There was only one reason Sydney Wilson would be hurrying down a dock at midnight—Bambi.
Bambi and a couple of bangle bracelets.
Ahead of her, Bambi made a zigzag trail, precariously close to the edge of the metal decking, her not-so-straight path likely the fault of too many Screwdrivers rather than the sky-high stilettos. She stopped short and teetered for a moment, looking around her, then made a beeline for a yacht moored two slips down.
When she started to step onto the rear platform, Sydney reached out and grasped her arm. “Shouldn’t we knock or something?”
“Everything’s dark. No one’s here.”
“Then why are you whispering?”
Bambi shrugged. “If he’s gone to bed, I don’t want to disturb him. I just need to get my bracelets.”
“Fine. I’ll wait here.”
“Please come with me.” Bambi turned doe eyes on her. She was a pro at getting what she wanted out of people, especially men.
She stepped onto the platform and swung open the short door onto the back of the boat. Sydney sighed and followed, clutching her purse to her side. Their room key was inside. So was her phone. Someone had to be responsible. At twenty-five, Bambi was a year older than she was, but one would never guess it. Bambi didn’t stress over anything. But she was the best friend Sydney had in all of Atlanta.
“Why’d you take your bracelets off, anyway?”
“Because I needed to wash my hands, and they always fall over my palms. I didn’t want to get soap on them.” She opened the cabin door. “Now be quiet, in case he’s sleeping.”
Sydney followed her down three steps into the luxurious interior. Past the galley and eating area, a curtain was drawn, closing off the berth. They should just announce their presence. After all, Bambi had spent the last three hours partying with whomever was likely sleeping behind that curtain. Sydney hadn’t been in the mood. So while Bambi had partied, she had watched a movie then gone to sleep. She crossed her arms and waited while Bambi opened a door to the left and slipped inside the small space.
Several moments passed. How long did it take to grab a couple of bracelets?
“What are you doing in there?”
Bambi stepped out. “They’re not there.” She swayed sideways, before catching herself on the edge of the door opening. “I think this is the wrong boat.”
“The wrong boat!” She was still whispering, but wrapping her hands around Bambi’s throat had a lot of appeal at the moment. Maybe once she sobered up…
Bambi made it as far as the first step, when footfalls sounded against the metal dock and hushed male voices drifted to them. Bambi jumped back, plowing into her and almost knocking her down.
“Shh. Someone’s coming up the dock. Let’s stay put.”
Sydney huffed out an annoyed breath. They shouldn’t have boarded without permission. But now that they were here, staying inside until the men were well past was probably a good idea.
Then the boat tilted, its one side dipping down briefly. Someone had just boarded. Bambi cast her a panicked glance, then dragged her into the bathroom.
Sydney shook off her grasp. “We need to just tell them we got on the wrong boat.”
“I don’t know them. They might have us arrested for trespassing.” The effects of the alcohol seemed to have suddenly dissipated. With panic in her eyes, Bambi looked quite sober.
The boat tipped again as another person boarded. Maybe there was even a third. It was hard to tell.
Sydney thrust the curtain aside and stepped into the small fiberglass enclosure, pulling her friend in with her. The door to the bathroom was open several inches, the same as when they had boarded the boat. As long as no one felt like taking a midnight shower, they should be able to eventually slip away without being discovered.
Sydney shook her head. There was only one reason she would be hiding in a yacht bathroom at midnight…. Her carefree, impetuous friend had gotten her into predicaments before, but never one like this.
Men clomped down the steps and into the cabin.
“Look, man, I don’t know anything.” The voice was thick with fear. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Shut up.” The words were sharp and laced with tension. “Boss, wake up. We got a problem.”
Up front, the curtain slid back in its track, and footsteps sounded.
“What have you done now?”
Bambi had guessed right. The captain of the boat had been asleep in the front berth. And he wasn’t happy.
“We made the deal. The contact walked away with the deposit. When we were headed back to the car, we found this guy hiding in the alley. He witnessed the whole thing.”
Bambi’s head pivoted, and fear-filled eyes locked with Sydney’s, fear that was likely reflected in her own. Dear God, what had Bambi gotten them into? This was supposed to be a fun summertime getaway to Bambi’s aunt’s condo, a way for Sydney to get her mind off her status as newly unemployed.
“No, I didn’t see anything. I had just walked back there.”
“You shouldn’t have brought him here.” The captain’s tone held a calm coldness.
“What were we supposed to do? Shoot him in the alley? The police would have come down on us before we even made it back to the car.”
Footsteps retreated and pounded up the steps. An engine started up, its vibration rumbling through the hull. The last of the color drained from Bambi’s face. Sydney put her hand over Bambi’s mouth and held an index finger to her own.
“Where are you taking me?” The fear had turned to panic. “Let me go. I swear I won’t say anything.”
The boat backed from its slip, then changed direction. Finally the pitch of the engine rose and grew louder. They were moving faster now, likely leaving Crystal River and heading into the open Gulf. Sydney lifted her purse strap over her head to the opposite shoulder and gripped the handrail, hoping that no bumps would send them both tumbling out of the shower enclosure.
The captain spoke again, calling down into the cabin from above. “George, get up here and steer the boat.”
More footsteps sounded as the men traded places.
When the captain spoke again, he was right outside the bathroom door. “You did make sure he’s not wearing a wire, right?”
“We didn’t think about it.”
“You idiots. He could be a cop.”
There was a long pause before the other man spoke. “No, he’s clean.”
“So what were you doing in the alley at almost midnight?” The captain was apparently going to be the interrogator.
