Also by P. R. Black
THE BEACH HOUSE
AN IMPRINT OF HEAD OF ZEUS
First published in the United Kingdom in 2020 by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus Ltd
Copyright © P. R. Black, 2020
The moral right of P. R. Black to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Cover design: Charlotte Abrams-Simpson
c/o Head of Zeus
First Floor East
5–8 Hardwick Street
London EC1R 4RG
About the Author
Become an Aria Addict
Cora paused at the shutters. ‘You ready?’ she asked.
Jonathan was still in bed – or at least, he still had the gossamer-thin blanket covering his legs. He looked up from the laptop computer, his face tense in the bluish glare. ‘For ; what?’
‘You’d best get your shades on.’
Cora threw the shutters open, and the light seared the master bedroom.
The sunshine was almost too much to take at first, as if a death ray had speared their beachside room. Even though it was still early in the morning, Cora felt the heat puncture the air conditioning’s cool veil. Outside, blue was the dominant colour, both in the cloudless sky and in the calm waters below. This was a thrilling contrast to the pure white sands leading to the waterline from their beach house.
A gentle tide lapped at the sugar shore, the waves ending with a sigh rather than a roar.
‘Blue’ seemed too mundane a description for the colour of the water, as its fingers hissed across the sands and disappeared. The ocean seemed infused with sunlight, difficult to look at for too long, much as you wanted to.
Cora couldn’t help but giggle upon this sight. Apart from one or two seabirds far off in the horizon, there seemed to be no living thing around to spoil the contrast.
‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘I remember having a turquoise crayon when I was a kid… I didn’t think it was a real colour. It’s a felt-tip sea. I feel like I’m in a cartoon.’
Jonathan scrabbled for his sunglasses, squinting in the flood of light. Once he’d slipped them over his ears, he closed the laptop, placed it on the bedside table, then scooted out of bed to join Cora at the shutters.
He was completely naked. Cora arched an eyebrow. ‘You gone tropical already?’
‘Totally tropical.’ He rested his hand on her waist, and kissed her impulsively.
‘I thought you had business to sort out, mister?’
He grinned. ‘I certainly do.’
‘I meant, business-related business. Real-world, work business.’
‘That can wait.’ He kissed her again, drawing her closer to him.
She peered over his shoulder into the clear water, dappled with patches of coral and darting fish, easily discernible against the pure white sand below. ‘There aren’t any sharks out there, are there?’
‘Just the one. Me.’ Jonathan flashed his teeth. ‘Hey. Did you ever dream about just running down a beach like that?’ Jonathan asked. ‘Charging right into the surf?’
Their eyes met for an instant; a fuse was lit.
Cora tore off across the beach, her sarong whipped off in the slipstream, white bikini dazzling in the light. Jonathan ran after her, giggling in her wake. Her feet were scalded by the floury sand, and she ran for a spell on tiptoes, much as a lizard might skip across a desert. The beach sloped sharply to the waterline, and then she knew the thrill of cool water between her toes.
She churned the water to foam as she went deeper. It was cool, but not cold – certainly not cold enough to draw a gasp or cause a shiver.
Jonathan caught up with her, grinning through the thatched blond beard. ‘Count that an ambition ticked off!’
‘What – running into the surf, or running into the surf nude?’
He glanced down at himself. ‘I kinda regret this now. I’ve retracted a bit.’
‘Ah. So you have.’
His arms encircled her, and he kissed her. ‘How are you liking Two Trees Island so far?’
‘I think that’s a harsh review. I’d upgrade it to three and a half trees. Maybe even a four.’
‘Daft name, isn’t it?’ He jerked his head towards the land behind the two-storey beach house, threaded with lazy pine trees. ‘Someone must have torn up the planning application, I guess. “We’re gonna need a few more than two trees.”’
‘Maybe the monkeys raised a petition. Anyway…’ She kissed the tip of his nose. ‘I hate to be a killjoy, but you said you had something to finish off today?’
He sighed. ‘That’s true.’
‘So, how about you get it finished? Because I don’t want to see you stuck on a laptop or a phone after this morning.’
Jonathan drew back a little. ‘OK, Miss O’Brien. That sounded awfully like your professional voice. I take it you’re missing class already?’
‘Little darlings. I might send them all a postcard. I’d say I missed them, but I’ve told them it’s rude to lie.’ She swatted his backside. ‘Come on. Finish what you’ve got to finish. Then we’ll shut the computer down, and get some breakfast.’
‘Sure. First things first, though. Come on with me. There’s something I want to show you.’
‘If that’s your best come-on line, then that’s some weak sauce.’
‘Trust me,’ Jonathan said – with that particular twinkle in his eye that usually meant she should do the opposite.
Cora watched him troop back out of the water, giving his legs a shake one after the other like a lapdog coming in out of the rain. Jonathan was naturally slim, with a lean, wiry frame that owed more to a constant state of tension in his business dealings rather than time spent in the gym or chasing personal bests in Park Runs. Cora, who was a good deal shorter, had to work harder, constantly bemoaning the thickness of her thighs no matter how many rebuttals Jonathan might offer on the matter. His second name, Hagstrom, contributed to the sense of something Nordic about him, particularly in the Arctic husky blue eyes and the golden hair, which ran to red in his beard. He could look fierce on occasions, and Cora had joked that he might suit a horned helmet out of a Wagnerian fantasy, though his true nature was far removed from that of an ancient berserker. His buttocks, utterly brazen and only a little furry in the clear bright morning, were dimpled as he trotted back to the house.
He half-turned once he reached the slope where the beach levelled out, heading towards their house. The building was probably designed by a lunatic; pyramidal, with a small balcony up above the main bedroom. The building was luxurious, and extravagantly fitted, but also built just for two, and with only one view in mind – the ocean.
When they’d booked it, Jonathan had asked her not to look at the final price. She had, though, and it had taken him a long time to talk her out of nervous breakdown.
‘You going for a paddle?’ he asked. ‘It’s important.’
‘You told me all business was important. You were either drunk, or it was a row, but that’s what you said.’
‘It involves you. Come on.’
Cora turned back towards the sea, feeling another gentle wave lap at her knees. Another impulse took her, and she ran on a few steps. Once the water’s cool kiss reached her navel, she dived fully into the water.
The roar of the sea in her ears had thrilled her since she was a girl; she opened her eyes into the stinging blue blur for a moment, then swam a few strokes along the surface before heading back to shore. The sunshine was so strong that she felt almost dried off by the time she had reached Jonathan’s footprints, trailing back up the beach. The sight of the breadcrumb-trail indentations in the sand completed some circuit in her brain, and she turned to the left.
‘Hey, there’s footprints on the beach. Just up ahead, there. You see it? There’s a trail leading out of the trees to the shoreline.’
Jonathan frowned, sitting down on a beach chair they’d left outside overnight. ‘So?’
‘So… this is a private beach, is it not?’
‘Yeah. And it’s maintained. Cleaners come in, sort this ’n’ that out. There is another house on the island – just around the cove. Maybe a couple of miles as the crow flies.’
‘Oh. You said we’d be alone, here.’
‘We are. Pretty much. We’ve got the beach. Maybe we could rebook for Benidorm, if you prefer?’
‘Funny guy. Anyway. What’s this work thing you were on about?’
Jonathan flipped open the laptop, its opalescent eye pulsing once. ‘You remember how I was talking about a new deal for the firm?’
‘Well, it kind of took off in the past couple of days.’
His eyes flashed, mischievously, and Cora felt her heart beat. ‘Took off how?’
‘Well… You know Garrett Kilcline?’
‘Garrett Kilcline… the one who owns all of the things? Trains, newspapers, hotels, oxygen?’
‘That’s the one.’ Jonathan pointed towards a figure on the screen. ‘Can you make out this number?’
‘You see the pound sign in front of it?’
Cora nodded, mute. Her knees suddenly felt weak. Her heart had lurched in her chest as she considered what that number might mean. All eight figures of it.
‘OK. This is what Garrett Kilcline wants to pay for a controlling stake in Geek Goggles.’
Cora started to giggle. ‘Jonathan, be real, please.’
‘This is realer than real. When I press this button, it’ll start the transfer to my account, from Garrett Kilcline enterprises. The downside is, I will no longer own Geek Goggles, though I will have some creative input. Y’know, it’s my baby, and I’ve raised it well so far. It has nourished itself on my creative teats. So I get to have some say in what direction it might take. Strictly advisory role. Future designs and upgrades, different types of meeting zones, new worlds to conquer, that sort of thing.’
‘Jonathan, shut up a minute. Are you telling me that number represents actual money?’
‘Yep. That’s it in pounds sterling. And it’s heading for the bank. As soon as I press this button.’
Cora sat down heavily. ‘I can’t believe this. Why didn’t you say?’
‘Because I never brag about a deal – especially when it’s not been signed yet. I thought it wasn’t going to be completed before we flew back home. But I paid our legal guys overtime to get it completed today.’
Jonathan wasn’t exactly cash poor as it was. Geek Goggles was his creation, a virtual reality environment where people could meet, fight or fall in love, in the guise of fantasy characters such as orcs, wizards, elves, dragons, and barbarians in furry pants. Geek Goggles used several fantasy ‘zones’ for people to operate in, such as alien planets or haunted houses. The 3D worlds grew and became more detailed, incorporating VR technology such as Oculus Rift. It had started as a type of game, where people could meet and go on quests, or missions, or even fight each other. But people soon noticed something strange was happening.
In an almost organic process, people used it as a dating app. Soon this element overtook all others, and Geek Goggles became, primarily, a way of searching for love – in the online garb of fantasy creatures. The brand grew from there; in a matter of months, the firm was being profiled in the mainstream media, and Jonathan had even delivered a comically upbeat performance on the BBC Breakfast sofa – Naga Munchetty had laughed at his jokes, and Cora had suffered a pang of jealousy so acute she asked her own tear-stained reflection in the mirror: ‘Is this the path to the Dark Side?’
Geek Goggles crossed into the mainstream, often on the back of its notoriety for having split up as many relationships as it synthesised. People had got married on Geek Goggles in special ceremonies, attended by an audience of millions – on some occasions, without ever having met in real life.
Every now and then, Geek Goggles had other real-life consequences, with a couple of murders having taken place on the strength of it.
In the project’s second year – Cora and Jonathan’s fifth as a couple – money had begun to flow in. But this was on a different level entirely.
Jonathan arched an eyebrow. ‘You want to press the button? Seal the deal?’
‘I’m not pressing anything. Is this real? This isn’t some kind of joke?’
‘I tell you what – I’ll press the button, and you answer the phone.’
‘What do you mean?’
Jonathan’s finger hovered over the mouse pad. He was drinking this moment in, Cora sensed, fixing it in his memory.
Then he jabbed the left-hand button. He bit his thumb as the screen washed over in pure white for a moment. Then an immense green tick appeared, before moving on to an acknowledgement screen.
Almost instantly, Jonathan’s phone began to chirp.
He tossed it to her; Cora wanted to dive out of the way, as if it was a missile, and she almost fumbled it onto the sand. ‘Idiot,’ she mumbled. Upon hitting the green button, she said: ‘Yes?’
‘Good morning,’ a young man said, in a bright Edinburgh accent. ‘Can I speak to Mr Hagstrom, please?’
‘Uh, I can get him for you.’
‘That’s great. I’m sorry to disturb you, but this is a pretty urgent call from the bank. Really important that we speak to him.’
‘Like, eight figures urgent?’
The man on the other end laughed on a note of near-hysteria. ‘Well, I couldn’t possibly comment on that.’
‘Here he is…’ Cora almost dropped the phone again as she handed it over. Her fingertips seemed to have lost all grip, all feeling. The sweat was as cool along her forehead as the sea had been on her feet moments ago.
