Scorpion Archipelago Base Camp, October 31st 1997 4am
For a moment he had drawn strength from the rising column of black smoke above Temple Island. Had they done it; stormed the enemy stronghold and rescued his daughter? The return of his Jane was all that mattered. And if it meant that Cobus and Jim, and yes, Pete too, had blown to pieces a building or a citadel of astounding historical interest, so be it. But when at last the orange boat had appeared around the headland of the other island and through the binoculars he had seen there was only one person on board, the one about whom he had to admit he cared the least, all strength had left his legs and he had collapsed onto the shingle.
At last he remembered the gentleman within and turned to Catalina. The poor girl, who had come with very high recommendations from Jane, seemed to have withdrawn into herself pretty early on during the expedition. He had expected different from a seasoned trekker with, according to Jane, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. But as with everyone else, this place had proved too much for her and after Robbie’s disappearance, she had pretty much gone to pieces, her nerves fraying. He found himself feeling a duty of care towards her. After all, choosing to survive in the Outback for a finite period with no responsibilities was one thing, but he had brought her to a place upon which God appeared to have turned his back. She and Jane – he swallowed hard – seemed to have been getting along despite the age difference. Perhaps his beloved daughter had spotted some of her own spirit in the girl. For that reason alone he had to get her back and ensure that seed had a chance to grow; nurture it from afar. Jane had picked her out and that was good enough for him.
Now he thought of who was approaching in the boat and realised the grim irony of that last thought; she’d also picked Pete. But there, too, he would now have to adjust his mind-set. Pete appeared to be in genuine distress about his wife’s disappearance and had not hesitated in taking instant action to try to rescue her, heading into the lion’s den with no thought of the dangers ahead. All past disputes and misgivings to one side, Sutch had to try to be fair.
He heard the engine being cut; saw Pete pull the inflatable ashore as far as the rounded pebbles weathered by the sea, avoiding the more jagged volcanic stones, then stagger towards them and into the waiting arms of Catalina. The bleakness of TempleIsland was already mirrored in his eyes. He seemed exhausted. Sutch did not dare to ask, wanting and fearing the knowledge. “We’ve kept the fire going,” he said. “You’d better come over and warm up.”
Wordless, they moved across to the fire. Catalina threw a sleeping bag across Pete’s shoulders; a mug of coffee was placed in his hands.
“They ambushed us in the temple. We followed the route we’d marked before. They were still at worship, but then they left. We crept in, meaning to search.” He stared into the fire. “There was no point searching for Robbie.” He put a hand on Catalina’s. “We found what was left of him.” The girl folded her arms across her chest and shuddered. “I’m sorry.” Now he looked at the Professor. “But there was no sign of Jane.” Sutch looked at him with intensity. “Surely that must be a sign of hope there.”
“Yes,” said Sutch. “There. But where?”
“Do we know they took her?”
“You and Cobus followed them.”
“But it was dark. We can’t…couldn’t be sure. Anyway, we searched some of the tunnels, but in the meantime they doubled back behind us. Somehow they knew we were there. We returned to the inner sanctum, to find ourselves confronted by ranks of angry, evil faces and more of them were coming down the tunnel behind us to cut us off. We opened fire, but they were too quickly onto us. It was then that we saw the effect of this.” He removed and reached into the rucksack, pulling out the prize, the booty, Number 42, the time machine, a treasure not yet understood.
Despite everything – the loss of Jane and the deaths of young men helping him chase his fading dream – despite all of that Pete saw that Sutch was transfixed for a moment; a moment in which Pete’s contempt for academics, which had festered within him since his expulsion from Harrow, reach its zenith; or nadir, depending on one’s point of view. He decided that, for all his many imperfections, he would rather be the selfish, greedy sonofabitch he was; more interested in what something or someone could do for him, with the clarity and focus that brought, than be blindfolded by a concept or idea and lead others blundering to their deaths. At least if he cheated someone, they could live on to hate his guts; and if they cheated him – well, today had been a first for him; an eye for an eye. For Sutch, that piece of metal could be the stuff of legends – those repositories of dead people – whereas for Pete it meant the chance to celebrate life; preferably living the dream, not dying it. The old man held out a hand and, not without a momentary twinge of possessiveness, Pete handed him the k’ib. As he saw the piece turning over and over in Sutch’s hands, it re-emphasised for Pete that often, in the history of archaeological discovery, so many lives, deaths and dreams distilled to a tiny piece of matter so small it might be a pebble on the shore of time. This did not stop him reaching across after a few moments and taking back the k’ib. He noticed the slight resistance of the Professor’s fingertips; it was like pulling a mussel from a shell.
