Predator and Prey: Part 1
Zara laughed. It was a glittery, rollicking laugh that bounced off the crystals in her cavernous shop. Treasure Hunt was always full of customers, and she took pride in the variety of handicrafts she sold. From items that cost a few dollars to heirloom pieces that had been lovingly restored, there was something for absolutely everyone. Her store had been featured in tourist magazines and blogs on several occasions, but she always made sure the photographs did not include her.
‘Do you think my niece would like this?’ Reginald said, holding up a jade necklace.
Reginald, otherwise known as Reggie, was a wealthy older man with only a housekeeper for company. His wife had left him in their first year of marriage, and he’d never committed to anyone else. Perhaps as a way to self-soothe, he lavished gifts on far flung relatives and praised them endlessly. To Zara, they sounded spoiled, mediocre, and ungrateful. Reggie’s Gothic manor perched on the edge of a river, and his sprawling estate hosted the annual town fair, jousting competitions, and school regattas. Why don’t they come and see him? Zara mused.
‘Is she tall?’
‘No, no, my niece is very short, about five foot two,’ Reggie replied.
‘And is she blonde or brunette?’
‘She’s a brunette.’
‘Uh-huh, and how old is she?’
‘Oh, Deirdre’s about thirty-five. She looks younger, though. More like twenty-nine. I think it’s the freckles on her nose; they’re very sweet.’
‘An old-fashioned name. Well, something more delicate might suit her better. Perhaps a silver chain with a pendant on it, like this one. The amethyst will really complement her dark hair. If she were a redhead, I’d recommend the emerald,’ Zara suggested, pointing to an antique brooch.
‘Ah, well, my other niece is a redhead, so that brooch might be just the ticket.’
Zara rang up his bill and handed him a small gift bag. Unlike many who rummaged through her shop, Reggie always bought something. She felt a bit guilty about mentioning the brooch, but she had to make a living somehow.
‘Oh, before I forget, I’m having a masquerade ball at the end of the month, and I’d like you to come.’
Zara’s face went pale. ‘Um, well, I’ll have to check my schedule.’
‘I’m officially welcoming you to town, Zara. It’s my gift to you,’ Reggie said.
‘Mmm, but…’ Zara gripped her broderie anglaise skirt and began to tremble.
‘My darling, whatever’s on your mind, please don’t let it worry you. I have some full-face masks you can try on if you like. I bought them in Venice.’
‘That’s very kind. Can I think about it?’
‘Yes, of course. Well, that settles it, then. Have a lovely day!’
And with that, Reginald punched the air with his cane and sailed through the door. What have I gotten myself into? Zara wondered, grinding her teeth.
‘Oh, Uncle Reggie, it’s beautiful!’ Deirdre exclaimed. ‘I love amethyst. You know, I can wear it to the opera with the guy I’m seeing. I met him on a blind date, and we really hit it off.’
‘That’s lovely, dear,’ Reggie said.
‘Yes, he’s already given me some rubies, but this is charming.’
Reggie’s shoulders slumped. He had hoped his niece would be grateful for the trinket, but perhaps he was losing his touch. Back in his day, a lady would be happy for a garnet or some amber, but nowadays, it was bling, bling, bling.
‘You know, he’s got this huge penthouse apartment, but it’s nothing on this. Your view is truly spectacular.’
Deirdre could see a pair of swans gliding along the river. Their feathers blazed against turquoise ripples which fanned out in soothing motion. How elegant, she thought. Growing up, she’d been an ugly duckling and was made fun of for being flat-chested and freckly. As such, Valentine’s Day was a nightmare. All those foil chocolates and garish roses made her sick to the stomach, and the giant teddy bears invaded her dreams. Their huge eyes would grow larger and larger, and she’d wake up in a cold sweat. And even when she did snag a date, the crater faced, polyester-clad cretin would gawp at Celine. Tall and ethereal, Deirdre’s younger sister was a beacon to men, and at the age of sixteen, she had been mistaken for twenty-one.
