Prolog - Perfect Host
- Part I -
The deck of the posh, classic yacht was completely deserted. The bite of the night's nippy air was unforgiving. Zoe could feel its chill even from within the protection of the ship’s bridge, as she leaned up against the window, her perky nose grazing the cold glass.
"The fog sure has gotten thick," she commented aloud, squinting her emerald eyes to scarcely make out the tip of the vessel through the heavy fog. The hazy, grey myopia created an unsettling feeling in her stomach that accompanied the sea sickness from earlier. "Quickly, too."
Tonight, the Pacific Ocean waters off the south coast of Japan, having long had notoriety for unpredictable weather among seafarers, were living up to their egregious reputation; the rough waves had abruptly abated and a calm, glass-like finish spread over the water while the night air turned chillingly cool and moist. The sudden change in weather invited a dense fog that rapidly descended over the temperamental waters.
For the little she could see, Zoe might as well have been looking at her reflection in a dull, smoky mirror. The silhouette of her wavy blonde hair, done up in a ponytail, was clearly outlined on the glass. Her updo showcased her elegant diamond earrings, their luster apparent even in her darkness of her somber reflection.
"Can you even find the dock like this?" she asked, her attention still partly consumed in analyzing her muted likeness.
"Hmph! You act as though this is my first time doing this. Have some confidence, will you?" the captain replied with smug confidence. He was a tall, well-built and relatively handsome man not beyond his thirties. His shoulder-length, bleached-white hair seemed strange at first to his female companion, who was initially taken aback by it. With every glass of wine she consumed, however, it seemed a little less bizarre. The night had progressed slowly, leaving plenty of time for her to empty and refill her glass numerous times. How many glasses is that now? Six? Seven? She had lost count a while ago, noticing her inebriation only when she found herself actually starting to like the captain's hair.
Through conversation she had found her companion to be a rather kind man in spirit and gesture. He had been generous enough to loan her his navy blue captain's jacket, which she currently had draped around her shoulders to keep warm, though goose pimples still covered her arms. Zoe turned to the captain, watching as his pale grey eyes scanned the multiple panels and gauges before him without missing a beat. Despite the incredibly low visibility amidst the heavy haze, he pressed forth toward the private marina in Tokyo Bay that awaited them.
"Sorry. It's just that I can't wait for this night to be over," she replied, desperately hoping the fog would not lengthen the duration of their return voyage from Izu Oshima, the largest island of an archipelago of volcanic islands southwest of Tokyo, Japan.
"Well, I'm sorry this outing wasn't much of a success for you," the captain consoled her, reflecting on her circumstances aboard the vessel.
"Hmph. That's an understatement," she underscored his remark, swirling around the remaining white wine in her glass before downing it in one, unlady-like gulp. Indeed, the entire evening had been a bust for the wealthy entrepreneur; she had intended on securing a lucrative contract with the foreign multimillionaire whose yacht she currently found herself in, only to be tossed aside while he cavorted with another woman. In response, Zoe had tried to gain the attention of the chef - a very tall and handsome Swede with short, curly, golden locks of hair and crystal clear blue eyes - but much to her dismay, he was not keen on keeping company and had shooed her away from his kitchen. Were it not for that dismissal, she would not have had to resort to the yacht's bridge to find some companionship; they were still too far away from the mainland for her devices to connect to the internet, where she could whittle away the time until they reached shore. She had been left with nothing else to do but chat up the captain in order to pass the time until they docked.
"Just not your night, I guess."
"I don't know why I didn't just press to reschedule," she bemoaned herself. "I thought we'd be going over the details of our joint business venture but it turns out Maxfield is more interested in getting to know his floozy than discussing finance," she stated bitterly.
"You act as though you were surprised," the captain chuckled. "Mr. Stanton leaves all the dull number crunching to his subordinates. He’d much rather spend his time doing… other things. Or didn't you know that he's got a reputation for fancying the ladies?"
"Hey!" she objected at his insinuation of cluelessness. It was quite the contrary, actually. "I knew that already," Zoe reluctantly admitted in a hushed tone. She had thought that perhaps she could manipulate Maxfield's weakness to her advantage in striking a deal. After all, although she was in her early thirties, she was by no means unattractive. Regular workouts and yoga kept her slender and a light touch of Chanel upon her fair complexion kept her features alluring. Zoe considered herself a little flat in front and behind for her own liking, but she knew ways around those shortcomings.
"So what's the problem then?"
"Nothing," she replied laconically, shifting her eyes.
"Oh, that answer won't work on me! That might've fooled me ten years ago but I know better now. Cost me my marriage, it did, but I know better," the captain resounded with a deep, hearty laugh. "Let me guess - you're upset that he didn't make a pass at you?"
"Pfft," Zoe scoffed, eyeing her empty wine glass with disappointment.
"So he did make a pass at you," he deduced with delight. "Well, then, in that case," he pondered bemusingly, "you either said or did something stupid, completely ruining the moment."
