. . . around the cache of disturbing images found in the personal laptop of Judge Landis Beale. The judge has refused to speak to the media after his initial statement denying all knowledge of the images and declaring that his system had been hacked.
However, sources close to the investigation state that there is no evidence of hacking, and that it appears the judge has been collecting the images for close to a year.
Major media organizations continue to file appeals against the gag order that prohibits any description of the images.
-Morning News Bulletin
But I'm afraid of the dark.
That was all I could think when the doctor looked at me, kind and gentle, and told me that I was going to go blind. A slow, steady road to relentless darkness. There were other words. Things like "best-case scenario" and "limited vision," along with "cutting-edge developments" and "chance to optimize your habits," but it had just been buzz, a swarm of disoriented bees in my head.
It's been a year since that day. I now knew far too much about the genetic time bomb inside me, and my night vision was gone. But I could still see in the light, so I brought the camera up to my eye as the wind whipped my hair back from the open window, and I snapped a shot of one of the myriad waterfalls that cascaded down the fern-covered rocks of this final stretch of the West Coast.
We'd turn soon, going inland and upward as we made our way to the remote alpine area that housed Darcie's family estate. I'd never had reason to visit that specific part of the country, but I'd heard that it was breathtaking, a photographer's paradise. Still, that unknown landscape could never compete with my love for the black sands, rainforests, and jagged cliffs of this coast.
"We're flying south for three days to walk one of the trails, then road-tripping up to the estate," my best friend, Vansi, had said. "You should come! Kaea's already on board and I'm going to ask Aaron and Grace, too."
My love for this region was part of why I'd tried so hard to fly home early, join the road trip. But only a small part. When Darcie's invitation had come and I'd realized everyone had said yes to the idea of a reunion, the key had turned, unlocking the bitter box of questions I'd kept stifled for nine long years.
All of us. Together again.
While I could still see, still judge their expressions.
It was time.
No more avoiding the one subject none of us could bear to talk about.
No more false cheer anytime we reminisced about the past.
No more pretending that Bea wasn't dead.
My chest compressed in on itself, my eyes staring unblinkingly at the landscape beyond the window.
In the end, I'd only made this final stretch of the road trip. I'd needed to see my family, imprint their visages on my brain. Because the disease that had slumbered in my cells all my life was now well and truly awake. It was rare, the doctors had told me, and while they had data from other cases, there were no guarantees when it came to the timeline of progression.
I was a walking case study on its unpredictability: I'd been asymptomatic until I hit twenty-eight years of age. Such late onset was as rare as the disease itself. Most with the same diagnosis only got to keep their sight until their teens, or early twenties at best. I'd made it to almost thirty.
More than a quarter century spent in blissful ignorance.
No awareness that there would come a day when my world would go blurry . . . then blink out, leaving me with nothing but ghostly afterimages of the life I'd once lived.
The diagnosis had turned me into a hoarder of memories.
After five days with my parents, brother, and grandparents in the frenetic energy of metropolitan Auckland, I'd made my way to Fox Glacier last night. The cabin I'd booked at the last minute had been low on the amenities front and chilly to boot, but was nestled inside primeval native bushland.
Giant tree ferns had shaded my back door, beyond them a landscape curling with mist. Soft focus provided by nature.
I'd taken more photographs, hoarded more memories-but I'd been ready to go when my friends drove in at ten that morning. The mist had faded by then, the sky ablaze with cool spring sunshine.
Hugs, cries of joy, grins exchanged.
It had all felt so painfully familiar, their voices and faces writ on my very bones. I'd never forget the fine details of any of their expressions, no matter how fast the curtain fell. We'd been part of each other's lives at a pivotal moment, that breath between childhood and adulthood, when the whole world was full of possibility and our minds fearless.
But of course, it wasn't the same.
We'd learned fear. And lived a grief so serrated that the scars ached to this day.