Jonathan affected nonchalance as he took the phone from Cora. ‘Yeah, this is Mr Hagstrom… Sure, I’ll go through security. The digits you want are three and four, the letters you want are Z and O, and the safe word is “possum” … That last part was a joke. Sorry. So, let me guess, now you want to talk about all that lovely money, and various things you reckon I should do with it – don’t you?’
Cora’s head swam, and she sat down heavily, the sand scorching her backside through the bikini bottoms. Her vision swam, too – with tears, though she wasn’t quite sure what had triggered them. Not quite joy, not one hundred per cent disbelief, and not completely sunblock in her eyes either.
Once the call was over, Jonathan dropped the phone onto the sand. He grinned, slipping on a pair of shorts he’d discarded by the side of the beach chair the night before. ‘Now you believe me?’
‘I’m not sure I do… This is incredible. What happens now?’
‘How about everything you’ve ever wanted?’
‘The amount of money… it’s a dream, but my God. The responsibility.’ She drew a hand through her tight black curls. ‘It’s a great thing. But a terrible thing.’
‘Yeah, I know. With absolute power, comes great, whatever. Spider-Man. Uncle Ben. Loved that movie. The Tobey Maguire one, I mean. Real Spider-Man.’
‘I’m serious. And what if we get kidnapped?’
‘Kidnapped!’ Jonathan spluttered. ‘Bit presumptuous. The money’s only just gone in the bank!’
‘It happens – you hear about it all the time. It happens to millionaires, it’s common. They get targeted. For cars, or ransom demands. They capture their kids, their wives. We’ll need security guards… and cameras… or a really big dog.’
‘How about a tyrannosaur? We could afford one of those. We’ll need a really big doghouse. Come to think of it, we’ll need a big house of our own. You always wanted a swimming pool, right?’
She giggled. ‘Is this actually happening?’
He nodded and bit his lip. ‘Are you pleased? Tell me you’re pleased.’
She paused. ‘We have to do something good with it.’
‘Of course. You know how I work, darlin’. I’ll start some kind of foundation. I’m thinking a bursary scheme for start-ups, focusing on poor areas. Something like that. That aside, I’ll put some of it into bricks and mortar – a good chunk, anyway. A Forever House. One you always dreamed of. I’ll set something else up for later – we can still have an income, on top of the interest. Geek Goggles will pay consultancy fees. I can do something else in VR, too. I’ve got ideas rolling around, and I’ve got cash to gamble. I’m thinking on-demand delivery, gourmet food. But with a hipster twist. Targeting the young, metropolitan, idle rich… Like us! Seaweed crackers, rhubarb and ginger sandwich fillers, gourmet potted crabmeat… Even sushi, damn it! Foods that’ll get people foaming at the mouth in the comments sections online. They’ll rip it apart on below-the-line comments in The Guardian… and all the while, they’ll be promoting our brand. Just wait and see.’
Jonathan grew twitchy as he sketched his new ideas out. This could be quite alarming to those who didn’t know him; a hair-trigger quality that could put people on edge. Cora had once sat with him as they watched David Byrne’s jerky dance moves in the video for Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’.
‘How does it feel to see your life’s story condensed into three minutes?’ she had asked, and he hadn’t laughed. This startled-rabbit behaviour was born of pure adrenaline and a child-like excitement he had never lost.
‘Before you do all that – how about we take a moment, here?’ Cora was still sat in the sand. ‘How about you help me stand up, in fact?’
Instead, he sat down beside her. ‘I told you this was going to be a holiday to remember.’
‘I don’t think I’ll survive it. Is this what a heart attack feels like?’
He smiled. ‘Can you see a tunnel of light?’
‘I’d like to survive through to breakfast. I want to get something from the market on Big Island, so give me CPR if I look like I need it.’
‘Morning’s not even done, yet.’ He took her hand. ‘I left my watch by the side of the bed. What time is it, do you know?’
‘I left mine indoors, too. I think it was just on eight o’clock, or thereabouts. Unless I’ve just fainted and lost a couple of hours.’
‘Hmm.’ Jonathan shaded his eyes and peered into the sky. ‘They’re late.’
What she thought was a breeze stirred her hair. Then she heard the rotor blades.
A helicopter buzzed over the forest’s edge, seemingly close enough to part the quivering palm fronds. Cora couldn’t make out the livery, or even whether the craft was civilian, military or commercial. It hovered over the beach, stirring up a djinn of sand.
‘It can’t land here!’ Cora shrieked amid the sandstorm and the fraught whine of the blades. ‘There’s no landing pad! It isn’t safe!’
‘It isn’t landing,’ Jonathan cried, and shielded his eyes.
She thought she saw him grin through the veil of white sand.
Abruptly, the helicopter rose, veering away from the beach, heading out towards the sea before tracing a wide arc back over the top of the beach house and disappearing.
In its place was a parachute, slowly descending towards the beach. It bore a plain package, about the size of a shoebox.
‘Well, in fairness, that could have been a little bit more romantic,’ Jonathan muttered.
‘What the hell was that?’
Cora shook the sand out of her hair. ‘I thought we were going to get machine-gunned or something.’
‘Maybe it was fast work by your kidnappers?’
‘Let’s not even joke about it… Hey… Is the parachute going to make the beach?’
‘Of course it’s going to…’ Jonathan tore off his shades. ‘It’s not going to make the beach. It’s heading for the water!’
He practically catapulted into the surf, lunging through the gentle waves as if they were hurdles. He reached up for the box; just as his fingers got close enough to touch, a wave brushed his legs, knocking him off balance, and he pitched head first into the water.
Cora shrieked with laughter, even as he got to his feet, panic-stricken and dripping wet, looking around for the box. It had landed a few feet away out into the water, its red canopy collapsing around it. The tide brought it closer to him, and he seized it, clutching it close to his chest. He was out of breath and grinning by the time he collapsed onto the sand beside her.
Cora applauded, still laughing. ‘Oh, I wish I’d broken my no-phones rule this morning, I really do. Even for you, that was a hell of a performance, Captain Calamity.’
He slicked back his hair, tearing open the packaging. The box was plastic, and thankfully watertight. After he broke the plastic seal, within it was another box, altogether smaller.
‘You know how you were talking about responsibility?’ Jonathan asked.
‘What do you mean? What is this?’
But she knew. Even though she didn’t really believe it – or couldn’t bring herself to believe it. Even before he asked.
‘I need you to stand up,’ he said.
‘Cos this’ll look really silly if you’re sitting down.’
She did; he stood up alongside her, then fell to one knee.
He opened the box; something inside caught the morning sunshine, laser bright, strong enough to fracture all the colours of the rainbow.
Cora yelled at the top of her voice. ‘Are you kidding me?’
He shook his head, slowly. ‘Nope. Deadly serious. Cora O’Brien, will you marry me?’
She meant to say ‘yes,’ but it was more of a squeak, her hand clamped to her mouth.
‘A nod would do as confirmation. Or you could vomit, if that’s what you want to do. One retch for yes, two for no, how about that?’
‘Is that a yes?’
It was done.
He got to his feet and took her hand. The stone was an outrage, but the fit of the ring was perfect as he slid it onto her finger. Then she hugged him, hard.
‘That went OK,’ he whispered, into her ear. ‘That was just about perfect. Pratfalls and all.’
They stood there a long time, listening to the surf’s gentle roar.
‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘I think I’m just about ready for the first day of our holiday, what do you reckon?’
‘Only one thing missing so far.’
‘Ah. That’s where I may yet surprise you, Miss O’Brien.’ He reached into the box. Inside was a bottle – not the world’s biggest, but not the world’s cheapest, either. He popped the cork, and the champagne surged out, its hiss going head-to-head with the sound of the surf.
‘No glasses, though,’ he said, grinning. ‘University rules.’ He passed her the bottle.
‘Bottoms up, Mr Hagstrom.’ She took a drink. It foamed up over her chin and she giggled, fading into a coughing fit.
He took the bottle from her and gulped from it. The bubbles scurried up his nose. They both bent double, coughing and laughing.
‘Dignity,’ Cora said, finally. ‘Dignity in all things.’ She stared at the ring. The light splayed out in all directions from one rock – large, perhaps crassly so. She wondered if she could see a bluish tint to the rays of light reflected from its surface. ‘Do I even want to know how much it cost?’
‘I had enough change for some fish and chips.’
‘You bought it in Brighton? That day at the seaside?’
He nodded. ‘Bit of a contrast, I guess.’
‘This champagne’s bitten me in the brain. I think I might do something impulsive.’
‘Hopefully you’re not going to tell me I’m dumped.’
‘Give it till lunchtime. Nah… I think I want to do a headstand.’
He leaned back, arms folded. ‘This I must see!’
‘Hang on…’ She placed both hands onto the sand, then planted her forehead in the middle. She took the weight on her shoulders, her compact muscles bunching up at the neck as she flipped up, using her legs as a counterweight. Her arms shook, and her hair flowed over her face. It wasn’t the most dignified piece of gymnastics, but she managed, her legs flailing a little as she moved forward, one hand bogging down in the sand, then the other. ‘Yeah?’ she gasped. ‘How about that?’
Jonathan applauded. ‘I think if I tried to do that, you’d have to call the helicopter back to drop off a stretcher.’
‘Training, my dear. It never leaves you.’ She tried to affect a sniffy tone, but she was getting out of breath. Not enough training, in fact, she thought. A bit less than necessary.
She half-turned her head. ‘Just a few more steps, babe. The blood will go back to my brain eventually. Wait a second, though – I think one of my tits fell out.’
‘Cora, there’s someone else.’
She cocked her head, parting her hair just enough to take a look along the shoreline. Then she saw what he meant.
A man stood in front of her, blocking out the sunlight. She could only make out a silhouette. Up was down; down was up, his feet and the beach where the sky should be, the sky and his head at the ground. She sprawled forward onto the sand.
‘Hey there,’ the man said, in perfect English. A grin split the shadow face. ‘Hope I’m not interrupting anything.’
Cora got to her feet, hastily brushing the fine grains off her legs.
‘I’m so sorry,’ the man said, raising a hand. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’
By shading her eyes from the sun, she could make out the fine details. He was about as tall as Jonathan, equally rangy but perhaps a little broader at the shoulders. He was more heavily built, with thick wrist muscles squeezing out of the rolled-up sleeves of a particularly offensive Hawaiian shirt. He wore shades and a sun hat, tilted at an angle. A wispy rusted-blond beard clung to a longish chin, and his shades had surely been stolen from his girlfriend, or even his mother-in-law.
‘That’s OK, I guess,’ Cora said, still a little flustered. She fought an urge to fold her arms across her chest. ‘Something we can do for you?’
‘I just want to introduce myself – I’m Dylan. We’re just on the other side of the bay, in the other house. Me and Hazel.’
Jonathan joined them. ‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Jonathan, and this is Cora.’
‘Hey,’ Dylan said, as they shook hands. ‘I like your style, man.’
Jonathan stared down at himself; he was clad only in a pair of khaki shorts, which hung precariously off his bony hips.
‘The beard,’ Dylan said, pointing to his own chin. ‘Strong look, man.’
‘Oh. Got you. Yeah, it’s the perfect disguise, I reckon.’
Cora shook hands, slightly repelled by the other man’s clammy palms. But she remembered her manners. ‘Nice to meet you. British, yes?’
‘By way of Los Angeles, but yeah. Born and brought up in Bermondsey, believe it or not.’ He allowed some south London to creep into his voice – a little exaggerated, perhaps.
‘Small world!’ Jonathan said. ‘It’s funny, I was sure they said the other house was empty when they brought us over on the boat.’
‘Hey, us too! Hazel was just saying that. The guy on the boat told us the same thing – that we had the island to ourselves. We figured they must have hired out your house last-minute. Hazel sent me over to say hello – nice to be nice, hey? Seeing as we’re technically neighbours.’
