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One Lost Summer

One Lost Summer

prelude

The old woman took in the beach and the sunbathers with mixed feelings of envy and loathing. The capricious North Atlantic wind vacillated between tepid and icy, raising goosebumps on pallid, semi-nude flesh under a washed-out, slightly overcast sky; the sun, what there was of it, generated a blinding glare and little warmth. The beach itself could hardly be referred to as such: it consisted mainly of sea-mud, slime, rocks and barnacles; yet children of every age and disposition seemed happy enough to poke about this primordial tableaux, turning over rocks and driftwood, shrieking with fearful delight at the discovery of crawling, scuttling, slithering sea creatures that had been around since long before the dinosaurs.

Most of the sunbathers had arrived as whole families sometimes consisting of three entire generations; from the ancient that, sweatered and arms folded against the chill, sat motionless and stared disfocusedly at nature, sipping cocoa from time to time; to young adults that tried to converse together only to be interrupted by some screaming child’s minor mishap, followed by the tearful proffering of a stubbed toe or scraped knee to some parent’s judicious pronouncement that the injury was not life-threatening; to children of all ages that were lost entirely in the moment, perpetually busy with soon-forgotten things that, taken in their turn, seemed at the time to be all-important.

The old woman sighed, scanning the sunbathers with powerful binoculars, the raucous crying of gulls and pounding surf creating an irrythmic and timeless counterpoint to her artificially ordered and temporal thoughts.

‘Not a one. Not a single solitary one. Well, that’s another day wasted!’ She thought of her new home in France and felt a tremor of frustration. ‘This is ludicrous! When I lived here, on any given day I could have found a dozen or more! Wouldn’t you know it? I just had to go shooting my mouth off that I would just come here, get what was needed and be back within a fortnight!’

Even as she thought those words, a movement and a likely shape caught her eye.

‘What have we here? Ah, now . . . that’s more like it!’

Quickly gathering up her things and tossing them in a bag, she began scrambling up a nearby hill of rock for a better view; altogether a remarkable feat for an elderly woman dressed in baggy clothes, hatted and shawled so that no one could get a clear look at her face. The ease with which she climbed suggested a much younger woman, as did her eyes, which were clear and alert, free of the rheum typical of the aged. One again she got out her binoculars and began scanning the beach.

‘Now, my dear, let’s get a better look at you.’

A slender, sylph-like form, clad in navy blue bathing suit, came sharply into focus.

‘Good things come to she who waits! This one’s just the right age . . . the right look . . . yes, when the time comes . . . I have a feeling that this will be the one.’

The girl in question was tip-toeing over squishy, green-slimed sea-mud, wincing as half-hidden rocks, mussels and barnacles dug into her tender soles and insteps.

‘How odd . . . she’s so exactly what I was looking for that it’s almost as though she were exactly the one I was looking for . . .’

The old woman took out her camera and began snapping a constant stream of photos, catching the awkward slip of a girl in stroboscopic sequence.

‘I know you,’ the old woman said to herself. ‘I know that look. You’re alone in the world; probably already working for a living. You’re shy . . . easily intimidated . . . not the sort that turns heads. No . . . no man wants you, and you well know it. You’re the sort of girl that would make a good bank teller . . . always there like a stick of furniture, as forgotten as yesterday’s flowers the instant everyone else has left the room . . .’

The old woman felt absolutely no pity for the girl. She ticked these things off like necessary items on a shopping list and as quickly forgot them. She smiled, then, as the girl made her way to the water’s edge, hugging herself for warmth.

‘Little fool! The water’s far too cold, and now you’re going to have to walk all the way back up the beach. Thought you’d play in the water awhile and possibly catch some young man’s eye, did you? Ah, I know that look! You’re feeling hurt and foolish, suddenly aware of how cold you are, of how empty the day feels.’

The girl hesitated a long time, staring listlessly at the whitecapped, wind-swept sea full of crying gulls and terns and spinnakered sailboats, as though waiting for something or someone to come along and sweep her into that scene, where she would no longer be a spectator. But the wish remained just that- a wish- and as realisation set in something fundamental within her seemed to wither. Eventually, looking as bleak and empty and sad as her surroundings, she turned and began making her way back up the beach, avoiding eye-contact with the throngs of families she was forever disenfranchised from. Oddly, it seemed that she alone belonged in that scene, that the colourful and busy crouds of people were like itinerant migratory birds that might alight and disperse at a moment’s notice.

The old woman was soon packed and ready and waiting in her car, watching and waiting for the girl to climb the short hill to the road. As the old woman suspected, the girl hadn’t come by automobile. Dressed now in a faded pink-flowered print dress and flat-bottomed shoes, the girl came trudging up to the bicycle stand, found her own, a single-speed relic with a basket into which she tossed the string-bag that contained her bathing suit and towel, and then she was off.

The girl lived not far away, in a rented room in an old, run-down house. Finding out the girl’s name was a simple matter: her last name was on a letterbox. The old woman checked inside this and found some mail that hadn’t yet been touched.

‘Got you! Now, all I have to do is keep track of you and the other candidates until the time comes. But the others . . . no, I think you’re the one. Of course, you can never be entirely sure about this sort of thing, but every bone in my body tells me that you’re the one we’re after.’

Oblivious, the young girl lay on her bed upstairs, sobbing brokenly.

1

Kirstie started awake, heart hammering, the alarm subjecting her heart to its name and function. And that other noise, what was it called? a klaxon? What was going on? What-

This is the captain speaking. All passengers proceed immediately to the promenade deck where you will be issued life-preservers. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. Please proceed in an orderly fashion to the promenade deck. This-”

-was utter madness! What was going on? The first real vacation she ever had and it’s spoilt by some sort of . . . surely the ship wasn’t sinking?

Without warning her tiny cabin was plunged into darkness. Fighting down the urge to panic she began groping blindly in the dark, fumbling for her battered wreck of a suitcase, looking for something to wear. What was this? A dress? A slip? Maybe a dress, the sheer one she knew she’d never have the nerve to wear, but had purchased only yesterday, motivated by some naïve notion that if she somehow worked up the courage to wear it that good things would follow. It had cost her a small fortune, both financially and personally. Feeling betrayed she flung it aside, somehow knowing that she would never see it again, that the cruel truth of dreams was that they were meaningless. Fumbling about in frustration, she selected something that she could recognise: a pair of ratty slacks made for bumming about in and a heavy T-shirt. Nothing else made any sense . . . all her undergarments felt the same in the dark. And socks! If only she could find her travel bag! No, forget it, there wasn’t time, the captain had just said so! She found her sandals and slipped them on; without socks they felt five sizes too big, the uncushioned leather cold, hard, slippery, and strangely foreign against her bare feet. Right! Now, where’s the promenade deck? Kirstie left her cabin and found the corridor dimly lighted by emergency lights. Was it her imagination, or was the ship listing to one side? Where was everyone? How much time did she have? She began walking, hoping to encounter someone who could tell her what was going on, but as in a nightmare she was met only with empty corridors and silence. Fear goading her on, feeding upon itself until it became open panic, she found herself running, sobbing for breath, sandals flapping . . . until at last one of them came off, was lost somewhere in the dark. The other quickly followed, flung away with a small animal noise of frustration. At last she came to one of the observation rooms-

It was as dark and empty as a subterranean cavern. As abruptly, the emergency lights went out, both klaxon and alarm bell stopped, and for an interminable moment her ears rang with silence. She cried out in alarm as she felt the ship begin to shudder, violently. The sudden din sent an ice-pick of fear into her vitals, and fear quickly turned to unreasoning panic as she felt the great vessel unmistakably heel over.

I’ve got to get out of here! She began making her way by feel to where she thought she remembered the staircase to be, but for a long moment kept running into walls and obstacles and locked doors. All the while the ship, wracked by deafening vibration, rolled, heeled over until the floor beneath her became a hill.

At last, tripping over the landing, she began a stumbling ascent. What was it she had just been told? Do not, under any circumstances, head for the outside doors which lead to the unprotected areas of the ship. What did that mean, anyway? All the outside areas were unprotected, weren’t they? At last, stumbling over something as she reached the top landing, her fumbling hands found the door by feel, wondering if it, too, was locked, and pulled. To her relief, it opened-

Too quickly for her thoughts to register what had happened, she was sucked from the doorway by the blast of wind, was blown along, scudding like a leaf, sent sliding along the spume-slick deck of the ship which was rising, rising, lifting itself ever skyward, increasing the angle so that she accelerated towards the stern of the ship-

NO!-’

-like a sail ripped from its mast in a gale, fluttering lifelessly away in the clutches of the storm, her scream was torn from her lips by the howling blast that sent her hurtling headlong, straight for the steel guardrail . . . by some miracle she missed it by a hair’s breadth, was flung through the air like a rag doll, plunging, spinning through the air head over heels . . . until at last she slammed face-first into the ice-cold water . . . within seconds she had bobbed back to the surface, thrashing wildly, desperate, choking stertorously, fighting for breath.

‘Oh, God! I can’t swim! I can’t-’

A sudden uplifting, roiling surge of water and she was tumbling over and over, unable to tell which way was up or down, reflexively inhaling when she tried to cry out in alarm, instantly wracked by spasms of choking- only to be flung gasping to the surface again, coughing and breathing in whooping sobs as she tried desperately to expel burning salt water and cloying sea-death from her lungs, terrified beyond words-

‘Hu-ck . . . uh . . . oh, God! Please! I don’t want to die like this-’

And again the sea pressing her down, murderously, ruthlessly-

Her arm struck something hard and she grabbed onto whatever it was . . . an irregularly-shaped piece of wood or something, studded with barnacles, slick with slimy, living things that otherwise would have made her skin crawl . . . but it was floating, that was all that mattered. She threw her arms around it, hugging its slippery irregular hardness, choking on the brackish salt water that burned her lungs, fighting to draw in sweet, clean air, to-

The next wave bore her bit of flotsam upwards, almost tearing it from her grasp, but she held on with grim, desperate determination. She looked about, wildly, seeing nothing but the arcane movement of enormous black hills, the grey-on-black shapes of scudding, storm-strewn clouds. It was so dark! There was no light anywhere. Where was everyone? Where was the ship? What had happened to the other passengers? Surely they hadn’t all drowned?

For the longest time her world was a nightmare study of black on black . . . of massive, slow-moving shapes and shadows . . . a destructive display of power on an incomprehensible scale, simply for its own sake . . . the living handiwork of some mad, evil god.

At last, out of the corner of her eye, her attention was caught by a deeper shade of black possessed of straight lines and an overall angular shape, and she watched in despair as the cruise ship receded, silent as a ghost, inexorable as an island, into that roiling blackness, plowing through the churning waters. It took her a moment to realise that the ship was not sinking, that she had fallen overboard, that she was alone, that she was very probably going to die out here.

This can’t be happening! I’m only nineteen! What-

Something touched her back. She cried out in alarm, turned to look . . . but there was nothing.

Mom! Mommy! Mom! Mo-o-om!’

That couldn’t possibly be her, screaming hysterically for her long-dead mother? That sort of thing didn’t happen in real life, did it?

Just a few days ago, it seemed forever, something good had actually happened to her, or so she’d thought. She had won a contest, the ticket having been sold to her by an old woman who had approached her on the street. She had purchased the ticket, not hoping to win anything, but out of pity for the old woman. Only a matter of days later, in an unbelieving daze, she had boarded a train from Essex to London, had gone by bus to Heathrow, and from there had been flown to Bordeaux, France, where she boarded a ship bound for the Mediterranean. And now . . .

And now, the little waitress from Essex was about to meet her maker! Weeping in terror and frustration, all hope died within her as she caught one last glimpse of the ship, a darkness that was not a darkness receding inexorably away from her, swallowed up by the rain-soaked air and spume. She pushed her short, water plastered hair out of her face, her soft brown eyes wide and pleading. The worst of it was that no one would miss her, that she would go out of this life as inconsequentially and insignificantly as she had passed through it, a petite, unnoticeable little girl who had never caught a man’s eye, who had never experienced much of anything except watching the gentry stuff their faces, oblivious to her presence unless they wanted something: their attentions towards her almost invariably self-serving and condescending . . .

It had been like that for her from the very beginning, it seemed; that life itself was some sort of cruel joke had at her expense.

‘No! Can’t fall asleep! Mustn’t fall asleep! Stay awake! Mom . . . please . . .help me . . . help me Mom . . . don’t let me die like this-’

She thought herself delirious when her pleas were suddenly answered: in her mind’s eye there suddenly stood a clear image of her mother. Her mien was imploring . . . it seemed she was trying to warn Kirstie of something . . . at last it dawned on Kirstie that the cold Atlantic was numbing her senses, finding another more insidious way to drag her down into oblivion . . .

Move!” A voice inside her head told her. “Keep moving! Try to stay warm!”

Without volition she obeyed, kicking her legs which were becoming stiff and leaden with cold.

But- what was that? Where was that noise coming from? It sounded almost like . . .

It was! She could hear breakers! But from where? Pale and blue-lipped, juddering with cold, she cast her eyes about desperately, trying to locate its source. There! A seething line of white in the distance, and a blackness beyond. Surely that wasn’t the coast? Not here!

No, that wasn’t possible. The ship had been too far out to sea for her to have made it to the coast so quickly. So where was she then? An island? Yes, that had to be it. And- lights! She could see the lights of some sort of building, coming into view around from behind the dense foliage at the edge of the shoreline, near to the approaching beach. There looked to be a cottage . . .

By some stroke of dumb luck, by the time she came even with the cottage her feet touched bottom-

A sudden wave bore her up, then hurled her down again upon some hard surface. She cried out in agony as the edges of mussels gouged her instep; she could tell that she had been cut deeply by the way they tore into the tender soles of her feet. Ignoring the pain she clutched her buoy tightly and made for the beach which loomed before her . . .

She drew near shore with surprising speed, but at the sight of it she wailed in disbelief! It was too steep, a hill of black, glistening, rattling pebbles against which the breakers pounded in and broke like thunder incarnate; rolled back, pounded in again and rolled back like a relentless, unfathomable machine of destruction. She and her little piece of flotsam were going to be smashed to bits on the rocks!

A sound caught her attention! Voices. She scanned the beach whitely, spotted a couple strolling along, talking quietly together, their conversing surprisingly clear and close sounding, carried across the water by the wind.

Help! Oh, God! Please help me!’

The couple stopped in alarm, the white ovals of their faces jerking towards the sea and blackness.

‘Hu- help! I’m here! I’m in the water! Please!’

At once, one of them, the young man, judging by the way he began running, came generally in her direction.

‘Keep calling! I can’t see you!’

His voice sounded clear and strong, and she obeyed, yelling until she became hoarse. Almost without breaking step he was tearing off sweater and shoes, running headlong down the beach, plunging into the surf, swimming towards her, his movements strong and certain. Almost too soon to be believed he was by her side, treading water.

‘Hold up! Don’t grab on to me like that! Just let yourself relax and let me do the rest, you understand me?’ Despite his words, for a moment he had stared at her as though in shock.

Though her ability to comprehend seemed rendered almost completely insensate by the cold North Atlantic, she obeyed automatically, releasing her hold on the object that had saved her, part of her mentally thanking it as though it were a friend. She glanced up at the beach but there was no sign of her rescuer’s companion.

‘Manon has gone for help,’ he said, guessing her thought. ‘Now, just lay back and let me do the rest. Just roll with the waves and try to relax. We’re going to have to conserve our energy, tread water until help arrives. As you may have noticed, getting into the water in this place is easy. Getting out again-’ he made a derisive sound. ‘That is another story.’ His accent was decidedly French- they evidently hadn’t got very far before the ship ran into trouble.

Before too long the sound of shouting caught her attention. Dimly illuminated by the lights from a house further on down the beach she saw a knot of people scurrying towards the water carrying a yellow inflatable. Three times, as they threw themselves into the pounding surf, the craft and its occupants were hurled back by the churning spume, and three times they fought it upright, began bailing, muscular shoulders heaving frantically at paddles. All this began to become very distant to Kirstie as the cold leached away the last of her reserves, and even as her rescuers drew near she felt herself falling, tumbling, forever downwards into blackness and oblivion.

She came to a short while later in the throes of delirium, coughing up the burning liquid someone had forced between her teeth. Then came an interminable pounding on her back; all she wanted to do was sleep- but at once she was wracked by spasms of coughing, and at last, upended and whooping for breath, lungs burning, she felt she could breathe once more.

At once, all was confusion as she was blinded by light, her rescuers yelling and waving . . . and then they were being pulled out of the inflatable into an old wooden fishing vessel. Kirstie flopped to the bottom like a fish falling out of a net, unable to bear her own weight, while the others rolled deftly aboard. A dark man wearing a black sweater and black Greek fisherman’s cap said something to her in French.

Anglais, Jacques!’ her rescuer shouted over the throb of the boat’s diesel engines and the pounding of the surf as the yellow inflatable was pulled aboard.

‘Ah, oui? Mademoiselle, how on earth did you come to be here?’

‘I-’ she stuttered, her teeth chattering (or was it that she was going into shock?), ‘I g-got . . . I f-fell off a . . . a c-cruise ship.’

Mon Dieux! You have no idea . . .’ the man said in an odd, almost theatrical tone, though perhaps her senses deceived her. ‘It’s a miracle you came to be here. This is an island in the middle of nowhere . . . the coast is miles away. You would never have made it.’

She could only listen to his words. They seemed devoid of meaning, of . . .

Someone wrapped a warm, heavy blanket around her shaking shoulders, and at once she began weeping.

What a stupid thing to happen! What an unbelievably stupid, stupid thing . . .

The trip seemed to take forever, but at last they came to a breakwater, passed through into calmer waters, finally arriving at a marina where she was hurriedly carried off the boat by her rescuer, wrapped in a blanket against the elements. She could feel the rise and fall of the dock, the capricious blasts of wind that jarred her and her rescuer together; all about them boats bumped and creaked in their berths while creosote-blackened piles groaned and shuddered, but her rescuer navigated this endlessly shifting highway with a reassuring, casual ease.

He carried her up a long gangway and straight to a small building set on the highest piles which were set at shore-level for the benefit of passenger and service vehicles: on this was a medical station set amidst several businesses and ticket offices. The lights inside were on, the door held open for them by a woman who squinted teary-eyed into the wind, her hair savagely whipped about her face by the sea-spray-edged gale. Once inside, as the door shut, the ambience suddenly became close and still, except for the rattling of the windowpanes and the sound of rain on the windows and roof. A middle-aged woman, possibly a paramedic or doctor, took in the girl’s visage at a glance and smiled.

‘You’re the one, eh? Here, put her on the examination table, will you?’ she said to Kirstie’s rescuer. ‘Now, young Miss, let’s have a look at you . . . nurse, come, help her out of her clothes . . . there are gowns in the drawer underneath the sink,’ she added in French. ‘Wrap her in warm towels, first, get some of the chill out of her. You will find hot towels in the -’ she said words that Kirstie didn’t understand. The doctor held a sheet so as to discreetly block Kirstie’s nudity from the others; soon the other woman returned with hot towels with which she began swathing the girl from head to toe . . . the sensation was immediate, and it was pure heaven; within an instant she was drifting in wakeful somnolence; meanwhile, the doctor’s face creased in a frown of empathy as she began to examine Kirstie’s throbbing foot. To a man hidden from Kirstie’s view, the woman said, in French that Kirstie was partly able to make out, ‘Jean, radio the authorities will you? Tell them- young lady, what is your full name and date of birth? And who is your next of kin?’ This, in English. Kirstie mumbled a response and the woman relayed the information. ‘Tell them that we have their missing passenger, a young female, Kirstie Brighton, 19 years of age; that she suffers from non life-threatening injuries . . . a few cuts and exposure.

‘There, now,’ the woman said in English. ‘They will radio the ship and the authorities to let them know that you are all right.’ Working her hands into a pair of latex gloves, she began examining the girl’s foot, gently enough not to be rough, but firmly enough to cause pain. The woman winced in empathy. ‘The cuts may become infected . . . and I am afraid you’re going to need stitches-’

Kirstie paled. ‘No!’ She winced at the sound of her own voice, which sounded like that of a whimpering child. Then, trying to sound brave, she queried, ‘How many?’

The doctor inclined her head in a way that was distinctly French and said cryptically, smiling to herself at Kirstie’s transparency, ‘Oh, a few.’

Trying to ignore what the doctor was doing to her foot, trembling from the aftereffect of her ordeal, Kirstie began speaking to her rescuer, who had seated himself nearby. ‘Where’s the girl you were with? She must be worried sick!’

‘Manon?’ he replied. ‘Not to worry. She knows where I am.’

She tried to smile in return but found herself stung with jealousy and sadness, thinking that he was very good looking, strong, and athletic, the sort of man she had always dreamed about, the sort of man who would never look at a girl like her with anything like interest! No, like all men he was unavailable and soon she would never see him again, and she would be on her way home-

The very thought of returning home made her feel desolate. She had wanted, had needed to get away for so long, and now this!

‘I’m sorry,’ he said quietly, contritely, sensing something of her mood. ‘Guess this has ruined your vacation, eh? Your young man and your family must be very worried.’

Her reaction caused him to rise from his seat, to approach her, his expression unreadable. With a curious diffidence that suggested some underlying internal tension, seemingly unable to look directly into her eye, he said quietly, ‘Have you no one? Is there someone we can contact?’

Feeling shy, ashamed of her appearance, she found herself muttering, ‘My mother . . . she died when I was very small. I’ve got a stepsister named Elaine-’

Her rescuer’s eyes narrowed as he considered her more directly. Gesturing with his head, he said, ‘You mean that one? The one on television?’

Kirstie turned her head in surprise to see Elain’s exquisite, confident and professional features. She was being interviewed, her words translated into French. Kirstie ignored the translation, found herself half listening to the words instead, until she heard-

doesn’t surprise me a bit. That’s Kirstie . . . she’s always been accident prone

‘Please, turn it off!’

She hadn’t realised she had cried out and was weeping until her rescuer, his eyes filled with questions, did as she asked, over the protestations of those who watched the news. Oblivious, Kirstie muttered bitterly, ‘Accident prone! She wasn’t the one who was always getting slapped around-’

Unnoticed by her, her rescuer gave her a sharp look.

Though it felt like she had only drifted off for a minute or so, she could tell that it was some time before it was all over, her foot cleaned, disinfected and sewn (nearly thirty tiny stitches in all), dressed and swathed in warm bandages. Seeing that she was awake the doctor helped her into a gown and robe and had her wet belongings placed in a plastic bag.

‘Thanks,’she barely remembered to mutter, wanting only to lose herself in sleep. The doctor’s face filled the girl vision, briefly, stroked her face, said some quiet words to her rescuer, patted the girl’s knee and promptly left.

This was followed by an uncomfortable silence. After a long while her rescuer cleared his throat. ‘I suppose that now we’ll have to find you someplace to stay. I mean, for a while at least, you will have to stay with my sister . . . and me.’

‘I heard you talking. Why wouldn’t any of the others take me in? They sounded almost afraid!’

He watched her reaction carefully as he said, ‘They are superstitious. A little girl was drowned off that beach fourteen years ago. She would have been nineteen this year. Like you.’

Kirstie gave a little shudder, despite the fact that she didn’t believe in such things. But just for a moment she felt as though she was that little girl, dragged out to sea, her mother looking on, horrified, helpless, while her little girl cried out in terror . . .

‘Anyway,’ her rescuer said brusquely, seeing her reaction, ‘that leaves only me. But at least,’ he added distantly, in a way that was somehow old-fashioned, ‘my sister will be there, so there will be no talk.’

Kirstie frowned. ‘Talk?’

‘Talk,’ he said quietly, darkly, causing a sudden fear to stir in Kirstie’s vitals. For a brief instant there was something dark and inscrutable about this man, which served to remind her that she had noticed a deference bordering on fear when the others had been here. Now that she was alone with him she could well understand why.

‘A young virgin as yourself,’ he added, to make himself plain, ‘requires a chaperone on this island.’

Kirstie could only gape, caught between outrage and an unnatural desire to laugh.

What- how did you . . . how could you possibly know that?’

‘The doctor checked while you were asleep,’ he told her as though announcing the weather. ‘There were rumours . . . the authorities wanted to know if you had been sexually assaulted, and you were not awake to be questioned.’

Kirstie covered her face with her hands, mortified, hurt, angry. ‘So now the whole world knows! I don’t know why I should care . . . the only way I could ever get a man’s attention is if I lit myself on fire, or jumped off a building . . .’

With brusque gentleness, her rescuer said, ‘Look, you’ve had a very bad time of it and you’re in shock. Now, I am going to take you home with me, my sister will take care of you, and that is that.’

‘I can’t go with you! Besides, I haven’t got any money to pay you with. What little I had was on the ship.’

‘Do not worry about money,’ he said firmly. ‘You will be my . . . our guest. And as far as the ship is concerned-’ His shrug said eloquently, We both know it’s long gone, now don’t we?

A curious feeling came over her, then; it was as though she had been relieved of all choice in the matter; and in that same instant something in her let go, allowed him to take control of her life. She thought she should be angry or ashamed at this, but instead found that she could only feel a detached sense of comfort and relief. Raising her eyes to his own, which were a disconcerting sea-blue, she said, ‘I don’t even know your name.’

‘Thomas Brouillard,’ he replied stiffly, as though stating a title of some importance, watching her carefully as though waiting for some reaction. Apparently seeing none, though seemingly surprised by the fact, he added, ‘And you? I thought I heard Christie-

‘Kirstie,’ she corrected, yawning, half asleep. ‘Kirstie Brighton.’

He was silent a moment, considering her. At last, he said, ‘Well, Kirstie Brighton, let’s say we bring this unpleasant adventure to a close, eh?’

He wrapped her warmly once more in a heavy grey blanket the colour of lowering cloud, picked up her belongings, and carried her back outside into the bite of the storm.

A dozen vehicles of various descriptions awaited in the parking lot, his own turning out to be a maroon Citroën convertible, which, he explained, had been fetched by one of his neighbours. Hunching over to protect her from the driving rain, he skilfully shifted her to one knee and opened the door, then placed her carefully in the passenger seat. Within moments they were under way on the narrow island road, tyres hissing on the wet pavement, wipers sluicing away the downpour and thumping rhythmically. Along the drive, dripping trees and foliage drew close, canopying the road in several places. It was, Kirstie mused through her dreamlike reverie, probably a beautiful drive during the day.

The journey took longer than she’d expected, and she was just beginning to wonder how large the island really was when she fell asleep. Shortly, she was startled into wakefulness, finding that they’d stopped at a dirt and gravel parking lot. Once more Thomas shifted her into his arms and carried her down a long walk made from wide pairs of planks laid end to end, down to where the cottage lay, and finally they arrived at the back door, which he opened, then shouldered closed, shutting out the wind and rain. It was very quiet and close in the cabin; the lights were on, and an attractive girl with thick blonde hair, dressed in canvas pants and ivory-coloured cable-knit sweater was laying on a sofa by the window, kicking one bare foot absently, drinking cocoa and reading a book. Seeing the two, she got to her feet, and Kirstie saw that Thomas’ sister was taller than herself, but was half a head shorter than her brother.

The moment she saw Kirstie the girl’s eyes became wary and she frowned at her brother speculatively. Then, seeming to remember herself, she said, ‘Is that her?’ Making an extra effort to compose herself, she said, ‘Your name must be Kirstie Brighton. It’s all over the media,’ she added, responding to the girl’s baffled look.. ‘You’re so lucky to be alive!’

As she spoke her brother placed the girl on the sofa so that she lay propped up on some cushions.

‘So, is it Kirstie or Christie? Kirstie? I thought that’s what they were saying on the news, but I couldn’t be sure. That’s an unusual sort of name! Are you hungry? Thomas?’

‘I am famished,’ he said tiredly, taking Kirstie’s wet clothes and hanging them by the woodstove.

Kirstie mutely nodded her assent, feeling shy, unsure of herself in the face of this girl’s confident directness.

‘I’ll make us a big omelette, how will that be?’ Manon said, giving Kirstie another look, as though ascertaining whether or not she was real. ‘It won’t take a minute. Your foot, does it hurt?’

Kirstie flexed it, and winced. Uncomfortable being waited on, she added, ‘Can I help?’

Taking in Kirstie’s bandaged foot at a glance, Manon made a disparaging face that reminded Kirstie of Thomas. Before beginning the omelette, she reached up to a top shelf, brought down a tin full of medicaments, took out a pill bottle, shook two into her hand, poured a glass of water, and brought them to Kirstie.

‘Here. And don’t worry, I have some nurse’s training. These are good for pain, and in an hour’s time or so you will sleep like a baby. That will give you plenty of time to eat and to relax.’ She went back to work making the omelette. Thomas, meanwhile, left the two to go into the bathroom. Shortly there came the sound of a shower running.

‘They said you were missing and feared drowned,’ Manon continued as she diced vegetables and meat, began breaking eggs. She worked in silence for some time, during which Kirstie almost fell asleep. But at last Manon said, ‘Please do not be insulted, but I did not like your sister, the one who kept appearing on television. If you don’t mind my saying so, she seems a bitch!’

Unnoticed by Manon, at this, Kirstie reddened and looked away.

‘They say the ship was in some sort of trouble, but that they got it under control, and that you had got lost somehow in the confusion.’

Kirstie felt sick. And faint. She blurted, ‘I did such a stupid thing! I went outside when I wasn’t supposed to and got blown overboard- it was dark, and I couldn’t see anything, and I panicked . . .’

There was an embarrassed silence as Manon waited for her to calm down. She seemed to be waiting for some reaction from her brother, who had just returned from his quick shower, towelling his hair dry. At last, seeing none, she went to the girl herself and sat beside her. ‘Shush, now. It’s over. Why don’t you lay down, try to relax and be quiet for a while.’

No!’ Kirstie cried in alarm. ‘If I fall asleep, I won’t be able to wake up again.’

‘Well . . .’ Manon smiled, but at whatever it was she saw in the girl, ‘for now, okay.’

Within minutes the three were eating an absolutely delicious omelette, Thomas and Manon at the small table which they had moved near to the couch for Kirstie’s benefit.

‘This is fantastic,’ Kirstie said in appreciation, drawing a smug smile from Manon.

‘She’s the best,’ Thomas said without inflection, through Kirstie thought she could hear overtones of affection in his voice. ‘And she knows it, too. If you ask her nicely, she’ll show you the knack of it sometime.’

Manon gave her brother a long look, eyebrows upraised, head lowered, which said eloquently, Oh, and what is going on here?

Thomas seemed reluctant to respond to his sister’s reaction, however, but was spared her scrutiny when Kirstie muttered, ‘I’m sorry . . . my head’s spinning . . . must be those pills-’

The next thing she knew, she was laying on a bed next to Manon, who was reading.

‘While you’re still awake,’ Manon said brusquely, ‘put this on.’ She handed Kirstie a long, heavy sweatshirt. ‘That hospital gown you’re wearing has no back to it.’

‘Where do I change-?’

‘What? Oh, you Anglais! If you’re being modest, I won’t watch!’ She opened the book she was reading and covered her face.

Feeling shy, that her legs were too rubbery to carry her all the way to the bathroom, Kirstie quickly doffed her robe and gown at the edge of the bed, and pulled the huge shirt, obviously a man’s, over her head. It came almost to her knees.

