Atop the Zuytdorp Cliffs, Trevor and Shane lay together for over an hour, until well after the last traces of Trevor’s panic attack had abated. It had been milder than the one before, a fact in which they both took solace. Finally, Trevor eased away. “I guess we better be getting back. It’s a long way, and I don’t think I’m up for running all of it.”
Shane nodded, gathering up their packs. “They used to wipe me out pretty good. We’ll just hike it.”
They set off, with Shane insisting on carrying both packs. Trevor’s mood brightened as their normal happy banter returned, and they soon found themselves enjoying the hike, the panic attack soon an unpleasant memory. For Trevor, though, the recurrence had reawakened his self-doubt; he’d hoped that the first attack had been a singular occurrence.
After reaching the lowlands again, picking their way through the desert, Trevor noticed something. “Uh, I haven’t seen any tracks – ours, I mean. Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Trevor asked.
Shane nodded. “Kinda. Mr. Blake hates the hike and Mrs. Blake can’t do it, so I’ve taken charter guests to the cliffs before. It’s pretty easy; I know the landmarks on the way there, and pretty much anywhere near where we were is fine. I usually follow the same route back, just keeping those hills on my left,” Shane said, pointing. “We’ll come out on the dirt road to Useless Loop, and I know the spot pretty well. I’ll bet we’ll be within two hundred meters of the Zodiac, guaranteed.”
Shane was as good as his word; they reached the dirt road, and followed it for just over two hundred yards before Shane pointed. “There’s our tracks. We’re there.”
They broke into a jog for the final yards, darting across the sand, skirting bushes, until they both skidded to a halt. “Something’s missing,” Shane muttered in shock.
“We should have brought more water, like a few million gallons,” Trevor said, staring out past the Zodiac at the vast expanse of sand flats. “Low tide,” he added, rather pointlessly.
“I didn’t think somebody nicked it,” Shane said, shaking his head and chuckling. “We’re later than I figured we’d be. Damn, I should have checked the tide table. The Blakes do that when they send me to take guests to this end of Boat Haven Loop.”
Trevor shrugged. “No big deal. It’ll be back soon, and we’ll make it back by sunset, or maybe just after, in plenty of time for our cookout with the kangaroos. We might have to drag the Zodiac a bit at the entrance to Rhys Lagoon, but I wanted a close look at that anyway, for tomorrow,” Trevor said, frowning slightly at the thought of leaving what both of them felt was their own private paradise.
“We’ll be back, probably sooner than you think,” Shane said, reading Trevor’s expression and guessing its cause.
“I’ll be happy anywhere you’re with me,” Trevor said, giving Shane a warm smile. He glanced at the sand flats, taking a few paces out past what had been the waterline. He pointed further out, “Looks to me like we’re at the low point in the tide. I can see water about a mile out. Give it an hour and we’ll have a few inches of water here; that’ll be enough to get us to deeper water. That way, we don’t need to wait as long.”
Shane gave Trevor a puzzled look. “How? We can’t run the outboard if it’s that shallow, we haven’t any oars, and it’s a long way to deeper areas, too far to tow it on foot.”
Trevor chuckled. “Feel the breeze? It’s pretty strong and going the right way. As soon as there’s enough water to float the Zodiac, we shove off and let it carry us to deeper water. If the breeze doesn’t die down, we’ll just kick back and let it take us to where we can motor out. But, worst case, we end up waiting about two hours for the water to rise high enough for the motor.”
“Clever,” Shane said, with an approving nod. He turned and glanced ashore, spotting some shaded sand under one of the nearby shrubby mulga trees, which are endemic to the region. He motioned for Trevor to follow, and sat down in the shade. Trevor sat beside him, and Shane, eyes twinkling, said, “We’re all alone on a beach, and I can think of one way to make good use of the time,” he said, wrapping his arms around Trevor, as they both leaned back in the shade, hands already roaming.
The warm seas lapped at the coral sand, an ancient murmur well known to Sanchez, as he strolled the beach on a small island, part of the Bahamas’ Exuma Cays. The private villa and its grounds were the closest thing he’d known to a home in twenty years. The deep bass of the music in the main house echoed through the night, barely audible to Sanchez, though serving as a reminder that, as always, he had business to attend.