Dylan jabbed a thumb over towards the furthest point, where a rocky outcrop marked the outermost curve of the bay. Beyond this was the second house – but closer than this, almost blotted out of any discernible shape by the heat haze, another silhouette paddled in the water. As she drew closer, Cora could see it was a woman. She was absurdly startled to note the woman was topless. Yep, she thought. I’m British, all right. She smiled at Dylan. ‘The more, the merrier.’
‘Absolutely! Hey, I’ll let you get on with your morning; sorry to disturb you. I see you started early.’ He nodded towards the champagne bottle, embedded head first into the damp sand.
‘It’s a celebration,’ Cora said, a little too quickly.
The newcomer grinned. ‘Ah it’s all good – we’re about to do the same! Hey, maybe catch you both on Big Island later? Perhaps we can turn it into party town.’
‘That’d be nice,’ Jonathan said. ‘We’re heading over later, in fact. Maybe see you there?’
‘Why not, man? In the meantime, have a smashing day. We promise not to get in your way – but if you fancy some company one night, come over and give us a call maybe?’
They watched Dylan rendezvous with the dark figure of the woman further up the beach. The woman waved lustily; Cora and Jonathan followed suit, with a little more reserve.
‘Oh my God, she’s got no clothes on,’ Jonathan muttered. ‘That’s weird. Or is it? I forget where we are vis-à-vis nudes on holiday. You almost never see that now. You used to. I think camera phones and social media killed it. It’s the Betamax of indecent exposure.’
‘Jonathan – stop babbling. She’s got bottoms on. I’m sure she’s just enjoying the sunshine. And why shouldn’t she? Why is this a problem?’
‘It’s no problem,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Is it a problem for you?’
‘No problem at all. Not my cuppa tea. But I’m all right with it. How could I not be?’
‘I didn’t expect it. I’m not sure I feel comfortable. Can we start this thread again?’
Cora looked at him, very seriously. ‘Are we uptight? Is that it?’
‘We might be.’ He chuckled. ‘Funny thing, though… And you might not like this…’
‘She kinda looked like you. From a distance, I mean.’
‘You reckon?’ Cora shaded her eyes, peering into the distance. ‘You must have been looking very closely.’
‘Well – not that closely, obviously.’
The other couple were just about visible through the heat haze, blurring at the edges. The other woman – Hazel, he’d called her – had a very similar skin tone to Cora, who was mixed race. She also had black curly hair, although it seemed to be piled high on her head rather than allowed to run free, like Cora’s. She considered a moment. ‘It’s funny – and you definitely won’t like this… I was thinking the same about him.’
‘You think that he looks like you, too?’
She sighed. ‘No, smart-arse. I mean, I thought he was your double.’
‘You’re joking, aren’t you? That dude, just then? Mr Hipster Tourist, whatever his name was?’
‘Dylan. Yeah. You’re not doppelgangers, like, but close.’
Jonathan touched his whiskers, self-consciously. ‘Does my beard look as bad as that?’
‘Of course not, sweetie.’ She kissed his hairy cheeks. ‘Yours is so much more stylish.’
‘I was thinking of clipping it, you know… maybe shaving it right off. Let my chin breathe a little. Is today the day it happens?’
‘Come on, blondie. You look fine. Let’s get our flip-flops on. We’ve got about half an hour until our man Roy arrives with the boat.’
The silhouettes of the other couple had dissolved into the sands, leaving only two sets of meandering footprints.
On the boat over to the main island, the colours grew brighter. Captain Roy was the man at the helm of a gleaming white speedboat. He had brought them to the island late the night before, with the moon framing the palm trees and scattering silvery threads over the face of the waters. It had been intoxicatingly warm when they’d arrived, that unmistakable blast of tropical heat hitting them the minute they’d stepped out of the plane. But here, in the day, the beauty of the island and the pale blue waters was stark, and awe-inspiring.
‘It’s amazing, all this,’ Jonathan said, as the boat cut loose from the jetty. He trailed his hand in the wash as they zipped around the curve in the bay, heading towards a larger, built-up island that had now become visible beyond the natural harbour. ‘It doesn’t feel real. It’s actually intoxicating.’
‘Well… You are actually intoxicated,’ Cora said. ‘We’ve had a bottle of wine between us and it’s not 9am yet.’
‘True enough. And there’s room for more.’ He grinned, and lay back in the seat, his arm around Cora’s shoulders. She leaned into him, loving the feel of the wind in her hair.
Captain Roy turned his head. He actually had a gold tooth, although this was the only concession to any idea of being a lusty high seas pirate, other than his name. His broad black face and shaved head glinted with sweat in the morning’s rising heat, and he tipped them a wink. ‘First day, yes? You all ready for Big Island?’
‘We were born ready, Roy!’ Jonathan cried.
‘It’s the place to be.’ Roy chuckled. ‘Vegas, New Orleans, London town… nothing on earth matches the buzz of Big Island!’
They tied up at a jetty situated about half a mile from the marina, which was filled with gleaming white yachts. Beyond them, row after row of high-rises could be seen, and in the distance, a scattering of bodies and bright beach towels on the beach. One or two immense cruise ships dominated the main piers, implausible in scale. They reminded Cora of the sci-fi art in some of her little brother’s favourite books when he was a child.
‘Look at the size of some of these boats,’ Cora said. ‘It’s like James Bond. A couple of them look like they’re ready to swallow the others.’
‘We could afford one of those,’ Jonathan whispered.
‘What, like that super yacht? I don’t think so.’ But he hadn’t meant the super yachts – he had meant the other yachts, laid up side by side along the marina, the flags of a dozen nations wagging their fingers at the newcomers. He was speaking the truth. They could buy one of those. And they could afford to staff it, too.
Cora shook her head. ‘I think I need a stiff drink.’
‘Coming right up,’ Captain Roy said cheerily.
Breakfast arrived on palm leaves, with fresh pineapple, star fruits and blessedly tangy segments of orange washed down with juice served in thick tumblers. Jonathan eased his shades back up on his head and cradled the tumbler in one hand. ‘This could be a murder weapon on Columbo, for sure.’
Cora grinned. ‘How would Columbo figure out he did it?’
Jonathan put on a passable New York accent. ‘You know, I figured by looking at your dry cleaning bill that you spilled orange juice on yourself, Cora. Except the receipt came back for blood. And that’s when it hit me – you had the crystal decanter but only one glass. There should be two glasses, Miss O’Brien, is that right?’
‘You’ve put too much thought into this, mister.’
He shrugged, then drained his glass. ‘There’s just one more thing.’
‘What’s that, inspector?’
‘An omelette. I’m still hungry. Fruit’s OK, but I’m on holiday. I demand extra calories.’
‘Aren’t you saving yourself for lobsters, or something?’
‘Yeah. But that’s lunch, not breakfast. Excuse me,’ he said, flagging down a waiter. ‘This fruit here, the light fruit… Yes, that one. Can you tell me what that is? The texture drove me mad – I’m trying to place it.’
The waiter grinned, and said with some relish: ‘That’s not a fruit, sir.’
‘It’s sea snail. I hope you enjoyed your breakfast with us today, sir.’
Then, cheeky devil, he winked at Cora as he moved on to another table.
‘Oh well, new experiences and all that,’ Jonathan said. ‘Poor snail.’
She leaned forward on the table and gazed out at the sea. It wasn’t yet midday but the sun was fierce. They were afforded some shade by the grandiose white Grecian-style columns at the beachfront bar, which edged out onto the water. The floor space seemed somewhat large for breakfast, and there were not many diners at that time in the morning.
‘I like this,’ she said. ‘Bit fancier than I expected, but it’s lovely.’
‘What were you expecting?’
‘I dunno… pine effect panelling. Both fake and real palm trees. Everyone in coconut bras. Trays piled with piña coladas. Limbo dancing contests, middle-aged men wearing chino shorts ending up in traction, Russian guys with no necks who you wouldn’t even fantasise about messing with. That sort of thing.’
‘Suspect you might get that later on. I read that this is the place to be at night. Apparently there’s a casino upstairs.’
‘That explains the extra room down here. I just realised: we’re sitting on a dance floor. They must clear the chairs and tables away. Weird. Although those columns would look brilliant under UV lights.’
‘Fancy it one night?’
She shrugged. ‘Why not? Things can get lonely on a desert island. Just ask Robinson Crusoe.’
‘He didn’t have a Man Friday who looked like you,’ Jonathan said, gamely spearing his last remaining cube of sea snail. ‘Although rumours persist about their time spent ashore.’
Cora swirled the rest of her orange juice. ‘You saying you’re game for a rematch?’
‘That, and a whole lot more.’ He snapped his fingers urgently, and the same waiter came over.
‘You know what, I think we’d like a bottle of champagne. Could we see your list? I reckon a champagne breakfast is the order of the day.’
‘Of course, sir.’
Cora frowned. ‘Bit early to hit the sauce, isn’t it? We’ve already split a bottle so far.’
‘Ah, that was a tiddler. Let’s get the big guns out.’
‘I’m not sure I want to get plastered. It’s breakfast time.’
‘I know, but we got engaged today. On the day we became millionaires.’ He whispered this last word.
‘Maybe just have a glass each, eh? Take it easy. We don’t need to charge through.’
‘It doesn’t matter, babe,’ Jonathan drawled. ‘You don’t have to worry about spending. It’s covered. For life. This is just a little bit of holiday indulgence. I’d order this if we’d ended up in Benidorm.’
‘Well… I’ll stick to one glass. I don’t want to get gassed. We’ve got things to see.’
‘Spoilsport. You can help me with a bottle… Aw, don’t look at me like that. It’s a celebration, isn’t it? You’ve got no excuses left, now. Think about it. What are the two main excuses for not doing enjoying yourself?’
‘Number one for you is “blame the missus”.’
‘Nope. Your two main excuses for not having fun are, (a) “I’ve got work in the morning”, and (b) – “I’m skint”. Neither of these excuses concern you, now.’
‘Oh? How’s that?’
He grinned. ‘You’re a lady of means.’
‘I’m not leaving the school, Jonathan.’
He waved aside her protests. ‘I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it.’
‘But you did suggest it. You just gave me a great big suggestion.’
‘Just a figure of speech. I’m not trying to coerce you into leaving your job. I’m trying to coerce you into having a drink with me in school hours. You can do whatever you want to. We’re a team. I’ll back you.’
She bit the side of her mouth and glanced out to sea, not liking the turn the conversation was taking. ‘Well. We can talk about all that another time. Let’s talk about what we’re doing later today.’
Jonathan’s eyes widened. He was in one of his manic phases, now. ‘Oh yeah, I meant to book a boat trip. Shall we sort that out? Not really a sunshine break till we hit the water. Let’s get it out the way.’
‘Well, sure. I read that there’s a tourist office in town. We can check it out.’
‘All right then, boat it is.’
An American voice cut right across the tables, causing heads to snap up. ‘Hey, Mr Hagstrom! How are you, my man?’
A squat white man with greying hair and a full Kenny Rogers beard waved at Jonathan and Cora, then raised a crumpled sun hat.
Cora muttered from the side of her mouth: ‘Do you know this guy?’
‘Nope,’ Jonathan said, waving back at the man. ‘Never seen him in my life. He does look a bit like the little guy who shakes the cocktails in the Club Tropicana video.’
‘Then how does he know you?’
‘Christ, he’s coming over.’
‘It could be your kidnappers! They’re here already!’ Jonathan giggled. ‘A brazen attack in broad daylight!’
The newcomer practically bowed as he reached the table. ‘Mr Hagstrom, nice to see you, sir! How’s your stay been so far?’
‘Absolutely fine,’ Jonathan said cautiously. He accepted a handshake from the man.
