PREDATOR/PREY

On the barren, wind-scorched plain, beneath the meagre shade of a twisted cypress tree, the nanny goat had, after a long and difficult labour, finally given birth. The newborn kid lay upon the hard ground, bleating and twitching, still smeared with blood and placental fluids. For the moment its mother was too exhausted to begin the delicate cleaning process, to encourage her offspring to take its first tentative steps. In Nature, the simplest oversight is invariably fatal.

A shiver of mighty wings, a crisscross of arrowed shadows converging over the land: the flock settled like bitter snow, winged demons with flashing eyes, savage in beak and claw. Powerful talons seized the kid by its neck: uncomprehending, it raised its head, whereupon its eyes were slashed clean from their sockets. As its mouth fell open in stupefaction a ripping beak seized upon the tongue, surgically extracting it in gouts of blood and shredded muscle – the newborn died knowing only pain.

Too late, the mother stirred, making a feeble effort to defend her dead progeny. She too was set upon in turn, one bird zeroing precisely in upon her bruised and tender genitalia, rending and cutting, opening up a jagged wound from anus to throat, steaming offal slithering free. Perhaps mercifully, shock had overwhelmed the nanny well before final dismemberment.

The flock feasted, gabbling in excitement and triumph. The good times had returned: they were back where they belonged, the very apex of the food chain. The immigrant competition - strange, bipedal, earthbound creatures that trapped and poisoned without letup – had abruptly left, undermined by strife that sundered their feeble packs: the birds were again Top Predator, and everything else was merely prey…

Guadalupe Island, 1900

“There is problem with the boat, Senor.

Rocky Benstead was used to hitches in his unique line of work, to last-minute changes of plan. But right now, this was not what he wanted to hear, not after three years of scheming and cajoling, patiently waiting for the faceless monolith that passed for Mexican government to grind into action. He looked out at the lapping water of Baja California – it seemed to be mocking him. He spat, and turned to address the speaker: his fixer, batman, and good left hand. His name was Manuel.

“When you say ‘problem’, do you mean with the boat itself, or with our hiring of it?”

“The latter, Senor,” Manuel whimpered, his face reddening. His manner was earnest and intense, a living refutation of the popular image of shiftless, lazy Mexicans.

“Let me guess,” Rocky sighed, pushing his hat further back on his head, “Captain Heraclio has decided to up his fee?”

Manuel shook his head emphatically. “No Senor: there is someone else wishes to sail to Guadalupe, and they offer better price.”

“Problem, Pops?” said a third voice, bright as sunlight on water, and a force of nature in the shape, if not the attire, of a young woman materialised at his side. She was called Leigh, and what always struck Rocky about his daughter – in the bloom of her twenty-third year – was how thoroughly she resembled himself, yet how incongruously beautiful she was with it. Certainly it was not conventional beauty, but then Leigh Benstead was by no means a conventional girl: she was possessed of an immense chin, sharp as a spearhead; and a somewhat formless nose, lacking feminine grace. For what she claimed as convenience, but her father suspected was deliberate affectation, she wore her hair disturbingly high and short, raggedly cut like a windswept pageboy. So far, so masculine, as one might expect of a motherless tomboy – but then, if one looked closer, unmistakable traits of womanhood manifested: full, sensual lips that parted easily into a dazzlingly toothsome smile; elegantly Asiatic, sloe-black eyes, fringed with deep lashes beneath firmaments of lush brows; subtle cheekbones, deeply slanted and roseate like setting sunbeams. Physically Leigh was wiry, long-limbed, seeming taller than she truly was; yet even here womanly aspects fought the termagant prevalence: supple curvature of calves and thighs; an unexpectedly lush backside; high breasts nowhere near as adolescent as a first glance might imply. Raising Leigh as best he could, watching her grow and blossom, Rocky had been unable to help noting all these features – occasionally it caused him disquiet, but his overriding emotion was pride, not to mention shock, that a long ago mistake should produce something so exquisite.

“Manuel says we’ve been gazumped – seems someone else desires our vessel.”

“Want me to go beat them up?”

“I’m hoping violence won’t be necessary,” Rocky grinned. “Manuel, perhaps you could point out our rival, so I might persuade them to reconsider?”

At this suggestion Manuel’s mood seemed to lift considerably. He essayed a smile that could best be deemed conspiratorial.

“No need to point them out, Senor – you will know straight away.” And with that he made a curious gesture, arcing his hands out from his shoulders and down to his waist. As Rocky and his daughter exchanged glances he repeated the gesture, accompanied by a facial spasm that appeared to simulate a wink. Rocky shrugged, and began walking along the bustling quayside. Everything fell into place once he espied his erstwhile captain, engaged in earnest discussions with another figure. Said figure was a woman, a fraction taller than his own daughter; and on closer inspection the meaning of Manuel’s strange hand signals became readily apparent.

