A Taste of... Shadow's CONSPIRACY
“Hail, Mary, full of grace, um, we beseech thee and…and…”
Dammit to hell.
Catechism had been too long ago, and Chester Able hadn’t had much interest in praying since then. Now that he needed to, he couldn’t remember the words, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
“I beseech thee.” His whispers were barely audible. “Help me get my stupid ass out of this situation and I swear I’ll light a candle every day from now on. I’ll even come in and confess my sins.”
As a gunshot rang out below him, Chester desperately searched for a way out of his predicament. His feet lost traction on the polished upper deck of the yacht, and he bit his lip to stop himself from cursing.
He scrambled in an undignified crawl on his toes and forearms, trying to make himself as small as possible while he sneaked around to the boat’s stern. The last thing he wanted was to be seen by the men with the guns.
The gunshot didn’t bode well for one of his two companions. Chester was determined not to meet a similar fate.
Even though he was the only one currently on the second level, two staircases led up to the sundeck, where he cowered on the port side. The stupid, bright, moonlit sky would surely give him away if he left his hiding spot.
And the crazy son of a bitch on the control deck will find me easily enough if he just looks up.
Right now, the only thing telling Chester he was currently safe was the babbling voice of the one guy who hadn’t been shot yet. But neither of them had the information their attackers were looking for.
Only Chester did.
Something large splashed into the water off the port side, and he flinched.
One of his friends had just become fish food, but he dared not sneak a peek. Silently, he prayed for his companion’s soul, but he was interrupted by an angry voice echoing off the water. It faded as another voice responded, whining and begging.
He had to get away while they were still talking.
The men with the guns had approached them using an inflatable raft. They’d rowed over from the island and boarded the yacht before anyone understood what was happening. Landon, who was now pleading for his life, had been the one tasked with keeping a lookout.
Dumbass left his post!
And now, these pirates were near the bow. Chester would have to climb down to get away. But if he did that, he ran the risk of being seen. And if he didn’t lower himself slowly into the water, the splash he made would surely draw the attention he was desperate to avoid.
Chester figured God might be on his side in this matter. Although things looked grim, his luck had held out when the men had fixated on one of his pals and not even bothered to search the boat for more crew. Now if only that luck, or divine intervention, would hold.
A ragged cry of pain from the main deck sent chills down his spine.
Chester pulled himself up to the railing and peeked over. The bright moonlight revealed there were no boats nearby to lend aid. And the distant shoreline of Shadow Island was dotted with lights from homes, its occupants winding down for the night, unaware of Chester’s predicament.
Running without lights was normal for Chester’s little group when they weren’t partying, and it always made the trips more fun and mysterious. Unfortunately, that meant he couldn’t see if any other boats—help—were close either.
The angriest man’s intensity was growing as he shouted, and Landon continued begging for his life.
It was time to bail on this voyage.
Spinning in a circle, Chester made sure one last time that he was the only one on this level. His prayers had worked. The sundeck was only ever used for tanning, hooking up, or, as it was tonight, standing lookout.
Fat lot of good that did.
This deck was smaller, so he could make out the tops of the heads of the five menacing intruders gathered at the bow.
Something pale caught his eye, and he gulped. Down in the water, the white shirt of his dead colleague was turning a dark pink as saltwater dispersed the blood flooding out of the fist-sized exit hole in his upper back.
Freddie always loved that shirt.
They’d blown Freddie’s heart out.
Chester had watched enough action movies to know that was a terrible way to die.
He dropped in reflex as another explosion went off on the deck below. Pained screams kept him huddled and his limbs trembling in terror.
No. No. No.
They were moving too fast. He had to get in position. Jumping from this height would be certain death. He needed to get to the main deck where he could ease into the water.
Clawing over to the ladder with shaky arms, he began lowering himself to the stern.
“Find the other one!”
Chester’s foot slipped on a rung. He was “the other one.” Had they known he was here all along?
