The shock of hitting the water was made worse by the fact of having been pushed from such a height. And it was cold. Colder than she would have imagined, had she had the time to imagine such a thing.
Emily looked around. The ship was sailing away at a fast clip.
Her cry went unheard in the inky blackness of the surrounding ocean. A swell caught her and filled her mouth with salty water.
She spit it out, desperately trying to get enough air into her lungs to make a shout loud enough to be heard. But even as she did it, she knew no one would hear. The cruise ship was pulling away fast and she was so far below the lowest deck that she knew her voice would be swept away by the night breeze, not to mention the music of the orchestra playing on board and the sound of the engines as they inexorably propelled the ship farther and farther away.
Oh god, why had she gone on deck alone? Why? When she knew there was some crazy who hated her still out there on the loose. But how could she have known that he would follow her on board? She had no idea who it was. Facing her death and her executioner still a mystery.
Tears of desperation stung her eyes. No! She was still alive and she would find a way to stay that way. She just had to remain calm. She remembered hearing a story on the news several years ago about a sailor who had fallen from the deck of an aircraft carrier. He had managed to survive for three or more days after going overboard. What had he done? Her mind feverishly tried to recall details of the news story. He’d taken off his pants and filled them with air, making a flotation device. Yes! She could do that. She could use her skirt.
She had to keep moving. Keep warm. She reached down to her waist and undid the button and then unzipped the long skirt she was wearing. Thank god it was long. It would hold a lot of air. Getting out of it was more difficult than she thought it would be, but she finally peeled it away from her body, all the time kicking her feet, treading water. She tried to wring it out but felt herself sinking as she did so and then thought how stupid it was to bother when she was in the middle of the ocean.
She tied a knot at the waistline of the skirt to close off that end of it, then gripped it firmly in both hands, separating the two sides of the garment. Taking a deep breath in case she should sink beneath the water, she heaved the skirt up over her head, gathered in as much air as she possibly could and made a large balloon. Her legs were feeling heavy from the effort of kicking and she took advantage of the buoyancy afforded by the skirt. How long would it last, she wondered.
They would come looking for her. Someone would notice her absence. The maid, when she came to tidy the cabin. But that wouldn’t be ‘til morning. Again, Emily cursed herself for venturing out alone. By then the ship would be miles away. How would they know where to look? Besides, there wasn’t necessarily any reason to suspect that she’d gone overboard. If the maid thought anything at all, which she probably wouldn’t, it would be that this passenger hadn’t spent the night in her own cabin, maybe met someone and started a little shipboard romance. Emily shook her head to empty it of these negative thoughts. They would know. They would have to know!
Who had done this to her? All these months of living in fear. She wanted to escape it for a little while. That’s all. Just a little while and now her worst nightmare had come true. Because there was no doubt in her mind that she was victim number five. Oh, yes. Maybe the method wasn’t the same, but none of the murders had been alike. She knew that whoever had been threatening her all this time—making her life a living hell—she knew that person was the one who had pushed her. Come up silently behind her and shoved her overboard into an unwelcoming ocean. As she was falling, Emily thought she’d heard a laugh behind her but she couldn’t be sure. All she was sure of was that she was alone in the water and her skirt balloon was losing air and she was getting cold and she was more afraid than she’d ever been in her life.
She wondered if there were sharks in these waters.
THE PREVIOUS JANUARY
Still basking in the afterglow of an appearance on Good Morning America, a visit back home and a Christmas season that had made her year, Emily Simonson hailed a taxi after departing the baggage claim at Los Angeles International Airport. A Yellow Cab pulled up almost immediately. The driver hopped out to open the rear door of the cab for her and stowed her luggage in the trunk.
“Where to?” he asked when he’d settled himself into the driver’s seat.
“West L.A.,” she answered. “Darlington Avenue.”
Emily watched the passing scenery as the cab sped from the airport, headed up Century Boulevard and then turned on to the San Diego Freeway North. The day was clear and crisp, a bright winter sun streaming down from a cerulean sky, temperature somewhere in the sixties if she had to guess. All the more beautiful for having just arrived from the East Coast where it had been either snowing or raining for almost the entire time she had visited. How she hated the winters in her hometown of Baltimore! Gray and cold, they seemed never-ending. When she decided to leave and began considering places to live, Southern California won out over New York because of the weather, pure and simple.
New York. Now that had been fun. She smiled to herself and allowed a little laugh. Now she got to be on television. After ten years spent studying, paying to meet casting people and putting herself through a hundred kinds of hell, she hadn’t been able to make much of a dent in the acting business. A couple of small jobs—what were referred to in the industry as under fives—which meant less than fifty words—was all she had to show for thousands of dollars and years of her life.
She remembered the day when she had decided to hell with it. It had been a scary thing to abandon the dream she had cherished for so long and fought for so hard. But one morning she woke up and it struck her that she just couldn’t put up with the crap anymore. She loved to act but hated the feelings of frustration she was living with on a daily basis.
