Cruel Summer

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Chapter 11

Jackson

Carter repeated the word back to me with a hint of a smile and I might have died a little bit inside as she readily agreed to ignore the attraction between us and keep it locked up tight. I had been such a fucking idiot for the last 10 days. Letting two months of pent up frustration finally go and taking it out on her up against cabin two’s wall. It was heaven as it was happening, feeling her clench around my fingers and her breath underneath my palm. Watching her gasp up to the ceiling in ecstasy.

But then I had stepped away and sucked on my fingers, watching her core glisten down her leg and realized I had seriously cocked up. My dad’s word ‘cad’ came to my mind, as I realized where we were, with passengers on the way. This wasn’t how you started up something with a girl like Carter Brunner. I had then chided myself and kept my distance from her as a sacrifice, knowing she would probably be furious with my silence. Then that night happened, and we had been keeping professional distance in light of trying to appear ‘normal’.

There was no doubt however, I was lighter in the last week. Those few stolen kisses from Carter, those foreign men, always silent but eerily threatening in their quietness, now gone and it seemed I was in the clear. A few stones had definitely dropped from my shoulders. Carter, however, was now looking like she regretted ever stepping a foot onto my boat. But now I didn’t have to put up my facade that I hated her, that I couldn’t stand her, it all drifted away for more important things.

She’d be right to, after showing her that piece of paper that had been burning a hole in my pocket so hot it nearly singed my ass. I kept my own placid expression though and rose from the seat to put some distance between us and stride across the empty smoking area.

I took out another cigarette, regretting taking up the habit at the age of thirty, and after dad passed away. But fuck it, it did help with nerves and other feelings that made me want to spit at the world. Friends. I took a drag and looked through the window back inside the restaurant. I reminded myself that this was better for her. For both of us.

She was way too good to be taking up with a murderer, and she would most likely be leaving in less than a year. I would be wrecked if I took to her with even half of the same enthusiasm I had with Ruby, just dive into her. Carter Brunner would dominate me with her American sass and challenging nature. She would have me under her thumb. Then she would leave.

But there was no doubt that Carter and Ruby were chalk and cheese, not telling even Linda about her birthday, Jesus, they were so different, it was like comparing a gaudy cruiseliner with a sleek sailboat.

Ruby’s birthday last April rivaled a royal holiday with how much pomp and emphasis she put on herself for a twenty-year-old. It was almost embarrassing watching her connive birthday shots from unsuspecting tourists in another random bar she had dragged us all too on our night off. No, the more time I spent with Carter, the more it was becoming clear that no way in a cold hell could the beautiful American ever be anything like Ruby.

I turned back to her, looking like something to sin for in that white dress and clasping the piece of paper. She was studying it intently, probably regretting the day she stepped onto my boat. I grimaced at the blank report. As soon as I saw it in my inbox at the office, I felt like a piece of shit, and the most hypocritical one to boot. Checking into the supposed criminal past I had given her in my mind when I was already running drugs for the Airlie gang. I didn’t feel like a criminal, just a temporary assistant, someone with a problem that needed fast cash.

Now? Now I had just committed my first murders. It was in self-defense, for hers and mine and I wasn't lying when I said I had no guilt over it. But for the last few nights, I had woken up, flinching at the gunshots and violence in my dreams. At feeling the tug of the knife when I cut into their femoral artery for sharks. No, I was definitely past the ‘innocence’ of Carter Brunner, just sitting there with her short blonde hair slightly brushing her bare tanned shoulders.

Still, every time I looked at the young woman, my own blood ached for her. Alchemy. Fire.

She was still staring at the report in her hands when she spoke down to it but at me, “If we are trusting each other then…” she took a large exhale out, and officially had my full attention, “ then I need to tell you something that your report didn’t pick up.” Her voice slightly choked at the end and she gripped the side of the bench underneath her legs, now jiggling on the balls of her feet. I narrowed my eyes at her, never having seen her with this kind of nervous energy.