"Do you think we'll ever be how we were again?" Vansi had asked me the night when part of me had gone permanently numb. The whites of her eyes had been red, her voice a rasp, and her skin such an ashen shade of brown that, for a second, I'd thought I was speaking to a mirage, a stealthy shadow of my friend.
I'd stroked the wavy mass of her hair with a gentle hand, hugged her close . . . and held my silence. Because we'd both known the answer to her question. There'd been no need to give voice to the agony of it.
Bea was dead.
Her body erased out of existence.
There was no coming back from that.
An hour and a half until we reached the estate where Darcie and Ash waited for us. A shorter time until we left the state highway that hugged the jagged rocks and wild green of this coast with its massive white-capped waves and deadly undertows. Even the plants were eerie at times, so ancient that they appeared alien growths transported from another planet.
Click. Click. Click.
The big SUV hummed alone through the alien wilderness, no other cars on this silent stretch devoid of human settlement, but the sun shone bright, the colors of the landscape vivid. A pop of red berries I barely caught as we rolled by, a shot of golden green leaves against the sooty black trunk of a tree fern, a capture of Vansi's laughing face as reflected in the side mirror.
"You'll have a thousand shots just from the road, Lunes." Kaea bumped my shoulder. "Control yourself." All big shoulders and wicked dark eyes set against glowing brown skin, I'd thought him the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen the first day of high school, when we'd ended up in the same form room.
I'd soon learned that he was also a player. The boy around whom trailed a line of slack-eyed groupies and-once he hit his late-teenage years-whose bedroom had a revolving door that spun so fast it was a health hazard.
Back when I'd shared a flat with him, Vansi, and Aaron during our university days, I'd met so many young women in the kitchen on weekend mornings that I'd given up even exchanging names with them. Poor things always thought they'd be back, but Kaea had an endless smorgasbord from which to pick-and no desire for a steady girlfriend.
"Relationships are too much work," he'd told me once. "I'm here to graduate in the top one percent of my class, get headhunted by a major corporate law firm, and make my way to partner in under ten years. I don't have time to be the doting boyfriend."
Arrogant ass, I thought with an inward grin. Because while he might not do relationships, he was an amazing friend. A friend who'd shipped me a giant order of my favorite local supermarket chocolates after I admitted to being homesick after moving to London-even though, according to him, my love for the cheap chocolates was a "screaming chemical-laced affront to good taste."
Lifting the camera, I snapped a photo of his grinning face.
When I looked at the tiny image on the screen, he was as beautiful and as charismatic as ever, some part of him still the boy on whom I'd had a crush. Thank God that hadn't lasted; he'd have obliterated my heart. "So, no third Mrs. Ngata yet?" I asked, after snapping another shot, this time of the couple in the front seats of the big black SUV that was our ride.
Another rugged vehicle-this one a dark green, per the recent photo in our group chat-hugged the road some three hours north of us.
Driving down as we drove up, our destination the same.
Like me, Aaron and his new fiancée, Grace, hadn't been able to join the hiking detour the others had organized. We'd link up at the estate. I hadn't yet met Grace, as Aaron's romance with her had taken place while I was out of the country, but Kaea and the others had reported that she was a sweetheart.
"What about his family?" I'd asked Kaea privately. "Any pushback there?" I knew that they'd expected Aaron to end up with someone from the African diaspora.
"I saw a photo he put up of her heading to church with his family. Huge smiles on everyone's faces, and his grandmother was holding Grace's hand. Fact Grace shares their faith will have been a major point in her favor. And she's just like Aaron, you know? Generous and warm, just the kind of person they'd want for him."
Trust Aaron to find a woman with a nature as gentle and kind as his own. Back when we'd flatted together, Aaron had always been the one most likely to organize a pick-me-up if one of us was struggling, or to make dinner for us all. He'd even packed me lunch one semester after he realized I was exhausted from study and work, and as a result was barely eating.
I'd been overjoyed when he called me with news of his engagement.
