After the Ferry
C. A. LARMER
Copyright © 2019 Larmer Media
Discover other titles by C.A. Larmer at Amazon: The Agatha Christie Book Club
Murder on the Orient (SS): Agatha Christie Book Club 2
Evil Under The Stars: Agatha Christie Book Club 3
Ghostwriter Mysteries: Killer Twist (Book 1) A Plot to Die For (Book 2) Last Writes (Book 3) Dying Words (Book 4) Words Can Kill (Book 5) A Note Before Dying (Book 6) Posthumous Mysteries: Do Not Go Gentle
Do Not Go Alone
Plus: An Island Lost
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License Notes This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be resold or given away to other people. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form without written permission except for the use of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published by Larmer Media, NSW 2482, Australia E-book ISBN: 978-0-9924743-3-1
Cover design by Stuart Eadie Edited by The Editing Pen & Elaine Rivers (with heartfelt thanks)
About the Author
For Nimo and Felix
my beautiful, beautiful boys
Later, much later after they had pulled my battered body from the; dark sand and I somehow pulled myself back from an even darker place, I began to wonder, What if?
What if I had behaved differently on the ferry that day?
What if I had never locked eyes with a Greek stranger across a crowded stern? Or met a pair of Sydney university lads or set off on a journey with an old school friend with a chip on one shoulder and a crush of her own?
Instead, for now, it is the mid-1990s and I am filled with the arrogance of youth, the confidence of a child, and my only question is of love and whether it is staring me in the face.
If that seems a tad dramatic to you, a little schoolgirlish, then forgive me for I am but a schoolgirl, just a few years out. I am lying with my head on a lumpy backpack, a book resting on my chest, my legs sprawled across a gusty deck, staring into the eyes of a man I do not know and wondering: Is this love? And can it be trusted?
I am watching the Greek guy, and the two Sydney guys are watching me. Or at least one of them is, but I do not know this yet. I do not know this for some time.
For now, I am focused on a stranger.
We exchanged words a few minutes earlier, my Greek god and I, while waiting for burnt coffees in the bowels of the boat. No more than pleasantries, a flirtatious banter, but the chemistry was electric, the attraction like a smack in the face. And now, as he chews on his Styrofoam cup half a deck away, cheekily eyeing me above the rim, I wonder how the boat can keep moving, how the earth can keep turning, how this extraordinary, unfathomable attraction has not stopped the world in its wake.
He has sleepy brown eyes—I remember that—and they are boring into mine across the lurching ferry. I feel his pull, his shameless yearning. It matches my own, a yearning I have stowed since I set off on this trip. No, before that. It’s the reason I set off. The reason I said yes when Monty Brennan asked me to see the world with her. Not because I wanted to see the world—and certainly not with her—but because I wanted more in life. I wanted love, I realise now, and now here it is, staring me in the face.
“Anyone want to go inside?” someone asks. “Get out of this bloody wind?”
“No,” I manage. No. I want to stay right here, ogling a man I cannot know but who seems so oddly, giddily familiar.
The ferry lurches again, and he looks away. I frown, following his eyes down, beyond the bow, towards a speck on the painfully bright horizon. The speck is too rapidly becoming a smudge and now a rocky outcrop that turns into land as my eyes flit from there to him and back again. He is now standing, discarding his cup. He is reaching for his backpack, he is offering me occasional, sad smiles.
Oh well, his smile says. It could have been beautiful.
My frown deepens. No, no! This cannot be it!
And then the blasted place is upon us and he is edging his way towards an exit while my heart does a somersault and I go into panic mode.
Where is he going?
Why is he leaving me?
This must all have taken many minutes, but it seems to happen in a flash. At the top of the gangplank he turns, one final glance back, and he offers me a sliver of a smile, a subtle twitch of his head towards the bobbing beyond. It is a silent invitation, as loud as smashed glass in the dark.
I worked as a feature writer on a magazine in Sydney before this, telling foolish girls how to find their soul mate. Was I really prepared to ignore my own advice?
“Where are we?” someone asks. Angus, I realise now, the business student who’s been clinging to me like soggy cardboard since we left Rome.
“Trust you to score the hot one,” Monty had teased the morning after the night we all met below the Spanish Steps a week ago. I was flattered at the time; smug, too, because she was right. Angus was the better-looking of the two mates, the one with the broader shoulders, the chiselled jawline, the winning smile. And he had chosen me. Well, that was the vibe he gave off. We hadn’t hooked up yet, but everyone knew it was coming. It was as inevitable as the sea.
Angus Tower seemed intriguing to me at first, with his lofty ambitions—“I’ll be a millionaire before I’m twenty-five, just you sit back and watch”—and his dapper way of dressing, all turned-up shirt collars and Polo logos and certainly more intriguing than his scruffy mate, Thomas Wilson, whose only claim to fame was an uncanny memory. He knew all the words to almost every song and could recite his Visa card number from scratch, as if that mattered. As if anyone cared.
I glance at Angus and wonder what I ever saw in him. His smile seems smarmy, his stiff collars so inappropriate.
“Says here it’s Sa-ree-see Island,” says Thomas, wielding his battered Lonely Planet like the bible it has become. “Nothing but a crusty old convent and a couple of tacky tavernas. We’ll keep going on to Santorini. This one sounds like a bore.”
How could it be boring with him on it?
I glance from Thomas to Angus and then to the back of my Greek god’s head. He is fast vanishing. Then I notice the book in my lap, and I smile because I know I have no choice. It’s as clear as text.
I get up and grapple for my backpack.
“Hey, Millie, just chill,” Monty says, barely looking up from beneath a crisp Akubra. Her head is rested on Thomas’s lap, his wide-brimmed hat covering her face from the scorching sun. I wonder momentarily if they have hooked up. “Thomas is in charge of the schedule, remember? We’re heading for Santorini, right, Thomas?”
“Right, babe,” he says, his eyes twinkling brightly at me.
Yet I ignore them both. My heart is thumping, blood is rushing through my ears, and I know in that moment that if I do not follow that man, I will never forgive myself. What I don’t acknowledge then, what I cannot contemplate in my stupid youthful ignorance, is that if I do follow him, I will have so much more to forgive. I might survive this journey, but at what cost?
This is a story of choices—two choices—as clear as the glassy Aegean, each one with consequences that will reverberate not just across my life but across all the lives to come. One choice will see me finding a deep, everlasting love. The other will find me lying in the sand, battered, brutalised, bereft.
Do I stay cushioned in the belly of my faithful friends to finish my holiday and return to my predestined path—career, marriage, kids? Or do I swallow my nerves and take a leap of faith?
I do not ask the question, I do not stop to think. I make a choice that will alter absolutely everything.
But what choice do I make? Which way do I go?
I haul the pack onto my back, free my ponytail from beneath the canvas, then turn towards the blinding sun.
This is the story of two Millie Malones and how only one of us will live to tell the tale.
Thirteen years later
Fog gathered like cotton wool, loosened into stringy wisps on the shores of Sarisi Bay. The fishermen ignored it like they did their creaky boats, even creakier bones, and simply went about their business, checking sails, freeing ropes, rolling one for the road. A whistle, a cooee, and in waves they set off, first one boat, then another, then two more, each slicing through the silence until the fog rejoined to gobble them whole with only the faint scent of their cheap tobacco left to prove they were even there.
From the esplanade, a woman watched as though staring at a screensaver—blank, dispassionate, not really taking it in. Even as the tobacco dissipated, she watched, her hands thrust into her too-thin coat, its pockets so high up she had to bend her elbows to keep them contained. Her coat is vintage velvet in chalk-pink, falling just below the knees. “On trend,” apparently, and now so inappropriate. What she needed was a full-length puffer coat with a hood. God, what she’d give for a decent, waterproof hood. Instead, she had a flimsy cotton beanie, a white Adidas one better suited to a teenage boy than a grown woman. She’d pilfered it on her way out, and it offered little comfort to ice-cold hair that had become limp with dew.
Still, the chill was not entirely unwelcome. It numbed her a little, matching her mood. Beneath the coat, the edge of her black pleated skirt was caught in her leather ankle boots, and she noticed for the first time in hours that her feet had ceased to ache. They were numb too. She made no effort to move, though, simply stared out to sea, surprised by its oily darkness and the mist that her breath was now making, clouding her view. Something else quickly replaced it. A memory from a lifetime ago: a man and a woman, laughing as they gulped in the crisp air between two long fingers pushed against swollen lips. Their fingers moved away swiftly as they exhaled, their lips upturned Hollywood-style into the sky, and they watched as the condensation conjured up imaginary cigarette smoke before their eyes.
He pulled her to him then, thrust one arm behind her neck and pushed his fingers to her lips this time.
“Inhale,” he demanded, his voice deep, commanding. “Inhale deeply.”
She giggled nervously, did as he said and then whispered, “I should probably go.”
“Stay” was his reply, his thick fingers now making their way down her chin, her neck, towards her décolletage.
She inhaled. Shivered. “Really,” she said, her voice catching. “I’ll miss the boat.”
His body stiffened. He did not let go.
A dog’s howl snapped the woman’s lips shut, and she glanced around, pulling her coat closer to her chest from within, feeling her pounding heart beneath the fabric. She took a calming breath, released one hand from its warm cubbyhole, and scooped her bag up again. She must get on. She had no time to waste. Everything depended upon it.
But what if I can’t find him? she thought. And then more terrifyingly, What if I can?
She jiggled her head a little as if trying to refocus and returned to the cobbled road just as another memory hit her like a slab of concrete: a piercing scream, a smattering of blood. So much blood, so much pain.
Her knees buckled, her legs wobbled, but she steadied herself, swallowing the memory down as she has done every day for almost five thousand days, and kept on walking.
From a distance someone was watching. Curious at this point; unconcerned.
Nicholas Xydis was in a good mood. It was his favourite hour, 5:00 a.m., and even the early risers of Sarisi were only just beginning to twist and turn in their beds, one last dream before reality rushes in. He has been up for ten minutes, watching the fishermen depart, dragging on his own rollie, a cup of thick black coffee recharging his batteries. He would be joining them soon, but he was in no hurry. His livelihood did not depend upon it.
In the bedroom beyond, the sheets are rumpled, the mattress dipping and diving where fervent limbs have beaten it out of shape. Catalina had dropped by again. His mood darkened. He liked her well enough but was glad she was somebody else’s wife.
He grimaced. At least Theo didn’t catch them this time. He knew he was botching everything up, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. Couldn’t find another way. And so he ploughed on towards certain failure, certain regret. Resigned to it, in fact.
Slurping his coffee, he revelled in the aroma, the warmth of it in his belly, the comfort of a decent cup. Perhaps he’d spark the coffee machine up again, he thought as he stumped out his smoke and stood up, but then he saw the woman turn, a slight silhouette against the silvery sea.
