy as Madame could muster, she interrupted the kind but incessant chortling. “I am grateful that you have paid so much attention to my comfort, Monsieur Beauparlant, but I am not an invalid and as you can see I have my very capable staff surrounding me, adept to cater to my every need. It is my wish to see Les Rochers de Naye as everyone else sees it and I am determined to walk under my own strength through your fascinating underground access and experience the station’s full potential. If, however, I require assistance, Clayton’s gentle manner is well practised with my illness and is more than capable of dealing with my needs.”

Clayton’s shoulders pulled back and his chest swelled with pride listening to Madame’s speech. Right then, he could’ve attempted to hold back the tide for his first lady.

Accompanied by the official entourage, Madame Trudeau, closely flanked by Clayton to one side and Chantal on the other, rested her hand around Chantal’s arm for support. Her lady-in-waiting guided her clacking stilettoed steps through the well appointed and tidy underground labyrinth below the station’s tracks and finally weaving a course to platform eight and their waiting train.

Among the intriguing sounds of the busy station, a traditionally dressed Suisse man positioned close by coaxed the melodic tones of a Cor des Alpes and drew Madame’s delighted attention to the crafted long spruce alpine horn. Enthralled by the show and intently listening to the harrowing and soulful pitch, she showed her appreciation with a polite patter as the expert piper completed his short performance.

Diverting her attention, a formally dressed and uniformed steward, short in stature but big on bravado, met the group at the train door and welcomed the dignitary aboard. Glancing sideways and catching the stern and scrutinising eye of Pierre Beauparlant, the aging steward reverently and with emphasised pomp guided Madame to her seat. “My name is Borsch, Madame, and this seat will offer the best view. If I can be of service at any stage, please gesture.”

Madame elegantly climbed into the spacious seat just behind the driver and nodded her thanks.

Turning his attention to Chantal and Clayton, the steward’s congenial exterior suddenly evaporated. “Please take any seat, but keep your distance from her ladyship. I… will be attending to her needs aboard this carriage!”

Shocked at the curt display of assertiveness, Madame’s two staff members glanced at each other dumbfounded. Even Chantal obeyed the austere elderly steward and obediently took a seat two rows behind Madame.

The driver nervously fidgeted at the controls, watching the procession through a glass partition separating the driver compartment from the passenger compartment and waited for the official nod to start the train moving towards the tunnel opening only a hundred metres away. Catching a stern glance from the president, the driver nodded, knowing if he did anything wrong on this trip, it would be his last. Finally the doors closed and shut out the official party standing staring from the platform. As the train’s noisy compressor cut in to release the brakes, the driver inched the controls and the carriage began to move forward, preparing the electric drive motor for an arduous one hour trip and a 2,000 metre climb to the peak’s station. Under the carriage’s superstructure, its driving cog meshed with a rack running down the centre between the two rail lines and firmly propelled the vehicle, preventing wheel slippage as the grade and height above sea level increased exponentially.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 43

 

Adorning a comfortable bench seat just behind the driver, Madame Trudeau seemed distant and distracted, absentmindedly staring through the large carriage window as the hillside scenery ground past the straining locomotive. With the view constantly changing, modern suburbia interspersed with belle époque antiquity began to fade and the traditional lodges of the working class emerged. As the single carriage cog train struggled to climb, manicured gardens and wooden chalet-like architecture surrounding the quaint station of Les Planches only a few minutes up the line from the Gare de Montreux held Madame’s fascinated attention and sidetracked her preoccupied thoughts. From opposite sides of the carriage isle, Clayton and Chantal silently exchanged worried glances. Confined to their seats by Borsch’s imposing glare and as Madame seemed to be well catered for, there appeared to be no reason to interfere in her panoramic enjoyment and obediently left their first lady the required empty spaces.

As the long, precipitous gradient following the mountain’s stony back became progressively steeper, the view widened, allowing Madame to experience the majesty of the Montreux Riviera from an unhindered first-class perspective. With the carriage motors complaining rigorously as the effort increased, the weight of gravity forced their bodies back into the padded seats and gave the cog railway carriage an exhaustive workout. Tirelessly heaving along the nobbly rack with its cog clawing relentlessly and grasping each individual tooth in a tenacious fervour, the grinding locomotive sizzled along at a grand speed of eighteen kilometres per hour.

Then, as if guided by a majestic hand sweeping aside a domestic curtain, the spectacle unfolded completely. Bursting from the village backdrop and leaving the commune rooflines fading and integrating into the steep mountain slope beneath the rail line, the stunning lakeside vista sparkled into view and stole the breath from all who beheld its hypnotising splendour. Deep blue summer skies backlit the misty images of distant reaching mountain barriers, punctuated with an occasional lazy, fluffy white cloud and adorning its highest peaks with a shawl of perfect pallid snow. Perilously peaceful and without the hint of a blemish faulting her stunning features, the intensity of Lac Léman’s gracious navy blue mood reflected perfectly at the feet of her tall and handsome mountain husband.

Ancient castles, medieval spires and tidy quaint villages shared a common stage, elegantly adorning the hem of Lac Léman’s blue skirt and clearly visible from the substantial windows of the ascending cog railway carriage. The enchanting view could have been a window into a mystical romantic era caught in a modern time-warp, freezing the scene into an unstable and unfriendly changing contemporary world as if the train coach was somehow crossing through a gap in the barriers of sanity itself. Climbing ever higher, the shimmering image of Montreux’s jewel intensified, as if drawn into the staring image of a high powered camera lens. The city’s ancient architecture mingled with the new, settling neatly into ordered streets and parks without a figurative hair out of place, mimicking precisely the beauty and perfection of a splendid young bride preparing for her wedding day.

Angelina’s gaze suddenly diverted from the awe-inspiring view as if a hand had drawn a veil over a beautiful woman’s face and the scene unexpectedly changed, overlaying the therapeutic vista with the modern world once again. A mountainside village drew stiffly into the picture and sensing the gently clacking carriage had reduced speed, Madame turned her attention to the driver compartment. She could see the speedometer needle drop as the driver manipulated the carriage controls, slowing from eighteen kilometres per hour to ten. Moments later, the carriage slowed to a walking pace and sidetracked onto a branch line, finally coming to a stop in front of the picturesque rail port of Glion, fifteen minutes up the gruelling mountain track from the Gare de Montreux.

“The village of Glion, Madame!” Borsch called from the back of the carriage as he made his way to the front. Passing sternly by Chantal and Clayton, he gestured firmly with his hands for them to remain seated. “The village is 700 metres above Montreux and is serviced by the Territet-Glion funicular railway ascending 300 metres over a total length of 637 metres. Opened in 1883, it is one of Switzerland’s oldest funicular railways, eclipsed only by the Giessbachbahn in Bern which was opened in 1879,” Borsch drew alongside Madame and continued to baffle Angelina with his knowledge and obscure facts of Glion.

On the platform, a wheelchair waited to take the dignitary for an informative tour and as Angelina’s attention was drawn to her transport, she attempted to interrupt the babbling elder and reassert her independence. “I do not need to be wheeled around like some kind of invalid, Monsieur Borsch!”

Diverted from his lesson and pausing in mid speech, Borsch’s mouth hung open, staring down at Madame like a schoolmaster and having nothing of Madame’s objections. “Madame, at this altitude above sea level one’s heart and lungs have to work harder and even though you say you are feeling well, it is stressful for your illness and may affect your ability to enjoy the rest of the trip. It is no inconvenience for me to wheel you around and I will certainly not entertain any further objections.”

It was at this point that Angelina turned to face Chantal and Clayton. The two just shrugged helplessly, baffled and stunned by the facts effortlessly tumbling over Borsch’s tonsils, overpowered by his staunch persona and seeing no reason to intervene. Yet they read Madame’s expression and growing frustration with the demanding steward perfectly.

Driven on by an urge for peace and civility, Angelina settled uncomfortably into the Borsch-powered tour vehicle waiting on the platform. Chantal and Clayton listened helplessly from their seats in the carriage as the elderly steward explained and pointed out the magnificent castle-like structure of the Glion Institute of Higher Education perched perilously on the mountainside overlooking the city of Montreux.

“You wanna get yourself fired?!” Clayton whispered, his mischievous eyes twinkling across the aisle to his nemesis-come-comrade-in-arms.

“No, I don’t! Chantal exploded, annoyed someone else had muscled in on her territory with Madame. Then as civility turned to incredulousness, she sighed loudly. “I know I’m going to regret this, but what did you have in mind, Guillaume Tell?!” Chantal’s expression was grave, but her eyes never left the scene outside the carriage window as Madame was wheeled around and helplessly barraged with Borsch’s droning commentary.

Clayton leaned across the aisle and whispered, “You know the Fairmont hotel staff pretty well, don’t you?”

“Yes, so what?!” Chantal sizzled, as if she was conversing with a simpleton.

Clayton took a breath and in secretive undertones divulged his devious plan in great detail while Chantal, drawn deeper into the bizarre scheme, smiled broadly, forcing a mischievous expression across her pretty features.

“Okay, but if this goes wrong, it was all your idea!” She reached into her bag, withdrew her smartphone and before long she had entered into a long, friendly conversation.

“Hurry up! They’re coming back,” Clayton hissed harshly.

Quickly, Chantal ended the call and placed her phone back in her bag, acting as if nothing had happened.

Madame was finally allowed to abandon her wheelchair and as Borsch helped her aboard the train, her expression was grim, staring dejectedly back at her imprisoned staff as if they had fed her to the lions. Thoroughly pleased with himself, however, Borsch climbed the steps into the carriage while Chantal and Clayton jointly held their breaths.

“You can go now, driver!” Borsch commanded, with the passenger access closing automatically via the touch of a button in the driver compartment.

Suddenly, a middle aged woman ran from within the station office, gesturing passionately to the train and calling for Monsieur Borsch. A collective sigh from the rear of the train drew Borsch’s suspicion and nearly gave away the felonious plot. Borsch directed a sceptical glance towards Madame’s hapless minders and ordered the driver to open the door again. Slowly the access door opened and after a short deliberation with the panting woman, Borsch apologised to Madame for the delay and followed the woman into the station office.

As the elderly steward disappeared inside the station walls, a ruckus exploded from the rear of the train. Chantal and Clayton danced around, calling passionately for the driver to close the door and put some mileage between the carriage and Glion station. Catching on slowly, the driver shut the door and hastily encouraged the carriage out of the village limits and into the open alpine expanse. As Glion fell further and further behind, Chantal and Clayton stared at each other in triumph, but there was still the music to face with Madame and if she objected to their horseplay, it would be dismissal for both of them.

Madame turned to face her two minders and tried to give them a stern look, but she couldn’t hide her relief any longer and sighed heavily. “Thank goodness for that! Whose idea was this?”

Chantal and Clayton pointed at each other like the two stooges, making Madame laugh, but a cloud of uncertainty passed over their faces until Chantal asked the obvious question gnawing at them both.

“You’re not upset at our actions, Madame?” Chantal sounded worried.

Madame reached for Chantal’s hand and caught Clayton’s eye, trying to appear severe but Chantal saw the glint in Madame’s expression, taking her hand in relief. “No, you pair, I’m not upset. I’m somewhat grateful, but don’t make it a habit.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 44

 

Outside the window, the high alpine scenery with its open forest lands and rolling green valleys transfixed Chantal’s gaze with flickering images of a distant Lac Léman and Montreux’s miniaturised skyline flashing in and out of her prospect. Now seated directly behind Angelina, Chantal jumped when she heard Madame’s concerned voice breaking into her sober thoughts from the seat in front. Madame had twisted in her seat to face her lady-in-waiting, her soft dark eyes alight with remorse and compassion, holding Chantal’s steady gaze with a determined expression.

“Chantal, I want you to send a letter of apology to Monsieur Beauparlant and also Monsieur Borsch on my behalf once we return to Montreux. Even though their actions stymied my enjoyment of this trip, their intentions were honourable and Monsieur Borsch didn’t deserve the treatment he received.” Madame had obviously been turning over the situation in her mind and decided their collective behaviours had reflected poorly on her husband’s good name.

Chantal diligently removed her electronic diary and began to type a reminder, guiltily aware her and Clayton’s actions had put Madame in a compromised position. “Yes, Madame, I will attend to it immediately we return,” Chantal’s demeanour was repentant and she turned to glare at Clayton who had heard Madame’s request.

“Madame, if I may?” Clayton spoke gently, aware of the dilemma his unprofessional conduct had unwittingly thrust her into. “There is a very good chance Monsieur Borsch may have realised in time the plot of my ill-considered plan and taken road transport to Caux, the next rail station. If he is waiting, I will apologise personally and take full responsibility for the unfortunate incident and any consequences you and Monsieur Trudeau deem appropriate.”

Chantal’s and Madame’s gazes locked onto Clayton’s sombre expression, considering his impassioned speech. Chantal’s mouth hung open in stunned disbelief, but a pleased and glowing smile crossed Angelina’s lips, nodding her approval. Clayton had risen in Madame’s opinion, while his decision to shoulder the blame spoke of a gentleman’s character.

“Yes, Clayton, I would appreciate that, but I’m sure Armon will waver any perceived issues of misconduct once I have explained the situation.”

As the cog rail carriage droned and clacked up the mountainside, the tension inside the passenger compartment increased with each metre the train climbed. It was only minutes before the Caux station appeared, hidden behind a bend in the rail and an overbearing concrete street overpass. As the speed decreased and the train passed under the viaduct, the line straightened and divided, straddling the Caux station. The carriage slowed and all eyes searched the platform, waiting with bated breath, but the image of Monsieur Borsch remained strangely conspicuous by his absence. This time there were four heavy sighs as the train driver joined the relieved passengers, fully aware he had a stake in the felony and the consequences, too.

“Continue on, Monsieur Train Driver, please,” Angelina appeared weary and the stressful situation was making her feel bilious.

Observing the anxiety and concerned for her charge, Chantal struggled from her chair using the seat back to steady her steps before the train carriage once again powered out of the level station and re-entered the severe mountain climb. As the incline drastically increased, her body was forced into a steep, tortured lean towards the rear of the carriage. Weaving with the train’s motion until she stood in front of a small food trolley, Chantal removed the cover, searched the wooden drawers and cupboards until she discovered a decorative cup and saucer and with great concentration, steadied herself against the train’s lurching motion and poured a hot cup of tea from an insulated urn. Placing the rattling cup down in the centre of the jostling table and after a further search, she located a plate covered in aluminium foil. Finding a fresh croissant hiding in a heated drawer, the mouthwatering scent filled the substantial train compartment with the aroma of hot pastry.

Watching Chantal struggle with the train’s motion and her cargo, Clayton sprang to his feet and affirmed his colleague. “Great idea, Chantal. Can I help you?”

She grappled to capture and restrain a sarcastic comment ricocheting around inside her head before it found her mouth and started world war three with an unwise utterance. Instead, she managed a civilised, “Yes, please,” amazed at how easy it was to be courteous to her nemesis, but fully expecting a snide remark in return.

She carefully lifted the cup and saucer, trying to preempt the train’s unpredictable moves and handed it to Clayton. He took the steaming cup from her grasp in one huge hand while using his other to help steady her rocking figure as she worked, prompting a startled response from Chantal. Although it felt awkward at first, she was surprised how gentle he was and how comforting and secure his arm around her waist made her feel. He really could be a gentleman when he tried.

Madame smiled, hiding the rising nausea as her two minders courageously struggled against the train’s motion and the steep uphill gradient balancing their cargo in one hand and steadying their ascent with the other, before finally delivering a hot refreshment to their esteemed first lady. “Aren’t you two treasures. Thank you! I was feeling quite unwell and unsure I was going to make it much further.”

Taking the cup with a smile and a rattling exchange, Madame drew strength from the hot tea while Clayton acted as her table, selflessly holding her saucer and her croissant plate only feet from her grasp. Jostled by the train’s awkward movement, he leaned against another seat to keep his balance, studying Madame’s face carefully as she consumed the hot liquid. Even with the rosy glow missing from her paling cheeks, Madame was still a stunning picture to behold. Becoming aware of Clayton’s mesmerised stare, her face flushed with embarrassment and she smiled, forcing Clayton to avert his study and self-consciously concentrate on the scene outside the window instead. The awkwardness evaporated as the small cog carriage entered the gloom of an avalanche protection tunnel; and when the small railed traveller broke from the concrete bunker, Clayton had taken the empty crockery from Madame and placed it back on the food trolley, leaving the foolish encounter behind and allowing Madame to enjoy the remainder of the journey.

Snaking precariously high above sea level and seemingly crawling along the ground like a motorised caterpillar grub, the scenery began to close in around the small cog railway line, leaving sheer mountainous walls and peaks dwarfing the tiny train. With the sprawling valleys tumbling thousands of metres to the lake below, Dent de Jarman’s mountainous canine-toothed image emerged, magnificent among the lower peaks and filling the passengers with awe at its utter size.

But further up the slope, the snow shrouded peak of Les Rochers de Naye stole the show, pushing its jutting white crown proudly skyward and pronouncing prominence over the surrounding Alps. It was a surreal moment as the breathtaking view silenced all activity within the compartment and stunned the passengers into a staring, contemplative silence, suddenly aware of how insignificant and small they appeared against the majesty of God’s dynamic creation.

The train unexpectedly entered another avalanche tunnel and as it burst from the overarching shelter and into a picturesque green, snow-dusted valley, the track executed a long ambling hairpin turn before climbing steeply. Looming majestically in the carriage’s front window and covered in a fresh layer of chilling powdery white, Les Rochers de Naye station celebrated the end of the line.

“This is beautiful!” Madame gasped, breaking the long, stunned silence from within the compartment and taking in the awe-inspiring scenery.

The driver fidgeted with the carriage controls as they beeped in time with the orchestrated procedures and finally slowed the railway car to a walking pace before approaching a covered platform. Edging forward, the carriage gradually entered the sheltered station underneath the multi-storeyed Grand Hôtel and abruptly the scene changed from snowy white to a brightly lit garage. Inside the manmade cavern, a bustling arcade of stairs, elevators and a flat, cold concrete platform appeared. Waiting on the landing, a small group of warmly attired hotel staff gawked through the windows of the carriage with their best plastic smiles plastered to chilly lips, causing Madame to sigh and whisper just loud enough for Chantal to perceive.

“Here we go again!”

Chantal was the first to exit the train and as she did the cold biting air sent a shiver up and down her spine, but her concern rested with her first lady. Madame was too lightly dressed for the new environment and needed to change swiftly into her mountaineering attire or risk exposure to the cold and inflame her beguiling illness. It was obvious Angelina felt the cold immediately she descended from the train and a chattering shiver accompanied her greeting to the official party until a sudden movement across her shoulders startled her, followed by an immediate sense of warmth as Clayton’s heavy suit jacket engulfed her small frame. Grateful for her minder’s sacrifice, she acknowledged his unselfish action with a mimed, ‘Thank you,’ and an appreciative smile, pulling the jacket closed around herself like a small bathrobe.

Finally able to settle her chattering teeth and with a display of dignity befitting a high profile woman, she returned the hotel staff’s greeting formally, then apologising, asked to be shown to her room quickly. Acknowledging Madame Trudeau’s request and her apparent discomfort, the hotel welcoming committee ambiguously searched the carriage with an enquiring gaze, obviously expecting a fourth member of the party. Out of courtesy to their distinguished guest, however, no further questions were asked and they led her party into an elevator and to a fourth-floor room.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 45

 

From a window in her hotel room, Angelina’s dark eyes timidly searched the snowy slopes and then further down into the green valley far below. Strange thoughts had tormented her sleep, with a droning voice rattling her mind, painting colourful scenes into her imagination yet leaving her feeling confused and disturbed. She’d just woken from an hour’s rest and it took her many anxious moments before she recognised her surrounds and the strange figure of a young woman uncomfortably asleep in a chair not far from where she stood.

As if a curtain had been drawn back from across her confused memory, she eventually recognised Chantal’s tiny devoted figure and smiled. The young woman couldn’t be more than twenty but what she lacked in age she made up for in bulldog tenacity. Madame was becoming extremely fond of her fervent lady-in-waiting. Contemplating the scantily furnished room from her position at the window, Angelina’s brow creased into a frown, staring at a neat stack of dishes gracing the floor near the rustic room door until her memory caught up with the confusion. A traditional Suisse cheese fondue, compliments of the hotel had been delivered to the room but something was still missing, something that she relied upon like a crutch…

Bewilderment wrestled with her mind until its foggy tentacles parted and the mist of uncertainty evaporated, leaving the clear image of a blue-suited giant smiling impishly through the haze. The apparition drew a guarded smile and a bizarre emotion coursed through her, feeling strangely happy in his presence; yet without him, she felt peculiarly lost and empty. The playful and gentle handsome giant stealing glances at her when he thought she wasn’t watching and protecting her with almost rock star adulation. Tangled thoughts brought comfort and frightened her at the same time, with a sense of duplicity accompanying the culpable emotions.

With a guarded sigh and turning back to the view from her window, she coaxed her mind trying to remember the face of her benevolent husband, Armon, but the image eluded her and Clayton’s cheeky grin stole into her memory instead, causing another wary smile to light her lips. Safeguarded in her innermost private world and kept under lock and key where nobody but she ever walked, she allowed a momentary impression to linger in a cloud of impetuous wonder before slamming the door on the preposterous image and intentionally locking it shut—for good.

A sudden knock reverberated into the hotel room, sidetracking Angelina’s wandering mind, diverting her gaze from the powdery scene beneath her window and turning to face the commotion emanating from the solid room access instead. Chantal stirred, immediately jumping to her feet at the disturbance, scanning the barren room with sleepy eyes and relaxing only when she located Madame’s pensive yet impressive image studying her from across the room. Convinced that all was in order, Chantal turned her attention to the door and prepared a professional pose to deal with the enquirer, huffing when Clayton’s big frame smiled back. It wasn’t Chantal’s most tolerant part of the day shaking off sleep and particularly being woken, instead of waking under her own volition.

“Are we ready to go exploring?!” Clayton grinned, scanning the unremarkable room and secretly stealing another admiring glance at Angelina’s immaculate figure silhouetted by the strong mountain light flooding through the hotel pane.

Madame momentarily caught Clayton’s eye and with an embarrassed flush, he quickly averted his stolen glimpse and turned away as if he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar again while Madame, no longer oblivious to Clayton’s attention, tried to hide her reaction to his not-so-surreptitious admiration.

After leaving Chantal to attend to Madame earlier and abide by a rest break stipulated by a stern Doctor Bonnet in his list of instructions, Clayton had gone exploring on his own. But before Madame could heed her doctor’s instructions, Chantal had meticulously fussed over her charge, preparing her for the afternoon’s activities, making sure she was immaculate in the cruel and competitive world of casual mountain fashion, however wearing down the reserves of Madame’s energy in the process. Judging by Clayton’s stare, Chantal had succeeded in her quest to impress, making her first lady stunning to behold.

Chantal joined Clayton’s silent enquiry, both turning to Madame for confirmation and when she smiled and nodded her consent, the meticulous preparations for the afternoon activities swung into well rehearsed automation.

“I had a bite to eat at the Plein Roc restaurant while you ladies slept. Madame, you have to see this place. It’s awesome!” Clayton sounded like a big kid on Christmas morning.

Trying to match his childlike enthusiasm, Madame teased, “Well, lead on, Monsieur!”

The little gathering deserted the privacy of their room, standing expectantly in the passage, waiting for Clayton to pull the door closed and confirm its security. Cautious of an earlier staring felony, the gentle giant hesitantly offered Madame his arm and to his relief she took his gesture without faltering. Madame wrapped her hand around his offering with pleasure, but not wanting to draw attention to the action, she took Chantal’s with the other.

Exiting the elevator onto the station platform, the chilling air grasped at exposed skin, but the protective layers made sure body warmth couldn’t escape through unauthorised pathways. Clayton led the way into a long, skinny tunnel entering from the station platform and after an easy few hundred metres walk through the frosty mountain’s rocky interior, the passage split. One side led to a well appointed restaurant perched solidly into the unyielding rock mountainside with only a line of windows on the outside to betray its existence. The opposite fork led to an outdoor viewing platform securely attached to the Plein Roc’s restaurant roof.

As Clayton held open the door to the observation deck, a breathtaking sheer mountain panorama opened before them, stealing their breaths and demanding a subdued and silent contemplative awe in the midst of such majestic splendour. Clinging to the protective railing, Madame stared in wonderment. Les Rochers de Naye was on a mission to impress, topping each previous experience with the next new and determined scene. Clayton carefully watched Madame’s expression, delighted by her reaction as she glanced around the stunning view; but a momentary cloud passed across her childlike expression and for a few seconds the pleasure disappeared and a confused reflection took its place.

Wondering whether she was suffering from the drug side effects as Doctor Bonnet had warned, Clayton sidled over to her position and gently asked, “Are you alright, Madame?”

Angelina wiped the corners of her eyes, smiled a watery smile and assured her minder she was okay. “Show me what’s next, Monsieur Clayton,” her happy face reappeared and chased away the sad one.

The wandering explorers backtracked through the Plein Roc’s tunnel and found a trail leading from the protection of the hotel to Les Rochers de Naye mountain summit some 300 metres higher up. Heading for the peak, they left the image of the hotel behind, dwarfed by the mountainous backdrop and as they crunched along the snowy path, the exertion of the climb made them pant deeply in the thin mountain air.

Halfway along the struggling slope, they rested by an area marked out by curious fences into a number of strange separate grassy pens. Standing by the fences, drawing heavy breaths and trying to steady their hammering hearts, they pondered the reason for the deliberate creation. An unexpected high-pitched and slow staccato whistle echoed out across the intense sunlit field, drawing their attention to a furry, squirrel-like creature standing on his back legs and scouring the scene with alarm. Before long, the fence line erupted with a colony of alpine marmot climbing over each other and vying for the visitors’ attention. It was obvious the cute furry beggars were expecting food and when none seemed to appear, they impertinently lost interest and nonchalantly went about their business among the rocky slopes of their fenced mountain home.

Madame’s contagious laugh drew both Chantal’s and Clayton’s attention to an area inside the pen as they tried to follow the direction of her pointing hand. Finding two marmots standing on their back legs and locked in a boisterous game of animated belly bumping, trying to knock each other over and claim the territory in contention, Madame gulped in another amused breath and laughed energetically. Calming her laughter after a while and stammering breathlessly over her words, Angelina tried to explain, “Th… that’s exactly what you two do trying to outdo each other around me!”

Chantal and Clayton stared at each other, somewhat unamused by their first lady’s description of their performance around their charge, but after a while they could see she was right and acknowledged the deep sense of competition between them.

Sensing her character study had caused some angst, Angelina took both of her minders’ arms and tried to smooth over her observation. “And I adore your devotion and professionalism.”

The last steps before reaching the summit and onto the observation platform of Les Rochers de Naye required a huge effort and all three people were puffing breathlessly, but as they stepped onto the structure and turned towards the alpine vista, time seemed to pause with the stunning outlook demanding appropriate reverence.

The cloudless and overarching sapphire sky gave an uninhibited spectacle down to Lac Léman’s deep blue mood, while the distant shores and mountains of France lay exposed for all to scrutinise. A paddle steamer cut a zipper of white in front of its miniature bow and disturbed the expansive lake’s peaceful reflection. From here, Montreux’s bustling vastness fitted easily into the palm of an outstretched hand and with a powerful camera lens the view could be easily magnified, giving a secretive analysis of unsuspecting inhabitants over 2,000 metres below. Caux’s castle, languishing on a lower peak and trying to hide from the higher summit, stood impressive against the summer sky and even further down still, another ancient masterpiece, the Glion Institute of Higher Education pronounced its glory straddling the sheer mountainside directly above Montreux.

Madame’s struggling voice broke the contemplative quiet, absentmindedly speaking her thoughts and drawing Chantal’s and Clayton’s attention away from the scene. “This is breathtakingly beautiful. It reminds me of the flight from Naples to Geneva flying over the Alps in that clapped out Learjet when we almost died…!”

Madame realised what she had just said and a confused, pleading stare turned towards her minders, her eyes alight with fright and begging for understanding. The droning voice appeared again, replaying in her mind and flooding her memory with conflicting images, stirring the bewilderment into a swirling vortex of perplexing dreams and spiralling her body into trembling chaos. Chantal stared, frozen in fear, concerned for her first lady and wondering what Clayton would say, but Madame filled the awkward void instead with a quavering tremor.

“That was just nonsense and it didn’t happen… did it?” her traumatised voice tapered off and before she could speak, her body slipped down the railing and crumpled.

CLAYTON!” Chantal’s alarmed voice called to the giant in a near scream, echoing over the mountain view and urging him to act.

Before Madame’s body could drop unconscious to the snow, Clayton had broken her fall, swooped into his powerful arms and hanging limp like a rag doll. Angelina’s frightened eyes flickered open for a heartbeat, recognising Clayton’s worried and adoring stare, then with a pitiable smile, her eyes closed again and she slumped against his chest.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 46

 

Dangling precariously from the ceiling by an exposed but insulated electric wire, a single incandescent light bulb burnt into the dark room and cast shadows over a disorderly array of instruments and furniture stacked unceremoniously into a hasty pile, the tools required for the successful operation of a music recording studio. Maestro’s objections to moving his vast equipment cache from a well appointed soundproofed studio into the island property were loudly protested. Robere, however, was adamant and the move began in earnest.

Ambience is everything to a gifted composer and if the surrounds aren’t conducive to artistic creativity, inspiration simply dries up. Nothing is more purposeless to a musical genius than a debilitating atmosphere, injuring inspiration and distressing the shy melody to remain ambiguous in a sea of meaningless musical scratches hanging dubiously over desolate staves. Like a washing line full of dirty family laundry flapping uselessly in the dry and exhausting alpine Foehn gales, hoping the apparel would somehow clean itself, yet without the intervention of proper cleaning process.

When Maestro had enquired, somewhat disdainfully how he should transport the heavy baby grand over the watery gap between the mainland and island, Robere had laughed, slapped the teen affectionately across his shoulder and offered, “Ask God to help you.”

It had only been God’s help and a handful of strong hired men that had prevented the heavy piano from overturning the small boat and sending the extravagant instrument to the ancient silted bottom of Lac Léman. Now the baby grand stood shivering in one the island’s cold and dank stonewalled ground floor rooms. Pushed into a darkened corner, the sensitive instrument joined company with a mountain of lifeless musical clutter, unsure of its fate in the destructive damp confines.

Overcome with the rumblings of discontent and glaring around the turmoil, Maestro pushed the plastic protective cover from the cowering piano and began to tease its ivory teeth with supple talented hands. Locating the matching piano stool, the duo melded into a precisely orchestrated symphony with man and machine combing wills and fingers while ivory keys blurred into a maelstrom of harmonious and melodic chaos. Empty staves on blank music paper erupted with powerful notations as Maestro interrupted the piano’s ordered pandemonium. When he paused, the musical storm momentarily abated, yet he could still hear each beat and each note in his mind, writing as furiously as his fingers would allow and capturing the moment’s hypnotic romance. Regaining his place with effortless ease, the baby grand sang with a harrowing tone as Maestro’s body swayed in time with agile gifted fingers decisively manipulating highly expressive ivory keys and birthing yet another haunting musical jewel.

Pushing away from the stool and with a vigorous grab for electronic assistance, Maestro began to hastily shove boxes and crash equipment around the confined room. Compellingly, he searched for power leads and power outlets as a fever of musical pulse clamoured for a conduit from his focused mind and onto ordered music sheets, transposing the classical timbre into a determined and powerful rock masterpiece. Finally hanging his head in exhausted passion, Maestro contemplated the hastily written and completed score. Searching its pages, he could still hear the complex melody pulling at his heartstrings. This would be his finest yet and all it needed was a name. Falling to a worshipful pose at the piano’s feet, Maestro offered homage, realising he’d been given a new work born out of extraordinary circumstances and challenging traditional musical thought. Asking silently for a name to bless his latest creation, an immediate answer flashed through his prayerful mind: sfidare le tradiziones… challenge the traditions.

 

~

 

Ryan Tauxe quietly slipped the key into the family’s front door, hoping his mother had remembered to leave the inside key slightly out of the lock, allowing his metallic opener enough length to completely enter the tumbler and unlock the access. Otherwise he’d have to wake the family to gain entry, but at 5:15 am, waking his sleeping parents would be met with disharmony and incredulous questions. The unusual shaped unlocking device slid to its full length and with a twist, the lock gave way silently under his hand. Aware of the stubborn nature of the chalet’s front door, Ryan pushed the barrier slowly and carefully, however the leading edge scraped across the wooden floor and sent an unwanted announcement into the darkened household. Holding his breath and straining to listen, Ryan jumped as a shadowy figure from within the dim passage appeared and floated like an apparition in the gloom, apparently tying a dressing gown tether around its waist.

“It’s so late, son, I was beginning to worry!” Marie-Laure’s concerned voice whispered quietly in the sinister corridor.

Clearly silhouetted by the early morning hour and the streetlight entering the family home, Ryan hung his head, knowing full well his mother wouldn’t have slept. Marie-Laure encased her young son in a hug and then gently pushed the door closed with a stuttering scrape followed by a quiet plunk, locking it from the inside with the key permanently situated in the interior lock.

“Did you have a good night, Ryan?” she tried to engage the teen and loosen his tongue, hoping he would invite her into his secretive world and give her some indication of where his heart had been and obviously still was.

“Yeah, it was cool,” Ryan whispered. “I spent most of the night with Alex listening to the Sticky Lizards and when he went home, I just wandered around the late night concerts until the last scheduled pyjama bus finished its route.”

Marie-Laure’s eyes sparkled with obscure relieved tears forming in the corners of her eyes. If her son was with Alex then he was in good hands and her frantic prayers had been answered. She could get some sleep now. “Go to bed, son. I love you!”

“I love you, too,” Ryan mumbled as he squeezed past his mother and silently headed to his room.

Finally climbing into bed exhausted and with a pang of remorse for his mother’s sleepless night, Ryan heard the door to his parents’ bedroom gently close down the hall and pulled the covers up to his nose, waiting for sleep. For the thousandth time, he replayed the chance meeting with the Maestro in his memory and the unlikely promise of jamming with the Sticky Lizards’ lead guitarist. As he contemplated the possibility of a voluntary cleaner being introduced to a top rock group and casually exchanging musical prowess, Ryan realised he’d been scammed… but why? What did this Maestro dude have to gain by making incredulous promises he couldn’t keep? Ryan rolled over to face the small bedside lamp and a disappointed sigh filled the room, convincing himself there was no possibility he would ever see the Maestro again or his preposterous promise.

With the Sticky Lizards resonating like an overactive earworm in his brain, Ryan reached for his iPod silently beckoning from the bedside table, pushed the repeat button and turned up the volume, waiting for Niccolo’s screeching Sfidare Dissenso to lull him into sleep. Just for a moment he hesitated before swiping the play button, remembering Alex’s strange explanation and whether God would allow him to pursue a musical career, defying his parents’ desire for him to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the family farm. Ryan sighed heavily. The likelihood of attaining his fanciful dream was shrinking with every exasperated breath, and with a frustrated hand he struck the iPod, activating the Sticky Lizards’ explosive comfort and catapulting Niccolo’s screech directly into his receptive eardrums. Waving his hand around, Ryan found the lamp switch and doused the light then pulled the blankets up to his nose again, feeling like his life wasn’t his own and everyone was conspiring against him.

The sleeping house bumped and groaned in the quiet as the rising sun warmed its wooden frame and stretched bearers and joists against the fasteners holding the chalet together. Ryan’s exhausted dreams bumped and groaned too, stretching against the immovable bearers and joists holding his life firmly bolted in a path he had no desire to follow.

Within the shadowy darkness, a teen around his own age handed him a gift and then smiled broadly, his smooth voice titillating Ryan’s expectant mind, ‘I told you God had a purpose for you in music.’ Maestro unexpectedly backed out of Ryan’s dream and disappeared into the darkness just as a massive crowd erupted in rapturous acclaim. Their voices thundered throughout the intimidating amphitheatre and rattled the foundations with a deafening roar. An unanticipated spotlight blinked onto the stage and blinded Ryan for a moment until he realised where he was. In his hands a Stratocaster pressed like velvet into his skin, highly polished and deliberate in the curves of its wooden body with the neck just the right length for his reach. Staring in disbelief at the incredulous instrument for a few brief seconds, he quickly found his groove and adjusted the tone control to the position he liked the most, turned the volume knob to full and struck the strings. The machine responded with an instrumental voice so sweet it melted Ryan’s heart and drew a rapturous gasp from the crowd. Seconds later, the Sticky Lizards appeared out of the rolling stage fog and with Ryan’s lead, they burst into a rock and roll rendition he had never heard before. The crowd went wild with adoration, pulsing their arms above their heads and chanting, ‘Ryan… Ryan… Ryan!

A sudden chorus of dividing curtains on speeding tracks followed by a blinding light interrupted his infatuated dream. Then as the warm afternoon sun leaked into his room and woke him, Ryan immediately recognised the deep voice of his father beckoning him back into the stark reality of family life.

“Ryan, wake up! It’s time we had a man-to-man talk.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 47

 

Tension inside the Tauxe family home had burgeoned to a level Ryan had never experienced before. His mother was in tears, silently pleading with the patriarch to tread gently around their wayward teen, vehemently laying down the law to their son. With his head bowed low and his chin resting dejectedly on his chest under the force of the lecture, Ryan remained respectfully silent even as his father continued to berate his behaviour and the selfish lack of concern for his mother’s wellbeing.

Ryan suspected she hadn’t slept while he roamed the festival all night, but it was his first legitimate taste of freedom as an independent man and now the reins were being tightened again, feeling the familiar pressure to conform duty bound into the mould of a traditional nobody. After all, he was spending most of the night with Alex and not some clandestine rendezvous with antisocial cretins as his father was intimating. Sitting across the kitchen table from his parents and close to bursting, Ryan fought with all his might against a disrespectful explosive tirade and internalised the tension, remaining unresponsive and sullen, trying to deal with the reality of a life apart from the love of music.

As his father droned on, Ryan’s mind overloaded and blocked out the lecture, instead drifting back to the dream the previous night. With an imaginary pluck at melodic strings, he heard the crowd’s euphoric beckon, adoringly chanting his name before the fantasy evaporated with the chime of the kitchen clock. It was time to catch the bus to the festival and start work for the day, but Ryan knew the harangue had just been paused and the patriarch had more to say.

With an anxious knot pressing into her stomach, Marie-Laure silently watched the grim expression of her son as he pulled the scraping front door closed and slowly disappeared down the path to catch the bus. Nothing had been resolved and Ryan hadn’t offered anything except a few listless nods and an occasional shrug throughout the lecture, but his father still vehemently demanded a response. Now as her sullen son walked away, it seemed he was slowly drifting further from her too, leaving her to feel desperate and alone. Certain her son had finally shut them out completely, Marie-Laure felt helpless, frantically wanting to reach out and make it all okay again but she was convinced Ryan perceived her as part of the problem and her last hopes rested with Alex to guide Ryan with Papa God’s wisdom.

 

~

 

Ryan occupied the back seat of the lumbering Chailly to Gambetta bus, emotionally detached and highly depressed, watching the mountain slopes pass by his window in an unrecognisable blur. Moments later the bus squealed to a halt beside the Gambetta stop, but it was only the movement of other bus passengers that shook Ryan from his stupor long enough to recognise he had to alight, too.

