Category Archives: February 2014

The Key to it All by Joanna Rees – Extract

The Key to it All

August 1985

‘Where are you?’ muttered Mack Moncrief, adjusting his grip on the night-vision binoculars. The hard eyepieces pressed painfully against the swollen skin on his cheekbones, but he forced away the discomfort. He concentrated, slowly caressing the grooves on the dial, so that the distant hills on the other side of the valley came into sharp relief, the eerie green of the night vision making everything seem charged with danger.

An owl hooted in the forest behind him and he felt rivulets of sweat on his temples. He’d thought there’d be some let-up in the temperature tonight, but the summer here in France had been a scorcher and the air felt close and still. Mack knew the weather would break, that a thunderstorm was imminent; it was just a matter of when.

Another mosquito screeched past his ear. The high-pitched whine stopped. He slapped his neck where he sensed the insect had landed. Had he got it? He was too tense to tell. It wouldn’t be the first or the last tonight. He thought of the midges he used to endure while night-fishing on the loch back home. He’d take Scottish midges over these rude French mozzies any day.

He swallowed, annoyed that Hackett had lit up another one of his filthy Gauloises cigarettes in the truck. A puff of acrid smoke filled his nostrils and he resisted the urge to cough. He glanced over to the truck, to where Hackett was preening the curly fringe of his mullet in the visor mirror. The guy was such a philistine. When he’d finished, he’d probably flick the cigarette into this tinderbox and send the whole mountainside up. That sure would be one way to cover their tracks, Mack thought wryly to himself.

There was a faint beeping sound from the new digital watch on his wrist and Mack gripped the binoculars tighter, his gold wedding ring tapping the casing.

Then . . . he held his breath . . . There it was. Right on time.

The express train burst from the tunnel in the far-off hillside. Mack glanced up, away from the binoculars, his eyes adjusting to the mauve of the night, his feet crunching quickly over the bed of pine needles on the forest floor as he stepped towards the truck.

‘Now,’ he told Hackett.

Hackett, in the driver’s seat, put the headlights on full beam, then turned them off. Then twice more.

Mack stood on tiptoes, his eyes straining across the valley. Two reply signals from headlights there. Two pinpricks of light to tell him that the job was on.

‘Move it,’ Mack told Hackett, getting in the driver’s door. Even before Hackett had fully clambered over to the passenger’s side, Mack had revved the truck into reverse. It handled strangely now that the axles had been reinforced, but Mack’s army training was already kicking in, a silent stopwatch playing in his head. All he had to do was get to the train, do the job and then . . . ?

He didn’t dare think about then.

Twelve minutes, fifty seconds. That’s all they had, he realized, checking his watch as he drove the truck down the final part of the path towards the all-important stretch of disused railway track.

He thought of the insane amount of preparation that had gone into making sure that the train would be resting in the siding at the end of this track. Would Vincent, who’d hidden overnight in the train, have successfully managed to subdue the driver and slow the train exactly as planned? Would Eddie – also on board – have got to the guard? Would Anton – most crucially of all – have got into place in the control centre, so that nobody could raise the alarm until the job was over?

Mack thought about the safe house on the outskirts of the ugly French village and the board on the wall in the rough kitchen where he’d drawn endless plans. Drumming the details into the crew.

Voss’s ugly, argumentative crew.

None of the men had been Mack’s choice. He just had to trust that after all these months of training, each man was a cog in the wheel of this operation. A wheel that was hopefully still turning. Gathering momentum.

It better be.

Voss was relying on Mack Moncrief. He’d told him so. Right before he’d shown Mack exactly what would happen if he got ahead of himself or didn’t follow the plan to the letter. The memory of it made Mack’s beaten face ache and his heart rage with anger.

They clattered over the rotten tracks, the tyres bumping over the ruts. He drove quickly and precisely. Round the bend. And there, right at the end, was the sight he wanted to see. On a track at right angles to this one, intersecting it, was the high-speed express mail train to Paris – at a very definite stop.

Vincent was standing by the exposed carriage – the one nearest to the track they’d travelled along. The door was open, a yawning square of black behind him. He stood nervously, his gun at his waist, his baseball cap pulled down low, as he looked along the track.

Hackett was up in his seat.

‘He’s done it. He’s done it!’

‘He’s done nothing . . . yet,’ Mack reminded him.

In a moment they were out of the truck, Mack grabbing his heavy holdall from the back.

‘Turn and reverse it up,’ he told Hackett, ‘then check the driver.’ Mack strode towards Vincent and, without saying anything to him, jumped on board.

It was dark in the carriage. Two feet inside were thick steel bars – a cage to protect what was on the other side. The bank had been taking no chances when they’d built the safe for this train. They just hadn’t figured on Mack having helped with the designs for it at the security company he’d worked for. A job that had made him come to the attention of gangland criminal Voss – and brought about the whole sorry chain of events that had led to today.

But there was no point in being bitter. Not now. Not now that this was finally happening, Mack thought, reaching out to grasp the metal bars. What looked like a fortress to anyone else was a simple puzzle to Mack. A puzzle he’d spent months solving. He clicked on his headlamp.

Now he delved into his holdall, firing up the industrial steel saw. As the blue sparks flew, the noise seemed to rip through the fabric of the night, but Mack knew that there wasn’t a house around here for miles, and no way of getting to this part of the train from either end of the track.

He made four neat cuts and two sections of the bars fell away. Then Mack crawled through and wasted no time in checking the safe was the same one he knew had been ordered at the bank in Edinburgh for the train transfers.

Semtex. That was all he’d need, Mack thought, his fingers feeling expertly around the edges of the black steel safe. Semtex and luck.

He checked his watch again, then carefully took from his bag the state-of-the-art plastic explosives that the army were beginning to trial, working out where to attach them to the safe, all his years of training as an army bomb-disposal expert giving him a confident hand. Vincent watched him anxiously from the bars.

After a few minutes Mack was satisfied. Coming back out through the hole in the cage, he dragged Vincent with him. ‘Keep down,’ he said, as he set the detonator.

He waited.

Three . . . two . . . one.

The blast made the whole track shake.

Suddenly, Eddie jumped down from the train and Mack saw that a man in a dark blue jacket was behind him, holding a gun to his head. Eddie had his hands up next to his skinny neck. He had a tough-guy crew cut and an ugly spiderweb tattoo, but he was the youngest member of Voss’s crew. Mack had been an idiot to trust him.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Mack swore at Eddie, before he could help himself.

The man, clearly the train guard, started babbling in French, his eyes wide as he realized what Mack was doing.

Hackett was out of the train in a moment, stealthily jumping down behind the guard. In a second he’d fired at his back. The guard fell face first onto the track as Eddie jumped out of the way. The sound of the gun ricocheted up the valley wall.

‘Why d’you shoot him?’ Mack said. ‘Idiot. Nobody was to get hurt.’

‘He’s too dangerous to keep alive.’ Hackett reached into his jacket for another cigarette. As he lit it, he punched Eddie in the back of the head, annoyed with him. Eddie shook as he wiped the guard’s blood from his jacket. The bullet that had killed the guard could have gone right through him. It could have killed Eddie too and Hackett clearly wouldn’t have cared.

Mack fought down his rising nausea as the Frenchman bled out on the hard ground. He had no stomach for the kind of violence towards civilians Voss’s men were so unbearably blasé about and now panic was rising. Nobody was supposed to get hurt. Let alone cold-bloodedly murdered. This was a robbery. Just a robbery. Of a passenger-less mail train. That was what he’d signed up for. Not this.

He jumped back up inside the carriage, forcing himself to focus, and waved the smoke aside. He was all too aware of the seconds ticking past.

The blast had worked. Mack kicked the back off the safe and it clattered onto the reinforced boards of the train carriage. He knelt down and looked inside. The sight of the gold blocks made a dull disappointment creep into his guts. A sinking sensation at the inevitability of it all. That men like Voss, with his mahogany tan, ugly gold chains and fat, cigar-clenching fingers, always got what they wanted.

‘Holy sweet Mary, mother of Jesus!’ Vincent exclaimed, wiping his cap away from his head in awe as Mack reached in and grabbed two of the gold bars. They were heavier than he’d expected, even though he’d fortified the truck for the purpose. He handed them through the cage to Vincent without a word. Vincent kissed the gold, then quickly passed them to Eddie, who loaded them into the back of the truck.

Mack checked his watch. Four minutes left.

He picked up the pace, sweating now, his back aching in the cramped space, as he swivelled to get more of the gold. Then behind them, the bags of cash. And there – in the secret compartment in the bottom – the case.

His ticket to freedom.

Mack popped the clips. Inside was a large velvet bag, but he didn’t have to pick it up to know it held the diamonds. They were the reason they’d chosen this train. It would only have taken one person to change their mind and not put the diamonds in with the gold for the plan to fail. Mack felt the enormity of his fate as he stuffed the bag inside his jacket, feeling the soft velvet against his heart.

‘That it?’ Vincent said, turning back from the truck to Mack. ‘Yep. Let’s go,’ Mack said, squeezing through the bars.

The truck was slower going the other way. This time, they were travelling along the old railway track for a straight five miles. Mack and Eddie had cleared it yesterday, so they knew the path would be good, although the trees at the side of the track were overgrown and branches slapped the top of the truck, looming out of the shadows like ghostly fingers.

In the back, Eddie was laughing, weightlifting the gold bars. ‘Cut it out,’ Mack said, trying to concentrate on what lay ahead. As well as the shot guard, Mack had a horrible feeling there might be another hitch sooner or later. The Presbyterian pessimist in him told him so.

He couldn’t wait to drop that goon off in a minute, when they reached the end of the cutting. Then Eddie would drop down into the field and make it cross-country to the safe house, where Mack and Hackett would meet the others later on.

As soon as they were at the safe house, they’d split up the gold bullion and load it into the false bottoms of the small Fiats Mack had worked on. Dressed as holidaymakers, they’d take the cars down to the costa, to where Voss would reward them for a job well done. And fulfil his promise to Mack.

Please, God, let him be true to his word, Mack prayed. Please let him get back the thing that was most precious to him. The one thing that Voss knew would make Mack complete the job.

In the front seat next to Mack, Hackett was fiddling with the dials of the radio transmitter. The aerial stretched out of the top of the window. He was trying to find the police channel, but the static and hiss were making Mack feel nervous.

The radio was just a precaution. They’d secured the train and Vincent was already driving it onwards to Paris. By the time he got there, he’d be hundreds of miles away from the scene of the robbery. He’d stop the train at the signals outside Gare du Nord and leave before the tunnel. Dufont would be waiting in a car for Vincent.

The plan that Mack had finessed was happening. Events were rolling out ahead into the future like a carpet and yet . . . yet with each passing moment, Mack felt more and more uneasy. Could it really be this simple? Could they really have got away with such a heist? All his nerve endings jangled with adrenalin. He should be feeling euphoric like the others, but instead he felt sick with dread.

Mack stopped for a moment and Eddie jumped down from the back of the truck.

‘Go quickly,’ Mack told him. ‘Stick to the path we agreed.’ ‘Nice job,’ Eddie said.

Mack scowled at him. It was Eddie’s fault that the guard had been shot. Eddie who’d got himself overpowered. He had no right to take any credit.

Mack watched Eddie scramble down the siding, through the farmer’s gate and onto the small country road.

‘Wait a moment. I need to piss bad,’ Hackett said, dumping the radio on Mack’s lap.

‘Jesus,’ Mack said. ‘Hurry up. It’s like a fucking kids’ outing. We are trying to get out of here.’

‘One minute,’ Hackett said, already out of the door.

Mack watched him walk behind the truck in the wing mirror and unzip his flies. He felt tension rising in his shoulders. What the fuck did Hackett think he was doing? They’d just robbed a bank train and now he was taking a piss? Anton would only be able to cover up the unscheduled stop for so long. They may have already raised the alarm when the train was late into Toulouse. Despite all of Anton’s intel, it wasn’t clear how many people would be monitoring the bank train on its journey through France.

He stared ahead. He should just go, he thought. Leave Hackett. Take the whole goddamned lot and see how far he got. If Voss had taught him one thing, it was that money could buy anything. And Mack had millions in the back of this truck.

Hundreds of millions. Enough to disappear and make a totally new life out of the one he’d messed up so badly.

But he couldn’t. Voss had made sure that such an urge was impossible for Mack. He’d taken out the best insurance policy possible to ensure Mack finished the job. Because it wasn’t just his future at stake.

Just then the police channel crackled into life on the radio and there was the unmistakable panicky sound of a report . . .

Mack gripped the radio set, holding it in both hands and staring at it. It couldn’t be, could it? They couldn’t be on to them already?

Panic swept over him, goosebumps erupting like a Mexican wave over his skin.

He looked in the wing mirror. If the police were called, it wouldn’t be long before they discovered Mack’s getaway route and a net closed in on the safe house.

‘Hackett, come on,’ he shouted. ‘Now.’

But Hackett was whistling, his back turned to Mack.

Mack snarled with frustration, dumping the radio on the passenger seat.

‘We’ve got to go,’ he said, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he climbed out of the truck.

There was still no response from Hackett. Mack took three strides towards him, away from the truck.

It was only then that he saw Hackett wasn’t taking a piss. He was holding a gun.

He turned and aimed it at Mack’s head.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Mack stared at him.

Hackett didn’t look so dim-witted now. His eyes had a steely glint in them as he walked right up beside Mack, his nonchalant manner all gone.

‘Voss says, “Keep your mouth shut in jail,”’ he said, his breath stinking of cigarettes. He aimed at Mack’s leg and pulled the trigger.

Pain exploded in Mack’s knee. He collapsed to the ground, gasping, as Hackett strode to the driver’s door and got in. Without a backwards glance, he revved the engine and was gone.

In the stillness that followed, Mack heard a distant clap of thunder.

chapter one

Julia Pires walked into her classroom through a shower of paper missiles. It was noisy and hot, the kids hyper at this time in the morning. She glanced across the mass of bustling children and saw that nobody had bothered to open the windows. Through them she could see the slum rising up the mountain on the south side of Rio de Janeiro, like the contents of an overturned rubbish skip. Rocinha was said to be the largest slum in Latin America and she was tasked with educating the children from it – or at least those who bothered to come to school. This lot were, apparently, the good ones.

‘Hey,’ she shouted, but there was no response. Over in the corner, there was a scuffle going on. She noticed an arm flailing out, knocking over one of the pots of pink orchids she’d been growing with the class to celebrate the national holiday.

‘Hey!’ she shouted again, striding over and pulling two of the boys off the top of Eduardo. ‘Sit down, all of you.’

She looped two fingers in her mouth and emitted a shrill whistle – the only useful thing Uncle Marcello had ever taught her. Reluctantly, the crowd dispersed to sit on the neat rows of desks. Above them, pictures and photographs were looped on strings across the classroom, the walls decorated with brightly coloured maps and photographs. Julia’s effort to make a pleasant environment for the kids had taken several weekends of her time.

Julia helped Eduardo to his feet and put her hand on the boy’s bony shoulder, checking he was OK. He was a bright kid. That was why he was a trouble-maker, but he was small and she knew Paulo and his gang picked on him.

‘He’s being a pain in the ass, miss,’ Paulo shouted, dusting himself down. Julia ignored him. He already had the arrogance and swagger of a street pimp. Julia knew his occasional visits to her classroom were merely a distraction from his real education on the streets. She dreaded to think what went on in his domain –  in that warren of lanes in the top reaches of the favela – where she’d never dare to go for fear of her life. Even the BOPE were cautious up there.

‘What’s up?’ she asked Eduardo, ignoring Paulo and picking up the orchid pot and returning it to the side, gently pressing down the warm earth with her fingertips.

He shrugged, not meeting her gaze, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Eduardo came from a broken home with a mother who never fed him. What chance did the poor kid have? Surely he wasn’t high, she thought, registering his vacant gaze. Or was it something worse? She knew how many of these kids ended up as child prostitutes on the streets, selling their emaciated bodies for a few reals. When she looked again, she could see that Eduardo’s grubby cheeks were pale . . . too pale. She put her hand on his shoulder and felt his light body swoon against her.

‘When was the last time you ate anything?’ she asked him quietly.

Again he shrugged, but as his eyes met hers, she saw the truth in them. She turned him by his shoulder and led him towards the door, as the rest of the class whooped and catcalled Eduardo for being in trouble with Julia.

Outside the door, away from the prying eyes of the class, she reached into her handbag and pulled out her purse. She saw the pile of change in it, remembering that Vovo, her grandmother, had given her money for a lottery ticket this morning and had made Julia solemnly swear she’d buy one. Vovo’s belief that one day her luck would come in was unshakeable. But now Julia handed the coins to Eduardo. She’d have to work out the lottery ticket later.

‘Go on,’ she urged him with a gentle smile. ‘And, Eduardo, try and drink some water too, OK?’

Julia stared after him, then was distracted by her phone ringing. The beautiful strains of the bossa nova track ‘Ela e Carioca’, which was everywhere thanks to a mobile phone ad, were coming from the deepest part of her bag. She remembered now that her nephew Fredo had changed her ringtone last night – a task that had kept him occupied in their cramped apartment whilst she’d marked her books. She dug it out, checked the screen and saw that it was her best friend, Natalia.

‘Hey. What’s up?’ Julia said, lowering her voice. It was against the rules to take calls in school time. She glanced along the empty corridor.

‘I have tickets to the party in that bar tomorrow night. You know, that new one I told you about, down near Cinelandia,’ Nat said.

Julia pictured Nat in her air-conditioned bedroom in her high-rise apartment, trailing her hand along the clean windowsill in her short robe. Today was her day off from the travel agency where she worked.

‘Tomorrow? I can’t,’ Julia said. ‘Vovo is bad. Her heart is playing up. And I’ve got school work to do.’ The thought of actually being out in downtown Rio seemed impossible. Nat might as well have suggested that they go for a drink on the moon.

‘Julia!’ her friend protested. ‘How are you expecting to ever meet a man if you won’t come out and meet one? And me too? We always work better in a pair. And I got two tickets from a client. It was a really big favour. Some of my colleagues are going, but there’s an extra ticket for you and me . . .’

From the way she said it, Julia knew that Nat had already rehearsed this answer – had already assumed that Julia was going to say no. She knew her better than anyone, but that wasn’t surprising, as they’d been best friends since school.

‘Besides, it’s a Thursday night,’ Nat went on. ‘You’ll only have one day to get through afterwards, then it’ll be the weekend. Come on, girlfriend. Let’s party, party, party,’ she sing-songed, making Julia smile.

In her heart of hearts, Julia knew Nat was right and that she should be biting her hand off for the opportunity. The problem was that, whilst Nat was looking more and more like a good prospect these days, who would ever want Julia? A twenty-nine-year-old, living in a dingy apartment – albeit in one of the better parts of the favela, who looked after her uncle and grandmother, not to mention nine-year-old Fredo, with a demanding job that was her first priority. She was hardly baggage-free, or the kind of girl to pamper a man’s ego. Which, in a macho city like Rio, was generally a prerequisite for getting a guy. The rich men that Natalia wanted to go after in the bar she had tickets for went for an altogether different sort of woman to Julia – who looked different, dressed different, was different. In every way.

Julia looked down at her shabby dress and cheap sandals which were the smartest she could muster. She didn’t own any clothes that could get her into the type of bar Nat was talking about, even if she wanted to go. She thought about the slick women with their perfect hair and toned bodies. What chance did Julia have of being noticed when they were the competition? ‘I can’t think about this now, Nat. I’ve really got to go. My class are waiting. I’ll call you later. I promise.’