Not only for the love, but for finding his place in life. Back at the huge high school where we'd come together as a group, where the diverse student body was a matter of school pride, Aaron had still managed to stick out. His parents had been refugees from war-torn Sudan, Aaron one of the first generation born on New Zealand soil. The eldest son, the eldest cousin, the first child born a Kiwi.
He'd carried the weight of his entire family's expectations on his thin shoulders.
"They survived refugee camps and the loss of most of the members of our family to relocate to a place so cold that my haboba's kneecaps creak from it," he'd said in a speech for our senior English class. "The least I can do is make them proud."
I'd never understood whether he was being serious or ironic when he said things like that, whether the words were his or a repetition of those spoken to him by his family, especially his treasured grandmother with the knees that couldn't bear the cold. For all his sweetness, Aaron was in no way an open book.
Quite different from blunt and almost-too-honest Kaea.
"Situation is in progress," Kaea said today. "Wife number three. My soulmate, this time. I know it."
Phoenix snorted from the driver's seat, his voice overriding a radio report about a scandal to do with a high court judge. "Didn't you use that line in your first wedding speech?"
"No." Vansi turned to grin at Kaea. "He said they were destined to be, two hearts in sync."
"Destined for divorce court," Phoenix added dryly as the newscaster began to speculate about the spring weather.
Unabashed, Kaea threw out his arms. "Hey, hate the game, not the player." At twenty-nine, with two divorces behind him, he had the confidence of a handsome and intelligent man who knew women would never be a challenge for him. It was a kind of curse, I'd always thought, the ease with which he could charm lovers. He valued none of them because there were always more waiting in the wings.
"Wait, hear that?" Phoenix turned up the radio.
". . . polar blast. Farmers are concerned about the effect of the late cold snap on the lambing season."
"Only in New Zealand," Vansi said with a roll of the eyes that I heard more than saw. "Sheep news on prime time."
"Wouldn't worry about the weather," Kaea added. "Remember last year they were going on about a polar blast and it ended up a day of cold rain?"
Phoenix nodded. "Yeah, you're right. We'll be safe at the estate regardless. If the place has survived close to a hundred and fifty years in the mountains, it's not going to buckle under a bit of rain." Reaching forward, he switched off the radio. "Signal's starting to crackle anyway. Did Darcie ever answer my question about cell reception at the estate? I forgot to check."
"Yeah-apparently it's usually only available in a single high part of the estate's main house, though she says she gets the odd bar out by the bridge sometimes." Kaea shrugged. "Be a proper break, right?"
Phoenix's profile underwent a subtle shift, his skin no longer as taut. And I realized how hard it must be, to live life tied to the scream of medical emergencies. It was a wonder he'd been able to take this break; maybe the hospital had been forced to give their junior doctors more time off by some health and safety authority.
"Anyway, enough about that." Kaea shifted his gaze to me, waggled his eyebrows. "You never say much about your dating life in London, Mysterious Ms. Wylie. Anyone serious?"
"Just me and my camera." And my oncoming blindness.
A year after the doctors first ended my world as it was, I still hadn't told anyone about the diagnosis. It had a fancy name, but at the bottom of it, it was a time bomb with which I'd been born and hadn't known of until that fateful doctor's appointment. I'd gone in thinking the thin and bald man with brilliant blue eyes was going to tell me I needed glasses, come out to a world that would never be sharp again.
I'd always known I was adopted. Hard not to when my hair was black glass and my skin olive in comparison to my parents' much paler hair and "winter white" complexions-as described by themselves. Complete with my mother's big laugh and my father's deep chuckle.
My ancestry had never been a big deal to me. I'd never felt any desire to go to China, trace my roots. But . . . would I have picked up a camera had I known what lived inside me? The lens that was slowly going dark as tiny crystals formed in the delicate tissues of my eyes.
Copyright © 2023 by Nalini Singh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.