‘And his good lady friend – it’s Cora, isn’t it? How have you found our beaches?’
‘They’re lovely,’ Cora said. She ignored his offer of a handshake, then sat up with her shoulders back. ‘Not to be awkward or anything, but – who are you exactly?’
The man’s heavily lined brow smoothed out in consternation. ‘Surely you’re kidding. It’s me! Percy Clay.’
‘Percy. Well… I’m not sure we’ve met,’ Cora said.
Still smiling, but a little less sure of himself, Percy turned to Jonathan. ‘Well, no, we haven’t met, but… You remember the booking?’
‘I’m not sure I recall, no,’ Cora said, a little dismissively. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh… Well. I’m doing the chartered trip. You booked it for a little later today?’
Jonathan chuckled at Cora’s expression. ‘I think you might have the wrong people, mate.’
‘No – it’s Mr Hagstrom, isn’t it? And Miss O’Brien?’
Cora frowned. ‘We’ve never seen you before.’
‘No, this was online, ma’am. I took a booking from you, even before you arrived. We’re heading out to the reef this afternoon. Private charter.’
Jonathan’s face grew pale, even with the draining heat. ‘Christ… did I book a trip? I know I was thinking about it the other night, after I’d been out at the awards show.’
‘You did book a couple of days ago, sir.’ He grinned, revealing hunger-strike teeth, pushing out of the gumline like dead men’s fingers. ‘Cap’n Clay, they call me – I’ll be your tour guide this morning.’
‘I guess you are,’ Jonathan said. ‘What’s your company?’
Clay handed them a business card, altogether too sharp around the edges, as if they’d just been cut with a bandsaw that morning. ‘Cap’n Clay’s Cruises’, it read. The white card was embossed with the image of a ship tearing through gently curving waves.
Beneath the ship was a shark, back arched, jaws agape.
‘You’re not taking us out to see the sharks, are you?’ Cora asked.
‘Sure,’ Clay said, grinning again. ‘That’s the whole point!’
Cap’n Clay’s boat bore little relation to the sleek vessel on the embossed card. It was a cigarette boat, maybe fifteen feet long, with a cramped cabin underneath the wheelhouse. Shirley, her name was, in letters slashed beneath the gunwale to port and starboard in bright red, stark as lipstick against the whitewashed hull.
‘Shirley not,’ Cora muttered, taking a seat to the port side as Clay untied the vessel from the marina.
‘Beers are in the cooler,’ Clay cried, as he unmoored the boat, looping the rope with quick hands. ‘All part of the trip. Gratis!’ Then he bounded to the wheelhouse. The engine started like an elderly uncle clearing his throat; then Shirley was edging out into the blue. Cora noticed purple fish scattering in the water, perfectly clear even this close to the shore, not even six feet deep.
Jonathan reached into the cooler for a beer; he nodded, eyebrows raised in surprise, the brand evidently to his liking. ‘Having one?’ he asked.
She shook her head. ‘Guess we’re the only charter today. Hope this guy isn’t actually trying to kill us.’
Jonathan fished around in the chips and shards of ice for a bottle opener, popped the beer, and took a long sip. ‘Suits me. I can do without the awkwardness of other humans. Just you ’n’ me, and the deep blue sea.’
‘Yeah. And the things that swim in it.’ Cora shivered. This had nothing to do with the temperature, which was reaching a peak for the day – edging from ‘hot’ into ‘officially uncomfortable’.
He kissed her, and draped a hand around her shoulder, playing with the spaghetti straps of her top until she shrugged him off. ‘It’ll be great. Don’t you just love this? The wind? The sea… You ’n’ me?’
The marina was busy now, with some bigger yachts heading out into the great blue yonder. Out on the horizon, a liner blew its horn, several storeys high and glittering with innumerable windows, impossibly large almost at this distance.
Closer to the beach, jet skis scythed across the bay, leaving jagged white plumes in the uncut blue. Cora could hear the whooping and cries of the two men who piloted them. On a slight hill above a line of trees that struck Cora as decorative, not wild and tropical, like on Two Trees Island, white villas clung to the rocks, stolid sentinels of affluence to match the big boys’ toys in the bay.
Over to the west lay Two Trees Island, their house hidden on the opposite side. The side that faced them was wilder, pitted rocks stretching straight into the sea at some points, stubbled with trees and lush vegetation. The blue waters foamed again at this rocky point. To the east of this, a few hundred yards away, peering from its perch at the far side of the island, was Two Trees Lighthouse, high above the waterline, poised at the top of a rocky atoll that had been cut in two by some unimaginable seismic activity.
Big Island soon curved away as the boat showed a nifty turn of pace. Shirley had a bit of oomph downstairs, Cora had to credit her with that.
‘Come on,’ Jonathan said, at length. ‘Give it up. What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. Is there a fizzy drink in there I could have?’
‘She said, passive aggressively.’ Jonathan dug into the cool box, and handed her a sweating can of soda. ‘What is it? Is this not luxurious enough? I could have got you on a floating gin palace, if you prefer. One of those nightmare party boats where everyone gets diarrhoea.’
Cora sniggered at the sudden crudity. ‘No thanks. They were never my style.’
‘I guessed that.’
‘Know what you didn’t guess?’
He shrugged, and sipped his beer. ‘Shock me.’
‘I don’t like sharks, dearest,’ she whispered.
Jonathan was genuinely shocked. ‘You’re serious?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘All this time, and you never told me?’
‘Never thought it mattered. It wasn’t a problem, until today.’
‘But I’m a Jaws freak,’ he protested. ‘All those times I’ve made you sit through it. The special edition DVDs that I won’t replace with the Blu-rays I bought years later… even the sequels, damn it!’
‘Jaws 2 is all right,’ she said. ‘That’s not as bad a film as people say.’
‘That’s true. You know its biggest fault? Coming after the greatest film ever made.’
‘But it’s not Jaws 3 and 4.’
‘Granted. Less said about those, the better.’ He shuddered at the memory. ‘Even so… I thought you might have told me you didn’t like sharks. How can I not know that about you?’
‘It does make me wonder what else you haven’t picked up on.’
Jonathan fixed a sunhat down on his head. ‘Well, look, let’s turn this around. We can pay Cap’n Clay to take the morning off, and instead of the sharks, we’ll go look at, I don’t know… churches or something. A nice walled garden.’
At the mention of his name, Clay half-turned at the wheel. ‘Everything OK back there, folks?’
‘It’s fine,’ Cora said, raising a hand to still Jonathan’s protest. ‘It was just getting a little bit choppy back here. But it’s all right.’
‘Ah. I’ll take it a bit easier.’ He eased down on the throttle. ‘That OK for you now?’
‘Thanks. All good.’
‘If you feel unwell, focus on the horizon. Look at something that doesn’t move. Old sailor’s trick, trust me.’
‘I think it’s working already.’
‘Or failing that, just vomit over the side.’ Clay cackled harshly, deeply amused by his own joke.
‘He’s adorable,’ Cora said, through a grudging smile. ‘Where did you find him?’
‘Internet. I think.’
‘We’re sailing in shark-infested seas with some guy you drunk-ordered online?’
‘I think I remember him… Cap’n Clay, decent website, good reviews on TripAdvisor… and not too cheap either, come to think of it.’
‘Next time, just let me handle the bookings.’ She clasped his hand.
‘You sure you’re OK with this? It’s nothing dodgy. You won’t be swimming with them. There’s a cool place, a reef… you’ll see. Nature documentary stuff.
I’m okay with nature, but I’m not too happy about nature that can eat you.
‘It’s fine to cancel it. Seriously. Just say the word.’
‘I don’t want to cancel it. It’d be a wasted morning.’
‘You can waste every morning, babe.’ He kissed her fingers, his lips nudging the unfamiliar stone nestled among her fingers. ‘For the rest of your life.’
‘But I won’t. Remember? It’s an amazing thing, you’ve been lucky, but… we’ve been through this. I want to keep on at the school. I want to do something useful. If we want long holidays, we’ve got them. We can keep those.’
‘I know. But let me dream a little bit. We can do that on holiday, right? Let me be the king, and you be the queen. Imagine we have a castle. Imagine this is our flagship, in fact.’
‘Hoist the sail!’ she cried.
‘That’s the spirit!’ Clay yelled, parping Shirley’s horn.
Cap’n Clay took Shirley to Beausoleil Island, a scrub of land festooned with mangrove trees by the shoreline. It was just far enough away from Big Island and any other sea traffic to be discomfiting. There seemed to be no one about; only the odd seabird wheeled around as Cap’n Clay cut the engines and let the boat idle near an inlet leading into a mangrove swamp.
‘Albatrosses, aren’t they?’ Jonathan said, cringing as one of the birds blotted out the sky overhead.’
‘Big fellas, boss, aren’t they?’ Clay said, dropping the anchor into the bay. ‘They say they’re related to the dinosaurs. I say, they are dinosaurs. You wouldn’t want to catch a deposit in the eye from one of them, that’s for sure!’
‘Where’s the sharks, then?’ Cora said.
Clay sauntered over to where she sat. He leaned in close, and she wondered with a kind of horror-struck fascination if his cat’s whisker bristles might actually touch her skin.
‘All around you,’ he said, and pointed.
Near the entrance to the mangrove swamp, where the water ran shallow, Cora caught movement. The water was laced with golden sunlight, and it was difficult to focus on one spot for too long owing to the glare, but soon she made out a disturbance in the water.
Fins. Dozens of them.
‘Check that out!’ Jonathan said, excitedly. He stood up too quickly for Cora’s liking – upsetting the boat, which was not to her liking either. She clutched the gunwale and planted her feet firmly on the deck. ‘This is Shark City! There must be a hundred sharks there!’
‘Maybe more,’ Cap’n Clay said, grinning.
It was difficult to tell how big they were – not monster-sized, but enough to cause alarm. Cora felt that gut-wrenching, gene-deep fear at the sight of the triangular blades cleaving the water. She might have said the biggest ones were four or five feet, which was plenty big enough, thank you very much. The fish seemed to huddle together in a great silvery clump, dorsal fins and tails quivering in the water.
‘They’re not beaching, are they?’ she asked.
Clay scratched his chin. ‘Depends on what you mean when you say “beaching”, ma’am.’
Jonathan said, in a passable impression of Sir David Attenborough: ‘The sharks congregate heah, for reasons of love.’
‘Actually they’re just young ones,’ Clay said. ‘They like to congregate around these types of waters. Nice and shallow, sandy bottom. Good feeding, before they head out to sea when they’re older.’
‘Blacktip?’ Jonathan snapped at the fish with his Nikon.
‘Yep. I guess the black marks on the dorsal fin kind of give them away. Lots of them come here. Some species use the mangrove swamp as a nursery. Look – you can see a juvenile just out there. Lemon shark, I think.’ He pointed towards the narrow channel. Cora thought she saw a smaller shadow passing through the mouth of the swamp, contrasting sharply with the pure white sand below.
Cora smiled. ‘That one’s dinky. I don’t mind him so much.’
‘Want to take him home?’ Jonathan smirked, his face pressed to the lens of the camera.
She didn’t answer. ‘These ones aren’t dangerous, I suppose?’
‘Very few of ’em are, ma’am,’ Clay answered. ‘Don’t believe the hype. There are some dangerous ones, but sharks aren’t out to eat us, believe me. There are no great whites out here, or at least, they haven’t recorded any. You do get some big fellas, but I can’t ever remember anyone being attacked. Now, a blacktip is a timid fish – more likely to swim away when it sees or hears a person. You could probably swim right through that ol’ keg party they’ve got happening over there.’
‘I think I’ll leave them to it.’
‘Lot of sharks out this way, though. You won’t go far without seeing one, thanks to the reef. This is a hotspot for oceanographers. Seen a lot of camera crews out here. The BBC were here last fall, in fact.’