"Yeah, right," Zoe rolled her eyes at the very suggestion. She had class. I really need to get out of here and get some more of that Montrachet, Zoe thought as she looked down at her empty glass once again, pining for more of the wine's delightful buzz.As her host had no problems shrugging her off for the evening, she had no reservations over emptying his cellar of thousand-dollar bottles of fine wine. Zoe regretted not having brought up another bottle with her. If only she had not been so flustered by the chef's rejection of her charm...
"Alright, throw me a bone then."
"Yeah, I probably should before you embarrass yourself even further," she snickered.
"No, wait - I've got it!" he cried, his body suddenly alive with with excitement and movement as he momentarily released his grip on the helm.
"You're jealous!" the captain exclaimed, turning to face Zoe, who remained visibly tight-lipped at the suggestion. The brief split-second hesitation was the only confirmation he needed. "Ha ha! Am I good or what?" he asked rhetorically, turning his attention back to the myriad of display panels in front of him, his body once again reverting to a tall statue fixed in its place.
Zoe hated being so easy to read. Her emotions often got the best of her and it was impossible for her to hide them. After some mulling, she decided there was no use in further denial and confessed what was on her mind. "It's not so much that he passed me up - it's who he's passing me up for."
"Oh?" the captain seemed puzzled. "What's wrong with Ms. Osaka?" he asked curiously.
"That she's at least ten years older than me, that's what! Getting passed up for a nineteen-year-old Brazilian swimsuit model with big tits? Fine. I can live with that," she declared emphatically. Her looks and body, although still alluring, were not what they once had been. Despite her immense wealth, lavish clothes and jewellery, she knew she could not compete with the firmness and tightness of a young, exotic beauty.
The captain just nodded his head silently.
His muteness bugged Zoe. She wanted him to say he was on her side. "That woman is... what? Pushing forty-five!?" she declared with palpable contempt. "She's already got a kid for God's sake!" She had overheard Mayumi mention her daughter as they boarded the yacht.
"Lord's name, Zoe," the captain admonished without as much a glance at her.
"Oh, whatever," she rolled her eyes. "Didn't take you for the religious type, Malachi."
No words came out of the captain. Instead, he just smiled out of the corner of his mouth and shrugged ever so slightly.
"What's he see in her anyway?"
"My honest opinion?" Malachi asked, wondering whether it was a rhetorical question or not. After some deliberation, he shared his thoughts. "I figure he finally got bored of those gold digging models. After all, they're after only one thing - his money. I'm sure he's had enough of them to realize that. Believe it or not, there's only so much a man can take of an endless swarm of attractive ladies!"
Zoe was not satisfied. "You didn't answer my question," she pointed out dryly.
"Mayumi's different. She's mature, accomplished ... most of all, she's not after his money."
"Oh?" Zoe raised an eyebrow. "And exactly what does she do, may I ask?"
"Sells fine jewellery, I understand."
"Oh, please. I've never heard of her until today," Zoe scoffed. "I bet I can buy her entire inventory multiple times over. Hell, this Harry Winston set alone is probably worth more than her inventory," she boasted, gently caressing the tear drop necklace that danced just below her collarbone.
"A tad bitter, hmm?"
Zoe thought about the captain's comment. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew she was coming across as petty and vindictive. Her frustration had been quick to surface and all the wine she had already consumed were not making it any easier to keep it in check. "I'm sorry, Malachi. I didn’t mean to sour your evening too. I'm sure I'm coming across as a complete venomous bitch."
"It's nothing," he dismissed her assertion. "My ex-wife, now, that was one venomous woman!" he laughed heartily once more. "Don't know what I saw in that one!" he shook his head, casting off memories of a life long ago. Zoe enjoyed his attempt at levity. She realized he was quite a charming man. Perhaps a odd for her usual tastes, but his demeanor had made this evening much more bearable. Nevertheless, she still felt the need to glance at her diamond-encrusted Chopard watch. The captain sensed this and without even glancing at his companion, spoke out. "We still have a while to go," he said. Without taking his eyes off the display panels, he lifted a radio transmitter next to him and spoke into it. "Jed, let Mr. Stanton know we'll be arriving in approximately another ninety minutes. He'll be wanting his dinner before we reach land."
"Way ahead of you, Cap. Dinner's ready now. I'll bring it up to you and our other guest after I deliver it to Maxfield," replied the chef, his voice cackled and distorted by static. Our other guest. The words cut into Zoe. Even the chef, whose dreamy good looks she had soaked in from only a quick glance, saw her as a third wheel. Still feeling quite jilted by her unsuccessful attempt to entice him earlier this evening, she figured this would be her ideal, if not final, opportunity to seduce the Swede and show him how wrong he had been all along. This other guest knew what to do with a man.
"You know what? I think I'll head down to get some more wine. You know, give Jed a hand bringing it all up," Zoe stood up hastily, removing the captain's jacket from around her bare shoulders and smoothing out the wrinkles on her beige and black Alexander Wang cocktail dress. "What vintage would you prefer?"