Inadvertently glancing at his watch, Ryan panicked, realising he was running late and had to make a dash for the Auditorium Stravinski’s workroom behind the stage, collect the heavy vacuum backpack before endeavouring the laborious and time critical task of cleaning the complete fifth-floor entertainment area. As he weaved in and out of the busy Quai de Vernex, the crowded arena stalled his progress.

Disguised by the scene and lost in the crowd, a pair of insignificant young eyes casually watched the agitated teen, measuring his progress with a calculating, steely stare.

Taking three steps at a time and panting heavily from the exertion, Ryan finally burst onto the fifth floor, drawing convicting stares from other staff members already diligently going about their chores. Keeping his head down and averting questioning eyes, he ran to the backstage passage and broke into the janitors’ room, but Alex’s equipment and his personal locker were empty.

Great! I don’t need another lecture! his guilty thoughts berated.

Throwing his substantial locker open, Ryan heaved the weighty vacuum cleaner backpack onto his shoulders, grabbed an enormous orange coiled extension lead and then with his free hand, swiped at the fabric ID necklace before kicking the locker door closed with his foot. Glancing up at the wall clock, a stab of nervous energy coursed through his body: he was five minutes late.

Loaded up like a mountain climber, Ryan hurried into the auditorium just in time to see Alex deep in an emotive conversation with one of the complex’s managers, his face red with concern and energetic hand gestures that left no doubt of their intentions. Momentarily, Alex’s concentration diverted and made eye contact with Ryan across the seats. The chance communication exchanged a dire expression but the spirited discussion went on as if Alex was locked in a battle of wills. Unexpectedly, the arguing bureaucrat flung up his hands in disgust and turned on his heels, flouncing away from Alex, but as he strode off the manager unleashed the final words leaving nothing to the imagination.

“He goes, or it’s both of you!”

Alex sighed loudly and then dolefully dropped his chin to his chest trying to come to terms with what had just happened. “Ryan!” Alex motioned from across the expansive venue.

Ryan’s heart sank, expecting the worst, then obediently made his way through the maze of seats. Standing in front of Alex and allowing the backpack to drop from his shoulders, Ryan waited for the words he knew were coming.

“I’m sorry, son, I have to let you go. You can work today’s shift and see the concerts tonight, but after that I’ll need your security ID.”

Ryan’s shoulders slumped in shock for the second time today and he tried hard to fight the frustrated tears flooding the corners of his eyes. Resigning himself to the situation, Ryan nodded and whispered emotionlessly, trying to keep the lid on his disappointment, “Yeah, I’ll work tonight. Thanks, Alex.”

Alex draped his arm over the distraught teen and whispered, “I love you and I know God loves you, Ryan. Sometimes He has to take desperate measures to gain our attention and correct the path of disobedience we choose.”

Pushing away from Alex’s embrace, a flash of frustrated hatred crossed the teen’s eyes and the tears evaporated in a flush of volcanic fury. “God doesn’t love me, Alex. He just wants to use my life as a punching bag!”

Alex hung his head, knowing he had done the same thing when his world fell apart, and the only one who could reach Ryan now was the Holy Spirit. In a voice so quiet, Alex whispered, “Not by might… not by power… but by my Spirit says the Lord.”

 

~

 

An uncoiled orange snake coursed across the mezzanine floor and tangled around rows of chairs. The electric lead was just long enough to reach from the only general power outlet attached to a distant wall, stretching precariously to the furthest point and powering the deafening backpack whirring violently upon Ryan’s shoulders. The exertion of vacuuming was somehow cathartic, wearing off frustrated emotional energy although he wasn’t concerned anymore by the roving gaze of the floor manager or the quality of the job. He thought about deliberately leaving sections dirty to spite the bureaucracy, but a stab of conscience kept him in check, diligently cleaning every inch with almost manic fervour. As Ryan attacked the job, tumbling thoughts rolled across his mind’s eye and it seemed his father had won and now his future would be devoid of anything remotely musical.

The machine suddenly lost power in a spiralling defeated tone, winding down like a battery powered toy on the last remnants of stored energy. Ryan sighed loudly, expecting to see the cord pulled from the wall. Glancing around behind him, following the cord to its source and searching for an offending tangle, Ryan was surprised to see the lead still firmly connected to the power outlet and the building lights illuminated… they hadn’t lost power. He reached for the machine’s on/off switch and to his dismay the switch was off. He was just about to flick it back on again when a voice startled him and he jumped.

“I thought you might like a Stratocaster. It seems an appropriate machine for someone of your talent.”

As if he’d been stung, Ryan swivelled violently to meet the voice’s owner. Instead, his lust-filled eyes focused on a highly polished electric guitar and the authenticating tags swinging from its neck.

“It’s new and no one has used it before. I hope that’s okay.”

Ryan stared wide eyed and disbelieving at the teen holding the new guitar.

“Something wrong, Ryan? Did I choose wrongly? I can get you another guitar if you prefer.”

Ryan recognised Maestro immediately and almost dropped to his knees in shock. Trembling from the bombshell, Ryan’s eyes scrutinised the auditorium surrounds in an effort to verify reality and wondering whether his mind was playing a cruel trick. Searching for a reassuring reference point, his spinning gaze eventually settled on the clock above the stage, noting the time. It was exactly when the Maestro said he would return.

“N… no, a Stratocaster is way cool!” Ryan’s eyes were moist and his hands shook as he took the expensive gift from the teen, contemplating whether God had in fact endorsed a future in rock and roll.

“I’m sorry you were fired,” the Maestro offered compassionately, “but there is a good side to the ills of today’s problems. The Sticky Lizards are coming to my sound studio for a jam tonight after their shows. I’ll pick you up at the front of the auditorium when you finish work and you can acquaint yourself with your new instrument before they arrive. What do you say?”

Ryan nodded without thinking, his eyes open wide and staring at the confident teen, overcome with awe at the things he was hearing. But one thing bothered his conscience. How did the Maestro know he was fired and if he knew that, why was he still offering the chance of a lifetime to someone who couldn’t hold down a simple cleaner position, a voluntary one at that?

Then came the confirming words Ryan had longed to hear, evaporating each and every objection anyone had ever raised and filling him with eager hope.

“See, I told you God had a career for you in music.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 48

 

High above the Auditorium Stravinski’s stage, a lone impassive timekeeper scrutinised the musical work area, keeping watch with metronomic accuracy and measuring the frenetic activity below with the stoic drum beat of its rhythmic chronometric arms. The expressionless mechanical conductor gloried in its position, keeping order over the back stage labour force with uncanny accuracy and when its important arms pointed to a specific position on its round face, chaos erupted. Distraught employees ogled the clock’s telling pose with terrified expressions and scurried off to complete their tasks before the doors opened and expectant paying crowds surged in. No member of staff wanted to be the schedule’s stumbling block and singled out as the cause of delays to the overarching concert programme and face management’s discipline, therefore purposefully allowing the staunch, impassive clock face to remain both ruler and guide over their calculated lives.

Busily shuffling the vacuum head around seat frames and purging grime from every fragment of the polished cherrywood floor, Ryan continually glanced up at the bureaucratic timekeeper with disdain, keeping a watchful vigil but this time his expression was filled with indignity and not fear. No longer enamoured with the job and its impossible schedule, he willed the final shift to end and for the music life he coveted to start; but as usual, the timepiece wouldn’t cooperate and the minutes dragged by in a constant monotonous drawl. Even after exchanging continuous threatening glares, the austere and unemotional round face kept up the ceaseless parade… tick … tick … tick! No matter how Ryan willed the sober accountant to misappropriate its calculating duty, it defiantly answered his unspoken manipulation with the same tedious and maddening… tick … tick … tick!

Coursing with euphoric fervour, Ryan tried to ignore the intense timekeeper and diligently floated through his chores, but his mind remained focused on the tiny sound control room where the Maestro had deposited the Stratocaster for safekeeping while Ryan completed his incumbent duties. The strange turn of events dogged the young man’s concentration. It always seemed when he made a major decision there appeared to be a war of opinions battling for prominence on the stage of his life. But this time he remained convinced and no amount of mental argument would shift the image of the sparkling brand new Stratocaster indelibly burnt into the youth’s memory and the Maestro’s comforting words. “See, I told you God had a career for you in music.

An unimpressed image of his father’s face raced across Ryan’s mind and drew a moment of intense panic, but the Maestro’s appearance and his gift had convinced Ryan of his future path. Seemingly God Himself had confirmed it, and if his parents didn’t agree they needed to take their complaint to Him and not Ryan.

A trickle of sweat ran down Ryan’s forehead and pooled in the corner of his eye, stinging the sensitive tear duct and bringing a momentary halt to the exhaustive pace he’d set. Wiping the corner of his eye with his shirt collar, he caught a distant glance of Alex’s bearded frame busily swabbing down chairs. Secretly watching the older man with an admiring gaze, Alex’s story came floating back. However, he had a difficult time connecting the respectable man he now saw with the destructive drug addicted street kid who had unintentionally killed his pregnant girlfriend in a car crash, desperate to evade the law. Ryan could see clearly how Alex had made all the wrong choices and had paid for his folly dearly, but he’d convinced himself Alex’s situation was completely different and had absolutely nothing in common with any of Ryan’s current decisions.

The teenager drifted off into a daydream and remembered Alex telling him how a Godly gendarme had confronted his anger and the poor choices he had made, forcing him to see past the selfishness of his traumatic life and take responsibility for his own actions instead of blaming everyone else for the harrowing circumstances. After conviction for his crimes and spending a lengthy stretch in prison for his delinquency, Alex finally found his purpose in Jesus Christ and committed to spending the rest of his life trying to mentor wayward teens, keeping them from the same predictable and destructive path.

Ryan thought for awhile. I’m a good person; I haven’t done anything wrong! God would surely smile on my decision and honour me for making a stand against all the negative voices trying to dissuade me from music. The vacuum cleaner clamour overpowered the scene and refocused Ryan’s reverie back to the auditorium, but as he continued to work, Ryan remembered Alex’s reluctance to answer the question of God’s will for his music career. As if trying to escape some unwanted voice, Ryan worked feverishly, but an accidental glance up at Alex’s busy form distracted Ryan’s escape route and the words overtook him like a breaking wave rolling up onto a hot sandy beach…

Are you sure?!

Ryan guffawed over the vacuum noise and with an incredulous huff, carelessly answered the voice, unconcerned whether people could hear the peculiar conversation with himself. “Am I sure?! I’ve never been surer in all my life!”

The insignificant voice faded from his mind and evaporated into the murky depths of Ryan’s conscience, but left behind an annoying echo. Are you sure? A deliberate talisman reminding Ryan of the crossroad and the path he’d chosen. The echo was easy to drown out, intentionally pushing it beneath the waves of worldly pleasures and distractions. However, in the turmoil and loneliness of success the buoyant echo would always resurface, resounding still, chiming its haunting reminder with no way to permanently silence the ever-present whisper reverberating through the endless, wasted years.

Are you sure?

 

~

 

With a deliberate and calculated movement, Ryan apprehensively grasped the janitors’ room door handle and threaded the key attached to his ID card necklace into its sturdy lock and pulled the substantial door open. Although he had hastily completed all the cleaning requirements on his work list, it was still fifteen minutes before the end of his shift. He was hoping the early finish would avoid another unwanted lecture and the certainty Alex would try to muddy the clear waters of Ryan’s choice and cast doubt on Maestro’s confirmation and the future music career he was about to launch into.

Cautiously investigating the silent room, it appeared the space was empty and he was alone, a situation that fitted the forming plan taking root in Ryan’s mind. Glancing up at the workroom clock and realising he had only a few moments before being confronted, he shook the heavy vacuum backpack from his shoulders and thrust its weighty tubular chrome body into the locker, throwing the orange cord on top. With an indignant tug, Ryan reefed the staff ID card from his neck and stood staring at the coveted free entry ticket to any venue around the festival circuit. Running a tired hand through his sweaty locks, he pondered the card for long moments and then threw the plastic necklace onto the table where Alex completed the substantial paperwork required by the building’s authorities.

The more Ryan contemplated his future and the Maestro’s words, the more certain he became of his own imminent success and the less he needed inspiration from musicians on the same ladder as he hoped to climb. Ryan had made it to the starting line and the new Stratocaster and the jamming session with the band was all the evidence he needed. Just maybe, in time, he would be the one other teens worshiped, clambering to gain a glimpse of the bright new star and his enduring music. A floating apparition of Freddie Mercury’s graven image wandered arrogantly across Ryan’s mind, offering an affirming smile. Then scrutinising the youngster with a disturbing leer, he placed an imaginary arm over the boy’s shoulder and crooned, ‘That’s my boy; triumph is yours. All you have to do is grasp it.’

The imagined picture vanished and left Ryan coursing with adrenaline. Everywhere he turned confirmation followed, leaving him anxious to collect his guitar and ride off into the musical sunset. As Freddie Mercury’s words lingered in Ryan’s imagination, abandoning the ID card became his first act of faith in his own ability and the surety he had the confidence to grasp the opportunity so obviously laid at his feet.

Ryan panicked as his gaze settled onto the workroom clock. Alex would be finishing soon and he had to get out before the older man complicated things and started asking questions. Finding a piece of paper and a pen on Alex’s desk, he quickly scribbled across the scrap a single word… Thanks. Then taking a final look around, pushed the door open and closed it with a gentle plunk. Incredulous eyes followed Ryan’s escaping figure from the auditorium. He’d come in late and now he was leaving early, but Ryan didn’t care. The Stratocaster was on his mind and he had to retrieve it from the sound booth.

The last hurdle before his new life could begin.

By the time Ryan had rescued the guitar and found his way out into the crowded Quai de Vernex, the sun had gone down, leaving the balmy night aglow with shimmering party lights. Amateur musicians busked their wares in amongst the distracted crowd, trying to capture their wandering attention and maybe earn a few francs from benevolent listeners. Ryan had had a close encounter with a probing beam from Alex’s searching eyes scouring the auditorium and was almost detected, although a quick dance into the sound room hid the teen and left Alex none the wiser to Ryan’s whereabouts. However, after discarding his official staff ID, Ryan had a few more anxious moments proving his identity to the sound staff, but an opportune sound engineer recognised the vacuum cleaner youth and the guitar was reluctantly handed over.

Standing, staring into the ambling crowd from the pickup position the Maestro had described, Ryan waited anxiously with his prize slung over his shoulder and dangling down his back by the plush guitar straps. In the distance, Ryan happily recognised the tall, thin figure of the Maestro striding towards his position and weaving in and out of the pack. Waving above the horde, Ryan attracted his attention and the Maestro smiled and waved back in recognition.

From out of nowhere, a disturbance erupted, catching Ryan in the middle of a violent fray and shoving the teen from his feet with a brutal motion. Ryan felt the grassy ground come up to meet his face and his tongue tasted the moist green vegetation between his teeth, while the weight of the guitar wrenched from his grasp and then a sharp pain tore at his shoulder. He could hear voices screaming down a distant tunnel and then the horrified swarming images of people moving and gawking in slow motion around his prostrate body.

A distraught and tall teenage figure divided the throng, forcing his way to the forefront and compassionately kneeled over Ryan calling his name, but nothing made sense except the rising nausea and the excruciating pain in his shoulder. Ryan desperately tried to focus, but the more he tried the faster the scene distorted, collapsing into an uncontrollable blur before the lights finally blinked out.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 49

 

Anne-Claire squeezed her eyelids tightly shut and then open, hoping to coax her tear ducts into action and lubricate the painful tracks left behind by the frightening and sleepless night. Since the mysterious voice had woken her earlier in the evening, she hadn’t heard a sound from either the tunnel or the world above her, but just in case, she’d strictly forbade her eyes to close in sleep, leaving a conscious avenue of escape if the need arose.

Dawn announced its presence with the first murmurs of golden orange light leaking down into the tunnel entrance and giving the impression of a halo just a few metres from Anne-Claire’s exhausted body. She turned her head and glanced deeper into the tunnel where absolute darkness met her gaze and hurt her straining eyes. Turning back to the light and attempting to analyse the strange disturbances that had stolen her sleep, Anne-Claire struggled to find logic, becoming almost impossible to decipher the blurred line between dream or reality and confusing the situation intolerably.

A sudden explosion of birdsong resonated into the unfamiliar confines and flooded the sixteen year old with warmth and surety that only morning could bring. Although the familiar sounds of her native Switzerland eased the fear of the deep night and partially chased the haunting nightmare away, the dank and cold of the dark tunnel seeped into Anne-Claire, causing her body to shiver uncontrollably. Even wrapped in the warmth of the stranger’s heavy velvet cloak, she was starting to ache from the traumatic effects of her bizarre surrounds, forcing her thoughts to consider escaping the castle’s beguiling labyrinth and attempt another rendezvous with the peculiar world outside.

With her mind aching from the sleepless night, Anne-Claire lightly ran her fingers through her hair wondering whether she’d dreamt the whole scenario, but winced as an itinerant fingernail found the wound, convincing her this much of her experience at least was true. Carefully, she felt around the dry injury with a gentle probe and began to ponder her situation, recalling the facts and the events that’d led to her perplexing adventure: Grandpa’s fantastic tale; the names on the dungeon column that pointed to the spot where she’d purportedly hit her head; and the poorly timed earth tremor that seemed to open up a doorway into this strange world… but where am I?!

As if making a mental stocktake of truths and fallacies, she rubbed her hand across the soft cloak draped over her body and conceded that was real. But then her mind drifted back to the eccentric man, the owner of the cloak. He was adamant I was bathing in my underwear and turned away from me as if I really was standing in my underwear. And why was the man riding a horse in the middle of a busy roadway anyway?! Then there’s this perplexing silence that seems to pervade everywhere I turn. The familiar landscape appears completely different, too; yet now that I think about it, even the steamboat whistle I heard seemed earthier sounding than La Suisse’s. Anne-Claire pondered the incredulous situation trying to find a believable answer, but the longer she teased the facts, the deeper the confusion settled.

An unexpected sound sent a fearful wave of pins and needles coursing through her body as crunching boots disturbed the gravelly shoreline only metres from the tunnel entrance, startling the young woman and immediately silencing her rambling thoughts. Light and shadow danced across the tunnel opening as if someone was searching nearby, prompting a tense, guarded response. Anne-Claire held her breath, considering her escape route and listening for signs her protective burrow had been compromised.

“I tell you, Jean-François, she was bathing shamefully just down there in the water and I gave her my cape to protect her modesty… and then she disappeared!”

Jean-François laughed at his friend’s ridiculous description. ”My dear friend, Henri. It is time you took a wife. Imagining nymphs in your sojourn is a sure sign. What of the delightful Lady Ami Rambert? Now there is a woman to fill your imagination.”

“I do not steal women to become my wife, Jean-François, unlike you.”

The gibe took his friend off guard. “The challenge of such an adventure only adds to the allure, my friend. Tavel was only an army officer, whereas I am from the prestigious Savoie lineage and Nicolaïde is far better off with me.”

“Yes, well, I still don’t agree with abducting a wife; and to make matters worse, if you hadn’t been full of the canton’s finest wine when I found you last night, we wouldn’t be out here now at dawn with flaming torches searching for the young woman. And by the way, she still has my riding cape!” Henri chided, feeling his companion was making a mockery of him.

Jean-François drew near his friend and whispered as if an unseen adversary was listening close by, “It is rumoured that Nicolaïde’s sister, Dominique, has been abducted and is being prepared for a new life.”

A concerned frown crossed Henri’s features, evident even in the flickering light of their flaming torches. “Dominique de Blonay? The sixteen year old maiden and fabled beauty challenged only by her sister Nicolaïde has been abducted?!?”

“Hmm, that’s the one,” Jean-François’ head tilted upward in pride.

Henri became suspicious suddenly. “How do you know this, Jean-François? Do you have a hand in her abduction?”

“Come now, Henri. Do you think I would stoop to such a felonious reverie and steal two beauties, as you so nicely put it?”

Henri’s eyes thinned into slits. “Jean-François, nothing shocks me about your behaviour anymore.”

Anne-Claire’s breaths were short and shallow as she listened to the fantastic commentary drifting down to her ears. Surely someone was playing a trick on her and messing with her mind. Grandpa had told her about the fabled Dominique de Blonay, and she knew of Nicolaïde de Blonay from her school history lessons.

A sudden spill of gravel leaked down into her hiding place and it panicked her. Tasting the grit and dust smoking into her protective position, she instinctively scurried backwards into the darkness, crawling on her elbows and stomach but exasperatingly twisted in the avenger’s cloak. With her heart hammering, she strained to untangle the frustrating black riding cape snarled around her arms and legs, simultaneously pushing her body further into the black tunnel in a bid to evade the two peculiar men systematically searching for her aboveground.

In the terrifying process to elude her hunters, Anne-Claire’s hand brushed against a familiar companion, flooding her trembling escape with precarious relief. Pulling it harshly by the earphone cords from its hiding place in her shorts’ pocket, the rectangular box danced against her leg. In a flurry of agitated fingers she swiped the play button and a small light illuminated her surrounds, adding surety to her escape path although Niccolo’s impassioned B-L-A-H!!! squeaked from the tiny earphones and carelessly threatened to give her position away.

On her hands and knees, Anne-Claire wriggled deeper and deeper into the widening tunnel until she could finally stand. Assured of her ability to escape from her pursuers and accompanied by Niccolo’s screaming light, she pushed further into the blackness. Then as she rounded a corner in the shadowy passage, the path dipped down dramatically and showered her with heavy water droplets from the passage ceiling. As her frightened body desperately gasped for breath, the dripping water spilled across her face and leaked between her lips, threatening to choke her and give away her location. She strained her ears in between needed gasps, silently blowing the seeping water from her mouth and attempting to identify the sounds her intruders had found the tunnel opening and were pursuing her, but the tunnel remained reassuringly silent.

Finally allowing her breath to flow freely, she gulped in violent mouthfuls until the erratic heaving calmed and her pounding heart rate began to subside. No longer threatened by her hunters, she slumped exhausted against the tunnel wall, but instead of finding solid rock pressing into her back, the unexpected rough feel of a heavy wooden door greeted her touch. In another incredulous surprise, the bizarre place had once again offered Anne-Claire an enchanting challenge.

Spinning around to face the barrier and flooding it with light from Niccolo’s screaming stage, Anne-Claire marvelled at the ancient grain of timeworn timber. Outlining its impressive features with the improvised torch, the large rustic door had an imposing metal ring as a handle, apparently attached to a substantial metal bar securing the entry firmly into an overbearing door jamb and holding the barrier tightly shut. Purposefully, she placed her hand onto the metal circle and tried to twist it, but it wouldn’t budge. Frustrated by the door’s determination to keep her out and stifle rising curiosity, Anne-Claire placed both hands on the loop, ready to use her full force, when a sobering thought raced across her mind.

What could possibly be on the other side? Maybe it was another chamber that could trap her permanently, or a pit full of unspeakable crawling things. Then an even worse imagining perturbed her. She was definitely under the lake and maybe this door was holding back Lac Léman’s expansive chilling waters from filling the tunnel and the castle with lake water. Anne-Claire held the ring with both hands, contemplating what she should do and whether she should just restrain her curiosity and let things alone that didn’t concern her.

Then a loud, muffled boom echoed down into the tunnel from the direction of the dark dungeon. With new energy generated by fear-fuelled adrenaline, her hands acted instinctively, twisting the imposing metal ring in her grip and releasing the metal bar almost completely from the door jamb, but still holding the door precariously closed by a corner of the heavy lock. Steadying her mind and weighing the booming threat against her proposed action, she paused and considered the attempt to open the door may be short sighted and have dire consequences.

No longer convinced this was the best avenue of escape, Anne-Claire tried desperately to reverse the situation and reseal the door, but the imposing access had cracked open slightly, straining malevolently against the lock and spilling freezing water droplets around the jamb and onto Anne-Claire’s anxious feet.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 50

 

An inconspicuous and small white marquee pitched on the Garden of Rouvenaz’s grass bustled with curious music festival visitors. Some approached the mysterious contents with guarded inquisitiveness and others brashly marched straight in, more than willing to soak up any free festival offering. Decorated with colourful banners and suspended by ropes from the canvas walls, the bright placards announced in flamboyant letters: JESUS—COMING SOON—BOOK YOUR SEAT NOW TO AVOID THE CRUSH and below that, YOUTH WITH A MISSION.

With an anxious expression etched in a sombre frown, Alex Dupont strode purposefully along the Quai de la Rouvenaz, weaving through the busy crowds toward the YWAM tent. He was spotted among the jostling horde by tract toting crew members worried by the unusually dark expression, and as if carried by satellite, the word quickly found its way back to the official tent… Alex the boss is on his way and he doesn’t look happy!

Those of the YWAM crew who were well acquainted with Montreux’s chief also knew Alex Dupont to be a kind and devoted Christian man, gentle to the extreme and authentically grafted into Jesus’ literal Word. He was a stickler for the truth of the Bible and the only time Alex’s expression took on a dour flavour was when he was involved in spiritual warfare or engaged in prayer against satan’s rape and pillaging of Jesus’ beloved humankind.

Slowing his striding gait as he approached the busy hub, Alex drew back the vibrant tent’s canvas access and squeezed into the crowded interior. Feeling the heat of humanity crammed into a small, breezeless space and conversing with the young YWAM team, Alex smiled occasionally at curious staff, affirming those he made eye contact with via a nod. Exploring the throng for a specific crew member, Alex quickly recognised the person he sought. Waiting patiently for Samuel to finish a conversation with a young woman, Alex judged by Samuel’s animated hand gestures he was deep in his favourite topic of discussion: how Jesus had saved him from a life in hell and his own stupidity, leaving the YWAM’s boss to ponder whether he might be in for quite a wait.

Recognising him with a beaming grin, Samuel turned the young woman’s attention to Alex and excitedly proclaimed, “This is the man who found me in the snowstorm and led me to Jesus and safety!”

Alex’s expression immediately reddened from embarrassment, but he diligently smiled back and answered the curious young woman’s questions while Samuel, almost nerdish, agreed with every word Alex spoke.

“I’d like to hear more about your story, Samuel,” a coy young female voice finally admitted.

“Well, we’re having a midnight rally later on tonight down in the Place du Marché. Why don’t you come?!” Samuel gushed.

As the young woman nodded and broke away from the discussion, she reluctantly left the tent while Alex drew Samuel’s attention with a desperate whisper, “Have you seen Ryan today?”

Samuel’s smile faded, contemplating the worried expression painted so grimly across Alex’s pained face. “No, not today. Why?!”

Alex sighed. “He was late again and I was forced to fire him. I’m worried he might do something stupid.”

Samuel immediately understood Alex’s concern and whispered back, “That job was everything to Ryan!”

 

~

 

A gentle summer breeze drifted across the balmy lake surface and floated around the island’s tiny circumference, mingling with the peaceful starlit scene and playfully tussling with the fabric of Robere’s grey kaftan robe. Face down and unmoving on the island’s manicured back lawn, he lay prostrated deep in worshipful adoration. Close by and hidden in the night, a worried pair of teenage eyes watched his still figure and cautiously pondered interrupting the flamboyant leader. To the teen’s surprise, Robere raised himself into a sitting pose and engaged the distraught youth without the slightest movement of his head or any attempt to search the night for the intruder. It appeared as if the enigmatic presence had been expecting the young man, and the rich, peaceful tone of his calm voice flowed across the night and filled the Maestro’s ears with relieved comfort.

“It’s so wonderful to converse with the Father, Maestro. It revitalises my soul and fills me with joy.”

It was obvious the effervescing charismatic knew the Maestro was there and once again the teen felt overawed by the unusual perception Robere commanded.

“Why are you so downcast? I can feel your bad energy from here and it’s dragging down my happy glow. Lighten up, Maestro, or you will never experience the power of God in your life.”

The Maestro almost choked on his words, stuttering trying to gather his thoughts and deliver the bad news. “T… the situation with Ryan went badly and I had to cancel the Sticky Lizards’ visit.”

Maestro waited for the information to sink in and expected a stormy backlash, but nothing came and the silence made him squirm. Robere’s silhouetted figure, still in a calm sitting pose, remained unmoving, disturbing the youth into a frenzied desire to fill the suspenseful quiet void with an explanation.

“He fought heroically to stave off the attackers and prevent the guitar from being stolen, but now he’s quite a mess and doesn’t remember anything.”

“You didn’t leave him alone, did you?” Robere’s intense piercing eyes settled on the Maestro and even in the dark the potent stare unnerved him.

“No, Robere. I managed to bring him here but I have no idea what his surname is or where he lives. I hope I haven’t messed things up and cast suspicion on our family by doing this, and just before the great rally, too.”

Energetically bouncing to his feet, Robere suddenly burst into a huge grin and affectionately slapped the teen across his shoulders. “No, Maestro. Things are not how you see them, but we must be careful not to give the devil a foothold. They took the guitar though?”

Maestro affirmed Robere’s question with a slight nod.

“Take Ryan and put him to bed in one of the spare bedrooms and then call a doctor to care for the boy. We urgently need to find out where he lives and then return him to his family as soon as possible. If I understand correctly, Ryan will choose to be a valuable part of the family’s music worship structure and a great prophet for spreading the word. Get him another guitar as well.”

Maestro nodded, but finding Ryan’s home without drawing a suspicious light upon the RoMac family name wouldn’t be easy.

Unperturbed by the teen’s story and drawing generous breaths from the warm night air, Robere’s smile erupted once again, turning his whole face into a beam. “I feel we are being led on a slight journey tomorrow, Maestro! Let’s take a small train tour of Montreux.”

Maestro’s face contorted in shock. It was only a few days until the great rally and there was still so much to organise.

Robere’s astute gaze seemed to read the Maestro’s mind and his demeanour bubbled over again. “Relax and have faith! You must learn to trust our God, Maestro. Things depend upon Him and not your organisational skills. Besides, you have to delegate authority to the other family members so they have an opportunity to grow in their gifts and faith, too. That way the family will be cultivated away from being jealous of each other’s positions and contributions and forged into a strong, united bond of love.”

 

~

 

Staring past the bedside lamp’s silhouette and to the small digital timekeeper silently counting her anxious heartbeat, Marie-Laure listened to the gentle rhythmic breathing of her sleeping husband, but she hadn’t slept at all. She lifted her head from her pillow to gaze around the lamp’s obstructing body and glanced at the clock… 5 am. A vicious fearful stab knotted her stomach, sending her heartbeat spiralling into a rampage of terror. Jonas had intentionally set a time limit for Ryan to be home, and that had passed many hours ago. She rolled onto her back and stared at the dark wooden ceiling, pondering the sullen face of her child in her mind as he’d closed the front door earlier that evening. It was obvious Ryan had deliberately decided to disobey his father and stay out.

Big, heavy tears filled Marie-Laure’s eyes and spilled over her cheeks, dropping silently to her pillow. She tried desperately to stifle the river of emotion leaking from her troubled heart and catch the violent sobs in her throat before they overflowed into the silent bedroom, disturbing her sleeping mate. Yet when a distraught image of her rebellious child vividly flashed across her mind, fusing her thoughts into a surge of unrestrainable grief, an unintended moan bubbled up into the quiet, shaking her husband from his sleep.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 51

 

With both of Anne-Claire’s hands occupied and holding the iPod’s stringy tentacles between her teeth, the small device twisted at will and sent the light beam cascading in all directions until it finally settled uselessly on the opposite wall. Shaking her head to refocus the beam, her pupils dilated with fear as news of the situation reached her tired brain. When the light finally paused and ceased its spinning trickery, the steady beam clearly illuminated the ancient splintered wood, leaving Anne-Claire staring in horror. Her wide eyes followed the light and focused on the trembling door’s security, only just held closed by the smallest corner of the substantial metal locking bar. Tiny shaking hands gripped an enormous rustic metal ring, twisting the device with all her might and attempting to keep up the pressure on the access door’s considerable resistance.

Further anxious scrutiny with Niccolo’s screaming torch revealed an ominous plot and it appeared the straining door proposed to force itself open in spite of the lock’s crumbling opposition and Anne-Claire’s tiring efforts. Swirling with panic, her thoughts tumbled over each other, trying to think through her options and come to a sensible decision; but competing with Niccolo’s impassioned scream deflected her mind, inhibiting her ability to think clearly and for the first time, the rock star began to annoy her.

To make things worse, vast freezing water droplets cascaded around the groaning door jamb and soaked the sixteen year old, sending a chilling shiver up and down her spine, but even so, she dare not let the metal ring slip from her hands. Anne-Claire’s terrified grey eyes contemplated the perilous situation she’d trapped herself into, continually chiding herself for being so careless and mindlessly jumping into circumstances without thinking through the consequences. With the freezing water leaking past the door, it appeared to be a perfectly logical assumption that the door was almost certainly a barrier to something catastrophic.

Lacking the ability to silence Niccolo’s screech, all other thoughts cowered from the singer’s distracting scream and found it impossible to make a path into Anne-Claire’s logical mind. Convinced the full weight of Lac Léman’s deep green waters pressed heavily against the shivering door, Anne-Claire redoubled her efforts and twisted the metal ring closed with all of her might. Desperate to silence Niccolo’s scream and regain her ability to think, she contemplated loosening her grip on the metal ring and swiping at the entertainer with a swift yet deliberate hand. But as she considered her plan, a warning groan trembled through the door as if it understood her intention and dared her to release her grasp.

Unable to resolve the perplexing dilemma, it was clear she couldn’t spend the rest of her life—however long that may be—holding onto a metal ring and stemming the flooding tide about to engulf her strange, unescapable subterranean world. The ironic image of a peculiar story Grandpa once told her came crashing into her memory of a small Dutch boy hero straining for hours with his finger in the failing dike, preventing a catastrophic dam wall failure and saving many lives with just his tender human stopper. But as Anne-Claire studied the memory and the similarities, she conceded the small Dutch boy wasn’t trapped into the situation by his own stupidity.

When the seconds extended into minutes, Anne-Claire’s arms began to ache under the straining force keeping the door closed and the freezing water drenching her body. Her failing strength and dwindling resolve forced her to focus on the problem, pondering what would happen if she just let the metal ring go and attempted to run. It was clear she had to do something. Being planted like a noxious weed to the spot didn’t seem to have a future; but nor did drowning in a freezing torrent and trapped lifelessly below the castle floor.

Her mind shut out Niccolo’s distraction and began to drift past the chilling ache in her arms, focusing instead on her family. Her mum, always correcting and chiding her to be something other than mediocre; and then her dad, silently supporting his only daughter and coaxing his wife to lighten up around her. Anne-Claire choked on a gentle sob as she pondered her hero grandfather, the man who made her feel accepted and loved just for being Anne-Claire, and the person who always welcomed her and found time to lavish that love upon her. She remembered the things he taught her through his funny tales and the way he gently urged her to be the wise heroine of her own stories.

Anne-Claire stared at the faltering door and heard Grandpa’s voice gently encouraging her through the uncertain pathways of her stressing mind. Hearing his voice as if he was standing next to her, Anne-Claire swelled with courage, pulled in a deep breath and nodded as if Grandpa had given her a deliberate instruction. Gently she released one hand from the metal ring and waited for a reaction, and when the door appeared to hold its own, she quickly grabbed Niccolo’s screaming torch and tucked it into her blouse. Immediately, the passage descended into a stifling and violently tangible darkness, but she figured if her life was about to end it would be better not to see it coming.

Anne-Claire could see the passive green waves of Lac Léman in her mind lapping against the forlorn shore, but now the gentleness had turned against her in a violent crushing maelstrom, resigning herself to a sudden drowning death. She darkly considered how it would feel for her lungs to fill with water and the life-giving breath to be chased out while life itself spiralled into an unknown place. It was a hopeless thought, but she pondered whether Grandpa’s God did exist and if she died, what His response would be to her. Spending many anxious seconds in the culpable darkness trying desperately to coax herself to let the ring completely go and accept the consequences for a particularly bad decision, Anne-Claire pulled in a huge breath and began the countdown of her life.

Three… two… one!

The sound of the metallic ring bouncing solidly against the door filled Anne-Claire’s ears, followed by a rumbling, hollow crack spilling out into the dark corridor. Committed to her fate and contemplating running blindly into the darkness, there appeared to be no turning back as the massive wooden barricade creaked and groaned under duress. Her questions were answered in less than a heartbeat as the door’s remaining resistance gave way and brutally exploded open, spilling a freezing torrent across Anne-Claire, knocking her from her feet and stifling a traumatic scream with a mouthful of dirty water.

Coughing on a brackish stream and shivering uncontrollably, spitting grit from between her teeth, Anne-Claire felt around the floor as a large slippery puddle splashed between her fingers. The obstacle had been forcefully thrown open and yet somehow she was still alive, even though the strength of the action had unceremoniously dumped her from her feet and onto the ground.

Incredulously crawling to her knees, she bumped against a solid obstruction jutting into the passage, identifying the door’s rough splintered surface with her hands. Feeling the barrier’s overbearing size, Anne-Claire struggled to comprehend the need for such a decisive and unmoving barricade. It had to be at least 300 millimetres thick. Curiosity’s unwise chorus began to fill the young woman’s mind and chase away the terror with a new song. What did it hide behind its staunch facade and why did it have to be so substantial? It was obvious now it wasn’t holding back the lake, but judging by its size it was capable of doing so. Distracted by the mystery and blindly taking her soaking long brown hair into her trembling hands, she squeezed the excess water from its length, hoping to stem the freezing water dripping down her back and then plucked Niccolo’s screaming torch from her blouse, swiping at the reluctant device with frozen fingers. However, Niccolo refused to perform. The torrent of water must have proved too much for the Italian heartthrob, heroically leaving Anne-Claire to fend for herself in the darkness.

She leaned against the passage wall, mentally spent and exhausted from her ordeal, trying to make sense of what had just happened and why she was still alive. Needing to escape the darkness and survey the new scene, Anne-Claire fidgeted with the iPod cover and felt for the battery chamber. Carefully removing the batteries and blowing the water from within the case with a stringent breath, she explored the power source with the tips of her fingers and dried them against the back of her shorts. Trying to remember which way the slender cells had been removed, she gently persuaded the pair to return the way she assumed they’d come out.

A sudden metallic clanking drifted through the darkness and froze Anne-Claire’s movements with fear’s familiar presence. The sound cut through the silence like a lightning strike, causing the young woman to panic, sending her into a frenzy of fingers and hoping to illuminate the threat with Niccolo’s unwilling bawling light. In her haste, she dropped the battery cover to the floor, spilling the uncooperative batteries from their place and depositing the cylindrical tubes into the sticky mud. Searching the ground furiously with her hand, Anne-Claire tried desperately to locate the misbehaving cover and the power source before the threat overtook her. Another metallic clank echoed around her and added a greater urgency to her fear, with her fingers dancing feverishly until the panicked searching paid off and her hand dashed against the batteries and their confining plastic cover.

With shaking fingers, she hastily cleaned the misbehaving items and pressed them firmly into the device, sealed their escape with the battery cover and then anxiously swiped the tiny screen. A faint green glow appeared in place of the welcome light and Niccolo sounded like he’d aged a hundred years. As frustration and fear vied with Anne-Claire’s fractured nerves, yet another metallic clank disturbed her and she shook the device in annoyance until Niccolo threw off his geriatric impressions and a solid, tinny youthful scream broke into the still air.

Anne-Claire held the iPod above her head, searching the massive door and the significant stream of water flowing to the ground from around the jamb. A gaping black room behind the door diverted her attention and then the metallic clank reverberated once again deep within the chamber’s walls. She pondered the nerve-racking antechamber and the direction the sounds were coming, but as she stepped towards the opening and jumped across the stream flowing into the passage, Niccolo’s scream suddenly diverted back to geriatric mode and the light dimmed. This wasn’t the time for Niccolo to desert her again, so she deliberately dashed the iPod against her leg in a bid to shake off the singer’s lethargy and once again the light reappeared with Niccolo bravely leading the way.