‘So, no great whites? No Jaws?’ Jonathan sounded disappointed.
‘No. But if you’re amenable, I can show you something else. Let me know when you’ve taken your pictures, then we’ll be off.’
He took them to the southern tip of Beausoleil Island, a rockier prospect again, and this one more to the liking of the albatrosses. The huge birds seemed to set sail in the sky rather than resort to anything as crude as flapping, or even gliding. They cast immense shadows over the face of the waters as they stretched their wings to a preposterous span.
‘Now this is where things get more interesting,’ Cap’n Clay said, as he dropped anchor again.
‘Don’t you have to put out some bait, or something?’ Cora asked.
‘Nope. Not out here.’
‘Plenty of fish, then?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
Growing annoyed with the captain’s vague manner and increasingly condescending tone, Cora strode over to the other side of the boat. Jonathan had the Nikon stuck to his face, taking shot after shot of the rocky outcroppings, the surging and receding foam and guano-streaked rocks studding the shallows. I think I preferred it when he just messed around with his phone, Cora thought. At least that was more subtle.
She rested her elbows on the stern, leaning back on her leather bench seat. An albatross landed in the water about twelve yards or so away from the stern, settling on the surface with an ungainly sputter of water. It rested there a moment, head darting left and right.
‘Not very graceful, mister,’ Cora said to the bird. Its head actually turned towards her, tilted near quizzically. Its plumage was grey-black, and the neck feathers were a charcoal grey. For all its great girth and size, it wasn’t pretty – a powerful creature, but not a beautiful one.
Cora only saw the torpedo streaking towards the bird at the very last moment.
The bird tilted its head to look at Cora. Then came the impact.
The albatross’s wings contorted into a badly scrawled letter; it emitted one terrible shriek as the shark carried it for a few yards along the surface, coming close to the boat. The water seemed to shrink away from the huge squat slab of its dorsal fin; the head alone must have been two feet across, maybe more, its girth hard to believe. Cora discerned the tell-tale patterning on its dark skin as it came close to the transom, and knew what it was before Cap’n Clay could speak.
‘There! Tiger shark. You see it? That could well be Bertha.’
Cora realised she had her hand clamped to her mouth. ‘Bertha? What kind of name is that for a shark?’
‘Oh, bad joke. I might tell you later, ma’am.’
‘What?’ Jonathan charged towards the stern, snapping at the dark shadow of the fish as it cruised past them, then went deep. ‘Tiger shark! I see it! My God, look at the tail! It’s a beauty! What happened?’
‘Took a bird,’ Cora said. ‘I saw everything. It’s as big as a minibus. I knew they could be long, but I never knew they could be so wide around.’ She turned to Clay. ‘Is that something to do with the dirty joke you won’t tell me?’
‘I can’t believe I saw a tiger shark! Why didn’t you say?’ Jonathan was beaming.
‘It happened fast. I believe they use stealth, or something. They’ve got the camouflage for it, I suppose.’ Cora turned to Clay. ‘I think I might have that beer now.’
‘Hey, you were swimming earlier on this morning!’ Jonathan said. ‘Just think, that fish could have been out there.’
‘Oh. Lovely thought. I don’t think I’ll sleep again, never mind swim. Yep, make that a beer for me.’ She accepted a beer from Clay, who had retrieved it from the cool box and popped it open with his fingertips, again with admirable dexterity. Quick hands, she thought.
‘You have to be careful with the tiger sharks,’ Clay said, seriously. ‘Very dangerous fish. No recorded attacks out here, again, but they’re out there. Bertha comes around every year, round about this time, when the albatross youngsters hatch.’
‘How did you know which shark it was?’ Jonathan asked.
‘Let me have a look at your camera… Does this have a viewer on it? Ah, there we go… Now, let’s spool back… There. Now zoom in on the dorsal fin. You see that yellow tag?’
Cora stood on unsteady legs and peered into the Nikon’s viewer. Jonathan had zoomed in on a yellow stub that protruded directly in front of that squat blade of flesh on the fish’s back. The yellow banner had a set of black letters on it.
‘That’s a tag,’ Clay said. ‘Placed there four years ago. They know when Bertha’s been around. You can track her on Twitter or some such, now. She’s been around, that girl. Seventeen feet, nose to tail, they reckon. Not as broad as the great whites, but bigger than a few.’
‘It just came out of nowhere,’ Cora said. ‘Obliterated that bird like a torpedo. That’s my nightmare, right there. That was it.’
‘It’s unlikely to happen, miss. They’re here for the birds, as I say. They’re not into us as food at all.’
‘All the same, I think my swimming’s going to be restricted to a quick paddle.’
‘I don’t think I’d do whatever that person’s doing – that’s for sure,’ Jonathan said, in a strained voice.
Clay cocked a hairy grey caterpillar of an eyebrow. ‘What’s that?’
‘Oh my God,’ Cora cried, pointing. ‘Over by the mangroves… there’s someone swimming in there!’
The dark shadow that emerged from the mangroves was sleek, but ungainly – certainly it was no silent, swift predator. The jutting fluke of a snorkel was as much of a tell in that regard as a dorsal fin.
‘Get out!’ Cora cried. ‘There’s a massive shark in there!’
‘Bertha’s just fed, ma’am, they’re in no danger,’ Clay said. But his face betrayed his alarm as the figure swam out into the bay, flippers slapping at the surface. He scuttled up to the wheel, then blasted the horn.
A head bobbed up, with a facemask catching the light. It reminded Cora of seals she’d seen at play off the shore of Holy Island, a long time ago.
The swimmer raised an arm and waved.
‘There’s a shark!’ Cora said. She mimicked a fin with her hands, a gesture that would have led to mockery from Jonathan in any other context. ‘Get out of the water!’
‘Where?’ The swimmer had a woman’s voice.
Cora scanned the water. Something darted away just beyond her line of vision, too quick to make out.
The swimmer put her head down, then continued swimming out of the mangrove channel into the open water.
A kayak followed her from the channel, its yellow hull eyeball-searingly bright even among that tropical kaleidoscope. A man in a sunhat and shades was piloting it. He saw Clay’s boat and raised a paddle. ‘Ahoy there!’ he called.
‘It’s that guy from the island,’ Jonathan said. ‘What’s his name – Dylan? This must be that other couple.’
‘I’m not sure…’ Cora didn’t pay the figure on the kayak much attention. She scanned the water, horribly alert now to every ripple and burble.
The swimmer came closer, stopping to tread water periodically and take a look. She was clearly a strong swimmer, with confident, unhurried strokes. At one point she slipped completely under the surface, just a suggestion of the snorkel protruding through it.
‘Should we drive over to meet her?’ Jonathan asked. He had stopped taking pictures, the Nikon slung low on his neck.
Clay shook his head. ‘There’s a chance we’d collide with her. She’s almost here. Assuming she wants to come on board.’
‘There it is!’ Cora yelped. ‘It’s there – off the stern!’
‘Jesus,’ Jonathan whispered.
There was no doubt about it; the water was too clear for there to be any mistake, any false impression or misidentification. The shadow was huge, sinuous and deadly. The tip of its dorsal fin and tail broke the water briefly, before it circled back the way it had come.
Still the swimmer came on, arm over arm. Cora leaned over the side of the boat, her stomach churning both at the idea of the shadow making a sudden run at the woman as well as the notion she might be seized and drawn into the water, much as a goldfish might snatch a pond skater.
Jonathan joined her, his face stricken. ‘Come on, get out of the water. It’s there. It’s come back!’
Clay emerged from the wheelhouse with a set of chrome-plated steps. He attached the curved ends to the gunwale and lowered the steps into the water.
The woman stopped short of the boat, treading water. She removed the mouthpiece of her snorkel, and raised her facemask. She had almond-shaped dark eyes above cheekbones that were more finely honed than Cora’s. But even at that moment, and with her being soaking wet, Cora recognised the similarity between them.
‘Hey,’ the woman, Hazel, said. ‘Permission to come aboard?’
‘Granted, miss,’ Clay said. ‘Best you be quick about it.’ He tried to inject some levity into his tone, but a slight quaver exposed his anxiety. ‘There’s a big fish about.’
‘Oh, is that the tiger shark?’ She looked around, slowly and deliberately. ‘I know, it’s an absolute beauty. We’ve been looking for it all morning. Bertha, they call it. I’d say it’s a good fifteen or sixteen feet, maybe more. Big girl.’
‘For God’s sake,’ Cora said, ‘get on board. It’s about three times your size!’
‘She’s a shy one, though. Kept running away when I got close. Playing hard to get.’
Hazel hoisted herself out of the water, tossing her black flippers onto the deck at Cora’s feet. She wore a black one-piece swimming outfit. It looked as if it was made of real sharkskin itself, a professional-seeming swimsuit. Powerful thigh muscles bunched as she climbed the steps and came on board, shaking drops of water out off her feet like a cat before stepping onto the deck.
‘I think we’d best get the lady a drink,’ Jonathan said, reaching into the cool box.
I think we’d best get the lady a psychiatric assessment first, Cora thought. She watched Hazel sit down on the red bench, her wet swimsuit adhering to the leather with a wet kissing sound. ‘Oh, that hits the spot. Very kind.’
It was hard to place her accent – London, but not originally. It sounded fine-tuned, with time and ill usage having worn away something more regional. Maybe the Midlands?
‘You’re a braver man than I,’ Jonathan said, raising his own bottle to her. ‘We can give you a lift back to wherever you’re going.’
‘I can swim back. It’s not far. Isn’t the water temperature amazing? It really is like getting into a bath. I bet it doesn’t even dip that much at night.’
‘You’re thinking of swimming out here at night?’ Jonathan asked.
‘Sure. Why not?’ She took a long drink of the beer. ‘Hey – you’re that guy who’s just along the beach from us, right? Two Trees Island? I’m Hazel.’
They shook hands. ‘That’s right. I’m Jonathan. I think we met your, eh…’
‘Boyfriend. Live-in, common-law… whatever.’ She stifled a burp. ‘And this is the missus?’
‘I’m Cora.’ The girl who is also just along the beach from you, she wanted to say.
‘Hey there, nice to meet you both. Jesus!’ Hazel stood up, and took Cora’s other hand. She turned the ring between her fingers. ‘Check out the rock! Is that new?’
‘Engaged this morning,’ Cora said.
‘Aw, congratulations! Good Lord, I wouldn’t like to guess how much the sparkler cost. I’ve never seen one like that. Hey, why don’t I get you a beer in return tonight? Come on over and look us up. You can show your rock to Dylan – maybe give him a few ideas.’
‘We might just do that,’ Cora heard herself say.
‘Yeah,’ Jonathan offered. ‘Might get a bit dull out there at night, on our own.’
‘Well, we’re going over to Big Island. Just come on over and knock the door. We’ll be around all day tomorrow, too.’
‘We will,’ Jonathan said. ‘Uh, Cap’n? Maybe take this lady over…’
‘No need,’ she said. ‘Here. Hold my beer, as the kids say.’
Hazel handed the half-drunk bottle to Jonathan, then put her flippers back on. She gave them all a wave, and then leapt up onto the gunwale, perched precariously on nimble little feet, judging the balance perfectly. Then she dived into the water, curving her body sinuously beneath the it until she surfaced as much as fifteen feet away from the boat.
The man on the kayak had come much closer in the interim. Cora watched as he stood up, feet splayed in order to balance himself on the fibreglass vessel. ‘Hey, hello again! Big Island, tonight or tomorrow night. What do you say?’
‘Yeah, sure!’ Jonathan yelled. Then, to Cora, out of the side of his mouth: ‘If you get back to shore alive, that is.’