Wearing a lightweight white blazer in spite of the warm night, Sanchez frowned, looking out at the dark, moonless sea. Never had he felt so frustrated, so mocked by what should be a simple thing. It was, as well, a needful thing; his position in the cartel’s inner circle relied in large part on Bridget’s cocaine and cash smuggling operation. Theirs had been a long and fruitful relationship, though now her runs had become less frequent. Sanchez, by accepting additional risks, had arranged for other boats to make the run, but that too in part relied on tips from George Alfred, courtesy of his post on the drug task force. Sanchez had reason to be concerned; if that operation folded in a bad way, his position would be at an end. The cartel had no retirement plan, as Sanchez well knew: it had been over twenty years, but he still vividly recalled killing his predecessor.
Sanchez knew that he could survive the loss of Bridget and George, though it would be no easy thing. The greater risk was the loss of the infrastructure known to them in Florida; should an investigation turn that up, Sanchez knew he would be largely out of business for too long to survive. There was also the aspect of his honor, or his definition of the term. He had given his word to Bridget, in a world where a man could expect to live or die by his word. His failure so far to carry out a contract was a large and growing issue. It marked him as weak and ineffective, a perception that often proved fatal. There was also his pride; he was a man unaccustomed to failure and frustration. Nor was he a man overly given to patience.
“No more,” he muttered, knowing what he had to do. The first issue was quite literally the closest to home, in the form of one of his senior lieutenants, a man known by the name of Alvarez. Alvarez had been with Sanchez the night Sanchez had killed his predecessor; Alvarez had always been ambitious. That had long made him useful to Sanchez, but no longer. Now, Sanchez’s vulnerability had been noticed. Fortunately for Sanchez, Alvarez was overly talkative when high on cocaine, and had let slip to the wrong ear that he coveted Sanchez’s position.
Sanchez stalked back to the villa, sweat beginning to appear on his forehead. Some things are best done in private, though this was not such a case.
Entering the main patio, assaulted by the blaring music, Sanchez motioned for the sound system to be silenced. The sudden silence was deafening, as over thirty people turned to look in Sanchez’s direction.
Sanchez scanned his audience, smiling warmly. This was his domain, he was the boss. The party, like so many before, was at his behest, a chance for his organization to mingle in a safe place, unwind, and above all, learn. “I hope we’re all enjoying the party,” Sanchez said, still smiling cordially as he gestured from the center of one table to another, at two of the large mirrors that lay on the tables, holding large lines of uncut Colombian cocaine. As always, Sanchez was free with his product on such occasions, though for reasons lost to most of his guests that night.
Sanchez glanced to where Alvarez sat, at a table with two of the voluptuous women Sanchez employed for such events. For a moment, Sanchez’s eyes met those of Alvarez, and after a moment that was a trifle too long, Alvarez gave a subtle nod of acknowledgment.
Sanchez clapped for attention. “We have much to celebrate this night. Baker, who has been with us several years, has a birthday coming up,” Sanchez said, beginning to clap, looking at a momentarily confused Baker. His birthday was months past.
Sanchez heard a sharp intake of breath, and glanced to his left, to see Alvarez snorting a massive line of coke, which was not his first of the evening.
Alvarez felt the familiar burn in his sinuses, and then the numbing sensation in the back of his throat, accompanied by the slightly bitter taste. He tossed the rolled hundred-dollar bill he’d used as a straw on the table, as casually as most men would discard an empty matchbook.
“Alvarez, I need a word with you,” Sanchez said, in a casual tone, from his place at the center of the vast patio.
Alvarez, his eyes glassy, stood up and walked past a row of flickering tiki torches.
When Alvarez reached Sanchez, Sanchez began to smile. “Attention everyone, Alvarez and I have something to say,” Sanchez declared, his voice booming.
Confused, his drug-addled mind racing, sensing danger but not yet perceiving its form, Alvarez glanced around the room, his eyes returning to Sanchez, settling on the Makarov pistol that Sanchez had quietly extracted from his pocket and aimed from the waist at Alvarez.
“Alvarez has been with us for many years. He’s ambitious, perhaps overly so,” Sanchez said quietly, though his voice was loud and clear to everyone in the room. Certain now that he had their undivided attention, Sanchez nodded at one of his loyal lieutenants. “You’ve just been promoted.”