His fingers clutched the top of the ladder, white-knuckled with terror, as he tried to hold himself in position. He locked his attention on the faint lights in the distance—the only signs of humanity in the world as the acrid smell of gunpowder on the briny breeze infiltrated his nose. Swimming had always been something he excelled at. He couldn’t tell how far away those lights were, but that didn’t stop him from telling himself he could make it.
There was no other choice. It was swim or die. And he didn’t want to die.
These men were going to toss Landon’s body anytime now. He had to get to the main deck so he could slip over the railing. It was only three feet to the water there, and he could ease himself in.
Trembling with fear, he continued his descent. His knees felt like rubber, and he briefly wondered where his sea legs had gone. But he knew his unsteadiness came from the presence of unwelcome visitors on his boat and not his years of seafaring.
Then three things happened at once.
A viselike grip clutched his ankle as he prepared to move to the next rung on the ladder.
The second body, Landon, splashed into the water behind him.
And Chester’s hands slipped as fear and horror caused his body to convulse.
Too late, he tried to grab back onto the rails, but he was dragged down and slammed onto the deck. Far too late, he understood that he should’ve jumped when the attack first started. It would’ve been better to fall into the ocean and worry about being shot than be at the mercy of these men.
He twisted reflexively as the back of his head bounced off the metal railing on the first deck. Stars washed across his vision. Blinding pain reverberated through his skull, rattling his teeth. His body went limp from shock.
Then he crumpled sideways into a pretzel, his ankle still held by one of the invaders. He was face down on the wooden planking, trying to figure out how to untangle himself. From a knot growing on the back of his head, warm blood trickled down his neck.
“If you’re going to try to hide,” the man holding his ankle barked as a lightning bolt of pain shot through Chester’s leg, “you shouldn’t be bumbling around above our heads.”
As his leg was brutally slammed into the railing, Chester miraculously found his voice. “Help! Someone, help!”
Sinister chuckles enveloped him. He looked, really looked, at the man holding his ankle.
He was dark-haired with a jagged scar across his forehead, and he was casually tapping the barrel of a huge, shiny handgun against Chester’s shin. He dropped Chester’s leg and moved closer to his catch, leaving red-tinged footprints on the deck.
Chester swallowed thickly. His friends’ blood.
“Go ahead. Scream your head off.” Flinging his arms wide, the man threw back his head and unleashed a bestial roar, which faded into laughter. He leaned over Chester, smiling.
Rancid breath assaulted Chester’s nose and brought bile to his throat. Or maybe it was the concussion he most definitely had. Fear trickled down his leg in a hot, wet line. If he hadn’t been so afraid for his life, he would’ve been horribly embarrassed.
“No one cares if you scream. There’s nobody around to hear it. But you can keep making a fool of yourself if you want.” The pirate gestured down at Chester’s wet groin with the pistol, making him tense up even more. “So let’s get to business. You know what I want. You and your little friends have stepped into something much too big for you. I need the names of your suppliers.”
Chester clamped his lips, realizing the tenuous situation he was in. If he gave his suppliers’ names, he was dead. If he didn’t, he was dead.
Rock. Hard place. Me right in the middle.
The man with the scar tilted his head. His eyes reminded Chester of a snake’s.
“They didn’t answer my questions either. Look what happened.”
“I don’t know anything,” Chester blubbered, lying. “I only worked for those other two.” Pulling himself up to his feet, he nearly fell as his ankle twinged.
“Oh, don’t say that.” The gunman clicked his tongue and shook his head sadly. “If you don’t know anything,” the gun rose to point at Chester’s throat, “then I have no reason to keep you alive.”
Chester’s full attention was centered on the yawning barrel pointed at him. He swore he could see down its interior. Staring at the bullet that would end his life.
He gulped, straightening reflexively. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
“Well, then.” The man raised his gun higher.
Making the sign of the cross and with a final kiss to his knuckle, Chester finished his prayer.
If the man said anything else, Chester didn’t hear. The gun spoke so loudly, it erased every other sound.
Warmth on his back and a wet snuffling sound in his ear roused Chester. His entire body screamed in pain. He tried to open his eyes, but fierce golden rays stabbed into them. Clenching them shut, he tried to figure out what had happened.
