We are the only two survivors.
And the monster will make me wish I’d died along with the rest of them.
Heat rises from the sunbaked earth as I pretend to be a normal civilian who isn’t seeking the blood of an escaped convict. I lift a pile of limp green vegetables in my hand at the market and raise a brow to the man standing on the other side of the table. His beady-little eyes watch me touch his wares. He’s charging twice what they’re worth because I’m a white woman, so fuck that. My mission’s left me edgy and irritable and I don’t have patience for this bullshit.
There’s no way he’s going to negotiate with me. And I don’t need this anyway, so I’m out of here. I place the greens back down on the pile and turn on my heel. “Have a good fucking day,” I mutter under my breath, ignoring the way he pleads for me to come back and negotiate, loud enough we catch the attention of a few women and children nearby who watch me with wide eyes.
I catch the eye of my partner four tables out. With his dark complexion and eyes, he blends in better than I do with my pasty white skin. I could pass for a tourist. He, however, melds with the locals perfectly. Convenient when we need to ask questions, and hell do we have questions. Carlos shoots me a chin lift, a sign that we proceed as usual and meet in our rented apartment above the marketplace. He’s gotten no more information than I have. I smirk. At least he’s got an armful of vegetables.
If I hadn’t trained myself to never let my guard down, to never truly relax even in my sleep, I might have missed him. But I know him as soon as he comes into my peripheral vision, because I’ve studied him with careful, mesmerizing precision.
I’ve spent countless, sleepless hours memorizing every inch of this man’s physical appearance before I got on a plane to hunt him down. I’ve tracked him now for months, putting him back behind bars my primary life focus until all I could do was hone in on finding him.
I know that silvery scar that runs along his neck better than the back of my hand. I know that that black tribal tattoo peeking out from beneath his shirt is actually a full tat that covers every inch of his broad, muscled back and wraps around the front to his torso.
I know his name is Adrian Barone, though he’ll be going by another name here. I know he grew up on the wrong side of the Bronx thirty-seven years ago, the oldest of six children raised in abject poverty until his father solidified mafia connections. I know he served three years of his life sentence before he escaped. I know his eyes are so dark they’re nearly black, he has scarring on his neck, back, and legs, and that he has perfect vision. His blood type is A negative, and he still has all his wisdom teeth.
Before I’m done with him, I’ll know the pitch of his voice, the way he smells, and the sounds he makes when he screams.
But first I have to capture him.
I don’t let on that I’ve seen him. There’s no way he expects me here, but it’s best I keep my cool until Carlos is here for back-up. If I fuck this up, I’ll never forgive myself.
I try to catch Carlos’ eye, but Carlos is chatting it up with a beautiful, scantily-clad native sitting on a nearby bench. I’ll fucking kick his ass. He makes a move, steps closer to her and nods, encouraging for her to continue her story. His back’s to me. He might be making plans to meet her tonight for all I know, since the signal a minute ago meant he effectively dismissed me. I should be up in the apartment by now.
I pull out my phone to shoot him a text, walking as quickly as I can so I don’t lose our man, but not fast enough that I arouse suspicion. I have to play this safe. He’s walking in the opposite direction of Carlos, so there’s no way I can grab my partner and get his attention.
I glance at my phone and watch the text stay suspended. Of course. Just when I actually need the damn thing to work, it’s uncooperative. I shove my phone in my pocket and pick up my pace. Beyond the marketplace lies a cluster of buildings strewn with women and children, and soon when the men return from work, finding one person will become impossible.
I shoot one final glance in Carlos’ direction. He’s completely oblivious to me, the lovely little native practically sitting on his lap. Son of a bitch. I’ll kick his balls when I get my hands on him.
I’m going in alone.
A small passel of children skips rope to my left. I skirt around them, but as I quicken my pace, one of them trips and goes sprawling. I yank the kid up by his armpits and steady him on his feet. “You okay?” I ask in English, nodding my head. Yes, yes, you’re okay, now get out of my fucking way.