‘Don’t you look cute!’ Manon said with a smile. ‘And very tired. Come, get into bed before you fall down.’

Kirstie practically collapsed onto the bed and clumsily pulled the covers over herself with Manon’s help, having had enough unwanted attention for one day. For a lifetime, for that matter. She ran her hands through her short, dark brown, salt-tousled hair, grateful to be laying down, the tension leaving her body at last. The soft bed and the smell of clean linen alone almost carried her off . . .

In a matter-of-fact tone, not taking her attention from her book, Manon said, ‘Thomas will very much like that pert little sylph-like body of yours, you know.’

You said you wouldn’t peek!’ Kirstie knew from the hot feel of her cheeks that she was crimson from head to toe.

Manon chuckled and playfully tucked Kirstie in. ‘Of course I peeked! I was curious about what it is about you that so consumes my brother’s attention.’

Kirstie could only stare, wondering if there was some hidden cruelty to Manon’s words. At last, unable to contain herself, she queried, ‘What makes you think he’s the least bit interested in me?’

‘Thomas,’ Manon said distractedly, getting into her book once more, ‘does not bring girls home. Not ever. Such a thing has not happened before.’

‘He doesn’t even know me! What makes you think I don’t already have . . . someone.’

Manon gave her an old-fashioned look. ‘While you were asleep on the sofa, he told me that you told him so yourself at the clinic. Here, would you like an apple?’ Before Kirstie could reply, Manon handed her one, picked up another from her night-stand, began munching away and went back to reading. ‘As well, someone on the news said that you were a single woman, travelling alone. You know, Thomas is going to just love those two little moles of yours.’

Kirstie had just taken a bite and was staring at Manon uncertainly, prepared for some further humiliation.

‘What moles?’

‘Oh, the nice little round one on that pert little derriere of yours-’

Kirstie moaned with embarrassment and pulled the covers up over her head. Eventually, she muttered, ‘You-! I didn’t even know I had one there.’

‘And that other one,’ Manon told her, grinning wickedly as she read her book, ‘at the top of your thigh, right beside your-’

you had no right to look there!

well it was impossible not to notice! You’ve almost got no hair down there

Kirstie made an incoherent noise.

‘You should count yourself lucky! I had to have the electrolysis to get rid of-’

You . . . French! I don’t want to hear this!’

‘Well, you had better get used to it. After all, we are going to be sisters.’

Kirstie ventured a peek at her. ‘What makes you say that?’

Manon smiled a secret smile. ‘Oh . . . call it my instincts.’

‘What makes you think that I’m not going home in a few days?’

Manon closed her book, lay down, reached across and tousled Kirstie’s salt-stiff hair. ‘I should have made you take a shower. But- in the morning! As far as your staying here is concerned, call it intuition, if you like. If not . . . you don’t need me to tell you that won’t happen.’

Kirstie stared at Manon, eyes wide. Somehow, she knew that Manon was right. For no apparent reason, she felt very much as though she actually . . . not belonged, exactly, at least, not yet . . . but that she was supposed to be here.

‘What could your brother possibly see in someone like me?’

‘Truthfully?’ Manon said, her look becoming serious. For a moment her gaze turned inward. ‘The less said, the better, for the moment. Soon, you will see for yourself. But . . . not yet. Not now. Little by little, or you might be scared off, and if that were to happen, Thomas would not be pleased.’

Kirstie lay awake for some time, Manon’s words making sleep elusive.

‘Manon-?’

‘At last,’ the French girl rolled her eyes in mock consternation, ‘she knows my name!’

‘What? Your accent . . . where’d you learn to speak English?’

Manon smiled. ‘Canada, a bit. State, a bit. Africa, a bit. Australia, New Zealand-’

Feeling intimidated, Kirstie blurted without thinking, ‘Where’d you get the money to travel like that?’

‘Didn’t Thomas tell you?’ Manon said in a way that was somehow evasive. ‘We own a little business, jointly, with Alain.’

‘Alain?’

‘My other brother. The married one, which is why he’s not here. And don’t ask me who is oldest. We are the three of us of one birth.’

‘Wow.’ What else was there to say to that?

‘Alain’s wife’s name is, was, Heather McNaughton. Like you, she is a difficult English girl. You will meet them in the morning.’

‘What makes you think Thomas even likes me?’ Kirstie persisted, wondering, not commenting on the origin of the name McNaughton.

Manon smiled to herself. ‘Thomas is a rare breed. And he’s my favourite brother. My bon ami. I know him better than he knows himself. He’s got the depth, that one. But you watch, tomorrow he will ask you to remain here.’

Not believing Manon for an instant, yawning, Kirstie said, ‘Did Alain come to Heather’s rescue?’

Manon smiled and shook her head. ‘Heather came here on vacation a few years ago with some friends. Alain picked her out, persuaded her to abandon her friends and to stay on. And that, as they say, was that.’

Hovering near sleep, speaking without thinking, Kirstie muttered, ‘So, does Heather have any little moles or beauty marks?’

Manon, sleepy herself, chuckled. ‘Oh, yes. She has one-’

sorry I asked

on the bottom of her left breast, another

I really don’t want to know

on the lower part of her tummy, and

Kirstie put her hands over her ears, trying unsuccessfully to shut out the sound of Manon’s voice-

‘-another very pretty one on that voluptuous derriere of hers. She’s a very attractive young woman . . . but not petite and cute like yourself. You are more Thomas’ type.’

Kirstie groaned. ‘Look, I’m probably going home in a few days.’

Again, that knowing smile as Manon said, ‘Ah, oui? Let’s just see what happens, eh?’

Kirstie began to ponder, but Manon closed the light, and the darkness seemed suddenly to close in as her light-blindness cleared, to sap her last reserves, sending her plunging beneath waves of remembered movement upon the sea and into a dark, safe place where she curled up and hid herself, wondering vaguely whether the morrow would make nonsense of all that she and Manon had discussed, or whether the unimaginable would happen, that it would bring Thomas to her . . .

And then what?

But no, the real world wasn’t like that. Manon was just having it on at her expense. Or was she? Nothing made sense . . .

Except the comforting darkness and sleep that enveloped her in languid waves of forgetfulness and warmth.

She awoke to find herself entangled in Manon’s arms, head pillowed on the older girl’s breast. Manon was awake, tousling Kirstie’s hair as though she were a child.

‘You sleep like a little baby,’ Manon told her with a smile, kissing the bridge of her nose. ‘Come, my little angel. We will go have a shower-’

Together?’

Manon gave her a look. ‘But of course, together! We have to be chary with our water, living as we do on an island.’ Taking the younger girl’s hand, leading her, she urged in a tone which brooked no refusal, ‘Come! Mind your foot . . . walk on the heel.’

‘My bandage’ll get wet-!’

‘I will change it afterwards. A good soaking will do you good.’

They passed Thomas in the kitchen who looked a tacit question at his sister. For answer, Manon gave him a knowing smile, and led the limping Kirstie to the bathroom. They were no sooner inside with the door closed than Manon was out of her bedclothes and in the shower. Kirstie followed suit, but so shyly that she was unable to meet the older girl’s eye. Manon’s complete nonchalance put her somewhat at ease, however, and she was soon standing under the steaming water with her as though it were the most natural thing in the world. From time to time Kirstie even found herself looking surreptitiously at Manon’s lithe, athletic body-

Unable not to stare, she blurted, ‘You’ve got a tattoo!’

Manon smiled, pleased. It was on her lower abdomen, about where an appendix scar would be.

‘You like it?’

‘What is it?’

‘Take a closer look.’

Kirstie did so. It was a perfect miniature of an exotic tropical paradise that suggested an island, centred by an exquisite, beautiful bird, standing alone on a rocky crag above the waves.

‘It’s gorgeous!’ She exclaimed in awe.

Manon’s smile showed her pride in the work. ‘A real artist did that.’

‘Yes . . . I can see that! . . . the detail! I’ve never seen anything like it!’

‘You would you like one like that?’

Kirstie withdrew, flustered. She had always absolutely hated tattoos! But this one . . . she found herself more than a little envious.

‘Where’d you get it?’

‘That is what Alain does for a hobby. He’s very much in demand.’

‘But . . . I could never afford something like that.’

‘Oh, I think perhaps something could be arranged,’ Manon told her cryptically.

‘Does . . . does Thomas have one?’

‘Thomas,’ Manon told her candidly, thoughtfully, ‘is a bit funny where tattoos are concerned. He likes them on women . . . artistic ones like this. But he decidedly does not like such adornment on men. Nor does Alain, for that matter. Neither of them have a single one.’

‘Does Heather?’

‘Ah,’ Manon said, her low, husky voice betraying her own jealousy, and some other, more subdued emotion. ‘You should see the one Alain did for her! It is here, on her shoulder-blade; it is an incredibly beautiful forest nymph. Now that one is a work of art to die for! Thomas . . .’ Her reply, though straightforward, belied hidden undercurrents. ‘. . . it holds a great deal of meaning for him. Also, it is good for business. That’s the thing about tattoos: they are a walking advertisement. Alain gets a lot of tourists, many of whom take the trouble to come here to seek him out.’

‘But . . . I thought . . . you said something about the three of you having a business together?’

‘We do, yes.’

‘Well . . . may I ask what it is?’

Manon gave her an oblique look. ‘You may ask. What is your interest?’

‘I didn’t mean to be rude,’ Kirstie blurted. ‘It’s just that . . . well . . . I’m sort of in a bind right now. I don’t want to go back. But I’m going to need a little help getting a job if I’m going to stay here.’

Manon’s features were a study in relief, and disbelief. ‘A job?’

‘You know? As in working for a living?’

Abruptly, Manon smiled once more, though disparagingly. ‘Come,’ she said, turning off the water, ‘let’s get dressed and have breakfast. Poor Thomas is probably starving by now. You slept a long time-’

‘What? Why did you let me?’

‘That’s a silly thing to ask, considering what you’d been through!’ She smiled, suddenly. ‘Did I not say that you wouldn’t soon be leaving here?’

Kirstie had to mentally gape at herself. The decision had been made utterly without conscious thought or volition on her part.

‘And don’t be silly about a job! You are going to have to learn to speak French fluently, first.’ Becoming cryptic once more, she added, ‘You will soon find yourself busy enough. But come! Let’s see if we can’t find something for you to wear.’

The shorts, turquoise-blue sweater and shirt were much too large, but Thomas took in her short, dark brown tousled hair and dark eyebrows on pale skin, her appealing features and her petite stature, with a look that, though guarded, was somehow relieved or satisfied, she thought.

‘How’s our little invalid?’

Kirstie shrugged as she sat down across from him, pulling her hands out of the over-long sleeves.

‘I see you’re like my sister. You like to wear my clothes.’

Surprised, Kirstie looked a question at Manon, who had set to making breakfast. ‘I thought you’d like that,’ she told her brother, smiling smugly to herself.

Their behaviour caused Kirstie to want to ask questions, but at that moment the back door opened and two young people came in unannounced. One of them was a girl very much like Manon in some ways, except that she was more filled out, her hair a tumble of blonde curls. Her young man was exactly the same height and general build as Thomas, but everything else about him, all of his angles, seemed somehow sharper, leaner, more clearly defined, especially about the face, eyes and mouth. Unlike his two siblings his hair was very dark and long, tied into a long pony-tail, but like Manon his eyes were brown. There was an immediacy and a directness about him that was absent in his brother. Thomas, by comparison, wore his unruly blonde hair fairly short, and he seemed at a casual glance to be less of a man, a presence, than his brother. But there was something about him, a depth, a quiet certitude, a latent hardness about him, that soon reduced his darker brother to his true stature.

‘And who is this?’ Alain asked, smiling with pleasure at the sight of Kirstie.

‘You’re the girl off the boat!’ Heather exclaimed, her accent pure Yorkshire. Maybe she really was English after all. It seemed to Kirstie that Heather had been about to say something else. But she said, ‘We saw your picture on . . . on television.’

Surprised, Kirstie said, ‘A picture?’ She searched her mind for its possible source, drew a blank. ‘Where on earth would they have got one?’ For some reason she found herself ill at ease with the two newcomers. There was an indefinable, one might almost say “professional” air about them, something artificial or contrived, that didn’t ring true. Kirstie chastened herself mentally for having this impression, put it down to confusing their demeanor with the sort of people that frequented the restaurant she had worked for. Certainly not all the clientele were as bad as those she had learned to dislike and mistrust. She decided that the flaw must be in herself, that it must be a bad habit she’d developed of judging people by the company they kept.

‘Your auntie in Sheffield,’ Heather told her. ‘She was one of the people they kept interviewing-’

At this, Kirstie groaned and buried her head on her arms on the table. Her long-suffering Auntie May, who had nothing better to do than gossip. A real attention-junkie, that one! Kirstie couldn’t help but make an angry noise, which prompted the others to chuckle.

‘Not your favourite, I take it,’ Heather said with a broad smile, sitting beside Kirstie. ‘She looked the type to like all the attention, even if it meant it was on account of her own family dying, or worse.’ Unnoticed by Kirstie, Manon gave Heather a warning, silencing glance, as she had been about to ask more questions about Kirstie’s family.

‘You don’t know the half of it!’ Kirstie rejoined. ‘I’ll bet she’s told the whole world how what happened to me has affected her, has left her in such a state! I hardly know the woman! She’s never so much as sent me a card in my entire life, hasn’t the slightest interest in anything but herself and her stupid, yappy little dogs.’

‘Ah. The long-suffering type.’

Kirstie made a face. ‘Oh, yes.’

‘So,’ Alain said, shrewdly, sitting beside and putting an arm around his wife, ‘whose guest are you, Manon’s or Thomas’?’

‘She wants a tattoo,’ Manon added for answer to Alain’s question. Kirstie noticed that, though their attitude was incomprehensible to her, Manon’s statement obviously spoke volumes to the others.

Alain’s look was at once serious, grave, knowing, Thomas’ carefully neutral, guarded. ‘Ah, so you’ve seen my work in the flesh,’ Alain said.

‘In the shower,’ Manon said matter-of-factly, smiling at Kirstie in such a way that said she knew mention of this would cause the girl to turn absolutely crimson.

The others chuckled and smiled, but less at this than at some hidden, secret and shared knowledge.

‘So, Thomas,’ Alain asked him directly, ‘what do you think I should put on that fair skin of hers? And where?’

Isn’t anybody going to ask me what I want? Kirstie thought to herself, looking desperately to Thomas, whose look was veiled.

But he said to her, ‘May I make a suggestion?’

Mutely wondering why she was going along with this, Kirstie waited for him to speak.

‘A sailing ship. Something reflecting the ambivalence of life; a quest; a certain adventure.’ He spoke sardonically, as though reciting something the others already knew by rote. Then, smiling at Kirstie in such a way as made her heart skip a beat he added, ‘One equal to any storm, that will carry her safely on her journey, and in the end, to her heart’s desire.’

Kirstie knew mocking irony when she heard it, yet despite this she found herself drawn to him with such force that she seemed to have difficultly breathing. There was no meanness in his teasing indirectness: only a gentle kindness and an unspoken, though unmistakable invitation. And she knew, in the same breath, that she would go anywhere with this man, regardless how blindly naïve the basis of her decision. All that was clear to her, all that mattered, was that he had asked, and that every fibre of her being had accepted.

2

Alain was done so quickly that Kirstie sat up in surprise, covering herself with the towel Heather handed her.

‘That’s not all there is to it,’ Alain said with a distracted smile as he concentrated on cleaning up and putting away his equipment. ‘I’ve only made a start . . . got a bit of the outline laid out. Once the irritation and the swelling goes completely out of it, we’ll have another session.’

Heather took hold of the towel and discreetly held it for her as Kirstie pulled on her top, a tight-fitting red and white striped and long-sleeved T-shirt that Manon had bought for her, that left her midriff bare, along with other clothes, including the shorts she was wearing, that fit her snugly in all the right places. Having only worn shapeless, baggy clothes to cover what she thought of as her many shortcomings, she would never have chosen such clothes herself, and for the first while had to struggle with shyness and embarrassment, feeling that she was going about almost naked.

‘You see,’ Alain told her, ‘that’s the secret to achieving such fine detail. Tattooing irritates the skin, causing it to swell. If I were to do it all in one go you’d be in a lot of pain, and the tattoo would be a blurry, distorted mess.’

Kirstie found that her shoulder stung a bit from the application of the vibrating needle, but that the pain was bearable. ‘I’m going to need a mirror to see it,’ she said wistfully, craning her neck and lifting the collar of her shirt for a glimpse.

‘Let other people be your mirror,’ Alain told her. ‘You will have that tattoo all your life. Besides, being able to catch only fleeting glimpses of it will keep you from either getting bored with it, or regretting having it because it’s too prominent.’

Kirstie frowned.

As though reading her thoughts, Alain said with a broad smile, ‘Manon is a direct sort of person, who likes things right where she can admire them.’ He said this as though conveying more meaning than appeared on the surface. Then, to Heather, ‘Thomas was right after all. It’s not the sort of thing I would have chosen to do. If I didn’t know better I would say that he was challenging me. But he knows how I am with capturing the motions and textures of life. When I’m done, not only will the sea and the sails be full of life and animation, but the wind itself, though invisible, will be unmistakeably present.’

Giving her an odd look, Heather said to Kirstie, ‘Thomas quite literally fell in love with mine. He used to admire it . . . still does when he gets the chance.’ She gave Kirstie an unsettling smile. ‘The first time he saw it, he said, “I know her! I’m sure of it!.” An odd thing to say, when you consider that my little faerie is purely of Alain’s design. It was amusing just to see the look on Thomas’ face whenever he studied it. To tell the truth, it had begun to bother me: I was beginning to wonder if maybe it wasn’t actually me that he had designs on. But that changed the moment you washed up on the beach.’

Kirstie felt a pang of misgiving as Heather said this.

‘What do you mean?’

Heather shrugged. ‘You’ve seen this faerie of mine, at least to glance at. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it for yourself. Take another look. Take a good, long look. Look closely this time. Look at the expression on her face, and in her eyes.’

Heather turned obligingly, giving Kirstie the best possible view.

‘She looks so real,’ Kirstie breathed in awe, staring at the near-photographic representation. ‘So alive. So-’

She stopped, eyes going wide in absolute shock as recognition set in, put her hands to her mouth and stumbled backwards.

That . . . that’s impossible!’

‘The resemblance is shocking, isn’t it? Except that it’s far more than just a mere resemblance, isn’t it? It’s you, right down to that tiny mole, which is part of me, not part of the tattoo.’

‘So that’s why Manon . . . how she . . .’

‘Yes, luv. That’s why she snuck a good long peek, how she knew for certain. Thomas suspected as well, right when he first laid eyes on you. I must say, you gave him quite a start when he dove into the water and saw who it was he’d rescued!’

‘But the boat . . . my boat-’

Alain smiled enigmatically, as did Heather. ‘Come. It’s time we showed you something.’

Mystified, Kirstie followed them to their car, an aged and illustrious Jaguar convertible. They drove her to a parking lot near to the marina, and she mutely followed them down to the dock.

At once, she didn’t need to be told what she was to look for. She could only catch her breath in awe.

‘It’s real! It’s beautiful!’

‘Yes, and it belongs to us, Thomas, Manon, and myself,’ Alain told her. ‘And when I’m done putting her mark on you, we’re going to board her, the five of us, and then we’re going on a journey to the other side of the world.’

‘Manon’s tattoo . . .’ Kirstie wondered on a sudden intuition.

‘A bird that lives only in a certain tropical paradise,’ Alain finished for her. ‘On only one island in all the world, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When I did the tattoo, I had no idea that I was creating an analogue of something that really existed. But three separate tourists, on three entirely separate occasions, noticed Manon’s tattoo at once and recognised the bird without question and without hesitation.’

Kirstie frowned. ‘Thomas hinted as much. What is it you hope to find there?’

Alain shrugged evasively. ‘Who knows. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.’

Kirstie waited to be enlightened, knowing there was more to come.

Heather and Alain shared a secretive look, but Alain turned to Kirstie, his mien serious. ‘You will have to promise to keep this to yourself. Manon does not yet know about this, and she’s not going to! Will you swear to that?’

Kirstie nodded, wondering.

‘Good,’ Alain said, relieved. ‘We don’t yet know what Manon’s tattoo means, other than that it represents some rare, exotic, tropical bird. But we intend to find out. It may have been an accident . . . pure coincidence . . . but neither Thomas nor I are sure. We feel otherwise. And we take these feelings very seriously, not because they occur, but because they occur so often.’

Kirstie waited tacitly for Alain to explain.

Alain fixed her with a look. ‘Take your presence here as but one example. You are the same age as the girl who drowned exactly in that spot, had she lived. You more than resemble the depiction on Heather’s tattoo. But it’s more than that.’ He seemed about to say more, then seemed to change his mind and said, ‘Well, are you up for this little adventure? I promise you, the worse thing that could happen will be that it’ll make up for your ruined vacation.’

Kirstie’s thoughts turned inward a moment. This was insane! Still, what did she have to lose?

‘All right,’ she said, slowly, ‘I’ll come with you. I know it all sounds crazy, but . . . I don’t know . . . at the same time, something about it just feels right.’

After picking her up, instead of driving back to the cabin, Thomas took Kirstie to a small park by the beach. There were few people at the moment, but there were barbecue pits with picnic tables and four large covered areas with huge open grills and rows of tables. Thomas took a small backpack from the boot and led her to a picnic table that was near to the ocean, shaded by trees from the bright, warm sun, and secluded.

‘I have a question for you,’ he said without preamble as he began taking a thermos and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches from his pack.

Remembering Manon’s words, Kirstie felt a surge of panic.

Seeing her expression, divining her thoughts, he said, ‘Manon has told you that I will ask you to stay with us. Well, she is right, but I now see no need to ask, as you have decided to accompany us on our journey.’

‘Thomas . . . I-’ She wanted to kick herself as a sudden misgiving took away her voice for a moment. In an instant, to her own surprise, her misgiving turned to rebellious anger. ‘Are you really serious about all this? I’m sorry, but I find it hard to . . . you’re asking me to believe in magic!’

‘You may not believe this,’ he said slowly, ‘but you are here, alive, because you are . . . you have a part, a purpose in this matter.’

‘Thomas, that’s crazy-’ But in the same breath she couldn’t help feeling, believing it to be true, a simple statement of fact. But how could anyone know such a thing? And why was she suddenly feeling so defensive?

‘Let me explain something to you,’ he told her. ‘Heather’s tattoo . . .’ After searching for words for several moments he made an angry noise. ‘How can I explain that which has no explanation? Then there is Manon, and what her tattoo means. Alain fears the worst. He claims to see something in her . . . call it a vision of her life . . . something! . . . call it her destiny, if you will. This may sound insane, Kirstie, but believe me, it is all very, very real. Alain has been right far too often and in far too many ways for scepticism to stand in the way of the evidence. Trust me. I know. And given time, you, too, will know this for yourself.’

Kirstie shuddered at her own memory of a similar feeling . . . and of being surrounded by blacknesses.

Momentarily lost in thought, he said, ‘In some way we are connected, Kirstie. The five of us. But something is amiss . . . I don’t know what. I feel that something important is going on all around us that we are blind to, that there is something important to be done . . . something to be gained . . . or lost.’

Kirstie tried mulling this over, but found herself having difficulty concentrating. His proximity caused the background of her thoughts to tingle like magic, to carry her on a journey to languid seas, to a tropical place that was all blue, green, sandy shores, sparkles and bright sunshine.

‘Thomas . . .’ she muttered, leaning away from his presence, trying to focus.

‘Yes?’

She found herself staring breathlessly into his sea-blue eyes, feeling like a fool for how she was reacting to him. And somewhere in the back of her mind anticipated hurt and humiliation.

He smiled broadly, as though he could read her mind. And then, his look suddenly turned thoughtful. ‘Manon, having seeing you as you are, is now more certain than any of us about who and what you are.’

What I am?’ Kirstie started in surprise, ignoring his reference to Manon’s having seen her stark naked. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Manon won’t tell me,’ he said quietly, looking genuinely worried, causing a responding worm of fear in Kirstie. ‘Just as certain as the “n” on the end of her name is silent, there are secrets about herself she tells to no one. Perhaps this is because the “o” that precedes it is long and emphasised, as though she herself were an unwilling but awed observer of life’s hidden purpose; perhaps because of this she can say no more. But whatever the reason,’ he told her, ‘you give me hope. You see, I am very fond of my sister; we have always been very close. And for no reason that I can put into words, for some time now I have been very much afraid for her.’ He drew a deep breath, let it out slowly. ‘That tattoo of hers . . . take a good, long, hard look at it, sometime when she is unaware or sleeping. There is something about it that neither myself, nor Alain who made it, could see at first. As I hinted before, it took some travellers to point out its true appearance and at least part of its meaning. In the beginning, Alain refused to believe that there was anything in the tattoo beyond his conscious design. When he did finally see it for himself, he began to put . . . certain things . . . together.’

Some intuition prompted Kirstie to say, ‘Manon doesn’t know . . . hasn’t seen it for herself yet.’

‘No,’ Thomas said in a quiet, almost inaudible voice. ‘She cannot. The truth of it cannot be seen from her vantage. It can only be seen by one who sees it upright, who stares squarely into the face of it.’

They spent the rest of the day travelling about the island in Thomas’ maroon Citroën convertible, with the top down, sea-tanged wind blowing through their hair. Kirstie may have had clothes of her own now but she loved wearing things that belonged to Thomas, especially his wonderful sweaters that were so warm and thick. They were all of them practical pullovers of good quality, suited to life on the sea. He had dressed her in the one she wore now; it was one she had eyed with some desire before but had left alone, knowing it to be his favourite. It was a deep marine blue, which on him made his eyes glow like the late afternoon sky over the sun-limned sea. Too, it made him appear a placid, thoughtful, yet strong man, comfortable and confident with his life on the island and with the open sea. On her the effect was wholly different. The blue made her brown eyes beneath dark brown eyebrows and lashes appear even larger and darker, her skin paler, and to those who observed her, as though she were some woodland creature possess of an ethereal, eldritch quality, altogether the mysterious eyes of some forest nymph that had been coaxed from its natural environ by a desire that was no less than magical, making her stand out, not as though she didn’t belong, but rather more as though she were some rare exotic bird or waking dream, passing through foreign, less tropical and plainer climes, choosing to stay for secret reasons of her own.

Kirstie had utterly no idea of the effect she had on the young men as she limped about the outdoor market, who eyed her surreptitiously, enviously. She was equally oblivious to the true reason that men kept their distance . . . every man, that is, with the exception of Thomas. But she was painfully aware of the effect she had on the young women who noticed her presence at Thomas’ side, often with thinly veiled and hostile jealousy. She heard a number of remarks which she partly understood, obviously directed at her, some of which, if she had understood correctly, stung in their tone and in their depth of spite. At last, she heard one about which there could be no mistake whatever.

Thomas noticed her hurt, shocked look and, taking her by the hand and leading out of earshot of the tightly packed throngs in the market, said contritely, ‘I’m sorry, perhaps it’s time I told you our little secret.’

Deeply hurt, tears welling in her eyes, Kirstie blurted, ‘Why did she call me that . . . that filthy name?’ Pulling away from him, feeling betrayed, she said, ‘If I’d known you kept the company of that sort of girls, I’d never have spoken to you-’

‘Kirstie, wait! Don’t walk away from me! You don’t understand-’

She was weeping now. ‘Don’t understand what? That people think I’m a little tramp, just because I’ve been seen with you? I heard what that woman said, Thomas! I’m not fluent in French, but I know enough-!’

‘You know what that woman said, but not why,’ he said with gentle emphasis. ‘Please, listen, and let me explain.’

Kirstie took a deep breath that may as well have been a sob and waited, looking up at him, hoping against hope that his explanation would suffice.

‘Did you understand the rest of what that woman said?’

‘Yes I did! It was something about what I’d cost!’

He gaped at her for a moment. Then, to her utter shock he began to laugh.

As though watching an act committed by a total stranger, she slapped him as hard as she could. Before he could respond, she fled from him, weeping, limping . . . and in short order was lost in the crowd.

It was Manon who found her, late that evening, sitting alone on a rock at the beach, watching the sun set, features streaked by tears, still wracked by the occasional sob, her traitorous stomach grumbling its protest.

‘You’re a funny one,’ Manon said, sitting beside her. ‘Another girl would-’

‘What? Be on her back by now, doing whatever it was your brother wanted?’

Manon’s hissed intake of breath eloquently voiced her anger. ‘If that’s what you truly think, then you can stay here alone until you rot! My brother is not that sort of man! You may find this hard to believe, but his experience with women is very limited. Yes, there are a good many very pretty young women here, several of whom work in the market, who have for years been aching to get their claws into him, but he has been with not a one of them, nor has he used any girl just to sate his passions. He has been holding out, waiting to find someone like you, for a very long time. You’ve really cut him, you know?’

Why?’ Kirstie shouted, pale with hurt and anger, ‘because he thought he was going to get it for free for a change?’

Manon’s features became a mask of white fury.

‘You had better explain that remark,’ she said succinctly in a tone of voice thick with the promise of violence.

Kirstie recounted what the woman at the market had said, and Thomas’ subsequent reaction.

Manon thought a moment. ‘What exactly did the girl in the market say to you? En français; as close as you can remember.’

Kirstie told her.

Manon shook her head, the anger gone out of her, replaced by a little smirk. ‘You little fool! Your French is close, but not close enough. However . . .’ turning her head to glance at the sea, trying to maintain a straight face, she said, ‘I can see now why you were so angry.’

Kirstie watched her uncertainly, unsure whether she wanted to hear Manon’s explanation or not.

‘You have the syntax wrong. She was not wondering how much you cost, though that is close to the literal translation. No, she was calling you a gold digger. You know what that means, eh?’

‘I know what it means!’ Kirstie replied, baffled. ‘But why would she call me that? And why did Thomas think it was so funny?’

‘Kirstie, mon petit ingenue,’ Manon said directly, seriously, ‘Alain, Thomas and I, we own this island. That is why those girls were being so cruel. There is not a one of them that hasn’t been hoping to one day be in your shoes. Being from here they feel that you have usurped something that doesn’t rightly belong to you. Because of that they are jealous, spiteful and angry. Thomas was laughing not at you but at them, and at the irony of the situation.’

Kirstie hid her head in her hands and wept.

Manon put an arm around the girl, pulling her close. ‘Come here, mon petit. It’s funny, you know, but in a way I’m relieved. I admit, I had my doubts before . . . but this proves it, that you are genuine.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Kirstie sobbed. ‘I mean, why didn’t you just tell me? Why do you live like this, pretending to be something you’re not? The three of you were cruel to lead me on like this!’

Kirstie!’ Manon growled, giving the girl a gentle shake, letting a little of her anger show once more. ‘We are even as you see us. What you see is what you get. We are not the type of people who go in for all that . . . that phoniness, that ostentation, that . . . we are not that sort of- Hey, you!’ She disengaged herself and took the girl firmly by the hand. ‘I heard that! Come, let’s get you home and feed you to stop that monster in your belly from growling! No buts!’

