The day was a sultry weight of heat that poured itself into every crevice and sucked the strength from every movement, every breath. The horse stepped carefully along the trail, each lifted hoof an effort, its progress slow and reluctant. Its rider made no move to spur it on; he sat in the saddle with comfortable ease, his jacket draped over knees and saddle horn in front of him, reduced to shirt sleeves by the insistence of the midday sun. Where the sloping descent of their path levelled out he reined the animal to a halt and pushed the peak of his snow white kepi up so as to brush the sweat from his eyes. Behind him the path snaked away into the harsh lava strewn landscape of mountain slopes and unexpected gullies; ahead it twisted on down to be swallowed by the humid steam of tropical vegetation. On his left the rock wall was a sharp glare of sun washed rock, to his right the world fell away in rapid steps until it was engulfed by the deep blue of the sea.
The coast was treacherous here, beaches made up of broken lava rock beneath jagged cliffs of dark granite. It had been shaped by the conflict between storm driven sea and the white hot impact of volcanic eruption; behind it the island was riven by steep sided valleys and the paths that crossed them were narrow and unforgiving. A little below him he could see the tiny curve of a inlet, cut from the rock by an insistent stream that had forced its way from the interior. The blue sparkle of its calmer waters were suddenly enticing after the hot journey across the mountain side. The rider reached into a pocket and thoughtfully examined his pocket watch. It was just short of midday and he had a good hour or two to travel yet. He was in no hurry; his business in the interior had taken him less time than he had thought, and he was not expected to return until that evening. It was pointless travelling in the noon sun unless he had to; accordingly he clicked to his mount and guided it, not along the main trail and into the unbearable humidity of the jungle, but down, picking its way across a narrow ledge to reach the welcome coolness of the inlet and the curve of the shore.
In the mouth of the narrow valley he dismounted, unsaddling the stallion and leaving it to graze along the banks of the stream. He doubted it would wander far, and certainly not up into the impact of the sun. He dropped the heavy leather under a nearby overhang of rock and perched himself in the shadow of the cliff, sweeping the weight of the kepi from his head to run a tired hand through his hair. It was blessedly quiet down in the cove; only the constant murmur of the sea to keep him company. Not even the persistent seabirds were abroad at that time of the day. Out in the roll of the ocean he saw the curve of a dolphin back break the water and then disappear again. Apart from the horse it was the only sign of life he'd seen for miles.
It was his own fault of course. He'd gone out the night before, drawn by an urgent summons to deliver a reluctant child into the world. The birth had been easier than feared and mother and child were prospering by the dawn. He'd considered the offer of a bed and refused it gently, accepting the breakfast of wheaten bread and milk to carry with him. The opportunity to visit some of the remoter farmers on that side of his island had tempted him and he'd tackled the return journey by a roundabout route, surprising some, startling others. None had made him feel unwelcome, but he'd been reluctant to impose his presence for long. These people were hard working, but the living they earned from the less fertile of Boragora's soils was a sparse one and he was not looking for hospitality, only reassurance. That he'd found in plenty. The last place he'd left, about three quarters of an hour before, had spoken warmly of a coming wedding. He'd promised to start the appropriate paperwork and arranged to meet the families concerned the next market day.
He wasn't sure why he hadn't turned directly for home at that point. Perhaps it was the desire for solitude that had sent him up the mountain trail and onto the difficult pathways along the coast. Perhaps he had merely wanted to catch the cooler air of the sea breeze as the day rose to its zenith. Except there was scarcely any breeze at all, and the whole world was hot. Too hot. Sighing he dropped the cloth draped cap next to his abandoned jacket and leant back against the sun warmed stone. Back at the Monkey Bar now Gushie would be serving lunch beneath the slow sweep of the fans, and the ice machine would be working overtime to supply the afternoon cocktails of the few passing patrons of the hotel. Jake would probably have returned from his morning trip to Tagataya too; in time for seafood salad and iced tea after lunch ...
The gentle murmur of the sea was a tempting siren to his heat wrapped skin. He was miles from anywhere, certain of being undisturbed, and the choice was between falling asleep on the sharp edged rocks or throwing off his tiredness in the tonic of the ocean. The battle didn't take very long. His clothes soon followed the kepi to the shadow of the cliff and in a few short strides he was shoulder deep in the Pacific and easing tired muscles in the smoothness of its caresses. He was good swimmer, and it had been too long since he'd indulged this particular habit for it not to prove an invigorating change. The soft salt of the sea was a sharp relief to the sweat of his naked skin and the water was warm but refreshing after the heavy heat of the day. Idly he swam out to the point, drifting in the roll of the ocean and diving down to the sloping bed to watch bright fish dart in and out of coral formations. The water was crystal clear and practically empty. He kept one eye out on the ocean side for the possible approach of a shark, but all he saw was the occasional flip of a dolphin hide as the small school he had spotted earlier played or hunted further into the depths.
He resurfaced with a gasp, shaking water from his hair and eyes and turning onto his back to float briefly in the sun. It was pleasant to just drift for a while, unconcerned about anything but the comfort of existence, unhurried and unpressed by business or duty. He kicked lazily to send him back towards the shallows; he was just thinking what a good idea this had been when the hand reached up out of the depths and dragged him under.
The moment was unexpected. He went down with no air in his lungs and his eyes blurred with the sudden re-impact of salt. The arm had wrapped itself over his chest with a grip of iron; he fought against its downward surge without success. His hands met the curve of what seemed to be human muscle and bone, reached round for his attacker to brush naked skin beneath the sea. He kicked and flailed, but to no avail. They sank together, down into the crystal depths, his torso wrapped with a determined grip, one wrist caught and held in an iron hand. His struggle served only to exhaust what little oxygen he had. Blackness rushed over him as the weight of water grew heavy on his skin. Vaguely he remembered the grip relaxing, the feel of hands at his shoulders, and the shadow that blurred in front of his eyes; the last thing he recalled clearly was the sudden press of lips to his own before the darkness swallowed him whole ...
He woke slowly, his world a warm cocoon of silk and stillness. He lay on his back, pillowed in soft slippery strands that shifted as he shifted, not through his own movement, but from the slow in and out of waves that caressed over him from feet to chest. He seemed to be entangled, his arms outstretched, his legs and shoulders wrapped with soft weight, held by silken rope that anchored him against the subtle pull of the water he was immersed in. He opened his eyes to dark green nothingness, a strip of damp cloth, or weed, or whatever it was wrapped over his face, letting in a whisper of light and nothing else. His lungs were heavy, his breath strained. He gasped unwittingly as he tested the strength of his bonds. The whole mass moved gently at the tug, but only tightened its hold.
A quiet sound, a whisper of click and squeal, the voice breathing close to his ear, soft and feminine, followed by a light giggle, pitched like tiny bells. Fingers played across the length of his arm and up his shoulder. Gentle fingers, whose touch shivered his skin with reaction as they followed their unseen path. Then more, words, but not words, murmured in a tongue that had no real reference to a human voice and yet seemed to be constructed by one.
"Sssh" she insisted, laying fingers to his lips to silence him. Another giggle. A shadow fell between him and the light. A fall of hair, damp and scented with salt, brushed across his cheek, and then the fingers were replaced with lips, soft and insistent. Briefly he resisted their sensuous impact, uncertain of his companion or her motives, but the warmth of her body slid down against his naked skin, and the scent of her musk was almost overpowering in her closeness. Her fingers stirred reaction in his body with expert touch and, although no stranger to seduction, he found himself responding with unwitting reaction. The kiss was long and breathless, a mouth that devoured with hungry insistence, tasting of sea and honey in its depths.