He stepped back quickly into the shadows of the balcony even though she had not looked round, could not possibly have seen him. But there was something about her stance that warned him off. It was a private moment. He felt like an intruder. Yet he continued to watch, curiosity getting the better of him. And he squinted, as though that would somehow sharpen his focus, as all thought of coffee vanished.
He could tell she was not a local, not even Greek. The thin coat, the awkward stance, the way her arms wrapped around her body tightly, all told him she was a stranger here and an anxious one at that. He stepped forward slightly to get a better view. It was early for tourist season. Had she veered off track? She turned suddenly, directly towards him, and for a second he feared he had been spotted, but she looked away easily, her face caught momentarily in the amber streetlight. Her lips were shut, her jaw clenched tight, her eyes barely visible below a hat of some sort. He watched as she bent down to collect her bag, long hair sliding across her chest and then flying back up with a flick as she stood and turned away from town.
Nicholas’s first reaction was to call out to her, to tell her she was going the wrong way, but something about her stride stopped him. She no longer looked apprehensive. She was hurried, determined. Without doubt. It was clear she was heading towards Coso Point and, he assumed, the castle. He had better alert his mate. The tourists had come early this season.
As Nicholas returned inside to change, he had a niggling feeling the woman wasn’t a tourist after all. There was something about those eyes, that jaw, the way she walked that told him she was no stranger to Sarisi.
He wasn’t sure why, but he felt like he had seen her somewhere before.
A tiny shiver trickled down his back.
The young woman felt a trickle of annoyance and scowled benignly at the phone. It hadn’t stopped nagging her all morning. She sighed heavily, wedged a fake smile on her face and answered it with a gruff, “Eve magazine, Amelia Malone’s phone.”
She knew it wasn’t how her boss liked her to answer it, but then Amelia—once nicknamed Millie, apparently, although Brianna couldn’t picture it—hadn’t been spotted for two days and reprimanding her for her phone manner seemed a moot point.
“Please tell me she’s turned up,” came an even gruffer voice at the other end.
Brianna Miles sweetened her tone. “Good morning, Gerry. I’m sorry, sir, no, she has not come in. Again.”
The publisher exhaled, or perhaps it was a growl. “It’s bloody deadline week for Christ’s sake! Where the hell is she?”
“What about Monty?”
“She’s not due back until later this afternoon, sir. She’s at—”
“I don’t give a flying toss where she’s at! It’s Amelia we need to find for f—” He swallowed the rest of that sentiment and took a calming breath. “What about her place? You check there?”
“Yes, sir, not answering.”
“Not the phone, you imbecile, did you think to go over? Make sure she hasn’t gassed herself or something?”
Brianna thought about that for a moment. It hadn’t occurred to her. She cheered up enormously.
“Great idea, sir. I’m onto it.”
“Good. And, er, what’s your name again?
“Right, Anna, just let us know how you go. This is a major worry. It could be disastrous.”
“Oh I agree, sir, we’re all—”
“We’re due at a Revlon lunch at one”—he interrupted—“and if she’s not found by then, we can kiss the account goodbye.” And with that the line went dead.
Brianna grinned. It was the longest conversation she’d ever had with Eve’s formidable publisher Gerry Henderson, and despite the tone, she had thoroughly enjoyed herself. He was a midsized man with an enormous, peppery moustache and a nose so mottled it looked like a pincushion, but that didn’t matter a jot. The guy was a publishing dynamo with a direct line to Rupert Murdoch. He oozed charisma, helped in part by the power he wielded over twenty of Australia’s top-selling magazines. It brought a constant stream of flirtatious females to his door, from the editors to the marketing department. He was even rumoured to have dallied with a few, despite a chiselled trophy wife at home, but Brianna doubted Amelia had ever come close. She didn’t have the mettle for that.
Brianna grabbed her faux Gucci handbag and stood up. She needed to get to Amelia’s house; Gerry was relying on her. Glancing around, she realised the entire office was staring at her, and she thought that she would burst. It was amazing the power that had shifted to her shoulders in a matter of one day. It was as though she, the measly editorial assistant, held the key to the very survival of Eve.
That’s when Alex Jones decided to pounce. The deputy editor leapt from her chair and dashed across.
“Gerry hassling you?”
Alex drew her into Amelia’s office and closed the glass door. “What are we going to do?”
“He wants me to check out Amelia’s house.”
“Exactly what I was going to suggest. Just switch your phone to… er…”—she glanced around the office outside—“…to Melissa’s. She can cover your calls.”
Alex flung the door open and called out. “Mel, you’re on phone duty. But if Gerry calls—or Amelia for that matter—put them straight through to me, you hear? No one else.”
A young redhead waved from the other end of the office. “What about any calls that come in for Amelia? Do you want to take them too?”
“God, no,” Alex replied. “Just take a message. It’s not rocket science, Melissa. I’m sure you can handle it.” She turned back to Brianna. “Get going, but don’t take too long. And if you find her, call me, okay? Not Gerry. Me first. I’m in charge now.”
Brianna wedged her lips into a smile and leant across to Amelia’s phone. She punched in a few numbers, diverting the line to the feature writer, and then picked up her bag again.
Well, what a surprise. It hadn’t taken long for her power to be usurped.
Amelia’s house was a one-hundred-year-old semidetached in the upmarket Sydney suburb of Rose Bay. It had been freshly renovated with an ornate garden planted at the front, but none of that changed the fact that it was a pokey, draughty place. Not even its two-million-dollar price tag could hide that. Brianna had been here several times before, usually in the middle of the day to pick up something Amelia had inadvertently left behind—cover mock-ups, invoices, her dry cleaning would you believe! But she had never been here chasing down the woman herself. It wasn’t necessary. Until yesterday, Amelia had not taken so much as a sick day. Rumour had it she hadn’t had a day off since she started at the magazine more than a decade ago. She certainly hadn’t taken time out to find herself a hubby or have a child. The very notion left Brianna snickering.
Amelia Malone lived and breathed Eve magazine, which is why her absence was so oddly compelling.
She rang the doorbell long and hard, then hammered on the door for a good minute before smudging her nose up to the front window. There was no movement inside. She glanced about. Yesterday’s mail was still in the letterbox out the front, soggy from the overnight rain, and she didn’t bother retrieving it, simply turned on her heel and left, her smile now wide.
The man with the ginger-coloured beard and the large leathery hands waited at the gate of Shepperdin Primary School for his son to emerge. There were women everywhere, as always, but Thomas Wilson kept his distance, sensing their sympathy. Not wanting any of it. No, it wasn’t sympathy yet; just curiosity at this stage. The sympathy would come, he knew, followed quickly by accusations from some. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that.
Damn. There’s that busybody chick again. Polly, was that her name? The one who bustles about bossing everyone in sight as though she’s running a multinational corporation when all she’s in charge of is the measly parent-student committee. The P&C they called it, something like that.
He showed up at one meeting, a few years back, offered to cook sausages for some fund-raising thing or another. Never again. Several of the single mums hit on him, as subtle as sledgehammers, causing a ruckus with the missus. He kept his distance after that, but he couldn’t stay away today, or yesterday for that matter. Millie had seen to that.
In fact, before this week, he hadn’t shown up at the school in months. Avoided the place at all costs, with its stern-faced teachers and mothers who wore their superiority with tight smiles. He spotted a few dads, but most just rushed past with their heads down and their shoulders hunched to retrieve their progeny and vanish again before anyone could ask them to mow the lawn or drive the kids to another bloody excursion.
How many excursions did kids need?
He thought of Phil and felt a rush of relief. High school next year, thank Christ. At least there they let you off the hook, for the most part. They’re just happy if you get the kid to school at all, preferably not stoned. And with his mother gone, Phil has been desperate to go to school, as though being around the house was a reminder of all that went before. Of the deathly silence that led to her vanishing.
Screaming he could cope with, accusations, anger. But the silence had been deafening, chilling even.
If only there was a note. Some kind of explanation.
He heard a “Yoo-hoo!” and looked up. Jesus, Bossy Sox was coming over.
He turned away, pretending to be engrossed in something along the fence line. Too late, she was upon him, her eyebrows lifting, her head held slightly to one side in that “Do you remember me?” way.
And then she said it: “Hi Tom, do you remember me? I’m Polly Wildermon, a good friend of Amy’s.”
She was using Millie’s new moniker. Well, not new exactly. Amelia had shed the nickname ‘Millie’ years earlier, when she first settled in Shepperdin, choosing the shorter, sharper ‘Amy’ instead. Tom liked it. It was less fussy, less foolish. A bit like himself.
He turned back, now thinking, You’re no friend of my wife’s.
“Is Amy okay? We haven’t seen her for a few days and Toby mentioned something—”
“She’s fine, thanks, Polly. Thanks for asking.” He tried to offer her a confident smile but was sure he hadn’t pulled it off.
“Oh, okay. Great!”
Polly reached out and rubbed one of his shoulders. It felt intrusive, but a few mums were watching and he didn’t want to shake her off.
She got the gist, though, and dropped her hand. “Please tell that beautiful wife of yours that we’d love to see her at the hall this arvo if she’s around. Yolanda’s running her hatha yoga class. Be right up her alley.”
She smiled, paused, looked like she had more to say but ended with, “Take care of that boy, hey?”
“Of course.” One of us has to.
Tom spotted his son and watched him, mesmerised for a moment. Phil had a mop of floppy wet-brown curls and twinkling green eyes like his mother and was slapping his palm against his head, grinning at something his mate Zachai was saying. Zac ended with a roar of laughter, then noticed his mum and kept laughing as he ran off to join her while Phil twisted his head around, looking this way and that.
When he locked eyes with his dad, his grin dissolved.
Tom sighed and headed towards him.
A distant roar woke the woman from her sleep, and it took a few moments to work out where she was and why her body felt like it had morphed into a pretzel.
Ah, Greece. That’s right.
She stretched her neck to one side and then to the other and tried to stand but found one leg had forgotten its purpose and refused to work. The other was crossed over it, clearly blocking the circulation, and she slowly straightened it out and looked around. It was still quite chilly, but a little sunlight was poking through a persistent cloud, and she was starting to sweat under the coat she must have put back on at some stage of the morning. She pulled it off as the roaring intensified.
There was a mechanical cough, a splutter and a whoosh as a motorbike came flying around the bend and up towards the woman at breakneck pace. That got her uncooperative leg working. She leapt up and out of the way as the rider came to a smoky halt, half a metre from her feet. The bikie wasn’t wearing a helmet, and his oversized mirrored sunglasses could not mask the shock on his face.
“Sorry, sorry!” he was yelling. “I no see you!”
She dusted herself off and managed a smile. “Don’t worry,” she said stiffly. “I’m fine.”
He pushed the sunnies up into his cropped, receding hairline and stared at her like she was a mirage, his scruffy eyebrows scrunched together incredulously. Leaning the bike to one side, he applied the stand and lumbered off. Well into his thirties, forty perhaps, the man had a chiselled goatee, a short, trunk-like body covered in lurid orange jeans and a denim jacket, and an enormous crooked nose that suggested one too many brawls.