They arrived back at the cabin in darkness. Thomas was laying propped up on a sofa by the front window, watching the ocean, lost in thought. As he surged to his feet, his relief at the sight of Kirstie was palpable.

‘See what I found?’ Manon said with smug satisfaction, propelling Kirstie in Thomas’ direction until she stood before him. ‘I’ll bet you haven’t eaten either, eh, Thomas? Nor I for that matter. Talk! I will see to the fare.’

Thomas stood silent and diffident for a long moment, staring at the ground. Kirstie stood before him, unable to speak or meet his eye, overcome with shyness and remorse.

At last, smiling crookedly, but appearing as though he strove to prepare himself for the worst she could deal him, he reached into a back pocket and handed her something, something small, something of indeterminate weight wrapped in a piece of cloth.

‘You can say no,’ he said quietly, ‘and you can toss it into the sea for all I care, but . . . it’s to prove to you that I’m not the sort of man you accused me of being, that I would never think of using you.’

Mystified, Kirstie unwrapped the bundle . . . and stared in chagrin. Watching her reaction, Thomas eased her onto the sofa, sat beside her.

It was a wedding band, hung from a length of chain.

Thomas . . . I . . . I can’t-’

‘Hush, my sweet’ he told her, taking her chin in his hand, smiling into her disbelieving eyes. ‘Yes, you can. The chain is to hang the ring by, to give you the chance to think about it. I thought about an engagement band . . . but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that an engagement band would be too . . . too final . . . too binding at this point in time. This means that you have your freedom, but that I would like you to consider marriage. It means also that I am asking for your trust. That if you don’t trust me right now, you will at least give me the chance to earn it. So, what do you say?’

Kirstie took a shuddering breath as she stared at the thing in her hand, her mind, suddenly turned sluggish, seemed unable or unwilling to comprehend the implications. She wouldn’t be agreeing to marriage, or even an engagement, if she accepted it . . . he had just said so. It just meant that she would be giving him her word that she would consider the possibility. Didn’t it? Nothing more? And why on earth was she even considering this?

She was only half-aware of what was happening as he took it from her, placed the chain around her neck and let the ring find its own way down the front of the shirt she wore beneath his sweater, so that it lay nestled between her breasts, directly over her rapidly beating heart.

‘Well?’

She lifted her eyes to his at last, swallowed hard over a final spasm of sobbing.

‘We’re not engaged?’

‘No.’

‘I can give it back?’

‘At any time, if you so decide.’

‘All I have to do is think about it? You’re not suddenly going to tell the world you have a claim on me, or try to hold me to some sort of commitment?’

‘Well . . .’ he mulled humorously, scratching the back of his neck, ‘if some guy I don’t like gets too fresh with you, I might put his lights out,’ he admitted. ‘But, yes, you are free to do what you want in that department. You have my word that I will not interfere.’

‘I’m not that sort of girl!’ she blurted defensively, drawing a crooked smile from him.

She looked up to see that Manon was watching them expectantly, seemingly holding her breath.

‘This only means that I’m going to think about it,’ Kirstie told her.

‘And pigs grow wings,’ Manon muttered to herself with a broad smile as she went back to fixing a late supper.

Kirstie woke to the light of the full moon. Both girls lay naked, having pushed the comforter down to their ankles sometime during the night in a bid to get cool. Manon lay on her back breathing the deep breath of sleep. Kirstie, as usual, awoke to find herself ensconced in Manon’s sleeping embrace, head pillowed on the older girl’s breast.

Suddenly, she remembered. Heart pounding, she extricated herself, taking her time so as not to wake the sleeping Manon; began inching her way downwards until her face was scant inches from Manon’s belly. The tropical bird, in whorls of arcs and curves of exotic hues, was plainly visible in all its intricate detail. She looked and she stared, trying to see what the others had urged her to see, but try as she might there was only the impossibly real articulation of a rare, exotic bird, standing on a rocky beachhead, surrounded by breakers.

After several long unsuccessful moments, which grew into long minutes, a crick in her neck decided her that she was wasting her time. But at the last instant, Alain’s words came back to her. He had said something about seeing it upright, about looking at it straight-on. Working her way around until she was almost straddling Manon, lowering her face to the sleeping girl’s abdomen once more, she took another look . . .

What she saw made her jerk involuntarily, gasping. Manon’s sleep noise, the sort she made when she was coming awake, sent Kirstie scrambling back to her former place at the older girl’s side.

Making an annoyed sound in her throat, Manon reached down, retrieved the comforter, covered the two of them, drew Kirstie into her embrace once more, and, kissing her on top of the head, mumbled, ‘Silly, shivering like that and afraid to wake me! Next time just grab the covers and pull them up. I too am cold.’ She pressed her cheek to the top of Kirstie’s head, and the two girls got comfortable once more. But eventually, Manon murmured, concerned, ‘Shush, mon petit, you breathe and your heart is pounding as though you had been running for your life! Have you had a bad dream? Why are you so chilled like that? You’re hot and cold, perspiring and shivering, all at the same time. Perhaps you have the ague? Are you unwell? Perhaps we should have put you to bed for a few days, instead of allowing you to be up and around-’

‘I’m all right,’ Kirstie lied, deeply disturbed by what she’d seen but trying to conceal it for Manon’s sake. ‘I’ll be all right.’

‘You are not all right,’ Manon told her quietly. ‘You are holding on to me like your were holding on to that bit of driftwood down on the beach.’

Yes, Kirstie thought to herself, clinging to Manon as though afraid to release her to her fate, but that was just a piece of driftwood. How on earth am I going to find a way to protect you from what I just saw? Thinking furiously, it finally dawned on her that each tattoo had a double meaning. Her own portrait on Heather’s back . . . some instinct told her that it too was some sort of double entendre representing life and death. And her ship? She sighed, pondering. Could she trust the others to tell her the truth of it? How would she be able to find out for herself?

Tomorrow her own writing in the flesh would be complete. The thought made her mouth dry with apprehension, where before she had been so looking forward to its completion. Should she break her promise to Alain and Heather and show it to Manon? Tell Manon about the peril of her own mark?

And tomorrow, she thought, drifting towards slumber and tumultuous seas; tomorrow they would begin probing this mystery for answers. But it wasn’t fair like this, with things hidden, kept from the person whose fate hung in the balance.

At last, her torment prompted her to speak.

‘Manon?’

‘M’n?’

‘Heather’s tattoo, I’ve only seen it once. Is there anything . . . more to it . . . something other than its resemblance to me, or the little faerie?’

She felt Manon stiffen.

‘I am not sure what you mean. Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ she lied, ‘but I thought, just for a moment, that I was beginning to see something in it. But I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure.’

Manon was silent for some time. At last, she said quietly, ‘Someone has told you.’

Kirstie felt caught. ‘About what?’

Manon didn’t mince words. ‘About the secret of the tattoos.’

Kirstie thought about that for some time. Then, ‘I was told you didn’t know . . . that I was to say nothing about it . . . but it made me feel so bad . . . so scared-

‘Ah, so that’s what this is about.’ She drew Kirstie more firmly into her embrace, kissed the top of her head. ‘I knew I could trust you! Thank you for that, mon petit.’ She sighed and shuddered at the same time. ‘I already know about my tattoo.’

‘How? Aren’t you scared?’

‘Ah, mais oui, I am very frightened, as who would not be? But as to how I became aware; more than once people have noticed and have told me, but I have kept that little secret to myself.

‘Now, Heather’s tattoo; as you have guessed, it too is a double entendre, but like the faerie being it is too elusive for mortal understanding. We have all caught glimpses . . . but it is an odd thing, you know? You look directly and you see only what is there before you. You look indirectly, however, and mon dieux!’ She shuddered.

‘What do you see?’

‘It is forever changing, mon petit. Its nature is concerned both with the living moment and change itself. It is a faerie for good reason: there is true magic involved there. But mine . . .’ she sighed. ‘Mine is forever unchanging. That in itself is of concern to me . . . are you asleep?’

‘M’n.’

Manon chuckled. ‘Well, tomorrow morning your own piece of this puzzle will be complete. Then, perhaps, we will find some answers, you and I. What do you say to that?’

For answer, Kirstie sleepily wrapped her arms around the older girl’s neck like a small child, nuzzled Manon’s breast until she found her favourite comfortable position, and was instantly asleep.

Sighing, drifting towards sleep herself, Manon murmured, kissed the sleeping Kirstie on the bridge of her nose, stared for a long time at the girl’s smiling features which were rendered angelic in slumber, and which caused a responding ache in Manon’s throat. ‘You are a very bad influence on me, Kirstie Brighton! You make me, for the first time, regret my independence and want babies.’

But despite appearances, in her sleep, fear ran in the background of Kirstie’s dreams, fear that Manon would not live to realise her own dreams.

3

Kirstie sat crosswise on the sofa in front of the rain-spattered window, tense and anxious, watching the cold, tumultuous Atlantic with unseeing eyes, toying absently with the ring which hung from her neck by its thick, braided-silver chain. The chain had the look of that sort of marine hauser used to secure ships to docks, and felt as heavy and unbreakable as a noose; yet at the same time Kirstie was aware that it held not herself, but was in fact a lifeline. At the other end of that lifeline was Thomas, yet though she yearned to run to him and throw herself into his arms, for now and forever, the very idea terrified her. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths and let them out slowly, tried to calm her pounding heart.

Manon was busy in the greenhouse, an attachment to the utility room at the back of the cottage, tending to her herb garden. She came into the living room now and again to reset her favourite CD, to a solo from a piece of classical music by a composer named Carl Orff. The song was so achingly beautiful that Kirstie didn’t mind at all; she found that it helped a little to soothe her mood, even though she couldn’t understand a word of Latin.

‘That girl, Pamela Dewhurst, what a voice, eh?’ Manon said to Kirstie at one point. ‘I hope I’m not boring you with my music . . . I just like that song so much; at least the way she sings it!’

Kirstie nodded in response, glad for the distraction from her own thoughts. ‘I know what you mean. You can play it over and over and somehow never get tired of it. Have you got anything else she did?’

‘Ah, hers is a famous sad but happy story,’ Manon replied. ‘She made only the one recording, but it went so bad for her that she never made another. On the liner notes it says . . . hm . . . merde! where did I put it? Ah, of course, I find it in the last place I look. It says . . . here we are . . . that she still sings at some little church in England, and is happily married with three small children.’

Kirstie shook her head in wonder. ‘You’d never have known she was having a bad time of it to listen to her!’ But the ring she toyed with brought with it a certain empathy: if faced with a choice between her big adventure in life and the safety and security of marriage . . . she thought of her nightmare experience at the hands of the cruel North Atlantic and shuddered. Why were both choices fraught with fear?

‘You like some tea?’ Manon broke into her reverie, calling from the kitchen.

‘Yes, please.’

‘Well,’ Manon said as she set the tray on the coffee table and sat cross-legged on the sofa, forcing Kirstie to withdraw her newly unstitched foot, to tuck both of them beneath herself, ‘if this weather behaves like the weatherman says it will, tomorrow will be the big day.’

Kirstie took in a deep, shuddering breath, let it out slowly. ‘You’re taking a big risk, letting me do the cooking for all of us,’ she said, though they both well knew this to be the least of her cause for anxiety.

Tactfully changing the subject, Manon said with unfeigned curiosity, ‘Well, now that it is finished, let us see what we can see.’

Kirstie obliged her by turning her back and lifting her shirt so that Manon could inspect her newly completed tattoo. After a long moment, she whistled thinly in appreciation.

‘Wow! It will look better in a few days when your skin recovers, but it is already . . . you know, I can’t see anything in it but the boat.’ She chuckled to herself. ‘To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, maybe sometimes a tattoo is just a tattoo-’

Her sudden silence was so palpable that Kirstie found herself waiting in apprehension for some sort of response. But soon, unable to bear not knowing any longer, she said, ‘What is it? What do you see? Is it something really bad?’

‘It is . . . complicated,’ Manon said slowly. ‘It is like Heather’s faerie in some ways, but this one you can see by looking right at it. But . . . it is that I am unable to make sense of what I am looking at. I have the feeling that if I only knew what I was looking for then I would be able to see it. Perhaps it will come more easily when your skin heals itself. Or maybe . . .’She was silent a long moment. ‘Maybe it is like an Escher-’

‘A what?’

‘You have not heard of Escher? He was an artist who played with perspective. You know? With staircases that can either be upside right or down, and rooms that turn into the outside of buildings, and things like that.’

‘I think I know who you mean,’ Kirstie said doubtfully. ‘But what’s that got to do with my tattoo? Are you saying that it’s a trick of perspective instead of a double image?’

Manon made an exasperated face and gesticulated her incomprehension for emphasis.

‘It is not that simple. We tried taking pictures of Heather’s . . . ah, where did Thomas put them . . . one moment!’ She got up and went to Thomas’ bedroom. She was gone for so long that Kirstie doubted her chances of locating the photos in question. But when Manon returned, she was sorting through a number of Polaroids.

‘Here, see?’ She laid them out on the table before Kirstie. ‘Look. They’re just pictures. No life. No mystery. No nothing.’

Kirstie stared at the photos for some time, frowning.

‘This doesn’t make sense! There’s nothing missing . . . and yet . . .’

‘And yet they lack whatever makes the tattoo what it is,’ Manon finished for her. ‘You may think I am crazy for saying this, but I think our tattoos are alive.’

The way she said this sent shivers down Kirstie’s spine, but she couldn’t deny the truth in Manon’s words. Maybe alive wasn’t quite the right word, but it was as close as language could come to describing the essence of the tattoos.

At last, wanting a change of topic, Kirstie said, ‘Are we still leaving tomorrow morning? Alain said something about having to wait for a new radio.’

‘It came,’ Manon replied, gathering the pictures together. ‘He and Thomas are putting it in this afternoon.’ She got to her feet. ‘Come, it is time we joined them. We will be staying on the boat tonight.’

The two of them then packed the last of the bags into Manon’s car, Manon locked up the little cottage, and they were off to the marina.

‘Here, you!’ Thomas shouted from the boat when he spotted Kirstie limping along the dock, a heavy bag on her shoulder. ‘Stay there! You shouldn’t be carrying that while you’ve still got stitches.’

‘I’m not made of glass,’ she protested as he jumped down and relieved her of her burden. ‘And I don’t have stitches any more. I’m perfectly- hey! Put me down!’

Thomas chuckled as he strode up the gangway, the indignant Kirstie slung over his shoulder.

‘I’ve got two legs of my own, you know!’ she protested.

‘And a lot of old-fashioned English dignity,’ he rejoined lightly, standing her on the wooden deck. ‘Well, what do you think?’

The boat looked old; very old: but there was something timeless and enduring about its lines and construction. But to Kirstie’s eyes, this paled in comparison to Thomas, who appeared perfectly in his element. She found herself having to tear her eyes away from his presence to even register the vessel. Unconsciously, she leaned against him. And when he put his arm around her, the boat was quite forgotten. She was startled out of her reverie by the sight of Manon’s cryptic smile as she carried the last of the baggage up the gangway.

‘What?’

‘Oh, nothing,’ Manon replied ingenuously, her smile broadening. ‘If you can tear yourself from my brother’s arms a moment, you can come with me to the galley.’

Kirstie stood stock still for a moment, surprised and yet not surprised at the reluctance she felt at the prospect of leaving Thomas’ side.

‘If you don’t move right now,’ he teased, his eyes smiling, ‘I am going to kiss you, right in front of everyone.’

‘Oh, no you’re not!’ Manon said firmly, seizing Kirstie by the sleeve of her sweater and dragging her away, Kirstie’s eyes still preoccupied with Manon’s brother. ‘Come! Before you end up by making babies before you’re ready for them.’

At the moment, Kirstie couldn’t have cared less. But when she and Manon reached the galley, her senses suddenly came back into focus.

‘That’s better!’ Manon told her. ‘Now you don’t look like a rabbit caught in the headlights.’

Turning red, Kirstie made a small noise of frustration.

‘Careful, cherie. You’re going to fall too hard in love and lose yourself! Here, you can unpack this box. Thomas is your first, isn’t he.’ It was a statement.

Kirstie breathed a shuddering sigh and took a look in the box. ‘My very first. I guess there’s no point in asking if it shows.’

‘Make him work for it!’ Manon told her. ‘You’re not yet strong enough to be a wife to Thomas.’

Kirstie reluctantly began unpacking.

‘And don’t you even think about sneaking off to his bed at night,’ Manon ordered, watching Kirstie in such a way as made her squirm.

‘I’m not that weak!’ Kirstie protested without much conviction.

Ha! Those cans can go in that cupboard over there; the one with the new handles. And you can take the milk and juice back out of the oven at any time.’

Manon chuckled quietly to herself as Kirstie opened the oven and groaned.

That evening, Kirstie made her way to the deck to be alone for a while, to take stock of her life which, like the boat, was about to cast off its moorings and sail off into the great unknown. The sea had a glassy cast, appearing like liquid emerald, upon which reflections were disturbingly all but resolved into clarity. The sea itself seemed to resist clarity as much as complete stillness, as though its heart were restless, unquiet, pitted by its very nature against all that was unchanging. Its nature seemed to be made up of currents and rhythms: the motion of swells, waves and ripples, the movement of currents, riptides and eddies . . . the salt air, too, moved in interplay and counterpoint . . . sounds far off sounded very near . . . the boat rolled and nodded gently, herself a creature perfectly adapted to a life where the elemental worlds of wind and sea came together.

Turning her mind away from intangibles, Kirstie tried looking back over her life, but the past seemed as cut off and remote as the future: it seemed to have lost all connection to the present.

I’m lost in the moment, Kirstie mused, then smiled sardonically at the unintended double entendre. A pair of gulls flew by, their wings rustling. They glanced at the boat once, apparently seeing nothing worth distracting them from their course, and continued on into the deepening dusk. Kirstie heard footsteps coming up the stairs to the wheeldeck. Turning, she watched as Heather joined her, handing the girl a large earthenware mug.

‘Mind! It’s hot! Thought you might like a cup of cocoa before we all turn in. Sky looks a bit ominous. We’ll probably be heading out in the rain.’

Kirstie looked to the western horizon in vain. ‘I thought it looked rather peaceful.’

‘Look again,’ Heather told her meaningly. ‘Sky’s gray. No sunset. What looks like mist hanging off the bottoms of those clouds there is rain.’

‘So that red sky at night stuff really works?’

Heather chuckled. ‘Not really. To tell the truth, we just heard the forecast on the wireless. There’s no room for guesswork on a voyage like this.’

Kirstie took a careful sip of her cocoa, which was still scalding hot. The warmth of it in her hands felt good.

‘Thomas asked me to see how you’re doing,’ Heather said, seating herself. ‘And before you ask me why he didn’t come himself, I’ll tell you.’

‘What, that Manon’s set herself up as chaperone?’ Kirstie said, unable not to smile.

Heather laughed, though silently, casting a cautious glance down the stairs towards the galley where the others sat and played cribbage. ‘He’s just as bad as you are! Mooning about like an overgrown puppy! And just so you know, you’ve got three chaperones on board. Look, it doesn’t matter what the two of you do once we get back, but for now we all need our heads screwed on straight. Thomas, especially. Our little Quest comes before everything, until this is over.’

Mention of the reason for their voyage hit Kirstie like cold water, bringing her back to her senses. Images seemed to vie for her attention: Manon’s tattoo, Heather’s, her own; an exotic bird and a terrible fate, a forest nymph surrounded by dangerous secrets, a sailing ship forever beyond her view . . . the very real fear that Manon’s life was in danger.

‘It’s like a sort of puzzle,’ Kirstie muttered. ‘The ship’s on me, I’m on you, the destination is on Manon . . .’

‘I’ve been thinking of that,’ Heather told her. ‘I can’t see my tattoo of you, but I can see you. You can’t see your tattoo of this boat, but you can see the boat itself. Manon can’t see what there is to be seen in her own tattoo, but she can see that it’s there.’

Kirstie frowned. ‘We’re all three of us blind in different ways! I don’t know why, but something about that fact makes me feel . . . not afraid exactly, but apprehensive.’

Heather nodded. ‘Like it was intended that way! Well, tomorrow’s the big day. Finish your cocoa, and let’s have ourselves a good night’s sleep.’

The others had just finished their game and were rising to go to bed when Kirstie and Heather joined them. Manon caught Kirstie’s eye meaningly before heading for hers and Kirstie’s quarters. Kirstie was almost the last to leave, with Thomas close behind her. A hand on her arm made her turn; and suddenly she was in his arms. His kiss was brief, but left her staring up at him, breathlessly.

‘Now both of us will be able to sleep,’ he said, smiling broadly. ‘Better go before Manon catches us.’

Feeling as though she were walking on air, Kirstie left to join Manon.

‘Hurry and come to bed,’ Manon told her. ‘And shut the door. It’s too chilly and damp for my bones!’

When the two girls were comfortable, warm and drowsy, Manon chuckled.

‘A little kiss, now and then, is allowed.’

Kirstie was silent for some time.

‘How’d you know?’

Manon chuckled. ‘Because you’re not squirming.’

It took a moment for her meaning to become clear.

You-!’

‘Shush, mon petite. Tomorrow, once we’re under way, and for the rest of our journey, stolen kisses will become your measure of time. Dream now, and prepare yourself for whatever may come, by dreaming.’

4

Kirstie awoke alone feeling drowsy and wonderful, and that over the passage of night the soothing motion of the sea had become part of her. Right now I wouldn’t care if we weren’t going anywhere, she thought. I’d be content to just drift along, going nowhere in particular . . . as if nowhere itself were the destination . . .

But at last something in the vessel’s motion got her attention and she sat up, still naked, knelt on the bed and leaned on her forearms on the sill of the wide oval porthole.

We’re moving!

Her features an admixture of astonishment and delight, she pressed her forehead against the glass and peered downwards at the surface of the water near to the hull to get some idea of how fast they were moving.

Wow! We’re practically flying!

‘Come, my immodest little nymph! You have missed breakfast.’

Used by this time to being naked in Manon’s presence, Kirstie bounced off the bed and began pulling on clothes.

‘Why didn’t you wake me? What time is it? Aren’t I supposed to be the cook? What time did we leave-’ She stopped when she noticed Manon’s bemused look.

‘I too have missed breakfast. Thomas, Alain and Heather pulled a fast one on us. We left about four this morning. Come, let’s go eat.’

When Manon began “helping out”, Kirstie was under no illusion but that she was under Manon’s watchful tutelage.

‘Here, not that way! Water is not for making omelettes. Put a little milk in the eggs . . . about this much. Now, take the piano whisk . . . no, that one, you see the things with the curly wires? Take the middle one.’

‘What? Why? Why is that size called a piano whisk?’

Manon shrugged. ‘It just is. Now, beat a little air in it . . . not so hard! Gently, like this.’

Kirstie frowned as she did so. ‘When I was little, my mother always used an egg beater-’

Manon shuddered. ‘Here, that is enough. Now for the parsley . . . the sausage . . . we put in the sautéed champignons . . . la fromage. Here, this will be enough parsely. Just chop it fine and put it in. But don’t stir it! Just a little push, enough to make it mix and no more. Now, a little butter in the pan and the pressed garlic . . .’

Minutes later, as Kirstie took a bite of the mushroom, three-cheese and sausage omelette, she found herself savouring the sheer aroma, the taste . . .

‘This is awesome! This has to be your best yet!’

‘You helped,’ Manon told her with an encouraging smile. ‘And just you remember: Thomas is used to my cooking.’

‘Oh, so it’s going to be my job to keep on spoiling him,’ Kirstie grinned.

‘Of course.’

They were silent for some time, occasionally looking up to take in some interesting detail along the coastline. They could hear the footsteps of the others as they moved about, topside. Now and then came the muffled sound of conversation and occasional laughter.

‘I’ll wash up,’ Kirstie said firmly when they were done. ‘Shall I make tea?’

‘You’d better make a pot of cocoa,’ Manon told her. ‘Use that one hanging over the stove. The others will be needing it by now. And remember not to scald the milk so badly this time.’

Kirstie found herself enjoying feeling somewhat useful as she passed out the steaming mugs. When she came finally to Thomas where he stood at the wheel, however, she felt herself overcome with shyness. Like her he was dressed in galoshes, rainclothes and sou’wester. Though the sea looked fairly calm, the rain was coming down in slanting torrents. And Thomas . . . he looked perfectly in his element.

‘Here, you can take the helm long enough for me to warm up my hands,’ he said brusquely, standing aside, holding the wheel with one hand in invitation.

What? I don’t know how to steer this thing!’

Ignoring her protestations, he took the mug from her and set it down. He then took her firmly by the shoulders, positioned her before the wheel and put her hands upon it.

‘There, you see? So easy a child can do it. Now, as you can see, this great big brass thing with the glass top, here in front of you, is the compass. And the numbers on this instrument over here represent the course we should be on. Just steer her so that the course setting numbers and the direction of the compass are the same.’

Kirstie almost panicked as he withdrew himself, wrapped his hands around the hot mug of cocoa, and sat down where he could observe her. A glance at the compass told her she was too far to the right-

‘Gently. Gently. Come about too hard and you’ll find yourself making a zig-zag. Take it slowly. This is not like steering an automobile. Let your hands and arms and shoulders be loose.’

Kirstie obeyed, and found after she relaxed that steering the seventy-five foot vessel was not the difficult task she assumed it would be. After a while, standing on tip-toes, she found herself glancing at the plasticized chart mounted before her. She felt a light pressure on her back as Thomas leaned over her. He pointed to an instrument dial on the panel next to the compass.

‘See this? It’s connected to a fat little antenna on the big mast . . . see, away up there, just above the little spinning thing? It listens to satellite information, all the way from space. These numbers tell us our position. Here, see? This is our longitude, which is here on the map, and this is our latitude, which puts us exactly . . . right here.’

‘What if it breaks?’ Kirstie said, impressed by the technology but wary of relying wholly on something that might not always work.

Thomas chuckled. ‘You would bring that up! Well, if it breaks, then we do it the hard, old-fashioned way, with sextant, clock and compass. Some night, when we have clear skies and calm weather, I’ll begin to show you.’

‘How come we’re not going west?’ Kirstie asked him. ‘I mean, why are we travelling south along the coast?’

‘We are going south to warmer water,’ he told her. ‘All the way to Africa . . . see on this map here, the way it sticks out? We’re going all the way down there, and then we are turning west. We will pass through the Panama canal, here, and then on we go to the Pacific . . .’

Kirstie enjoyed taking the helm so much that Thomas left her to it until he and Manon came and got her and Manon took her back inside to the galley.

Noon? Already? I didn’t realise I’d slept in that late!’

‘Here, you’re dripping!’ Manon said, trying not to laugh. ‘Take off your wet things and hang them. You’ve been out there since seven-’

What? It seems like we just sat down to breakfast!’

‘All the morning gone in a single kiss,’ Manon said with a broad smile. ‘What did I tell you? Time will move in strange ways on this voyage of ours. Now here! You may start by slicing the bread.’

What makes you think . . . I mean . . . does it really show that much?’

‘Cut!’ Manon ordered, handing her a knife. The moment Kirstie’s back was turned, however, Manon smiled at the girl’s transparency. ‘Has anyone told you how long we will be gone?’

Kirstie shrugged. ‘I figured . . . about a month? Maybe?’

‘Well, let me inform you that it will take months just to get where we are going. And by the way- I told you to make him work for it!’

‘I am! I did-’

‘You most certainly did not! You forget, I saw you standing there, just begging for it.’

Kirstie stopped what she was doing to glare, defensively.

‘I was not begging-’

‘You were, too. You were standing there like this . . .

I-’ Kirstie’s denial died on her lips as she flushed scarlet.

‘Cut!’ Manon told her, taking Kirstie’s arm and placing the blade of the knife on the bread. ‘Let me tell you, you do not want to be making babies on this trip! You would be out to here by the time we got back, and you would be miserable, throwing up all over with the morning sickness. I have a friend who moved to North America who came out with us one time when she was pregnant. She was so sick that she looked about the same colour as that chou chou there.’ She began laughing. ‘She was about that same shape, too.’

Kirstie considered the cabbage, her eyes wide.

‘Yes, Thomas is a big fellow, and he will make big babies,’ Manon teased, pretending not to notice the way Kirstie continued to stare at the offending vegetable. ‘Here.’ She replaced the bread knife Kirstie had been holding with a wide-bladed carving knife. ‘You may make coleslaw instead, if you wish.’ She began chuckling to herself as Kirstie went about the task as though vigorously warding off fate.

Kirstie got her first taste of sea-sickness later that day. A gale had come up, turning the surface of the sea to whitecapped, agitated chop. Literally turning green, she had gone to the head and heaved until her mouth was sour with bile, her stomach cramped. Manon stayed with her a while, until Heather came to her rescue, making her swallow something to steady her stomach, and put her to bed where she lay in a cold sweat. Heather stayed long enough to be sure that Kirstie’s distress was under control, then left her to her spinning room.

The others stopped by from time to time; even Alain, of whom she had spoken to little since their voyage began.

‘I know you feel bad,’ he said kindly. ‘Very bad. Heather used to get like this, but over time she has learned little coping strategies. One thing she used to do was make herself throw up as soon as the weather started getting rough, which, if you are prone to seasickness, is not hard to do. An empty stomach is half the cure.’

‘What’s the other half?’ Kirstie grumbled. ‘Staying at home on dry land?’

Alain shrugged. ‘It varies. Being able to see the coastline helps, but you will not always be able to see land or any other fixed point.’

‘How about the stars and the moon,’ Kirstie muttered, feeling that she might drift off.

‘You are not to be on deck at night when the weather is bad,’ he told her firmly. ‘At least, not yet. It would be dangerous for you and for us. Novices and bad weather are a dangerous mix.’

‘So Heather got used to this?’

‘You are talking in your sleep, so I will leave you now,’ Alain chuckled. ‘Shall I leave the door open?’ When she didn’t answer, he did just that.

That afternoon, propelled by a hungry, hollow feeling, Kirstie stumbled out of bed in the general direction of the galley, feeling drained of more than simple sustenance, her legs rubbery.

‘Sit,’ Manon ordered, her expression worried. She, Alain and Heather had been sitting together at the table sipping cocoa. ‘Will you eat something now?’

Kirstie practically fell onto the padded bench beside Alain and promptly lay her head on her arms. ‘Please. It’s not as rough, now.’ She let out a small moan of appreciation as Alain began massaging her shoulders with his free hand. It began to dawn on her that everything felt strange or different somehow. She felt that she was now more part of the others’ sphere than she had been, that she belonged more, was less a stranger. Beginnings of warm feelings lurked under the surface, but they were somehow elusive, like fast-swimming dolphins and shadows. Sitting up, she took stock. Manon and Alain seemed to actually look different; less perfect, more human, more earthy. Even herself . . . what she could see of herself, seemed to look different . . . to feel different. Yet something in Alain caused her to frown at herself, inwardly. There was still . . . something . . . something . . . the word closed was all that came to mind. How odd. And Heather struck her that way too. She shrugged, inwardly. Perhaps it was just that she was unlike them, and therefore unable to relate easily to them and with them.

‘Still waking up?’ Manon asked her with a quizzical smile as she placed a cup of broth and tomato sandwich before the girl.

Alain, too, was watching her with something like concern. Heather seemed tense as she stared outside, apparently lost in thought.