‘But you will think about it?’ Nat sounded forceful and Julia knew the face she would be pulling all too well. ‘If you come early, I’ll do your hair . . .’

‘Okay, okay, okay,’ Julia said, glancing up to check that there was still nobody in the corridor. ‘I’ve got to go. You’ll get me in trouble.’

The morning’s lessons passed by in a blur and Julia barely had time to sit down. There was a staff meeting at lunchtime, during which the police took yet more statements about the stabbing in the canteen last month. She was about to go to the scene of the crime itself and grab a coffee when Senhora Azevedo, the tough headmistress, came out of her office and fixed Julia with her hawklike gaze.

‘Can I have a minute?’ she asked, taking off her red-framed glasses.

‘Sure,’ Julia said, already dreading what Azevedo might say. She’d already roped Julia into far more extracurricular activities than she could possibly manage with her workload, but the businesslike headmistress was difficult to say no to. Julia, like most of the staff, was terrified of her and tried to keep below her radar.

Today, Maria Azevedo was wearing a dark green linen trouser suit. She stared at Julia’s skirt as she came into the office, making Julia self-conscious about her legs. Then she closed the door softly, muting the sound of the kids in the corridor and the slam of the metal lockers. She walked to her desk, while Julia perched on the low leather sofa. The staff all knew that the diminutive Azevedo did her hiring and firing standing up and now Julia tensed as she towered above her.

Behind the headmistress was a glass cabinet filled with two pitifully tarnished trophies, and behind that, the wall was covered with a scuffed tile mosaic of Copacabana Beach. Several tiles were missing.

‘Julia, you can’t personally finance these kids. It’s favouritism. How are you going to stop Eduardo wanting you to pay for his food every day from now on?’ Senhora Azevedo asked, dispensing with any social chit-chat. It was her trademark to be so abrupt, but it immediately caught Julia off guard and she felt herself bristling. How did the headmistress know about Eduardo already?

‘It was just a one-off. I couldn’t teach him. He was almost fainting with hunger,’ she explained.

Maria Azevedo rolled her eyes and pointed the frame of her glasses at Julia. ‘All the kids in your class are hungry. Your job is to give them knowledge. Not food.’

Julia stared at her boss, knowing that she was right, but hating her for it too.

‘I’ll let it go this time,’ she said, ‘but don’t do it again.’

Julia nodded and stood up. She started backing towards the open door.

‘And, Julia?’ Senhora Azevedo said, making Julia freeze in her tracks.

‘Yes?’

‘I’d like to go over your lesson plans.’ She put on her glasses again.

‘Lesson plans? Why?’

Yet, as Senhora Azevedo picked up a pen, Julia already knew the answer. She’d obviously found out how much time Julia had spent on the off-curriculum class project – a look at all the tourist attractions of Brazil – and how enthusiastically the kids had thrown themselves into the creative-writing project she’d set, asking them to write an account of an imaginary school trip round Rio.

‘Julia, I don’t think you understand . . . This school is about getting the kids a basic education. We’re not trying to give them ideas.’

‘Ideas?’ Julia couldn’t help the tone of her voice. Surely the whole point of school was ideas.

‘Most of these children will never leave the favela, or their kids either, but that doesn’t mean to say they won’t or can’t be happy. Don’t fill their heads with dreams they’ll never fulfil.’

She smiled sadly at Julia over the top of her glasses, and shook her head briefly, before returning to the stacks of paperwork on her desk.

‘Oh, and Julia,’ she said, ‘I take it you’re aware of the rules regarding personal calls in school hours?’

Julia’s head was aching by the end of the day. It had rained in the early afternoon, so she’d had to supervise a deafening basketball lesson indoors, which she always dreaded; then she’d had to fill out more paperwork.

By the time she had a chance to leave school, the sun had broken through, but it was that biting-hot afternoon heat, Julia noticed, as she stepped back out through the yellow doors. With

the humidity still high, Julia squinted through the glare and walked past the corrugated-iron panels that had a spray-painted scene of a voluptuous black woman in a vivid green, yellow and blue bikini – a street-art project she’d instigated – towards the car park. A gang of kids bounced a football between them, and the traffic roared in the distance.

As she reached her moped on the scrubby patch of grass beneath the trees, she considered driving straight to Nat’s apartment. She could borrow a bikini and they could swim in the complex’s pool, or even hit the beach. How long had it been since she’d been to the beach? Months and months, she realized.

And she would go to the bar with Nat tomorrow too. Who cared if she had a hangover? Why shouldn’t she enjoy herself? It wasn’t as if Senhora Azevedo expected her teaching standards to be high.

Not trying to give them ideas – Julia had never heard anything so ridiculous. She was still smarting from their encounter this morning. Why shouldn’t the kids have dreams? Why shouldn’t they aspire to a better life? To see the world they lived in? That was why Julia had trained as a teacher: because she was passionate about giving these kids a better future. It infuriated her that her headmistress, of all people, didn’t share her vision.

But now she remembered the lottery ticket and her promise to her grandmother and cursed. She’d have to stop in town to buy one, and the traffic would be hell at this time of day. She reached into the pannier to get her helmet. Which is when she saw the black wallet.

The glossy black leather rectangle was wedged underneath the back wheel of her moped as if it had been put there deliberately. Julia stooped to pick it up. She examined the wallet, confused. None of the kids could possibly own a wallet like this.

Which meant that it had to have been stolen. Had somebody deliberately planted it on her, or had one of the kids found it and put it under her wheel so that Julia would hand it in?

She opened the wallet. Inside were crisp banknotes. It was unheard of for a wallet to have money in it around here. Especially this much. As Julia pulled out the notes, she gasped, counting 2,000 reals. More than a whole month’s salary, she realized. Enough to buy Fredo his football strip, and a new TV for Marcello. More importantly, it might even be enough to get Vovo into a private clinic, where they might be able to treat her heart condition before it was too late.

This must be drug money, she thought, her mind immediately going to Paulo, the thug in her class. This must be connected to him, or his relatives. Was he setting her up for some kind of sting? Just because she’d taken Eduardo’s side this morning?

But something still nagged at her. Gang money was dirty, surely. Clandestine and illicit. If it was drug money, it would be in grubby low-denomination notes. Not pristine and smart, like these.

She quickly looked through the rest of the wallet, but apart from the cash, there was only a single card inside. She pulled it out to examine it.

It, too, was glossy and black – the kind she imagined only the most classy of businesses might commission. On it, embossed in silver, was a picture of what looked like a key. Beneath it in neat silver letters was a number.

She should go and report this to Senhora Azevedo, Julia told herself. She should go straight to the school office – even report the wallet to the police, who’d only just that morning counselled the staff to look out for anything suspicious and out of the ordinary.

But as Julia put the card back in the wallet, a peculiar feeling spread through her and she remembered Vovo’s words this morning: I have a feeling today is a lucky day. That something good will happen.

Without giving herself time to think, she slipped the wallet into her backpack.

chapter two

Christian Erickson hung on to the rusty bar in the back of the truck as it jolted over the bumps in the dirt track. Behind the truck, dust billowed up in an ochre cloud, and a small child dressed in a brightly coloured tie-dyed shirt ran after it, waving. Christian waved back and the kid stopped and smiled, his crooked teeth white in his black face. In a second he was obscured by the dust.

Christian knew seeing such a kid was a rare sight. And that he was one of the lucky ones. He was still able to stand – and to smile. Here, in central Somalia, where the drought and fighting were the worst Christian had ever seen in Africa, thousands of children like that little boy were dying of starvation every day.

And thousands more made the dangerous journey with their entire village on foot to the camps in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. Places like Dadaab, where Christian had come from, where half a million Somalian refugees crowded into the makeshift shelters that were built for a tenth of the capacity and where many would be living for generations. There seemed to be no end to this hellish mess.

He rearranged his checked scarf over his nose as they passed the rotting corpse of a camel on the side of the track, vultures picking at its flesh. The camels had been an Oxfam initiative, but Christian knew that most of them in this region had been slaughtered by the offshoot of the militant Islamist al-Shabaab group who ruled this area with senseless violence.

In every direction, the earth was a scorched, dry brown. Ahead, through the mirage, Christian could see ruined roof-less farm buildings, overturned burnt-out vehicles scattered next to them. He stared up for a moment at the sun through his shades and saw the relentless yellow eye staring back at him. He wondered how many times he’d looked at that sun with scorn. You couldn’t help but let it get personal here in Africa.

‘So, how long you been out here?’ Dan shouted over the noise of the truck’s clanking engine.

Christian stared across at the new recruit he’d just picked up, sitting on the bench in the back of the truck. He had dark curly hair and bright blue eyes and a freshness to him, an eagerness that made Christian nostalgic. Like remembering the scent of a flower.

Had Christian really been that green himself? he wondered. He must have been. Back when he hadn’t seen death and famine and bloodshed and experienced all the horrifying heartbreak of life as a front-line doctor.

Why on earth they’d sent him this guy, fresh off the plane in Mogadishu, God only knew. He’d been expecting an experienced nurse to replace Kali, although it would be impossible ever to replace Kali, with her mad hair and infectious smile. He fought away images of his trusted, treasured colleague and the way she’d stared at Christian for that fleeting last moment, even though the bullet had taken off half her skull. But Kali – barely twenty-five – had been gone for over three months, Christian reminded himself, and he could no longer work alone. When he’d got a message out that he wanted backup, he’d hoped for someone from his old team, not someone who looked like he was barely old enough to shave, let alone to have qualified as a doctor.

He hated to be cynical, but Christian wanted to tell Dan to get out right now, before he was suckered in, like he had been. He wanted to tell him to take his fresh face elsewhere while he had the chance. Because if he didn’t . . . well, he’d become like Christian, and before he knew it, death and famine and bloodshed would become his way of life too. And that, Christian wanted to tell him, was a dangerous way to live. Because it meant you couldn’t ever give it up. Couldn’t ever stop.

But something in Dan’s eyes made Christian refrain from spouting his cynicism.

‘I’ve been here too long,’ he replied. ‘Way too long, in fact. I was a surgeon in a hospital in Norway, but after my mother died, I took a sabbatical to go travelling and stopped here on the way. Somehow I never left.’

‘Hey, man, they say that you’re, like, the best,’ Dan said enthusiastically, his American accent full of sincerity. ‘They said I’ll learn everything from you.’

Christian was both flattered and dismayed by Dan’s open reverence. How he’d achieved such status baffled him, but looking at Dan, Christian realized that his fearless attitude had probably been noticed back at HQ after all these years. Christian was their main Afri-Aid man on the ground, the doctor who went right to the heart of the conflict, where the help was needed most. It seemed like the only logical way to be to Christian, but to his superiors, behind their desks in their air-conditioned offices back in Nairobi, he guessed he must seem brave.

It wasn’t bravery, though. Not in Christian’s book. The women who held their starving children were brave. The villagers who endured torture at the hands of the rebel militia, they were brave. The elderly women dying from Aids . . . The list went on.

But yes, he thought, smiling wearily at Dan, he had once had that enthusiasm, that belief that he was helping, that he could solve problems and mend lives. Back before he realized that as far as saving this country was concerned, most of the time their efforts were as effective as putting a Band-Aid on a fresh amputee.

‘I forgot,’ Dan shouted, grinning. He opened his heavy bag and pulled out a small white padded envelope. ‘I’ve got mail for you.’

He passed the package across to Christian, who held it in his tanned, dirty hands. He stared at the postmark and the Norwegian stamps. It must be from Kenneth, he thought, realizing with a stab of guilt how long it had been since he’d been in touch with his brother back home. Or his father, Teis, persevering as a lonely, belligerent minister in an empty church up in Senja. Their sterile white and grey snow-bound world seemed so far away from this scorched brown land.

‘Thanks,’ Christian said, putting the package inside the front of his jacket. For a moment he felt a pang of real homesickness, remembering the smell of his father’s pipe-smoke on a snowy day and the Northern Lights above their holiday cabin in the hills.

But home wasn’t the home of his dreams. Not any more, he reminded himself. He often thought about the old days just before he went to sleep under the stars, wondering if his mum was up there, watching over him. Wondering if she’d be proud of the direction he’d taken. Wondering if she found it comforting that he’d followed in her footsteps. She’d been one of the first aid workers to get to parts of Rwanda back in the 1970s. It had been her love of Africa that had led him here.

‘It’s up here,’ Olu, the driver, shouted, interrupting his thoughts.

The truck slowed. Using the bars for support, Christian negotiated his way round the boxes of medical supplies and the tank of fresh water under the tarp, so that he could talk to Olu. He’d stopped by a fork in the road, shaded by a scrappy baobab tree. A rusty signpost had bags of litter scattered around it.

‘What do you think?’ he asked, putting his hand on the driver’s shoulder. Olu was in his late thirties and exuded a competence Christian admired. They’d been together now for several years and he trusted him completely.

‘It’s dangerous,’ Olu said, staring at Christian. ‘Too dangerous?’ Christian asked.

Olu shrugged. ‘Your call,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure if it’s clear. And the radio is still dead,’ he said, picking up the radio and clicking the button.

Christian ran his tongue round his teeth, looking at the barren road ahead, knowing it would lead to the village he’d heard was in trouble. Knowing, too, that the rebels who had killed Kali would almost certainly be nearby. This was the heartland of Colonel Adid’s militia, a brutal guerrilla guard who had drained the region of all its resources through taxes and draconian rule. Their group was said to have links to al-Qaeda, and their morals were non-existent. Christian thought back to the children he’d treated last week who’d had their hands chopped off – supposedly for stealing.

Christian knew how dangerous this was. The tyrannical colonel had eyes and ears everywhere, and if Christian’s truck was spotted, they’d be in deep shit, especially without radio backup.

‘What are we waiting for?’

Christian turned to see Dan standing in the back of the truck. His eyes shone, eager to get to some action.

OK, well, if it is action the guy wants to see, then I’d better show him the way, Christian thought, burying his misgivings. After all, he’d gone in where angels feared to tread plenty of times before. This wasn’t the moment to start being cowed.

‘Let’s go,’ he told Olu, slapping his shoulder.

Christian had the kind of gut feeling he knew he shouldn’t ignore, but even so, he didn’t turn back, cajoling Olu to drive further into the village. The further they went, the more the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Several of the huts were still smoking. A dog limped among the debris. The silence was the most frightening thing of all.

As they came into the centre of the village, rather than little children running after the truck, as he was so used to, they sat at the side of the road, their wide eyes accusing him through the flies.

Too late, their shocked looks said.

In the centre of the village, in the clearing where the well was, Olu slowed the truck to a stop. The ground was strewn with bodies – women and children mostly; the men were gone. All except the elderly leader, who was hanging from the hook above the well, blood dripping from his severed toes. His eyes were closed with bruising, congealed blood like dark jewels on his naked torso.

As Olu cut the engine, Christian heard the all-too-familiar wailing of the women break the silence. They came then, out of nowhere – from behind the smoking huts, women with haunted looks in their eyes, on stick legs, starving. They came with their hands outstretched, too parched to speak, desperate only for water.

‘Get the tank,’ Christian said, springing into action. ‘You OK?’ he asked Dan, who shook his head. Christian could see the disbelief and shock in his eyes.

‘This is where things start to get better,’ Christian said, trying to sound reassuring. He instructed Dan how to manhandle the tank, and in a moment they were bailing out water to the crowd, who clamoured for more.

Christian jumped down from the truck and with Olu started to talk to the chief’s wife. His grasp of the dialect was basic, but Christian could pick up what she was saying. The rebels came and rounded up all the men before beating them. The chief was tortured. They fired shots. Lots of shots. Then they put the men in their jeeps and left.

Christian followed her as she led them away from the main square along a blood-spattered path, the colourful cloths hanging to dry in the sun smeared with blood and mud.

‘Get my box, Dan,’ Christian shouted.

The chief’s wife led them to the largest of the huts and pushed open the woven door.

Christian swallowed hard. Of all the makeshift hospitals he’d seen, this had to be one of the most grizzly. Inside, the sick and wounded covered the whole floor, lying where they could, bleeding and crying. The air was filled with the metallic stench of damaged flesh and the low-pitched resonance of despair.

He nodded to the old woman, stunned by her courage, determined to help whoever he could, his medical training kicking in. He began firing out orders to Dan, barely managing to avoid tripping over bodies as he tried to find enough space to erect a simple workstation.

Soon they were both covered in blood, their foreheads drenched in sweat as they helped each child in turn. Christian glanced at Dan, seeing the horror on his face, the disbelief that this scene could be possible in the modern world. But whoever had trained this new rookie had done a good job, Christian thought, watching him bandage up a kid’s arm with calm proficiency.

Christian hardly noticed the door opening and Olu coming in and waving to him to come. He was too busy setting up an IV drip for a five-year-old boy who’d been shot in the leg. If they didn’t get antibiotics into him soon, they’d have to amputate. And amputation – especially of a kid’s limb – was Christian’s worst fear.

‘You’ve got to come,’ Olu shouted across the bodies. ‘It’s not safe.’

‘Olu, no. You’ve got to give me time,’ Christian said, sticking a plaster over the drip in the boy’s arm. A woman on the floor beside him was shivering with fever. Dan had started wrapping a bandage round another woman’s head. ‘We can’t leave now.’

‘Christian, we gotta go,’ Olu pleaded, glancing at the door. Gunshots punctured the wailing.

‘Shit,’ Christian said, his eyes locking with Olu’s. And in that instant he knew that he should have listened. Olu’s eyes said the same.

‘What’s going on?’ Dan asked, worried now, but Christian didn’t dare tell him. Saliva flooded his mouth.

‘Come on. Quickly,’ he said. ‘Leave what you’re doing.’

The women and children had started panicking now, the whole atmosphere in the hut changing, everyone tense with fear.

By the time they made it to the door, an open-backed jeep was pulling up outside in the square next to Olu’s truck, followed by another truck, guerrilla soldiers hanging from it at all angles, some with their heads entirely covered with checked scarves, apart from a slit for their eyes. They were all carrying Kalashnikov rifles. Belts of ammunition criss-crossed their torsos.

‘Stay behind me,’ Christian hissed to Dan.

A man – clearly the leader – jumped down from the first truck. He flicked back his scarf and rubbed the side of his nose, then looked at Christian. His yellowed eyes had the dullness of someone inured to death. Despite how long he’d worked in the region, this was the first time Christian had come face to face with a group of rebels. He had to consciously stop his legs from shaking.

‘What are you doing here?’ the rebel leader asked Christian in English. ‘You should not be here.’

‘We came to help the people. The women and children,’ Christian said, trying to keep the fear from his voice. ‘We’re doctors, from the aid charity. We’re here in peace.’

The rebel soldiers were jumping down from the second truck now, spilling like vermin into the square. A young boy fired his weapon into the air and laughed in a chilling display of machismo. He was still a child – twelve at most.

The leader flicked his head towards the hut. Three of the rebels pushed past Dan and Olu, and tore off the door.

‘Please,’ Christian begged the leader. ‘Don’t—’

But his words were cut off by the rattle of machine-gun fire and the screams of the women and children inside the hut.

‘No!’

It was Dan who’d shouted.

Christian saw anger flash in the leader’s eyes. He walked up to Dan and punched him in the face. Dan stared back in horrified disbelief, blood streaming from his broken nose. The leader watched him, waiting to see how the Westerner would react. Dan had already learned his lesson. He stared at the ground.