“You come this morning?”
She nodded. “Flew into Santorini last night, got the early ferry across.”
He looked awestruck. “The 1:25 a.m. Blue Star to Piraeus?” He chuckled. “Nobody get this ferry. Is too early! Only mad dogs and English man. You mad dog or English?”
He nodded as if that was basically the same thing. “You want bed?” The look of scepticism was still in place.
“Hostel no open, sorry.” He was pulling a cluster of keys from his jacket and striding towards the front door as he spoke. “Season no start.”
She grappled for her things and followed.
“But where’s Sister Agnetha?”
He glanced back at her. “Your sister?”
“No, Sister Agnetha. The head nun.”
He snorted. “No nuns! You see.”
As he said it, he unlocked the heavy wooden door, then used both hands to shove it inwards and open. There was a loud creak followed by a burst of icy air that rushed out to greet them. He waved the woman through, and at first she hesitated, glancing into the cavernous room before stepping across the stone threshold.
And she did indeed see.
The place had changed considerably since she was there last. Oh not the bones, not the structure—arched corridors still led in various directions, stone slabs still occupied the floor, uneven and worn down—but everything else was missing. The enormous wooden crosses that once adorned the walls had vanished. So, too, the chipped statue of Mary holding baby Jesus that once stood in the centre of the room, blocking the path of anyone who dared to whiz past. A most inconvenient position, she remembered, and as deliberate as a Stop sign. She could not recall how many times she nearly toppled it over in her youthful haste, a daily reminder of what was important, or so Agnetha said. The statue was gone, of course, and it was now an open thoroughfare adorned with a shaggy red carpet that looked straight out of an IKEA catalogue. Priorities had certainly changed.
But worse than that, so much worse, the place had been whitewashed. Literally. Every wall had been plastered up and repainted a dazzling Santorini white where crumbling brown bricks once sat ticking off time. Her heart dropped further.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
The man was busy flicking on lights and opening shutters, oblivious to the disappointment that tasted like sour milk in the woman’s mouth. He made his way across to a varnished wooden reception desk and then reached around behind a large desktop computer.
As it chimed its way to life, the woman cleared her throat. The hotelier glanced up as if surprised she was still there and then back at his screen. She stepped across.
“This used to be a convent, am I right?”
He looked up again. “Yes, looong time ago.”
Thirteen years, she thought. Just a heartbeat.
“You come before, to Sarisi?” he asked.
She nodded, adding, “Also a long time ago.”
He seemed happy to hear that and waved a pudgy hand about. “Is changed, yes?”
Yes, she thought. Too much. “So do you know where they went? The nuns?”
The man shrugged. He had no idea, and why would he? By Greek terms, Kostas was a newcomer to the island, moved here four years ago, seeking work and an escape from his father’s shoelace store in Athens. Of all things, he had thought, even as a young child, shoelaces! The shop was below street level, down a poky set of stairs into a darkened hovel of a space. And customers—mostly shoe shop owners needing to restock or local men wanting to gossip—would scuttle down at all hours to chat with his dad or barter for a better deal. It bored young Kostas senseless and embarrassed him too.
I mean, shoelaces! Really?
He swore when he was a man he’d get away, do something more important with his life. Yet it took him twenty years to work up the courage. But that was another story.
As for the nuns? Yes, there were nuns here once, but apart from the creepy paraphernalia they’d left behind—paraphernalia he had worked hard to exhume—it meant little to him. He’d never given them much thought until now.
Until she had shown up.
“Do they have a new convent here, or did they go back to Athens?” the woman pressed, sounding both desperate and demoralised.
“Sorry, Miss, I know nothing about nuns. They you friends, yes?”
“Okay, you speak to Effie.”
The woman looked at him, stunned and silent.
“My friend Effie. She know.”
He reached below the desk and returned with a printout of a map. He thumped it on the bench in front of her and stabbed a finger in the centre.
“We here, yes? You follow this road, back to town, to Casa Delfino. Down on—”
“I know the Delfy.”
She even knew its nickname, and this surprised him too. “Okay, good!” He took the map back. “You talk to Effie. She give you good room. You stay with her. Tell her Kostas send you.”
The woman’s features had hardened, and she was looking about. “So this is a hostel, am I right?”
“Yeeees.” His tone said no.
“Then I’d like to stay here.”
She wasn’t asking, her tone steely, her eyebrows wedged together.
“Tonight?” She nodded. “We no open; you stay at Casa Delfino. Is good! Clean rooms. Hot water.” Then he looked her over, taking in the silk shirt and pearl drop earrings, and added, “Is good for you, yes?”
“No, I’d like to stay here.” Then, more gently, she added, “Please.”
The manager was bewildered.
“Please,” she said again. “I’ve come a very long way.”
He sighed dramatically. “Okay, okay, is your lucky day!” It would be cash in his pocket. He would charge her double. “You want look?”
“No.” She reached for her purse and produced a credit card and several red and green notes that Kostas vaguely recognised. “I only have Australian dollars. You can exchange some for me?”
He considered this. In six weeks’ time the place would be swarming with boisterous Aussie backpackers—courtesy of their recent admission into Lonely Planet’s Guide to Greece—so he knew he could off-load them eventually. He reached under the desk, located a fresh guestbook and opened it.
“Name and passport, please.”
The woman rifled through her bag, retrieved a blue document and handed it across.
Opening it, he flipped a few pages then frowned. “You Am-eel-ea Mar-loney?”
“Amelia Malone.” She corrected him. “But please, just call me Millie.”
“Millie.” He nodded. Yes, better. “Okay, Millie, I take copy. I give back, okay?”
As he finished taking her details and exchanged some cash, the woman realised she must look a shambles and scraped thin fingers through her long, wavy hair. Where the stolen beanie had got to, she could not say. Eventually she gave up and pulled the whole lot into a knot on the top of her head, securing it with a black band she had around her wrist, then foraged through her bag again, this time looking for lip gloss. As she smothered it on, Kostas kept sneaking bemused glances her way.
She wasn’t bad-looking, he thought. Bit bony for his tastes, but nothing a steady diet of moussaka couldn’t fix. Pity about the crazed look in her eyes. Effie had that look from time to time.
When he was done, he plucked some keys from a board behind him and led her through the reception to a narrow, stone staircase. He was feeling optimistic, suspected she would change her mind the second she saw the rooms, or at least he hoped she would. He was still supposed to be on holidays, for goodness’ sake!
“Okay, my name Kostas. I do bed for forty Euro a night. Yes?” She nodded. “We have sheet, blanket, pillow. No towel.” He turned back to the woman. “You got towel?”
“Don’t worry, I get you towel.” He shook his head. Typical tourist. Lonely Planet must have left that bit out. He stopped at the first-floor landing and was making his way towards a closed wooden door when the woman cleared her throat.
“I’d prefer upstairs, thanks.”
He swung back. “Upstairs? Dormitory upstairs.” He turned to continue walking. “This single room is better.”
“No,” Millie said, stopping him again. “Please. I’d prefer the dormitory.” She had an authoritative way of talking, but it was laced with anxiety as she added, “If you don’t mind, Kostas.”
He blinked at her like she was nuts, then shrugged, returned to the stairwell and continued up another flight to a sweeping dormitory with multiple bunk beds, small side tables between them, and a pile of variously coloured plastic beanbags in one corner. He walked to the far end of the room and swept a thick, red velvet curtain across, letting the sun pour in from two glass doors that led out to a small Juliet balcony.
“Any bed you want. Just one, please.”
Millie was not listening to him; she was too busy pummelling through time. From the moment she had crossed the threshold to the second floor, she saw and tasted blood. Lots and lots of blood.
It was extraordinary, she thought, even now, how much blood one man could cause, one bad choice could create.
Her eyes went straight to the farthest wall, to another man, this one as bloodied as her but with none of the guilt and recriminations. He wasn’t there anymore, the enormous crucifix had been removed, but she could still see him clearly, his arms out, his head dropped to one side, his eyes somehow more accusatory because they would not meet her own.
She reached for his eyes so many times; so many times he never looked her way.
Millie turned and glanced from bed to bed, but hers, too, was gone, replaced by a sturdy metal bunk with thick foam mattresses covered in plastic.
Fresh, clean, bloodless.
Kostas seemed oblivious to her time travel and sang out, “Okay, I bring clean sheets later. And what you call… blanket. Yes, I bring blanket too.”
She dropped her bag and stepped across the room to where her bed once stood, the window above it now half-blocked by the top of a bunk. She placed her hand on the wall beside the window and remembered how often she had looked out that very window, how often she had thought and dreamed and imagined.
“Miss?” Kostas said and she turned, fabricating a smile.
God knows she’d had enough experience of that.
“Please,” he said awkwardly. “I show you washroom and common room.”
Millie followed him along a narrow corridor to the bathroom, also freshly renovated, the stench of new paint more powerful here than anywhere, and Kostas flipped the naked light bulb on. There was no toilet paper, he noticed, and a collection of dead beetles on the floor would need to be swept up.
“It’s too early!” he hissed in Greek under his breath before striding down the corridor and throwing open another door. It led to a separate staircase, which he took, drawing her back to the main level. “Down here, common room and kitchen, but no food,” he said as they walked. “You buy food in town, yes?”
She didn’t appear to be listening, and again he hissed. “Is too early!” This time his English was loud and clear.
While Kostas strode off to fetch the linen, Millie took the opportunity to look around properly. The downstairs common room was unfamiliar, and she wondered if she had blanked it out or if it was the result of the makeover. New, brightly upholstered sofas sat sociably around the room, and one wall was lined with computers, four in all, and unheard of in her day. There was a giant-screen TV and a box of computer games. And every wall had been painted a particularly gaudy shade of something. Lime green. Candy pink. Baby blue. Thankfully there was no red, the only colour she associated with her past.
Kostas returned with a set of striped sheets, faded from one too many bleach jobs, and a towel, clean but ratty, and thrust them into her hands.
“And now I go,” he said. “You have car? Bike?”
“You want lift to town, get food, wine?”
“Do you have Wi-Fi?”
“No, Miss. No connect, not yet. Casa Delfino has Wi-Fi. You talk to Effie.”
Again, Millie appeared not to hear him. She was staring at a small arched doorway that was latched shut.
“This lead to cemetery. You no want. Come,” he said, “I show you balcony. Is good, yes?”
Kostas strode across the common room and swept open two glass doors to the cobbled courtyard out the back, which offered a stunning view of the craggy coastline below.
“Gloomy today,” he said, and he wasn’t just referring to the weather.
At the end of the bridge, right before the road veered sharply left, the hostel manager slowed his motorbike for a final look back at the castle. And her. No amount of cajoling could dissuade the crazy tourist from staying. Not even the fact that Kostas would be gone for hours, that she would be there all alone. That usually scared the strays to their senses, but not this one. He had scribbled down the telephone number for the Delfy and hoped she’d soon use it.