‘I feel funny,’ Kirstie admitted, slowly. ‘Not sick, but funny. Like everything around me is different somehow.’

Manon said nothing, but exchanged a meaning glance with Alain.

Catching this, not knowing why she was doing so, Kirstie asked, ‘Manon, do you . . . does Heather . . . can either of you . . . well . . . feel your tattoos sometimes?’

Manon and Alain exchanged a guarded look. After a moment, Alain said, ‘Heather has often told us that she can feel hers. She tells me that there are times when it seems . . . somehow alive.’

‘Like when I was sick in bed?’ she asked, looking at him directly.

‘She knew you were ill, the moment you began feeling ill,’ he told her. ‘That is why she went to you directly.’

Kirstie looked to Manon, afraid to ask her next question. ‘Your tattoo . . . it’s different for you, isn’t it?’

Manon nodded, unable to meet her gaze. ‘Yes, it is different. From the beginning, I have felt nothing. Others have noticed things. Some claim to have seen it stirring . . . but I do not understand what that means, or why it is that only I should be so blind in this.’

She’s afraid! Kirstie thought, staring at Manon in sudden fear. She thinks she’s going to die! But why?

‘Ask,’ Manon told her, as though divining her thoughts.

‘I don’t know where to start,’ Kirstie replied, feeling blank. ‘You still haven’t told me everything. I get the feeling, though, that it has something to do with when all of you first saw me. It isn’t just that I look exactly like Heather’s tattoo, is it.’ It was a statement. ‘There’s something else . . . something you’re not telling me.’

Manon nodded and shrugged in a curious and distinctly Latin way. ‘All right. Remember we told you about the little girl that drowned? Well, she was our neighbour, a little girl from next door who Thomas used to play with. There’s no need to look so shocked! It was a long time ago, when Alain, Thomas and I were about six.

‘But that was only the first of many bad things to happen. Sometime after, someone tried to kill me-’

What?’

‘That is when Thomas appointed himself to be my guardian . . . my protector,’ Manon continued. ‘There were several attempts, some of them nearly successful. But Thomas always managed to be near enough at hand that he would frighten off my attacker.’

Kirstie looked to Alain, who shrugged, looking unconvinced.

‘I’m not going to re-open an old argument between Manon and Thomas and myself,’ Alain said, ‘but I was always of the opinion that Manon’s imagination was the real problem. I never saw any evidence of any attack-’

You spent very little time with us when this was happening,’ Manon reminded him.

‘I was there enough,’ he said patiently. ‘Anyway, when the little girl was drowned, Manon used to have horrible nightmares. She would wake up screaming, night after night.

‘Thomas had problems too. He had lost his best friend, and until he began watching over Manon, he was like a lost soul, wandering about alone at all hours of the day and night. Obviously he was in shock-’

‘The attacks continued,’ Manon inturrupted, ‘until one day when our parents were killed-’

‘Manon, please,’ Alain said, his expression pained. ‘That was an accident and you know it!’

‘Yes, another accident,’ Manon said bitterly.

Kirstie sat very still, scarcely able to take in what she was hearing.

‘How did it happen?’

‘Papa had this big powerboat,’ Manon told her. ‘It was something to look at, let me tell you! They don’t make them any more like that. It was made all of wood with brass and chrome, and it was very long and low and shiny, with great big engines, like a huge racing car, and it would go like the wind. Papa would take us, Maman and we three children, and sometimes one or two or our friends, and he would drive us all the way around the island, and sometimes to the mainland.’

‘You’re romanticising!’ Alain criticized.

‘You just say that because you didn’t like to come along, except to look at our family’s old mansion away up on the top of the hill,’ Manon rejoined. ‘We all cringed every time you spotted it, because like a broken record, you would start in with your “Why are we not living in the mansion, Papa? We own the island! We are the richest people here!” And no matter now many times Papa explained to you why we weren’t living in the big mansion on the hill, you would go into a silent funk and be miserable.’

‘That’s a bit harsh,’ he said quietly. ‘I was just a child, as were you and Thomas, remember? You and Thomas, the two of you dreamed of no more than you already had . . . the little house on the beach, and the beach itself, and the parks and the markets. You didn’t choose to want those things: it was built into you to want them. And I . . . I was forced to languish, cursed with wanting to live in the old family mansion. It’s not as though I could help it. And as a child I always felt cheated that the two of you so easily got what you wanted, while I never got the one thing I wanted.’

Though her attention was ostensibly elsewhere, Kirstie could tell that Heather was listening intently to every word.

Oblivious, Manon said to Alain, ‘You well know what that old mansion represents. You know now and you knew then.’

Heather looked uncomfortable as Alain said in a tired voice, ‘It’s just an old mansion, Manon. A big, run-down old house that is slowly falling apart. Our feudal ancestors were no better or worse than anyone else’s feudal ancestors-’

‘Ours were the few at the top of the heap exploiting the many-’

‘That’s just the way it was!’ Alain rejoined.

‘Please, let’s not start this,’ Manon said, looking pale. ‘It is in Papa’s will that the mansion remain empty until it crumbles into dust.’

Alain turned unexpectedly to Kirstie.

‘This tragedy is something that I’d expect you to understand, your being British.’ he told her. ‘In your country, you take your history, good, bad or indifferent, clean the muck and the dust off it, and put it on display. Your Bloody Tower was an abomination in its day, yet look at what it is now! One of the world’s most popular tourist attractions! You save your castles, preserve your battlefields . . .’ he made an angry gesture, ‘while on our island, we take what little history we have left and deliberately let it fall apart.’

He sighed and shook his head. ‘When the three of us, Thomas, Manon and myself were children, I spent a good deal of time alone, poking through the old mansion. What a palace it was in its day! Marble staircases, leaded bevelled-glass windows, slate roofs, granite walls four feet thick, with fountains and carriage drives and gardens with gazebos.’ He huffed. ‘Just sitting around and watching it fall apart . . . for yourself it would be like watching the decay and ruin of Buckingham Palace.’

On an intuition, something about Alain’s interest in the old mansion making her cautious, she ventured, ‘You’re not talking about restoring the place for tourists and historians, are you.’ It was a statement. ‘You’re talking about restoring the place so that you can live in it.’

He looked at her as though she had missed the point.

‘Of course, to live in it! It was the ancestral home of the Brouillards.’

‘Anyway,’ Manon said firmly, having had enough and changing the subject, ‘our parents were killed when we were fifteen. Papa’s boat exploded-’

‘Yes, and it was caused by a leak in the fuel line,’ Alain said.

‘Papa was an excellent mechanic,’ Manon said quietly. ‘Besides, the boat should have caught fire first. Everyone said so at the time.’

Alain said nothing.

‘Then,’ Manon continued, ‘for several years the attacks stopped. Until one day there was my tattoo, with its double entendre . . . and all at once it was as though the threat was made anew. Some men tried to abduct me-’

She nodded into Kirstie’s shocked surprise.

‘They very nearly succeeded, but Thomas, sensing something was wrong, came to the rescue once again. And don’t try again to tell me that incident was unrelated!’ she said forcefully to Alain. ‘They even said to me, “You’re going to pay with your life for having that mark,” and Thomas heard them as well. Things have been quiet since, but we knew something would eventually happen.’

‘And then I came . . .’ Kirstie muttered, guessing where this was heading.

‘Yes, and then you came: the magical little being appearing amongst us in the flesh, that confirmed that there is something supernatural about the tattoos. And it was then we knew that, for better or for worse, the time had come to see this matter through to its conclusion.’

Kirstie sighed and shook her head, still sceptical. ‘Manon, I am not a magical little being like the depiction on Heather’s shoulder. The tattoos . . . they’re probably just tattoos . . .’ She faltered as Manon went to a drawer, took out an old black and white photograph and handed it to the girl.

Kirstie went white.

Where did you get this? That’s me when I was about five! The woman . . . I don’t think I recognise her-’

‘That,’ said Manon, taking the photograph from her, ‘is because you never met her. Or the little girl. That is a picture of the little girl who was drowned-’

‘Here, let me see that!’ Kirstie demanded, retrieving the picture, her hands shaking. She then went into her wallet and withdrew some old snaps- those of her mother and herself. The others leaned over for a better look.

‘I would say that is one Hell of a coincidence,’ Alain said with gentle irony. ‘I would also say that one coincidence is just that- a coincidence; but when the coincidences keeping mounting up, then there is no coincidence at all.’

‘You’re talking nonsense!’ Kirstie said, though it was evident even to herself that she doubted her own words. ‘I’m not the girl in that picture.’

‘I never said you were,’ Alain told her. ‘But you are her double in likeness. You are the exact double, as a grown woman, of Heather’s tattoo. You did end up in the exact place where the little girl was drowned. And . . . okay, here is another thing. What is the exact date of your birth?’

Kirstie told him.

Alain and Manon exchanged a meaning glance.

Alain went to a drawer, pulled out an old scrapbook. He turned to a page on which was pasted an old obituary. ‘Look,’ he told her, his thumb held deliberately over some of the type, ‘look at the day, month and year on which the little girl was born.’

Kirstie, who had gone very pale, forced herself to ask one more question, though indirectly.

‘Please tell me her name wasn’t Kirstie.’

She almost relaxed as Alain smiled oddly and said, ‘No, her name was not Kirstie.’ She tensed, however, as Alain removed his thumb, allowing her to see for herself.

‘Her name was Christie.’

That evening, Kirstie lay awake for some time, her head full of images, memories and intangibles. At one point she even began musing on her own name, which resembled the “cursed” version of Christie. Am I the embodiment of the curse? she mused. Wouldn’t that be the height of irony! Can it be that something evil is going to happen to us?

She remembered, then, an incident which had happened a little over a year ago. The restaurant she had been working for had sent a number of the staff, including herself, to cater for a group of lecturers. They were members of an international association of experts on fairy tales and folklore.

Kirstie, having done her bit for the time being, as the meeting had not yet broken up, found herself at loose ends. Wandering about the vicinity within the university, she found herself entering a lecture hall, unnoticed. The subject caught her attention immediately, and she sat down at the rear of the lecture hall to listen to the speaker’s words.

‘ . . . account for the creation of the myth of the “wicked stepmother.” As the historical record clearly shows, it was the mothers themselves, indeed both of the parents, that took part in child abandonment, infanticide, the selling and procurement of children, and in some instances cannibalism.

‘Of course, at the time the Brothers Grimm were collecting rural folklore and fairy tales which were in the oral tradition, such accounts had to be Bowdlerized for the benefit of the less urban citizenry. Tales of child cannibalism and infanticide were definitely out, except where the possibility of such an occurrence could be used to harmlessly spice up a story. And tales of the acts of evil parents were also out. To this end, the “wicked stepmother” was created, and remained an icon of fairy tales and folklore, both in the oral and literary tradition as set out in Propp’s Guidelines, until the end of the nineteenth century. Some might argue that it exists in one form or another to this very day.

‘One very pronounced reason such attention was focused upon a created being, namely the “stepmother,” was that retribution was very much a part of these old stories. To that end, you will recall that in the story of Cinderella, doves were said to have plucked out the eyes of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and her three stepsisters. However . . .’ the orator had said this wish slow relish . . . ‘in the tale as told to previous generations, doves pecked the eyes out of the heads of her wicked mother and older, wicked sisters. Clearly, this was too much for the more citified Christendom of the times.

‘Now, whilst later generations tried to sweep this sinister-appearing wish-fulfilment fantasy of small children and uneducated rural society under the carpet, the evidence clearly has it that they failed to do so. Take your typical mid-twentieth century American animated cartoon, for example. The relationships are clearly child-adult, as can be demonstrated by the difference in size. Tweety-bird is small and speaks with a child’s lisp, and possesses such child’s features as the domed head and comparatively large eyes, while Sylvester the cat is large and overbearing and distinctly of adult proportions. Jerry is an innocent-appearing little mouse, once again with child’s features, whilst Tom is a big, interfering cat possessed of adult features. Roadrunner is a high-speed adolescent whilst Wiley Coyote is constantly trying to interfere with his activities. The list goes on and on ad nauseam. The theme most often is of revenge and retribution. Everyone that has dumped on our poor little hero gets it in the end, whether by direct contrivance or by Fate or by a combination of both.

‘Now, those of you that are familiar with such tales, and with the cartoon genre I’ve just mentioned, can not have failed to notice two things: firstly, the utter lack of genuine innocence on the part of the “child” character, and secondly, the element of supernatural control. If anything, there is a loutish innocence about their antagonists which our so-called little heroes exploit with absolute ruthlessness and impunity, and for the most part absolutely without conscience. As well, the Fates are not only entirely in favour of our wretched little hero figure, but our little hero figure is almost invariably aware of this fact. In point of fact, he has the attributes of a little demigod, possessed of a certain degree of omnipotence, and has almost complete control over all that transpires.

‘That said, clearly the desire to create such tales lies far deeper in the psyche than the superficial notion that we homo sapiens desire to tell tales simply for their own sake. As the anthropological evidence has clearly shown us: once removed from the sphere of modern political correctness, media-generated psychobabble and a public schooling system which seems bent upon ignoring the truth about the nature of children and humanity in general, there remains an underlying need for such stories, both to relate and to create them.

‘Now, before we consider condemning our forebears for what are today considered unconscionable acts against children, or the fantasied retaliatory acts of children against their parents, let us review the conditions as they were at that time:

‘The largest surviving body of these stories date from feudal times and have roots which go back to the dawn of Western Civilization and before, elements of which lasted until the end of the Industrial Revolution. Life was very hard in those days. There was no public schooling, illiteracy was the norm, the average life-expectancy was thirty years of age, there was no surgery, there were very few real medicines, superstitions of all sorts abounded, yearly epidemics caused many deaths, the infant mortality rate was extremely high, food preservation was unreliable, what laws existed did little to protect the average and very poor citizenry (some would argue that this has changed little), people were plagued by chronic ailments and pests such as lice, ticks, ringworm, fleas, scabies, and so on; as Winter came to an end each year, many or most were either scraping the bottom of the barrel or beginning to starve.

Winter . . . not a one of us can begin to imagine the fear that one word embodied in those days. There was little to do but try to stay warm and collect firewood. People spent much of their time carefully watching over and eking out their dwindling supplies of food, mindful of rot, mould, rats, mice and insect larvae. Worst of all, they feared raids from the so-called nobility, who would send forth their thugs to take what they wanted when their own cupboards began looking a little bare.

‘To cope with this cheerless, hopeless and frightening world, families gathered round the fire in the evening and told tales, namely folk and fairy tales in the oral tradition (you will recall that the literary tradition was relegated to the more literate nobility of the times).

‘That said, now we are come to it: The Unthinkable, also the title of this lecture: that which we, used to prosperity, are no longer able to comprehend.

‘I ask you now to consider: What did people do in those days when the food ran out, especially early on? Or when the nobility took all their food and livestock? Or when raiders came and took all their food and livestock? Or when a father and provider died, leaving a young mother with any number of hungry mouths to feed?

‘That people starved is obvious. But what else happened? What happened that people didn’t talk about? That only got talked about in fairy tales and folklore, as a sort of balm or catharsis?

‘Well, what often happened was, people often abandoned or killed their own children, rather than watch them starve to death. In this day and age, the tendency is to think or believe that we would have done otherwise, but we would do well to remember that during better times, the very notion of killing or abandoning their own children would have been just as abhorent to those parents. To believe that we would do any differently is pure arrogance on our part.

‘As well, there is much anthropological and other scientific evidence to support the claim that infanticide committed while under duress is a common phenomenon even today. There are those that claim, for good reason and with mountains of evidence to support such a claim, that such behaviour is instinctive, that we humans are not so far removed from the hard necessities of the Animal Kingdom as we would like to believe.

‘And there is also evidence that a mother’s instinct to kill her own young can be triggered by some calamity, duress, or in some instances by mental illness. It is worthy of note, however, to point out the bizarre and often ritualistic behaviour and actions of mothers that kill their own young. That their behaviour has gone far beyond the realm of conscious decision-making or reason there can be no doubt, but what is of greatest interest to us, as students and historians of oral fairy tales and folklore, is that such behaviour seems to arise from the very wellspring of that which impels us to think and act.

‘Those of you that have also studied psychology will be well familiar with this. It is often referred to as “magical thinking,” and refers to a person suffering from “incorrect thinking.”

There was some amused tittering at this, followed by a slight pause.

‘However,’ the speaker drawled, a disparaging note in his voice, ‘that is a rather derogatory way of describing, and more to the point, avoiding, coming to terms with a condition latent in all of us, whereby everything a person thinks or says or does, arises purely out of instinct. Now, I would like you to think carefully about that! For that is just the sort of person we have been discussing. Think of it! At one time, almost everyone was like that! People like ourselves were the odd anomaly, and not the other way ‘round. You might also like to consider the fact that people in those days that expressed the sort of free-thinking ideas, opinions and lifestyles that we do usually wound up dead. Our “modern” way of thinking was not entirely unknown, but by and large it was not tolerated. The ruling monarch’s word was the only law, and resistance to that law in any form meant a date with the headman’s axe, or worse. The same was true when it came to upholding the prevailing beliefs of the time.

‘When considering such a person, particularly, in our day and age, a mother that commits infanticide, us moderns react with horror and find ourselves unable to understand or come to terms with such behaviour. Perhaps even more incomprehensible are instances where children, working alone or together, turn on their parents or their siblings or both. Historically as today, such occurrances are almost evenly divided between children that have been abused, or that have experienced no apparent abuse, but that are tormented either by some sort of dementia or by some overwhelming internal conflict.

‘I would argue that all attempts to explain or understand such behaviour are doomed from the start, so long as we hold to our modern notions of motivation, behaviour, and “right” and “wrong”. In that sense we are imposing ourselves, and are not genuinely listening, understanding or impartially observing. The failure here is in us! To truly understand such a person, we must do what a person confronted with a strange new culture must do to truly understand. We must suspend all that we have learned about the world and ourselves, and be willing to “go native.” In essence, to be on the same level as such a person, we would have to become like that person.

‘Such is the goal of the finest historians, to feel and live and breath as those . . .’

‘What, you are still awake?’

Manon had just joined her, and was undressing for bed.

‘Mn,’ Kirstie muttered sleepily. ‘I was thinking about tattoos and going native with people from a long time ago . . .’

‘Go back to sleep,’ Manon chucked as she crawled in beside the girl. ‘You talk as if you are still dreaming.’

Manon’s presence lulled Kirstie into a deeper sort of somnolence. She began dreaming of a woman, fey, desperate, unreasoning, violent, her eyes the embodiment of madness. Kirstie stared in terror, awe, pity and loathing as the woman became a powerful mythic being; a warped and dangerous figure that had become a force of nature. Her malevolence was bent upon a little girl, Kirstie saw; only because the girl was the nearest living thing to her madness as it took over. Or was the madness itself some unspeakable evil thing that had taken over the poor woman?

But there was something odd about this woman, about the eyes and mouth, that struck Kirstie with fear. She did not move like a woman . . . Kirstie could tell that she was horribly strong.

No! Stop it! Leave her alone! Can’t you see what you’re doing? She’s just a child . . . just an innocent child . . .

‘Shush, mon petite. You are having nightmares. Shush, now. I’ve got you. There are no bad things here. Just bad dreams.’

You monster! Kirstie wept in her dream. And then became mute with horror as the woman uncovered her face-

‘Shush,’ Manon murmured once more, and by her presence alone she seemed able to drag Kirstie away by the hand.

But I saw its face! her dream self protested weakly. I did! But it wasn’t a woman . . . it was something else.

There was something else, a sort of recognition. But this was soon forgotten as Kirstie drifted away to less troubled waters.

5

The first leg of the journey, taking them to the westernmost edge of the African continent, took a full five weeks. There they stopped in port for a day, to rest and to reprovision the boat for the Atlantic crossing. As Manon had said, the time for Kirstie would be marked by little intimacies shared with Thomas, the man she had come to think of as her husband-to-be. And by the time she had gotten used to the idea that this was all they could share of each other, she discovered too that an inner resolve and confidence was forming itself, albeit with melancholic overtones. There was no guarantee that their voyage would end in resolution and consummation; no guarantee that disaster wouldn’t strike along the way; and there was certainly no guarantee that the circumstances and conditions that presently governed their lives wouldn’t change, for better or for worse.

At last, with the sun at their backs and a brisk offshore breeze speeding them along, their journey across the equatorial Atlantic had begun. Kirstie noticed at once the change in the ocean, the way it seemed to loom all about them, heavy and dark and deep. Everything about the water became transformed; its rhythms, its currents, it behaviour. Kirstie felt some misgiving at these changes, and realised that only now were they truly at sea . She saw groundswells for the first time- no mere waves, these; the waves themselves were dwarfed by undulating hills and ravines of water. She listened in awe as Thomas explained to her that the Atlantic, being a shallow ocean, had correspondingly smaller groundswells. The Pacific, he told her, being deeper, produced groundswells that made those of the Atlantic appear like rollers on a lake.

Several times along the way, during rough weather, when Kirstie was bedridden with seasickness, each time something fundamental within her was eroded away like sandstone, while that which remained changed and adapted to accommodate life on the open sea. By the time they had reached Africa she had already learned to walk on a heaving deck without having to look to the shoreline for reference, had learned to navigate with or without instruments; had learned how to tack and to set the rigging; how to set a course and to adjust to accomodate the ever-changing conditions of current and winds; she had become a fairly good cook under the worst of conditions; and she had learned to cope with seasickness to the point where it became merely an occasional annoyance.

The others, apparently satisfied with how things stood between herself and Thomas, left off any pretense of chaperoning the pair. Little intimacies, though brief and stolen, were no longer hidden. But this restraint quickly took its toll on Kirstie. To her eyes Thomas had become distant, and a fear began to grow on her that their relationship might be slipping away.

But by nature, Kirstie couldn’t abide things “hanging in the air”, as it were. Though she couldn’t have clearly explained why, she loathed such things as stories based upon prolonged misunderstandings. She was unaware that this was a staple of French and other European storytellers, and that as such it was very much a part of European culture. But for a straightforward and practical English girl like herself it was nothing more than a maddening, pointless contrivance that reflected an attitude that was at once phony, deceitful and manipulative.

Though she had grown to love Thomas and Manon, still, their French-ness caused her not a little difficulty, especially where Thomas was concerned. This realisation forced on her the decision that she must confront Thomas with the truth, that there had to be some middle ground between them; that, at least where Thomas was concerned, she had to be accepted for who and what she was.

One evening in the galley, having waited some time for an opportunity to be alone with him, Kirstie approached Thomas awkwardly as he replaced a part on the stove. She had been through this situation a hundred times in her mind. It was well-rehearsed and thought out. She had only to say the words and it would be done. Noticing her diffidence, he stopped what he was doing and turned to her with a quizzical smile.

‘Yes?’

Maddeningly, she found herself suffering an attack of nerves.

‘T- Thomas . . . I . . .’

He frowned, concerned.

‘What is it? Is something the matter?’

‘I . . . I just wanted to say . . . I mean-’

‘Kirstie, is something wrong?’ He came to her then, took her hands, which only served to make things worse. ‘Why are you trembling like this? Here, sit down-’

Involuntarily, she blurted, ‘No! Thomas, I don’t have to think about it any more!’

What? That definitely wasn’t what she had come here to say!

He stared at her, blankly. Then, slowly, a lopsided smile of relief spread across his features.

‘Could you be a little more specific?’

‘I want you to understand . . . I’ll . . . if you still want me . . .’

‘Please, come sit down before you faint,’ he said quietly. ‘You’re as white as a little ghost. There. Now, am I to understand that this is just your funny way of saying “yes”?’

Wondering where her little speech had gone, and what she was talking about and doing, Kirstie nodded dumbly, feeling like a fool.

Smiling broadly, he said, ‘All right, then. Let’s have it.’

She looked a question.

With a chuckle, he unclasped the rope-chain from around her neck, slid the ring off and replaced the chair around her neck, then took her hand.

‘If we are to do this,’ he said, I will need a finger- not a fist.’

She obeyed. And then it was done.

‘Was that so bad?’

Like a cowardly traitor, her original intent had deserted her and gone running for the hills. She could almost imagine her little speech standing there like a little girl with its finger in its mouth, having been prompted by its parents to say something cute, then having clammed up altogether once the spotlight was turned on. How this had happened was as lost to her as understanding why she was suddenly in his arms, weeping uncontrollably, feeling that, somehow, she had said and done everything she’d intended.

‘You British are so odd,’ Manon muttered as she mounted another trawling rod in its stern bracket mount. ‘We French girls live for the delicious agony of anticipation.’

Since discussing the matter, Kirstie had discovered, to her surprise, that neither Manon nor Thomas had any use for prolonged misunderstandings, storywise or otherwise. At present, Manon was merely making conversation to while away the time.

‘Yes, well, we British tend to frown upon self-inflicted suffering,’ Kirstie rejoined, angling the bow a little further out of the wind. The breeze was maddening, coming at them from almost directly head-on, but shifting just enough to cause Kirstie to have to periodically change her tack. It was tiring work: instead of making the minute adjustments needed to simply hold a course, she was periodically forced to swing the bow out of what suddenly became a head-wind, which, being dead-on, caused to sails to flap lifelessly, the boat to suddenly lose momentum, the very momentum of which was needed for the rudder to change their course. A stationary boat could turn its rudder any which way, Kirstie had discovered earlier, with absolutely no effect: it took the boat’s forward momentum and resulting passage through the water to cause the rudder to plane the water, altering altering the boat’s course. The result of this constant changing of tack was a lot of extra work that Kirstie was unaccustomed to. Distraction definitely helped cope with this nerve-wracking chore and aching arms and shoulders.

‘A little pain and deprivation adds piquancy,’ Manon said, placing the last of the poles and threading its cotter pin home with a snap. ‘We French cook well because we skilfully torment ourselves with anticipation.’

‘You cook well because you’re hedonists,’ Kirstie rejoined.

‘We love well because we eke out our feelings and our sensuousness in intense little bursts of heavenly ecstasy.’

‘You love torturing yourselves with breaking up over nothing and making up with people you shouldn’t be in relationships with,’ Kirstie said.

‘Ah, oui, there’s nothing like a British marriage! A few short years of boring, almost frigid sex, and a lifetime of soul-destroying dullness and routine. What could be better?’

‘A ten-pound box of chocolates,’ Kirstie breathed, wistfully.

‘Ah . . .’ Manon intoned. ‘You would have no figure . . . no ardent lover . . . no teeth . . . but you would not care . . . hey, why are you looking like that?’

Her answer came by following the direction of Kirstie’s gaze. On the edge of the horizon, slightly to the southwest, there was a lick of flame.

‘Oil rig?’ Alain offered as Thomas studied the fire through the telescope.

‘It is too far off to tell,’ Thomas answered. ‘Whatever is burning is still below the horizon.’

Kirstie only half-listened to their conversation, concentrating instead on holding a steady course towards the distant flames. Manon stood beside her, watching. Heather was below, talking on the wireless. After several minutes she joined them.

‘Well, there have been no distress calls. It’s not an oil rig: there are none any where near here. They’ve decided it must be a freighter, so they’re sending help. There’re a pair of reconnaissance aircraft on their way right now. I was told to watch out for them in half an hour or so.’

‘Might as well be a lifetime,’ Thomas said, grimly. ‘What do they say about ships?’

‘Ten hours at best,’ Heather told him.

Mon Dieux!’ Alain muttered. ‘We could be swamped with survivors, if there are any. I think perhaps we should just leave this to the authorities or we could run into trouble ourselves.’

For one brief instant, Kirstie found part of herself relucatantly agreeing with him, until Thomas replied curtly, ‘You’re talking nonsense! You cannot rescue someone in the water from an aeroplane. Waiting ten hours for a ship to arrive, in the Atlantic, is most often a death-sentence. We will lend what help we can.’

As he spoke, to Kirstie it was as though the sun had broken through grey cloud or mist; for no reason she could put into words, she had the fleeting impression that he had a deeply ingrained understanding of such mists, that he knew how to deal with them.

Alain, on the other hand . . . she thought it odd that he was just the opposite, that it was in his nature to generate such mists, mists which concealed purpose, clouded understanding. Was that what lay behind her inability to understand or empthise with Alain? Was it that she couldn’t comprehend what motivated him? How was it Manon referred to him sometimes . . . Alanguir? French for “languish.” The way Manon had said it, the word seemed almost to imply some sort of soul-sickness.

And Manon . . . Kirstie suddenly had to smile to and at herself for thinking such nonsense about the three. But her next thought was sobering. Manon, who lived within these mists as the potential victim.

‘Enough daydreaming!’ she said to herself at last. ‘There’re enough problems in the real world without compounding them with silly imaginings.’

But then, she shuddered suddenly as a chilling little finger of memory from a certain lecture hall seemed to reach out across space and time and touch her, and it was accompanied by a little shock of revelation. How odd, that she had heard the words before without fully comprehending them. One of the professors had said that people once lived in their imaginations, much like small children did, to a far greater degree than modern people. Symbolism, a thing of the active and ongoing imagination, itself an integral part of their culture, he had said, had once permeated their lives. It was in everything they saw and did; it was in their circumstances; it was their world. They really did believe in folk and faerie tales. They really did believe in magic. Such thinking, he had said, allowed them to do things we of today would find incomprehensible.

Kirstie examined this thought in surprise.

‘Well, professor,’ she mused, ‘perhaps you were quite right about that. Maybe it’s still there somewhere . . . somewhere deep inside all of us.’

The sun was hovering just above the horizon when they arrived on the scene. The fire had since burned itself out, replaced by lingering, acrid soot and smoke. A greasy stain marked the place where the vessel had been, an ugly disfiguring blemish on the surface of the silvery, unreal-looking sea. Kirstie stared in horror when she noticed that what she had thought to be debris turned out to be charred corpses held up by half-melted life-preservers. She began weeping when it dawned on her that they all appeared to be young women.

‘You three go below,’ Thomas said to his sister, who like Kirstie was staring sickly at the carnage.

Manon gaped at him as though wondering where her outrage at his chauvinism had gone.

‘Go,’ he urged quietly. ‘Alain and I will deal with things here. And don’t even start giving me an argument about male chauvinism. You can say what you like after this is over, but for now, the three of you have seen enough, and you will see no more.’

The two young woman exchanged a look that said eloquently that they were as put-out as they were guiltily relieved. Heather tacitly joined them, her features unreadable.

In the end they were delayed a full day. Meanwhile, their sailing vessel, which Kirstie had thought of as huge, was dwarfed by the French naval vessels that went about the grim business of retrieving bodies and trying to sort out the cause of the horrible tragedy. It was decided that an old wooden cargo ship, loaded with hopeful young illegal immigrants, had been on its way to North America, when fire broke out. It was evident that they had time to don their life-preservers, but the ship had then likely exploded and burned. In the end, the wreck itself was never found. It had gone to the bottom of the cold Atlantic as faceless and nameless as the ill-fated young women who had perished in their hundreds.

A week later, Kirstie discovered to her great surprise that the experience began to fade, as though eroded away, like everything else, by the sea’s touch. The sea seemed to suffer only that which lived in the moment while eating steadily away at that which endured. And yet . . . and yet . . . the experience seemed transmuted in some manner . . . it seemed to her that some underlying symbolism remained. The young women had become the embodiment of ruthless exploitation.