"I've had my fill," Malachi declined politely. It was the answer Zoe had hoped for - she had no intention of returning without first having made her conquest. The last thing she needed was an errand to run and a time limit on top of it. Zoe exchanged her empty wine glass for her black Lana Marks clutch and quickly exited the bridge, realizing too late that her plan to 'accidentally' bump into Jed along the way might have been too transparent to fool Malachi. It was an embarrassingly immature oversight but it was impossible to do anything about it now. Besides, at this point she only cared about obtaining her man, lest she should spend another two hours fumbling from one topic of conversation to another with the captain - or worse yet, alone in a cabin with nothing but her rage.
Zoe hiked her already short cocktail dress further up her thigh and readjusted the top to expose more of her chest. That should be enough to convince that aloof Swede to reconsider. Zoe anticipated his route and rushed across the fog-laden deck to stop just shy of the narrow stairs Jed would have to ascend to reach Maxfield's quarters. It was an odd ship design but she was grateful for it at the moment. Out of view and backed up against the wall, she withdrew her crimson lipstick and pocket mirror for a quick touch up. It was no easy task with her head spinning from all the wine she had already consumed. To her panic, the sound of nearby footsteps appeared almost immediately, and caused her to hurriedly cram her belongings back into her clutch. Zoe recollected herself as quickly as her tipsy mind would allow and turned the corner, putting on a sultry, debonair performance as she walked down the first few steps, acting surprised at Jed's presence.
"Oh, my! You startled me!" she gasped, placing a delicate hand on her chest as though to calm a racing heart.
"Sorry," Jed replied tersely as he proceeded up the narrow stairs with a covered food tray in hand.
Zoe descended, the curviness of her slender legs accentuated by her black Christian Loubouton pumps. She imagined it was quite a fantastic view from down below. Much to her dismay, however, Jed continued his ascent without even as much as a quick glance at her. It was the third time Zoe had been ignored completely this day, which she found altogether unacceptable. She was not about to let him just slip past this time.
"Not so fast there," she extended her arm across the narrow stairs, blocking the chef's way.
"Do you need something?" he asked, direct and to the point.
"Well, now that you ask, some company would be nice," Zoe flirtatiously ran her free hand through her tan blonde hair. The chef just looked at her and it became clear to her that she would need to be more forward - though she had hoped Jed would have clued in by this point. It was time to reel in her catch and she determinedly reached out for the chef's collar to draw him close. Instead of securing him in her grasp, however, she lost balance and tumbled down the stairs, taking Jed down with her. It was the clumsiest move she had ever made advancing on someone. With every aching bump against the hard and unforgiving mahogany steps, she cursed her wanton consumption of wine throughout the evening. Eventually, their two tangled bodies came to a sudden and painful stop on the lower deck along with the loud din of silverware and the clamour of broken plates and glasses. The deliciously aromatic meal of roasted duck seasoned with basil, fennel and mint, glazed with honey, was strewn all about them. I really should have stopped at three glasses, Zoe reprehended herself, her mortifying embarrassment intensifying her pain.She sorely raised herself up a few centimetres, quickly realizing she had landed squarely on top of Jed. The Swede opened his eyes slowly, Zoe's ponytail gently brushing against his face.
"Hi," she smiled coyly, hoping to play it cool rather than own up to the klutziness which had ruined the chef's hard work.
"Get off me," Jed ordered dispassionately.
"What? No sense of romance?" she asked teasingly, placing her hand on his chest, her sticky, honeyed fingers leaving a mark on his formerly immaculate white chef's uniform. Without words, Jed hastily tossed Zoe aside and got up. "'No' would have sufficed, you know," she berated his lack of tact, checking to see whether now she had sat on part of the meal as well.
"Could you possibly be anymore ignorant?" he retorted. "We just struck something." Jed's words took a moment to sink in. Zoe's daze, now a mix of alcohol and bruises, slowed her reaction time. 'Struck something'? It seemed surreal and implausible but even she knew she was beyond tipsy and should not make any claim to the contrary. Had she not been so focused on seducing Jed, she would have not tuned out the dull rumble of the yacht's wooden hull gnashing into something only moments prior. Suddenly, the fear of a capsizing yacht and having to abandon ship - into the dark, temperamental waters of the Pacific Ocean - overwhelmed Zoe's thoughts.
"We struck rocks?" Zoe asked, trying to keep her fright in check as she brushed rice from the front of her dress.
"No. Malachi's knows these waters," Jed replied as he headed past Zoe and marched up the stairs without as much as even offering to help her up, leaving her surrounded by the spoiled dinner.
