• EK Jonathan

Chapter 1

Peter stood motionless in the center of the cramped cabin, the evidence spread out before him atop the mattress. The scuffed Polaroid camera hanging from its hook above Bo Wharton’s bunk now elicited a completely new set of emotions.

There was a knock on the cabin door behind him. “Come on in. But close the door behind you,” Peter said. Marcus Kelly entered and shut the door as instructed. For the last few weeks, Marcus had served as one of the housing overseers. Being familiar with the conditions of the cabins and ensuring the friends’ safety was his responsibility.

“I found these under his mattress,” Peter said, gesturing towards the Polaroid images spread out on the bunk. Marcus said nothing as he glanced over the photographs. Most were underexposed and blurry, but the subjects were clear enough in some.

Marcus Kelly groaned uneasily. “You know any of these sisters?”

“Yeah, I recognize a few,” Peter said, pointing at a few of the Polaroids.

“Where’d he take these photos?”

“It looks like a few––these three for sure––were taken in the cafeteria after hours.” Peter indicated a few images on the far left edge of the bed. “These others, I’m not too sure about. Could’ve been taken in the corridors or stairwells. Looks like he had the camera hidden up in the rafters somehow. Maybe he had some sort of remote trigger.”

“Are these all of the images?” Brother Kelly asked.

Peter nodded. “It’s all I’ve found so far. I stripped most of the room. I doubt he could’ve had many more packs of Polaroid film on him.”

“Any idea what he was up to?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe he was just collecting images. Could’ve been planning something else, of course,” Peter said grimly. He felt a shiver creep up his spine.

“Well, at least they’re all clothed. I guess he wasn’t able to sneak into any cabins,” Marcus said, shaking his head.

“No, I suppose not. And we haven’t had any complaints? No sisters have come forward mentioning anything?”

“Not to my knowledge. Of course, we’re constantly making announcements about safety and keeping doors locked and what not, especially after hours. Those precautions go a long way.”

“I hope. Frankly, I’m still not comfortable with all these strangers aboard. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“Perhaps.”

“It makes me sick to my stomach.”

“Then again, there is another way of looking at things.”

“Oh?” Peter asked.

“You could say that whatever threat this man posed, it’s been taken care of. Mr. Wharton is no longer a reason for concern.”

“Yeah. The thought crossed my mind.”

“I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, and I certainly wouldn’t publicize the idea, but…” the overseer trailed off, scratching the back of his neck.

“You feel we’re protected,” Peter prodded.

“That’s right. Think of the blackouts all across the country. Then the firestorms. I’m sure it’s absolute anarchy back there. But here we are, all our needs taken care of. Jehovah hasn’t abandoned us. We know we’re right where he wants us to be. We just need to trust that whatever little hiccups there are along the way… he’ll address them in due time.”

Peter took a deep breath and sat on the bunk, brushing aside the pile of photos. “Thank you, Marcus,” he said. “I needed that.”

The older brother sat down beside him. “I know it’s hard, Pete. We’re all struggling with uncertainties, my wife and I included.”

“How’s your heart been?”

“Stable, but sometimes I can feel I’m pushing it too hard. Vivian keeps telling me to pace myself.”

“You should listen to her,” Peter scolded lightly.

“Probably. But it’s hard with all there is to do. Even at my age I’m still working on modesty, I guess.”

“We’ve all got something.”

“One day at a time.”

The two sat there in silence for a moment, staring out the porthole at the waves rolling by.

“What should I do with all this evidence?” Peter finally asked.

“Put it somewhere safe for now, somewhere no one else will stumble upon it. We’ll have to report this to the others and see how they decide to proceed.”

“Got it.”

“And Peter, I’m sorry,” Marcus said.

“Sorry for what?”

“Sorry about Bo. I hadn’t suspected anything and had high hopes for him. You must be disappointed.”

“I guess,” Peter said with a distracted look. “But I’m just glad nothing happened. I’m not sure what I would’ve done had he actually attacked someone.”

“Well, let’s just be thankful it didn’t come to that.”

***

Rachel’s anxiety had risen steadily as the evening wore on. Her search was proving futile. She’d checked the cafeteria, the rec rooms, even the common spaces where brothers and sisters frequently congregated to read and chat and catch up on news. But Angelica and Evan were nowhere to be found. It was nearing eight o’clock as Rachel made her way for the third time to Angelica’s cabin. She’d skipped dinner and the hunger was starting to gnaw at her insides, but that could wait. Her instincts told her something was very wrong here.