I must be dead.
The warm, soft sand at his back, the silky touch on his cheek, and the figure he couldn’t see. It all pointed to one thing.
He was before the gates of Heaven. Judgment Day was upon him, like his mom had always warned. And he knew he would be found lacking. Tears filled his eyes.
The words were barely audible. His mouth was full of grit, and his throat was tight and parched. He tried to lick his lips, but his jaw refused to unhinge. Heaven tasted like…salt.
Chester told himself salt was a cleansing agent, wiping his sins away, choking him with redemption. He coughed to clear his throat. He had to tell someone what had happened.
“Two more.” His voice sounded raw. Working his jaw hurt.
“What?” A shadow formed over him. It was the dark silhouette of a giant woman. An angel? “Two more what? Brody, down!”
The angel was asking him questions. This had to be a test to show how true his repentance was. He struggled to reach into his pocket. His right hand didn’t work. “Password. Fallen. There’re two more. Find them.”
Somewhere out there were the bodies of his friends. Maybe they had done bad things, but they were good guys. They deserved better than to become food for the fish. Even criminals deserved last rites.
Tears burned his eyes as he struggled to stare up at the angel through the golden haze surrounding his face. “Save them.”
“I will. And I’ll get you help. It’ll be okay.”
The angel continued to talk to him, but he could no longer hear her. His regrets addressed, Chester finally let go. Warm air and fur bathed his face. It felt like Heaven.
His last thought was that Heaven tasted like salt…but smelled like wet dog.
Sheriff Rebecca West hopped out of her Explorer. With the word Sheriff emblazoned in large letters down the SUV’s side doors, it was never a problem finding parking, especially at the Shadow Island Community Health Center.
Because of her athletic build and shoulder-length blond hair, people tended to not believe she could be in law enforcement at all, let alone an ex-FBI special agent. They could never say why, but Rebecca was certain they expected a giant Amazonian warrior or something. The shiny Explorer parked in the designated police parking space did help with that.
Not having an official uniform still…did not.
She’d gotten the call to come in early when they’d found a man on the shore of Beaman Beach. Not the best way to start a morning. Especially one that’d begun with a leisurely breakfast on her back deck with Ryker Sawyer after waking up in his arms once again.
Rebecca hurried in through the front doors, heading straight for the nurses’ station around the corner in the center of the building. Over the last month, she’d spent an awful lot of time in this facility.
With her badge pulled, Rebecca walked up to the desk. She sighed when she recognized the back of the nurse. It was easy to tell who it was by the inverted bob and shaved back and sides. “Don’t you ever get a day off?”
Missy turned, raised her eyebrows, and laughed. “I could say the same thing about you.” She finished filing her papers and slid them into one of the cubbies underneath the counter. “Can I assume that our newest patient is what brought you in today?”
Rebecca put her badge away. Missy knew who she was. There was no need to go flashing her brass.
The nurse came over and grimaced.
Her bleak expression made Rebecca sigh. “Don’t tell me he died on the way in.”
“Nope. I’m not on his case. But he’s not looking too good.” There was a hint of sadness in Missy’s honey-brown eyes. The sign of a medical professional who’d seen too much death and now expected it.
“I was told he was talking.”
“Was. Past tense.” Missy pulled a chair out and sank into it with a relieved sigh before rotating her shoulders. “They ventilated him shortly after he came in. I’m sorry, I don’t know anything more right now. They’re still working on him. We’ve arranged emergency transport. He needs to get to Coastal Ridge ASAP.”
Rebecca twisted to look down the hallway. Senior Deputy Hoyt Frost waved as he headed over from the patient rooms.
“Thought I heard your voice.” With his lanky frame and long legs, he covered ground quickly.
“I thought you’d still be at the scene. You left Darian on the beach?”
He tilted his head with a hint of a smile. “He insisted. Said he had ‘something to deal with.’”
Rebecca and her deputy, Darian Hudson, once had a heart-to-heart a month ago while a hurricane was ravaging the island. The “something to deal with” message made them aware the other person was dealing with their PTSD and needed some space. It kept the questions to a minimum. And the whole code had been facilitated by Hoyt in a protective act for his friend and colleague. Now Rebecca was a part of that too.