"Another boat, then?" she cried after him. Whether he had heard or not, he did not bother to respond before slipping out of view and into the fog. "Seems chivalry is dead," Zoe muttered to herself as she readjusted her top, thankful that she had not popped out of her dress. She hurriedly brushed off the remaining pieces of the dinner from her arms and legs, picked up her clutch and pumps - the latter having flown completely off her feet during the tumble - and proceeded back to the bridge with great anxiety over Jed's announcement.
"Just what the hell did we just hit?" Maxfield demanded authoritatively. Pumps in hand, Zoe could hear the voices on the bridge even before she could see it.
The handsome, statuesque multimillionaire, still in his late twenties, had been quick to show up on the bridge to assess the situation. His long, wavy, brown hair danced about with every motion of his head as he rapidly scanned the display panels. Zoe, who stood at the entrance to the bridge as she watched the three men analyze the situation, had expected Maxfield to rip into the captain for damaging the luxury vessel, but to her surprise, the multimillionaire did not seem interested in placing blame. Like Jed, he appeared to have the utmost respect for Malachi's abilities as a navigator.
"There was nothing on the sonar," Malachi stated. "We're too far out to have struck rocks."
"How's the hull?"
"Not sure. We weren't going fast enough to breach it, though. I'm certain of that much."
"I'll get the flashlight," Jed offered, heading to the grey equipment chest at rear of the bridge. "We need to be sure."
"Is everything okay?" Zoe was surprised to not have noticed Mayumi Osaka, the very bane of her evening, walk up beside her. She wore a plain, but elegant, sleeveless burgundy cocktail dress that hugged her slender figure. Her vibrant auburn hair was ornately done up, exposing lustrous and expensive tear drop earrings while a matching necklace adorned her chest, resting comfortably above her ample cleavage. Zoe did not respond to Mayumi's question out of spite, although she had nothing to contribute regardless.
Equipped with a large, high-power flashlight hanging to his side from a cross-body strap, Jed walked past the two women, yet again ignoring Zoe's presence altogether. The two other men followed in similar fashion, all of them marching toward the bow of the ship and becoming nothing but mere silhouettes in the fog to the two women who remained where they stood. The men leaned over the starboard side of the bow to examine the concave hull, which proved difficult in the current weather. To compensate for the poor visibility, Maxfield and Malachi held onto Jed as he teetered over the chrome railing for a closer look. Zoe and Mayumi, not wanting to intervene or become a nuisance, watched from a distance, and hoped for good news. Zoe observed Mayumi, unbeknownst to her; she seemed equally as anxious as her over their predicament. Despite her earlier protestations, Zoe noticed that Mayumi looked very posh and youthful for someone her age. No, it must be the wine...
"What do you see?" Malachi cried out.
Jed shone the bright light onto the water below, its brightness refracting on the water's surface. "Hull seems okay. Definitely don't see any rocks," he shouted back to the deck.
"Did we snag seaweed then?" Maxfield turned to Malachi, looking for an answer. The captain mulled over the possibility of that scenario but before he had a chance to respond, Jed's voice rang out from the starboard side of the yacht.
"Oh, shit!" Those two words were enough to send Zoe's fears of a sinking boat creeping beyond her mind and sending waves of uneasiness and panic to her limbs, numbing her from head to toe. The shadowy depths of the ocean terrified her. Not knowing what could be down there was an unpleasant thought, however irrational.
"What is it?"
There was a part of both women that did not want to hear the response to that question.
"You're not going to like this, boss - we're leaking something. We definitely punctured the hull."
"Fuck!" Maxfield kicked the railing with frustration, almost letting go of Jed. The sudden vibration from the rattling railing startled the chef, causing him to immediately grab on to it for security.
"Well, this is going to be a problem," Malachi muttered to himself. "You're certain?" he asked, demanding absolute assurance in Jed's diagnosis. The Swede planted his feet firmly on the deck once more and simply nodded in response.
"Should I send out an SOS?" Malachi asked in dismay, turning to the yacht's disheartened owner. Maxfield circled the deck in frustration, mulling over Malachi's question. Despite being wealthy enough to buy countless new luxury yachts, he did not look forward to conducting repairs that would lessen the value of this one-of-a-kind, custom-built yacht. Of course, that was in the best case scenario - the ship could likely sink before they even got to land if the hull breach was wide enough.
"It's foggy as hell, we're four meters up from the water and it's fucking pitch black down there," Maxfield expressed doubt over Jed's conclusion.
"I can't tell where it's coming from but it's visible just below the water," Jed defended his diagnosis.
"No, that can't be," Malachi protested, "such a leak would require a far more forceful collision... and definitely not from the front."
Jed, confident in his position, removed the shoulder strap from around his neck and handed over the flashlight. "See for yourself, then," he said, pushing the flashlight into the captain’s chest. Not one to back down easily, Malachi accepted the challenge and raised a leg to step over the waist-high railing.
"Here, old man," Maxfield teased, offering Malachi support with an outstretched arm.