“I was going for a walk. I couldn’t sleep.”
“You live near there?”
“Yeah, a couple blocks away.”
“Check his wallet.”
“That’s an old address on my driver’s license. I moved a month ago and haven’t had it changed yet.”
Several moments passed in silence. “Kenneth Waskiewicz.” It was one of the other two men who spoke. He stumbled over the last name. “This isn’t a Crystal River address.”
“I told you, I moved.”
There was another pause. Maybe they were rifling through the things in the guy’s wallet.
“Business cards. Who are you working for?” The captain had resumed his questioning.
A loud smack sounded just outside the door, accompanied by a grunt. When another punch was thrown, Bambi began to tremble.
“Who are you working for?” Although the words were louder, the calm coldness was still there.
Silence. Then several more punches. Sydney cringed with each one. They were going to beat the guy senseless if he didn’t talk. And if it didn’t stop soon, Bambi was going to come unglued. She was shaking her head, with eyes squeezed shut and tears streaming down her face.
Then there were heavy shuffles and the solid tread of the men moving up the steps. They were all up on deck now. The engine dropped to idle.
“Are you going to talk, or are we going to have to feed you to the sharks?”
“You’re going to feed me to the sharks regardless, so I’m going to protect my client.” His words were strained and slightly slurred. He was likely missing a few teeth.
A chill swept through Sydney. There was something ominous about the words.
A gunshot rang out, and Bambi thrust the curtain aside and ran from the bathroom. By the time Sydney recovered enough to follow, Bambi had made it onto the front berth and already had her upper body through the front hatch. As Sydney ran forward, Bambi’s legs and finally her red stilettos disappeared through the opening. Shouts sounded from behind and footsteps pounded overhead. Another shot rang out, and Bambi screamed. There were two more shots, then a splash.
Sydney froze, horror gluing her to the spot. The men had just killed Bambi. She kicked her body into gear. They would be back down any moment. And they would search the entire boat. There would be nowhere she could hide.
She ran toward the back and up the steps. Kenneth whatever-his-name-was was gone, probably thrown overboard. As she hurled herself through the opening, her purse strap caught on the door latch and held for a fraction of a second before snapping. The leather bag fell to the deck. The same moment, someone shouted behind her. She steeled herself against the pitching and rolling of the boat and stumbled across the deck. Another shot rang out, accompanied by a metallic ping. Pain like nothing she had experienced before shot through her, a red-hot poker into her left shoulder.
She threw herself over the side of the boat, and the waves closed in around her, the Gulf surprisingly cold for late July. Her mind spun. With her left arm useless, she would never be able to get far enough away to elude them. As soon as she resurfaced, they would shoot her.
No, she wasn’t going to give up that easily. She kicked her feet and made wide strokes with her right arm. Her lungs began to burn, and still she pushed herself. When she couldn’t hold out any longer, she broke the surface, sucked in two quick breaths and once again dipped beneath the waves.
When she surfaced the second time, the boat was moving in a slow circle, two spotlights seeking her out. One passed within a few feet of her. She stifled a panicked gasp and ducked into the waves again. At least nature was on her side—the sky was dark, devoid of a moon, and clouds obscured the stars.
The next time she surfaced, the spots clicked off, and a cold male voice carried across the waves. “Forget it. I hit her. She’s as good as dead. With two bloody bodies in the water and her leaving a trail, she’s inviting every shark within miles to dinner.”
“Think we better monitor the police scanner, just in case?”
“I had already planned to.”
Any other conversation was lost over the roar of the motor as the boat sped away.
Relief flooded her, but it was tinged with hopelessness. They were no longer shooting at her, but she was miles from shore, blood flowing from a bullet wound. Nothing short of a miracle was going to save her. And she wasn’t counting on any miracles. She had left behind her parents’ childish beliefs the same time she walked away from all their other small-town, backward ways.
And she had hurt them. Deeply. Her heart twisted. She would never have the opportunity to say I’m sorry.
She watched the stern light fade as the boat moved away. Soon she would be alone in an inky black world of water and sky. She scanned the horizon. Hope pulsed through her. To her left, a cluster of lights shone in the distance, a soft glow in the darkness. If they had headed northwest out of the river, the cluster of lights would be Cedar Key. But she would never make it. Land was too far away, and she had only one good arm. She would pass out from loss of blood long before she reached those distant lights.
Except one didn’t seem so distant. She squinted into the darkness. One light seemed to stand apart, above the others and closer, like the mast light on a sailboat.
Hope sparked again. She wouldn’t be able to reach Cedar Key, but maybe she could get the attention of someone on that boat.
She drew in huge gulps of air and forced them out in long, high-pitched calls for help. She wouldn’t swim. She needed to conserve her energy. If the people on the boat could hear her, they would come to her. She just had to hold on until they arrived.
The mast light began to move, so slowly she was afraid she was imagining it. Another light appeared, a red bow light. Soon it was joined by a green one. The boat had turned toward her. Renewed vigor filled her. And she continued to scream.
After what seemed like forever, another set of lights appeared on the horizon, dual spots. A rescue boat. Then a rumble broke the quiet of the night, and a helicopter approached, its spotlight sweeping the waves in big circles. Maybe it was time to reevaluate her ideas on miracles. She lifted her good arm and waved, struggling to keep her face above water. The spot stopped, bathing the area around her in sharp white light. They had found her. Help was on the way.
Weakness washed through her, and time seemed to stretch, a thick rubber band pulled by giant hands. Darkness encroached and the lights faded.
She raised a hand.
And slipped beneath the surface.
And finally safe.