Authors: Benjamin Wallace
By Benjamin Wallace
Copyright 2011 Benjamin Wallace
Copyright © 2011 by Benjamin Wallace
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Crystal Roznik.
Dedicated to my wife.
Because she’s hot.
An island paradise was no place to die, but every hand-selected vine that tripped up his feet and each branch that slapped him wet across the face slowed his escape and brought this possible end ever closer.
Lush vegetation, imported and landscaped in every detail to mimic a rainforest, choked the light from the day deep within its thickest growth. Shafts of light cast from the noon sun broke meekly through the canopy, casting shadow and confusion before anyone who chose to stroll beneath its magnificence and masking danger for those forced to move at a faster pace.
This was where he ran.
Sweat broke from his face with every step, and threatened his vision as salt from his brow stung at his eyes; every rushed step was a danger. Broad strokes of his arms swiped the perspiration away as he listened for more than the sound of his own heavy breathing.
There was nothing.
They had been right behind him, so close that their steps threatened to stomp the shoes from his heels only moments before. He prayed that his hastily beaten path through the thick growth had lost them. But he knew that he was outnumbered and lost.
Escape was close in any direction. White sand and surf surrounded the island, and any shore would lead to his salvation, but in his escape he had unknowingly charged toward the island’s center, taking him ever further from freedom.
Going back was not an option. He pushed further in. The entire cay was only twenty acres, but the dense foliage tripled the distance that he had to walk. Vines snared his feet as he stumbled through the simulated rainforest. He cursed the owner that had made such a realistic recreation possible.
The crash of vegetation sounded behind him, stalks of thick plants cried out as they were snapped. His dash had not thrown off his pursuers; broken boughs and leaves had made tracking him easy.
Charging forward, head down and hands out, had bought him some time and won him countless scratches from thorn bushes. He bled in a hundred places; his black clothes were torn ragged and hung like drapes from the collar around his neck. He dove farther into the rainforest and realized he was more lost than he had intended to be. His sense of direction was turned on end by the meandering path that he had forced into the jungle’s floor as he stepped broadly over the ground cover, ducked under branches, and danced around the trunks of trees.
Sand wasn’t far in any direction. Eventually he would emerge on a beach, head north and get to safety.
Voices. Shouts. They gained on him. Every sound gave them away. It was an advantage he could do nothing to exploit. He held a pistol tight within his hand, but he knew from the weight that there were few rounds left in the clip. Still, he waved it at the sounds that seem to surround him.
Constant clicks emitted from the black box in his other hand. This rhythmic beat matched his pulse; it was constant, quick and strong.
He held still, ears sharp, listening for another splintered stalk. But all was quiet again, except for the box in his hand. His predators were silent once more.
Mud flew from his heels as he raced and kicked the grip of thorns from his pants and shoes. Then there was another noise. The roar of rushing water broke through the dense growth. Convinced it was the crash of surf, he rushed toward the sound and found himself moving up a steep incline. The sound became all but deafening; the roar swallowed the ambient sounds of the man-made jungle. He broke through the vegetation and into unfiltered daylight.
It was not the shoreline. It was a river’s edge.
He peered over a twenty-foot gorge and saw that a river tore through the island’s center. Powerful pumps that drove the current added a mechanical pulse to the river’s constant thrum.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” He paced the bank looking for a bridge or catwalk. There was no way to cross.
A quick look upstream and down led him to believe that whichever multi-millionaire had ordered the island enjoyed white water rafting. It was hardly a peaceful stream. White crested waves tore the waterway apart to generate a challenging run for the weekend kayaker.
Boulders lined the edges and rose from the riverbed. Whether they were real or fake, he couldn’t tell. He set the black box down. It continued to click.
A trained move of his thumb dropped the clip from the pistol into his hand. Two rounds sat atop the spring-loaded driver. Three total. Several hunters stalked him. Even luck couldn’t hit all of them with just three bullets.
He jammed the clip back into the grip and looked back into the rapids. His science teacher’s voice echoed in his head: “all rivers eventually lead to the ocean.”
Sound advice in a natural world but, Mr. Stiegelmeyer could never have imagined this. This river could lead to the ocean. Or it could lead to a series of pumps. There was no way to tell.
He studied the waves as they bounced off the rocks. Reading the water was difficult. The artificial waterway could be as shallow as a couple of feet or run all the way to the ocean’s floor.
The river was designed as real as the rainforest. Razor sharp rocks sliced the current everywhere along the river’s path. Rapids crashed against one another in dangerous patterns. His chances of swimming to safety were not good.