"I ain't lost my sea legs yet," the captain declined as he stepped over the railing on his own to take a closer inspection over the starboard side of the yacht. Even though only a decade separated his age with Maxfield's, the multimillionaire had taken to calling him 'old man' early on in their friendship, on account of his bleached hair. It was no longer the sore spot it had once been for Malachi.
"Oh, I sure hope he says we're okay. I really don't want to have to abandon ship," Mayumi shared her thoughts with Zoe as they watched silhouetted men attend to the situation. Zoe, despite having similar anxieties, remained tight-lipped. Mayumi was already worried about her daughter, whom she knew would be expecting her home tonight. She did not want to worry her by not being home on time - much less for her to receive the news that her mother had gone missing at sea. Even for a sixteen year old, her daughter could be surprisingly sensitive.
They all remained silent as Malachi surveyed the water below. Time seemed to drag on as everyone's collective anxiety tensed up on the deck of the yacht.
Malachi's verdict was met with great anticipation from everyone. "Unfortunately, it appears that the kid is right," he announced reluctantly after much deliberation. Indeed, an opaque, black liquid was clouding the water around the vessel.
"We'll need to put out an SOS and setup the life raft then," Jed said with regret, shaking his head with dismay.
Malachi shifted his weight to get up with a grunt.
"See? You're getting old," the young millionaire taunted. "C'mon," he extended out his hand once again.
"You'll be thirty-seven soon enough," Malachi scoffed, ignoring Maxfield's offer of assistance yet again. He raised his leg to climb over the chrome rail once more, but before anyone had time to react, Malachi lost his balance and fell overboard, breaking the surface of the water with a loud splash. Maxfield doubled over in laughter, heartily enjoying the captain's unfortunate misstep.
Zoe dashed to the tip of the vessel, worried that the captain had been hurt during the fall. Still tipsy, she quickly clasped the chrome rail to counteract her lack of balance before speaking. She did not want her inebriation undermine her assertiveness. "Stop being such a pompous douchebag and help him!" she criticized her would-be host. Maxfield became aware of Zoe's presence for the first time for quite sometime, having forgotten about her much earlier in the evening. He gave her a look of disapproval - he did not take orders, much less from a guest on his yacht - and turned back to Malachi who was treading the black water.
"Guess you should have taken my hand after all, huh?" he shouted at the captain, still rejoicing Malachi's accident.
"Quit clowning around and toss me the ladder before my limbs freeze off!" he retorted. "In case you forgot, you're on a sinking vessel - we have plenty to do before the ship goes under!" Malachi reminded them.
Maxfield motioned with his head and Jed immediately reached for the nylon rope ladder and tossed it over the railing to the captain below. Malachi muttered something to himself and began swimming toward the ladder. The soft splashing sounds of his strokes suddenly disappeared, however, and only an expanding ring on the water's surface remained where the captain had just been. The flashlight remained on the surface, apathetically buoyant. It had spun toward the white hull, which cast an eerie luminescence back onto the water.
"What's happening?" Zoe cried out, panicking over his disappearance into the dark water.
"The water's probably too cold. His body must've gone into shock," Jed declared.
"That quick? The water shouldn't be that cold," Maxfield expressed doubt once again.
"Doesn't matter. I'm going in for him," Jed stated without missing a beat as he hastily hopped over the rail in one smooth motion and dove into the cold water below with the agility of an Olympic diver. Maxfield was not yet concerned, confident that the captain was safe - perhaps playing out a joke of his own. However, the two women nervously watched as Jed swam toward Malachi's last known position. Once there, he too disappeared under the dark, motionless water, in an attempt to find the captain. The yellow flashlight now pointed out to the seemingly endless black and grey abyss, the surrounding water alit in a dull green-grey haze as the fog danced just above the surface. Mayumi and Zoe waited with bated breath, every second that passed further intensifying their feelings of despair.
Jed dove and resurfaced numerous times, "I don't see him anywhere!" he cried with obvious concern, after what seemed like hours of frantic searching. Worry, fear and panic churned in Zoe's stomach, producing a disgusting sensation that would make her wretch if not for the sudden tightness in her chest. Jed had initially been confident that he could immediately spot Malachi. Now, even he was beginning to have his doubts. The water was indeed cold and dark and the fog only further complicated the search.
"Keep looking!" Zoe shot back, desperately worried about her kind companion. Jed dove back under, this time with the flashlight in tow. It had been the only remark from Zoe he had acknowledged all evening, though her words mattered little, if at all, to the Swede who seemed loyal enough to stay in the cold water all night if that's what it took to find his captain - even if there was no yacht to return to by then. Neither of the women, who were completely unaccustomed to life at sea, could shake the dreadful feeling that as the search for Malachi continued, the ship continued to slowly submerge. If nothing was done soon, they would find themselves in the water too. It was a slow asphyxiation that began to overwhelm them - an impending doom that relished in drawing out time and fear as it approached.