The voice breathed a reassuring sound, a whisper that impacted against his cheek as she drew away. He was trembling, he realised distantly. Somewhere the sensible part of his mind was screaming at him; telling him he was held captive by someone, or something, he had no knowledge of at all, but her presence was like a fire in his blood, stirring base instincts and drowning caution in a sudden flood of desire. He was a sensual man at the best of times, long used to the pursuit of pleasure and not chained by the needs of long term commitment as so many might be. He had enjoyed so many brief liaisons, unencumbered by demand or expectation; was this so different - except that never had he been on the receiving end of such a forcible seduction, never so helpless or so unaware of the nature of his company. It was both frightening and yet frighteningly arousing; he was bound in silk, not chains, and his very sense of powerlessness was tempered by the sensual awareness of being so totally in a woman's power.
Long sensitive fingers continued to trace their way across the dampness of his chest, raising ripples in the water that lapped over him as they slowly spiralled beneath the surface to chase over the muscles of his stomach. Doubt and nagging caution seemed a long way away; he could not help, nor hide the inevitable response of his body to that tentative teasing.
His unseen companion giggled again, moving down to kiss his throat, nuzzling at his chest and sweeping further encouragement from his flesh with gentle caress. Reluctantly he opened his mouth to protest, only to meet the impact of willing lips before he could do so much as breath a sound.
This kiss was savage and passionate, possessed of unsuspected strength. Her arms slid under his shoulders, tightened with violent insistence, pressing him against her, water smoothed skin and emgulfing possessiveness. Alarmed, he thought to struggle, the fight divided by a conflict between a question of escape and a desire to return the pressure of the embrace; all to no avail. The movement only constricted the bonds that held him and tightened the enfolding arms, reinforcing the relentless dart of the tongue that explored his mouth and drove explosive shivers into the distraction of his senses.
He moaned, torn by desire and despair, no longer in control, no longer sure he wanted to be. Her embrace relaxed, but only so that her hands could caress across his shoulders and plunge beneath the weight of water to trace the line of his hips and brush the growing ache of his groin. He moved under her touch, his body wanting her, his mind spiralling away under the fire she forced in him. The touch teased, stroked, and then abandoned him, her moves unseen so that the return of her hand was a gasp of startled frustration against his skin. She played with him, kissing and caressing with blood stirring promise, filling him with a yearning frenzy that overwhelmed the last rational thoughts he might have had. Still he could not touch her, held back, contained, by silken ties that constrained his every effort.
Briefly her touch was gone, her absence abandoning him to heightened want, his body quivering with fire and the need for release; then the warmth of her slid up from the water, engulfing him, drawing him in, wrapping his desire in velvet and silk, her hands suddenly claws that tore at him as she drove him into her, her limbs bands of steel that tightened and constricted, forcing air from his lungs. Pain and pleasure impacted inside him. He couldn't breath, couldn't move, could only rise and fall like the tide, his world a fire of want and pain as he burned, inside and out. Her hands drew down his chest like talons, driving the flame deeper, her mouth pressed over his with violent desire; there was no existence but the savage crescendo that rose and rose until it consumed him, and if he had been able, he thought perhaps he might have screamed ...
Reality was a cold shiver of evening air over damp skin, waking him to sensations of ache and bleary awareness. Groggily he stirred, opening eyes heavy with exhaustion to stare, unfocused, at a dark sky boiling with cloud. He lay on the black lava sand of the inlet, half in, half out of the water, his shoulders cold, even in the lingering warmth of the dying day. Even as he found the strength, and the will, to push himself up, the skies opened, striking him with the heavy impact of tropical storm. Disorientated, he struggled for a point of focus in a world suddenly grey, easing himself to his feet while the weight of rain drove over him and sluiced the salt from his skin. He ached, the sensation equally without focus, counterpointed by the scream of open wounds as they were scoured by the descending torrent. Dazed he glanced down, identifying the surface scoring of shoulders, chest and stomach; shallow lines of swollen scratches bleeding bright beads of blood before they were washed away. Nothing deep, nothing threatening, but painful reminders .. reminders of what? His memories refused to gell into a coherent whole, images lost in a confusion of engulfing water and breathless panic. He took a deep breath, and abused lungs protested, reflexing into a hacking cough that brought the taste of salt to inexplicably bruised lips. Salt and honey ... He shivered, haunted by echoes of a dream in which he had been used and abused and yet ... the images didn't fit into any sense, wrapped in a blanket of fire and foaming water. Slate blue skin, a rising dorsal fin, the sensation of being trapped and helpless ... Nothing made entire sense, his mind skittering away from the reality of memory, his thoughts disjointed and sluggish. Something to do with the dolphins, he considered, grasping at flashes as they sparked in his recall. There were strands of kelp, or something like it, wrapped at his wrist; more at his ankle. He frowned at its presence, not placing it in the bright image of coral gardens that he knew he'd seen beneath the inlets surface. He let it slip through his fingers and the rain washed it into the sea. Had he swum too far, too deep? Had the dolphins come to aid in a struggle against confining weed that had held him, breathless and drowning? He'd been tired, and drained by the sun, but surely not so foolish ... the recollections collided with memories that his mind shied away from. He was battered and bruised as if he'd fought raging surf, not the calm gentility of the unconcerned sea. Bruised ... the back of his hand brushed tender lips, before he reached to massage the ache in shoulder and arm.
The rain was warm, the impact of it heavy. He stood in the open for several minutes, uninclined to move, knowing it wouldn't last long. Out in the ocean the surface boiled under its descent, blurring the distinction between sea and sky, the horizon swallowed utterly. Curved backs arched from the water, went down with the flick of a tail. The dolphins still played, even in the rain ...
He blinked, fought for focus with disbelief. Out in the midst of the barely glimpsed school there had been another shape, a flash of shapely arm and curve of shoulder and breast ... impossibility collided with echoes of a dream. Soft lips on his own, forcing air into his lungs, a shadow in the water, a weight of warmth and the taste of honey in his mouth ... he shook the recalcitrant thoughts from his head. Perhaps he had been in the sun too long after all. He was hungry, and he'd be back late, which meant he'd be hungrier still. Annoyed at his own sense of nonsense he shook the last of the rain from his hair and strode back to the overhang to dress, his clothes kept dry beneath the rock, the fabric reluctant over the dampness of his skin.
A whistle, and Le Capitaine trotted up from his refuge under a twisted tree further into the narrow valley. The stallion whickered a friendly greeting, his mane misted with damp, but his withers dry, and his rider smiled indulgently as he paused to stroke the velvet of the animal's nose. "Ah mon brave," he murmured. "You had a longer rest then you expected did you not? No matter. We will go home now."
He clicked affectionately as he re-saddled the horse, the animal turning his head to watch him with trusting eyes. He was a lean and angular creature, no great beauty but strong and resilient beneath his grey and white patched hide. They had come to a comfortable understanding, man and beast, and they respected their relationship, one assured of obedient trust, the other of gentle treatment and consideration. Le Capitaine had been running wild in the heart of the island when the new Magistrate had purchased him; a wild, independent creature, master of his small harem and never properly broken. There had been amusement at the idea of the urbane and elegant Frenchman even dreaming of riding such an animal - local expectation had allowed for the possibility of some usage from the mares, but never the stallion. The same stallion that now leaned his neck into the man's shoulder blades in affectionate recognition.
