A storm ...
Disclaimer: See title page.
There was a long moment as their eyes met.
"I do," Cadie replied softly, knowing it for an unshakable fact.
Jo turned her attention back to the immediate problem - how to get herself from the helicopter to her house without alerting Marco.
Wait a minute, she brought herself up short. He's not alone. Josh said 'they've got me'. Okay, that makes it just that bit harder. It figures that bastard would bring along reinforcements to take on one woman. The question is, how many.
She keyed the microphone on her headset.
"How long, Bill?"
"Less than five minutes, Jo-Jo," replied the pilot. "I've got a huge tail wind. That storm is coming in fast."
"Okay," she acknowledged. A plan started to form in her mind. "Bill, you know the dirt road up to my place?"
"Sure," he replied. "But Jo, I can't land there. The road's too narrow and the trees are too tall."
"You're not going to land. You're going to hover just long enough for Cadie to winch me down on the harness."
They both objected at once.
"Jo, I don't know how to operate ... "
"That's nuts, Jo, in this wind?"
"I don't have time to argue this with either of you," she barked. "Bill, fly the damn plane. Cadie, come here and I'll show you what to do."
Cadie unstrapped quickly and moved to join Jo next to the large barrel of the powered cable winch. She shoved down her apprehension and tried to take in what the dark-haired woman was telling her.
"Here's the indicator that tells you how much cable has been played out," said Jo quickly, pointing to a small gauge on top of the control panel. "This switch powers the winch, see?" She pointed at a large toggle. "Forward plays it out, back to the middle applies the brake and backward reels it back in. You got that?"
Cadie nodded silently, starting to feel swamped by the sudden change of circumstances and bizarre situation they were in.
"I can handle it, Jo, but please ... what the hell's going on? You're not seriously going to try this are you?"
Jo stood up gingerly as a crosswind buffeted the chopper. She reached for the harness and stepped into it, hooking the wide belt under her arms and double-checking the metal clip that connected the belt to the cable.
"Cadie, listen to me," she said as she made some minor adjustments to the fit of the harness around her. "Someone from my former life has come back to haunt me. He's got a friend of mine at my house, and he'll hurt him, or worse, if I don't get in there now and do something about it. It's my fault, my responsibility and I'm going to do whatever I can to fix this."
Cadie stood as well, bracing herself with her hands against the ceiling of the passenger compartment.
"Why not just call the police?" she asked.
"Because he asked for me. If anyone else shows up, he'll kill Josh."
Cadie looked skeptical.
"Cadie." Jo stepped forward and lifted the blonde's chin with her fingers. "These guys don't fool around. They're the real deal. You're from Chicago. You should know about these things." She smiled slightly, hoping Cadie would accept the mood-lightener for what it was.
Cadie tried to smile back, but her eyes were full of apprehension and worry.
"What were you?" she whispered.
"I was trouble," Jo replied softly. "And now I have to be trouble again. I can't think of anything else other than stopping Marco and getting Josh, and hopefully myself, out of there in one piece. I can't be worrying about anything else, Cadie." She looked deep into the blonde's sea-green eyes, hoping she could convey what she was feeling with just a look. "Do you understand?"
Cadie nodded silently.
She's asking me not to give her cause to be distracted, thought Cadie. Okay. I can do that.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Jo?" she asked quietly.
"Yep. Get me down on the ground and then let Bill get you somewhere safe and dry for the duration of the storm. Give me a couple of hours and then call the police, okay?" She unclipped her cellphone and gave it to the blonde. "In fact -" she thought carefully for a moment. "Remember how you accessed Jenny's number?"
"Do the same thing, but look for a guy called Ken Harding. He's a cop in Sydney, but he knows the whole story and he'll be able to organise some back-up. Just give me time to get Josh the hell out of there first, okay?"
Cadie took the phone and looked up at the dark-haired woman.
"Okay," she said quietly.
Bill's voice crackled in their headsets.
"Coming up on your place, Jo."
"Right. Bill, circle round and approach from behind the hill. With luck they will hear the chopper but won't be able to see where you're hovering."
"Roger," he replied, swinging the helicopter around and away from the front of Jo's house, tucked on the ocean side of the large hill behind Shute Harbour.
Jo moved to the door of the passenger compartment and looked back over her shoulder at Cadie.
"Brace yourself. It's going to get a bit windy."
Cadie knelt behind the winch and held on to its bulk. Jo cracked the door and pulled it aside, air rushing in as the chopper leaned into its turn around the hill. She slid down till she was sitting on the floor, her legs hanging out of the compartment. She looked down and double-checked the harness one more time.
Jo found her mind drifting for a few seconds.
I can't believe this, she pondered glumly. I thought I was done with this shit. It took me so long to put that life behind me. And now, in the space of an hour, it's all come back. I haven't changed at all. I'm still that dark, cold animal. A sudden aching tug in her throat threatened her composure, and the animal inside shook itself fully awake. Get over yourself, Madison. Get in, get Josh, get out. Save the sentiment for later.
Cadie had been still, watching Jo quietly as Bill manoeuvred the helicopter into place above the dirt track leading up to the skipper's home. She watched as a world of emotions swept back and forth across Jo's face.
Goddess, she looks so lost. Cadie felt her heart breaking for the tall woman who seemed to be fighting for control of her emotions. And there's nothing I can do but follow her instructions and pray. This is so unreal.
Just then Jo turned her head towards the American. A cold, ice-blue stare sliced through her and Cadie felt herself flinch away from the intensity of the gaze.
Whooooooaaaaaa. I almost feel sorry for the asshole she's going after, thought Cadie as she took one more look at the winch control panel.
"Wežre there Jo," came Bill's voice. "We're at 65 feet. That's as low as I can go in these winds." He grunted as a strong gust buffeted the chopper. "Get down as quick as you can, will ya?"
"Okay Bill. Hold her steady." Jo looked up at Cadie. "Put the brakes on at 60 feet. I can jump the rest." She slid down until she was standing on the helicopter's landing strut, the downdraft whipping around her. She lifted off the headset, throwing it back inside the cabin, and turned towards Cadie.
