White lightning slashed Jake into consciousness. He opened his eyes to blinding brightness. Silence stuffed his ears. He blinked, and beach and sky appeared. The noise of gulls, ocean breakers and flapping palm fronds clicked on at full blast. What had happened? His left cheek stung as if touched by an electric wire. He rubbed it gingerly and sat up.
Crystal huddled nearby, eyes wide, body motionless, as if watching Lazarus rise from the dead.
He must have passed out. The last thing he remembered was telling Crystal about the human toaster. Had it worked? A few feet away, Betty and Eve lay stretched out against each other, sound asleep.
He got to his feet and stumbled to the women. Betty was snoring, but Eve’s chest wasn’t moving. He touched her neck and found her skin warm, her pulse strong. Evidently a shallow breather. Her fingers and hands were blanched and wrinkled from the water. Her feet too. No shoes. No calluses on her toes and heels. He shook his head. Those pampered feet were going to have a tough go of it.
The sun was sinking behind the island. How long had he been out, anyway?
He glanced back at Crystal. She hadn’t stirred. Mighty unusual for her. “What happened? I must have fallen asleep.”
“I slapped you.”
“You—” He stopped. “That’s what woke me up?”
Crystal’s nod was barely perceptible. Her body hunched into a tighter wad.
Cry Baby Crystal had slapped him? Jake rubbed his cheek, hiding his smile. The kid had really whopped him one. That explained why she was sitting there knotted up like that.
“Which was harder, smacking me or the snake?”
Crystal’s lips twitched. “You.” She grinned and her shoulders relaxed. “You wouldn’t wake up.”
“Looks like you did a good job with the human toaster while I slept.”
“They won’t wake up either.” Crystal pinched the skin on the back of her hand and held it up for Jake to observe. “We need coconut juice. I looked but I couldn’t find any—only a dead animal covered with flies.” The corners of her mouth crinkled downward.
“Tell you what. Eve has immersion foot. How about if you massage her hands and feet while I get some coconuts for us?”
“Immersion foot? Ewww!” Crystal slipped her hands behind her back. “What’s that?”
“She was in the cold water so long the blood stopped circulating in her hands and feet. If we don’t get it going again, she won’t be able to use them. Ever.” Disfigured face, useless hands and feet. Would she wish he’d left her in the ocean? Tightness squeezed his chest.
He sat and lifted Eve’s right foot. “Start gently, using the palms of your hands to squeeze, like you were flattening Silly Putty.”
Crystal crept next to him and sat, folding her legs in an X in front of her. She grasped Eve’s left foot.
“Then, before your hands get tired, press harder and use your fingertips.”
“My hands are already tired.”
“Count to ten, then shake your fingers out.” Jake shifted to Eve’s right hand. “Let’s do the same thing with her hands. Squeeze each finger ten times like they’re in hot dog buns, then rest and go back to her feet.”
“Okay, but I’m thirsty.”
“Right.” Not a marathon runner here. He rose on stiffened legs. “One coconut shake coming up.”
Before he’d taken ten steps up the beach, Crystal was asleep. He hesitated. The shadows had deepened, and a murmur of animal life seeped from the densely packed trees. He should shake Betty awake to keep watch. Or he could hurry and pray nothing bad would happen.
* * *
Eve opened her eyes. Her vision flitted like a bird caught in a storm, seeking a place to land. It tumbled onto a blur and focused. A man. Sunburned face, scraggly whiskers, two jagged scars on his right cheek. Alarm spat electricity across her nerves.
Quick, get away! Run! She tried to move, but her head spun so that she teetered at the edge of a dark chasm.
“Hey, you okay?”
The voice brought her back to the man. He sat cross-legged next to where she lay. Way too close. Course dark hair lay on sand-crusted legs barely inches from her face. She jerked her head away. The movement tingled life down her spine and into her limbs.
Wait—he was holding her hand? She whipped it away. “What are you doing?”
“You’ve got immersion foot. I’m massaging your hand to get the circulation back.”
“Don’t touch me!” Run! Hide! She tried to wriggle away from him, but her body parts lay in a disconnected heap. Her mind swirled, dragging her into the depths of a black whirlpool. No! She fought back. Not with this man here.
Concentrate. She willed herself to grasp the jagged edge of consciousness, to pull herself over its razor-sharp lip. Breathe. Think. Where was she?