"There!" Mayumi shouted unexpectedly, startling everyone on the deck. Somehow, through the fog, she had spotted the captain, floating motionlessly along the stern of the vessel. Within moments, Jed secured him within his grasp and returned to the nylon ladder dangling along the yacht's side. He carefully ascended the steps with Malachi slumped over his left shoulder in a fireman's carry, water dripping from their blotched clothes which rippled the otherwise smooth surface of the water. Zoe was stooped over the chrome rail and watched anxiously as Maxfield extended his arms to hoist the unconscious captain onto the deck. He made no qualms over drenching his tailor-made, navy blue Kiton suit.
Zoe followed the light projecting from the flashlight, which hung at a downward angle from Jed. It struck the water head-on, illuminating the swirls of the unidentified black liquid which seemingly moved on their own in the wake of Jed's movement through the water. It was entirely unsettling to her. She immediately stepped back from the ship's edge, the buzz from the wine evidently heightening her anxiety over the unknown.
Maxfield helped Jed ease Malachi gently onto the deck and removed his own blazer to cover the captain and provide him some extra warmth. Zoe knelt next to the captain alongside Jed, elated to have him on board once again. Soon enough, Malachi rolled over slowly and began to cough up water. The sign of life was a great relief to everyone, Zoe especially, who had grown more attached to the man than she had realized.
"He'll be alright?" she asked, as Jed tended to the captain.
"Yeah. Nothing to worry about," he replied. He removed the flashlight's strap from around his shoulders and set down the entire unit on the wet deck before proceeding to pat Malachi on the back as he coughed. “He’s just taken in some water, that’s all.”
Zoe was glad the Swede finally acknowledged her. Answering this question alone almost made it possible to overlook being ignored by him throughout the entire night. Almost.
"Good," she smiled, relieved that Malachi was safe. "I'm glad. Thank you for rescuing him," she placed her hand on his shoulder, which was stained with the black liquid leaking from the yacht, much like the rest of him. "That was really brave of you," she complimented him, noticing that his wet chef's uniform clung to his body, highlighting his physique. Zoe glanced upon his dripping wet face. Jed’s cool blue eyes were a sharp contrast to the black liquid running down from his sullied golden hair. His captivating gaze was enough to remove Zoe from the chaos of their current predicament, off to some remote tropical island surrounded by pristine water as clear as his eyes. It was not an ideal circumstance to make an advance, but she was sure he would not turn her down this time. It would be a shame if his heroism were to go unnoted. After all, every good deed deserves a reward. "What do you say I show you how appreciative I am when we get back to shore?" He paused, deliberating her proposal. Zoe was hopeful, at last seemingly having pushed past his aloofness and eliciting responses from the Swede.
"No thanks," he replied, deflating her ego yet again.
Utterly dejected - she had lost count of how many times it had been so far this evening - she got up, unable to face any further embarrassment. She would let him tend to Malachi as he continued to cough between gasps for air. Turning around, she picked up the sound of Mayumi's voice. She was still at the starboard bow of the yacht, alongside Maxfield. Zoe had not even noticed the multimillionaire slip his way back to the bow. What could possibly be more important than the well-being of the man who would navigate them back to land? Could they really be so unconcerned about Malachi?
"No, I didn't see anything," Zoe heard Mayumi respond, her arms crossed to keep the little warmth she had. Her cocktail dress, much like Zoe's, was less than ideal for this kind of weather. "Why? You saw something?"
The millionaire did not respond. He remained quiet and unresponsive.
Mayumi looked in the direction of his stare and she, too, became transfixed.
"W-what's so interesting?" Zoe asked, trying not to sound alarmed. Neither of them answered, however, leaving her no choice but to once again peer over the edge reluctantly. As she did, she became aware of a dim white noise that slowly increased in intensity. The disturbing sound, one like the hum of high-voltage electrical lines, was suddenly emanating on the sides of yacht.
"What the hell is that?" Jed asked out loud, coming to join the others.
Mayumi pointed in response, not saying a word. Through the fog, something appeared to be rising out of the water, seemingly standing on it. Zoe blinked hard, wondering if her eyes were deceiving her. Instead of disappearing, the dark mass arising from water only crept closer to the yacht, until it reached the hull, whereupon it began to slowly traverse upward, toward the deck. From their vantage point, it appeared as though it were the shape of a person from the torso up. Without legs, it slowly crept vertically, unhindered by the vessel's concave exterior or sheen finish.
Finally, Zoe spoke, needing confirmation that she was not seeing things on account of her gluttonous alcohol intake. "You all see that too, right?"
"What is it?"
"I'll get the flashlight," Jed stated, wanting a better look at the oddity.
"No, put out the SOS," Maxfield raised his hand in objection, not sharing Jed's sense of curiosity. He did not remove his eyes from the black mass, sensing that something was amiss. He did not care to examine whatever it was. The need to abandon ship was clear, even if he was not sure what they should do thereafter.