As Anne-Claire ventured further into the cavernous room, the metallic clank turned to a noisy, jingling shimmer. In the dark, the small iPod light appeared like a ghostly apparition floating against the solid rocky walls and adding a green, ghoulish bouncing shadow to the antechamber. A towering rock pillar in the middle of the room reached from the vault floor, extending skyward and joined onto the substantial roof high above Anne-Claire’s head. Cautiously approaching the massive pillar, the metallic shimmer became more pronounced, forcing her to hold her breath in fright, pondering what strange thing was generating the unfamiliar sounds.

With unwise curiosity burning in her mind, Anne-Claire carefully stepped over the uneven cavern floor, slowly searching the enormous pillar and with each painstakingly placed footstep, more of the pillar’s hidden form came into view.

Anne-Claire gasped in a terrified breath and froze to the spot, staring at an unexpected sight as the metallic clank sharply chimed, shivering with abject fear. Before she knew what was happening, a harrowing scream erupted in haunted fright throughout the chamber.

But Anne-Claire could hear two traumatised screams.

Only one escaped her own throat.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 52

 

A dark and moonless flat, open expanse guarded by an impenetrable wall of secretive night time gloom languished beyond the Beechcraft Bonanza’s mirror-like windshield. Unable to see into the darkness beyond the aircraft’s clear glass, the anxious pilot and his passenger stared blindly at the black windscreen, searching the outside obscurity for any sign of light and held spellbound by the tedious tone of the monotonous engine. The cockpit’s illuminated digital flight instruments added an eerie green hue to the atmosphere and gave the only indication the small plane’s flight path did in fact have a purposeful destination.

Jim Strack’s attention focused on the aircraft’s colourful digital eyes: the instruments that divided the blinding night and confirmed his exact location; how fast the small plane was travelling; and most importantly, how far they were from the ground. The near new Bonanza carried the latest technology in aircraft avionics, its powerful electronics and satellite guidance allowing the aircraft the ability to see in the dark. Without it, the emergency dash to Pearl Springs might not have been possible. Stracky’s gaze absentmindedly diverted from the coloured weather radar display and settled onto the orange TCAS warning light, assuring the pilot the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System was activated and systematically searching the skies for any other unseen air traffic.

Meticulously checking the GPS coordinates against the Bonanza’s heading and confirming everything was in order, Stracky let his mind momentarily wander from the plane’s instruments and wondered how the desperate situation down on the ground at Pearl Springs had unfolded, convinced that whatever was going to happen had already happened. With a tense knot in his stomach and twenty minutes left of their emergency dash, Stracky stole a sideways glance at his policeman passenger. In all the years he’d known Bob Maxwell, Stracky had never seen him show any emotion and tonight was no different. Judging by the policeman’s blank staring gaze and an unobtrusive official box marked evidence recovery, he was expecting to fly into some kind of grizzly crime scene and maybe Butch, Mishy and their girls had already perished.

Stracky turned his attention away from the heavy policeman and tuned into his instruments once again, trying to deflect the growing apprehension but unable to shake the sick foreboding rising in his stomach.

 

~

 

Holding the tension against the trigger on Butch’s shotgun, Mishy’s finger ached, waiting, locked in a persistent ready-to-fire attitude. The hunted with an unseen equalizer, sighting the barrel over the bathtub sides and somehow sure the firearm would discharge with just a little more pressure from her small, trembling hand. Whoever was on the other side of the bathroom door had already taken Butch’s life and the thought stung Mishy with a pang of fierce debilitating grief and rage. Fighting hard to restrain the blackness washing over her mind, Butch’s smile and his loving presence flashed across her memory, causing a stifled moan to reverberate in a deep place of pain and tensing her trigger finger dangerously.

As the wrenching emotions swept over her, she wiped the flood of tears from blinding her gun sight, but she deliberately resisted the overwhelming urge to discharge the gun until she was sure of a perfect shot and permanently eliminating the threat.

Another debilitating wave of grief flooded over Mishy, her body convulsing violently in silent, stifled sobs as she tried to remain calm, but the pain took over and her teeth clenched in torturous rage. How dare this madman steal the only man I have ever loved and leave our girls without their loving father to guide and affirm their future!

Mishy deliberately breathed in and out and tried to compose herself, pushing down the desire to make a compulsive move and throw away any chance of survival. Now that her soul mate was dead she didn’t care much for her own life, but she would do whatever it took to protect her daughters from the same fate, making sure the right moment exacted the desired retribution from Butch’s killer.

The silhouette of booted feet, backlit by a vehicle’s headlights outside the homestead, gave a clear indication of someone loitering in front of the bathroom door and in a matter of seconds, life was about to change drastically in a violent confrontation for Mishy and the killer.

Unexpectedly, a familiar sound drifted into the tense atmosphere and confused Mishy’s highly stretched emotions, feeling as if she was about to go insane.

Her heart skipped. Dare she hope, trying to confirm the integrity of the call but there was no doubt as the sound reached her ears for the second time, and the protective wall she had erected around herself came crashing down in a confusing flood of pent-up relief.

“Mishy! Are you in there, honey? It’s Butch.”

Many moments went by without an answer, but it was Danica who finally stepped in front of her mother’s aim and threw the lock open. She’d recognised her father’s voice the first time and with an overwhelming need to feel his loving arms around her, she pulled open the door, crashing the protective barricade against its stops and launched into his arms.

Over Danica’s hysterical cries, a distraught and trembling voice erupted from the bathtub, melting into uncontrolled sobs. At the same time, the shotgun fell from Mishy’s grip and clattered against the tiled bathroom floor, realising how close she had come to killing Butch herself.

“I… I thought you were dead!” Mishy’s painful cries reverberated around the confining strongroom signalling the depths of her anguish.

Worried by the level of stress Mishy had been forced to carry, Butch kissed Danica’s brow and then eased into the bathroom and lifted his distraught soul mate from the tub and into his arms, holding her, kissing her and reassuring her while the trauma melted from her mind. “Ssshhh, honey! You know I would try to turn the tide for you and the girl’s, and it would take more than a breakdown to stop me getting back home.”

Mishy pressed her head against her husband’s chest, emotionally spent and listening to the strong and steady heartbeat, with her feet and arms hanging limp and heavy like lead in Butch’s embrace.

The homestead lights flickered and then burst into life, flooding the scene with consoling light and chasing away many of the fears lurking in the dark. Mishy’s attention diverted from listening to Butch’s heartbeat and her gaze rested on the light bulb above her head, asking many silent questions.

Butch saw the unspoken query and reassured her with his reply, “I’m sorry, honey, the lights going out amidst this whole debacle must have really freaked you out. Changing over the fuel tanks on the generator was supposed to be my first job after Bella Creek, and judging by the restored power, Eddie and the boys must have succeeded in getting the old power plant going again.”

The sound of a low flying aircraft circling above the homestead roof drew the family’s attention to the ceiling, as if by looking up they’d be able to see the unidentified plane through the wood and tin cladding. Feeling exhausted and finding it hard to believe the past twenty hours, Mishy wiped her face with the back of her hand, realising Bob Maxwell would have responded somehow to her lack of communication and he was probably the cause of the circling aircraft. Butch had to strain to hear Mishy’s exhausted whisper.

“I’m sure that’ll be Bob Maxwell, honey. We need to light a signal fire so they can land safely.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 53

 

High above the desert floor, the Beechcraft Bonanza buffeted on unseen cooling desert currents, shocking both pilot and passenger from their melancholy thoughts with a turbulent, pummelling ride. A pinprick of light in the distance cut through the night like a fire-tailed comet and added another dimension of foreboding to the solemn flight. Both men had spotted the unusual phenomenon together, but neither spoke their sober thoughts while the Bonanza, on autopilot, honed in on the light as if it was a honey bee locked onto the sweet scent of nectar, pointing its determined nose directly for it.

An abrupt crackling emanating from the Bonanza’s dark and empty rear passenger cabin made the two occupants jump at the sudden interruption to the morose, silent flight. The police communications’ radio had been stowed with the rest of Bob Maxwell’s hastily thrown together equipment but never turned off, a habit he had learnt as a young constable on the graveyard shift of a dangerous backstreet city beat.

Alpha, Bravo, Tango… Black Devil is down! Repeat… Black Devil is down!”

The short, but direct transmission obviously meant something to the policeman but Stracky was none the wiser. To make things worse, Maxwell stared at Stracky with incredulous eyes, expecting the civilian pilot to comprehend its meaning, but Stracky returned a blank stare and left Maxwell to come to terms with what he had just heard on his own.

“So what does all that mean?!” Stracky chided, waiting impatiently for an explanation.

“They’ve got him! Alpha force has got him and he’s dead!” Maxwell’s radio continued to buzz with excitement as the police special forces’ communication blackout lifted and more coded detail became available. Eager for more understanding, Bob listened intently to the tangled messages and translated for Stracky. “Apparently he was spotted entering coordinate ‘D’ without lights about twenty minutes ago. He drove straight into an ambush and they took him down like a bunch of ants swarming all over a cockroach.”

“Coordinate D?! Where on earth is that?!” Stracky’s irritation bubbled over at the police jargon.

Bob Maxwell’s stocky frame shifted in his seat and his tired eyes concentrated on the lining of the aircraft’s interior roof as if he was attempting to read an unseen map. “Coordinate D would make it about an hour and a half from the northern boundary of Pearl Springs and he was heading south. If he hadn’t been stopped, the next logical place for a target would have been…“ the policeman’s face took on an unexpected confused expression, torturing the evidence in his mind and trying to piece together the unusual scene growing in the aircraft’s windscreen below them.

Before he could speak again, Stracky released the autopilot and took manual control of the aircraft, descending and flying low over the solitary focused light beam. Stracky cottoned on to Bob’s meaning and finished his sentence, “The target would have been the Slater’s and that can only mean they must be alive!”

As the small plane buzzed Pearl Springs, a single headlamp from a stationary vehicle illuminated the dark homestead’s external walls and behind that, another vehicle lay motionless and hidden in the darkness. The two occupants followed the peculiar scene as the aircraft banked and made a steep circling turn, but as they watched, the homestead lights blinked on, spilling light over the front yard and the strange vehicles. Stracky pulled the aircraft out of a steep bank and lined up the homestead roof once again to see if they could get a closer look and determine the threat level. The engine laboured as the pilot poured on the power just in case they had to make an abrupt break and avoid rifle fire, but as the craft skimmed the roof with a lawnmower-like intensity, the two occupants could see five figures on the front lawn huddling together in an intense hug and tiredly waving up at the plane.

As if someone on the ground had read Stracky’s anxious mind, four 205 litre drums—cut down the centre, filled with fuel oil and strategically placed hundreds of metres apart—lined the extremities of Pearl Springs’ emergency gravel landing strip. Lit by a shadowy figure, one by one the rusty steel drums burst into intense flame, billowing black diesel smoke into the air and marking out the length and breadth of the station’s only safe access for aircraft. Setting the flaps to full and dropping airspeed in a long banking turn, Stracky decreased engine power, flicked on the powerful landing light and lined up the dark space between the flaming sentinels and started a gradual descent. As the ground came up at the aircraft, Stracky finished the practised approach with a final flare and then a glass-smooth touchdown.

Finally, the throaty engine’s power dropped to idle and as the small craft bumped along the dark runway, it finally came to a stop in front of three tired but relieved faces squinting in the plane’s landing beam and turning their eyes away from an encompassing cloud of red dust kicked up by the plane’s propeller. Stracky and Bob recognised Eddie’s timeworn face and the two rescuers, Jackson Reynolds and Troy Anderson from Valerie Downs in an instant as the penny dropped immediately. The damaged vehicle with one headlight was the Valerie Downs’ ute and the one behind it was Butch’s.

 

~

 

The devastated human scene inside the homestead kitchen resembled a fallout shelter after some horrific nuclear event, but Bob Maxwell’s larger-than-life presence had an immediate rock star effect on the family gathering. Mishy’s eyes were tired and red and her shoulders slumped under the emotional weight she carried, however as the burly policeman entered her world again, a sense of relief and calm flooded her mind, momentarily breaking away from her family’s supporting embrace to show her appreciation with a fond hug. Returning Mishy’s tense and emotional hug, Bob recognised the telltale signs of trauma written across the Slater family’s shell-shocked expressions yet it was evident Mishy and the girls were being supported by Butch’s strength and love. Even though it was nearly 2 am and little Molly had fallen asleep in her daddy’s arms, Bob knew the importance of debriefing the family and letting them talk through their experiences, especially after hearing the hysteria in Mishy’s voice after her first phone call.

As the homestead kitchen filled to capacity with exhausted people, Mishy automatically moved into hostess mode and busied herself preparing something to eat for the large group congregated around her table, but she was running on pure adrenaline and after dropping a plate and smashing it, she burst into tears, prompting Bob to jump up and settle her back at the table.

“Okay, food can wait. I know it’s late, but we need to talk this through and get all the nasty business out in the open while it’s still fresh in our memories,” Bob’s baritone warble rasped over the group and easily took charge. In his career as a policeman he had seen many horrific tragedies and had been involved in numerous debriefing sessions, and although some police opted not to attend after a specific event, the internalised trauma soon took its toll, leaving deep emotional wounds bleeding and infected from lack of a listening ear.

With his official police notebook in hand and intent on taking statements to write in his formal report to police hierarchy, Bob opened the debrief with a statement he hoped would bring immediate healing. “I need to inform you of something important before we start debriefing,” Maxwell boomed. “On the way here, my police radio intercepted a transmission from the task force searching for this maniac and thankfully, they’ve secured him. Unfortunately for him, he attempted to shoot his way out and now the suspect is deceased. He will not offer the station people of the Channel Country any further threat.”

Maxwell left out the detail of where the killer was headed and the most likely outcome if the task force hadn’t stopped him.

The atmosphere inside the kitchen erupted into a carnival mood, with everyone talking over each other while Bob Maxwell searched the faces to see what effect his news had brought. Mishy’s expression beamed in relief and as the policeman’s eyes momentarily met hers, he could already see the old Mishy fighting through the trauma and determined to put the most unpleasant chapter of her life behind her. Once the kitchen had fallen silent, Bob no longer appeared concerned for the extreme mental status of the Slater family. The news had done its work, prompting the wily police officer to start the story at the beginning and implicate Butch as the hero and the villain.

With notebook in hand, Bob turned the attention of the group to Butch. “Why don’t you tell us what happened, Butch.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 54

 

With his youngest daughter asleep in his arms and the rest of his family close by and pressed against him, Butch searched his tired memory and tried to piece together the events that had led to the bizarre, confused situation. Coincidence seemed to take a front seat in every turn of events, stretching a complex vehicle breakdown into a major family trauma and adding undue duress onto his beautiful Mishy. Butch knew she would be worried and with a manic killer on the loose it was only natural to assume the worst, but in his defence, Butch had tried every conceivable bush trick to patch up the radio and communicate with his family from the breakdown site at Bella Creek. When trusted technology fails, the breakdown might well have happened on the dark side of the moon.

Sheepishly, Butch searched the bloodshot eyes of his Aboriginal mentor, and the patient expression on his face spoke volumes. Eddie didn’t need to castigate Butch. He’d suffered enough already for taking the inside track to Bella Creek against the wiry Aboriginal elder’s advice and now he was content just to see how Butch would explain the situation.

Butch cleared his throat before attempting a reply and when he spoke, Molly stirred in his arms but quickly succumbed to sleep again once Butch’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I love my girls above everything and wouldn’t do anything to cause them pain. Against Eddie’s objections, I took the turnoff to Bella Creek along the inside track. All went well for a few kilometres but soon it turned into a goat path and I was shocked to see how the track had deteriorated in a few months. The ute has spares for most normal things that go wrong under the seat, so a breakdown was the last thing on my mind. The inside track was so rough it shook the service ute to pieces, but we made it to the Bella Creek bore, albeit a lot slower than if we had taken the outside track. I took your advice, Bob, and searched for unusual tracks or the recent presence of a vehicle, but the cattle had been in looking for water and it was too difficult to discern anything tangible.

“My attention turned to clearing the bore pipe and getting the water flowing again for the cattle. Unknown to either of us, the ute battery had broken its restraining bracket and twisted sideways with the live terminal almost touching the vehicle body. Once we finished clearing the bore pipe, we got back into the ute and as soon as I tried to start the engine, the battery touched the frame, arced straight to earth and exploded, burning the wiring harness in a few seconds. Electrical smoke came from everywhere and by the time we put out the flames, it was evident we were stranded.”

Butch glanced up as Bob asked a question. “So, that’s why your radio didn’t work and Mishy couldn’t contact you?”

Butch nodded and then reached over carefully to kiss Mishy without waking Molly. She affectionately returned his gesture and hugged his neck before Butch resumed his account.

“I tried to salvage what I could under the hood, but the vital battery was damaged and as dead as a maggot. I knew we were in deep trouble when the ambient temperature climbed into the high forties. Eddie made a bush shelter from spindly shrubs and we had plenty of water, so we just had to wait it out and stay with the vehicle until help arrived. I decided to use the shotgun as a means of attracting attention in the vain hope someone would be passing by, but that’s when I realised I’d left it in the hallway of the homestead. My thoughts turned to your warnings, Bob, and I knew we were sitting ducks for the killer.”

Realising the stress that Butch was under and the load he was carrying, Mishy’s compassion erupted, wrapping her arms around his neck and affectionately assuring him of her love and that of his girls. Mishy then glanced at Danica and caught her tearful expression, but remembered her long heart-to-heart she’d had the previous night. Danica was still suffering silently and trying desperately to put her own needs behind so that the good of the family could take precedence, but Mishy knew the situation wouldn’t go away and as her parents, Butch and Mishy had to find a solution and soon.

Scribbling frantic chicken scratchings in his police notebook, Bob finally caught up with the story, flipping pages over as they filled with detail. “So when did Jackson and Troy show up?”

Butch glanced over at his silent rescuers and nodded before he began the next phase. “We saw a light hue coming along the track about 9 pm and as it got closer, it was evident the vehicle was damaged by the clattering noises. When the boys found the ute, we saw the outline of Troy with a shotgun, prompting Eddie and I to hide, thinking we’d been found by the killer. It wasn’t until Troy called out to Jackson that I realised it wasn’t an ambush but a rescue party.”

Bob interrupted Butch and turned his attention to Jackson, a little surprised that he would take a damaged vehicle onto a rescue mission. “Why did you opt to take a damaged vehicle on a dangerous search and rescue mission, Jackson?”

Jackson pushed his frame away from the kitchen wall and entered the conversation. “I didn’t. We were tearing along the northern boundary fence of Pearl Springs and I guess my mind had been consumed with this mongrel going around shooting people, when an old man roo stepped out in front of us. I wasn’t sparing the horsepower, figuring Butch and Mishy were in trouble and just couldn’t avoid collecting the huge roo. He knocked out one of our headlights and bent up the bonnet so it couldn’t be opened and thankfully for us, nothing of importance—except the headlight—was affected and we kept going. When we finally found Butch and Eddie, it was like a carnival in the bush, but we had no way of letting the outside world know what was happening.

“We thought of transferring the VHF radio from Butch’s vehicle to ours and trying to fix it that way, but Butch’s wiring was obviously charred and we couldn’t get our bonnet up. The next thought was how to transport everyone, and having two men riding in the back of the our ute on such rough tracks would have injured them, so we decided to tow Butch’s ute, but we didn’t have any tow ropes. Eddie suggested gutting the seatbelts and tying them together, which we did, but they kept unravelling and we constantly lost the tow. Eventually, with less than a few kilometres to go before we reached the homestead, the seatbelts unhooked themselves and tangled around our differential and stopped us dead. Butch hadn’t seen what had happened and by the time he realised and hit the brakes, he’d run into our back end.”

“We saw your headlight glow coming, then a loud bang and then the glow disappeared,” Mishy interjected. “That freaked us out and we were expecting a visit from that maniac at any moment. Then to top it all, the house lights flickered and blinked out, leaving us in the dark.”

Butch could see the terror in Mishy’s eyes as she relived the trauma. He stood, careful not to wake his baby daughter and leaned into his wife. The gesture melted away the fear and she embraced both daughter and husband in one gentle hug, while Jess and Danica completed the close family circle and added their embrace, too.

“So what happened then?” Bob kept scribbling but didn’t look up from his notebook.

Jackson waited for someone to answer, but when everyone remained silent he took the floor, “We sorted the tangle under our ute and after few anxious moments trying to get the engine started again, we finally pulled up outside the homestead, but it was in complete darkness. Butch knew what had happened immediately and asked Eddie and us to walk over to the generator shed, change over the fuel tanks and try to get the cantankerous old generator going again while he checked inside the house.”

“So what did you find, Butch?” Bob continued scribbling.

Butch sighed, trying to recall his actions. “Well, the house was completely dark and silent and I became nervous something awful had happened. I didn’t want to call out just in case it was an ambush and that idiot was holding my girls captive. So using the light from Jackson’s vehicle, I crept into all parts of the house and checked every room and when I didn’t find anything, I figured my precious family were hiding in the bathroom.”

Mishy began to tremble as she relived the terrifying story and then broke into a sobbing moan, waking Molly in fright. Danica stepped up and took Molly from her dad, allowing her dad to calm the situation with his tender love for her traumatised mother.

Through her anguish and remembering the image of feet loitering at the bathroom door, Mishy sobbed into her husband’s chest and managed to cry out, “I almost killed you!”

Bob Maxwell dropped his notebook on the table and wrapped the two people in a hug. He had finally uncovered the key root hiding in the traumatised debriefing. “Mishy, listen to me. Butch is alive and you didn’t kill him. You didn’t know who was on the other side of that door and you acted perfectly logically and lawfully. I have to tell you though, I’m thankful that you didn’t need to discharge the shotgun. After examining the weapon, I’m convinced it wouldn’t have fired at all. You had the safety locked on!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 55

 

By the time Bob Maxwell finally wrapped up his investigation, it was 4 am and every person, including the girls, had had an opportunity to tell a part of the story and that part usually coincided with the most traumatic event for them. Satisfied the prickly hidden trauma had been exposed and debriefed and all that remained was a group of tired individuals, Bob allowed everyone to retire to bed, fully aware their negative experiences and hidden wounds had been cleaned and disinfected and would completely heal with time.

The family entertainment room could’ve been compared to a shelter for itinerant people with five exhausted men asleep in any available space on the lounge room floor. Down the hall, Mishy and Butch’s bedroom resembled a family camping trip, with Molly fast asleep and squeezed in between her parents’ sleeping embrace while Danica and Jess shared a mattress on the floor by their parents’ bed. Sleep folded its healing wings around Pearl Springs homestead well into the early afternoon, but it was the incessant VHF radio that eventually disturbed the peaceful scene and drew the emotionally hungover occupants from the places they had fallen.

Whispers of the murderer’s capture and demise had leaked out of the police ranks, spilling around barred bureaucratic doorways and now—aided by the media—the whisper had turned into a raging shout, forcefully pushing open the confining bureaucratic stranglehold on information with non-affected entities demanding answers. Station people from all over the Channel Country knew something was happening—or had happened—at Pearl Springs and now the telephone and VHF were running hot with rumours, especially since Jackson Reynolds and Troy Anderson hadn’t returned to Valerie Downs—or been heard from since they’d left.

Enquiries into the Slater home via telephone or VHF were met by a busy but gruff policeman, shocking the callers simply by his presence and espousing the official line. ‘An offender fitting the description of a person of interest has been detained and all affected parties are alive and well. No further comment until an official investigation has been conducted.’ Bob then pleaded for calm and to give the Slaters room to recuperate.

However, as the day progressed, media interests began to hound the Slater residence with phone calls and VHF intercepts while several news aircraft buzzed the homestead roof, prompting Bob to make an official request to inhibit the airspace over the property. When it became obvious the attention wasn’t helping the family and only distressing them further, Bob remembered Mishy’s casual statement a few days ago, inviting him to join the family for some rest and recreation camped at Nanjilgardie. He had months of accrued leave and the family needed space, so now was as good a time as any.

With a promise to return for Bob in a couple of days, Stracky bid the family a fond and relieved farewell, boarded the patiently waiting Bonanza, completed the flight checks and cranked the engine into a throaty idle. As the runway dust kicked up and faces turned away from the stinging assault, Stracky turned the aircraft into the wind and after a bumpy run up, the Bonanza lifted effortlessly into the golden red evening sky and quickly disappeared into the vast stretching horizon. After the complex night time landing at Pearl Springs, an evening landing on Birdsville’s bitumen tarmac would be a piece of cake.

After Bob’s proposal to the Slaters had been welcomed with open arms from every member, the family four-wheel drive wagon had been hitched to a trailer, loaded with camping gear and food for an army, then covered with a protective tarp to keep the dust out. Two complete days and nights at the property’s private campground sounded like just what the Slaters needed and everyone was keen to set off at first light.

Eddie was invited too, but the wiry Aboriginal elder knew the dreaded air conditioner would be cranked up and blowing straight from the South Pole, preferring instead to travel on horseback and enjoy the offerings of the open bush, finally arriving in midafternoon, refreshed and ready to participate in the family fun.

 

~

 

Michael Trudgen perched his flabby frame in the driver seat of a Land Rover Discovery, aimlessly studying his surrounds through the dirty windscreen while the engine idled and the air conditioner blew cool air into his face. Feeling unwell after such a long drive, his eyes were tired and the heat seeping in through the windows was making him feel nauseous. Trudge was expected to meet the mail plane at the Birdsville airfield at 11 am and pick up Debbie Duffette, the station boss’ highest experienced—but most disagreeable—female reporter. In order to comply with his boss and collect Duffette, he’d driven through the night without a break and finally reached Birdsville’s dry desert environment only an hour ago and as usual, Duff was late.

Catching a glimpse at a flashing warning light blinking on the dash, his attention diverted to the engine temperature gauge. The needle languished in the red and now the vehicle threatened to shut down if he didn’t do something to quell the rising disaster. With a disgruntled huff, he backed the vehicle away from the Birdsville Airport fence and tried to find shade before shutting down the engine, a feat that would prove challenging in the sparsely treed town and sweltering midday heat.

Verging on melting the engine block and finding no shade, Trudge eventually shut the vehicle down outside the Birdsville Hotel. Without the aid of the struggling air conditioner, the cabin temperature quickly rose and before long became intolerable inside the closed, airless vehicle. In a desperate effort to gain relief from the relentless heat, he wound down the driver window but conceded that was a mistake as a hammerblow of intense and dry desert calefaction slammed into his face. Running out of options, Trudge wound up the window again, opened the door and quickly made his escape from the sauna and found refuge inside the hotel.

As the first mouthful of cold amber fluid flooded down his throat, he watched the Cessna 208 Caravan land, kicking up clouds of dust blown in across the tarmac from the surrounding desert. Entangled in an unwanted conversation with a bored publican, Trudge learnt the Cessna, loaded to capacity with freight, mail and passengers was running late into Birdsville after a fierce and hot tyrannical headwind forced the pilot to cut back his air speed. Finally crawling up to the hotel windows nearly two hours late, the Caravan’s engine roared and blasted the peaceful interior with a wall of annoying noise.

Typical of a Duffette entry—all noise and hot air, Trudge complained to himself.

Only halfway through his beer, he nonchalantly watched the swirling heat haze radiating off the aircraft’s exhaust until eventually, the engine noise quit and the propeller bounced back and forward on the engine’s compression before coming to a complete stop. An unrestrained sneer painted itself across his face and his top lip curled as he watched the pudgy and hard faced, short-cropped blonde waddle out of the passenger compartment and almost stupidly gawk around. Judging by the red complexion, she was struggling with the heat, too.

Draining his glass in one pleasing gulp, the disgruntled journalist had to go to work and figure out what the station was expecting from this latest assignment. From what he could piece together, there had been a German tourist taking potshots at local people and the police had taken the culprit down, but no one knew anything else and he figured Duffette would fill him in on what they were expected to do.

Before Trudge could sidle his ballooning tailpipe off the bar stool, a nasally, high pitched voice caught him off guard and purportedly nailed him in the act of enjoying himself on work time. “There’s no doubt about some people, Trudgen, sitting in a bar while others do your work for you. I’m sure Mack will just love to hear about this one.”

“Give me a break, Duff. I’ve been waiting hours in the heat for you to waddle through that door!”

Duffette threw her head back in disdain with the not-so slightly veiled gibe at her rolling figure and after some effort managed to climb onto a barstool next to her colleague. “You can buy me a beer and I’ll let your impropriety slip on this occasion.”

With two schooners sitting side by side on the bar, gas bubbles desperately clung to the frigid glass interior, swimming in the fluid before finally disappearing into a thick, foaming froth floating on the amber liquid’s surface. Duff lowered her eyes, scrutinising the deserted bar like Sherlock Holmes looking for a suspect and when she was sure they weren’t being watched, she produced a black plastic bag and opened its mouth, clandestinely divulging the hidden content.

Playing along, Trudge leaned towards the bulging Duff and analysed the depths of the suspicious black bag. “What’s this, show and tell?!”

“No, you idiot, I took it from the plane just before I got out!”

“Well, what is it?!”

“This is our ticket to a story! It’s a package addressed to Danica Slater and it comes all the way from Switzerland.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 56

 

Butch and Bob Maxwell struggled to push the heavy broken down service ute from the access road and into a nearby maintenance shed. With the bonnet up and in the pale purple light of dawn, Bob could see the battery and wiring damage firsthand.

“Ya did a good job of that, Butch. Good thing Jackson Reynolds found you and Eddie…” Bob left the statement hanging, unwilling to fill in the chilling detail of where the killer’s intended destination was most likely to be next.

Butch stared at the charred mess in desperation. He relied on the vehicle to complete station duties, but the cost of rewiring the damage just added another burden to the mounting pile. “Yeah, not sure how I’m going to work around this one, Bob.”

Bob sensed the stress rising in Butch’s crushed demeanour and slapped him on the back. “Think about it later, Butch. Your family need you more than ever at the moment and you need to be fully present for them.”

Butch let the bonnet slam closed and then locked the vehicle, turning his back on yet another problem. Bob was right. The girls had slept in their parents’ room again last night and wouldn’t let their father out of their sight, and Mishy stopped for a cuddle every time she came near.

By the time the two men ambled out of the shed, the girls were chattering excitedly together, waiting in the back seat of the loaded wagon and anxious for their short family holiday to Nanjilgardie.

An unexpected, “Hah!” broke across the early morning hour and then the sounds of pounding hooves disappeared into the scrub, with Eddie’s hand deliberately outstretched and held above his head in greeting. The elder had his swag and meagre belongings strapped to his saddle, riding off like the lone ranger into the sunrise and kicking up clods of dry dust as he went. Butch’s gaze followed the only living connection with his past and once again he wished Malcolm senior was still around to guide his son through the toughest years of his life. Eddie had tried to warn Butch of the perils of the inner track and now he and his family had paid needlessly for his unwise mistakes.

As the two men approached the holiday vehicle, Mishy sat in the middle of the front bench seat while the girls cheerfully occupied the back. Butch stopped suddenly, only a few metres from the vehicle and surprised Bob with the move. He focused on Mishy and she smiled back at his stare and then the girls waved in unison as his glance settled over them.

“You know, Bob, a man needs to count his blessings instead of the things he can’t change. I’ve learnt something through this whole debacle. I have a beautiful family and they’re the only thing that matters to me, and as long as we are together, I feel like I can conquer the world.”

Bob slapped Butch’s back again affectionately and laughed. “I’m not a praying man, Butch, but if I had to guess I’d say someone smiled on you with a very precious gift.”

 

~

 

Nanjilgardie was located on a dry tributary of the Georgina River and part of a remote section of Pearl Springs’ vast property, left nearly undisturbed and seldom visited by human invaders. A natural granite rock amphitheatre towered high above a small permanent billabong, trapping vast quantities of fat barramundi in its crystal clear tarn. Nanjilgardie’s antediluvian granite walls held back the oasis waters, sitting almost idle and waiting for the unpredictable big wet to reach the dry desert interior. When the wet did finally come, the turbulent muddy water flushed out Nanjilgardie’s lagoon as the sprawling Georgina River flooded, setting the Channel Country abuzz with new life and in a immense spectacle only conceivable from the air. However, a small freshwater artesian spring patiently fed the billabong during the dry years, clearing the sediment over time with its insignificant outflow trickling over the natural rock pool walls, keeping the waters of Nanjilgardie crystal clear and a true oasis in a hot, parched and dry landscape.

From the air, the Channel Country stretched like a vast network of dehydrated veins over hundreds of square kilometres of flat, lifeless plain and finally emptying into the thirsty but limitless desolate inland sea of Lake Eyre some fifteen metres below sea level. But when the big rains finally came to the ranges of north western Queensland, the veins and arteries acted like natural drainage, purging the land many metres above sea level and filling with water, transporting its muddy payload away from the tropics in a gushing torrent and depositing the watery mass into the vast sunburnt saltpans of Central Australia’s Lake Eyre over a thousand kilometres away. The spectacle of the Channel Country flooding was cyclic and very seldom did Lake Eyre act as the sunburnt continent’s drainage system. But when it did, the outback became impassable by road, trapping many unsuspecting motorists and station people in a vast muddy floodplain stretching from horizon to horizon, and in some places, many metres deep.

Soon after the life-giving water surged across the dry red heart filling a flat expanse of dry creeks and tributaries, dormant life exploded into a rebellion of activity, kick-starting extensively sleeping ecosystems and bringing long forgotten species back into the desolate land. For a short time, life of every kind erupted into an orchestrated milieu, filling the outback with sea birds a thousand kilometres from the sea and leaving the offspring of every conceivable species flourishing in the remote paradise. Until once again the relentless sun baked the exposed plains, evaporating the sustaining water and forcing life to draw the curtain on its frenetic activity and hide maybe many decades before the feverish cycle of desert life would repeat itself.

 

~

 

Mishy, squeezed in between Bob’s impressive bulk and Butch, pressed close to her husband as he drove the family down another spiralling dusty station track. The air conditioner kept the interior cool and bearable as the morning sun climbed like a rabid demon, spilling its burning heat over the dry scenery. The joviality had diminished considerably as weary and impatient passengers stared mesmerised through dusty windows, waiting for Nanjilgardie’s oasis to appear and to enjoy the first delightful swim for many months. The excitement began to build as Danica recognised a familiar waterless rocky river crossing and a long row of red river gums happily existing along the dry river bed. This would be a chance to escape the confines of the vehicle for half an hour and collect the firewood needed for the campfire, stacking the trailer’s canvas cover with the long-burning ancient river gum branches shed by the trees in formidable desert windstorms. Nanjilgardie was just along the next dried up river crossing and the girls were eager to explore.

As Butch turned the Land Cruiser wagon into the final sandy river bed, he momentarily brought the vehicle to a stop and reached over Mishy’s knees, selecting low four-wheel drive. With the freewheeling hubs engaged, he grabbed second gear and then turned the lumbering vehicle and its load directly down the dry river course. The vehicle charged along the river sand, bumping and slipping and throwing the occupants around in a carnival of sideshow rides. The girls squealed in delight, holding onto the seat in front with straining fingers as the trailer madly fishtailed, threatening to eject the collected wood in the soft sand.

Finally, the watercourse erupted into a stony canyon and there in front of them was Nanjilgardie’s timeless and convivial oasis. Course river sand—laid out like a red carpet to the crystal clear water’s edge—welcomed the family and before Butch could bring the vehicle to a complete stop, the back door swung open and the girls were out, running and frolicking in the warm water. The screams of delight echoed off the sheer granite walls as the siblings splashed each other with handfuls of skimmed velvety water, while wary fish scurried for the shelter of granite crags on the far side of the billabong.

Two huge river gums stood side by side on the water’s edge and offered welcome shade and the traditional site of the family tent. Nanjilgardie was an ancestral heritage and a well kept secret. Many generations of Slaters had enjoyed its superb ambience and revitalising relaxation. In one of Butch’s many visits as a child, Malcolm senior had cemented a proper fire pit, outliving his father but leaving a legacy for the future generations of Slaters to enjoy.

Mishy and Butch stood together and gazed around the canyon, reliving their lives together. Butch leaned in and took Mishy in his arms and dazed her with a passionate kiss, followed by wild cheers from their children. This is where their married life together had begun and a two week honeymoon here seemed like an incredible dream, as if two innocent children had been placed in a garden to explore. Returning to Nanjilgardie was like going back in time and only reignited the tender love Mishy and Butch shared, leaving the cares of existing in a man-made nightmare to drain slowly away.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 57

 

Danica stood waist deep in the luxurious waters of Nanjilgardie, supporting Molly under her stomach as she splashed across the surface trying to follow the instructions of her older sister teaching her to swim. Jess floated lazily around her two sisters on an air mattress and dangled her hand into the water until a curious fish took a gentle nibble at her fingers, but she wasn’t afraid. She could see the timid creature in the clear water and with a stirring wave of her paddling hand, the culprit left the scene at high speed to share his tale with other curious—but not so brave—members of the fish family. Even in the shaded canyon walls, the burning sun continued to threaten human skin. Mishy’s girls swam in shorts and t-shirt covered by copious amounts of sunblock and an Akubra firmly shading fair feminine skin, a family routine Mishy wouldn’t budge on and diligently modelled her expectations openly herself for the girls to follow.

By mid morning, the substantial family tent had been erected between the river gums and a fire crackled in the pit, boiling a billy of water over hot flames, preparing to add the flavoursome tea leaves for an exquisite bush-brewed billy tea. Butch lifted the tin lid from the billy with a forky stick he’d obtained from the ground litter shed from one of the trees. Carefully placing the lid on a rock, he took a handful of tea leaves from a packet and threw them into the boiling billy. Watching the leaves turbulently gyrate on the rolling boil, he picked up the billy lid again with the same forky stick and carefully replaced the lid until the wood smoke and bush flavours drew out the best from the tea leaves.

Keeping a close eye on the brew, Butch found a more substantial forky stick to lift the billy from the coals and once the steaming billy stood simmering on a rock, he donned a leather glove, grabbed the wire handle and swung the billy in a deliberate arc over his head like a Dutch windmill blade. Bringing the steaming cauldron to a cautious and slowly steadying stop after a dozen arcs, the brew was now ready to pour and enjoy. As he lifted the billy lid, a strong, sweet bush flavour escaped the tin billy, drawing a mouthwatering response from Mishy and Bob.

Relaxing in folding deck chairs and sipping on exquisite billy tea, the three adults watched the girls frolic in the peaceful waters of Nanjilgardie. Butch was expecting Eddie at any moment, but before he could voice his thoughts, a horse nickered a welcome and announced Eddie’s arrival.

“’Ope ya got one of dem brews for me, little boss!” Eddie played, dismounting his tired ride and pulling his swag from the saddle.

Mishy smiled big and immediately set about to meet her favourite head stockman’s needs, pouring him a bush brew and then adding a welcome hug. Eddie returned Mishy’s hug shyly and then emptied a pocket lined with bush berries.

“Go good with barramundi, missus,” Eddie’s wry smile lit up his dark face, hoping Mishy would take his offering and add a little Aboriginal tradition to the evening meal.

“Speaking of which, Mr Maxwell, I still have the record for the biggest barra caught on the lightest line here,” Butch boasted.

“Correction, Mr Slater. You had the record!” Bob teased.