The saddle secured he lifted himself into it, easing aching muscles with unaccustomed care and finding several bruises he hadn't known existed in the process. The horse shied a little under his weight then settled easily. He glanced out to sea one final time; the ocean surface was empty now, the sky clearing to reveal the echoes of sunset which lit the blue water with orange fire. Carefully Le Capitaine picked his way back up the narrow slope and onto the main trail, his actions easy and footsure despite the treacherous surface. His rider let him choose his own way, trusting in the animal's ability; he occasionally joked that the stallion was actually part mountain goat, going by the way he was able to make his way in the most inaccessible parts of the island landscape.
While he rode the rider let his mind drift to thoughts of the journey's end. No doubt Gushie would find him a late supper on his arrival, albeit with a martyred look, and the Clipper was due in the following day, which was probably a harbinger of work but might also mean the chance of a little entertainment at the same time. Depending on the passenger list of course. There was always the chance that that Italian Contessa might chose to look him up on her way home ... He laughed softly to himself as he ducked under a low tree branch, laden with moisture, and urged his mount into the comfortable trot that would eat up the remaining distance. He would have need of a considerate lover if he wanted to share the pleasures of the flesh in the next few days. The stallions easy action, normally a smooth motion that he matched with absent ease, awoke constant echoes of protest across an abused frame. A very considerate lover. One with gentle patience and no wish to rush ... He smiled in the growing darkness, finding no stirring of desire rise to meet the thought. He really was tired; drained and weary. Or perhaps he was just growing old, after all.
The lights of the hotel were welcome beacons in the night. He slipped quietly from the saddle and led the stallion into the paddock, pausing to rub him down and ensure there was feed in the manger before stowing the saddle and bridle back in the tack room. He remembered to glance into the stables to check on the pregnant mare, greeting her with a soft kiss to her softer nose. He kept four or five horses behind the hotel, mostly paddocked, the tiny stable used mainly for the storage of feed and the sheltering of any animal needing special attention. Passing guests would use them to explore the interior, while visiting merchants would hire them out so that they could visit the more remote farms and plantations. Several of them were acquired in lieu of debts or fines, and Le Capitaine kept them all in careful order, just as he had always done on the mountain. The horses attended to he slipped into the hotel through the back way, casting an absent eye over the now empty kitchens as he moved past the open air ranges and into the covered preparation areas. The sound of merriment rose from the confines of the bar beyond; ribald voices cheered on some stunt or other, Jake Cutter's familiar tones among them. The listener sighed, not feeling in the mood for such energetic company. He went back to the kitchen and opened one of the larders, extracting a hunk of bread, a slab of cheese and a few sliced meats which he devoured with hungry appetite, and then made his way out into the night and climbed silently to his bed via the outer stairway. The night was clear, sharp stars bright in the velvet of the sky, and beyond the echoes of human laughter below him the sound of the surf washed in with gentle murmur. He stood for a moment at the balcony rail, breathing in the night sounds and smells of his village, then he found that he was yawning and, with a self depreciating smile, he took his aching body to bed.
His dreams that night were troubled ones, filled with foaming water and helpless struggle. He dreamt that he was drowning; when he woke, sweated and gasping for breath, it was to an aching desire and a body that cramped with echoes of abuse.
Other events and the necessities of day to day existence overtook the confused memories of that hot and humid day, although echoes of them haunted his dreams for many nights afterwards. With time the bruises faded, the wounds healed and if any one had noticed that he moved with greater care for two or three days if was almost certainly to assign it to the rigours of a long day in the saddle. Events came and went, laying more dramatic recollections over the image of a half dreamed encounter in the sea; in a short time he had no reason to recall it, other than in the quiet moments of sleep. Life on Boragora was rarely dull. High drama interwove with moments of humour and various excitements: people came and went, brought by the Clipper or the ferry boats, carried in on passing freighters and fishing vessels. They brought with them headaches and heartaches, intrigues and incidents, laughter and light relief; the residents of the hotel endured it all with their usual unfailing fortitude, sustained by an unquestioned comradeship. Their sense of 'family' was casual and unadmitted, but it existed, and the swirl of strangers and the tensions they brought barely ever stirred its foundations.
The Italian Contessa did return, only to move on again, a brief liaison snatched in the tropical night, a sharing of sultry passion inspired by stars. She had proved memorable, although scarcely noteworthy, making up for her lack of finesse with fiery energy and boasting of how she collected lovers the way others of her 'set' collected art. He'd amused himself with her, much as a hungry man might tackle the plainest of fares; welcome to the appetite but not outstanding on the palette. He had laughed, inwardly, at the idea of being 'collected', letting her think she had conquered him even as he added her to his own victories. She was an amateur in the art but he didn't spoil her enjoyment, or his, by revealing it to her. She left, full of breathy promises she had no intention of keeping and, he had no doubt, proceeded to elaborate every detail of their encounter until it was a suitable tale with which to regale her envious 'sisters'. He didn't mind that - it would do his reputation no harm whatsoever; he, as always, was simply discrete and kept his opinions of his latest lover to himself.
He rarely had cause to regret any of his affairs; he selected his encounters with care, his appetite one of sensual desire and not burning necessity. His enjoyment was in the subtle shades of womanhood that never ceased to surprise and delight him - despite his 'reputation' he could gain as much from simple conversation and company as he could from more intimate liaisons, and saw no reason to pursue one into the other if the situation did not favour it. Time had mellowed his appetite into one which was prepared to wait, wrapping his tastes with experience and understanding. He had long since grown past hurried passion and breathless desire; a young man's pursuit that usually required broken words of commitment or the heartaches of lust pretending to be love. His pleasures were purer and, on the whole, less consuming; he offered no pretences, expected none in return. Even so he took his lovers seriously, well prepared to enjoy the process of seduction as much as the end result, and, because of it, he never had reason to be disappointed, even if his reward was no more than a charmed smile or an attractive dinner guest. The pleasures were easy; only occasionally did he let himself realise that, however intimate his liaisons, he rarely gave anything of himself, and that for all his chosen company he was most often alone.
In many ways it was company that he sought, not simple gratification; even for the briefest encounter he preferred to conduct an affair, not just a seduction. Unlike the Reverend Tenboom, who pursued his passions with enthusiasm and cloaked his personal ardour with clumsy, if locally accepted, euphemism, pure lust rarely entered into the Frenchman's equation. The simply young and lovely held no long term attractions for him, although, if pressed, he would probably admit to no having objections to their attentions. Perhaps it was that the uninhibited children of the islands held no challenge in their generous attitudes, or perhaps, like a canny wolf set to watch a farmer's sheep, he knew better than to hunt on home territory. He preferred a more sophisticated partner, one versed in the subtlies of life and not averse to playing the game of move and counter move as hunter and prey; he was never entirely certain who was hunter and who prey, but that was part of the charm of it, and he never overstepped his boundaries, and hoped never to force a woman to something she might regret.
After the Contessa came a smooth voiced Irish woman who silkily chose to seduce him; an amusing change that he let slide with cooperative innocence - until the end of the week when he quietly relieved her of the valuables she had been accumulating from guest and resident alike. At his quiet accusations she had been coyly innocent, then seductively persuasive, finally angrily threatening; he had let her rage and plead and perform with admirable skill and the intent of total duplicity, then he had smiled and allowed her to leave, sans acquisitions, letting her know he had had her measure from the very beginning. Perhaps he should have arrested and charged her, but she had entertained him and no one had been hurt by her thievery; he had seen to that in the process of the game. He took his role as Magistrate very seriously, but he never saw reason to load himself with paperwork if justice could be served without it. Not to mention the political and bureaucratic nightmare that the Colonial administration represented at the best of times.