Jed nodded in response, turning around to head to the bridge to put out the distress call. His task met an abrupt end when he was caught by surprise by Malachi's outstretched hands as he charged into him forcefully, clasping his neck in a vice-like grip and sending them both over the slick railing. The two men went overboard once more, knocking Zoe hard enough in the process to flip her over the rail. One of them had struck her in the back of the head, while another part of them had struck her back with surprising force. The whole world spun around her and she came to a painful stop against the side of the yacht. Somehow she had managed to keep her hands clasped on to the rail and avoid plunging into the water along with the two men.
"What the hell are you doing, Malachi!?" Maxfield cried in anger as the men crashed violently into the water.
Fearful and not wanting to sit idly and watch the result of their struggle, Mayumi tugged at her lover's canary yellow dress shirt. "Put out that SOS, please!" she begged.
"No!" Zoe cried out, the fright in her voice apparent. "Help me up first!" The railing was wet and she could not gain enough grip pull herself up. She was afraid of whatever was in the water; years of irrational fear suddenly made manifest in this surreal moment.
"I've got you, hun, don't worry," Mayumi reached down to Zoe, grasping onto her forearms. "Please, get that SOS out! I can help her!" she cried as she clasped tight and tried with all her might to bring Zoe back up to the deck.
Over the sound of the unpleasant humming, they could hear the captain and the chef thrashing about in the water below in an intense struggle. Zoe did not want to look down, knowing that some... thing was making its way up the side of the ship. She closed her eyes as hard as she could, imagining away the pandemonium.
"I can't get you up!" Mayumi spoke with great effort through her clenched teeth. Much to her dismay, Zoe, paralyzed by the chaos, was dead weight. There was nothing she could do to bring her back on deck. Mayumi was simply not strong enough and at that moment, she truly felt weak and entirely helpless.
"Don't let me go!" Zoe pleaded, her grip on the rail slipping. She desperately latched on to Mayumi, her rival now her only lifeline. Zoe replayed things in her mind and could not understand how the evening had deteriorated from being rejected by men to hanging off of the side of a yacht, crippled by the most intense fear she had ever felt. A cold and unfamiliar sensation shot up her leg. She tried to wish it away, but it shot up her other leg, too. She wanted to open her eyes, but was too fright-stricken and afraid to look.
The black mass, a veritable living shadow, had outstretched its arms and had a firm grip on Zoe by the ankles. It was then that she realized Malachi had not succumbed to shock, but had been pulled underwater. Something in him had changed after that encounter. Zoe despaired that the black mass latched onto her had a similar fate in store for her.
"It's pulling me down!" she panicked.
Zoe knew she could not hold herself up, even with the help of Mayumi. Bit by bit, her fingers lost grip, Mayumi having to lean further and further over the rail just to maintain her own grip on the frightened blonde, the rail digging painfully deep into her abdomen.
"No, please... Please no!"
"I'm... so sorry," Mayumi apologized as she let go, knowing that she, too, would fall overboard if she leaned over any further.
Zoe frantically reached out to whatever she could grab but her flailing arms caught nothing. She fell for what seemed a great distance, and eventually crashed harshly into the water flat on her back, seemingly landing on unforgiving pavement. Unlike ground, however, the water immediately gave away and swallowed her up in a cold darkness. The murmuring sound of water dulled her senses and disoriented her completely as her panic reached its zenith. She was sure she would die out here tonight, were it not for the unseen hands of living shadows that now grasped at her, keeping her from sinking further. The cold hands pulled at her arms and legs while her underwater screams did nothing but fill her lungs with water. She was out of breath and gasped for air. It was stupid, she knew, but it was entirely instinctual. Mouthfuls of water rushed down her throat, one painful, frightful swallow after another. Maybe I can just drown myself... Given Malachi's sudden change in character, it seemed these faceless, featureless entities would have another fate for her in mind. Perhaps drowning before that could happen would not be such a bad thing...
Mayumi watched from the deck as Zoe vanished beneath the white bubbles that floated upward as her companion thrashed about under the surface of the dark water. She felt awful and inadequate, having been too weak to prevent a third person from going overboard. Only Maxfield and herself remained onboard the yacht and they would need to evacuate immediately, whether the ship was indeed sinking or not.
The fearful mother turned to find Maxfield, hoping he had put out the SOS that would lead to a miraculous turn of events. Across the foggy deck she saw him, confronted by another shadow, which blocked his path to the bridge. From it, too, emanated the disconcerting noise that befouled the air. Maxfield swung at the shadow with the blunt back end of the large flashlight, the only makeshift weapon at hand, keeping it at bay.
"Be careful, Max!" Mayumi cried out to him. The two were at a stand off. Like the first shadow which crawled vertically along the hull, it moved slowly. Whatever it was, though, it was powerful; Mayumi had felt how strongly the one on the side of the ship had pulled on Zoe. The shadow crept closer and Maxfield swung again, connecting with it but seemingly having no noticeable impact on the being. The black figure charged into Maxfield, tackling him to the ground, where it pressed into him, disappearing bit by bit as it forced itself into Maxfield's chest. He resisted at first, attempting to pull it out from within himself by whichever part of it he could grab, but evidently the pain caused by the penetration numbed his ability to fight back. Within moments it had fully disappeared into Maxfield, who remained motionless on the deck, sprawled on his back.