He continued, taking some resentful pleasure from dragging his father-in-law back to the harshness of this pressing world after the brief escape of a moment’s blissful reverie. “We ploughed bullets into them, but soon it was clear that wouldn’t be enough to stop them. There were too many of them, and they refused to die. As for their leader…well, let’s just say that when I realised our only chance was to steal this and I lifted it from its altar, he turned his gaze on me.” Pete felt a chill; his shiver was genuine enough. “I’d be more than happy never to see him again. By now some of them were dragging Cobus and Jim away down tunnels. I have to say that rock spider was a hero – never thought I’d hear myself say that.” He broke off. “Sorry, have either of you got my cigarettes anywhere?”
“Um, yes, they’re here,” said the Professor, looking around and finding them. Pete lit one with shaking hands and inhaled deeply, an evident quiver in this throat.
“Yes, both of them were heroes. I knew I only had a few shots left and would have followed them, though God knows I’d have been lost in that labyrinth, but Cobus shouted ‘Blow the place!’ We’d planted plastic explosive by the altar and in the entrance to the tunnels by an enormous statue. If they saw us doing it they can’t have understood what we were doing.
“Now I noticed the remaining ones were looking at me. I had their precious brass god and without it they would die. Unfortunately for them they didn’t realise the other object in my hands held the same fate. They began to chase me as I ran. I pressed the detonator first, which brought them right into the path of the delayed explosion. I’m not sure if any of them escaped. I didn’t see what became of their leader, but I could still feel his presence – that’s not something I can explain. When I emerged from the tunnels into the ante-chamber of the temple I detonated a second explosive, which brought down an enormous statue across the tunnel entrance. I’m pretty sure it would have blocked it completely.
“I have no idea whether the others made it out – Cobus, Jim or the priests, but I have a feeling some of the tunnels wouldn’t have taken too kindly to the blast.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled a steady stream of smoke; he was feeling calmer. “It looked like they’d had to shore up some of them with timber when they dug extra passages to turn the caves into a labyrinth. By the way, the statues were made of rocksalt.” He looked sidelong at the Professor. “That, I suspect, was the source of the precious cargoes your merchants were trading. Looks like your pirate captain got that bit wrong.”
“Yes,” said Sutch, “but rocksalt was a valuable commodity in itself in those days.” That the Professor bothered to argue that point only increased Pete’s contempt for him and spoke volumes about the old man’s state of mind.
“Anyway, I’m not scared to admit it; I kept on running. You know what; I could still feel him, His Royal Darkness, the high priest, king of the castle. I could feel shadows reaching out from the tips of his fingers, seeking his little yellow idol.” Again Pete did not need to call on RADA level skills. There was a chill in his bones and he pulled the sleeping bag closer around him. He stared into the fire. “If there is anything to this story of eternal life, I wonder if someone can live too long?”
“You mean, can you transgress so far against the laws of nature that you affect them, becoming a part of them, and they of you?”
Pete looked across and saw that the Professor, too, was staring into the fire. “I don’t know what I mean.” He pitched the cigarette into the flames. “I’m so sorry about Jane. Like I say, there was no sign of her. But I just can’t imagine where she could be. I mean…” he hesitated, “…look, I’m sorry to say it, but they’d wasted no time with Robbie.” He looked at Sutch and Catalina in turn. “No sign of her here then, I guess.” The girl shook her head in silence, turned and walked away towards the water’s edge. Sutch tapped Pete on the shoulder.
“I have been a fool,” said the old man, “and in my folly I am become death.” He stopped to reflect on that statement – an echo of earlier times. “A destroyer of futures and families.” Pete said nothing, but tapped out another cigarette. You might have destroyed your family’s future, old man, he thought, but I’ve got mine planned. “Do me a favour will you, Pete?”
“If I can.” The familiarity from his father-in-law rather took him aback.
The Professor gestured with his head towards the troubled beauty by the sea. “Look after her. Make sure she gets back in one piece. This has been traumatic for her. I just don’t think she was ready, or as strong as she believed.”
“Were any of us?”
“I brought her to this place of death; I want her now to have a life.”
“You’re talking like you’re reading your will.”
“Well maybe I am.”
“Meaning?” Pete frowned, but could not look the Professor in the eye. It was not just that past indifferences, as he liked to think of them, might still be revealed. He was scared of what Sutch would see in his eyes. Stranger still, he was scared that in the old man’s eyes he might see someone he didn’t recognise.
“I can’t leave here without knowing Jane’s fate. Perhaps she has wandered off into the forest; got disorientated; lost. She might be lying injured somewhere. This is a peculiar place. We’ve all felt it. I can’t help believing there’s more to this; that the story – her story – isn’t over. Maybe she is alive on TempleIsland; maybe the others are. I’ll paddle across in one of the boats and search. There will be no place that I will not look, on any of these hellish pieces of rock.”
Pete was looking at him now, in amazement laced with a little foreboding. He noticed Catalina was also looking; seemed she had picked up on the Professor’s ominous behaviour, as if the calmness disguised the unravelling of his mind. “You can’t be serious. You’re going to stay here?”
“Yes. When Dirk arrives in a few hours – we managed to get hold of him on the sat-phone, didn’t we Catalina? – I won’t be going with you.”
