Chapter Twenty-Three

MAX WEBSTER WAS ON HIS HONEYMOON.

He and Annabel, his young English bride, were walking on Table Mountain. Annabel raced ahead, her long honey-streaked hair dancing in the wind. Her feet were lost in a carpet of flowers. Above her head, the sun shone a dazzling azure blue.

Max shouted: "Be careful! Don't get too close to the edge!" But the wind whipped away his words. Annabel danced on. She was singing an old folk tune Max's mother used to sing to him in the bath when he was a little boy. Uncanny. How does she know that song? Max tried to hum along, then realized he had forgotten the melody.

The other walkers had gone now. They were alone, and the distance between them was growing. Annabel was right by the edge of the cliff.

Max was screaming. "Come back! It's not safe!"

"What did you say?"

Thank God. She heard me. Annabel stopped and turned around so Max could see her face. Except it wasn't her face. It was Lexi's, swaying back and forth over the abyss like a reckless child.

Max rushed toward her. "Lexi, come back. I love you. I'm sorry." He reached out his hand to pull her to safety, but he was too late. Her fingers slid through his and she staggered backward. She was falling.

Max leaped after her. They were in each other's arms in midair, the ground rushing up to meet them. Lexi's features began to morph grotesquely, like melting plastic. She was turning into Eve.

"You killed Keith. You murdered your father. You didn't really believe you'd get away with it, did you?"

But, Mother, I did it for you. Everything has been for you. Mother!

"Max." Annabel Webster shook her husband awake. "Max! You're dreaming. Wake up, darling. It's all right. It's only a nightmare. It isn't real."

She held him in her arms till he calmed down, like a baby. This was the third time this week. Whatever pills Dr. Barrington was prescribing, they evidently weren't working. When he stopped shaking, she said: "Honey, you need to talk to someone. This isn't normal."

Max mopped his brow with the bedclothes and slumped back against the pillow. "I'm all right. I'm a little stressed at work, that's all. It'll pass. Go back to sleep."

The marriage had been Eve's idea. Everything was always Eve's idea.

She was berating Max over one of their weekly lunches. "You need an heir. Someone to take over the business and undo all of your mistakes. Someone who can make Kruger-Brent great again."

"I'm trying, Mother," Max said weakly.

"You're failing. Get married."

Max knew he was a poor chairman. He knew that Kruger-Brent's once bright light was fading, spluttering out slowly like a dying star. It didn't help having his mother second-guessing his every decision, bullying him into taking one direction then blaming him when the hoped-for profits failed to materialize.

It was Eve who had insisted that they sell their holdings in the Ukraine: "If there was oil in those fields, they'd have found it by now. Alternative energy, that's the future. Are you completely stupid?"

Max dutifully sold Kruger-Brent's five thousand acres to Exxon, investing the money from the sale in a wind farm in Israel. Six months later, Exxon struck oil. A year after that, the wind farm filed for bankruptcy. Eve blamed Max.

"You never drilled that land properly. What do you expect if you do a half-assed job? This is business Max, not some childish game. God help me, you're your father's son."

Eve brought up Keith's name more and more often these days. It was almost as if she'd transferred the hatred and rage she once felt for her husband onto her son. Max had destroyed Keith Webster, but the monster Keith had created lived on in Eve. Max had done everything his mother wanted. Killed Keith. Betrayed Lexi. Won back Kruger-Brent. But every trophy he brought her was like gasoline poured on the flames of Eve's hatred. He could feed the fire. But he could never put it out.

Meanwhile, Lexi's star continued its inexorable rise. No one remembered the sex scandal that had driven her out of Kruger-Brent. When people saw Lexi Templeton today, they thought of glamour, of resilience, of success. No one at Kruger-Brent said it to Max's face. But the whispers behind his back were deafening:

We made a mistake. We should never have gotten rid of her. Lexi's the winner in the family, not Max. We backed the wrong horse.

By the time he met Annabel, Max was drinking heavily. He was thirty-five but looked ten years older. His looks were fading. Like everything else about me. Annabel Savary was fifteen years Max's junior, beautiful and everything he was not: sensible, happy, healthy and uncomplicated. The product of a blissfully happy marriage - her father was an English lord, her mother an American socialite - Annabel was in New York doing an internship at Christie's when Max met her at an auction. He was outbid on the Constable he was after. But he left the auction room that day with a far more valuable prize.

