The Whitsundays ...
Disclaimer: See title page.
The nightmare wrenched Jo awake like a slap in the face. She choked back the cry on her lips and sat bolt upright, the sheets clinging uncomfortably to the light sheen of sweat on her body.|
It took a moment to wake completely but once she shook off the last remnants of sleep Jo slumped forwards, her face in her hands, elbows on knees. A splash of moonlight fell across her, turning her tousled black hair silver.
"Jesus Christ," she muttered. She took several deep breaths in an effort to stop her heart from beating its way out of her chest. It took all her concentration to fight down the panic and rising bile in her throat. She groaned again as flashes of the recurring dream images burned across the back of her eyes. Oh, that had been a nasty one.
Muffled incoherent noises to her right stopped her short and Jo cursed when she recognised the lump under the bedclothes next to her as the woman she'd met in KC's Bar and Grill on the main drag of Airlie Beach last night. Several stubbies of cider and a bottle of red had convinced Jo that some company was in order, apparently. She couldn't remember much about it, she admitted to herself guiltily. Not even -
God, what was her name? Jo shook her head at her own lack of good sense and clambered out of bed. And more to the point, what the hell was I thinking bringing her back here? Now I'm stuck with her till at least breakfast, she thought despondently as she silently padded across the polished wooden floor through to the living area. She muffled another curse as she stubbed her toe on the cat's water dish on the way to the fridge. She hopped the rest of the way and balanced on the open door as she surveyed the contents by the internal light.
One can of Coke left. Time to go grocery shopping.
Jo withdrew the can and cracked the seal as she wandered to the glass wall overlooking her particular patch of paradise. She quietly slid open the glass door that led to the verandah and moved outside.
Jo had done all right for herself in the five years since the cold night when she had snuck out of Sydney after her brief, but fiery argument with Det. Harding. She'd sought some peace and quiet by coming up to Far North Queensland, to the Whitsundays, a long, idyllic group of islands just inside the Great Barrier Reef off Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour. Here she'd found a community of like-minded folk who let her be when she needed isolation, and who made her welcome when she needed to feel a part of the human race again. Not that they were all ex-assassins. She smiled wryly at the thought. But many of the people here were refugees from big-city life who came north to try a get-rich-quick scheme in the tourist mecca of the Whitundays, or were just looking for a simpler life.
And cheaper dope, she reminded herself with a smile. She'd stayed pretty clear of that scene though - too many bad memories. She wasn't averse to a party, the evidence of which was snoring softly in her bed, but an alcoholic haze was the only form of oblivion she felt safe with these days, and that pretty rarely.
The last five years had been good ones, she decided. Lonely, yes, directionless, sure, but at least she could sleep at night and she was earning an honest living. Not that she really needed to.
A decade spent in the darkness of Sydney's underworld had left Jo a rich woman thanks to a couple of wise offshore investments. Contrition had stopped her from touching those funds, however, except in one respect. The house high on the hill above Shute Harbour had called to her like no other place she'd ever lived in. Nestled into lush rainforest on the side of the slope, the house was built of jarrah logs and made the most of the sensational views of the islands by being almost all glass on its east-facing side. It had cost the earth, but Jo hadn't hesitated for a second, deciding the isolation and panorama were more than worth it. There were no neighbors in either direction for miles, she was just a 10-minute drive from the dock itself, and the forest around her was laced with narrow dirt tracks she used for running and getting up close and personal with the abundant wildlife in this part of the world.
And there were worse things than being hidden away in the jungle. Jo had never been too worried about her former bosses and adversaries coming after her after her disappearance from Sydney, even though they had every reason to hate her. She knew she could handle anyone who got close enough to threaten her. She'd invested in a top-drawer security system and had made a concerted effort to get on with her life as if she'd never been a drug lord's hired killer.
Even now, the thought made her shake her head. Another life, she pondered. One I don't ever want to go back to or be reminded of. Which was why the dreams were such a pain in the subconscious.
Jo settled into the rattan chair on the verandah and put her feet up on the top rail. It was hot as only a north Queensland January night could be, damp heat wrapping round her naked body like a wet blanket. There wasn't a zephyr of a breeze. It's a gorgeous night, Jo thought. The moon was full and the skies cloudless so a silver sheen splashed across the Whitsunday Passage and Shute Harbour like a shimmering blanket. It made her smile quietly. She'd never really known what peace was until she came here. It was hard to be tense when you were surrounded by total beauty like this surreal landscape.
It hadn't stopped the nightmares though. Jo sighed as memories of the dream intruded. It was pretty much as it had always been. Horrible images from a night that had changed her life.