She gulped a lungful of air and risked a glance away from the man. Sand. She was lying flat on her back on a stretch of sand. The rhythmic crash of ocean breakers broke into her consciousness. A beach? She wrenched her attention back to the man. What was going on? She struggled to sit up.
The man sat immobile. When she collapsed, he spoke, his voice soft against the ocean’s rumble. “Betty and Crystal are here. Look to my left and you can see them.”
Betty and Crystal? The memory dropped like a bomb. She’d fallen off the lighter—had swum after them, screaming, yelling, pleading for them to hear. Horror at her abandonment gripped her anew. She gasped to breathe.
“They’re right over there, see?”
She turned her head. Betty and Crystal lay nestled nearby, eyes closed, heads pillowed side by side on a yellow life vest.
The grip on her throat loosened, and air seeped back into her lungs. Safe. They were all safe. She peered up at the man. "Jake Chalmers. Your wife—” Hadn’t she worn a life vest too?
“She didn’t make it.” The words scraped in a whisper from his throat.
Didn’t make it? The words cut into her soul. Ginny—dead, trapped in an explosion meant to kill Evedene Eriksson. Sobs crammed her chest.
“I have some coconut juice here. How about if you take a swallow.” Without waiting for an answer, Jake scooted closer and raised her head. With his free hand he picked up a coconut pierced at one end and held it over her mouth. “Can you stick out your tongue?”
She winced as her tongue touched her lips. “My mouth—”
“Your lips are swollen from sun poisoning. We’ll try not to touch them. Just a bit of juice now.” He tilted the coconut until it dribbled a dab onto her tongue. “Atta girl.”
The drop of liquid crystallized into salt. Her tongue was coated with it. She swallowed the bitter saliva and panted to keep from vomiting it up.
“More? Gets better as the salt dissolves.”
She nodded reluctantly and stuck out her tongue. In between swallows she breathed deeply, willing her stomach to settle, closing her eyes until the black whirlpool threatened and she popped them open again.
“Good enough. Let’s give it a rest.” Jake lowered her head and took her hand. He kneaded her fingers. “Can you feel that?”
“Yes.” She squirmed. “Pins and needles in my fingertips.”
“Good. Betty and Crystal and I are taking turns massaging your hands and feet. By tomorrow you should be okay.”
Tomorrow? She turned her head for another glimpse of the beach, absorbing the fact that the sun had set and a gray gauze of twilight clung to the sky. Behind her a bird chattered. She pivoted her head toward it. Was that the howl of monkey in the distance? A breeze fluttered the shadowy fronds of a line of palm trees, and she caught the faint scent of flowers.
“Where are we?”
“An island, probably on the edge of the Philippines. Appears to be uninhabited. We’ll check it out tomorrow.”
The Romero trial. It jumped out at her like a jack-in-the-box. “I need to get off.”
Jake squinted his right eye and raised his left eyebrow. “We aren’t staying any longer than we have to.”
“I mean there’s a—” She halted. Should she talk about the Romero trial? What if she slipped and mentioned Captain Emilio in connection with it? Jake would figure out she was the target of the explosions. All those passengers, Ginny, dead. But the target escaped. The target lived.
She coughed. “I’m sorry. I’m confused. I—how did I get here?”
Jake switched to massaging her other hand, and she stifled a yelp at the pinpricks.
“Betty and Crystal landed here this morning, then I swam in from a piece of wreckage. We spotted you in the current and fished you out.”
“You weren’t in one of the lighters with the rest of us. How—?”
“Captain Emilio forced me overboard at gunpoint. I swam out to save Ginny, but …” Jake's lower lip jerked. He paused. “But I was too late.”
The sobs beat hard fists against her lungs again. Jake turned fierce eyes on her, and the fists froze.
“There’s a man out there who murdered nineteen people.” Jake’s eyes, weighted with pain, blazed into hers. “He made sure I saw it. Made sure I saw him raise his hand and give the signal to detonate those explosions. Made sure I knew my wife was on board one of those lighters.” He stopped, and the air hurled out of his lungs like a category five hurricane. He flared his nostrils and gasped in a fresh storm, his chest shaking.
“Nineteen people. They never had a chance.” His jaw tightened, accentuating the two pale scars on his sunburnt cheek. “Captain Emilio thinks he killed twenty-three, but four of us escaped.” His eyes bored into Eve’s. “And that, Eva Gray, will be his downfall.”
Eva Gray. She shuddered. That name was key to why nineteen people had lost their lives. Until they got off this island, she must make sure Jake never found out.
CONTINUED ON MONDAY-TUESDAY