Hazel closed the gap between the Shirley and the kayak in less than twenty seconds. Dylan, who was now straddling the kayak, helped her clamber on board. She sat in the second seat behind Dylan’s, and pulled a second paddle from its bracket.
Within moments they were both paddling towards the mangrove channel.
‘Well, that was a brave lady, and no mistake,’ Cap’n Clay said. ‘I don’t mind admitting, I thought I was watching the mother and father of all insurance claims unfolding before my very eyes.’
‘Brave… or mental,’ Cora said.
‘Plenty of eating on her, if you don’t mind me saying so,’ Clay said, waggling his eyebrows at Jonathan. Jonathan gave a non-committal grunt and took a sip of beer.
‘Actually, I do mind you saying so,’ Cora said, hotly.
Clay grimaced, then hoisted the anchor. ‘Sorry, ma’am,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you to the reef now. You can go snorkelling there. If you want to, that is.’
‘Yeah, let me think about it,’ Cora muttered, sinking back down onto the bench.
‘Hey,’ Clay said, after a time, ‘we’ve got a clear run back to Two Trees… either of you fancy taking the wheel?’
Jonathan hesitated. Cora, who had been flopped back in her seat, trying not to sleep, sat up instantly. ‘Yeah, please. I’d love a go.’
Clay seemed delighted, and stood aside from the wheel, with the engine idling. It was inlaid with rubber, like the steering wheel on a performance car but bigger in circumference. ‘Now, I’ll just give you a quick tutorial.’
‘What happens if I do this?’ Cora said, mock-innocent, as she took hold of the wheel and jerked up the throttle lever.
The boat roared into life. Clay stumbled a little; Jonathan sat down, heavily.
‘Whoa there!’ Clay said. He laughed, a little too loudly. ‘You need to…’
‘I think I’ve got it,’ Cora said. She turned the wheel and pointed the boat for the shimmering blue in between Two Trees Island and the rocky smaller island about half a mile or so across the bay.
‘You know boats?’
‘Yeah – I had a rich uncle. He used to have one just like this. Taught me how to handle it. The controls are the same. Bugger didn’t leave it to me in his will – can you believe that?’
She grinned; she felt the wind in her teeth and her hair, cooling the sweat at her brow. This was like the dreams of flying she sometimes had after sex. Free, she thought. That one word.
‘Don’t you think you’re going too fast?’ Jonathan said, somewhere behind her.
She ignored him, angling the boat away from Two Trees Island. They could make out the beach house, anchored firmly into the dunes just above the pristine beach; around the curve of the bay, above a slick pile of black rocks, stood the lighthouse.
‘Any chance I could keep Shirley for the day?’
‘Ah, I’ve got bookings, miss. Otherwise – if you’re payin’, we’re sailin’. Hey, now… just a moment.’
Clay took hold of the wheel – not roughly, but certainly giving more than a slight hint. He eased down on the throttle, and the speed dropped. Cora moved out of the way, letting Clay take the wheel. He pointed the bow to starboard, closer to Big Island.
‘There, now – see that there?’ He pointed to a foaming point somewhere in the pearlescent blue. Fronds of what could have been coral or even a ribcage poked out of the water; below, a different texture beneath the surface pointed to the reef. ‘There’s a nasty backwash, just over there where a few people came to grief. There’s a buoy to mark it, but some folk head on through – like I suspect you were going to.’
‘I did see the buoy,’ Cora said, defensively. ‘I wouldn’t have crashed through it.’
‘If you do,’ Clay said, ‘kill the engine right away, and try and steer out of it. The backwash can tip you over – you’ve got to be careful about it. Or canny, as my old Scotch granny would say.’
‘Thanks,’ Cora mumbled. It was unlikely they’d hire a boat out here, but it paid to know what to do. She felt like a teacher had sent her to the back of the class.
‘I have to negotiate it every night, on my way back from Big Island.’ He pointed to the rockier island, across the bay. ‘That there’s Russell Island. And you see that shack, just at the edge of the beach? That’s my house.’
‘We’re practically neighbours,’ Jonathan said. ‘You should swim over for a beer, sometime.’
‘I could piss further!’ Clay said, grinning, as he gunned the engine and steered for the jetty.
Freddie the instructor said: ‘Now it’s simple. The boat starts, yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ Cora said. Her bare feet were braced against the yellow fibreglass of the boat’s hull. It burned through the soles of her feet and her sundress, hotter than the day’s heat above.
The boat’s engine started with a throaty burr, pure Barry White.
Jonathan giggled. ‘It’s a bit like being keelhauled, I guess. You ever see that? In the James Bond movie? Where they get dragged over the reef by the baddies.’
‘I take it this is when you tell me you’ve never much liked heights, either?’
‘I said, shut up!’
There was a soft sighing sound overhead.
‘Now just remember,’ Freddie the instructor said, ‘you’ll go up nice and smooth, nothing outrageous… All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride!’ He grinned, a particularly gruesome picture over his misshapen aviator shades.
There was a slight tug underneath Cora’s thighs, where the harness dug in. And then they were both airborne, gently plucked off the deck of the boat, a pair of feathers on a breeze. Cora yelped in surprise, feet kicking.
‘Just stay still!’ a rapidly receding Freddie yelled, hands cupped to his mouth. ‘Sit back and enjoy your flight!’ He signalled to the helmsman of their boat, now the size of a model, now the size of a bath toy in the perfect blue beneath. Her stomach roiled at the sense of distance, of the yawning gap just beneath her feet. Perfectly safe, she thought. Perfectly safe.
‘What about this, then!’ Jonathan said, grinning broadly. ‘Good God, look at the water!’
In point of fact Cora didn’t want to look at the water. From a distance of maybe thirty feet in the air, it had taken on a texture and granularity that she didn’t like. There, beneath her bare feet, was the hint of depth, of waving vegetation, of shadowy regions and the things that hid there. ‘I must admit, when you mentioned a day experience, I was thinking more like “spa afternoon”.’
‘We’re too drunk for a spa afternoon.’
‘We’re definitely too drunk for frigging parasailing! What possessed you?’
‘We have to get used to this,’ Jonathan said. He let go of the harness to pat Cora’s shoulders; she was absurdly grateful for the contact. ‘I told you – this is the high life!’
‘Very funny. We’re quite a way up, aren’t we?’
‘Yep,’ Jonathan said, more uncertainly.
Cora looked up over her shoulder. Above them, keeping them anchored in mid-air, was a T-bar with hooks and clips, connected to the body harnesses enfolding them. Above that, in full bloom across the blue sky, was a banana yellow canopy. Underneath them was a neoprene harness, cushioning them as they sat back. The line connecting the harness to the boat was taut now; Cora guessed they were as much as forty feet up in the air.
‘High enough to die if we fell,’ Jonathan mused, peering beneath his knees. ‘If we landed on rock, of course.’
‘We’d be OK if we landed on the water?’
‘Oh yeah. Sure. I’ve jumped forty feet into the water. Head first, like Tarzan. Haven’t you?’
‘I don’t think diving in at Butlin’s was quite like that.’
‘Not even in your gung-ho super army killer training days?’
‘I must have skipped that part.’ Cora leaned back and trailed her hand in the air. The sun caught her new ring, and it was too bright to look at directly. ‘I wonder if people can see this across the bay.’
‘The ring? They should be able to see it from space. Hope so, anyway.’
She leaned across space and kissed him. The entire structure swayed a little in the air as she did so, and she leaned back, quickly. ‘God. There’s nowhere to go, if something goes wrong. Except down, I guess.’
The boat arced across the bay, away from the seafront at Big Island where Jonathan had eagerly signed her up for the parasailing. They’d been careful to pick the shiniest, newest-looking boat among the various companies set up along the marina. This was where the view turned into an exact picture-postcard image, missing only an orange banner and a jaunty slogan. It was breathtaking; it was a flat plain of tropical blue, and swimming around one of the reefs…
‘Oh Christ.’ Cora gripped Jonathan’s shoulder.
‘What? Oh.’ He grinned, a little less assuredly. ‘Well. What did the training video say about landing in water?’
‘I think it said, “Wait until the boat crew come to help you.” They’d better be bloody quick about it!’
Beneath their feet were reef sharks – dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, lazily cruising stilettos in the blue.
Cora wanted to crawl back up onto a high shelf or a ledge that didn’t exist. ‘Jonathan, this was a really, really bad idea.’
He reached over and patted her shoulder again. ‘Hey – it’s not like we’re in any danger.’
‘What we have here is a forty-foot drop… and that could be fifty feet, now… into a family-sized shark soup.’
‘It’s fine.’ Jonathan stared down at the slow-cruising shapes. One of the sharks banked sharply in the water. ‘Hey… I wonder if they can see us. I wonder if they think we’re food.’
‘You’re not helping, Jonathan.’
He squeezed her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry. This was daft. I thought it’d be exciting. If you’re scared…’
‘Who’s scared?’ she huffed.
‘You are. Of sharks. I didn’t order the sharks. I’m sorry. I’ll signal to the guy to go back.’
‘It’s OK. I think we’re…’
And then it happened. She felt a yank, to the right. She heard the line snap. She screamed.
Jonathan’s eyes widened. ‘Hey!’
‘What’s going on here?’ The harness sagged to Cora’s left. She glanced over her shoulder.
One of the clasps connecting the harness to the T-bar had come completely loose. The buckle flailed on the air with tiny tinkling sound.
‘Oh God. Hang on…’ Jonathan reached over her shoulder.
‘Don’t touch it! You must have moved it when you were messing about up there!’
‘I wasn’t messing about! I was patting your shoulder. I didn’t touch the clasp. Here, wait a second, I’ll reconnect it…’
‘Don’t touch it, I said!’ She grabbed at him.
‘It looks like it’s snapped… Here.’ He wrapped his arms about her, and snaked his own legs over hers.
‘What are you doing!’ She wanted to push him off. Surely he hadn’t unclasped it? Why would he do that?
‘Hanging on to you, is what I’m doing. If it goes down, that means we’re going down together.’
‘Just signal them! Get us down!’
The two men on the boat, including Freddie, had already noticed. Freddie was yelling something at them, but it was lost on the breeze.
‘Bring us in!’ Jonathan bellowed. ‘Bring us down, now!’
Freddie threw a switch, and the boat began to grow larger as the line snapped taut.
Jonathan clung harder to her. ‘We’ll sue them for this… health and safety laws. Surely they have them? And you know what, we bloody could sue them! We’ve got means!’
The water and the boat grew close. ‘Sit down!’ Freddie cried. He flapped his arms absurdly – surely that doesn’t signify sitting down, Cora thought. ‘On the target! Sit down, nice and easy!’
Cora and Jonathan extricated themselves, limb by limb. The parasail unit brought them back to the fibreglass ‘target’ on the stern of the boat. They sat down, gently, and Freddie began to uncouple them.
‘What’s going on there?’ Cora said. She turned towards the T-bar; but Freddie’s fingers had swiftly reconnected it.
‘What?’ he said, shrugging.
‘Oh, nice hustle,’ Jonathan said, sarcastically. ‘That came loose, pal – you’d better get it fixed before anyone else tries out this deathtrap.’
‘That hurts my feelings,’ Freddie said, grinning. ‘I’m sure you’re right, though.’
‘Let’s just get back to dry land,’ Cora said.
‘Aye aye,’ Freddie said, gathering in the chute.
Cora leaned back on the beach chair. ‘I dunno about you, but I feel like I’ve been here a week already. The parasailing experience just adds to it, as well as several years to my life.’
Behind her, in the shade of their kitchen, Jonathan crossed over to the drinks rack. ‘What about the bold Hazel? Fearless shark hunter? Christ, I was terrified just watching.’
‘Surprised you recognised her with her clothes on.’