“Pardon me saying so, Edward, but that’s crazy. What about Candice? You’ve got her to think of. Ok, you’ve lost Jane…” The Professor shot him a look. “…well, it’s the truth, isn’t it?”
“I won’t believe that!” shouted Sutch, his face reddening before he calmed down. “Can’t allow myself to believe it. My daughter is resilient. She may have escaped and be hiding on TempleIsland. I couldn’t bear to think of her hoping and praying for someone to come and help her, and that person never coming. I’ll search every inch of this blasted kingdom, which met the fate it deserved if it was destroyed.”
Pete stood. “You’re a scientist; think like one.”
Sutch rose to meet his gaze. “That’s always been my burden.”
Pete paced away from the fire, then turned and walked back to stand almost eyeball to eyeball with Sutch. “Do you want to hear some facts? Like Robbie was a rugby player, ex Royal Navy, a tough lad. And he ended up in the archipelago’s equivalent of a fast food joint; skewered, like some antediluvian kebab.” Pete looked across at Catalina, who went pale. He was not in the mood to spare her feelings; took pleasure, in fact, from her distaff weakness. “I mean that in all senses, since they were eating him bit by bit.” Though the Professor had gone pale, Pete fixed him with his eyes and did not spare him. “If he couldn’t get away, what chance Jane?”
Sutch tried his best to gather his wits, rescue them from the wind that was trying to scatter them to the furthest reaches of the Southern Ocean. “Then I owe it to him as well as her not to give up.” He turned and surveyed the rest of the camp. “We’re only three days into a five day expedition. There are provisions enough now to see me through much longer than that.”
Catalina came over. Only her Argentinean complexion saved her from looking paler than the old man. “Professor, this would be madness.”
“It’s my daughter, dammit!” She flinched as if he had slapped her face and Sutch raised his hand in apology before rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not…myself.”
She moved forward, and put hesitant arms around him. “It’s okay Professor, you’re in shock; hardly surprising. That’s what’s caused you to make this irrational decision.” She expected a reaction; instead all she felt was the collar of her shirt becoming damp.
It seemed the old man had lost the will to move. Perhaps if he did not, he might even be able to believe he was in the arms of his darling Jane. He wondered if he had lost his mind, knew the very act of wondering proved he hadn’t, but still, he knew he was close to the edge. He needed a rope to haul him back, and searching for his daughter would give him that. Besides, he could not return home, could he? Could not stand in front of Candice and explain how his hare-brained pursuit of a mirage had cost them their daughter, as well as the lives of three other fine, intelligent young people. In his grief he recognised that this was where he belonged. He was the rightful heir to this blighted kingdom. This place was also the fitting home for the amphora, the exotic whore to whom he and Tariq proved worthy sons. So now the circle would be complete; for he did not doubt that he would join his blood-brother in ending his days here. Perhaps that was why Tariq had returned.
Candice would understand why he could not come back to her, at least not until he had overturned every stone, including those in the destroyed temple, or had died in the attempt. He had nothing now but time – ironically not much of that.
He released himself from Catalina’s embrace. “Well, there’s no time like the present.”
“You’re not serious?” said Catalina.
Pete’s Zippo clicked and hissed, and then he turned back to the Professor. “When did you get through to Dirk?”
Catalina answered. “Shortly after you left; a couple of hours ago? It was a poor connection. He recognised me, and I think he got the gist. So what does that give us – ten, maybe twelve hours, assuming he gets fuelled pretty quickly?”
“Look, I’ll tell you what, Edward,” said Pete, “I’ll come with you and help you search this island as best we can in the time available, but then we leave with Dirk.”
Sutch looked him in the eye. “Pete, I appreciate all you’ve done and acknowledge that, in a lot of ways I’ve misjudged you. I always thought you’d be the author of Jane’s misery, not me, and for that I apologise. But I’m staying. In a way it’s where I belong. Hopefully Dirk can send over reinforcements. I’m going to comb these islands till I know, for better or worse, the fate of my daughter.”
Pete pressed his lips together. He looked up into the trees for a long time, seemed to come to a decision, and then nodded curtly. “Ok, we’ll come with you; at least until Dirk arrives.”
“Uh uh.” The sound of denial came from Catalina. She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m sorry, but I’m going nowhere in this terrible place. I’ll stay here and wait for you.”
“We should stay together,” said Sutch. “After all…” Then he noticed that she was shaking. “Ok, you wait here. Try to reach Dirk again. Pete and I will start at the one place we know we can get to quickly.”
“You mean the citadel,” said Pete
“Yes. If you were going to kidnap someone in camp that would be your quickest route out other than the sea – or the best place to hide someone.”
Pete nodded. “You could be right. Ok, the guys in the boat fled because of Cobus and Jim returning, but there might have been others involved who also ran off. And they’d be likely to have used the easiest route – the one we hacked clear to the citadel. I know the words straws and clutching spring to mind, but we might as well start somewhere.”
