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Flight

FLIGHT

Chapter One

Ten Years Ago
Sunday, June 3, 11:35 P.M.
Las Piernas Marina South

Blissfully unaware that the moment everything would change was near, they were bickering.

"You should have to do the kitchen, Seth," Mandy said, drying a tumbler. "I shouldn't have to do it just because I'm a female."

"Female," Seth scoffed, securing the latch on a compartment beneath a berth. "Not like anyone could tell you are. You're still an 'it'."

"An it!" Mandy snapped the towel at the seat of his pants. She hit her mark, then squealed in dismay as he turned and easily grabbed her weapon away from her.

He grinned as he saw the belated realization dawn on her face—it had been a mistake to attack him within the confines of the yacht. She cowered, waiting for his retribution. He laughed and tossed the towel in her face. "Half the other girls in ninth grade have bigger boobs than you do, Pancake."

She shoved at him, and as he fell back in mock surrender, he knocked over a set of cookware she had not yet put away. In the silence after the crash and clatter, they each covered their mouths and repressed laughter.

"Quit the horseplay down there!" their father's voice called.

Seth glanced at the companionway, but their dad was too busy with his own work above to continue scolding. Seth looked at his watch. They probably wouldn't be at his dad's house until almost one o'clock in the morning—they had a lot to do before they could even take their dad's new boat back to number 414, its own slip.

Seth knew that some boat owners would have taken their yachts into the slip at any hour and cleaned up there, but his father never showed such disregard for others. Whenever he got into the marina after nine or ten o'clock at night, Trent Randolph, in consideration of the live-aboards whose boats occupied the slips nearest his own, always docked here first, next to a bait shop at an isolated point on the far end of the marina. "You wouldn't turn on bright lights and wash and vacuum a car at midnight on your driveway at home," he would tell friends who asked about this habit. "People live even closer together here."

They hadn't taken friends with them this time. This weekend's sailing trip to Catalina Island had been fun—especially, Seth thought, because it had just been the three of them. Trent Randolph had finally dumped Tessa, his lowlife girlfriend, not long ago. Seth hated her. She was the one who had split his folks up two years earlier, but that wasn't the only reason he didn't like her. She bitched about Seth and Amanda constantly, and Seth was almost positive she was playing his dad. He had no proof, but once or twice when his dad wasn't around, Seth had overheard her talking on her cell phone in kind of a lovey-dovey voice, all sexy and everything. And he knew she hadn't been talking to his dad. So maybe his dad had caught her at it, too—or just finally wised up.

He knew his dad wouldn't get back together with his mom. He knew they weren't happy together. And he wished he could stop wishing they would get back together anyway.

Better to think of good times. Like this weekend. Seth, Mandy, and their dad even spent a night camping on the island, something they had not done since the divorce. "It was like he could be a dad again," Mandy confided to Seth when they left Avalon. He had rolled his eyes, not willing to openly agree with her. One reason he liked the new boat was that he figured his dad had used it to get rid of Tessa—Seth recalled that had been just about as pissed as his sister had been pleased with the yacht's name—Amanda.

"I still say you should help with the kitchen," Mandy whispered now, as they picked up the fallen pots and pans.

"It's a galley, not a kitchen," Seth corrected. "You always say it wrong."

"Whatever. You should have to do it."

"Quit whining or I'll make you clean the head."

"The bathroom?"

He nodded.

"Why call it 'the head' and not, you know, something like 'the ass'?"

"Don't be a trash-mouth, Mandy," he said, turning away so she wouldn't see him laugh.

"It's not trashy. Even donkeys are called asses."

He wouldn't take the bait, and so they worked quietly for a few minutes. They heard their father's footsteps as he moved overhead, heard the thumps and thuds and other sounds of gear and life vests being stowed, rigging secured, decks hosed and scrubbed. Seth carried two duffel bags filled with camping gear toward the hatch, setting them near the companionway to be carried up later.

He was athletic; broad-shouldered and tall for sixteen. Dark-haired and green-eyed, and a little shy. Mandy could make him blush furiously by using one of her nicknames for him: Mr. Babe-Magnet. "Every girl who becomes my friend develops a major crush on you," she once complained to him, "unless she already had one on you, and became my friend just so she could get next to you."

"No, they like you for yourself."

She shook her head and said, "Right. Try to catch the next flight back to planet earth."

He still thought she was wrong. At fourteen, she was slender but gawky, more bookish than he. The only reason he had started lifting weights was because he worried that without his father in the house, the duty of fighting off her unworthy would-be boyfriends would fall to him. He expected them to arrive by the busload once his red-headed little sister filled out a little. The only after-school fight he had ever been in—the one their mother chalked up to "Seth adjusting to the divorce"—had actually started when the other kid made a "see what develops" crack about Mandy. Seth had pummeled him.

"Where does this go?" Mandy asked, startling him out of his reverie. She was biting on her lower lip as she held up an oven mitt. Fretting over exactly where everything belonged. He didn't blame her. No use shoving things any-old-where they would fit. Their dad was a neatness freak. Seth showed her the compartment where such things were stored, and went back to work on cleaning the head.

"Mom's probably called Dad's house," she said, as Seth started polishing the mirror. When he didn't respond, she added, "She's going to be mad."