She was the most voluptuous creature Rocky had ever seen, and this was something, as Rocky had had the pleasure of seeing many – indeed, at one time the pursuit of such pulchritude had been his chief leisure activity, the demon liquor aside. She was all but erupting out of what would otherwise be a perfectly modest, if distinctly chic, travelling ensemble, trimmed with the tell-tale black of bereavement. As he neared, he forced himself to study her face, and not her embonpoint, which was a challenge. The face itself was both striking and intriguing, belonging to an obviously young woman, but with an aspect of maturity, even of nobility. An open, olive face, almost matronly in its strength of cheek and chin; great dark brown eyes, somewhat mournful (mourning?) – an impression heightened by the pinched, serious mouth. But beneath the sadness there lay definite hints of sensuality: a nose of rare elegance, nostrils deeply flared with barely concealed passion; voluptuous Hispanic eyebrows, arching sable; a carefully tousled corona of shoulder-length hair like ebony flames. Rocky’s honed eye zeroed in on lush striae of black hairs upon her exposed forearms, provocative as pubes; and there was, quite literally, no getting around that monumental bosom. Staving off an incipient erection, Rocky formulated a hypothesis that this woman had just come in for a generous inheritance, and would trounce him in a straight bidding war. However, he needed this boat…

“Heraclio, old buddy,” he surged forward, slapping the surprised skipper on the back. “Looks like you’re two-timing me, but I can’t say’s I blame you. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your delightful companion?”

Senor Benstead,” Heraclio stammered, taken aback. “This is, uh, La Viuda Varga…”

Rocky surged forward, taking her hand and kissing it extravagantly.

“Enchanted, Senora – my condolences on your sad loss. Rocky Benstead, at your service...”

Not an heiress – a widow. That made things potentially even more interesting.

“Delighted, Senor Benstead,” she replied, voice regally low: though the arch of her eyebrow and curl of her lip implied she was anything but. It occurred to Rocky that he cut a less than dashing figure in his field gear, however she was polite enough to add, “Your Spanish is most impressive.”

“Well, I have lived in this part of the world a long time,” Rocky smiled. “May I ask what brings you to the Baja?”

“I am endeavouring to tidy up my late husband’s affairs. My understanding is that he had an interest in property on Isla Guadalupe – I wish to inspect this asset.”

“Really?” Rocky furrowed his brow in mock concern. “And you intend to travel alone?”

“Of course not,” she replied, a tad haughtily. “I have my retinue: accountant, lawyer, manservant…”

Rocky glanced at Heraclio, who had sidled away, pretending to inspect every plank of his boat’s hull.

“And these gentlemen are all skilled in the use of firearms?”

Contempt flickered to concern in her eyes. “Why should they be? The Isla has been abandoned…”

“By people, yes. But there are tales… I don’t wish to alarm you, but legend speaks of a particularly fierce bird of prey, the Quelili. They are believed to ruthlessly attack goats, and they are unafraid of humans.” He leaned in conspiratorially, and whispered, “You will find, Senora, that el capitano is the only fisherman now brave enough to make a landing on the island – but even he will not linger there.”

Madre de Dios,” the woman breathed, colour draining charmingly from the warm sepia of her face. “You truly think we may be in danger?”

Rocky shrugged. “They say they go for the eyes first, sometimes the tongue, and sometimes… well, these are only stories, but as you point out, Guadalupe is abandoned. However, it might allay your fears if, say, instead of an accountant, you were to take an expert hunter of the world’s fiercest game…”

She looked at him with dawning, and flattering, respect.

You are such a person?”

“Finest shot in all Mexico,” he smiled. “And if a lovely lady such as yourself requires protection, I would be honoured to provide. In fact, I have a retinue myself, of sorts, and they would be only too willing to tend to your comfort in the wilderness.”

And before she had any time to think on the proposal, he called out, “Heraclio! You can quit skulking now – La Viuda and I have reached an accommodation.”

*

Some truths are plain, others not so: Rosenda Varga, mature looks and somewhat overripe figure notwithstanding, was but twenty-one years old. She had been widowed in circumstances so bizarre and distasteful they could not even be hinted at in company, leaving her with a morass of financial affairs to try and deal with, not to mention a host of servants, financiers and general hangers-on whose existences now depended upon her word. She had hatched the notion of personally inspecting every one of her late husband’s diverse interests because, frankly, she couldn’t think what else to do: more than once she had questioned the sanity of this project; and today, especially, was such an occasion.

She was trapped with a quartet of perfect strangers, aboard a rickety fishing smack, heading for an island that loomed ominously across the horizon, resembling a rocky loaf left slightly too long in the oven; its centre collapsed into a string of volcanic depressions, delineated by a fearsome spinal ridge. Its seaward flanks were so steep they were all but sheer: forbidding grey cliffs like fortress walls, impregnable and unwelcoming. Beyond these barricades could be glimpsed desiccated brown highlands, spiked with scattered, alien trees, redolent of a lost primordial world. Rosenda gazed upon them, and suppressed a shiver.