Alvarez, his eyes open wide, understood. “No, Sanchez, I would never –”
Sanchez’s gun spoke twice, the rounds slamming into Alvarez’s stomach. As the report of the final shot echoed, Alvarez stumbled backwards, clutching at his stomach, his face a mask of pain even before the real pain hit, his legs failing, sending him collapsing onto the tile floor.
Sanchez appeared to study Alvarez closely, circling his fallen, writhing form, but his attention was on his guests, taking note of their reactions. Satisfied, Sanchez studied Alvarez, who was staring at his blood-soaked gut in agonized horror. Taking careful aim, Sanchez put a bullet in each of Alvarez’s knees, shattering his kneecaps, evoking screams of agony from Alvarez.
Sanchez waited for the screams to abate, casually returning his gun to his jacket pocket. “Alvarez was of the opinion that my position was vulnerable. He has paid the price for his error. If anyone has any doubts that my position in the cartel is secure, you may discuss your concerns with me at any time. Had Alvarez taken that course, no harm would have befallen him,” Sanchez said, in a conversational tone. Then, he glanced down at Alvarez, who still writhed in agony. Sanchez judged that, as he had planned, it would take Alvarez a while to die. “No one touch him until morning. Leave him here,” Sanchez said, in a voice of command. Then he smiled. “We came here tonight to party and the night is young. Relax, and enjoy,” he said, before signaling an attendant to resume the music.
The music returned, its driving salsa beat adding a surreal air to the macabre spectacle of the slowly dying Alvarez. The guests, as stunned as they’d been intended to be, could not help but take note of the fact that Sanchez, though he had armed henchmen present, had acted alone, unafraid. That too had been part of the message. Over the next few minutes, the guests returned their attention to their alcohol and cocaine, many trying to ignore the sight of the dying man in their midst. Some were horrified, but knew that letting their feelings show could prove unwise.
Sanchez strolled over to the bar, where a glass of his usual preferred liquor, aguardiente, was waiting. He took a sip, smiling as he surveyed his party. The message, he knew, had been received. Brutality had its uses, and now his position was again secure, for the time being.
Drink in hand, he entered his office, knowing that he needed to take care of another matter. The price of the contract he’d accepted from Bridget was of no concern, for Sanchez’s income was in the millions per month. He decided, with a shrug, that cost was of no concern. It was time to finish the job.
His call, routed through two relays, caused a cell phone to ring. It was answered quickly, the encryption activated at the mention of an innocuous phrase. The call was to a man in Darwin, capital of Australia’s vast Northern Territory, who had been the recipient of Sanchez’s first call to Australia. Bridget’s latest information had been of little help, but Sanchez put it into play. “Our latest leads indicate the target is aboard a boat, in the area of Carnarvon. We are as yet uncertain as to whether it is a bay by that name in Tasmania, or a port in Western Australia. This matter can wait no longer; I’m hereby increasing the price of the contract fivefold, provided the job is carried out within a month. I’ll send fifty thousand now, the rest on completion. Find him, and send me his head.”
The man with cold gray eyes nodded to himself. Sanchez’s prior offer had been fifty thousand American dollars, and he’d just made it a neat quarter million. That kind of cash could buy a lot of legwork. It was also the largest sum he’d ever been offered, in his fifteen years as a hired killer. “I’ll see to it. All I need is a location, but we’ll find him.”
Sanchez briefly considered telling the hit man of the plan to use Lisa and Joel as bait, but decided against it. He did not wish to give the man a reason to wait, and reserved that for a backup plan. “Keep me posted,” Sanchez said, ending the call.
Sanchez, his business for the evening done, relaxed, allowing himself several rapid gulps of his drink. Smiling with satisfaction and feeling the warm sensation in his stomach, he rejoined his party, where he would sit and relax, chatting amiably with his people, as Alvarez took an agonizing hour to die.
In Darwin, the man with the cold gray eyes set his phone down, eyes narrowing as he glanced around his modest hotel room. As was his habit when thinking, he stood and began to flip a coin. He always preferred the same type of coin, an Australian fifty-cent piece. It had become his trademark to the few who knew him, and when needed, his calling card. None knew his real name, which he hadn’t used since his school days. He went by many names, though to Sanchez he was known as Basingstoke.
