I can still hear the slurp of the water about the piles under the wharf as we stood on the deck of The Empress that long-ago June evening. Richard placed his hands on my shoulders from behind. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked.
I tingled at the prospect, all the more thrilled because I felt so unprepared. Having planned on a night at the club, I was in a low-cut evening gown of black silk chiffon, nylons and four-inch high heels—not exactly a swimsuit.
“What if I fall in?” I teased.
“I’ll save you,” he murmured, nuzzling the back of my neck.
In truth, I was in paradise. His purchase of the luxury boat was proof that he’d gotten over his financial difficulties. Our long-deferred marriage could go ahead as planned.
Suddenly he stiffened.
“What is it?” I asked.
Leaving me still half-entranced, he went to the prow.
A stranger was standing on the dock in the dim halo of a streetlamp. Clad in rumpled business clothes, leather shoes and an overlarge fedora hat that shaded his face, he seemed to have materialized like a tumor out of the darkness.
Richard shook his head, spat into the water, and shook his head again. “Now?” he asked. “Why now?” He cursed—something I’d never heard him do before—and with a reluctant wave of the hand ushered the stranger aboard.
Rounding a corner onto the concrete platform perpendicular to the wharf, a policeman appeared. “Excuse me,” he called out to Richard. “Have you seen anyone go by here in the last few minutes?”
Richard looked perplexed. The cop gave a description.
“I can’t say I’ve seen anyone like that. In fact, we haven’t seen anyone in the last fifteen minutes.” Richard turned to me. “Have we, darling?”
My heart was pounding so fiercely I feared the cop would hear it. I shook my head.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he apologized to Richard. Tipping his cap to me, he turned and resumed his stroll, perusing the decks of the sailboats that lay moored along that side of the harbor, their masts like a forest of bones in the moonlight.
The stranger crept out of the cabin. Signaling Richard, he turned toward the stern before I could see his face. The men had some more quiet words together.
“What’s going on?” I asked when Richard rejoined me.
The stranger was crouching by the rail, his vulture-like form blending with the shadow cast by the upper deck as he gazed down into the black water.
“Let’s go inside.” Richard gripped me above the elbow, his fingers like the metallic prongs of a prosthesis.
I tried to pull away.
“Charlene,” he whispered. “Don’t make a fuss.”
“A fuss!” I glared at him.
The stranger looked up. Richard yanked me into the cabin.
“What’s this about?” I hissed.
“We’re being robbed.”
I gaped at him. He flicked a lamp on, revealing the coil of rope in his hand. “What’s that for?” I asked.
“I’m going to tie you up.”
“You are what?”
“Shhh!” He put a finger to his lips. “Either I do it or…” He jerked his head at the mouth of the cabin.
He’d gone pale. I’d never seen Richard scared before. In fact, he looked more than scared; he looked terrified.
Without further “fuss”, I turned and crossed my wrists behind my back. He bound them together and nodded at the bed along the wall. I sat down. After tying my feet, he undid my neckerchief, pulled the cloth between my teeth and fastened it behind my neck like a bridle’s bit.
“Just stay quiet.” He touched his clammy lips to my forehead, swung my legs up onto the mattress, and rushed out of the room.
I don’t know how long it was before I started tracking our course. With the curtains drawn over the windows, I might as well have been blindfolded. But somewhere beyond the harbor, we veered south—I could feel the turn. I pictured the city lights glittering along the Chicago shoreline. How far away? A mile? Two miles? I had no idea then and I have none now. The engine was cut and, for a while, we drifted.
Then another boat approached. I can still hear it, like a motorized phantom coming out of the night. A wave slapped up against The Empress, rocking it back and forth. Bare feet thumped onto our deck. And then there were voices—deep, husky, masculine voices mixed with grunts and chuckles like broken glass stirred into a cauldron of pitch.
“We could take ‘em up to Duluth,” someone said.
“Lake Superior, huh?”
“Why bother?” someone else asked. “Michigan’s plenty deep too.”
“No reason to hurt the girl, though. She don’t know nothin’.”
“She does now,” someone noted.
My heart thumped. I pictured a skeleton I’d read about years before—the remains of a prehistoric woman who had drowned, or been drowned, in one of the Great Lakes.
“Listen!” Richard sounded desperate. “I got you the goods, didn’t I? I did everything you wanted, didn’t I? I trusted you guys.”
Two of the men chuckled. For a while, I heard nothing but the indifferent little waves licking the sides of the boat.
“Okay,” grunted the one who’d suggested going up to Lake Superior. “We’ll let you off the hook, big guy. But remember…” The voice grew stern. “We’ll always know where you are—you and your princess.”
I nearly choked but not on the neckerchief. It was my own heart which had lunged up into my voice box.
An engine growled into life. The Empress rocked like a cradle in the vanishing wake of the other boat. I pictured Richard on deck peering at the departing vessel, its lights peering back at him—ghoulish eyes melting in the darkness over the water.
He re-entered the cabin and, with trembling hands, undid my gag. “Are you all right, sweetie?”
“Ye—yes,” I stammered. “I think so.”
He helped me to a sitting position and wrapped his arms around me, showering me with kisses all over—lips, cheeks, under the chin, around the ears. After undoing my bonds, he massaged my wrists and ankles. I’d never seen him so passionate before.
But when I stood up and pulled a cell phone out of my purse, his hand shot out like a javelin. “No need,” he said, grabbing the phone. “I’ve called the police already.”
Our eyes met.
Had he called the police? Would he have kept me tied up a moment longer to make such a call?
“Don’t look so serious,” he laughed, his laughter not quite masking the tremor beneath it.
I peered into his eyes.
“Charlene,” he declared, all serious himself now. “I love you.”
I melted, snuggling up against him.
It was only the next day I called the police station. A clerk said she had no record of the event: no assault on the lake had been reported the night before. Would I like to report one?
The question took me aback.
“Ma’am?” she prodded me.
Still I hesitated, hearing once more the slurp of the indifferent little waves licking the sides of The Empress.
“Ma’am? Are you still there?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “I mean ‘no report’! Sorry. I must have been mistaken.”
In the months and years that passed, Richard lavished on me all manner of gifts, including the home I’d always wanted—an opulent five-bedroom palace with twin balconies overlooking Lake Michigan. Following our wedding, I mustered all my seductive savvy, coaxing, cajoling, nudging and enticing him to tell me more about that night, but he shunned discussing the matter and, after the birth of our first child, I ceased to inquire.