And what to make of her ersatz companions? Of all, she trusted Skipper Heraclio the most (he had been paid, after all), but he would not be remaining with the party. He would deposit them on Guadalupe, then return upon the next favourable tide. That left the distinctly eclectic trio she had traded for her own loyal staff: Benstead, the smooth-talking Yankee; his brusque, and frankly rather mannish, daughter; and a zealous fellow native who seemed to function in a bewilderingly diverse array of roles, including armourer, butler and chef. Since the men insisted on conducting all conversations with her bosom, she felt obliged to try and bond with Leigh, who proved surly, unresponsive and overtly resentful of Rosenda’s very presence. Nonetheless, she was able to glean that ‘Rocky’ knew far more about the Quelili than he had initially let on, and he did not for one moment believe in their ferocious reputation. The rest was likewise exaggerated - he was indeed a professional hunter, but of exotics, not big game. Sadly, it was rather late to decide she didn’t after all trust him to protect her person, or her honour.

They came at last upon a gap in the cliffs, a jagged rent like a breached dam, revealing a small bay and a black, boulder-strewn beach. Deftly their skipper steered them towards the huddle of rusting tin huts that marked the old sealing station – beyond the land sloped sharply upwards, and goats could be seen indolently nibbling at scrubby bushes high above. The goats, Rosenda knew from perusal of her husband’s papers, were a remnant of an even older activity on Guadalupe, whaling. But the whalers, like the sealers, like all settlers on this bleak outpost, were gone; only their former livestock remained. And beyond the documented facts, the legend - that there was something about the island itself that had caused all settlements to fail: some inherent evil in the soil, or in the air, that turned families against themselves, friends into enemies, fractured would-be communities. Looking on this bleak spot, it wasn’t hard to believe in a curse.

With over-ostentatious servility, Manuel removed her baggage, along with most of the others’. By the time all four of them were fully disembarked Heraclio, true to his word, was already en route back to Baja California.

“Well, here’s Base Camp,” Rocky announced, gesturing towards the shanties. “Might not look much, but for the next few days, this is home. Leigh, why don’t you start making our quarters presentable; meanwhile, I wonder if La Viuda might assist me with the evening meal?”

Rosenda was dumbfounded – surely she was not being called upon to cook? Benstead fished in his baggage, grinning broadly – he emerged with an ornate, elderly looking rifle. He loaded and pointed it toward the slopes.

“Go ahead, Senora – pick a goat, any goat.”

The animals seemed impossibly distant: nonetheless, Rosenda pointed vaguely. There was a thunderous, echoing crack, and immediately a goat folded to the ground.

“There – finest shot, as advertised,” he murmured. Then: “Manuel! Fresh meat beckons, let’s go…”

“Hey, wait a minute,” Leigh came thundering out of the lingering gun smoke, “why are you taking him? I’m your field assistant, remember?”

Benstead looked uncomfortable. “Of course you are, Junior – I just thought you might appreciate a chance to do something a bit more domestic, a bit more… womanly.”

“Hell you did,” she snarled. “You’re just trying to palm me off with the princess here – why?”

Rocky sighed, and took a few steps aside. “A private word, Daughter Mine, if you will…”

She stomped over, and he leaned in conspiratorially.

“Please Junior, indulge me on this – I want La Viuda to feel comfortable as possible.”

“Why? She shouldn’t even be here. We hired that boat, goddammit!”

“I know, but… look, I can’t leave her alone with Manuel – you must’ve seen the way he looks at her.”

“I’m more concerned about the way you look at her,” she countered. “Hope you’re not getting ideas.”

“Leigh…” he pleaded.

“All right, all right,” she said, throwing up her hands. “I’ll stay. But don’t cry to me if Manuel gets skittish – don’t think he’s keen on heights.”

She strode over to where Rosenda stood, anxiously, while Manuel intently studied her bosom.

“Right, you,” she barked, “seems we’re stuck with each other. Here’s the deal: you scrounge some twigs, you bundle them together, and you start sweeping out two of these huts – comprende?”

Rosenda stared at her, horrified and dumbfounded.

“And if I refuse?” she asked, tremblingly.

“Then I’ll beat the snot out of you,” snapped Leigh decisively. “Now get going…”

*

They hadn’t ascended very far when Manuel began complaining.

Senor, this is not my place. Senorita Leigh is correct – I should be at el campamento.”

“Oh come on, Manuel,” Rocky chided, “not long ago you were begging me to get you out in the field, and now you’re scared of heights? This wouldn’t have anything to do with a particularly large pair of knockers, would it?”