Mishy knew the challenge had been set. Regardless of who got the biggest fish on the lightest line, a fresh barra would be welcome; and a good sized fish for all the family to enjoy was a certainty from the remote undisturbed waters of Nanjilgardie. The clean white velvet flesh of bush caught barramundi was second to none in the world, and with Eddie’s bush berries, rivalled any five-star hotel. As the barramundi challenge shifted into high gear and spindly fishing rods threaded with cotton-thin line appeared in Butch’s and Bob’s hands, Mishy called the girls from the water. Unnoticed, Eddie wandered off to a shallower part of Nanjilgardie’s shore, but his strange movements didn’t go undetected by the Slater girls and they followed the wiry elder in search of adventure.

Standing on the shore of Nanjilgardie, Bob picked a winning spot to cast his line, but Butch moved further away from his opponent, figuring the big ones would be cautious of Bob’s attempts at barramundi whispering. Mishy watched the furious challenge with delight as plastic lures misfired from overzealous casts and hit the rock wall, bouncing stunned into the clear water with tangled line around vicious hooks while the lure darted dementedly before being drawn back to the rod by a furiously cranked fishing reel.

Eventually the fishers refined their craft, casting and retrieving with mounting skill until a curious fish attacked the lure with hungry abandon. Bob’s tackle disappeared underwater with predator-like tenacity, gulped down by a massive barra. Butch caught a glimpse of Bob’s tiny rod bending nearly double and the sound of his reel peeling off metres of web-like line and fighting the aggressive invader with audacious grinding motions from his hips. Then with a sickening ping, Bob’s tackle disappeared somewhere under a rocky crag.

Barramundi… one; Bob Maxwell… none.

Butch chortled and his laughter echoed up and down the granite walls until a hungry, well fed ‘truck’ grabbed his own line and set the boasting station boss fighting for his reputation. Butch fought the huge charging fish with everything he could muster, but the unravelling line became too much for the insignificant reel and it melted in a splintering cacophony of gnashing gear teeth. As the reel welded itself together, a distinct ping echoed across the quiet water, followed by Bob Maxwell’s teasing guffaw.

Mishy stared at the scene in disbelief, thinking maybe barramundi on the menu this trip might just be a far off dream. But just as she was about to abandon all hope, Eddie and the girls appeared, carrying a massive fish and handfuls of large native freshwater yabbies.

Jesse came running up to Mishy, her eager hands full of yabbies and her speech brimming with excitement. “Eddie made a spear and showed us how he catches fish. He let Danica use his spear and look what she caught!” Jesse’s voice erupted, forgetting about her own offering and dropped the freshwater crayfish at Mishy’s feet, pointing back to the approaching fishers with a family-sized barra dangling from Danica’s hands.

Bob and Butch huffed as they watched the procession arrive with the large feed of fresh fish and a sizeable offering of yabbies, too.

“I suppose you whistled, Eddie, and the yabbies marched out of the water and into your hands,” Bob’s disgruntled sarcasm drifted across the echoing canyon.

“Nup, you white fellars don’t understan’ traditional hunting, but little white lady girls do.”

Eddie prepared the fish in traditional style and insisted Mishy let him cook for tonight. Mishy readily agreed, but seeing the fire pit coals were perfect for cooking charcoal potatoes, she threw several handfuls of the vegetable directly into the hot coals and over time watched their skins turn a glowing red before turning completely charcoal black. Once removed from the coals, the delicious potato was then sliced and smeared with butter, scooping out the exuberant white flesh, leaving the charcoal skin as waste.

 

~

 

Afternoon had come to an abrupt end and evening chased in the vibrant golden outback colours of sunset, while an imaginary hand turned down the pallid wick of burning sunshine and invited the mystery of night into a polite dance, exchanging pleasantries as the slender moon took over dominance in the highest sky. The family gathered silently around the crackling fire pit, mesmerised by the smoking hypnotist, deep within private thoughts and full to overflowing with Eddie’s bush tucker provision.

A fluttering, massive cloud of peeping zebra finches disturbed the peaceful scene and guardedly took their turn to drink from the oasis waterhole, some landing cautiously on a rocky overhang, while others drank on the wing. Scattering the finches in a disturbed cacophony, a huge flock of green and yellow budgerigars filled the evening sky with a deafening screech and before long, finch and budgerigar wearily eyed each other while the two desert species drank their fill.

Mishy and Butch excused themselves and left the camp confines, searching to recapture the romantic walks of their honeymoon and the final rays of sunset. Climbing to a familiar spot high above Nanjilgardie, the couple found a rock chair and settled in to watch the colours deepen over the horizon, before the shadows of night engulfed their hideaway. Holding Mishy tightly, Butch uttered a whispered delight and reassured his bride of his never-ending love. As their lips parted from a shared romantic moment and holding each other’s hand, Butch could sense something was bothering Mishy.

“Penny for your thoughts, honey,” Butch whispered.

“Now probably isn’t a good time, Butch.”

“It’s Danica isn’t it, Mishy?”

Mishy nodded silently, wondering how Butch knew.

“She’s feeling lonely and isolated from her own age group and friends are so far away,” Butch offered.

“How did you know, honey?” Mishy whispered incredulously.

“I was a teenager too growing up on an isolated property.”

“Well, what did you do?”

“Dad used to take us to a bush dance once a year to let down our hair. I guess the problems with the drought have pushed the thought out of my mind.”

“But she’s only sixteen. Don’t you think she’s a little young for a dance?”

“No, not if I’m there and the young boys know I have a shotgun!”

Mishy laughed at Butch’s comment. “Okay, if you think it’s alright; when can we take her?”

“I’ll look into it as soon as we get back,” Butch offered.

Mishy leaned against Butch’s chest and settled back into his embrace, watching the last fading rays disappear over the horizon and then after many moments she offered a thought. “Any of those country boys even look at my Danica, I think it would be a race between you and me for the shotgun.”

Butch’s exuberant laugh echoed across the dead of night and then he kissed Mishy passionately.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 58

 

A tall and wiry, dark haired figure absentmindedly scrutinised the skyline of Dubai from the Hotel JW Marriot Marquis’ seventy-sixth floor. The dangerous dark eyes frowned, tracing the contemptuous street view and even with double glazing protecting the luxury apartment from the oppressive Arabian sun, the heat somehow managed to seep into the air conditioned room. Stepping back slightly from the window and loosening his tie as if the action would somehow assist his troubled thoughts to gain a safe passage and give a clearer outlook to the situation, the handsome face contorted into a cold, calculating gesture.

Business interests in the Arab Emirates had taken a worrying turn for the worse with world oil prices tumbling, oil employees refusing to work in the oppressive heat and uncooperative local authorities threatening to drown the new venture in red tape. Concerned for the performance, viability and profitability of the expensive project, he’d travelled in from abroad and once he’d arrived and leant on certain people, the entrepreneur had persuaded the locals to see things from his perspective. It had cost him a small fortune just for the privilege of investing in the Emirates and to make things worse, his overbearing business partner had summoned him, drawing him away from the tense situation for a trivial matter and possibly derailing any headway he’d painstakingly made. If it wasn’t for the fact he needed his impetuous partner to get the venture off the ground and keep it flying, he would’ve simply refused to even consider leaving his struggling enterprise.

Scrutinising the Burj Khalifa, the purported tallest building in the world, the suited figure almost pressed his face against the hot tinted glass yet even in the 500 metre gap between buildings, he still had to lift his head to accommodate the Burj’s skyward reaching spire. The 355 metre tall Marriot topped out at seventy-six floors, but the Burj towered another half kilometre above that at 209 floors. From the expansive window he had visual access across Dubai’s reaching skyline, and in one direction he could see the distant Gulf of Oman and in the other, the Persian Gulf languished in the desert heat. Behind the Marriot, the Rub’ al Khali—a trackless and wasted, uninhabited desert but flooded with subterranean oil—sweltered in the morning heat, dissuading even the toughest Saudi from entering its burning interior.

The door to the luxurious top-floor penthouse room cautiously creaked open, disturbing his concentration and distracting his attention away from the troubling thoughts. Ailsa’s shapely form, dressed in a figure-hugging skirt, wiggled over to the window and teased him with her presence, but he was in no mood for play and in fact, the familiar beauty was beginning to bore him. As he walked the streets of Dubai in Ailsa’s immaculate company, he could see the wandering eye of wealthy Saudi men undressing her as they strolled past, but their soliciting attention didn’t bother him and his own wandering eye searched the many attractive pickings of the wealthy city.

He was pining for a greater business challenge and to break loose from his inhibiting business partner, seemingly acting as his subordinate and carrying out his errands while his own business venture suffered. Convinced of his own abilities in the commerce arena and sure he was potentially a gifted business tycoon, it would only take one lucky break to launch him into the super wealthy category and shake off the dependence on his banker. Dubai was a perfect place to search for greener business pastures, deciding a change of feminine company was just the first step to a new and invigorating corporate strategy.

A phone call chimed into the room and distracted Ailsa’s wanton attempts to engage the handsome businessman in her game, giving the man a reason to escape the woman and turn his attention to business instead. The seductive smile waned across Ailsa’s contoured face, but her perfect white teeth shone like pearls through her parted lips. She knew her trade well and also knew when a man became bored with her flirting. It didn’t happen often, but she’d been with this demanding man for many months now and was expecting her marching orders at every turn.

Ailsa followed the tone of the man’s steady, flat voice drifting across the penthouse from the phone, listening intently to the conversation. “Hello.” There was a pause and then she heard him respond, “Yes, this is he.” Ailsa pressed closer to the conversation. If she was right and her time with the anxious tycoon was coming to a close, maybe she could listen in and gather information with which she could glean a bonus for services rendered and be convinced to keep her mouth shut.

“Antonio… bonjour!” The man took a seat and settled in for a lengthy conversation. “It’s about time you reported in. What have you found out?!”

Ailsa strained to hear, but the one-sided conversation didn’t make sense and putting together a plausible tale with the intention of blackmail was quickly slipping away.

“Mmm, I see. So according to your law, its rock solid and there is no way around it unless the party can be convinced. What about international law? Isn’t there a loophole around it that way?”

Ailsa stared at the back view of the focused man, his face turned away from her and concentrating intently, nodding his understanding as if he was sitting across from the third party.

“This isn’t the news we were expecting, Antonio, and if you know what’s good for you, you’d better come up with a convincing determination. In the meantime, I’ll break the news to the big man. Maybe we’ll have to turn up the heat a notch from this end and see if we can’t compel a solution before things unravel.”

As the elaborate phone made contact with its cradle, Ailsa huffed. She couldn’t use anything of that conversation for a bonus. Not to be outdone, she put on her best smile, sidled onto his lap and kissed him with all the experience she had gained from her long career, hoping to loosen his tongue. Convinced she had ignited his interest, she broke for a pause and smiled. “What was all that about?” Ailsa purred seductively.

To her surprise, the man immediately rose to his feet, carelessly dumping the bountiful beauty onto the floor. “None of your business, Ailsa!” he hotly retorted, striding for the hotel room door.

 

~

 

Niccolo and the Sticky Lizards rode a curling tsunami wave of success and everywhere they turned, adoring crowds followed their music with idolatrous fervour. Rapturous media coverage accelerated the hype and before long fans were beginning to recognise Niccolo’s dark Mediterranean features in public places, staking out his activities in the hope of a close encounter with the Italian diva. In one instance, a casual walk down the quays on a pleasant summer afternoon resulted in a frenzied mob ripping the shirt from Niccolo’s back in the desire for a piece of the rock apparition. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking gendarmes close by, they would have taken more than his shirt. Fortunately for Niccolo, the police appeared from nowhere and stole the struggling singer from the frolicking horde, bruised and shaken, eventually making it back to his hotel room escorted by law enforcers.

Hearing of the incident, the Sticky Lizards gathered around their lead singer and ridiculed him, purporting he had been overwhelmed by a handful of teenage girls, but when he tried to correct their understanding and explained there were as many as a few hundred, they simply walked away in contemptuous disbelief. Niccolo’s fondness for bending the truth was well known among the group and it wasn’t until a large group of trawling fans ambushed the whole company one evening, did they finally accept his explanation. Being a well known rock star wasn’t turning out the way they’d expected and just remaining anonymous to go about their normal daily routines became increasingly difficult. Their hotel rooms were under constant siege from fans and even changing hotels hadn’t remedied the situation, with eager scouting groupies eventually locating the new host and broadcasting the result over social media.

It wasn’t until the Maestro met the group cowering in the Auditorium Stravinski’s band room, did he understand their predicament and offer a solution convenient for all. In an unnoticed covert operation, the group’s belongings clandestinely disappeared from their hotel rooms during a concert that night and after the show, a diversion drew adoring fans away from the Auditorium Stravinski in a rampage. By the time the boisterous worshippers realised they had been tricked, their idols had simply vanished and no amount of searching could locate their fancies.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 59

 

Early morning’s balmy, humid heaviness had given way to the refreshing eager breezes of early afternoon when Niccolo’s eyes finally blinked open. Blockout curtains bowed and stretched like a sailboat under full sail as the lake breeze forced its way into the upstairs bedroom and tantalised the stuffy room with its delightful cool breath. Niccolo yawned away the sleep from his mind in a routine of stretching gymnastics, finishing the invigorating performance with a sharply exhaled… ‘Yah!’

Calmly scrutinising the quiet room, he’d had the first solid night sleep for days after shaking off the rigorous concert schedule and playing cat and mouse with over enthusiastic fans. An unexpected small boat trip after their last concert unnerved the Italian idols, rocking precariously under its load of passengers. Unable to see around the black depths of Lac Léman in the late night hour, Niccolo felt uneasy traversing the short distance between island and mainland in a tiny boat at the Maestro’s command. But as the silence and peace of their new sanctuary crept into the waking group’s psyche, the insecurities of the short water crossing appeared a small price to pay, escaping the treacherous hordes of overzealous fans. Energetically throwing back the blankets and bouncing from the comfortable bed, Niccolo pulled open the window curtain, uncovering an unobstructed and peaceful view across the calm waters of Lac Léman and to the distant hazy shore.

A small nervous flutter stirred in the singer’s stomach as he looked down at tiny waves breaking on the carved stone steps leading into the inviting lake water, suddenly realising what his day held in store for him. Reaching into his pyjama shirt pocket, Niccolo removed the timeworn photograph that hadn’t left his possession since the meeting with the Maestro and his weird companion nearly a week ago. Once again studying the stunning features of a young girl, searching the lines of her flawless face: the way her nose turned up slightly in an impish pixy pose; the obvious dark coloured eyes alight with passion and life; and the long, rich velvet black hair twisted into tightly curling springs of Mediterranean beauty.

It was as if he was gazing at a female version of himself.

The first contact Niccolo had had with Vincenza Morola had been harrowing to say the least. By the straining gasp from the woman when Niccolo’s phone call connected and he’d identified himself, he was sure she’d had a heart attack and couldn’t stop crying through the whole interview. Driven on by a desire to bridge the unknown empty years, Niccolo had purchased a first-class train ticket for Vincenza from Rome to the Montreux Gare. But as the time came closer for her arrival, the unanswered questions haunting the desolate space where she should have been for all the missing years came flooding back and making the painful wait as time passed torturously slow.

A knock at the bedroom door startled him from his thoughts and he quickly stuffed the picture back in his pocket. After a brief pause, Niccolo called, “Come in!”

A tall, heavily built woman pushed open the door, causing Niccolo some angst. “I am Natalya. Breakfast… or maybe lunch, whichever you choose, waiting downstairs.”

Niccolo gawked at the huge bulging figure toting an apron but looking as if she’d be more comfortable in a railway gang than a kitchen. Titanic arms protruding from her blouse like ancient tree trunks, and the thick foreign accent almost seemed like someone’s poor attempt at comedy, prompting him to guess she was most probably Russian, or pretending to be.

The skinny kid’s frightened stare amused the woman considerably, but she decided to put the puny rock star out of his misery. “I look after you and your friends, just like Maestro pay for.”

Strangled in her massive grip, Natalya carried a ponytailed blond wig, attracting Niccolo’s attention immediately. Following the entertainer’s amused expression to the hairpiece in her hand, the powerful woman grinned a gappy-toothed grin and teased, “We make you look like pretty Russian girl in proper disguise on such an important day.”

Niccolo panicked at her threat, staring nervously at the blond wig and wondering just what the Russian roadblock actually had in mind. Unsure of her intent and certain she would easily overpower him, Niccolo fidgeted awkwardly until her offhand comment revisited his mind with even greater curiosity and stifled his anxiety. How did she know today was an important day for him?

Natalya appeared to be enjoying Niccolo’s discomfort, with her huge blue eyes dancing with jest. “Boat ready take you to shore once we have fixed disguise a little,” Natalya teased as her face once again broke into a threatening toothless grin just before she turned and shut the door to Niccolo’s room.

Natalya’s breakfast of rye bread and Bavarian sausage sat like a ship’s anchor in Niccolo’s delicate stomach, but that was just the beginning of the torments. Niccolo’s skinny frame shuddered under Natalya’s massive hands as she poked and prodded, forcing him this way and then the other. Once she’d finished painting, pushing and pummelling the entertainer’s delicate features, her toothless grin reappeared, stretching across the massive face and approving of her own handiwork.

When Niccolo caught a glimpse of his disguise, he couldn’t believe the transformation and realised Natalya had been teasing him about turning his appearance into a pretty Russian girl’s. Admiring the new look, Niccolo affirmed her efforts. “You’re good, Natalya,” Niccolo bubbled.

“KGB training,” Natalya smiled big and placed a chubby, sausage-like finger to her lips, feigning secrecy and stealing animated stares around the room looking for signs she’d been detected.

The singer threw a quick glance at the kitchen clock with Natalya intercepting his hasty movement, answering the unspoken question before it was asked. “Come, we take you to mainland; Vincenza train nearly here.”

Niccolo began to ask how Natalya knew about Vincenza and her visit. But a bigger riddle stole across his thoughts, intensifying Niccolo’s flabbergasted state of mind and wondering how the Maestro knew of his missing madre. An image of the photograph and the girl’s personal information scribbled across the picture’s back drifted into Niccolo’s mind and left him grasping with the mystery. The unanswered questions momentarily lingered in an intensely private emotional war, but had to be cut short when Niccolo was herded down to the boat by the massive towering woman.

 

~

 

Niccolo stepped from the small craft onto the pier, steadied by Natalya’s big arms gripping the jetty and holding the craft anchored to the dock as if it had been bolted in place. Gazing back at Natalya, she’d already cast off and was steadily turning the dinghy around as if she’d done this trip a thousand times before. Niccolo pulled in a nervous breath, checked around the busy scene and strode directly for Quai de Clarens, making a beeline for the Gare de Montreux and Vicenza’s train. As the pleasant afternoon walk began to congest with ambling festival crowds, Niccolo panicked when a group of giggling young teenage girls overtook him, but a relieved sigh forcefully escaped his lips when they kept running and finally disappeared onto the bustling Quai de Vernex, reassuring the rock star Natalya’s handiwork had lived up to expectation. Niccolo glanced at his watch and put on a burst of speed, realising the train would beat him to the platform if he loitered any longer trying to dodge exuberant fans and instead, decided to trust Natalya’s expertise in deception.

Within half an hour he’d traversed the Quai Edouard-Jaccoud, crossed the Grand’ Rue, accessed the Escaliers de l’Hôtel Suisse and entered La Gare de Montreux. As Niccolo entered the platform area, the ETR 610 had already arrived and a solid wall of disembarking passengers had turned the station into a figurative farmyard. He anxiously studied the faces, searching for Vincenza’s unmistakable features, until a sudden thought riveted the singer to the platform.

Drawing the photograph from his shirt pocket in a hasty grab and taking a long, probing look at the blurry image, an unexpected notion vexed his thinking. The picture would have to be at least fifteen years old, and just maybe Vincenza was no longer this young looking girl, but a thirty-something expandable Italian mumma. Feeling less enthusiastic, Niccolo wandered among the tired disembarked passengers, examining disgruntled faces and comparing likenesses until those being scrutinised hastily averted their eyes. Then like an apparition of spring in the mountains, a young looking woman stood forlornly by her baggage, glancing around the station and obviously waiting for someone. Niccolo’s heart skipped as he approached the slender figure of a Mediterranean beauty. She’d aged well and could’ve stepped straight from the photograph’s shadowy paper.

Mi scuso, signora… Vincenza Morola?

Si, signor… Is that you, Niccolo?” Vincenza’s brown eyes were big and pleading, fast filling with tears.

Without thinking, Niccolo took the woman in his embrace and held her tightly, and as time stood still, mother and son connected and the many years of wasted tears melted away into a fervent emotional reunion.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 60

 

Alone and slumped at the kitchen table, Marie-Laure jumped as an incoming call broke the tense silence and interrupted another pleading tearful petition to God for her son, Ryan. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, it took a few seconds to identify the intruding calamity and then stealing a quick glance at the kitchen clock, she almost tipped over her chair in a bid to answer the family telephone. Jonas had been gone for many hours in a bid to search the concert venues and attempt to locate their wayward son, but she hadn’t heard from her husband since he’d left and hoped the call would soon shed some light on Ryan’s untimely disappearance.

Marie-Laure hurried into the passageway and swiped at the phone located on a small antique table but almost dropped it in her haste. Quickly regaining her grip in a frenzied juggle, she pressed the receiver to her ear and offered a breathless… “Oui, allô?!

Jonas’ defeated and tired voice filled her ear. He hadn’t seen their son or anybody who had knowledge of Ryan’s whereabouts, but his intention was to continue his search until he’d exhausted all avenues and then as a last resort approach the police for help. Jonas had visited the YWAM marquee in search of Alex Dupont, but Alex was nowhere to be found either and wasn’t answering Jonas’ calls, although the morning shift of YWAM delegates had reassured Jonas they were expecting the YWAM boss to surface at any moment.

 

~

 

Niccolo walked slowly along the Quai de la Rouvenaz carrying Vincenza’s suitcase in one hand while Vincenza ambled beside her son with her arm affectionately wrapped around the other. Neither spoke and the growing silence seemed like a insurmountable gaping rift between the pair. He could feel the depth of Vincenza’s gaze as her eyes wandered the carnival atmosphere. Something was deeply troubling her and her pained expression left Niccolo feeling disturbed. He searched the festival scene, hoping for an opportunity to engage her, however the quay area was exceptionally busy with people running into Vincenza’s suitcase and launching it like a missile against Niccolo’s legs, distracting his efforts.

A food stall entered his view, offering him a reason to fill the silent void and an opportunity to enter his mother’s pondering world. Niccolo broke the awkward quiet, drawing Vincenza’s hollow eyes from the crowded scenery to her son’s obvious apprehension. “Are you hungry? We can get some food and then sit on the ponton suspendu and watch the lake and the mountains as we eat,” Niccolo proposed tentatively.

Vincenza turned to face her son and offered him a pensive smile, her big brown eyes reflecting the trouble in her heart and it almost seemed that she was confiding with an unseen authority figure and begging for guidance. “Thank you, Niccolo, I’d like that.”

Pressed against a food stall, Niccolo waited in a sea of people jostling to be served. Finally his voice drew the attention of the owner and soon he walked away with two steaming hot meals. Finding a seat on the suspended platform overlooking the Montreux Riviera and the Place du Marché, Niccolo and Vincenza sat together with their bodies turned towards each other and their knees touching. Vincenza fidgeted nervously with the takeaway meal wrapped in plain paper, but before she opened her food she glanced sideways at her son as if she was about to speak, and when Niccolo realised she was watching him, he smiled. The simple act brought a pang of shame and made her turn away, anxiously rethinking her approach.

After many silent moments and false starts, Vincenza decided the best way was just to say what was on her heart and let God deal with the consequences. “I… I was forced to give you up, Niccolo. I wasn’t even fifteen when you were born and when they took you away from me… I died inside!” Vincenza tapered off, her shoulders shuddering while a big tear plopped onto her lap.

Niccolo’s comforting hand rested on top of hers, giving her the courage to regain her composure and attempt to carry on.

“I… I fell in love with a man who was a lot older than me and when he found out I was pregnant with his child, he disappeared, leaving me to explain to my parents. Padre was furious and went in search of the man, looking to exact revenge but he’d vanished. However, my father’s anger did not, and you and I wore the full force of his ire. I didn’t get to see you after you were born and I had no idea of your name until recently, but I’ve prayed for you ever since and have asked God to take care of you. I begged Him to reunite us and as the desperate few years stretched into many, I gave up all hope of ever finding you again… until you rang me two nights ago.”

Vincenza quietly wept, leaving Niccolo fighting back the tears at her confession and staring blankly at his suffering mother. She had carried the burden too, only from a different perspective.

Gradually, Vincenza’s raging emotional storm subsided and as a lull in the gusts allowed her to regain her composure, she tentatively continued her story. “I have never married. My heart has always been with you, wrenched from my chest the day you were taken from me twenty-two years ago,” Vincenza studied Niccolo’s gaze, trying to read his mind and gauge his reaction. She’d taken a big risk telling him her story and possibly giving him a reason to reject her, too.

Uneasy with his silence and unable to read his thoughts, Vincenza choked on the emotion constricting her throat, silently pleading for understanding and not sure how Niccolo was processing her tale. “Can you ever forgive me, Niccolo? I guess you’ve been pretty angry with me for letting you go and wondered where I was. I just wanted to tell you, I’ve tried frantically every day of my life to find you, but as time went on it became almost impossible and the hole you left in my heart has never healed.”

Niccolo’s eyes dropped to the ground, feeling the bitter years haunting his memory and wanting someone to pay for his wasted childhood; and yet coming to a decision, he returned his gaze to the trembling woman, holding her uncertain watery expression. Searching her pleading brown eyes for treachery, he saw only kindness and pain reflected in her soft expression. It was then Niccolo understood… she had been a victim, too.

Unexpectedly, Niccolo set aside his meal on to the seat and stood, while Vincenza fearfully watched her son’s actions. He knelt beside her and reached out his arms, enfolding his mother in a forgiving hug. “I love you, Madre, and yes, I forgive you.”

Niccolo’s and Vincenza’s food went cold as mother and son held each other, nourishing their love instead.

Niccolo suddenly broke from his mother’s arms and checked his watch. It was nearly 4 pm and he had to get back to the island and prepare for the evening’s concerts. “Come, let us go. Natalya will be waiting soon to take us to our accommodation and then I can introduce my madre to the other band members.”

Vincenza chatted cheerfully with Niccolo as they navigated through the crowded quays, asking him a barrage of questions about his life and filling in the missing years for him. At one stage, she intently studied the long blond hair tied in a ponytail and grinned, panicking him with her observation. “I can’t wait to see what you really look like without that… disguise.”

Niccolo’s expression sharply turned toward Vincenza and then back to the crowd, anxiously searching for signs he had been discovered by rampaging fans. When there appeared to be no obvious interest, he cautiously smiled. “How did you know it’s a disguise?”

Vincenza laughed and patted his arm. “Don’t get me wrong, Niccolo, it’s good, but a mother knows when something isn’t right. Besides, blond Italians draw natural curiosity,” she teased.

As the couple entered the Quai de Clarens, Niccolo could see Natalya’s heavy outline gripping the pier, balancing awkwardly in the boat and patiently waiting for his return.

“So… how did you find me, Niccolo?” Vincenza curiously asked, obviously puzzled how he could achieve something she could not.

The question took Niccolo off guard. He’d wondered the same thing, but now that he’d heard the words actually verbalised, it started him thinking. “The people we’re staying with gave me a photograph of you and your contact number. I’m not sure where they got it from.”

Vincenza went quiet, reflecting on his statement but finally cuddled closer to her son. It didn’t matter how they’d found her, only that they had, and she took that to mean God had finally granted her heart-wrenching prayer.

Niccolo reached into his pocket and removed the black and white photograph and offered it to Vincenza to peruse. “This is what they gave me and your number is on the back.”

Vincenza took the picture Niccolo offered and studied the photograph with great interest. It was her image alright, although she hadn’t seen this particular snap for a long time. Flipping it over, she recognised her number immediately… yet something was bothering her, but she couldn’t put her finger on the troubling puzzle.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 61

 

Feeling hollow and empty, Marie-Laure had just hung up the phone from Jonas and settled back at the kitchen table, pleading with Papa God for the safe return of her son when the family phone repeated its jangling tease. With her heart racing in hopeful anticipation, Marie-Laure’s instincts murmured a warning and she chided herself for building up her hopes, only to have them cruelly deflated when the caller had no connection with her missing child. Disregarding the hopeless thought and suddenly full of optimism, she scurried from the kitchen in a full-on sprint and crashed into the passageway, swooping like a bird of prey down onto the chiming machine.

Surging with adrenaline and almost out of breath, the words formed in her tortured mind and left her throat before she had time to properly think through her response. “Have you found him?!

Then before the unsuspecting caller could reply, pessimism reared its ugly head, the tears overflowed and the tension burst, leaving the person on the other end stunned and stammering to understand.

“Arr… M… Madame Tauxe?!”

Marie-Laure couldn’t recognise the caller’s voice and desperately tried to dam the gushing emotional outflow, shuddering and gasping until finally the words formed into a pretence of recognisable and understandable dialogue. “Pardonnez-moi. Oui, this is Madame Tauxe,” Marie-Laure babbled, wiping away the flood running down her nose, trying to clear her mind and comprehend the caller’s needs.

“Madame Tauxe, this is Agent Picard, Vaud Gendarmerie…”

There was a long pause as Marie-Laure’s mind collapsed into a trembling world of fear, wondering what the gendarme was about to tell her.

Allô, is anybody there!”

Excusez-moi, Agent Picard. I am here.”

“We have traced a Ryan Tauxe…” Marie-Laure gasped and the action answered the gendarme’s question, but he continued anyway. “From his records it would appear he lives at your address. Is this correct, Madame?”

Trembling with abject fear and expecting the worst, she braced herself. “Yes, he’s my son. What’s happened, Agent Picard?!”

The stress in her voice alerted the young gendarme to a gathering storm and he quickly moved to stifle the looming hurricane. “Please be assured, Madame Tauxe, your son is okay but he has been injured, albeit not severely. It is reported Ryan was attacked and robbed by unknown persons at the front of the Auditorium Stravinski last night, but a Good Samaritan came to his aid and a doctor and nurse are now caring for your youth at the expense of the Samaritan and at their own home.”

Marie-Laure sighed heavily and relieved tears flooded the earpiece, stifling all conversation until the young gendarme could calm the distraught mother.

Moving quickly, the gendarme continued, hoping to instil a sense of peace and confidence in the troubled woman. “We have a statement from the Samaritan and a description from eyewitnesses. We will apprehend those responsible, Madame Tauxe.”

“Can I see my son?” Marie-Laure whispered, her mind jumbled and unconcerned with the gendarme’s speech.

“Yes, Madame, the people have left a contact number and an address welcoming you to visit Ryan at your leisure and they added as soon as Ryan has healed enough, they will deliver him safe home to you.”

 

~

 

With his injured shoulder pulsing in time with his heartbeat, Ryan’s eyes fluttered open, taking many moments to clear his blurred vision and fuzzy mind. Confusion pursued him around the darkened room, trying to identify the gloomy shadows, but nothing seemed familiar in this peculiar new world. From somewhere within the strange house, Ryan could hear the unmistakable sounds of the Sticky Lizards band going through a warm up and then a new number so sweet and melodic echoed throughout the halls. The rhythmic beat tantalised his tired mind with musical honey and brought a delighted smile to his bruised lips, but no matter how hard he concentrated, he was unable to recognise the melody they were playing.

Just then, Ryan heard the door unlatch and as the access drew open, light flooded his room, causing a wide eyed stare at a massive figure entering the scene and carrying a tray of food.

“Ah! Good morning, darlink. Doctor did good job, dah! I am nurse Natalya and I bring good breakfast for sick boy… nice rye bread and Bavarian sausage! Maestro sorry he not here when you wake up, but he go somewhere today with kaftan man, Robere.” Natalya broke into her usual gappy-toothed grin, trying to put Ryan at ease, however the sight only troubled him more, having no idea who kaftan man Robere was.

“W… where am I, Natalya, and is that a new recording I can hear of the Sticky Lizards?” Ryan sounded slightly awed but croaky as he spoke.

“We in Maestro island home and have house guests at moment, but noise you hear is nyet recording, only Maestro’s Stuck Lizards… sound more like barking dog to me!” Natalya complained clandestinely under her breath.

“The Sticky Lizards are here?!” Ryan exploded.

“Dah! But I can’t get rid of them for you. This is their new home, too,” Natalya seemed a little annoyed, however a sudden thought crossed her mind. She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that piece of information.

Realising he was in the same house as the Sticky Lizards, Ryan’s infatuated expression beamed like the sun. Then as his eyes completed a casual sweep of the strange surrounds, his gaze rested on a brand new Stratocaster leaning on the wall near his bed. He ogled the instrument with lusting eyes, following its chic polished lines flaunting its shapely figure and begging to be handled. If it sounded half as good as it looked, it would be a prized showpiece hanging from his arm, making him look good too by just being in his company. Ryan made a hasty move to raise himself from the bed and attempt to grasp the instrument, but his shoulder responded with an angry and sharp disapproving reaction, forcing him to violently slump back to the mattress in frustrated pain.

“What you doing, little bird, you nyet allowed out of bed!” Natalya scolded and then followed Ryan’s hypnotised gaze, settling on his point of focus. “Arr, I see, little bird, you discover Maestro gift.”

The massive figure squeezed past Ryan’s bed and then the instrument disappeared in her huge grip, swallowed by a decisive swipe and after a reversal of Natalya’s acrobatics, the Stratocaster rested in Ryan’s impressed hands. It was even more luxurious than the one that had been stolen from him, superbly balanced and just the right length for Ryan’s grip, feeling like velvet in his hands. Ryan plucked at the exuberant strings with a strumming thumb and even unaided by the instrument’s amp the machine hummed, begging for talented hands to massage its frame and make tender music.

“Your matushka very worried!”

Natalya’s simple words made Ryan unexpectedly glance up from the expensive instrument. He hadn’t understood her meaning, but her doleful expression conveyed what he suspected. Ryan pictured his devoted mother in his mind and felt the urge to reassure her. She’d be beside herself with worry and didn’t deserve the torment she was surely suffering on his behalf. “Does she know I’m okay?” Ryan whispered and dropped his head in shame.

“Dah! She rings just one hour past, but you asleep. She comes soon. I go take boat and bring her onto island.”

 

~

 

Marie-Laure had tried repeatedly to contact Jonas and deliver the good news, but for some reason his phone was turned off and she suspected it had run out of battery power. The rumbling bus trip from Chailly to Gambetta seemed to take forever as Marie-Laure whispered an excited and grateful prayer of thanksgiving. Staring through the moving bus window, she began to wonder about the people who had taken in her injured son and not only paid to have a doctor take care of him, but accommodated him in their own home when Ryan’s family address wasn’t known and he was incapacitated and unable to tell them.

Finally the lumbering Gambetta bus docked at the bus shelter with Marie-Laure impatiently alighting. The driver impassively waited for his passengers to disembark and readied the vehicle to retrace the route and repeat the journey to Chailly. As directed, Marie-Laure hastily strode towards Lac Léman from the Gambetta-Clarens bus stop until she intercepted the Quai de Clarens, then following it north she located the dock just before the Quai de Clarens became the Quai de Villas du Bochet. The directions to the island house seemed somehow surreal and unexpected, although the short trip in an open boat had been explained in her phone call but the detail had been lost in the excitement.

As arranged, a massive woman waited at the pier in a small dinghy alongside the Quai de Clarens. Overcome with appreciation and awe at the woman’s selfless generosity, Marie-Laure embraced Natalya’s massive frame and couldn’t thank her enough for taking care of Ryan, even though Natalya tried to convey she was only doing her job and the Maestro was the true benevolent source.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 62

 

A small open boat, not much bigger than a large bathtub, cut through the glassy waters of Lac Léman, rippling its mirror-like watery flesh into disturbed wrinkles and blemishing its near perfect complexion. Chilled by the early morning air, the outboard motor, just above idle, complained and smoked incessantly in the undisturbed atmosphere. As they motored towards the Quai de Clarens dock, the choking fumes hung over the boat like fog, wafting around Natalya’s huge frame and snaking towards Maestro’s sensitive sinuses. With nowhere to escape the rolling exhaust cloud, Maestro’s stinging eyes watered furiously, making the journey extremely unpleasant and adding another dimension to Maestro’s displeased expression.

Holding a handkerchief to his face and taking a guarded sideways glance toward his kaftan-attired companion, Maestro couldn’t understand Robere’s insistence on a flaky sightseeing trip when there was still so much to do and so many loose ends requiring his attention, some absolutely dire to the success of the coming great rally. Niccolo’s dilemma remained unresolved and his mother would be staying at the island mansion when he and Robere returned, complicating the situation even further. The band members would be practising in the improvised music sound room on the ground floor, raising more questions; while Ryan remained unconscious in another room with Natalya as his nurse. Natalya was another unknown and he wasn’t sure she could be trusted to handle the workload he’d hired her for and smooth over any unsavoury situations that would inevitably arise.

However, one thing that did bring a smile to Maestro’s grim features: the band had taken to sfidare le tradiziones with zealous enthusiasm, playing it exactly as he’d intended, convinced it would be an even greater hit than Sfidare Dissenso.

As Natalya steered the dinghy towards the shoreline, Maestro’s mind drifted back to the phone conversation with the gendarme and it took some convincing to assure him of their innocence in Ryan’s attack. However the policeman relaxed when the Maestro offered Ryan’s parents an invitation to visit, and the fact they’d already paid for Ryan’s medical expenses added further assurance. Witnesses at the attack site backed up Maestro’s story and after some tense hours of investigation by agents from the gendarmerie, they’d cleared him of any involvement in the heinous crime… although Ryan’s parents visiting would add another awkward ball to juggle. On top of all that, permits were still needed for the huge marquee. Authorities still hadn’t responded to their application for a public rally and media interests hadn’t settled on a firm price for positive coverage of the event.

“Stop worrying, Maestro, and enjoy the day,” Robere’s brusque voice made him flinch.

Maestro stared at the larger-than-life leader. It was alright for Robere to say stop worrying; he wasn’t on the front line. Maestro wanted to explain the difficulties that could arise and the knock-on effects to their plans if he dropped only one ball in the juggling act, but Robere’s intimidating presence and charismatic aura overpowered the youth and kept his mouth firmly shut.

As the early morning sun immersed the mountains in orange morning light, Natalya skilfully motored the small dinghy against the jetty pylons and grabbed one in a huge bear hug, holding the vessel steady as the two men scampered ashore.

“Thank you, dear one!” Robere smiled a winning smile, stealing Natalya’s ability to speak. Nobody had ever called her dear one before.

Maestro was about to regurgitate the list of instructions he’d already given her when Robere walked off and called over his shoulder, “Maestro!”

Leaving Natalya in mid sentence, Maestro scampered off to join Robere.

“She’s not a child, nor a fool; leave her to enact what you have already given her.”

The two men walked steadily towards the Quai de Clarens and bypassed the parking area alongside the Rue du Torrent when Maestro began searching the space for the usual hired limousine, expecting it to be waiting for their approach. “Where’s the limousine?” Maestro puzzled out loud.

“I thought we would take the train and enjoy the company of the poor working class for a change, Maestro.”

Maestro’s eyes bulged in disbelief and his mouth hung open in shock. The Gare de Montreux was still a good couple of kilometres walk and Robere, even now, hadn’t informed him of their planned destination for the day.

