Katie Hague knew she was swimming. She just didn’t know why. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, even though she’d spend hours in the pool on holidays, sometimes even brave enough to dip in the sea. Always with her parents watching, though.
She’d been thirteen on her last family holiday, a self-catering deal to Turkey, not that her dad couldn’t afford somewhere more exotic. Turkey was Katie’s choice. Gobble-gobble, she’d said again and again until the day of departure, and then all through the flight too, where her mother valiantly fought the urge to strangle her only child. Her dad smiled quietly.
Now, eight years after that final holiday with all three of them, Katie swam alone. Somewhere she didn’t recognise. Somewhere black.
With her feet unable to touch the bottom, or anything solid, she trod water for a moment, something she always found hard. She never ventured out of her depth, not without her dad nearby or, more recently, unless Brian was with her.
And where the hell was Brian now?
They argued outside a late night bar—not loud, just testy. She was hungry, had suggested a curry, but Brian wanted to go on, “Just for one more, babe, please?” A taxi. Alone. That was Katie’s last memory, the last she recalled, here, now, in this pool.
Movement caught her attention. Something nearby. She did not see it because of the dark, but a sweeping cold embraced her head and shoulders like an undercurrent flowing in from deeper water.
No, that wasn’t quite right either.
All her body below the surface was numb, unfeeling, and now all above felt chilled. She hadn’t seen the event, that something, but she knew:
A shadow had fallen over her.
Her words should have reverberated around the walls of a municipal pool, or a private home in the middle of the country, but the dark ate her voice right up. No echo, no sound coming back at her.
This meant there were no walls.
She was swimming outside.
But even outside there were buildings, trees, rocks. She was treading water, outdoors, with nothing around. No lights. No people.
So why did she get the impression she was not absolutely alone? Other than the invisible shadow, she had no reason to think someone watched her, not here.
Whatever “here” actually meant.
Was she in the middle of a lake?
Her breathing grated in her throat.
No, of course not. There would be light. There’s always light. The darkest of freezing British waters still drew moonlight and stars; even when hiding, their light still penetrates. There is no absolute dark.
Each breath now hurt. She needed her inhaler. Her throat swelled within. She kicked her numb legs to no avail, and when she flapped her arms, no splashes whipped up.
This can’t be.
Alone; swimming; out of her depth; now an asthma attack.
An object wedged in her mouth: hard, plastic, smaller than a matchbox.
She gagged. Tried to spit it out. But it was too big, lodging itself between her teeth.
A pinprick, not in front of her but inside her head.
Her shoulders grew cold now, as if she were gliding upwards, out of the … lake? The sea? The pool?
That thing, still stuck in her mouth, gave another hiss.
And Katie breathed.
The item hissed a third time and the cold spread to her chest, her back, down her stomach. Her hips. The light inside her expanded, enveloping her in cold. She wanted to use her arms to wrap around herself for warmth, but found them stuck behind her.
Looking down now, struggling to free herself, she saw her thighs raised, the clothes she was wearing when she argued with Brian still strangely dry. The odour of sweat and booze and a faint whiff of cigarette smoke urged her to undress and shower, but her hands remained bound tight. She couldn’t see behind, could not turn at all.
Then, like a spotlight growing, her vision improved: a white-tiled floor, her bare feet bound by handcuffs, stockinged legs moving up into the little skirt that barely covered her underwear. She could not see past her chest, other than to confirm her clothing remained intact.
She was sitting on a hard wooden chair.
The deep voice penetrated the spotlight—calm, polite even.
“Please stop struggling, Katie, I don’t want to hurt you.”
From swimming in blackness to being tied to a chair. Nothing. Nothing could explain this.
She tried her voice. “Who are you?”
It hurt to speak. Now her head throbbed also. Like a hangover. She was about to be sick.
A bucket slid into view within the spotlight, a glimpse of a foot that nudged it closer.
“Please use this if you need to vomit. I won’t be angry if you miss. Only if you don’t try.”
The foot peeking out of the dark into Katie’s halo of light meant something. A clear fact, a truth that really should not be.
“The spotlight’s real,” Katie said aloud.
“Of course it’s real,” came the man’s voice. “What a strange thing to say.”
“Why am I here?”
“You are my second.”
“Your … what?”
“Please don’t make me repeat myself, Katie. It annoys me. You are my second. This…”
Another spotlight cracked to life. It illuminated a girl five feet away, dressed similarly to Katie, like she was going clubbing, with long dark hair like Katie’s, about Katie’s age.
And then it all fell away: the swimming, the light, the dark, this disembodied voice from the blackness all around. But the girl frightened Katie the most. This girl, bound to a chair, gagged, blindfolded, looking so much like Katie they might have been sisters.
“This is your new roommate,” the man said, now behind Katie, hands on her shoulders, his breath on her neck. “She is my first. You will be my second.”
And, doing her very best to aim for the bucket, Katie vomited. She was pleased that a lot of it missed.
“Hmm,” the man said. Then footsteps. An arm flashed into the light and tossed Katie’s inhaler onto her lap. The footsteps receded.
And both lights went out, leaving nothing but pitch black.