The back of my skull cracked on to the top deck of the boat, pain lancing around the area, and kept traveling down my neck. Almost ignoring the pain though, I reached down for my stomach, afraid of what I was going to find. I had seen TV shows, people often didn’t know they had been shot until well after when the adrenaline surged and their bodies started to go into some kind of rallied frenzy.
My hands frantically searched my body, pressing into the soft tissue, expecting to suddenly feel a hole, a tear, something painful. After a frantic moment squinting through the light rain, I realized I hadn’t actually been shot, just shot at. The wet, slippery deck had probably saved me.
From near my feet, another voice was now screaming, and I looked up, understanding that whatever I had walked into wasn’t yet over. Jackson’s arm was now extended over the side of the boat, his hand holding its own small gun and he was pointing it down to the boat beside us. His face and stance were like tempered steel, hard and focused. His legs were spread wide, facing towards me, but his head was turned to the left, facing the boat and down.
“DON’T!” he shouted down to the boat, and I lifted my head to peek over the railing, the small light now fully illuminating a body strewn on the floor of the boat, crimson pooling around it. Another man was standing over him, holding the same gun and now raising it up towards the boat, to Jackson. His face, half hidden in shadow, was undeniably livid.
“DON’T DO IT!” Jackson warned him again. I sunk back onto my ass and started to kneel, intending to make my way over to the rope holding the small boat to our larger one, when another shot rang out from Jackson’s gun. I stopped dead in my crouch, fixed to the spot on the wet deck, and slowly lifted my head up to Jackson.
The cold rain hitting the gun caused steam to rise from its barrel, and his arm dropped like it was too heavy for him to hold up. His attention was still on the little boat below, now silent, while rain ran down his face and through his beard. The man wasn’t screaming at him anymore. I slowly rose to my feet, wide-eyed, and feeling raw. This couldn’t be happening again. I could not be responsible for another person's death. The thought started to shake my hands, adrenaline, and panic making them violently shiver.
Jackson, his own adrenaline starting to fly through his body threw his attention my way and strode firmly across the wet deck to me. He clasped my upper arm, and confidently walked me back down to the aft of the boat, stopping when we were finally in the shelter, where he gently pushed me to sit in my daze. Without asking, he unzipped my fleece and pulled it off my shoulder, his hands wandered over my body, rough and insistent.
Finally coming out of my stupor, and feeling a new gentleness to his hands, I pushed them away,
“I’m fine, I wasn’t shot.”
He kneeled back on a knee, the slight glow of the ship's radar illuminating the concern on his features. “Are you okay?” his deep voice asked with strain and I simply nodded, now studying my hands in my lap, rubbing my fingers together, soaking up the rain.
He said nothing in reply, but stood back up and left the shelter.
The rain seemed to have stopped, but the wind persisted and blew through the small sheltered area as if it meant nothing to mother nature. It was laughable that I even tried to hide from the wind and her omnipotence. I buried myself into my fleece and tried to quell the shaking in my hands. A minute later, Jackson came back into my view along the boat’s railing.
His strong, power stance leaning himself forward made sense when I saw the thick rope trawling over his shoulder. He was fucking pulling the boat to the back deck. I sat there in mild astonishment, watching the man haul a boat in mildly rough seas by a single rope. That was strength and power. The sheer willpower that this man must had held in his reserves could probably knock anything I had down to its bare bones.
I abruptly glanced around the boat, wondering what other sailors would think if they saw our deck right now. But there was nothing in sight except the inky black of night and small crescent moon on the horizon. I swiveled on my seat. No lights from a town, no warning beacons from other boats. There wasn’t even a looming silhouette of land on any horizon. The panic of being stranded in unknown ocean added to my nerves.
He finally came to the back railing, where the deck was lower for people to climb on and off the boat. Securing the line once more to the Revenge, the small boat, could now be seen bobbing up and down with the rough seas. I glanced at it briefly, the vessel didn’t look river worthy, let alone sea-worthy. Its name on the front bow facing me had a Latin alphabet, but wasn’t English.
Jackson suddenly blocked my view as he strode back into the shelter, and from beside the wheel of the boat, pulled a small, hidden drawer open. A knife came out of the drawer, held in the wide palm of his hand. I looked to his face, engrossed on the blade. Finally, he swiveled and walked to the back deck, and I rose to watch him with that large knife, forcing myself in the wind’s path.