As the minutes drifted into an hour, the quays began to shake off their late night routine and come to life in a stretching morning yawn, drawing eager crowds from their beds to gather along the festival strip. Robere, as usual, was attracting incredulous staring gawks to his grey kaftan figure, black beard and long hair, but he didn’t seem to notice, instead becoming increasingly mellow to the point Maestro was becoming concerned.

Robere shuddered in anguish as he mingled among the crowd. “Oh, Maestro! Doesn’t your heart break for these lost little ones?! Hopeless and blissfully ignoring the indicators of the coming wrath and trying to quench the spiritual signposts warning them of a painful eternity and distracted by the pointless pleasures of satan’s world.” Robere began to weep and it appeared as if his heart was about to give out on him. “Take me away from here, Maestro. My time is not yet and my words will have no effect until the appointed moment.”

 

~

 

Seated opposite Robere, Maestro contemplated the view through the train window down to the shoreline of Lac Léman and tried to come to terms with Robere’s strange behaviour and his peculiar statement: My time is not yet and my words will have no effect until the appointed moment. He glanced down at the S1 ticket firmly grasped in his hand and wondered where the short domestic line would lead, apart from stopping at all stations as they travelled further south from Montreux.

Unexpectedly, Robere was on his feet and it appeared as if he was intent on leaving the train at the next stop. “Veytaux, Maestro, this is where we get off!”

Maestro followed Robere obediently and when the train jolted to a halt, both men alighted among disbelieving stares from fellow passengers. As the train slowly pulled away from the unmanned station, Robere turned 360 degrees on the platform, lifted his hands skyward as if asking for directions until his eyes settled on the spires of the Château de Chillon 300 metres further down the track.

“There, Maestro, we have come to our journey’s end and our mission for today is to explore the ancient castle.”

Maestro’s frustration level began to climb through the clouds; he had so much to do and Robere was acting so freaky and out of control, and now they were to spend the day exploring a twelfth-century castle tourist attraction.

The two men quietly sauntered south along the Quai Alfred Chatelanat and as the epic castle loomed in their view, Robere suddenly became more animated and full of joy. “This will be an adventure, Maestro, I can feel it!” he danced.

A speeding train rattled past the two walkers only metres from their path and pushed up a thundering windstorm as the carriages flashed by, and just as quickly as it had come, the whirring carriages were gone. The 300 metre walk from Veytaux station to the castle ambled alongside the clear waters of Lac Léman and idled past the white sands of Chillon beach before finally arriving at the castle entrance and the barrier where all prospective visitors emptied their pockets of hard earned Swiss francs.

Robere danced inside the first courtyard and spun around on his heels like an overgrown kid, calling to anyone who was in ear shot, ”Ma belle Suisse…! Heaven on Earth…! The Father’s joy and His representation of Eden!” The joy and peace radiated from the kaftan-clad man’s face and his delight was infectious, with many tourists joining in with his animated song. Ecstatically pushing on into the armoury, the dancing Robere led the way, followed by a less than enthusiastic Maestro close behind.

The pair broke into the dungeon with Robere falling silent, his face switching from delight to deep compassion. He found Byron’s esteemed carving on a pillar holding up the dungeon roof and huffed with disdain; and then searched a confined dark passageway which led to the side. Before Maestro could steer the frenetic man away from the claustrophobic dim passage, Robere was down on his knees and had disappeared inside the entrance. Several minutes went past as Maestro nervously waited for Robere to return from his exploring adventure, hoping he wouldn’t have to go for help to extricate his overzealous leader trapped in one of the castle’s many cramped and trackless meanderings.

Robere’s kaftan-clad figure unexpectedly backed out of the closed space and brought immediate relief to the Maestro, but as Robere’s form appeared into the half-light, he was dragging something from the opening. Maestro stared in awe and his mouth fell open, glaring at the impossible scene, and then as if forced to act by an unseen hand, raced in to assist Robere.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 63

 

A prickly, fear-fuelled shiver erupted up and down Anne-Claire’s spine, then found a coursing path into her limbs and electrified her tiny hands into a panicked tremble. Two deafening screams echoed throughout the antechamber and with no possibility to escape the heavy rock tomb, reverberated around the solid room like a vibrating church bell. Not unlike the scream, the bell’s toll originates from the unyielding clapper tonsil striking the impressive lip, intensifying in the bell’s thick walled metal waist and amplifying through the concave mouth. As if drawing urgent attention to a dire unknown situation and attempting to insulate the victim from the reality of harm, a solid wall of deafening noise becomes the body’s only plausible response. Even Niccolo had taken a back seat with his ability to scream by Anne-Claire’s terrifying discord.

In the intense green light of Anne-Claire’s iPod, she came face-to-face with a figure of a girl her own age staring wide eyed, frightened beyond fear and chained to the rock sentinel holding up the dungeon roof. Bound to the spot by irons and unable to escape her imagination or the terrifying image of approaching fey, the girl was forced to confront the stunned horrific reality of a floating apparition; but before she could scream again, the apparition spoke.

“W… who are you?” Anne-Claire stammered, staring unflinching at a young woman dressed elegantly in a long green gown with features so soft and extremely pleasing to the observer.

The figure trembled, rattling the chain attached to her wrist and secured to the rock pylon, staring back at Anne-Claire with abject fear etched across every part of her attractive features. She scrutinised Anne-Claire in shock and then averted her eyes as if Anne-Claire was improperly dressed, making Anne-Claire feel uncomfortable and ashamed; the same emotion she’d experienced when the caped avenger had urged her to take his cloak and cover her immodesty.

“A… are you a ghoul sent from the pit of the abyss to torment me for my sins and then drag my wretched soul back with you? Please! I know my life has been girded with selfish indulgence and luxury, but I have only just begun to live and as you can see, I am suffering for my guilt. Give me another chance and behold, I will endeavour to change my ways.”

“Huh?!” Anne-Claire exclaimed. Had this poor prisoner lost her mind chained up in the dark?

Niccolo had taken a lengthy pause between songs and now with fresh crashing rhythm from his enervated band, he broke into another intense scream and filled the stunned silence with his bawl. The terrified figure began to back away from Anne-Claire and the screaming thing she held in her hand, but stumbled as the chain inhibited her retreat and then stared at the device, convinced her moment had come.

“Do you bring the sounds of hell with you to torment me before you tear my soul from within me?” the figure shuddered, gaping at the box in Anne-Claire’s hand but then catching a glimpse of Anne-Claire’s immodesty again, she turned away swiftly.

Anne-Claire hadn’t understood any of the young woman’s peculiar communication, but it was obvious Niccolo’s screaming performance was disturbing her greatly. She swiped at the volume control and Niccolo’s song stopped in mid screech, drawing a sudden staring and openmouthed response.

“You are a ghoul come to take my soul; even the demons obey you!” the young woman panicked.

The fog was slowly starting to roll away from Anne-Claire’s understanding. Either this girl was an impressive actor like the caped avenger, or she really didn’t appreciate the iPod and Niccolo’s bawling screech. Now that Anne-Claire was feeling more at ease in the strange surrounds, she decided to test the gown-clad girl and trap her with a clever question. Anne-Claire would start with something neutral and unthreatening, before moving onto other more substantial contrivances much harder to fake.

“My name is Anne-Claire and I’m not a ghoul from the abyss, but a girl just like you. Tell me what your name is and maybe we can figure out together what is actually happening here.”

The figure once again turned to face Anne-Claire, but quickly averted her stare and focused on a shadow at the back of her dungeon. “M… my name is Dominique, Dominique de Blonay and my father’s name is Baron de Blon…” Dominique stopped in mid explanation, pondering the strange response from the young woman.

A frown had settled across Anne-Claire’s face and her eyes stared in disbelief.

“Do you know of me, Mademoiselle?” Dominique’s question left Anne-Claire struggling for comprehension.

Anne-Claire answered with a shocked nod. “Y… you were on your way to visit your sister, Nicolaïde and you… you were abducted!” Anne-Claire stuttered.

Dominique glared at Anne-Claire with incredulous and suspicious eyes. “How did you know that, Mademoiselle?”

“What year is this?” Anne-Claire demanded, a peculiar thought forming in her mind as she pondered Dominique’s costume, but almost assured she would trap this performer in a baited question.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Dominique answered as if Anne-Claire was asking what colour the sky is. “Why, it’s July 1879, but I’ve lost count of which day it is.”

Anne-Claire gawked dumbfounded at the girl’s response; but Dominique had a question of her own.

“Then do you know where I am and who is responsible for my imprisonment?”

 

~

 

In the early dawn light, Pensive nickered a hearty good morning as he was led from the chalet stables; but the night had passed in anguish for the brave Baron Willy de Bad, with his dreams filled and traumatised by the haunting beauty of Dominique de Blonay desperately calling across the night’s empty void from her prison somewhere. Throwing Pensive’s blanket over the steed’s muscular back, the stable hand aligned the Rougemont coat of arms perfectly straight—a proud bird treading the mountaintops and backed by the red coloured ochre found in the mountains about the village. With the emblem clearly identifying the Rougemont gentry and with the saddle buckled in place, de Bad climbed effortlessly astride his mount and once the stable worker had handed the reins up to the gentleman, a defining command followed.

Hah…!” Simultaneously, de Bad’s spurs encouraged the steed to make haste and galloped away, his hooves clacking loudly on the cobblestone roadway.

Turning south from the overnight accommodation, de Bad followed the ancient Roman roadway—the main trade route into Switzerland for centuries—but his mind kept repeating the gossip abounding in the halls of the public accommodation chalet. Rumours of Dominique de Blonay’s abduction were on everyone’s lips and the tongue of accusation rested on many contenders, but most agreed the abduction handiwork resembled the tyrannical fingerprints of the scoundrel Jean-François de Blonay, Dominique’s distant cousin.

A strange sight met Baron de Bad as he approached the Chillon castle fortress, slowing Pensive to a steady walk to take a closer look. He could see two men frantically searching the castle’s frontage around boulders and under bushes with flaming torches held high above their heads, but it wasn’t until de Bad came alongside did he recognise the two explorers.

“What troubles you, Jean-François?” de Bad called from his mount and startled the search party.

“Ah! The illustrious de Bad. What brings you past the castle at such an early hour?”

“I might be affording the same enquiry of yourself,” de Bad retaliated, not wanting to give any hint of his journey, especially since Jean-François was the prime suspect.

“It appears my friend, Henri here, has lost a nymph he spotted bathing in her underwear and did the gentlemanly thing to cover her shame, but now it seems she has run off and taken his riding cape with her. I merely lent my assistance to a friend in need.”

“You are none but a fructuous cad, Jean-François, and your activities are highly suspicious and regrettable. Now be a man and admit you had none to gain in the abduction of the fair Dominique de Blonay.”

“My dear de Bad, what need I of two wives of exquisite countenance? Duly Nicolaïde keeps me well satisfied and poor to boot. If you do not believe my innocence, then be my guest and search the place you suspect I keep Dominique prisoner confined in Chillon’s stronghold; and when you have found but naught, I will accept your public apology and finally my name will be once and for all cleared of the fair maiden’s abduction.”

Baron Willy de Bad scowled aggressively down at Jean-François’ arrogant stance, turning over the challenge in his mind and pondering whether to accept the deliberate contest or just ride off and look for another avenue to find the wife he sought. Pensive lunged forward under de Bad’s spur, but de Bad pulled him back suddenly and stopped the powerful animal in his tracks, causing the confused beast to circle and throw his head in frustration.

“I accept your terms, Jean-François, but if I am found to be right and Dominique is apparent in your possession then you are to offer Baron de Blonay a suitable recompense for Nicolaïde and allow her family access to her and her children as well. You will compensate Dominique for the angst you have plied upon her, and you will also offer Tavel recompense for stealing his wife and sullying her good reputation.”

Jean-François stared at the tall and dark haired figure of de Bad in defiance. There was much at stake, but he couldn’t back down now and only arrogantly gestured towards the imposing outline of the Château de Chillon, allowing de Bad complete access to all areas of the iconic bastion. “Best of luck, de Bad, but I can assure you, you won’t find her!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 64

 

Shocked, Anne-Claire’s mind reeled, staring into Dominique’s dark eyes and trying to come to terms with the information she’d so openly offered. Anne-Claire had never seen such clear and innocent eyes reflecting virtuousness and seemingly incapable of treachery. In some preposterous way, Dominique’s childlike expression had convinced her the troubled imprisoned beauty was completely trustworthy, leading Anne-Claire to believe she’d somehow stumbled into 1879.

“You are in the Château de Chillon, Dominique, but I have no idea who has done this to you,” Anne-Claire wondered about her own sanity as she played along with the incredible charade.

Dominique’s brow furrowed trying to comprehend Anne-Claire’s words, at the same time pulling hard against the chain in frustrated aching agony and making it clank attempting to relieve the pain in her arm while she studied Anne-Claire’s face. “And what of your own misadventure, Mademoiselle? Who is the scoundrel that has stolen your gown and left such an attractive young woman as yourself to roam around in her underwear and at the lustful whim of any cad who desires to take you?”

Anne-Claire glowered at Dominique in frustration. This whole underwear thing was starting to annoy her, but then she glanced across at Dominique’s gown and realised her Bermuda shorts and blouse were altogether inappropriate for a lady to wear in public for Dominique’s era and in fact they did resemble ladies’ underwear of that time period. “These are not underwear, but what ladies wear in my era,” Anne-Claire couldn’t believe what she had just said and judging by Dominique’s astounded grimace, she was having trouble believing her, too.

Anne-Claire made a determined gait for the open entry door to Dominique’s prison and as she left, Dominique’s world descended back into deep, impenetrable darkness.

“Wait, Anne-Claire! My intention was not to offend you. Please come back!” Dominique’s panicked cries resonated in the blackness.

Seconds later, Anne-Claire returned wrapped tightly in a black riding cape, wearing it like a sarong. “Is this any better?!” Anne-Claire asked.

“It looks a little strange, Mademoiselle, but yes, it is far better and if you are unfortunate enough to encounter a roughish cad, I dare say your attire will deter him undoubtedly.”

“You wouldn’t want to know what some women wear—or don’t wear—to the public bathing beaches of my time,” Anne-Claire spoke without thinking.

Dominique’s eyes were full of innocent incredulousness. “Does your world encompass immorality to the worst degree if ladies go about publicly naked? And does that not constitute a sin equal to Sodom and Gomorrah? What of these lusts and how do you, such an innocent of ladies, escape them and what does the world come to in the future?!”

Anne-Claire began to see her world in a different light as she tried to explain the excesses and immoral freedoms of her time. It was pointless trying to clarify anything else. Dominique just wouldn’t understand the great advances mankind had taken—and to the depths he had fallen morally.

Suddenly Anne-Claire remembered her iPod, one of mankind’s achievements. “Look, Dominique, this is what is known as an iPod,” Anne-Claire offered the device to Dominique, but she backed away from it in fright. “Don’t be afraid; it won’t hurt you. It stores and plays our favourite rock music.”

“Rock music? What is rock music? Do the stones sing in your era, too?”

“Well, yes, but not the stones you’re thinking of.”

Anne-Claire moved closer and offered the earphones to Dominique, but she flinched, uncertain of the whole explanation. Anne-Claire brushed aside her hair and placed an earphone in her own ear demonstrating the procedure, and when Dominique could see no adverse effect on Anne-Claire, she apprehensively took the remaining earpiece and followed Anne-Claire’s example. Then with a swipe of Anne-Claire’s finger across the tiny screen, Niccolo went to work, sending a pounding screech through Dominique’s eardrum and shocking the young woman so literally she pulled the earphone from her ear in fright and threw it, leaving it bouncing on its tentacle-like wire.

Anne-Claire couldn’t help but giggle and then burst into unrestrained laughter. The sudden hilarity convinced Dominique her peculiar new friend offered her no threat and reached for the earpiece once more.

“May I try again?” Dominique’s courage began to build as she felt safer with Anne-Claire.

Anne-Claire nodded and raised the earphone tentacle to Dominique’s ear, but still feeling unsure she took it from Anne-Claire’s hand, brushing aside her hair and pushed the small phone into place just as Niccolo began to sing Sfidare il Male.

“Mmm… this is quite good, your… rock music,” Dominique began to sing along with Niccolo, rattling the chain as she listened.

Anne-Claire followed the chiming chain and the abusive bruise on Dominique’s arm where the chain had done its nasty work. Dominique could kneel, at best, but the chain wouldn’t allow her to lie down to sleep, causing a growing sense of injustice to rise up in Anne-Claire and turning her efforts to releasing her newfound prisoner friend. “Let me see that chain, Dominique.”

But Dominique was busy enjoying Niccolo’s music and shouted above the clamour, “Excusez-moi, Mademoiselle!”

I said…!” It suddenly struck Anne-Claire this was exactly how she reacted to her mother when she was trying to communicate over Niccolo’s bawl. Anne-Claire pointed to the chain. “Let’s try and get you free!”

Dominique nodded enthusiastically, but her singing accompaniment didn’t stop as she kept up with Niccolo’s rendition.

 

~

 

Jean-François’ glower followed Willy de Bad’s movements as he led Pensive across the bridge spanning Chillon castle’s moat and energetically pushed against the deserted castle’s heavy entry door. With the door ajar just enough for the athletic man to slip in behind, de Bad first tied Pensive to a hitching post before stealing inside the castle walls to begin his search.

Henri was stunned at the interchange between the two competing gentry, while the look on Jean-François’ face as he watched the gallant de Bad enter the castle fortress worried him. “Will the Baron of Rougemont find something to implicate you in foul play, Jean-François?”

Don’t be absurd, Henri!” The retort was short and sharp, but something was bothering his friend. “I have wasted enough time in a fruitless search for your imaginary nymph, Henri. I have more pressing issues to attend to, so now I must bid you adieu.”

With that, Jean-François threw his torch into the clear lake waters, making it hiss violently until the flame snuffed out and the fire’s light no longer shone. Quickly walking away, Jean-François glanced back at the torch floating lifeless on the surface of the lake and his expression set in a sly grin.

Henri stared after Jean-François as he quickly disappeared down the cobblestone road towards their horses grazing lazily on the lakefront grass. He’d seen that disturbing expression on Jean-François’ features many times before, and usually just prior to some inexplicable and dastardly occurrence in the local area.

Jean-François’ animated… “Hah!” divided the early morning quiet, followed by speeding hooves clacking hurriedly over cobblestones before Jean-François disappeared from view.

Henri glanced up at the towering walls of the Château de Chillon, pondering its secrets and wondering whether he had dreamt the nymph bathing in the lake water. But the disappearance of his best riding cape was evidence enough and for a short time Henri continued his search.

With the summer sun now beaming down over his shoulders, Henri extinguished his flaming torch in the lake water and collected the lifeless remains of Jean-François’ discarded torch floating near the water’s edge, gently tussled by tiny freshwater waves rolling over the pebbly shoreline. Grasping the wooden torch handles and studying the scene, Henri took one last look for evidence of the nymph and then began to amble back to his waiting mount happily feeding on lakeshore grass. Grasping at the reins and then placing his foot into the stirrup, Henri grabbed for the saddle, bounced on the leg still firmly on the ground and threw his weight over the steed’s powerful back. With a heel to the horse’s ribs, the steed responded with a burst of speed and before long, Henri’s downcast image left the Château de Chillon behind, languishing alone in the rising morning warmth.

From a position on a lofty hill, two treacherous eyes watched Henri’s retreat from the castle grounds and then when Henri was out of view, a further scour of the scene made sure he would not be detected. It was time to rid the area of de Bad and the dark underworld secrets of Chillon castle. Secrets that no longer were advantageous to the scheming gentleman’s profit and in fact, could risk his whole estate, jeopardising his good name and implicating him in a treacherous plot if de Bad found the surreptitious labyrinth. But he had a backup plan, an escape route specifically designed for such a situation and it only needed his touch on the balancing mechanism to seal the fate of de Bad and the troubling young beauty he sought.

Stealing inside the castle walls and using de Bad’s exact entry point, the perfidious figure silently drifted about the familiar halls, searching for signs of discovery. A momentary flash of de Bad’s figure against a second-floor window sent the villain diving for cover and crashing heavily to a stone staircase. Lifting his head and rising from bruised knees, the scoundrel explored his surrounds, looking for the tall athletic build of de Bad in successive window frames; but finding nothing of concern, he continued on up the stone staircase and into a stone alleyway before entering the impressive clock tower.

Inspecting the clock mechanism’s massive wooden cogs and rope drums, the villain’s gaze fell upon the secretive balance lever and the sturdy taut rope leading from beneath the castle’s foundation. With a violent kick from an expensive boot, the safety lock dislodged and the lever crashed to the floor, splintering in half under the massive force straining against the rope, until the rope disappeared down into the bowels of the castle’s underground.

A harrowing rumble echoed throughout the castle structure, shuddering the foundation and swaying the castle towers.

Moments later, de Bad’s figure blocked the exit from the clock tower, breathing fire down on the villain. “What have you done, Jean-François?!” de Bad demanded, reaching for his cutlass.

But before de Bad took another step, Jean-François climbed over the castle wall and dropped four storeys to the lake below.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 65

 

Anne-Claire used her full force against the heavy clanking chain, trying with all of her strength to budge the iron manacle’s grip over Dominique, but her efforts only increased Dominique’s discomfort and she begged Anne-Claire to cease her painful activities. Holding the iPod above her head and dislodging Dominique’s earpiece, she searched the empty cavern for anything to use against the restraint, but the tomb appeared empty. Small pieces of broken boulder lay scattered over the grotto floor, but when Anne-Claire used a sizeable stone against the chain, the cowardly rock crumbled in her hand. Anne-Claire huffed. She wasn’t getting anywhere with her efforts.

But just then, a muffled boom reverberated down the dark passageway, gripping both girls with intense fear.

“What was that?!” Dominique panicked.

“I don’t know, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything good,” Anne-Claire answered, staring towards the dark passage with wide frightened eyes. Anne-Claire shone the iPod around in the direction the noise had come and started to walk towards the door.

“Please don’t leave me, Anne-Claire!” a forlorn voice begged.

“I have to see what that was all about; don’t worry, I’ll be back.”

Anne-Claire could hear Dominique’s chain rattling in fear as Anne-Claire made her way to the door, but the ambiguous noise was too threatening to ignore. Anne-Claire stepped over the small stream leaking around the door frame and entered the dripping passage but just as she did, she heard another shaking boom followed by a terrified scream and the sounds of rushing water rapidly filling ancient channels and spilling into Dominique’s prison chamber.

She turned her light to face Dominique and all around torrents of water were emptying onto the chamber floor, spewing forth from the dungeon walls and quickly filling the horrendous scene. It seemed her intuitions of being below lake level were correct and for some reason Lac Léman had turned against her and Dominique, now threatening to drown the girls and snuff out their young lives before they’d even left the starting block. Anne-Claire could hear Dominique whimpering, pulling desperately against her confining chain in an effort to free herself, but her endeavours exploded in a frustrated moan as the iron held her firmly imprisoned. Anne-Claire could escape the deathly surge, but Dominique was trapped by the unmoving chain. What should she do: leave Dominique to her fate and save her own life, or stubbornly share in Dominique’s demise?

Screaming through clenched teeth in fit of desperate rage, Dominique could feel the chilling water level rising over her ankles and teasing her, counting down the remaining minutes of her life until the icy water finally reached her mouth and snuffed out the flame of life in a macabre hiss.

By the time Anne-Claire had shaken off the shock and focused on the unbelievable scene, the freezing water had already covered the floor ankle deep and Dominique was in peril. Anne-Claire panicked and tried to wade towards Dominique, but as she attempted to stride through the eddying water, her movements slowed as if she was pushing through grasping mud. Just as if the situation couldn’t become any worse, Anne-Claire’s world twisted and began to spin, flashing through a kaleidoscope of colour until intense pain grasped at her skull and the colour faded into blackness.

What’s happening?!” she managed to scream.

Overcome with an extreme agony gripping at her brain, Anne-Claire splashed to the floor unconscious, losing her grip on the iPod light and spiralling the gushing antechamber into complete darkness.

 

~

 

“Call an ambulance quickly, Maestro!”

Maestro dialled with shaking hands as he leaned around Robere’s lanky frame bent over a young girl. He could see a bloody gash across her forehead and her eyes were open and staring, but her colour was deathly pale. Robere gently checked her vital signs, feeling her neck for a pulse and when he finally found evidence of her life, her heart was racing dangerously, but she appeared to be mouthing something desperately.

Help… D-o-m-i-n-i-q-u-e,” she rasped.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, you’re okay. Help is on the way,” Robere whispered, smoothing the hair tangled around her bloody, red streaked face.

Just as the Maestro’s smartphone connected with emergency services, a woman entered the dungeon scene calling, “Anne-Claire… Anne-Claire…! Where is that girl?! It’s time to go home!

Robere expected the young woman lying injured and bleeding was the focus of the woman’s search, but there was no way to insulate her against the shock about to engulf her. The kaftan-clad frame raised himself quickly to his feet and as he did, Anne-Claire’s damaged body filled her view. Just as Jeannine drew in a horrified gasp and filled her lungs, ready to overcome the castle’s immense underworld with a spine-chilling scream, Robere pulled her into an embrace and held her against his chest, stifling the agony in her voice.

“Ssshhh, an ambulance is on its way; your daughter is stable, but panicking won’t help her plight.”

Just then, Laurent and the others strolled into the strange environment, wondering why his wife was trembling in a stranger’s embrace, until he too caught the bloodied image of his daughter lying on the ground close by.

Reaching to embrace Laurent, Robere pulled the stunned man into his arms and attempted to divert a panicked response also. “She’s stable and the ambulance is on its way,” Robere serenely explained.

Feeling a strange calm surging through his body, Laurent reluctantly drew out of the man’s fatherly embrace and knelt by his daughter, taking her hand. “Oh, honey, who did this to you?”

Anne-Claire recognised her dad and smiled, but then her eyes became distant and fearful. “Dad… help… Dominique… please!

Laurent bent over his daughter and tried to understand her whisper, however he couldn’t make it out and when he tried to ask her again, the Rega rescue helicopter hovered overhead, dispatching a medical crew on a winch cable, stealing Anne-Claire’s attempts to whisper in the cacophony of the helicopter’s downdraft before it flew off to find a close by landing space.

As news of the mishap spread throughout the castle walls, the dungeon swelled with onlookers while the medical people worked on Anne-Claire. An unexpected, “We’re losing her!” escaped the lips of one of the medics attending Anne-Claire, causing a petrified whimper from Laurent and Jeannine.

Robere pushed away from Jeannine’s sobbing frame and knelt beside Anne-Claire, cupping her stained forehead in his hand and staring into her vacant eyes. He whispered over her, “Not now, spirit of death; it isn’t her time.”

Anne-Claire suddenly convulsed under his hand and as the medics gawked in disbelief, the young woman’s eyes blinked closed but incredibly, her vital signs stabilised.

 

~

 

Jeannine and Laurent accompanied Anne-Claire on the helicopter flight to the CHUV university hospital in Lausanne. Their daughter was stable but unconscious while the helicopter swooped low over the city, trying to avert pressurising Anne-Claire’s brain cavity and making her injury any worse. After the patient had been hospitalised, she’d been moved to a public ward for observation and then her parents were allowed in to keep vigil by their daughter’s bedside. The recovery room had five occupied beds aligned into cubicles and separated by a fabric curtain, but the noise inside the area, although minimal, still didn’t lend itself to a conducive environment for healing.

Outside the door, a ruckus exploded with medical staff diving for cover as a male voice made demands and expected results. In a matter of moments, orderlies entered the observation room and began to prepare Anne-Claire for immediate removal, while her parents demanded to know what was going on.

“You’re daughter is being moved to a private room on the fifth floor,” one man offered.

“Why? We can’t afford a private room,” Jeannine demanded.

Just then, the grey kaftan-clad man entered, bringing an appreciative smile to Jeannine’s lips. She didn’t understand what he had done, but he had done something to change Anne-Claire’s condition.

“Anne-Claire will have the best attention and doctors, Jeannine,” Robere’s smooth voice distracted the couple from the frenetic activity around their daughter.

“But… we can’t afford this,” Jeannine offered again.

“You can’t, but God can; just have faith,” Robere’s answer hypnotised the couple. “Doctor Alouette Cartier is the top neurosurgeon in Europe, but unfortunately, she has had a skiing accident and is incapacitated. However, Doctor John Watkins, a contemporary of Alouette, is available and as we speak he is onboard our family jet from London to Geneva and at no expense to you.”

Laurent and Jeannine stared at the strange man, unable to speak at the kindness he was showing.

“One thing though. Anne-Claire whispered a name to me and it seemed she was very concerned for that person. Do you know a Dominique?”

Laurent and Jeannine exchanged glances but they knew nothing of a person named Dominique. Jeannine, however, had a thought.

“Are you sure it wasn’t Danica? She has a friend in Australia whom she is very fond of.”

“Hmm… maybe that was it,” Robere puzzled.

 

~

 

The morning papers carried a headline throughout Switzerland and Europe: Kaftan-clad man rescues girl from ancient castle and then provides best doctors and facilities from all over the globe for her care. In the centre of the front page, Robere’s beaming smile captivated his adoring audience with a charismatic smile and authoritative eyes.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 66

 

Niccolo pushed open the door hiding the band room from the rest of the island household, halting the band’s practice immediately as if an unseen hand had pulled the plug from an old time record player. The usual round of loud mocking boyishness escaped the frolicking band members as Niccolo made an entrance, but abruptly stopped as a dark haired beauty stepped into the scene behind Niccolo. With all eyes focused on Vincenza, the room fell deathly quiet until Niccolo took Vicenza’s hand affectionately and dropped a bombshell.

“This is my madre,” Niccolo offered proudly.

The stunned silence extended for many moments as the band stood staring, trying to reconcile what Niccolo had actually said to the woman standing in their presence shyly glancing from person to person. Realising they were gawking and making Vincenza feel uncomfortable, many voices exploded from all over the room talking at once and eagerly welcoming Niccolo’s madre in an animated babble, although cautious and still suspicious Niccolo had somehow set them up. After Vincenza affirmed her son’s announcement and Niccolo drew out his photograph as proof, the room took on a carnival atmosphere and Vincenza was immediately adopted as the band’s madre, too.

The practice that afternoon was the best the band had ever produced with Vincenza seated watching and tapping an elegant foot along with the enervating music. Even Niccolo seemed more energized than normal and particularly with sfidare le tradiziones belting out a heart-wrenching beat.

Vincenza jumped to her feet once the stirring rendition had ended and applauded the boys with apparent enjoyment, proudly showing her appreciation. “Bravo! That was so beautiful!” she gushed.

Performing for Vincenza could have gone on all night, but with the concerts approaching fast, the young musicians finished up for the day and packed away the instruments, preparing for the evening performances and one by one they left the band room, hugging Vicenza and kissing her cheek. “You will be there tonight, Madre Vincenza?!” each one chortled, trying to find a reason to capture her attention for just a moment longer as they departed her presence to prepare.

 

~

 

Marie-Laure perched uncomfortably on a hard wooden chair beside Ryan’s bed and rested her head across her son’s chest, exhausted from the emotional overload of the past twenty-four hours. The island house appeared strange but welcoming in a peculiar way and Natalya couldn’t do enough to make both mother and son feel comfortable and at home.

Earlier, Ryan had taken the opportunity to show Marie-Laure the gift Maestro had given him and offered to play her a new song he’d written after the ordeal with the attack. In the muffled background, pleasant rhythmic music drifted up from another part of the house and competed with Ryan’s rendition, but she’d blocked it out and listened intently to the raw emotion paining her son and the words describing the confusion he felt. Only now, Marie-Laure was beginning to understand the battle raging so fiercely in Ryan’s heart.

Realising they had both fallen asleep, yet something had disturbed Marie-Laure from a deep exhausted nap and as she lifted her head stiffly from Ryan’s chest, she noticed the room had darkened considerably and the sun had shyly hidden its calming light behind the mountains. The house creaked in the quiet and seemed to have fallen asleep too, with the vibrant but tantalising music now silent and no longer seeping into the room from some other distant part of the house. From a corner in the room where Marie-Laure had left her handbag, the tuneful liturgy of an incoming call woke Ryan also. Gazing at her stirring son and smiling, she stood stiffly and ambled over to her phone, removing the beckoning communicator from her handbag. She recognised the number displayed immediately and quickly answered.

Allô, honey! I am with Ryan at the moment. Did you find my note on the kitchen table?”

There was a long pause as Ryan’s dad narrated the details of his pointless search and the fact he’d forgotten to charge his phone in the day’s disturbing confusion. After a long interlude between husband and wife, the call ended with Jonas understanding Marie-Laure’s purposeful intention to spend the night at the island with Ryan.

“I’m sorry for putting you and Dad through this,” Ryan whispered. “I bet he’s angry?”

Marie-Laure turned to face her son and sighed. “No, son, just relieved.”

 

~

 

It had been a long and peculiar day by the time Robere and Maestro crossed the short, dark expanse of water from mainland Clarens to the tiny island household. Natalya stood at the back of the small boat, guiding the craft through the intense darkness and using the island houselights as a guide to intercept the small undercover dock allowing passengers direct access to the island’s manicured backyard. She glanced at her passengers a number of times. Maestro seemed exhausted and ready to collapse, but the kaftan-clad Robere was energised and eager to share the happenings of the day.

“Do you know what God did today, Natalya?” Robere excitedly proclaimed.

Natalya shook her head, staring at the shadowy figure in the dim light. His exuberance overflowed like sticky liquid fairy floss oozing into the boat and gluing her attention to the animated speaker. Robere’s description took Natalya deep into the day’s activity and hypnotised her with his narration, warming her as if she was the only person in the world that mattered to him.

Reluctantly breaking eye contact with Robere’s deeply mesmerising starlit eyes, Natalya took a fortunate glimpse around the dark lake and found the island lights drifting away and sending the craft on a collision course with France many kilometres away. Immediately correcting her trajectory and refocusing on the island lights, Natalya decided to concentrate on her task and not Robere’s welcoming eyes, but she found it difficult to ignore the charismatic allure in the lulling voice and within moments, her eyes were drawn back to his against her will.

Maestro’s tired and rasping alarm evaporated the comatic bubble surrounding Natalya with the intensity of a pin in a balloon. “Where are you going, Natalya?!

Her confused response jolted the boat and it rocked violently, causing Maestro to grab the side in terror as her panicked reaction narrowly averted a collision with the island’s immovable rocky sea wall.

 

~

 

It was as if a party had erupted in Ryan’s room and old friends had been reunited after a long and subdued absence. Natalya, Maestro and Robere filled the space and instantly Marie-Laure was drawn to the people responsible for her son’s rehabilitation and rescue, languishing grateful hugs upon the altruistic Good Samaritans who’d selflessly taken them in. Marie-Laure felt an immediate affinity with Robere as he described with great delight the things his God had done this day and the more she listened to his excited narration, the more entwined she became in his joy and exuberance. It was nice to see someone so in love with Jesus Christ and she hoped Ryan would be listening to this man of God and take in the example he was shining.

As the improvised party swung into high gear, Natalya went about her tasks and eventually the room filled with the smells of fresh rye bread and Bavarian sausage. But even this didn’t dampen their spirits and soon Maestro asked Ryan for a rendition on his new guitar. Setting up an amp for the new Stratocaster, Maestro sat back with other members of the party and listened as Ryan sang and played his heart out. An intercepted nod between Maestro and Robere gripped Marie-Laure; she had no idea how talented her son was with a guitar and obviously the two men had enjoyed Ryan’s performance, too.

Robere suddenly turned his attention to Marie-Laure. “Ryan is good, Madame, and he may have an opportunity to showcase his talents to a music scout we know, if you will agree.”

Ryan’s eyes were wide like saucers staring at his mother.

“Um… I… I don’t know what to say,” Marie-Laure stuttered.

“Talk it over with your husband and let us know,” Robere gushed.

Ryan’s face fell, knowing his father would never agree.

Natalya had moved a small folding bed into Ryan’s room for Marie-Laure, dodging between people to locate the new addition. After Maestro dismantled the amp following Ryan’s concert, Robere excused himself, intending to leave mother and son to settle down for the night. Marie-Laure watched the tall dark man leave the room and sighed. It was as if the sun had gone out and she was left with the faltering light of mere mortals.

His face unexpectedly reappeared around the door frame, leaning into the room and directing his gaze unswervingly to Marie-Laure. “I’ve heard, Madame, that you have a gift in administration?”

Feeling like a rock star herself with Robere’s attention turned directly towards her, Marie-Laure’s face flushed crimson red and she coyly downplayed his enquiry. “Before I was married I was an office manager for a large international law firm, but that was twenty years ago,” Marie-Laure explained.

“Well, I have a position for you if you will accept it. I need someone honest and Godly to manage the family’s businesses. It won’t be an easy job but I’ll make it worth your while; let’s say 120,000 francs per annum plus bonuses?”

Marie-Laure breathed in deeply and almost fainted. Was she really hearing what she thought she was being offered?

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 67

 

Mishy lay awake, listening attentively to the shuffling noises outside the tent, trying to stifle a stubborn bout of the giggles and making sure her frivolity hadn’t disturbed her peacefully sleeping family. The heavy canvas structure could easily accommodate the whole family with room to spare for visitors, but Eddie and Bob had opted to sleep by the fire and under the stars in their swags. After a few hours it soon became evident why Bob had decided on the outdoors option, with large, dragging breaths rapidly disintegrating into erupting cavernous snores and reverberating around Nanjilgardie’s rock amphitheatre like a speeding freight train until finally Eddie had had enough. Listening to Eddie’s complaining mumbles, almost drowned out by Bob’s resonating drainage, left Mishy battling to restrain a muffled giggle when she heard Eddie drag his swag as far away from Bob as he could get.

Moments later, the nasally rock concert came to an abrupt end, prompting the inquisitive matriarch to wonder what had just taken place. Crawling quietly to the transparent flyscreen tent flaps, she could just make out Eddie standing over Bob and clandestinely placing something onto his exploding blow-off valve. She stared at the scene with curiosity, wondering what—and how—Eddie had silenced the big policeman’s performance, and then remembered the bag of flour left purposefully on the table for the morning’s use with a clothes peg holding its contents firmly closed.

As Eddie backed away from the silenced policeman and Bob’s heavy frame became identifiable in the lightly glowing embers, she could just make out the apex frame of the peg gently holding Bob’s flapping air intake resolutely closed. Mishy’s shoulders shuddered violently as she crawled back to bed and lay next to Butch, desperately trying to stifle a burgeoning giggle and preventing an outburst that would wake her sleeping family; but her mind wouldn’t cooperate and stimulated the giggles instead, repeating the amusing image of the peg on Bob’s nose and Eddie innocently slinking away, leaving Mishy’s face buried in her pillow trying to regain control.

The next time Mishy’s eyes slowly opened from sleep, the sun had climbed well into the morning sky. The girls were up playing and splashing in the clear waters of Nanjilgardie while Butch lay beside her, propped up on one elbow and quietly watching her sleep. Suddenly awake and pondering him through sleepy eyes, she smiled at her adoring man as he leaned in and chased away any further possibility of slumber with a kiss that lasted many seconds and stole her breath away.

“I love you, Mish; you’re my delight and my soul mate.”

Mishy cuddled closer to her man and drew his arms around her. “I love you, too. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“Come on you two! That’s enough of the mushy stuff.”

A smiling Bob Maxwell stood at the tent door with two cups of steaming billy tea in his hands and a red mark on his nose from Eddie’s attempts at pegging off the snoring horrors. Mishy gawked at the policeman’s nose and then burst out laughing. At least now she could give voice to her amusement.