A stalk snapped and the first of his pursuers burst from the jungle. The armed man stumbled into the small clearing.
The gun kicked in his hand. The shot caught his intended assassin off guard. Forward momentum carried the victim over the edge of the small ravine and into the river below. The body did not resurface.
A report from the bush forced him to one knee. His foot struck the black ticking box; its metal surface squealed across the jagged rocks just before crashing into the river below.
He pulled the trigger again and started running along the ledge of the canyon in the direction he could best call downstream. Others would be upon him soon.
Tearing back into the jungle was an option but he was certain that the natural obstructions would eventually lead him to a literal dead end.
The only option was the river. He ran closer to the edge of the cliff. His running became irregular. The broken ground made it difficult. Loose rocks fought the soles of his boots for traction. Untamped soil shifted beneath each step. Still, he needed to build up enough speed to land in the center of the river where he hoped it was deepest.
His personal countdown began at three. Somewhere at two-and-a-half a bullet caught him in the leg and turned him in mid-flight.
Squeezing the trigger with disciplined control, he fired his last round. The open slide on the gun signaled the futility of pulling the trigger again.
Soil and rock dug in to his back as he crashed to the ground and nearly slid over the face of the ledge.
Scanning the wall of weeds and plant life, he couldn’t see who had fired the shot. Sadistic laughter escaped the underbrush. His shot had been in vain. They had fired from cover. He had fired carelessly.
Blood flowed from the wound in his leg, and only now he noticed how badly the vegetation had treated him. Flaps of skin hung like half-punched tabs in a hundred places. The blood loss from the scratches and gashes easily matched the flow from the bullet hole in his leg. The mere sight of it all caused his strength to wane.
With what strength he had left, he pushed himself over the edge and into the water below. As he fell, he prayed he would miss the rocks. A brief burst of foam marked his entry. It was washed away a moment later.
The current bounced his battered body between rocks and eddies. He fought to find the surface, but could not determine up from down. Gravity had control of his body and it now fought the current for the right to drown him.
The pull of the river ceased as he was forced against a rock. The river pushed him fast against it; the weight forcing what air was left from his lungs. He struggled and turned allowing the current access to his back. The change in dynamic rolled him away from the boulder and to the surface.
Gasping at the air, he desperately tried to fill his lungs. Water rushed into his open mouth as he rose and fell with the waves. He rotated his body in the surf and saw the large boulder only moments before he struck it.
Everything went black. His wounds no longer hurt.
# # #
Five men emerged from the rainforest. They, too, were covered in sweat and blood from the pursuit through the jungle. They reached the edge of the cliff and peered into the river. They saw nothing but froth.
Green turned to white as the waves of the Gulf of Mexico broke against the yacht’s twin bows. Their force smacked with a hollow thud on the fiberglass shell and resonated deep within the ship. Outside, the hull glistened and answered each crest with a thwack that sounded not unlike the slap that was about to knock the drink from Paul Nelson’s hand.
He grinned at the girl. It was a grin that was charming, crooked, filled with confidence and a recent deep whitening treatment. Slurring words had not yet become a problem, and if she liked what he had to say, he would confess that he couldn’t possibly be as drunk as she assumed he was. If she balked at his advances, however, he’d blame it on the booze.
“So, Katherine? Are there any beaches on these islands?”
The smoldering look was worth the stupid question.
“Of course, Mr. Nelson.” Dark hair flowed to her shoulders and framed a slender face. Her blue eyes narrowed as he leaned in close. A gust of wind blew a strand of hair into the corner of her mouth. She brushed it away.
Paul misinterpreted the gesture; he embraced the imagined opening and leaned in closer.
“Paul. Call me Paul.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Nelson. I’m not allowed to do that. As I was saying, the chain features over four hundred islands, each with at least a quarter mile of white sand beaches reclaimed from Wassaw Sound.”
“What say you and I find a nice, secluded beach when this millionaire’s tub toy puts in?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Nelson. I can’t do that either.” Katherine Bernelli stepped to one side, opening an avenue of escape. She caught the eye of another investor, nodded, and began to make her way across the yacht’s expansive deck.
Paul stammered as she made her way around him. The charm wasn’t working; he may have to resort to flattery. He studied her as she moved across the deck, but as she walked his concentration swayed away, gently, back and forth in a tailored white formal gown.
Katherine reached another guest and smiled. Paul was amazed; the title Investor Relations Specialist no doubt called for her to smile always; yet he could find no trace of falsity in her eyes.
