With a hand braced on the boat’s rim, and the other on the bow, Emmanuel struggled to keep steady as a rogue breaker slammed his boat that sped to the mysterious Ilha da Morte.
Lightning strobed through the gray horizon as a rolling thunderclap boomed above the stormy sea.
He gritted his teeth and thumped a palm against the boat’s edge. Any hope of setting up camp before the rainfall faded like the sun behind the menacing clouds. The boat juddered, and Emmanuel winced at the din of rocks that screeched under the hull. He glanced back over the heads of his research students and professors at Dr. Tex Prichard, a man as massive as his namesake.
Tex’s long, ragged ponytail—white streaks blended into the gray by the saltwater that drenched his locks and dripped down his scowling, bearded face—appeared more like frayed rope than hair that whipped in the harsh wind.
Emmanuel still smoldered from the angry words he and the older man exchanged during an earlier argument before they left the Brazilian mainland. “Tex, get us off the rocks before they rip the boat open!”
“What do you think I’m trying to do? I don’t have a chart showing where they are,” The rugged man’s yell, craggy as his visage, barely registered above the tumultuous gusts and the grinding motor.
Emmanuel faced front as the salty wind ruffled his shirt, and his spirits lightened when the island grew larger.
I can’t believe it’s happening.
They’d be the first people on Ilha da Morte since the 1965 eruption that’d killed about ten thousand vacationers. The government granted him a permit to search the island for a giant lizard, but that was only because of his breakthrough cures for Monkshood poisoning and Tetrodotoxin.
He peered at the furious waves while cool ocean spray misted his skin, but the Brazilian naval ships that bobbed in the distance like buoys itched his curiosity.
For decades, the country had quarantined the island to stop sightseers from descending on what the populace considered hallowed ground. But it was only within the last few weeks that they’d deployed a naval force to enforce the quarantine.
Did it have something to do with the National Geographic story? The ‘supposed’ monster that strayed to the Brazilian mainland, killing livestock, then disappeared as fast as it appeared? The locals, in low trembling tones, had told interviewers the creature swam, while others swore it flew on at least a thirty-foot wingspan.
A long potholed stone jutted from the water a few yards ahead, visible as the waves surged away, similar to a hidden crocodile on the surface just before it strikes.
Emmanuel stiffened and clung to the boat’s steel rim. “Starboard, Tex, starboard!” he hollered amidst the thunder.
His words, like the warning from the Titanic’s crow’s nest, proved too late.
The boat’s bow slammed into the rock that ripped open screaming steel. Emmanuel cracked his head on the metal floor, while the other toxicologists and their research students piled forward on top of one another.
He scraped his cheek against the protruding stone tip and winced from the saltwater that gushed from below the waterline and stung his fresh wound. Huge waves rolled into fists, punched the crippled vessel, and surged torrents of seawater into the tiny craft.
The boat was sinking.
Emmanuel froze only for a moment, then shot a glance yards away at a onetime beach, transformed from the last eruption into a rocky outcropping. “Everybody out and take what you can! Lance,” he shouted to a heavy-set young man with a mottled face. “Get the food and water chest!”
The young man snatched his paperback book, Dinosaurs: The Encyclopedia, from the floor, stuffed it into his jacket pocket, and hurried to the container.
Emmanuel clutched a pelican case that contained a laptop, and other supplies then splashed into the waist-deep surf. His boots sank into the muck, and cool water flooded inside, soaking his feet. Emmanuel’s slogging against the rushing ocean couldn’t be any harder than wading through drying concrete. Relentless waves trundled behind his knees, threatening to topple him onto the razor-sharp rocks that peaked just above the troubled surface.
Research student Chandra Amberson, at odds with her tall, athletic build, almost fell as she struggled through the sea, carrying a pelican case under one arm and a rolled up sleeping bag in the other. A backpack weighted down with other supplies clung to her shoulders under long, ebony locks.
“The rocks can slice your boots open,” Emmanuel cautioned as she teetered forward. He hurried to the rest of his teammates who gathered supplies and splashed into the vicious current.
Tex, a former Army Ranger—a professor for the past seven years—slung a pack and a rolled up tent over his back, tucked a large pelican case containing a printer under one arm, and grasped a small case that glinted silver in the waning daylight. He appeared even more massive than normal because of the equipment festooning his body.
Another research student, Sara Moon Chase, splashed beside Emmanuel, just about faltering from the waves that pummeled her slight body. The short woman flung one stick-thin arm out front, then the other as if building momentum while she flailed through the surging foam.