Jackson, with a long stride, boarded the other boat’s bow and leaned down, out of my sight. He came back up a second later, a body in his arms which he then hoisted to the side of the boat, bending it over the side, as if he was about to push it into the water. But instead of pushing it over, the knife emerged in his hand again, and it came down to the corpse’s thigh, puncturing it and swiftly moving through the pant leg.
Even from my spot on the back railing, some twenty feet away, I could see the dark river beginning to gush down the leg before Jackson quickly pushed it off and over the side. I stared at the scene in a haze, understanding what Jackson was doing.
He was bleeding them. He cut the groin artery so their blood would seep into the now dark water of the reef.
He was literally feeding them to the sharks.
I shuffled back inside and onto my seat, continuing to watch in my peripheral as Jackson moved around the other boat. This couldn’t be happening. I had done everything right. I had let go of recklessness, I adopted responsibility. The Australian government was taking most of my fricking paycheck. I was a model citizen. A good damn role model.
I leaned my head over my knees and grabbed it between my hands. This was too much, the last five minutes started to overtake my lungs, filling them with near hysteria and I focused on not hyperventilating. I squeezed my ears and eyes shut, this was too much, too much. The gun, the screaming, the blood. Another gunshot rang out, and I flinched at the sound, a sob escaping.
An engine started up behind the Revenge and my head turned, watching Jackson staring out at the smaller vessel, now speeding away fast into the darkness of the Pacific Ocean. He watched it for a moment until it was totally lost from our sight, then turned around, his eyes catching mine immediately.
The slight concern he had before when he thought I had been shot, was now just as much gone as that boat. The wind whipped his long, wet hair across his face, and he strode back to the shelter, once again grabbing me by the arm, this time forcing me down the stairs. I tripped on the last one, and stumbled into the dark cabin.
He flicked on the light and I stood to face him. We were both soaking wet, the boat rocking noticeably and he wiped his face down, shaking his wet hand off. He looked pissed. He began to pace in front of me, his hands braced on his hips. He paused mid-step and a finger went out to the bench,
“Sit,” he demanded.
Now out of my anxiety-filled haze, I hopped over to the bench and sat my wet ass down.
He continued his pacing, looking like a boxer about to step into the ring, occasionally glancing at me. Eventually, he stopped and knelt in front of me, his hands grasping my knees and our eyes locked together.
“What happened?” he sternly asked.
My mouth gaped open and I slightly shook my head, “I...I.. Don...”
“Carter.” He cut in and my mouth clamped shut, “breath.” he exhaled, his gaze still holding me locked. I did as he said but the shaking continued.
“Now, tell me what happened,” he repeated, and I tilted my head, now confused. “Say what happened, Carter.” I breathed out another long exhale, he knew what happened,
“Those… men, were going to… shoot me,” and he nodded as I spoke.
“Then… you... you shot them.”
His hand grasped my knee, almost digging into it, to drive it home, “Or they would have killed us both.”
The seizing anxiety finally gave a little, enough to let a tear well in my eyes before joining the rain still on my cheeks. Jackson’s hand quickly came to grip the back of my head, his thumb brushing it away.
“Then I dumped the bodies for whatever is hungry and sent the boat speeding off the middle of the Ocean. The bullet hole I put in the keel probably means it will last for only another hour.” I closed my eyes, feeling like this was surreal, this couldn’t be me.
“Why...why are you saying this?” I sobbed, more tears falling.
The thumb wiped itself against my cheek again, and the intensity Jackson held in his voice and stare was enough to stop my sobs. He shifted his weight so he leaned closer as he spoke,
“Because we are in this together. And I don’t feel any guilt over this. This was them or us. I do not feel bad about this. Okay?”
The hand gripped my face tighter and he drew our foreheads together, hot breaths mingling.
“Okay?” Jackson persisted. I stayed silent, thinking over the guilt. Life or death. But now my life, my death. No, whatever this was, he had just saved my life. The look of malice and rage in that first man’s face was… foul. I guessed I was still going through the stages of shock, but I couldn’t imagine ever feeling bad about taking that out of the world.
Finally, I nodded and drew away from him. “What happened, who were they? Why...why, where are we?” All the logical questions started to invade, and I had to shake my own head to clear them all.
Instead of answering any of them, Jackson’s lips were suddenly pressed up against mine, his wet beard brushing my chin, and his tongue pushed its way past my lips.
Those wide hands came to my face again, pinching my chin and curling around the back of my head again. I exhaled a breath of relief and longing, involuntarily leaning my body closer into his kneeling form and threaded my hands through that hair like I had imagined a hundred times before. He smelt like ocean and rain and tasted like a hint of whiskey.
It was incendiary.