Paul tried to read her lips as she spoke to a gray-haired old man in a tailored suit. They were all old men with tailored suits. And, with the exception of one man he nicknamed “Johnny-Just-for-Men”, they all had gray hair, which they would undoubtedly refer to as silver.
The swig of Jack registered in his throat, and he moved toward her with a new plan and a new grin.
“Yes, Mr. Hale, I believe the tractor did arrive on your island just yesterday. And, may I say the plantation you built is utterly stunning.”
He smiled back at her as he sipped from a mimosa. “It’s always been a dream of mine to live a simpler life.”
“A hobby farm does sound like fun. And, the soil should be perfectly suited for most any crop.”
“Oh, I’m not going to grow anything. I plan to just sit on the porch with a drink.”
“Oh, but the tractor?”
“Young lady, you can’t have a plantation and not have a tractor.”
“Of course. Well, it is beautiful. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Fetch me another drink, sweetie?” He polished off the mimosa and handed her the empty glass.
She smiled, nodded, turned and sighed. The smile faded. She walked into Paul.
“Look, Kat. I’m sorry if I came on strong. I know that your job is to make nice to all the rich and powerful here and that you’re just humoring me. But, I want you to know that I’m not like all these other guests. Look at that guy.” He pointed with his rocks glass to no one specifically. It ended up being “Johnny-Just-for-Men,” who was engaged in conversation on a Bluetooth headset.
“He can’t relax. He’s always on. Look at his posture. He’s standing straight up. His arms behind his back, chest out. Classic steepling. It’s as if he’s dressing down the troops right here.
“But, I’m not like that. I’m not going to posture and preen. I’m up front with who I am. I’m relaxed. I’m fun. For example, underneath this suit, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Hooray for Boobies!!!’”
She was startled. For the first time he saw a shift in her eyes from professional to woman.
“It has three exclamation points, Kat. Three! Let’s see ‘Mr. Buy/Sell’ over there match that.”
“What exactly is it that you do for Mr. Bennett, Mr. Nelson?”
“My file didn’t say?”
The smile returned. “You don’t have a file. Mr. Bennett has a file.”
“Cool. What’s it say about him? I could use some dirt.”
“I’ll admit you’re both quite a mystery to us. We didn’t even know that you planned on attending this event.”
“C’mon. I’m sure there’s a file that says something.”
“The file tells me that your boss is one of the largest investors in the project. But, it doesn’t mention you.”
“I’m Mr. Bennett’s Minister of Finance and Dirty Limericks. Wanna hear one?”
# # #
Steve Bennett stepped from the opulent cabin of ImagiNation’s luxury ferry in time to retrieve the dropped rocks glass. Ice tumbled from the glass as his friend stumbled across the deck.
Katherine Bernelli’s smile was gone. She scowled at Paul.
Steve could instantly see why his friend had risked the assault. She was beautiful. Even in her frown, it seemed as though she was smiling at him. Perhaps it was the eyes that always smiled.
Katherine noticed Steve and her rage turned to panic. She spun and rushed through the crowd – excusing herself frantically as she went.
Steve steadied Paul. “Limerick?”
Paul nodded, “It didn’t work.”
“Maybe it’s not the right limerick.”
“No, it’s just not the right girl.”
“Why don’t you sit down for a while and try to stay out of trouble?”
“Why don’t you make me, Steve? Quit trying to talk me down. I was just having a bit of fun.”
“Here’s where I am?” Paul smiled and took the rocks glass from Steve’s hand.
“This may not be the best place to be yourself.”
“You always say that.” Paul waved him off and turned to look for the bar.
“It’s always true.”
“I’m not trying to impress anyone.” Paul rubbed his cheek. “Well, the girl yeah, but now that’s out.”
Steve looked around. What attention the slap had drawn had dissipated. “I’m just saying, calm down.”
“You need to calm down, Steve. And quit trying to fit in with these people. You’re richer than most of the fools on this boat. That’s all the impressing they need.”
“I’m not trying to impress anyone.”
“Well you’re trying hard not to piss them off.”
“You should try as hard.” Steve watched the Investor Relations Specialist duck around the yacht’s superstructure. “Just sober up. I’ll be back.”
“You sober up.”
“Good one, Paul.”
Steve followed the woman. Paul refilled his drink.
Paul caught the eye of a slender woman in a black dress. Her age betrayed her as either a rich man’s assistant or trophy wife. He studied her for a moment and tried to determine which. There was no nametag on her breast, so he decided to go in for a closer look.