“Several months ago, I dared a girl to do something stupid. I was...drunk and angry, and wanted to prove something I guess. She… died, she was trying to prove something as well, and she fell from a really big height.”

Carter’s eyes had welled with tears and a few singular drops had fallen. “The security cameras showed that she did everything willingly and that I tried to attempt to rescue her,” her breath came out shaky and she wiped the fugitive tears away, “but we supplied alcohol to a minor and my ex showed that he attempted to conceal evidence and the DA brought a case against us for ‘involuntary manslaughter’.”

I stood up and away from the window at the word ‘ex’, now intensely aware of everything going on with Carter’s body. The jiggly legs, the shaky breathing, the pained expression in her face, it was all telling of remorse and pain. I said nothing, if I went over there to sit next to her, I might not be able to let her finish wherever this was heading.

She grabbed the useless report, still balancing precariously on her jiggly lap, and crumpled it in her fist, almost angrily. “My family’s lawyer is pretty good, and got the charge down to just a misdemeanor along with a ton of community service. The family was compensated as long as they never told anyone. She was still a few weeks away from 18, so it won’t come up on a standard criminal check, since it’s sealed.”

I took a long drag, not knowing what to think. The guilt racking Carter’s body and face screamed sincerity but it didn’t sound like she had done anything malicious. She looked up from her balled fist, full of paper to meet my eyes.

“She was going to go to college for music in the fall,” Carter sniffed and wiped away another tear, “she had such a nice singing voi...” Her words finally broke and she couldn’t finish the sentence. Her grip on the bench was now like a vice like it was holding her up and I finally closed the unbearable distance between us, sitting next to her.

I unclamped one of those hands and intertwined our fingers, holding it firm and tight, the pressure almost turning my joints white. The silence lengthened as she got her breathing under control, now looking at our hands. Finally, she turned to me,

“I was a different kind of person back then since I went to college. I didn’t really care about how what I did affected people or the words I said. I was suddenly free from my very loving, but very overprotective parents, and I was just…”, she squeezed my hand and suddenly a flurry of little comments she had made over the last few weeks came back to my mind and I finished the sentence she couldn’t,

“...caged.”

Her slightly red-rimmed eyes flew up and she gave a purse of her lips, handing me the crumpled up paper. I released my grip on her and took the paper from her, pulling my lighter out with my other hand. She watched me as I flicked the flame on and set it alight.

Together we watched it burn until the end corner finally burned my fingers and I dropped it to the stones beneath our feet for it to finish. Staring down at it, I wrapped my arm around her neck, pulling it into the crook of my body, and kissed the wet patch of skin next to her eyes.

Her hands came around my waist, holding me as I kept us close for comfort. Friends. Even to think it was moronic. Every time I had looked at Carter Brunner prior to today I got a semi. And now the woman was pulling at my heartstrings like she was plucking a guitar with this story.

“It sounds like you were dumb…” she pulled away from me slightly to look up to my face, “ but not a murderer.”

I unwrapped my arm and she followed suit, the absence of her body warmth leaving me cold. “ It also sounds like you should start letting up on yourself a little bit. I didn’t know you before, but I certainly haven’t seen the Carter you’re talking of. Whoever you are now, it’s certainly not her.”

Her bottom lip suddenly quivered, grateful for the comment and I was about to grip her chin and claim it when a clatter of cutlery from the restaurant suddenly reminded me where we were. I looked across at the tinted windows, showing movement inside, and I sighed. Friends.

“Come on, Birthday girl. The others must be well into gossiping by now.”

She gave a knowing chuckle and wiped her face with her palms, and gave one of her fake smiles, this time with effort that made me laugh.

“That’ll do.”

She rose from her seat and together we left the area, my hand itching to put itself around her waist as we returned back to the table. The three friends at the table raised their eyes at our return, Linda with a slight grin on her face as I sat down next to her.

