From Dark Sea (Book 4)

Prologue

Wani Hartono recalled a scene from a movie--the killer feeding his victim, piece by piece, into a wood chipper. The crew had watched it months before, in the passenger lounge, between cruises.

He was concentrating, leaning over the sorting table and pressing the edge of the plastic sheet tight against the side of the eighteen-inch waste disposal intake. Then he lifted the final piece off the plastic. It was a man's arm, severed at the elbow, and he checked to be sure no rings remained on the hand.

Metal might jam the machine. Large bones could also pose a problem, but he'd operated the system for eight months and knew what it could do. He braced as the ship heeled to starboard--the sea was up--before sliding the arm into the loading chamber, elbow down, fingers reaching as if to escape.

For the next fifteen minutes the galley would be deserted. He and Irwan handled garbage detail, working different shifts on the 300-passenger vessel. If things ran smoothly, no one checked what they processed. He locked the safety lid and switched on the machine. Seawater flooded in and he could hear the dull rumble as it began to chew the waste.

Curling the plastic so it would trap remaining blood, he stepped back to undress. He lay onto the sheet the white coat, trousers, and latex gloves he'd been wearing. On top of that, he set the five-pound dumbbell he'd taken from the fitness room--had to hold it steady through another roll of the ship--then he folded the bundle, fastening it with fishing line. After four years at sea, he knew knots. If the blood attracted deep-water predators, they'd mangle everything.

The sound of the machine changed and he tripped the lever that flushed it with fresh water. The waste had been expelled below the surface of the Caribbean. He redressed. With the bundle under an arm, he locked up. He'd gone to sea for better pay. After tonight, he could go home.

Minutes later, on a lower deck throbbing from the propeller, he tossed the bundle over the stern. Its splash vanished in churning wake.

From Chapter 11

To get away from the ship, Gary and Becca Kemmerman have taken a shore excursion, the aerial tram over the rain forest, and elected to walk across the gorge. Sounds peaceful, doesn't it? But he has vertigo, and their enemies have other plans.

Ignoring Becca's frown, Gary had told the guide that they wanted to get off and do the walk. As the gondola approached Tower 19, it seemed that the mountain rose up to meet them like the notch of a gun sight. The rain had stopped, and a patch of blue sky was glimmering to the east.

With a whine, the motor changed pitch and the vehicle came to a swaying stop flush against a five-foot-square wooden platform. Steel posts and handrails blocked both sides. The landward edge opened onto a wide dirt-and-pebble path bordered by low bushes. It headed straight toward a forest and, in ten feet, curled to the right, vanishing behind a riot of undergrowth.

When Gary fumbled with his harness, the guide moved forward to help him and Becca. As they squeezed past the Malones, who sat with eyes averted, the guide opened the gondola door, cautioning them to follow the signs, stay on the path, and be careful.

They stepped out and moved away from the tram. By the time it eased off like a silent subway car, leaving them alone on the mountain, they were among the trees. They entered a different world, stopped, and lowered the hoods. She took his hand as they strolled through woods that blotted out the sky, listening to birdcalls and the breeze whispering through large leaves. Strange-looking fronds arched over the path, tinting the light. Bright flowers growing on stalks, vines, and in the crooks of trees, scented the air.

They might've been Adam and Eve except for a series of small green signs with yellow arrows that marked every turn on the path, and instructed them not to leave it.

"This is so peaceful," she said, and kissed his cheek. Before she could step away, he embraced her and put his hands on her rear. "Not in these slickers," she said. "And the others will be waiting. Besides, I feel like someone is watching us."

"The animals think you're cute."

She pried him loose, noticed a thick, knobbed branch that lay beside the path, and grasped it to use as a walking stick. Or was it to whack him with if he got fresh? he wondered. Her white sneakers were already dirt-caked from the spongy ground. She claimed his hand, and they started forward. Before they could see it, they heard the river--a deep, muted whoosh that grew louder as they approached.

An arrow directed them around a sharp bend in the path, to the right, screened by especially thick undergrowth, leaves glossy with moisture. They followed the curve, moving slowly, and broke out of the forest. The woods ended yards from the rocky edge of a cliff. Clumps of mist rose like steam from unseen depths and a wild, steady thunder seemed to be coming from everywhere.

He stopped, recalling the scene, though he couldn't remember the name of the movie in which Indiana Jones had brandished a cutlass on a narrow rope bridge swaying above a chasm. When he watched the film in the theater, he'd had to grip both armrests and turn away from the screen.

Now, ahead of him along the path, at the edge of a precipice, the bridge looked to be three feet wide, with a plank deck and wooden supports for rope handrails, the whole suspended by thicker ropes lashed onto steel poles driven into the rock. It stretched into eternity, vanishing through the mist, the roaring in his ears only partly from the river far below--a river that he couldn't make himself look toward. Without intending, he shrank back.

"Let's turn around," Becca said from beside him. He felt fingers tugging at his poncho. "We'll go back where we got off and wait. Pretty walk. There'll be another gondola."

He knew it wouldn't bother her--she'd cross the bridge. He hated to fail. He wouldn't be able to face himself. Maybe he could treat it as a movie stunt. He closed his eyes, took a step forward, opened them, took a second step--but the noise deafened him, his heart tried to escape, fear made him stop and turn away, sweating in the chill, pulse throbbing in his ears.

He gasped for breath and saw a man approaching along the path, also clad in a blue poncho, his face shadowed by the raised hood. Where had he come from? Becca reached out and pulled at Gary to move aside, but he was frozen in place, trembling.

There was room on the path for the man to pass. Instead, he lowered a shoulder and ran at them, shoving Becca aside as he headed for Gary, who had an instant to tense before the man slammed full tilt into him, driving him back toward the edge, off balance, flailing, sprawling, sliding along the slick ground.

The man steadied himself, stepped forward and kicked out.

Gary felt a sharp pain, rolled away, and his left leg dangled over. . .nothing. Hands scrabbling at mud and the rock shelf, fingers grasping a small root, he glanced up. The man was aiming another kick--but staggered as Becca brought a heavy branch down on the back of his head. Stunned for an instant, the attacker shook it off, hood flapping, arms spreading like a great ape's, turning when Becca walloped him in the face.

He toppled backward, dropped heavily onto Gary, and began sliding over him toward the edge. In desperation the man clawed at Gary's slicker, dragging him along as his hands slid across the oily poncho, but then the fingers reached Gary's legs, grasping, turning him, half of him already over the edge, Gary imagining them falling together, twisting in the air, the roaring river shrieking his name like a siren song until he realized they were Becca's screams and felt her tugging, nails at his left hand, fingers hooked in the plastic band pulling painfully on his right wrist as the man gripped his shoes, Becca screaming, Gary scraping at the ground, the man's weight sliding him away over the edge--then Gary's left shoe slipped off and the man was gone.

Afterward, they held each other, sobbing, shaking, touching, and when his shudders turned to gasps and he was able to look at her, he felt pure joy.