With that Sutch turned on his heels and marched towards the track leading to the citadel. Pete looked long and hard at Catalina, to which the adjective loving could never have been applied. He slung on his rucksack, though not before remembering to pack the k’ib, and followed the old man.
The gradient was steep and immediate – Pete was soon sweating and panting. He slapped his palm on his rucksack and, his words parenthesised by deep breaths, said: “So much for mystical powers; right now this thing just feels like a small dumbbell on my back.”
Gasping, but pushing on in dogged fashion, the Professor replied: “I don’t care anymore.” His tone told of a man walking in the shadows of failure and so tired, he was ambivalent about the fitful, fading light of redemption.
“It’s not what I expected either. I thought it might be made of gold, or studded with diamonds. Isn’t that what hidden treasure is all about? Been watching too many action adventure movies, I guess.”
“Where was it when you took it?” Sutch could not suppress the inquisitiveness intrinsic to the man he had been.
“Standing on an altar, or some sort of plinth in the middle of a stream of water. It looked like either the plinth had been built there deliberately, or the stream diverted.”
“And how did the…thing look when you first saw it?”
Pete could tell Sutch was remembering Tariq’s letter. He wanted information; needed to know at least that the tenets on which he had based this whole expedition were sound. Undeniably it gave Pete a certain sadistic pleasure to drip-feed the facts. He had found the k’ib. He had seen the k’ib. He had the k’ib. He had the power. “It seemed to pulse with a sporadic light and there was a kind of…” he sought the right word, “…thrumming in the air, and when I picked it up it seemed to be vibrating beneath my fingertips. Maybe the water was powering it somehow. Maybe they have a sort of symbiotic relationship, just like Tariq said.”
Sutch stopped and looked at him – scanned his face in fact – before saying: “Maybe.” Then he looked past Pete’s shoulder, and through a gap in the trees saw Catalina back at the camp. Even at this distance she looked scared. Then she moved away out of his line of sight even as he was lifting his arm to acknowledge her. “As I said at the camp, I want you to look after her. She’s been through a lot. She wasn’t ready for this.”
Pete looked round and saw no-one. “I give you my word – for what that’s worth.”
They had gone another couple of hundred yards when Sutch shouted: “Look!” He pointed to the right. It was the path to the waterfall, but that wasn’t what had caught the Professor’s eye. Rather, it was a piece of red cloth hanging almost motionless in the still air beneath the trees. He hurried towards it, took it from the branch where it had snagged and played it between his fingertips. “It’s not one of the base-layer shirts we’ve been wearing during the day. It’s cotton. Jane changed into this last night, didn’t she?”
“Um, I think so.” Pete knew so; knew she hadn’t been wearing it while Jim fucked her – why did the image still hit him hard, right between the legs, in the middle of the male universe? It had been lying with her other clothes by the side of the lake, but he wasn’t about to admit to having witnessed that deed, for more than one reason, including – a surprise this, to Pete – some curious, belated respect for the feelings of an old man who did not need that information about his lost daughter. Lost indeed; a mystery to all of them. “But didn’t she come up here for a wash? This doesn’t really tell us anything.”
The Professor’s face reflected the hard truth of that, but he appeared determined to clutch at every one of those straws Pete had mentioned. “I remember now; she bought it in Singapore because we left Winchester so early the morning after our dinner. This was her new shirt. And you know women – if she’d torn it, I’m sure even my uncomplaining daughter would have mentioned it when she came back to camp. Let’s go and take a look. She may have been brought here by force.” His voice shook with excitement.
Pete looked at the ground. “There’s no sign of any…” He frowned. “No wait, you’re right. There are drag marks here in the mud.” He led the way as they hurried as best they could through the tangle of roots towards the little lake; the sound of water babbling over the rocks by the falls growing louder, but also more ominous. Despite his age the Professor overtook Pete. He rushed to the water’s edge, then let out a moan and sank to his knees.
Pete approached with caution. He looked past the old man’s heaving shoulders. An image shimmered beneath the surface of the lake, its shape transmogrifying in the disturbed waters, but offering an occasional tantalising, split-second image of its identity. “Oh my God,” he said and it was no feigned surprise.
She was not wearing red. He had wanted to tell the old man that his daughter would hardly have slept in her new shirt, but it seemed such an irrelevance in the overall scheme of things. Likewise, he had wanted to say that Jane would not have drawn any sort of attention to herself, ripped shirt or not, on returning to camp yesterday evening, as she would have believed her shame was written all over her face. So it seemed that fate, coincidence, or the vengeful spirit of this island, had taken a hand and led them to this spot by means of a tiny, blood-red flag.
His stomach churned, and not for all the right reasons. There was a double-edged sword being held out towards him by this lady of the lake and one sweep of its blade could end his problems or multiply them. He stood transfixed. There was something disconcerting about a dead face staring open-eyed at you from beneath water, the ripples causing expressions to flit across it. Pete felt it might have been better, if no less gruesome, if fish or crabs had attacked the eyes, taking away part of the humanity.