I practically shove the kid aside, and when I look up I see no trace of him.
I break into a trot. I drop the fruit I bought at the stand, the sounds of the children squealing as they pick it up quickly fading. My pulse quickens, my lungs contracting as I inhale the humid air and try to run faster. I take a left at a building, then come to a screeching halt when I realize I’m at the top of a long, winding, spiral staircase that’s dimly lit with one bare bulb. I catch a glimpse of him below, the light catching the silver of the scar on his neck and reflecting. He’s below me now, still oblivious that he’s being followed, but three staircases below the main marketplace, descending into the darkness of a staircase that leads underground.
No fucking way.
The spiral staircase ends in a courtyard ten feet or so below. Once he disappears down the cave-like stairs that lead to countless dank rooms and doorways, I’ll never find him.
It takes me a split second to make my decision. With a surge of adrenaline that nearly makes me nauseous, I grasp the rail, heave myself over the edge, and jump, the screams of those who saw me drowning in the rush of air that surrounds me as I fall. I hold my arms and legs tight as I plummet, landing on my feet like a cat. Pain shoots through my heels and calves, but my mark was accurate: I’m within arm’s reach of Adrian.
I use the momentary shock that registers in his eyes to my advantage and grab my taser. Just as he turns to run, I line up my target and pull the trigger. He freezes, jerks, and drops to the ground. I’ve trained for a full decade, and even though he outweighs me by a hundred pounds or more, I’m thin and lithe and vicious, petite belette my mama called me, little weasel. Even though he’s on the ground and paralyzed, I kneel above him, not really caring that his head cracks on the stone hard enough to hurt but not injure.
The pictures I received in my file on Adrian arrived with the pictures of Lori Arsenault, the woman he murdered. They were vivid reminders of her mutilated, brutalized body that suffered torment before her life was taken from her. Those pictures haunted me in my sleep and followed me into the waking hours. Day and night, there was no escape from those images. The rope burns where he tied her wrists and ankles. Bruises along her thighs, back, and ass where he beat her. This is the son of a bitch who hurt her.
This man violated a woman who trusted him, brutalized her and then ended her life.
I don’t always take jobs so personally, but the image of Lori Arsenault’s brutalized body affected me harder than I anticipated. She came to America as a foreign exchange student. Like my mother. She hailed from Saint Paul de Vence, a little town south of Paris. My mother’s hometown.
She isn’t your mother, I tell myself. I mean, the girl was younger than I am. But I can’t reason with the anger that fuels my need to hurt him.
This is not just a job to me.
I want to hurt him like he hurt her.
But I’m no bounty hunter. I work for the American government.
That isn’t what makes me let him go, though. I could get away with murdering him and still, even now, be lauded as a hero. But no.
Death like that would be far too merciful. He needs to suffer before he dies.
So with a twist of my arm, I let him live, but take pleasure in watching him pass out, limp on the ground beneath me. Once I’m confident he’s out, I reach for the pair of cuffs I keep on me, and quickly snap them on his wrists. Heaving with the effort of the takedown, I get my phone and squint at it, needing a signal. One bar flashes, then disappears. Fuck it. I hit dial and breathe a sigh of relief when the crackle of a ringer sounds.
“Meet me in the courtyard, ground floor,” I breathe into the phone. “I’ve got him cuffed and unconscious.” Stunned silence. Did I lose the connection?
“I’m here. Say that again?”
I repeat my command, but this time don’t bother with formalities. “Fucking move.”
Our prisoner hasn’t said a word to me since Carlos found us and helped me haul his huge body up. It was no easy task, but between the two of us, we managed to get him to the holding cell we’d prepared. The local police have several they’ve given us for their disposal. If we’d come to arrest a native, they’d have other things to say, but apprehending an American criminal is another story. They give us everything we need and send us on our way with reporters asking questions we wouldn’t answer.