Annabel Savary loved Max Webster in the same way that she had once loved her pony, Trigger. Everybody told Annabel that Trigger was too old and bad-tempered to be broken in. But the nine-year-old refused to give up. Trigger was a beautiful pony, intelligent, strong, fast as a bullet. With patience, and after suffering numerous bites, kicks and other signs of Trigger's displeasure, Annabel transformed him into a sweet-natured, loving animal. By the time he died, when Annabel was eighteen, Trigger had won a boatload of "first" rosettes and was famed across Derbyshire for his devotion to his young mistress.

Annabel was as certain that Max could change as Max was certain that he could not. He knew he should let her go. She has no idea how fucked up I am. But Eve wouldn't hear of it. She thoroughly approved of Annabel, believing her to be too young and naive to pose any threat to her influence.

"Marry her quickly, before she changes her mind. Get her pregnant."

Max did as he was told. The wedding was a blur. When he looked at the photographs later, he could barely remember having been there. All he could think about on the way to the church was whether Lexi would show up - she didn't - and whether his mother's pleasure with him would last this time.

Max knew how badly Eve wanted a grandchild. For different reasons, Annabel was also eager to give him a son. Max found the performance pressure unbearable. With Lexi, he'd allowed his sexuality free rein. Somehow, in his mind, Lexi and Eve had merged into one being, the mother-lover, the fulfillment of all his deepest, darkest fantasies. Lexi had allowed him to pour his rage and frustration into her body. She knew the wildness in him, the twisted savage inside, and she wanted it. Sodomy, violence, bondage, nothing had been forbidden. With Lexi, Max had gorged his inner beast. But Annabel must never know that monster. She was pure and lovely. Max must not defile her, the one piece of goodness in his life.

Only Annabel's stubborn, superhuman patience saved the marriage. After six miserable, sexless months, she took matters into her own hands, literally. Ignoring Max's protests, she reached over in bed one night and began stroking his limp penis. Nothing happened.

"I'm your wife, Max. I'm a woman. Put it inside me."

"Stop it!" Max loathed hearing her talk this way.

"No, I won't stop it. Enough is enough."

"Christ, Annabel. I can't get it up on command, okay?"

She took him in her mouth. In spite of himself, Max started to get hard. Images, hateful, degrading images of his mother and Lexi, poured into his mind like sewage. "Please stop." But Annabel didn't stop. Straddling him, she inserted his penis between her legs, bucking and squeezing until at last, with a sob, Max came. Afterward he cried in her arms for hours.

That was the night Annabel realized he was sick. It was also the night she conceived their twin sons.

Max waited till Annabel's breathing settled into a deep, regular rhythm before getting out of bed. Taking a handful of prescription pills from the bathroom cabinet, he swallowed, splashing his face with cold water. His reflection in the mirror looked ghostly.

I have to get it together before tomorrow's board meeting. August Sandford's out to get me. One sign of weakness and he'll move in for the kill.

It was Sandford who'd demanded tomorrow's emergency session. From the start, he had been a vocal opponent of Max's strategy to abandon foreign real estate and focus exclusively on the U.S. market. August wanted Kruger-Brent to follow Templeton's lead. Eve wouldn't hear of it.

"You're not Lexi's puppy, Max. Kruger-Brent leads, it doesn't follow."

Hundreds of millions had been wiped off the firm's balance sheet as a result. Now the board wanted answers.

Tiptoeing into the nursery, Max gazed in wonder at his sleeping boys. George and Edward were almost three now. They were so perfect, sometimes Max felt scared to touch them. Tiny, male replicas of Annabel, blond and sturdy and sweet.

"Darling. It's four in the morning." Annabel stood in the doorway, yawning. "For heaven's sake, come back to bed."

"Coming. Sorry."

Max followed her into the bedroom.

I wonder if my father ever looked at me while I slept?

I wonder if he loved me, like I love those boys?

The dreams began again.

Tara McGregor giggled to herself as she put the children's cake mixture into the oven. Ridiculous! I'm behaving like a sixteen-year-old. But her happiness refused to be contained.

Gabe was coming home early this afternoon. It was his birthday. The kids had baked him a cake and made homemade presents from toilet paper, glitter and glue. Jamie opted for a magnificent rocket, while Collette had surprised no one with her Little Mermaid-themed effort. Gabe would be thrilled. But Tara was saving the best present for last. She couldn't wait to see the look on Gabe's face when she told him.

She was pregnant again. A complete accident. At forty-one! Ever since she saw the pink line on the pee stick yesterday morning, she'd been unable to stop laughing. She looked at the kitchen clock: three-thirty. Gabe should be home by four.

The doorbell rang. He's early! Two miracles in one day. Tara skipped to answer it before Mala, the maid, beat her to it.