‘Meow.’ He took out a bottle of rum, and poured them two fingers each. Then he took a lime from a fruit bowl and began to slice it on the chopping board. ‘Anyway. What a place, eh?’
‘It’s like a dream. You remember when you used your crayons to draw a beach scene when you were a kid? It’s like it’s come to life.’
‘Yeah. I know what you mean. All those shades of blue… Remember those? Cornflower. Cerulean. Sky blue.’
‘Betty blue?’ She giggled.
Despite her protests, they’d had a couple more beers on their trip around the island, and then a few after that. They had gone to see a conch expert at the conch museum, where a man in bright red ‘CONCH MUSEUM’ T-shirt had held up a live specimen of the shellfish, dripping wet from the pool, and told the rest of the spectators with a straight face: ‘This is a conch. And this is its penis.’ He went on to tell the assembled tourists how the humble conch has the biggest penis-to-body ratio in the animal kingdom, at which point Cora began to suffer from a coughing fit, which meant she had to go outside and laugh properly.
This had triggered an even boozier afternoon than anticipated, with piña coladas drunk unironically, and ‘retro selfies’ with the Nikon turned into their very noses. After lobster for lunch as planned – ‘even better than I expected,’ Jonathan had said, with his mouth full and no fucks given – they’d had a quite farcical afternoon, wandering the beach, having more drinks, and finally lapsing into full-on drunkenness.
‘There’s sharks in there!’ Cora had yelled at one point to a mercifully oblivious kite surfer, turning immense corkscrews in the air when the breeze blew.
‘And squid!’ Jonathan had offered, pointing towards the horizon. ‘Big ones! I’ve seen it in the movies! Giant sea beasts lurk around every corner! If you get corners under the sea. I dunno. Or straight edges. It’s all very fluid.’
Cora attempted to turn cartwheels on the sands, once moderately successfully. One bartender cried out, ‘Go, Cora!’ waving and hooting, as Jonathan helped her up.
‘We’re famous,’ Cora said. ‘I might in fact be sick.’
She held on, though, once the dizziness passed, turning Jonathan into a human wheelbarrow after he made a passable attempt to stand on his head, gripping his ankles, gritting her teeth. She had to look lively on more than one occasion when his flip-flop-clad feet flailed a little too close to her nose.
Two immense chocolate ice creams, served from a glittering steel counter on a kiosk that looked like it had been teleported from the 1950s, steadied the ship.
‘I’m sleepy,’ Jonathan yawned, as they sat on a bench, watching families splash each other in the jewelled sea. ‘Too much too soon, maybe.’
Cora snorted, and woke up on his shoulder. ‘Where’s the upside-down people?’ she asked, brushing the curls out of her face.
‘Floated back to space where they came from, I suspect,’ Jonathan said, soberly. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘Never mind.’ Cora stretched and yawned, then checked her watch. ‘Good God. It’s only three o’clock.’
‘What do you say we get changed and turn it around and go back out? Pretend we’re students.’
They both laughed aloud at the suggestion.
‘I think I might put my pyjamas on when we get back,’ Cora said, wiping off sweat that clung to her high, fine cheekbones. ‘A dressing gown might be stretching it. In fact, I didn’t think to pack one.’
‘Slippers might be nice. Sand wouldn’t burn you through those.’
‘Could top the day off with a nice hot chocolate. Stick the fire on?’
‘Yeah. Find out if they’ve got Midsomer on cable.’
They headed back to Two Trees Island on a water taxi. Cora fell asleep on the plush white leather seats of the boat, replicating a pose she’d adopted when she clocked out during a superhero movie on their last ‘Jonathan’s choice’ night at the cinema. The men in costumes had been twatting each other when she had slipped into unconsciousness, and they’d still been twatting each other when she’d woken up. Jonathan had actually been crying; when she registered her astonishment, he’d mumbled about finding it very noble, and it was never spoken of again.
This time, there was only the rocking of the boat and the sizzling water in her ears, until Jonathan shook her gently.
‘Your palace awaits, Sleeping Beauty.’
Back at Two Trees Island, Cora lounged in one of the foldable beach chairs that belonged to the house, drinking bottled water in a vain bid to stave off a mid-afternoon hangover.
All the same, when Jonathan handed her a rum and cola, she sipped at it, savouring the bite. He makes those just right, she thought. Not too tame. Not too nasty. Just enough of a kick to let you know it’s there.
Jonathan sat beside her, anchoring his own drink in the sand. He booted up his laptop, and she frowned.
‘See any more footprints?’ he asked.
‘Yeah – don’t know if our dearest neighbours came back, or whether that’s just their footprints from earlier.’ Cora pointed towards the sand away from the shoreline, where the surf hadn’t yet brushed away signs of travel.
‘Oh yeah, I see those.’ The screen of the laptop blinked on; Jonathan put on his shades and began to type when the log-in screen appeared. And that was it; in a matter of hours, and the matter of a few drinks, he was back, dialled in to the pale blue electric facewash that stole so much of his attention, any time of day or night. He had promised he wouldn’t do this; that they’d leave the phones in the beach house, that they’d rely on the Nikon for photos, and that they absolutely wouldn’t log into social media, even to stealth boast about where they’d gone on holiday.
That said, what had happened that morning had changed things, somewhat. She kept her tone neutral when she asked him: ‘I thought you said you’d settled things?’
‘I have,’ he said, a touch too sharply. ‘I obviously need to tie off one or two loose ends. There’s been some press inquiries, and the share price has gone absolutely crazy.’
‘Doesn’t Susan handle all that kind of stuff?’
‘Yeah, I just want to add one or two other things. After today it’s done, I promise. I’ve checked – the money’s gone through, everything’s smooth as a die. It’ll take a few minutes.’
More than a few minutes later, Cora said, ‘I’ll go and get another drink.’
He didn’t respond, his jawline set, the rapid-fire impact of his fingers on the keys the only sign that Jonathan was alert, or even awake, beneath the shades.
As she padded back up the incline towards the house, she noticed something around the front. This was nominally the main entrance, although they’d already fallen into the understandable habit of using the immense patio doors to get in and out. She spotted something bright red, poking over the top of the spiky pot plants that flanked the doorway at the end of a path that meandered through the treeline.
Getting closer, she noticed it was a ribbon, tied very neatly around two bottles of the locally brewed pilsner.
A handwritten note was folded in between the two bottles. Removing it, Cora read the message printed in blocky capitals with a marker pen:
‘THANKS FOR THE BEERS! HAVE ONE ON US! COME ON OVER AND SEE US ANYTIME! X’
The bottles were warm to the touch, possibly left there a good while.
She took them into the house, unwrapping the bow on the kitchen counter and setting aside the written note. She put the bottles of beer into their hulking silver fridge and poured herself another rum. Swirling the fresh ice in the glass, she paused, and then crossed over to a painting on the wall.
It was gilt-framed, although the artwork inside had a cheek to be keeping such ornate company. It might have been done by someone at junior school, an abstract trail of colours flying over silhouetted trees and spare squiggles of blue. Cora took the latter to be water, the former possibly tickertape or bunting. She had a soft spot for it, all the same – it didn’t betray any great skill, but it was jolly.
She reached behind the golden frame, flicked a catch, and pulled it open.
The wall safe was behind; she tapped in a four-digit code that appeared on the red LCD display, opened it up, and stared at the contents for a few moments.
A minute or two later, Cora returned to the beach, where Jonathan was still typing.
‘Did you go back into the safe since we came back?’
‘I think so… had to put some cash back.’
‘So you moved the croc?’
‘No, don’t think so.’
His hands stopped in mid-flight on the keyboard. ‘Why should I think hard? What’s the problem?’
‘Someone moved Colin.’ Cora held up a ceramic figuring of an anthropomorphic caiman. It had scandalous eyebrows and a jaunty leer running the length of its whitewashed gumline. Cora had bought it at the airport, with one specific purpose in mind. ‘I just want to know if it was you.’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake. I don’t know. It’s possible I might have.’
‘Colin was lying on top of my purse. He was facing towards the left-hand corner. Now he’s facing totally the wrong direction.’
‘It must have been those kidnappers again.’
‘I’m serious, Jonathan,’ she snapped. ‘I put Colin there for a reason. Safes get broken into all the time on holiday; it’s a fact.’
‘This is high-end, pet,’ he said, condescendingly. ‘They don’t go so much for that kind of thing out here. Unheard of. I bet we could go out and leave all the doors unlocked.’
‘Except that would be stupid.’
He sighed. ‘Look, I may have moved him. I can’t be sure. I was putting the petty cash back. I wasn’t even thinking about Colin. I moved a few things around. I don’t know. Is any money missing?’
‘I don’t think so. It tallies up versus what we spent.’
‘Excellent work. Right. So, no one’s messed with Colin, then.’
‘Maybe they don’t want cash?’
‘Well, they’ll have a job finding our other stuff – you’ve hidden it so well even you’d struggle to bloody find it! I hope you’ve taken some notes. Or… maybe the pirates might find them, too?’ He mock-gasped, a finger to his lips.
‘Oh, up yours.’ She strode away, with Colin clamped tight in her fist. The shiny little reptile looked particularly insolent from that angle, and she resisted a sudden urge to flick her fingernail off the face.
‘Aw come on,’ Jonathan said, more placatory. ‘I promised not to work, I dig that, but this is important. I need to finish this off, then the laptop goes away. I promise.’
‘Yeah, you promised that before.’
‘Hold on, just a minute.’ He typed for a few seconds, then clicked the mouse pad button one last time, with a Liberace-style flourish. ‘That’s it. That’s me done. And to demonstrate that I mean what I say…’
He took to his feet, slammed the laptop shut, and then heaved it two-handed far off into the sky.
Cora’s jaw went slack.
The laptop was a dervish, spinning across the cloudless sky at a terrific rate. It seemed to bounce across the surface of the water, came to rest, and then sank. Did she imagine one final hiss and crackle, as it went under? Certainly there was a bubble, one last belch, before it disappeared.
Her drink oozed into the sand behind her, forgotten, as she tore into the surf after the computer. She was soon into waist-high water, the drop-off alarming. All thought of sharks had been chased away by the sight of the black rectangle, firmly anchored to the bottom, as she reached in after it. The water clasped her face, and she squinted into the stinging brine, until her fingers found the edges and she retrieved it.
Jonathan was still laughing as she trudged back up the beach – near-hysterical, in fact.
‘What the hell was that?’ she cried, throwing the computer at his feet. ‘It’s ruined!’
‘I know,’ Jonathan managed, bent double on the beach chair. ‘Isn’t it great!’
‘What are you playing at? Do you think it’s funny? What about photos?’
‘All backed up,’ he said. ‘All in the cloud. Besides, that’s my work laptop. Nothing personal on there. Just accounts, boring stuff.’
‘Yeah, and how about if someone wanted to hack into that boring stuff? It would have been all there on the disk!’
‘Relax – I wasn’t going to leave it in the water.’
‘What were you going to do, exactly? Put it on a radiator? Wrap it up in hot towels?’
‘I was going to take it back home. But I was also making a point.’
‘That I’m done with work for the day. And… you shouldn’t worry so much.’
Cora folded her arms. ‘I am worried. That’s official, now. Totally worried. Day one of some money in the bank, and you’re throwing computers in the sea. What’s next – driving Lamborghinis into walls?’
Jonathan brightened. ‘You fancy doing that? Cos I could make a couple of phone calls, you know?’
‘Well you can’t send any emails, can you?’
He stood up, hand outstretched. ‘Look, I’m sorry. It was silly. I’ve had a bit of good news, and I’m still a bit drunk. I promise I won’t throw any more computers into the sea.’
The side of her mouth twitched, as she suppressed a smile. ‘OK. So long as you mean it.’
‘If I want to put a Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool, is that OK?’
‘Only if there’s water in the pool.’