But this was the first time Rebecca had ever heard their code phrase used that way. Her trigger was the smell of engine oil. Darian’s was sand getting in his boots, which was why they didn’t send him to the beach unless it couldn’t be helped. She couldn’t stop her face from registering surprise as she raised an eyebrow.
Darian’s trauma was no one else’s business. As his boss, she was relieved he could handle the scene despite his triggers. As his friend, she was happy to think that he might one day get to enjoy a day at the beach with his wife and baby. Everyone knew Lilian wanted to share with her family her love for the fun and creativity of playing in the sand.
Hoyt shook his head, holding up a large plastic bag. “I came in with the victim. He kept talking about ‘two more’ and ‘fallen’ before he stopped breathing. EMTs had to bag him after that. I thought we’d lost him before we even rolled him through the entrance.”
Rebecca finally got a peek at what was in the plastic bag. “Are those his clothes?”
“Yup. They had to cut them off. So they’re ours now. He won’t be needing them when they transfer him to the mainland.”
“Get them in paper bags so they can dry out and not mold. It’ll destroy the blood evidence if it stays wet. There are a couple paper bags in the Explorer.”
Rebecca indicated the hallway, which led to their victim. “Could you tell what was wrong with him? Was he attacked, or was this an accident?”
“Not sure yet. He’s got a nasty gash on the back of his head, doc says a concussion to go with it, was half drowned, and his hand was damn near destroyed. And the lower part of his face. Possibly from a gunshot. Though the doctor isn’t ruling out a horrible fall. He did keep saying ‘fallen’ after all. The hand and jaw were already wrapped by the time I got on scene, so I didn’t see the injuries themselves.”
“He’d have to be pretty damn high up to have sustained those kinds of injuries from a fall. How would he even get that high? It’s not like there’re cliffs around here or anything.”
“Falling out of a fast-moving boat could do it, if you hit a few things on the way down. I’m not sure what we’re working with here. We’ll need to wait for the doctor to let us know.”
“Well, we need to find out as soon as possible if there are two more people out there. What do we know about the guy?”
Hoyt hefted the bag. “Thought I felt a wallet in the pocket. We can start there.”
“You two can use the desk over here.” Missy pointed to her left at the empty space behind the counter. “Just don’t get the papers wet. Transport should be here soon, so I need to take care of some paperwork for the transfer.”
“Thanks, Missy.” Hoyt walked around the counter, and Rebecca joined him. They pulled on gloves, not only to protect the evidence but because there were splashes of diluted blood covering every piece of soaked clothing. The bag was the simple drawstring kind the hospital handed out to put personal items in. Hoyt felt along the sides ’til he found what he wanted and moved it to the top.
“Here we go.” The wallet he pulled out was a basic leather bifold, nothing unique about it except it was stored in a resealable sandwich bag. “I guess he knew there could be a chance of it getting wet.”
Hoyt flipped the wallet open. “Chester Able of Baltimore, Maryland. That’s our guy in there.” He tilted the wallet to show her the ID window.
Inside, she found a driver’s license photo of a man with dirty-blond hair, hazel eyes, and a nose that had clearly been broken a few times. The date of birth on his license indicated he was just shy of his fortieth birthday.
“Anything else that might tell us what he was doing down here?”
Hoyt continued flipping through the wallet. “A couple of credit cards and a condom that looks like it could be old enough to have its own kids by now, but that’s about it. No receipts or anything like that. Not even a parking stub.”
An elderly woman in a long white coat that marked her as a doctor briskly approached and reached over the counter. She’d clearly come from something messy, as she still had on a thin hairnet that nearly hid her cornrows.
Missy handed her a bottle of hand sanitizer without looking up from her work.
“Dr. Jane Olson, this is Sheriff West. West, this is Dr. Olson,” Hoyt said. “She’s on Chester’s case.”