“Yeah, go on, laugh; I suppose it was your idea?” Maxwell chided, placing the cups on the ground by the tent and rubbing his nose.

Mishy shuddered, laughing, shaking her head at the same time and struggling to breath, remembering the image of the peg on Bob’s nose and Eddie’s mischievous image slinking away from the crime scene.

“Your accomplice, Mr Namitijarra, will get what’s coming to him, too,” Bob threatened indignantly.

Mishy drew in a tortured gasp and then exploded with another uncontrolled hysterical shriek, holding her sides with joyous pain and desperately trying to stop laughing but finding it impossible each time her tear-filled eyes settled on Bob’s peg mark.

 

~

 

Today was the day they packed up and returned home, reluctantly leaving Nanjilgardie’s oasis to languish unspoilt and wrapped in the deep anonymity of the vast desert wasteland. The weekend at Nanjilgardie had been a God-send, ironing out the stress and gnarled emotions of the past few days and re-cementing the tattered and bruised family fabric, but at the same time giving Mishy and Butch an opportunity to discuss Danica’s growing isolation and the emotional needs of a vibrant and beautiful station bred young woman. By the time the trailer had been loaded and the family settled into the wagon for the journey home, Eddie had already saddled his horse and packed his swag before mounting the powerful animal for the long, hot trip back to Pearl Springs.

Stretching behind the speeding vehicle, a burgeoning cloud of red dust hung like a curtain in the burnt opal-blue sky and completely obliterated the image of the towed trailer following so close behind the juddering vehicle. In places, Butch had to slow right down for bone jarring corrugations and washouts stretching across the station access track, left behind as a reminder of a bygone era in Pearl Springs’ rainy weather history.

In the distant shimmering heat haze, a figure stood in the middle of the track, prompting Butch to ease off the accelerator and ponder the unusual scene. As the slowing family wagon came closer, the image stretched into focus; but the wedge-tailed eagle standing over a metre tall and firmly guarding a meal of fresh road kill, prepared to hold his ground and compel the vehicle to back off, enforced by the steely, hungry stare of Australia’s biggest raptor. Butch changed down several gears and slowed further, allowing the awestruck family an opportunity to gaze close up at the majestic eagle, but as the wagon overstepped the eagle’s boundaries and intruded on the battleline drawn up by the raptor, the majestic bird took flight. Spreading its wings a full two metres from wing tip to wing tip and using its full span to overcome gravity, the wedgie launched its hungry four-kilogram mass into the cloudless hot atmosphere, circling its dinner and once the threat had diminished and moved on, returned to the dusty table and gorged on its rightful meal.

“That’s a fresh dead roo,” Maxwell offered, turning his attention from the dust ravaged wing mirror to Butch as he coaxed the wagon back up to speed.

“Yeah, it’d been hit by a vehicle,” Butch replied, growing more concerned.

“Could be a neighbour,” Bob tried to play down the incident, but judging by the amount of media interest in the area over the past days, it was highly unlikely. Soon the guessing game diminished and the verbal back and forth over Mishy and between Butch and Bob ceased, internalising their thoughts instead and staring into the afternoon heat.

Butch suddenly flinched as if he’d been stung, but he didn’t have time to verbalise the thoughts before Maxwell mumbled, seeing the image through the windscreen too and now Mishy was pointing at the same distraction. For the second time in just a few kilometres, Butch slowed the vehicle, trying to identify the wobbling shapes through the extreme afternoon heat haze. The Slater family four-wheel drive drew closer until the shimmering image focused through the mirage and took on a huge box shape, looking incredulously like a house blocking the station access track.

As the Slater vehicle approached and drew within two hundred metres of the image, Bob’s deep gravelly voice broke the tense silence. “Stop here, Butch!” Maxwell ordered. “You might want to keep the kids in the car, Mishy; this doesn’t look good.”

The afternoon heat pounded down on the scene and hit the two men like a sledgehammer as they alighted the air conditioned station wagon and cautiously sauntered up to the late model Range Rover. The driver door hung open like a demented, lifeless broken limb and as they guardedly approached the stationary vehicle, it was clear that the dead roo they had just passed and the badly damaged vehicle almost certainly had something in common. Bob Maxwell went into immediate policeman mode, searching through the deserted vehicle, however it soon became obvious whoever the vehicle belonged to were seriously unprepared for the extremes of outback conditions and worse still, footprints indicated they had deserted their main means of shelter from the blistering sun.

Ambling to the front of the vehicle, Bob glanced at Butch and then turned his attention to the severely damaged bonnet and bodywork, noticing the dark water stain in the dust directly under the engine. With an effort, Bob dropped to his haunches and felt the red sand with his fingertips. “The remains of the radiator water and it’s cold, Butch; must have happened last night or early this morning.”

Creaking from his knees and into a standing position, Maxwell squinted down the straight gravel road disappearing into the hot, shimmering distance and huffed, furiously pounding the vehicle with his fist and surprising Butch with his gesture. “Why don’t people stay with their vehicles when they break down or have an accident in the desert?!” Maxwell raged. “Walking in this heat can kill in a matter of hours and quicker if they don’t have adequate water to drink!”

After a few moments Maxwell calmed down, but remained focused on the station access track, “How far are we from Pearl Springs, Butch?”

“About fifty kilometres, Bob.”

“We’d better get a move on or we may be searching for two sun-dried corpses.”

Maxwell went to close the driver door as he walked past, but as he did something lying just under the driver seat caught his eye. He reached under the chair and drew the partially hidden item into the afternoon light and gaped at it incredulously. Bob’s mouth hung open as Butch retraced his steps to where the wily policeman stood.

“What’s up, Bob?”

“Take a gander at this, Butch!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 68

 

A murder of crows yarked mournfully in the distant heat haze; their cascading monotonous cry may have been the lament of an empty stomach or just the severe afternoon heat. But no matter the cause, the harrowing call noisily competed with the family four-wheel drive wagon idling in the background, keeping the air conditioned cab at a bearable level for Mishy and the girls curiously watching the movements of the two men. Standing beside the damaged Range Rover, Butch and Bob exchanged incredulous stares, gawking at the intended recipient of a strange package they held between them.

Miss Danica Slater

Pearl Springs via Birdsville

Roadside Mailbox 1284

Pearl Springs Access Road

Queensland, Australia

 

Turning the package over, Butch read the name of the addressee: Mademoiselle Anne-Claire Couture. “This is from Danica’s friend in Switzerland. How on earth did it end up in this vehicle?” Butch carelessly allowed his thoughts to wander over his tonsils and spill out in the sauna-like atmosphere.

“I don’t know, Butch, but we had better get out of the heat before we fry, and your idling wagon overheats.”

Butch and Bob quickly entered the cool cab and slammed the doors behind them, locking out the cruel and oppressive heat. Mishy glanced from Bob to Butch, her eyes asking a thousand questions, unsure whether they’d discovered anything requiring confidentiality from the children.

“Bob found a package addressed to Danica under the driver seat,” Butch glanced sideways at Mishy.

Mishy stared at her husband in shock while Danica leaned over the back seat in astonishment. “A package for me, b..but how did it get in that vehicle?” Danica puzzled.

“I don’t know, Danica, but with your permission I’d like to keep this for a few days before you open it. Something isn’t adding up here and it may be needed as evidence,” Bob warned.

Danica disappointedly nodded in agreement and then slumped dejectedly against the back seat. “Who’s it from, Uncle Bob?” Danica decided she could at least ask that much.

Bob turned the package over and read the name, “Mademoiselle Anne-Claire Couture.”

“Anne-Claire…! She said she had sent me a package from Switzerland, but that was nearly a month ago and I’d given up on ever receiving it!” Danica pressed determinedly against the front seat again with renewed interest and eyed the parcel in Bob’s hand longingly.

“Well, as soon as I get to the bottom of why it was in that car, you can have your property, honey,” Bob consoled, but felt bad watching Danica’s face fall in frustration.

Butch’s eyes quickly flicked down at the engine temperature gauge, alarming the station owner as the needle languished dangerously in the red. Concerned for the engine’s longevity, Butch immediately selected first gear and pulled away, giving the damaged Range Rover partially blocking the access track a wide berth. He hoped a large volume of fast moving ambient air—although extremely hot—passing over the radiator fins would dissipate the burgeoning heat before the struggling engine overheated and died. Leaving the family at the whim of the burning sun, although they had ample water to survive a prolonged breakdown.

Butch’s mind replayed the images of the damaged Range Rover, wondering how the unknown people had taken possession of something personal belonging to his eldest daughter and what their intentions were with it. He glanced across at Bob’s contemplative expression staring into nothing through the windscreen and obviously tussling with the same question. “I’ll have to come back out here and shift the wreck, Bob. If someone runs into it at night…”

Bob nodded but kept staring, leaving Butch to wonder whether he had actually understood his words.

“Did you find anything other than Danica’s package?” Mishy whispered to Butch.

“No, the vehicle was deserted, but it appears there were two people involved when the accident happened, and after the vehicle broke down they set off on foot. Bob thinks it was some hours ago though.”

Butch’s secretive whisper alarmed Mishy, for she knew all too well what the summer heat could do to an unprotected human body left without water and shelter. “They were headed towards the homestead?” Mishy whispered back.

Butch nodded. “Yes, the tracks seem to lead towards Pearl Springs.”

Mishy stole a sideways glance at Bob before verbalising her next question, but almost certain she knew the answer. “There isn’t much hope for them is there, Bob?” Mishy whispered so quietly he nearly didn’t hear her.

Bob simply shook his head and whispered back, “It would be a miracle if they survived, Mishy.”

The speeding family wagon acted like a dust blower, stirring up billowing clouds of red powder and painting the stunted trees lining the roadside with a pale ochre colour as the airborne grit settled over the gnarled heat of the sunburnt landscape. Constant corrugations noisily reverberated inside the vehicle, playing a symphony of bone jarring crashes, bangs and squeaks while the tyres droned over the rippling gravel road surface, adding a vibrating monotone to the peculiar performance. Many times Bob, Butch and Mishy stared anxiously into the wobbling heat haze, apparently recognising moving human shapes in the shimmering distance, but only to disappear in a watery mirage as the vehicle came closer and the images simply evaporated.

The family had covered an anxious ten kilometres from the wreck site when Bob spotted two circling wedge-tailed eagles high above the track and riding the extreme afternoon heat currents. Their focus seemed continually directed to one particular point. Not a good indicator in the severe desert theatre. All three adults studied the circling display through the windscreen, noticing the same image at the same time and exchanging anxious glances.

“Might be a good idea to pull up well before we come across anything,” Bob’s gravelly basement baritone quietly rumbled into Butch’s hearing.

Butch nodded, affirming his intention. The last thing the girls needed was to deal with the nightmare images of two severely dehydrated corpses on top of the harrowing week just past.

The tense moments drifted into half an hour as the family vehicle continued its vibrating homeward mission, but no further signs of the two missing people presented. The two circling wedge-tailed eagles had dispersed also, giving up on their hunt for an easy meal and taking to the wing far over the red desert wasteland.

“How far are we from the homestead now, Butch?” Bob broke the uneasy silence.

“About twenty-five kilometres, Bob. Is it possible we missed them? Maybe they left the track?”

“It’s possible, but I doubt it. There’s not a lot of shelter out there and even if they were delirious from heatstroke they wouldn’t have a lot of energy and the easiest place to walk and drop would be on the track. Let’s just keep going, Butch, and if we don’t find them we’ll have to organise an air search team once we arrive back at the homestead.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 69

 

Eddie had arrived home, unpacked and groomed his horse, restarted the cranky diesel generator for the homestead power and taken care of a myriad of grinding chores long before the family eventually arrived, bringing a quizzical expression to the Aboriginal elder’s features. But when Bob explained the reason for their tardiness, Eddie was surprisingly less than eager to assist in any search and recovery effort. Death is culturally taboo to the Aboriginal people and even mentioning the name of a deceased person brings all sorts of ramifications for those left behind. However, Eddie was more than happy to assist Mishy in preparing the evening meal with an assortment of bush tucker he’d collected on the way home.

By the time Mishy had settled the girls back into their homestead routine and Butch had unloaded the camping equipment from their weekend jaunt, Bob had been on the phone to police communications, organising an air search over the isolated property. In a matter of hours, a search and rescue team had spotted the victims and recovered their bodies. Acting deliriously and under the influence of severe dehydration, the pair had simply wandered off into the bush and collapsed. Writing coronial reports had become a commonplace situation for the red headed bush copper, but this time it appeared to be accidental and with the proper local knowledge and preparations, the whole debacle would have been avoided and two people wouldn’t have had to perish unnecessarily.

Mishy glanced through the kitchen window and directly down the dark access track, watching a halo of light approaching as Bob and Butch completed the official clean up task. Station life may be isolated, but what they lacked in people traffic made up for in unusual and sometimes dire situations. There was never a dull moment and always something urgent needing to be attended to.

The evening meal around the family table seemed deficient of the usual frivolity and life. Butch and Bob appeared sombre, and Eddie was shovelling his meal, prepared to leave at the first hint of talk relating to the deaths. Jess and Molly were tired and knew something had happened but weren’t sure what, and Danica couldn’t wait for her sisters to leave for bed so she could ask about the troubling incident.

Eddie pushed his chair back from the table and took his dirty dishes to the sink, surprising the silently eating family members, but Mishy knew of Eddie’s cultural taboos and guessed there would be some unpleasant discussion the elder didn’t want to hear once the children had abandoned the table. Mishy offered to wash his dishes and allow him an easy escape to his private accommodation before the discussion even started.

Another casualty of the weekend’s exhausting activity floundered at the dinner table, almost asleep in her meal as Molly’s head slumped over her plate.

“Danica, can you bath Molly and prepare her for bed please, honey?” Mishy requested, noticing Danica had finished her meal.

“Yes, Mum… umm… I have some questions I’d like to ask when Jess and Molly are in bed,” Danica’s eyes darted from her mother to her father and finally settled on Uncle Bob, wondering whether they would permit her to be involved in the adults’ debriefing she was sure would take place.

Mishy’s eyes darted to Butch, concern etched deliberately in her questioning gaze and watching her husband’s reaction to his eldest daughter’s request.

Butch silently gawked at the wiry copper, his expression asking for guidance but Bob just shrugged. “It’s your call, Butch.”

Butch turned his gaze proudly upon Danica. “My baby is almost a grown woman. I think she’s ready to take her place among the adult world.”

Mishy sighed in agreement and kissed Danica’s forehead. She was growing up too fast, but acknowledged her maturity. ”We’ll wait for you to finish with Molly, sweetheart.”

Danica swallowed heavily. She felt like she had reached a milestone and her parents were accepting her as an adult now, but she began to worry whether she really had the stomach for the gruesome facts and if she could ask the questions tugging at her curiosity without feeling queasy.

After baths and dressed for bed, Jess and Molly did the rounds of the adults, soliciting hugs and kisses before turning their weary thoughts to dreamland and a much needed sleep.

“Isn’t Danica coming too, Mummy?” Jess glowered at her older sister, speculating why she was allowed to stay up and obviously play a part in the adults’ conversation.

“She’ll be in soon, honey; we have some things to talk about with her first. Get into bed. Dad and I will be in soon to tuck you in, okay.”

Jess seemed happy at Mishy’s instructions but eyed Danica sceptically and then steered Molly down the passage, ambling towards their beds and away from the kitchen.

Four people took seats around the kitchen table as if in a boardroom meeting, with Danica and Bob sitting opposite Mishy and Butch. Danica’s concerns would be first on the agenda.

In a surprise move, Bob placed Danica’s package on the table and then pushed it towards her. “Talking to police central, they were able to track down the registration of the damaged Range Rover and it belongs to a news channel in Brisbane. Once we contacted the producer, he informed us the two reporters were on a mission to cover the recent murders around the district, but he had no idea why they had your package or why they had travelled six hours from Birdsville and ended up here. I had a hunch and did an enquiry with Sally Long at the Birdsville Post Office, and lo and behold, your package was checked onto the mail flight but they couldn’t find it when they checked off the manifest at Birdsville. I was getting real suspicious by this time and made an enquiry with Mal Kenwood, the pilot of the mail plane, and it turns out our female reporter came in on the same plane and was picked up by her colleague at the Birdsville Hotel in the Range Rover… only it wasn’t damaged then.”

“So this was all just a stunt to get an inside story?” Butch interrupted.

Bob nodded. “It appears that way, Butch. Anyway, Danica, you can have your property back now.”

Danica’s eyes gleamed at the package, but as she took the parcel, she couldn’t help thinking about the events leading up to its arrival, bringing some angst and wiping some of the shine off her pleasure. “So… the people in that damaged car… died, d… didn’t they?” Danica tried not to show her revulsion and put on a brave face as she tore open the sealing flap of her parcel.

“Yes, sweetheart, they died of exposure and heat stroke. Some call it hyperthermia.”

“What’s that?” Danica’s eyes darted from person to person around the table, looking for answers.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 70

 

While Danica waited for an explanation for her question, she emptied the contents of her parcel onto the table: a smart friendship bracelet from Anne-Claire; a lengthy letter; and a CD of the Sticky Lizards’ latest hits. She turned over the CD cover and ran her eye down the music, but she couldn’t recognise any of the songs.

Concentrating hard and thinking through a short response, Bob cleared his throat, drawing Danica’s attention away from the parcel’s contents. “Well, basically, Danica, our bodies have to maintain a constant core temperature by one or two degrees before we go into meltdown. If our core rises or drops by more than three degrees, it can be catastrophic and we can die. In hot climates like ours, we need shade from the sun and copious amounts of drinking water to survive and help moderate our body’s core temperature. That’s why whenever you go anywhere with your parents in the outback, they always carry two plastic twenty-litre jerry cans of water in the vehicle. Your mum and dad know that one human body requires sixteen litres of water per day at forty degrees Celsius to survive, and more if you have no shelter. The two people who perished had a one litre plastic bottle between them, and they left the shelter of their vehicle. It surprises me they managed to walk twenty-five kilometres before they succumbed, knowing one litre of water would be good for one person for about forty-five minutes. Once a body gets to the stage of dehydrated heatstroke, it needs to be cooled immediately, otherwise it shuts down and simply dies.”

As she lay in her bed, Danica’s mind refused to relax, unable to shake off the description Bob Maxwell had given of the two people who had died of heatstroke seemingly just outside their front yard. Keeping the volume low enough so as not to wake her sisters sleeping nearby, the miniature CD appliance played the Sticky Lizards’ music through tiny headphones and brought Danica a slight hint of comfort. Listening to the same music her Swiss friend enjoyed reopened the connection between her and Anne-Claire even if she couldn’t understand the foreign words, but the rhythmic beat seeped into her soul and immediately she found herself being drawn to Niccolo and eventually drifted off to sleep.

Somewhere in her slumber, a troubling conflict quickly formed and played with her dreams, disturbing a deep place in Danica’s heart. She enjoyed the group’s music but an association began to develop, tying the heavy rock music of the Sticky Lizards to the package and the people who’d stolen it from the mail plane and eventually perishing in horrific circumstances—instead of pleasant thoughts of her best friend, Anne-Claire.

 

~

 

Butch had been awake for some time and wandered out to the kitchen to make a coffee, unexpectedly meeting Bob Maxwell’s surprised gaze from the kitchen table.

“Pot’s still hot, Butch,” Maxwell offered.

“Thanks, Bob. Couldn’t you sleep without Eddie’s peg?”

“Droll, Butch, very droll!” Bob complained. “As a matter of fact I slept quite well and without the aid of your friend’s childish tricks.”

Just then a sleepy voice entered the kitchen. “Whose friend is up to childish tricks?” Mishy croaked, pulling her dressing gown tie around her waist.

Your friend, Mrs Slater, and his peg bag of tricks,” Bob teased.

“You have to admit, Bob, it was pretty funny,” Mishy burst into a smile as Butch placed a cup of coffee on the table and pointed to it and then kissed his wife good morning before pulling out a chair for her to sit on.

The adults had just settled in to enjoy their morning coffee when a ruckus broke out down the hall.

Give it back, you little turnip!” Danica’s voice drifted up from the girls’ bedroom and into the kitchen, shocking Mishy. She had never heard her eldest daughter use such hateful language and against one of her own siblings.

Mishy pushed her chair back and made a determined gait towards the girls’ bedroom. “What’s going on down here and why are you using such hurtful language, Danica?!”

“Jess took my CD while I was asleep, Mum!”

“Jess, give it back right now and why are you going to sleep listening to rock music, Danica?!”

Jess wandered over to where her older sister was lying and handed her property back. “Sorry, Danica,” Jess whispered.

Mishy intercepted the CD player before Danica could grasp the machine. “Judging by your behaviour, Danica, I think I would like to listen to the messages this group is feeding you.”

“It’s in Italian, Mum. I’m not listening to the words, only the music!” Danica protested.

“I don’t care! When my beautiful, placid Danica turns into a monster overnight, I want to know why; and you can apologise to Jess for being so harsh!”

Mishy left the room carrying Danica’s CD player after Danica whispered a reprehensive apology.

 

~

 

Bob Maxwell gave the impression of Tinker Bell as Danica’s pink earphones stretched across his massive skull, stressing the straining metal to its limits reaching from his left ear to the right. Pushing the play button, his eyes crossed in cringing disbelief as Niccolo’s rampaging screech backed up by a piano falling down an elevator shaft assaulted his aging hearing receptors.

“That bad?!” Butch teased, watching Bob’s eyeballs circling in their sockets.

After Butch and then Mishy had taken a turn listening to the incredible noise, Mishy folded her arms across her chest. “I think this young man has seen the last of our daughters, Butch. He can reside in the top shelf of our wardrobe from now on.”

Moments later, Danica sauntered into the kitchen and offered her mother an apology, “I’m sorry, Mum.”

“Please don’t ask for the CD back, Danica. Even though I don’t understand his message, I don’t think this Niccolo is good for you,” Mishy defiantly stood her ground.

“It’s okay, Mum. It had a weird spooky association thing with those people who died just up the access track anyway. Can I have a hug please?”

Mishy broke into a delighted smile. Her sensible baby girl was back and mother and daughter shared a tender moment together.

 

~

 

Danica pulled her chair up to the computer desk in the schoolroom and went through the process of starting her computer, intent on checking for emails from Anne-Claire. Even before their trip to Nanjilgardie, Anne-Claire had been silent for a few days and it began to worry Danica. Maybe she’d become tired of their friendship and had found someone else to correspond with. Danica waited for the electronic dinosaur to go through its usual routine and once the email account opened, she could see immediately there was something from Anne-Claire. Feeling bolstered and excited by the sight of Anne-Claire’s email address, Danica opened the email and began to read, but quickly realised the mail was from Anne-Claire’s mum and the correspondence was directed to Danica’s mum. Driven on by anxious curiosity, Danica pushed the chair back from the computer desk and made a beeline for the kitchen. The girls had been drummed about reading other people’s mail, yet for some reason this email seemed urgent.

Deep in thought and absentmindedly daydreaming through the kitchen window, Mishy jumped in fright as Danica burst into the kitchen and made an unexpected announcement, taking her a few seconds to recover and comprehend her daughter’s need.

“Sorry for startling you, Mum,” Danica apologised. “But there’s an email from Anne-Claire’s mum and it’s addressed to you!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 71

 

By the time Mishy and Danica entered the schoolroom and found a seat at the computer, the old dinosaur had fallen asleep and the monitor screen was blank. Mishy fervently shook the mouse across the plastic covered foam mouse pad, demanding the snoozing machine wake up. The computer screen blinked reluctantly to life and eventually pulled into sleepy focus, painting demented colours across the monitor in the process until finally, the jigsaw puzzle of information fell into order and Mishy could read the communication. Unconcerned with Danica reading over her shoulder, Mishy followed the email and tried to decipher the broken English into an understandable dialogue.

 

Chère Madame Slater

Please to forgive my Anglais, I quite don’t understand like Anne-Claire and French is my normal yet. I offer a bad news and quite don’t believe the thing good and bad now that has taken Anne-Claire yet. My ‘petite fille’ is taken an injury with us on a looking journey au Château de Chillon and is quite out of her normal head then. Please be not to worry, her Good Angel brings the Doctor Watkins to Anne-Claire back from England with the jet and she lives on and is only slightly broken in her head and will be alive more.

Anne-Claire moans to Danica silently with her broken head and her eyes shut, and is call to her from the hospital bed, making her Good Angel to be unpleasant for my ‘petite fille’. Even with the Good Angel crying she offers to the jet, two luxurious places to ride and please bring Danica and her mum to be looking to Anne-Claire’s side. I see quite yet that a journey of much space is considerable to impose but the Good Angel asks with crying eyes for Anne-Claire’s broken head, along with the heart beating in Anne-Claire’s mother, tenderly advises you, please to come.

The crying Good Angel makes me to advise, all the spending for a long journey where it begin to the fin is to be supported with his pleasantness, now to be left is only you to come.

In the house to where we comfort is much largeness, leaving the walls to blush in your approach and kindness will be there yet.

Please to beg a considerate for my ‘petite fille’.

Veuillez recevoir, Madame, nos salutations distinguées.

Jeannine Couture.

 

Danica and Mishy stared at the screen, dumbfounded. “Does that say what I think it says, Mum?”

“I think so, but don’t get your hopes up, Danica. Anne-Claire is injured and that’s regrettable, but we just can’t drop everything around the station and travel thousands of miles across the globe. I’ll need to discuss this with your father before any answer is given to the Coutures, especially an expensive trip like that. We can’t expect them to pay our way. That goes against the family ethic and we can’t afford anything like that while this stubborn drought hangs on,” Mishy kissed her daughter’s forehead and then walked determinedly back into the kitchen, still reeling from the shock of Jeannine’s sudden email.

Danica watched her mother leave the schoolroom and turned her attention back to the computer screen and read Anne-Claire’s mother’s communication once again while images of Anne-Claire and Switzerland danced across her imagination and a spark of excitement bubbled in her stomach.

Her mum hadn’t agreed to the offer, but she hadn’t discounted it either.

 

~

 

It was early afternoon and scorching hot when a tiny dust speck on the burnt opal-blue horizon slowly grew in size as Jim Strack’s Beechcraft Bonanza zeroed in on the Pearl Springs’ airstrip. Stracky had a sixth sense for time and ran to an exacting internal clock, always on schedule. Just like today, reassuring Bob Maxwell he would be back at his desk in the Birdsville Police Station in a little over an hour, ready to catch up on a myriad of paperwork and reports to the big city brass.

As the tiny passenger plane touched down on the dirt strip, clouds of red dust boiled around the propeller and blanketed the shimmering surrounds with stinging ochre grit. Trying not to drown the waiting station people in a curtain of hot red powder, Stracky cut the Bonanza’s engine and drifted to a stop. Sweating in the furnace-like heat, Bob hugged Mishy then Butch and climbed aboard the small aircraft, taking his seat next to the pilot before the aircraft engine burst into life. Within minutes, Stracky had turned the small craft around and made a lengthy run up and then with the engine at full power, the tiny bird lifted effortlessly into the stifling air, buzzing Mishy and Butch then the homestead roof.

Waving goodbye to their good policeman friend and walking quickly hand in hand to the air conditioned wagon to make the short journey back to the homestead, Mishy abruptly stopped and cuddled up to Butch. “We’ve got another dilemma, honey.”

With sweat beads forming on her delicate brow, Butch stared into the tender face of his beautiful wife. “Oh, goodie! Just for something new. What now?!”

Butch opened the door to the idling wagon and Mishy sidled into the cool interior and waited for him to join her from the other side. Once Butch had slammed the door and sealed out the heat, Mishy continued her cryptic conversation.

“I’ll let you read it for yourself and then you can tell me what you think.”

Butch considered Mishy’s expression, a little confused, but she wouldn’t offer anything more and left him wondering what new adventure the Slater family was about to embark on.

Mishy led Butch down the homestead passageway past the girls’ bedroom and into the school area. The children had finished their lessons for the day and were languishing in the cool of their room, but when Danica saw her mum and dad heading for the computer, she bounced up excitedly and followed a few steps behind.

As the computer went through its arthritic start-up procedure, Butch eyed his wife in puzzlement and wondered what he was about to encounter. “I get it; the Queen is coming for breakfast,” Butch joked.

“Almost!” Mishy teased.

“Arr, your mum is coming to stay… is that it?”

Mishy shook her head and smiled and then clicked open the email, allowing Butch plenty of time to read.

Butch’s face contorted, trying to understand the words and their meaning and after he had read the email, he ran his hands through his hair and sighed. “Wow, that’s quite an offer and an experience we can’t afford to turn down.”

“What, Butch Slater?! Have you lost your mind?!”

Danica couldn’t believe her ears and began bouncing up and down on the spot and clapping her hands together.

“Well, Mishy, you said she needed to spend some time with people her own age and what better way than to see the world. I can’t offer Danica or you a trip like this and it would be reckless of us to turn it down. Besides, Anne-Claire needs Danica, and Jeannine sounds like a wonderful person. It wouldn’t hurt you to have some sensible female companionship either.”

“What does that mean, Butch? You are my companion and my soul mate and unless we can do this as a family, I don’t want to do it at all! Besides, how will you cope with all my chores on top of your own, not to mention caring for two small girls as well as running the cattle and the station property?”

Mishy had a point and Danica knew her chances of a world adventure had just been shot through and fatally wounded.

“I still think this experience is too great to give up, Mish. An opportunity like this doesn’t come along everyday. In fact, in three generations of station life, this is the first occasion.”

“Butch Slater, I am not leaving you or breaking up my family… period!”

Butch sighed heavily and recognised the rigid, unmoving stance of her elderly mother perfectly preserved in Mishy’s determined demeanour. She’d dug her boots in, but thankfully it was a situation that rarely presented and her father’s placid nature almost always shone through her delightful personality. However, she was adamant this time and no amount of coaxing would change her mind.

Danica knew her chances had just flatlined and now the trip would never happen. She could see the difficulties that were driving her mother’s arguments. The gruelling station life was something you were born into and demanded complete obedience, never allowing a distinguishing separation between work and home life, insisting everyone work as a team at all times… or perish.

Butch, however, had an idea and almost startled both Mishy and Danica. “Doesn’t your mum speak French, Mish?”

“Y… e-a-h, Mum speaks fluent French,” Mishy eyed Butch suspiciously, wondering where this was going. “When Dad was alive and before I was born, they spent twenty years as missionaries to French Guiana. When I came along in a shock change of life pregnancy, they abruptly moved back to Sydney. What’s running through that handsome mind, Butch?”

“Well, if you won’t go, I still think Danica should; and your mum is a match for anything that comes her way.”

Mishy agreed her mum could take care of herself, even at eighty, but then she fired off her last objection. “What about accepting someone else’s generosity?” Mishy was weakening and appeared to be coming around.

“I’m sure this cursed drought will break one day, then we can pay them back. Stipulate with Jeannine we will accept as long as we can pay them back in the distant future.”

Danica’s eyes were round and staring. Had she heard what she thought she’d heard? Was she going to Switzerland with her Nan to see Anne-Claire? She held her breath, afraid to breathe lest she wake up to find it’d all been a dream.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 72

 

Madeline Fairfax gazed into the garden from her patio chair and pondered the shadowy backyard of her Blue Mountains home. Her early morning routine swung into high gear with a cup of black steaming coffee situated next to her open Bible, contemplating the words and listening to the soft voice of the gentle Holy Spirit while watching the awe of another dawning day. Katoomba, seventy kilometres from Sydney and situated high in the Blue Mountains among the towering native eucalypt trees, had been her home ever since they’d returned unexpectedly from French Guiana with a wonderful surprise growing in her womb nearly forty years ago. Madeline’s mind began to drift back over the years and thoughts of Michelle’s childhood filled her memory. Everyone had adopted Mishy as her daughter’s proper name, much to Madeline’s disgust but no matter how hard she tried to correct this injustice, Mishy seemed to flow off every tongue and the nickname had stuck.

The first orange sunrays of morning projected onto the tall eucalypt timber bordering her back fence, illuminating the massive trunks with a pallid pink. Further up the trunk and among the green canopy, a growling scuffle broke out among the native animal population, drawing Madeline’s concentration away from her memories. Two amusing male koalas battling for territory captured her delighted attention until one of the males bravely threw in the towel, scampered down the tall trunk and admitted defeat, leaving the sole conqueror to reign victorious over his territory.

The unusual autumn heat was already building and soon the eucalypt tree leaves would be releasing more eucalyptus oil into the atmosphere, heated by the sun and giving the Blue Mountains their distinctive blue tinge and pungent eucalypt scent. Highly combustible during the hot months, the oil burnt at the slightest provocation, turning a sweltering day in the heavily populated and wooded ranges into a potential wildfire death trap. Shedding eucalypt debris often glided down from her tall back fence neighbours, regularly filling her roof and gutters with a lethal, flammable fuel. Flaming embers, drifting aimlessly on the wind in the event of a wildfire propagating, could ignite the highly flammable fuel source with devastating results if it wasn’t constantly and vigilantly removed. Madeline kept herself in good physical shape for her age but she drew the line at climbing on the roof, preferring instead to barter with a neighbour and swap a chore, leaving her feet firmly on the ground while the obliging neighbour cleaned out Madeline’s gutters.

Living in French Guiana had moulded Madeline’s character from a timid, pushover mouse into an independent woman of standing where price haggling for necessities was a way of life, carrying the lessons learned into the present day. Nursing her antique car along with a leaking water pump, Madeline had researched the best price and collected the parts from an autoshop, haggling down to the last cent and leaving the outlet manager exasperated with the woman’s tenacity, but with a fair profit still in hand. Anticipating the elderly woman to leave the vehicle for the autoshop to repair, the manager would then recoup the expected obscene profit on the parts by adding on to the labour for the repair. But when the woman collected the parts and signalled her intention to make the repair herself, the manager had exploded in frustration and prophesied the engine’s demise through lack of knowledge, costing her more in the end for her arrogant stupidity.

But what he didn’t know, Madeline had taught herself the basics through necessity on the mission field and became known throughout Guiana as the little preaching grease monkey, repairing everything from trucks, tractors and cars. Concerned male neighbours, observing elderly Madeline’s attempts at home repairs, were soon assured of her capacity and at times had left her to repair household items of their own. It was a normal sight to see a vehicle with its bonnet up on Madeline’s driveway and with the wily old woman covered in grease as she repaired a neighbour’s broken car. The only price she charged was a cup of tea and a listening ear as she expounded her mesmerising mission field adventures and the deep love she held for Jesus Christ.

 

~

 

Removing the last stubborn bolt from her engine’s water pump, Madeline was just about to break the seal on the gasket with a gentle tap from a sizeable ball-peened hammer when her telephone began to bellow from within the house. With a gentle sigh, Madeline hovered the hammer over the broken part, mentally threatening the disabled pump with an imaginary hammerblow. Teetering between the phone and the repair, the telephone eventually won her over and she quickly dropped the tool to the ground and wiped her greasy hands on her oversized overalls before making a determined gait for the troublesome phone. Bursting inside her home and grasping tentatively with filthy hands until she’d arrested the demanding phone, she tried not to sully anything and give herself an added cleanup job.

“Hello!” the greeting was short and sharp, with her mind still focused on the half finished job strewn across her driveway and two dirty fingers gingerly holding the white receiver to her ear.

“Did I get you at a bad time, Mum?”

“Michelle! Of course not, honey. I’m always happy to hear from you at any time. Tell me all about what you have been doing and my wonderful grandchildren. When are they coming to see me?”

“Oh my goodness, Mum, where do I start?” Mishy sighed.

Madeline was suspicious immediately. “Is that man looking after you properly? He isn’t hurting you is he?” Madeline’s voice growled.

“No! Nothing like that, Mum; he’s wonderful!”

Madeline huffed and wondered why her daughter sounded distant and a bit vague, but settled back to listen, wiping her hands vigorously against her overalls before settling her wiry frame on the white tiled floor.

Mishy conversed with her mother for well over an hour, reciting the incredible events of the past week and barely able to believe her own story. With great interest, Madeline listened without interrupting her cherished daughter, and when she realised the station drought hadn’t improved and the property had fallen into catastrophic debt, she worried and verbalised her intention to pray for their needs.

Madeline’s ears then honed in like a tomahawk missile on a jet fighter when Mishy stumbled to ask her mother for her advice.

“M… mum, Danica’s friend in Switzerland has had an accident and to cut a long story short, someone over there has offered to pay for both me and Danica to fly over and see her, b… but I can’t abandon Butch to look after Jess and Molly while he takes the full load of station chores and I go gallivanting around the world. But Butch thinks I should go for Danica’s sake.”

“He’s right, Michelle, you need to do this for Danica and have a break from that hot hole.”

“I can’t leave Butch to manage on his own, Mum! That’s just plain selfish and you raised me to think of others.”

Madeline huffed again. “So I’ll move in while you’re away, honey, and take over your chores. That way I get to spend time with my beautiful granddaughters and see the drought firsthand.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Mum, but I don’t think Butch or Pearl Springs could cope with your way of doing things. Besides, I don’t know whether I would survive being half a world away from him and my family.”

“Now the truth comes out, Michelle, but you need to make the sacrifice for Danica.”

Mishy was silent for a long time, trying to form the words so that they made sense. “You can still speak French can’t you, Mum?”

“It’s been a long time, Michelle, but I should be able to string a sentence together.”

“Well, that’s just it. Danica’s friend lives in French Switzerland and I don’t speak any French at all and nor does Danica.”

“Well, my darling daughter, that’s exactly the catalyst to learn and that’s how your father and I had to do it in Guiana.”

“So you won’t consider taking my place and going with Danica?”

“If I don’t go then you won’t go either will you, Michelle?”

Mishy sighed heavily. “I know it’s a great opportunity for Danica and if the whole family was able to go then I would jump at the chance, but I don’t think abandoning Butch at such crucial time is wise, Mother!”

Madeline sighed. “Things are really that bad, honey?”

“Yes, Mum, things are really that bad.”

“How does Danica feel about an old woman accompanying her on a trip of a lifetime?”

“I think she’d be delighted to have her Nan holding her hand, Mum. So… you’ll go?!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 73

 

Doctor John Watkins studied his unresponsive patient, listening to her semiconscious whimpering and murmurs as if the teenage girl was asleep and dreaming, wondering what damage her active brain had sustained. He wouldn’t know the extent of her trauma until she was completely conscious, however the scans seemed to indicate everything was normal: no bleeding, swelling or bruising, yet the instruments attached to her vital signs were buzzing with activity as if the pretty young woman was living a virtual nightmare. He’d seen this type of situation only a handful of times in his career as a respected neurologist and on all occasions the patients survived, but reported fantastic tales in their semiconscious states. In some circumstances, an induced coma brought the patient through their ordeal faster and he decided to approach the girl’s parents and pitch his intention and maybe gain some invaluable experience and a research opportunity.

Finding Anne-Claire’s parents seated in a hospital alcove and entangled in conversation with the strangely attired Robere Maccabaeus, Watkins approached tentatively and waited for an opportunity to interrupt.

“Ah, here’s the good doctor now, with good news I hope,” Robere bubbled expectantly, gazing up at Watkins.

“Well, yes and no, Robere. Anne-Claire is still semiconscious and murmuring, but to perceive the full extent of any injury she needs to be completely awake and for that to happen, we have to help her through this stage.”

Robere met the doctor’s eyes and bored directly into the guarded doorway to his soul, making Watkins turn away from his unnerving gaze.

“This is not just an attempt at playing with my girl’s psyche to see what will happen is it?” Robere’s words were backed up with a powerful and intense aura of authority, making Watkins feel uncomfortable.

