Excerpt from STRANDED: A Novel
The heavens faded from black to dusky blue, arching like an inverted bowl over the inky waters below. Sprawled across a fragment of boat, Jake Chalmers scanned the horizon. Darkness cloaked the expanse to the west, but in the east the circle of the earth etched a line of gold between ocean and sky. Pushing himself chest high, arms shaking, he studied the line for movement. Nothing. Nothing but the rising sun.
He rolled to his back and threw an arm over his eyes. Seawater dripped off his sleeve, stinging the cracks in his lips. He winced and pressed them together. A scum of brine coated the inside of his mouth, numbing his tongue and the back of his throat. Swallowing to generate saliva blazed a trail of salt down his esophagus. His stomach heaved, but there was nothing to expel, not even bile.
So thirsty. The craving ground like fine sandpaper against every cell in his body. Forty-two years old and he’d never experienced misery like this, not even in Nam. He raised his arm and flexed his fingers, blinked until the crinkled skin on the back of his hand came into focus. Were the wrinkles a symptom of dehydration? Or the result of floating five nights in the ocean?
He shifted back onto his stomach and hooked his left arm over the edge of the fragment to keep his balance. The flat-bottomed vessel, split in half lengthwise by the explosion and flipped into an upside-down V, barely accommodated the stretch of his six-foot-two frame. The submerged air compartments that had doubled as tourist passenger seats kept the damaged craft afloat, but theVtipped precariously with each swash of a wave.
He’d count, clear the haze from his mind. Count the days since he’d boarded the cruise ship. The days alone on the ocean after the explosion. The hours, the minutes, every second of the rest of his life he’d spend hunting down Captain Emilio.
He sat up, catapulted by the heat of rage. The boat fragment jerked, and he fell on his back and slid, grasping with outflung arms at the wet surface. The ocean swallowed his feet, his chest. The bucking craft smacked his head as he slipped off. Blood filled his mouth, stinging his tongue where his teeth slashed it. He caught the edge of the vessel, pulled up, and spat. Crimson dots spattered the craft’s white paint.
Ginny. The ache for her pressed against his chest. Where was she? Floating like him in the ocean? Or had she slipped under the waves to a briny grave? He closed his eyes. Tired. So tired. Wanting to save her. Failing. His throat tightened.
He repositioned his grip and willed himself not to let go. Willed himself to fill his lungs and release the air in a slow exhale. Willed himself to crawl back onto the broken sea vessel. He lay on his stomach and stretched his limbs into a sprawl.
God and man may have abandoned him, but he wouldn’t yield body and soul easily. The ocean would have to wait.
He dozed in snatches until the change came. Awareness of it crawled into his dreams and elbowed him awake. He opened his eyes. Rain? He raised his head, body trembling, to scan the heavens. Empty. Only the sun glaring from its own ocean of blue sky.
No, beneath him. Motion, tugging him—a surge forward, then a stop. Surge forward, stop. He shook his head, lifted himself off his stomach. At the next swell he glimpsed the horizon. A green smear creased its edge.
His heart slammed into high gear, and he struggled to his knees. The water dipped and the land disappeared. The boat fragment slid forward. Stopped. Rose on the slow elevator of another swell. He held his breath.
An island slipped onto the horizon. High on one end, sloping to sea level at the other.
He sucked in air and hurled it out in a cry that reverberated across the waves.
As if startled, the boat fragment jumped, and he fell on his stomach. He grabbed the vessel’s edge. It rotated in a half circle and lurched forward on a new path. A path headed back to sea.
An ocean current—it must have caught the longer part of the fragment submerged in the water. He studied the distance to the island. The current might veer back and sidle up to the island, or, just as likely, it might tow his broken sea vessel farther away.
Didn’t matter. He didn’t need the boat. Just the island.
He slipped into the water and set his strokes on autopilot.
Five days earlier
Jake Chalmers leaned on his forearms against the cruise ship’s railing, his back to the crowded buffet table. The light fingers of the harbor breeze carried his wife’s voice rising in unsuppressed gaiety behind him. Exactly what he’d hoped for. Planned for. To take all the pain and stuff it into his heart, free hers to soar.
He swallowed back the lump crowding his throat and focused on the deck below. Captain Emilio stood alone at the gangplank. He’d been there all morning, personally welcoming each boarding passenger. No question he made a good impression—tall, trim, young for holding the position of captain.
As a seasoned officer sizing up a younger officer, Jake had given him high marks. The captain’s white uniform was crisp; his jacket, immaculate; and his hair, though a bit long, was neatly groomed under his captain’s cover. The ship gleamed with fresh paint and shining metal surfaces. The crew, all Filipinos except for the first mate, were attentive and friendly. Captain Emilio’s attention to detail as good as guaranteed the cruise from Guam to the Philippines would be a memory-maker to cherish.
The stream of passengers trickled to a few last-minute boarders. Now would be a good time to slip down and join the man for conversation. As small as the ship was, with only twenty-four guests to attend to, the captain might be up for several visits on the bridge during the five-day trip.
A ship’s horn blared nearby, and the passengers, evidently mistaking it for the Gateway’s, flocked like starlings to join Jake at the railing. He made room for Ginny to squeeze in front of him, her back against his chest. The Cherokee wedge sandals she’d purchased especially for the cruise raised her four inches to where she could fit just under his chin. Impulsively, he kissed the top of her head.