‘Are you still here?’ Thomas asked her, a half-smile on his lips.

‘What? Oh, yes . . . just thinking,’ Kirstie muttered, distracted. Thomas was showing her how to mend sails and splice rigging. Then, she asked a question that had been bothering her.

‘I got to thinking, after that ship went down . . . no one ever found out who she was. Thomas, why doesn’t this ship have a name?’

He gave her a quizzical smile.

‘Kirstie Brighton! Are you superstitious?’

‘No!’ she rejoined, untruthfully. Then, ‘Well . . . maybe just a little. I mean, isn’t it supposed to be bad luck for a ship to have no name?’

‘It is if you believe in such things,’ he said, still smiling.

‘I don’t really . . . but . . . it makes me uneasy, somehow. Like I can’t trust her, or she’s hiding something.’

‘I see. Like a mysterious woman who suddenly walks into your life who may be friend or foe. You want to believe that she is your friend, but doubt and instinct tell you that because she is hiding something she is not to be trusted. She must therefore be up to something . . . something mysterious and altogether bad-’

‘Don’t make fun of me, Thomas! I know it’s irrational but I can’t help the way I feel.’

He sighed, gathered her into his arms and kissed the top of her head.

‘I was only trying to make light of things,’ he said, giving her a little squeeze. ‘Manon, too, has always thought it wrong for a ship to have no name.’

‘What about Alain and Heather?’

He shrugged. ‘Neither of them think it’s the least bit important.’

Kirstie was silent for a bit. Then, ‘What about you? Do you think it has no importance?’

He thought a moment. ‘Well,’ he said slowly, ‘to tell the truth, I think it doesn’t matter, but I feel otherwise. However . . .’ He shrugged. ‘It annoys Alain to discuss the matter, so I always let it drop.’

Unseen by him, Kirstie smiled, though for no reason she could put into words, something of his mention of Alain’s attitude gave her a momentary pang of worry.

They went back to mending sailcloth; both sunburnt, with clothes fluttering; hair dishevelled, sunwashed and salt-stiff.

We’re being moulded, Kirstie thought to herself. For the sea or for some purpose, I don’t know which. But this boat . . . it’s almost as though she were some supernatural being, in her element, and immune. I don’t know why I’m thinking or feeling this but she seems to hold some secret power over the sea and over us. But Alain said that my tattoo would make us all safe! Instead, I feel like it’s provoking her in some manner . . . can that be what I’m feeling? Surely not!

But on that day, and at that moment, Kirstie began to feel in her very bones that the vessel was aware of her; watching her. She tried to dispel this notion by thinking of a caricature of a wicked old witch but even as she did so the image seemed to stare back at her with chilling eyes that were not part of her own safe imaginings.

Mon petite, if you do not start letting me sleep, then I am going to make you sleep with Thomas, whether you are ready for it or not! What is keeping you awake like this? Are you having nightmares about that shipwreck? Or are you homesick? Are you ill-’

It was on the tip of Kirstie’s tongue to explain, as she had before, that she was becoming afraid of this nameless vessel that carried them on its own secret journey; that the others seemed unable to detect the hidden malice, the danger.

But they didn’t believe her. Oh, they were all set to allow themselves to believe in the magical powers of tattoos and symbolism, but they were not about to allow themselves to put their trust in Kirstie’s feelings!

She tried another tack. ‘It’s the tattoos. Manon, I don’t think they’re what they appear to be.’

Manon stirred.

‘What are you saying?’

‘I have this feeling . . . they’re like the rattle on a snake’s tail. They’re a lure . . . a deception.’

Kirstie!’ Manon made a frustrated noise. Then, she opened the light, got out of bed, took Kirstie firmly by the hand and led her to Thomas’ quarters. Without bothering to knock, she opened the door and pushed Kirstie in the direction of Thomas’ bed. He opened one bleary eye and considered the two intruders.

‘What-?’

‘It is time for you to begin looking after your fiancée,’ Manon told him. ‘Bon nuit!’ With that she left, closing the door firmly behind her.

‘I believe that might have been an ultimatum,’ he said ironically, bleary-eyed with sleep. He lifted the covers for her. ‘Come. And please, close the light. I’ve got to sleep or I will be good for nothing when my turn comes at the watch.’

Kirstie hesitated, surprised at her own reluctance now that it had come to the point. This was where she wanted to be, wasn’t it? In bed in her fiancé’s arms?

He smiled ruefully at the way she stood there shivering in her night-gown. ‘Do I have to hold this position all night?’

Forcing herself to move, she closed the light, got into his bed, awkwardly, tried to make herself comfortable.

‘Here, turn yourself around . . . with your back to me. There, like that.’

A wonderfully warm feeling enveloped her as he wrapped his arms around her, as though merely being in such close proximity to his calm confidence was enough to dispel her fears. His breathing quickly resumed the deep and regular rhythm of sleep and she tried her best to follow suit, like an inexpert swimmer trying to keep pace while swimming dangerously far out in the ocean. In her mind’s eye she turned to that place the old witch had watched her from and discovered a closed door. But it was the sort of door that might open at any time when her attention was diverted elsewhere and it gave her no comfort. Something watchful lay behind it, and something in her responded in its turn by keeping vigil.

For the next several weeks the weather cooperated with a sameness that would have been positively languid were it not for the spume-tanged breeze, white puffs of scudding cloud and churned pale green of an ocean that seemed lighted from within. Each day they reeled in twisting, writhing, living things that scant moments later were sizzling aromatically on a hot skillet, devoured with that sense of awe and gratitude that comes with being a part of nature. No fish caught at market ever tasted so good, and the added piquancy of necessity put the lie to the myth of the “sport” fisherman.

Day by day, week by week, the coast of Panama drew ever nearer. So too did the number of vessels travelling both in their direction and in the opposite. They found that they had become part of a slow-motion race towards the famous canal: there were never fewer than a dozen freighters in sight, most of them container ships. Sailing yachts were becoming commonplace, and at infrequent intervals, huge and novel relics from the past delighted Kirstie’s eye. One of these was an American coast guard vessel, a huge white sailing ship with modern metal hull, coast guard swaths of red on her sides.

‘What on earth!’ Kirstie exclaimed on seeing her. ‘Surely the Americans don’t still use sailing ships for rescuing people?’

Alain chuckled out loud as Thomas explained.

‘She’s a training vessel. I can’t tell from here but I think that’s the Eagle. Learning to sail and navigate the old-fashioned way is part of their training.’

‘I only noticed her a few minutes ago and already she’s passing us,’ Kirstie said in awe. ‘Look at the size of her! A ship like that must be well over a hundred years old!’

‘Actually, she’s relatively modern,’ Alain told her.

At once, Kirstie became aware of an alien feeling: she felt herself to be in the presence of curdled, petty jealously. Startled, she glanced up at Thomas, then over at Alain, who sat amidship. But it was coming from neither of them: neither seemed aware of it.

It doesn’t make sense, she mused. It’s not coming from Thomas or Alain. There’s no one else topside but me, and I know it’s not me. Where else . . .

A prickling sensation abruptly reminded her of her tattoo, and at the same instant she realised where the ugly feeling was radiating from. It’s the ship! But no, that’s impossible! The ship doesn’t have any feelings, nor does my tattoo!

Yet despite her inner protestations she felt acutely the eyes of the witch following the immense and graceful beauty of the Eagle with vitriol so poisonous that Kirstie’s senses recoiled.

When at last the Eagle was no longer to be seen, Kirstie was left feeling as much empty sadness as relief.

‘Thomas,’ Kirstie said quietly, ‘we have to talk.’

She was sitting on a bench at the stern, studying his profile as he managed the helm.

‘If it is about this boat and the tattoos, Manon has already told me what you’ve said.’

She swallowed, feeling apprehension in the pit of her stomach, for no apparent reason.

‘So, what do you think?’

He took a deep breath that was almost a sigh, let it out slowly.

‘I think that you believe it,’ he said, his manner tense, gaze fixed in the distance.

At this, Kirstie had gone cold inside. ‘You’re saying that you don’t believe me.’

‘Kirstie,’ he said patiently, ‘the tattoos are one thing . . . but what you’re saying is that you are tied in with things supernatural. Look, we have all seen the evidence of the tattoos . . . but they are objects, objects possessed of properties that defy understanding. But Kirstie, you are not an object. Do you see what I am saying?’

What was cold by now had turned to ice. ‘I see what you’re saying, Thomas. You’re calling me a liar.’

‘I said that I believed that you believed what you were saying,’ Thomas rejoined. ‘That is hardly the same thing as calling you a liar.’

‘It’s the next best thing!’ Kirstie bit off the words, tasting the bitter bile of betrayal.

‘Kirstie, please, don’t let’s fight.’ His face looked drawn in the late afternoon sun. ‘The distinction between an inanimate object that defies explanation and a supernatural power in a human being . . . can’t you hear how that sounds?’

‘I never said that I was anything supernatural!’ she said, angry now. ‘I just said that I could sense things! To me they’re as plain as the colour of your sweater, or the darkness of the night! Thomas, there is nothing wrong with me. I see what I see, and I hear what I hear! Why do the rest of you have difficulty accepting this?’

‘You’re tired,’ he said in a voice that was at once as flat and featureless as the tropical dusk that had descended while they were talking. ‘Perhaps you should get some rest-’

‘You bastard! Don’t you dare patronize me!’

In a daze, Kirstie found herself going to his cabin, removing her ring and leaving it out on a table where he would see it, gathering her things and moving herself back in with Manon. The others, sitting wooden and silent in the galley, said nothing, avoiding her eye. She then lay down on the bed and cried herself to sleep.

6

She awoke the next morning feeling emotionally exhausted and almost physically ill with what had happened between Thomas and herself; and by proxy the others as well. Seeing them only made things worse. No one spoke to her when she emerged the next morning, which only prompted her to say nothing, fearing that she could only make matters worse.

Why had she done such a stupid, stupid thing? Why did she feel so betrayed? Why was she feeling so hurt, so angry, with the others and with herself?

The ship, which until now had been the very expression of freedom for her, seemed suddenly to have become a sort of prison. There was no escaping what had happened. There was no running away. No avoiding the others. No getting off the boat and simply walking away . . .

It occurred to her, then, that she could get off the boat as soon as they stopped for supplies in Panama. She had no idea what she would do then, or where she would go, but the thoughts she had of walking away from all this seemed to grow, to have a will of their own.

Yes, she could leave. And she would. At once she found that her mind was made up.

It was over.

The passage through the canal seemed interminable, like a difficult birth that left both child and mother permanently scarred- though a birth, however painful, left life and hope and possibility in its wake. Kirstie’s life, however, seemed to be closing in on all sides.

I suppose this is what it’s like to grow old and die, she mused. Our lives begin in small, closed spaces like birds’ nests, and as we grow older the world seem to grow endless and lay at our feet. Then, one day, there begins the long process of dying, when we become grounded, when flights of stairs suddenly become obstacles, when hills seem to grow ever steeper, when running, then even walking, becomes an arduous chore, until at last our world becomes very small once more; a flat with no stairs and a store close by; a walker and visits by the delivery boy; a stationary bed in some sterile room, and a telly or wireless; and then the darkness closes in until all becomes nothing . . . nothing at all, for all eternity-

‘Why have you packed your things?’

It was Manon, who stood diffidently at the entrance of the cabin.

Not meeting her eye, Kirstie said, ‘I’ll be leaving when we stop for supplies.’

There was a long silence, during which they heard the clock ticking, occasional chatter and bursts of static from the wireless, signal horns, the throb of the ship’s engines and generator.

‘I see.’ Manon hesitated, came further into the cabin. ‘Can we at least talk about his?’

‘There’s nothing to talk about,’ Kirstie muttered bitterly. ‘I will not be called a liar! Not by anyone! And don’t you dare try to tell me that that’s not the same thing as being believed!’

Manon sighed. ‘In this I agree with you. I told Thomas this: that there is a big difference between believing in what someone sees, and simply accepting that a person has seen or experienced something. But he can be so pigheaded sometimes-’ she made a gesture and an angry noise. ‘I am very tempted to come with you. This whole stupid trip was the others’ idea. They think that I am going to die if the puzzle of the tattoos is not solved.’

‘They’re not a puzzle!’ Kirstie said with heat, in a low voice. ‘They’re a trap! A deception! All of you have taken the bait and you don’t even know it!’ She stopped herself at the stricken look on Manon’s face. ‘What?’

‘If what you say is true . . .’ She swallowed. ‘If what you say is true, then they’re a lure to get us to the place where I . . . where I’ll . . .’

Sudden comprehension dawned on Kirstie, ‘You never questioned that your tattoo might not be a warning. Well, I’m telling you that it isn’t! Don’t you get it? The double image is of an exotic tropical bird that lives only in one place- the place this ship it headed! But it also shows a naked young woman laying on a rock by the sea. You can tell just by the way she’s laying there than she’s drowned and dead, cast up on the beach.’

Manon’s eyes narrowed, though she looked at nothing. ‘And Heather’s is of you . . . a changeable forest nymph that is in her element, surrounded by magic . . . aware of and in tune with all that is going on around her.’ She shook her head. ‘It’s so obvious now . . . we kept looking for something that wasn’t there, thinking that her tattoo was just like mine: a reversible image. But it’s not. It has a message and a life all its own. And I’d say that that message was that we’re supposed to believe you . . . to accept you for what you are.

‘And your tattoo . . .’ She shook her head. ‘It’s just an illustration of this boat. Nothing more. Which goes to show that we should have been taking the tattoos at face value all along-’ Kirstie’s look stopped her.

‘It’s not just a depiction of this boat. It’s something else, like she’s somehow made her mark on me.’ She was looking about the cabin, her eyes haunted. In a small voice, she added, ‘It’s almost as though I can hear her thoughts- what are you doing?’

‘I am packing,’ Manon said with growing resolve. ‘We are leaving together, you and I. Besides,’ she added without pausing, ‘what will you do for money? You and I both know that you have none. You really want to have to work in this place until you have enough to pay your passage home? That could take years, and you could land in serious trouble.’

Abruptly, she stopped what she was doing. Then, weeping and laughing at life’s uncertainty, pain and absurdity, the two young women embraced.

They had gathered at the helm. Alain and Heather took the news with remarkable calm. Thomas said nothing, his thoughts apparently elsewhere.

‘Well,’ Alain said distantly, with unmistakable harshness lying just beneath the surface, ‘at least the two of you are leaving together.’ He glanced once in Thomas’ direction, his face momentarily becoming a mask. ‘I guess,’ he said for everyone’s benefit, ‘that we will have to change our plans.’

At this, Thomas stiffened, still staring at nothing; then abruptly he went below. Kirstie watched him go, feeling that at any moment her resolve would break and that she would go running after him, that, ridiculous as it sounded, she would get down on her knees and plead with him . . .

Yes, and then what? Beg him to take back his words when he has no intention of doing so? What would be the point? If he really wanted me, he would do whatever it takes . . .

‘Shush, mon petite,’ Manon murmured, taking the weeping girl in her arms. ‘I know . . . it hurts. But try to look on the bright side: where there’s love, there’s hope.’

It was nearing midnight when they were finally through the canal. Like dogs bolting free of their tethers, the power craft flew out through the gates with a petulant roar, followed by the more sedate passage of unhurriedly putting sailboats, with sails folded like swan’s wings, their shallow wakes mere v-shaped ripples upon glassy water.

Their was some hesitation at the thought of making for Panama city. After some debate, the much smaller and quieter port of Balboa was chosen. They travelled under power to the Gatun Lake Yacht Club, arriving at one in the morning. There was no one about: everything had about it a hushed, waiting aspect.

As Kirstie and Manon jumped down to the dock, each with her belongings in a backpack, Thomas jumped down behind and touched Kirstie’s arm.

‘May I have a word before you go?’ he said quietly. ‘Please?’

Kirstie nodded, not looking at him, set her pack down, and the two walked further on down the dock for a little privacy.

‘I wish you wouldn’t leave like this. What I said before . . .’ he sighed, the making of this admission obviously very difficult for him. ‘It was such a stupid thing to do. But please understand . . . it wasn’t you. It was what you were saying.’ He shrugged and smiled, ruefully. ‘I took it for granted that I was the one on this voyage who was wholly in control, that every little thing was in my hands.’

‘Like me!’ Kirstie rejoined, and winced at the venom in her own voice as Thomas flinched. I didn’t mean to say that! She thought, feeling perfectly awful for having done so.

But Thomas regarded her unreadably, nodded. ‘Yes. I was selfish. I am sorry, but suspicion made me so.’

Suspicion? Of what? Of me?’

‘To be honest, yes,’ he told her candidly. ‘I didn’t realise it, but it was always there, in the back of my mind. Kirstie, please understand . . . you must by now have some idea of how it was for me, with the sort of girls that live on our island. With you . . .’ he looked away, unable to speak for a moment. ‘I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know? Despite everything that’s happened between us, I somehow got it in my head that you would turn out to be like the rest of them.’

Kirstie stifled a sob, wiped at the tears on her face.

‘Why didn’t you just tell me?’

At that, he smiled, let out a short, rueful laugh. ‘I guess I was waiting for some sort of sign from you. And you . . . you gave it to me all right! Right along with what I so richly deserved. You gave the ring back! Merde . . . I felt liked I’d been kicked in the stomach!’ He looked up, finally, approached her carefully and took her in his arms. ‘Please . . . will you at least take it back before you go? Give me a chance to spend a lifetime making it up to you?’

Extricating herself, trying to hold herself together, she nodded. The next few moments were vague, dreamlike. The ring was back where it belonged, she was back in his arms where she belonged, and for a brief moment the world seemed transformed into a place of unbearable beauty, love, awe-struck wonder, and magic.

The wait for the cab seemed to last forever. Despite Manon’s explicit instructions, when the cab finally arrived, it became obvious that the driver hadn’t a clue as to where to look for the girls. They saw him long before he saw them as he approached in fits and starts, looking around, moving ahead a little, looking around, moving ahead once again, until at last they began walking towards the car, waving. At last, purely by chance, the driver happened to look up and see them. He stepped on the gas at once, approaching so rapidly that the girls stopped in alarm, feeling menaced by his approach. He stopped in such a hurry that they hesitated before getting in his car, wondering what sort of lunatic they were about to encounter.

Their impression of the man didn’t improve as they got in. He had made no move to open the boot for them and sat hunched over the wheel as though he was impatient to be off . . . or as though he didn’t want to be seen.

Before Manon could give him directions he had turned the car and was driving at an uncomfortably high rate of speed. Abruptly catching the name of a street, Manon blurted, ‘Hey, you! You are supposed to be taking us to the YMCA! I looked at the map, and that was the turn back there- !’

The two girls gave a cry of alarm and froze as a figure seated on the front passenger seat suddenly raised himself up and pointed a gun at them.

‘That should be long enough. Turn the car around.’

Clutching each other as they were led down the dock towards the boat, pistol muzzles aimed at their backs, the two girls scanned the boat with dread, fearing that the others had been murdered- or worse. Once there, a man dressed in black sweater and slacks, wearing a black Greek fisherman’s cap, leaning negligently against the cabin, regarded them as he lighted a cigarette, his blunt features the very picture of unreason.

‘Which of them has it?’

‘This one,’ the former “cabdriver” said tersely, shoving Manon towards the man that was obviously the leader.

‘Let’s see it.’

Manon stared in incomprehension, causing the man to smile.

‘Guess the two of you will have to strip search her.’

The two girls went white.

‘Just tell me what it is you want,’ Manon said, trying to keep her voice from breaking.

‘I want the birds,’ he told her, standing up to his full height and approaching her.

‘The what?’

The man chuckled, drawing near, about to lay his hands on her inappropriately.

‘Don’t play the fool with me! The lot of you know where those birds are. And you’re going to take us there.’

Manon gaped at him. ‘What? Why?’

‘A half-million apiece,’ he said with a snarling smirk, trying to lay his hands on her.

‘Leave the women alone.’

The words were softly spoken, in a tone of voice that on the surface was almost kind. But they were underscored with such menace and the promise of violence that the man jumped back as though he were dodging a bullet.

The owner of the voice had appeared from nowhere, though obviously he’d been below. He was a tall man, dark like the other, but the resemblance ended there. His stance was that of a fighter, who, though relaxed at the moment, could spring into lethal action at any given moment. There was a calm and distant reserve about him that set him apart from the rest. He was well-built without being overly muscular, possessed of an aura of command that was difficult not to respond to.

‘I told you right from the beginning, Jacques: if anyone gets hurt it’ll be you.’

Jacques . . .’ Manon blurted in comprehension, her eyes narrowing in recognition. ‘I know you . . . from the marina, back on the island.’

Kirstie, too, recognised the man as one of those that had pulled herself and Thomas from the sea.

‘I did nothing!’ Manon’s antagonist blurted defensively to the newcomer. He looked to his two companions for help but they avoided his eye.

‘Good,’ the newcomer said with feigned joviality. ‘Just keep on doing nothing and everything will turn out just fine.’ Turning to Manon, he said, ‘Let’s go below and introduce ourselves, shall we? Then, I’ll tell you exactly what is going on.’

When they got below, the two girls were relieved of their packs and ushered to where the others sat at the table in the galley. Heather and Alain sat quietly, while Thomas sat looking sullenly defiant. In a corner of the galley was a huge stack of boxes containing supplies.

Kirstie immediately squeezed herself in beside Thomas. The one named Jacques tried to interfere but Thomas said tersely, ‘If you so much as touch my wife, I’ll kill you.’ The man glanced at Kirstie’s hand and backed off. Manon’s rescuer glanced at the pair with amused eyes.

The two remaining men were a study in opposites. One of them was a huge, hulking figure, yet despite his obvious size and strength, he looked to the others for direction. His counterpart was a short, compact man, obviously in the type of shape and trim that came from self-indulgent working out. There was something about his smallness and the attention to his own appearance that gave one the impression that he was a salesman of some sort.

‘Now,’ said the man who seemed to be in charge, ‘as the six of us know who the five of you are, let me tell you who we are, and what this is all about:

‘Jacques, here, is in charge. The big fellow there and the one beside him are Hans and his little brother Dieter. Marcel was the impromptu cab driver and his partner there is Rousseau. My name is Howarth, and I hold the purse strings for this little enterprise.

‘What enterprise, you ask? Well, as Jacques has told you, we’re after the birds. We have a buyer for them who will meet us when we locate them.

‘Those birds,’ he continued, ‘are worth millions to us. There is only the one flock in the entire world and our patron has private buyers for each and every one of them.

‘Their precise location has always remained a mystery. Because they are a wide-ranging sea bird, they have, of course, been seen, but the location of their nesting area has eluded even the finest of ornithologists.

‘That’s where Manon’s tattoo comes in. Because of the tattoo, you came to our attention. We thought at first that you might be in possession of a map but over time we learned that you had only a very general idea as to where these birds are to be found.

‘Being a reasoning fellow I gave the matter little thought, of course. Until this one,’ he indicated Kirstie with a nod, ‘got washed up on your doorstep. A girl who, impossibly, was born on exactly the same day as the little girl that drowned, who exactly resembled her at the same age, who exactly resembles the tattoo on Heather’s back.

‘Now, even for a sceptic like me, coincidences like that just don’t happen. Ever. So when my associates here decided to make a move on you, I decided to cut myself in.

‘We did think of offering to cut you in on the deal as well, but, well, you’re already so damnably wealthy that any gains from out little scheme would hardly be worth your while. Besides, you’re not the type of people to be tempted by such an offer. Pity, that. It would have made things much simpler.

‘Now, here’s the deal:

‘You are taking us to where the birds are. Once there, I shall radio our patron, and he will take it from there.’

‘And then you will kill us,’ Thomas said in a dark voice, his eyes steely.

Howarth’s look became stony, yet strangely veiled.

‘If we were killers, you would already be dead, with the exception of Manon. We do not need you to run this boat. We would, in fact, do much better without you. Eleven people consume a lot more supplies than seven. I suggest that you be thankful that we have some moral fibre. If we did not, then yourself and your brother would have been quickly and quietly dispatched, your women taken as expendable toys.’

Something about the way he spoke made Kirstie instinctively wary of Jacques, Marcel and Rousseau. It was an odd sort of impression, considering that Howarth was one of them. Kirstie found herself wishing she could trust her senses, and in the same breath found herself hoping that Howarth could be taken at his world.

‘Now,’ Howarth told them, ‘about working, living and sleeping arrangements . . .

‘There are three unused cabins. The six of us will take those over, two in each.

‘We will be working in twelve hour shifts. The five of you shall put in twelve hours, guarded by us, then you shall be locked in your cabins for twelve hours while we take over. While this may sound a bit harsh, just remember that we will be pulling double-duty, having to remain vigilant twenty-four hours a day.

‘Now, are there any questions?’

‘Yes,’ Dieter cut in sharply. ‘When are we getting the hell out of here? This whole business is taking too damned long-’

Patience!’ Howarth cut him off. ‘We must not draw attention to ourselves. Haste is a sure way to make people remember you, what you were doing and where you were going. It is the ordinary which is overlooked and soon forgotten.’

‘Sounds like a lot of crap to me.’ Dieter’s hostility was palpable. Jacques and Marcel grumbled their assent. Rousseau was vigilant, watching which way the wind blew.

Everything sounds like a lot of crap to you,’ Hans said sullenly, no doubt from having had a lifetime of dealing with his sharp-witted, sharp-tongued younger brother. ‘You say it so much that it hasn’t any truth left in it! Besides, everything isn’t a lot of crap, just because you say it is. When you talk like that, its not your words anyone pays attention to, you know. It’s what you’re after!’

Howarth was grinning. ‘Bravo, Hans! And just what do you think the crafty Dieter is after?’

With an unkind smile, Hans said, ‘Dieter’s a weasel. He always has been. He likes to get himself in somewhere where someone else is running the show and has all the responsibility, but he’s the one actually running things-’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Dieter enounced, trying to cut him off.

‘And that’s when he rips them off,’ Hans said without pausing. ‘He steals everything and leaves people that thought he was their friend holding the bag-’

‘Shut up, you idiot-’

‘No, I won’t shut up,’ Hans said with the dignity of the simple-minded. ‘I’ll say what I want, and I’ll listen to him as talks sense. Howarth here, now he talks sense! He wants to help us all make lots of money, and not hurt anyone. You- I’ve seen you hurt people over nothing! I’ve even seen you hurt defenseless women-’

‘Don’t listen to him. He doesn’t know what he’s saying’ Dieter said, trying to act and sound reasonably, as though his brother were too feeble-minded to be believed.

like that one when we were in that bar in Spain. The one that was engaged, and you just wouldn’t leave her alone. I heard her calling for help, and you’d dragged her outside and punched her in the face

‘That never happened-!’

‘And that was the first time,’ Hans said emphatically, stabbing his huge finger at the centre of his brother’s chest, each one a physical blow that shook Dieter like a rag doll, ‘that I realised what you’re really like! Now, I may not be as smart as the rest of you, but I do know right from wrong, and I do know that you don’t go around hurting people and hitting girls!’ He poked Dieter twice more as he said this for good measure. ‘No matter what they’ve done!’

‘There are three girls on board this ship,’ Howarth reminded Hans. ‘Does that mean you’ll protect them too?’

‘You bet I will!’ Hans said, and glared around the room as though defying anyone to doubt his word. ‘Even from you, if I have to.’

Howarth laughed out loud at this and clapped the hulking Hans on the shoulder. The way he did this, however, in no way that could be put into words, made it perfectly clear that he was more than a physical match for Hans. Hans obviously sensed it too, and there was a collective catching of breath as the big man mulled over how he should react. At last, he smiled, seeming to genuinely like and look up to Howarth.

‘Well, there you have it,’ Howarth said to Thomas and Alain. ‘You have been taken over by civilized pirates. All right, Jacques, how be you give the order and send us on our way.’

You slick bastard! Kirstie thought. You’re acting just like Hans said Dieter does when he’s manipulating people. Letting them think they’re in control when it’s really you that’s the one in charge. That can only mean that you’re planning to rip everyone off . . . your “friends” and us.

Kirstie and her companions were directed to eat a light meal, then were sent to their quarters. Thomas raised an eyebrow as the door was locked from the outside, then went to the bed and stretched himself out on his side. Tacitly, Kirstie joined him, laying “spoon-fashion” before him, and welcomed the strong pair of arms that encircled her.

‘Scared?’

She nodded.

He let out a sigh of frustration. ‘It seems that fate has taken over where common sense left off! And Jacques! Looking back, I remember that he had taken a great interest in Manon’s tattoo. He must have spoken with or inadvertently heard something said by those tourists that recognised the bird. Or perhaps . . .’ He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling in thought. Loath to lose her little bit of comfort, Kirstie turned over and lay against his side, listening to the vibration of his chest. ‘Or perhaps those people were not tourists! At least, not all of them. I remember one of them . . . an old man . . . Manon was repulsed by him. He kept following her around, trying to play the friendly part with her . . . in particular, he kept asking about the bird, asking her what she knew.

‘He was wealthy, that one! He had a huge, powered yacht, a very old one. It was so big that it had a little helicopter on the back . . . just big enough for two people.

‘Now, that Howarth . . . he mentioned that he had a rich patron. The old man had claimed to be a professor of ornithology. He made much of the fact that his interest was rare, uncommon birds. And he was wealthy. Very wealthy. No one is just pretending who has an old yacht that he has obviously owned for a very long time, and who drinks four-thousand-franc champagne every day. No, the old man, he is the one behind this. And Howarth . . . is not what he seems.’

‘I don’t think he’s working for the old man,’ Kirstie said, going solely by her feelings. ‘I think he’s in this for reasons entirely his own.’

Thomas nodded. ‘I think so, too. It’s not only that he’s playing us all; even his associates. It’s that, more than the others, he seems to be working from a carefully planned agenda. Only part of his purpose is served by being here. But what is he up to? What is it he really wants? The others, they have only vague ideas of obtaining a lot of money, and no real plan. But he seems to have very clear ideas about what he is doing, and no genuine interest in the money involved. So what does that make him? A political criminal of some sort? A business criminal? A smuggler? An arms dealer- are you asleep?’

‘Mn-mn.’

‘How can you think about sleep at a time like this?’

‘I don’t have to think about it at all,’ she mumbled. ‘Right now, all I have to do is let it happen.’

He pulled a quilt up over the two of them, dressed as they were, and as Kirstie drifted off altogether, she felt, too, the headlong motion of the ship as it got silently away under full sail.

Their captors drove the ship at a relentless pace, deep into the heart of the Pacific ocean. Their goal was a tiny unmarked island group reputedly sitting squarely on the equator, almost a thousand miles north of the Marquesas Islands.

From the outset, the peaceful Pacific was anything but. Their headway was hindered by capricious headwinds of the sort that had slowed them in their trek across the Atlantic, and by unseasonal squalls which, although brief, were unnerving in their sheer fury.

On more than one occasion, Howarth demonstrated almost superhuman strength and skill in handling the ship during a storm. With thirty foot seas bearing them sickeningly skywards, and with equally sickening plummets into thirty foot troughs, with spume-slick air blinding them and the wind howling like a plague of demons, threatening with unseen hands to pull them from the safety of the ship to their deaths; Howarth seem equal to whatever the sea gods could throw at him. After one particularly bad storm, during which Jacques and his cohorts had fled the deck, Howarth, Alain and Thomas came down the stairs together into the galley. The three girls were seated together, watched by Jacques, Dieter and the others.