She had lain there in her bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her twenty-eighth birthday was on the horizon and she was hardly any farther along than she’d been when she arrived in L.A., much against her parents’ wishes, ten years before. Did she really want to continue to work a string of odd jobs, she asked herself. One day she was selling fragrance in a department store, the next day she was baby-sitting for a service she was signed up with, the next she was working a catering job. She spent half her time tracking down jobs that would allow her the freedom to audition but there were hardly any auditions. She had no medical or dental insurance. She barely made enough to take care of herself and pay for all the necessary tools of the actor. Having a photo shoot alone was a major expense, not to mention having the pictures blown up to an 8×10, then duplicated, then there were acting classes, showcases. The list went on and on. After ten years she thought she’d be making at least a modest living. But no. What would I do, she asked herself, if I turned my back on acting?
That’s when she had what she now had come to consider The Great Idea. One of the jobs that held a fascination for her was catering. Not that she liked being a waitress but the presentation of the food was something that she found fun and interesting. Every time she’d gone on a job she’d found herself thinking, I could have done that better, or I would have done this another way. That train of thought led her to another, namely how she loved the cozy, homey feeling she got whenever she smelled good food cooking. And that led to thinking about how she liked browsing around in shops dedicated to the culinary arts.
Emily had always liked to cook. She just didn’t do much of it because the temptation to eat what she cooked was too great and as an actor, staying fit was a priority, particularly if you were a woman, particularly if you were pretty. And Emily was that. In fact, she was downright beautiful; a fact she was aware of and it sometimes made her a bit uncomfortable. People were always commenting that she looked like a movie star, which was funny, considering that she could barely get an audition in a town that favored youth and beauty over talent ninety-five percent of the time. She knew she had all of the necessary ingredients but that hadn’t helped because she didn’t know the “right” people.
So she had lain in bed for half of the morning, thinking about what she would want to do were she not an actor and when she was finally ready to face the day, she’d come to the conclusion that she wanted to be a chef. At least for starters. Her store/restaurant would come later. First she had to convince her parents to lend her the money to go to cooking school. No, first she had to check out cooking schools and find out how much they cost. Then she would have to do the convincing. That had been seven years ago and just look at her now.
She was so lost in remembering that it was a surprise when the cab came to a stop in front of her apartment building. The driver carried her bags inside for her and she paid him, including a generous tip.
It was good to be home. Every time she went away she had the same thought. The best part of any trip was coming home again. She went to the windows and opened them, airing out the apartment that had been shut for two weeks. Then she lugged her suitcases into the bedroom and unpacked. It was easy; most of the stuff went straight to the clothes hamper, a few things hung back up in the closet. Then she took the smaller bag, which held her toiletries, into the bathroom and put everything into its regular place. Finally she stripped off her travel clothes and put on her favorite at-home attire. Sweats. The person who invented sweats should get a Nobel Prize, she thought to herself, as she went back out into the living room.
On the end table next to the sofa was a stack of mail her landlady, Mrs. Cheever, had collected for her. Emily picked through it, sorting the bills from the junk mail, the requests for money from various causes and the late Christmas cards.
There was one envelope that caught her eye simply by the anonymity of it. No return address on either side, her name and address carefully printed, block style, in pencil. It was a plain white business-size envelope, so the penciled address looked even more out of place. She held it in her hand, looking at it for a minute, puzzled by its strangeness. Then she opened it. Inside was a letter-size piece of white paper, folded in thirds. Emily opened it. One word greeted her, each letter cut from a magazine or newspaper and taped to the paper. The word was bitch.
For a minute Emily stared uncomprehendingly at the paper in her hand. Then, as the meanness of it got through to her, her fingers began to tremble and it fluttered to the floor. She picked up the envelope and looked for clues of its origin but there was only a Los Angeles postmark.
Why would someone send something like this to me, she wondered. She wasn’t the type of person who made enemies. In fact, being the kind of person who hated confrontation, she went out of her way to be kind and polite, even if someone was trying to get under her skin. A long time ago, in parochial school, one of her teachers had expanded on that old adage “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” by reminding her pupils that sometimes saying nothing was the only way to implement the Golden Rule of treating others as you would have them treat you. It had made sense to her at the time and Emily had carried that lesson with her through the years.
A slight frown etched itself into her face and she could feel the corners of her mouth turning down. With a resolute shrug she straightened her shoulders and wiped the frown from her face. Someone was just messing with her. Someone whose sense of humor wasn’t very developed. There was nothing to do about it, so she decided to ignore it. Chances were it wouldn’t happen again. She picked up the paper from the floor, balled it and the envelope and tossed it across the room at the wastebasket in the corner.
She sorted through the rest of her mail.
Available at a variety of online booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords and iBooks