Now Pete looked at the back of the Professor’s head. The old man was silent for a moment longer, but then he turned and stretched out his hand towards Pete, making a grabbing gesture with his fingers.
“Give it to me.”
Pete frowned. “What?”
“The k’ib. Give it to me.”
Pete just stared at him, then with a sinking feeling said: “What good will that do? She’s dead. Can’t you see that?”
Sutch got to his feet and snapped impatient fingers. “But who knows how long she’s been here? It might not be too late. Give it to me!”
Pete felt himself drawing back. “It doesn’t work like that.” He knew there could be no harm in handing over his prize, but he was reluctant nonetheless. Was this how it started – standing outside oneself, watching the beginning of one’s enslavement to this ancient artefact.
“What do we know?”
“Remember Tariq’s document; it won’t bring her back to life; it prolongs life. But let’s get her out of there; at least show some respect instead of arguing.” Pete removed his rucksack and bent to untie his boots in preparation for entering the water.
“Respect? You never showed her any while she was alive.”
Pete stood up again. “Hey, now wait a fucking minute. That was a two way street.”
“Maybe, but you did nothing to earn her respect. You never loved her, did you, from the beginning? Just the kudos of being married to someone of worth.”
As far as Pete was concerned, this was just typical of the contempt with which the old bastard had treated him from the beginning. Just because he hadn’t chosen to live his life with his nose buried in books and his arse in sand. “Much good your worth has done you. Here.” He picked up the rucksack and hurled it at the Professor. “I hate to say it, but I want to see you fail. But at least let me get her out of there.” Sutch fumbled in the bag and felt the metallic surface beneath his fingers, inert and heavy. He pulled out the k’ib. “I risked my life twice to try to find her,” continued Pete. “I loved her well enough. But things change. Life moves on.”
There were two loud cracks.
“Or not,” said the voice from behind them. The Professor pitched forward, with the cold giver of life still clutched in his hand, while the barrel of the taker smoked in Catalina’s. “We didn’t have time for all that,” she said to Pete as he spun round, meeting his astonished gaze with one of icy pragmatism.
Pete stood open mouthed, doing his impression of a spectator at a tennis match as he looked backwards and forwards between the assassin and the victim, on whose side two red stains were spreading. “What have you done?” he asked, which might have ranked as the least incisive question of that whole sorry expedition, and got the answer it deserved.
“I thought it was pretty obvious. I didn’t want to stand here listening to whether you did or didn’t love her.”
Pete pointed towards the lake. “I meant why did you kill her? Why? Why!? You knew the plan.” He sounded desperate. “What did you do? Give her a ‘goodnight sweetheart’ dose of adama; just a tiny bit too much? I just wanted her out of the way for a while; long enough for everyone to go a bit nuts and give me the opportunity to kill that fucking photographer. She was still alive when I took her up to the citadel.”
“Yes, leaving her alive was the bit of your plan that didn’t appeal to me.”
He nodded in recognition of something. “I thought your behaviour was a bit strange today. You seemed distracted; edgy. I put it down to your nerves at having to get involved in something like this at all, but now I see you were just like a cat on a hot tin roof.” He heard the pun on her name – strange how the perverse mind grasped at irrelevant minutiae in moments of stress – but for once he was not in the mood to be flippant. “No wonder you didn’t want me coming up here just now. But what did you think – I wouldn’t find out? The Professor wasn’t the only one keen to take another look up here. When I saw that she hadn’t returned to the camp by the time I got back, I had a feeling something had changed.”
She came and stood in front of him, green eyes blazing. God she was beautiful, but he had failed to recognise just how deep her passions ran. “Did you think I was going to let the two of you kiss and make up? You’re mine,” – she hissed the words – “and you told me I was yours. Why should I have let her live? I call it a win-win scenario – for me; I might have lost you to her, but now I can’t, even if you hate me forever.
“After we’d reached Dirk on the radio, I came up here and broke her neck. She told me you were a bit of a martial arts expert. In that case you’d have been proud of the karate chop I used. Then I thought, where could she have slipped? She’d already done it here once in front of everyone, so it seemed perfect.”
“Remind me never to piss you off.”
“I thought you seemed less distraught when I told you about Robbie’s death than you were when he first went missing. You’d killed by then. Must have toughened you up.”
“No, I just didn’t need to try making you jealous anymore.” He looked at her and she looked him straight back in the eye, then put her hand up and placed it on his chest. “But isn’t this what we wanted? And am I any worse than you? You killed them – I killed her.” She squeezed her fingers like claws against his chest and her eyes smouldered. “The jealousy you felt when she fucked Jim – multiply it by a hundred and you’ll know how I felt when I saw you were jealous.”
He took her hand from his chest and saw the hurt register in her eyes. “But it was all falling into our laps. Yes, I felt a twinge of jealousy, but only in a selfish way. There is… ” he looked into the lake, “…was no love there. It was who she chose to fuck that did my head in, and the way she threw herself at him.”