Paralyzed by horror, Mayumi just watched as yet another shadow began to climb the edge of the yacht. This one seemed faster than the others, not giving Mayumi time to deliberate her reaction. All she knew is that a split-second later she was running. Her body had reacted without any consultation from her consciousness. She was simply running frantically and out of sheer fear that made her legs weak, feeling as though they would snap in half at any moment.
She raced to Maxfield's cabin, slamming the door behind her and locking the door. Her legs had taken her as far as they could and she collapsed on the floor - the adrenaline that had gotten her to this room worn off entirely. Only fear remained. Her chest heaved heavily and her hands quivered uncontrollably. She was the last available victim and those shadows - there were hundreds for all she knew - were coming for her, now that everyone else on board had been incapacitated.
Her only thought at this moment was to get a word to her daughter. As best she could, she reached into her black Marc Jacobs purse - itself a gift from Maxfield - to take out her phone. Her unsteady hands caused her to fumble several times. In frustration, Mayumi turned over the bag, littering its contents on the floor of the dimly lit room. Her phone in hand, she cursed the lack of reception. She would not be able to make the call to her daughter but perhaps she could send a text message. If the boat ever got close to mainland, it would send automatically. She began to type when the noise of the shadows appeared. That buzz. That ominous, paralyzing hum. The harbinger of something worse to come. Mayumi dropped the phone, her hands shaking worse than before.
She struggled to move whatever furniture she could behind the door to block their entry. However, everything was fixed onto either the floor or the ceiling. Desperate, she charged at the door with the only chair in the room, jamming it under the door handle. She picked up her phone from amidst the mascara and lipstick tubes on the floor and stood with her back against the wall opposite the door, knowing there was nothing else she could do. She was trapped. Cornered. It was, after all, a boat. The door rumbled as whatever was on the other side tried to make its way into the room. She eyed the chair nervously, knowing that it was her last recourse. No other barrier would stand between her and ... it. How long would she have before it penetrated into the room as it had with Maxfield?
Mayumi tried to steady her trembling hands to compose a message to her daughter. But what would she even say? She was not even sure of what was happening.
The lights flickered for a moment, catching her by surprise.
"No, no, no..." she pleaded. "Please, oh god, no." The lights dulled for second, then brightened again as though her prayer was answered. That last wither of hope was snuffed out like a blown candle as they went out without any warning, leaving the room completely dark, save for the little bit of pale moonlight shining in through the rectangular porthole which was barely enough for Mayumi to see her own shadow. She was compelled to turn on the phone’s flashlight feature, shining it on the room, but the overturned, partially lit items formed ghastly, abnormal shapes that appeared to reach out to her.
She turned the screen back to her and focused on sending a text that would inform but not frighten her daughter. Character by character, her shaky fingers typed a short but reassuring message. Mayumi had nearly completed the message when the distinctive rolling of makeup made her aware she was no longer alone in the room. Something had kicked it in on its way to her. No, it's rolling because the boat is swaying. That's what boats do. No, the waters are calm... She wondered if this uncontrollable fear was what Zoe had felt as she plummeted into the water. Was she being punished for having suffered such a fate onto someone else?
A cold, firm grip placed itself on her wrist, causing her to drop the phone. Instinctively, she tried to reach down for it with her other hand, but that hand was caught too. In her phone's pale, upward glow, Mayumi could see the featureless face of the shadow. It had a human shape but no face to speak of. No eyes. No mouth. No ears. Its hands had no fingers. It was all black. Nothing but black.
It pinned Mayumi's arms to the wall and bore into her chest head first, just as the other shadow had done to Maxfield. A tortuous, burning sensation ripped across her sternum as the shadow violently ensconced itself into her being. It was an excruciating sensation that took her nervous system to its very limits. Death seemed certain and she looked forward to it. She wanted it. Before long, the shadow's entirety had disappeared into her. Mayumi was freed from its forceful grasp at last, but it was not the relief she had anticipated, for she now realized it had been the only thing sustaining her limp frame. A great lethargy fell over her and her legs buckled. She was certain she would die from the pain still coursing through her before her knees even touched the floor.
Mayumi collapsed onto her stomach, too incapacitated to even move her limbs and reach out to grab the phone in front of her. It stared up at her, mockingly. Her message fully composed, only needing to be sent. The unsent text was the only thing she could see until the phone's backlight went out, leaving darkness to swallow the entire room as clouds moved in to cover the moon. Her eyelids felt heavy and she could keep them open no more. As she faded out of consciousness, the image of her written words became etched into her mind, as clear as a fluorescent display burnt into her retinas.
Naru, something's happened. I won't be coming home. I love you.