His prior attempts to find Trevor had come up dry; he’d never heard of the rumors in Carnarvon, which had caused a brief frenzy amongst a few Perth reporters. He had put out a few feelers in the Fremantle area, but without knowing where to look, it was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Sanchez’s original instructions had been to make the kill if the opportunity presented itself, but mainly to stand by for more information. Now, with two Carnarvons to choose from, he knew the hunt was on. He flipped his coin to decide which to examine first. He would do so in person, a firm believer in the old adage; if you want a job done right, do it yourself.
However, with money to spare on its way, he knew he could afford help. He had many contacts, principally in organized crime. What he needed was information, and he chose his coming phone calls on that basis. Legwork, he believed, was always a prerequisite of a job well done.
In Melbourne, Barney Fitzroy’s hands started to shake as he read an e-mail from one of his contacts in the fishing industry – one of his normal beats. The first part had been routine information on dispositions and catches, but then the name ‘Atlantis’ had virtually jumped off his laptop screen at him, as he read a brief summary of the alert that had gone out among the fishing fleet, only to be hastily canceled. He knew then that he had little time, and that it could already be too late. The one positive aspect, he felt, was that any ethical issues that had been in play were now moot: the story was coming out, and it was no longer possible to contain it. That fact put an end to any risk of an editor spiking the piece, and made the issue a simple race to the finish line. Fitzroy smiled at that thought, for he knew there were many ways to win a race.
He began making phone calls. Within two hours, he had a name, Antarctic Star, and a fairly detailed account of what she’d transmitted. He checked the registry information, made two more calls, and then a third, which gave him what he needed; the phone number of the satellite phone aboard.
Within minutes, he was speaking with the captain of the Antarctic Star, who was nonplussed to be hearing from a reporter, the second such call that day, especially on the company’s phone. The captain tried to end the call as he had the one before, by declaring that it had all been a false alarm: the boat was safe.
Barney Fitzroy, however, knew how to play an angle. “Captain, I know you were told to cease transmissions on the matter. I imagine that was a bit hard to swallow, being ordered about like that when you were only trying to do the right thing. I’ll also bet you’re curious to find out what’s really going on. I’ll level with you, sir; I want to know why you were treated as you were. I can tell you this; you were lied to. That boat and her skipper are part of a serial-killing case in America. You touched on something big, Captain, and were told to shut your trap for your trouble.”
“I’m smelling codswallop,” the captain growled, about to hang up on the reporter.
“I can prove it. You didn’t transmit the skipper’s name. It’s Trevor Carlson, and I’m betting that was in the SOS. His father is Dirk Carlson, who is currently on the run from two first-degree murder charges, and one charge of attempted murder. The latter is for trying to kill Trevor, who is, by the way, just seventeen. You surely have some means of internet access aboard, so just do a search on the internet; you’ll find Florida news stories about this. Some will include mention of an attempt to blow Atlantis out of the water in the Suez Canal, an attempt that sank a freighter. Captain, I have no choice but to trust you on this. The problem here is that Trevor is still at risk, that’s why the customs blokes are trying to hush up his arrival; they don’t want him killed. You had a right to know that, but they gave you bollocks instead. Still, I can understand their reluctance on an open channel,” Fitzroy said, having chosen his words with great care.
The captain pondered the reporter’s words for a few moments, deciding that they fit. He could not recall giving Trevor’s name by radio or phone, though he was not positive. He didn’t have internet access other than e-mail, but reasoned that the reporter likely couldn’t be sure of that. “Let’s say I confirm what you’ve said. What exactly are you asking?”
Fitzroy set the hook. “For the sake of the victim, first and foremost, don’t disclose anything to the press. I’ve been working on this story for months now, so I know that Trevor is safe and where he’s hiding, but for his own protection, I won’t publish until any risk to him is past. He knows this, and trusts me. Captain, my main motive in calling you today is to plead with you to keep what you know between us, for a little while at any rate. That’s why I want those papers, too: in the wrong hands, they could put a teenager’s life on the line. And, frankly, I’d like them for when he’s finally able to tell his tale, once the threat to his life is over. Also, I’d very much like to get those papers off you, so the poor kid can have them back. He barely survived, and he’s miserable. Also, while he’s still at risk, those papers give his story substance, and widespread media attention now is the last thing he needs. So, I’d like to get them to safe hands. I know this is asking a lot, but I have to ask.”