Bon Chance had long ago decided he had no political ambitions whatsoever, an attitude others in the administration constantly failed to appreciate, since most of them had ambitions, if not talent, aplenty. He played the political game with disinterested skill, negotiating the muddy waters of his office with adroit ability and letting others back themselves into committed corners without him. Nobody of any great statesmanship was ever posted to the islands, or if they were then they did not linger there long. There were few, if any bar the incumbent Governor (who was shrewd man, if a little embittered at being shunted into a political backwater by his more powerful opponents), who really appreciated that the reasons that kept the post of Magistrate on Boragora filled had much more to do with a genuine concern for the people in his care than they ever had with a need for status or power. There were times when the tortuous demands of the paperwork, and the constant issue of conflicting directives from a far distant and unconcerned administration were enough to infuriate the most patient of men. That, on its own, had been cause enough for many to abandon their responsibilities; coupled with the peculiar terrors of the Boragoran quarter of the French mandate the post he now held had sent one man mad, driven another to suicide, and sent most of his predecessors back to safer climes in fear of their lives. History also recorded two who had been murdered, one who'd given in and proved as corrupt and untrustworthy as the villains he legislated against, and a fourth who had simply disappeared. Bon Chance was wrought from sterner stuff; since he had assumed the responsibility his quarter of the islands had caused the Governor the least number of headaches. It might have been the quiet manner in which he had proved himself a canny force to be reckoned with; it might have had something to do with his habit of turning a blind eye to minor misdemeanours in favour of tackling the more serious problems that surrounded him; it might even have had stemmed from a wry awareness of human nature; whatever it was, he had succeeded where many others had failed. He was rather fond of his position as it happened, quietly in charge, despite the headaches it represented. He took the spirit of the law seriously, sometimes bending the letter of it a little out of shape, but always being aware of why he had done what he had done, which was probably more than could be said for some of his colleagues. He was occasionally bribeable - what French administrator wasn't - but only to help smooth the bureaucratic wheels a little, never to flout the spirit of what he represented. He milked the system for what it was worth, because that was how it was done, but he never overstepped the line and he kept his opinions strictly to himself - unless the Governor asked him outright, in which case he was both honest and blunt. There was a clear division between discretion, caution, and downright dissemblance; he was not afraid to stand up for his principles when the need arose.
The would be thief left on the Clipper; the next flight brought in a world weary and cynical widow, who was booked for an overnight stop, and stayed for a fortnight, delaying her departure because she couldn't bear the tedious company she was travelling among. There seemed to be very little she could bear in fact, her attitude one of matyred forbearance, as if the world were a punishment to be endured, grudgingly. The beds were too hard, the coffee bitter, the bath water tepid; Gushie declared that first night that if she complained one more time he was either going to commit murder of suicide - the preference was equal either way. Bon Chance had sighed, mollified his friend's ruffled feathers, and gone to speak to the lady himself, finding an unexpected beauty imprisoned in a prim and disgruntled mask. The challenge was irresistible. He found her his most charming smile, which rarely failed to sweeten even the most indignant of female battle-axes, reassured her of his constant attention to her needs, promised to attend to her every complaint and returned to his office with a speculative look in his eye. Gushie had seen it and resigned himself to the inevitable; the widow received the best of considerations despite the provocation she represented.
It took three days to melt the layer of armour she had built around herself. It required subtle seduction and understated romancing that slipped past her tired cynicism by avoiding the cliched and the obvious. He treated her with charming respect; 'happened' to join her for lunch on her first full day - a circumstance he insisted on repeating on the second, extending the invitation to become dinner that evening - and discovered in the process that she was both lonely and a little bored, half regretting her impulse to stay. Had she been the average member of middle aged America that generally passed through, unpossesed of character and lacking in conversation, he might have abandoned the struggle there and then, reducing his attention to his more general charm and letting her slip away without concern. But she wasn't. She was openly blunt about her reasons for travel - her son had insisted she stop interfering in his life - and equally blunt about her deceased husband, who, it appeared, had married her for her decorative qualities and abilities as a hostess rather than for any emotional commitment. As a result she was sick of the world and its inhabitants, certain that each and every member of the human race were hell bent on exploiting each and every other member of it, and equally determined that she should no longer let it happen to her. He listened to her politely, then confounded her by agreeing with her accusation that he sought her company for ulterior motives. She was well aware that she was still an attractive woman, she said. And wealthy. She'd brushed off many a sycophantic would be romeo during her stay in the East. But they'd all claimed to be madly in love with her - she wasn't prepared for a man who simply smiled and denied nothing.
That evening she deigned to accept the dinner invitation, warning him that she was simply taking advantage of the offer, not offering anything in return; but it was clear she was flattered by his subtle and understated attentions and not a little fascinated that he was in no hurry to pursue anything. They dined pleasantly enough and afterwards he conducted her to her room and left her at the door, neither pressing his suite nor intending to. He'd decided that the only way to win this particular war was to let the battle come to him, not the other way round. The third day saw him quietly at work in the office, preparing the necessary papers that enabled Jake Cutter to fly two French government sponsored geologists to the survey locations they wished to investigate. Cutter was also in the office when the widow succumbed to an impulse and came to find her erstwhile dining partner, perhaps piqued that he had not already sought her out that day. The pilot had had a hard time schooling the smile from his face as she hesitantly asked if the Frenchman would be joining her for lunch, a very forward question, she knew, but ... Bon Chance expressed pleasant surprise at the request, reassured her he would be delighted - if she really considered his company appropriate - and she'd retreated with a resumption of diffidence that didn't fool anybody, including herself. Cutter had remarked on the matter only obliquely, already amused at the manner in which the lady concerned had relaxed the disgruntled attitude that had marked her arrival, and left, taking Corky and Sarah with him on what should have been a pleasant sight seeing trip, occupying no more than three or four days.
Bon Chance had lunched with company. Afterwards he had walked her through the village, needing to visit a sick child and offering to prove that not all people were as self centred as she claimed. He'd shown her the unhurried life of the islands, and left her, fascinated, talking with the village women as they sat and sewed for the bride gifts they were making for the coming wedding. He attended to his tiny patient, pleased to see progress, and went back to work, inspecting a ship that came to collect cargo and losing himself in some convoluted paperwork concerning the employment of itinerant workers who were not registered in the islands. She returned with an accusatory look on her face, fuelled by gossip and the speculation of idle mouths who well knew their Magistrate's reputation. He countered with amused agreement, again denying nothing, but pointing out his failure to press matters and deflating her indignation by adding that, that day she had invited him to lunch and not the other way around. Finally she had demanded to know how he would have treated her, had he thought her 'easy prey' - a term that made him laugh and speculate on the manner in which his reputation was improving - and in the end he had, albeit reluctantly on the surface - regaled her with the lure of the Gauguin (which she hadn't noticed hanging on the wall) and the easy way in which he could use its excuse to be alone with a vulnerable woman ... she pressed him to demonstrate, refusing to believe that any of her sex could be so simply seduced and by the time she should have been huffily indignant and pushing him away (as many had done, he admitted with a smile) she was in his arms and discovering she wanted to be there.
That night they shared more than just dinner. She was a hesitant lover, admitting to having endured her husband's attentions rather than enjoying them, but he taught her that not all men are the same, and that the oldest dance of all can be more than just fumbling want and demand. Afterwards she slept, and he left her there, returning to his own room to shower and sleep himself, wondering, as he often did, who had truly conquered and who succumbed; both, and neither, he hoped. There had been a need, inside of him, ever since that hot day on the shore, that even such a pleasurable night of passion had failed to totally dispel. It was if, in the release of desire, he still yearned to reach further, to achieve a half remembered height that he could sense and never grasp. It frightened him a little, for he had always been a man to consider his partners and, through them, been able to satisfy far more than simple lust. But the need was still there, leaving him vaguely disappointed, empty. That night he dreamt again of drowning; when he woke he was drenched in sweat and shaking.