Thankfully, Gerry changed all that. He lived next door, and after they’d exchanged a couple of pleasantries, he confessed that he was very lonely. She would cook him cakes and scones, leave casseroles at his front door and sometimes spend the evening with him. They’d watch Antiques Roadshow and nature documentaries that bored her silly, but she knew what she was doing. He’d take Deirdre out for dinner, and she always let him pay, but afterwards, he’d beg to kiss her. It made her stomach churn, however every now and then Deirdre allowed him a quick peck. Over strawberry shortcake, he told her where he’d hidden some cash in case of a rainy day, which sparked the seed of an idea.
After six months, Deirdre had tired of the charade, and one night, she injected him with insulin while he was snoozing on the lounge. She’d been waiting for an inheritance, but this was so much more convenient. Deirdre had stolen the vials from the hospital and applied a fresh layer of lipstick before she knocked on his door. A combination of wine and North by Northwest made him drowsy, and once she’d incapacitated him, she located the money and quietly left. It had paid for breast augmentation, liposuction, and fillers. She had to top up the collagen now and then, but that was loose change.
Louise stared at the mirror and sucked in her stomach. Would she be punished for eating one too many cream puffs? The bruises from last week’s beating were beginning to fade, and she was looking forward to using less concealer. A couple of girls at work had noticed the discolouration on her arms, and Louise was terrified they would say something. Oliver, her partner, worked at the same law firm, and it was only a matter of time before someone contacted the authorities. The problem was, she’d already called the cops, and they had treated her with distain and contempt. In fact, they’d accused her of wasting police time, which had been the most harrowing part.
The thing was, even though some of them were nice, she couldn’t understand why they never believed the victim. Most police would consider themselves streetwise and savvy, but put them in front of a charming psychopath and they were easy to con. Moreover, Louise had an independent income, two Ivy League degrees and did pro bono work for migrant women. So why was it that in her hour of need, she’d been treated like a semi-criminal? There were tyre tracks under her eyes, and she bit her bottom lip. How did I get myself into this mess? At the beginning, Oliver had showered her with gifts, and she had revelled in it. Growing up, her parents had lived frugally, and she was still paying off her student loans. Conversely, Oliver had been raised with superyachts, maids and a chalet in Mt Buller.
Initially, they were very happy, but over time, Oliver had become critical, controlling, and cruel. The first time he’d hit her, she’d been standing in the foyer of their shared apartment. He’d accused her of chatting up his best friend, which was blatantly unfair. They’d been sitting at the same table, and Louise had been making small talk. Isn’t that what you were supposed to do? He’d given her a posy of petunias and apologised profusely, but she’d been a zombie for days. Three weeks later, he pinched her in the lift, and she had cried out. He wouldn’t tell her what she’d done wrong, and no amount of pleading or begging had helped. The next day, Louise found a Post-it note with an explanation, accompanied by a love heart.
‘You were chatting up Michael again. Why do you keep flirting with him? I’m your boyfriend, not him,’ the note read.
Since she couldn’t even remember speaking with Michael, who was on reception, Louise felt hopeless. Granted, he was eye candy, but all the girls liked him. If her finances weren’t so tight, she would have considered moving out. Why couldn’t Oliver simply trust her? As the months rolled by, Oliver calmed down, and they had dinners by the lake and schmoozed with wealthy clients. In tender moments, he had called her his little wood sprite, and Louise felt vindicated. She had proven her loyalty and had every right to the benefits. However, just like before, the abuse resumed, and now he was dictating what she wore, what she ate and whether or not she could see her friends.
Zara’s cat was sleeping on the ironing board, and she bent to pick him up. You’re going to ruin all my clothes, she thought. Cream Puff sank his claws into her skin and growled. She burrowed into his fur and rocked him gently, enjoying the pain. Her psychologist had recommended getting a pet, and she agreed that he was better medicine than all the antidepressants and anxiolytics put together. ‘We have a simple life, don’t we?’ Zara whispered. But would it be simple forever? Just the other day, a customer had come into the store and made her innards twist. The woman had demanded to see Zara’s entire range of art nouveau lamps and was put out that there were only a few on offer.
She had tottered around the shop in towering stilettos and selected a few postcards. While Zara processed the transaction, the woman drummed her fingernails on the counter.
‘I must say, it’s a bit dingy in here, but I guess that’s to be expected in a hick town.’
‘That’s true,’ Zara said, adding ten dollars to the bill.
‘My goodness, these are expensive!’
‘Would you like me to refund your purchase?’