“Slow down, Sara. These rocks—”
“Yeah,” she muttered, not slowing her pace. The young woman’s waist-length, black ponytail slapped at the waves as if daring them to drench it further.
Emmanuel sloshed to the shore, stumbling a few times over the many large sharp stones that seemed to guard the way, and he dropped his gear just short of the foaming breaking surf’s reach.
About a hundred yards inland and past a vanguard of palm trees, the tangled forest stood dark and imposing. Anything could lie hidden within, waiting for a chance to strike.
“José!” he yelled into the brisk wind as the green canopy swayed underneath the gray turmoil above. “Give me the sat phone. I have to call the institute and tell them about the boat.”
José Fuentes waded close behind, his frizzy and untidy chestnut hair billowed in the gust, or at least the locks the water hadn’t matted into clumps. The student leaned forward holding out the phone, but lost his balance from a wave, and crashed onto the sharp stones. White froth rolled red in the bubbling surf.
The receiver bounced once on the rocks and disappeared under the waves.
Emmanuel jolted to the fallen student as he and Chandra heaved their unconscious colleague from the water to a sandy patch on land.
Chandra knelt and turned the unconscious man’s head to the side to view the flooding wound. She dug through her backpack, retrieved a first-aid kit, and ripped open a rolled pouch of gauze that she pressed against his head. It took no longer than seconds for the white material to blush scarlet. She looked at Emmanuel, her large, hazel eyes about to overflow. “This is all I can do.”
Emmanuel’s gut clenched. “You can’t do anything else for him?”
“But you interned at a hospital.” He tried keeping his voice calm, but wanted to scream at the young woman and shake her into further action.
“I interned briefly.” Her smoky, well-rounded voice had sharpened into a fine point, deflating any hope he had.
Chandra’s last word stuck in Emmanuel’s mind, and he cringed at the blood sputtering from José as he tried accepting the young man might die.
Research student Hannah Spirit splashed a hand into the lapping waves and searched for the phone. Her short hair, recently grown back within the last few months, seemed to challenge the blustery gale by still reaching skyward in defiant blond spikes. Huge blue eyes gleamed from a cherub-like face, then squinted at the device as she first gripped then jostled it, hurrying the water out. A rattling from inside brought a frown to her rosebud lips. “Crap!” Her usual sharp voice carried above the din in a harsher shriek.
Emmanuel glimpsed the athletic woman of medium height. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“We are so far up the creek… literally without a boat,” Hannah said.
Tex lumbered onto the beach, his large boots sinking into the sand not covered by stones, then he shed his mountain of gear and knelt beside José. “What happened?” he asked, his sonorous voice boomed with what seemed a rebuke at Emmanuel.
“He tripped on the rocks.” Chandra pressed a finger to José’s neck and studied her watch as silent seconds ticked by, while her other hand kept pressure against the gauze. “His pulse is weak. What’re we going to do?” she asked, tying a bandana of more gauze around her stricken friend’s head to clot the blood.
“Get help out here, that’s what.” Emmanuel snatched the phone from Hannah and clicked the on button, but the screen remained dark. His eyes met those of the group. They must’ve expected him to have all the answers, but he was as unprepared for this as anyone. “It’s not working.”
“I told you coming out in this storm was a fucked up idea!” the ranger spat, his words as hot the Texas sun in late summer.
Did Tex really think this was the ideal time for an I told you so? Emmanuel ignored him and handed the phone to the elderly Dr. Bernard Danders, the expedition’s technician. “Fix it. This is our only lifeline to the rest of the world.” The pressure he’d just laid on the old man wasn‘t fair, but there was no choice. They would die without help.
His somewhat corpulent teammate stared at the device as if it were the vicious lizard they’d come to the island to find. He wiped a mixture of sea spray and sweat from his receding hair line, thin gray strands waving in the howling wind like little flags of surrender. “Right. I’ll see what I can do,” he said, his high-pitched voice shriller than normal, and he set off to work on the phone as sand squished under his heels.
Emmanuel shifted to Tex, who stared at the forest in the distance. “Since you were a ranger in the military, I’m hoping this shipwrecked situation isn’t new to you. What do we do?”
He scratched at his trimmed beard sprinkled with the same salt and pepper coloring as his mustache and drying ponytail, but kept his focus set on the woods. “The first order of business is to set up camp, and fast, because these kids will freak out when the adrenaline recedes.” He pointed down at José, and said this calmly in his Dallas drawl. “That one’s not doing well. If we don’t get help out here soon, he’s—”
“I know,” Emmanuel said, looking sharply at the ranger. Saying aloud José’s chances were slim seemed an unnecessary taunting of fate, an insult Emmanuel preferred not to make.