The girl had been different from her other marks. Younger for a start and not a competitor for Jo's boss. She was just young and stupid and had made some bad, bad decisions. Like bad-mouthing him to his employees, ragging on his lack of competence in bed. And skimming off the top of the few drug deals he'd been generous enough to let her organise.
And then, fatally, she had gone to the cops when he'd beaten her within an inch of her life just once too often.
Jo had fielded the phone call from her boss at 1am on a cold, wet and unforgiving winter's night.
"I want the little bitch taken care of, Madison," he had barked. "I want it public, I want it messy, I want it untraceable. You got me?"
"Trying to send a message, boss?" she'd asked.
"Just do it. I'll make the usual arrangements for your payment. I want her gone, Jo."
She'd hung up and collected the tools of her trade - a custom-handled shimmering blue Colt Commander tucked into a discreet holster on the back of her hip, a wicked, thin-bladed knife on her other hip and a piano-wire garrot, her weapon of last resort, hung from her belt.
She didn't feel any different, had no inkling that this would be the end of the line for her, the changing of her life, as she stepped out from her warehouse apartment deep in the back alleys of King's Cross and walked off into the night.
Jo had found the girl, much as she'd expected, sitting on the pavement in front of one of the all-night coffee shops on Oxford Street, sharing a joint with a thin beautiful gay boy, fresh from the dance clubs.
Too stupid to know she's in trouble, Jo had thought as she stood across the street, watching from a darkened doorway. Or too stoned. Time to make this happen.
She had shrugged herself upright and stepped forward into the light, waiting for a break in the traffic and beginning to cross the road. The girl caught sight of her and Jo had stopped, letting the wind heighten what was already, she knew, an intimidating sight.
The girl had seen a tall, gothic figure in black from head to foot, ice-cold blue eyes boring into her, hands slowly flexing into fists and opening again by her sides, the wind whipping her long black hair around her face, and her full-length black coat around her legs. She knew Jo, knew what she did, and had felt the chill as realisation hit. Her male companion had been a beat ahead of her, and was already making a hasty retreat.
Jo had waited. She knew there was no rush and she knew the ending was inevitable. She just had to let it happen in its own time. Slowly the girl stood, unsteady on her feet from the hash and the fear.
"W-what do you want?"
Jo let an almost feral grin cross her face.
That did it. The adrenalin had finally kicked in for her quarry, who took off down Oxford Street towards the city centre. Jo didnžt rush but followed at a light jog, knowing at this time of night there wasn't much of a crowd for the girl to lose herself in. She saw the girl duck into an alley and almost laughed at the simplicity of it all. It was a dead-end with nowhere to go but oblivion.
She had slowed to a walk as she entered the alley, ignoring the stench from the piles of garbage. One foot kicked aside a rat carcass, and ahead Jo could see her quarry crossing the pale yellow pool of light thrown by the bare bulb above a doorway. She walked on through the light herself and into the murky depths of the end of the alleyway.
The girl shivered, her back pressed against the damp brick wall. The woman walking towards her never slowed for a moment and the girl had squeaked as a large, powerful hand wrapped itself around her throat, lifting her bodily. She felt the pressure build in her head as she fought for breath, her own hands fluttering uselessly against Jo's.
"Stop fighting. I will make this quick if you just stop fighting," Jo had muttered harshly. The girl went limp and she dropped her, drawing out her gun as the junkie crumpled in a heap at the base of the wall. The assassin stepped back, cocked the Colt and took aim. Green eyes welling with tears stared back at her along the barrel.
Then the unthinkable happened. For the first time in her career Jo had felt a trickle of sweat down the back of her neck. That awareness made her hesitate. The tear-stained, elfin face at her feet sensed the hesitation and took its chance.
"Why?" the girl had whispered.
"You know why. You donžt fuck with Tony."
"N-no. I mean, why you? What did I ever do to you?"
The words had cut through Jo like a hot knife through butter.
"SHUT UP!" she had screamed. Jo surged forward till she was crouching in front of the girl, the muzzle of the gun pressed hard against her temple. Images of another time, another child - darker, younger even than this one, and another killer's gun, flashed before her eyes. "Just shut up -"
Jo had fought for self-control then, her finger pressuring the trigger slowly, her gaze full of her victim's imploring, tear-filled eyes. She was dumbfounded by the uncertainty and - horror? - welling up inside her. Never had she felt such doubt. She had always been the cold-eyed killer who felt nothing, but this waif had reached in and squeezed her heart, somehow.
Again Jo had hesitated, torn and bewildered by her own lack of resolve. But then the decision was made for her, as footsteps hurried up behind her and stopped.
"What the fuck are you waiting for?" She barely recognised the voice as one of her boss' henchmen. "Finish it, Madison, for christ's sake."