She raised a thumb and Cadie nodded, flicking the winch switch forwards. The thick steel cable began playing out and Jo allowed herself to go with it, trusting her full weight to the harness wrapped around her. Stepping off the strut was an exercise in faith, but she gritted her teeth and let go. Soon she was swinging under the chopper, the harness pulling under her arms painfully.
Suddenly, another wind gust pushed the chopper sideways and Jo was jerked around even as she continued to drop. She went into a spin, the ground beneath her circling wildly.
Christ, I hope I get down before I throw up, she thought with grim humour. She felt Bill correct for the wind gust and slowly the world righted itself. Bill's doing a fine piece of flying, she thought to herself. He was managing to keep the chopper lined up with the road and she drifted down between the treetops. Please God, just donžt let me get tangled up in the trees.
Cadie watched the gauge intently. 20 - 25 - 30. The chopper rocked wildly as the storm pushed the wind ahead of it. Suddenly she was slammed against the wall of the cabin as a strong gust caught the tiny chopper. She grunted and pulled herself back upright, refocusing on the gauge. 35 ... 40 ... 45. She heard Bill cursing mightily in her headsets.
"We okay, Bill?" she asked nervously.
"If the fucking wind would just decide which direction it's coming from we would be," he replied, grunting as he strained to hold the helicopter steady. "Is she down yet?"
50 ... 55 ... 60. Cadie flicked the switch back to the middle position, watching the cable stop unravelling from the reel.
"She's at 60 feet now," she answered. Quickly the blonde scrambled on her stomach to the open door of the chopper, pulling herself forward till she could look down. What she saw made her heart jump into her throat. Through all the noise and buffeting from the wind and rotors she saw Jo, flailing about on the end of the cable. "Jesus, Bill, you've got to hold it steady, she's being thrown around down there."
"Doing my best," he muttered through what she guessed were gritted teeth.
Jo fought the spinning cable frantically, trying to give herself the best shot at landing without hurting herself. Her arms felt like they were close to being ripped from their sockets by the strain on the harness.
She arched her back and looked up through the small gap in the canopy of trees, seeing Cadie's anxious face gazing down at her. She gave the blonde a thumbs-up signal and got one back in return.
Well, I guess this it, she thought to herself. All I've got to do now is figure out how to get out of this fucking thing. She fumbled with the harness attachment for a minute but grabbed on hurriedly as the helicopter once again slewed sideways. Jo just had time to duck her head slightly as she was slammed into a tree-trunk with sickening force. All the air was forced out of her lungs as the left side of her back caught the full impact.
She didn't have long to think about it however, as she was quickly swung back into the middle of the path as Bill corrected for the windgust.
Jesus Christ, she thought, trying to catch her breath. I've gotta get out of this thing. Again she reached for the metal clasp holding the harness together and fumbled with it as the world spun around her. Finally it released and the belt slipped off her, dropping her to the ground with a painful thud.
Jo tucked and rolled as she fell, moving as quickly as she could away from the cable which was now flailing around in the swirling wind. Again she looked up and saw Cadie, their eyes locking. She waved them off and the American waved back, clearly talking into the headset's microphone. Soon the chopper climbed and banked away as the cable began to retract. Jo stood staring at the retreating craft for a few seconds, imagining that she could still see the worried look in the blonde's soft green eyes.
The helicopter disappeared over the rise of the hill, and suddenly Jo felt very alone.
I want to see her again, she thought to herself. Even if it is just to hear her say she wants nothing to do with me, I still want to see her again. She fought back tears. Goddammit. Gotta concentrate. Gotta focus on getting Josh out of there. No matter what it takes.
"No matter what it takes," she repeated out loud, hardening her resolve. She took a deep breath and allowed the cold deep down inside her to envelop her once again. "No matter what."
She took a moment to look around at her immediate surroundings. She was at the bottom of the hill behind Shute Harbour, on the landward side. Her house was on the ocean side, out of sight. She hoped that, and the height of the trees all around the house had prevented the occupants from seeing where the helicopter had been hovering. She had an inkling that Marco did not know where she was coming from or how long it would take for her to arrive.
So, she thought. At least I have some element of surprise working in my favour.
The dirt track up to the house was too obvious a route so she took to the bush, making her way through the thick undergrowth as quickly and quietly as she could. There was at least a half hour of walking and climbing in front of her, she knew, and there was always the chance Marco had men out here looking for her.
She glanced up at the thick, black clouds rolling in from the southeast. A slightly feral grin split her face, though her eyes remained cold and hard.
That might just work in my favour as well, she thought. Nothing like a tropical thunderstorm to wreak a little havoc and create a little diversion.
Even from this height Cadie could see the brilliant blue of Jo's eyes looking up at her. She waved back at the tall Australian when she saw she was all right and then keyed the microphone on the headset.
"Jo's down okay, Bill," she said, reaching for the switch on the winch and starting to retract the steel cable.
"Roger," he replied. "Let's go find somewhere quiet to land, so we can figure out what the hell to do next." He banked the chopper steeply away and headed in a wide arc around the hill, back towards Shute Harbour.
Cadie wasn't arguing. Once the cable and harness were back on board she clambered into her seat and refastened her seatbelt. She reached for Jo's cellphone and switched it on. The power came on just fine, but the indicator showing the strength of connection sat stubbornly on zero.
"I can't get a line on Jo's cellphone."
"Not surprising. There's too much electronic equipment and interference in here. And the storm won't be helping. Wait till we get on the ground and I can shut this thing down."
"So where to?" she asked.
"Shute," he answered shortly. "There's a helipad at the end of the pontoon. Keep your fingers crossed that there isn't anything else already there."
Cadie sat back in her seat, trying to will her heartbeat to slow. She didn't mind admitting to herself that she was scared witless. Whatever Jo was mixed up in, there was no question the tall Australian was in danger. Something inside Cadie told her Jo was more than capable of looking after herself, though.
But still, she thought. I've never seen her eyes so hard. Like there was someone else looking back at me. I want to see my Jo back again. She laughed at herself. 'My Jo'? Who am I kidding? She sobered up quickly. I want to see her face again. I don't know how it's happened but she's important to me now. Very important.
Ken Harding was a frustrated man.