“Any problem, you call Effie,” he insisted, and the woman had stared at the number as if in a daze. And so Kostas had left, driven away earlier than intended. He cursed her aloud now. Had meant to finish going through the books to start compiling a list of supplies for the upcoming season. But there was something about the newcomer that didn’t invite company.
After another minute, he revved up his bike and turned towards town, feeling, for the first time in four years, that he was no longer the king of his old stone castle.
He had a niggling feeling he had just been overthrown.
Tuesday stretched on. The phones kept ringing. Amelia never showed.
The deputy editor tried hard to mask her delight as she returned from her lunch break and noticed the editor’s chair still vacant. She slipped behind her own desk, tapped her keyboard, then slid her eyes sideways and swivelled her chair around.
Why not? Alex thought. Why not indeed!
She stood up, pulled her shoulders back and made her way into Amelia’s office.
It was absurdly oversized, really, with an enormous L-shaped wooden desk and a classic 1950s Eames high-back, leather office chair. One side of the room contained a small round conference table that sat four staffers, and behind that a metal bookshelf lined with every conceivable woman’s title—from Italian Vogue and UK Marie Claire to The Australian Women’s Weekly and US Vanity Fair. These were Amelia’s personal copies, and in case you were thinking of sneaking in and pinching one, they were each plastered with a white sticker that read Editor’s copy, hands off!
Alex stepped up to the shelf and began leafing through them, selecting the latest issues to take home and retain. Behind her, glass windows opened the office up to a sparkly Sydney harbour view, the kind of view that was wasted on a busy editor. The blinds had been let down halfway to avoid the glare, but she lifted them all the way up now, ignoring the sun that came screaming in. She wanted to drink in that view. She was almost giddy with delight.
The deputy swung around to find the art director staring at her. “Oh, Monty! Goodness, you gave me a fright. You’re back from Hamilton Island.”
“Just got in. What’s going on?”
Monty glanced deliberately at the magazines in the deputy’s hands. The look on her face spoke volumes, and Alex tried to regain her composure. The two women had never been friends. They were from different sides of the tracks. Alex was a middle-class suburban mum trying her hardest not to be, while Monty was the single career woman’s pinup girl—painfully thin and smartly dressed in a shiny Stella McCartney suit and Pucci pumps. She was one of Amelia’s elite, part of the select posse who got to stay back each month and work on the illustrious cover. As though they were creating the next Mona bloody Lisa. And then, when it was finally complete—and God knows it could take days—they would celebrate at the latest swanky eatery, courtesy of Gerry, while the rest of them stayed back, eating soggy sandwiches or last night’s leftovers like they’d been twiddling their thumbs all month. Like they were inconsequential.
Yet Alex was the deputy editor for goodness’ sake! She once stayed back longer than anyone, neglecting her kids, ignoring her husband, pretending to fit in. But that was sometime ago…
She brushed her discounted Country Road suit down with one hand and tightened her grip around the precious magazines.
Monty frowned. “Where is Amelia?”
Your best friend’s deserted you, Alex wanted to say. “She’s vanished. Haven’t you heard?”
“What do you mean vanished?”
“Nobody knows where she is.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic, Alex,” Monty scoffed as she began to turn away. “She’s probably in a meeting with Gerry or someone from advertising.”
“No, Monty. I mean, we haven’t seen Amelia in days.”
She turned back. “Days?”
“Not since last Friday.”
“Friday? Seriously?” She blew air through her lips. She did not believe Alex. “She must have called in.”
Alex nudged her chin towards Brianna, who was watching them through the glass wall, and she shook her head no.
Monty frowned and reached for her mobile phone, stabbing at a few buttons, her tone still light when eventually she spoke. “Hey, lovely, it’s me. I’m back. Just checking where you’re at.” Her eyes darted away from them both, her voice dropped. “Alex seems to have some crazy notion that you’ve vanished but, well, um… Just give us a bell. Okay?”
Clicking off, she began trawling through her messages. Nothing. Not so much as a bubble. Monty had been relieved by this earlier, now it made her feel nauseated.
“Why didn’t anyone call me?”
“You were on holidays so—”
“I wasn’t on holidays, Alex. I was on a fashion shoot. I was working.”
Sure you were. Working on a tan more like. “Either way, she hasn’t shown up all week; we’ve checked her house, it looks like she’s cleared off. Gerry’s in a flap, as you can imagine.”
“She hasn’t even called Gerry?”
“Nope. Pretty damn rude, if you ask me.”
“Pretty out of character, more like.” She frowned. “Okay, leave it with me. I’ll make a few calls. I’m sure her folks will know where she’s at. She goes nowhere without them knowing.”
Alex shrugged. Monty didn’t get it. She really didn’t care. Actually, that wasn’t quite true. She did care. Just not about Amelia’s whereabouts. She hoped the editor not only stayed away, she never came back. It’s not that Alex hated Amelia, as such. She despised her, and that was a different kind of loathing. She glanced at the big chair behind the desk and thought about it for a moment, but nerves got the better of her, so she simply swept past Monty, out the editor’s office and back to her own desk, still clutching Amelia’s magazines tight to her chest, like she was holding on to a life vest.
Monty, meanwhile, glared at her mobile phone like it was an emergency beacon that refused to work. She strode back to the designers’ section of the office, greeting various staffers along the way, the phone still in one hand, silently begging it to vibrate.
When she got to her desk, she placed it beside the keyboard and kept darting glances at it, knowing she should be working—God, she had so much to catch up on—yet unable to focus.
Where, oh where was Amelia?
Monty knew she should call the parents immediately. Perhaps Beryl had the answer. But that was like tapping a sleeping grizzly on the shoulder and asking where her cub had got to. There had to be someone friendlier.
She scoffed to herself. Who was she kidding? She was Amelia’s only friend or at least the only one she caught up with outside of publishing headquarters, and that was largely due to their history. They went back.
Monty’s stomach tightened just thinking of it. Of the ferry. Of wanting to reach out, of wanting to grab her by her ponytail and keep her on board.
Why didn’t she do that? Why did she let her get off?
“You’ve got PTSD,” someone told her a few years ago. A boyfriend who couldn’t compete with the guilt he made love to every night.
“You’re being ridiculous,” she had told him, but that was old news. She had already diagnosed herself.
She would never forget the anxious phone calls.
“What do you mean she got off the ferry early?”
“What do you mean you didn’t get off with her?”
“Where on God’s earth is my daughter?”
That was the mother. The father was much, much worse.
“Your best mate heads to some strange island you go there with her. What kind of friend are you?”
A bad one, she decided, a very bad one in fact. One with an ulterior motive.
She’d had a massive crush on Angus, see, even though he only had eyes for Millie, as they called her then. Monty suspected she’d make a better match so was quietly elated by her friend’s sudden desertion. Now it was her chance to dazzle the better-looking one, to score the top prize.
It was as simple and as pathetic and as horrifying as that.
She wanted the hotter one to pick her for a change, and if both boys fought over her, all the better. Except they didn’t, not really. They just used her up and spat her out, and when she returned to Sydney two months later, fully expecting Millie to be waiting in the wings, ready to giggle over her silly Greek love affair, she was nowhere to be found. Her parents hadn’t heard from her. There was no gushing text or dull travel blog or reassuring call on Skype. This was before all of that.
There wasn’t even a postcard.
“Must still be in the arms of her Greek god,” she’d told everyone, still feeling envy then, still thinking typical Millie!
Oh how wrong she was.
When Millie finally returned almost a year later, Monty’s envy had morphed from concern to horror to utter remorse. She knew something terrible had happened, could tell from her friend’s stiff mannerisms and stony smile. Millie was back, but not really. The new Millie was different somehow, and it wasn’t just the fact that she now insisted on using her full name, the name her teachers used to scold her with.
“I hate Millie now,” she said, and Monty wasn’t sure if she was referring to the name or to herself.
It took another year for the horror of what had happened to come out, and two more before Monty worked out what was missing. It was Amelia’s soul. It had been snatched from her, along with her dignity, her ID and all her personal effects.
She groaned and reached for the phone. She could put it off no longer. It was time to wake the sleeping bear.
Tom groaned as he surveyed the open fridge, one callused hand holding the door wide. That’s right, there was bugger all to eat. The final insult before she took off. He’d managed to cobble some meals together for the past few days, but there was little he could do with some mangy veggies and slimy ham, and how was he supposed to do the shop? It was bad enough he had to steal away from work to get his kid to school and back—the school bus had been on the blink for weeks—he could hardly ask for time off to go to the supermarket. In this hick rural town it’d make him a laughingstock.
He slammed the door shut with so much ferocity he could hear his beer bottles clinking inside.
That was Phil, eyes wide, a tiny crinkle cutting into his perfect little forehead. He’d had that expression for two days now, ever since Monday morning when he’d woken Tom with the news that his mum had vanished.
“Go back to sleep,” Tom had told him, croakily, grumpily. “She’s just up.”
Well, she was usually up at that time, making Phil’s school lunch. She always did it at the crack of dawn, didn’t need to of course. Didn’t need to be up for hours, but it was like she was bursting to get out of bed. Away from him. It made his heart wrench each and every time, her absence like a black hole in the bed.
An hour later, when he’d pulled himself from the covers and shuffled into the kitchen, one hand scratching the stubble on his face, he had to concede his son was right. Amy was nowhere to be seen. Together they checked every nook and cranny in and around the house, the yard, the top shed.
“Shouldn’t you call the cops?” his brother, Harry, had suggested later when they conferred over the back fence.
It wasn’t so much a fence as a couple of scraggly bushes that Tom had planted some years earlier, a demarcation line of sorts. The property was Harry’s, bequeathed to him by their father, and he’d chosen the better of the two houses as his own. Harry’s was the newer, four-bedroom brick place, the one their parents had built back in the eighties, unable to stand the creaky, draughty old timber house they’d inherited from their own parents. That one was offered to Tom and Amy, who seemed genuinely delighted. She reckoned it had “stacks more character,” but to Tom that was like admiring an ugly woman for her personality.
He wasn’t buying it, but he couldn’t afford anything else, so he’d graciously accepted and moved his then-pregnant wife in, even though it was where the bad memories were first forged, but what choice did he have? Beggars couldn’t be choosers, and homeless couples had to take what they could get.
They moved in a week before Phil was born, and it was another three years before he erected the bushy barrier, as much to protect his own privacy as to keep Harry’s brood out. And there were a lot of ’em to keep out.
His older brother and his wife of twenty years, Scarlett, had six children, all under the age of fourteen. They were a chaotic mob. A disaster zone if you asked Tom. Amy never envied their better house with its insulated brick walls and indoor toilet, but she did envy that snotty-nosed mob, and he could never fathom why.