Still suspicious, the captain thought it over. He was, so far as he knew, being asked to do essentially what he’d been doing anyway. “Fair enough, I’ll comply with that, for now. If your version checks out, what then?”
“If my info is correct, Captain, you’re inbound for Esperance and you’ll make port in about four or five days, to unload your catch and then take a well-earned break. What I’d like to do is meet with you there, and tell you some things I’m not comfortable discussing over an open line. Things I feel you have a right to know. I’d also like to see about taking those papers to Trevor, who I’ll be on my way to see again, just don’t ask me where. And, as my way of saying thanks, I’d like to stand you and your crew a couple of rounds at the pub of your choice,” Barney Fitzroy said, smiling to himself as he reeled the captain in.
So far, Fitzroy hadn’t asked many questions, which as he’d intended, gave credence to his story. The captain glanced at his bridge crew, thinking that they’d enjoy some free drinks. It would, he felt, bring some good from a minor incident, and it was, he reasoned, all in a good cause: helping a fellow sailor. “We’ll look into this, then see what happens when we see you. We’re due to make port Wednesday morning, around ten,” the captain replied, adding almost as an afterthought, “G’day,” before ending the call.
Fitzroy immediately dialed Jason Kline. As soon as he answered, Fitzroy said, “Kline, listen good, we’ve had a major development; an SOS message, dated over a month ago, was found in the Southern Ocean…” he continued on, telling Kline what he’d found out, and then about his conversation with the captain of the Antarctic Star. He concluded his recount by stretching the truth a bit, “They twisted my arm. I’ve got to meet them in person, and they insisted on a few rounds of drinks, in return for silence and those papers.” With his recount done, Fitzroy added, “Jason, we have to move fast; the radio reports went out far and wide. If anyone who was part of the stampede up to Carnarvon gets a whiff of this – and they will – it’s confirmation. We need to wrap this up or we could lose it. We’ve got our confirmation that Customs And Border Protection – and not just the officers up in Carnarvon – is hiding Trevor Carlson, and those papers I’ve arranged for us to get will be proof of what happened to him, but we’ll lose the full exclusive if somebody else rolls in first with a bucket of hastily written slop.”
“Oh fuck,” Kline said, seeing the new developments as both a step closer to his goal and a direct threat to it. “Good work on getting a handle on this fast, Barney. I’ll advance my schedule a bit. Those coasties sure as hell know where Trevor is now, so I’ll try out that angle today. If we can find him, that, plus the SOS papers, should give us all we need. Write something up from the radio reports, incorporating everything you can. A tape of that conversation would be ideal, but base it on interviewing those who heard it if you need to. I’ll write something up for the Florida and Suez parts. Keep an ear out to see who else is chasing this; we might have to go to press early. The photos of Atlantis, combined with those radio reports, should be enough.” Kline waited for the part he knew was coming.
“I need to get to Esperance with some walking around money, to get those papers, and a few interviews with the guys who found them. You’re closer, but you need to find Trevor and Kookaburra, and I’ve got a rapport with the captain of Antarctic Star. I can’t spring for this; you’ll be getting the lion’s share of the income from this story,” Fitzroy said.
Kline ground his teeth. He was already out a considerable sum in travel expenses, lost time, and band-aids thanks to bug bites. However, he knew he had no options, and he knew that Fitzroy knew that, too. “Okay, we’ll do it your way. Get to Esperance and be there when that boat comes in. I’ll do my part and see what I can get out of the coasties. As far as the bill goes… I’ll transfer you a thousand early in the week, in the morning.”
