Excerpt of A Deadly Exchange by Sheryl Jane Stafford
(Page 4 of 5)
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"That's my girl. Now I won't be long. Remember, put the pole back as soon as I close the hatch." "I will." "And you'd better turn off that light." He gave her a brief hug and lifted the heavy sack with all twenty bags.
"Okay, I'm off." He removed the pole, slid back the companionway hatch, and peeked outside.
"Matt," she whispered, "your knife?" "I have it, and I'm taking the shotgun." He hoisted the sail bag over the hatch boards and dropped it in the cockpit. Without glancing back, he climbed out of the cabin and quickly slid the hatch cover in place. Alex reinserted the pole and extinguished the cabin light. To bolster her courage, she picked up the thirty-eight. Once seated at the table, she switched off the flashlight and sat trembling in the dark. She had no sense of time. The wind and waves tossed the boat about like a toy. She imagined that rolling down a hill in a tin can would not feel much worse. Quaking, she tried to swallow. Her mouth felt arid, her throat tight. Unable to muster the inner strength to rise and get herself a drink of water from the galley, she remained fixed with her back molded against the seat rest. Hurry Matt! She listened. The steady clang of the halyards signaled an increase in the wind. When she turned on the flashlight to check her watch, she saw that only ten minutes had elapsed, barely enough time for Matt to make it to the Island and drag the dinghy up on the beach. She licked her dry lips.
Then she heard it. The sound was muffled, but she heard something over the wind and waves. Footsteps. Topside. The fiberglass cabin creaked with each footfall. She cringed and held onto the gun butt with both hands. She thought she heard a voice carried on the wind. It sounded almost like a sigh. Her teeth began to chatter. Holding the gun rigidly in front of her, she stared into the darkness.
The Tracking Station lights on the hill blazed, illuminating the compound like a mall parking lot. Matt wheezed as he hoisted the sack over his shoulder and proceeded up a twisted path that began at the beach. At some point, he knew that he would have to leave the trail and make his way through the knotty brush until he found a suitable hiding place. The casuarinas branches convulsed in the wind; surf battered the Atlantic side of the Island. He wouldn't allow himself to think about Alex. She'll be okay. I just have to hurry! Thirty yards up, he veered to the right and encountered dense underbrush that thwarted his passage and scored his bare legs. The bag rested heavily on his left shoulder, the one he had broken when he ejected from his airplane over Vietnam. He shifted the weight to his right and groaned. This is unbelievable. He shook his head. Why did they put drugs on our boat? Why our boat? They must have been following us since we left Mission Harbor.
When he came to an isolated pine in a small clearing, he dropped the load, knelt down, and brushed pine needles and twigs aside. Fortunately, the ground was loamy and he was able to make a two-foot hole using his hands. As he dug deeper, though, the soil became harder, almost impenetrable. He groped for a piece of wood and found a thick branch that served his purpose. I've gotta hurry. Get back. It took him a long time, an eternity, to hollow out a crater deep enough to cover the sack. I should have brought something to dig with. Got to calm down, think. When he finished covering the bag with sand and pine straw, he spread brush and debris on top to further conceal it. On the opposite side of the tree he made an X on the bark with his knife. It was just a scratch, but he was certain that he would recognize it in the daylight.
As he made his way back to the trail, he counted his steps, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. Relief washed over him when he found the well-traveled footpath and paused to carve a notch on another tree. Afterwards, he turned and bolted. Halfway down the trail, he thought he heard a sound over the wind and crashing surf. It was muffled, sort of a pop. He ran faster. Again there was the same sound, only this time there were several reports in rapid succession.
Copyright Sheryl Jane Stafford, 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Sheryl Jane Stafford.