He was standing on the pontoon outside the Cheswick Marine office at Shute Harbour, gazing through the locked glass door at the unoccupied building. He was soaking wet, thanks to the drenching tropical downpour that had hit just as his helicopter was landing. And there wasn't another human being in sight. Clearly everyone had seen the storm coming, battened down the hatches and made for dry land.
He wished he'd thought of that before the police chopper had dropped him off before disappearing inland for safer air.
"Son of a bitch," he grumbled aloud. Just then a huge bolt of lightning crackled on the near horizon, grounding somewhere out to sea. "One elephant, two elephant, three ... " he muttered. The resounding crack of thunder made the glass door behind him rattle and Harding found himself hunching his shoulders in a protective response. "Fucking goddamn weather."
The rotund detective flipped up the collar of his jacket in a useless gesture against the driving rain which was almost coming in horizontally as the storm built towards its peak. As quickly as he could for a fat man in a suit and street shoes on wet wood, he hurried back along the pontoon, hoping there would be somewhere open on the main pier where he could shelter.
And if the gods were really smiling on him, there would be someone there who knew where the hell he could find Jo Madison.
The woman in question was almost unrecognisable. Jo was drenched, mud-covered and crawling on her belly through the undergrowth near the small clearing in which her house was nestled. She hadn't seen hide nor hair of Marco or any of his goons, but she knew if they were out here at all, they would be patrolling the edges of the clearing.
Slowly Jo crawled forwards, ignoring the scrapes and scratches she was accumulating on her knees and elbows, until she came up against a large, half-rotten, fallen log. She knew exactly where she was. The log marked the top of the track she usually took on her morning runs and just beyond it, she knew, was the large patch of grass that served as her back lawn, and beyond that again, the back entrance to her garage.
Jo opted not to extend herself beyond the cover of the log just yet. For now she just wanted to listen. Not that the storm was making it easy. Cracks of thunder and the pelting rain rattling off the foliage all around her made hearing anything else an exercise in concentration.
Come on Madison, she thought. This used to be like breathing for you. Focus, dammit.
Jo took a deep breath and closed her eyes, allowing the sounds around her to swamp her senses. As she had done since she was a hungry teenager on the streets of Sydney, she pictured the noises arranged almost like an orchestra inside her head.
Okay, she thought. Rain, and thunder, all around in the background. Crickets, tree frogs - She smiled quietly at the familiar creaking of the small, green creatures - toads. There's something alive inside this log. She registered the slow, deeper rustling under her fingertips. Let's hope it's friendly. And over to my right - She held her breath and tried to place the unfamiliar sound. Her eyes opened wide as she finally figured it out. Someone taking a drag on a cigarette. She listened again, and caught the slow intake of breath and the faint crackling of burning paper and tobacco.
Slowly Jo crawled to the right-hand end of the log, moving like molasses, slow and steady. She risked a peek, staying low to the ground. In front of her was 30 feet of lawn, and there, in the shelter of the overhanging verandah, stood a man, his cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and a sawn-off shotgun resting casually over his arm. He gazed off into the half-distance blankly, clearly unimpressed by his current assignment.
Jo smiled the feral grin of an ex-assassin who recognises an easy mark.
Marco would have your balls on a plate if he knew you were more interested in staying dry than in keeping an eye out for me, arsehole.
She withdrew back behind the cover of the log and contemplated her next move.
Weapons, her mind answered. Got to get some weapons.
She backed slowly down the hill again until she was once again well hidden by the trees and undergrowth. Then she turned and headed for a place she had planned on never visiting again after the last time.
Cadie had never been happier to be on solid ground than she was the moment she stepped out of Bill's helicopter onto the pontoon at Shute Harbour. The last few minutes of their flight had been a nightmare as they'd found themselves deep in the teeth of the storm. The blonde had a bump on her eyebrow, and a bruise already developing where she had had a close encounter with the chopper's internal bulwark during one particularly wild windgust.
She clambered out on shaky legs as soon as Bill gave her the all-clear. She waited until the pilot joined her and they ran together throught the pouring rain towards the Cheswick Marine pontoon.
"No offence Bill, but I'm in no hurry to get back in that thing again," she said breathlessly.
"None taken," he replied.
They arrived at the door of Cheswick Marine only to find the office locked and empty.
"Well, I guess that figures," said Bill. "They would have seen the storm coming, secured the boats and buggered off for the day. They're not going to do much business in this weather."
"Oh great," grumbled Cadie. She tried again to get Jo's cellphone to connect to a network, any network. "And this goddamn thing still won't work. Damn, Bill, I've got to get to a phone." She looked up at the big pilot and noticed his bottom lip was bleeding. She reached up and gently wiped the blood away with her thumb. "What did you hit?"
"Huh?" She showed him the blood. "Oh." He laughed humorlessly. "I guess I bit my lip trying to get us down onto the pontoon." He caught her eye somewhat sheepishly. "One of my hairier landings. Sorry about that."
She patted his arm reassuringly.
"Don't worry about it. Given the circumstances I was just happy to be on the ground in one piece." She looked up at him again. "Come on. Help me find a phone. We've got to get Jo some help."
He gestured in the direction of the main pier.
"Well, there's a coffee shop just over there that should still be open. Let's give that a whirl."
They both looked bleakly out at the torrential rain as a large crack of thunder rolled around the harbour.
"Last one there's a drowned rat," said Cadie, sprinting off into the downpour.
Jo came upon the huge paperbark gum tree suddenly. She hadn't been sure she would be a ble to find it, but here it was, tall and imposing, the only one of its species in this part of the forest. She circled it carefully, looking for the mark she had placed on its trunk five years earlier.
There. A barely-there arrow scratched into the bark.
Jo dropped to her knees and quickly swept away layers of leaves and twigs. The rich, damp smell came on strong as she disturbed years worth of mulch and debris. Finally she was down to the loose, dark topsoil and she began digging in earnest.
Three torn fingernails later she found what she was looking for - a plastic-wrapped package. She pulled it up out of the ground and sat back against the trunk of the tree, shoo-ing away a large huntsman spider as she did so.