“She’s obviously taking some time out, mate; she hasn’t been kidnapped,” Tom explained to his brother over the fence that morning.
“And you know this how?”
“I know this. That’s all.”
“Did you have a fight?”
“What? No, course not.”
“Did you call her folks? She might’ve gone there.”
He scowled, wasn’t ready for that, but he acknowledged the point. She had run there before when things had been tougher. Lately everything was good. At least he thought it was.
Harry added, “She’s probably curled up in her mum’s lap now, sobbing about her boring, miserable life.”
“Shut up, mate.”
But Harry wasn’t being entirely unfair. It had been an open wound that seemed to fester between the couple with every passing year. Amy had had a career once, she liked to remind everyone, had worked for a flashy woman’s magazine, but it always felt to him like she was admitting to some sleazy affair and left her looking grubby.
“I’m sure she’ll be back in a day or so,” he’d told his brother, and his brother had stared at him oddly, as though worried about him, not his missing wife.
“I’m starved,” Phil said, breaking through Tom’s thoughts. He looked around at the young boy with the old man’s worry on his face.
“Come on then, matey, let’s head to the Boot & Tucker.”
“Yassou!” Kostas called out to a tall Greek woman as he pulled up at the kerb in front of the Casa Delfino.
It was your typical Greek hotel, pretty as a postcard with glacial white walls, impossibly blue trim, and neat planter boxes made chaotic with bursts of pink bougainvillea. There was a small taverna at the front boasting Fresh sea bass & BBQ calamari! and several tables and chairs straddled the footpath, their tablecloths billowing uneasily with each wind gust. Set on the other side of a pretty blue bay, there was nothing but a narrow, cobbled road and a bit of pebbled beach to separate the two, and today there was little passing traffic and certainly no bathers. It was not yet summer holiday season, and so only locals were going about their business, preparing for the onslaught.
The village of Sarisi had developed haphazardly over several centuries around the horseshoe-shaped bay with a fishing wharf at one end and the old stone convent-cum-hostel on a rocky cliff top at the other. Gleaming cubed houses were clustered across the escarpment and surrounding hills, like white Lego pieces scattered in various directions, walls colliding with rooftops colliding with sundrenched patios. And at various intervals, the steep, narrow road with its large cemented pebbles and smudged donkey poo, winding its way down to the main town. At the bottom, the cobbled esplanade stretched from one end of town to the other, providing a border between the shops, cafés, and hotels and the main beach not yet decorated with summer’s umbrellas and chairs. There were Lego pieces there too; houses and hotels perched right on the waterfront, some leaning out, defying gravity, one with an enormous squid dangling from a veranda, as though it was trying to escape. There was another beach on the other side of the castle, its isolation and black volcanic sand luring fewer tourists, with only one hotel and café to accommodate them.
“Hey, Effie,” Kostas said again as he strode through the restaurant’s courtyard, admiring the woman’s long, tanned limbs and curly black hair. She wasn’t bad for thirty, he thought. Pity she was such a shrew. “Nico inside?”
“Nai!” she replied using the Greek word for yes. “Where else?” she then snapped, and continued preparing the street-side tables, slapping forks atop serviettes as though they had misbehaved, while red-and-white-checked tablecloths slapped back at her, threatening to pick a fight.
Kostas stepped inside, past the small reception desk and staircase leading to the accommodation upstairs, and across the parquet floor, first glancing at the neon-lit bar, then to the kitchen at the back. He located Nicholas in the cold room, his nose hidden in a crate of tomatoes.
“Oi, Nico! Where’s my morning coffee?” he demanded, one hand on hip, and Nicholas looked up and smiled.
“Where it always is, mate, help yourself.”
“Come join me.”
“Hey, you know my cousin. She’s got me working like a dog, no time.”
“Come on, man, I have some… how you say? Juicy gossip.”
“You know I hate gossip, Kos. How many times I have to tell you that?”
“You like this gossip. I promise. Is about pretty lady. Strange lady. Just your type.”
Nicholas plucked two tomatoes from the box and then closed the cold room door, groaning as if Kostas was holding his arm behind his back. “Fine.”
He pushed past him and out into the restaurant where he took up position at the bar’s espresso machine, measuring out the coffee, screwing the contraption into place, pushing two cups under the spout, and stabbing at a button. As the machine worked its magic, Kostas grabbed a discarded newspaper from a side table.
“Hey, Effie!” he yelled outside in Greek. “Did your numbers come up last night?”
“As if!” she screeched back. “But they will!” And then in English, she added, “One day, Kostas, I escape! You see! I go to Melbourne with Nico!”
Kostas shot his friend a wary glance. For some reason Nico hated all mention of his hometown; it was the only subject that turned him into his cousin, slapping him into a bad mood faster than a snakebite. Kostas had learned that the hard way, but the Melbournian wasn’t taking the bait today. Perhaps he was in too good a mood. Perhaps he was just distracted.
“So what’s up?” Nicholas said when the milk had been frothed and heated and poured into one cup, which he now dumped in front of his friend.
“Huh?” Kos looked up from his paper. “Oh! Okay, so this lady, yes? She come to castle today. Is funny lady, little bit strange in her head.”
“Not just strange, she Australian!” He let the last word linger in the air for effect, and Nicholas narrowed his eyes.
“Yes, really! Aussie. Like you, hey?”
Okay, he thought. He hadn’t picked up on that, but then he’d only seen her from a distance. He’d been thinking Italian or Spanish perhaps. It wasn’t so much the thick, dark hair as the light coat and flash of bare leg above her boots. Most Aussies who arrived this time of year wore everything they could find in their backpacks, always surprised that the Mediterranean could dip below boiling point.
Did none of them have a weather app?
“I didn’t think you were open yet.”
“Exactly!” Kostas pulled his cup towards him. “I tell her, why you want stay here? Go see Effie! Is better for you. She no care! Funny lady, but sexy!”
“And nothing. Is still there.”
“On her own?”
“On her own! I tell you, crazy lady. Aussies are crazy people!” And he cackled, witchlike. “She say she looking for nuns, can you believe this?”
“What nuns?” Nico asked as a crash could be heard from the front of the hotel. He frowned and called out to Effie, “You all right out there?”
There was a moment of silence before she screeched back to him. “Bloody wind! I’m okay!”
She must have forgotten to staple the tablecloths down he thought as he shared a snigger with Kos. They were both fond of the hotelier, but she was renowned for her temper. Nico found it amusing once. Now, not so much. He turned back to Kostas. “You were saying something about nuns.”
“Yes, from old convent. Before it become hostel.”
He nodded. “Right, yeah, forgot about that. What did you tell her?”
“No nuns here! Don’t you worry about nuns!” He cackled again.
Nicholas gulped his espresso in one and glanced at his watch.
“Well, that was riveting.” He sang out again, this time up a set of stairs: “Theo! Running late, mate. Let’s move it or you’ll miss the ferry!”
A few minutes later a teenage boy came crashing into the room like there was a zombie on the loose and he was next on the menu. He was wearing a blue-and-grey uniform and had a bulky backpack in one hand. Somehow he managed to pull up just short of Nicholas, offering him a grin and flicking his fringe from his eyes.
“D’ya bring my boots and shin pads?”
Nicholas frowned. “What do I look like? Your butler?”
“Well don’t just ask. You’re old enough to worry about your own bloody soccer boots.”
“Football! It’s called football.” Theo shared an eye roll with Kostas, and Nicholas pretended not to see. He couldn’t seem to get anything right these days.
“We’ll have to nip back and grab them on the way. Come on, your mum’ll kill me if we miss the ferry again.”
Theo bolted into the kitchen and as he went Nico couldn’t help the lump that was forming in his throat. He loved that kid, would miss him acutely when he left for Athens, but he knew it was for the best. A classic oddball, a bit of a loner, Theo had few friends on Sarisi and, if it wasn’t for his killer left kick, he’d have even fewer, Nico knew that. There was nothing like football to help build bridges. On the mainland he didn’t have to do any building; there were more likeminded mates to choose from. He could be himself there.
Still it didn’t mean Nicholas didn’t miss him, didn’t mean he didn’t wish he was here each and every hour.
After a few minutes, Theo reappeared with an orange in one hand and what looked like a filo pastry hanging from his mouth. He called a garbled goodbye, first to Kostas, then once outside, to Effie, who pulled him into a bear hug.
“You know I love you,” she said. “You know this, yeah?”
“Yeahhhh!” He wriggled out of her arms with a groan but was grinning as he headed for Nico’s dusty hatchback.
As they pulled out of the hotel driveway and onto the esplanade towards the wharf, neither of them noticed Effie still watching them, a grim look on her face, a piece of cracked crockery in each hand.
Beryl Malone’s voice was high-pitched, but there wasn’t any panic. Not yet.
“No, Monty, of course my daughter’s not here. Why would she be here? On a weekday? That’s absurd.”
Now that she’d said it, the idea did seem ludicrous.
Before Monty could respond, Beryl added, “You don’t know where she is then?”
“Um, not at the moment, no. You see, I’ve been out of the office for a few days, so…”
She pictured Beryl in her neat little kitchen, her perfect doily tablecloth, a pot of tea stewing on the stove no doubt. She was like the proverbial ’50s housewife, with her tidy aprons and home baking and scotch and dry ready for Ron when he returned from the office. Except it wasn’t the 1950s and Ron was retired now, unless you counted worrying about Amelia as an occupation.
Amelia used to mock her mum for her dowdiness and lack of ambition, but Monty had been charmed by it. She first met Amelia’s folks at their Year Ten speech night—Amelia was clutching a handful of books, lousy prizes for being top of English, History and Commerce (Monty was holding just one book for Art)—and found them delightfully old-fashioned. Even a little quaint, with their frumpy clothes and the way they clung to their daughter, pride oozing from their eyes. (Monty’s own parents were so utterly un-parent-like. They dressed, drank and smoked like grad students and, when they weren’t at each other’s throats, were so entrenched in their careers—Monty’s dad was in banking, her mum managed a clothing store in a swanky Sydney suburb—they barely had time to look up and certainly had no time to attend their children’s awards night.) When Monty’s parents finally split at the end of her schooling, her two brothers just fifteen and twelve, the only thing left to squabble about was who was going to get lumped with the boys.
Monty had envied Amelia back then and wondered what it was like to grow up with sitcom-perfect parents, but then the incident happened, and she saw the downside of all that—the terror, the accusations, the overprotection, the guilt.
And she knew that if she didn’t find Amelia in a hurry, it was about to rain down all over again.
“Didn’t she have a meeting or something?” Beryl was saying, her voice still upbeat. “I’m sure she had a meeting, dear. Melbourne wasn’t it?”
“That’s next week. She usually goes down to the printers to check the cover. She’s supposed to be here this week. In the office. We haven’t even designed the cover yet. That’s why I’m a little… Well, that’s why I’m calling.”