Though Adrian hasn’t said anything, he doesn’t need to. Carlos ran his specs and confirmed I’d apprehended the correct man. I knew I had, but you play it safe when you work for the government. So now that our criminal is safe and secured, we bring him back to the states for prosecution.
There are exactly five of us on this private jet: Me and Carlos, with Adrian between us, and the two pilots up front navigating us home.
I hate that I have to follow protocol. He’s still subject to due process and shit like that, and I can’t beat his ass when I bring him back. I wish I’d hurt him more when I brought him down. The bruising along his chin and forehead do little to sate my need for blood.
Here, while we’re airborne, however, I’m subject to no such laws. Things happen in transport.
“We have five hours,” I say calmly to Carlos.
Carlos blinks at me and raises a brow in silence.
“Five hours before we’re responsible for the way we treat this piece of shit.” Our prisoner doesn’t react.
“Oh?” Carlos asks.
“We arrive in America and we can’t punish him.” When we get to Hawaii, there’s a cell and a court waiting for him.
Carlos nods sagely. “True. But the pilots could know what we’ve done and report us.”
“For doing what? Self-defense when in mid-air would hold up in court.”
“I don’t know,” Carlos begins. “Jesus, no wonder your mom called—”“
The jet plane lurches suddenly downward in a sharp descent that makes my stomach clench. I grip the armrests so hard my knuckles turn white. I blink, getting a grip, then breathe in through my nose.
Just a little turbulence, I tell myself, but the thought barely forms in my mind before we begin to plummet. It lasts just a few seconds but enough to terrify the fuck out of me. My skin is on fire, my breathing tormented like someone has a plastic bag over my head. I open my mouth to breathe but can’t. I’m dizzy, I’m going to pass out, but no, I’m way too pissed off to lose my shit like this. With a vicious swipe, I unfasten my buckle and lunge toward the cockpit.
“Nadine. Get your ass back here,” Carlos growls. I shoot him a glare for daring to use my name in front of a prisoner. I don’t like prisoners to know my name. He ignores my anger, though. “Sit your ass down and buckle up,” he says. “We’ve hit turbulence.”
“No shit, Einstein,” I retort. For fuck’s sake. Who does he think I am?
I go to open the cockpit, forgetting for a moment that it’s always locked from the inside once we take off. I can’t get in there if I tried. I growl and turn back to the seats, my eyes momentarily meeting our prisoner’s. I’ve avoided eye contact with him until now but it’s as if I’m drawn to him in by a some magnetic pull force I can’t control.
His eyes are narrowed on me, and when I look at him, he allows his gaze to roam slowly down the length of my body. I try to ignore the way it makes me feel. I hate him. I fucking hate him. He undresses me with his eyes, a lewd twist of his lips making me feel suddenly naked and exposed. He meets my gaze once more, cocks his head the side and raises his brows as if to say, “What now?”
Son of a bitch.
I won’t let him fuck with me.
I spin around at the sound of the door to the cockpit opening. The pilot’s eyes look at me, widened, and clears his throat. He’s a short, portly guy with balding blond hair and large, watery blue eyes. “We have a rapid fuel leak,” he says. “It seems the inspector missed something before we left. There’s no other explanation for why we’ve lost fuel so rapidly.”
It seems for a minute we’re suspended in some sort of alternate reality. I can’t quite comprehend what he’s saying.
Losing fuel? We’ve lost fuel. Fuck. That means we don’t get back to American soil at 3 a.m. as we’d planned.
“Do we have enough to get back?” I ask, knowing the answer already.
“No, officer,” he says, shaking his head. “Nowhere near enough to get back to our take-off, and nowhere near enough to get to our destination. In fact, our only chances of survival are an emergency landing.”
Carlos swears behind me. Our prisoner, however, begins to chuckle. He fucking laughs. I blink, trying to process this, and ignore his sadistic laughter, and for one ludicrous minute suspect he’s done this.