I curled into his arm, and clutched at his shoulders, starting to feel the need for friction. To rub against him and lose something of myself in that body that had haunted me for nearly two months. My own hand started to snake its way beneath his shirt to his wet skin, finding thick matted chesthair underneath.
A hand left my face and clutched my invading fingers, stopping their progression. He broke our kiss, pushing me back onto the seat.
“Wait, stop. Carter, I have one more thing to do.” He came forward again, and instead, grasped my hands in his. “Carter, I need you to go into one of the cabins and try to sleep. Don’t come out until I come for you, okay?” His face had lost any sign of ardor and was now all business.
“Is this… to do with those…” I couldn’t finish that sentence. They weren’t men anymore. They were shark bait. Jackson squeezed my hands together, and raised them, making me rise with them.
He kept silent, and led me to the door of the cabin. “Look, get some sleep, I’ll explain in the morning, and we can… talk over it.” He gave an uncharacteristic grin and leaned in to kiss me, this time gently, almost with reverence. I smiled into his lips.
“Til morning, then.” I replied, and he closed the door to the cabin room.
I looked around the small room, a small amount of moonlight shining through the small port window. There was so much messed up here. Jackson’s kiss was all my libido’s desires come true. Strong, deep, conquering. And he did a pretty good job making me forget the last fifteen minutes.
But I couldn’t forget the look on that man’s face and the existential dread of knowing someone wanted me dead. Maybe I wasn’t done paying my penance to Kelsey’s stolen future. Being put through some kind of seven levels of hell until I rock bottom. Cameron Magness hadn’t raised me to blindly follow. But I was drained and did need the sleep to make things clearer.
I laid down on the thin mattress, stuffing the pillow up, and let my eyes rest of the stars flowing by the port window as Jackson sailed us back to harbor.
Men were talking above my head and I rolled over. The port window still showed a dark sky, but now there was a glare of fluorescent light coming from somewhere far down the jetty. Still groggy, I sat up and rubbed my face. I certainly didn’t feel well-rested, so it couldn’t have been but a few hours since the… event.
The voices, Jackson’s and… someone. They weren’t heated exactly, but they were loud enough to wake me. I pushed myself up to a full kneel and looked out the window, and saw the source, a small gasp escaping my lips. I hadn’t seen him since that night, and had vehemently stayed away from the strip on my day off lest we run into each other.
That fucking piece of shit was standing on the jetty outside the boat, his feet right at my eye line. He was standing confidently with his hands crossed in front of his chest and some kind of grotesque smirk. His stance suddenly changed and then a large package landed in his chest, and he deftly caught it despite being surprised.
He quickly dropped it to the ground, when another bag, thrown from the top of the boat above me, hit him square in the chest again. This repeated itself for nine more bags until finally it seemed there were no more to be thrown at the lout. He threw the last bag down, and I could hear his words, dull between the glass.
“Heard your girl’s been on the strip, looking for a place to sleep.” There was an ugly edge to his voice and I realized he might be talking about me.
Jackson’s reply was faint but undeniably bridled with his anger. “I’m sure she’s fine.”
“I’ll always have a bed if she wants it, I mean, I know she’s worth it, you know?” Declan spoke up to the boat, casually brushing himself off and smirking to himself.
I felt a fire surge in my chest at the lie. There was no response from Jackson, instead, I heard the Revenge’s engine start-up and the jetty and Declan’s legs started to slowly drift away, his short figure outlined in the jetty lamp’s glow. For a sharp, coherent moment, I suddenly wished I had given him for than a swift testicle twist and knee to the face. I should have…
The thought shamed me, but hearing him speak like that, made it crystal. I should have killed him, not that I thought I even could. He wasn’t big like Jackson, but he still had a mean look on his face when I said no to him. How many other girls had he sexually assaulted or even raped? It didn’t exactly seem like new territory to him when he did it to me. It would have been a blessing to the world. Yet I had been selfish and didn't even report the dickbag.
I sat back down, the boat now rocking from what felt like strong waves. Those packages… Jackson had just shut the small cubby up on deck right before I had shown up. Whatever he had thrown down to Declan must have come from that deck cubby and therefore those men now feeding the ocean.
The dead of night, far out to sea, parlaying with strange men who might have been Indonesian. Guns drawn quickly, no questions, non-descript packages thrown overboard to a man like Declan. I might have been raised in a bubble but it was clear as the blue waters of the reef what Jackson had gotten himself into. The secrecy of it all screamed something illegal. Drugs.