"Get lost Marco, I've got this," she threw back over her shoulder, the gun muzzle still pressed cruelly into the young girl's cheek, where a trickle of blood was showing.
"Doesn't look that way to me. Looks to me like you were about to let her go."
She had rounded on him then, standing tall, besting him by a good few inches, pressing the gun into his gut. His breath reeked of garlic and stale beer.
"I said fuck off Marco, this isn't your concern." Her voice was low and threatening. But for once, the thug wasn't intimidated. He had sensed her hesitation, had heard the quaver in her tone and now he drove home his advantage, like a sword into an armour's chink.
He slammed her back against the alley's side wall, wrenching the gun from her hand before pistol-whipping her viciously with the butt of the grip. Jo was stunned, not by the force of the blow but, as her world began to go black, she realised she hadn't offered any resistance. Jo Madison, assassin, had allowed herself to be overpowered with barely a whimper. Her last thought before oblivion swallowed her was 'perhaps this is what I wanted'.
She had come to slowly, achingly, with a mouth full of filthy street water from the puddle she had landed in. Hacking away the foul taste, Jo sat up groggily, grateful at least that Marco had disappeared. She sat back against the wall, rubbing her forehead ruefully, her fingers coming away red from the lump she felt there. Then she caught sight of her gun, and beyond that a crumpled, bloodied form, now unrecognisable as human.
Jo stood up slowly, using the wall for support. She waited until her stomach stopped its flip-flop and once she was sure she wasn't going to throw up or faint she made her way over to the girl. There was no doubting she was dead. Her face was unrecognisable - just a mess of destruction. Jo guessed Marco had emptied her gun into the girl and then inflicted his own signature brand of violence upon her, probably with his steel-capped boots, just for his own jollies. Her stomach rebelled again and she turned aside and vomited convulsively, splattering the wall and her own shoes.
"God, I'm so sorry ..."
What happened here? Jo struggled to understand how the girl had reached into her psyche and woken her from a 10-year spell. Whatever happened next, Jo knew she couldnžt keep doing this. There was nothing left inside her except pain and remorse and darkness. She wondered at the tears streaming silently down her cheeks, helpless to stop them.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve and reached for her cellphone. No doubt Marco was already telling her boss the good news in person. She knew she didn't have much time. She dialled a number from memory and waited for it to be answered. Eventually a sleepy, gruff voice picked up.
The sudden arrival of a large black cat in her lap shook Jo out of her reverie.|
"Shit, Mephisto, you scared the socks off me," she laughed. "Or you would have if I was wearing any."
She humoured the feline as he kneaded around in her lap until he was satisfied with his resting place and curled up.
"At least you had the good manners to keep your claws in, old friend," she said affectionately as she ran her fingers through his soft fur.
Yes, that had been the night that changed her life, in so many ways. Sometimes she found herself disbelieving that any of it had ever happened. Life here was so different.
When she'd arrived in the Whitsundays she'd found work as a deckhand with one of the bareboat charter companies - Cheswick Marine. The work was physical and demanding, something she enjoyed. Even though the pay wasn't great and tourists could be a pain when they traveled in herds, she got to spend her days out on the ocean with the salt wind in her hair and her other life a million planets away.
Two years ago she'd earned her Master's ticket and had jumped up a rung. She skippered a 50-foot yacht with one deckhand and a cook, hosting small groups of tourists interested in spending more than just a day exploring the islands of the Whitsunday Passage. Sometimes the crew outnumbered the passengers.
All in all, not a bad way to earn a living, Jo had decided. And more to the point, she wasn't hurting anyone. She never wanted to do that again.
Jo took a deep lungful of the warm night air and exhaled slowly. Which is why she didnžt make a habit of bringing tall brunettes back to the house, she sighed. Damn. She didn't want - no damnit, she didn't need - anyone that close to her. Apart from anything else, she had no intention of putting anyone else in the firing line should her old life ever happen to catch up with her here in paradise.
And besides, she was poison. She had to be, right? There was so much blood on her hands, who would ever want to be with her once they knew the truth. And the truth always came out. It had to, didn't it? That's what being close to someone meant, wasn't it? Honesty? Trust?
Jo sighed again. Ah well. It was a moot point anyway. The tourist - German? Swedish? Jo shook her head again - on the other end of the not-so-soft snoring emanating from her bedroom sure as hell wasn't 'the one'. She was just the one she'd have to let down gently in the morning and tell the inevitable white lies to. Sure, I'll call you. How long are you going to be in town?
No, love wasn't in Jo Madison's future. She was just grateful to be alive, to have a second chance at living life right. Anything else was a bonus she just wasn't going to let herself expect.