“Angelica? Evan? Anyone in there?” Rachel said, banging a fist against the cabin door. She pressed her ear to its surface but heard nothing. She knocked again.

“Guys, I’m really starting to worry about you. I’m coming in, ok?” Rachel called out. She took a breath, braced herself, and twisted the knob. It wasn’t locked.

Rachel’s pulse raced as she slowly pushed in the cabin door. Light from the fluorescent corridor bulbs spilled into the otherwise dark space. An odd smell hung in the air. Rachel flipped on the lights with one hand as she swung the door wide with the other. Her heart quickened as she took in the scene before her eyes.

The room was a mess. The mattress sat unevenly on its frame, its blanket and pillows scattered haphazardly on the floor. She lifted one to find Evan’s Bible Story Book underneath, its pages crumpled and torn. She held it close to her face––that smell again. A disinfectant, perhaps, but like none she was familiar with. It was strong, enough to make her head spin.

Rachel rose and moved to the far wall where she opened a window to let in some fresh air. She filled her lungs and slowly regained clarity. What was that smell? And did it have to do anything with whatever had happened here? Rachel gave the room another quick glance, noticing this time two pairs of shoes peeking out from below the bed. It didn’t make sense. Why would Angelica and Evan leave so suddenly without their shoes?

No, none of this was right. Something had happened. Maybe it had to do with that mysterious man who’d shown up a few days ago? She’d overhead Peter and Ted saying something about him speaking with Angelica, something that had spooked her, but Rachel hadn’t caught all the details. She would need to show this to Peter, of course, and the other elders as soon as possible. She hated to put another burden on him, but this was urgent, and if what had happened with Bo and Ted was somehow connected to Angelica, her very life might be in danger.

Rachel Burton crouched down, carefully replacing the story book exactly as she’d discovered it. She glanced at the two pairs of shoes neatly tucked under the corner of the bed, and screamed.

Just behind the pairs of shoes, two large eyes stared back at her from the shadows. Rachel felt her arms and legs scrabbling beneath her body, moving her as quickly as possible away from the bed, even as her brain was processing what she was seeing.

It was nothing to be afraid of. It was only Evan.

“Evan! Is that you?! You scared me half to death!” Rachel said, barely getting the words out between large gulps of air. But the small boy said nothing. He appeared frozen, his eyes wide and unblinking.

Rachel pushed the mattress back against the wall, temporarily unconcerned with leaving the scene as she’d found it. Evan was here. He would have the answers. Rachel felt a wave of relief, but the expression on the child’s face kept the fear from dispelling entirely.

“Evan? You okay, sweetie? Why don’t you come on out here? It’s ok. I’m not going to hurt you.” Rachel extended a hand, but Evan pulled away.

“Evan. It’s ok. I promise.”

Evan shook his head.

“Can you tell me what happened, honey?” Rachel asked. Nothing.

“I wanna talk to Teddy,” Evan said, his voice barely registering.

“Teddy? You mean Ted? Ted Watkins?”

Evan nodded. Rachel frowned.

“I’m so sorry Evan, but… He can’t come to see you now.”

“Why not?”

“He’s… He’s not really feeling well. He’s sick, Evan.”

“What about Peter?”

“Peter? Well, I can go get him, but––”

“No. Don’t leave me here. Please,” Evan said, his voice on the edge of tears. Rachel’s heart broke a little.

“I’ll tell you what, why don’t we go see him together? We’ll get you out of here and get you something to eat and you can tell us everything. How does that sound?”

Rachel waited a minute before Evan nodded reluctantly. He scooted out from under the bed and into Rachel’s arms. They hugged briefly, then rushed off to the cafeteria.

***

Chad Harkett stared vacantly at the assortment of beer cans and liquor bottles littered around him. He’d finished every last drop he could find in the bunker, so how was he still conscious? How was he still unable to silence the noise in his head?

Chad squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his knuckles into their sockets until there was only blackness and shooting stars. The gunshot still rang in his ears. He’d only pulled the trigger once. So why did he keep hearing that BANG BANG BANG in his head, like some kind of ghastly skipping record?

He felt hot. Chad rose from his spot on the couch and gazed around for some kind of thermostat. Why was it so hot all of a sudden? He lifted the back of his hand to his forehead. It was slick with perspiration, but he didn’t feel feverish.

I did what I had to do, Chad thought, clearing a walking path between the bottles and cans with his bare feet. If I hadn’t shot first, I’d be the one lying out there.

“And anyway, Martin wouldn’t have lasted much longer,” Chad announced aloud. You can’t know that for sure, replied a voice in his head.