‘I think you should be able to handle things now,’ Howarth said to Jacques with some asperity.

Jacques eyed him darkly, nodded to Dieter, Hans and Marcel, and the four went topside, leaving Howarth and the watchful Rousseau to mind the captives.

‘Manon,’ Thomas said quietly, ‘would you mind getting the first aid?’

She looked a question, then did as he asked, taking the box from its wall-mount and setting it on the table.

‘Your hands,’ Thomas said to Howarth.

Howarth gave him a look, then, looking almost embarrassed, if that were possible, complied, turning both his hands up on the table.

Manon stared. His hands were a mass of cuts and rope burns.

Howarth shrugged. ‘I got a little careless.’

‘Like hell!’ Thomas said, and there was a note of admiration in his voice that didn’t go unnoticed. ‘We lost a sail. It had got wrapped around the mast and we couldn’t free it. He loosed it by climbing in the rigging, right up to the top, and unravelling it.’

‘While you’re at it,’ Howarth said to Manon, ‘you’d better tend to your brother. Seems he’s just as much of a lunatic as I am.’

Manon glared at Thomas and gestured. ‘Give.’ Thomas complied, sheepishly showing her his own hands, which were in little better shape than Howarth’s.

Men,’ Manon said under her breath as she went to work. ‘Little boys, all of you! I suppose you just had to climb around in the rigging. You just couldn’t wait for the storm to die down! You had to show off your machismo- oh, did that hurt? Good!’

Howarth smiled ruefully at the others.

‘Is she always like this- ow!’

Kirstie stared, wondering what was going on here. Alain was in a position to easily remove Howarth’s pistol from its holster, unnoticed. But Thomas and Alain did not look anything like hostages. And Howarth couldn’t have looked less like a hostage-taker. If anything, the three of them suddenly looked like old friends. She looked to Heather for help, but Heather’s look was somehow guarded.

Manon, too, seemed to notice that Alain could easily take Howarth’s pistol, and she looked to her brother as though for some sign. Seeing none, despite that he caught her eye, she went about her task with more gentle diligence.

Howarth flexed his hands, wincing but seemingly surprised when she was done.

‘You’ve done this sort of thing before.’

‘I have two irresponsible brothers,’ Manon said distractedly as she went to work on Thomas. ‘Here, give! Or you will regret it!’

‘I am going to regret this either way,’ Thomas grumbled, giving in to Manon’s ruthlessly thorough ministrations.

Something in the way Manon was sitting, the way she unconsciously leaned towards Howarth, made Kirstie stare, until Thomas nudged shoulders with her.

Oh! Kirstie thought, They have got something going. Maybe Manon is supposed to lure Howarth into leaving his guard down. He is the real leader, after all. But why doesn’t Alain just take his gun? Or is Howarth so dangerous that he doesn’t dare?

But Howarth certainly didn’t look dangerous. In fact, he seemed to be entirely relaxed, as though he were enjoying himself. And Manon! Kirstie knew that look! Her attention was less on repairing the damage to Thomas’ hands than it was on the man sitting beside her. Surely she wasn’t attracted to the man? No, that wasn’t possible! But Howarth seemed all too aware of Manon’s distraction and the reason for it, as though it amused him greatly. And Thomas and Alain didn’t even seem to mind!

Surely they didn’t intend to allow Manon to get used by this man, in a bid to distract him! To do so made a twisted sort of sense, she had to admit. If he came to care enough about her, then perhaps he would change loyalties . . .

The thought made Kirstie go cold inside. Were they really in that much trouble? Were these men so dangerous and so ruthless that unthinkable measures had to be taken?

If that was the case, then Thomas and Alain were doing an admirable job of concealing their own feelings. She caught Heather’s eye, and once again had to wonder what was going through her mind.

Very well! Kirstie thought. We’ll all just have to play along. But . . . what if he decides to lay a hand on Manon? What if he forces himself on her? Unnoticed, she looked up in alarm at Manon, only to have her gaze trapped by that of Howarth, who seemed disconcertingly guarded, knowing.

You bastard! If you hurt her . . .

As though telepathic, Manon caught her glare, shook her head.

At that instant, as though something electric had touched the edge of her consciousness, as though some door had been opened, Kirstie suddenly became aware of the witch-entity, hiding somewhere in the ship. She stared at her inner door as it opened just enough to reveal the profile of a malevolent being that stared back at her with malicious triumph.

7

Kirstie waited until she was alone with Thomas in their quarters for the answers to the day’s strange events. Thomas, however, only looked at her quizzically.

‘You really thought there was something going on?’ he said, not-very-obviously trying to mask his incredulity.

‘Why else would you be acting chummy with a pirate! Alain could have taken his gun, and he didn’t even try! The three of you were acting like the best of friends.’

‘The three of us were almost killed keeping this ship from sinking,’ Thomas told her. ‘Enemies or not, that sort of experience brings people together, if only for a little while. And as for Alain taking Howarth’s gun . . . are you crazy? Rousseau was standing right there! Even if Alain managed to get his hand on the gun, there would likely have been a struggle, and Rousseau would not have hesitated to shoot my one and only brother.’

Kirstie sighed resignedly. ‘I guess you’re right. But I didn’t imagine the way Manon was reacting to Howarth. Heather noticed it too.’

‘I did notice,’ Thomas said with wry ire. ‘As did Alain, I think. But do not try to hold either of us accountable for that! We are not the ones who are in control of Manon’s feelings.’

Kirstie was silent a moment, thinking of the way Manon had shaken her head warningly at her.

‘Could Manon be leading him on, do you think?’

Thomas considered her speculatively. ‘How do you mean?’

‘I mean, is she trying to get him to leave his guard down, or to change his loyalties-’

‘Howarth is not the sort of man to be taken in so easily. And Manon is not the type of girl that can fake her feelings. It would seem,’ he nodded at Kirstie’s reaction, ‘that she is genuinely infatuated with him.’

‘When hell freezes over!’ Kirstie said vehemently. ‘Someone had better talk some sense into her! What can she be thinking? The man’s a pirate . . . God knows what he and his associates might have done in the past . . . or might yet do.’

Thomas scratched his neck as though he wanted no part of this, and yet seemed relieved that Kirstie would do her level best to head off whatever was going on between his sister and a man he had grudgingly come to like, whatever sort of man he was!

That seemed to signal the end of the conversation and they began speaking of other things, of plans to be made once they got out of this mess, of what they were going to do once they got back, of what sort of wedding they would have.

This last had Kirstie absolutely stymied. The thought of even having wedding plans had never entered her head. How that it had, she found her mind a complete blank.

No! I do not want all that ostentation! Those great big weddings . . . some of them cost a fortune! And for what? Half of them only end in divorce. I’ve always thought that the money would be better spent on the marriage-’ she stopped because Thomas was laughing. Eyeing him distrustfully, she said, ‘What?’

‘The girls where I live, the ones that chased me, were always talking amongst themselves about how they were going to start spending their imagined wealth, whereas the girl I actually end up with turns out to be a miser!’

‘I’m not a miser!’ Kirstie said defensively, turning red and swatting him.

‘Hmf.’ Thomas considered her. ‘I wonder . . . do you have any Scottish relatives?’

Kirstie, in turn, eyed him suspiciously. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘You do, don’t you!’

‘Maybe a few-’

‘Ha! I knew it! There is a miserly streak in you!-’

Thomas! You’re really going to get it-!’

-and then they were in each other’s arms, wrestling, playful at first, then gradually, tentatively, turning to the first stages of making love . . . and then as one they stopped.

‘Not yet,’ she said succinctly, smiling, touching his face fondly.

‘No,’ he agreed, as succinctly. ‘Not yet. But there will be a big wedding-’

Thomas-’ she rolled her eyes disparagingly-

because Manon and the others will expect it, and because, well, to be honest, you are marrying a French Catholic

a consummate backslider

and it must be made very clear to everyone where we live that the two of us belong exclusively to one another

some of those girls in the market aren’t the type to be put off by a wedding ring

‘-and big weddings are a tradition in my family, and are well-known to be binding and final. No one in my family has yet divorced.’

Kirstie smiled broadly. ‘Hm. I like those odds-’

‘What on earth is the matter?’ Thomas started in alarm. Kirstie had turned as white as a ghost, and seemed to be listening for something. At once, her look turned to one of horror, and she blindly extricated herself from his embrace, began walking about the cabin, head tilted in an attitude of listening.

Kirstie! What is it? What are you doing?’

But Kirstie had become a complete stranger, lost to him, lost somewhere in her own inner world. In a blind panic, Thomas began pounding on the cabin door, calling for help.

The door was open! Kirstie could see it clearly in her mind now, no longer as a vague imagining but as real and solid as the reality she had just left behind. She felt strange, as though having just awakened, as though she had left a dream to confront the real world. But where was she? She took a long look around, warily glancing back to the door from time to time, afraid of whatever might come out of it. Yet whatever lay inside seemed to have withdrawn itself at her coming.

She was in what appeared to be a darkened room of some sort; a small, stuffy room full of grey, dusty objects. It quite obviously hadn’t been disturbed in a very long time. She glanced down at the floor, surprised at the feel of it on her feet which were inexplicably bare; and in looking down, discovered that she was completely naked. Yet, for no reason she could put into words, felt that this was her natural state: clothing was alien to her in this place. A strange, unfamiliar yet intimately familiar sensation pricked at her back then, and she reached back to touch . . . what on earth! It couldn’t be!

I have wings, she mused. How odd! I feel as though I’ve always had them. Like I’d simply forgotten they were there! She tried them, tentatively, stirring up the dust beneath her feet. And then, she remembered!

I’m inside Heather’s tattoo! Or maybe the tattoo represents something that really exists. But no . . . I was in the forest in Heather’s tattoo. I was . . .

At once, she had a memory, of having come to this place. She had been in the forest. Something had caught her attention and she had followed it. She had come to a small, round wooden door set in the side of a grass-covered knoll. The door led to where she now found herself. Looking back she could see the three little steps leading up to the little round door.

This is madness! How can I possibly remember something that never happened?

She though of trying her wings once more, but thought better of it. There wasn’t room enough to fly about and it only served to stir up the dust. She turned her attention back to the inner door that was yet slightly ajar. The room beyond was lighted from within by the wavering yellow glow of candles.

At once, a plaintive, awful sound came from behind the door. She stiffened, poised to flee; but something about the sound of that voice bound her to it, as though it were a plea she must answer. She reached down and touched the handle-

Kirstie!’

The voice had come from outside. It had called her name! There was fear in the voice; a warning! Then, she heard again that awful, plaintive sound from behind the door.

‘Kirstie! You’ve got to wake up!’

But I’m awake . . .

‘You’re not! You’re dreaming! You’ve got to come out of it-’

The room she was in suddenly turned very cold- so cold she could see her breath. It began dripping with moisture . . . something wet began slapping at her face. She tried batting it away-

Kirstie, come on now . . . wake up-’

Thomas? His name seemed to suddenly pop into her head like some long-forgotten memory. Thomas!

Again she heard the plaintive voice, but this time she ignored it, focused instead on the sound of Thomas’ voice, moved towards it-

Suddenly it was as though the top of the hill had been blown right off, that she was released from the stuffy little room into fresh air and daylight, gasping for air-

She was laying on the bed, shivering, naked and drenched with sweat. Manon and Heather were giving her a cooling sponge-bath as Thomas looked on, sick with worry. From behind him came Howarth’s voice.

‘She is coming out of it,’ Manon answered, and covering Kirstie with a blanket, gave her a shaky smile. ‘After the scare you gave us, you had better know my name.’

‘I was inside Heather’s tattoo,’ Kirstie said, managing only a mumble, not expecting to be believed.

‘Yes, I am sure that you had all sorts of adventures without us,’ Manon said kindly. ‘Now, what is my name?’

Kirstie managed a weak smile in spite of herself.

‘Pest.’

‘Brat,’ Manon rejoined, touching her fondly. She turned to Thomas. ‘I think you had better stay with her, and keep her from catching a chill-’

‘I have to go back,’ Kirstie found herself muttering. ‘I have to help . . . whatever it is that’s behind the door . . .’

‘Shush,’ Thomas murmured. They were alone now, in bed together in darkness, the door to the cabin closed. The passage of the ship ran in the background of her thoughts like a dreaming. ‘You are going nowhere but to sleep. Promise?’

But the voice had a claim on her, and she found herself unable to make any such promise.

The following day, Kirstie found herself confined to the galley. Her friends were outside on deck, and with her were Howarth and Dieter- an odd pair- while the other pirates slept. Howarth regarded her with undisguised relief, Dieter with a veiled look she found she didn’t trust.

‘Sit,’ Howarth told her, heading her off from the stove. ‘I’ll make your breakfast. You’d do best with some porridge.’

Kirstie made a face, prompting him to laugh.

‘Trust me. The only other thing that might agree with your stomach right now would be poached eggs on toast. Would you prefer that?’

She acquiesced.

Dieter glowered, looking at nothing.

‘Don’t mind Dieter,’ Howarth told her, setting a pan of water on the stove. ‘He thinks that all of you should be chained together and locked in the bilge. He doesn’t seem to realise that the better you’re treated, the better it will go for us if we’re caught. He’s a bright enough fellow, but doesn’t seem to be able to look ahead very well.’

My only concern is the money-’ Dieter said in an unreadable voice.

which is exactly your problem,’ Howarth told him, breaking eggs and carefully depositing their contents into hot water that was just shy of boiling. ‘I’ll bet you’re just waiting to spend it

‘Isn’t that the point?’

‘It is if you want to end up broke again in no time at all, after which you’ll find yourself doing something like this all over again, until your luck finally runs out and you’re caught. If you’d only listen to reason, you’d take your money, invest it, and live well for the rest of your life. Financial security comes from saving and investing. Spending will only get you into trouble. At the very least it will attract unwanted attention, from the curious who will wonder how deep your pockets are, from those who would wish to use you, and from the suspicious, especially those that know that wild spending is most often associated with dirty money.’

‘So, Howarth, what are you getting out of this?’ Kirstie asked him as he served her, defensive on Manon’s account. ‘You don’t strike me as the type that goes in for this sort of venture. You don’t act like you need or care about the money. There’s something else, isn’t there!’

Dieter had looked up at this, and was now looking at Howarth speculatively.

Howarth smiled, an icy, dangerous smile that made Kirstie go cold inside.

‘I am both a sort of gambler and a sort of broker. I broker in things that are extremely rare and precious, and I gamble only when the stakes are very, very high. My patron, the one who is footing the bill for this little venture, is a very wealthy, very influential, very powerful and very dangerous man. His personal wealth exceeds that of entire nations. He can, and has, toppled governments at a whim. He has a say in international foreign policy- at least, in those areas where his own personal interests lie. He has caused many people to die, whether ordered by him directly or because of the consequences of his interests.

‘In a word, I am his eyes, ears and hands.’

‘But why?’ Kirstie persisted. ‘What are you getting out of this?’

‘He’s after the big man’s chair,’ Dieter cut in, comprehension dawning, unwilling admiration creeping over his features. ‘He wants it all for himself, the nervy bastard!’

‘Yes, that’s it,’ Howarth said, but in a way that Kirstie found too off-hand and ingenuous to be taken at face value.

The weather seemed bent on remaining as stormy as Kirstie’s health and her inner turmoil. Her initial recovery was short-lived and she spent subsequent days bed-ridden, shivering, soaked in her own sweat. She was tended to by the other girls and looked in on often by Howarth, who seemed to be giving her condition serious consideration. At one point she overheard him discussing her with Thomas, just outside her cabin door.

‘ . . . gets to be too much, I won’t risk it. Look, there’s a hospital on the big island. She’d be safe there, as well as well taken care of. I thought for certain that you’d jump at the prospect.’

‘It’s not that. Yes, of course I will go along! If it means her safety and her welfare, I would be selfish and foolish not to jump at it! But only as a last resort! Your companions . . . some of them have a propensity to violence. I know the type. If we get too close to port they might be provoked to do something we might all regret!’

Howarth sighed. ‘Too true, I’m afraid. But if she becomes delirious like that again, I’m heading this boat straight into the nearest port, and damn the consequences! There’ll be other chances, other opportunities. The world of crime does not take a holiday simply because of a setback.’

‘You should get out,’ Thomas told him. ‘These men . . . I know you can handle them for now, but it will not always be so. One day things will turn against you, and you will be killed.’

‘You have seen the future, have you?’ Howarth said, a distinct smile in his voice.

‘I have seen enough of the present not to need to see the future,’ Thomas told him. ‘It is the law of averages, not the horoscope I am referring to.’

Their talk made little sense to Kirstie, who could hear them from within her dusty little room. She had come here several times of late, careful not to mention this fact to the others. A few times she had even left the room to try her wings, and for a time was free from all concern as she revisited the fancifully ornate antiquities and eldritch delights of faerieland. But there was a falsity to such lack of concern and self-indulgence that turned her mind forever back towards the inner door and her concern for whatever it was that lay inside.

She came awake to utter stillness and silence so complete that at first she was certain that she still slept. But the sound of footsteps above her and hushed voices outside prompted her to struggle out of bed. Her legs were so rubbery that she was forced to clutch anything at hand to keep her footing. By the time she reached the stairs at the rear of the boat that led from the galley to topside, she was all but prostrate, and clutching at the table, sent a plastic cup rattling to the floor.

She heard a voice bark outside, then the clatter of footsteps as Rousseau and Marcel came down the stairs. There was a tense moment as Kirstie stared at the men, wary of what they might do.

‘You little fool! Thomas, come get your wife!’

It was Howarth, who came down behind them. Thomas soon followed, going to Kirstie and picking her up lightly, only just in time to save her from falling and cracking her head.

‘What the Devil were you thinking?’

‘I wanted to see,’ she muttered, feeling exhausted. ‘Something’s going on . . . I can feel it.’

Thomas and Howarth exchanged a long look. At last, Howarth said, ‘Perhaps you should take her outside a moment, let her see what the holdup is about. But just for a moment.’ This last to Kirstie. ‘Enough to satisfy her curiosity, and no more.’

Thomas reluctantly agreed, and carried her up the stairs.

Kirstie could only stare.

The air was hot, stale and oppressive, the sea as flat and lifeless as some dead thing. The air was so humid that there were no horizons. The sun above was an opaque guess, a brilliant smear in a dully blinding sky. The sea itself seemed to steam, a steam which became a cloying mist that the gravidly humid air refused to absorb.

The others stood arranged about the ship, staring in silence. Every inch of sail was up, yet hung like pennants in an airless void.

Then, distant and far off, Kirstie heard it: a plaintive, mournful sound; a sound that she had by now become intimately familiar with.

‘I’m here,’ Kirstie answered weakly, oblivious to the stares she got from the others. ‘But I can’t help you unless you show yourself.’

The sound was answered from the other direction, from a point so close to the ship that the others started in alarm. As though cued, the pirates drew their firearms.

At once there was a great groaning that echoed and reverberated throughout the depths, causing the ship beneath their feet to vibrate.

‘Whales, do you think?’ Howarth asked no one in particular.

‘There was nothing on sonar,’ Jacques said. ‘Unless there is something very wrong with it.’ He looked to Thomas as would a superstitious man looking for reassurance.

Thomas shook his head, placed Kirstie on a bench near the helm where she was seen to by Manon, and leaned far out over the water, head cocked. After several minutes of this, he said, ‘If those are whales, then they are invisible and making sounds of no whale that I’ve ever heard.’

They became aware of a new sound, then, a noxious sort of bubbling. This was soon accompanied by a sulphurous, fire-and-brimstone smell.

‘Start the engines!’ Howarth snapped. With a worried shake of his head and a smile, he muttered, ‘Billy-be-damned if we’re not sitting right on top of a volcanic fissure, or a very large volcano.’

In her mind’s eye, Kirstie seemed able to see the ocean floor as though it were no bigger than the room on the other side of the door. No, it was the room on the other side of the door she was looking at! And the door was wide open.’

‘The door is open,’ she said. The others turned to her, their expressions ranging from pitying to uncertain surprise. Oblivious, she watched what came out-

-and began screaming in horror!

‘The demons! They’re coming. They’ve gotten out! They’ve gotten out! Thomas- no! Let me go! We’ve got to get out of here!’

Howarth seemed about to speak, in all probability to tell Thomas to take Kirstie below, when there came a sound as of some immense leviathan, a groan that was the floor of the sea itself heaving upwards as though it were no longer able to contain some immeasurable might.

Jacques! Get us out of here! Full throttle!’

Jacques needed no persuasion, but opened the throttles full-bore. The sea around them began to hiss and steam. As in a dream they noticed that the very sea was rising below them, heaving them upwards. The water changed, becoming a milky green, rising currents making oily-looking circles where they reached the surface and dispersed.

The groan from the sea bed became a series of convulsive shudders that shook the sea like a tumbler of glass smacked down upon a table. Abruptly, a sudden, ominous silence fell. No, not quite a silence . . . there was a low vibration that jarred the senses, turned every nerve raw.

What happened next seemed impossible.

A wall of superheated steam, brimstone and water erupted from behind them, some two thousand yards off. It seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon, and was soon towering towards the heavens. And it was overtaking them!

Howarth turned to Thomas with surprising calm.

‘I don’t suppose any of you have a camera. No one’s going to believe this!’

‘Done!’ Alain said with alacrity, went below briefly, and came back with a bag of photographic equipment. In an instant he was at the stern, snapping photos, changing lenses.

And still the wall of steam and brimstone advanced . . .

‘Dragons and brimstone,’ Kirstie muttered, feeling that she was slipping away. ‘Thomas, hold me . . . I can’t see . . .’

She awoke feeling somehow that she had weathered some crisis. Thomas was watching her with relief so palpable that she ached in sympathy. His sweater was scorched in places; there was soot smeared on his face; his hair was matted and his clothes smelled of fire.

‘I can’t explain why we’re still here,’ he told her, ‘but here we are. If you hadn’t warned us . . . well . . . that would have been the end of it.’

‘You must think me mad,’ she muttered dejectedly.

He shrugged. ‘That’s what Marcel said just before he was killed.’

What? How?’

‘He began ranting about how you’re cursed, and how you’ve cursed us all, and he wanted you shot and thrown overboard. You were in my arms, and he pulled out his gun and aimed it at you, and then . . . it was like he was slapped down by a giant! We didn’t realise what had happened at first, except that he had been struck dead and the ship was burning. By the time we got the fire out we found him laying there, a big smoking hole where his chest had been.’ Shaking his head, he let out a shuddering sigh that Kirstie unconsciously responded to in kind. ‘The expression on his face as he lay there . . . I’ve never seen anything so horrible!’

‘How badly are we damaged?’

‘We are not, really. We lost a pair of sails and some rope. We were alarmed at the time, and circumstances made things seems worse than they really were. But what happened . . .’ He made a derisive noise. ‘It is not something I would have believed, had I not seen it with my own eyes.’

‘Tell me.’

He took his time, choosing his words carefully.

‘From north to south, as far as the eye could see, there was a jagged wall of fire and brimstone, of steam and ash towering up in to the heavens; and then came the rain of firestones, some as big as a child’s head, yellow and red, and burning and falling from the sky, leaving trails of sulphurous smoke. They were falling everywhere, all around us, many of them exploding when they hit the water.

‘And then, where the wall had been, the sea began to rise up until it was a boiling hill. We thought at first that it was a giant wave, and that we were done for . . . but it somehow stayed where it was, hissing and smoking and boiling. As though prevented from advancing.

‘While this was going on, you were talking in your sleep. You were saying-’

‘I remember,’ she said quietly, rubbing her temples as though in remembered pain. ‘“Avaunt, demon! You shall not pass! Go back from whence you came and follow me no more!”’

‘Yes,’ he said, watching her speculatively. ‘Those were the words.’

‘It’s just a coincidence,’ she said with a yawn, closing her eyes once more.

‘Perhaps.’ He caressed her face, searching her features. ‘Yes, perhaps.’

But he no longer sounded like a man convinced of anything.

The loss of Marcel cast a grim pall over everyone, despite the fact that no one had particularly cared for the man. It was as though his death had somehow sealed their fate, whatever that fate might be. Rousseau, a quiet, watchful man at the best of times, seemed to have withdrawn within himself. Hans seemed his old self, as did Howarth, but there was something potentially violent about Dieter that, while hidden before, now lurked just beneath the surface.

He seemed fixated on Kirstie, would stare at her until she squirmed, until Howarth began directing Dieter to be wherever Kirstie was not. This seemed only to inflame Dieter’s vigilance, hatred and suspicion, and so palpable and so constant was his mood that it began to affect Kirstie even when he wasn’t around.

By chance, she was alone with Hans in the galley one day. Buoyed by his seemingly placid nature, she ventured a question.

‘Hans, may I ask you something?’

The look he gave her was all too knowing.

‘You want to know about Dieter. There’s nothing I can tell you, and I’m his brother.’

‘Well . . . has be always been so . . .’

‘Mean?’ Hans shrugged. ‘You don’t know the half of it. He’s usually much worse. The only thing that’s keeping him from doing anything is Howarth and me. See, he usually just does what he wants, and he usually hangs around with the sort of people who let him do just what he wants, which is sort of why he hangs around with them.’

‘What about Rousseau?’

Again, Hans shrugged. ‘Marcel was the only one who really knew him. There’s no telling what’s going on inside his head because he hardly ever talks.’

Kirstie hesitated before speaking again.

‘Hans, I’m afraid of your brother.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Hans muttered uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know what to do about that. To be honest, I kinda stayed here just in case he decided to come inside. The worst you could do would be to be alone with him. He’d probably do something, then dare us to do something about it once it’d been done. He’s like that.’

Kirstie shuddered. ‘I don’t understand . . . you seem a decent sort. Why do you hang around with him?’

Hans smiled, faintly.

‘Weren’t no choice of mine or his. It’s just this job came up, and there we both were.’

Kirstie eyed him narrowly.

‘You mean, someone arranged it so that the two of you would be together.’

He nodded. ‘Someone who knew there’s no one better to watch him that someone who knows him. Someone he wouldn’t turn on. Or if he tried, he’d get the worst of it, and he’d know it.’

‘Would he try to hurt you, do you think?’

‘I don’t have to think,’ Hans said tiredly. ‘If it would get him what he wanted, and if he could get away with it, yeah, he’d hurt me all right.’

Kirstie shook her head. ‘Your own brother . . .’

‘Yeah.’ Hans gave her a lopsided smile. ‘Kind of like Cain and Abel. Kind of makes you wonder which of us is which, doesn’t it.’

It was the end of their shift, and Kirstie and her friends went to the galley as usual to start dinner. Yet there was a change of mood in the air, the beginnings of a feeling of charged expectancy.

‘We’re getting close, aren’t we?’ Kirstie asked Manon, though it was more of a statement.

‘Does it show?’ Manon rejoined. ‘But yes, the big resolution is coming. I can feel it.’

‘I hate this,’ Kirstie muttered. ‘The way things are going . . . it makes me feel blind.’

‘What about your famous intuition?’ Alain asked Thomas in a way Kirstie found to be almost baiting. ‘Anything?’

‘Yes,’ Thomas said slowly, ‘but I don’t like what I feel. It’s as though everything that has any meaning is on the other side of a wall . . . or a door.’ He glanced at Kirstie as he said this. ‘But you’re more sensitive to this than we are. Aren’t you?’

Kirstie lowered her gaze to the vicinity of the table before her.

‘These feelings you’re talking about . . . I’ve had them all along. I’ve been trying to warn you.’ She raised her head and looked each of them in the eye in turn. ‘I’ve seen beyond that door. I’ve caught glimpses of what lies beyond. Maybe what I see is only a metaphor for what’s really there . . . but . . . I don’t know . . . it’s like the reality itself is only a metaphor for the truth of what lies beyond.

‘I told you before that I thought the tattoos were a trap of some sort. Well, I still believe that to a certain extent . . . but it’s much more complicated than that. I also thought that maybe they represented good and evil, but the more I thought about that, the more I began to see the flaw in that kind of thinking.

‘A few years ago, when I first started waitressing, the company I worked for used to do catering at the university. We’d usually be set up and ready with time to kill, because the faculty almost always ran overtime. To pass the time I used to sit in on the odd lecture; especially the ones on literary history.

‘I remember this diagram that looked like the crosshairs of a gun . . . with a double pointed arrow going up and down, and another one going left and right, with a circle over top, so that the circle was divided into four quadrants. Above the top arrow it said “magic”, below the bottom it said “concrete”, to the right it said “literary”, and to the left it said “oral”. Then there were the four quadrants of the circle: the upper left was “oral faerie tales”, the upper right was “literary faerie tales”, the lower left was “oral folklore”, and the lore right was “literary folklore”.

‘The point I’m trying to make is that I think we’ve been trying to think of the tattoos in a way that’s two-dimensional, like the up and down or right and left arrows.’

Alain nodded as she spoke. ‘So, right and left would be “good” and “evil” . . .’

‘While up and down are either “spiritual” and “profane”, or “life” and “death”, or something like that,’ Thomas added.

‘Double that,’ Heather said almost too quickly. ‘The tattoos are reversible, remember?’

‘Then how about two more arrows,’ Manon put in, ‘with something like “reality” and “illusion”.

‘I have it!’ Alain snapped. ‘Manon’s is “life and death”. Heather’s is “reality and illusion”. Kirstie’s is . . . yes . . . it has to be “good and evil”.’

‘Good?’ Kirstie asked, taken aback. ‘What good?’

Alain, who had been deep in thought, said, ‘Manon, would you hand me that pencil and pad of paper beside you? Now . . . I’ve just had a thought. The background of two of the tattoos make an oval, while one makes a circle. Manon, yours is upright, like this . . .’ he drew a quick, deft sketch of it. ‘Kirstie, yours is on its side, like this . . .’ he drew another quick sketch. ‘And lastly, Heather’s, is the circle . . .’ he finished with her fascimile. ‘The two ovals . . . no! I don’t believe this!’ Regardless, he traced out the intersecting lines of the three tattoos.

A sudden presence made them start.

‘Well, well,’ Howarth said as though nothing could surprise him. ‘A map showing the location of the tropical island with the exact beachhead superimposed, the cliffs, the forest, the arrival of this ship and the location of the birds by virtue of the fact that the one depicted stands within that scene. Well done.’

8

Thomas was so tense that Kirstie felt as though she were laying against a board.

‘How long are you going to keep shutting me out?’

‘I’m sorry . . . sorry to have got you into the mess; sorry that I can’t just make it go away; sorry that I can’t be your protector.’ He sighed. ‘It is one of life’s hard truths that we do not live in a perfect world. It’s often said that the world is what you make of it, but it appears that that saying, like most others, contains little truth when put to the test.’

‘Blaming yourself is just making you hard to live with,’ Kirstie complained. ‘I wish you’d stop it! It’s not your fault.’ She poked him in the side. ‘It’s making you rather lumpy and wooden, too.’

He chuckled, albeit unwillingly, forced himself to relax so that she could mould herself to his side, and kissed the bridge of her nose.