Manuel was guiltily silent, and Rocky chuckled. “Forget it, my friend – she’s out of your class.”

Not that that would necessarily stop a wily fox like Manuel; nor indeed was it going to stop Rocky himself, when the time came. But first there was business to attend…

“So: the Quelili – what do we know so far?”

“Once common, Senor, until settlers came with their goats. Long campaign of shooting and poisoning: made them very rare before Isla was abandoned. My contact in San Diego managed to speak to Drent, the goat-hunter: he claimed, three years ago, to have taken four of the last seven specimens on the island.”

“A professional goat hunter – Christ almighty. And then, later the same year, there was that idiot fisherman who tried to sell a Quelili to the Smithsonian for 150 big ones. So now, far as anyone knows, there may be only two left alive, and they might not even constitute a breeding pair.”

Si, Senor – I hope we are not too late.”

“Yeah well, your government didn’t exactly help in that regard. But we’re not too late, Manuel – I can feel it. We secure even one of these birds, $150 won’t seem nearly so extortionate as it did in ’97. I tell, you we play this right, and we could be set for life… Manuel?”

But the Mexican had stopped dead in his tracks, face tilted upwards. And on that face was the most curious expression Rocky had ever seen – a precise mix of disappointment, and terror.

*

Rosenda’s knees ached, along with her back, and shoulders. She sweated so much it felt as if her clothes were glued to her skin, and still the hut didn’t look one iota cleaner than it had at the beginning. How could she have fallen so far, so fast? A young woman of high standing, reduced to menial work for a muchacha seemingly bent on being more muchacho than any male. She stood outside, shaking her head at the absurdity of it all, whereupon a movement registered at the corner of her eye – a shadow crossing the ground. She glanced up, and gasped.

“Holy shit!” Leigh came storming out of the other hut, hesitated a fraction, then dived back in to re-emerge in seconds with another rifle. She raised it, tried to sight, cursed.

“Dammit, they’re moving too fast. She lowered the gun, then set off running. “Wait here,” she called over her shoulder, “Dad won’t have enough ammo – I have to go help.”

“Are… are they…?” Rosenda panted.

“Oh yeah,” Leigh shouted gleefully. “Those are devil birds themselves – Quelilis.

*

They swarmed onto the fresh goat carcass, a maelstrom of flapping wings and a strange gabbling noise resembling the laughter of hysterical drunks. There were easily a dozen of them, Rocky deduced in a flash, and they paid no attention to the men’s approach as they savagely ripped into fresh flesh.

“Shit,” he spat, “so much for being only two…”

He hadn’t anticipated their size: they had the aspect of small eagles but the heavy, clumsy movement of vultures. Dropping to the ground, he stretched out until he became almost a physical extension of his weapon, aiming carefully – he needed to secure at least one. The bird had powerful, vicious, almost reptilian talons, and a short but wickedly hooked beak. The powerful body, tail and slightly reduced wings were covered in an intricate mosaic of feathers, chestnut brown mottling over fawn. The head was white, with a fetching black crest extending to the back of the neck; ahead of the eyes was a vivid splash of bright red that Rocky first mistook for blood – in fact, it was a cere vivid as any he had seen on a raptor.

Gently he squeezed the trigger, the butt ramming his long-suffering shoulder as a crack like a whiplash echoed over the land. With a sharp high screech his chosen bird seemed to leap up off the carrion, then fell onto its back, limp claws pointing skyward. Unbelievably, the remainder of the flock did not fly off – instead, with more of that bizarre gabbling, the bulk resumed feeding while one or two gathered round the fallen, with rapid back-and-forth head movements that suggested confusion. Rocky had heard of island species having no comprehension of, and no response to, man-made dangers; but this was the first time he had seen it so precisely demonstrated. Determined not to miss this chance he took two more cartridges from his pocket, reloaded, and with quick blasts secured the would-be comforters. This threw the survivors into a paroxysm of excitable chatter, but still they did not flee – nor, Rocky was relieved to note – did they seem to associate the men with their sudden crisis. He glanced behind, where Manuel was knelt, looking abashed and slightly awestruck.

“Manuel,” he hissed, “more ammo.”

But the fixer merely stared at him dumbly, and Rocky cursed. What the hell was wrong with Manuel – had La Viuda gotten to him that much?

At that moment a lithely familiar figure came skittering over to them, running crouched like a Plains Indian. A scattering of fresh shells tinkled at Rocky’s elbow, and while he greedily reloaded Leigh draped herself over the earth, a born sniper, instantly bagging two more. That was five: Rocky himself made it seven, by which time Leigh had recharged and run the score to nine. Only then did it seem to occur to the rump that they were truly in mortal danger – they lifted, shrieking, heading off with deceptive speed from their lazy wingbeats. Rocky made it an even ten by winging, literally, one of the trio; the last two escaped.