“Cut that out,” I muttered underneath my breath. Joe beside her leaned forward as Riley and Carter discussed dessert options with a menu and I tensed a little. Joe Shepard and I had been in the same graduating class together, and I might have even considered him a friend before we had graduated. Then he left for uni with a majority of the townies and came back a few years later a cop.

I had no idea whether it would be a good or bad idea to let this man into the small circle I had made for myself. On one hand, he might be able to defend me one day. On the other, if one day something came up, he had insider knowledge. I couldn’t stop Linda from having a boyfriend but I certainly didn’t have to hang out with them.

He leaned across Linda slightly and gave a wink as if he and I were in on something, and I shook my head with a slight grin. Couldn’t even talk to a woman without being ribbed for it. I quietly listened to the table’s discussion of what Carter wanted to do after her time in Australia. I tuned out when asked what she wanted to do with her Business degree from her ‘good school’, not forcing myself to listen in on something that I knew would hurt me.

The ladies ordered a small cake and after a birthday song and another pitcher of something with Caribbean rum in it, the group decided to call it a night. I looked across at Carter as the waiter took my credit card. She was finishing off her drink and giggling conspiratorially with Riley, the two seeming to become closer after their third drinks, the young Aussie apparently loving Carter’s American insider knowledge about pop culture.

Riley herself then firmly placed her empty cocktail glass on the table and looked around, “Jungle Room, anyone?”

I let out a snort at the idea of going to an overpriced tourist trash bar in the middle of the strip. Where the only point of the establishment was for visitors to get blind drunk and find company for the night.

“That’s a definite no for me, thanks.” I asserted and took my credit card back from the returning waiter.

“I’ll go. I have been to literally zero clubs here,” came Carter’s perky and slightly drunk response. I let out a sigh down to the table as I signed my receipt, looking back up at her with some frustration. A pair of women looking like Riley and Carter, slightly drunk, in a prime spiked-drink club like the Jungle Room, gave me a hint of anxiety.

But I had just espoused a friendship with Carter, and couldn’t be playing a jealous lover now. She was beautiful, fun, and young, exactly the type that should be at the Jungle Room having fun. Underneath the table, Linda gave my forearm a quick squeeze before saying, “We’re up for a visit. But not too long, yeah, birthday girl? You still got work tomorrow, and I’ve got to let you into my apartment.”

Carter nodded seriously at Linda and the tension in my shoulders eased a little knowing that responsible Linda and an actual coppa would be her chaperone. The crew at the table rose and we left the restaurant together, me parting from the group to head back down to the harbor parking lot for my car. Carter gave me a small smile and tucked her hair behind her ear. Jesus, please do not let her go home with anyone tonight.

Riley looped her arm through Carter’s and the two began to strut down the street, the act looking more natural to the younger brunette. I watched that perky ass leave when Linda gave me a shoulder nudged as they followed the two, “Don’t worry, Joe is an excellent cock-blocker. See you tomorrow, boss.”

I was about to reply with a ‘fuck-off’ when I realized I might actually be grateful, and instead simply nodded and watched the four eventually move through the crowd of the strip and get lost from sight. I turned my heel and headed down the street, away from the restaurants and back towards the jetty. Going against the crowd, I listened to happy chatter, the tourist season in full swing a week before Christmas.

The busiest time of the year and it showed, the Revenge was at full capacity for all tours, even operating on Christmas Day. Linda’s eyes had nearly bulged when I set the schedule a few months ago, but I knew better. Christmas day alone? After last Christmas, with a freshly cremated father and I had just sold the Fury to settle up the debt, known and new. No, work was better.

As the pedestrians and street traffic started to lessen, a pair of footsteps keeping in time with mine came up behind me. Quickly glancing back at the owner, I was unsurprised to find Declan a few meters behind me, tailing me. He gave a quick grin as our eyes met, and I turned back to watch where I was going. Now that I had seen him, he lost all pretense and came to walk beside me.