Christian couldn’t believe how brave he was being, how he hadn’t been cowed by pain, even though the punch must have hurt. Or maybe Dan was just numb with shock.

‘You will come with us,’ the leader told Christian.

Two other soldiers now rounded up Christian, Dan and Olu. ‘You have been very foolish this time, Doctor Erickson,’ the leader said, as Christian stumbled towards the first truck, his hands on his head.

How did they know his name?

Christian felt real fear – the worst he’d ever known – flooding through his veins. He watched in horror as the second jeep swung round, the soldiers clamouring on board.

‘I told you, man,’ Olu said, his voice choked with tears. His eyes locked with Christian’s, fear and blame clearly etched in them.

‘If they take us now, they’ll torture us,’ Dan said. His voice was an urgent whisper. His eyes suddenly seemed much older than his face. ‘We have to run for it. Get to the trees over there. Buy ourselves time.’

Christian stared at him and then glanced over at the scrappy outcrop of trees at the edge of the village. Was he crazy? The plan would never work. But there was no time to think of an alternative.

Ahead of them, the guards had piled into one of the trucks and it was moving away fast in a cloud of dust. Now the guards immediately in front clambered up into the next truck. Only one guard, with a rifle, remained behind them, pushing them forward.

Suddenly, Dan broke away and turned, smashing the guard across the side of the head with his elbow. The guard fell.

‘Now,’ shouted Dan. ‘Run.’

Christian set off sideways, his heart racing, as all three of them barrelled towards the trees.

Commotion behind them. Shouting.

‘Don’t look back,’ Dan said, gaining on him. A few more metres and they’d be in the trees. They could get lost in the village huts. Escape back to Olu’s truck . . .

Bang. Bang.

The shots rang out. Olu was down, staggering ahead of him, kneeling in the dirt, then collapsing.

Bang.

To his side, Christian saw Dan hit the ground.

‘Stop. Stop now.’ It was the rebel leader’s voice.

Christian staggered to a halt. He put his hands up in surrender. His breath heaved in his chest. In a moment, the guards yanked him back towards the truck. He felt a rifle in the small of his back.

Christian’s vision was blurring through his tears as he stumbled between them. He looked over his shoulder one last time. Dan and Olu were motionless in the dirt.


Excerpted from The Key to it All by Joanna Rees. Copyright © 2014 by Joanna Rees.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Free Schools by David Gillespie – Extract

Free Schools

Introduction

She would probably have been less shocked had I just confessed to selling my children into slavery. The look of horror (with a tinge of outrage) said a truckload more than the ‘Oh, are you sure?’ she finally managed to squeeze out. Nigella (name changed to protect the disgusted) is the proud mother of two kids who attended the same (government) preschool as our eldest and had then progressed to the same (government) primary school. At Year 4, she had of course shipped her children off to the most prestigious private boys’ and girls’ schools money could buy (in Brisbane). So when I announced that Lizzie and I had decided our kids would be going to a government high school, the shock was palpable. ‘But,’ she spluttered, ‘didn’t you go to Churchie? Surely, you could get them in there as a legacy entry?’

The idea that anyone might actually choose to have their kids educated in a public school seemed to be beyond any reasonable contemplation. I’m sure Nigella was convinced that I had secretly declared bankruptcy or perhaps joined some sort of anti-establishment cult, for there could be no sane reason for such an irrational choice, surely?

If people voting with their feet is any measure, Nigella speaks for the majority of us. In some Australian urban areas there are now more Year 11 and 12 children in private education than there are in state schools. And the trend is clearly accelerating. There is a real feeling that education is like an overseas plane trip. Only those bereft of choice fly economy (stay in the state system). Those who can scrape together a little more fly business (upgrade to the local Catholic). And those who prescribe aspirin for a living fly first class (upgrade to independent).

But is it really the case that paying for education actually gets you a better result? Or that paying even more gets an even better result? Sure, paying for first class gets you a wider seat and nicer meals on the way to London, but you still get to exactly the same place at exactly the same time as the folks in economy. What if education is the same? What if paying for first class just gets you a nicer computer and greener sports field, but doesn’t change the outcome?

We have six kids, so the kind of eye-watering numbers that the automatic choice of sending them to my alma mater and its sister school implied, meant our kids were going public. But did that really mean they were travelling economy? And if it did, did it really mean their education would suffer? I needed to know exactly what the research said about educational outcomes and money. And I really needed to know whether there were any smart choices I could make having decided on public education. Is it really the case (as Nigella and her friends believe as an article of faith) that the only way to get a decent education in this country is to pay for it?

This is a book about what I found out. Much like medical research, educational research is arcane, hard to read and even harder to understand. Even worse, most of it appears to be based on hunches and feelings and very little of it on hard facts and actual trials. But among all the ‘I’m just doing this to get my masters’ dross, there are some genuine diamonds. Those gems throw real light on what counts in education – and more importantly what doesn’t.

I’ve divided the book into two main parts. The first part takes a look at the history of education in Australia. And as riveting as that sounds, it turns out to be quite important. We are the only OECD country that runs three different brands of government school but pretends that two of them are private. The market- driven education system that this creates is a very recent invention, but it is profoundly altering the outcomes for all of our students, and not in a good way. We have the choices we have because of a chain of unique events in our educational history. I have been a student in the Australian education system all of my learning life, but until I did the research that informs Part 1 of this book, I had no real understanding of how the different components of that system worked or of how profoundly broken it is. That knowledge made me angry but also desperate that the machinations be clearly exposed. I want everyone who reads this to know exactly who is pulling the levers and why. I want them to go in knowing the real story, not what the spin doctors want them to believe. But no single parent can change that system (and they certainly can’t do it in the year before their child starts school), and that brings me to the second part of the book.

Part 2 is a practical guide for parents. At the moment, parents have just two information points, the average NAPLAN results of the school and the amount of fees you need to pay. All too often both of those pieces of information will tell you that to get the best result you need to pay the most money. The only trouble is that the NAPLAN score tells you exactly nothing about the performance of a school, and the fees are simply a measure of popularity. Neither piece of information tells us which school has the most effective teachers or achieves the best outcomes for all its students. In this part of the book I set out the data a parent needs to have to make a proper assessment and I show you how to get everything you need. I draw together the threads of history and the lessons learnt from foreign (more successful and less successful) education systems to provide a step-by-step guide to selecting a school for your kids (or just checking if the one you have was the right choice).

If you don’t care about the context or history then feel free to skip Part 1. You can always come back to it after you’ve done the hard yakka of selecting a school in Part 2. But whatever order you read the book, I’m certain it will provide you with much more guidance on the best choice of school than the data you currently have. My hope is that if enough well-informed parents vote with their feet then our school systems will be forced to fix themselves – after all, scientia potentia est (knowledge is power).


Excerpted from Free Schools by David Gillespie. Copyright © 2014 by David Gillespie.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Deserving Death by Katherine Howell – Extract

Deserving Death

One

In the ambulance’s passenger seat, paramedic Tessa Kimball pretended to gag. ‘That was revolting.’

Carly Martens didn’t answer. She was watching the back of the ambulance in front, the one into which they’d just helped load the obese amputee that Tessa was complaining about. The Erskineville laneway was so narrow that she couldn’t get their own vehicle past, so she sat with the engine chugging and her foot on the brake. The Monday morning sun poured down and the spring growth in the hedges either side of the lane was impossibly green in the light.

Tessa sniffed her uniform sleeve. ‘Can you smell him on me?’ ‘No,’ Carly said.

‘So disgusting. How can people live like that?’

The ambulance in front eased out and Carly followed. Working with Tessa was always like this. She whined about everyone. Carly couldn’t wait for their ten-week roster to be over. Twelve more shifts. Plus she had a headache from last night. She pressed a thumb into her eye.

‘I mean, how hard is it to have a shower?’ Tessa said. ‘Put on clean clothes?’

‘The guy’s wife died and he’s got no help,’ Carly said. ‘How is he supposed to get himself upstairs and into the bathroom?’

‘Have a wash with a cloth, at least. Wet wipes. Something. And stop frickin drinking so much.’ Tessa sniffed the air. ‘I’m sure I can still smell him.’

‘Just call in, would you?’ Carly said. At Hannah’s birthday drinks last night Tessa had downed more than any of them, yet she seemed fine. Not fair.

Tessa lifted the microphone from the dash. ‘Thirty-nine is complete.’

‘Copy that, Thirty-nine,’ the controller answered. ‘Head to Marrickville station for cover, thanks.’

‘Copy,’ Tessa said, then slammed the mike down. ‘Marrickville. Jesus. I wanted to go back to The Rocks and change.’

‘You don’t smell,’ Carly said.

‘It’s probably on you too, so you can’t tell.’ Tessa grimaced at her uniform trousers. ‘Oh god, look.’

‘What?’

‘This spot.’ Tessa lifted the fabric gingerly off her thigh. ‘Ugh. Body fluids. On me.’

Carly couldn’t see anything. ‘Squirt a bit of Hexol on it.’ ‘But then it’ll soak through and really be on me.’

‘Use a wipe then.’ The smell hadn’t been pleasant but Carly had known worse. It didn’t matter anyway. She felt for the guy: depressed, isolated, fallen through the cracks of the local health system, an alcoholic clearly embarrassed by his situation. ‘I was just about to wash those,’ he’d said when she’d walked into his kitchen to collect his medication and seen a sink full of fungus-covered dishes. ‘You should see my place,’ she’d said in reply. She hoped he hadn’t seen Tessa screw up her face when they’d lifted him out of his sweat-sticky chair.

Tessa poured a drop of Hexol onto a tissue. The smell of the alcohol filled the cabin as she dabbed at her leg. ‘Ugh.’

Carly looked at her, wondering how she’d lasted three years in the job, how much longer she’d go.

Tessa met her gaze and raised her chin. ‘Linsey get her shit together yet?’

Carly pressed her thumb into her eye again, harder this time. Tessa’d overheard her talking to Alicia about Linsey’s struggle to come out to her family, and now brought up the issue every opportunity she got. ‘She’s fine.’

‘Hey, I’m just saying,’ Tessa said. ‘I wouldn’t like it to be me stuck in a secret relationship.’

‘Nobody’s stuck.’

The ambulance in front turned onto Erskineville Road and Carly braked at the corner to wait for her own gap. A bus lumbered towards them. She held her breath as it passed, letting it out when she saw that the ads on the side and back were for a real estate agency and personal training college. She’d been told the ambulance ads might appear anytime in the next two weeks. It was going to be excruciating.

‘They reckon love conquers all, but I guess that’s not true.’ Tessa put a musing tone into her voice, like they were old pals watching a sunset while considering the big questions, not colleagues in a prickly and deteriorating work relationship. ‘Cos if it was, she’d tell them and be damned.’

Carly blinked a red haze from the oncoming traffic. ‘It’s not like that.’

‘I’m just saying,’ Tessa said. ‘If I really loved someone I’d put them first.’

‘Easy to say when you’ll never be in her position,’ Carly said. Tessa really had no clue what she was talking about. Love and coming out weren’t related. Not necessarily. And there was no doubt that Linsey loved her.

‘It doesn’t seem fair to you, that’s all,’ Tessa said.

Carly didn’t want to fight with her again. She’d seemed unhappier than normal lately, and they’d already spent two shifts in the last fortnight not speaking. She rubbed her forehead.

She just wanted to get through the day, go home and fall asleep in Linsey’s arms.

‘Thirty-nine,’ Control said.

‘Fingers crossed it’s back to The Rocks.’ Tessa reached for the mike. ‘Thirty-nine’s on Erskineville Road.’

‘Thanks, Thirty-nine,’ Control said. ‘Head to 12 Smith Road in Sydenham for a woman collapsed, query code four.’

The hair stood up on the back of Carly’s neck. ‘Thirty-nine, do you copy?’

Tessa looked frozen. Carly grabbed the mike from her. ‘Uh, that’s Officer Bayliss’s address. Was she the caller?’

There was a short silence. ‘Repeat, please, Thirty-nine?’

‘That’s Officer Alicia Bayliss’s house,’ Carly said.

‘I have no further info here,’ the controller said, now sounding uneasy too. ‘I’ll ring the caller and find out more, and send police and backup.’

‘On our way.’ Carly flung the mike at Tessa and punched the lights and siren switches, swung onto the wrong side of the road and accelerated.

Tessa sat clenching her hands.

‘It won’t be her,’ Carly said over the siren. ‘She’s doing CPR on a neighbour and she asked someone else to call.’

‘Then why didn’t she give more details?’ Tessa said. ‘Why would it come through like that? She’d know whether it was code two or four and she’d say so.’

‘It won’t be her,’ Carly said. It can’t be. But Tessa was right – Alicia would’ve given all the details in the world, even if she had someone else phone triple 0. ‘Maybe the person she got to call was in a panic.’ Maybe. Please.

The world around her was a blur. She barely braked at lights. The siren screamed, her hands ached on the wheel, the cars in front dawdled and dithered. Look at this idiot, oh my god, yeah that’s right, the median’s the place to go, move, why can’t you move, you fucker!

Tessa gripped the door.

Please. Please.

Carly swung into Smith Road to see a woman of about forty in gym gear hugging herself outside Alicia’s gate. Beyond her Alicia’s front door stood open, a dark space.

‘Oh no,’ Tessa said.

‘She might be inside,’ Carly said. ‘She might’ve had a visitor who collapsed.’ But Control hadn’t called them back.

She turned the engine off with a cold hand.

The crying and trembling woman opened her mouth like she was trying to speak but Carly went past at a run, Tessa on her heels.

‘Alicia?’ Carly said at the door.

No answer. A pink ribbon fluttered from the key in the front door lock.

She stepped inside. The house was narrow, a gloomy hallway down the right side, rooms opening off to the left. Carly had been here a number of times, for a new year’s party last year, a summer barbecue, laughing late nights. The first room was Alicia’s housemate’s – had been; it was empty now, Dave had left last week. Carly glanced in to see bare carpet.

The second room was Alicia’s. The door stood open. Blood stained the carpet in the doorway and spattered the white paint of the doorframe. Alicia’s black high heels lay on the floor just inside. Carly went in, Tessa right behind.

The red quilt had been pulled up to the top of the bed, the shape underneath motionless and unmistakeable. Carly’s heart hammered. She and Tessa went closer. One corner of the quilt had been turned down, exposing part of Alicia’s face. Her long blonde hair lay glued to the dried blood on her forehead and cheek, her blue eyes were open and dull. Her skin was waxy and dead.

Carly’s breath stuck in her throat. Tessa reached down.

‘Don’t,’ Carly said. ‘She could be –’

‘She’s not.’ One glance was enough. She knew Tessa knew it too. ‘Don’t touch her. It’s a crime scene.’

Tessa pulled the quilt back anyway. Alicia was still in the black dress she’d been wearing the night before. Her lips and the skin around her eyes were split, drying blood everywhere, a front tooth broken, dark and rounded-edged bruising on her face. Carly had seen bruising like that before and knew it was caused by fists. She felt a pain like a cramp in her chest.

‘Don’t,’ she said again.

‘Punched the crap out of her.’ Tessa touched Alicia’s cheek. ‘Fuck this shit.’

‘Go outside and call Control,’ Carly said.

Tessa walked out of the room but squatted on the floor in the hallway, arms on her knees, head on her arms.

Carly pinched the inside of her wrist for a long moment, then took out her mobile. She dialled the control room.

A woman said, ‘Ambulance.’

Carly took a breath. ‘It’s Carly Martens. I’m at 12 Smith Street in Sydenham. Confirming code four of Officer Bayliss, in suspicious circumstances.’

‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘Oh, Carly. Wait a sec.’

Carly heard her cover the phone with her hand and tell someone. The pain in her chest grew. In the hallway, Tessa was crying. In the bed, Alicia stared at the ceiling.

Two

Detective Ella Marconi walked up the footpath in the bright spring sunshine, thoughts of Callum and tomorrow’s troublesome party already gone from her mind. Detective Murray Shakespeare walked in silence beside her. People whispered on the porches and in the gardens of the houses along the street, then fell quiet as they passed. Ahead, two uniformed officers and a plastic-overalled crime scene officer waited on the footpath, and an ambulance was parked haphazardly by the kerb, the back door open and a paramedic sitting on the step with her head in her hands. Ella made a conscious effort to lower her shoulders and calm her mind. The victim was twenty-six-year-old Alicia Bayliss. A paramedic. The second paramedic to be murdered in a month, with the earlier death still unsolved.

The house beyond the blue and white crime scene tape was narrow, like its neighbours. A white hatchback with pink numberplate surrounds and a pink ball attached to the aerial sat in the driveway to the left of the house, while a path of bare dry dirt led along the right. The patchy front lawn was no bigger than a picnic blanket, and two empty cane chairs stood on the tiny verandah above it while a cobwebbed wind chime dinged from the eaves. The light on the wall was off.

Ella felt the eyes of the silent constables on her as she looked around. The street was a cul-de-sac with four houses between Bayliss’s and the dead-end. Two houses faced back down the road and flanked a weedy asphalt path.

‘Where’s that go?’ she asked.

‘To the next street,’ the older constable said.

‘We’ve got it on our list to check,’ the scene officer said.

Ella and Murray ducked under the tape. The house’s front doorway yawned. Ella glanced away to see a second female paramedic watching dully from the ambulance’s passenger seat.

‘Who found her?’ Murray asked the constable. ‘Neighbour who saw her through the window. Christine Geary, DOB nine eleven seventy-three.’ He nodded across the street to where a woman in running pants sat on the doorstep of a small neat grey house, chin on her fisted hands. Even at this distance Ella could see that her eyes were squeezed shut.

‘They were supposed to meet for a walk,’ the constable said. ‘Geary came over and knocked on the door, then went down the driveway to the window. She saw what looked like blood on the floor and wall, and a shape in the bed. She knocked on the window and when the shape didn’t move she went home and got Bayliss’s spare key and let herself in. The quilt was pulled up right over Bayliss’s head. Geary said she turned it down just enough to see that Bayliss was dead.’

‘And the ambos?’ Murray asked.

‘They said they went in, turned the quilt down more, found that she was cold, and came back outside. They’re friends of hers. They were all out clubbing last night, so we’ve kept them separate.’

Ella turned to the scene officer. ‘Okay if we take a quick look?’

He handed them gloves and paper booties, and Ella and Murray pulled them on.

The first room on the left appeared to be a recently emptied bedroom. Ella noted marks in the carpet from the feet of a double bed, a skinny built-in with a mirrored door, plain beige curtains drawn back at the closed window, and an old stain on the grey carpet.

The next room was Bayliss’s. Ella stopped before the doorway, crouching to examine the smears and spatters of blood low on the doorframe and on the carpet. ‘Is there more?’

The scene officer pointed to a few tiny spots midway up the opposite wall. ‘Cast-off.’

Murray mimed punching someone on the floor, the backward movement of his fist showing how the blood would be flung behind. ‘Right? If he’d used a weapon with downward blows it’d be on the ceiling.’

‘Unless he was swinging from the side,’ the officer said.

‘Find a weapon?’ Ella asked.

‘No.’

‘What about forced entry?’ ‘No sign,’ he said.

There was no peephole in the door, and no security screen. ‘So he knocks, she turns on the light and unlocks the door, and either invites him in or he shoves inside,’ she said. ‘Blitz attack,’ Murray said. ‘Hits her straight away.’

‘She runs, and makes it this far.’ Ella turned back to the bedroom doorway, seeing in the blood spatter the struggle, the blows.