“Chester? So you did get a name?” Dr. Olson had to rise onto her toes to peek over the counter in the effort to view her patient’s ID as she worked the sanitizer over her hands.
“Chester Able, thirty-nine, one hundred and eighty pounds.” Rebecca read off the information as she pulled out her notepad. “Is he able to give a victim statement?”
“Sadly, no. We got him breathing on his own again, but he’s still unconscious. There’s a large gash on the back of his head. He has a pretty jagged laceration along his jawline, which I suspect is broken. I believe there’s a bullet lodged in there. He’ll need x-rays and a CT scan, but we needed to get him stable first. I suspect he’s got a couple fractures. He’s lost a lot of blood. The wound to his hand barely missed the radial artery, and water can prevent clotting. Not to mention open water and an open wound are a bad combination. Lots of microbes.” She waved her hand at the bag of clothes. “That’s all yours, though. GSW means it’s criminal.”
“That rules out our boating accident theory. Where was he shot?”
Dr. Olson picked up a clipboard and flipped through the papers. “Gunshot wound to the wrist. His hand was probably near his face, trying to deflect. A pretty typical defensive posture.”
Rebecca held her hand up in front of herself. “Like this?”
The doctor nodded and replicated the gesture, tapping the bone below her wrist on the little-finger side. “Went straight through the ulna, shattering it, and lodged in his mandible. I’ve already consulted with a surgeon at Coastal Ridge, because even though I’ve managed to stabilize the man, we need to get him to the mainland stat so he can undergo surgery. Hopefully, the surgeon can save his hand. They should be able to remove the bullet in his jaw cleanly. They can collect it for ballistics.”
Rebecca’s pen blazed over her notepad to keep up with Dr. Olson’s rapid-fire report.
Dr. Olson checked the clock on the wall before glancing at the patient’s chart again. “Able also sustained a nasty fracture to his ankle. The folks at Coastal Ridge will need to get images of that too. We’ve immobilized it for now, but it’s pretty mangled.”
“Any thoughts on how he might’ve sustained that injury?”
Dr. Olson gave one shake of her head. “It doesn’t appear to have external lacerations like it would if he caught it on something. But there are a number of other ways he could have injured it. Maybe he hit it on something while swimming. I’d hate to speculate further.”
“Thanks.” Rebecca glanced down at Able’s bag of soaked clothes.
“The EMTs said he was talking about two more?” Dr. Olson adjusted the stethoscope around her neck.
Rebecca nodded. “That’s what it sounds like.”
“Then we’ll make sure we’re ready for them. And can you let us know as soon as you find next of kin? And do that as soon as possible.” Dr. Olson was too experienced to let her expression give anything away, but Rebecca knew what she meant.
Chester wasn’t doing well, and they would likely need next of kin on hand to make medical decisions for him. Or funeral arrangements.
“Good thing we’ve got this, then.” Hoyt worked up another resealable bag—this one containing a cell phone carefully wrapped inside—from within the scraps of clothing. “We can check his contacts.”
Screeching tires out front of the Community Health Center put everyone on high alert.
The ER doors slid open and two EMTs rushed through. The chestnut-brown hair of the woman was secured in a tight bun at the back of her head. Catching the doctor’s eye, she immediately closed the space between them. Her ID badge read Sandra Baker. Rebecca remembered her from the mermaid case during the hurricane.
“We’re here for the critical patient.”
Dr. Olson nodded to Nurse Missy, who was all business now. Handing a clipboard to the paramedic, she nodded at Kendric Hayes, the other EMT, as he joined his partner. “Patient’s name is Chester Able, age thirty-nine. GSW to the wrist. Intubated on arrival. Significant blood loss and suspected skull fracture. He’s been stabilized and is ready for transport.”
Baker returned the signed transfer papers to Nurse Missy with a curt nod before following her partner and the nurse down the hallway.
A moment later, Hoyt and Rebecca stepped out of the way as the paramedics rushed from Chester’s room and hustled their patient lying on a gurney out the doors and into the back of the waiting ambulance.
Rebecca hoped Chester survived the trip. After all, dead men couldn’t tell tales.