“N… no, Robere. As I said, the girl has to pass through this stage and the faster she can do that, the faster we can heal her injury!”

Robere relaxed and smiled, winning his audience with intense warmth. “I’m glad I didn’t waste my money bringing you from London, Doctor. What are your intentions with Anne-Claire?”

Jeannine and Laurent stared nervously at Watkins, waiting to hear the specialist’s proposal for their daughter.

“It’s quite simple, Madame et Monsieur Couture; we put Anne-Claire into a coma and allow whatever her brain is doing to complete its unusual routine and then wake her up when all her vital signs settle down.”

Jeannine and Laurent studied the doctor in horrified shock and then turned their attention to Robere for reassurance and advice.

Robere was completely at ease with the doctor’s suggestion and just smiled and nodded to the anxious couple. “Doctor Watkins is right, dear ones. Anne-Claire will come to no harm.”

 

~

 

Confused, swirling mind fog confounded the semidarkness and twisted into a sea of blue, green and then dazzling red before the shadows contorted and pulled viciously into a streaking grey blur. Someone was screaming, the piercing wails echoing around inside her head and bouncing off the rocky cavern walls, making her hearing crackle and distort. All at once, freezing pain stabbed at her feet and knees before tiny glimpses of reality seared across her mind, leaving terrified trails of incomprehension. But then the tumbling scene slowed and stretched eerily into focus, guided by the glow of an insipid green light and punctuated by the urgent sounds of troubled gushing water.

Anne-Claire struggled against the mind-numbing cold testing her perceptions, and then gradually she came to understand the wails of a terrified young woman chained to the dungeon pillar and slowly succumbing to the chilling drowning torrent flooding the castle’s strongroom. Anne-Claire had finally fought off the spiralling nausea and confusing dreams to re-enter the castle dungeon where Dominique lay captive and was about to perish.

With her teeth chattering from the cold and managing to raise herself from her knees, Anne-Claire grabbed for the slippery iPod tucked loosely into her blouse pocket. With a tightly secure grip, she prevented her only light source from escaping her grasp and dropping helplessly into the deepening torrent, shorting out any chance of escape for either her or Dominique. Staggering to her feet, Anne-Claire stood knee deep in water, still wrapped in the caped avenger’s riding cloak. Dominique’s struggle and screaming had given way to acceptance, with shivering and whimpering taking its place instead, watching the water level steadily climbing and filling her prison with inescapable dread. Even the frantic jostling with the jangling chain had stopped in exhausted acknowledgment.

Anne-Claire suddenly remembered the two men searching the perimeter of the castle and decided to attract attention to Dominique’s plight from the outside, even if it meant an unpleasant encounter with a scoundrel as Dominique had warned. “Hang on, Dominique, I’m going for help!” Anne-Claire bellowed above the rushing torrent.

“Please hurry, Anne-Claire!” Dominique’s whimpering and defeated answer drifted just above the noise of the water.

 

~

 

Henri’s steed clip-clopped slowly along the cobblestone access leading away from Jean-François’ front door. His servant had stated categorically that the master of the house had not been home all day and an appearance at the door by the beautiful lady, Nicolaïde, stole Henri’s breath and reiterated the truth in the servant’s words. If Dominique was cut from the same cloth, it was no wonder she had been abducted.

Henri replayed the troubling expression on Jean-François’ face as he’d watched Baron de Bad cautiously pick his way into the castle fortress and wondered whether his scandalous friend had doubled back and mixed up a bag of contemptuous trouble for the gallant de Bad. With a growing sense of suspicion and urgency, Henri jabbed his heels into the belly of his steed and galloped away at high speed, hoping he wasn’t too late to negotiate with his wayward friend before he did something overtly despicable and implicated him as an accomplice.

Still at high speed and rounding a turn in the ancient Roman road, Henri’s steed lost his footing on the cobblestones and almost took a spill, nearly ejecting rider and toppling the powerful beast. Henri instinctively repositioned his weight in the saddle, aiding his mount to regain his footing and place his hooves solidly against the slippery surface. The spires of Chillon castle pointing skyward—as if prophesying the end of the world—were the first to fill Henri’s view, but as he came closer, the vast structure stole the scene and the spires drifted into insignificance high above him.

 

~

 

Baron Willy de Bad struggled through the labyrinth of dark castle passageways trying to make headway in the search for Lady Dominique, simply to come to a dead end of solid rock and another frustrated turnaround to retrace his steps. The sounds of flooding water filled every tunnel and every access, adding to the urgency of his plight. Only now had it become obvious what the scoundrel Jean-François had done, leaving de Bad incensed and dubious of ever finding Dominique alive.

A set of stone steps disappeared into the castle’s murky black depths and without a moment’s hesitation, de Bad climbed down a good distance until a freezing flood met his pace and blocked further access. De Bad could feel the chilling water rising steadily at his feet and pondered his next move. The hesitation lasted but a heartbeat and the gallant baron gulped in a generous gasp of oxygen, trapping the breath in his lungs and with a frenzied and determined push, de Bad dove from the top step and quickly descended into the cloudy, freezing depths. Feeling the passage walls with his hands, he swam deeper and deeper into the castle’s chilling underworld.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 74

 

With a sense of urgency burning in Anne-Claire’s mind, her thoughts wouldn’t leave the trapped young woman chained to the pillar in the dark and flooding dungeon, knowing Dominique was relying on her to find a solution to her desperate plight. This time, Anne-Claire was counting on being detected by the searchers aboveground, worrying if she became stuck in the tunnel opening, the bushes camouflaging the entrance would work against her efforts and waste valuable time.

Anne-Claire held her iPod above her head and followed the tunnel to the pinch point, then lowering herself to her knees, she crawled into the confined space before entering the constricted tunnel opening. As she knelt, the black riding cape tangled around her legs, making any movement almost impossible. In a frustrated huff she tugged at the cape, hoping to free herself, but the stubborn cloth only persisted and restrained her movement even more. Backing out of the confining tunnel enough to stand again, Anne-Claire pulled at her sarong and dropped the black cape to the ground, liberating her movements to crawl through the confining exit and into the dazzling sunlit day above. As the intense entrance contrasted against the dark tunnel walls, Anne-Claire could hear fast flowing water rumbling and hammering from deep behind her, causing her to push through the tight entrance in a fever of desperate haste.

The unrelenting sunlight attacked her eyes, making her squint harshly as she forced herself to adjust to the natural light; but with no time to lose, she lifted herself from the narrow tunnel entrance and cleared the bushes that guarded her secret hiding place. Frantically searching the castle’s exterior, Anne-Claire strained to recognise the sounds of a search party, but to her dismay the scene was silent and deserted.

In the distance, a hollow clopping gallop caught her attention, filling her with hopeful relief and soon the sounds of frantic hooves reverberated off the castle walls. Instinctively, she ran across the pebbly beach and up to the roadside, intent on flagging down the rider; but when the rider came close, he reflexively turned his head away from Anne-Claire’s disturbing state of undress. Recognising the caped avenger, Anne-Claire’s instincts were to run, but the thoughts of Dominique’s plaintive cries kept her courage buoyant and she stood her ground, ready to plead for her friend’s life. This time the caped avenger ignored Anne-Claire’s state of undress and dismounted hastily, grabbing the elusive nymph before she could escape again. Anne-Claire struggled against the vicelike grip, trying to break free of his confining grasp, however her need to help Dominique overcame the struggle and she relaxed her fight.

Please…! Help Dominique! She’s trapped inside the castle dungeon and the dungeon is flooding. I didn’t mean to take your cape and it’s in the tunnel if you want it back!”

“Dominique de Blonay is in the castle dungeon?!” Henri’s concern was growing, but he didn’t know if he could trust the nymph’s story.

“Yes, the water is flooding in quickly and soon will drown her if you don’t hurry!”

 

~

 

Watkins stared at Anne-Claire’s comatose figure lying on her hospital gurney. The only indication of life was the young woman’s vital sign monitors going haywire in a concert of demented beeps, squeaks and electronic machine noise.

Wherever the young woman was she was in the middle of a crisis, and all the doctor could do was wait.

 

~

 

Teetering on the edge of blacking out, de Bad’s lungs were burning and desperately needing to refresh the decaying oxygen boiling in his chest; but as he felt along the passage walls for an escape, freezing water filled every space around him. In a determined effort, the gallant de Bad kicked further into the flooded tunnel, desperately searching for an air pocket, but crashing heavily into the passage roof instead. Following the tunnel roof with his hands and floating like a cork, Baron de Bad suddenly broke the water’s surface into a huge dark air pocket trapped in a large alcove and gasped in copious amounts of dank oxygen until his mind cleared and courage returned.

 

~

 

Outside the castle grounds, Henri restrained Anne-Claire tightly, measuring her words and testing her pleading eyes with his steely stare. What the nymph was describing left him in no doubt this was the handiwork of Jean-François, intent on ridding himself of damning evidence linking him to Dominique’s abduction and the desire to escape Baron de Bad, trapping Jean-François in his own snare. “Do you know where Lady Dominique is being held, nymph?”

Anne-Claire nodded vigorously and pointed to the tunnel opening hidden by the bushes.

“Lead the way and if you are beguiling me with deception, I assure you, you will feel the full strength of my ire.”

Anne-Claire led Henri to the concealed opening and then shimmied down inside the tight warren and waited for the stranger to follow, but the larger man found it impossible to fit inside the strangled breach. Becoming stuck and kicking vigorously until he broke free of the tunnel’s grip, the strange man had been confined to looking down into the burrow from the outside instead.

“I can’t get through the entrance. Where does this lead?!” Henri bellowed into the burrow, expecting Anne-Claire to respond.

Anne-Claire took a breath, intending to answer, but as she did freezing water lapped at her feet, leaving no doubt to the tunnel’s accessibility. Panicking, she pushed backwards into the water and tried to re-enter the channel leading to Dominique, but the water was too deep and her heart sank. By now, Dominique most certainly would have drowned, leaving Anne-Claire feeling defeated and nauseous.

If only she’d gone for help sooner.

The water kept pushing towards the narrow tunnel entrance, filling the passage and threatening to drown Anne-Claire too, but in a desperate effort to survive, Anne-Claire scurried for the passage opening, feeling the discarded cape under her hand. She grabbed the garment in a bid to rescue the property of the caped avenger, hoping to offer him an olive branch and escape the circumstances Dominique had warned her about and was sure he would unleash.

Anne-Claire’s thoughts kept replaying the beautiful face of Dominique and her simple enjoyment of Niccolo’s music, singing along with the iPod; but then her charming innocence had evaporated into a pitiful whimper, urging Anne-Claire to hurry for help. With a heavy heart, Anne-Claire squeezed from the constricted tunnel, her eyes running over in dismay. She had failed in her desperate attempt to rescue Dominique and now she was gone.

Anne-Claire choked as she faced her captor. “The tunnel’s full of water and I couldn’t get back to Dominique. She’s probably drowned by now,” the forlorn voice whispered.

Henri understood by the mournful expression on the nymph’s delightful features she would’ve been friends with Dominique and felt her demise severely.

As Anne-Claire tentatively offered Henri his cape, she noticed for the first time an embroidered gold crest stitched to the cape’s velvet front. The image blurred with memories of Dominique, her innocent trust and her exhortation to hurry, threatening the young woman with an imposing wall of grief. Just as the simmering anguish spilled over, Anne-Claire began to cry and the dam wall burst, melting Henri’s heart.

He gently took the cape from her hand, but instead of berating her and treating her as his property, he wrapped her in his cloak and pulled her into his embrace, allowing the stricken young woman a chance to grieve her loss.

 

~

 

Baron Willy de Bad contemplated the rising water level in the dark, confined space, wondering whether the next few breaths would be his last and whether Lady Dominique had already succumbed to Jean-François’ evil plot. If de Bad perished too, there would be no one to bring an accusation against the evil baron and he would walk away from a heinous crime. De Bad began to consider retracing his trek safely back into the castle while the escape route was still fresh in his mind. It was clear, however, he had to make an immediate decision for the water was still rising… and fast.

A troubling thought disturbed his mind. What if Dominique was still alive and only hanging on by a thin margin and hadn’t already perished? What if she was still alive and desperately waiting for rescue?

De Bad gulped in another round of furious breaths and before he could talk himself out of it, he dove under the chilling water and tracked along the tunnel walls. Swimming frantically and feeling the rocky passage with his hands, he collided with a heavy wooden obstacle and almost lost the air trapped in his lungs. Without the presence of light, he used his fingers to navigate around the barrier, locating a large metal ring in the centre of the obstacle, rapidly becoming obvious what he had run into was a huge open door. Instinct assured de Bad if he was to find Lady Dominique, this was the certain place Jean-François would conceal his victim.

Skirting the barrier and pushing into the room behind, de Bad swam with straining strokes while the stress in his lungs screamed for relief and he struggled for the cavern roof, hoping to find an air pocket. Buoyancy forced the gallant rescuer to the surface, sounding like a breaching whale, and with de Bad’s chest about to burst, he vigorously expelled the spent air from his lungs into a trapped air pocket. Gasping for new oxygen, his mind teetered on the verge of shutting down, but quickly cleared as regenerating breath filled his heaving chest. The darkness surrounded the baron like a hand held against his eyes, and as his gasping breaths slowed and his ears adjusted to the quiet, he heard a fractured whimper, frightened beyond fright and cowering in the dark.

“My Lady Dominique, is that you?”

“Y… yes, my lord,” the voice trembled. “And who might be my rescuer?”

“For it is your servant, Baron Willy de Bad from Rougemont, my lady. Please keep talking so I may orient myself to your location. Are you chained up?”

“Yes and the torrent laps at my mouth! I find it difficult to breathe without swallowing water.”

De bad swam to her voice and felt around in the dark until his hand touched her arm and then followed the chain to its anchor point. The sounds of metal scraping over metal alerted Dominique to de Bad’s intention to swat at the chain with a sword of some description. Before she could offer a warning to be careful, a deafening, metallic clank assaulted her ears, and her arm abruptly freed from the chain holding her captive to the overbearing pylon.

Disorientated and floating stiffly in the numbing water, Dominique’s head dipped beneath the surface, drawing a breath at the wrong moment and filling her lungs with a lifeless watery gasp. Pushing for the surface and coughing desperately, she struggled to clear her lungs and refill her chest with life-giving oxygen. As her body heaved in a desperate attempt to expel the choking water and keep her head above the surface, she felt the strong arms of the man wrap around her waist to support her, lifting her face clear of the lake so she could breath.

“We need to get out of here and back into the castle. You’ll have to trust me and do exactly what I tell you, but I won’t deceive you. The trek out will be just as dark and frightening and you’ll have to hold your breath longer than you’ve ever held it before.”

Dominique worried; she couldn’t see her rescuer and his speech made her tremble with fright.

“Take a number of deep breaths, give me your hand and then I’ll guide you out.”

Dominique heard de Bad hyperventilate and followed his example, but before she knew what had happened she was being pulled forcefully underwater, trying to stifle the rising panic as the chilling water once again tried to steal the breath trapped in her lungs.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 75

 

The chilling darkness swirled all around Dominique as she battled to keep the breath trapped within her chest and her mouth and nose closed against the powerful tug the man was exerting on her arm. Her mind began to falter and vivid colours raced across the inky blackness while her lungs ached, screaming to release the pent-up breath and take another gulping mouthful of sweet sustaining oxygen.

Her resolve had almost gone, verging on unconsciousness with her screaming lungs begging for relief. Just when she felt the end had come, the man forcefully thrust her body upwards and her head broke through into an air pocket, breaking the seal on her lips and forcing the spent air out. With a dragging gasp, her chest expanded and gulped in volumes of nourishing life, but for a moment the faltering beauty collapsed, tingling from exhaustion and turning blue from lack of oxygen.

De Bad broke through beside her and exhaled desperately, gulping in copious amounts of stale air, but when he finally could speak, Dominique was silent. “My lady, are you alright?!”

A broken murmur worried the handsome de Bad, but before long the beauty regained her mind and slowly, clarity returned. Holding Dominique around her waist and supporting her while she regained her strength, de Bad contemplated the fragile young woman, enjoying the feel of her touch and even in the dark, her allure was overpowering.

“Take your time, Mademoiselle, and recover your strength. The next breath is but a short duration before we are free of Jean-François’ prison.”

Dominique’s mind reeled at the revelation and her worst fears became reality. Her sister’s evil husband was not content with the stolen love of one lady bride and had intended to make of Dominique a mistress, too. Coursing indignation flowed through the young maiden’s veins. She had to survive to point an accusing finger at Jean-François and bring him down once and for all.

“I feel strong enough now, my brave Monsieur, to take the final plunge,” Dominique hyperventilated, copying the valiant de Bad and when he reached for her hand, she willingly returned his grasp and plunged deliberately below the chilling water.

Moments later and with the help of de Bad’s hands around her waist, Dominique found herself effortlessly climbing ancient stone steps until finally, her head broke free of the chilling death and she expelled the stale air trapped within her lungs. Seconds later, de Bad accompanied the young maiden, standing beside her and gasping heavily until his breathing calmed. From somewhere within the dark castle walls, fresh sweet air wafted around the couple, assuring that freedom and life were only a few unhindered steps away.

Dominique’s steady and coy voice whispered quietly to the dauntless Baron de Bad who had rescued her from certain death. “I am indebted to you, Monsieur, and I can only guess at how you knew to find me here?”

Dominique’s question opened the door Baron Willy had been searching for. “It was—and is—my intention, my lady, and in fact I have already sought the permission from your father to seek out your willingness in the pursuit of your hand in marriage.”

Dominique’s delighted expression gave away her answer and filled de Bad with joy. “It is only right for a lady to accept a suitor who demonstrates his love and courage in putting aside his own life so another may live. I gladly and humbly accept your proposal, my lord, and am more than willing to be your grateful bride.”

Dominique’s feet disappeared from underneath her and she found herself encompassed in strong, loving arms.

“I have already told your father to expect a wedding at Blonay Castle. Now you make me the happiest man alive.”

 

~

 

Anne-Claire remained many long moments pressed against Henri’s chest and warmly wrapped in his riding cape. It was a strange emotion, feeling deep loss on one hand and encompassing acceptance, love and warmth on the other. The caped avenger was a mass of contradictions and gentle above all expectations, and as her heaving shudders calmed, she could hear his massive heart beating like a drum in his chest, lulling her stretched emotions and drawing her willingly into his magnetism.

A cry bellowed out across the castle moat, with Anne-Claire barely able to comprehend what she was hearing. But it was the voice she’d heard so many times in the past. Dominique ran towards Anne-Claire, frolicking, laughing and dancing as she ran, prompting Anne-Claire to break from Henri’s embrace and excitedly run toward her friend. Henri quickly grabbed her arm and dragged her back, bringing a confused expression to Anne-Claire’s face, but she soon understood as the crested cape thrust into her hand and she wrapped herself willingly and honourably in his offering and then continued on hastily towards Dominique. Meeting in a jubilant hug and dancing in a circle, the two girls celebrated together.

“I thought I had lost you, Dominique!” Anne-Claire choked.

Dominique smiled coyly and pointed towards Baron Willy de Bad. “My brave husband-to-be rescued me.”

The last jigsaw piece fell into place and Anne-Claire suddenly blurted out, “Baron Willy de Bad!”

Dominique’s face contorted in a shocked expression. “How did you know that?!”

Anne-Claire pulled the iPod from her blouse pocket and handed it to Dominique, while Dominique acknowledged her strange companion with a beaming smile, taking her friendship offering and wondered what the future held for her best friend trapped centuries in the past.

Anne-Claire suddenly felt disturbingly strange and started to sway. Her world was spinning wildly and her mind began to descend into a numbing and incapacitating fog. Strange colours danced all around and before she knew what was happening, the ground came up at her and hit her full in the face. She could hear worried voices echoing through strange places and then her body was swept up into Henri’s strong arms before streaks of grey pulled her mind into an unrecognisable blur.

 

~

 

Watkins studied the vital sign monitor and understood the window to wake Anne-Claire from her coma had come, releasing the young woman from the unknown dramas dancing across her imagination. A syringe emptied a colourless liquid into a saline drip and before long, the vital sign monitors were indicating a gradual awakening in his patient, however the process would take a few days to complete… if all went well.

 

~

 

With a heart monitor announcing every intentional beat from Anne-Claire’s strong heart, the fog began to lift from her mind and her eyes blinked open. Looking for signs of Dominique and Henri, she took some time to identify the modern, sterile hospital room until her confused eyes settled on the figure of a woman snoozing in a chair at the foot of her bed. “Mum?!” Anne-Claire rasped.

Jeannine stuttered awake, jumped to her feet and rushed to her daughter’s side. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

“I’m tired, but I feel fine. Am I in hospital?”

“Yes, Anne-Claire. You are in the CHUV Lausanne.”

“H… how did I end up in here?”

“It’s a long story, honey, but we have a wonderful surprise for you soon.”

Anne-Claire’s eyes gleamed at the thought of a surprise, but then the gleam faded. “Has Grandpa been in to see me?”

“I can tell you’re okay, my darling girl; you and Grandpa are still as thick as thieves and yes, he’s been in to see you on a number of visits. In fact, he was here just a few hours ago but had to go back to work.”

Just then, the door burst open and Doctor Watkins rushed in, followed by a strange looking man dressed in a kaftan. Anne-Claire stared at the doctor first and then past his white-coat-clad figure to the long haired and bearded man in a grey kaftan. Robere took Anne-Claire’s hand, but the move frightened her and with terror alight in her eyes she pulled her hand away. “Who are you?”

Jeannine was alarmed by her daughter’s reaction to Robere and couldn’t stop apologising; but for some reason Robere was disturbing Anne-Claire to the point Watkins had to ask him to wait outside. Once Robere, closely followed by Jeannine, had vacated the room, Watkins went to work testing Anne-Claire’s every function, both psychological and physical then inspected the wound healing under a bandage on her scalp.

“What is it about Monsieur Maccabaeus that disturbs you, Anne-Claire? He’s been awfully kind to you and your family and in fact, he paid for me to fly all the way from London to care for you and is paying for this hospital room, too,” Watkins reported.

Anne-Claire felt a pang of conscience, realising she may have been too hard on Robere, yet when she remembered his touch something didn’t seem right. “Can you ask him to come back in, please. I think I owe him an apology,” Anne-Claire worried.

Once Robere and Jeannine entered Anne-Claire’s room again, she held out her hand to the bearded man. “I… I’m sorry, Monsieur Maccabaeus, I had no idea you have been so kind to me and my family.”

Robere smiled a winning smile, expecting to capture her heart and accepted her apology graciously. However, Anne-Claire couldn’t shake off the feeling something wasn’t right; yet not wanting to seem ungrateful, she pushed down the feelings of distrust and tried to silence the alarm ringing in her head.

The hours passed without any further interruptions, leaving Anne-Claire bored and soon she drifted off to sleep while Jeannine took up her position seated at the foot of her daughter’s bed. Doctor Watkins collected the results of Anne-Claire’s tests and after a thorough examination of the findings, announced she was mentally and physically sound and ready to be discharged as soon as she had rested and regained her strength after the ordeal.

A pleasant surprise waited patiently for Anne-Claire when she awoke from her rest and when she sleepily recognised her hero, she squealed with delight and motioned for her grandpa to encase her in his loving hug.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 76

 

The private hospital room rang with the sounds of a joyous reunion as Grandpa and Anne-Claire chatted and laughed their way through their time together. In reality, it had only been a couple of days since Grandpa had dropped Anne-Claire, her parents and cousins at the Château de Chillon, but he knew from Anne-Claire’s excitement something else had happened. It was like two long-lost best friends had found each other after a protracted season apart and Jeannine was beginning to feel left out, sitting at the foot of her daughter’s bed.

Finally Grandpa couldn’t bear the strain any longer. “Did you find the names on the pillar?” he whispered.

Anne-Claire glanced at her mother then back at Grandpa, signalling she didn’t feel comfortable discussing her adventure with her mum in earshot.

“Are you still pedalling that old family legend, Dad?!” Jeannine stiffly replied and making it painfully obvious she knew what they were discussing. “Anne-Claire’s imagination is well lubricated without you adding more grease to her rails.”

“It may be a family legend, honey, but it has significance to the people it affected so many years ago,” Grandpa gently chided his eldest daughter.

Jeannine screwed up her face and rolled her eyes as if her father had slipped a cog. “Well, if you’re going to tell that silly story to Anne-Claire, Dad, I’ll leave you to it.” With that, Jeannine grasped the door handle in a huff and made a determined track from the private room and disappeared down the hallway.

“Why is Mum so upset with you telling me a story, Grandpa? I love your stories!”

“Well, sweetheart, your mum was a lot like you until that awful night she decided to go against my wishes to see that appalling singer perform. Then during the performance, the old casino burnt down around her and almost took her life.”

“That was when that old geriatric group saw the fire and wrote that song… now what was it called?!” Anne-Claire stared at the ceiling trying to remember.

Smoke on the Water and it was written by Deep Purple.”

“That’s it! What a dumb name, and the older generation have the gall to label our rock groups stupid!”

Grandpa smiled; he wasn’t going to become embroiled in the generation gap wars. “Your mum was even more unsettled for many years after that night and she became almost introvert until she met your father. He was the best thing for her, but she never forgave me for giving her the same challenge I gave you.”

Anne-Claire stared at her Grandpa in shock. “You told her about Dominique’s and Willy de Bad’s names on the dungeon pillar?!” Anne-Claire sounded incredulous.

Grandpa nodded. “I thought the story might help her heal, but all it did was to cement her in her scepticism when she failed to find the names,” Grandpa reached behind him and placed a plain brown paper package on the bed and pointed to it. “Unwrap it and take a look inside.”

Anne-Claire beamed at her grandfather. She loved surprises. “What is it, Grandpa?”

“You’ll see.”

Anne-Claire carefully folded back the paper until her eyes rested on soft black velvet fabric. She glanced at her grandpa, confusion playing with her mind and her eyes reflecting the surprise.

“Take it out and unfold it,” Grandpa instructed.

Reverently, Anne-Claire unpacked Grandpa’s gift, drawing a stunned gasp as she spread the black fabric item out across her bed and recognised the faded gold crest embroidered across its front. She stared at the cape for many moments in disbelief, remembering the tender moments she and Henri had shared just before that world had disintegrated. “I… I don’t understand, Grandpa. Where did you get this?”

“Okay, let me tell you the story after you left Dominique, Willy and Henri,” Grandpa wound up Anne-Claire’s hospital gurney to allow her to sit comfortably propped up against the mattress. “Comfy?!”

Anne-Claire nodded vigorously and smiled at her hero, running her hands over the familiar riding cape, still wondering how Grandpa came to have the item in his possession.

“Well, apparently you and Henri made quite a connection, and when you disappeared again it broke his heart. The pain of losing you did lessen over time and he did eventually marry, but his heart remained trapped by the beautiful nymph. And when Dominique tried to explain you belonged to the future, he had an idea and handed down this garment and the legend from generation to generation in the hope that one day one of his descendants would find you.”

Anne-Claire stared at her Grandpa, tears welling up in her eyes as she remembered the tenderness shared between her and Henri and imagined Dominique’s beautiful face trying to explain the young woman he’d fallen in love with was to live many years into the future.

“The strangest thing about it… Henri turns out to be your great, great, great, great grandfather and because of his love for you and the legend that lives on, there are many girls in our family line named Anne-Claire.”

Anne-Claire turned her attention away from her hero, staring through the fifth-floor room window and down to the shores of Lac Léman, trying to make sense of Grandpa’s tale and the few tender moments spent with Henri. Averting her eyes from the scene below the window and back to Grandpa, a question formed in her mind and spilled into the silence. “So is that why Mum named me Anne-Claire, because of this legend?”

“Could be, sweetheart; she certainly knew the fable.”

“What happened to Dominique and Willy de Bad?”

“They were married, lived in Rougemont and had many children. They were so in love after Baron Willy rescued his bride from Jean-François’ prison, and their descendants still live all over Switzerland today. However, the story of Dominique and Willy de Bad was somewhat overshadowed by Nicolaïde’s tale and they opted to remain ambiguous from history. But Nicolaïde wanted the world to know that she was abducted against her will, that her reputation was sullied by Jean-François and that her heart still yearned for Tavel.”

Anne-Claire seemed lost in a distant world, staring again through the window with pools swimming in her eyes as she recalled the romantic adventure. “What happened to that slime, Jean-François?” Anne-Claire absentmindedly broke the silence with her whispered accusation.

“No one knows for sure. He and Nicolaïde disappeared from the scene soon after. Legend has it that Jean-François died when he jumped from the castle wall after de Bad drew his cutlass, and subsequent to waiting many weeks for his return, Nicolaïde found solace in Tavel’s arms and lived out her remaining days in anonymity… are you going to write the adventure down for your friend in Australia, Anne-Claire?”

Anne-Claire nodded animatedly and smiled at her grandpa. The reminder of Danica sent a worried pang through her heart. “She must think I’ve forgotten her. I haven’t emailed her for nearly a week now and she still hadn’t received my parcel I sent her over a month ago. I think the postal system in Australia must be in turmoil or something if they take so long to get a package from Montreux to Birdsville by airmail.”

Anne-Claire turned from her distracted searching gaze watching the activity below her room window and refocused onto the kind face of her grandpa. “I… I don’t want to sound ungrateful, Grandpa, but that man Mum and Dad revere so much—Robere or something—gives me the creeps.”

Anne-Claire expected her grandpa to smile and correct her negative perception, but when his face clouded and he turned away and concentrated on the view from his granddaughter’s room instead, she knew she wasn’t the only one struggling with the man’s odd persona.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 77

 

Alexandre Boyette zipped up the red Rega uniform jacket keeping his upper torso warm and ducked his head below the rotating rotor blades, making a beeline for the waiting rescue helicopter’s cabin. He’d seen a lot of strange things in his career as a rescue paramedic, but today nothing was making sense and the unconscious woman he’d just seen disturbed him beyond normal. Hoisting the heavy medical kit into the helicopter cabin, the downdraft of the helicopter blades tussled with his greying hair and flicked stinging strands against an unprotected squinting eyeball. The woman’s companions described a mental disorder with delusional tendencies, but every symptom he recognised looked more like a deliberate drug overdose; and when he’d questioned the man and woman standing by the unconscious patient, they were vague and only responded by saying she was under a respected doctor. Moments later, the doctor had made contact via the man’s mobile phone and ordered the paramedics away from his patient.

“What did you make of that, Andre…? Alexandre?!”

“Sorry, Ruedi, I was a million miles away. What did you say?”

“I said, what did you make of that?” Ruedi Guttinger slammed the sliding door to the helicopter shut, locking out the noise and took his place beside his colleague before buckling his seatbelt securely around his waist.

“Classic drug overdose!” Andre replied.

“Yep, that’s exactly what I thought. What do you think that doctor… what was his name…?”

“Bonnet! Doctor Bonnet,” Andre filled in the gap.

“Yeah, like I said, what do you think that Doctor Bonnet is up to?”

“I don’t know, Ruedi, but I’m going to have a word with my friend in the Lausanne gendarmerie and see if he can shed some light on this Bonnet’s activities!”

The red Rega helicopter lifted grandly and hovered hesitatingly a few metres above the snowy ground just below Les Rochers de Naye Hôtel and under the curious stares of bewildered onlookers. Then with a deliberate and abrupt change of course leaving the gathered crowd in complete oblivion to their mission, blasted skyward, skimming treacherously over the mountainous peak and then flew sharply down the valley back toward their base in Lausanne.

 

~

 

Clayton squatted distraughtly beside Angelina’s bed, watching the unconscious Italian beauty as she struggled against the comatic state holding her firmly in its grip.

“I told you not to call the rescue helicopter!” Chantal complained. “Bonnet was livid! We should have contacted Monsieur Trudeau!”

“I tried but his phone was switched off! What was I supposed to do, let her die?! How was I to know Bonnet was making a house call and had his phone turned off, too?! I thought he was supposed to be here solely to respond to her needs!” Clayton retorted angrily. “Besides, Armon Trudeau expects us to act in Madame’s best interests at all times!”

“Yeah, speaking of which, I should have reported you the first time I saw you staring starry eyed at her!”

“You can’t tell me, Chantal, Madame Trudeau hasn’t found her way under your skin, too.”

Chantal sighed heavily. “What are we going to do? Those paramedics knew something wasn’t right and I bet they’ll go squealing to the authorities.”

“We were hired to take care of Madame Trudeau’s needs, not conspire in a medical experiment. We need to do our jobs and make sure no one—including Bonnet—harms her. That’s what we’re being paid for!”

“Be careful, Clayton, if you’re planning what I think you’re planning. Stepping out of line with very powerful people could lead us into the same predicament Angelina is suffering now. After all, she is Madame Trudeau and not some infatuated schoolgirl!”

Clayton knelt beside the unconscious woman and gently ran his finger over the velvet skin of her high cheekbones. “I’d change places with her now if I could, and give my life to protect her!”

Outside the fourth-floor room window, a frenetic summer snowstorm blitzed over the scene. Its swirling dark clouds had obliterated the view and dropped a measured carpet of fresh powder, but now the impatient winds had blown open the cloudy curtain and patches of chilling misty blue allowed the sunlight to pervade in smoky, celestial searchlight beams.

Clayton’s mobile phone erupted, vibrating on the bedside table and interrupted the tense atmosphere in Angelina’s room. He grabbed the device with a swipe of his huge hand, trying to read the number before answering the call. Recognising the coded digits and not trusting himself to speak to the caller, he thrust the electronic disturbance to Chantal.

Chantal snarled at the blue-suited man in surprise, her eyes alight with indignation. She was Madame’s lady-in-waiting, not Clayton’s. But as she recognised the caller, she understood his reluctance to speak with the person and maybe it was a prudent move on Clayton’s part. “Yes, Doctor Bonnet?” Chantal sounded professional, desperately trying to hide the iciness in her voice.

Bonnet gave clear instructions on the medication required to bring Angelina around, yet when Chantal hesitated, he became uptight and fell short of losing his temper with her. “I can’t leave here at the moment. I have another unconscious patient requiring hypnotherapy. You’ll just have to deal with her and call me back if any complications arise!”

Chantal’s frustration skyrocketed as Bonnet hung up in her ear. Who could be more important than Madame Trudeau, the boss’ wife?! Something strange was happening, but she kept it to herself, not wanting to inflame her already impulsive and overprotective colleague.

The long cold night dragged on while Chantal and Clayton kept vigil over their motionless charge. A small emergency medical kit Bonnet had given Chantal for Angelina’s care was open on the bed and a blister pack of pills lay empty and discarded on the lampstand table, but Madame showed little intention of shaking off the disturbing coma.

Irritated and feeling helpless, the big man kneeled beside Angelina and took the tiny limp hand from the bed and held it tenderly. “Please, Angelina, try to fight this… for me!”

Chantal remained silent, watching the heart-wrenching interlude and only now did she realise how far Clayton had fallen. Whether it was infatuation or a natural desire to protect, falling for a married woman was sure to bring him a lifetime of pain. But falling for the wife of a powerful man would surely bring him completely undone.

Teasing out her memory, she tried to picture Angelina’s husband, but her recollection faltered, realising she’d never met or even seen the elusive Monsieur Trudeau; and the way Clayton was behaving, she was sure he hadn’t either. The man always appeared to act through agencies, as he had with her and Clayton, finding the best possible staff and then once he’d established a rapport, he would give them complete freedom in their job spheres yet demand absolute allegiance. The elusive employer never made personal appearances, choosing to operate by phone and paying substantial amounts of money to assure he got the best, then showering his staff with generous bonuses and gifts to make sure they didn’t ask questions. Chantal shivered in the rising early morning cold, yet even after their best efforts, Angelina was still not responding.

Observing Clayton’s puppy-like behaviour around Angelina disturbed Chantal, very certain he was entertaining amorous feelings towards her and completely loyal to her protection and safety. However, the actions of the doctor and the apparent disregard for his conduct by Angelina’s alleged loving husband made her suspicious and a fleeting, incredulous thought crossed her mind. The consequences of such a preposterous thought left her head spinning and she curtly dismissed it as foolishness, backed up by the memory of the expensive gifts Armon Trudeau had lavished upon his wife.

Why would a wealthy man go to such a prolific charade to deceive a woman?

Nothing was making sense. Chantal’s mind reeled with confusion, being pulled in two opposite directions, remembering the presidential suite brimming with hundreds of highly perfumed roses, a diamond bracelet worth many hundreds of thousands of euro, and a note that expressed his love and desire to be with his wife. But then the accusing words of the Rega paramedic rattled through her mind: classic drug overdose.

What was going on?

A painful groan escaped Angelina’s lips, prompting a sudden fever of activity from both Chantal and Clayton. Intensely concentrating, they searched for signs that their charge had survived the attack and had suffered no side effects.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 78

 

It had been a particularly slow shift for Andre Boyette, the first response paramedic attached to the Rega helicopter rescue unit in Lausanne. It was always a good day when their services weren’t in popular demand, but it made the time drag and he couldn’t get the troubling image of the unconscious woman lying in a hotel room at Les Rochers de Naye out of his mind. When the woman lacked the usual signs of addiction and her appearance seemed respectably clean, Andre and his colleague, Ruedi, were convinced her companions were covering up something. Doctor Bonnet’s strange reaction to their presence after examining his patient only added more fuel to the suspicious fire, but the clincher came and contributed a further dimension of doubt when he refused to cooperate and ordered them to leave.

Maybe, just maybe, this woman was in some kind of trouble.

As usual, Ruedi had attended to the official paperwork and asked questions of the witnesses while Andre went about establishing vital sign monitoring and the patient condition. Nothing they were being told made any sense and once Bonnet became entangled in the bizarre proceedings, Andre took note of the patient’s details, intent on seeking out police assistance via his gendarme friend and put his mind at rest. Idling in the paramedics’ lounge and in front of a television screen, Andre waited impatiently for the afternoon shift personnel to arrive. Happily, handover from morning shift to afternoon shift would be a relatively simple exchange for once… nothing to report.

 

~

 

Lausanne’s afternoon sunshine had a distinct tenacious bite, making the long walk less inviting than he’d anticipated, but it was still a half an hour before the arranged meeting with his gendarme friend. Mid-city heat whispered off the pavement as Andre wandered around the road encompassing the Place de la Cathédrale and the steep, hilly terrain made him sweat under the effort. Still, the tall spires of the expansive Cathédrale Notre Dame held him spellbound, enjoying the ancient scene and tracing the imposing medieval building with an appreciative eye.

The distraction had taken a lot longer than he’d anticipated to circumnavigate, and by the time he found the Escaliers du Marché he was running late for his appointment. At fifty, Alexandre Boyette was fit and healthy, but the steeply descending gradient of the ancient staircase made his knees ache under the stress. Built in the early 1700’s, the Escaliers du Marché added a more modern touch to some of Lausanne’s colourful, quaint and older thirteenth-century townhouses. The period architecture typically stretched shoulder to shoulder along the steep walkway and sealed the sloping landscape into another distant world.

He paused briefly to rest his aching knees on the Rue Pierre Viret—a welcome street on a rare flat piece of ground dividing the taxing walkway—before it plunged down the mountainside once again and continued its long descent and finally met up with the Rue Mercerie. Fortunately for Andre, his destination was only a short walk from the Rue Pierre Viret and with a sense of relief, he pushed open the door to the Café le Barbare, immediately locking eyes with his friend.