She tipped her face up at him and smiled. “Watch it, Marine.”
He wrapped his arms around her, inhaling the fruity scent of her shampoo. “I’m watching, and you aren’t getting away.”
But she would get away. Months, the doctor had said. Six at the most. A tight knot constricted his chest.
The horn blared again, and the passengers, grumbling that the cruise wasn’t leaving after all, drifted back to the buffet table. Ginny shifted to his right side and slipped her arm around his waist. “Shouldn’t the captain be on the bridge? We leave in fifteen minutes.”
“Must be waiting for someone. Here comes the first mate now.” Jake nodded at a short, balding Caucasian striding toward the captain. “He’ll take over so the captain can go.”
“He’s sure ticked about something. Look at the roster.”
Behind the captain’s back, he clutched the ship’s roster, rapping it like a jackhammer against his spine. Jake shrugged. He’d be annoyed too if his men came up short.
At the first mate’s approach, the hammering shifted to ominous whaps. The captain’s nostrils flared above clenched teeth. For one beat, the hammering stopped. “I told you to wait.”
The mate jerked to a stop. “Yessir.” His lips pinched into a thin line. He turned and slunk away.
Jake scowled. Nineteen years in the Reserves had exposed him to every kind of officer the Marine Corps attracted. This one was a bully. He managed his men through intimidation.
“Look!” Ginny nudged him with her shoulder. “That’s who he’s waiting for.”
He followed her line of sight to a woman stepping onto the gangplank. She wore a calf-length dress the colors of a brilliant red and orange sunset, a slit on the left opening to just above her knee as she trod up the passageway. Like the captain, she was tall and slender, a looker. A good match for him.
Ginny sighed. “So gorgeous.”
The blonde or the dress? Didn’t matter. He booted his disgust with the captain. What mattered was a perfect cruise. One last, happy experience before Ginny’s suffering began. Unless God chose to remove it …
“Gorgeous is what I’ve got in my arms.” He drew her into a tight hug. Stuffing the pain. Trying mighty hard to let his heart soar with hers.
Evedene Eriksson strode up the gangplank, a pool of sweat suddenly swamping her armpits and dribbling down her sides to her waist. She hesitated. She could still turn and—not run, certainly—but walk away as fast as her legs could carry her.
One clue, one little bit of evidence—that was all she needed. She could do this.
At the other end of the gangplank, the captain stepped forward to face her. Elation bubbled up her chest to her throat.
The man was handsome—dashing, really, in those crisp white cottons and flashy blue jacket with its gold braid and brass buttons. His cap sat at a jaunty angle on his head, revealing dark, curly hair, which probably that very morning had been cut and styled. No doubt every female boarding the ship thrilled at the sight of him.
But what set her heart thumping was that he had the same hawklike Roman nose as Danny Romero, the same square jaw and cleft chin. Her heartbeat pounded into a drumroll. Eight frustrating years of Danny Romero dodging her every effort might finally come to an end. All she had to do was prove the two men were related, and United States vs. Romerowas her win.
She peered at the deck above him, locating the source of chatting and laughing passengers. A couple stood at the railing, locked in an embrace. The tightness that had clamped her shoulders all morning loosened. She was making the right decision to board, in spite of her boss’s reluctance. With all these people here, nothing bad could happen.
She stopped in front of the captain.
She blinked. The captain was holding the ship’s roster, eyebrows raised. She almost corrected him, almost said, no, she was Evedene Eriksson.
“Yes, Eva Gray.” She stared boldly into his eyes. She wasn’t a field agent like Scott, but she could lie just as well.
Captain Emilio glanced at the roster. “You’re traveling alone? The reservation says two staterooms.”
The question smashed like a fist to her stomach. She’d been only a few steps behind Scott when someone pushed him onto the track with the El bearing down on him. For a moment, the switch she’d turned off in her mind flipped on, and she saw Scott fall, heard people scream, felt the swoosh of air slap her face as the train braked.
She snapped the switch off. “Just me.”
“Then one of my crew will show you to your cabin. You’ll find your luggage inside.” The captain made a mark on the roster and bowed slightly, the gesture a wooden tilt from the waist up. “Welcome aboard, Ms. Gray.”
She followed the crewman across the deck, but at the captain’s shout to cast off, she found her legs suddenly stilt-like, her sandaled, toenail-polished feet like sandbags. What was she doing? Her stomach twisted. She shouldn’t have let herself think of Scott and the El.
“This way, please.” The crewman held open a door into the ship’s bowels.
The gangplank growled into place behind her, and the deck shuddered beneath her sandals. She should run, leap onto the pier. Her feet betrayed her, yanked her forward through the hatch. The crewman brushed past, and the door clicked shut.
She inhaled sharply. Tiny hairs at the nape of her neck prickled like icicles and spiked shivers down her spine.
“Here, ma’am, your room.” From the end of the corridor, the smiling crewman beckoned her.
She straightened her shoulders and marched down the passageway. This was exactly where she wanted to be. One last piece of evidence, and 1981 would mark the year she put Chicago’s premiere drug lord, Danny Romero, behind bars.