The days passed swiftly after that. In public she remained aloof and difficult to satisfy; in private she came willing and eager to his desires, enjoying, among other things, the surreptitious game of discretion; of snatching passion untouched by public knowledge. It was a game of subtlties he had played before and it frustrated their observers, Gushie among them, who never knew if she had succumbed to his overtures or not. They would part after dinner, he solicitous and attentive, she apparently bored, or indignant, or even complaining; the food was questionable, the wine inferior, the night too hot ... They would meet again, unseen and amused at the ease of the accomplishment, her warmth melting into his arms and demanding his kisses. For three days she was hungry for his presence; after that the passion mellowed into gentler pleasures and longer nights; at the last she slept in his arms until morning, content and comfortable, while he lay awake and wondered at his own sense of disquiet. That final night the dream returned to haunt him, driving him awake in the early hours, there to wake his sleepy partner and take her, almost violently, driven by a desire he could not understand. She did not object to his passion, responding with startled pleasure to the urgency of his need; but afterwards she considered him curiously, for he had proved a gentle and undemanding lover over the days of their relationship. He could not explain it to her, since he could not explain it to himself; she read it as a compliment to her impending departure and promised she would not forget him. He had smiled at that, making her also promise that she would choose her future lovers with equal discretion, until, at least, she found a man she could truly share her life with. She'd laughed, and promised and thanked him; there had never been any pretence in their relationship, only honest passion. They parted friends, he 'remembering' almost at the last that he had failed to mark her passport and drawing her away from the waiting Clipper crowd to snatch one last passionate embrace in the quietness of his office. There she had smiled at the Gauguin and laughingly wished it well, before hurrying away, eyeing her fellow passengers, not with despairing forbearance but with speculative interest. He'd watched the sleek shape of the plane leave the bay, and sighed, giving Gushie cause to look concerned. 'You don't win with them all' he'd remarked, consolingly. Bon Chance had looked at him with a briefly puzzled frown, then burst out laughing. 'Non,' he'd agreed with a grin and left his friend to consider the reaction while he lifted his parrot from his perch and tempted him with chopped nuts and fresh fruit from the abandoned snack dishes scattered about the bar.
Cutter's Goose returned later that day, its occupants weary and dishevelled. They were several days overdue, although they had warned of a possible delay in their return and their friends had not been overly worried at it. In fact their adventures had been harrowing ones; they told tales of hostile natives, untrustworthy Europeans and suspect geology. They'd been shot at, held captive by suspicious tribesmen, nearly buried alive in a landslip, chased by wild animals, caught in storms ... Bon Chance grew quietly guilty as the litany continued; while he'd been indulging himself his friends had been in genuine danger, yet he'd barely given them a thought over the past few days. Still, he was genuinely pleased to see them back in one piece and said so, threatening to accompany them on the next such expedition, since they clearly needed a cool head to keep them out of trouble. Cutter laughed and said he'd keep him to that promise if he wasn't careful. The following day the pilot walked up from the dock and into the inevitable fight, the bar dissolving into chaos over some minor misunderstanding or other. Gushie had sighed, remarking that one always knew when Jake was home, at which the Frenchman laughed and had to agree. In fact, he noted, with slightly guilt edged relief in his voice, it was nice to see that everything was just as it should be ...
Two days later they intercepted a distress signal on the radio; the freighter 'Mary Maybe', registered in Sydney and currently running a cargo of sandalwood and sundry other things from Merike in the Marivellas to the Solomons. The captain spoke of pirates and was barely able to give his position before the link was silenced, although whether by man or natural agency it was hard to say. Cutter pulled out the charts, pinpointing the location of the attack as being in deep water, somewhere between San Bordeaux and Ile D'August, an area recently troubled by a number of raids on passing ships. Bon Chance made his decisions quickly: in general circumstances the message would have been a frustrating spur to send an investigating gun boat and curse as the evidence of the raid, as well as the raiders themselves, proved long gone on its arrival. But Borogora possessed an ace the raiders had not counted on - its resident Magistrate commandeered the waiting seaplane, loaded three armed constables aboard it, and ordered its pilot to make the best speed he could. Cutter was more than happy to oblige. He and Corky had met the crew of the 'Maybe' only a few days before, while refuelling on Merike, and they had spent a convivial evening helping to celebrate the Captain and his wife's wedding anniversary, about the only bright spot in the entire ten day period they had been absent from home. That the Captain was married to his first mate was been startling, but entirely understandable once you met the lady concerned; the pilot needed no encouragement to push his plane to its limits, driven by the thought of what a cut throat band of pirates might be doing to his newest friends.
The flight was three hours, but they were counting on the raiders not expecting to be disturbed and the time it might take to off load the more precious parts of the freighter's cargo. Bon Chance considered the chances grimly, aware that he was asking his current company to risk their lives in the venture, but no-one expressed second thoughts as the plane drifted over the last reported position of the 'Maybe', at, Cutter hoped, a sufficient altitude to avoid being spotted by those below.
"There," Corky reported, sharp eyed enough to spot the dark shape of the ship through the clouds. The freighter was still afloat, and there were two sleek motor launches tethered to her stern. Cutter turned to his expectant passengers with a tight grin.
"They're still aboard by the looks of things. But she's adrift in open ocean; I'm going to have to come in low and fast - and even then they'll probably spot us."
"Do your best, mon ami," Bon Chance told him grimly. "If we are lucky they will be busy emptying the ship's liquor supply and won't hear us approach."
He organised the armed men for the attack, sending one through to crouch in the cargo area below the nose hatch, prepared to provide covering fire while they disembarked. The plan was simple: Cutter would bring the Goose in low and approach the stern, bringing the plane to land and coasting up to the side of the tethered launches. From there the rescue party would board the 'Mary Maybe', after dealing with any of the pirates they might find on the smaller vessels. It was risky, and they would be exposing themselves to armed attack from the freighter's decks, but since the alternative was inaction, not one man protested at the idea. Corky looked distinctly worried, and Jack went and hid somewhere, while Cutter bit hard on the end of his most recent cheroot and dropped the plane into a dive.
It went like a dream, the raiders having no expectation of being interrupted. By the time someone aboard the freighter realised what was happening Bon Chance was already out of the plane and halfway up the boarding net the pirates had so considerately left hanging over the ship's side. There was a brief moment in which a startled pirate leant out and aimed a wild shot at the Frenchman's scrambling figure, but the bullet missed its intended target and the raider didn't get a second chance, a less hurried shot from the rifle in the Goose's nose cutting him down before he could correct his aim.
Cutter let his breath out again as Bon Chance vanished over the 'Maybe's' rail. Those few seconds on the net had been the most dangerous moments of their attack, but, now that they had a man on the ship the other members of the party could board with less fear of being picked off while they were exposed against the hull. He left Corky to handle the sea anchor, picked his way across the bobbing launches and made his way up the net himself, hearing the sound of gunfire being exchanged ahead of him. The waters of the Pacific surged under the freighter's rolling wallow, making the ascent more difficult than he expected, and he noted, with almost absent surprise, that the sea was full of dolphin backs, playing among the troughs and peaks of the ocean below him.