‘Like Hardwick,’ Murray said.

Ella had seen the photos of the house of Maxine Hardwick, the paramedic who’d been murdered a month ago. There’d been no forced entry there either. She’d been beaten about the face and head, and had died on the kitchen floor. Three days later a pair of padded gloves had been found by kids in a stinking drainage pond not far from the house. They were the type used by mixed martial arts fighters, with thick padding across the knuckles and the fingers left free and bare. Gloves like that meant a person could hit another without damaging their knuckles and still use their hands to grasp, lift, tuck. Despite the gloves being soaked in pond muck, the lab found Hardwick’s blood in the padding and a tiny scrap of latex inside one palm. Ella imagined Hardwick or Bayliss opening the door, unsuspecting, then seeing the double layer of boxing gloves over latex.

‘No blood anywhere else,’ Murray said, looking further down the hall. ‘It ended here.’

‘And before he left, turning the front light off on his way, he put her into bed,’ the scene officer said. ‘The wood of the door, the frame and the light switch have all been wiped down, the switch especially.’

‘He’s aware of what he’s doing, careful to cover his tracks,’ Murray said. ‘Wary of prints, whether he’s wearing the latex or not.’

Ella went into the bedroom, stepping over a pair of black high heels that looked like they’d just been kicked off. The curtains were half-open, the morning sunlight pouring in. A second crime scene officer was dusting for prints while a third took photos. The click of the digital camera was loud in the silence of the room.

Alicia Bayliss lay on her back on the red fitted sheet. Her face had been badly beaten, blood from lacerations to her lips and around her eyes matting her blonde hair to her skin. Ella remembered punch injuries she’d seen in the past, and the photos of Hardwick’s face. Bayliss’s short black dress had been smoothed down over her thighs and tucked in. Her feet were bare, and her arms were by her sides, her hands already bagged to protect any evidence under her fingernails.

‘She was found like that?’ she said. It suggested that the crime wasn’t sexual. In bed and tucked in was also a significant difference to the way Hardwick was left.

The officer with the camera nodded. ‘We’ve got photos before and after we removed the quilt. It’s bagged now. Might get some trace evidence from the vacuumings off it and the bedsheets.’

A hair to match the ones found at Hardwick’s, Ella hoped. ‘This guy felt bad afterwards,’ Murray said. ‘Hiding her face so she couldn’t “see” him and vice versa.’

‘Suggesting both remorse and familiarity,’ Ella said. ‘Someone who knew her.’

‘Or thought he did,’ Murray said. ‘It could be about the job more than about her personally. Nice lady looks after some creep, who knows what he starts to imagine.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘I’ll update Dennis.’

He went into the hall to phone the office. The scene officers worked on, dusting and snapping. Ella looked around. Inside the open built-in wardrobe, paramedic uniforms were lined up on their hangers next to dresses and tops, while shelves held neat stacks of T-shirts and jeans, and shoes sat on the floor in pairs. Things were well-spaced, suggesting that Bayliss didn’t need to share with anyone. Twin bedside tables held piles of books: a service-issued paramedic procedural folder on one, and two Tess Gerritsen novels, an anatomy and physiology textbook, and something called Emergency Care in the Streets on the other. A lamp on the table closest to where Bayliss lay was switched off. There was no alarm clock or clock radio, and no sign of a mobile phone. Ella crouched and checked the floor but it was bare.

‘The rest of the team’s on their way already, and Dennis has people looking for links between her and Hardwick,’ Murray said, putting away his phone as he came back in.

They went along the hallway. The next room was a combined lounge and kitchen. Medium flatscreen TV on the wall, faded black corner lounge, cheap black coffee table holding a remote and a folded local paper. Framed photos of laughing groups of people on the walls. Clean dishes sat in a drying rack on the sink: one plate, one bowl, one coffee mug. A mobile charger was plugged in on the bench, but there was no phone.

Through the next door was the laundry and bathroom, and beyond them the back door. The handle and surrounding area had already been dusted for prints. Ella stepped out into a yard only marginally bigger than the one at the front. A fold-down clothes line was attached to the wall, with a navy T-shirt and pair of socks, all dry, hanging from plastic pegs. A frangipani with budding leaves filled one back corner of the yard, and pots full of herbs lined the fence in the other. The fences themselves were grey timber palings, and Ella could see the roofs of the houses to the left and behind Bayliss’s block. There were no overlooking windows or gaps in the fence through which someone might’ve seen a person come and go.

Whatever had been on the block to the right had been bulldozed some time before and the rubble was full of weeds. The palings on that side ended near the back of Bayliss’s house, the rest of the fence basic chainlink along to the street. Ella examined the bare strip between the fence and the house. The soil was dry and hard, leaving no chance of footprints if the killer had come this way.

Ella looked around the garden. Birds sang and the sky was bright blue, the spring morning still fresh. It was much too nice a day for this.

‘Let’s talk to the friends,’ she said.

*****

The paramedic in the ambulance’s passenger seat told them her name was Tessa Kimball. She was twenty-five. ‘It was our friend’s birthday yesterday. That’s why we went out, to celebrate.’

She wiped her eyes with a balled-up tissue. Her mascara was smeared, the foundation on her cheeks gone patchy and exposing a scatter of freckles. Her hair was mousy brown, tied back in a tight ponytail. Ella watched her gaze flit from her to Murray, past them to the house, the ground, and the sky.

‘Where did you go?’ Murray asked. ‘Castro’s, on Kent Street in the city.’

Ella had hauled ODs from the toilets there when she was in uniform, had worked fatal assaults out the front since then.

Tessa must’ve read her face. ‘It’s not like it used to be. They’ve cleaned it up. It’s nice now.’

Ella guessed paramedics would know. ‘Who else went?’

‘Hannah Dodds, whose birthday it was. She’s a nurse in RPA emergency. And Kristen Szabo, who works there too.’ She spelled it. ‘And Carly.’

She gestured to the back of the ambulance where the other paramedic sat, out of view but most likely not out of hearing, Ella realised. She motioned for Tessa to climb down from the ambulance and walk with her and Murray up the street.

In the shade of a flowering gum she said, ‘Did anyone harass Alicia or any of you?’

Tessa shook her head.

Murray asked, ‘Were any guys hanging around?’

‘No.’

Ella said, ‘Would you have noticed if there were?’

‘You’re asking if we were smashed?’ Tessa said. ‘No, we weren’t smashed because me and Carly had to work today, and therefore, yes, we’d have noticed if someone was perving or being a pain.’

‘Did anyone take anything else?’ Ella asked.

‘Like drugs? You’re kidding, aren’t you? We see too much of that shit to want to take it ourselves.’

‘How come you went out on a school night?’ Murray said. ‘It was the one night the five of us had free. Shiftwork.’ Ella nodded. ‘Run us through the evening.’

The group had arranged to meet in the club at eight. Kristen got there first and grabbed a booth. Hannah arrived next, then Tessa. Five minutes later Carly walked in, and ten minutes after that, Alicia. ‘That was probably about twenty past,’ Tessa said.

‘Did she say why she was late?’ Ella asked.

‘No. She’s not the most punctual person. I didn’t think anything of it.’

Ella made a note. They’d check the club’s CCTV, see if anyone accosted her at the door or followed her in. ‘Then what?’

‘Then we had cocktails,’ Tessa said. ‘We took turns to shout Hannah. We danced.’ She shrugged and wiped her eyes with the tissue again, and looked at the mascara on it. ‘We had fun.’

‘And nobody hit on any of you?’ Murray said.

‘Nobody even tried.’ Tessa looked at Ella. ‘You know what it’s like working in these jobs. You can get pretty good at sending out the “back off ” vibe.’

Ella knew. ‘What time did you leave?’

‘I don’t know exactly, but it was after twelve thirty. We all left together and got cabs. Hannah and Kristen live over near Bondi so they shared one. We shared the other. Carly got dropped off first in Newtown, then me in Enmore, then Alicia was coming back here.’

‘So you last saw her when?’ Ella asked.

‘When I got out. I was looking for my keys in my bag. I didn’t even wave.’

‘Any guess at the time?’

‘Around one, I think.’

‘Anyone confirm that?’ Ella said. ‘Flatmate or partner?’

‘I live with my mother but she was asleep.’

‘How about Carly?’

‘She lives alone, so I guess not.’

‘Was someone living with Alicia recently?’ Ella asked.

‘A guy called Dave Hibbins. He moved out last week. Alicia asked him to go.’

Ella’s radar pinged. ‘Why was that?’

‘A little while ago she broke up with her boyfriend –’ Another ping.

‘– and then Dave hit on her. Kept hitting on her too. She didn’t want any of that so she said he had to go.’

‘Where did he move to?’ Murray said.

‘I heard he went to stay with a mate close to work.’ ‘Which is where?’ Ella asked.

‘RPA. He’s a radiographer.’

‘Had she started looking for a new housemate?’ Murray said. ‘She was talking about it, but I’m pretty sure she hadn’t actually started. She told me she’d love to have the place to herself but the rent’s too much. I think she was having a bit of time on her own for as long as she could afford it.’ ‘Tell us about this ex-boyfriend,’ Ella said.

‘His name’s John Morris. He’s a cop, works in the city. They were together maybe six months. They broke up about three or four weeks ago.’

Ella didn’t know Morris and couldn’t tell from Murray’s face whether he did. They weren’t going to talk about it now though.

‘Did she tell you why?’ she asked.

‘Because he got it on with some chick at a party,’ Tessa said. ‘Alicia wasn’t going, then changed her mind. She turned up and saw him in the corner with his paws up this girl’s shirt. She went right over and dumped him on the spot.’

Ella said, ‘How’d he take it?’

‘Apparently he said someone spiked his drink, he didn’t know what he was doing, begged for her forgiveness,’ Tessa said. ‘But that was it for her.’

‘How well do you know John?’ Murray asked.

‘A bit. Alicia’s always trying to set me up with guys she knows and so I went on double dates with them a few times. He’s an okay guy.’

‘Even though he cheated on your friend?’ Ella said.

‘I don’t think she was that in love with him anyway,’ Tessa said. ‘They hadn’t been getting on very well. Like, she’d had recertification exams and he didn’t seem to get how much she had to study. Then when she did free up some time, he went off with his mates instead. She hadn’t seemed happy for a while.’

A magpie started to sing on the roof of Bayliss’s house. Tessa looked at it and then at the open door and teared up again.

Ella touched her arm. ‘Just a few more questions. Had Alicia ever said that she’d been threatened, or someone had tried to break into her home, anything like that?’

Tessa shook her head.

‘How long have you and Alicia been friends?’

‘About two years.’ She was crying now.

‘Where does Alicia’s family live?’

‘Her parents and one brother are in Melbourne. Her other brother’s in Canberra.’

‘Have you been in contact with Hannah or Kristen since you got here?’ Murray asked.

‘No.’

‘Please don’t speak to them before we get a chance to,’ he said. ‘Let us tell them.’

Tessa pressed her lips together and nodded. ‘Did you know Maxine Hardwick?’ Ella asked. Tessa shook her head.

‘Do you know if Alicia knew her?’

‘I’m positive she didn’t,’ Tessa said. ‘We talked about it back when it happened and she said it was awful. She would’ve mentioned if she knew her.’

Ella nodded. ‘Finally, did you or Carly touch anything in the house?’

‘I touched her cheek,’ Tessa said. ‘I knew what I was looking at but I couldn’t believe it. I had to touch her. She was cold.’

Ella squeezed her hand. ‘Thanks.’

As they walked back towards the ambulance and the second paramedic, Ella murmured to Murray, ‘Do you know John Morris?’

‘Don’t you?’

‘You make it sound like I should,’ she said. ‘Why?’

He shook his head. ‘I’ll tell you later.’


Excerpted from Deserving Death by Katherine Howell. Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Howell.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Bold and the Beautiful: Forbidden Affair by Amy Andrews – Extract

The Bold and the Beautiful: Forbidden Affair

CHAPTER ONE

The freshly written resignation letter was practically burning a hole in her handbag as Steffy Forrester made her way through Customs. She was tired after the eleven-hour flight from Paris, and the American voices over the PA system sounded strange to ears that had been surrounded by the soft, melodic tones of the French language for the last year. She wanted a shower. She wanted her bed. She wanted her mother. But nothing was more important than delivering the letter in her bag.

First stop—Forrester Creations.

She passed through the airport on autopilot. Where was that feeling of belonging she always had when she came home? LA was her city, her village. These people rushing around her were her tribe. But nothing felt familiar today.

Nothing had felt familiar for a year. When she’d fled LA to get away from a broken heart and spend time with her father, she’d never imagined she’d be away for so long. But she hadn’t realized then how damaged she was.

The miscarriage had been completely devastating—both physically and mentally—and her recovery had been slow and painful. She had done a lot of soul searching. She had worked through doubts and recriminations and blame.

And there had been a lot of crying.

Steffy wondered if she had any tears left, but she knew she didn’t need them anymore. She knew she was stronger. She knew she’d entered the chrysalis broken and damaged and emerged powerful and sure.

She’d been reborn. She’d shaken off the past and was ready to go forward, changed and new and better.

And it started with her resignation.

Steffy smiled to herself as the strength that had been building for months now hummed inside her. It straightened her spine, focused her vision on the taxi rank beyond the glass doors and added a determination to her stride.

Unfortunately, it didn’t allow for the ebb and flow of the crowded airport and she ran smackbang into the hard wall of a very male chest.

The first thing Steffy noticed was his smell. It was difficult not to with her nose so inelegantly flattened against his shirt, and he smelled good enough to eat. Sweet, like the flower markets in Paris but with a hint of something spicy, like Caribbean rum and ancient voodoo.

She had the most absurd urge to lick him to see if he’d taste as good.

Next she noticed the bulk of the muscles beneath her hands. She’d automatically placed her palms on his chest to stabilize herself and the fleshy substance of his pecs filled them to perfection. They were the pecs of a man who looked after himself.

Old habits died hard as, subconsciously, Steffy awarded the man marks on his taste in couture. The crisp dark shirt beneath her palms screamed quality and the soft leather of his jacket told her he had money.

She became conscious then of his hands as they grasped her shoulders. Warm and big, easily spanning the circumference of her upper arms as he, too, tried to steady her.

And then there was no more time to think or analyze as he gently pried her away from him. It had probably only been a matter of seconds, but Steffy felt utterly dazzled by the contact, her system bombarded by confusing signals, the intoxicating smell of him still swirling through her senses like fairy dust.

She must be tired. “Apologies, I didn’t—”

“I’m so sorry—”

They both spoke at once before the cloud of what she could only presume to be jetlag induced insanity cleared and Steffy realized who she had run into.

“Bill?”

Bill Spencer blinked. “Steffy … you’re back?” He looked down at his ex-daughter-in-law, his gaze roaming her face, pleased beyond words to see her. His pulse leaped in a not entirely fatherly way.

“You’ve cut your hair.”

“Oh … yes,” Steffy murmured, absently patting her nape where the wispy strands of her pixie cut brushed her skin. She’d had it done so long ago now—her first step to becoming a new woman—she’d forgotten. “I decided I needed a change.”

Bill nodded. “It suits you. Very … Parisian,” he said, smiling down at her. His breath caught a little when she smiled back. She’d been so unhappy when she’d left it was nice to see some of the old Steffy back. “Liam will be pleased to see you,” he said.

Steffy felt the smile on her face slowly die and every cell in her body hold its breath. Liam. Was she ready for that?

Steffy was conscious of Bill’s hands still on her shoulders. They felt warm and solid against her and the urge to lean into him was scarily overwhelming. She and Bill had been through their ups and downs but he’d always been a supporter of her relationship with Liam.

Except she was done with all those toxic relationships.

“I have to get going,” she said, straightening her shoulders and shrugging them to displace his hands.

Bill let her go although, strangely, he didn’t want to. He knew that the miscarriage and subsequent events devastated Steffy immensely and he wanted nothing but to comfort her; to tell her it would be okay.

He cursed under his breath. Why hadn’t he just said that he was pleased to see her? Why dump all those memories back in her lap the second she set foot on American soil?

“Have you got a driver waiting for you?” Bill asked, looking at the row of uniformed chauffeurs lining the concourse of the arrivals lounge, holding aloft their placards bearing hand-written names.

“No,” she said. “No-one knows I’m home. I was just going to catch a cab.”

“Oh no,” Bill said, shaking his head. “I can’t let you do that. You’re a Forrester. I insist that you come with me. There’s plenty of room in my limo.”

Steffy hesitated. She didn’t want to accept Bill’s offer, no matter how graciously and genuinely it was made—she was trying to start anew and Bill belonged in her past. But one look over Bill’s shoulder at the line at the cab rank confirmed her worst fears about LAX crowds.

“I’m not going home, I’m going to Forrester Creations first.” Nothing was going to stop her from delivering the letter she had written on the plane.

“Of course,” Bill said. “Carrington—” he inclined his head toward a uniformed chauffer hovering nearby “—won’t mind the detour.”

Steffy prevaricated for only a few seconds before she smiled gratefully at Carrington and then turned back to Bill. She was too tired to wait in line.

“Thanks,” she murmured. “I really appreciate it.”

Bill smiled back. “After you,” he said, placing a hand in the small of Steffy’s back, guiding her through the crowd.

*****

“So,” Steffy said as Bill slid onto the seat beside her and Carrington shut the door behind them, “why were you at LAX today?”

“Just got back from Melbourne,” he said. “Spencer Publications is looking at acquiring some Australian magazines.”

“Ah,” she said. “Ever the entrepreneur.”

Bill chuckled. “I guess.”

Steffy frowned at him. “That doesn’t sound very enthusiastic.”

Bill shrugged. “Just tired from all the traveling, I suppose. It’s a bitch of a flight.”

Steffy inspected his face. Bill was a handsome bastard and he used it ruthlessly to his advantage. God knew there was a time when she’d been more than a little dazzled by him; still was, if her reaction to him earlier was any indication.

But he was Liam’s father—her ex-father-in-law. Despite the age-defying quality of his good looks, he was too old. And too much part of a past she didn’t want to go back to.

She dragged her gaze away from his impossibly square jaw and the mouth that could have been found on any of the famous sculptures inside the Louvre. “The flight from Paris is no picnic either,” she said.

Carrington slid into the driver’s seat and immediately raised the privacy screen, cocooning them in the back of the spacious limo. Bill’s scent, the one she’d noted earlier, drifted toward her in sultry waves and his large frame seemed to dominate the space. With the tinted windows and the cacophony of traffic noise shut off in their sound-proof bubble, it was as though they were the only two people in the world. The knowledge prickled down Steffy’s spine and tingled in about a dozen different places but she resolutely ignored it, turning her gaze to the window. The Spencer men were trouble. With a capital T.

The limo pulled away from the curb and Bill took a moment to inspect Steffy as she looked out the window. The hem of her fashionable leather skirt sat just above her knee. It looked expensive and Bill had to suppress the urge to touch it, to see if it really was as soft as it looked—and if her thighs were really that slender.

Her long legs stretched out in front of her and silver stilettos with diamante-encrusted buckles emphasized slim ankles and toned calves. They didn’t look like great traveling shoes but Steffy was a Forrester and fashion ran in her blood.

Her silky sleeveless blouse matched the color of her heels and draped softly against her high, firm breasts, molding them to perfection. The V-neck plunged to a row of buttons that started in the depths of her cleavage and disappeared behind a wide black belt that highlighted her small waist. A waist he knew, from intimate experience, his hands could easily span.