“Then what’s the problem,” she protested.
“I’d photographed them. I could have used that to get a very favourable divorce settlement. She’s a wealthy woman. Now, until her body’s found, or at least they agree that it won’t be – which could be a long time – there’ll be no inheritance. She didn’t know you’d drugged her food. I just wanted her out of the way. It was all falling into place so well. Fate had even dealt me a couple of kind hands – finding the k’ib and getting the chance to turn the Afrikaner prick into a piece of collateral damage. All it needed now was for her to wander out of the forest, or for us to find her. She wouldn’t have been any the wiser; would probably have thought she’d been kidnapped by some of our shaman friends. Now there’s every chance a search party will come and find the bodies.”
“Well nobody knows to find them here, thanks to the Professor.”
Pete noticed that her eyes didn’t even flicker as she mentioned the man she’d just shot in cold blood, whose body lay no more than ten feet from where they now stood. Then he frowned as he mulled over her comment. “No, the best form of defence is attack; if we try denying something and it turns out we lied, how’ll that make us look? Besides, Candice knows something – I’m not sure how much, but I can’t take any chances. I’m sure there’s enough evidence in Sutch’s study to lead someone here eventually. Then there’s Dirk.”
Catalina gave an abstract smile, devoid of humour and warmth. “You can fly a plane.”
Pete actually blinked in surprise. “Like I said, remind me never to piss you off.”
“Hey,” she responded, “have you forgotten? We’ve killed already. The way to Hell beckons. What’s one more?”
“The blood-lust’s getting to you. Don’t forget, the airfield will know where Dirk’s heading.”
“But it’s a huge ocean. He could’ve ditched anywhere.”
“He’ll have given his route. They’ll know what direction he was taking, and they won’t assume it was Antarctica.”
“You’re being very cautious. It’s not like you.”
“I wasn’t a murderer before. Nor sleeping with one.”
She grinned again. How could cruelty look so fair? The twitch in his loins caught Pete off guard.
“We could fly off somewhere,” she ventured, “till it all dies down.”
“We’d have to refuel and they’d want some I.D. It’s not so easy to just disappear in this day and age.”
“I know some people in Oz. They like bypassing the law whenever possible. They could help us.”
“Like I said, I don’t think we could get back to Oz without refuelling. But even if we could, I don’t want to involve anyone else. Our strength lies in the secrecy of the original expedition. No, I’m going to stick with the idea that’s forming.”
“Pete?” He’d turned his back on her and walked off.
“Just let me think for a minute.”
It was clear from her voice that she was stung. “Hey, I’m sorry if I spoiled your plan to play happy families again.”
He spun round. “I told you not to come; when you phoned me that night at the dinner party.”
“She’d asked me. I didn’t plan to kill her. Besides, when I called I didn’t know you’d be on the expedition; didn’t even know what it was all about. I just wanted to get closer to the enemy; find out about her, and through her find out what really made you tick. Seems I was harbouring the false hope that you might want me forever.”
Now a thought struck Catalina. She went across to the Professor’s body and took the k’ib from his hand. For a moment it seemed to vibrate beneath her fingers, but then stopped, so she guessed it was her passion. She held it up, saying: “And forever is what we have in our grasp. I heard your conversation with the old fool. You believe in this, don’t you?”
Pete’s eyes narrowed and he came forward. “Give me that.”
She pulled it away from his reach, held it in teasing manner behind her back. “I see you do.” She smiled, and then handed over the k’ib. “You never really had a plan, did you? You came here seeking…what, another adrenalin rush?”
He looked down – she was wiser than he had imagined. “Yes, I came in curiosity, I’ll be honest; I also needed a bit of time away from the hurricane of our affair just to think – work out where you and I went from there. We couldn’t have carried on like that; we’d have burnt each other out. That’s why I was so pissed off when you disobeyed me and showed up. But then things just started to fall into place. Her unfaithfulness gave me the chance I needed to be rid of her and that prick the photographer at the same time. Like I said, the rock-spider was collateral damage; whether he had insulted me or not, he had to go. And fortune and glory showed up as well.” He brandished the k’ib to emphasise his point, then retrieved his rucksack, dug into a side pocket and, pulling out his cigarettes, offered her one. She took it. He saw her hands were steady – they must have been, to shoot the old man with such clinical accuracy. As they stood there, Pete wondered just for a moment whether this was a dream conjured by the island; two hedonists drawing deep on cigarettes amidst carnage of their own making in a forest in the kingdom of the dead. If Dali had nightmares, this might have been the stuff of it.
“So I didn’t really figure in your plans,” said Catalina, breaking the thoughts. “You didn’t really need me,” she paused, “until you did. Till I happened to mention that one of the plants flourishing in this dead place was adama. Only then did I have a use, other than as your fuck-buddy.”