Jo turned the package over in her hands, looking for the way in. She ripped the plastic apart and pulled out the oilcloth-wrapped bundle inside. She balanced it on her knees and gently unfolded the cloth. She gazed at the contents for a few moments.
Never thought I'd see you again, old friends.
She picked up the piano-wire garrote, the small wooden handles smooth in her hands as she pulled the wire taut experimentally. Carefully she curled the weapon into a loop and tucked the handles into her belt. Next, she took up the thin, long-bladed knife, testing the blade carefully with the pad of her thumb.
Razor-sharp, just the way I left you, she thought grimly, as she slid the stiletto into her sock.
Last of all she picked up the gun, its familiar weight alarmingly comforting. The Colt had been custom-built for her, the grip tailored to fit her palm perfectly. As Jo curled her fingers around it, a wave of memories washed through her. Faces from the past, gunshots and the smell of spent bullets.
You and me again, huh? I hope to Christ I donžt have to use you today. She inspected the gun carefully. And if I do, I hope I remember how to use you well.
Somehow, though, she doubted that was going to be a problem, as her hands found their way into old routines seamlessly. She tipped seven of the 45 caliber bullets out of their box and into her palm, quickly sliding the magazine out of the gun and clicking the bullets into place, before sliding it home again.
She stood, tucking the gun into the waistband of her shorts just behind her right hip.
Time to go.
They made it into the shelter of the kiosk just as the storm seemed to redouble its efforts. Cadie spared a thought for the Seawolf and her passengers, trying to imagine what it would be like out on the water in this, even if the anchorage was sheltered. For right now though, her biggest concern was finding some back-up for Jo. A quick look around the shop yielded little cause for optimism.
Half the space was given over to a souvenir and gift shop. There were carousels of postcards and piles of tee-shirts and garish tea-towels hanging along the walls. The other half was a slightly seedy-looking coffee shop. There were only three customers - a Scandinavian couple hefting two enormous backpacks and over in the corner, a middle-aged man in a cheap, wet suit.
Cadie headed straight for the counter and caught the attention of the waitress who was sitting reading a paperback romance.
"Excuse me?" asked the blonde. "Is there a chance I could use your phone. It's an emergency and I can't get a line on my cellphone."
The woman stood, pulling the shop's phone over with her.
"You're welcome to try, darl, but the line always goes down in storms like this. There's a big transformer between here and Airlie Beach that always seems to get hit by lightning every single time."
Cadie's heart sank as she picked up the receiver and jiggled the button hopefully. Nothing.
Fuck, she thought. Now what do I do? She turned and walked back to where Bill was sitting, his wet clothes forming a puddle under his chair. Cadie slumped into the seat opposite him, her mind running at a million miles an hour.
"No luck?" asked Bill. Cadie shook her head forlornly. "Jesus. Cadie, what the hell's going on?"
She raised her eyebrows, surprised by the question.
"I was hoping you'd tell me, Bill. You've known Jo a hell of a lot longer than I have."
He shook his head.
"She never talks about her life before she came up here. And people in this part of the world don't ask those kinds of questions. This is a place people come to get away from questions and trouble."
Cadie bit her lip anxiously.
Trouble. Jo said she was trouble.
"You heard the conversation over the headsets, Bill. All I know is we have to get her some help. Where's the nearest police station?"
"Airlie Beach. In this weather that's probably going to take almost an hour. Assuming we can find someone to lend us their car."
Cadie rolled her eyes.
"Don't tell me, your car is in Airlie Beach?"
He nodded grimly.
Another huge crack of thunder coincided, paradoxically, with a cheerful chirping from the cellphone in Cadie's hand.
"Yes!" she yelled, as the LCD showed four bars of connection to the network. Quickly Cadie keyed through the menu items till she found one marked 'Harding, K.' "Thank you god, it's ringing," she said, half to Bill, and half to the universe. She was vaguely aware of someone else's cellphone also kicking into life somewhere else in the shop, its ring tone vaguely distracting.
Cadie's jaw dropped as the phone was answered in stereo. Once in her ear, and simultaneously, across the coffee shop. She turned and met the gaze of the seedy-looking fat guy in the corner. She hung up the phone and walked towards him.
"You're Ken Harding?" she asked.
"Last time I looked at my driver's license, that's what it said," he said gruffly. "Who wants to know?" He stood up to meet her.
"M-my name's Cadie Jones," she replied, tentatively reaching out a hand to shake his. He's got sweaty palms, she thought. "I'm a friend of Jo Madison."
"You're kidding?" said Harding, his eyes lighting up. "What the fuck are the chances of that?" He sat down heavily and Cadie took the seat opposite him, waving Bill over to join them.
"What are the chances of you being here?" she directed at the detective. "Jo said you were in Sydney."
Harding took off his battered fedora and placed it on the table next to his cigarettes and his cellphone. He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket and patted his damp, balding forehead with it.
"I came up here on a hunch," he said. "Where is Jo? I really need to warn her about something."
"I think she's already taking care of what you were going to warn her about. That's why I was trying to get hold of you."
"She's up at her house, trying to rescue a friend of hers who's being held hostage," interrupted Bill.
Harding turned noticeably paler under his florid complexion.
"Christ in a wheelbarrow, I hope you're joking," he said bluntly.
Cadie shook her head.
"'Fraid not, detective. We need to get her some help."
Harding stood suddenly, shoving his hat back on his head roughly and gathering his things.
"Come on. It's time to get the cavalry. You can tell me everything you know on the way," he said, moving towards the door and the still-raging storm.
"I was hoping you'd be telling me," muttered Cadie, following the policeman out into the rain.
Mr Cigarette had gained a friend. The second man was older, short and squat, and the Uzi in his hand was a menacing reminder to Jo that she was playing in the big leagues again. The newcomer was arguing with his younger colleague.
"Get out there, you fuckwit," he growled, nudging the bigger goon with the butt of his gun. "This bitch is coming to us. It would be nice if we could have some warning. That means you've gotta get out there and look for her, numbnuts."
"Aw geez, Des, it's pissing down."
That earned him a clip to the back of the head from the short guy's free hand.
"You idiot," he snarled. "Which would you prefer, getting soaked to the skin, or having your teeth extracted through your arsehole when Marco finds out you let Madison sneak up on us. Now, get out there!"
