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Chapter 1

Saturday, November 5, 2011, 11 41 a.m.
Anguilla, British West Indies

Only civilians and fools believe in coincidences. Since Alexander Blackwell was neither, his pulse raced and his head burned up at the sight of a helicopter buzzing low over his catamaran. Airspace laws strictly prohibited rotorcrafts from flying over this stretch of the Caribbean.

He rushed to the other side of his boat’s deck to track the bird’s path in the sky. As it trailed away in the horizon, Blackwell held his breath, even prepared to concede the occasional innocent coincidence was possible.

But what happened next left no margin of doubt that something was off. The helicopter landed a mile north on Prickly Pear East, a tiny, uninhabited cay where Blackwell and his young skipper Leron just so happened to be ferrying their passengers for the day.

Coincidence my ass.

For four years he’d been in self-imposed exile on the main island of Anguilla, and had been running this charter business for the last two. In a previous life, Blackwell was the FBI’s top hostage negotiator until his career tanked catastrophically, scorching him to a mere facsimile of the man he once was. He came to this island reeling after losing his job, his marriage and his kids, even standing a hairline away from losing his mind and pulling the trigger to end it all.

Not entirely back to normal but on the mend, his old life catching up with him was about the worst thing that could happen.

His passengers were a group of newlywed couples who had signed up for his island-hopping cruise. Lying on the boat’s trampolines, all six of them were oblivious to the ominous flying anomaly. The women semi-naked and lathered in oil, and the men downing his endless supply of cold beers as they bragged about bonus packages, fast cars, Vegas, and all sorts of shit Blackwell couldn’t care less about.

The bird had shot through the sky fast and not long enough for him to identify its make, but the path it took stunk of an old-school ambush with a big appetite for collateral damage. Considering the work he used to do, any shade of psychopathic criminals with some ancient score to settle with him could be on that chopper, now waiting for him on the island. Long before he had donned the hostage negotiator’s headset, Blackwell had first spent many years installing bullets in some despicable skulls on behalf of the FBI.

Oh yeah, the FBI…

He couldn’t discount this as a second possibility of who was riding that chopper. But what could they possibly want with an empty shell like me? After the tragic events that had wiped out his career, Blackwell escaped to the main island of Anguilla, with promises that he would be left alone for the rest of his days trickling down from as high up as the Bureau’s director. No way, this can’t be them.

His stomach churned harder onto itself.

The original plan had been to circle around and dock by the north face of the island. They’d ferry the newlyweds by dinghy to the shore for a lazy lunch of barbecued mahi-mahi, before sailing to an even smaller cay due east, called Sea Island, . With rum cocktails in hand, the newly married would witness a spellbinding orange sun plunging into the water, then thank Blackwell as if he had shown them a vision of God.

Assuming the helicopter’s occupants had less than amicable intentions for him, they’d stop at nothing to take him by force. Leron and the six honeymooners in his custody would be trampled on like dispensable road kill.

And it wouldn’t stop there.

The island’s service staff and the other tourists trickling in since sunrise would also be caught in the line of fire. More honeymooners and vow renewers, young families with children no higher than his knees, and retirees curled up on rickety sun beds smooching their paperbacks. To be responsible for turning their tropical dream into a mid-morning massacre pounded hard on his out-of-practice brain to think fast and act quick.

As the catamaran approached closer to the southern edge of Prickly Pear, Blackwell began to formulate a plan.

Fifteen minutes give or take is what it would take him to swim to the south face of the island. Then he could trek across to get to the north side. Blackwell had hiked the distance on several occasions and estimated it couldn’t be longer than a thousand feet.

Once there, he would improvise a counter-ambush on the occupants of the chopper through the thick foliage covering most of the island. Depending on their numbers and firepower, he hoped he had enough rounds to snipe them out. Lord help him if they were seasoned professionals who vastly outnumbered him and had covered every inch of the island.

Blackwell descended unnoticed to his tiny cabin, where he slipped on a pair of water shoes and a diving shirt. He retrieved his nine-millimeter Beretta from a hidden compartment in the floor and checked it. It still worked fine. He grabbed as many rounds as he could fit into an airtight pouch along with a pair of Steiner binoculars, and his phone.

Before he reemerged on the deck, Blackwell scribbled a phone number on the back of a paper coaster, and a cryptic phrase with another set of eight digits. Decades ago, when he had finally graduated as an FBI special agent, he was told these two sets of numbers could one day save his life. They were branded onto his mind so he would never forget them.

Back on the deck, he took Leron aside and whispered to him, “Listen carefully. I don’t have much time to explain.”

A cloud of confusion came over his skipper’s eyes. For the last two years, Blackwell had drilled into his Anguillan assistant the fundamentals of customer service and running a serious business. It didn’t include what he was about to ask of him.

“I need you to turn this boat around and take these kids back to Anguilla. Give them a refund and cancel all our bookings indefinitely.”

Leron shrugged, eyes wide and tugging nervously on his sun-kissed dreadlocks. “I don’t understand—”

“You don’t need to, just follow my instructions.”

He handed Leron the coaster and pointed to the phone number. “If you don’t hear from me in forty-eight hours, call this number from a public phone. You’ll probably get an answering machine. Leave a message.”

“Saying what?”

“‘Flight 4, 7, 2, 1, 2, 0, 7, 3, crash-landed in a lavender cornfield.’ I’ve written everything down so you won’t forget it. That’s all you need to do. Are we clear?”

“And your dog?”

Leron’s question stabbed Blackwell in the heart. Jacky was probably already shot or knifed in his backyard.

“Whoever gets your message will take care of her,” he lied. “Whatever you do though, don’t go by my house.”

“What’s going on, boss?” Leron’s voice trembled as he glanced at the bulging pouch strapped to Blackwell’s body. Hard to hide the shape of a gun.

“Old parking tickets I forgot to pay,” he said with a wry smile as he patted his young friend’s face.

Even though Leron was more man than boy, Blackwell recognized in him the fear of an insecure child and it reminded him of his own kids, Milo and Calista.

A wave of dark visions came over him, feeding off his monumental failure as a man, a father, a husband and a protector of the innocent.

Maybe he was meant to die all along.

What if every desperate measure to stay sane for the last four years, was just delaying the inevitable?

Empty-handed I entered the world, barefoot I leave it. My coming, my going, two simple happenings that got entangled.

Blackwell plunged over the silent engines of the catamaran, and disappeared under the water.