He stepped up to her and saw sadness flit across her eyes. No way was she a child of Australia. Her face reflected the moodiness of Tierra del Fuego, not the constant heat of the desert. There was sweat on her top lip and in the hollow of her neck. “How can we trust each other?”
“Look around you.” She made an almost casual gesture with the cigarette. “How can we not?”
“How do you know I won’t just kill you?”
“Ditto.” She threw down the cigarette and ground it with her shoe. Then a lascivious look gleamed in her eyes and she started to unbutton her shirt. “But I know you won’t harm me – you prefer fucking me. And if your fuck-buddy for life is what I must settle for, that’s cool.” Her cleavage appeared in the opening of the shirt and she gestured with a disdainful toss of the head towards the pool. “Why did you want her kept alive? Did you enjoy betraying her?”
He was aroused despite everything around them, and her eyes took in that arousal. She dropped the open shirt over her shoulders. She looked magnificent. He grabbed the front of the shirt to pinion her arms and they kissed each other as if it was an act of brutality. Then they pulled apart, breathless.
“Did it turn you on to fuck me and then go home to her?” she said. Then she looked at the lake. “Well now let’s do it in front of her.”
Pete was teetering on the edge of a black gorge that might have been the rest of his life. He had free-fallen into deep caves in Mexico where the bottom was hidden in shadow hundreds of feet below. Being the lover of Catalina, he could see, was like doing it without the parachute.
He could not have guessed, right then, at the irony of that image.
For now, he was left to wonder whether she had him drugged with some other plant known only to her. How else could he explain enjoying the fuck of his life with the woman who killed his wife and father-in-law, while they lay dead just a few feet away?
After the unreasoning madness of sex had passed, he waited for the shame to kick in, but it did not. Then he looked at the k’ib and wondered whether it would decide his fate from this moment forth.
He watched Catalina smoking a post-coital cigarette. He guessed they belonged to each other now, but if greed and lust were the twin pillars of the temple at which he worshipped, then this raven-haired, green-eyed, uninhibited killer might as well be the goddess. And neither of them could risk leaving the other; whatever the nature of the prize he had stolen from the universe, it would not keep either of them out of jail, so he guessed they had an understanding there.
As fatigue started to hit him, the pendulum of his thoughts swung from the future to the past; to the day he had first set eyes on her, at that university Freshers’ Ball, which he had attended under duress at Jane’s bidding.
They had caught each other’s eye too many times not to speak at the bar afterwards. Her brazenness had thrown him; a combustible mix of her South American fire and Australian forthrightness.
“So what are you studying?” he asks.
She raises one eyebrow. “You. And botany.”
She has caught him off balance. For one absurd moment he is tempted to come back with a stupid rhyme about being lost for a riposte, but regains his senses. They look at each other for an eternity of slow seconds, and then he places his drink on the bar and says: “Well, I’m not very good at this sort of thing, so I’m gonna shoot.” But he does nott move.
“Eats, shoots and leaves,” she says.
“Something like that.”
“We could change that paradigm.”
She leans up on tiptoes. He smells smoke and shampoo from her hair. “Meaning you could fuck me.”
The ball is being held in the debating chamber on the campus. They leave separately and meet up in the darkness of the Arts Faculty building. From the first lecture theatre theyare about to enter comes the throaty, rhythmic grunting of somebody already part-way along the path they themselves are intending to take. They look at each other and stifle drunken laughter, then head along the corridor to another room. Once inside, he has his first taste of her; the hunger in her kiss is almost cannibalistic. Then she breaks off, urging him to: “Wait, wait.” As if he’s going anywhere. She delves into her clutch bag and produces a mirror, though it soon becomes clear how she intends to powder her nose.
He grabs her wrist. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry,” she says, “I only use it during sex. Boy, does it make me come!”
He feels unexpected rage; an irrational jealousy, as if he’s having to share her. “Somehow I get the feeling you restrict sex to days that have a ‘Y’ in them. But if you want me, you do it without that shit. I don’t sleep with coke-heads.” He stuffs the items back into her bag and tosses it across the room.
“Who the fuck…?” She raises a hand to strike him.
He grabs her wrist. “You wanna come, I’ll make you come.”
He is as good as his word. But not once, even when it has become almost unbearable for her and the sensitivity of her nerve-endings has her thrashing like a speared fish in its death throes, does she plead for him to stop.
His is not the only seed sown that night. A pattern is set; the need for danger. Jane’s frequent absences make life easy for the lovers, but it takes away the thrill of deception. They find, like countless generations before them, that the chance of discovery gives their physical relationship an edge. So for those times when his wife is back from her travels, his addiction to gambling is born. It’s the perfect excuse; back in the early hours and always short of money. But what gives him the biggest kick of all as he slips into bed beside his wife is the knowledge that he has deceived both her and her patronising prick of a father. On those rare occasions when she welcomes him back with more than just open arms, he savours the knowledge that she is, literally, up against stiff competition.