Beryl’s voice was still calm, which surprised Monty and buoyed her a little. If the mother’s not panicking, she thought, but then she heard a distant voice and a fumble, and her heart sank.
“Hang on, dear. Ron would like a word.”
Monty braced herself.
“What’s this about my baby going missing?” Ron’s voice was gruff but jovial.
He was waiting for the punch line, and she wished more than anything she could deliver one. For now she went into damage control.
“Oh, Ron, it’s not that she’s missing as such. She hasn’t been in for a few days, and you know what Gerry’s like. I’m pretty sure I know where she is.” Liar, liar. “I thought I’d check with you first to see if you know—”
“Of course we don’t know! How are we supposed to know?” No more jovial tone then. “You’re the one who’s supposed to know where she is, Monty. Why are you asking us this?”
“I just needed to check, that’s all. We have a few more avenues. There’s a spa she’s been keen to try out. I bet she took herself there for a bit.” Monty smacked a hand against her forehead as she said it.
“But surely she’d tell you! How could you not know?”
“She probably did and it slipped my mind. I’ve been away myself, see, and then my phone had no charge and I lost a bunch of messages.” Lies, more lies. “I’m expecting to hear from her any minute.”
“But I don’t understand. Should… should we be calling the police? Should we—”
There was another fumble, and Beryl was back.
“For goodness’ sake, he does carry on. Sorry about that, Monty. I’m sure everything’s fine. Please don’t get yourself into a lather. We’ve got the keys to Amelia’s house. I’ll get Ron to swing by there in the morning and see what’s what. Maybe she’s tucked up in bed, feeling out of sorts. In the meantime, you just focus on that magazine. I know she’d want you to get on with it.”
“Thanks, Beryl.” Thank God the mother wasn’t overreacting. Yet.
Monty hung up and dropped her head onto the table. If only Amelia’s parents were as crappy as hers.
As day turned to evening and the staff gradually slunk away—many earlier than normal because the cat, after all, hadn’t been seen for days—Monty tried to return to her burgeoning workload but kept sneaking glances at her mobile phone, which mocked her with its silence.
Where the bloody hell was Amelia?
And what would possess her to be out of the office during this crucial period?
She shoved the phone under a stack of proofs and turned back to her computer screen, trying not to frown. She had earlier read that you could reverse the signs of aging by simply not exhibiting any expression. None at all. Like a character from a soap. At least that’s what their beauty editor, Beatrice, had espoused, selecting an image to go with that priceless piece of advice—the unblemished face of a model who was sixteen if she was a day.
It wasn’t lack of expression that ensured her unmarked features, thought Monty, grumpily, it was a lack of life. Just wait till you get to thirty-three, sweetie, that’ll wipe the smug glint from your unlined eyes.
She snapped her head around, frowning despite the beauty editor’s advice. Her senior designer was standing there, hands wedged into the pockets of his jeans. She dropped the frown and smiled back at him.
He was the only testosterone in the entire office, as good-looking as he was good-natured. Monty remembered when Amelia first hired Hank about two years back. He’d come straight from some music magazine but looked more suited to Esquire or GQ—clipped beard, black Ray-ban eyeglasses, Ralph Lauren jackets. Amelia had joked he’d be good eye candy for the girls—“give us all some relief”—and she was right. But he was also a sweetheart, and Monty had entertained the idea of asking him out several times before common sense prevailed. She was his boss; it would be inappropriate. Besides, who had time for dating? How optimistic an idea was that?
But Hank was more than a pretty face, he was a skilled designer. Too skilled for this job, Monty thought now. He should be doing her job; she should be elsewhere.
She shook the thought away. “What’s up?”
“I’ve got a stack of layouts to be checked. Should I whip them past Alex first or…?”
Monty frowned harder. Amelia would die if she knew Alex was checking the designs. The deputy might be a whiz with words, but she wouldn’t know a good layout if it smacked her between the eyes.
But what choice did they have? Deadline was fast approaching, and the phone hidden on her desk had offered no solace. She glanced at the darkening sky outside and said, “Just hold off until the morning. I’m sure Amelia will be back first thing.”
He looked relieved as he turned away, but she hadn’t convinced herself.
What if Amelia wasn’t back? They didn’t have any more time to waste. The issue was due at the printers next week, and they were already way behind.
Was Alex capable of getting them to the finish line?
Monty didn’t think so. Amelia certainly never had.
She remembered the editor’s hesitance before hiring the deputy. How unconvinced she’d seemed. Amelia had spent hours trawling through job applications, reading and rereading, desperately trying to find a better match for her deputy. Yet she kept coming back to Alex.
“She is a very good writer,” she had told Monty. “Her CV’s impeccable. I just don’t know…”
“Don’t know what?”
Amelia could never explain, but time had proven her instincts correct. There was just something off about Alex. She never quite fit in, never fully belonged. She was like a fish out of water who’d learned to breathe but still flapped about awkwardly making everyone awkward around her.
Monty’s computer suddenly pinged. There was a fresh email, and she felt her heart leap. But it was a message from Alex, wondering where all the designs were.
“Don’t forget, I need to approve everything first!”
The art director scowled so deeply she half expected Beatrice to appear with her blasted wrinkle cream.
How could Amelia do this to her? They were on to the final sections, the most crucial designs. And now Alex was to approve them? Over her dead body. She scooped up her desk phone and put a call through to Gerry.
She got as far as Gerry’s assistant, a tiny woman with a towering reputation, almost as terrifying as her boss.
“You should know by now you have to book in, Monty,” Lizzie Soda said. “Gerry’s an extremely busy man.”
Monty glared at the phone, then took a deep breath. “Yes, sorry, Lizzie, but this is really important.”
“It always is, dear. Is this about Amelia? Has she finally shown up?”
“Yes, I mean, no, she’s not back, but it is about the magazine. You see, with Amelia absent, Alex seems to think she’s in charge, and quite frankly, I don’t think she’s up for it. She hasn’t got a good grasp of the visual, and we need—”
“If you’re not happy with Alex’s work, you should take it up with Human Resources.”
“Oh, it’s not—”
“Gerry is far too busy for that sort of stuff.”
“Yes, Lizzie, I understand that.” She spoke through gritted teeth. “But we’re trying to publish the very best issue we can possibly publish, and I know Gerry’s never too busy for that.”
She had her there and Lizzie knew it. The other woman sighed. “I’ll call you if he gets a spare moment. In the meantime, let us know when Amelia returns. Gerry wants her up here pronto. I’ve managed to reschedule Revlon, but there’s a meet and greet on Thursday that she simply must attend.”
“Of course, Lizzie. I’m expecting her first thing in the morning.”
But was she? Was she really?
They were just finishing their greasy T-bones and chips at the local pub when Polly What’s-her-name came striding up, a boy with short hair at the back and sides, trailing behind.
“I saw you guys over here,” she said, her voice high-pitched and chirpy. “How was your meal?”
She tilted her head. “How are things?” The emphasis spoke volumes. He shrugged a reply, glancing towards his son.
Not in front of my boy, please.
She nodded, appearing to understand, and yet she continued on. “So, no news at all?”
The way she said it made him feel like sliding under the table. She must have sensed this because she quickly turned to Phil.
“Toby and I are heading off to get some ice cream. Are you interested in coming along, Phil?” Then she glanced back at Tom. “That is if you don’t mind.”
He wanted to tell her what she could do with that ice cream, he wanted to hold his son tight, but Phil’s smile had suddenly appeared and it was like the sun rising at last. He didn’t have the heart.
“You want?” he said to his son, and his son smiled wider.
Polly’s eyes glinted victoriously. “Tell you what, why don’t you come back to ours after that and we’ll get you to school tomorrow?”
“But I haven’t got my school bag and stuff,” Phil said.
She flapped bejewelled fingers in the air. “Oh easy peasy, we can sort you out with a bag and some lunch and even get you in a fresh uniform, would you like that?”
Her eyes swept across the cruddy shirt Phil had been wearing for two days straight, and Tom felt a wave of shame. He hadn’t had a chance to do a load of washing yet. She could reserve her judgement for Amy, thanks very much.
“Cool! Dad? Can I?”
He shook it off. “Sure, mate. Yeah, have fun and I’ll get you after school tomorrow.”
He watched as his son dashed off with Toby, and for a moment, just a moment, he felt a glimmer of appreciation for busybody Polly until he spotted the man hanging back, waiting his turn.
Tom’s stomach clenched. The nod Geoff was now gifting Polly said it all, and he supposed he should have been grateful they’d removed Phil for this, but it didn’t ease the feeling in his belly.
He closed his eyes as Shepperdin’s Local Area Commander approached.
He opened his eyes. “Geoff.”
“You all right?”
He shrugged. “How about Amy?”
He closed his eyes again. For God’s sake.
“She all right?”
“So where’s she at?”
He slapped his eyes at the town’s chief of police. They had gone to school together. Best mates for six years until it all went south. He tried not to think about that.
“I’m not sure that’s any of your business, mate.”
The balding superintendent pulled a seat out and sat down next to him, leaning in closer. “I’m told she’s been missing since Sunday. If you don’t know where she is, mate, you have to report—”
“I know where she is.”
His eyebrows lifted.
“She’s on holidays. At her folks’ place. She goes there regularly; it’s no drama.” Except she wasn’t due there for another month, but Geoff didn’t need to know that.
“Oh, great.” He glanced about. “It’s just that a few of the ladies are worried.”
“Gossiping more like.”
“Just get her to call one of her gossips, get them up to speed so they can leave me alone, okay?” He smiled. “You know what they’re like?”
The policeman sat there for a few more minutes, offering Tom a sympathetic smile, then slowly got up and made his way out. Tom considered his options, then headed for the bar.
“The usual?” the publican asked, and Tom nodded.
“Oi, Tommo, over here!” someone called out from the pool table up the back.
He didn’t bother to look round, simply waited for his beer, then produced some cash.
“Where’s adorable Amy tonight?” Lennie asked, handing over the schooner of lager. He had the rose-coloured-glasses view of his wife. Most of them did.
“Just away for a few days. Having a break.”
“Lucky bugger,” he said, plucking the notes from Tom’s fingers.
He wondered if Lennie was referring to Amy or himself. He cleaned the froth off the top of the glass, then wiped the back of his hand across his lips and made his way to the poolroom. A thin man with a pregnant belly was leaning across the table, pool cue at the ready, about to strike the eight ball.
“You’re killing yourself, Grant,” Tom said.
“That’s the idea,” the other man replied, clicking the cue forward and slamming the eight ball into the corner pocket. “Bored with this shit. Let me grab a drink and we can pull up a pew.”
He ordered his own schooner, then they made their way to the front bar where several tables were now occupied, a few older guys, a young couple, a family with three kids, all on their devices.
They sat down and drank their beers, then Grant couldn’t help himself. “What the hell’s going on? Steph reckons Amy’s pissed off.”