Mon pauvre petit ami, I feel as though I’ve robbed you of your innocence. You make me fear to give you children.’

‘What, don’t you like children?’

‘Of course!’

‘Good! Then you’ll be giving us . . . several.’

He was quiet for some time.

Several is an indeterminate number.’

She smiled, but didn’t respond directly.

‘Thomas?’

‘Mn?’

‘That business with the map . . .’

‘Ah, so it bothers you , too, eh?’

Bothers doesn’t even come close! I mean, the tattoos just being what they are is enough. But this . . . it doesn’t feel right! I mean, something being magical is somehow easier to believe than something that appears to be . . .’

‘Deliberately contrived?’

She thought a moment. ‘That isn’t quite what I was going to say . . . but now that you mention it, that’s closer to what I meant to say than what I meant to say.’

‘Alain . . . I cannot believe that he would plan the design of the tattoos in the manner in which you describe. Besides, the ideas for the tattoos were mine-’

‘I wasn’t suggesting that Alain had anything to do with-’

‘Heather had absolutely nothing to do with them. She can’t even draw.’

‘I never said-’

‘Do you think I could have had anything to do with their being the way they are?’

She sighed. ‘Why don’t you just tell me where you’re going with this, and save me having to guess?’

‘All right. You told us that you believe the tattoos are a way of manipulating us. But I have come to believe that we have been manipulated from the beginning.’

‘The beginning? When was that, exactly? When Manon got her tattoo?’

‘It was before that. It was when an old woman approached Alain some years ago, just before he met Heather, with the offer of a commission. He began painting birds for her . . . rare, exotic birds, many of which were on the verge of extinction. She then got him learning the art of tattooing, and she got him wealthy clients, each of whom wanted a tattoo of a bird. I discovered, after some time, that no sooner would one of her clients have a tattoo than the bird in question would become extinct. I went to tell Alain and found him arguing with the old woman. When she left, I told him about the extinct birds. He then told me what he and the old woman had been arguing about. He had just given Manon a tattoo that was meant for one of her customers. The woman flew into a rage and was never heard from again.’

Kirstie felt herself go cold inside.

‘This old woman . . . what did she look like?’

He told her, adding, ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because from your description, she sounds like the old woman who sold me the ticket that got me on that cruise ship.’

He was silent a long time. Eventually, he waid, ‘You know . . . only this much is certain: that someone of great means has been preparing this trap for us, with great care and probably for several years.’

Kirstie was silent for some time, also deep in thought.

‘Manon told me there were several attempts on her life . . . that there was an accident that killed your parents . . . do you think this might be all tied in together? And what about the little girl that was killed? Are there any relatives waiting in the wings who might be in line for your family’s inheritance?’

Thomas shook his head, doubtfully. ‘None that I am aware of,’ he said quietly. ‘At one time I hired someone to look into the possibility that we had relatives unknown to us, but a search turned up nothing.’ He rubbed his eyes, tiredly, then, considering her, gave her a rueful smile.

Squirming under his scrutiny, eventually she blurted, ‘What?’

His smile broadened. ‘Oh, I was just thinking of that desperate little waif with the big brown eyes, clinging for dear life to a piece of driftwood and almost giving me a heart-attack, because she was the living, breathing incarnation of an image I was already in love with-’

She made a face. ‘I still can’t believe you in love with that! I was the gawkiest, ugliest thing imaginable-’ His glare stopped her.

‘Who would tell you such a thing?’ he demanded.

She swallowed, but said defensively, ‘My parents. Well . . . not my mom, but she died a long time ago . . . and not my dad . . . at least, until after she was gone. My half-sister. My Auntie May-’

‘Your stepsister was the favourite, wasn’t she.’

Despite her best attempt to hide her hurt, Kirstie found herself turning away, trying to hold her composure together. ‘Well . . . of course she was! She’s everything that I’m not! She’s a model! She’s tall-’

‘You forget, I saw her on television. She’s a scrawny bone-rack-’

‘she’s glamourous-’

who can tell underneath all that makeup? Even her eyebrows are painted on

she’s got that beautiful white skin

so do dead people

and I’m short and small and ugly, and my skin goes dark if I even look at the sun

Kirstie! You are petite , and lithe, and wonderfully tanned, and very cute and pretty in a bewitching sort of way. Everything about you is natural- no makeup to ruin those big brown eyes, no silly coiffure, no stockings or high-heels or any other pseudo-feminine phoniness! Every time I look at you I can’t believe my good fortune- why are you crying?’

They were both silent for several long moments, she unable to articulate her need for him and he helplessly and uncertainly observing her pain. At last, taking her hands, a new note of resolve in his voice, he said quietly, ‘I would marry you right this moment if I could. But perhaps we should take a chance . . . and do the next best thing.’

Fear took her voice a way for a moment.

‘But . . . shouldn’t we . . . I mean . . . shouldn’t we wait until we get back?’

‘To hell with that!’ he said quietly. ‘The way things are going, there’s no guarantee that we’ll live through this.’

‘Manon and Alain won’t approve- hey!

‘Too bad,’ he said, picking her up in his arms. ‘Everything that’s happened to us so far has been someone else’s choice. This will be ours.’ He smiled, sardonically. ‘That is, if you’re willing.’

‘If we do this,’ she said, looking him steadily in the eye, ‘it’s for keeps. No birth control. No second thoughts or backing out, ever.’

His smile broadened. ‘You know, your French is getting better all the time. You’re even starting to think like a good Catholic girl!’

There was a long pause as she decided whether or not to be angry. At last, however, she nodded, smiling to herself.

‘What?’

‘Several,’ she told him as he lay her on the bed, ‘means at least five.’

‘Then this,’ he told her, ‘may be as close as we ever get to a honeymoon. Why is that funny?’

‘Oh, I was just laughing at something Manon said. She told me that my time on this voyage would be measured in stolen kisses.’

He chuckled in response. ‘Well, it would appear that she was wrong about that. You can’t steal what already belongs to you.’

The following day the breeze was very light but steady, not good for making headway but perfect for enjoyable weather. The sky was virtually clear for the first time in weeks, white clouds scudded sedately crossing their path- apparently the higher air currents were fast-moving and running crosswise to those at sea-level.

Kirstie and Manon used this time to try their luck fishing near the bow of the boat, partly because they enjoyed fishing but mostly because they wanted a little privacy from Thomas, Alain and Heather who were at the helm, quietly conversing together, and from the pirates who sat in the galley, chain-smoking and drinking coffee.

Kirstie was prepared for a confrontation, especially when Manon said in a forcedly conversational tone, ‘So, neither of you could wait.’

‘Howarth seems to be spending a lot of time in your quarters these nights,’ Kirstie rejoined with equal superficial offhandedness. ‘I certainly haven’t heard the two of you doing much talking.’

Baiting her hook, then letting out several yards of line, her features a mask, Manon said, ‘So, what is this? A case of “monkey-see, monkey-do”? Howarth and I spend some time alone together, so you have to sleep with my brother?’

‘This has nothing to do with you,’ Kirstie rejoined, trying to keep her voice level, ‘even if he is your brother. We were both ready. End of story.’

There were several long moments of uncomfortable silence.

‘Aren’t you going to ask?’ Manon said at last.

‘It’s really none of my business,’ Kirstie told her. ‘Even if he is a criminal.’

Manon sighed. ‘I don’t know what is wrong with me. It shouldn’t bother me that you’re sleeping with Thomas but it does. And my saying anything is the pot calling the kettle black. But what is going on between Howarth and me wasn’t planned. He grumbles and complains about crossed purposes and conflicts of interest, and . . . I don’t know . . . neither of us seems to have a plan or a choice in the matter.’

‘There are always choices,’ Kirstie muttered irritably.

Manon nodded after a moment. ‘Then call mine a choice of instinct.’

Kirstie rolled her eyes.

‘How typically French of you to think so!’

‘How typically Anglais of you to think otherwise!’ Manon rejoined.

Kirstie let out more line, began jigging.

‘So, are you going to go running off with Howarth once this is over?’

‘That is none of your business,’ Manon replied irritably.

‘Have you given any thought as to what you’re going to go if he runs out on you and leaves you pregnant?’

Manon went white at that.

‘I know you’re not using any sort of birth-control,’ Kirstie persisted. ‘Neither of us brought any. Heather is on the pill, so neither of us could exactly borrow from her-’

‘Don’t you dare lecture me, Kirstie Brighton! It’s not as though I am not aware of these things. And, no, he has promised nothing. I am well aware that I may never see him again once this is over.’

Kirstie gaped in sudden comprehension. ‘You want his child, don’t you! Even if you can’t keep him.’

Manon nodded, slowly. ‘Yes. I want his child. I want whatever I can get from him. I love him, and my own feelings are making an idiot of me!’

Kirstie nudged shoulders with her. ‘Well, why didn’t you just say so.’

‘I did!’

‘You did not! I had to prise it from you! It was like pulling nose-hair!’

Manon laughed through her tears. ‘Oh, I suppose that is why my eyes are running-’

Both girls let out a shriek as one of the unattended poles suddenly bent and the line began screaming. When the others came to investigate, they found the two girls laughing excitedly and hauling in one of the biggest fish any of them had ever seen.

Kirstie found herself able to smile with unaffected pleasure at the expression on Han’s face when she plunked the enormous fish-steak down in front of him, even after Dieter had exploded in one of his pointless fits of rage and gone storming out onto the deck.

‘Look at you!’ he had yelled at his brother, ‘Slavering over a stupid piece of dead fish when we’ve got to start thinking about the end of this operation! We only have a matter of days, you idiot! You’re treating these people like they were your friends!’

Completely unaffected by Dieter’s wrath, Hans had shrugged. ‘The only thing we’ve really got to do right now is wait. You can get yourself worked up all you like. Besides, it’s not just a stupid piece of dead fish. Kirstie and Manon cooked it really good. Look, see? They went to a lot of trouble, and now I’m going to enjoy it.’

Kirstie was long past the point of asking Hans to explain his brother’s behaviour. But Hans surprised her by saying, after Dieter had left, ‘He has something really bad planned, you know? And he’s worried about getting around me so he can do it.’

‘What do you mean by “really bad”?’ Kirstie asked him, a cold finger of fear touching her heart.

‘Mnf,’ Hans muttered, washing down his meal with a gulp of water. ‘Well, “bad” with him means hurting people, so I guess “really bad” means . . . I guess it means killing people,’ he finished reluctantly.

Kirstie felt giddy with shock. ‘What? You mean, he intends to kill us? All of us-?’

‘Relax,’ Hans told her with a dismissing gesture, not pausing from his meal. ‘I won’t let him do it. Neither will Howarth. That Jacques and Rousseau, though . . . they don’t talk, but I think they’re in line with my brother- you know, do something and then dare someone to do something about it once its done. That’s how guys like that always manage to get in such deep trouble. They get involved in something small, then do something big, like kill someone, and then they’re all in for it! That’s how the worst of the bunch takes control- he does something really bad, something the others would never do, and it kind of makes them fall into line.’

‘So, what makes you different?’ Kirstie asked him.

Hans gave her a knowing look.

‘Ever notice that bullies travel in packs if they can, and have a leader that makes all the decisions for them, and that they always pick on people smaller and weaker than them?’

Kirstie nodded.

‘Well, Jacques is the leader, only Howarth doesn’t let him be the big man. And him and me don’t let them pick on anyone. Any you mayen’t have noticed, but neither of us are pack animals.

‘Thing is, and maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m going to anyway: when we started out, Dieter kept talking about how he was going to kill Howarth once this was over. Dieter doesn’t talk like that unless he means it-’

‘What, he’s killed before?’ Kirstie squeaked.

Hans shrugged. ‘Maybe. Don’t know for sure, but he’d do it if he could. I know, because I’ve stopped him from trying a few times. Anyway, when Dieter told me he was going to kill Howarth, I just laughed at him, told him Howarth is ten times more dangerous than he is. Besides, I told him, if he killed Howarth, then I’d kill him. I would, too, because if he’d go after Howarth, then I’d be next.’

Kirstie shook her head, faintly.

‘Hans . . . why are you even mixed up in this? You’re a decent fellow . . . I can tell, just from talking to you.’

Hans smile, ruefully. ‘It’s a long story. I got talked into it. By Howarth. I didn’t want anything to do with this whole thing, until I found out my brother was involved. That’s what decided me.’

Kirstie shook her head. ‘Now you’ve lost me.’

Hans nodded. ‘That’s okay, because I can’t tell you why that decided me. At least, not yet.’

In spite of her misgiving, Kirstie found she could smile. ‘I’ll bet it didn’t have anything to do with spending quality time with him! Are you ready for dessert, or would you like a second helping?’

Despite Han’s reassurances, Kirstie found herself fraught with misgiving. She was in no doubt that if Dieter and his companions were of a mind to kill, there would be no stopping any or all of them from carrying out such an action. Vigilance was all very well and good, but one simply could not be vigilant all of the time. It was not possible.

We shall have to save ourselves, then, she reasoned. No one else is here to help us do it. And the odds are even; five against five. If we could somehow manage to get our hands on even just a few of their guns, then we could beat them! I’ll have to talk it over with Manon and Heather first, though. I’m sure Thomas and Alain can handle themselves, but I doubt that any of us women has ever held a gun, let alone fired one! I certainly haven’t.

Then, an ugly thought occurred to her.

Could I bring myself to kill one of them? Could I bring myself to shoot Howarth, or Hans? Even Dieter, if it came right down to it? Could any of us do it?

But then, she began to examine the larger picture.

They put us in this danger against our will. They do not have the right to take over the boat and possibly kill us. We do have every right to defend ourselves. All right then. If that means killing the worst of them . . . then it’s a case of them having done it to themselves. We did not choose these circumstances. They did. And they will just have to suffer the consequences.

Later that afternoon, she decided to broach the subject with Manon and Heather. They gathered at the bow, taking a few folding chairs with them, and Kirstie told them what she’d decided. When she was finished, Heather shook her head in wonder.

‘Well, well. I never thought I’d hear such brazen talk from you!’

‘Keep your voice down!’ Manon hissed. ‘They might be below, but things can be heard if one has a mind to listen!’ She swallowed and considered Kirstie as though seeing her for the first time. ‘You are serious? You want that we should get their guns and kill all of them if we have to? You realise that some or all of [_us _]could be killed in the bargain? No, I will not hear of it! Don’t you realise how dangerous these men are? They’re used to this sort of thing-’

‘Nonsense!’ Kirstie cut her off. ‘They’re just a bunch of common louts and thugs! The sort that the police and angry citizens put in jail every day.’

‘She’s right!’ Heather said, adding her voice to Kirstie’s. ‘We’re not talking about professional killers here! Even Kirstie could knacker that little weasel, Dieter! Besides, if we acted quickly enough, chances are that no one would end up by getting killed.’

Manon almost turned green at the prospect.

‘I will have nothing to do with this-’

‘My beloved sister-in-law, we’re already in this, deep over our heads! All of us! What if they really do plan to kill us? You’re saying you can live with that, but you can’t defend yourself, or any of us?’

Manon looked to Kirstie for help.

‘It’s not like that. It’s not as simple as that. There are other things to think about-’

Heather’s features hardened. ‘Oh, I see. Everything’s changed, now that you’ve let Howarth into your life. Or perhaps I should say, now that you’ve let him crawl into your pants-!’

Heather, you shouldn’t-’ Kirstie interrupted, trying to salvage the situation.

‘Shouldn’t what?’ Heather rejoined hotly. ‘Shouldn’t remind this weak-kneed fool here that she let us all down by not keeping her legs closed? What the hell were you thinking, Manon? That even if the rest of us should end up in a shallow grave, you’d survive this by becoming a gangster’s moll? Well? Are you going to tell us the truth? Or are you really that much of a gutless wonder?’

Kirstie tried to speak, but Heather cut her off with a gesture.

‘No! I want to hear this from her! And as far as taking back this ship is concerned, I want to know if she’s with us or against us!’

Manon raised her eyes at this.

‘Against you? How can you say such a thing?’

‘I can say all I need to say in that department in one word!’ Heather rejoined. ‘Howarth.’

Manon said nothing, but writhed, caught between humilation, self-hatred and anger.

‘That was wicked!’ Kirstie gave Heather a withering glare. ‘Neither you nor Alain seems to have done much where getting us out of this mess is concerned! The two of you have been chummy enough with Howarth yourselves!’

We’re just trying to make the best it!’ Heather rejoined. ‘There’s a world of difference between placating the enemy and sleeping with him! Christ! Why are you defending her?’

‘If you need even to ask that, then you have a serious problem,’ Kirstie said. ‘It makes me suspicious of your motives.’

Me? What on earth are you talking about?’

‘I’m talking about your attacking Manon! I’m talking about the way you and Alain have been so pally with our kidnappers. The two of you have had dozens of opportunities to simply take their firearms. And don’t give me that look! Just a few days ago, Jacques was cleaning his gun in the galley. He was sitting with the two of you. He put it back together, put the clip back in it, placed it on the table, then left it there when he got up and went to pour himself some coffee-’

‘There are other guns on the ship!’ Heather said defensively. ‘We’re supposed to take over the ship with just one gun? What sort of fools do you take us for? Besides, my impression was that he did it on purpose. Alain thought so too. You can ask him, if you like.’ She huffed. ‘Fine. You want to take over the ship? Fine, we’ll do it your way! Dieter, and possibly Jacques and Rousseau are planning to kill us, you say? All right, well, if it’s a case of kill or be killed, then it had better be us that does the killing. Don’t you agree, Manon?’

Manon gaped at her as though staring at a complete stranger.

Christ, you look like a cow caught in the head lamps!’ Heather said with contempt. ‘Are you on side? Are you for us or against us? Or are you going to keep on selling us out, letting Mr. Howarth have the use of that orifice between your legs whenever he wants it?’

Manon’s face was a mask of humiliation and white fury.

‘I will do whatever is necessary to secure this ship,’ she said with surprising calm. ‘But afterwards . . . if there is an afterwards . . . I will fix things so that I will never have to endure being in your presence again.’

Heather gave her a haughty, vindicated smile that left Kirstie staring in shock.

‘How do you plan on doing that? By kicking me off your island? I don’t think so. I think Alain might have something to say about that. Perhaps you plan on leaving, yourself.’

The two young women glared at each other for several long moments as Kirstie looked on helplessly. At last, Manon said, ‘We will take over the ship tonight. I will take Howarth’s gun when the others are topside. We will take them, one by one, as they come inside to the galley. There will be no killing if we can avoid it-’

‘Oh, so now you’ve put yourself in charge,’ Heather mocked.

‘-and if you get in the way, I will kill you,’ Manon finished quietly. ‘Alain’s wife or no, as God Himself is my witness, I will kill you if you don’t do exactly as you’re told.’

‘You don’t have what it takes!’ Heather sneered, getting up to leave.

‘If you truly believe that, then you don’t know me at all,’ Manon said without emotion.

As Heather left them, Kirstie wasn’t sure whether she saw icy control or fear on Heather’s face.

‘I don’t believe this is happening,’ Kirstie muttered faintly. Then, she remembered Manon’s tattoo, the image of a young woman laying nude and dead on some storm-strewn beach, with breakers crashing around the rock on which she lay. Turning to Manon, she thought she could see Manon’s own death in her eyes.

‘Events are conspiring towards a hidden end,’ Manon said, as though Kirstie wasn’t there at all. ‘And in that end lies death and violence.’ She laughed, bitterly. ‘What a way to discover that there really is such a thing as Fate, that there is no escape from what is meant to be. So, I’m to be robbed of my life, my love, my future and that of any children I might have borne. So be it. But I do not intend to go out of this life alone.’

She did not elaborate, and Kirstie asked no questions.

That evening, as Kirstie lay in Thomas’ arms, she found herself encountering distance, reserve, stiffness. That made her more afraid than the thought of attempting to take over the ship.

‘Manon has told me that there is no talking the three of you out of this.’

Feeling desolate, as though she had already lost him, she said quietly, ‘It has gone too far. Dieter, and possibly Jacques and Rousseau, are planning to kill us.’

‘So the three of you are planning to kill them first.’

‘Yes.’

He sighed, deeply.

‘You realise that it might go either way? That it is we who might be killed, or perhaps some of us?’

‘We talked about it. We’re agreed that we have to make the first move, rather than wait for them to do something to us.’

‘What about Howarth and Hans?’

‘Manon plans to start things by taking Howarth’s gun. From there, we plan to take the others as they come down to the galley to investigate.’

‘And if Howarth will not go down quietly?’

Kirstie shrugged. ‘Then Manon will kill him. And we will kill each of the others as they come down to investigate.’

‘What if there’s a standoff? What if the others figure out there’s trouble, and they stay up on deck?’

‘Then we’ll threaten to pull out the sea cocks if they don’t surrender.’

‘And if they don’t surrender?’

‘Then we will pull out the sea cocks and sink the ship.’

Mon dieux!’ he muttered. ‘Don’t you realise that once you’ve opened the sea cocks, by the time the water reaches the stairs of the galley, we’ll be forced topside ourselves? That they’ll kill us and try to get to the cocks and close them?’

Kirstie shrugged. ‘The boat will be swamped by then. The ship will still go down. The engine compartment will be flooded. There’ll be no generator to power the bilge pumps. Oh, and we plan to disable the hand pumps-’

‘This is insane!’

‘They’re pirates, Thomas! They’ve kidnapped us and some of them are planning to kill us.’

‘But didn’t Hans tell you-’

‘Hans can’t be everywhere at once! Nor can Howarth.’

He was silent for several long moments.

‘When do you plan on doing this?’

‘Tonight. Manon will give us some sort of signal. She doesn’t know what it will be, yet, because she’s got no idea if and when she’ll be able to get her hands on Howarth’s gun.’

Thomas turned away from her.

‘Is she planning to kill him with it?’

‘Only if he won’t give up without a struggle. But if he tries to take it off her, or if he tries to call out to warn the others, if he does anything at all, then she won’t hesitate.’

‘What about Heather and Alain?’

‘For his part, Alain is going to take the gun, once Howarth is either dead or subdued, and wait at the bottom of the stairs in the galley. We will keep the lights low, and try to get each of them to surrender as they come inside. But if they don’t surrender . . .’ She shrugged. ‘Then they die.’

‘They will have five guns,’ Thomas told her.

‘Five? But there’ll only be four of them.’

‘Jacques has Marcel’s gun.’

She swallowed.

‘Then Alain will just have to shoot straight and not waste any bullets.’

‘You little fool! He will probably be killed!’

‘If that’s how you feel, Thomas, then I’ll do it! I’ll be the one who waits at the bottom of the stairs and shoots whoever comes down.’

‘Kirstie, think what you’re saying! You are no killer!’

‘Under the right or the wrong circumstances, we are all killers, Thomas! I don’t plan on waiting to possibly be killed. I’m going to meet this thing head-on, with or without you. These people forced these circumstances upon us. I intend to at least try to mete out the consequences.’

‘An eye for an eye . . . is that it?’

‘Please! We’re not talking about justice or revenge here! We’re talking about survival!’

She glanced at the clock, started in surprise, got out of bed and began dressing.

‘What are you doing?’

‘It’s near time. I’m getting ready.’

‘You should have given me more warning!’ he hissed in anger as he too got out of bed and began dressing.

‘I couldn’t!’ she rejoined. ‘I wasn’t the one setting the timetable!’

‘No? Then who was?’

She was saving giving answer as Manon’s voice faintly hissed, ‘Kirstie! Heather!’

At once, Thomas and Kirstie, Alain and Heather, went to Manon’s cabin. Howarth stood, dress in white t-shirt and boxer shorts, looking remarkably relaxed for a man that had a gun pointed at his chest.

‘Good. Now give me the gun,’ Alain said. Manon complied.

‘All right,’ Manon said, now help me tie him up.

Alain, who now stood a little apart with Heather, smiled.

‘I don’t think so.’

The others turned to him in surprise.

‘Alain,’ Manon said as an unnatural stillness came over her brother, ‘what are you doing?’

‘I’m going to do what I should have done a year ago,’ he said, pointing the gun at Howarth’s chest. ‘I’m going to take over and finish this job myself.’

Howarth raised an eyebrow in unsurprise. ‘So it was you. I suppose you’re going to kill the others now, too.’

‘Alain, what are you doing? You can’t do this!’ Manon pleaded, interposing herself between Howarth and the gun.

As in a nightmare, things suddenly happened with sickening rapidity. Howarth flung her aside, the gun went off, Alain and Howarth were on the floor, struggling, Kirstie began screaming when she saw the blood on Manon, the gun went off again, Thomas grabbed Heather and threw her against the wall, and then Hans came bursting through the door, blood streaming from a cut on his face.

‘Shoot them, you idiot!’

Kirstie gaped, for the order had not come from Dieter.

It had come from Alain.

9

Hans, however, didn’t comply.

‘Didn’t you hear me? Hurry up and shoot them!’

‘I heard you,’ Hans said. ‘Now, put down the gun or I’ll blow your head off.’

Kirstie stared about her, trying to make sense of it all. Alain had betrayed them. Alain? She shook her head, trying to think. At the same time she kept her hand pressed to Manon’s wound, trying to stanch the blood seeping from her side until it was a red stain.

All at once, Heather’s behaviour of the day before became comprehensible.

‘The two of you . . . yourself and Heather . . . you were in on this, right from the beginning.’

Howarth took the gun from Alain and went to examine Manon.

‘I told you,’ Hans said to Alain, ‘no one gets hurt. See this?’ he gestured to his cut. ‘You tipped off Dieter and Jacques and Rousseau. They tried to kill me.’

‘What did you do with them, Hans?’ Howarth muttered, wincing in empathy at Manon’s pain.

‘Put ‘em in line,’ Hans replied with a faint smile.

‘Did you take their guns?’

Hans’ smile broadened.

‘Tossed ‘em overboard for good measure.’

‘Alain . . . Heather . . .’ Thomas stared at the pair as though he were looking at total strangers. ‘How could you do this? What have you got yourselves mixed up in?’

Alain ignored him, spoke instead to Howarth.

‘You seem to be forgetting who’s in charge here.’

‘I haven’t forgotten,’ Howarth said as he tended to Manon’s wound. Kirstie had gone to get the first-aid and had just returned. ‘And I recall telling you at the beginning that there was to be no bloodshed. That’s why I brought Hans along.’

Alain shrugged. ‘I’m still going to kill them, once our patron shows up to collect the birds. You may not have agreed to it, but that means nothing to me. And, don’t forget: he will have a good many men with him, and they will have automatic weapons. If I ask him to, he might just kill you, too.’

‘Why don’t you tell your brother and sister why you plan to kill them?’ Howarth said. ‘You aren’t that much of a coward, are you?’

Alain got to his feet, helped Heather to hers, and shrugged.

‘There’s nothing much to tell. I’m sick of the way they manage the Brouillard family estates. Thomas was made executor, so I’ve never had any say. Now, I intend to take over, and restore the Brouillard legacy.’

‘What legacy?’ Thomas demanded. ‘Our family estate was once a feudal fife! Now, it is a benign and profitable resort that anyone can enjoy.’

‘You’ve squandered its potential from the beginning,’ Alain said. ‘From the beginning we’ve had offers in the hundreds of millions of francs from companies that want to establish resort hotels and a modern tourist industry.’

Thomas shook his head in disbelief.

‘Alain, between the three of us, even were the estate to be divided, we have more money and assets than we could spend in ten lifetimes! You’re saying that’s not enough? You’re saying that you would destroy our island and the people on it for profit we don’t need? You’re saying you’d kill your own family to satisfy your own greed?’

Alain shook his head, sneering. ‘You’re such a naïve fool! You and Manon both! You’ve spent so much time in that little cottage that your dreams have become as small as you are. From the beginning I was glad to have the use of the family mansion, for it reminded me of who and what we truly are-’

‘The tattoos,’ Kirstie muttered in comprehension. ‘They were a ruse, right from the start. Weren’t they! You used them to get Thomas and Manon running off on some wild goose chase so that you could kill them and claim the entire inheritance for yourself. And the old woman . . . you sent her, didn’t you! You sent her to look high and wide for someone who looked just like the little girl that died . . . and who had the same birthday. You used me just to get at Thomas-’ Something in Alain’s look stopped her.

‘You’re close, but you’re still wide of the mark,’ he told her. ‘My associate was looking only for someone that resembled the little girl as she might have appeared as a young woman. It was only after the fact that she discovered the similarity in name, and later that you shared the exact same birth date. But you still don’t know the means by which Thomas was played.

‘You see, my associate took several pictures of you a number of years ago, and I left one particular one out for Thomas to see. Yours was the one he noticed, straightaway, though I doubt very much if he realised why it so held his attention. I quickly hid the original away.

‘Oh, there were a lot of pictures,’ Alain told her. ‘Lots of pretty young girls that were Thomas’ type. But as I expected, out of all of them, you were the one he settled on, and so you were the one that got used as the bait.’ He laughed, suddenly. ‘And then, things started going almost too well to be believed! Not only did Heather and I have you believing in magic, but then a volcano- a volcano at sea! Can you believe it? Then a volcano just happened to some along, and if the three of you weren’t entirely convinced before, you were then! Are your illness and your delirious babbling! That was the icing on the cake!’

‘Who was the old woman?’ Kirstie asked suddenly. ‘The one that sold me the ticket. That was no accident was it!’

‘Of course not!’ Heather put in with smug insouciance. ‘She was me. In rather clever disguise, I might add. I took the photos, too. You know? The ones of you and the other girls? Once Thomas had fallen for the bait, Alain made this,’ she tapped her shoulder, ‘but not before leaving enough time so that Thomas would have quite forgotten, or at the least been uncertain about where he’d seen it before.’

‘But . . . how did you manage to fix the contest?’ Kirstie asked. ‘I mean, how could you possibly have fixed things so that you could just come to me and hand me the winning ticket?’

Heather’s smile was not kind.

‘You should have taken a closer look at your “winning” ticket. It was a sham, and was in no way connected with the real contest, which ran nation-wide. We contacted you, told you that you’d won, gave you false contact information, and, need I say it? Led you by the nose, right to us!’

‘But the cruise ship! Kirstie protested. ‘You can’t possibly have managed that! No one pushed me overboard! The whole time, I never saw a soul . . .’ She faltered and stopped, frowning in concentration.

‘Yes,’ Heather nodded, ‘you should have seen someone. Shouldn’t you’ve? However, we arranged things so that your fellow passengers were quietly spirited to another part of the ship. Then, things were arranged so that you had only the one way to go, only one outside door to open. And when you did, of course, you were sucked right out of the ship.’

That was our tour de force,’ Alain put in. ‘A stroke of absolute brilliance, if I do say so myself. You see, the captain and some of the officers on that ship were . . . friends of ours.

‘However, as in all such matters, especially any matter as complex as this, there are certain risks. You were supposed to find a life-preserver that had been left leaning against the door. It must has rolled away and got lost somewhere when the ship heeled over. That was not planned, nor was the sudden change of course to avoid running over a small fishing vessel, which in turn caused the ship to heel over, losing the life-preserver.

‘When you were in the water, you were in far greater danger than we had planned on. But, as things turned out, you managed to hang on. And, according to plan, you drifted exactly where you were intended to drift, at exactly the time you were supposed to drift there, when Thomas and Manon were taking their evening stroll.’

