Peter James: Perfect People

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Peter James Perfect People
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    Perfect People
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Peter James

Perfect People


Late on an April afternoon, thirty nautical miles east of Cape Cod, a wind-blown young couple with luggage and worried faces are standing on the helicopter deck of a converted cruise liner, gripping the handrail.

Both of them know it is too late for doubts.

The Serendipity Rose is forty years old, her dents and cracks and rivets caked in paint like make-up on an old tart’s face. As she ploughs through the freshening sea, a Panamanian flag of convenience crackling from her stern, her single yellow funnel trails a ribbon of smoke that is shredded in seconds by the wind. Making just sufficient way to keep the stabilizers working, she’s not in any hurry, she’s not heading towards any destination. She’s just meandering around safely beyond the twelve-nautical-mile limit of the territorial waters of the United States. Safely beyond the reaches of US federal law.

John Klaesson, in a fleece-lined jacket, chinos and leather yachting shoes, is in his mid-thirties and has about him the rugged air of a mountaineer or an explorer, rather than the academic he is. Six feet tall, lean and strong with short blond hair and gentle blue eyes behind small oval glasses, he has a good-looking, serious face, with resolute Nordic features and a light Californian tan.

His wife, Naomi, concentrating to keep her balance, is huddled up in a long camel coat over a jumper, jeans and crepe-soled black suede boots. Her fair hair is styled in a fashionable mid-length blowsy cut, the tangled strands batting over her attractive face accentuating the slight tomboy look she has about her, although her complexion is considerably paler at the moment than normal.

Yards above their heads the helicopter that has just delivered them hovers, haemorrhaging oily fumes into the mad air, dragging its shadow across the superstructure of the ship like some big empty sack. And that’s how John’s feeling right now; like he’s been tipped out of a sack. Head bowed against the din and the maelstrom, he puts out an arm, steadies his wife, grips her slender frame beneath the softness of her camel coat, feeling close to her, desperately close and protective.

And responsible.

The wind is blowing so hard he has to breathe in snatched gulps, the salt misting his glasses, the fumes parching his mouth and throat already arid with nerves. Strands of Naomi’s hair flail his face, hard as whipcords. The deck drops away beneath him, then a moment later is rising, pressing up on his feet like an elevator floor, heaving his stomach up against his rib cage.

Through the thrashing of the rotors above him he can hear a scuffing noise. This is the first time he’s been in a helicopter and after an hour of pitching and yawing through an Atlantic depression he’s not keen to repeat the experience; he’s feeling the queasiness you get from a bad funfair ride that swivels your brain one way on its axis, and your internal organs another. The fumes aren’t helping, either. Nor is the strong reek of paint and boat varnish, and the deck vibrating beneath his feet.

Naomi’s arm curls around his waist, squeezing him through the thick lining of his leather jacket. He has a pretty good idea what’s going through her mind, because it’s sure as hell going through his. This uncomfortable feeling of finality. Up until now it has all been just an idea, something they could walk away from at any point. But not any more. Looking at her he thinks, I love you so much, Naomi darling. You’re so brave. I think sometimes you are a lot braver than I am.

The chopper slips sideways, the roar of the engine increasing, belly light winking, then it angles steeply away and clatters across the water, climbing sharply, abandoning them. For some moments John watches it, then his eyes drop towards the foaming grey ocean hissing with seahorses, stretching far off towards an indistinct horizon.

‘OK? Follow me, please.’

Ahead of them, the polite, very serious-looking Filipino in a white jumpsuit who came out to greet them and to take their bags is holding a door open.

Stepping over the lip of the companionway, they follow him inside and the door slams shut on the elements behind them. In the sudden quiet they see a chart of the ocean in a frame on the wall, feel the sudden warmth, smell the reek of paint and varnish even stronger in here. The floor thrums beneath them. Naomi squeezes John’s hand. She’s a lousy sailor, always has been – she gets sick on boating ponds – and today she can take nothing for it. No pills, no medication, she’s going to have to tough this one out. John squeezes back, trying to comfort her, and trying to comfort himself.

Are we doing the right thing?

It’s a question he has asked himself a thousand times. He’s going to go on asking it for many years. All he can do is keep convincing Naomi and himself that yes, it is the right thing. That’s all. Doing the right thing.

Really we are.


In the sales brochure for this floating clinic, the cabin that was to be their home for the next month had been grandly described as a stateroom. It was furnished with a king-size bed, a tiny sofa, two equally small armchairs and a round table, on which sat a bowl of fruit, crammed into a space the size of a small hotel room. High up in one corner, a television with bad interference was showing CNN news. President Obama was talking, half his words distorted by static.

There was a marbled bathroom that, although cramped, felt distinctly luxurious – or at any rate would have done, Naomi thought, if it stopped heaving around and she could stand up in it without having to hang on to something. She knelt to scoop up the contents of John’s wash-bag, which were rolling round on the floor, then stood up rapidly, feeling a dizzying bout of nausea.

‘Do you need a hand?’ John asked.

She shook her head. Then, unbalanced by a sudden lurch, she tottered across the floor and sat down sharply on the bed, narrowly missing his computer. ‘I think I have about four minutes left to unpack before I become violently seasick.’

‘I’m feeling queasy, too,’ John said. He glanced at a safety notice. There was a layout of the muster stations and a diagram showing how to put on a life jacket.

‘Why don’t you take a seasick pill?’ she said. ‘You’re allowed.’

‘If you’re not allowed one, I’m not taking one. I’ll suffer with you.’

‘Martyr!’ She turned her head, leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, comforted by his warm, rough skin, and by the heady, musky smell of his cologne. Comforted by the sheer mental and physical strength he exuded. Watching movies, as a teenager, she’d always been attracted to strong, quietly intelligent men – the kind of father she would have liked to have had. When she had first seen John, eight years ago in a ski lift queue in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he’d struck her as having those same qualities of good looks and inner strength.

Then she kissed him again. ‘I love you, John.’

Looking into her eyes, which were sometimes green, sometimes brown, always filled with a sparkle and with an incredible trust, his heart ached, suddenly, for her. ‘And I adore you, Naomi. I adore you and I admire you.’

She smiled wistfully. ‘I admire you, too. Sometimes you have no idea how much.’

There was a comfortable silence between them for some moments. It had taken a long time after the death of Halley for things to be good between them again, and there had been many times during those first two really dark years when Naomi had feared their marriage was over.

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