“I do know that for sure! I knew him for nearly a decade. It was always the same with him. He never had the guts to pull the trigger on anything.” Chad snickered at his own joke as he dragged a trashcan from beneath the counter in the kitchenette. He started scooping garbage into it. Why was it so hot?

Your world is on fire.

“Yeah. No kidding. Maybe that’s it.”

Maybe that was it.

Frowning, Chad Harkett abandoned his task of cleaning up to walk back to the entrance of the bunker. He felt the heat rise as he neared the thick steel door. It was warm to the touch. Outside of the reinforced glass, he could make out undulating orange shapes swimming in the blackness. Martin’s house was on fire.

“So much for salvaging supplies,” Chad snorted bitterly. He backed away from the door and peeled off his sweaty shirt. He could feel the temperature decrease as he retreated to the back of the bunker, but not by much. Had Martin really failed to install some kind of cooling system? Chad went from one wall to the next, struggling to locate a control panel of some sort, something he’d missed before. There was nothing. But as he passed Martin’s radio cage, he paused.

Did you imagine that?

He waited, his gaze fixed on the radio console within the Faraday cage.

You’re losing it, Harkett.

“Please tell me I didn’t imagine that,” he muttered, slicking the sweat from his forehead and leaning into the doorway. He waited. Then he saw it again, subtle but unmistakable. The needle on the radio transceiver had spiked.

Chad Harkett stumbled through the cage’s door and slumped into the chair. He donned the headphones and dialed up the volume. At first there was only the sustained hiss of static.

“–ters –oint –evac–,” sputtered a voice on the other end.

“Hello? Hello? Is someone there?” Chad said. A tremendous wave of relief overcame him at the sound of another voice, but it was quickly followed by the fear of never hearing it again.

“Hello? Anyone? Who’s there?” Chad’s eyes raced over the transceiver and its many knobs, switches, and dials. He hadn’t bothered learning how the thing worked, and now he regretted it. But he knew enough to understand that this wasn’t a telephone. He had to transmit to be heard.

Hun–poin– evac– mili– comm. Repe–,” stuttered the voice once again. Chad’s eyes squeezed shut as he struggled to make sense of the words.

***

Peter sat hunched over his meal in a dimly lit corner of the cafeteria. He’d had little to eat all day and it felt good to get something inside him, even if that something was only a cold turkey sandwich, a bag of Lay’s potato chips, and a warm can of Coke. He polished off the last bite of his sandwich and tore open the bag of chips just as the cafeteria doors behind him burst open. He turned to see a frantic expression on his wife’s face, and following closely behind her, Evan.

“Peter, something terrible has happened,” Rachel said, her face pale and sweaty.

“What now?” Peter asked. Rachel slid into the bench across the table from her husband. Evan stuck close by her side.

“Go ahead, Evan. Go ahead and tell Peter what happened,” Rachel prodded. Evan glanced warily at the other diners. It was well past serving hours and few remained in the cafeteria, giving the large space a cold, sepulchral feel. Peter caught his expression and glanced overhead.

“Why don’t we get some of these lights on,” Peter said, giving his wife a look. “And what about dinner, Evan? You eaten yet?”

The boy slowly shook his head. There were purple patches under his eyes and stringy, dark hair plastered to his forehead. He looked as if he’d just been woken from a nightmare. Rachel took the cue and busied herself locating the overhead light switches and preparing a small plate of leftovers from a serving table near the kitchen doors. Evan watched her carefully.

“You wanna tell me what happened this afternoon, buddy?” asked Peter once the two were alone. Evan’s expression twisted, as if his face were working itself into a knot. It would clearly be difficult for him to talk about this.

“Where’s Teddy?” the boy finally asked.

“Ted?” Peter asked. He found himself instinctively looking towards the spot on the floor where Ted had collapsed. It had all occurred only hours before. “Um. Well. Ted got sick. It was pretty sudden. He’s in the infirmary now.”

“Is it pretty serious?” Evan asked.

“I… I don’t really know, Evan. They’re keeping an eye on him. I’m sure it’ll be ok,” Peter said. The words left his mouth and sat on his shoulders like an uncomfortable weight.

“I really wish we could just be in paradise already,” Evan said. A tear ran down his cheek; he quickly brushed it away with the cuff of his sweater.

“You and me both.”

Rachel returned to their table with two paper plates of food. Peter said a prayer for them and they ate in silence.

