From the author: A man due to be married visits his fiancees home island for the preparations. The only problem is, he has no intention of the wedding going ahead...
Steven Bird was in over his head. He'd been over his head before of course, had been past his depth in debt and crime and incredibly bad people.
This was worse.
Steve would never call himself a good man. He was charming, could fill out a suit well, he was great at a party. He had lots of plans with lots of potential pay offs. He just hadn't made a plan for getting married.
She was nice enough, Jennifer, a pretty thing with a trust fund that he planned to empty and a life insurance policy he'd taken out after he proposed. You had to look after what was precious to you. He wasn't even getting laid – she had insisted on a purity ring, had wanted to know he was committed for the long term before she shared that with him.
It didn't help that she was easy on the eye, pale skin and full hips and long dark hair that curled into waves he would catch her perfume on. She was nice. It was just a shame she had the misfortune to meet Steve when he needed money.
"Steve, dear, where on Earth is your head?" He had become lost in his own thoughts as she discussed their dress rehearsal and she was now scowling at him.
"Sorry petal, I was just thinking about my vows," he lied, grateful for the indulgent smile it brought from her. She was always willing to believe the best in him, a trait he loved much more than he loved her.
"That's very romantic of you, but I need to know you're going to be here for the rehearsal, father Timothy is attending and he so wants to go over things with you."
"Course I'll be there, I know how much it means to you," he smiled, his eyes crinkling. Steve had planned on leaving this life, had planned on going straight a thousand times over. The problem was he owed a lot of money to bad people.
"Thank you Steve, you're so good." She giggled, pecking his cheek and curling an arm around him. "I know you don't like all the fuss of the wedding but my family are so pleased with it."
"With a daughter as lovely as you I can see why," he laughed, leaning his head onto her shoulder. He knew she liked this, liked that he was tactile and held her when she wanted. She had seemed touch starved when they first dated, always touching his skin and hugging him close.
"You're too nice," she said, closing the tablet and setting it on the coffee. "My family is so happy. They've heard so much about you and now we're here they can see you for themselves. I'm so excited."
"They're not going to be worried that you're taking up with some old scoundrel from down South?" he asked, raising his brows.
"Oh hush, you're only in your forties," she sighed, batting his chest.
"And you're in your twenties with the world at your feet."
"And I choose you to share it with," she reminded him, pecking a kiss to his lips. "Anyway, you're new blood to the Islands, that's always popular."
"You're lovely. I have to dash though, there are a couple of things I want to pick up before the rehearsal and I'd hate to be late," he said, tapping her legs off the table to let him off the sofa.
"Do you have any plans later?"
"What did you have in mind?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Nothing like that, cheeky!" she laughed, "I was thinking I could show you the old cliffs I used to play on when I was a kid, and the cove I used to swim at."
"Those ones you told me about? You always make them sound so beautiful, I'd love to." He lied, knowing she would eat it up. He didn’t care, really, he didn't want to be on the bloody Orkney Islands, but their wedding venue was here and he had to play nice.
"You're so lovely Steve. The dinners at seven so if you're back around five and I'll take us over? It's not too far from the rehearsal spot."
"Sure thing petal," he grinned, pecking a kiss to her hair before he left.
Steve walked down the main street, the only bloody street really, looking for somewhere private to make a call. He ducked into a much abused phone box, turning his back to the door and dialling a dreaded number on his mobile. He was already late with the call.
It answered on the third ring, a gruff, "Hello?"
"Kenny, it's Steve."
"About time, you're late."
"Sorry, on the job. You know how it is."
"Where's the money?"
"I'll have it next week: I just need to get off the damned Islands. They don't even have a branch of my bank here Kenny."
"The fuck you doing somewhere that doesn't have a branch of your bank?"
"It's the mark; she wanted to be up here for the wedding."
"You've let some bitch drag you up the wrong end of the country? You going soft on me Steve?"
"No, the job'll be done, but I've got to keep her sweet and it can't look too obvious."
"Well don't fuck it up. If you don't have the money there's a few prison sentences you could do that would clear it off. "
"I'll get you it: you know I'm good Kenny."
"Fine, call me when you've some useful news."
Steve was left fuming in the phone box. Who did Kenny think he was talking to? He'd known Steve for years; Steve never lost a mark.
He left the box and stalked along the street, trying to keep his face schooled into warm congeniality. He could feel his left brow starting to tic, a tell he'd used Botox to kill before, and made himself breathe slowly, forcing his heart rate down.
It did not do to be erratic when planning a murder.
Well, planning wasn't quite right, he smirked, the smile real this time, he'd known he was going to kill her for a while now.
Jennifer had mentioned her father liked rum, her mother liked gin and her brother drank whatever he was given. This meant buying a bottle of each and some mid level whisky, enough to look like he was trying, so he could take them to the dinner. Or leave them there before he went his walk with Jennifer.