I turn an accusatory glance at him, but he only laughs. There’s no way. There’s no fucking way he could have caused this.
“Emergency landing where?” I ask.
“We’re figuring it out now,” he says, turning back to the cockpit. I follow.
“Christ,” I swear under my breath.
“The nearest island is far too small and forested to land on, so our best option is to land as close to the shore as possible.”
Fuck. That means we’re landing in the fucking water. Someone’s put a rubber band around my lungs, as they’re suddenly constricted, the air in my lungs too little and I can’t get enough air. The pilots don’t even notice I’m there, as they begin emergency protocol. Gerry, or whatever the blond guy’s name is, grabs his remote and pushes a button.
Gerry speaks into the radio, “Oakland Oceanic, Gulf Stream 563, Emergency.”
A raspy response comes on the other end. For a brief moment I’m hopeful. He reached someone. Maybe they can reach us? Then I remember we’re flying over endless blue in the Pacific, and nothing short of a miracle would get anyone to us now.
A response comes in a crackly voice. “Gulf Stream 563, state nature of emergency, souls on board, fuel on board, location and intentions.”
“Gulf Stream 563 is 06 33 decimal 01 north, 162 36 decimal 05 west. We have five souls on board, one hour of fuel remaining and a rapid fuel leak. We are proceeding direct 08 39 decimal 14 north, 162 32 decimal 30 west. We will attempt a water landing on the south side of the island.”
I wait for the response. We all do. But nothing comes.
Did they hear us? Has anyone heard our plea for help?
“Sit back down, please, officer,” Gerry says.
“Did they hear you?”
His jaw tightens. “I have no idea.”
Fr twenty minutes I sit and worry my fingers together, ignoring the stoic way our prisoner sits erect. Carlos mutters prayers in Spanish.
We don’t talk. There’s nothing to say. This plane is going down, and whether or not we survive is out of our control.
“Is there anything we can do to prevent injury on impact?” Carlos shouts to the cockpit but the door swings shut.
I stare at the door, my hands on my hips.
“Sit down,” Carlos growls. “For fuck’s sake.”
“Sit down? Have you completely forgotten your head?” I ask him. I don’t wait for a response as I’m making sure we all have life vests. We won’t need oxygen masks unless the cabin pressure drops, but they’re supposed to deploy if that happens.
“Put this on him,” Carlos says, shaking it at Adrian.
I glare at him, the image of the brutalized woman coming to mind. I’m supposed to help him? But then I remember. If I don’t help him, he could die. And how will I see him punished if he’s dead?
Carlos doesn’t respond, so without a word, I pull a vest over my head, stark orange that lights up the inside of the cabin of blues and blacks. It looks so flimsy, way too flimsy to save anyone’s life. There’s a place where I pull to inflate it, but I’m not supposed to pull that until we hit water. I hand Carlos a life vest, but can’t give our prisoner his, because he’s cuffed.
I lean in, and ignore the way my hands shake, and my palms grow clammy when I draw close to him. He’s bigger, stronger, and more muscled than I remembered from the brief time I touched him. He’s fucking huge, so big he could pick me up with one hand and snap me in two.
I’d like to see him try.
“Uncuff me,” Adrian growls. It’s the first time he’s spoken. His voice is dark and gritty like gravel and pitch, carrying with it a scary, commanding vibe. “When we land, you’ll need my assistance and if I’m the only other survivor and you can’t find that key, you’ll wish you had.”
I glare at him, bend down, and go to put his vest on, but as I do, he quickly turns his head. I jump, gasping, expecting him to bite me, and just about drop the vest when his tongue hits my wrist, lazily lapping at the tender skin. I curse, drawing back is if his mouth is fire, the wetness of his saliva on my skin making nausea roll in my stomach.
“You son of a bitch,” I growl, and without thinking about it, smack my hand straight across his cheek.