But why? And with Declan? I was pretty sure whoever Declan ran with, he probably wasn’t the brightest or even 'top dog', which meant that whoever else there was was worse. My throat closed up with resentment. Jackson, just like these douchebags? Surely I hadn’t gotten the man so wrong. Though, I had been proven mistaken before.
The jetty light, now small and distant flickered out, and I came to my senses. Enraged with myself that I had, once again, fallen into company that I had fled my home to avoid. Instead of ‘staying’ like a good girl, I aggressively wrenched the cabin door open and flew downthe length, bounding up the stairs and pushing the deck door open, only to be met by Jackson, at the wheel, his eyes flaring with ire as soon as he saw me.
He latched onto my wrists, and made me sit on the bench out of sight while he twisted his head behind him, back to the dock we had just left. He whispered furiously down to me, while trying to appear normal,
I mimicked him and loudly whispered back,
“Really, Declan? You’re running for Declan? Do you even know what kind of dickhead that guy is?”
Looking ahead of the boat, still holding the wheel firmly, Jackson began to turn it and we rounded some little peninsula, the jetty and the piss poor excuse for a man now well and truly out of sight. He stayed silent but in the green glow of the coral scanner I saw his eyes glanced down to me at my question. Oh God, he did know what kind of person Declan was. Of course he did, he was doing drug running for them.
Suddenly all of Jackson’s past behavior came rushing back to me. The bastard comments, the undisguised hatred, rude, unkind. He knew because it turned out he was just like them. And I had simply set myself up on his boat.
I leaned over my knees and grabbed my hair for want of something to squeeze. I had been so good. So good. And I still got myself into something stupid, illegal even. It appeared that it wasn’t the unlimited finances or privilege that made Carter Magness do stupid shit, it was just in my nature.
“I can’t believe this is happening again.” I quietly muttered to the floor. People were dead because of me, again.
There was silence in the little shelter, the wind considerable less as we skimmed the coastline heading south.
“Again?” Jackson suddenly asked, his firm voice holding just a hint of concern. From my hands, my face raised to him, he was still looking ahead. No. No way I was going to play along and let this man in on all my secrets.
“I can’t believe I somehow managed to get mixed up with assholes, again.”
The glow of the scanner showed Jackson’s mouth set into a hard line, and he leaned forward slightly, letting his hair cover his face. He kept silent, and I was almost astonished that he wouldn’t try to defend himself.
“You have no idea what that asshole did to me. What he has probably done…” I angry stated, now gripping the edge of the bench, as if it was holding me down. Jackson cut me off with a confident tone.
“I know what he did. And you got even with that knee to his face.”
He kept his gaze on the water in front of the Revenge, the lights of Airlie Beach now coming into sight. The harbor calling her home. My mouth slightly parted in surprise, and tears welled in my eyes with the memory of the night. I was a little surprised that Declan would tell others, but I guess if they were together, you couldn’t hide from the black nose I suppose I gave him. Jackson cut into my thoughts though,
“It’s not what you think. I was there, in the park. I saw the whole thing.”
My mind raced back to the park, the dark figure on the bench smoking a cigarette and casually watching Declan grab at me. Before I could voice my accusation, he spoke again but surprised me with a deep chuckle.
“Was about to just get up when you grabbed his dick and yanked it like it was a lever,” another chuckle was aimed at the wheel and I sat back in the bench seat, and folded my arms against the man.
“So, you’re not… with them?”
He blew a fast breath out, unbelieving that anyone would make an assumption And glared down at me.
“No, I’m not.”
“But you do… this for them?” I asked warily.
“No more. Tonight was supposed to be my last run. I guess it absolutely will.”
“Was that your first time doing… that?” ‘Killing another person’ I wanted to say, but couldn’t. He looked so calm. When I had first heard the DA bring up the term ‘Involuntary Manslaughter’ I’m pretty sure my attorney had laughed in his face but I certainly didn’t, I had been a wreck.
After Kelsey plummeted to her death at the dam, I, along with the attorneys and judge had watched the video footage. I looked wild. Hysterical. I had tried to make a phone call, tried to screa for help. After her fall, my face had been transformed. She had died and I had changed.
But not Jackson. He could have been seriously studying for a math test for the cold look of determination on his face. Again, instead of looking at me, instead of using words to answer my question of whether he was a seasoned murderer, he simply nodded once to the ocean the Revenge was parting.