Steve left the shop, shaking hands with the fisherman turned shop keeper – and former baker, and former cafe owner, Christ did none of them just stick at something? – and walked back along the street. The town was nice enough, a bit like going back in time but then certain parts of Scotland were like that. He could handle it for now.
He came back into the room to the sound of the shower running and put the presents on the table, laying his coat over them. He flopped into the sofa, running over his plan.
At first he'd been going to drown her directly, wait till the honeymoon and tip her ankles up in the bath, old school like. But now she wanted to go a wander on the cliffs, during the evening, when no one else was going to be about.
He was nothing if not lucky.
The water stopped and he heard the familiar sounds of Jennifer making herself up. She was always carefully careless. He liked that about her, she put herself together well without looking like a bloody parrot. He'd known some women who used their looks for their marks, had oozed sex and power and promise, and not pulled that off the same way Jennifer did.
She came out, smiling when she saw him and leaning in for a quick peck on the lips.
"You taste like the sea," she laughed, lapping a kitten lick at the side of his mouth.
"I was down by it, blowing the cobwebs off."
"I'm so glad you like it," she smiled, twisting her hair up into a chignon and doing some magic with bobby pins.
"It's a lovely place. A bit fresh when the wind catches you, but lovely."
"You should see it in winter, the wind whips the sea up so it's white tipped up to half way out, like an old carving or something."
"Sounds like a bad time to be on a boat."
"I think you'd be better off under the water than on it, yes."
"Glad we're not having to do either," he conceded, watching her grab bits and pieces from the room and shove them into her bag.
"You good to go?" she asked and he nodded, hefting himself out of his seat and grabbing the presents. "What are those?"
"Just a present for your parents and your brother. Might as well make a good impression."
"Oh, Steve, you darling thing," Jennifer laughed, hugging him. "You didn't need to do that, they're just pleased to meet you!"
"Doesn't hurt to ply them with booze though." He winked and she rolled her eyes at him.
They drove out of the town and deep into the countryside, going for a longer time than he had really thought possible on an island. They passed over several roads joining smaller islands together, creations built up on huge concrete blocks and with small railings each edge.
"Built by prisoners of war to stop submarines," Jennifer said as she drove, watching him.
"I didn't know there were POW's here."
"They built a chapel and everything, we passed that a little while back."
"It's different to what I imagined," he said, looking at the rusting bones of ships that arced out of the sea, straggles of seaweed and barnacles dotting the waterline of the wrecks.
"What, more rustic?"
"No, I suppose less. I was picturing it being more like Yorkshire, you know, the bleakness of the moors and the scorching wind. Father Ted meets Mad Max or something."
"And you don't see it that way?"
"No, the place is certain a bit sparse but it's lively. There's lots of green about, and birds and beasts and sheep. Not so many trees."
"Too much wind, they grow sideways."
They reached the cove about a half hour later, another car sat in the little parking square.
"Someone else has the same idea," Steve said.
"That's funny, there's not usually anyone else around. My parents place is just up there." She pointed to the top of one of the nearby cliffs; a little house hunkered close to the land.
"I didn't realise they were so close, we should have called in," he said, hovering by the car door.
"We can stop in after this, come on." She laughed, grabbing his wrist and tugging him along the cliff. The wind tugged at his hair again, the screech of tumbling gulls skipping along with breeze.
"So you used to come here as a kid?" he asked as they tramped through the long grass.
"All the time, every day in the summer holidays," she nodded, twining her fingers with his.
"Seems a bit of a bleak spot for a child," he said, watching the road disappear as they walked on.
"It wasn't too bad. I had my brother and friends that lived around here too. We'd tumble around the cliffs and then swim all afternoon in the sea. It was freezing, always, but you got used to it quick. It beat riding up and down the road on my bike all day."
"Probably better than that yes." Steve laughed, trying to imagine a younger Jennifer scrambling around here.
"I used to come and lie in this bit here," she ginned, leading him onto a chunky outcrop with various sunken pockets dotted along the ground.
"That sounds a bit teenage angst."
"Yeah it was sometimes, lying in my own little bubble and listening to music, just the sound of the waves and whichever tracks I liked. It was isolating but by choice."
"Want to try it again?"
"You can't be serious."
"Why not? No one else is about, why don’t we go lie in the big one and listen to the sea?"
"You're a dafty," she squealed in delight, "Do you mean it?"
"Alright then, come on."
She tugged him forward again, picking a path through the slope of the grass with the sure footedness of a cat. He followed at a clunking pace, his balance more precarious and less confident this close to a cliff edge.
She waited, leading him to the centre before lying down in the spongy grass. The place was half coated in flowers, purple heather and the browning remains of clover blossoms. It smelled like lying in fresh earth, the occasional sprinkle of salt drifting to them on the wind.