“Nadine!” Carlos reprimands, looking at me sharply. Like I give a fuck? We’re crash-landing a jet with a wanted murderer. It isn’t time to be politically correct.
Adrian only shoots me a lewd grin, revealing perfectly straight white teeth. I shiver involuntarily and toss the vest to Carlos.
“You lick me, I’ll knee your nuts,” Carlos mutters, turning to face Adrian. He puts the vest on, but Adrian only sits there meekly.
Son of a bitch.
The plane pitches down, and I stumble forward, smacking my head on the wall. I blink, trying to clear my star-filled vision, Carlos’s voice coming from too far away as if he’s in a tunnel.
“For Christ’s sake, Nadine. Sit your ass down,” he says. I make my way back but I’m falling, stumbling about the cabin like tumbleweed on a prairie, wild and reckless. Our prisoner’s body lunges as far as he can go, as if he wants to reach out and catch me or something, but he’s buckled in and cuffed, so there’s no way for him to help me. I tell myself it’s the fear making my brain irrational, imagining things that can’t be. Finally, I fall into my seat and snap the buckle in place, craning my head to look out the tiny window. We’re so close to the ocean now I can see the foamy flecks and the angry rocks below.
You’re gonna die. This is it, I think to myself, closing my eyes and bracing for impact. I try to let the cadence of Carlos’ jumbled prayers soothe me into a sort of acceptance of my fate, but our prisoner’s lewd, raucous laugh makes it impossible.
This isn’t the landing they planned. This isn’t what we were supposed to do. We hit the water, the sound of wrenching metal and screams the last thing I hear before I lose all consciousness.
So much pain.
So much darkness, and so much pain. My head throbs as if I’ve been whacked with a baseball bat. One knee radiates pain so badly I wonder briefly if I’ve lost a limb. The thought makes my stomach clench, as I slowly, painfully, reluctantly regain consciousness.
My first thought is I survived.
The second thought is, how badly am I hurt?
And the third, did anyone else make it?
I try to open my eyes, but my lids are so heavy, it’s as if they’re pinned in place with super glue. I can’t open them. My head throbs with a dull ache, and something warm and wet trickles down my face. The metallic smell warns me that it’s blood. Mine, or someone else’s?
I take stock of the pain I’m in. My head is killing, both internally and externally. Hot pain flares along my forehead, confirming that I have a head wound, but I can breathe. I focus on taking deep, cleansing breaths, welcoming the familiar rise and fall of my chest and shoulders with the effort of breathing. This is something I can still do. I may not be able to open my eyes, or speak, or walk, but I can breathe.
It’s a start.
I try to grasp the threads of memory but it’s hard when my head is throbbing and thoughts saunter in and out like wisps of clouds. Wet. Something is wet. Am I? Panic floods my gut as I remember we were crash landing in water. But no, I can still breathe. If I can still breathe, then I’m either not underwater or I’m dead.
Death shouldn’t be this painful, though.
My clothes are soaked, clinging to my body like cling wrap, my head heavy with damp hair.
I have to open my eyes. I must open my eyes.
With considerable effort, I open one of them. I’m on shore, and the wreckage of the plane is about ten yards from where I’m lying. Torn metal, smoke and small licks of flames litter the beach. The sun has almost set, the horizon a dark blue, and I realize with a shock that when that sun sets, I’ll be plunged into darkness.
I push myself up to sitting, taking inventory of my wrecked body. My left leg feels miraculously fine, but pain radiates near my knee on my right leg, and I realize there’s something sticking out of my leg. It’s a piece of metal, like shrapnel, wedged into my leg below my knee. If it’s deep enough and I pull it, I could bleed out. Then what? Is anyone else here? With my stomach clenched in nausea and shaking hands, I reach for the metal that’s torn right through my pants, crimson blood staining the torn fabric. A dry sob catches in my throat. I have to get to safety.