Though there is no denying that sex with Catalina registers on the Richter Scale, she develops a worrying trend; an increasing need to be told that he loves her. When he discovers that she switched from Botany to Archaeology to get closer to him via Jane, he starts to hear the sound of bunnies boiling. So when she calls him at the Professor’s dinner party on the eve of their departure, to tell him that she has been asked to join the expedition, he instructs her not to accept and determines that he will go – it’s the perfect opportunity for a few days’ break from her. Besides, the stab of possessiveness he feels at his wife’s ill-concealed flirtation with the photographer has surprised him. However, it does not blind him to opportunity. He can kill two birds with one stone.
Except Catalina arrives at Heathrow Airport after all. He punishes her in the only way he know; by freezing her out. She tries hard to conceal her dismay, but he knows her eyes well enough by now.
Then things start to happen, which he guesses are typical of a man. Like a dog in the manger, he grows jealous of the burgeoning friendship between Catalina and the other two students. They won’t be tasting that honey pot if he can help it. And when he catches her furtive glances in his direction, his confidence grows. There had been a time during their…he guessed ‘relationship’ was the only word that fitted…when he’d felt he was losing control, but now he has it back. At one point during the flight he makes a discreet gesture towards her neck, reminding her of her love of being choked during sex. She blushes uncontrollably. He has the power.
Then such jealousy as he feels for Jane turns to contempt when she surrenders her body to that cunt no more than half a mile from the camp. A plan forms. The rest – of the team at least – is history.
“What’s the matter?”
She said it with such insouciance – almost a weariness beyond her years as she exhaled smoke – that he was taken aback. She had known he was watching her. That scared him. As did her apparent ability to read his mind, as she continued:
“You wondering what an eternity with me will be like?”
He watched with envy as she took another calm drag on her cigarette. How could she be so at peace when minutes before her cries had threatened to wake the dead?
“I knew the answer to that from the very first time you whispered your dark longings in my ear.”
She turned and looked at him. “Meaning?”
“Meaning you’re a mirror in which I see own soul.”
The reply seemed to appeal to her and she turned away smiling. But for Pete, there was no pleasure in what he saw – his reflection revealed damaged goods, and she was the price.
Despite, or perhaps because of everything that had happened, he found himself struggling to keep his eyes open. Maybe Morpheus was being merciful.
Sleep must indeed have taken him, because he felt himself being shaken awake.
“Pete…Pete! I think we need to move.”
“What?” Lumpy concrete poured from the mixer in his throat. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Six or seven hours, I think. Me too. But…”
“Shit!” He rubbed his eyes, sat up and looked at his watch. “We’ve got to get…” he hesitated, “…things sorted out before Dirk arrives.”
Catalina was looking pale. “That’s not really my concern right now. Look. Can you see it?”
She seemed to be pointing into the trees and his eyes were still gritty. “I can’t see anything.”
“There,” she wiggled her finger for emphasis. “Through the gap.”
He could just make out the sea if he peered at a certain angle between the branches. The waves were not as choppy as before. At last he saw what she was pointing to and though he could not make out the detail, his heart froze. It looked like there might be a boat coming round the headland of TempleIsland.
He sprang to his feet and rummaged in his rucksack, pulling out a pair of field glasses. At first all he could see were the swooping blurs of the furthest branches moving in the sea breeze, but then into focus came a very bad dream.
“Shit!” He fired out the word several more times in rapid succession, like a rocket launcher. Still looking through the glasses he said: “We have to move.”
“That’s what I just said,” was Catalina’s testy response.
“Yeah, but you didn’t know why.”
“Well what is it then?” She’d guessed it was a boat, but hadn’t thought to use the binoculars. “Cobus? Jim? Are they still alive?”
Pete lowered the glasses and looked at her; for the first time since she had known him Catalina saw fear in his eyes. “It’s worse than that. Better get a coin ready; it’s the fucking ferryman.”
He handed her the glasses and she saw what he meant. “Oh my God! Is that him?” Catalina knew the answer to her own question already. Pete had spoken of the high priest as if he were the very embodiment of ancient evil; that seemed like a good description of what was making its way towards them now. Even from this distance his sense of dark purpose was palpable.
“I thought…he must have had another boat.”
The cowled figure stood in the boat, propelling it forward with long, easy strokes of a single paddle. Then he looked up and Catalina caught sight of a hard mouth and a wicked contortion of the jaw that might have been a grin, a grimace or a death rictus, set in a dark face both young and of immeasurable age. It was a mercy that the eyes remained hidden, but there was no doubting his intention.
“There’s not much time,” said Pete with urgency. “C’mon, back to the camp.”
He looked around in a panic, before seeing the k’ib and placed it back into his rucksack, almost unable to believe that lust had caused it to slip his mind with such ease. There was a salutary lesson to be had there.
“What about the bodies?” asked Catalina.
“No time for that now, and no need.
“You have a plan?”
“Hey – it’s me.” He looked up at the sky. “Let’s hope your fellow countryman’s on time.
She was too scared to find his self-confidence reassuring.