"This is amazing," he said, watching the clouds racing overhead.
"I loved coming here." She smiled, turning her head to see him. "It felt like my own slice of the world, no pressure, no expectation."
"I can see the appeal." He stretched an arm out to hold her hand again.
"I'm glad you like it here," she said, stroking her thumb along his palm. "I was worried you would hate it."
"How could I hate it when it gave me you?" he asked, smiling over to her.
"You're such a softie." She laughed, rolling over to lean on his chest and pecking his lips chastely.
"Only for you," he promised, almost honest.
"We'll have to head back soon." She sighed, glancing up to the higher ground.
"Let's have a look at the edge first eh?" he asked, moving her to the side and sitting up.
"You want to go to the edge?"
"Not right up to it, but so we can see the sea. It's a long way down there, sounds like it's coming from a sea shell."
"I suppose you're right." She chuckled, shaking her head at him. "I forget you're not used to this stuff."
"The river never sounded like this. Even when it was choppy and fierce it didn't sound like this." He laced his fingers with her and tugged her towards the edge of their sunken paradise.
"It's not a great view really," she shrugged, toeing up to the edge with him. "You can see the water down there just about, but the other side of the cliff stops you seeing much else."
"I can see you." He smiled, letting go of her hand to cup her cheek. She leaned into the touch, closing her eyes and sighing. "I think I really could have loved you, you know?" he asked, shoving his hand hard to the side and bring his other round to shove her chest, adding momentum.
She gasped, her eyes going wide as her mouth opened to say something that was torn away on the wind. She twisted over, her shoulders trying to counteract his hand on her ribcage but it was no use, he'd upended her balance and she began the plummet down into the dark, sloshing waters below.
Steve stood still, listening for the splash of her hitting the water, and for the lack of corresponding sound of her surfacing.
He ran from the secluded area, up the steep side and along the cliff path. He pulled his phone out and saw he had no signal, rolling his eyes at how easy it made it.
He arrived at the car park and saw the other car's owners had returned, their feathered Collie circling at their heels.
"Please, you've got to help me," he called as he jogged over, not having to fake the wheeze from his running.
"What's wrong pal?" the man asked, moving in front of the woman that accompanied him.
"My fiancée, Jennifer, she's fallen off the cliff," he said, pulling himself up to height so he could point to where he'd run from. "My phone doesn't have signal and I couldn't see her when I tried looking over. I heard her go into the water but she never came up, and it's so cold here. We need to get someone, a helicopter or the life boat or something."
"Jennifer Leslie?" the man asked, eyes wide as cart wheels.
"Yes, you know her?"
"She's my cousin; I'm due at her wedding rehearsal tonight. Lisa, you take the car up to her parents and get help, I'll go down in the cove and see what I can do."
"Of course, Thorfinn," the woman, Lisa, confirmed, scooping the dog into the car and neatly turning it out of the parking spot.
"Right, sorry to meet you under these circumstances mate, I can't remember your name from the invite." Thorfinn turned to him, face as close to apologetic as Steve imagined he could manage. He was definitely a farmer boy; broad across the shoulder and ruddy with the promise of windburn over his tanned face.
"Steve, so it is. Come with me, I know a way down to the cove." Thorfinn ordered, starting off towards the edge of the cliffs and making a sharp turn at what looked to be an especially tough tuft of grass.
Steve started after him, marvelling at Thorfinn's confident walking down what was at best a goat track meandering down the side of the cliff and onto the stony beach below.
"I didn't hear her come back up to the surface," Steve called.
"No, those cliffs can be funny things. I'm surprised she fell, but she's not been here in a long time," Thorfinn shouted back, hopping from the edge of the greenery onto the stones. "You stay here, I'm going to go in and see if I can spot her."
"You can't be serious, that water's be too cold for that! Jennifer said it's like fire on your skin when you dive in."
"It is, but I know the shoreline and I'll be able to find her quicker than anyone else." Thorfinn shrugged, tugging his boots off before shedding his jumper.
"Thorfinn, I know we've just met but I don't want you to risk drowning yourself when there's professionals on the way." Steve started, moving to stand between the man and the sea.
"I won't, I'm the strongest swimmer out of the family." Thorfinn assured him with a smile. "Anyway, she'll probably just be propped on a rock."
"That's a bit fucking cold isn't it?" Steve balked, startled at the ease with which the man had talked about his dead childhood play mate.
"No, I mean at the cove. She'll not have managed to get herself round the head of those fingers of land you were out at."
"Thorfinn, when I said she fell off the cliff I meant into the water," Steve repeated, confused and upset at the man's lack of understanding.