That was the first person he had murdered. In my defense. If I hadn’t walked onto deck, hadn’t stood like a ‘stunned mullet’, his hands would still be clean. A wave of guilt nearly stole over me before I recalled he was actually out in the ocean in the middle of night trafficking drugs. He was a drug trafficker, literally. My scalp tingled again, and I rubbed it through the mess that was my hair.
“Why? Just why did you do this? Why risk your successful business? For more money?” The ridicule in my voice must have been too much, with too much accusation and incredulity. His head turned sharply to me, a bitter stare stealing over his handsome face.
“You know how much chemo costs? You know how much repayments on a ten year loan are? Do you understand that my successful business only has 50% occupancy from March to September? Do you know I only have another year left to buy back Triton’s Fury, my dad’s boat before it sails off?” I kept his angry gaze though it cost me everything to do so, my hands clenching the end of the bench like it might break it off.
“So, yeah. I did it for money. To save what my grandfather and father built. To save what I and my dad had.” The ire in his voice was too much, and I turned my head to stare at our heading with a little bit of shame because he was right, I had no idea when it came to money. When it came to needing money for your future. But he didn’t know that, and with my family, I hoped to hell he would never find out.
I couldn’t judge him when I hadn’t walked a mile in his shoes. Hell, our shoes were so far apart I could have been shopping on Rodeo Drive while he was wearing flip flops in the sand. I swallowed the guilt I had and looked back to him, now a little calmer, watching intently as he steered us into harbor.
“What do we do now?” I asked remorsefully, almost numb as I watched the other boats slowly drift by. The anxiety, adrenaline, and panic had wrecked my body and left me wiped out. I was in over my head, in water too deep, and without a wetsuit. Murder, or at least accessory, concealing evidence, drug running, and with a man like Declan. I was in so deep, I should have been scuba diving.
Jackson said nothing while he paralleled the Revenge alongside the jetty and then left the shelter to tie her down. I continued to sit there, in my exhausted daze, listening vaguely to the sounds of the harbor, now not long from sunrise, start to wake. Some seagulls cawing, a few delivery trucks driving down the main road, Jackson’s feet crossing the hull.
Finally, he returned and knelt down, mimicking the same motion from a few hours earlier, the kiss that burned through my body now long forgotten. He didn’t touch me now, and I sat up, expecting some kind of genius of a plan.
“We do nothing,” he said and I frowned. “We go about our days. We don’t change anything out of the ordinary. There is no way anyone can figure out what we did, so we don’t make it seem like we did anything. There was a big storm in the North, maybe those guys hit it. We don’t know, and you found a hotel to stay at last night. Got it?”
The puzzled look must have still been frozen onto my face because he huffed in frustration and shifted his weight on his knee.
“Carter, if we do anything different, if we leave, if we cancel some tours, they’ll notice. Now I did my job, I delivered the packages. Let’s not give them a reason to suspect me, okay?”
I numbly nodded, and this time, he seemed appeased because he stood and went down below. Standing and walking out of the shelter, the wind had died and the peach and lemon colors of sunrise started to appear in the sky to the east. I walked down the length of the ship to the pulpit, leaning into it to watch them take over the sky and thought over my choices.
I could call dad. I could break the two months of silence, and my resolve to make it on my own and have him come and rescue me, get me out of here. He wouldn’t ask questions, or at least not many. All that would follow is a lifetime of knowing that I need my daddy to fix my problems and that I run quicker than Usain Bolt when they come.
Plus, if anything ever came out about the murder, with a little digging, someone would eventually discover that Carter Brunner was actually Carter Magness, and with my luck, a whole international drug ring scandal would probably be blasted on the news. The few questions dad had been limited to would turn to many, and I could potentially ruin his company with a scandal, or make it take a deep dive on the Fortune 500s. Not ideal.
But I could stay. I could do as Jackson asked and not change anything about my routine. Declan hadn’t seen me on the boat. No one was in the middle of the ocean in the moderate winds in the dead of night. He might be in the free and clear, and as time was passing, my conscious was telling me that their deaths shouldn’t be weighing me down. That man was going to kill me.
Conscious now clear, I watched the sun peek over the ocean horizon and I glanced away, turning my back on it to look at the shelter again where Jackson had emerged and was now standing, his stare solely on me. The same things must have been running through his head because he leaned over to the window separating us, his forearm against the glass above his head and the stone look I had come to know came over his face.
He knew I was thinking about getting the hell outta Dodge. About leaving him in the mess I had made, forever.
Suddenly the thought of leaving Jackson, the man who had tormented me for the last two months with his snide remarks, abrasive manner, and generally orneriness, made my throat close up.
Looks like I was staying and setting up camp in Dodge.