“When she comes in might be too late. Want to bet the customs boys might send somebody to the dock to take possession of those SOS papers? My plan is to hire a boat and meet Antarctic Star offshore, though they don’t know it yet. I’m looking online now… I can fly from Melbourne to Esperance by way of Perth, and it looks like there’s car rental at the airport. I’ll leave the day after tomorrow, so I’ll be there when they arrive. However, there’s hotels, the car, as well as the flight; a grand won’t cover it, Jason. Send me two, and I’ll split any remaining costs with you at the same percentage as our royalty split; I’ll cover thirty percent of it. You’d have no shot at this story without me now, you wouldn’t even know of the SOS–”
Kline interrupted to say in a testy tone, “Spare me the sales pitch, Barney. You’ll have your two thousand. Send me an e-mail with your details, and I’ll do it online today. But, you’ll keep every receipt. I’m only covering what you can prove; anything else, I get back.”
“I might have to part with some cash on Antarctic Star, and I can’t guarantee a receipt from them for that, but other than that, fair enough, Jason, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Fitzroy said, in a cheery tone, already browsing Esperance’s best hotels and restaurants.
Kline and Fitzroy weren’t the only people aware of the find in the Southern Ocean. The Fremantle office of the Customs and Border Protection service had phoned Officer Fowler within an hour of the radio call, letting him know the situation. They reported that they had put an end to the alarm Antarctic Star was raising, and hoped that the issue was contained. The one thing they were unaware of was the brief involvement of another government agency, the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart, who had spread the original alert well beyond what the customs service was aware.
“They hope,” Fowler grumbled to Grundig, as Fowler paced in the customs shack. “Hope is damn thin. That call went out by radio. Other ships or shore stations probably heard it. If word gets to any of the reporters who were up here, some of them will head back up here. If someone is still trying to kill Trevor, then he’s in severe danger if word gets out where he’s at. I think we’ve still got a little time, but not much of it.”
Grundig nodded. “Too bad that thing was found. The good news is the service has an office in Esperance and they’ll be meeting Antarctic Star before she docks. As for the bad news, I think we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Trevor and Shane cast off in the Zodiac on the rising tide, letting the breeze push it towards deeper water. Within a quarter of an hour, with the sun low on the horizon, they had sufficient depth to partially lower the outboard, beginning their journey back to Rhys Lagoon.
It was dusk when they reached the entrance, though Trevor tried to make the best of it, letting the Zodiac float through on the incoming tide. At that phase of the tide, they had barely a foot of water in places, but Trevor could see enough to know that following the GPS track of Kookaburra’s passage in was likely the best route out. That was far from a guarantee, because shifting sands and currents can alter the contours of a soft bottom, but it was, he felt, the best bet.
Once clear of the entrance, Trevor lowered the engine and gunned it, racing for Kookaburra. As he approached her stern, they noticed that they were not alone.
“Kangaroos!” Trevor said, pointing ashore as the shapes on the beach, barely visible in the last glimmers of the dusk-lit sky.
Shane grinned, looking inland. “Let’s get the Zodiac aboard, then we can toss ‘em a few carrots to make sure they stick around while we set up our cookout.”
Happy and relaxed, Trevor and Shane sent a half-dozen carrots arcing through the air to land on the beach, and then raced to gather up their cookout supplies.
They set up their campfire in the same place as before, occasionally tossing out a few carrots. The kangaroos, who had a deep and abiding love of the crunchy treats, milled around, keeping their distance but watching closely.
An hour later, drinking beers and smelling their steaks cooking, Trevor and Shane relaxed together, walking along the beach, feeding the last of their carrots to the kangaroos. A few of the kangaroos came closer, to within a few yards. Trevor and Shane came to a stop, facing the kangaroo across the sand, and Shane tossed a couple of carrots between them and the kangaroos, creating a trail. They stood motionless as two of the huge red kangaroos, ears twitching, came closer, lowering their heads to take the carrots before ambling closer for more.
In profound silence, Trevor reached out, holding a carrot at arm’s length, then standing motionless, as one of the kangaroos came closer, taking the carrot from Trevor’s hand. The kangaroo moved just a pace away to devour the carrot, as Trevor marveled at the magnificent creature, and how peaceful it seemed.
They returned to their campfire, scattering the last of the carrots around the beach as they went.
It was an idyllic evening of good company, good food, good beer, and kangaroos. A fitting way to end their stay in a place that had been their hideaway from the troubles brewing around them.
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Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions. Special thanks to Graeme, for beta-reading and advice. Thanks also to Talonrider and MikeL for beta reading. A big Thank You to RedA for Beta reading and advice, and to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading and advice.