“Jesus Christ! What is it with this place? She’s just having a few days off, mate. Why is that so hard for everyone to understand?”
“Without you? Without Phil?”
Tom shrugged. “Needed a break.” It had become a kind of mantra. What else could he say? She’s fallen out of love with me. She packed up and left.
Grant scoffed. “The school run gettin’ too stressful these days is it?”
Tom ignored that. It was okay for him to fire arrows, but Amy wasn’t target practise for Grant. This was his wife he was talking about.
“She gonna come back?”
The look in Grant’s eyes made Tom’s blood simmer again. He should have shot off after his steak.
“Of course she’s coming back. Jesus, man, what the hell?”
Grant’s hands were in the air. “Okay, chill out. Just trying to help.”
“This is helping?”
Grant said nothing for a while. Stood up. “’Nother one?”
Tom nodded. It was an apology of sorts, and it would do.
When Grant returned with the beers, the conversation moved on. Footy, the price of petrol these days, the big-breasted blonde who had recently perched herself at the bar. Grant was the one interested in that. Tom just pretended to be. He’d only ever been interested in one woman, and look where that had got him, batting away gossip in the local pub.
She had always been his downfall, Amy Malone; he knew that plain and simple. He’d stuck with her even after… Well, after all that ugly business. Even when others warned him off, couldn’t believe what he was doing. The sacrifice he was making. But he’d had a crush on her since day one, back when she was still Silly Millie and life was as fickle as her name. He’d been smitten since the first moment he’d clapped eyes on her, skipping down those Spanish Steps, weaving between other backpackers, her eyes locked on Angus.
She was so radiant then, like she was lit up from within. Her hair was thick and glossy, her smile wide and wondrous, and the way she carried herself, a little hesitant, a little confident, a little too ready to take on the world, made his heart skip a beat. She might have picked Angus first, but his crush was patient. He knew then, even as he watched them flirt, that he could bide his time. He could wait it out.
Besides, he knew from their university days that Angus was a bad egg.
He knew he’d stuff it up.
And even after all the nasty business that came later, Tom was still smitten. His crush had not evaporated because she’d made one lousy decision. Eventually her eyes had turned to him, as he knew they would. Eventually she had seen him as her saviour, and that had cemented everything.
Or at least it had done, until last Sunday.
He took a large gulp of his beer and scowled. Oh, hell, who was he kidding? Amy, as they called her now, had been crumbling away for years, their marriage on pretty shaky foundation to start with. He wasn’t stupid. He knew he’d always been the consolation prize. She’d never been happy, not really, never fully content. And it wasn’t just the lack of career—there were no glossy magazines in this hellhole, only a country rag and a community newsletter she got involved with occasionally. There was something deeper behind her sadness, and there was nothing he could do about it, although God knows he’d tried. Nothing he could do now either. He just had to wait this one out.
It made his blood simmer again; it made him feel empty and worthless.
He turned his eyes towards the bar.
The nun’s habit was crimson red, made brighter against the whitewashed walls. Since when do nuns wear bright colours? Millie wondered as she watched the old lady shuffle towards her, a smile on her lips.
“Morning. How are you feeling now?”
“Language, dear,” the older woman said, her voice stern, her eyes merry. “Just try to get some sleep.”
Hadn’t she slept enough? She closed her eyes and tried to drift away, but there was a low growl coming from somewhere, and she peeled them open again. The nun was still standing beside her bed, but there was something strange about her headwear.
Was it dripping?
“Are you okay?” Millie asked her.
“What is it, dear?”
“Your head… Did you…?” Then she saw it. Him. Just behind the nun. A man, hiding in the shadows. Lurking.
She scrunched her eyes shut and shook her head.
Go away, go away, go away.
Then forced her eyelids back up again.
The nun was still there, leaning down, just centimetres from her nose, but it wasn’t Agnetha’s face anymore, it was the face of the shadowy stranger, and he was grinning.
Millie woke with a gasp.
She was damp with sweat, her pulse racing, her breath heavy. She looked around frantically. Where was she? What was going on? Then she remembered. Exhaled. Waited for her heartbeat to return to normal.
After a few more minutes, Millie untangled herself from the sheet and sat up, swinging her legs to the floor. Another calming breath before she stood up and reached for the mobile phone she’d placed on the bunk above her head, tapping the screen to check the time. It was almost 4:00 p.m., Greek time.
How had that happened? The early ferry had knocked her about.
Behind the clock she could see a screen bursting with text messages, lots of different numbers but mostly just one. She shuddered at the thought of calling him and dumped the phone before heading to the bathroom. There she washed her face with cold water, not meeting her eyes in the mirror, not willing to see the disappointment and disgust, then shuffled back and down the inner staircase, through the empty common room and out to the balcony beyond.
The temperature was cooling down again, and she wrapped her arms around herself, shivering a little. She’d forgotten how chilly it could get here at this time of year. But, oh, how gloriously blue! The sky above was cerulean, the sea below azure.
In her memory, in her dreams, Greece was always hot and always dripping red.
She approached the low stone edge and leaned down to watch the blue turn white and frothy as it smashed against the rocks. The sound, the smell, the energy that was rising towards her sent her pummelling through time again, and she held herself tighter, a ferocious regret smashing across her like the waves against those rocks.
Over the years, the regret had become manageable, something she could quash with a quick shake and a change of thought—with busyness and life—but not now. Not anymore. Lately regret had begun to overwhelm her, to distract her days and toss her through sleepless nights. It had become unmanageable, unfair to everyone around her, and she couldn’t ignore it any longer.
He might be furious that she hadn’t called, but she was doing him a favour. They were all better off without her.
A long, low whistle caught Millie’s attention, and she swept her eyes back and forth across the rocks until she spotted the figure clambering along the south end, something in his hands. Was it a spear?
She continued watching as the man—surely it was a man?—continued to whistle, the melody now jaunty until he reached what looked like a swimming hole, then bent down, stood up, and kept walking. He repeated this process several more times before reaching the edge of the point, then vanishing from sight, his whistle lingering a little longer while Millie stayed where she was, staring at the place he had been. She didn’t think she knew the man, and yet there was something about the silhouette…
Her eyes narrowed as she returned inside. Her heart did a tiny somersault.
Heart in her mouth, Effie’s eyes flickered constantly to the road and back. She had to be quick. There was no time to waste. She wiped the last of the lunch detritus from the plastic tablecloths, then checked her watch for the umpteenth time.
Two hours until the next ferry. Two more hours and she was off the hook.
A fresh Sydney morning, an empty editor’s chair. Alex thought she would burst.
This time she didn’t even bother sitting at her own desk, she simply scooped up her diary on the way past and headed straight for Amelia’s office. Shoving her boss’s things aside, she dumped her diary and sat down, adjusting the seating even though it was completely unnecessary. They were exactly the same height; it was about all they had in common.
“I’m in charge,” she said quietly as she tapped at the computer, logging Amelia out and herself in. “I. Am. In. Charge,” she said again, timing the words with each tap, then she took a moment to soak up the view through Amelia’s office window—the dazzling white Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge beyond.
Alex remembered the first time she had seen that view. It was the backdrop to her initial interview with the infamous Amelia Malone. Alex was quaking in her knock-off Jimmy Choos, but it was a good quake, like the buzz you get from a roller coaster you’d waited hours to ride. It was a genuine thrill to meet her mentor. The view paled in comparison. It was nowhere near as dazzling as Amelia.
Oh, she had heard all the horror stories of how hard Amelia worked her team, how demanding and unforgiving, but she didn’t care. She was ambitious, she wanted to be in Amelia’s shoes one day—hers were not fakes, hers were the real deal—and she would do whatever she needed to do to get there.
So when she sat down for that first job interview, she made sure she said and did everything necessary to get that result. And so she sold herself, her family and her soul in the process.
“There’s no running out to pick up sick kids in this office,” Amelia told her, leaning back in her plush leather chair, a silver pen at her lips.
“Of course not,” Alex said, blocking the image of her daughter vomiting the week before.
“Men don’t need to do that, so why should we?”
Alex had nodded vehemently, not thinking to reply as she might now with the words “Because we want to?”
“I expect you to work yourself to the bone for me,” Amelia continued. “I expect Eve to come first. Is that a problem for you, Alex? Will that be an issue?”
“Not at all,” she had said, shaking her freshly styled locks. It had cost a small fortune to have the highlights added and the frizz ironed out, but it was an investment for the future and, let’s face it, a key to getting the job. She’d just seen The Devil Wears Prada; she knew what was what.
“I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do,” she’d told Amelia that day, and she watched as the editor’s eyes flashed back at her. Alex had thought it was admiration they were flashing. Now she wondered if it was victory, the knowing glint of a conqueror.
And it had been a glorious first year, very Hollywood movie-like: fashion shows, advertising lunches, flash bulbs on red carpets. She felt, for the first time, like she had escaped Castle Hill and her mother’s boring clerical job, her father’s constantly struggling small business. She now wore genuine designer fashion and drove a fashionably smart car. Even had her own car space with her name on it.
It took another year for Alex to realise that it didn’t matter what she did to her hair or what clothes or car she bought, it would never quite be smart enough, and her name would never be Amelia Malone.
“Amelia’s back!” someone cried out, and Alex’s heart plummeted as she swivelled around to face the main office.
Monty was standing at the entrance and had mistaken her for the editor, that much was clear by her rapidly vanishing smile.
For her part, Monty felt her blood pressure spike—such relief and now such disappointment. She stared hard towards Alex. The hide of the woman!
She watched as Alex started tapping at Amelia’s desktop. Unfuckingbelievable!
She dumped her bag and stormed across. “What’s going on?”
Alex waited a beat before she pulled her eyes from the computer. “Hey Monty. What’s up?”
Monty waved a hand about. “What are you…?” What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
“She’s not here is she? And this is a bigger screen, better to check the layouts on.” Then Alex quickly added, “I’m trying to get the issue done, Monty. Somebody has to move it forward.”
“You and I both know Amelia would be here by now if she was coming in today. She’s always in at the crack of dawn. So, hate to break it to you, honey, but it looks like I’m running the show.” Her voice faltered a little. “Unless, of course, she shows up tomorrow, in which case we all go back to normal.” She tried not to frown at the thought of that.
Monty blinked rapidly. “Is that what Gerry said?”
“He didn’t have to! I am the deputy, Monty. That usually means second in charge or at least it does in the rest of the publishing world.” She lightened her tone. “I’m sure we can all survive without Amelia for a bit.” Then she put on her best cheerleader voice. “Come on, Monty, we’ve got this! We can make this happen! Might even get the magazine to bed early for once.”
Monty looked at Alex like she was deranged, so the deputy dropped the aural pom-poms and said, “I need all the layouts as fast as possible. For some reason Hank’s ignoring my emails, so please tell him I need to see everything before it goes to the subs, yes? Everything. I’ll edit Mel’s self-defence story first thing, and meantime, you better get cracking on that swimsuit spread you just shot. I can see from the floor plan that it’s supposed to make this issue, but you’ll be cutting it fine.”