The whole shebang had lasted less than two minutes, but Rocky felt as if he’d been shooting all day; the silence that ensued was almost eerie in its completeness. Leigh broke it, commenting tartly, “You know, next time you go shooting, might pay to bring along someone who thinks to carry bullets.”

Rocky sighed, then chuckled. This little expedition was turning out distinctly queer, it seemed.

*

Rosenda had laboured – yes, laboured – to make her little huts presentable, and now they had been turned into a charnel yard. The unfortunate Quelilis were hung like pullets in a butcher’s window, awaiting skinning, while nearby, Manuel filleted the remains of the goat, slowly cooking them over a bustling fire whose orange glow only deepened the gloom of twilight. It seemed Manuel was in the doghouse, both for his incompetence in the field and for passing misleading intelligence about the evidently numerous Quelili. Rosenda felt a strange stab of sympathy for the poor man, and also for the birds; while her feelings regarding Senor Benstead were ever more equivocal: he had lied about, or at best exaggerated, the ferocity of the creatures, yet his skill with firearms only backed up his earlier boasting. And what to make of Leigh, who seemed at least her sire’s equal in that regard? How could any daughter, even one so obviously deviant, learn to kill with such alacrity and precision? Rosenda felt again the dislocation of strange company, the sense of losing control – it was a sadly all-too familiar sensation.

After the meal – rough and ready, but nonetheless appetising – came more brutality, as Rocky commenced the skinning. He worked with disarming speed, combining butcher, surgeon and craftsman as he slit one bird down the middle of its breast, then cut precisely through the fixing bones of the tail, wings and neck. Firm, rolling fingers pulled the feathered skin tenderly away from the soft tissue - which emerged glistening, vivid purple - and then free of the skeleton itself, smooth as peeling an orange. Then it was Leigh’s turn – she carefully scraped the inverted skin clean of adhering tissue, dusted it with preservative, then rolled it back so the feathers were once more on the outside. Into the body cavity she inserted a special, vaguely bird-shaped wooden dowel, wrapped in cotton, pulling the skin around it. Using another bird as model, she packed further wads of cotton into the head and breast until its shape was indistinguishable from the still fresh examples. Then, like some macabre, fairy tale seamstress, she carefully sewed the body, wings and tail back together, labelling the preserved specimen in the elegant hand of the illiterate. By the time she had finished, Rocky had a second skin ready – the entire process had consumed perhaps a half-hour. For a while Rosenda found it ghoulishly fascinating to watch them work with such skilled aplomb, but all too soon the sight and smell of accumulating viscera began to trouble her sensibilities and stomach, so she summarily retired to what had been dubbed the “Ladies Hut”. Within its welcome privacy she undressed: without servants to assist this was another novel experience, but she found it curiously relaxing, sufficient to realise just how much this strangest of days had taken out of her. When she lay down in the meagre pile of blankets on the floor, she fell asleep almost immediately.

When she awoke, everything was covered in a luminous grey dust that she belatedly deduced was moonlight coming through holes in the damaged roof. Then she noticed Leigh, sat in a corner, quite naked; crossed legs drawn up against her chest, chin resting on her knees, swigging intermittently from an unmarked bottle and watching Rosenda intently. Her expression was unreadable, making it all the more intimidating.

“Is your work finished?” she mumbled, trying to cover a sudden flare of anxiety.

. “Ten Quelili skins in the can,” Leigh shrugged, “and a nice bucket of guts which might attract more.” She took another swig.

“But if they are not rare, as your father believed, he will not get a good price,” Rosenda offered, trying to stop her voice going high like a frightened little girl’s.

“Maybe not, but you know what they say about ‘a bird in the hand’ - Dad’ll take what he can get.”

Leigh took a long quaff, then a thought seemed to strike her: she held out the bottle.

“Is it… water?” Rosenda queried, taking it warily. Leigh snorted.

“Firewater, more like – this is how we celebrate a successful hunt. It’s hooch, moonshine, wood alcohol, call it what you want. Won’t quench a thirst, but it’ll help you care less about it.”

Rosenda took a timid sip: a sudden burning in her mouth had her swallowing rapidly, the fire rasping down her throat, making her splutter, eyes streaming.

“Wuss,” snapped Leigh, snatching back the vessel. “Bad as Manuel – he can’t hold it, either.”

“You… dislike… Mexicans?” Rosenda managed to gasp, between chokes. The fire was still burning, deep in her belly.

“I dislike frauds,” said Leigh sourly. “Manuel claims to know about hunting, but he knows jack shit – bet he’s never even handled a gun.” Another swig. “Then of course there’s you.”

Rosenda sat up, a flurry of silken nightdress. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, all this bullcrap about having property here. There is no property, unless you count goats – this place is derelict. Which begs the question, O Viuda Varga – why are you really here?”