"Happy birthd - oh. Can I help you?"

A huge black man loomed in front of her. In his late twenties, with an acne-scarred face and a blank, cold expression in his eyes, he made Tara feel instantly uneasy.

"Your husband home?"

It was half question, half sneer. Tara's unease turned to fear. Adrenaline surged through her body.

"Yes. He's upstairs," she lied. "I'm afraid he's busy at the moment. Come back another time." She started to close the door. Smiling, the man forced his way in. The next thing Tara knew, he was holding a screwdriver to her throat.

"Quiet, and I don't kill you, bitch." His breath smelled of marijuana. "Where's the safe?"

Mala appeared on the stairs. When she saw what was happening, she screamed.

"The children!" yelled Tara. "Get them out!"

The maid turned and ran. Tara felt a sharp pain. The man had slashed the screwdriver across her cheek, narrowly missing her left eye. Blood poured from the wound.

"I say QUIET!" he roared. Suddenly the entryway was filled with men - six, maybe seven of them. All were black and all were high. Tara scanned their faces, looking for one that she recognized. They were bound to come from one of the nearby townships. If she knew someone's family, if she could appeal to them as a person...

Upstairs, Collette was screaming. Tara felt her blood run cold.

"Don't hurt her! Please. Take what you want. But don't hurt my children."

Two of the men came downstairs, carrying Collette and Jamie under their arms. Collette was hysterical. Seven-year-old Jamie saw his mother's bloodied face and wriggled free. Hurling himself at Tara's captor, he bit him savagely on the leg.

"Leave her alone! You get away from my mummy."

The man yelped with pain. Pulling back his foot, he kicked the boy's head as if it were a football. Tara heard Jamie's skull crunch as he collapsed at the knees. Her son lay on the floor, motionless.

"Open the fucking safe, bitch. Open it NOW or we kill you all."

Gabe leaned on his horn. Sodding traffic. It wasn't even rush hour, but every road into Camps Bay was jammed solid.

On the passenger seat of his Bentley lay the card Jamie had given him that morning. It was a picture of the two of them fishing, two grinning stick figures beside a blue felt-tip-pen river. "I love you, Daddy" was written across the top in bright red glitter.

"I love you, too, buddy," Gabe murmured to himself.

If only the stupid roads would clear, he'd be home in ten minutes.

Tara was on her knees. She felt the cold metal of the screwdriver pressing against her temple, but tried not to think about it, or about her darling Jamie lying unconscious in the hallway.

She pressed the numbers on the keypad of the safe: Four...six...one...

"Type in some security code and I'll slit your kids' throats. The first siren we hear, they're dead. Got it?"

Tara hesitated, her finger hovering in midair. One set of numbers would open the safe. Another combination opened the safe while simultaneously alerting the police.

God help us.

She pressed the final number.

At last the roads were clearing. Cruising along the shore, Gabe swung left onto the winding road that led up to the house. He thought about Tara. She'd been in an unusually good mood this morning, bouncing out of bed like Tigger. Before he left for work, she gave him a long, lingering kiss in the driveway with the promise of a "birthday treat" this evening. Gabe grinned. So much for women losing their libido at forty. Tara was sexier in his eyes now than she had ever been.

When he thought about how close he'd come to losing her two years before on that insane safari with Lexi Templeton, Gabe felt sick. He regretted the way things had ended with Lexi. They hadn't spoken since that day, even though Gabe now considered Robbie Templeton a good friend. But it couldn't be helped. Whatever his feelings for Lexi, Tara was his life. Thinking about her now, he felt a familiar stirring of longing.

He put his foot down harder on the gas.

The man was stuffing a diamond necklace into his Nike backpack. Tara looked past him into the entryway. Jamie wasn't there. Where was he? Upstairs with the other men? The whole house had gone eerily silent. A dark puddle of blood stained the white oak floorboards from where that bastard had kicked Jamie's head. What sort of animal could do that to a little boy?

"Nice." The man's eyes gleamed with greed as he caressed the priceless stones. The necklace was an anniversary present from Gabe. Its centerpiece was a flawless six-carat stone from Klipdrift, the diamond-rush town where Jamie McGregor made his first fortune. It was stunning, but Tara had never worn it. There wasn't much call for six-carat diamond necklaces at the AIDS clinic.

Is that what my children might die for? A stupid necklace?

"Take it. Take everything." She wept. "Just please let me go to my son. I'm a doctor. He needs medical attention."

"Later." The man zipped up the bag. He looked at Tara as if seeing her for the first time. It was a look she'd seen thousands of times from young men at the clinic. Distrust. Hatred. Envy. Barely repressed rage. The curse of this beautiful country.