# # #
Steve Bennett excused his way through the crowd; he stepped around the waitstaff as they shuffled about, making sure not to step between any guests engaged in conversation. Most of the guests on deck looked at him with a smile, but he could sense the puzzled thoughts behind each one.
Despite his own tailored suit, Steve Bennett stood out as an impostor.
Every glance sized him up and placed an impression in the observer’s mind. They all knew his name and his story. His name had been featured on agendas in countless board meetings; his story had been told at cocktail parties. These people had suddenly become aware of him. He was now related to them all through investments and holdings, endowments and proxies. But they were all strangers to him.
Steve Bennett pulled back his shoulders and quickened his pace. He made it through the crowd and turned toward the back of the yacht.
# # #
Wake folded over wake behind the ship’s powerful, water-jet engines. Katherine stared at the turbulent waters and watched the waves roll into one another. Fear had given way to anger and she stood without moving. Even the rocking of the boat beneath her feet did not affect her sheer force of will.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
“Get bent,” the words were soft. “I liked this job.”
“I slap your friend. I get fired. That’s how it works.”
Steve approached and leaned with his back against the rail next to her. He crossed his arms. The waves of the wake churned faithfully in time to the thumping of the engines.
“That’s how it works?”
“My boss is in the salon. Go. Get it over with.” She fought back a tear. After all the glad-handing she had done it was unfair that a latecomer would be the undoing of her career.
“I’ve heard the limerick, Miss. I’m surprised you only slapped him. He’s limped home from several bars for that one.”
She lost interest in the waves and turned to Bennett. He wasn’t tall. He wasn’t slim. He looked uncomfortable in his Armani, even though the fit suited him perfectly. There was a reassurance coming from his pale blue eyes that comforted her.
“You’re not going to have me fired?”
“I think you’re doing a fine job.”
She wanted to smile but turned back to the wake “It doesn’t matter. Once my boss hears, he’ll let me go anyway.”
“No. He won’t.” Steve stood from the rail. “I’ll talk to him. I’ll tell him the limerick.”
This time she did smile. “You’re not serious?”
“Who’s your boss?”
“Which one is he?”
“You are new here.”
He shrugged and looked away.
The ferry slowed and sank deeper into the water as the twin hulls settled into the Gulf. Steve was caught off guard and had to grab the rail to maintain his balance.
She giggled to herself. “Does your friend really have a shirt that says ‘Hooray for Boobies?’”
“Yes. But he also has one that says ‘No Fat Chicks.’ So it’s a toss-up as to which one he is actually wearing.”
Katherine smiled. “I’ll take you to Mr. Baxter myself, Mr. Bennett.”
“Call me Steve.”
“This way, Steve.” She offered her arm.
Steve smiled and moved to take her arm, when a movement caught his eye. A wall of water rose from the Gulf. The wash crested the railing of the ferry and found its way deep into the fibers of his new suit.
Katherine was caught in the deluge as well. Dripping, she rushed back to the railing and shouted after the smaller craft that had caused the splash.
“What was that?” Steve tried to shake the wetness from his fingertips.
“Pacifists.” She spat the sarcastic comment from her lips.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s an environmental group. They’ve been protesting the site since before there was even a site.” She pointed and Steve’s gaze followed.
The boat sped away, but not before Steve caught the middle finger being thrown his way. Two of the men stood on the rear deck. The shorter of the two looked frail and overeducated. He had thrown the finger as he laughed and mocked the wet couple. The second did nothing. This solid figure only stood with his arms crossed, glaring at Steve. As this stocky man locked eyes with Bennett, Steve could swear that over the whine of the smaller boat’s engine, the roar of the sea, and the booming of the diesel-powered water-jets, he heard the man growl.
“Environmentalist? That guy looks like he could hug a tree into mulch.”
“We were told that it’s a new group that formed in response to ImagiNation’s plan to build the island chain. That never made sense to me. We say the Tortugas Banks in the literature just for a point of reference. We’re not that close. And, even at that, the reclamation engineers went out of their way not to endanger the reefs or the national park.”
“He looks like he wants to hurt me.”
“They buzz the yachts and occasionally play chicken with some of the dredging ships. Aside from this kind of crap,” she shook more water from her hands, “they’re harmless.”
“I don’t know,” Steve continued to stare at the man in the boat. “They don’t look harmless. You don’t get that big playing hackey-sack.”
Steve broke the stare and turned to look at Katherine. Her white gown had turned transparent. Blushing, he removed his drenched suit coat and tossed it around her shoulders.
Puzzled, she looked at him and then made the connection.