She offered the bottle again, and it was as much a challenge as her question. This time it didn’t burn quite so much, but still took Rosenda’s breath away.

“Why do you think I’m here?” she countered, wheezing.

“Well, let’s see: you’re a rich, spoilt brat. You married young, probably some old fart with oodles of cash and a tit fetish, and now he’s bought the farm, you fancy a bit of rough. Well, hate to break it to you, Bitch, but my Dad is better than that. He’s better than you.”

Perhaps it was the liquor, but when Rosenda burst out laughing, there was a touch of hysteria to it.

“What’s so goddamn funny?”

“You really think that I…” Rosenda struggled with the laughter bubbling out of her, morphing into alcoholic hiccups. “That I have any interest in…” she doubled over in mirth, and then all at once her catharsis shifted and she was weeping, sobbing violently. Leigh watched her, between slugs: the set of her lips and the prominence of her front teeth made it seem like she was sneering, but she wasn’t.

“So,” she said softly, “why are you here?”

“Because I needed to get away,” Rosenda sniffed. “Because I could be in real trouble, and I don’t know what to do…”

*

Manuel awoke, busting for a piss. He got up, shambling carefully past the snoring form of his boss and emerging into the stark moonwashed world. Having jetted discreetly against a rock he was, in that quaint gringo phrase, ‘adjusting his dress’ when the night breeze brought the low sweet hum of female voices. The thought of La Viuda, and to a much lesser extent Leigh, in bed sent a flush of swelling blood to his cock. He wondered what they could possibly be discussing, and intrigue got the better of him. He stole towards the Women’s Hut, crouched in the shadow of a bush, and listened.

“I have so much,” Rosenda was expounding breathlessly, between reckless pulls on the bottle. The stuff was going down easily now, fuelling the conflagration in which her inhibition burned. She had no idea why she was telling this strange, stroppy girl – she only knew she had to tell someone. “I have a mansion, I have offices, I have gold: I may even have a piece of this island. Just because my husband died, it all now belongs to me.”

“Sounds great,” Leigh grunted. “Best I can hope for when Dad shuffles off are some guns and a massive bar tab – that’s if I’m lucky.”

“But it’s all a lie!” Rosenda exploded. “None of it is really mine…”

Leigh frowned. “Maybe you’d better explain.”

Rosenda took a deep breath, and put her head in her hands.

“I have no true claim to any of my husband’s property,” she whispered darkly. “Our marriage was not legally valid – it was never consummated. If anyone finds out, if they even suspect, I shall lose everything.”

At this Manuel’s ears pricked up. He had been hoping for some entertainment, for the sort of vaguely erotic byplay he believed often occurred between women. Instead he was being offered something potentially more satisfying – an opportunity.

“Well that’s a bummer, for sure,” Leigh was commenting. “But you were still his wife…”

“If the will is challenged, there are tests can be administered: the shame would ruin me.”

“But why would anybody challenge? I mean, how did hubby die, anyway?”

“Heart attack. He was much older than me, and known to have a weak constitution.”

“Well there you go – so long as there was nothing suspicious about it…” Leigh broke off, rubbing her temple. “Wait a minute: was there something suspicious?”

“Suspicious, no,” Rosenda replied dolefully. “Estupido, most certainly.” Her eyes were huge and luminous as she gazed towards Leigh. “You must promise never to tell a soul.”

“Don’t worry,” Leigh grinned, “I’m so drunk I’ll have forgotten all this by morning.”

“Pablo died on our wedding night,” Rosenda began, alcohol-spiced tears trundling down her cheeks. “He died trying to make love to me for the first time.”

Manuel’s cock strained against the fabric of his night drawers. He freed it, and in an action innate as breathing began to rub his foreskin back and forth. He was getting the best of all possible worlds: when Senor Benstead said this trip would be the making of him, he spoke truer than he knew.

“I make no pretensions to real beauty,” Rosenda was continuing, “I knew Pablo courted me for my bosoms alone. They fascinated him – as it seems they fascinate all men – and so keen was he to unveil them that we quit our own nuptial festivities early.

“I remember disrobing in front of him, in our boudoir, feeling nervous and more silly than romantic. I was so naïve I thought it only natural he was wheezing heavily as he watched. I lay down on our marital bed while he removed his clothes, then climbed on top of me. His excitement was obvious: I felt it brush my thigh, and was terrified. Pablo’s face loomed over me, purple and sweating; his eyes bulged, and when he put his hands on my breasts he was gasping like a stranded fish. And I just assumed this was what happened when a man made love to his bride. Then, just as he was about to try and penetrate me, he dropped his head into my cleavage with a strange gurgling cry, and simply stopped moving. I lay under him for several minutes, thinking he had fallen asleep, but nothing I did could wake him. At last I wriggled out from under his limp form, and was only then I realised – my Pablo was quite dead.”