He topped the rail, rolled over in a defensive crouch, and sought sanctuary beside a crouching constable as a bullet ricocheted off the planking in front of him. Further along the deck he saw Bon Chance look up and take careful aim. A moment later the body of a raider plunged off the upper rail and landed with a sickening crunch on the tarpaulin covered deck cargo, where it twitched once and then lay still. The pilot waved a grin of thanks in his friends direction before cutting across the stern and moving up the opposite side of the ship, his gun cocked and ready, his heart pounding anxiety at every pitch and movement of the vessel beneath him. In very short order it was over, five raiders dead, three surrendered, and the crew of the freighter were spilling out of the cabin they had been locked in with clear relief. The Captain recognised the pilot immediately and hurried across to join him beside the cargo hatches.
"We have to get away," he gasped, the words spilling out of him with fear driven speed. "They've set charges, down in the holds. They were going to leave us aboard while they sank her ..."
"Bastards," Cutter swore, waving at the two constables, who were cuffing their captives. "Get everybody aboard the launches." he advised. "They should hold everybody, and there's room in the Goose if they don't."
"Aye," the Captain agreed with relief and turned to organise it. The pilot looked around for his friend and caught sight of him up at the bow, examining the corpse of one of the pirates for identification. Cutter hailed him, bringing the Frenchman to his feet with a querying look, and a giant hand caught the 'Mary Maybe' from below and shook her, hard.
The American was thrown savagely onto the deck, the hatches beside him breaking outward with thunderous force. Groggily he crawled to his feet, his head ringing, the surface beneath him starting to tilt ominously. Disorientated he peered through a pall of smoke, to find the bow seemingly empty, the ship listing heavily to one side. "Louie?" he called, alarm in the sound. A hand caught at his shoulder, dragged him away. He turned, to meet the Captain's anxious face.
"She's going fast, Jake. If we don't clear the launches now they'll be pulled under with her."
He nodded his understanding and staggered to the stern, glancing behind him as he did so. No figure in white materialised out of the billowing smoke, nor was the Frenchman to be found among the refugees that crowded the launches. He stumbled from one to the other and heaved himself into his plane, his stomach churning, and yelled at Corky to power her out of the danger zone. At a safe distance the three cramped vessels wallowed to a halt and watched as the Mary Maybe was swallowed by the hungry sea.
"Monsiuer?" one of the constables called from the second launch, distracting Cutter from his grim contemplation of the sight, "is the Magistrate with you?"
The pilot winced. "No," he called back, the realisation heavy inside him. "He was up at the bow when everything went crazy. I haven't seen him since."
"He may have gone over the side," the Captain's wife suggested, looking up from her treatment of an injured man. The pilot wondered when that had happened, then remembered the splintering hatches.
Beside her the Captain shuddered. "There are sharks in these waters," he announced, riding the swell and considering the boil of foam that had been his ship. "And we will have to wait for that to settle before we can conduct a search."
"Can Louie swim?" Corky asked, appearing in the hatch behind the pilot, Jack at his feet. Cutter managed a wry grimace.
"Like a fish, Corky. Don't worry - we'll find him. He can't be far away."
"Its not how far," the Captain muttered, wrapping an arm around his first mate's shoulders, "its how deep. Even if he was already in the water, she'll have dragged him down all the way ..."
He'd hit the water hard, breath driven out of him by the impact, adding to his disorientation, his alarm. The deck had lifted under him, pitched him sideways, tipping him into the sea without warning; his head was ringing from the blow. He sank deep, struggling for direction and fighting free of his jacket as the weight of water soaked into it and pulled him down. After the jacket he kicked off his shoes, using the action to propel himself upwards, seeking the surface with determined stokes, his lungs screaming as he did so. He met solid steel, the curve of a hull, and he realised with horror that the ship was tilting over, was rolling on top of him ...
He broke the surface once, gasping in a blessed lungful of oxygen along with a throatful of water and the terrifying impression of a wall of steel diving straight at him; then he dived deep, swimming for his life, striking out to angle away from the descending ship, feeling the tug of current and counter current wrestling around him. The water was cold beneath the surface warmth, and he was dragged down into it, the depth wrapping him in bands of iron, driving pain into his lungs with relentless pressure. Stars danced in front of his salt blurred vision. He was down too far, too long. He had to reach the surface, except he was no longer certain in which direction the surface lay, his sense of orientation buffeted out of existence by the forces that had engulfed him. Angrily he forced himself to be still, letting the drift of his own weight serve to recentre himself and knew, with sudden clarity, that he wasn't going to make it. He'd been too winded by the impact with the water, too groggy from the explosion. His head was pounding. His lungs were a tight band of fire across his chest. He needed to breath. Merci de dieu, he needed to breath so badly ...
There were arms around his shoulders, the sense of a presence at his side. Lips pressed over his own, driving in a lungful of air, forcing him to breath. There was the taste of salt and honey on his tongue, driving away the darkness behind his eyes. Too startled to resist he relaxed into the offered support, focusing on a pair of golden ambered eyes that were suddenly inches from his face. Dark slate skin framed them, haloed by a billow of smoke that was her hair, lifted by the water into a globe of luxuriance. Her lips drifted away, to shape into an almost shy smile in front of him; then she pushed, up, and he was on the surface, gasping in the wonder of it, his limbs heavy as they fought to keep him there.
The water around him was a boil of foam, in which the curve of finned backs broke the surface and circled him. Dolphins, not sharks, he recognised, seeing the dark shapes twist through the water. He blinked, his mind fighting for focus along with his eyes. Had he seen ...? Seen what, a woman who was also dolphin, slate grey skin and fin crowned shoulder blades? Surely not, not the shapely form of slim waist and jutting breast that his memory insisted on. Not the sweep of long legs that flared into angled flukes, or the sculptured face with its golden eyes, inches away ... Yet something had saved him. Had breathed life into desperate lungs, and given him back to the sun touched air. Something ...
A hand seized his ankle, dragged him down with playful strength. He went under with a gasp, not expecting it, sliding into the curve of her arms, at her mercy in her domain. She kissed him there, not the life giving breath of air filled lungs but hungry, forceful, stirring his blood despite the situation. Heat ignited inside him, involuntary, a response to her touch, unremembered until now, yet recalled with violent force. She triggered something buried deep; it spilled up with irresistible pressure, his mind screaming a distant protest before it too was devoured by her fire. Her weight drove them both downwards, spiralling back into the cold and the darkness, a descent he had no strength to resist. Dimly he realised he was probably drowning, except it didn't seem to matter anymore. Nothing mattered, except the warmth in his arms and the need that consumed him, not passion, not lust, just sheer violent want, tearing him apart. Down they went, down, and still down, while he was lost in the salt taste of her mouth and the spill of her hands against him. She tore at the fabric of his shirt, ripped cloth as if it were paper, freeing the fever of his skin, his very existence; his hands pulled her towards him, the sensation of silk beneath his fingers, the scream of his lungs distant and unnoticed. Deep in the pressure of the ocean she possessed him, his life held by her breath, her passion a violence that dragged him into ecstasy and beyond. This, this was the need that had festered inside him since that first touch, a savagery that burned and broke him, a crescendo of existence that was also pain. He reached for it, knowing it was death he seized and yet unable to escape her, driven to a final cry that tore out of him as if it were his soul. Cold flooded back, the weight of water that filled him, choking and engulfing, denying him light and air and life itself ...
They searched the sea for several hours, but they found no signs of life in the oil streaked waters. None but the lazy curve of the occasional dolphin back and even that small school seemed to melt away into nowhere after a while. Cutter insisted they stay until darkness began to creep over them, but by then even he was snatching at bare hope, stubbornly expecting to find the longed for survivor drifting over the next roll of the swell. Eventually he admitted defeat, watching as the powerful launches sped away into the growing night, heading for distant civilisation and the safety of populated shores. The constables loaded their prisoners into the Goose and he reluctantly gunned the engine into life. As the red and white hull lifted from the water his hands tightened briefly on the rudder bar; until that moment there had been a chance however slim, but by leaving he had admitted the inevitable and it had hurt, feeling as if he had personally abandoned his friend to the mercy of the ocean, as if, by staying, he could have encountered a miracle.