"Mom's always mad," he said, not pausing in his work. "He'll take us to school on time tomorrow, don't worry. She doesn't need to know we're up this late on a school night—right?"

"Right," Mandy agreed. "But if she calls—"

"Even if she finds out, she'll still have to let Dad take us every other weekend."

Mandy gave a little sigh of relief, a sound not lost on her brother.

A noisy boat pulled up nearby. They could hear the loud thrumming of its engines. A little later, above them, mixed in with the engine noise, they heard voices. Male voices. Their father, and another man.

"Who could that be?" Mandy asked, moving toward the companionway.

Seth shrugged. "The guy from the other boat, probably."

The voices grew louder. They heard snatches of conversation, their father's voice as he strode angrily past the hatch: "...trouble ...get up ...not what police should ...you think I'm going to ...then ..."

"I'm going to see who it is!" Mandy whispered.

"Some politico," he said, using a term they applied to most of their father's newest associates. "Can't you tell? Dad's making a speech to him."

"At midnight?"

"They bug him at all hours. Stay put." They both listened, but the men seemed to have stopped talking.

"I'm going to go see," she said. She was up the companionway before he could stop her. The men were still quiet, so he thought Mandy was too late anyway—the other man had probably left. He squirted some toilet bowl cleaner into the bowl and began to scrub—let Mandy get in trouble for not working.

He heard a loud thud, and wondered if his dumb sister had tripped. He listened, and could hear quick footsteps—too heavy to be Amanda's. His dad running? He thought he heard her yelp. He stepped out of the head, listened. Hell, maybe she did fall.

He started toward the companionway just as she came stumbling down the ladder. Her face was white, and she was clutching her throat. A bright red wash of blood covered her hands, her arms, the entire front of her body.

"Mandy!"

Her eyes were wide and terrified, pleading with him. Her mouth formed some unspoken word just before she collapsed in a heap at the foot of the ladder. As she fell, her hand came away from her throat, and he was sprayed with her warm blood.

"Mandy!" he screamed.

There was a cut on her neck—blood continued to spray from it in smaller and smaller spurts.

"Dad!" he yelled. "Dad! Help!"

He heard hurried steps, and looked up, expecting to see his father.

A pirate stood at the top of the ladder.

The man who looked down at him was wearing a black eye patch over his left eye and carried a glinting piece of steel—though it was a small knife, not a cutlass—and the man's dark clothes were modern.

Seth turned and ran in blind panic toward the bow. But there was no escape except through the hatch, and no shelter—excerpt the small head. He dodged into it, turning to close the door on his attacker just as the knife came slashing. He raised his hands in defense, and the knife cut across his fingers. Screaming in pain, he whirled and threw his back against the door, catching the attacker's arm. The attacker shoved hard, moving one step in. Seth ground his heel into the man's foot. The man gave a grunt of pain and pulled the foot back even as he slashed with the knife, cutting across the front of Seth's neck. Only as he reached up with bloodied hands to cover the wound did Seth catch his own reflection in the mirror. Realizing that this was how the man had aimed the blow, Seth jammed his shoulder against the man's arm, pinning it against the wall, then hit the light switch. He felt dizzy, but forced himself to stay on his feet. With a fumbling grasp, he used his less injured left hand to pick up the open plastic bottle of toilet bowl cleaner on the sink counter. He put it up to where the man's good eye was peering in—and squeezed the plastic bottle between the wall and his palm.

He didn't think any of the chemical had hit the man—who must have seen it coming, because he jerked back, cutting Seth's shoulder as he pulled the knife arm from beneath him. Free of this obstruction, the door slammed shut and Seth's weight held it closed. Seth dropped the cleaner even as he struggled with the lock, his fingers slippery and barely functioning. He managed to grab a towel, to hold it against his neck, but soon he could not stand. The pain was intense, and he felt himself weakening, his own blood warm and sticky and dampening his shirt. He wedged himself between the hull and the door, even as the attacker began slamming against it.

The door shook beneath the blows. It would give, Seth thought. He tried to yell, but found he couldn't make a sound.

The pounding stopped. The small room swam before him. Seth bent forward, trying to fight the feeling of faintness. No sooner had he moved than the wood where he had rested his head splintered inward with a bang—split by a small ax. The attacker must have taken it from their camping gear. The man yanked the ax from the wood. Seth tried to drag himself away from the door before the second blow came, but found he could not. He brought his hands back to the towel at his throat, wondering if the ax's third blow would slice into his back.

Suddenly, he heard music—not music, really, but a short series of tones, a repetitive, insistent, three-note call—the sound of a pager, or of an alarm on an electronic watch.

Do-re-me-do-re-mi-do-re—

Seth heard the sound cut off. He waited, every muscle tense, for the ax to strike again—but the third blow never came.

Over the next few minutes, Seth drifted in and out of awareness, but a low rumbling made him open his eyes. The other boat was leaving.

He began to feel cold and sleepy. He must now get up and help Mandy, he thought, but in his pain and light-headed confusion, he could not locate the door latch. Still holding the towel against his neck, he groped along the wall with one hand, and managed to turn on the light. He found the latch just as he lost consciousness.

© Jan Burke