And what a way to go, thought Manuel, the notion eroding the last of his self-control. There was a familiar flutter under his belly, a sudden discharge of ivory filaments cobwebbing the bush. However, he had not quite prepared himself for the moment – the force rocked him back and he overbalanced on numb legs, with an audible scrape. Hauling up his drawers with one hand he bolted for the safety of the Men’s Hut.

Madre de Dios,” Rosenda gasped. “What was that?”

For all her inebriation, Leigh vaulted like a moonlit cat for the hut’s single window – Rosenda caught a glimpse of pale, tight buttocks and long, muscled legs in motion. Leigh peered into the night, a smile creeping across her face.

“Nothing to worry about – just a goat. Go on with the story.”

“There isn’t much more to tell. My screams alerted a trusted servant, and he in turn contacted an inner circle of Pablo’s staff. Fortunately, we had been scheduled to depart on a honeymoon the very next day, so we were able to conceal what had happened for several days. The staff concocted a palatable cover story, in which Pablo fell ill after going climbing; and I went along with it, not because I wanted his money, but because I didn’t know what else to do. Now I find myself Conspirator-in-Chief, desperately propping up a fiction on which the livelihood of a dozen or more depends.”

Leigh wandered back from the window, kneeling beside her amid the blankets.

“Wow,” she muttered. “Killer boobs…” and she began to snicker, and once started she couldn’t stop, laughter pouring out of her like water from a shattered drain, collapsing her into quivering hilarity.

“It’s not funny,” Rosenda scowled, trying to summon her dignity. But in the face of intoxication and the other’s unrestrained hysterics, dignity was sundered: a chuckle rattled out of her, followed hard by a guffaw, then she too was reduced to merry jelly: of course it was funny. They lay beside each other, helpless as infants, every titter escalating their mutually ridiculous joy.

And then, with no discernible transition, the laughter died. Now Leigh’s naked body was pressed close, her breath hot on Rosenda’s cheek, her hands – her hands were fiddling below Rosenda’s throat, somewhere they had no business.

“What are you doing?” she giggled, the liquor taking the edge off her nervousness.

“I want to see them,” Leigh whispered. “C’mon – just a peek.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rosenda batted her hands away. “God, you’re as bad as the men.”

“No,” Leigh corrected. “I’m worse.” A dreamy wistfulness came into her eyes; she rolled onto her back and gazed up towards the perforated ceiling. Rosenda tried not to look at the russet-peaked rise of Leigh’s breasts, or the dense wedge of dark curls below her navel; even so her heart began to pound, full of darkly illicit excitement. She told herself it was only the liquor – at least, she hoped that was all it was.

“My Dad’s been with a lot of whores,” Leigh began, and it was understood that this was her confessional reciprocation. “For a long time I thought my mother was a whore, but he swears otherwise. Anyway, far back as I can recall he used to take me along to these houses full of women, and some of them would look after me while he went off to have his fun. I loved those places: the soft lights, the furniture, the clothes; and the girls just seemed so glamorous to me – they were like mothers, aunts and best friends all rolled into one.

“There was this one place Dad kept going back to. He and the Madam, Solana, had a thing going way back, before I was even born. I worshipped that woman - she seemed so beautiful and noble that she intimidated the heck out of me. She had a daughter, Closetta, about five years older than me – closest thing to sister I ever had. You could almost say we grew up together, except we only saw each other maybe once or twice a year.

“By the time I was fourteen, I was helping Dad more or less full time in the field, while Closetta was just starting to follow in her mom’s footsteps. I was a weird looking thing back then, a girl who dressed like a boy and thought like a man. I swore like a sailor and generally thought I was The Biz.

“So there’s this one night: Dad had something to celebrate, and he made straight for Solana’s. The place was heaving – even Solana herself was working, though she was semi-retired by then. That left Closetta and me, ‘cause her mom was being real picky about who she went with, being still so young and all. Closetta had turned out a stunner, not like me – thick black hair, great dark eyes, lips to die for. Guess it was jealousy made me start mouthing off, trying to impress her with a whole load of bullcrap ‘bout all the whorehouses I’d been in, and what went on in them; when in truth I knew jack shit. Well, Closetta put up with it for as long as she could, ‘til I said one stupid thing too many, and she finally snapped. She jumps up, grabs me by the wrist and says if I really want to know what goes on in this place, she is going to show me.

“She takes me by the hand, an’ leads me to a little bedroom that’s all pretty and girly, and it slowly dawns on me, this is her room – the holy of holies, a place only the richest, most privileged clients got to see. And I’m still taking this in, when she sits me down on the bed and starts to undress in front of me. I’d never knew there was an art to taking clothes off – she does it like a kind of dance, all slow and teasing. And I don’t know what to do, what to think – but I know her body’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve never been so excited in my life.”