Bill dragged his gaze away as his thoughts started to take him down memory lane. What had happened between him and Steffy was water well under the bridge. Since then, she’d been in love with his son and, had sweet meddling Hope not been around to spoil it, Bill firmly believed Liam and Steffy would still be together. They would have gotten over the miscarriage of their child together and grown stronger because of it.

Liam had been a fool to ever let Steffy go. Agreeing to the annulment had been a grave error of judgment. He’d tried to talk his headstrong son out of it, but Liam, too, had been hurt and grieving.

And of course Hope had been there to help him through it.

“I was sorry to hear about your relationship troubles.”

Steffy’s words yanked Bill out of his thoughts and he turned back from the window he hadn’t even been aware he was looking out of.

“Thank you.” He grimaced. “Being single at my age is strange and … well, it’s never easy when a relationship you’ve been in for a long time comes to an end.”

His voice was low and surprisingly emotional. It was a rare thing to see Bill Spencer Jr., ruthless CEO of Spencer Publications, so gutted. She’d been exactly where he was—invested in a longterm relationship that hadn’t worked out—and she felt strangely compelled to comfort him. Steffy almost reached out and put her hand on top of his.

He suddenly looked very much his age—the lines around his eyes, the slight graying at his temple—and Steffy got the feeling she was being treated to something few people ever saw: Bill Spencer laid bare.

And then, as she watched, he pulled himself out of it, turning to her with a smile on his face. A smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “But shh,” he murmured. “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t want them thinking I’m curled in a fetal ball. Can’t afford to have anyone thinking I’m a pushover.”

Steffy returned his smile, allowing him to bring her back from the edge too. She didn’t want to be suckered in by another Spencer man even if he wasn’t fooling her for a second.

“Perish the thought,” she said.

He shot her a smile of genuine delight and Steffy felt a little dizzy at being alone with Bill.

“So,” Bill said, steering the conversation back to safer topics. “You’re heading over to Forrester to say hi to your grandfather? Eric’s missed you like crazy.”

Steffy briefly glanced away as the question caught her unaware then looked back at him, nodding her head vigorously to hide her consternation. “Yes.”

Bill narrowed his eyes. “Sounds like there’s a bit more to the story?”

Steffy shrugged and avoided his gaze again. “Not really,” she fibbed.

“Not really?” he teased. “Could have fooled me.” Steffy sighed. She should know better than to show any hesitancy in front of Bill Spencer; he had the tenacity of a bloodhound and the instincts of a piranha. He could spot a person’s weakness at a hundred paces, which was what made him such a formidable business man—and why it’d been so unusual to see a glimpse of his vulnerabilities before.

“Come on, Steffy. We’re practically family. Why don’t you tell good old Dollar Bill all about it?” He grinned at her, knowing he had to keep it light if he was going to persuade Steffy to confide in him. He knew she didn’t trust easily—trusting just wasn’t in her nature. She’d been deeply hurt, not just by the miscarriage but by other people in her past. But he felt remarkably in tune with her today and she looked like she needed a friend. “It’s a long way to Forrester Creations and I can be very persistent.”

Steffy rolled her eyes at him. “I remember.”

She sighed again, surprised at how much she wanted to tell him everything. Who knew, he may be able to give her some kind of perspective she hadn’t considered during the long flight. And what the hell, he’d be finding out soon enough.

Steffy opened her bag, reached inside and pulled out the thick white envelope. She handed it to him silently.

Bill hesitated. “Are you sure?”

His uncertainty spoke volumes to her. He’d sensed that this was important and she admired his restraint. She appreciated that he seemed genuinely concerned for her.

She nodded. “Off the record, of course,” she said, smiling at him. She knew the contents of the letter would be in Bill’s magazine, Eye on Fashion, soon enough; a Forrester deserting the family business would be big news. But she really didn’t want to read about it in the next edition.

“Of course.” He grinned.

Bill took the envelope, noting it was addressed to Eric Forrester. Her writing surprised him. It wasn’t frilly or girly—if anything, it was quite masculine, with bold incisive strokes. It was the writing of someone who was sure of herself and confident in her words.

The envelope wasn’t sealed and he freed the folded sheet of paper noting the address listed on the letterhead was in the seventh arrondissement—home of the most exclusive real estate in Paris. He glanced at Steffy but she was resolutely looking out her window.

Bill read the brief letter of resignation, which cited Steffy’s desire to stretch her wings and try something new without comment. He wasn’t ignorant of its impact or the flurry it would cause at Forrester Creations. Not to mention how international fashion markets would greet the news.

Forrester Creations was the Forrester family—all of them. Including Steffy. She’d been a part of the company for many years. She’d grown up in its hallowed halls and taken her position there as soon as she’d been old enough. Hell, she’d stopped at nothing—including seducing and blackmailing Bill—to get the company back in Forrester hands all those years ago.

“Wow.”

Steffy turned to face him. “Do you think I’ll be written out of the will?”

He doubted that would happen; Steffy was the apple of Eric’s eye. Bill folded the page and pushed it back into the envelope. “What’s this really about?” he asked.

She lifted a shoulder in a barely perceptible shrug. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”

Bill shook his head. “And?”

Steffy ran suddenly sweaty palms down her skirt. Bill’s steely gaze was disconcerting. “There’s no and, Bill.”

“I know you, Steffy, and I’m not buying it. I know how much this company means to you.”

Steffy was disheartened. If she couldn’t convince Bill, how was she going to convince those closest to her?

She found herself wishing her grandmother was still alive; she’d always welcomed her wise counsel. Sure, her grandmother would probably have had kittens over Steffy’s decision, but Stephanie Forrester had always known what to do.

“It’s time to move on.” “And?” he asked again.

“Bill,” Steffy said wearily, “there is no ‘and.’”

“Do you really believe this stuff too?” he asked, waving the envelope in front of her. “That you want to try new horizons? Because I don’t think you do. If you’re going to walk away from your legacy, Steffy, if you’re going to make such a monumental decision, then you’ve got to be honest with yourself—if no-one else—about the reasons.”

Steffy glared at him, but the look of determination in his eyes told her he wasn’t going to give up on this. She knew deep in her heart he was right: she at least had to be true to herself.

“I’m just … sick of it, okay?”

“Of what?”

“Of all of it,” Steffy retorted. “Of the twisted love triangle between Liam and Hope and me. Of my mother trying to push me toward Liam and undermining Hope. Of Brooke trying to push Hope toward Liam and undermining me. Of the constant bickering and stress.”

Steffy stopped. She could already feel the tension in her shoulders at the thought of going back. After a year away, the mere thought of facing it all again made her ill.

“I’m sick of the fallout from Team Brooke and Team Taylor always jockeying for position at Forrester, having never let go of their feud. Having been slaves to a sick connection to a man who couldn’t make up his mind.”

“Ridge,” Bill muttered.

She nodded and then glanced at him. “I suppose that sounds disloyal to my father?”

Bill shook his head. “Your father has hardly been blameless in this.”

Steffy nodded. “I love my father, and finding sanctuary with him this last year has been exactly what I’ve needed. But it’s true, he’s as responsible as my mom and Brooke over this whole mess. And then they continued this feud with their daughters and we got caught up in that same stupid cycle. I’m tired of all the toxic relationships at Forrester because of it. I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want Hope and I to repeat history. I just want out.”

She fell back against the seat as though her admission had been wrenched from deep inside her. Bill watched her silently.

She looked at him and grimaced. “Sorry. I don’t know where that came from.”

“Feels better though, doesn’t it?”

Steffy smiled at him. “Yes,” she admitted. “It feels surprisingly cathartic.”

“Good.” He handed her the letter. “My work here is done.” He chuckled.

His low laughter slid along Steffy’s frayed nerve endings, soothing them. “So you think I should rewrite this?” she asked, taking the envelope and turning it over in her hands.

Bill shook his head. “Nope. You’re your own woman, Steffy Forrester. You’re strong and capable and confident. You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone or apologize. As long as you’re being honest with yourself.”

Steffy nodded slowly. Clearly it was fate that had set her on a collision course with Bill this morning. “Thank you.”

Bill smiled. “Any time.” He glanced out the window, noticing they were nearing Forrester Creations. Their time was running short and a part of him regretted it. Their conversation had been refreshingly candid.

“What will you do?”

Steffy shrugged. “I have absolutely no idea.”

He liked the way her new bangs feathered around her face, giving her a maturity he’d not seen before. Or maybe that was the effect of her revelations. “Well, don’t rush it,” he murmured.

She nodded. “I’m lucky I have the luxury of not needing to.”

Bill’s gaze meshed with hers. He’d never noticed the shimmer in her blue eyes, how luminous they were, before now. Her eyes had always seemed so hard and determined as she’d fought for Forrester with him. And when she’d fought for Liam, battled with Hope and Brooke to keep hold of her man. But—and maybe it was just because of what he knew now—he could see vulnerabilities in the wavy blue pools.

“My son is an idiot,” he murmured.

Steffy couldn’t look away from the honesty in Bill’s eyes. They were like the richest, darkest chocolate, sweet yet bitter all at once. “Yes. He is.”

Their gazes stayed locked, the space between them seeming to shrink, and it was only the limo gliding to a halt that pulled them out of the trance.

“Looks like we’re here,” Bill said.

Steffy felt like she had been dipped in honey and weighed down in chains. She looked slowly out the window. “I guess this is it. The moment of reckoning.”

As if on cue, the door opened and Carrington said, “Ma’am.”

Steffy nodded at him. “Thank you,” she said, turning to Bill. “For the ride. For everything. You’ve helped. A lot.”

Bill bowed his head slightly. “Any time you need a sounding board.”

Steffy smiled. “I may just take you up on that.” She turned to go.

“Steffy?”

“Yes?”

Bill’s gaze locked with hers again and he was overcome with an urge he couldn’t suppress. She was so brave and resilient—his admiration for her skyrocketed. He couldn’t help himself: he slid his hand onto her jaw and pressed his mouth against hers in a brief, hard kiss.

“Don’t let anyone talk you out of it,” he murmured against her mouth before he pulled away, his breathing surprisingly erratic for such a brief act.

Steffy blinked, her lips tingling, her heart hammering like a steam engine in her chest. She shook her head, suddenly mute.

“Go,” he said pulling completely back, his hand dropping away. “Go start your new life. I’ll see that your bags get to your apartment.”

Steffy felt a lump in her throat at his words. Bill wasn’t looking at her resignation as a door shutting, but as one opening. Maybe she should too.

She nodded. “Thank you.”

And then she exited the limo.


Excerpted from The Bold and the Beautiful: Forbidden Affair by Amy Andrews. Copyright © 2014 by Amy Andrews.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Bold and the Beautiful: Collision Course by Shannon Curtis – Extract

The Bold and the Beautiful: Collision Course

Chapter One

I can do this.

Taylor adjusted the leather strap of her handbag and stepped out of the elevator. I can do this. She walked down the hallway, her chin high. She was here to see her son, and she wasn’t going to worry about running into Eric. No, today the focus was on Thomas, not her former partner—the man who’d recently broken her heart. She was coping. She was strong. She could face Eric now and not die a little inside.

She rounded the corner, a serene smile pasted on her face. Pam, Eric’s secretary, glanced up from her whispered squabble with her co-worker Donna Logan and froze when she met Taylor’s eyes.

“Taylor!” Pam exclaimed as she stood. Donna turned, and Taylor watched the woman quickly mask her surprise and—was that pity?—with a professional smile as she, too, rose.

“Hi, Taylor, how are you?” Donna asked softly, smoothing her hands over her dark pencil skirt.

“I’m good, thank you, Donna.” Taylor inclined her head, proud of the normal tone she’d managed. She smiled at Pam, who was staring at her as though she was a new game on The Price is Right that didn’t make any sense.

“What are you doing here?” Pam blurted.

“I just thought I’d pop in and say hello to Thomas.” Taylor’s son would probably be just as surprised as Pam by her visit. She usually saw Thomas at home, or at a restaurant. Her visits to the Forrester offices had dwindled after her breakup with Eric. Donna’s smile brightened. “Would you like me to get him for you?”

Taylor shook her head. “Thank you, Donna. I know my way around.”

Pam frowned, then said, “Uh, would you like a lemon bar?” She reached for the pretty porcelain plate on the desk without taking her eyes off Taylor, and knocked over Donna’s steaming mug of coffee.

Donna shrieked as the hot liquid spilled over the desk and onto her skirt. “Pam! You klutz.”

Pam watched as Donna tried to mop at the mess of her outfit, her lips lifting in a smirk. “Relax, Donna. Or should I call you Hot Pants?”

“You did it on purpose,” Donna wailed.

Taylor left them to their squabbling, a tilt to her lips. No matter what Brooke Logan did to leave her mark on Forrester Creations, apparently some things never changed.

She tapped on Thomas’s door, and entered at his call.

“Mom, hey,” Thomas said, his face immediately wreathed in a welcoming smile. And just like that, Taylor relaxed. Somebody was happy to see her. She closed her eyes as Thomas embraced her, holding her to his tall frame for a moment.

“What are you doing here?” he asked as he stepped back. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see you, I just wasn’t expecting your visit.” His blue eyes narrowed. “Did we have a lunch date? Did I forget?”

Taylor shook her head. “No, Thomas, we didn’t. Since when do I need an excuse to see my own son?” She sank into the armchair, resting her handbag in her lap. “So tell me, how have you been? What have you been up to?”

“We’ve been working on the Hope for the Future line. You should see it, Mom, it’s like nothing we’ve done before. Admittedly, when Rick did the first rebranding exercise I wasn’t convinced, but there’s no denying we’ve picked up new buyers, and the change in scope is—refreshing.”

Taylor arched an eyebrow. “Do I hear praise for Rick coming from your mouth?”

Thomas chuckled. “I won’t go that far, but I will say that the new designs are exciting. Here, let me show you what I’ve been working on.”

He leaned over his desk and picked up his sketchpad. “Taking the Hope for the Future line to new markets has given it a bit of an urban tribe feel. I’m exploring different cultures for styles and fabrics—check this out.” He opened the pad up to reveal a sketch of a dress. Taylor gasped. The flowing lines, the asymmetrical layering, the vibrant colors—it looked both exotic and elegant, different and quite beautiful.

“It’s stunning, Thomas,” she said, smiling. Thomas showed her more of his designs.

“See here, I saw a similar pattern on an African shawl. I had to draw it. Using it as a shift, giving it length, it just draws the eye down the figure. And here, this one where I’ve used a kimono sleeve on this silk tunic …”

His blue eyes sparkled as he talked about his inspiration for one garment after another, and she shook her head in amazement. He had such a talent. Different than his father’s, but there was still a boldness in the classic lines, a fluidity and grace that was unique to the Forrester Creations brand. Brooke might be prancing around the boardroom in her ridiculous underwear, but ultimately it would be Thomas, Taylor and Ridge’s son, who would carry on the legacy of the Forrester name.

“These are beautiful, Thomas. Stunning.” Thomas smiled briefly. “Thanks. I just hope Rick and Grandpa agree.”

A soft knock interrupted their conversation, and Taylor glanced up to see Liam Spencer at the door. “Hey, Thomas. Taylor. I just brought some of the proofs of the Eye on Fashion spread for your new men’s collection to review,” Liam said, an apologetic smile on his face.

“Oh, great, I’ve been looking forward to this. I’ll go get Rick and Brooke for the meeting,” Thomas replied, then shot his mother a quick look.

Taylor rose, smiling. “That’s fine, Thomas. I just wanted to stop by for a few minutes. I’ll leave you two to get on with your work.”

Thomas gave her a hug. “I’d love to do lunch tomorrow, if that’s okay?”

“That would be lovely.” She would look forward to it, and hopefully it wouldn’t be a pity visit on his part, spending some time with poor, lonely Mom. He gave her a wave as he left his office in search of Brooke and Rick. Taylor’s grip tightened on her purse. She really didn’t want to run into Brooke. She was still angry at the woman’s machinations, and still raw at Eric’s defection. It was time to leave.

Taylor stepped toward the door, but halted when she reached Liam. She gazed at her former son-in-law. He was a handsome young man, with brown hair, brown eyes, and a neatly sculpted beard, but there were dark circles under his eyes and his jawline was more defined than usual. He looked drawn.

“How are you, Liam?” she asked, her voice soft with concern.

He hesitated, then smiled briefly. “I’m okay, Taylor.”

She arched an eyebrow. He did not look okay—and hadn’t since her daughter had left him. You didn’t need to be a psychiatrist to figure that out.

He sighed. “I’m okay,” he repeated. “I’m … getting there.”

She nodded. Her daughter, Steffy, had miscarried her and Liam’s first baby. The tragedy had rocked both the Spencer and Forrester clans. Nobody, though, had been more affected than Steffy.

“She’ll come around, Liam. She just needs some time,” Taylor whispered. “I still believe that, despite everything you two have experienced, you were meant to be together.”

“Yeah, well, it’s hard to be together when your wife leaves you and moves to the other side of the globe.”

Taylor rested her hand on his forearm. “You’ve both gone through such a traumatic event, Liam. I don’t agree with the way Steffy is dealing with it, but you and I both know Steffy is … unique—in many ways.”

Liam smiled sadly. “Yes, she certainly likes to do things differently.” He lifted his gaze to hers, and she sighed at the pain in his expression. “She shut me out, Taylor. I lost not only my baby, but my wife as well. I think the annulment states pretty clearly where we are in our relationship.”

She squeezed his arm. “I know, Liam, but I think Steffy chose to live in Paris with her father for a while to … well, to sort herself out. And when she does, she’ll come back. You’ll see. She’ll realize how good the two of you were together.” She smiled encouragingly. “Just—just don’t give up on her yet, okay?”

Liam shrugged. “I’m moving on, Taylor. I have to. If it was anyone other than Steffy, you’d tell me to do the same thing. I’ve got to let her go.”

Taylor sighed. “I guess I’m not ready to give up on you two, not yet. I want you both to be happy, and I remember a time when you were happy together. Obviously, though, now is not that time.”

She patted his arm and was about to leave when a thought flashed through her mind. “Oh, how is Bill doing?”

It had been all over the news, in the tabloids, online. The Spencer plane had crashed, with Bill on board. For two days he was missing, presumed dead, in the remote Rocky Mountains around Aspen. He’d eventually been found, with only minor injuries. Taylor pursed her lips. Not even a plane crash could dent the indomitable Dollar Bill Spencer.

Liam placed the folder and his iPad on Thomas’s desk and folded his arms. “Actually, Taylor, I’m glad you asked.”

Taylor arched an eyebrow. “Oh? He’s okay, isn’t he? I mean, I haven’t seen him since the accident, but all the reports said his injuries were only minor …” She hadn’t stopped by to see Bill, hadn’t visited him, called him or reached out to him. The last time they’d spoken, it wasn’t quite amicable—and that was an understatement. She fought off a wave of guilt. Steffy and Liam’s baby had been his grandchild, too. He’d been in a plane crash. She should have at least called him.

“No, no, he’s fine. Physically.”

Her gaze narrowed. “But emotionally? You think there is a problem?”

Liam cocked his head to the side. “Well, I don’t think he’s crazy.” He hesitated, and she realized they were both remembering some of the outrageous stunts Bill had pulled in the past. “Well, no more than usual. No, I mean—he’s … changed.”