He kicked the taller man in the backside, sending him stumbling out into the downpour.
Mr Cigarette flicked his butt into a puddle, cursing softly under his breath as he hoisted the sawn-off shotgun off his shoulder. With all the subtlety of a rampaging water buffalo, he stomped off into the undergrowth to begin a wide circuit of the house, through the bush.
From her vantage point deep in the scrub, Jo smiled quietly. This was going to be almost too easy. For about five minutes she tailed the tall man, staying just out of sight. She travelled silently, sometimes sliding ahead of him, sometimes alongside him. Finally, when they were well out of sight of the house, she slipped quietly up behind him, unsheathing the stiletto from her sock in one swift motion.
Jo crash-tackled the man from behind, the shotgun spilling out of his hands and out of range as he hit the muddy ground hard, her weight pinning him from knees to shoulders. Quickly she slid the knife up under his chin, pressing against his skin, but not drawing blood, while her other hand grabbed his hair and pushed his face into the puddle beneath them.
"Surprise, surprise," she muttered in his right ear. The man bucked under her, trying to raise his nose and mouth out of the filthy water. He spluttered as she pushed him back down. "Now, now, my friend. Don't compound your mistake by fighting me. You can't win." She let him up for a quick, heaving breath, and then pressed him into the puddle again.
"You've got about 30 seconds to tell me what I want to know, or you're going to wish you were never born." She flicked her dark, rain-soaked hair out of her face. She watched the man struggle to breath for a few seconds more, than lifted his face clear again.
"Ready to talk?"
He nodded quickly, spitting mud and water.
"W-what, what do you want to know?" he asked.
She laughed humorlessly.
"Boy, you really aren't the brightest light on the Christmas tree, are ya?" she said. "What I want to know, Einstein, is how many of you there are, and where Marco and the boy are."
He hesitated briefly and she shoved him back into the mud once more.
"Don't test me, ya buffoon." She pulled him back again. "Talk."
"Three," he spluttered. "There's three of us, including Marco. He and the boy are upstairs, in the living room."
"Okay. Is the boy alive?"
The man nodded.
"But Marco's been having some fun with him."
Jo set her jaw grimly. She knew all too well the kind of fun Marco liked to have. Without another word she drew her arm back, unleashing a vicious punch to the henchman's head, knocking him stone cold unconscious. Quickly Jo stood and walked to the nearest big tree, where she found a lantana vine winding its way around the trunk. With a grunt she yanked it free and sliced off a length with her knife.
Within a couple of minutes she had hog-tied the man and rescued the shotgun from where it had fallen.
No, she thought. Too much to carry. Quickly she buried the weapon under a pile of leaves and branches. Now for Mr Uzi.
She worked her way back to the house. There was a cacophony of sound around Jo now as the storm intensified. The sky was prematurely dark and the rain was coming down in sheets. Soon she was back at her vantagepoint behind the log, watching silently as Mr Uzi paced up and down under the shelter of her verandah. Jo looked down at her watch and was surprised to see it was only a little over an hour since Bill and Cadie had dropped her.
Feels like about a month, she thought grimly. She watched as the man paced towards her, his eyes sweeping the bush surrounding him. He's wondering where his mate's gone. The question is, do I wait for him to come looking for him, or do I go to him? Of course, I could just take him out with a bullet from here, without him even knowing what's hit him.
But something, some civilising thought deep inside her railed against that notion.
I don't want to cross that line again, she thought. Not if I can find another way. For a fleeting few seconds Cadie's face swam in front of her eyes. For her. And for me. A grim thought floated through her consciousness. I just hope that hesitation doesn't cost Josh his life.
Mr Uzi turned away from her and started walking away, towards the other side of the house. Jo took her opportunity and sprang into life, sprinting out of the scrub and across the small expanse of lawn, banking on momentum and surprise to give her the advantage.
She was almost right. Something tipped the thug off and he swung back towards her, bullets spitting from the gun in his hands even as he turned.
Jo felt time slow down and the world outside the narrow tunnel she inhabited seemed to blur around her.
Like that dipshit Keanu Reeves flick, she found herself thinking in a bizarre piece of mental timing.
Bullets zinged past her and Jo felt weirdly disconnected from what was happening, even as her body threw itself sideways, twisting in mid-air to avoid a bullet she was sure she could see spinning around its own axis as it came towards her. A burning, tearing sensation seared through her upper right arm, and she knew she had been hit, but she felt detached from the feelings, the seeping red penetrating the cloth of her shirt not registering as her own blood.
She hit the ground with a breath-expelling thump, rolled under her Jeep and out the other side. Mr Uzi had moved forward as he had pulled the trigger and lost sight of Jo as she disappeared under the vehicle. Now she was behind him and Jo made the most of her chance, grabbing a tyre iron from the back of the jeep and flinging it, end over end, at the back of the man's head.
It found its mark with a sickening squishy thump and he dropped like a rock. Something wild in her laughed with exultation but she didn't hang around to see if he stood up again.
Marco knows I'm here now, she thought. He had to have heard the gunshots. Now I have to move. And quickly.
She sprinted to other side of the house, ignoring the sheeting rain that threatened to reduce her visibility to almost nothing. The far side of the house was a blank wall, covered from ground to roof with climbing plants, draped across a sturdy wooden trellis.
Hold my weight, Jo prayed. Just hold my weight.
She scrambled up, fighting for every toe and finger-hold as the rain was added to by the water sluicing off the roof and the overflowing gutters. Gritting her teeth, Jo ignored the throbbing pain in her arm and the slightly light-headed feeling she had. She refused to look at her wound, concentrating instead on pulling herself up the trellis, as fast and as quietly as she could.
Not that noise was a problem. The storm reached its peak, cascades of thunder rolling across the sky like waves advancing onto a beach. Jo pressed on upwards, pulling herself up and over the edge of the roof finally, slithering across the tiles.
Her objective was a good 20 feet away - the skylight over the main room on the top floor of the house. Jo sized up her options and began crabbing across the front edge of the roof, her grip precarious on the slippery-smooth slate. She reached the skylight and slowly peered over the edge to the room below. What she saw turned her heart to rock-ice.