Kirstie shook her head, faintly. ‘That doesn’t seem possible.’

Thomas, however, nodded. ‘No, it is more than possible. That area where you fell into the water lies directly on top of a strong current that passes by the beach in front of the cabin. As long as the ship held to a course near to the inside edge of the current-’ He raised an eyebrow in realisation. ‘That is how the ship came to be where it almost ran over a small craft.’

Alain shrugged.

‘You can never predict fishing vessels. By rights, the weather should have forced them to seek shelter. As it is, you are correct. The cruise ship was well out of the shipping lane, which is why it almost ran them over.’

Kirstie glared at him.

‘What if Thomas and Manon hadn’t decided to take a stroll that evening?’

‘Then, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,’ Alain told her.

Kirstie digested this in silent anger. Then, suddenly she asked, ‘Why did you try to kill Howarth?’

Alain shrugged.

‘Don’t like him. Never did.’

‘And that gave you reason enough to kill him?’

‘Alain’s only interest is power,’ Howarth interrupted. ‘From the beginning he has resented and felt threatened by my being in charge instead of him. Thomas should by now have some idea of what it’s like to be in my shoes.’

‘What will happen to us now?’ Thomas asked him.

‘I asked you before to trust me. I am asking for that trust again. Hans and I will protect you from your brother.’

‘And your patron?’

‘Alain is right in one regard. Our patron has many well-armed men.’

Thomas raised an eyebrow.

‘And you think that you can control them?’

Howarth’s look became grim. ‘I have more control over what our patron does than Alain thinks.’

Alain smiled at this.

‘You may go on thinking that, if you wish. All of you, for that matter. However . . . you may not know this, Howarth, but I have known our patron for several years. This voyage was planned long before you entered the picture. What’s more, you were my choice. Not his.’

Howarth made no comment, didn’t respond, except to raise an eyebrow. To Manon, he said quietly, ‘The wound is clean . . . the bullet just punched a hole through the fat and muscle of your side. I’m going to give you a shot of demerol now and put you to bed.’

‘It will make me sleep,’ Manon warned, prompting him to smile.

‘I’d much rather have you dreaming about little angels than becoming one yourself. Kirstie, will you stay with her, please?’

Kirstie looked abjectly to Thomas.

‘I’m so sorry . . . what have I done?’

‘Watch over Manon,’ Howarth said quietly. ‘You have done nothing you shouldn’t have. Come now. This is not the time for regrets. Besides, it may turn out that you’ve done more good than you realise.’

When the others had left, and Manon was undressed and put to bed, Kirstie muttered, ‘What exactly did he mean by that?’

‘Shut up and come lay down beside me,’ Manon slurred through the painkiller. ‘Mn. Strange stuff. Doesn’t kill pain at all . . .’ She giggled. ‘But . . . who cares?’

‘You’re stoned!’

‘Mn. Very.’

Kirstie found herself wishing fervently that she was within earshot of the others.

‘This is driving me crazy! It’s the waiting and the not knowing I can’t stand!’

‘Mn. You anglais!’

Kirstie smiled.

‘You francais!’

‘Hm-m-m-m-m. At least I am not naked and dead on a rocky beach somewhere.’

Kirstie huffed, still thinking about the tattoos. ‘Well, whatever else Alain is, he’s still a good artist.’

Manon started laughing, groaned in pain, then chuckled again.

‘What?’

‘Oh, I was just thinking. It would have been funny if he’d shot me right in the tattoo.’

‘That isn’t funny! You’re just saying that because you’re stoned out of your mind!’

‘Mn. Mais, oui. It would have been interesting, though, to see which of us he would have shot.’

‘Which of who?’

‘The bird, or me.’

‘Manon, they’re one and the same image!’

‘I know. Then he would have got two birds with one stone.’

‘That’s enough!’ Kirstie muttered. ‘Go to sleep.’

‘I want Howarth.’

‘What for?’

‘I want him to hold me.’

‘Oh. Well you’ll just have to settle for me for the time being.’

Manon smiled, sleepily.

‘Do not underestimate Thomas, mon petite.’

Kirstie hoped Manon would say more, but she had fallen fast asleep.

Kirstie came awake with a jerk. Manon was still dead to the world, but everything else was silence, motionlessness.

‘We’ve stopped.’

Manon remained insensate, so Kirstie extricated herself, the two of them sweat-sticky from sleep and plastered to each other. Looking down at the sleeping Manon, she muttered, ‘We could both use a shower right now. However . . . for now, I’ve just got to find out what’s going on.’

Kirstie stepped out into the passage, found it empty. The cabins all had that pallor of quiet that spoke of desertion. And from what she could see of the galley, it too was empty.

‘What on earth! It feels as though there’s no one else on board the ship.’ For a brief instant an image crossed her mind, that of looking in on Manon and finding her gone as well.

As soon as she reached the galley, however, she detected the unmistakable disturbance of the presence of people. There was no sound, but she could nonetheless tell they were there, topside.

‘Thomas?’ she called out, not because she wanted him at the moment but because she felt it necessary to warn the others that she was coming.

‘We’re here,’ he answered. ‘Is Manon awake?’

‘No, she’s still asleep.’

‘Oh. Well, perhaps you should come up here and have a look at this.’

Made wary by the strange note in his voice, she began climbing the stairs at the back of the galley towards the rear wheeldeck. Looking above she could see that the skies were blue and calm, that sedate white clouds drifted slowly by, piled high and billowing, so that they looked present, real, impending and massive as the towers of some great castle. She could see the backs of a few of the others; Thomas, Hans, Howarth and Rousseau. They were standing stock still, staring at something. Seeing no threat, she came up the rest of the way-

-and gaped in astonishment!

Green cliffs leapt tier after tier into the clear blue dome of the sky. High up, wheeling in dizzying circles, there were birds; tens of thousands of them. There were terns and ernes and gulls, myriad tropical varieties of birds of all shapes and sizes, albatrosses and finches and cranes . . .

Thomas put his arm around her.

‘Many of these birds should not be here,’ he said quietly. ‘Even this island should not be here. Despite its size it is on no map. There are several varieties of birds that we can not identify. Perhaps they have never been seen before.’

Kirstie frowned.

‘I sincerely doubt that, Thomas. This place is probably protected. I know of a couple of places in Essex where there are rare plants. The conservationists that work there have to sign a non-disclosure agreement stating that they will tell no one of the location of the plants. And even if you wanted to see them, those areas are kept fenced off to keep the general public from trampling them.’

Thomas raised an eyebrow as she said this.

‘She’s quite right,’ Howarth said in appreciative surprise. ‘There are protectorates established all over the world, in the mostly unlikely of places, from Greenland to Antarctica, from every ocean and every major lake and sea to every island and continent.’

‘You knew of this,’ Thomas said.

‘Oh, yes,’ Howarth said, his gaze fixed upon the chiaroscuro of life in the sky. ‘Its my job to know of this.’

At this, Alain turned to them and smiled; a smile that made Kirstie’s insides feel curdled.

‘Howarth,’ he told them, ‘is a sort of anti-conservationist. He locates rare and hidden flora and fauna so that certain private interests can move in and take them.’

Kirstie stared uncomprehendingly.

‘Take them . . . why? Whatever for?’

Alain shrugged. ‘It depends. Some go to collectors. Most of it goes to the black market-’

‘But that could wipe them out!’ Kirstie blurted.

Alain laughed at this.

‘Of course it can wipe them out! That’s the point of this whole exercise! There’s a lot of money to be made in the extinction business.’

Kirstie stared at him, horrified.

‘That’s monstrous!’ She turned to Howarth in shock and disbelief. ‘Is it true? Is that really who and what you are?’

Still with his gaze fixed on the spectacle of life in the sky, Howarth said cryptically, ‘That’s what our patron is all about. I, however, have other goals . . . other interests.’

Kirstie shook her head in disgust.

‘If only Manon knew this about you!’

Howarth seemed unconcerned about this, however.

‘Oh, she will know. Very soon, she will know everything.’

‘I hope she kills you for doing this,’ Kirstie said darkly. ‘If I’d known all this, and if it’d been me that had laid hands on your gun, I wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot you myself.’

Howarth smiled distantly to himself.

‘Well, then, perhaps it’s a good thing for all of us that you missed out on such an opportunity. It would have made rather a mess of things.’ He laughed, suddenly. ‘And me. Besides, in the long run, I don’t think Manon would have thanked you for it.’

As they sailed around the island looking for a beachhead and a place to weigh anchor, Kirstie stared at the pristine beauty surrounding her with sadness and the aftereffects of shock. How anyone could conceive of marring this place in any way was alien to her very being. The sea around them was an impossible pale turquoise, the water so pristine and clear that she could see schools of colourful fish patterning and flashing about, the seabed below a collage of white crushed shells; brownish-yellow kelp and dark and bright-green sea foliage that waved in the shifting currents; dark purple, pink, orange and multicoloured varieties of starfish; purple beds of mussels and bone and ecru-coloured barnacles; white, red, green and pink sea anemones, sea cucumbers, sea slugs, tube worms and corals. The green cliffs and steep hills were literally covered in dense foliage, so much so that, along with the impossible terrain, she found herself hoping against hope that the island’s natural inaccessibility would fend off the invaders.

‘Thomas, it’s so beautiful . . . but I feel somehow that it’s too beautiful for us to be here . . . that our being here will bring nothing but evil and harm.’

Thomas smile, wistfully. ‘Kind of like Adam and Eve revisiting the Garden of Eden, eh? Look but do not touch, knowing that Mankind is not a fit guardian and keeper for such a place?’

Kirstie screwed up her face and poked him in the side.

‘You’ve got your stories mixed up! Adam and Eve were part of the Garden of Eden, not the guardians and keepers of it. That was someone else’s job.’

He chuckled. ‘See? Did I not tell you that you would make a good French Catholic girl?’

She made a small noise of feigned frustration.

‘Don’t you dare expect me to get down on my knees and kiss some old geezer’s ring.’

‘That’s no way to talk. Not if you want to get into Heaven some day.’

‘Look around you, Thomas,’ she said wryly. ‘Heaven is all around us. And we aren’t meant to be here.’

‘You don’t believe in Grace?’

She sighed, considering. ‘Well . . . we are here, aren’t we?’

‘That,’ he said, ‘is quite a paradox. Here, but not meant to be.’

‘I’d say that Grace means giving this up so that it can exist purely for its own sake, untouched and unsullied by our hands; forsaking Heaven for ourselves so that it can be preserved. Besides . . . I’ve always thought of Heaven as a place that idealists wish for but aren’t meant to be.’

‘So you see it as being unattainable?’

‘No,’ she said, smiling to herself, ‘I know that it’s attainable. But here on earth, in our lifetime. Not after.’

‘You don’t believe in life after death?’

‘If I believe in anything, Thomas, I believe in life. Death, for me, is for philosophers and thinkers and other dry sticks. That’s probably why I stopped going to church a long time ago; there’s something about its preoccupation with death and the way it views death that has always hit a sour note with me. To me it’s all words and stories and talk. Life, though . . . that’s something I can understand, that I can trust and relate to. I’m not saying that I’m wholly without any sort of faith, though. It’s just not the churchy sort.’

‘Hm. Well,’ he said judiciously, ‘I know what I believe in.’

‘Oh? What’s that?’

‘Manon’s cooking for one thing-’

She slapped his belly.

and yours. No, I’m serious. It has come a long way

‘You’re no Catholic! You’re a consummate hedonist!’

Kirstie was about to say more when the vessel suddenly changed course. There, in a small bay, was a huge yacht at anchor, and next to it what appeared to be a small warship. At the head of the bay was a beach, and upon the beach there stood a number of waiting figures. Kirstie almost jumped out of her skin when Jacques began blasting away on the boat’s horn, signalling those on the beach of their arrival. Kirstie felt her heart sink into her shoes.

Thomas took a deep, nervous breath, let it out slowly.

‘Well, here we are. It would seem that we’re about to find out how all of this ends.

10

As they drew alongside the two vessels, Kirstie found herself fighting a sickening dread. The men on the beach were all dressed in black and carrying automatic weapons. There seemed to be at least twenty of them. She realised at once that there was absolutely no chance for them to escape their fate: if these men meant to kill them, it would happen. She shuddered, realising that a clean death might not be the worst of it. What if these men intended to abuse their victims first?

With thoughts of torture and rape flitting like bats’ wings in the background of her thoughts, she made her way to Manon’s cabin. When she opened the door, Manon looked up at her, dark circles under her eyes. At the sight of her distress, Kirstie’s heart quailed.

‘Are you in pain again?’

Manon’s reply was a hoarse whisper.

‘Yes. Please . . . tell Howarth . . . I need something . . .’

Kirstie was about to leave when Manon said, ‘Why are you looking like that? Something is amiss, isn’t it? You’re not . . . there’s something you’re not telling me.’

‘We’ve arrived,’ Kirstie told her quietly. ‘There’re a lot of men with guns.’

Manon went very still.

‘It doesn’t look good for us. Does it.’

Kirstie thought of trying to make light of it, but as quickly reconsidered, realising that if they were shortly to come to a bad end, that they had better be as prepared as may be.

‘I have a bad feeling,’ Kirstie told her. ‘Those men . . . they look as though they mean to do more than just kill us.’

Manon swallowed. Both girls were numb with fear.

‘Do we have any poison?’ Kirstie asked, as though her voice had a will of its own and she was merely a spectator.

Manon thought a moment, then shook her head.

Kirstie nodded. ‘All right. I’ll see about getting you some more demerol-’

‘The demerol!’ Manon muttered. ‘There may be enough for the both of us.’

Their eyes locked.

‘Will it be quick, do you think?’

Manon inclined her head in Latin fashion.

‘Quick enough. But you must do it . . . give it to me, first, so that you know how much is needed to cause death . . . so that there is no mistake.’

Feeling a disconnected sense of unreality and inevitability at the prospect of what she was about to do, Kirstie nodded to herself, then left her to go in search of the demerol, which was kept in the refrigerator. Her feelings seemed to have become suspended; it was as though she was propelled solely by the necessity of purpose. Even her sense of relief at discovering the galley empty was hollow, uncaring and vacant; it was more a relief from physical pressure than an emotional one. She went directly to the first-aid, took out a pair of syringes, went to the refrigerator, opened it and found the demerol. There were four phials. Perhaps that would be enough. She took the four, closed up the first aid, got to her feet and closed the refrigerator door, and-

‘Don’t you think that’s a rather extreme measure?’

She should have jumped out of her skin, startled by Howarth’s sudden and silent presence. Instead, she felt only a momentary twinge of surprise, soon replaced by a dull sense of resignation as he relieved her of all but one syringe and phial. The rest he replaced.

‘They plan to kill us anyway,’ Kirstie muttered as he got a shot ready for Manon.

‘That’s right,’ he said with maddening nonchalance. ‘Alain and Heather have it all planned out, as does the old man, our patron. Come, let’s see to Manon, shall we? We have to get her out of here.’

‘She can’t walk-!’

‘I am well aware of that,’ he rejoined, allowing a little ire into his voice. ‘You actually think I’d let her walk in the condition she’s in?’

‘You are a pirate!’ she said as they entered Manon’s cabin.

‘Ah, but as I told you before, I’m a civilized sort of pirate.’

Manon gave Kirstie a bleary-eyed look, and somehow managed to smile.

‘I send you for drugs, and what do you bring me?’

‘Barnacle Bill the sailor,’ Howarth said, sitting down on the edge of the bed and rolling up her sleeve, ‘and a bucket of rum.’

‘Were we overreacting, then?’ Kirstie asked him.

He was silent a moment as he gave Manon the injection.

‘Not from your point of view, I suppose,’ he said at last. ‘Come to think of it, what you attempted was admirably pragmatic. However . . .’ He withdrew the needle and pressed a cotton boll to the blood that oozed out. ‘Were you in possession of all the facts, you would probably have done otherwise.’

‘What facts?’ Kirstie asked him, watching Manon worriedly as her eyes went glassy and half closed.

‘Sorry!’ he told her as he wrapped Manon in a blanket and picked her up. ‘Forgive me, but I have to play my cards close to my chest just a little while longer. For your sake and for mine. Now, let’s go see what sort of mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. And grab that inflatable air-mattress and a pillow and blanket, will you?’

As Kirstie stepped out of the launch onto the beach, she noticed straightaway that the men with the guns seemed to be in two groups, and were regarding each other intently, hardly giving the newcomers a glance. The ones wearing camouflage fatigues, she surmised, were from the small warship, whilst those in black must be from the yacht.

Between the two groups, a number of elderly men sat together at a folding table upon folding chairs. They were drinking wine, smoking cigars, and conversing loudly. Surrounding them were a number of servants. One of the old men spotted Howarth, waved him over.

‘One moment,’ Howarth called back, and led Kirstie to a place apart where Hans and Thomas stood waiting. They got Manon comfortable, then Howarth said to Kirstie, ‘Remain here. Hans will look after the two of you. If things get a little dicey, keep your heads down.’ He then knelt down and kissed Manon on the forehead. ‘And don’t you go anywhere. I’ll be back for you as soon as I may.’

‘And just who are you to be giving orders?’ Manon slurred.

‘Your future husband, Sleeping Beauty. And don’t worry; after this my pirating days are over.’

Kirstie watched him go with faint surprise.

‘Huh. Well, well. I always wanted to like him.’

‘See? I have good taste,’ Manon mumbled.

‘What now, Hans?’ Thomas asked. ‘Should we be ready to jump in? And what has happened to the others? Oh, I see them, over there with the crew from that little warship. Why aren’t they waiting with us?’

Hans smiled.

‘I like them just where they are. Away from us, but right where we can see them.’

The four watched as Howarth approached the old man and his cronies. Alain and Heather had joined them. Though they were a few hundred feet away, their voices could be clearly heard.

‘Howarth, my boy! You know my friends here. But yours seem bent on waiting for introductions. No manners, but what the hell! I admire caution.’

Alain and Heather stood in the background, sullen.

‘Well, well,’ Thomas said. ‘It looks like things haven’t gone exactly their way after all.’

‘No names,’ Howarth said with polite firmness. ‘These gentlemen are here for business only.’

One of them suddenly leaned over.

‘We have secured the island. The nets are in place. If you have brought the arms, then we will capture and deliver the birds.’

The old man gave him a look.

‘We could take the birds ourselves.’

His counterpart stared back with lethal steadiness.

‘And I could kill all of you and blow your yacht right out of the water. Now, are we done playing games? The arms for the birds. If not, we will put this entire island to the torch.’

‘That would be a waste,’ the old man grumbled. He raised his hand in signal and four men stepped forward struggling with a heavy wooden crate which they placed on the sand beside the table. One of the them took a crowbar and opened it. ‘There you are. We’ve brought grenade launchers, shoulder-launched missiles, anti-tank grenades, armour piercing rounds, everything on your little shopping list. Are you satisfied?’

‘It is what we asked for,’ his counterpart replied. ‘That is all that’s required.’ He made a gesture, and dozens of his men began heading for the hills carrying bird-trapping equipment. ‘This will take the rest of the day.’

‘I’m not in any hurry,’ replied the old man.

‘We’re not done here!’ Alain said, while Heather looked on, apparently afraid of what might happen. ‘What of our bargain? I gave you the location of this island!’

‘Our bargain did not include murder,’ the old man said. ‘You want them dead? Then do it yourself. I will have no part of it.’

Alain looked to Jacques, Rousseau and Dieter for help.

‘Well? What am I paying you for?’

The three considered Howarth warily as they reached for their arms. But at that moment, there came a hushed silence.

‘Hear that?’ Hans said to Kirstie and Thomas.

Frowning, they exchanged glances, shook their heads.

‘Keep listening.’

Then, they heard it.

Hans smiled. ‘Now, keep your heads down! Let’s get Manon behind those boulders.’ He pulled out an automatic pistol and tossed his gun to Thomas. ‘Don’t try to be a hero! Just shoot back if someone tries to kill us.’

What?’ Thomas gaped at the gun in his hands. ‘What on earth is going on? And what about Howarth?’

‘Less talk, more action,’ Hans said, showing no sign of his former slow-wittedness as they pulled Manon to cover . ‘By the way, Howarth and I are with Scotland Yard, in case you were wondering. And no, I wasn’t actually raised with Dieter. He’s my half-brother, and the last time I met him he was still a kid. Here you!’ he shouted at Kirstie, ‘No peeking! You want to get your head shot off?’

All at once there was the sound of gunfire, seemingly from all around them. Despite Hans’ warning, Kirstie took a quick peek. A pair of small British naval vessels converged on the yacht and warship, while soldiers seemed to be everywhere in the dense foliage. Just before Hans yanked her to the ground, she caught a glimpse of the old men scrambling for safety along with their servants, of Jacques, Rousseau and Dieter exchanging gunfire with Howarth. There was a red stain on Howarth’s shoulder, but Rousseau fell back, his head spraying red, Jacques spun around and collapsed, then Dieter clutched his chest and fell.’

‘Your brother-’

‘Yeah, I know. But he was a bad one, right from the start. What I didn’t tell you about him is that he was a contract killer, same as Rousseau and Marcel. For all the innocent people that he killed, he got what he deserved. Now, let’s just hope the same can be said of us.’

In a few moments they were joined by Howarth, who threw himself to the ground, wincing with pain. Kirstie’s eyes went wide when she saw the blood.

‘Thomas, give me a hand here!’

‘How is Manon?’ Howarth grated.

‘The love of your life,’ Kirstie said as she applied pressure to the wound, ‘is thankfully sound asleep-’

They ducked as a bullet skipped off one of their protective boulders.

‘How we doing, Hans?’ Howarth asked.

‘So far, so good,’ Hans replied. ‘Assuming your friends get things quickly under control, we should be all right.’

‘I wouldn’t count on that just yet.’

It was Alain, who stood over them, an automatic pistol in his hands.

‘Toss away your weapons.’

They complied.

Then, brutally, he reached down and grabbed Kirstie by the hair.

You’re coming with us. You’ll be our little insurance policy out of here.’

Thomas tried to move towards him but Hans held him back, just as Kirstie shouted, ‘Thomas, don’t!’

‘Heather!’ Alain shouted. ‘Come! Keep an eye out. The rest of you . . . if anyone tries to follow, she’s dead!’

‘Don’t follow,’ Kirstie pleaded, seeing the desperation in Thomas’ eyes. ‘Hans, make sure he stays here. Please.’

To her relief, Hans nodded.

It seemed impossible, but they made it to the launch without incident. The two naval vessels were busy with the yacht and warship they’d boarded, while pitched battles were being fought all over the beachhead and up the hill into the jungle.

The instant they reached the sailing vessel, Alain leapt aboard and started the engines, while Heather kept her gun trained on Kirstie.

‘How I’d love to shoot you now,’ Heather sneered venomously. ‘Unfortunately, now we need you alive.’

Kirstie’s attention was distracted, however. The sky had clouded over and bore an ominous, purple cast. Sea and air alike were sultry and still.

‘There’s going to be a storm,’ she said, almost to herself.

‘Oh, so now I suppose you’re an expert on weather,’ Heather jibed, trying to get a rise out of her.

‘The sky looked just like this on the day I got on the cruise ship.’ She shook her head in wonder. ‘It’s happening all over again . . . only this time it’s different. This time I know what’s going on.’

‘Fat lot of good that’ll do you,’ Heather said. ‘You’re no better off for knowing.’

Kirstie shook her head, considering Heather as though seeing her for the first time. ‘That may be. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that your plans are spoiled; that you’re on the run and bound to be caught. Even if you kill me, at least now I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ll never get away with it.’

Alain smiled, contemptuously.

‘Don’t be too sure. We’re already out of sight of those British naval vessels and they’re too preoccupied to come after us. And I have many friends, all over the world- where do you think you’re going?’

‘To take a shower,’ Kirstie said from the stairs, ‘so that I can wash the stink off.’

‘You will come back here-!’

‘Go ahead and shoot,’ Kirstie called when she reached the galley and began heading for the shower. ‘I don’t really care any more.’

She managed to reach the shower unmolested, and was soon standing under the tepid spray of water. But just when she thought she would be left alone, there was a crash as Alain kicked the door in. He grabbed her by the hair, naked as she was, and dragged her all the way back onto the deck of the ship. Kirstie stood there, trying to cover herself as best she could, feeling traumatised, sick and battered. She closed her eyes when Alain pressed the gun to her head-

Alain!’

Kirstie opened her eyes to see that the others’ attention was on the impending weather. Already the wind was coming up-

-and then the storm hit.

Without thinking, Kirstie found herself vaulting for the side of the boat, heard a shot as she dove overboard, probed her senses even as she plunged into the water, wondering if she had been hit. She held her breath until her lungs burned and she began to see stars; then she began her struggling ascent to the surface-

-just in time to catch a breath before a massive wave bore her up. At its summit she saw the boat some distance off. Despite the briefness of that glimpse, she could tell that they were in serious trouble. Down she plunged into a trough, and back up again as the next groundswell bore her up, and this time she looked to the island. It looked to be a mile off! And here she was, naked, with nothing to cling to for dear life!

Well, here I am again, she thought. I guess this is where it ends . . . and it ends just like it began. Well . . . not quite . . . at least this time I went overboard of my own accord . . .

She began swimming then, careful not to inhale burning salt water into her lungs, mindful of conserving her energy, long past hope or caring, but doggedly keeping on if only because she was still alive. Time and again she looked up to try and judge if she was making any progress, and at times it seemed that she was making none. All about her were moving hills, the howling wind, the rain that was coming down in stinging, slanting torrents. But she wasn’t done yet. She had reserves of strength left and the tropical Pacific seemed less inclined to suck the life from her body than the cruel North Atlantic.

Hours seemed to pass, and still the storm howled and raged, and still she felt as though she might make it. It was late afternoon and her body felt leaden with fatigue, but the spark of life at the core of her essential being seemed inextinguishable. She glanced up once more-

-and the shore lay only a matter of a few hundred feet away!

And then she saw the breakers pounding upon the unyielding rock of the shoreline, and knew that the end had come.

There was no Thomas this time to come to her rescue. No dwellings of any sort where someone might chance to see how she met her end. No Manon to run to for help.

It is finished.

And with that, the breakers picked her up and hurled her at the rocks, and she knew no more.

epilogue

The waves came rolling in, churning the edge of the sea to green and white froth that seemed lighted from within, rather than from the sun that had risen high above. On a small rock promontory, around which the waves dashed and roared, lay a lifeless nude form stretched out on her side. Standing over her like a sentinel, exactly as depicted in Manon’s tattoo, was a rare tropical bird.

Bits of wreckage were scattered everywhere along the beach: wooden cabinet doors, bits of broken spar and mast, sealed containers, a piece of the ship’s wheel . . .

All this the others saw as they made their way along the beach.

‘Kirstie! Oh my God!’ Manon, who was walking bent over, clutching her side, fell to her knees and began weeping uncontrollably.

Thomas lurched unsteadily forward, his mouth an inarticulate rictus, before making an incoherent noise and slumping to the ground. Then, he and his sister fumbled for each other like two people lost in the dark, until they were in each other’s arms, trying to console one another.

‘Thomas, we can’t leave her body there,’ Howarth said gently.

‘I’ll get her,’ Hans offered.

‘No!’ Thomas sobbed, trying to get himself under control. And then more quietly, ‘No. Thank you, Hans. I will get her . . . I will get her . . .’ Gasping back tears, fighting for composure, he said, ‘I need to say goodbye to her. I need . . . there’s all the things we were going to do together . . . a lifetime of things . . . ’

‘Shall we come with you?’ Manon asked him. ‘Or do you want to be alone with her?’

‘Alone . . . ?’ he muttered. ‘No, not alone. I . . . I don’t think I could bear it.’

He helped Manon to her feet, and the four began the last steps of the journey towards where Kirstie lay.

As they approached, the exotic tropical bird took to the wing, vaulting skyward as though its job were done. Kirstie lay with her back to them, head pillowed on one arm as though she were merely asleep. There was not a mark on her, as though the sea had spared her the indignity of breaking her body along with that of the ship. Her short brown hair, salt-tousled and stiff, fluttered in the light breeze as it would even had she been alive and breathing.

Thomas walked up to her body and knelt down like a penitent, head bowed in grief.

‘There are so many things I wanted to say to you . . . so many things I wanted to tell you. Perhaps if I’d been more forthright from the beginning, none of this would have happened, and you’d still be alive, and we’d be on our way home . . . getting married, having children, raising a family . . .’

‘Thomas-’

‘Please!’ he gestured at the others, ‘not now.’

‘Thomas, if you don’t give me something to cover myself with right now, I’m going to hit you.’

Kirstie? My God! Are you alive?’

‘No, Thomas, I’m dead,’ she muttered weakly. ‘Now, please give me something to wear! I’m bloody freezing!’

Their wedding was one of the biggest, most elaborate affairs the island had ever seen, and was talked about for many years after. Manon married Howarth, of course, and moved away to his home in Scotland, far away from any reminders of Alain and Heather and their treachery. Thomas and Kirstie remained in the cottage by the sea, and continued to live a simple, happy life.

Alain and Heather did not die at sea, but were rescued by a British naval vessel, only to be arrested. When they were finally released from prison they went their separate ways. Kirstie heard many years later that Heather had removed herself to somewhere in North America, but that could have been just a rumour.

For his part, Alain remained to the end of his days in the Brouillard mansion, ending his days as a brooding, bitter recluse.

There was a time when Kirstie received a worrying telegram from Manon, saying that she was pregnant. With triplets. The two couples waited with baited breath until one day, Kirstie received a telegram, which she read to Thomas.

‘It’s from Howarth. He says, “Good news. Triplets born. They and Manon in excellent health. No black sheep. All little towheads. All girls.”’

‘All girls,’ Thomas muttered, scratching the back of his neck. Marie, their youngest, a dark-haired little angel, was sitting on his lap, busily drooling on one of her favourite toys. ‘I don’t know what to think about that. They could all grow up to be little angels . . . or they could all turn out to be little brides of Satan.’

Kirstie gave him an enigmatic little smile.

‘There’s a little bride of Satan inside each and every one of us, Thomas. Don’t you know that by now?’

He looked at the little girl in his lap.

‘Cover your ears, little one,’ he said seriously, ‘and you will remain forever innocent.’

Kirstie came and knelt beside them.

‘Open your ears, little one,’ she said with equal seriousness, ‘and you will be forever wise to the folly of Man.’

Thomas smiled, leaned over and kissed his wife.

‘Have I told you lately how lucky I am?’

‘Yes,’ Kirstie answered demurely, taking their daughter from him. ‘But once the children are all in bed asleep, you can tell me again just as long as you like.’

here ends One Lost Summer


One Lost Summer

Young Kirstie Brighton wins the trip of a lifetime, an ocean cruise on the Mediterranean, only to be swept overboard in a storm. She is rescued by one of three siblings of one birth, one of whom bears a tattoo that seems to have magical properties. The wife of one of the siblings also has a magical tattoo, this one bearing an image of Kirstie herself! In order to solve the mystery of the tattoos, they set out on another ocean voyage, this time into danger, deception, and deepening mystery.

  • Author: greg monks
  • Published: 2015-09-11 21:05:10
  • Words: 52755
One Lost Summer One Lost Summer