She knew what was going to happen.

"You people, you take everything from us." The man's hands were at her throat. "Our land. Our food. Our diamonds. White devils."

"I work with your people, every day." Tara tried not to show her terror, but she knew he could see it in her eyes. "I work at the AIDS clinic in Pinetown."

"AIDS? YOU gave us AIDS! You white doctors. You kill our children."

"Bullshit." Anger was Tara's last defense. "You kill your own children with your ignorance. We try to help you. My husband has given millions - "

One big black hand covered her mouth, forcing her to the floor. The other tore at her shirt, grabbing hungrily at her breasts. Tara knew better than to fight. The bastard would probably enjoy it. Instead she retreated from her body, barricading herself in her mind.

It's only my body. It isn't "me." He can't touch me.

She felt him on top of her, inside her, the stench and weight of him, the rage with which he forced his huge, grotesquely swollen cock inside her body.

Think about the children. If he gets what he wants from me, maybe he won't hurt them.

He wasn't fucking her. He was stabbing her, frenziedly pounding himself into her flesh, his entire body a weapon.

The police will come, or Gabe. Oh God, Gabe! She stifled a sob. The clock on the wall said ten after four. Where are you?

Gabe crouched by the side of the road, his hands black with oil.

Stupid Bentley. He'd had new tires put on only last month and already one of them had a flat. He was annoyed about being late again. Tara was always berating him about it, and for once he'd made a real effort to leave the office in good time. As he heaved the spare out of the trunk, it occurred to him that he hadn't changed a tire since he was a teenager back in Scotland. Bloody hell, I'm getting old.

Two police cars roared past him, sirens wailing.

Must be another break-in.

He got to work.

Tara heard the sirens. Hope welled up within her.

The man stopped raping her and pulled up his pants. Fear flickered in his eyes. He shouted to his companions: "Masihambe! Amaphoyisa!"

Tara understood the Zulu. "Let's go. Police." She started to shake with relief.

Thank God. Oh, thank God. It's over.

For the first time, she wondered if the rape would mean she'd lost her baby. There was blood on her thighs.

Five men charged down the stairs and leaped out of the ground-floor windows like gazelles. Weren't there six of them before? Had she miscounted? She tried to get a closer look at their faces, but it was impossible, they moved so fast.

Grabbing his backpack, the ringleader started after them. Then he stopped and turned around.

"Fucking bitch. You typed in the alarm code, didn't you?"

He moved toward the stairs. Tara's blood turned to ice. The children.

"No!" She lunged at him, but her legs collapsed beneath her like Jell-O.

He started to climb.

The electric gates were closed.

"No sign of forced entry. You sure this is the place, man?"

"Yah." The police sergeant nodded. "McGregor. It's the Phoenix guy. Maybe they got in around the back."

"You know how to open these things?"

The senior officer looked wearily at the Fort Knox-like gates. He was called out to break-ins almost every day. Nine times out of ten it was a false alarm. Kids playing around with the safe, or some dumb Bantu maid getting spooked and hitting the panic button.

"You can't. Not without the code. We'll have to climb over, boss."

The senior officer sighed. He was getting too old for this.

"Come on, then. Dax, Willoughby, you drive around the back. Wits about you lads, eh? You never know. This could be the real thing."

"Sure, boss." They all laughed.

Five o'clock. Forty minutes to change a stupid tire. You're pathetic, Gabe McGregor. Pathetic.

Turning the corner, Gabe saw two squad cars parked outside his gates.

"Sorry, sir. You can't go up there."

"What do you mean I can't go up there? This is my house. What's happened? Where's my wife?"

Blood drained from the young cop's face. "Just stay here, sir. I'll fetch DI Hamilton." He set off at a run up the drive.

Bugger this, thought Gabe. Grinding the Bentley's gears into first, he slammed his foot down on the gas pedal, sending his wheels spinning and throwing up a plume of dust like a sandstorm.

"Sir! Stop!" But it was too late. Gabe's car shot up the hill like a bat out of hell. Seconds later, he sprinted into the house. Cops swarmed the entryway like sand flies.

"Tara!" Gabe shouted into the rafters. He could hear the panic in his own voice. "Tara? Darling?"

A policeman approached him.

"Gabriel McGregor?"

Gabe nodded mutely. "Where's my wife? Where are the children?"

"If you'd just sit down a minute, sir..."

"I don't want to sit down. Where have you taken my children?"

A man appeared at the top of the stairs. In his arms was a gray canvas body bag.

It was only four feet long.

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