I’ll be cutting you fine, Monty thought as she stared at the deputy for a few more stunned seconds before turning around and heading back out and towards her corner of the office. Corner of the ring, more like. She felt like beating someone up, but it wasn’t Alex she was thinking of now.
Call her optimistic, call her delusional, but Monty had fully expected to find Amelia back at her desk this morning, her eyes rolling as she reminded them all of whatever it was they had clearly forgotten.
“I was at that marketing conference, you eejits!” she would say, or “I can’t believe you’d forgotten about [whatever it is they’d all forgotten]!”
Instead, it was like a horror show in here: Amelia still missing, Alex in the big chair and a magazine not even close to finished.
She glared at her mobile.
Come on, woman, ring!
“Call for you, Monty,” came Brianna’s monotone over the phone’s intercom, and she felt her heart fly into her throat. But it wasn’t the editor, it was the editor’s mother, and for a moment there she felt a rush of relief. Beryl must have heard something! Her first words quickly put paid to that.
“No news yet, dear?”
Damn it. “No, Beryl.”
“Never fear. I wanted to let you know we were just at her house this morning and everything’s okay.”
The spike of relief hit her again. “Really?”
“Yes, well, you had poor Ron in such a panic last night. First he wanted to call the police, then he wanted to rush right over. It was all I could do to stop him from getting in the car and driving straight there. He’s got a ticky heart, see, and he really shouldn’t get too excited. So I calmed him down, and we went over together this morning. And I’m so glad we did. Ron would have missed all the crucial signs. He’s such a bloke, dear, he really is.”
“Signs?” What was she rabbiting on about?
“Yes. Amelia’s overnight bag was missing, you see. You know, the one she bought on that last trip to Singapore? The bulky one with the funny gold squiggles all over it.”
“The Louis Vuitton keepall?”
“That’s the one! And some of her clothes, I might add. I mean, Ron would never have thought to check her wardrobe.”
“So what does this mean?”
“It means we’re all a lot of worrywarts! Amelia wasn’t lying there with a broken leg, dying of starvation or whatever my silly husband was thinking.”
“But she wasn’t there, right?”
“No! But she’s clearly gone away of her own volition, taken her fancy bag with her. Probably on a well-earned break, I’d say.”
“But… but why wouldn’t she tell us?” Beryl was acting like it was all very obvious, but Monty still couldn’t see it. “Why wouldn’t she let Gerry know? And do you know where she went? Were there any—I don’t know—brochures around the place? Any indication at all?”
“Not that I had noticed, but I’m sure the postcards will soon arrive in the mail and we’ll all slap ourselves and want to slap her for not telling us.”
“Oh there’ll be slapping, on that we can agree,” Monty said, trying to lighten her own tone, trying to make it all sound like the lark Beryl seemed to think it was. “Okay, thanks for letting me know.”
But what she knew was still very sketchy, and it didn’t explain anything.
What was Amelia up to? What was she playing at? You don’t just pack your designer luggage and head off on holidays without any warning, without any word to your mother, let alone your boss. And you certainly don’t do it if you’re Amelia Malone and it’s deadline week.
Why hadn’t she scheduled annual leave like a normal person? Was her friend having an early midlife crisis? Had something happened to her?
Of course she didn’t articulate these thoughts to the mother, simply thanked her again and promised to be in touch should the aforementioned postcard materialise. But she wouldn’t be sending anyone down to the mailroom. Amelia would never just head off on holidays without telling anyone. It was laughable. The Eve editor, more than anyone, knew the dangers of doing that. And Monty wasn’t thinking of the ferry trip now.
Holidays were a dangerous perk in this cutthroat industry. That was how Amelia scored her job in the first place, snatching the top position while the previous editor, Nancy Verew, snoozed on a banana lounge in Bali.
It had been an infamous coup.
Monty was the first of the two friends to join the magazine almost twelve years ago, starting as a lowly junior designer soon after returning from Greece via a brief stint in London that didn’t bear thinking about. When Millie returned all those months later, quiet, depressed, despondent, Monty didn’t know how to help, so she suggested a job at Eve. They could work together! Wouldn’t that be fun? And maybe it would assuage some guilt that was starting to gain momentum as the story of Sarisi slowly leaked out.
The only opening at Eve, however, was for the even lowlier editorial assistant, the job Brianna now had, which was several rungs below Amelia’s skill set. She’d not only trained as a journalist at one of the country’s finest colleges, she had already been a feature writer on a national magazine before that dreaded trip, so the obvious next step was features editor, not Nancy’s lap-dog-cum-receptionist. But the idea seemed to embolden Amy, and Monty hoped it would come close to redeeming her, if not in her own eyes, at least in the eyes of Beryl and Ron.
It was Monty who organised the interview, who prepped her friend and polished her look, and who received the biggest lashing from Nancy when, after just nine months at Eve, Amelia ousted her from the top job.
“I went on a bloody holiday! My first in five years! And this is how I get repaid? Stabbed in the back by my receptionist!”
“I’m sorry, Nancy,” Monty had said, but she wasn’t sorry, not really. Amelia needed the job more than anyone knew. It had saved her life and saved Monty’s bacon too. And besides, she was so much more than a receptionist.
Amelia had taken to the job like her life depended upon it, and Monty half suspected it did. She poured everything into her work, was first in each morning and last out each night. She became indispensable, not only to Nancy but to everyone else in the office. Even though it wasn’t in her job description, she started helping with little things and large. She studied how the bestsellers in the industry worked and began suggesting small but subtle ways they could improve an article or embellish a layout. She became the queen of snappy headlines and break-out box ideas, and when Eve’s deputy editor, Penelope, an older woman with little passion and an inkling of what was to come, handed in her resignation six months after Amelia had started, Nancy didn’t think twice about handing the job to Amelia, even though everybody knew it was a mammoth skip and jump, at least on paper.
The truth was, Nancy was stuck. She was due on holidays in a fortnight, and there was no time to advertise. The features editor was pregnant—she was no use!—and nobody else was putting their hand up.
“I’m giving you an extraordinary opportunity,” she told Amelia at the time. “You’re a very lucky woman; don’t make me regret this.”
Oh, how Nancy would regret it.
Not nearly as intuitive as her deserting deputy, she didn’t see the writing on the wall like the rest of the team. They had been bypassing both Nancy and Penelope for months, seeking out Amelia’s advice. She had an uncanny eye for detail and an extraordinary knack for words, and they looked forward to Nancy’s meetings with Gerry so they could head straight to Amelia’s desk.
There was no getting around it. Amelia was a natural born editor who made Nancy look like a fraud. So when she finally went on her infamous six-week break—one that would chain overworked editors to their desks for years to come—Amelia stepped it all up a notch.
This time she didn’t just suggest ideas, she rewrote entire articles, gave them slicker headings, and had the entire magazine redesigned. She shifted sections around and dropped stock pages she’d never liked, and despite howls of protest from the art director and panic attacks from the production department whose job it was to keep a holidaying Nancy in the loop, the magazine had never looked so good.
It was as though it had been reborn.
Now more dynamic than anything else on the market, the advertisers lapped it up. Revenue doubled overnight, they had to go up a book size, and this was the only reason Nancy could not change it straight back when she returned, horrified, from her break.
When the new-look issue hit the stands two months later, it was the highest-selling issue in Eve’s history, and Nancy’s fate was sealed. Even if Gerry had wanted to keep the old editor, he had very little choice but to move her to “Special Projects”—which everybody knew was publishing speak for “out to pasture”—and hand the relative newcomer the job.
It was the fastest rise to the top in Australian publishing history, seconded only by Amelia’s immediate dismissal of Eve’s disgruntled art director as she parachuted Monty into the coveted design spot.
For her part, Monty felt dreadful, but Amelia was unrepentant.
“Honey, the magazine was screaming for a makeover. Sales were plummeting, advertisers were jumping ship, and if I hadn’t done what I’d done, we’d all be out of a job.”
She had made it sound so reasonable, so inevitable, but Monty often wondered why Amelia couldn’t work with Nancy to bring change, why she’d waited until Nancy was in Bali to make her move.
“It’s a cutthroat world out there. It’s kill or be killed,” Amelia sometimes added, this attitude a by-product of that missing year in Greece.
“Besides,” she’d predicted, “with us at the helm it’ll be the top-selling woman’s magazine in the country one day.”
In fact, Eve quickly became the top-selling woman’s magazine per capita in the world, eclipsing her more famous sisters Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Elle, and earning her a certain status with Gerry and his ilk that few other editors ever received. Even the formidable Lizzie seemed in thrall to her.
Yet despite it all, Amelia never seemed satisfied. She just got more intense as each year passed, more determined to increase circulation, to prove her worth over and over. But what else was there to prove? Hadn’t she done enough? And was that why she’d suddenly upped and left? Monty wondered.
Perhaps she was exhausted. Perhaps she was hoping that one of them would do an Amelia and finally give her a break.
Monty scoffed. That was as plausible as Beatrice’s anti-aging advice.
She put another call through to Gerry.
Tom didn’t normally let his son sleep over at a friend’s house on a school night, but then there was nothing normal about their life today. Still, he was glad Phil wasn’t around to see how trashed he got last night, how quickly he trashed everything. Again, he had to thank Polly for that even though he hated being indebted to anyone.
As he waited for the kettle to boil, he slouched against the kitchen bench and wondered how his life had unravelled so fast.
A flash of something caught his eye through the side window, and he spotted his brother outside his own kitchen, waving him across. Tom ran a hand through his shaggy red hair, turned the kettle off and stepped out.
“You heading to work?” Harry indicated Tom’s grubby overalls, the words Shepperdin Building Supplies embroidered across a front pocket.
“Someone’s gotta pay the bills.”
“You call her parents?”
Just thinking about the call made his blood boil again. It had lasted less than two minutes. He asked if they knew where their daughter was. They sounded surprised then concerned, then as things started to heat up, he hung up. He already knew he was a disappointment, didn’t need to hear it from them.
“And?” Harry was waiting.
Tom wished he had some good news. “They haven’t heard from her. Not expecting her until next month.”
“Shit! I was hoping she’d be there. Scarlett said everyone’s tried her mobile phone and she’s not picking up. You try her mobile?”
“I’m not a moron.”
“Okay, chill out. It’s just weird, right? I mean, sure, she might be cranky with you—”
“I didn’t do—”
“I’m not saying you did! But you know what chicks are like. You probably left the toilet seat up again or something. I get why she might’ve walked out. We’re not the most gallant of gentlemen, us brothers. But I don’t get why she isn’t talking to her friends. Why Scar and Polly haven’t heard anything.”
“You’ll have to ask Amy that, mate.”
“I would if I knew where she was.”
The two brothers watched each other uncertainly for a moment, then