A Modern Fable

She remembers someone telling her once that it is cold when you see the lawyers with their hands in their own pockets. Sheila Raine is cold now; cold with that bone-numbing coldness that only a river on an autumn night can be. She clutches the buoy with a fierce grip as she waits for rescue. Her mouth is numb; there is no way she can scream for help. Besides, her screams might bring them back. She shivers, half with cold, half with terror. She would rather die than bring them back.

Time has no meaning. It could have been minutes or hours before the big guy with the pizza breath begins to wrestle her aboard a boat. She fights him, her numb fingers grasping the buoy as if it were her only hold on life. But he is too strong. He wraps his arms around her chest and pulls her into the boat. She gasps as another belch of pepperoni and cheese engulfs her; she will remember him, pizza breath, her rescuer. She is wrapped in a woollen blanket and the painful process of thawing out her body begins. The boat is swift, the ambulance is waiting, and oblivion at the end of a needle welcomes her.

Sheila is awake. Her eyelids flutter as if fighting gravity but they win the battle. Her head remains fuzzy for what seems like hours but then it clears. The hospital is chilly but she knows now that warmth and coldness are relative. Her head aches. Somebody moves in the chair next to the bed. She turns her head, ever so slowly; her heart beats faster. Is it one of them?

A tall man lazes in the chair and smiles. He pours her a glass of water, and she lets him support her as she drinks deeply. He lays her body down and adjusts her pillows.

“Hi, I’m Mike,” he says. “What’s your name?”

She thinks before answering. He appears to be friendly. She senses there is no menace in him.

At first her throat does not work for her but then she stammers, “I’m Sheila. Sheila Raine. What am I doing here?”

“You’re in hospital, and you’re quite okay, or so the doctor reckons. The coast guard found you hanging on to a buoy in the river. You’re safe now. And a bit warmer. What were you doing there, I wonder?”

Sheila is hit by a violent tremor she cannot control. Her body arches but Mike holds her tight while the spasm passes. She nestles in his arms.

“Whew! The seemed like terror to me,” Mike says, “not that I’m complaining. When do I get the chance to hold a pretty girl like this?”

Sheila relaxes back on to the bed. Her face is burning with embarrassment.

“Thank you,” Sheila says. “You’re very comforting. But, who are you really?”
“Oh, I’m just your friendly neighbourhood cop. I heard there was a mystery woman in our local hospital and I thought I’d pop in to find out all about her.”

“Where am I? I mean, I know I’m in a hospital but …”

“Shh! You’re in Brigstone, just another little fishing settlement to the north of Sydney. I’m the town bobby. I stop the aged pensioners from cheating at Bingo. You know how it is, I’m completely run off my feet.”

Sheila begins to like his laidback attitude and friendly smile. She feels her body relaxing. Then she remembers them, the men who tried to dispose of her with almost demented viciousness, and her body shakes.

“Hey, relax. You’re safe here. Tell Mike about it, and I’ll make it go away.” He smiles as he lays his hand upon hers. “Your hands are freezing again,” he grumbles. “And I thought I had won your confidence and thawed you out. Such is my vanity!” His eyes twinkle, and she relaxes once more. “Now, what’s the problem? What were you doing in the river, clutching that buoy?”

Mike waits for her reply. She hesitates, but he nods for her to go on.

“You’ll find this hard to believe,” she begins. Mike says nothing. He listens.

Encouraged, she continues. “I worked in a casino in Sydney until recently. You may know the one. It’s called the Silver Moon, and it’s owned by Barry Hardman. I didn’t know anything about him when one of his managers offered me a job as a hostess. I did okay for a few months and I was promoted to looking after private parties. Then, one night I opened a door to a room and was about to go in when I noticed that all the players were drunk and were pawing the girls. There was some sexual behaviour on a lounge suite away from the table. Every one was very drunk. There was a lot of money on the table and there were drugs. Mr. Hardman motioned for me to leave but, before I could, this man came out of the shadows and grabbed me by the shoulders. He was the Chief Minister of New South Wales, and he was out of his mind!”

Mike sits taller in the chair. “Go on,” he urges. “What happened?”

Sheila stumbles over her words. She is very frightened. Mike reaches to her and holds her hands. He chafes them to bring the warmth they seem to need back into them.

“He, he ripped my dress off my back … and he raped me. Everyone watched. Nobody helped me. He just threw me down on that lounge and he had his filthy way with me. When he’d finished, he straightened his clothes and turned to Hardman and said, ‘Fix it, Barry. I’ll be grateful.’ Then, he left. Soon everybody except Barry Hardman followed him out. Hardman just stared at me. ‘Why did you have to come in here and leave me with this situation?’ he mumbled. I tried to leave but two of his men were waiting for me in the car park.”
Sheila sobs as she tells her story. Mike is silent but she draws comfort from his presence, and she goes on.

“They grabbed me and tied me up. They threw me into the back of a van and took me to the docks. Mike, they were laughing as though I was just a piece of meat. They were horrible. They carried me on to a boat and drove out on to the Honeysuckle River. They were so drunk when they tied a boat anchor to my hands and threw me overboard that I was able to free myself. They were gone when I came to the surface and I floated until I could catch hold of a buoy. That’s where the coast guard found me.”

Mike is silent when Sheila finishes her tale. He appears to be thinking.

“You’re certain it was the Chief Minister who took advantage of you?” he says.

“Absolutely!” Sheila replies, but there is a question in her voice.

“And you want all of these men brought to justice?”

“I want you to arrest them all!”

“You wouldn’t consider letting them go, even if they made it worth your while?”

“Mike! You’re a policeman! Don’t you believe they should be punished for what they did?”

“Of course I do, Sheila.” He stands beside the bed. Sheila notices the strength in his shoulders and arms. She begins to feel uneasy. For some irrational reason, she thinks of the Little Red Riding Hood story.

“Unfortunately, my dear girl, I’m not really a policeman. I’m a lawyer, and I work for the Chief Justice. He’s my father, actually. You’re just one of his messes I’m often called on to clean up. I’m really sorry about this.” He grasps a pillow and holds it firmly to Sheila’s face.

At that moment a big man with a large stomach enters the room. Sizing up the situation, he grabs Mike by the shoulders, and then punches the younger man’s jaw with a tremendous fist. Mike sags, unconscious.

Sheila reefs air into her tortured lungs, fear is an etching in her pale face.

“He’ll be no more trouble, miss,” the big man says, as Mike dangles from his outstretched arm. A gust of pepperoni and cheese greets her. “I just thought I’d pop in to see how my mermaid was progressing. The sister at the desk said you were okay. Who’s this grub?”