Already seated and waiting unappreciatively for the overdue paramedic to arrive, the gendarme complained, “You’re almost two minutes late, Andre! It’s just not acceptable for a Suisse to be tardy!”

“Apologies, my friend, and I am ashamed for my lateness!” offering his hand in an affectionate handshake before Andre took his place across the table from his friend.

A petite waitress hovered around the table, interrupting the conversation and delivered the cafe specialty: two thick hot chocolate drinks.

“I took the liberty to order!”

Andre nodded, but his distracted expression prompted the gendarme friend to dispense with pleasantries and cut straight to the chase.

“What’s so urgent to call me away from work?” the gendarme’s experience-hardened eyes bored into Andre, waiting for a response. Jacques Renard had been a specialist police agent for many years and knew instinctively when people had something to hide or were dancing around an issue.

“Have you ever come across a Doctor Bonnet in your professional investigations, Jacques?” Andre asked pensively, taking the lead from Renard’s abruptness.

Jacques almost glared at Andre, searching his eyes as if he was interrogating a criminal but then turned away, realising the man across the table was a lifelong friend and not a felon. Like a computer scanning years of memory banks, Jacques finally conceded, “I don’t think so. What’s he supposed to have done?”

It took almost an hour for Alexandre to outline the bizarre morning call to Les Rochers de Naye, revisiting every minute detail and trying not to lead the gendarme with his personal assumptions. Andre knew he was being taken seriously when Jacques removed his police notebook and began to scribble down the details and then read back the transcribed facts in order of explanation. Jacques was not only a close friend, but an award winning and decorated police agent. Nothing missed his notice.

“The patient’s name was… ?” Jacques skimmed his notes to the find the facts and then settled on the information. “Corinne Dupuy. Correct, yes?”

Andre nodded and then Jacques stunned him with an old Suisse proverb. “If you listen with one eye, you will not hear everything.

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” Andre’s sudden annoyance stunned himself as well as the gendarme, but Jacques was better at hiding his surprise.

“It’s an old proverb…”

“I am well aware of the proverb, Jacques; I just want to know how it applies here!”

Jacques’ face lost all expression as he descended into sceptical police mode. “The name of the patient is most certainly a pseudonym, concocted on the spot to deflect suspicion from the patient and the situation. There are two possibilities here, Andre. First, the woman was being held against her wishes for some reason, sedated to keep her compliant, but things went pear-shaped.”

“Or?!” Andre demanded.

“Or, she did have some kind of condition that required medication but for some reason she may have double-dosed. Maybe she forgot she’d already taken her tablets and took another. It does happen, does it not?”

Andre nodded, but he wasn’t buying the line the gendarme was taking. “Why then would the doctor go almost manic on us and order us away from his patient?!”

Renard shrugged. “Professional jealousy. He’s a doctor and you’re only a paramedic. Maybe he knew she’d overdosed and was trying to cover his tracks and keep you from finding out.”

Andre sighed heavily, thinking Jacques had dismissed his concerns. “So you think I’m overreacting?”

“I didn’t say that, Andre, but it will be easy enough to substantiate with the hotel just who the woman was and why she was there.”

Andre considered his next question and didn’t think Jacques would answer. “There’s nothing strange happening in the Vaud district at the moment is there?”

Renard smiled at the not-so-subtle attempt to interrogate the experienced gendarme and decided to play along. “The usual bad behaviour spilling over from the Montreux Jazz Festival. There’s a new rock group on the scene and they’re stirring up the kids into a frenzy, but nothing we haven’t seen before.”

Andre seemed deflated; maybe his concerns were out of line. But Jacques wasn’t at liberty to mention an active investigation into a rash of unsavoury teenage stalking with suspected links to foreign gangland leaders.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 79

 

Vincenza Morola surreptitiously peered around the heavy curtain separating the performing arena from the backstage area and gasped at the huge crowd flooding into the Auditorium Stravinski waiting to see her son perform. Dressed in casual attire, she’d picked the best from her limited wardrobe, never expecting when she’d left Rome to be involved in such a Cinderella situation. Yet even in this simple offering, she was stunningly beautiful.

Niccolo panicked when he couldn’t find Vincenza among the band room staff, automatically setting in motion the desolate feelings he’d experienced for so many years in her absence and went in search of her. When he found her gazing at the crowd through the heavy curtain, a pang of remorse gripped him as he studied her outline. Something seemed familiar in Vincenza’s stance, reminding him of Angelina and how she used to do the same thing just before a performance and only now did he realise how much he missed her.

Madre Vincenza!

Vincenza jumped when she heard the voice and dropped the curtain edge, closing off the vast crowd from the backstage area.

“I thought you’d left me when I could not find you; we are just about ready to go on and perform.”

Vincenza’s anxious expression turned to delight when she recognised the face of her son. “So many people have paid and gathered to hear my son sing! You are a star, Niccolo, and God has answered my prayers abundantly for you,” Vincenza’s eyes misted over with pride and then a huge smile glowed across her delicate features, lighting up her pretty face with exquisite joy. “Even television cameras are here to capture your song. You make me very happy, Niccolo!”

Niccolo wrapped his mother in a tight hug and drew strength from her presence, feeling the ecstasy of performing bubbling up in his soul. This evening would be a performance to remember. The burgeoning concert arena was tightly packed and every available space filled with an expectant participant eagerly awaiting Niccolo’s arrival.

Tonight would be a night of firsts for the popular rock group. Not only did they have a beautiful new madre to sing for, but another addition to their number in the form of burly security guards marked their progression from the minor league to the big league. Around the perimeter of the stage, huge black-suited men faced the crowd with their arms folded threateningly, warning the worshipers that any attempts to cross the line would be met with stiff and immediate resistance. The final first took the form of a new song to be introduced just before the end of the show. Maestro had done it again and delivered a fresh number with the potential to take Niccolo and the Sticky Lizards to even greater heights.

Unnoticed by any of the auditorium staff or performers and hidden among the crowd, stalked a covert group: young men and women dressed to blend in, but with a determined and orchestrated task, although their agenda starkly conflicted with the purposes of the concert scene.

The house lights dimmed, blacking out the cavernous theatre and creating a wave of expectant rolling hysteria as a crescendo of screaming and whistling drowned out the first few crashing notes. When the stage lights exploded back on, five young band members with their tools of intrigue and eager to please stood idle before the crowd before bursting into orchestrated chaos. Vincenza stood at the gap in the stage curtain with Niccolo while the band went through the opening taunts, setting the emotional stage for Niccolo’s timely entrance. As the cue for his entry alerted him to make the break, Niccolo kissed Vincenza and then teasingly skipped the first few steps, before striding purposefully into the milieu, sending the crowd into a tumultuous uproar.

Vincenza listened in awe as the incredible sound pressure hit her in the chest and distorted her eardrums, trying to resist the desire to cover her ears; but the continuing assault overpowered her senses and toyed with her sanity, instinctively forcing her hands to protect her hearing. When she held open the curtain and studied the crowd after each number had finished, something suddenly disturbed her. She could see the intense adoration and pained expressions on the faces of young girls desperately reaching out to Niccolo and it didn’t take too much imagination to realise what she was seeing was complete and undivided worship.

Niccolo began the opening chords to Sfidare Dissenso and before Vincenza was forced to protect her hearing again, she saw several girls faint among the crowded amphitheatre and her delight began to crumble and concern crept into her dividing mind.

With the fading notes from Sfidare Dissenso echoing across the gyrating and hypnotised audience, a sudden rush for the stage sent burly guards into the crowd, re-establishing the no-go zone and protecting the rock group from being torn apart with worshipping adoration. Vincenza’s stomach churned as she experienced the extreme activities of the security personnel, but without their presence Niccolo wouldn’t have survived. The wonderful Cinderella fairytale scene had suddenly deteriorated into a war zone, leaving Vincenza upset and fearful for her son; but Niccolo took it in his stride and the band began another number, placating the adulating violence from the frenzied crowd. With the battle lines once again firmly re-established between worshipers and peacekeepers, the mob began to enjoy Niccolo’s screaming heavy beat once again.

The music paused between performances, leaving the crowd buffeting and surging against the security barricade as Niccolo scanned the stage and nodded to the band, the signal for their last song. He glanced at the curtain where Vincenza stood, but something in her expression disturbed him. She didn’t seem to have the excited childlike expression anymore, but when she caught his eye she smiled a tentative smile and reassured Niccolo she was still with him.

From the first mesmerising note, sfidare le tradiziones found its mark. The harrowing musical beauty stole the life from the crowd, encapsulating and enchanting willing participants with the stirring melody, destroying all sense of reality and teasing anguished emotions. An invisible melodic talisman tantalised the souls of the worshippers and drew them deep into a fire of boiling energy, combining flesh, spirit and soul into a rampage of intense emotion.

Just as the song finished, unfulfilled desires cut short by the unwelcome ending discharged an explosive scene like an atom bomb, and as the Sticky Lizards were herded from the stage, security and undercover DARD special forces were left to clean up the fallout with energized news cameras recording every unruly detail.

 

~

 

Gazing around the curtain to the snow white landscape painted by a rose coloured mountain dawn, Clayton stood tiredly by the fourth-floor window, the big man’s concentration languishing in confusing thoughts. Angelina had stirred during the night but quickly succumbed to unconsciousness again, prompting another panicked phone call to Doctor Bonnet and another blister pack of pills enticed into Madame’s unwilling trachea. Let alone the potential for harm from the drugs, coaxing the pills into a comatose Angelina’s stomach was dangerous enough and should the medication find its way into her lungs, it could be deadly. However, after a complex ballet twisting and contorting Madame’s flailing and fragile frame, finally the way cleared to her stomach. Still the medication stubbornly refused to act as it should, leaving Madame Trudeau impervious to the drug’s potential to bring her around.

Chantal’s petite frame folded into the only armchair in the room and she was fast asleep, exhausted from the day’s drama and in particular, struggling with the stress of the Rega visit. Clayton scanned the room, checking first Angelina for signs of lucid movement and then across to his argumentative colleague. Satisfied nothing appeared out of order, Clayton’s eyes rested on an empty space on the floor, searching for a place to stretch out his tired frame and find some relief from the nagging exhaustion plaguing his mind.

Standing over the cleared space, he glanced at Angelina one more time before lowering his physique to the carpet, but a sudden cough stopped him in mid search. He wasn’t sure where the sharp report came from and checked Chantal for signs of movement, but she was still asleep, leaving him to suspect Angelina as the culprit. He stared at the pretty woman for many moments until her eyes unexpectedly blinked open, returning his concerned expression with a weak smile.

“Are you okay, Madame?!” Clayton quickly aborted his intention to sleep and hastily made his way to her side.

Her voice was strained and rasping, but her smile widened. “I have to get Niccolo ready to perform. Will you help me, Clayton?”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 80

 

A not-so-gentle nudge shook Chantal awake. Locking her tired and smouldering eyes onto the offender from the comfort of her armchair, she intended on exacting a piece of sweet revenge for the intrusion into much needed rest. But before her sharpened claws left their protective sheath, her eyes diverted around Clayton’s massive form and scanned the room, settling on a very conscious and apparently lucid Madame Trudeau lying on top of her bed. The sudden realisation that her charge was awake sent Chantal into a scurrying professional response, sweeping at her hair with combing fingers and straightening her uniform as best she could. “M… Madame!” Chantal stuttered, jumping to her feet, trying to clear the sleep from her mind.

Angelina smiled openly and nodded, but her eyes revealed a disturbing tale and when she made an effort to escape her bed, she fell back to the covers in a dizzying swirl. Unperturbed, she pleaded with Chantal and Clayton to help. “We must hurry! I have to get Niccolo ready to perform. He’s such a baby and can’t tie his shoelaces without me. I just hope the Learjet skidding off the runway didn’t affect his ability to sing, not to mention that impromptu interview with the media after the crash.”

Angelina laughed, “He took the credit for the plane landing safely, but he was screaming just as much as the rest of us and tried to make out he was the hero and had the media believing him, lapping up every untrue word!”

Angelina, giggling to herself, glanced at Clayton and then Chantal, but they weren’t laughing and the confusion forced its toxic grip around her again, spurred on by the concerned expressions of her staff. “No, that’s not right. I’m Madame Trudeau and that never happened… but it did happen and I’m not…!”

Chantal glanced at Clayton, horrified by what she was hearing. Madame was having another delusional episode, prompting Chantal to anxiously reach for her phone, but Clayton snatched the device from her hand and stopped the attempt, shocking her with his actions.

“Bonnet will just fill her with more drugs and hypnotic suggestion,” he whispered protectively.

“What?! Listen to her, Clayton. She’s away with the fairies!” Chantal whispered harshly.

“Is she? Maybe what we’ve been led to believe is just a vicious fairytale and perhaps she isn’t as crazy as we think.”

“Give that phone back! You’re drunk with pheromones and you need some of her medication, too!” Chantal retorted.

“Just listen to me for once, Chantal!” Clayton chafed. “You’ve seen what the drugs Bonnet gave her did, and the stunned reaction of the Rega paramedics. Something isn’t adding up here. And where was Bonnet when she needed him?! With another patient when Monsieur Trudeau specifically told us he was brought here especially for Madame!”

The same thoughts had plagued Chantal, but her loyalty to the elusive Armon Trudeau had pushed the questions into the background of her mind. Chantal sighed and her shoulders slumped. “Okay, Clayton, what are you intending to do?”

“We keep Bonnet in the dark about her condition and lead him to believe she is fine until we can establish what really is happening. If her condition improves but she still believes she is someone else other than Madame Trudeau, then we have our answer and a place to start.”

“And if it doesn’t?!”

Clayton sighed and glanced over to Angelina. “Then I’ve shot myself in the foot and made the biggest mistake of my career and will probably go to jail for ignoring my duty of care to a very wealthy and unwell woman.”

“So where do we go from here?” Chantal whispered.

Clayton studied Chantal with sharply focused eyes. “Are you planning on being an accomplice?”

Chantal ran her hands through her long hair, understanding full well the terminology and the implications of Clayton’s chosen words; and then with a quick glance at Angelina’s confused, staring expression, she signed on with another harshly exhaled breath. “We were hired to look after her best interests at all times. It’s in our contracts and I don’t think Bonnet has her best interests at heart,” Chantal huffed, realising they were walking on extremely dangerous ground.

Clayton’s quick movements took Chantal by surprise and before she knew what was happening, the big man had engulfed her in a crushing embrace. The sudden show of affection stunned Angelina and a cloud passed over her countenance, but soon the cloud lifted and a slight uncertain smile turned up the corners of her lips. Chantal didn’t want Madame drawing the wrong conclusion, so she chided Clayton for his overexuberance, slapping his chest with an open hand and quickly returning the certainty to Angelina’s face.

“Okay, Chantal, co-conspirator, have you got PK’s number?”

“Yeah, on my phone. What do you want with PK?”

“We need to get Madame back to Montreux and the presidential suite as quick as possible. If we can persuade Bonnet she’s fine and just needs bed rest, then maybe we can convince him to stay away while she shakes off the effects of the drug and breaks free from his hypnotic suggestions. Then perhaps we can look for a strategy by quizzing her and piece together exactly what’s going on. As for the company helicopter, it will be the best means of transport under the circumstances and PK won’t ask questions.”

“That’s it?! We’re taking a risk that may land us in jail and that’s the best you can come up with?!”

“If she starts to deteriorate and my hunch is wrong, then we smooth over our tracks by letting Bonnet back in and maybe our plot won’t be detected.”

Chantal stared at her colleague with an incredulous expression and a scolding hand on her hip, adding a scathing tint to her body language.

“Have you got any better suggestions?!” Clayton returned her stare.

The haughty, unbelieving eyes suddenly softened and glanced away while the hand dropped from her hip in defeat. “Give me my phone and I’ll get PK on his way.”

 

~

 

Clayton’s mobile phone chorus broke into the sleepy early afternoon picture, waking all three of the hotel room’s dozing occupants, PK’s prearranged signal he was only five minutes from landing. Recognising the alert, Clayton bounded from the floor while Chantal untangled herself from the cramped lounge chair and burst into frenetic activity, shaking off the exhaustion and preparing Madame for the exposed public walk down to the landing site.

Lifting Madame gently from the bed, Clayton smiled adoringly down at the helpless beauty, still reeling from the after-effects of Bonnet’s drugs, but securely held in his strong arms. She smiled weakly at her trusted minder, affectionately comfortable in the gentleness of his embrace and willingly relying on him for the confidential needs of a woman of stature. He purposefully sacrificed his own wellbeing, professionally placing himself between her and unwanted publicity, thus preventing compromising situations leaving any part of her high-profiled image tarnished. Chantal fussed furiously around Clayton as he held Madame in his arms. She tucked a borrowed blanket around Madame, leaving her face uncovered but making sure her esteemed charge would be warm in the snowy afternoon walk and most importantly, something to protect her face from the stinging downdraft of the helicopter’s furious rotor blades.

By the time the three curious people had cleared the hotel’s property line and passed by the accommodation yurts towards where the Rega helicopter had landed the previous day, PK’s rotor blades could be heard slapping the cold atmosphere as the modern machine made a direct line over the mountain peak and straight for the landing pad. For the second time in as many days, tourists and residents were treated to a helicopter landing just below the towering Les Rochers de Naye Hôtel.

The expensive, modern corporate craft landed effortlessly, without so much as a bump with PK’s experienced hands manipulating the controls. Challenged by the helicopter blade’s cyclonic rotor wash, Chantal held the blanket over Madame’s eyes and head with one hand, while trying to avert a painful whip from her own exuberant and flailing hair with the other. Corporate attire floundered and shook violently in the downdraft until the large sliding door slid open, exposing the aircraft’s plush interior and offering relief from the wind storm.

Jacqueline, the company helicopter hostess, assisted Madame’s entry by unfolding a set of steps for Clayton to climb and then led him to a comfortable bed which had been arranged for Madame inside the machine. Once Clayton and his precious cargo were onboard, both Jacquie and Chantal fussed over their important guest as Clayton lowered her gently to the mattress, making the short flight to Montreux as comfortable as possible.

 

~

 

Clayton made a grasp for the television remote neatly placed on the presidential suite’s glass coffee table and pointed the device at the large television mounted on the wall. Glancing sideways to the next leather lounge chair, Chantal’s exhausted frame folded into a tight ball, fast asleep while Madame languished tiredly, sleeping off her drugged stupor in the main bedroom. Clayton had been awake for many uneasy hours listening to everyone else enjoying their sleep, but the puzzle surrounding Madame Trudeau kept him from joining their sensible activity. He’d stepped out on a dangerous limb and now he was wondering whether he’d been a little too zealous and what he was contemplating was just plain ludicrous.

His finger hovered over the on button while he absentmindedly stared at the blank screen, looking for a distraction from the harrowing thoughts vexing his tired mind. With a small amount of exertion against the tiny button, the screen flashed and then broke into a deafening roar. Clayton fidgeted furiously, searching for the sound control. The quality speakers built into the expensive machine were designed not to distort at high volume and the booming chorus left no place within the presidential suite unaffected by Clayton’s desire for entertainment. As he furiously took control and abruptly stabbed at the sound switch, the green sound bars displayed on the screen quickly diminished until finally, the noise abated.

Chantal’s accusing bleary eyes bored into Clayton, but before she could say a word, another voice entered the fray, pointing at the television monitor.

“Look, there’s Niccolo,” Madame announced from the doorway. Then the screen erupted with violence as the crowd fought against police. “What’s happening?!” Madame demanded, finding a seat between her two minders.

“Turn it up, Clayton!” Chantal ordered, waiting for the commentary to explain what had taken place. Clayton pointed the remote at the screen once again until the reporter’s voice was easily heard.

Things got out of control quickly once the final song of the rock concert finished, leaving many attendees hoping for an encore, but the group were whisked away by security staff, leaving fans disappointed.

The scene suddenly changed and the cameras began to countdown Niccolo’s sharp rise to stardom.

The Sticky Lizards have skyrocketed to popularity with three consecutive number one hits, arriving only a week and a half ago in Montreux after a very shaky landing.

The cameras cut to Geneva Airport with Niccolo surrounded by mesmerised paparazzi swallowing his heroic tale of how he’d bounded from his passenger chair and calmly talked the traumatised pilot of a geriatric Learjet out of his panicked state and bolstered the pilot’s courage enough to safely land the plane.

Three stunned people stared—unbelieving—at the wall-mounted screen while the news camera changed the scene, panning the crowd and then focusing through a large airport window, catching the tired frame of an ancient Learjet disabled on the inner field of the main runway. It was as if Niccolo and the band members were reading from Angelina’s script, exactly the way she’d been describing it. Then Angelina’s unmistakable voice drifted over the television commentators as the camera refocused, filling the screen with her tired image and inviting the media with free tickets to their first concert that evening.

The implications of what they’d just witnessed had far reaching ramifications, leaving both Chantal and Clayton reeling and Angelina tearfully relieved.

“There! I knew I wasn’t mad!”

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 81

 

It was a peculiar sensation, lying alone in a small collapsible bed after being happily married for over twenty years and sharing every night with her spouse. She and Jonas hadn’t been separated once in all that time and now she was missing the security and comfort of her soul mate. The strange noises of the unfamiliar island house kept her wits on high alert and in so doing, drove the sleep she so badly needed far from her mind. Attempting to find a comfortable position, Marie-Laure turned onto her side, making the supporting springy frame complain with every move. Facing her injured son, she listened to his peaceful drawing breaths, thankful at least he was sleeping and his body was hard at work repairing the damage he’d sustained in the unprovoked attack that had sent the family spiralling into deep despair.

Frustrated by the inability to shut down her overactive mind, Marie-Laure stared at her son’s silhouette and replayed Robere’s almost flippant proposal for employment. But she was sure the kaftan-clad man was genuine in his offer, and the generous remuneration had been more than a passing attempt at pleasantries. Many times she’d sought the Lord for help with the family’s desperate finances, praying fervently for breakthrough from their mundane and predictable lifestyle, figuring God had answered her tearful pleas with Robere’s casual offer. With a thrilled bounce, she changed her position on the uncomfortable mattress. Jonas would no longer wrestle to make ends meet with the struggling farm, and Robere’s timely action would relieve the stranglehold poverty was having on the dwindling family budget. She acknowledged that God had always met their needs as they prayed, but maybe this was a bonus for their faithfulness; and the thought of having extra funds in the kitty to play with tantalised Marie-Laure’s mind. She tingled with rapturous excitement and her thoughts began to wander.

Maybe a new dress and shoes to match would be affordable now and as she calculated the income, refurbishing her tired kitchen and finally being able to repair the roof that always leaked when it rained. Tempting her imagination further as if painting the finishing touches on an expensive canvas masterpiece, tears of joy began to form in Marie-Laure’s eyes at the thought of a much coveted family trip overseas. Thanks to Robere, she and Jonas would be the ones waving goodbye to the neighbours for once, instead of being waved to as her neighbours set off on another exclusive world adventure.

With her heart bursting in thankfulness to God for Robere’s offer, her mind refocused on the selfless people who had rescued Ryan from a dire situation and the way they had taken him in and paid to have a doctor treat him. Tears flooded her eyes at the strangers’ generosity. Surely this was God’s provision and He was doing a new and wonderful thing in the Tauxe family through Robere Maccabaeus.

Marie-Laure had eagerly accepted Robere’s request to be trained as a hostess for their new venue and the upcoming family gathering, even to the point of volunteering Jonas as a mentor for new members. Once Jonas heard of the generosity of the Godly man, she was certain of her husband’s willingness to repay the kindness of the charismatic leader and that her suggestion for Jonas to be trained as a guide would be met with the same unquestioning eagerness.

A sudden moan divided the darkness by Marie-Laure’s head and drew her attention to Ryan’s prostrate body, wondering whether her son was suffering pain. The moans quickly turned to mumbling sleep talk, but before she could turn over and interrupt Ryan’s babble, he’d risen to a sitting position with his hands raised above his head, staring at the ceiling as if he was listening to an unseen authority. The scene disturbed Marie-Laure severely and she attempted to wake him, but Ryan uttered a growling warning not to touch him before he could receive the new commandment.

I understand!” Ryan uttered, and then his arms fell to the bed before he dropped back to the mattress and continued to sleep while Marie-Laure gawked at her son, shaken terribly by what she’d just witnessed.

 

~

 

Alex Dupont wandered wearily along the crowded Quai de la Rouvenaz, dodging ambling festival participants mesmerised by the sounds and smells of the Montreux Jazz Festival. The prominent music carnival had only a few more days to run before the grand finale and soon after, Montreux would pack up and draw in the welcome mat to overseas music lovers for another year. Alex’s tired shoulders drooped under the weight of this year’s festivities and he was actually looking forward to the hectic pace coming to an end. The long hours working inside the concert venues cleaning up after enthusiastic party goers and a near riot last night at the Sticky Lizards’ performance kept him at his job for many more hours than he was expecting. Now after only a few hours sleep, he was once again trekking towards the YWAM tent to offer guidance and leadership to his devoted young staff.

Ryan’s dismissal, subsequent attack and disappearance from outside the Stravinski venue was weighing heavily on his mind, too. Yesterday, when Jonas finally caught up with Alex inside the YWAM marquee, he couldn’t accept the fact that his son had been dismissed for tardiness and almost blamed Alex for his disappearance. When Jonas rang a few hours later to say that the police had found Ryan and he was being taken care of by Good Samaritans, the tone in Jonas’ voice had an unfamiliar accusatory attitude.

Feeling the crushing presence of an unseen adversary, Alex steeled himself as the busy YWAM marquee came into view and wondered what new dramas were ready to meet his tired and disheartened figure. “Lord, give me wisdom and strength to stand alone with You if necessary and offer guidance to Your people,” Alex whispered an exhausted prayer as he dodged the milling crowd and entered the canvas tent, unaware his fervent petition was about to be tested.

Glancing around, Alex searched for a particular trusted person given responsibility to guide the group in his absence. Catching the gaze of specific individuals, he smiled kind affirmation as the YWAM young people acknowledged their Godly boss with a wave and continued with their tasks, talking to strangers about Jesus. Standing on tiptoes, Alex pondered the mingling group until one of the team pointed to a table in the back corner where the tall teenager was deep in prayer with a couple he’d just led to Christ.

Samuel was still young in the faith but he was enthusiastic and teachable, steady as a rock and devoted to spreading the love of Christ to anyone who was even remotely interested. The young man had been completely sold out to his Saviour from the day they’d met at a ski camp a few years back, when a foolish bragging story to a group of attractive teen girls had sent him into the teeth of a blizzard and almost cost him his life.

Waiting for Samuel to finish, Alex wearily glanced around the tent, acknowledging the familiar and devoted faces busily about their work when his eyes rested on a colourful flyer pinned to the tent canvas promoting an upcoming three-day rally. It was policy that any promotions had to come through Alex first to be assessed before they advertised any event and purportedly put their support behind any organisation, regardless of their claims. Alex carefully navigated around the busy tent and stood in front of the advertisement and began to read the flyer.

RoMac Family invites you, the headline boldly blazed with the colourful text drawing his eyes, magnetically following the enticing script; but the further down the page he searched, the more disturbed he became. He stopped and re-read the line, ‘Come and see what Jesus can do for you!

A pang of anxiety gripped his stomach and when he noticed the supporting musicians, he ripped the flyer from the wall and screwed it up in disgust; but in the process, all the activity inside the tent stopped and focused in on their determined and unusually aggressive boss. “Who put this up?!” Alex demanded.

Samuel stepped forward with a concerned quizzical expression. “I did, Alex! What’s the problem?” Samuel could feel his face burning crimson with embarrassment. He knew he’d overstepped his authority and overrode the other YWAM people’s advice against posting the official advertisement until Alex could affirm it.

Alex sensed Samuel’s humiliation and tried to downplay the tone of his reply, but at the same time convey the seriousness of the situation. “You know the policy with officially supporting dubious organisations, Samuel,” Alex whispered tiredly, trying not to inflame Samuel’s discomfort in front of his peers.

A self-aggrandizing and haughty expression crossed Samuel’s countenance. He had apparently been forced into a corner, leaving nowhere for his pride to escape unharmed and as he glanced around the staring eyes of his colleagues, he foolishly continued his defence. “They’re just a bunch of brothers with the same purpose as we have, to spread the Gospel of Christ!” Samuel defended arrogantly and then surreptitiously glanced around his colleagues, gauging the effectiveness of his reply, deeply embarrassed and ready to challenge Alex’s stance further. “I spoke to the Maestro for nearly an hour and he didn’t appear to have any purpose different to ours and in fact, he assured me he would direct people to our tent. I felt certain you’d have no problem with supporting their ministry and told him so, but he was just as certain you wouldn’t approve. So what’s your objection to them, Alex?”

Alex sighed heavily, the tiredness etching like a deep, dry river bed across his features, but he couldn’t explain the perplexing notion gnawing at his stomach. “It just doesn’t feel right, Samuel.”

“Feel right?! How many times have you lectured us about feelings and ministry?!” Samuel chided. Alex appeared to have his back against the wall, seemingly unreasonable and trying to make a subordinate look like a fool in front of his co-workers so he could escape with his official command still intact.

Alex’s voice degenerated into a whisper, “Samuel, trust me on this. Don’t you see that having a popular and secular rock group as a drawcard is a warning sign?”

“No, Alex, I don’t see! So what if they use secular musicians to draw a crowd? As long as they hear the Gospel, who cares how they hear it!”

Activity within the marquee came to a stunned and abrupt stop with all eyes, including patrons concentrating on the discussion between Alex and Samuel, noticing the animated conversation was swiftly burgeoning out of control. Alex knew this was a bad situation to be in and decided the discussion needed to finish before things developed into a scene.

“Are there any more of these flyers around that we’ve put up?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, there are! All of our people giving out tracts are also giving out invitations to the RoMac Grand Rally tomorrow night and I for one will be attending… a-n-d for all three nights!” Samuel stared defiantly, rebelliously challenging Alex’s gaze with his arms folded across his chest.

“Please, Samuel, as an older brother in Christ… please, please trust me on this,” Alex whispered hoarsely, aware he was being watched and his leadership weighed.

“How can you call yourself a brother in Christ when you discriminate against someone more Godly than you and refuse to support his ministry just because he employs the Sticky Lizards as a drawcard?!” Samuel attacked again.

Alex held Samuel’s cocky stare, peering into a boiling cesspool of pride. “Can we pray together about this, Samuel, and seek the lord for a solution?” Alex pleaded.

“I know what your solutions involve, Alex. You heartlessly fired Ryan from his job when he was doing the best he could! I’ll give you a solution, Alex… I quit!” Samuel threw a handful of tracts to a nearby bench, haughtily glanced around the stunned faces and as if to capitalise on Alex’s humiliation, Samuel laid in the boots. “I’m going to see if a Godly man needs help with his ministry!” and then flounced out, leaving Alex rubbing his tense head.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter 82

 

Constrained and unable to gain access to the Place du Marché, Maestro elbowed his way to the front of an idling crowd blocking the Quai de la Rouvenaz from the water’s edge to the flimsy canvas walls of an overbearing white marquee. The massive construction completely enclosed the open marketplace and rivalled its ancient neighbour, the Covered Markets in total area, leaving the crowd to murmur among themselves and wonder whether the circus had come to town on an unscheduled visit. Among the gathering, the teenage entrepreneur stared at the structure with a sense of satisfaction and pride. He’d orchestrated all the necessary requirements to make the enormous tent come to life and finally the RoMac family—because of his concerted efforts—would be drawn together under one expansive roof.

Even though Maestro had tried to convince the charismatic leader to the contrary, Robere wasn’t happy just hiring the Covered Markets and confidently predicted they would need both venues to house the expected multitude. Maestro was sceptical of his boss’ exuberant visions of grandeur; nevertheless, he was reluctant to offer his unbelieving opinion until well after the event had concluded, lest he be branded a doubting Thomas and lumbered with the blame for the event’s failure. Under extreme pressure and working feverishly to obtain the permits required to erect the largest marquee Maestro could hire, eventually the authorities had agreed to his persistent, annoying requests and so the spacious open Place du Marché now had walls and an impressive white towering roof.

Pushing through the ogling throng and lifting a canvas flap, Maestro inspected the immense structure’s interior, watching workmen putting the finishing touches onto a vast stage and an equally substantial canvas room directly behind, just as Robere had instructed. Satisfied all was in order and running according to schedule, Maestro smugly left the construction crew to finish and pushed his way through the gathered onlookers, tempted to announce to the crowd the structure was his doing. With a long list of vexing challenges still vying for his attention, he mentally checked off the remaining list weighing down his young shoulders: obtaining police permits for a public gathering; security; ambulance services; fire escape plans; positive media coverage; and a sundry register of niggling nomenclature. Time was against him. Yet the grand rally would start tomorrow night regardless of whether he was ready or not.

Maestro freed himself from the congested throng, striding towards the business centre of town, zigzagging around mindless festival participants and prompting a whispered sarcastic utterance to escape his lips. “Stupid sheep!

As a gap opened in the tangle of bodies and allowed Maestro to gather up speed along the quays, his mind checked off a multitude of errands in order of priority he still had to run and steered himself in the direction of the appropriate authority. Maestro’s thoughts returned to his mumbling complaints of an overstretched and impossible schedule let loose at the breakfast table earlier that morning, unintentionally reaching the kaftan-clad boss’ ears. In a halfhearted bid at compassion, Robere had benevolently offered him an assistant in the form of Madame Tauxe. According to Robere’s directive, she wasn’t to leave her son’s side until he was completely well and although Ryan had almost healed, she wouldn’t be of any assistance to Maestro until well after the grand rally had finished.

Adding to the nagging burden, the building schedule for the New Jerusalem had run into more red tape, taking Robere’s influence to remove the bureaucratic roadblock and get construction moving again in time for the expected family gathering. Although the complex was mostly finished and could already accommodate a large assembly, the stressed teen had let the project supervision languish and a gnarly tangle of minor issues had tripped up the building crew and delayed the anticipated completion date. Leaving Maestro with another purported fiasco to his credit.

Shaking off the embarrassing failure with an even greater obstacle to clear, an anxious pang gripped at his stomach with the final hurdle to the grand rally’s success seemingly insurmountable. Even Robere’s calm exterior clouded with tension when Maestro was unable to obtain permission from Armon Trudeau to use the Sticky Lizards as a covering band, and each time he tried to contact the business tycoon, his phone was either switched off or he was out of mobile phone range. Without Armon’s approval, contractual legalities prohibited the band from performing in a public place and each time Robere asked for an update, Maestro still had no answer for him. In a somewhat misplaced and bizarre response, Robere had ordered Maestro to double the offer to Armon, as if he’d made contact and the wealthy man had declined, but Robere didn’t seem to comprehend Maestro just couldn’t contact him.

 

~

 

Danica’s brown eyes flashed open in a state of panic, searching the droning darkness where an unfamiliar symphony of muffled mechanisation disturbed her sleep, as if she was sleeping on top of an enormous air conditioning duct. It took many seconds to reorientate her teenage mind, mentally pinching herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. But the surrounds and unfamiliar noises left no doubt it was true. She and Nan were in the exclusive first-class section of an A380 Airbus, sleeping in full-sized beds as if they were tucked up in the safety of a five-star hotel rather than in an aircraft flying many thousands of metres above the Mediterranean Sea. Apart from the constant drone, there were no other indicators to activate her fear of heights and she felt as if she was travelling in a giant bus and not a luxury jetliner.

At night in her desert home, there were very few sounds to disturb the tangible isolation and sleep was rarely interrupted, but now the constant annoying hum from the aircraft’s engines kept her mind alert and unable to sleep. Danica lay prostrate in the private bedroom, mesmerised and staring at the insignificant control panel lights for her flat-screen television, the only light in the otherwise dark luxury room. Nan had the semi-attached room next door and her gentle snoring breaths brought Danica great comfort, knowing she still had some connection with the familiar and the people who made up her life.

The food onboard the fancy flying hotel was strange to Danica’s uneducated taste buds too, but Nan tucked into it with great gusto, leaving Danica struggling with the quirky tastes and pining for her mum’s beef steak pie and wine dumplings. Images of her family flashed across her memory. She could still see the tears rolling down her mum’s face as she waved her off and the bear-like hug from her dad. Even so, Danica was too stunned and excited to believe she was going anywhere other than just down the road and not halfway around the world. As the gravity of the situation eventually dawned, a sudden bout of homesickness attacked the young woman and she felt the need for her dad’s reassuring arms and her mum’s familiar comfort. However, at her own pleading, she’d finally stepped out of the security of her childhood and now her parents were no longer within easy reach, forcing her to stand like an adult and push away the daunting shadows of faltering childish thought.

Rolling onto her side and with further opportunity for sleep forced away by the constant hum of the aircraft’s droning obscurity, Danica’s mind retraced the crazy circumstances surrounding the incredible events leading up to the impromptu journey so far. Mrs Couture’s pleading email and Anne-Claire’s terrible accident; the on-again-off-again decisions from her parents; and then finally Nan’s desire to accompany her on the trip of a lifetime clinched her mum and dad’s decision to eventually let her go.

Danica wore a blindfold and had taken a slight sedative to help her through the long, boring and confining jaunt from Pearl Springs to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport aboard Mr Strack’s small plane. However, the sedative hadn’t worked and had just made her drowsy, giving her a headache instead, even though the blindfold helped to allay the chronic fear of heights blocking out the frightening view… the worst part of the adventure to date. The next stage from Sydney to Dubai was a stress free first-class jaunt—nothing like Mr Strack’s pitching elevator ride—and seemed more like wandering around a flamboyant city shopping mall. Before Danica knew it, time had passed and they’d landed in a foreign country.

Unexpectedly, the bedroom lights blinked on, making Danica squint, followed by an announcement for passengers to stir from their sleep and prepare for landing at Geneva’s international airport in just barely over an hour. Hurried activity outside her door signalled the cabin staff were checking on their important guests, with the tantalising smells of fresh coffee and luxurious meals wafting throughout the giant aircraft’s lavish first-class section. After a quick shower in her private ensuite, Danica was dressed and ready for a hurried breakfast in the company of Nan, sharing Danica’s luxurious apartment for landing while her own remained unattended.

When the lumbering mechanised bird came in for the final line-up onto Geneva airport’s tarmac, Danica nervously watched a wall-mounted flat-screen monitor as the tail-cam gave an accurate picture of the aircraft’s approach with the airport lights growing larger as the craft lined up for the runway centre line. Another camera view panned across the early morning fairytale unfolding before Danica’s eyes, with millions of Geneva’s enchanting streetlights waving back in an orchestrated twinkling procession, seemingly welcoming the young Aussie beauty to the charming Suisse wonderland.

A sudden jolt and then a vivacious roar as the massive jet engines burst into full reverse-thrust, forcing the passengers’ bodies hard against their lap belts before the speeding five-star hotel finally began to slow. As Danica and Nan watched the television monitor, the lumbering aircraft diverted from the main runway and set a course for the brightly lit international arrivals terminal.

A heavy sigh escaping Madeline’s granddaughter alerted her to Danica’s anxious excitement, the same excitement she’d experienced the first time she’d flown to Guiana. Madeline reached for Danica’s hand. “It’s real, darling; you really are here!”

The anticipation had painted a healthy glow onto the young woman’s cheeks, but she still couldn’t believe she was in Switzerland, Anne-Claire’s home. A new nervous flush crossed her beautiful features, pondering whether Anne-Claire would still like her in person and if she was well enough to experience Switzerland’s abundant magical marvels together. Danica had a mind full of romantic images… castles and kings and handsome knights eager to sweep a young woman from her feet and steal her heart away to a life of blissful passion.

 

~