‘Oh no, that’s alright.’
The woman smiled and popped the postcards into her handbag. Before she turned to leave, her eyes widened. ‘Do I know you?’
Zara’s cheeks flamed. ‘Oh, no. I…I don’t think so.’
At the memory, Zara’s mouth went dry. She’d changed her hair, gone from corporate to hippy, put on weight and was gregarious where she had previously been withdrawn and demure. Besides, she’d never clapped eyes on the woman. Where on earth could she have seen me? Zara wondered. She listened to Cream Puff’s loud purring as she cradled him in her arms. Some nights he would pace up and down like a guard dog, and she wondered whether he had a sixth sense. My little protector, Zara thought. One of her friends had recommended getting a Bullmastiff or a German shepherd, but she didn’t want to raise suspicion.
There’d been plenty of probing questions already, and she was loath to give them oxygen. Small towns were quaint, but they were also quite annoying. Why couldn’t people just live and let live? In the city, she had simply been a number, but now she had to watch her every step. Despite some very rude questions about her financial situation and marital status, Zara was proud that she had remained calm and composed. Cream Puff had shredded the upholstery on her lounge, and there was fur everywhere, but it didn’t matter. In a previous life it would have, but that was in the past where it belonged.
Deirdre yawned. A silver tray laden with croissants and coffee stood on the bedside table, and the aroma made her salivate. Reaching over, she bit down on some pastry as little flecks tobogganed off the Doona and onto the carpet. Oliver had begged her to come home, but she was having too much fun. Most mornings, she slept in and had brunch on the patio. In the afternoons, she strolled around the estate and watched pleasure craft mosey on by. Reggie’s collie Marmalade regularly accompanied her, and they’d spend the evenings snuggled up watching old movies. Jack, a cellar door manager, had dined with them the night before, and she’d laughed herself hoarse at his impersonations of the local vet.
He wanted to see her again, and she was still deciding whether to oblige. Deirdre was serious about Oliver, but she didn’t know whether it was his money or his personality she liked more. He had a large nose and beady little eyes, but an afternoon on his superyacht had won her over. After a quick shower, Deirdre joined her uncle in the conservatory. Reggie peered over his newspaper and removed his glasses. ‘You’re up early,’ Reggie commented.
‘Don’t scold me, Uncle. The life of a nurse is very hard.’
‘I know, I know. I’m so glad you’re having some time off. Have you thought of retraining? Perhaps you could become a psychologist or a paralegal. I’m sure Oliver could do with your help.’
‘Yes, I’ve considered it, but I haven’t even paid off my first degree, let alone a second.’
‘I see. Well, if you ever consider it, I don’t mind lending you the money,’ Reggie said, patting Deirdre on the hand.
‘Oh no, it’s OK. Nursing’s not so bad. You know, Oliver’s taking me to a play next week, and then we’re going skiing. I can’t believe how generous he is.’
‘Yes, he sounds like a real catch.’
‘You know, he’s had a really awful time. He went to work one day and when he got home, his girlfriend had disappeared. There was no rhyme or reason to it, and he was completely heartbroken. I mean, how could anybody do that to someone they love? It’s appalling,’ Deirdre said, shaking her head.
The doorbell rang, and the housekeeper bustled downstairs. Zara wanted to try on one of Reggie’s masks and the woman showed her in. Marmalade started barking madly and bounded up to her. Zara crouched down and scratched the dog’s chin.
‘Miss Zara is here to see you sir,’ the maid said, before curtsying and scurrying off.
Reggie nodded and stood up. ‘Hello, Zara. I’d like to introduce you to my niece Deirdre.’
Zara shuddered. Deirdre was the woman who had bought the postcards. ‘Uh, we’ve met before,’ Zara said, fisting her hands.
‘Yes, of course. You sell the knickknacks on the corner.’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
And suddenly, Deirdre knew where she had seen Zara. The natural light from the large windows made her eyes look deeper and greener than they had in the cluttered shop. She was the girl in Oliver’s phone. The girl who had broken his heart. He’d hired private detectives, scoured social media and called all her friends, but she had simply vanished. Deirdre thought of contacting him right away, but then she considered Zara’s long legs. They reminded her of her sister Celine. Oh no, thought Deirdre. I’m going to keep him all to myself.
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