“So, where’s Angelica?” Peter finally asked. He peeled the tab back on the soda; the resulting hiss was almost deafening in the cavernous empty space. Rachel gave him a desolate look.

“Someone came for us,” Evan said.

“What do you mean?” Peter asked.

“It was some guy. He was really scary. And fast. He tried to grab us. We were in the room and we thought he was just one of the cleaners or something. I got away, but my mom…” Evan’s lips quivered as tears pooled in his eyes. Rachel wrapped an arm around him, pulled him close.

“Had you seen this man before?” Peter asked carefully. Evan nodded.

“Yeah. He talked with Mom and me a couple days ago. He told us to go back home.”

Rachel’s eyes widened. She shot a glance at her husband, who didn’t seem surprised, only gravely concerned. “Look, Evan. I know all of this must be really scary, but we’re going to find your mom and get her back,” Peter said. Evan seemed to relax a bit with Peter’s reassurance. “After all, we’re on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean. They couldn’t have gotten far.”

Peter spent the next ten minutes questioning Evan on the man’s physical appearance. Peter himself recalled the tall, dark stranger––the man who’d called himself James––clearly enough, but wanted confirmation on some of the details. Evan finished his meal in silence as Rachel pulled her husband aside. They kept a close eye on Evan as they talked.

“Did you know about the man who approached them earlier?” Rachel asked. Peter nodded. “And that didn’t strike you as odd?” Rachel pressed.

“Sure it did, but there was plenty of other odd stuff happening. Still is.”

“I’m just wondering why nothing more was done when you knew she was in danger?” Rachel asked. Her words were quiet and measured but the tone sharp. Peter crossed his arms and shook his head.

“Rachel. I’m doing the best I can. We all are. And for your information, it’s a constant struggle, balancing practical measures with reliance on the organization. I didn’t think things would be this difficult, either. I had no idea we’d be mixed in with these kinds of people here. But we have to trust that Jehovah’s still in control of the situation.”

“So let me get this straight: some strange man comes aboard and has a suspicious conversation with a sister and her son who are actively fleeing from an abusive, controlling ex and no one does anything? That seems like something that should’ve required practical measures, doesn’t it?”

“We took the measures we felt were appropriate at the time. Ted agreed to tell Angelica to keep her and her son safe and never meet the man alone. The problem is that I’m not sure if he had a chance to tell her. Everything else just happened too fast. Now Ted’s incapacitated, Angelica is nowhere to be found, and some madman––” Peter paused. He turned from his wife to glance at Evan at the table. The boy stared at them curiously.

“What’ll happen with Evan?” Rachel asked.

“I’ll have a chat with our guys. He’ll probably room with us for the time being,” Peter’s voice trailed off as the dangers implied by this suggestion hit him. “Of course, that’ll mean we could be targeted next.”

Rachel bit her lip as she gave Peter a steely look. “Just tell me what I need to do.”

“For now, just stay close to me.”

“Yeah, that seems to be a real winning strategy,” Rachel muttered. Peter pressed his eyes shut and held his tongue.

***

Thiago gazed at the frail woman crumpled on the stack of cardboard and canvas sacks in the corner of the storage room. She’d be conscious any moment now, though it would doubtless take her some time to regain her strength and her wits.

The tall man stood and stretched. The room still reeked of the sweet, pungent ethanol he’d used in his concoction. He’d been careful not to bring his hands anywhere near his face until they’d been thoroughly washed; still, his head spun from the lingering chemicals. He cracked the door open an inch, and once he’d determined the coast was clear, squeezed out into the dark, gusty night.

Black, foam-crested waves tumbled into the rig’s pylons stories below. A row of floodlights perched to the lower catwalks cast ghostly, green shapes into the water. Even from way up here, Thiago could occasionally make out the dark shapes of animals in the water as they passed through the beams of light. Dolphins, perhaps, or even sharks. Anything was possible way out here, wherever here was.

Frankly, this job had been a mess, Thiago relented. He’d only managed to capture one of the two people he was sent to bring back, and the hits he’d attempted had similarly proven only half successful. His client would be furious, of course, but there was little to be done about any of that now. He could only wait and regroup and formulate a new plan.

From day one, there had simply been too many unknowns, too many variables. He’d been forced to abandon his gear and transportation, and the flimsy cover story he’d adopted aboard the supply boat had worn paper thin. If he were to stay aboard this rig, he would need a new disguise, a new name, a new identity, and all of this required time he didn’t have. He could not keep the captured woman secret forever, not in a place like this. Eventually someone would come to these levels looking for her, and Thiago would reach the end of his line.