Josh was slumped on a chair in the middle of the floor. His head lolled backwards and Jo had no trouble seeing the marks of a heavy beating on the teenager's normally handsome face. He was unconscious or close to it, unmoving, and his hands were tied behind his back.
Marco di Santo hasn't changed much, Jo thought. Gained some weight maybe. Five years older and slower. She smiled tightly. And balder.
The thug circled Josh slowly, but his focus was outwards, and he was alert.
Waiting for me.
Jo looked down, working out angles and heights.
This skylight is not the way in, she decided. Josh is too close underneath it, and the glass is going to hurt him.
She rolled onto her back, sliding her heels down to the guttering at the front edge of the roof. Below her, she knew, was her verandah and the glass doors leading into the living room.
Please god, let those doors be open.
She reached back and drew her gun, checking the action one more time and removing the safety. She inched forward till she was crouching on the front edge of the roof.
Jo looked skyward and waited. It wasn't long before a long, forked streak of lightning lanced across the sky in the near distance. She counted one and then launched herself, twisting as she dropped so she landed facing into the house. Her legs flexed as she hit the wooden deck, absorbing the shock as the lightning's accompanying crack of thunder coincided with her arrival.
To Josh, barely aware, and di Santo, who was standing behind his captive at the time, the effect was devastatingly dramatic. One second the doorway was clear, the next instant a dark, menacing silhouette filled the space, backlit by more lightning, its features shadowed, black hair whipping around in the wind.
Jo raised her arm, ignoring the pain as she trained her gun on the hitman.
Di Santo recovered quickly from the shock of her appearance, reaching down and wrapping his arm around Josh's neck, dragging the teenager to his feet and shielding himself with the young man's body. Jo found herself gazing down the barrel of a gun very similar to her own.
"Hello, Marco," she said coldly, taking a step towards him.
"Put the gun down, Madison, or the kid is dead meat." He jammed the muzzle of his gun under Josh's chin for effect, the teen's eyes widening perceptively.
Jo snorted with derision.
"Do that and you'll be dead a millisecond later, Marco, and you know it," she replied, taking another step towards them. "Why don't you let the boy go and then you and I can really get down to business." She kept her voice low and intimidating, her natural alto deepening almost to a throaty growl.
For the first time since he decided to come after Jo Madison, di Santo hesitated.
Jo's flinty blue eyes didn't miss much and she saw uncertainty flash across his wide, flat face. She laughed coldly.
"You dumb fuck, Marco. When you came chasing up here, didn't you think it might be a good idea to have some kind of plan?" She grinned wildly, taking another step towards him, her gun still aimed steadily at the point where his two eyebrows met. "You can't kill him, because you know that's your death sentence. And you obviously don't want me dead - there are much less complicated ways of killing me, and you certainly didn't have to come here in person for that." She stepped closer again. "So you must want something from me."
She was close enough now to see the beads of sweat on the big man's upper lip.
"So let the boy go, Marco. He's served his purpose. I'm here. Let him go and let's get serious. Because, frankly, I don't care if you live or die." Another step closer and now the two guns were within inches of each other.
Jo could almost hear di Santo's brain churning through the possibilities. He had to know he was no match for her reflexes and speed. She smiled at him, never dropping eye contact.
Finally, the hitman shoved Josh away from him, the teenager falling awkwardly, his arms still tied behind his back.
"Josh," Jo said quietly, never taking her eyes from di Santo. "Can you stand up?"
"Y-yes, I think so," he said shakily, struggling to get to his feet.
"Okay. Come here." Slowly Jo lifted her leg and with her free hand, drew her knife from her sock. When Josh limped to her side she slid the blade between his hands, slicing through the ropes around his wrists. "Now get out of here, Josh. Just walk out the door and keep on going. Don't try anything silly, okay?"
He nodded silently, eyes wide and round with apprehension.
"You - you'll be okay?"
She laughed softly, her eyes still locked with di Santo's.
"Yes mate, I'll be fine. Go on now."
He didn't need telling three times. Josh bolted for the front door and disappeared out into the rain.
Jo and di Santo stood motionless, arms raised, guns cocked for several more silent seconds.
"You fucked up, Marco," said Jo quietly. "You came up here with a crappy plan and incompetent back-up. There are only two outcomes here. We kill each other, or the police come through that door." She paused for thought. "And even then I might just decide to kill you to save on the paperwork."
Slowly she lowered her arm, reached behind her and tucked the gun back into the waistband of her shorts. She flicked the knife in her other hand toward the back wall of the living room, where it lodged point first, the blade thrumming.
She took a bigger chance, and turned her back on the hitman who hadn't moved. She wandered into the kitchen, opening the fridge and pulling out a can of Coke. Looking up as she cracked open the can, she noticed he'd followed her every movement with the gun. She had to smile at that.
"You don't mind if I have a drink from my own fridge, do you Marco?" she asked sarcastically. "I've had quite the day." She tipped back the can and drank deeply, welcoming the sugar hit. She had been starting to feel light-headed, probably from blood loss, though she still refused to look at the wound on her arm.
Jo finished the can, threw the empty in the general direction of the garbage bin and walked back into the living area.
"So what is it, Marco? Was this visit just a revenge mission?" She circled him slowly, forcing the man to pivot around as he kept her in his sights. "Though, really, you should be thanking me. I got rid of Tony, opened up the field for you. Or are things not going quite as well as you'd hoped?"
That hit a raw nerve.
"Shut up, bitch. I'm the one here to do the talking."
Jo flopped down onto the leather couch, throwing her arms across the back casually like it was any summer afternoon.
"So talk Marco. Right now you're just spinning like a fat, sweaty top. What do you want?"
He stalked toward her until he towered over her. Roughly he kicked her legs apart and stepped between them, pushing them outwards with his own.
Oh he shouldn't have done that, thought Jo. Now he's got me really mad.
She turned steely blue eyes on the hitman and dropped her voice to its most intimidating level, as she folded her arms across her chest.
"And what could you possibly offer that would make me want to be within 1000 miles of you?" she growled, her legs twitching with the urge to kick him across the room.