They took the pirates to Tagataya and were forced to endure a round of careful questioning, both from the Magistrate, Reynard, and then from the Governor, who had heard the news and had come to verify the story. He had been quietly sympathetic to the loss, aware of Cutter's held back grief, and had avoided mention of any official action concerning the need to replace the now empty post of Magistrate on Boragora. Perhaps he too could not quite believe that Bon Chance was truly lost. The pilot had endured the ordeal politely before taking his leave and returning to his plane. The flight back to Boragora was even worse. Corky could find nothing to say, and neither of them were looking forward to delivering the news they carried.
Sarah took it hard, but not as hard as Gushie. The man listened to Cutter's tale with stony eyes and afterwards said very little. He tended bar as if nothing had happened, refusing to close up, or even acknowledge that anything might have changed, but the pilot had reason to pass the entrance to the cellar later, and heard the sound that a man might make if weeping. He simply closed the half open door and walked away; there are many ways that men cope with grief and then was not the time to intrude. His own loss was too raw, too akin to the one that his companions sought to deal with for him to face any of them. He walked out into the night and spent a long time staring at the stars.
Days passed. With them came a slow acceptance of change, numbed by a sense of disbelief but slowly penetrating all the same. The Monkey Bar seemed empty without its personable owner, but the passing Clipper passengers didn't seem to notice and life had to go on somehow. That was the worst thing in many ways; life did go on. Customers came and went, market day passed in its usual fashion, and Friday night drifted round with unavoidable inevitability. Fridays never were the most convivial of evenings. Market day was early in the week, scheduled to meet the ferry from Tagataya after its weekend journey; the Clipper passed through midweek, and the ferry back to the Maravellan Capital left on the following day. Even if there was a visiting ship or two in the Bay, Friday night tended to be the time for a quiet intake of breath before weekend liberty unleashed its full impact on island life.
This Friday was worse than most. The Thursday poker game had broken up early, short by one semi-regular player and in no mood for serious competition, and the villagers were preparing for some festival or other on the Sunday which tended to keep them at home in the evenings. By the time that dusk was falling over the bay the Monkey Bar was practically deserted, only the regular inhabitants of the hotel attempting to keep each other company, and none of them in a mood to do so. After an hour of staring moodily into his beer glass, Cutter had had enough. He climbed to his feet and stormed out of the main doors, uncertain as to where he might be going, but sure he didn't want to stay where he was. Sarah made a half hearted attempt to go after him, but subsided back into her chair with resignation instead; they had argued, pointlessly, about minor things for days, none of it meaningful and all of it stemming from an unwillingness to face the finality of grief.
The pilot wandered through the village and down to the edges of the bay, drinking in the late warmth of the day and paying little attention to where his feet might lead him. Beyond the confines of the village itself there stretched a long series of secluded beaches offering private places and opportunities for solitude - or intimate company if that was what you wished. Cutter walked there that night because he wanted to be alone with the stars; there was a particular sprawl of rocks that he preferred, stretching out into the deeper water and offering a perfect perch for someone who liked to lie back and study the heavens in solitude without much chance of being disturbed. He didn't count Jack as company - the dog was simply his shadow, trotting at his heels and unlikely to offer comment unasked. The two of them scrambled over the tumble of stone and settled in the rain smoothed niche at the water's edge, the shape of the rock forming a perfect couch for the American's lean frame as he leant back to consider the sky. Jack's place was a comfortable sprawl at his master's side, nose tucked over Cutter's hip bone, paws curled against stone still warm from the days sun. It was a place they had found early after their arrival in the islands, and it had remained exclusively theirs in all the long months they had sought its solitude.
An hour passed; a comfortable hour in which Cutter emptied his mind of all his worries and watched the world wheel over him, orange sky fading into purple black until its velvet finish became sprinkled with diamond stars. The sound of the sea was gentle company, pierced by the occasional whistle as a bottlenose dolphin called to its comrades in the distances of the ocean. The sound reminded him of a story he had heard the previous day, of a fisherman who had claimed to have seen a white dolphin in the waters off Petite Bijou only that week. It was a odd omen, the natives had said; a white dolphin always had the soul of a man, not that of a fish, and it was ill luck to harm one. The pilot had smiled at the superstition, but they had insisted it was a sign, that the gods of the sea had sent it to honour the man they had taken. The reminder had sobered him abruptly, just as it did now. He pushed memory away from him and went back to the emptiness instead. It would be something, he considered, to be as free as the dolphins, to have no material ties, to abandon all human concerns in the thunder of the surf and the dance of the waves.
It was sometime before he began to realise that he was no longer alone. A figure had materialised out of the darkness below him, a dim shadow sat half in, half out of the sea. Whoever it was had arrived so quietly that it seemed as if they had been sat there a long time; they were watching the distant roll of the ocean breakers where the moonlight picked them out in the dark blanket that was the Pacific at night.
"There is something - magical, about a night such as this, n'cest pas?"
The familiar voice, quiet and distantly contemplative in a manner that was uniquely its own, froze Cutter's breath in his lungs, tightened every muscle in reflexive startlement. He dared not move, lest he break the sudden sense of unreality that enfolded him. He might be dreaming, and in that brief moment of recognition he did not want to wake and find himself alone. "Louie?" he breathed in whispered disbelief.
There was a beat of silence, during which Cutter wondered if even that half breathed word had been sufficient to break what ever spell had seized him, and then the familiar voice came again, a murmur of sound, thoughtfully distant in its tones, but impossibly close in origin. "I don't know," it said, considering the question he had posed. "Do dead men keep their names, or do they leave them behind, like everything else they abandon with their last breath?"
The pilot turned his head with anxious caution, still afraid to breath, still prepared to doubt his own perceptions. The figure sat below him, back settled against the curve of the rock, feet kissed by the stirring of the sea; moonlight rimmed it in reflective silver, gleaming off the curves of naked shoulder, hip, and knee. The dark tumble of his hair was slick with damp, but the face that turned up to meet Cutter's incredulous gaze was heart achingly familiar, a match to the voice, right down to the hint of a wry grin.
'Oh, my god,' Cutter mouthed, no sound escaping his lips as he confronted the impossible sight. Bon Chance, if it was Bon Chance, smiled at his dumbstruck expression.
"You look as if you've seen a ghost, mon ami. I wish it were that easy to explain." A wave rolled in, impacting against rock and legs alike; the figure below him paid it no notice although it clearly struck solid flesh, not insubstantial ectoplasm. Cutter rolled over and carefully reached down his hand. It was met by another, just as warm, just as solid, even if the man's skin was slightly damp to the touch.
"It really is you, isn't it," the pilot realised in some confusion. "Why - when - how...?"
The Frenchman laughed at his stumbled words, using the leverage of the proffered hand to lift himself up next to his astonished companion. He was, Cutter realised blankly, completely naked, not even the expected tumble of silk concealing his throat, but he seemed unconcerned or even unaware of the fact. "You have too many questions, Jake. I doubt that I can answer any of them. I don't fully understand it myself, and I - " he shrugged, smiling at memories the pilot could not even begin to guess at. "I saw you walk down the beach," the accent explained softly, "and pity brought me here. You mourn too much for a man who does not deserve it."
"You saw me...." Cutter's mind shied away from the implications behind the words. His friend was alive - decidedly alive, despite every chance to the contrary. "Where were you?"