“That’s to be expected, Liam,” Taylor said. “Your father was in a plane crash. It has to be one of the most frightening, traumatic events a person could live through. Sometimes, when people face a near-death experience, it forces them to reevaluate things.” She shrugged. “It will have an impact on him, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, I understand that.” Liam nodded. “Sure. It’s just that—I don’t know how to describe it,” he said, shrugging. “He’s different. Even Wyatt’s noticed, and I wouldn’t describe my half-brother as sensitive.”

Taylor didn’t bother to hide her skepticism. “Different? How?”

Liam sighed. “Would you—would you mind talking to him?” He rubbed his chin.

“You want me to talk to him, you mean, as a psychiatrist?” Being at Forrester Creations must be bringing forth all of her nightmares at once. She hadn’t really spoken to Bill since his wife—and her patient—Katie, had left him. Or rather, since she’d exposed Bill’s adulterous affair with his sister-in-law. At a party. In front of everyone. Bill had not been happy.

Talking to him now would be—awkward. “Yeah. If you could,” he said.

“Well, I can, I’m just not sure Bill would want to,” she said. It wasn’t that Bill was the shy or quiet type; she doubted he’d ever experienced either of those states. It was that Bill didn’t hold back. He could be direct to the point of brutal. He said what he had to say, and everyone else just had to deal with it. Although she’d noticed he wasn’t really receptive when that approach was used on him. She’d been on the receiving end of a few of his conversations.

She reached into her handbag for a business card. “He could come and see me at my office, if he’d like …” she suggested, but Liam shook his head.

“See, that wouldn’t work,” he said. He swallowed. “Would you see him? At his office? Please?” He clasped his hands together, as though in prayer.

Was he begging?

“Well, I can swing by on my way back to the office,” she said slowly. Her next appointment wasn’t until three o’clock. She had plenty of time. “It’s just a little unorthodox, Liam.”

Liam nodded. “Oh, I understand, and I really appreciate you doing it,” he said in a rush.

“Okay. Well, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Great. Thanks, Taylor.”

She walked toward the door and tried not to drag her feet. She really didn’t want to talk to Bill Spencer.

“Oh, and Taylor?” She turned. “Yes?”

“Can you not mention this conversation to my dad? Or anyone else?”

Her brows drew together in confusion. “Actually, can you not mention anything about talking, or counseling, or therapy?” Her frown deepened.

“Just … just pretend you’re dropping in for a friendly chat. And that you’re not there as a shrink.”

Taylor shook her head as she left her son’s office. Pretend not to be a shrink. If anyone on God’s green earth needed a shrink, it was Bill Spencer. The man was—she shook off a shiver—dangerous. That was the best word she could think of to describe him. Dangerous.

Bill Spencer had an indefinable quality, a determination that she’d seen in other successful tycoons—she’d married a Forrester, after all—but in Bill, well, it manifested itself as a ruthless drive that was all-encompassing and exhausting. He was highly competitive and uncensored, with a devil-may-care attitude and a roguish charm. He certainly was an attractive man. She could understand why the Logan sisters were drawn to him like moths to a flame. All that power could be intoxicating—if you liked that sort of thing. She preferred an equal partnership, with trust and mutual respect. Oh, along with honesty and loyalty. They were important, too.

The sound of clicking heels was quickly followed by Brooke Logan rounding the corner with her son, Rick Forrester. The usurper. Thomas brought up the rear.

Taylor immediately chided herself. Rick wasn’t the usurper. He had as much right to be working at Forrester Creations as Thomas. Some would argue even more so, as he was the true blood son of the fashion magnate, Eric Forrester. Thomas, on the other hand, was the son of her former husband, Ridge. It had been a shock to everyone, not least of all Eric and Ridge, to discover that Ridge was, in fact, not Eric’s biological son.

Rick and Thomas may not share any blood, and may not share the same vision for Forrester Creations, but there was no denying they were equally passionate about honoring the Forrester name and making it flourish.

Taylor’s gaze narrowed on the blonde by Rick’s side. This woman, on the other hand, was totally deserving of the title “usurper”.

“Taylor. I wasn’t expecting to see you here,” Brooke said, not bothering to hide her surprise.

And I wasn’t expecting to see you wearing more than your underwear, Taylor thought. “There seems to be a lot of that going around,” she said.

Brooke tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ear. “Was there something you wanted?” she asked.

Taylor arched an eyebrow. To scratch your eyes out, perhaps? She smiled, saccharine-sweet. “No. I merely thought I’d pop in and see Thomas.” She nodded at Rick. “Good morning, Rick.”

“Taylor,” he said quietly, eyeing the two women cautiously.

“Oh? Were you planning on seeing Eric, too?” Brooke asked. “He’s not here, he’s on a business trip in Genoa City.”

Taylor kept her smile in place, although her eyelids flickered in an effort to mask the sharp shard of pain that pierced her heart. It was perhaps Eric’s betrayal that had hurt the most. The whispers and secrets he’d shared with Brooke, the protection he’d offered her … the kisses they’d exchanged.

Yes, honesty and loyalty were now very high on her list for desirable Mr. Right attributes. “No, I was just on my way out.”

Oh, heavens, she’d felt so brave, so strong coming in, but now that she stood face-to-face with Brooke, she just wanted to run. Either that or rant and scream, maybe even hit the woman. She shifted the strap of her handbag, just to give her hands something to do other than sweat—or hit Brooke. She locked her trembling knees in place. She would not crumble.

“Oh, well, we won’t keep you, then,” Brooke said stiffly, and shifted to the side in an unspoken gesture of dismissal.

Taylor’s lips faltered, and she ducked her head as she walked past the woman, continuing down the hall to the elevators. It wasn’t until she was safely ensconced in the elevator, doors shut, that she let the tears roll down her cheeks. Coming to Forrester Creations had been a mistake. She felt more whipped than warrior.

*****

Bill scowled at his assistant. “Is this the best you can do?” He tossed the report onto his desk in disgust.

“I’m sorry, Bill. I don’t create the figures, I merely collate them,” protested Alison.

“You’re my assistant, Alison. Don’t you think it would have been nice to get a warning on a decline in circulation? You know, assist?” First their online forums started talking about another company’s magazines, then some of their advertisers had pulled campaigns in favor of this new company, Fashion Buzz, and now circulation was dropping. It didn’t take a genius to realize something had to change before he lost too much market share. He was top dog in the fashion publications sector, and he wasn’t planning on budging.

“But I—you—” She raised her hands in the air and stood. “Look, you have the report now. You can see the figures. Would you like me to schedule a meeting with the New York office?”

Katie and Will were in New York. He swung his chair around to stare out the window, blind to the view. That would mean flying to the Big Apple. He clenched the chair’s armrests. That would mean getting on a plane. He couldn’t do it.

But he really wanted to see his young son. He also needed to meet with his New York team. “Make it a video conference.” He’d ask Katie to bring Will over for a visit.

“Are you sure? We could also schedule some meetings with some of the advertisers there, especially some of the designer brands.”

“Video conference.” His grip tightened on the leather.

“But this would be a good opportunity to get face time with some of our accounts, possibly—” “I said video conference. If the accounts want face time, they can video conference, too.” He whirled in his chair. “Or better yet, maybe some of the New York team could get in front of our clients themselves. Hell, that’s why we have a team in New York. So that I don’t have to do everything myself.”

Alison gaped at him for a moment, her expression pale. She nodded stiffly. “Fine. I’ll schedule the VC and forward you the details.” She crossed to his door. He noticed her raised shoulders, and bit back a sigh. She should know by now a thick skin was needed to work with him.

“Tell them I’ll want an action plan drafted for the call, and it better be a good one,” he said.

Alison opened the door and Bill saw a woman standing there, her hand raised as though to knock.

He groaned. “What the hell do you want, Taylor?”

Taylor’s deep blue eyes rounded, and he realized he’d been more terse than necessary, but jeez, this was one woman he didn’t want darkening his door.

“Uh, I just thought I’d drop in,” she said, her tone soft, almost hesitant.

“Well, you can just drop the hell out again.”

Alison brushed by her, and Bill didn’t miss the reassuring pat the woman gave Taylor’s arm. Traitor.

Taylor walked into his office and closed the door behind her. He sighed. Apart from his ex-wife Katie, Taylor was the only one who seemed to ignore his commands. In any other woman, he’d find the attribute admirable. Not Taylor, though. This woman had ruined his marriage.

“I just thought I’d say hi.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “I’d almost believe that, if we were on speaking terms. But we’re not, so say whatever the hell it is you came here to say, and then get the hell out.”

Taylor nodded, her lips pursed. Bill forced himself to look away from them. The woman had voluptuous lips. It was one of the first things he’d ever noticed about her—her deep blue eyes, her pouty lips. She had the figure and beauty that could grace one of his magazine covers. And then she’d ruined the image by speaking her mind.

He leaned back in his chair. “Why are you here?”

She walked to the chair in front of his desk and took a seat, crossing one shapely leg over the other. “I realized I hadn’t really talked to you since—”

“Since you broke up my marriage?” he interrupted, baring his teeth in a parody of a smile.

She frowned, and her lips pursed further. He forced his gaze up to her eyes.

“Actually, I was about to say since the plane crash. I—I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

He held up his hands and waggled his fingers. “I’m all in one piece, as you can see. Thanks for the visit. See you.” He pointed to the door.

“Really? You’re fine?” She leaned forward in her chair, and he noticed how the sapphire-blue silk neckline of her top draped, just a little. He told himself that in his line of work, he always noticed clothing. He also noticed she’d ignored his instruction to leave. Again.

“After everything that’s happened, you feel fine? I mean, if you wanted to talk about it …”

Bill smirked. “Trust me, Taylor. If I wanted to talk about my feelings, you’d be the last person I’d choose.”

She nodded. “Oh, I fully understand. I know, though, for instance, that you not only lost a grandchild recently, as did I,” she said, and he watched her hand gesture gracefully between them, “but you recently lost your own baby with Brooke.” He noticed her tiny wince at that mention. “And then you went through a horrific crash. I can only imagine that would leave some … emotional scars.”

He kept his expression still as he stared at her. Did she know what he was going through, now? He rose from his desk and went to the bar in his office. He kept his back to her as he poured himself a scotch, hiding his shaking fingers.

“I’m fine.” He couldn’t sleep, he had the shakes, and he was fighting a feeling of overwhelming panic. But he was fine. He would be fine.

He turned as he took a sip of the amber liquid, relishing the warmth as it spread down to his core, as though maybe that could fight the chill he constantly felt inside.

“Can I offer you a beverage?” he asked, an inner demon grabbing hold of him.

“You know I don’t drink liquor,” she answered softly, her gaze narrowed. “And I’m surprised you’re drinking now. It’s not even midday.”

“Yes, well, I know you managed to convince my ex-wife that I had a drinking problem, but I don’t. I’m totally in control. And I drink whatever I like, whenever I like.” He was in control. He strolled back over to his desk, putting some distance between himself and this woman who noticed too much. He gazed out the window.

“How often do you drink, Bill?”

The words were softly spoken, gently delivered, but he stiffened. “Well, I can still hear you, so apparently not often enough.”

A dark shape fluttering in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He turned his head and froze.

A bird.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the bird flying straight for the window. He flung up his arms to protect his head as the bird smashed into the glass, raining shards of prickling pain all over his arms and shoulders. Wind tore at him, the broken glass felt like the grasping claws of a bird of prey, and he fought against the force that was pulling him closer to the gaping hole in the building.


Excerpted from The Bold and the Beautiful: Collision Course by Shannon Curtis. Copyright © 2014 by Shannon Curtis.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Calm: No Matter What by Paul Wilson – Extract

Calm: No Matter What

Calm and equilibrium that sticks

Have you ever spent a few weeks in total relaxation? On a peaceful, away-from-it-all holiday, for instance? Or on a meditation retreat where there was nothing else to do but meditate, gaze at your navel, and eat healthy foods?

You come away from it feeling like a new person. Strong, energised, full of ideas, ready to take on the world. You look around and previously insignificant little details of nature, like the yellowing leaves on a tree, seem uncommonly beautiful. There’s something deeply reassuring about those leaves: seasons come and go, the world renews, life moves on, stuff like that. For some reason even the same air seems fresher. And that apple tastes like . . . wow, have you ever tasted such a delicious apple?

Maybe you can recall what happened next.

At the first traffic snarl on the way back from the airport or the retreat centre, twinges of edginess return. It’s okay, though. They just remind you of how you might have felt at another time. Then you pull into your street and discover someone has parked across your driveway, blocking your entrance. The edginess becomes more pronounced but you cope, because you have this great reservoir of I’ve-been-away-from-it-all peacefulness to sustain you.

Even the next morning when the alarm fails to sound, you are still coping. Same when you get stuck in the queue at the bus stop, and when the elevator gets jammed between floors at work. This getting-away-from-it-all is powerful stuff. You know the world is testing you, however. So all day long you cling to your calm feeling with all your might. You purposely slow down when the rest of the world is determined to race, you speak softly when others want to shout, you struggle to think positive thoughts when others are complaining. And just as you are thinking you might be able to pull it off, an incompetent workmate lets you down badly. Crash. In an instant, all that good work has gone. In its place is not only unrest and disharmony, but disappointment. By the end of the day you’re back to ‘normal’. It is as if you’ve never been away.

How does peacefulness evaporate so quickly? You start the week feeling calm and together, certain that you will be able to hold onto that feeling for ages to come, yet within a day or so it’s disappeared. As if you had never even done the course. Most people who take restorative breaks come to the same realisation: the benefits are fleeting. The beauty fades, the peacefulness frays, the insights seem remote and all that space you thought was there seems to evaporate.

Calm: No Matter What is about making these qualities last. Not just for a few hours or days, or for a particular phase you are going through, but for your whole life. Right up until your very last breath.

Although it’s not our primary intention, the attention-grabbing part of what follows is the way it helps you to overcome setbacks and problems. It won’t prevent them, of course, but it can certainly lessen their impact. You’ll be better able to deal with pressure when you’re fortified by a composure and centredness that always keeps you on track. You’ll be able to bounce right back if you go off the rails at any time. When challenges come along, now you will have the ability to respond in the most constructive way. When disaster strikes, you will be able to get back to normal (the new normal) much faster than would otherwise be the case. And when things appear at their bleakest, you will have this inner stillness to call on, which will help you through.

For this to work you need a foundation of calm and stability that you can tap into at any time: not only when you want to feel relaxed, but when you’re active and under the pump.

Peace of mind in today’s world

Everyone has a theory as to why the world is restless and stressful. And why unhappiness, dissatisfaction, depression and other mental health issues are on the rise. Some say it’s because we lack spiritual resources. Or discipline. Or moral fibre. Or a sense of community. Others say we’re being too introspective. Or our values are changing. And some insist that this is the price we have to pay to survive in an ever-more-competitive world.

Maybe there is substance to these theories. Maybe the world is more stressful. Maybe we are feeling more anxious and depressed. Maybe some organic or spiritual change is producing all those mental health issues that concern us. On the other hand, maybe not.

There is also a strong possibility that the world is pretty much as it has always been, and we are just looking at it differently. It’s possible that it is just being presented to us in a different way, and we’re receiving more troubling news than we used to. It’s also possible that mental health issues are as they have always been, and we are just observing or measuring them differently.

It doesn’t really matter one way or the other, because you can’t change the world, the people around you or, for the most part, even the immediate issues that cause you pain. All you can change is the way you look at things. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Every self-help promoter in the universe seems to be peddling the same story. The problem with that claim, though, is that it’s only fantasy for most of us. We can’t change the way we view things. Our mental habits are too ingrained.

Now consider this: what if there was a way of developing a continuous sense of inner calm and stability without having to learn anything new or change anything old? What if there was a way of insulating yourself from life’s pressures and setbacks so you would recover from them quickly and not suffer any long-lasting pain? What if there was a way of experiencing a deep level of contentment that didn’t require any change in your behaviour or the way you look at things?

You’ll be pleased to know there is. That’s what this book is about. And most remarkable of all, what I propose involves no effort on your part. It requires commitment, for sure, but no effort.

How are you feeling right now?

The impatient side of you might like to be able to turn the page and read about a little routine that instantly transforms the way you feel: from feeling uptight and scratchy to feeling peaceful and contented, in an instant. Or from feeling jaded and lethargic to feeling enthusiastic and full of wonder. Also in an instant. While they may seem like attractive propositions, and are achievable, they won’t serve you as well as what I am about to share. At least not in the longer term. Because those transformations are only about feelings.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ you may think. ‘If he could help me feel calm and relaxed, I’d be on cloud nine.’ Feeling calm is relatively easy to achieve. Making it sustainable is another story. However, I want to take you further than what you feel. There are reasons for this. First, emotions are transient: whatever you are feeling will eventually morph into another feeling. Second, feelings are unreliable: they can be manipulated, overwhelmed by circumstances, and are nowhere near as logical as some psychologists pretend. The third reason is the most intriguing: it is possible for you to experience your own emotions more objectively than is generally thought – actually witnessing them arise and fade – without being bound to them, and without being unnecessarily influenced by them. The method covered in the second part of this book can enable this.

Feelings have a role to play because they help determine what you see as the quality of your existence. If at any given moment you are feeling unloved, anxious, tense, overworked, unhappy, afraid, depressed, sad, disappointed, jealous, angry, confused, embarrassed, unappreciated, wronged, dissatisfied or frustrated, you will rate your quality of life as relatively bleak. No matter what rational assessment you come up with, no matter how optimistic your attitude was at other times, right then you would consider life to be gloomy.

And if you were to experience a succession of such feelings – say feeling unappreciated which led to you feeling angry, and that leading to regret, which led to shame, which turned into fear, which drew you into a depressed like state – your life would seem even gloomier still. This is not an exaggeration; how often do negative feelings seem to be following on from one another, even when things have been going well?

The self-help people assure you that you can change the way you feel, but we all know that there are times when you don’t have the presence of mind to do anything other than hang on and see where it takes you.

Now I want to present you with an alternative, a direct contrast to the negative states above. This time we’re not talking about a feeling as such – at least not one that is easy to describe like joy or confidence – but more a state of mind or a quality of life. It is called equanimity.

In the classic sense equanimity means inner calmness and composure, particularly in challenging situations. Wikipedia describes it as being ‘a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may [upset] others’.

In some Eastern teachings equanimity is described as being one of the four sublime states (the other three being kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy). Think of it as a quiet contentedness; a sense that, no matter what is going on around you, all is okay or turning out okay. When equanimity is present, everything feels perfect.

With a foundation of calm and equanimity, you are a powerful person. It doesn’t matter what feelings you are experiencing because you are aware of their transience. They come, they go, but you continue with the sense that all is okay. Deep down you are certain that everything is okay.

Before we move on from feelings, there is one more thought I want to leave you with. You will feel more peaceful and together as a result of using the process in the pages ahead. Take that as a given. Yet this is only a byproduct. The process is designed for something deeper and more fundamental than what you feel. We’re aiming for a bedrock of calm and order that you will be able to depend on, no matter what challenges arise, no matter what you may be feeling at any particular moment. And, all things being equal, you’ll be able to depend on this for the rest of your life.

The time and place to find equanimity

Here is an easy choice you can make that will ensure whether your experience of the world is positive or negative, peaceful or restless. That choice is where you direct your attention.

Although this is not quite as straightforward as choosing whether to look at the vase of flowers or the garbage bin, the choice I’m going to point out is many times more effective. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity; it works.