“We need a campsite, but here ain’t gonna work. That forest has a lot of cover. It won’t keep us dry, but when those big waves come in they won’t sweep us out to sea, either.”
“So you’re saying we need to push deeper inland.”
“Yeah.” Tex glimpsed José again and grimaced. “Better not move that kid until we have a definite location. Hell, moving him at all might be the worst decision, next to the one that brought us to this island.” His frigid glance thrown at Emmanuel could’ve blown in from the Arctic.
Emmanuel tightened his jaw at the biting insult, but released because Tex might be right. “Then, you need to find us a campsite. Now.”
Hannah hurried to Tex. “I can help.”
“There’ve already been too many bad decisions,” the ranger snipped and glanced again at Emmanuel. “I’m not gonna add to the count.”
“The phone’s dead, worsening our chances out here.” The twenty-two-year-old stared at Tex without a flinch who towered over her by at least a foot. “My father taught me a lot about wilderness survival. You need me!”
With a cock of his head, he analyzed her almost as he would a bug. “Kid, I move quicker on my own.”
She stood on her tiptoes, still not even close to his height. “So do I.”
Tex twisted his wedding ring and his barreled chest expanded. “You gotta lotta spunk, kid. Reminds me of someone I used to know. All right, keep up, and don’t make me regret my decision.” He spun around and raced from the beach, Hannah close on his heels.
Emmanuel spied his other students who made themselves useful.
Sara Chase—the smallest student, almost five feet tall—hauled supplies away from the ocean, with the help of her Spanish friend, Antonio Espinoza. The girl raced against the oncoming waves and fought the gales blowing loose, black locks across her olive-toned face.
He couldn’t recall the professor’s name who signed the permission slip allowing her and Antonio on the trip, but the one thing that stood out from Sara’s background on her portfolio was that she was Cherokee. Emmanuel never would’ve known the tribe had clans if she hadn’t stated on her profile she belonged to the Anigilohi, which stood for Long Hairs. After brief research, he discovered most Cherokee Peace Chiefs often came from this clan. Some called it the Strangers‘ Clan since they accepted prisoners, orphans, and others with no connection to the tribe. It was appropriate, since Emmanuel had never seen Sara or Antonio before this trip.
If Antonio Espinoza had been Italian, everyone would’ve called him Tony, but Sara’s long-haired, gangly Spanish friend had insisted on Antonio, with no nicknames. The medium-sized, toned man seemed to have no sense of humor, and was quiet, preferring to whisper with Sara, while grunting at anyone else.
“Doctor, what’re we going to do?” a small, shaky voice called from the side. The fear in Lance Monroe’s freckled, chunky face mirrored how Emmanuel felt, but he refused to lose hope in front of the students.
Emmanuel squared his shoulders and steadied his voice before speaking. “We’re setting up camp, taking care of José, and continuing with the expedition.”
The young, bulky man of medium height gawked, seemingly oblivious to the wind twirling the red curls on his head into an even more unruly mess. “We’re still looking for that damned lizard after everything that’s happened? Shouldn’t we find a way off this island? José might die!”
Emmanuel pressed his lips together, hating to say what should’ve been clear. “We don’t have a choice here, Lance.”
The student pointed toward the ocean as the bubbling surf flooded his leather-clad booted feet.
Emmanuel followed Lance’s outstretched finger across the jagged landscape to the boat that bobbed on the rising swells in the far distance. He thought it would’ve sunk by now.
“Maybe I can fix the boat. I’ve read a lot of books on boat repairs. I can swim out and get it.”
Emmanuel couldn’t halt a dubious glance at the large man, but thought better than to ask how many years it’d been since he’d last swam.
Lance must’ve detected something Emmanuel hadn’t meant to show, as scarlet crept across the student’s face. “I’m a strong swimmer,” he said defensively. “I’ve been trying to lose weight for months. Give me a chance to do something useful!”
“Calm down, Lance,” Chandra said from the sand, still tending to José.
Emmanuel set a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I don’t doubt you, but by the time you swam that distance, it’d be even further out, or sunk. Just… No.”
“Professor, this expedition’s already gone south, we should try to retrieve the boat.”
Tex’s badgering was bad enough, but with José in critical condition and no way to seek help, the last thing he needed was another disparaging voice. “Do you have any idea how powerful the current is out there?” he said, inhaling the cool air to douse the heated anger boiling within. “It sucked that boat out to sea in no time. What do you think it would do to you? I know you’re trying to help, but putting yourself at risk isn’t happening.”
He looked at their situation and couldn’t help but cringe that they were all at risk. The only chance was for Bernard to fix the phone.