“That seemed like a nice party. Someone’s birthday?”

A twitch of anger pulsed in my throat at the idea of a goon like Declan spying in on my friends and I, probably even seeing Carter and me alone in the smoking area. I said nothing, however, and continued my brisk pace off the strip, the jetty car park now insight.

“How old is she? I bet somewhere around 24? Maybe less?” I kept my silence, but the other man wasn’t discouraged, and he sniffed his nose loudly as he followed me across the street.

“Doesn’t matter, I like ’em a little bit younger anyhow. With a little bit of fire, you know?”

I shook my head as I left the sidewalk to cross to the parking lot, leaving the safety of the street and lights. Declan knew my sore spot, and he was just pushing it like a toddler with a button.

“I always want to ask whenever I see you, is she as good as she feels?”

I rounded on the man, doing my best to keep the anger in check. We were still in sight of many tourists, and for as much as I wanted to send his face to the deck with a right hook, I knew it would be best if I didn’t. He met my anger and gave it one of his quick smirks when a voice behind us shouted a signal. Declan’s eyes glanced behind me and he patted my shoulder,

“Boss wants to talk to you, big guy.”

He sidestepped me and moved to the parking lot between the town beach and jetty. Taking a few seconds to understand what he just said, I took a deep breath and calmed myself, looking over to the town’s beach, only the white foam of the waves being visible. I eventually turned to follow the cretin.

He walked straight through the cars, and I realized he was heading to my ute, where there were three dark figures. The light shining from above them cast their faces in shadow and gave them a sinister quality beyond what I knew they already had. Declan joined them, not bothering to speak with them and I also came up, jiggling my car keys in my pocket.

The short man, dressed like a high school Math teacher from the 70's took a step forward, a genuine smile on his face filled with apple-like cheeks. Rosy, red, and full. He was the most unassuming drug seller I had ever met, not that I had much experience with them before this year.

In fact, we had only ‘met’ once before, and that was him sitting in a chair in a darkened corner while I hashed out semantics and details with Declan and Brock. When I asked about the figure in the corner, I was told that this was ‘Mr. Garrett’, and that I would never see him again. Now he was here. It couldn’t be good.

He kept the smile as I approached my own car, his hands firmly pushed down into his pockets, like he didn’t want to reveal them. In the shitty parking lot light, I realized I recognized the man as one who worked on the strip, somewhere on the far end, and in a hotel, maybe.

“Jackson! Nice to see you again. Good dinner?”

I nodded my head, noncommittally, indicating I was absolutely not going to be held up to just talk about what I had for dinner. He seemed to understand because he slightly turned his head gesture behind him at the other men leaning against my car.

“Good, good. Jackson, you know Declan of course and Brock, but you have never met this gentleman. He is our overseas partner.”

The third man, at my back tire, now walked a few feet closer revealing he was Indonesian. My nerves stiffened at the sight of him, but forced my traitorous body to relax. I tilted my head forward in greeting but said nothing to anyone. Garrett, however, didn’t seem to expect me to because he immediately asked,

“Easy run last week?”

I blew air through my lips and gave a humorless chuckle, “Easy? Fuck no.”

Garrett’s brow furrowed, obviously not expecting the honesty, expecting I would tell him everything went fine. “What happened?”

“Well, for one, whoever set those coordinates never bothered to check the current lines, and set it right on the edge of the fuckin EAC. And two, we had some winds and rain,” and I gestured to the Indonesian, “and I’m guessing your boys don’t have too much experience with that. They were handling that piece of shit boat like two preteens trying to fuck a Cougar. Every package they threw over had to be secured and then thrown. Took longer than it should have.”

Garrett, keeping the furrowed brow slighted his head to Declan, something passing between them.

“You said there weren’t any problems,” he stated, still speaking to me.

“Problems, no problems. It’s not easy work, but I got my job done, his guys got their job done, so I didn’t see problems. There is a difference between easy and no problems.”