This time it was di Santo who smiled. He leaned down, resting his left hand on the back of the couch beside Jo's head and using his right to push the muzzle of the gun up under her chin. His bad breath washed over her, but neither unpleasantness made her flinch.
"For a start, I won't send someone out west to kill your parents," he said. "Second, you'll be well-paid. Better than Tony ever gave you. And third ... " He reached down and grabbed his crotch, squeezing it suggestively. "... You'll get all you'll ever need of this."
It never fails to amaze me how a man truly believes his penis is the centre of the universe, thought Jo with disgust, even as she leaned forward as if to kiss di Santo. She stopped bare millimetres from his mouth.
"And what is it you would like me to do in return for all these ... favours?" she purred, pushing down the bile rising in her throat.
"What you've always done, gorgeous," he replied. "Kill. Stop me from being killed. And of course, the added privilege of taking a damn good fucking from me whenever I want it."
Jo smiled seductively even as the white-hot rage grew inside her. She kept his focus firmly on her lips by licking them slowly, but her hand snaked out. She waited a half-beat then bit down on the hitman's fat lower lip as hard as she could, at the same time as her long, strong fingers wrapped around his genitals and pulled down hard.
She bit until she tasted blood and then let go with her teeth, but by then the big man was doubled over and screaming as she felt things tear beneath her fingers. Still she pulled, twisting and yanking as di Santo fell to his knees in front of her.
The cold darkness had Jo in its total control now, and she gave it full rein, a red haze dropping down in front of her eyes. She let go of the howling gangster's groin just long enough to get behind him and she leaned in so her face was close to his right ear. By now he was whimpering, and tears of pain streamed down his face.
"You and I go back a long way Marco," she snarled. "And I have a very good memory. Did you really think I could put all that behind me just because I was so dazzled by the prospect of your dick? Which, by the way, is never going to be the same, and was never that impressive in the first place, as I recall."
"You goddamn fucking bitch!" he screamed.
She pulled his head back by his hair.
"Oh please, Marco, don't hold back. Tell me how you really feel." As she spoke, Jo flicked the garrote from its place on her belt around the hitman's neck in one swift movement. "And now I'm going to make sure you never have the chance to hurt anyone else, ever again, you tiny scumbag."
With each word she tightened the thin, metal wire around his throat. At first di Santo was more concerned about his groin, and he moaned again as he realised he was bleeding. The throbbing pain was excruciating. But the garrote began to bite as Jo slowly closed the deadly noose, and he let go of himself, raising his hands to his throat in a desperate attempt to pull the wire away.
Jo laughed coldly, and with images from her past dancing in front of her eyes and lightning flashing across the sky, she began squeezing the man's life away.
Cadie elbowed her way through the group of uniformed police until she reached Ken Harding, who was standing outside the front door of Jo's house.
"I'm going in with you," she declared firmly, hands on hips.
Harding looked down at the blonde American, who was trying to look defiant despite being soaked to the skin.
"No, Miss Jones, you're not. I don't know how they do it in your country, but here in Australia, cops don't let civilians wander into the middle of this kind of operation. This ain't no episode of NYPD Blue, ya know."
Cadie stepped forward and got in the man's face, her finger poking him in the belly.
"That's my friend in there. And I'm going in with you, no matter what you say. So please don't make this any more difficult that it already is."
Her green eyes sparked and he was hard-pressed to resist. He had spent a part of the last hour while they waited for reinforcements from Airlie Beach telling Cadie the little he knew about Jo Madison. It had made him realise that he actually knew very little about the tall ex-assassin. None of what he'd told her had seemed to faze Cadie a bit, but then he had left out the gory details of her friend's former life, telling her the bare facts.
Jesus Christ, he sighed. I don't have the time to argue with her. And the bottom line is, she's about to get an eyeful of the ugly truth, no matter how much I try to protect her from it.
"Get behind me here then," he said, pulling her out of the way of the two cops who were swinging a mini battering ram between them, ready to break down the door. Harding strained to hear what was going on beyond the door but the storm was making that almost impossible. "Do it," he yelled at the uniforms.
Seconds later they were through the door and Cadie pushed her way forward past the debris and shouting policemen. She stopped short, transfixed by the nightmarish vision in the middle of the room.
Jo stood over the kneeling, sobbing man, like some kind of dark, glorious goddess. Lightning turned her silver and Cadie could see the wild, wide grin on the tall woman's face. She could also see Jo's blood-soaked right arm. The man was scrabbling at his throat with his hands and suddenly Cadie saw the cruel wire beginning to cut into his neck. Blood was seeping down, soaking his shirt collar and covering his fingers as he desperately tried to ease the pressure.
Jo was vaguely aware of an explosion of sound over to her right but it barely penetrated the red haze of rage that filled her. She felt Marco's hands fluttering around his throat, and then reaching back to try and break her grip. She saw the blood on his fingers and exulted.
Gradually she became aware of men shouting around her but she didn't care. She wanted the man at her feet dead and gone from her life forever.
Cadie couldn't bear to watch any longer. The police had circled Jo and had their weapons trained on her from all sides. They shouted and shouted at her but nothing was having an effect on the tall woman.
Cadie ran forward, trying to break through the circle, but Harding grabbed her elbow and yanked her backwards.
"Stay out of it Miss Jones," he barked.
She rounded on him hotly.
"She's not the goddamn criminal here, Harding," she shouted back, wrestling out of his grasp. She pushed through the line and came to a halt by Jo's right shoulder. But the dark woman ignored her.
Jo felt someone standing next to her, a woman's voice calling her name, but she didn't care. She jerked Marco again, yanking back on the garrote, and he squealed.
Music to my ears, she thought.
Cadie winced as she saw the wire biting into the man's neck. But she knew she had the best chance of getting through to Jo.
If she will just let me touch her.
The American reached out slowly and gently rested her hand on Jo's shoulder, careful to avoid the still-bleeding wound on her upper arm. The response from Jo was immediate.
Dark hair whipped around her head as she turned sharply towards Cadie. A deep, threatening growl came from her throat and the stare from her icy blue eyes lanced through the blonde like a hot knife through butter.
Jesus, thought Cadie. This has to stop.