Most restlessness and all negative frames of mind relate to either the past or the future, not to the present. Negative emotions such as fear and anxiety are future-based; they relate to what may happen. And negative emotions like regret and disappointment are past-based; they relate to what has happened. Future tense, past tense. No exceptions. What both have in common is that they are conceptual, existing only in your thoughts, with no concrete reality of their own. So as long as you avoid thinking forwards or backwards (which you can’t do forever, obviously), you will avoid negative emotions. And, in the main, you will avoid restlessness.

Contrasting this is what occurs when all of your attention is fixed on the present. For a start, those negative frames of mind vanish. Gone. Next, the positive frames of mind that I have been writing about – stillness, peace of mind, clarity and equanimity – spring to life. If you quieten your thoughts and just experience the present, those qualities are automatically there. But the moment you start thinking about what’s happening, comparing or trying to evaluate it, it’s gone again. Because, by trying to get your head around what you are experiencing, you move away from the present.

Not everything to do with the past or future involves negative emotions – for example, you can have pleasing memories about past events and you can have uplifting thoughts about what you are planning to do in the future – but negative emotions cannot exist when your attention is focused on the present.

At any given moment you get to choose the attributes that determine your quality of existence. You can direct your thoughts to the past or future, with the restlessness that entails, or you can direct your attention to the present and experience calm and equilibrium. These are your options: tension on one side, peacefulness on the other. Choose.

I bet you’re thinking that commonsense and reason could play a more important role here. For example, if someone knows certain mental behaviours produce restlessness or undesired emotions, surely they can avoid this by modifying the mental behaviours. Here are the two things I know about such an ambition: (a) most people believe they have this ability; and (b) most people don’t have this ability.

Ask any advertising researcher. Consumer interviewees invariably insist that their rationality will overcome any emotional impulses they might experience, yet they respond emotionally almost every time. This is why some people pay ten times as much for a Ferrari as they do for a Toyota. And why others pay ten times as a much for one brand of eyeliner versus another. And why people still take up smoking. And it may even be why someone who is feeling depressed about their weight chooses to eat ice-cream rather than apples.

Not convinced? Here’s a little test for you: what motivates people to go to work each day? You think there’s a logical answer. Surely the motivation is to earn money so they can satisfy their basic human needs for food, shelter and so on. But a recent study of over 10,000 working people revealed that the primary motivator was not financial, but emotional: the feeling of advancing towards a meaningful goal.

It’s possible that you have the rare ability to overrule what you are feeling by applying reason – but just in case you do not, or that ability fails you some days, I have something more powerful you can use. We’ll come to this shortly.

Understanding the present

Now you have a fairly conventional explanation of what you experience in the present. When your attention is focused here your experiences, emotions, relationships and appreciation of the world are at their most fulfilling. Everything falls into place. You feel complete.

Perhaps there have been times when you thought that is exactly where you were – in the present – yet didn’t experience anything like what I described. The critical word there is ‘thought’. What you think has an influence over what you experience. Let me explain.

If you view the present as most people do – thinking that ‘this moment’ and ‘now’ have a relationship with the passage of time – you will always be looking for that gap between past and future. As logical as that seems, the present cannot found there. Why not? Logic tells you that time is linear, stretching out behind and ahead (before and after), with the future becoming the present becoming the past. According to this view, ‘now’ is something like an infinitesimally brief interval that’s constantly updating itself. Logic may even suggest that you can string together millions of little nanosecond ‘now’ moments to create one continuous present. But you can’t rationalise the present like that, you can only experience it. Any direct effort to grasp it in some way takes you further and further away from it.

(Yes, I am aware that I, too, have associated the present with time by comparing it with past and future. I apologise for this shortcoming of language.)

Maybe you have a more sophisticated viewpoint than the one just outlined, perhaps having come to the understanding that this moment has no relationship with time. You think you’re on the right path here, but all you’ve done is come to the second obstacle, the one that relates to knowledge.

If you are relying on what you know as ‘the present’, you will always be trying to align what you are experiencing with what you think it should be. That’s an impediment to your experiencing it. Indeed, every thought and concept that is in your head right now is an obstacle. If you think that the present is something that can be understood, rather than a reality to be experienced, you face an obstacle. If you think you have some control over the process that brings the present to you, or you to it, you face an obstacle. Same, too, if you think there is anything you can do to summon it, or if you think that you can learn how to be present, or think you can perform this practice called mindfulness. Even the subtlest notion that you have any say in what is happening or what’s going to happen is an impediment.

The challenge for now is just to accept that we’re dealing with something that has no intellectual, psychological or emotional component. I’ve been referring to it as an experience, but it’s not an experience of something: it is just pure, unmediated awareness.

You will be pleased to know that coming up is a process that brings this to life.

By the way, if you find this whole topic of past-future-present a bit perplexing, don’t lose sleep over it. Meanings and explanations have nothing to do with it.


Excerpted from Calm: No Matter What by Paul Wilson. Copyright © 2014 by Paul Wilson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Wind is not a River by Brian Payton – Extract

The Wind is not a River

ONE

April 1, 1943

When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him. He sees instead a seamless sheet of sky gone gray from far too many washings. He blinks twice, then focuses on the tiny black specks drifting across the clouds. They pass through his field of vision wherever he turns to look. Last winter, the doctor pronounced them floaters. Said that by Easley’s age, thirty-­eight, plenty of people had them. Little bits of the eyeball’s interior lining had come free and were swimming inside the jelly. What Easley actually sees are not the specks themselves, but the shadows they cast as they pass over his retina. To avoid their distraction, the doctor advised him to refrain from staring at a blank page, the sky, or snow. These are his first conscious thoughts on the island of Attu.

He sits up straight. When he does, it feels as if his head has a momentum all its own, as if it wants to continue its upward trajectory. A dull pain jabs his ribs. He places bare hands in the snow to keep from keeling over. The parachute luffs out behind him—a jaundiced violation against the otherwise perfect white. Fog so thick he can’t see the end of the silk. For a moment, he is anxious it might catch a breeze and drag him farther upslope.

Planes whine and circle overhead, unseen.

Easley flexes his hands. The gloves were ripped away by the velocity of the fall. He gazes down his long legs and moves his boots from side to side. He slides the flight cap from his head, runs fingers through his hair, checks for signs of blood. Finding none, he unclips the harness, rolls over on his stomach, pushes himself up. He is, unaccountably, alive and whole. And so it begins.

The fog is better than an ally; it is a close, personal friend. It covers his mistakes and spreads its protective wing over him, allowing him to escape detection. But it also separates him from the crew, if indeed anyone else has survived. Then a red flash of memory: an airman’s lapel suddenly blooms like a boutonnière before the man’s head slumps forward and lolls.

Not far downslope, the snow gives way to an empty field that spreads off into the mist. Yard­long blades of last year’s ryegrass are brown, laid flat from the full weight of winter. Easley returns to the parachute, gathers it up, hastily shoves it back into its pack. It does not go willingly. He hoists the pack onto his shoulders, winces at the pain in his side, then stands defiantly erect, wondering what to do.

The occasional report of Japanese antiaircraft fire begins to define space. Between distant bursts—five, ten miles?—is the nearby cascade of breakers. But like staring into deep water, the fog misdirects, distorts. Within the hundred­-yard range of visibility, there is no cover. He is fully, completely exposed. He unshoulders the pack and uses it as a seat.

He stares at the backs of his hands, which have gone pink with the cold. Lately they have been putting him in mind of his father. They are no longer the hands of a young man, clear and smooth. Suddenly it seems as if every pore and vein reveal themselves. A topography of thin lines and faded scars.

John Easley was all of seven years old when he let go of his brother’s sticky hand in London’s Victoria Station. They had arrived from Vancouver, by way of Montreal, only the day before, destined to spend the next eight months in a tiny flat as their father advanced his engineering credentials. John would have responsibilities. For the moment, however, while their mother was off searching for a job and their father stood in line for tickets to the Underground, John’s only task was to remain on the bench and watch over three­-year-­old Warren. But those magnificent trains easing into and out of the station drew him like a spell. He is sure he had his brother’s hand when he first wandered down the concourse, just as he knows that he was the one who let go.

The guilt came on like a fever. After all these years he can feel it still. He turned round, but the benches, the platforms all looked the same. There were numerous toddlers from which to choose, each firmly attached to other families. What started as a trot turned into a sprint, out of the station and into the conviction that it was already too late. Adrenaline gave way nausea, then dizziness overtook him.

He awoke to a ring of female faces and the vague idea that he had risen from the dead. But his father soon appeared, cradling his brother Warren, his face twisted and pale. He thanked the women and grabbed John by the upper arm. Once a discreet distance away from the scene, he set Warren down on the pavement, then turned to his eldest son. “How could you leave your brother? Where on earth did you think you were going?” Then, for the first and only time, Easley watched his father break down. Unwilling to let anyone see him cry, he reached up with both big hands and covered his face in shame.

Antiaircraft fire grows sporadic then stops altogether. The wind begins to stir. Easley rises and stares into the mist. He makes his way downhill two hundred yards, off the last patch of snow and onto flattened rye. The terrain, soft and spongy underfoot, slopes toward the beach. Not a single tree presents itself, no bush of any description.

A small stream bisects his path. Less than a yard across, it snakes through the weathered grass. Easley lies down on his stomach with his head above the water. He puts his lips to the cold little stream and drinks so deep his head begins to ache. When the pain subsides, he drinks again as if he hasn’t seen water in days.

He pushes himself up and notices a glimmer in the current, a suggestion of reflected sun. A gust blows the fur­lined collar of the flight suit against his cheek, then lays it down again. The far­-off scream of an arctic tern is followed, strangely, by what sounds like a cough. Easley spins around. He now has perhaps a hundred feet of visibility and that is improving rapidly. The farther he sees, the more he realizes how completely exposed he is. No stump or boulder to duck behind, no ditch to conceal him. His heart trips a beat. Easley strains to hear the cough again but detects only the breaking of waves. He stands with thumbs hooked in the straps of his harness, at a loss for what to do.

And then he turns to see a rift open up in the fog. Like endless curtains parting, the rift widens and moves his way, brightening the land, warming the air on approach. Finally, the sheet splits open and the sun spills down directly overhead. It is such a miraculous thing that he forgets, for a moment, that he is behind enemy lines.

The opening extends down the slope and onto the beach. He can make out the waves’ pealing white under pale blue sky. As the opening expands and liberates more and more terrain, Easley hears the faint cough again and stares through the vapor for its source. Unarmed, he can only watch as a form takes shape near the edge of the beach. Japanese? A member of the crew? It is clear that the man has seen him. Easley doesn’t know whether to raise his hands or run.

The fog slips like satin from the slopes of a dormant volcano, revealing a frigid beauty. All is laid bare in the bold relief of the rare Aleutian sun—patches of white, tan husk of last year’s grass, blood blue North Pacific. When Easley recognizes the lone figure, he stifles the urge to shout for joy. He unhooks his thumb from the harness, raises his hand, and waves.

A fresh bust of anti-aircraft fire and they both buckle at the knees.

Then, just as swiftly as it began, the fog stalls its retreat. Like a wave racing down a beach to the sea, it hesitates, reverses course, then comes flooding back again. They walk toward each other in the gathering mist, the preceding color and light now seeming like a dream. They approach each other with widening grins, like they’re the only ones in on the joke. And when they meet, they hug long and hard, like men who had cheated death together—like men convinced the worst is behind them.

*****

The boy, Karibitburg, is spent. Easley realizes he is soaked to the skin as soon as they embrace. The boy stands smiling, shivering. Easley guesses him to be no more than nineteen years of age and finds himself doubting he’ll ever see twenty.

“Find anyone else?” The boy speaks in a lonesome drawl.

“No. You come down in the water?”

“About thirty yards from shore. Got out, as quick as I could, and hauled in the silk. Hid it under a rock over there.” The boy nods down the beach. “Don’t think any Japs ever saw. They’re clear on the far side of the ridge.”

It was only luck, Easley says, that he himself landed on shore. The fog was so thick he only saw what was coming seconds before his feet hit the ground. He saw no other parachutes and completely lost track of the plane. As Easley tells his tale, he observes the boy shake and considers—for the very first time—the true power of the cold and wet arrayed against them. The boy’s face is bloodless and pale, his stature weighed down. He looks nothing like the cocky, pumped­ up kid Easley met two days before.

“We should search for the others,” the boy announces. “We need to dry you off.”

“We find my goddamn friends. That’s what we do.” The boy stands a little taller, sticks out his chin. “I know those guys. I live with those guys. You’re just along for the ride.”

“We don’t get you dried off and stop your shivering, you’ll be dead by morning.”

Seeing the boy pulls Easley out of the daze he’s been wandering in, presenting a point of focus. It also gives him his first real notion of a future since touching down on the patch of snow.

“Airman first class,” the boy says, declaring his rank. “You’re not even supposed to be here. I’m responsible ’til we find the lieutenant.”

“Suit yourself,” Easley says. “But now that the fog’s back we might want to make a fire, dry you off. Have somewhere to bring your friends—if there’s anyone left to find.” He can see that the boy wants to listen to reason. “Could be Japs on the lookout. We should find some kind of cover.”

“They might smell the smoke.”

“You get hypothermia out here, you’re finished.”

The boy puts his hands on his hips and looks into the fog. “My lighter’s soaked.”

Easley reaches into his pocket and finds his own shiny Zippo. He pulls it out, flips it open, snaps a sharp orange flame.

Driftwood is in short supply, dry wood is but a dream. Easley well knows not a single tree grows in the entire Aleutian Chain, the only wood available being tattered logs and branches pushed in from distant shores. The best pieces are found where beach gives way to sedge and rye, where rogue waves have reached up and pulled the earth out from under the tangle of roots. Beneath the resulting ledges, a few sticks and logs collect. This wood and withered grass provide kindling enough for a fire.

They locate a ravine just up from the high tide line. Soon the light will fail. The boy stands across the fire from Easley, stripped to the waist, holding his heavy shearling jacket over the flames.

The boy’s body is pale and wiry. He is of average height, somewhat shorter than Easley. Although he has the frame of an athlete, Easley reckons it won’t do him much good out here. The complete absence of fat is not encouraging. A new tattoo is etched on his shoulder: the anchor and eagle of the U.S. Navy. The mark of a warrior. It strikes Easley as ridiculous on the pale, helpless skin. It makes the boy look even younger. The soaked flight suit, his only real protection, will probably never dry.

Easley watches him shudder near the flames, then walks over beside him. He takes off his own flight jacket and puts it around his shoulders. The boy wraps himself in the warmth and nods with gratitude. Then Easley steps out of his leather flight pants and hands them over. This leaves Easley with cotton trousers, shirt, and jacket.

The boy slips off the rest of his wet clothes and pulls on Easley’s pants. Then, with trembling arms, he holds his wet drawers out over the fire. “I usually don’t get to flash the family jewels on the first date,” he says, “although I always give it a try.”

The ravine is less than ten feet deep, but it is enough to conceal the campfire light except, perhaps, from the mountains a few miles away, or directly out at sea. Things could be worse. They remain uninjured, the enemy seems unaware of their presence, and the boy is livening up by the minute. They will make it through the night.

When darkness falls, the fog clears and the stars shine defiantly.

The mountains loom purple-­black and the phosphorus ribbon of surf provides the only demarcation between darkened land and sea.

Easley feels the descending realization that they are only marking time. Six planes left on the bombing run. The Navy knows only which did not return. Perhaps one of the other gunners saw his plane crash into the frigid sea. He is convinced they will no longer be looking for them—not looking for him in particular. They are presumed drowned or captured. Each man who makes this run knows there is no hope of rescue. Back on the island of Adak, the boy’s comrades will count him and his crew as missing in action and lift a glass to their memory tonight. In a few weeks’ time, his parents will be handed a vague letter buttered in platitudes. Their son went beyond the call, fought with distinction.

Easley’s wife will receive no such correspondence. Helen will know by now that he has returned to Alaska, but even she won’t have imagined he’s made it all the way back to the Aleutians. Easley summons her elegant hands, her crooked smile, the soft hair at the back of her neck, but is left holding the guilt of having left her behind. He imagines her before the war, before everything changed, sitting by the roaring fire in her father’s house, bathed in warmth and light.

*****

Easley awakes to an aching rib. The boy is wedged against him, asleep in the parachute. The shelf of roots remains overhead, the sea did not invade. When the fire died down last night, they covered the coals, then sought shelter where they found wood at the high tide line. There was barely enough room for the two of them. Ignoring the protocol of keeping watch, they pulled out Easley’s silk, wrapped themselves up, and quickly fell asleep.

Easley turns his head and peers out into the blinding white. A pair of boots can been seen about a dozen yards away in the new accumulation of snow. A moment later, a thin yellow stream. Easley holds his breath. When the soldier finishes, he tramps across the beach and stares out to sea. He is soon joined by four more shuffling soldiers, all shooting glances back over the hills and peaks. They overlook the narrow hiding place. A mere two inches of snow has covered all previous tracks and indiscretions. The Japanese appear weary and bored. They don’t see a thing.

Easley reaches over, clamps his hand over the boy’s mouth and cheeks. The boy comes to with a start, meets Easley’s eyes, then slowly turns to look as the men light cigarettes, shift rifle slings from one shoulder to the other. When they disappear from view, Easley sighs and lies back down again.

“Damn.” The boy rubs his eyes. “Looks like you’re gettin’ more of a story than you bargained for.”

Story. The word strikes like an insult. Once the plane was aloft, the pilot announced that in fact they had themselves a newspaper­ man onboard. War correspondent, no less. It was high time the world started paying attention.

They lie silent, listening, watching as the day gains strength and the snow melts off the lip of their lair.

Easley’s first trip to the Territory of Alaska was nearly a year ago, on assignment for the National Geographic Magazine. He had traveled to the island of Atka, halfway across the eleven-­hundred­-mile chain, and stayed two weeks in spring, hiking the lush green hills of a place that, from the air at least, reminded him of Hawaii’s Molokai. Before this assignment, he was only vaguely aware of these islands’ existence. He interviewed shy but welcoming villagers and was invited to go fishing with them. He attended their Orthodox church, breathed in the incense and pageantry. He became fascinated by both the island’s natural and human history—the native and Russian braids of the people and their culture. He had happened upon a world little known and far removed.

But on June 3, 1942, just three days before Easley was scheduled to head for home, the Japanese launched a strike from light carriers and bombed Dutch Harbor Naval Base and Fort Mears Army Base, killing forty­-three men, incinerating ships and buildings. These out­ posts on Unalaska and Amaknak islands, near the Alaskan main­ land, were the only U.S. defenses in the Aleutian Archipelago. June 7 saw the U.S. victory at Midway. That same day, six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans learned that the Japanese Army had seized the islands of Kiska and Attu at the far end of the Aleutian Chain. Eleven days later, the U.S. Navy made a brief statement to the press downplaying events. Easley’s original assignment, a natural history article, was quickly set aside. When he finally arrived at Dutch Harbor, the place was still smoldering.

One of a half­-dozen journalists working in this new theater of war, Easley dutifully took official dispatches and fed them to eager newspaper editors back home. But then he started interviewing air­ men freshly returned from reconnaissance runs. He made notes on what they saw, rumors of how the Japanese were digging in. He care­ fully edited his own copy, excising anything he believed could com­ promise the troops, and yet the military censor drew thick black lines through most of the facts. He was left with copy that read:

enemy encampments at       reinforced under the cover of fog.          ships of the Japanese Imperial Navy were spotted in the            and attempting re-supply.          While planes and men have been lost to the aggressor, the biggest threats to our troops so far are the wind, wet and cold.