And how would he escape? He’d stood watch for hours during the previous days and nights, struggling to learn their patrols and supply drop offs, but if there was a routine in place it had remained a mystery to him. There was no way up, or down, or off this rig, and that was only half of his troubles.

The other half was the disturbing news coming from the mainland. News of massive power outages and a meltdown of infrastructure. Thiago had dismissed these initial reports as fake news, propaganda spread among the Witnesses to keep the evacuees docile and obedient. But then he’d seen the footage with his own eyes––live reports broadcast on the cafeteria monitors. Cities sitting in darkness, skies glowing red with embers and smoke. If things really were this bad back on the mainland, what would Thiago be returning to? Would he even be able to collect his payment?

Thiago turned; a noise from behind the door caught his ear. He glanced up and down the catwalk before slipping back into the room.

“You’re awake,” he said flatly to the woman on the floor. She struggled to sit upright, but the zip ties holding her wrists together made it difficult. A rag taped to her mouth kept her from speaking. “I’ll free your wrists, but first you will promise me you won’t try anything foolish,” Thiago instructed, his dark eyes boring into hers. Angelica nodded slowly.

Thiago fished a pair of pliers from his pocket and snipped away the restraints. The woman brought herself upright and retreated backwards into the corner. She pulled the tape from her mouth and spit out the gag. Thiago read fear in her eyes, but not panic.

“I’m not here to harm you,” he said, eyeing her carefully. She was rubbing her wrists and returning his hard stare.

“Chad sent you,” she said simply.

“Eat,” he ordered, throwing a bag of potato chips at Angelica’s feet. His voice was icy and distant.

Angelica did as she was told, careful to avoid any sudden movements under her captor’s clinical stare. She tore a corner of the bag open and began eating. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. She could feel her hunger stirring as her head cleared. A brief prayer for wisdom and clarity helped.

“So I take it your name isn’t James,” Angelica said. The man’s dark eyes hadn’t strayed from her for a moment.

“Water,” Thiago said.

“Thank you,” she said, reaching a hand out cautiously. “So, can I ask what the plan is here?” Angelica asked after she’d drank half of the bottle.

“We head back,” Thiago said simply. There was no point in keeping this information from the woman. After all, he would require some measure of cooperation from her if they were ever to leave this rig.

“Back to California?”

“Eventually, yes.”

“How?”

Thiago was silent. Angelica frowned. “You’ve seen the news, right? You know there’s nothing to go back to. Chad might not even be there anymore.”

“We are in contact,” Thiago lied. The only item that had stayed with him since his departure from the coast in New Orleans was the satellite phone he kept at all times in a sealed bag, but since the blackouts on the mainland, there had been no signal available for calls in or out.

“Look, I know that Chad is scary. He’s wealthy and connected and under normal circumstances it’d be dangerous not to listen to him. I know. I’ve been there. But these aren’t normal circumstances. This is a fool’s errand.”

“Enough,” Thiago said. “Show me your wrists.”

Angelica stared at him for a long moment before complying. The man pulled two fresh plastic zip ties from a back pocket and cinched them together, though somewhat looser than the first time.

“I’m not going to run, you know,” Angelica said.

“Why not?” Thiago asked.

“Because right now, I believe I’m in one of the safest places I could be, aboard this rig.” “Oh?”

“Tell me, what do you think of the people you’ve met since you’ve been here?”

Thiago’s eyes narrowed. “In a word, naive.”

“We seem helpless, don’t we?” Angelica asked. Her bound hands were folded in her lap as she scooted back against the wall.

“I suppose so.”

“And yet here we all are, safely evacuated from the mainland just in time. It’s not just us here on this rig, you know. There are millions of us all around the world, fleeing on tankers and cruise ships and rigs, all being perfectly coordinated. We’re not armed, we’ve got no police or security force, and yet we’ve come this far.”

Thiago’s gaze dropped from his captor as he pulled more zip ties from his pocket and bound her ankles.

“We’re protected. And so long as you stay here with us, you will be, too.”

Thiago turned to reach for the gag and a fresh strip of duct tape.

“I don’t know how much Chad is paying you, but you have to ask yourself if it’s really worth your life.”

Thiago ignored the woman’s words as he replaced the cloth over her mouth and taped it tight in place. He relished the silence. Finished, Thiago stood and surveyed his handiwork. Then, without a word, he was gone.

Outside, he cleared his head and decided to try the satphone once more. Chad would want to know at least that his wife had been captured safely. Thiago reached into his pocket, but it was empty.

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