The Indonesian leaned up against my car again and looked up to the tall fluorescent light, high above us. Brock, not seeming to care about the conversation and more of a friend tagging along had a curiously defensive stance for such a ‘friend’.

The short, stubby man brought his hand to his forehead and rubbed his temples, trying to work out a silent problem. “So, you just took the packages, then left and delivered to us?”

I shook my head at the man, trying to pretend for a little bit of frustration, “As usual, now what is this about? Because if you can remember, one of the reasons you hired me is ’cause I’ve got a clean record, a shiny boat that is never checked by border patrol, and a legit business for being out on the reef. One that might get scuff on it if I’m seen talking to you in a dark parking lot at night. Got it?”

Garrett looked me up and down, I was nearly half a foot taller than the man but had no doubts that he was more dangerous than whatever jab I could get out on him. I had heard the stories circulating around town about the influx of newcomers in the last 10 years. I was always a local, but since I was always out on the reef, working hard to keep my dad’s business alive, I had never considered myself a part of the community. Which is why at the time, it felt okay to take a 10K for every delivery.

He studied me for a second more, and I rested my thumbs in my pockets, looking to settle in for whatever other shit was on his mind. Apparently satisfied, he gestured with his head across to the other end of the parking lot, and the other men began to walk, leaving us alone. Declan gave me a final smirk as I watched him leave, never wanting to make me punch anyone else in my life so much.

“That perky first mate of yours find herself a bed that night?” Garrett asked, drawing my attention back to him with a frown.

I kept the incredulous tone, “How the fuck should I know?”

He folded his arms and studied my face, shrouded, I imagined in the same shadows as his. I hadn’t trimmed my beard in over two weeks and was particularly scruffy, “What the fuck is she even doing with you on that boat?” he asked with a slight smile. I kept my expression neutral and lost any attitude, trying to make it seem that this was now the most ridiculous conversation I had ever had.

“Slummin it, I guess.”

He laughed out loud, and it sent a shiver through my body. “Well, if she ever wants to change slums, let us know, yeah?” he added with another smirk. I kept the stone stare on my face and watched as he turned to follow onto his cronies. I held my gaze on them walking down to the street, away from the strip until they finally fell out of sight.

I watched him leave and raked a hand through my hair, taking a few steps back and forth, rethinking over the conversation. It didn’t seem like they had a clue as to what happened out on the water, but they were fishing, smelling out blood like those sharks in the water. And Carter? Goddammit, that girl could be a mute who never looked anyone in the eye and she would still get more attention than anyone I ever met.

Garrett and his crew were more than interested in her. My own fetishes and desires aside, I wouldn’t wish any woman on that crew. Who knew if they would ever see the light again if they went into that rat den up the coast. With its own jetty leading out onto the reef, they could undoubtedly be trafficking a lot more than the once-a-month shipment I did for them.

But she was with me, literally six days of the week and with Linda for the other. The worry left my body slightly at the comforting thought.

I hopped into the car and got onto the main road bypassing the strip, and headed up to the house, the warm wind of December rustling my hair. Curving up the dark mountain, I pulled into the invisible driveway I knew to be there, and immediately exited the car, leaping up the front steps.

The house, as always, was quiet and dead inside with only the shadows of the half-moon showing any sign of life inside. I quickly walked through the house and out to the back deck, pulling up some loose slats in the corner of the deck. A quick glance in showed the fire-proof lockbox still in place and still locked. Satisfied, I shut the slats and sat back on my ass. I didn’t need to count it, but after the confrontation, where I was sure my side gig was now absolutely at a conclusion, it felt good to look at the money I had risked everything for.

It was enough for the deposit, the bank would settle the rest, and I would have Dad’s boat back. I shut the back door behind me to lock it, thinking over Triton’s Fury and Carter Brunner, wondering what the fuck it was I really wanted anymore.

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