"Where I belong - now," Bon Chance said, the movement of his hand encompassing the moonlit ocean in a single sweep. Incomprehension wrestled in the American's eyes.
"I don't understand," he admitted slowly. "We thought you drowned - when the Maybe went down."
"I did." The matter of fact reply was disconcerting. "In a way," the man added, taking pity on the tumble of confusion that played on his friend's face. "In another..." He considered his explanation carefully while Cutter studied his face in the moonlight. There was a lightness about his features that had not been there before, as if he might start laughing at any moment, just for the sheer joy of it. "I went deep," he said thoughtfully, "and it is cold, down there in the depths. But I was not alone." He seemed to reconsider the line of his thoughts; his gaze drifted seawards and he fell briefly silent. The pilot did not dare speak. He still thought he might be dreaming this bizarre encounter and he did not want to wake, not yet.
"There are so many things that we do not know about this world of ours, mon ami." The remark was offered with a wry smile that elicited an involuntary echo despite the pilot's confusion. "Mankind is so certain of his place in the scheme of things, n'est ce pas? But it is all an illusion - just a deceptive veneer. I was offered something that I never could have dreamed of - and the price was the life I had already been asked to pay."
"But you're alive," Cutter protested, then hesitated and reached out his hand to touch the man's shoulder. "Aren't you?"
His companion laughed, wrapping the tentative hand with fingers that were warm and reassuringly solid. "Oh mon ami," he chuckled, "I have never been so alive in all my life."
His laughter was infectious. Cutter found himself smiling in return, not understanding the joke, but his spirits lifted by it all the same. "We thought we'd lost you forever," he said, grinning at the sudden thought of everybody's reactions when the two of them walked into the bar. "And now you're back..."
"Non," the denial was regretful, but it was a certain one. The American's voice trailed into silence, startled at the words. "I cannot go back," Bon Chance stated softly. "Not now. I should not even be here, but I felt I could trust you. And you looked so..." He sighed, shifting his body on the rock so that he was staring out to sea. "Perhaps I should not have come. She told me not to let go entirely. That it would help, to remember what I had been. But it is so hard, knowing that you have hurt those you leave behind. Reassuring too," he added, turning back to the man beside him with a wry smile. "I did not expect to be greatly missed."
"Louie," his friend protested, his voice a little pained, "don't. There's a gaping hole back there that nobody else is ever going to fill. You're part of us, part of our family - my family. You keep us all in line, you take care of things, you..." He paused to force back the echo of loss that had suddenly risen inside of him. "You mean a lot. To me, to Sarah, to Gushie - even Corky, god bless him, and Jack, and - damnit, Louie, I..." He broke off, emotion overwhelming him; the anger and pain of the last few days boiling out - anger at his own helplessness, at his inability to change or affect events, and pain at the deepness of the wound, at the hurt that others carried that he could not reach and could not heal. He looked away, fighting for control, for inner balance. A hand came to rest on his shoulder, softly, undemanding in its touch. The hand of his friend, whom he had lost, and who could not possibly be beside him now.
"I'm sorry, Jake." The accent was gentle, the tone truly apologetic. There was pain in there too, and Cutter turned back slowly, meeting eyes as hurt as his own in a face he had thought never to see again.
"Yah, well - it was hard to believe, you know? Guess we all thought you had some kind of charmed life."
Bon Chance's lips quirked, and he shook his head with an ironic chuckle. "Peu t'etre. I had no choice, mon ami. Do not blame yourself for something you could not have prevented. And do not mourn for me so morbidly," he added with a hint of exasperation. "Mon dieu, anyone would think you had lost a saint!"
Cutter had to grin, despite his inner turmoil. Whatever his friend had meant to those around him, no-one would ever have accused him of being that.
"That's better," the Frenchman laughed. "Things change, Jake. No-one can turn back the hands of time, or should want to, even if they could. Very few matters remain constant. That you are my friend is one of them. It took me a long time to realise that, but I will not forget it." The sound of a soft whistle cut through the night, the call of a dolphin out in the ocean, and Bon Chance turned to locate its origin in the moonlight. "I have to go. Take care of everyone for me, Jake. Yourself especially. Don't let them grieve too long, or too hard. I have no regrets, only memories. I will not forget you." He hesitated, then reached out to briefly embrace the American at his side. Cutter responded awkwardly, his uncertainty allowing the man to slip from his grip when all he wanted to do was hold onto him; by the time he had realised what was truly happening his friend stood at the edge of the rock, looking back with honest affection. "Au revoir," the familiar voice said softly.
"Louie?" The slim figure smiled in the moonlight, then twisted and dived out, spearing into the waiting ocean with barely a sound Cutter scrambled after him, seeing only the boil of disturbed water washed away by the waves. "Louie!"
Silence answered him, an echoing silence carried on the slow murmur of the sea. Some distance away in the water the curve of a dolphin back broke the surface followed by another, and then yet another again. Moonlight glinted off their shining flanks, two dark, the third a shimmering white against the silvered water. 'The white dolphin has the soul of a man...' Cutter stared after them in numbed disbelief. His hands were damp and his jacket carried the scent of the sea. No-one would believe what had just happened to him. He didn't even believe it himself. He stood up slowly, watching the graceful creatures slide away into the depths of the Pacific.
"Au revoir, mon ami," he murmured, settling those final words in his heart as a promise. Until we meet again. He looked down at Jack, who was watching him with one beady eye. "Did that really happen?" he asked, not expecting an answer. The dog thought about it for a moment then barked once, twice, before getting up and pattering back towards the beach and the village beyond. Cutter sighed, glanced one last time at the moonlit ocean, then turned and followed him.
As they made their way into the village, the lights of the Monkey Bar a familiar and welcoming sight, the echo of that equally familiar voice came to mind. 'Anyone would think you had lost a saint.' He cracked a smile at the thought, and began to laugh, softly and certainly. Bon Chance might be missed, but he'd never be forgotten, that much was sure. His death presumed but never confirmed, he would become yet another legend in the islands; a legend, Cutter smiled quietly to himself, that would never match the reality of the man who had been his friend, and always would be.
He paused on the verandah steps, glanced in at the warm lights of the bar and sighed. "I don't think I should tell them," he said, softly to the dog at his feet. "They'd never believe me in any case."
Jack barked once, decidedly.
"Well," Cutter agreed, reaching down to gather the animal up. "You may be right." He looked back at the roll of water in the bay. "I wonder," he considered thoughtfully, "do you think we should warn the mermaids?"
A second single bark, just as certain. The American laughed.
"Nah," he decided with a grin of recollection. "They probably already know..."
Far out in the waters of the rolling Pacific a school of dolphins played in the moonlight, dancing with the sheer delight of life itself. An astute observer might have claimed to see the curve of more human forms moving among them, glimpsed in the foam of their game; curved limbs of slate grey, fluke tipped feet and the tumble of dark hair were briefly revealed as they broke the surface of the ocean. An illusion perhaps, wrought by the silvered light. But there was no one to see it, no one to watch as the white hued dolphin slipped easily into the tumble of the dance, no one to notice the moment when, welcomed into her embrace, the elegant shape became that of a man.
Together they sank into the warmth of the ocean, sharing the taste of salt and honey, limbs entwined, all time and cares abandoned in the deep. Whale song greeted them, majestic and echoing in the depths; the whisper of another world, older than history, ever changing, ever constant, untouched by guilt or shame.
The waves tumbled on, without comment, without judgement. The moon sank low on the horizon and then its light was swallowed up by the first flush of a new dawn.
It held the promise of another sultry day.