Soon the entire press corps was ordered out of Alaska—even though congressmen were now screaming for news from this far-­off stretch of American soil, news other than that broadcast by Tokyo Rose. But news from the Aleutians was now under the intense scru­tiny of the War Department, a matter of national security. As the flow of Alaskan information reduced to a trickle, American involvement in North Africa and Guadalcanal served to divert attention. And public information offices were still loudly trumpeting the victory at Midway.

Someone wants this battle fought beyond the view of prying eyes. What were they hiding in the Aleutians? If the Japanese were securing a base for attacks on the mainland, civilians in Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington State had a right to know and prepare. Easley was one of a handful of journalists with any knowledge of this corner of the world. What kind of writer shrinks from such a duty?

A few months later, against the warnings of his editors, friends, and Helen, Easley snuck back in with another journalist as a deck­ hand with the merchant marine. They never made it to the Aleutians, spending a week on Kodiak Island asking questions before the brass got wind. They were shipped south after a long interrogation and a warning that they could find themselves imprisoned under provisions of the Espionage Act. Next time, Easley would travel alone and hide in plain sight. He flew back in a third time, wearing the uniform of a full lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Air Force—the uniform that had belonged to his brother. He forged documents requesting observer status for future joint operations in the Aleutian Theater. He was meticulous, well rehearsed. He fell into the role with ease.

Easley soon patched together the basic facts as far as the Navy knew them. Upward of two thousand enemy troops are dug in around the tiny village on Attu. Judging by the barracks, vehicles, and roads the Japanese built on the neighboring island of Kiska, there could be as many as ten thousand garrisoned there. The idea that these remote islands could be the breach through which the war floods into North America is something the Navy doesn’t want civilians thinking about. They’re gambling that this problem can be contained. The plan is to soften up the enemy in advance of an amphibious assault. Regular bombardment of their flak batteries, seaplane hangars, submarine pens, and runways keeps the Japanese busy patching holes. Weather permitting, sorties are dispatched up to six times a day from Adak, the forward base of operation against the enemy positions.

On Adak, he met the pilot of an aircrew who agreed to take him along once Easley explained that no one back home knew what he and his men were facing. Lieutenant Sanchez was a sharp and confident man, about Easley’s own age, with a quick and infectious grin. He said the idea that the newspapers were not reporting his war was like a swift kick in the sack. Two days later, Easley was tossed out the hatch of his Catalina flying boat as it sank from the turbulent sky.

Easley crawls out from under the ledge and takes a good long look around. He staggers to his feet, stretches his back, touches ten­der ribs. The boy joins him, and together they study the Japanese boot tracks in the snow, marveling at the odds of having gone undiscovered.

But the covering snow also mocks Easley’s focus on the immediate need to find food, shelter, a secure hiding place. He is confronted by the Big Picture, the fact that—unlike that enemy patrol—the wet and cold cannot be escaped.

For the moment, at least, they have the sun. The glare forces them to squint. To boost morale, Easley declares that, at the current rate of melt, much of the new snow will be gone by dusk.

The boy demonstrates the proper way to repack a parachute. Easley observes the practiced movements, the muscle memory, and the fact that this gives him some illusion of control. When the task is done, they stand with hands on hips, staring at the tight bundle.

“Let’s see what else we got.” The boy empties his pockets atop the canvas. He produces a pocketknife, the drowned lighter, a key, a stick of chewing gum, and four crushed cigarettes.

“What’s the key for?”

“Front door back home.”

Easley reaches into his own pockets and produces only his Zippo and a buffalo nickel. He then tries each of his pockets again but is unable to add to their provisions. The boy holds up the nickel between thumb and forefinger.

“Old girlfriend gave it to me for luck,” Easley says, saving the part about the girlfriend becoming the wife.

“So. You get lucky?”

The rush of adrenaline takes Easley by surprise. He considers the boy for a moment: eyes alight with the attempt at levity. Recognizing this prevents Easley from hitting him.

“Didn’t think so.” The boy tears the gum in half, pops a piece into his mouth, then offers the other half to Easley. “You don’t look like the lucky type to me.”

“Here—” He flips the nickel back to Easley. “You can buy me a drink when we get off this frozen pile of shit.”

*****

At the boy’s insistence, they spend the balance of the day in search of other members of the crew. Stinging nose and cheeks, throbbing fingers and toes. They arrive back at their ravine famished, dispirited, and—as far as Easley’s concerned—disabused of the notion that anyone else from their plane survived. They then split up and scour the beach. Easley hunts for firewood, the boy for something to eat.

Although Easley is better prepared this time around, tonight’s fire still gives him trouble. His ribs ache with each breath he draws to blow on the embers. He is pleased, at least, that he has used less lighter fluid.

The boy arrives with a jacket full of fat blue mussels and half­-curled mollusks, some bashed beyond recognition and oozing into the fabric. Triumphant, he dumps them on the grass then marches back to the beach. He returns with a flat stone, which he places close to the coals.

“I was wonderin’. How do we know these things are safe to eat?”

Easley looks up and reaches for one of the cracked mussels. He bites the inside of his lower lip to draw a little blood. He then dips a finger in the mussel’s gooey flesh and rubs the juice on the sore in his mouth.

“What’s that supposed to do?”

Easley sweeps his tongue through the spot a few times, forcing the juice into the cut. “I don’t know whether or not they have red tide around here. If your lip goes numb, that means the algae’s gone bad. Toxic. If it doesn’t, you’re safe.” Easley waits a few minutes and even pinches his lip a couple of times to make sure. When at last he nods, the boy rubs his palms with glee.

They place mussels on the hot flat stone, watch them open in the heat. The boy presents the first one to Easley, still steaming in its shell. Together, they each extract a morsel of meat and chew, staring at each other over the flames. The boy makes a face, but quickly grabs another.

They spend the better part of an hour roasting and eating dinner.

For Easley, this scene, this feeling summons an old sailing trip among the sheltered Gulf Islands with his brother, Warren, the last such trip of the season, the first they were allowed to take on their own. The boat was too small to sleep two in comfort so they spread blankets on a leeward shore. As the eldest, he was in charge of everything that trip—the charts, the sailing, the food. It was not as if Warren, then thirteen, could not share these tasks. He was already an able sailor. Easley kept him from any real responsibility precisely because he could sense his own primacy fading.

The grass around the fire dries out and their clothes lose some of the dampness that has dogged them the whole day. After they’ve eaten, the boy gets up and goes to the stream for a drink. He returns, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, looking down at Easley.

“Where’d you learn that stuff about mussels?”

“An Indian.”

“Where’d you say you’re from?”

“Don’t think I ever did.”

“Well, now I’m askin’.”

“I’ve been living in Seattle the last few years,” Easley explains. “Before that, Vancouver.”

“Up in Canada.”

“That’s right.”

“Why’s that?”

“That’s where I’m from.”

The boy processes this information silently, like he’s busy running sums. He says, “Never met a Canadian before, I don’t think.”

“Well now you’re bunking with one.”

“You could’ve filed your report from Adak. You weren’t supposed to be on that plane, were you?”

“Now that you mention it, I don’t know much about you, either,” Easley says. “Give me the highlights. We can fill out the details as the weeks and months go by.”

“There ain’t gonna be any goddamn weeks.”

Easley sees the failure of his joke and regrets it. The boy stretches out on the opposite side of the fire and props his head in his hand. He studies Easley intently, taking the length and breadth of him.

“How old you say you were?”

“Thirty-­eight. What part of Texas you from?”

“That would be a West Texas accent you picked up on. Roan, Texas. Big enough to have two taverns, small enough to know the bra size of every girl in town.”

Clearly, this line has passed his lips before.

The boy describes a land that won’t support a crop and oil wells that show little or no return. A father he never knew, the constant move from shack to rented shack. Friends who sharked at pool, baptisms in an irrigation canal, cold beer smuggled into a summer picture show. Easley envisions a hot, dry waste that leaves your shirt stiff with sweat.

The boy wanted to play football but, lacking size, discovered his heart had to be twice as big as the next guy’s. He figured his wasn’t. He did well enough at high school to go off to a semester of college before joining up for the war. When he left for basic training, his mother wouldn’t even see him to the door. There she stood, he says, framed in the greasy window with a blank expression and arms folded tight across her dress. Before the truck pulled away, he distinctly remembers seeing the lights switch off and the house go dark.

Easley feels himself back at the edge of that familiar empty space, the gap into which he feels compelled to offer up some private portion of his life. He wants to tell the boy about losing his brother to the war. And now, perhaps, his wife. The boy bares himself intuitively. Easley wonders, why can’t I respond in kind?

The boy sits up and pulls out his pile of crushed tobacco. He rests it in the crease of his lap and reaches for a big brown blade of grass at the fire’s edge. The air begins to stir again and stars poke through the clouds. There is no hint of the moon. Easley watches the boy place tobacco in the supple blade, then roll it back and forth. He licks it like cigarette paper and tries to seal it shut. It mostly works. He pinches the tips and ends up with a sad little cigarillo. The boy smiles. He pushes the end of it toward the fire, puffs a few times, then exhales in a deeply satisfied stream. He offers it to Easley, who gladly pulls the warm smoke into his lungs. Easley favors a meerschaum pipe, back in his other life, but now finds this sorry roach a little taste of heaven. The boy rolls another, and they lounge warm and satisfied, listening to the surf. It is the first such contented moment they have had since tumbling from the clouds.

When the wood runs low they bury the coals and return to their hiding place. They roll themselves up in the parachute and try to ignore how the sand leaches heat from their bones. At least they are out of the wind. After much turning and shifting of positions, they settle in and listen to the rhythm of the falling tide. Easley feels himself wandering off toward sleep when he hears an almost imperceptible sound, something faint and reassuring. The boy whispers under his breath. He is giving thanks for having dodged the enemy, for the mussels and sticks of semi-dry wood, for the gift of another day. He thanks the good Lord for the company of one John Easley.

*****

Rain disperses the fog, increasing clarity. It reveals a mono­ chrome world of varying shades of smoke. They stash the parachutes and strike out in search of food, shelter, signs of other men, the warmth of locomotion. The only creatures they encounter are glaucous­-winged gulls wearily patrolling the beach. Easley observes raindrops roll off their feathers in perfect beads, as from the hood of a well­waxed automobile. The gulls appear to be looking back at him the way people might watch a convicted man on his way to the gal­ lows; curious, but unwilling to make eye contact out of respect for the condemned. Easley thinks of how they might taste roasted over the coals of a driftwood fire.

After covering several miles of shore, it becomes clear that the island does not offer up shelter gladly. Beaches curl round coves and end on rocky headlands. Up from the high tide line are rolling fields of rye slicked tight against the land. Then, after some two hundred feet of elevation gain, snow. Neither tree nor shrub worthy of the term. No bushes laden with summer berries. No grazing cattle or sheep, or even deer, rabbits, or squirrels. The only possible sources of protein are also visitors here—birds of the sky and fish of the sea.

The boy, out in front, works hard to stay ahead, his posture betraying the effort. At any moment, they could be spotted from miles away, find themselves the subject of sniper fire.

At the next beach, they encounter a little rise that graduates into a three­-story peak of rock. They scan the horizon for friendly ships and the hills for enemies, then scramble up, crouching, careful not to offer a profile against the backdrop of sea. The boy is seized by a coughing fit and is forced to sit and catch his breath. Easley studies the empty land. Nothing presents itself for comment. Only smug birds skirting the shore. More of nothing, nothing more.

As they scramble down, Easley casts his mind back to the plane, the drone of the engines, his quiet, helpless panic after antiaircraft fire ripped through the cabin and wings. He remembers the pale cheeks and frightened eyes of the copilot. How the man methodically double­ checked Easley’s parachute before tossing him out the hatch.

The rhythm of boots through sand underscores the silence between them.

Eventually, the boy asks, “Why do we want these islands?” “I’m sorry about your friends. Sorry about Sanchez.”

The boy looks back across the sand. “We should walk on the grass as much as possible. We’re leavin’ tracks down here.”

At the end of the beach, they encounter a ravine where a rivulet trickles off the edge and onto a pile of stones. It falls directly past the mouth of a cave, and by the time it has traveled half the twenty-foot drop, it scatters in a steady rain.

The cave is about forty feet deep, maybe half as wide, and opens at an angle to the beach. The rocky floor rises to meet the ceiling in back. Most of the walls are weeping. The back section, at least, is clear of the spray. Like newlyweds inspecting their first bungalow, they exaggerate the positive, ignoring the fact that this is a hole in the side of a ravine.

“It’s far enough up from the beach so the tide won’t be a bother.” Easley sits down on a rock.

The boy wipes his nose on his sleeve. “We could divert the stream.”

Easley looks up and sees a determination that could quickly become infectious.

“We could go up top and build a little dike,” the boy continues.

“Some rocks and a little sand. A few hours’ work.”

“We could build a fire, but only at night,” Easley says, gesturing to the mouth of the cave. He looks to the other side of the ravine then up at the sheet of sky. “The way it faces, no one would be able to see the light, except maybe a passing ship. We’re miles from the Japs, they’ll never smell the smoke.”

The boy scratches his head. “I’d say you just bought yourself a cave.”

*****

By the time Easley returns with their parachutes, the light can no longer support colors beyond gray. The boy is nowhere to be seen. The little waterfall that had spilled from the upper lip of the cave has been reduced to a slow drip. Inside, high in the back, a bunk of grass has been constructed. A kind of enormous nest. The boy has done wonders in his absence. Easley had been wary of splitting up, even for a few hours, but now sees the wisdom in it. He makes his way up to the back of the cave, sits on the nest, decides it will serve them well. His gratitude at having shelter, however crude, is tempered by the fear that they will both soon perish here, cowering in the damp and cold as hunger overtakes them.

Helen found their first home by spotting a small handmade sign in a big bay window. The rental market in Seattle had been tight with Boeing working full tilt, churning out bombers and fighters to fill the skies over Europe and the Pacific. She had been searching for over a week.

It was the main floor of a lean little Victorian on Aden Street. The owner wore a matching dark suit, hat, and demeanor. His elderly mother had recently passed and he was unprepared to part with her possessions. He had moved everything upstairs, leaving the lower rooms for tenants. Said he wanted good, reliable sorts to occupy his childhood home. If things went smoothly, they would have the first opportunity to make an offer after the war. When it came time to hand over the keys, the man hesitated in what seemed a spontaneous, emotional response. Helen touched his shoulder, as she would a troubled friend. She told him not to worry, he had made the right decision. Easley watched the man’s mood transform utterly.

That first night in the house they made love on the living room floor. Easley knew then that he loved Helen above his own life. In that moment, he imagined the joy and pleasure he took in her body was more complete than any man had ever known. He composed and took a mental photograph—of her, in that light, in that space and time. He had the presence of mind to sense the pinnacle. He felt it in his bones. Beyond this night, his life could not hope to be improved. To Easley, it felt as if they had discovered, invented something pro­ found and new. He shakes his head at the ridiculous conceit of it all. He wanted to tell her, but thought better of it. Despite being nearly a dozen years younger, she might laugh out loud at such adolescent delusions.

How, he wonders, have I traveled so far from that night?

The boy enters the cave carrying a jacket full of mussels, loose smile tugging at his lips, proud of what he’s accomplished.

“You’ve been busy,” Easley says, glancing up to where the waterfall used to be. “You’ll make someone a fine little wife one day.”

The boy consolidates his load in one arm, freeing the other hand to offer a single-­finger salute.

There will be no fire this night. Even the gray light is in short supply, and there is no time to mount a search for fuel. The wind is picking up. They observe and acknowledge all this without words. They have already begun to develop a vocabulary of glances and gestures.

They crack mussels and eat, listening to the wind whip the shore.

Neither is satisfied, having consumed only enough to dull the hunger. The raw, rubbery flesh has already begun to repel them. In this low moment, Easley must find a way to embolden both himself and the boy.

Tomorrow, Easley says, we’ll build a proper fire pit. They will cook their food on smaller, hotter fires that require less fuel. The warm rocks will retain heat, some of which will even find its way back to their bunk. Maybe they should rig hammocks. From this cave, they will hide from and observe the enemy until such time as they can signal for rescue from the bombing sorties, or join up with the invasion that’s sure to come. The Japanese have already been here for ten months. How much longer do you suppose Uncle Sam will allow such an affront to continue?

The boy nods. For the moment, he seems resigned to reason over rank and protocol. Easley is pleased, because they must come to agreement on each and every decision. They must be of one mind. The peace between them is their only security.

*****

That night, up in the nest, the boy pulls the parachute to his chin. “Storm’s blowin’ in,” he observes. Easley listens to the fury of the williwaw, the signature gale of the Aleutians. It accelerates down cold mountain slopes to the sea. Here, the wind becomes an avalanche, a full stampede of sound and sensation that strips the moisture from your eyes, bullies and casts you to the ground. He too pulls the silk close and marvels at their good fortune of having found shelter in time. As the wind shoves its way across the land, only a slight breeze reaches his cheeks.

“What’s the first thing you want to do when we get out of here?” the boy asks. His back is pressed into Easley’s.

“First thing?” Easley sighs. “Sit down to a steak and chocolate cake. You?”

“Shower. Plate of ribs. Get drunk and drive around in my truck with the heat blowin’ full . . . Man, I’d love to go for a drive.” “Got someone waiting for you?”

“My dog Queenie. She’s an old bitch now, but she’ll knock me over just the same.” The boy rolls over on his back. “What happened to that lucky girl of yours?”

Easley no longer feels any anger—toward the boy for having asked, toward Helen or himself. He considers telling him everything, but the boy speaks first.

“If you’re not of a mind to discuss such things, then don’t. I don’t mean to pry.”

“It’s all right.”

A loud crack and crash thunders down the shore, where an out­ sized wave impales itself on the point. They pause and listen to the violence.

“I think we ought’a have a rule around here,” the boy continues.

“Let’s drop the bull and answer questions straight. No tall tales or secrets. No dickin’ around. Way I figure it, we owe it to each other.

We might as well be the last two men on earth. So let’s do each other the honor of being straight with one another.”

“Sounds fair to me.”

“Think we’ll ever get home?”

“Might take a while.” It is as close to the truth as Easley can get. “Part of me has plans for tomorrow,” the boy replies. “Ideas about how we can get meat and wood. Make things better ’til they come for us. Then part of me feels like a ghost. Like we’re already hauntin’ this place and we don’t even know we’re dead.”

“Listen. We’re both strong. We’ll find better food. The weather will improve. We’re already into spring . . . You had a rule. Now I’ve got one. I say we each get one shot at this. One chance to complain. The other listens, tells him he’s being a crybaby, then we get back to business. This is your chance to whine, so you’d better make it count.”

The boy’s chuckle turns into a cough, then silence.

*****

Hours later, Easley jerks awake. The wind seems to have died down entirely. Morning can’t be far. Out past the beach, over the boom and hiss of breakers, he hears the burble of an outboard motor and the slap of a hull passing through the chop. He props himself up on an elbow and peers out into the gloom. A strong beam of light sweeps across the beach. It flashes past the very mouth of the cave but does not linger. Rescue launch from a U.S. Navy vessel? This first hopeful thought quickly fades. Such a small craft could only have come from the island itself.

A moment later, the sounds and light are gone. The boy does not stir. Easley lies back down beside him.


Excerpted from The Wind is not a River by Brian Payton. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Payton.
First published 2014 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. First published in the UK 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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