"I know what you meant mate, but trust me, she'll be ok. I know she's not explained everything to you yet, she was waiting till the meal, but I think it's ok for me to let you know now given what's going on."
"What are you talking about?" Steve asked, the skin at the back of his neck starting to prickle. This didn't smell right.
"I'm talking about the islands. There are certain community things, certain heritage things, here. It's hard to explain but it'll make sense once I bring her out of the water."
"I'm not following."
"That's ok. Trust me: it's easier to show you than tell you. I'm just going to leave you here for a few minutes and then-"
"You absolute, heartless bastard!"
Steve's spine straightened itself, adrenaline flooding him into a cold sweat. That was Jennifer's voice.
"Jenny! You're a stronger swimmer than you were when you left," Thorfinn boomed, pushing past Steve and running into the water. Steve made himself turn to face the water and felt his stomach fall.
Jennifer was stood into the shallows, her hair hanging around her face in straggles not unlike seaweed.
"J-Jennifer-" Steve stuttered, his voice choking when he saw her hands. Her ring was still there, glittering away, but instead of the slim fingers normally present there were thin, spiny feelers, edged with wicked claws. He looked back up to her and saw her face was different; her eyes rounded and shot black, her smile wider and the teeth within a jumble of needles.
He gaped, mouth opening and closing but no words able to make it past the scream stuck in his throat.
"Yeah you might well stand there speechless," she shouted, charging out of the water and hitting him in the chest. "Push me off a fucking cliff will you?" Another shove. "'Could' have maybe loved me, could you?" Another shove, her nostrils flaring as she screamed at him.
"Hey, what's going on?" Thorfinn asked, plucking her up and turning so she was out of Steve's range.
"He threw me off the cliffs Thorfinn!" she shouted, wriggling in his grip.
"You did what?" Thorfinn asked, gaze swivelling to pierce Steve. His eyes were awful dark too, in the funny light the ocean always gave you.
"You heard me: he told me he thought he maybe could have loved me and he shoved me off the cliff. Now get off me and let me deal with him!"
"She's delirious, probably concussion from the fall," Steve shouted, heart thudding in his chest. His eyes kept going back to her hair, that straggling shape that wasn't like he'd ever seen another woman have. It tapered into her neck and Steve swore he could see gills there, thick ridges of skin that puffed and stretched in the cool air.
"I am not delirious, you absolute dickhead! And to think I almost gave you my hatch," she sobbed, crumpling into Thorfinn's chest.
He wrapped his arms round her and gave Steve a hideous look, envy and teeth and the snarling fury of something that made Steve's stomach churn in a way loan sharks never managed.
"He's all yours little fins, you do what you want," Thorfinn murmured, petting her hair before he released her.
He didn't know where he was going: he just needed to be away. This was insane. He skidded over the loose stones and felt the weight of Jennifer shooting after him before she slammed into his back, tipping him onto the shale.
"You evil, manipulative bastard," she hissed in his ear, soaking his back as she leant over him. Her fingers crunched between the stones around his head and he cringed, shoulders coming up around his ears. "Did you already know what I was and just wanted to see if you could sell me to some freak show? Or did you just want my money?"
"I have a lot of debt, so much debt," he stammered, yelping when she flipped him round onto his back. Up close he could smell the salt water on her, see his own sweating face reflected in the dark orbs of her eyes.
"If you'd needed money I would have given you it, idiot," she spat, slapping him and raking her claws across his face. "But you didn't want me did you?"
"I could have," he managed, uncertain if it was fear that made him confess.
"Not good enough, I'm no one's pity project," she jeered, standing in one fluid motion and dragging him up as she went.
Jennifer stomped towards the water, Steve's kicking form held up with one arm. She splashed in, hefting him up before slamming him underneath, dragging him down into the current with her.
In the dim light of the water Steve could see her gills moving, could feel the iron grin of those thin fingers now grinding his collar bone to dust. He opened his mouth to scream at the pain and felt water flood him, violating his chest with cold rushes. He coughed, panic singing through his veins as he began to thrash at her grip.
She pulled him tighter, bringing him eye to eye with her in the gloom of the water. Steve was still thrashing, still trying to stop the water insistently pushing against him when he felt her hand on his cheek. He paused, the warmth of the touch pulling him away from his screaming instinct. His muscles were taught iron: he couldn't have kicked if he'd tried.
He watched as she came very close to him, those black eyes as fathomless as the ocean he was currently freezing in, and for a moment he thought he saw the kindness she usually indulged him with.
It vanished and she shot forward, burying her jagged teeth into his throat. She ripped back, the strings of skin and blood floating at the edges of her mouth as she dropped him.
Steve opened his mouth, words flooding out of the hole in his throat before they could leave his lips, and watched as she grew smaller and brighter, fading away as he sank into the darkness below.
This story originally appeared in EconoClash Review .