"Jo." Cadie weathered the intense gaze and held it with her own. "Jo. Stop please." She could see the man's responses becoming weaker as the piano wire sliced deeper into his throat. She kept her hand on Jo's shoulder, hoping the warmth of her touch would somehow penetrate. "Please stop now."
The tall woman's only response was to turn back to the man whose life she was toying with.
Cadie felt a wave of frustration and then decided to take things into her own hands. Literally. She leaned forward and pulled Jo's chin around then cupped the woman's face between her hands. She gazed intently into her eyes.
"Jossandra," she said softly. The blue orbs blinked at her blankly. "Jossandra, sweetheart ... please let him go now."
Jo felt the soft gentle voice sliding into her consciousness, melting her from the inside. Warm hands stroked her cheeks and the most beautiful sea-green eyes were just inches from her own.
Something clicked inside her.
She took a sharp breath in, gasping like she had just come up for air after a long, dark dive. At the same time she released her grip on the garrote, and Marco fell forward. Police rushed in from all sides, dragging the gangster away. But Cadie and Jo stayed still, absorbed in each other.
"C-Cadie?" Jo whispered. Her blood-covered hands reached up to hold the blonde's wrists.
"Yes, sweetheart," replied Cadie gently, gazing up at a face that was suddenly years younger and filled with vulnerability. "It's okay. It's all over."
Jo's legs gave out from under her and she dropped to her knees. She wrapped her arms around Cadie's waist and buried her face into the blonde's shirt, desperate sobs wracking her body, welling up from deep inside.
Cadie felt a huge rush of protectiveness and cradled Jo's head against her, stroking the long, black hair and crooning soft words of comfort.
Most of the police were back outside the front door dealing with di Santo, but Harding had remained behind, watching the two women in the centre of the room. The killer in Jo Madison he understood. The sobbing, near-hysterical woman, he didn't get.
But that cute little American sheila sure seems to, he thought. I'll give them a few more minutes, but then I've got to ask Madison some questions.
He began to turn away, but a movement out on the verandah caught his eye and he swung back just in time to see a staggering figure lunging through the door. In his hand was a ...
"Madison!" screamed Harding, beginning to draw his police revolver from the holster under his left arm.
Jo heard the urgency in Harding's voice and turned her head in time to see Mr Uzi stumble through the verandah door, his weapon spitting bullets indiscriminately. Without thinking she drove herself upwards, lifting Cadie off her feet for an instant before throwing them both down on the floor.
As she covered the blonde's body with her own she reached back and drew her Colt, and within half a second she was pumping bullet after bullet into the oncoming man.
Cadie had the breath knocked out of her when Jo threw her down, but she was too startled to protest and with the big gun just inches above her head as it fired, she thought it prudent to keep as still as possible. She tucked her head in under Jo's chin and held on for dear life.
Jo wasn't the only one firing. Harding emptied his .45 before the man finally dropped to the floor. The detective scrambled to reload as he ran to the body, nudging it with his foot as the other cops ran in, alerted by the gunfire.
"Okay, okay - it's okay," said Harding breathlessly, re-holstering his gun. "He's about as dead as he's gonna get. Let's get this lot squared away and get out of here."
Cadie peeked out from under Jo's arm.
Oh yeah. He's definitely dead. She swallowed hard and turned away from the man, his face a bloody mess.
Instead she looked up at Jo's tear-stained and blood-smeared face. The arm holding the gun was still stretched out toward the intruder, but there was a distinct tremble to it now, and Cadie noticed that fresh blood was dripping from the wound near Jo's shoulder. The dark-haired woman's face was a mask of shock and her eyes, normally so blue, were pale and glazed over.
"Jo," Cadie said gently. "Honey, it's over now. You can put the gun down."
Jo's vision cleared gradually and she looked along her arm at the gun, its barrel still smoking slightly. It was only a small leap for her eyes from the gun to the corpse on the floor.
"Nooooooo," she moaned. "No - no - I didnžt want to have to dooooo that. Noooooooooo - "
The gun clattered to the floor and Jo sat up quickly, leaning back against the couch and burying her face in her hands.
Cadie breathed in deeply, a part of her suddenly missing the strangely safe and protected feeling she had when Jo's weight was pressing down on her. Instead of dwelling on that she stood up and reached a hand down to stroke the dark head.
"C'mon, Jo-Jo. Come and sit up on the couch here with me. It's more comfortable."
She sat down and began to pull Jo down next to her, but the tall woman resisted, her eyes widening as if she'd just thought of something critical.
"Jo, what is it?" God, please not more thugs with guns.
Jo yanked her hand away and she darted towards the bedroom Josh had been using.
"Mephy?" she called out frantically. "Mephisto - where are you?" She ran back out again and then headed for her own bedroom. But before she could get there, a black streak hurtled out and leapt into the tall woman's arms, where he was promptly wrapped up in a hug. Jo buried her face in the big cat's soft fur as she carried him to the couch, where Cadie had watched bemused.
She is such a contrast, thought the blonde. So dark and dangerous one minute, and yet so soft and vulnerable the next. She couldn't help smiling as Jo sat down, tears now streaming silently down her cheeks, as the cat purred happily in her arms.
Jo had no words. The last few hours, the energy she had expended holding her focus, the things she'd done hit her like a baseball bat between the eyes. Cadie watched as a range of emotions flew across Jo's expressive face, ending with a look of total exhaustion.
"Yes?" the woman replied softly.
"Let the cops do their thing. Just rest here awhile, okay?" Cadie wrapped an arm around the taller woman's shoulder and pulled her closer.
Jo didn't need any urging. Without another word, she turned towards Cadie and lay down, resting her head in the blonde's lap. Mephisto curled up in her arms, and Cadie stroked the black cat's fur and watched his mistress close her eyes.
She has the longest eyelashes I've ever seen, Cadie thought, as cat and woman fell asleep almost instantly. Amazing, considering the place is swarming with cops and the storm -
She looked up and saw that the storm finally had broken. Sunlight streamed in through the skylight above them and a cooling breeze blew in the open verandah doors.
I hope that's a sign, thought Cadie. She looked back down at the sleeping skipper, and gently stroked an errant lock of hair from her forehead. I think she's had about enough stormy weather.