Excitement: Rosenda was vividly aware of her pulse as it ticked electrically in her neck, under her arms, behind her knees and in other, sinfully secret spots; her breathing seemed inordinately laboured. She shouldn’t be listening to this, she knew: mere words should not be having such an effect. Yet the more she tried not to listen, the more Leigh’s low voice drew her in, a sweetly seductive lullaby. It was the liquor – she prayed that was all it was.

“Closetta leans over me, and she kisses me full on the lips, and I just about die. She’s so soft and sweet that I can’t get enough of her, an’ suddenly she’s pulling my clothes off and I don’t really know what’s happening, except I like it and my body seems to know exactly what’s going on. She pushes me down on the bed, climbs on top of me, kisses me slow an’ touches me in all places I’d never thought of being touched before. And she keeps asking me do I like it, does it feel good; but I don’t need to answer ‘cause she can tell by the noise I’m making that she’s driving me crazy. And all too soon she puts her hand between my legs, and I’m so wet it’s not even funny: she just pushes with her finger and I’m coming, hard n’ fast, howling like a scalded dog. Well, she lets me simmer down awhile, and then she starts on me again, except this time it’s her mouth down there, where her fingers had been. And I’m turning to jelly, losing all control, screaming and bawling like a baby; just letting it all go again when the door opens up, and in walks Solana.

“Well now I’m real scared – it’s like having a parent walk in when you’re doing something real bad; and face it, what Closetta and me are up to is bad as it gets. But she just looks at me, at Closetta, then back to me; and she smiles, almost like she’s proud. Then cool as you like, she slips off the nightgown she’s wearing, to stand naked as we.

“By this time I’m sure I’m dreaming, for though Solana’s getting on in years she’s still muy beautiful – high full boobs, a slim waist and thighs you’d happily suffocate between. She strolls on over, leans down and kisses Closetta, long and slow. Now I may not have no momma, but I just know that ain’t how a mother is supposed to kiss her daughter. And that starts to get me all revved up again, and I’m right, ‘cause Solana proceeds to kiss her way down Closetta’s firm young body, ‘til she’s doing to her own daughter what her daughter done to me. And I get to see, and hear, and smell it all: my arms are around Closetta as she’s going all soft and quivery, making those sounds only a girl in heat can make. I’m nuzzling her cheek, getting the feel and taste of it as she rolls over that wave, and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.

“And that sets the pattern: for the next couple hours they take turns with me, and with each other, ‘til we’re all three of us numb from the waist down. By the time I finally make my way back to Dad I can hardly walk, and though I never let on he must know something weird has gone down, ‘cause he hustles me right out of there, and though he takes whores aplenty in years to come, he never goes back to his once favourite house. But it’s too late: the damage is done. From that night on, I know women are my thing – my only thing.”

Leigh let her words drift up into the night – they seemed to hang amid the battered rafters, before settling down again, like clinging soot. Beneath their barrage Rosenda dared not respond; dared not even move. If she could, she would have prevented herself drawing breath, lest she betray the thudding, bubbling excitement sat like a damp stain beneath her gown. She felt soiled, clammy, shamed beyond redemption by this unwilling glimpse into the realm of sin, yet thrilled beyond expression by the whiff of forbidden fruits. Leigh turned towards her – in the pale light Rosenda could see she was smiling, but could not tell if the smile mocked or was sincere. Leigh’s hand brushed her sweat-salted cheek, then she drew herself forward, and their lips touched. Rosenda was surprised how soft, how gentle Leigh’s kiss was – it neither enticed nor incited, it merely asked. And though Rosenda shivered in a froth of pent-up desire, there was no question what her answer would be. She quailed, drew her face away.

“What is it you want of me?” she whispered dolefully.

“I told you – I want to see them. I want to see these breasts that killed a man.”

“If I show you, will you leave me be?”

Leigh let that one go unanswered, and Rosenda knew that she was helpless. She felt as trapped, as committed as on her wedding night: but back then, she had known only nervousness and ignorance: now she had the awfulness of knowledge, the dread languor of incipient seduction. She sat up, and Leigh mirrored the motion, her eyes twinkling in moonlight. Slowly, reluctantly – perhaps a touch provocatively – she slipped the gown from her shoulders, exposing herself. She tried to hold herself proud, even serene, though inside she was palpitating. Leigh’s eyes flickered downwards – she gave a low, appreciative whistle.

“My God, but they are so beautiful…” and she reached out, fingertips alighting on voluptuous flesh, just above the nipple. Rosenda gasped as if she had been stung; it felt like her heart was exploding. Leigh’s other hand joined its partner, and now both protuberances quivered beneath her touch. It was all the more unbearable for being so gentle, and as she slipped toward delirium Rosenda grasped at a lone straw of humour.

“Be careful,” she spluttered, “the last one to try that died…”