Is there safety here?
That’s when my gaze falls on the unthinkable. It takes me a minute to make sense of what I’m seeing.
Plane wreckage isn’t covered in blood-soaked fabric.
A body ripped asunder in the crash is strewn on the sandy beach in front of me, arms and limbs torn brutally apart as if ripped by cruel hands. I roll to my side and retch onto the ground, emptying the contents of my stomach until nothing but bile remains. I swipe the back of my hand across my mouth and fall to my back, wrecked. I can’t look again. I recognized white, though, which means that body was a pilot’s, and not Carlos or Adrian. Carlos was wearing regulation navy and Adrian in the clothes we found him in.
Something else caught my attention, though. I need to see again, so I open my eyes and look to the sandy beach, pretending the body parts washed on shore are part of the beach. I can’t look again.
Out in front of me, stretching all the way to the waves crashing on the shore, lies a path where my body was dragged. I didn’t land here, where I am now. Someone found me and hauled me out of the water while I was still unconscious, so I wouldn’t drown. That would explain my soaking wet clothes and the fact that I’m here, on dry land, and breathing.
Someone else survived, then, or there are natives in hiding. Where did they go? Did they have to leave me here so they could rescue the others?
I push myself up to sitting again, ignoring the pain that flares in my leg, and scan the coast with gritted teeth. The task ahead of me makes nausea swirl in my recently emptied stomach.
I need to identify bodies. I need to know who I’m here with. I didn’t become who I am by nursing my wounds and hiding in fear.
I push myself to my feet, but the pain in my leg is unbearable. I look down. The piece of metal sticking out is smaller than I thought at first, but it has to come out. When I pull it out, I’ll bleed, which should cleanse the wound, but if I make a tourniquet, or even a bandage tight enough, I could staunch the flow of blood. I quickly undo the buttons on my top, take it off, and wrap it around my leg to form a loose loop above the wound. I’ll leave it there to grab when the time comes. My hands shaking so hard I almost lose my balance, I grab the piece of metal and pull. My screams echo in my ears, the pain so intense my vision blurs. I throw the blood-soaked metal away, then quickly wrap my leg in the shirt. I watch as the bleeding slows. Temporarily I’m okay, but I won’t be able to bear much weight on it. I’ll need to rest it to heal.
In the dim light of the fading sun, I scan the coast.
Then my eyes fall on navy.
I whimper and drag my hand across my eyes, wanting to push this vision away. How do soldiers at battle deal with sudden, violent loss and devastation?
Get up, I tell myself. See if you can help him.
His legs lie at odd angles, broken beyond repair, white bone shining clear through one stretch of torn fabric. I kneel beside him, lifting his limp body in my arms. His eyes are open, staring vacantly to a place beyond. I know he’s dead, but I need to prove it to myself. Gently, I place his body back on the sand where it falls with a soft thump, then pick up his arm and place my fingers where his pulse ought to be, where lifeblood should be flowing through his veins. No pulse. I turn away, the confirmation my partner’s gone making sudden tears spring to my eyes.
But I don’t cry. And I won’t now.
I close my eyes tightly and give myself a moment to deal with the pain of loss, before I stand and look across the sandy beach once more. I don’t have time to spare.
The plane lies in a heap of twisted metal on the shore, half in the water. I can see how one wing is completely blown away, and reason the wingtip must’ve hit a wave or rock, causing us to impact the water harder than we were supposed to. That wasn’t the landing our pilots had planned. Ignoring the waves of pain that make me want to vomit, I stumble on unsteady feet toward the plane. And then I see it. One final body slumped against the window in the cockpit filled with water. Dead on impact? Drowned, pinned in the cockpit? I’ll never know.
I fall to my knees as the memory of the pilot’s last words come back to me.
We have five souls on board.
Including myself, the two dead bodies of the pilot and Carlos, I now have four.
I still haven’t found our prisoner.