‘Deal.’ They shook hands. ‘I’m not going to turn into an arsehole, Cora. I promise. I’d have done it long before now. This isn’t exactly rags to riches. It’s kind of… night-out-clothes to riches. We’ve been doing well over the past couple of years, you must admit it. Not many of your workmates take a Beamer to school. It’s all right, you know. It’s OK that we’re rich.’
‘That you’re rich, you mean,’ she muttered.
He took her hand, turning the ring between his own fingers. ‘No, there’s no “me and you”, any more. That’s what this means. This means “us”. This rock right here is me being serious.’
‘It’s a lot,’ Cora said, suddenly emotional. ‘It’s been a lot to take in.’
‘I know. That’s why I set it all up for when we were on holiday.’ He gave her a hug. Then whispered in her ear, ‘You know, it’s Monday morning back home. People will be looking at the rain, shaving, drying their hair, getting their kids ready for school, sniping at each other, arguing, worrying about bills, scared that the car might fail its MoT, counting their money, putting it on lottery tickets, crossing their fingers… Today, that’s not us. And maybe it’ll never be us again. The bus is leaving, sweetheart. You on board?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Great.’ He kissed her. ‘Now, what do you say we order in food from this floating take-out place, make absolute pigs of ourselves, and have the laziest evening ever?’
‘Then have the laziest, best beach bum holiday ever?’
The next morning, Cora sat in the beach chair beside Jonathan, who sat gazing out at the sea. A paperback book lay face down in the sand beside him. He’d barely got through twenty-five pages between breakfast and lunch.
‘Bored?’ Jonathan asked.
‘Bored,’ Cora agreed.
‘Want to knock on the neighbours’ door and see what they’re up to tonight?’
After having something to eat, Cora and Jonathan headed over. They had become acclimatised to the heat by now, though Jonathan wore what he had called his Indiana Jones hat – a fedora that might have looked the part on a head with less of a circumference. It sat too tight on his forehead, and of course Cora had branded it the Benny Hill hat. This had caused a genuine sulk in Jonathan, and he now wore it with an air of defiance, pushed up a little higher on his head.
The other house was on the far side of the island, a twenty-minute walk away. Jonathan was sweating heavily by the time they reached the rocky cove, picking their way over the slick stone. Crabs with eyes on stalks that reminded Cora of the micro tessellations on those of dragonflies clicked out of the pair’s path, and palm trees formed a green vault as they passed over the rocks and onto a sandy stretch.
‘Looks like a bigger house,’ Jonathan said.
‘Looks like a full estate. Or a cotton plantation house in the Deep South.’
‘I was thinking it’s more like Graceland. With a bit to spare.’
‘Uh-huh-huh.’ Cora curled her lip as best she could.
‘Think they’ll be all right with our offering?’ The rum bottle glinted in Jonathan’s hands.
‘The house rum is probably fifty pence a bottle or something. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.’
‘Damned good, all the same.’
‘We’re on holiday – everything tastes great. See also: any old gassy lager.’
Jonathan rubbed his belly. ‘Oh you read my mind. I could murder a beer. Bit of a struggle in the heat, eh?’
Cora palmed sweat from her brow. ‘Bit weird this, isn’t it?’
‘Well. Making friends.’
Jonathan laughed until he coughed. ‘Yeah! Weird stuff, this making friends. How do people do it? It just isn’t normal.’
‘It does get harder when you’re a proper adult. Although – you remember that nice couple we met in Menorca?’
‘Oh yeah!’ Jonathan clicked his fingers. ‘Funny accents… where were they from again?’
‘Yeah, the south-west, anyway. Hey, I’d forgotten all about them.’ His grin split his beard. ‘They needed a pub quiz team. He worked in the roads department or something, is that right?’
‘Yeah, communications… He was funny. So was she.’
‘I kinda wished we’d kept in touch with them,’ Jonathan said, wistfully.
‘Me too. Well… time to be sociable, charming and friendly.’ Cora grinned. ‘You ready?’
Jonathan brandished the rum like a trophy won on the sporting field. ‘With booze, we can be ready for anything. Or at least, it makes it easier to be pals.’
If Cora and Jonathan’s beach house had felt opulent, then this one felt like an outrage. As Cora had spotted the minute they turned the corner, this beach house had two storeys below a slanted slate roof, with white columns that trellised a wide front door. A set of gates bordered the beachfront house, but they were thrown wide, and a long sandy pathway stretched a good sixty yards towards the house. It seemed to take forever to reach the door.
‘Very King Kong, this,’ Jonathan said. ‘OK… You knock.’
‘Me? What for?’
‘You’re more authoritative.’
She rapped the studded oaken door twice. After a few moments they heard footsteps coming down a staircase, and then Hazel appeared at the door. She was wrapped in a white towel that reached about halfway down her thighs, and her hair was wet.
‘Oh – we’re sorry,’ Cora said, as if by reflex.
‘No, not at all,’ Hazel said, eyes wide. ‘Please come in. Hey, this is great. We’re just getting ready…’ She tilted her head, and called out: ‘Dylan! We’ve got visitors, babe.’
Hazel ushered them both over the threshold; the house was disorientatingly large on the inside, as if Cora and Jonathan had stepped inside a perspective trick. The white walls were decorated with naval paraphernalia, including watercolours of masted ships negotiating whiplash waves. On the shelves there was navigation equipment, copies of ancient seafarers’ maps and Napoleonic-era pistols and cutlasses. At the top of a spiral staircase was a long landing area complete with a bannister. Dylan, bare-chested, appeared at the top. ‘Oh, hey! You two guys want to hang out?’
‘Yeah,’ Jonathan said, taking off his hat. ‘We were just wondering if you fancied an evening out? If you don’t have any plans, of course.’
‘We were just saying the same thing,’ Hazel said, clutching the front of her towel. ‘We were just going to pop round and see if you fancied having some fun on Big Island with us. We’re just getting ready – would you mind heading into the lounge, so we can get ready properly?’
‘Sure,’ Cora said. ‘We brought you something nice, I don’t know if…?’ She gestured towards the bottle that Jonathan clutched to his own chest, unconsciously mimicking his host’s stance.
‘Oh that’d be fab! Dylan will be down in a minute – the lounge is first on the left. There’s a nice big kitchen, make yourselves at home.’
With Hazel’s bare feet resounding up the carpeted stairs, Cora and Jonathan pushed open the door to the lounge.
‘Wow,’ Jonathan said. ‘I think we’ve been cheated, you know.’
The front room was a widescreen version of their sea view. The entire front wall of the house was dominated by a window about twenty feet long, and slightly curved to take in the shaping of the outer wall. It looked onto a perfect vision of a sandy beach, with the tide having been drawn out into the sparkling blue water.
‘All it needs is a white sail passing along the horizon, and that’s a perfect picture,’ Cora said.
‘Or Venus, rising from the waves. Hey…’ Jonathan leaned closer and lowered his voice. ‘They’re a bit of a naked gang, these two, aren’t they?’
‘Not exactly naked. No big deal, is it? Remember, we aren’t uptight.’
Jonathan shrugged uneasily. ‘Well… I kind of am.’
‘They both come back downstairs in the raw, we run for it. How does that sound?’
‘That’s a deal.’ Jonathan placed the bottle of rum on the kitchen counter, which bordered the far wall. Cora was almost engulfed in the varnished swelling of a black leather sofa, as heavier footsteps could be heard descending the stairs.
The door was thrown open, and Dylan appeared – naked, only from the waist up, with a pair of khaki shorts on. ‘Hey, gangstas! Rock stars! How’s it going?’ Without waiting for a reply, he spotted the bottle, and immediately cracked it open. ‘Aw, did you guys bring this? What do you say we have a couple of fingers right off the bat?’
‘That’s what it’s there for,’ Jonathan said, broadening the tone of his voice to compete. ‘Never too early, especially on holiday.’
Dylan raised an eyebrow and pointed at his guest with the short-handled knife he used to quarter a lime. ‘Now that is the truth, brother. But hey – great to see you! We were getting a bit bored out here, truth be told. Now what’s your names again, let me see if I can get the old brain cells going… Cora and John, that right?’
‘Close enough,’ Cora said, smiling. ‘He’s Jonathan.’
‘I’m usually terrible with names,’ Dylan said. He threw the lime sections straight into four separate glasses lined up on the worktop, without seeming to aim them. Next came the rum, four generous measures. ‘Cola all right?’
‘Best way to have it,’ Jonathan said.
‘Hey, I like this guy. He your husband?’
‘Not quite,’ Cora said.
‘Mind if I steal him anyway? I’ve been gasping for a pint, mate. You up for it?’
‘Oh, tell me about it,’ Jonathan said, fanning himself with the hat. ‘I was just saying, it’s perfect weather for a nice, crisp pint of lager. The fizzier, the gassier, the nastier, the better.’
‘Amen, brother. Give me them chemicals. As nature intended.’ Dylan poured cola into the four glasses, taking time to make sure the levels all matched. Then he handed Cora and Jonathan the drinks.
Cora hadn’t failed to notice he was absurdly ripped, with one of those fat-free gym-honed physiques that looked as if they shouldn’t exist outside of a comic book – abs she could have played a tune on, straining muscle fibre best suited to a racehorse and a closely shaven chest that might have belonged to Action Man. He was finely honed, but didn’t look nice; she was reminded of an old quip a stand-up comic had made about bodybuilders who wanted to look like a penis all over. Cora, perhaps gaining an insight into how Jonathan had felt upon sight of Hazel wandering along the beach, felt irrationally irritated by this. Put on a dressing gown, Charles Atlas, she thought.
‘So, you up for a night on the town, then?’ Cora asked, taking a sip of her drink.
‘Been desperate to,’ Dylan said, crossing the panelled flooring and hunching down at the other sofa, perpendicular to the one she and Jonathan sat on.
Jonathan winced as he took a drink – a reaction Cora had tried to suppress. The measure Dylan had poured them was strong enough to unblock a sink.
‘Mind you,’ Dylan said, ‘I had a tip from old Cap’n Clay on the boats. You met that guy? Looks a bit like Santa Claus gone incognito with a beard trim and a haircut.’
‘Yeah, that’s the guy,’ Cora said, drily.
‘He told us there are places to go. Decent music, a few beers – you up for a party tonight?’
‘That’s why we’re here.’
‘Hey, awesome. Put it there, man.’ Dylan high-fived Jonathan, the latter as awkward as a new kid in class.
‘Now then,’ said Hazel, striding into the room. ‘I’ve arranged for Clay to pick us up in fifteen minutes at the jetty, if you’re all right with that?’
‘He’s more efficient than I thought,’ Cora said.
‘He has his uses… says he’ll bring us back, too.’ Hazel sipped at her own drink, and winced. ‘Strewth, darlin’ – that’d have someone’s eye out. What are you trying to do to these poor people?’
‘Sorry,’ Dylan said, sheepishly. ‘I tend to overdo it with the old pirate’s pleasure. Can’t get enough of it.’
‘And could you maybe throw some clothes on? You’re offending their decency, I’m sure.’ She turned to Cora and smiled. ‘Well… he’s offending mine, anyway.’
‘Back in a minute, folks,’ Dylan said – and he actually jogged across the floor, then all the way up the stairs on his tiptoes. He barely made a sound while doing so.
‘Got to say,’ Hazel said, leaning over to lay a hand on Cora’s forearm, ‘I’m guilty as charged.’
‘Oh, right. Guilty of…?’
‘I’ve jacked your style.’ Hazel nodded towards her ensemble: strappy olive green top, three-quarter-length black trousers and sandals. Cora was wearing much the same, though her top tended more towards khaki; and she had noticed, the moment Hazel came into the room. ‘I love those three-quarter-lengths. Where did you get them?’
It was a question Cora disliked, going all the way back to her schoo