***Please excuse my errors and block formatting. This sneak peek has not been copy edited or formatted.
Chapter 1: Derek’s Departure
Derek woke abruptly, crying out to the dead in his dream. His heart pounded as he tried to orient himself in the dim light. He touched the trunk of the coconut tree next to him, remembering how he’d swam to this little islet to escape the Netas. He stood from the sand, brushing off his fatigues and T-shirt. He stepped onto the beach, instantly struck by the bright beauty of the moon and stars. His boots and socks were on the beach, drying, obscured by a large piece of driftwood. He slipped on his socks and laced up his boots. Derek knew he couldn’t stay in San Juan. He needed to take refuge in the jungle. Needing energy for the journey, he walked back to the coconut grove. Using his knife, he cut open a few more coconuts, drinking the milk and eating some of the meat. He stopped by the mango tree too, gorging himself on ripe mangoes, not knowing when he’d eat again.
He walked south, back toward San Juan, palm trees rustling in the breeze. His knife was attached to the scabbard on his belt, and he carried the scuba mask and snorkel. The islet was narrow and only 400 yards from tip to toe. At the south end, old concrete pillars marked what was left of the bridge that once connected the islet to the mainland. Derek put on his mask and snorkel and dove into the dark water. He swam the one hundred yards back to San Juan.
Once ashore, he walked west along the beach at a brisk pace, his boots and socks sloshing with each step. The beach didn’t provide much cover, but he cared more about speed than stealth. From his scavenging trips, he’d learned that the few hours before daybreak were the best times to travel. The early risers weren’t up yet and those that hunted and scavenged at night were finally asleep.
Derek walked alongside what was left of an upscale neighborhood, the houses long since flooded and blown away, only the sturdiest of concrete remained. Beyond the waterfront neighborhood, he passed a commercial district with massive rusty fuel tanks, the precious juice probably siphoned long ago. After about a mile walk, he came to the mouth of a river. Caiman eyes glistened in the moonlight, but they were tucked into the river, away from the ocean. They must not like the saltwater. It was only fifty yards across. Derek put on his mask again, took a deep breath, and dove into water. He swam freestyle, as fast as he could, trying to stay close to the ocean, his heart pounding in anticipation of a caiman attack. When he emerged, he ran for a few minutes, eager to vacate their territory.
A putrid smell cut through the sea air, slowing his run to a walk. It was a vicious cocktail that smelled like a mixture of feces, rotten eggs, rotting cabbage, and mothballs. A body lay on the beach up ahead. Derek approached cautiously. It was bloated, the flesh alive with maggots. He lifted his wet T-shirt, covering his mouth and nose, taking a wide berth. Derek recognized the blue prison uniform and now he recognized the beach. It was the same beach he’d been dropped on two weeks ago.
That can’t be right. Derek thought for a moment. It felt like he’d been on the island for years, but it had only been two weeks. Up ahead, there were more bloated bodies in blue uniforms. They must’ve been killed by the Aryans during the round up. Derek remembered that nearly every week IPC or Island Prison Corrections left fresh meat on the beach. The Aryans had collected their slaves, but the Race Wars or Sunday’s gladiator games were canceled because of the hurricane. Or at least that’s what Derek had presumed.
From the river, he walked two miles on the beach, still heading west, the island still asleep. From there he crossed a small stretch of jungle and walked another two miles on the beach. The further he walked, the less remnants of civilization he saw. Now when he looked away from the ocean, all he saw was dense jungle. Daybreak was coming.
I need to get off this beach. I’m exposed. Derek looked
at the jungle. But what or who will I find in there?
Chapter 2: Jacob and the First Escaped Con
As far as anyone knew, Summer was the first person to ever escape from one of the US island prisons. A few Chinamen had escaped the Chinese island prison in the South Pacific, but that was an inside job. A handful of Chinese naval officers had been involved, paid off by the prisoners’ wealthy families. The officers were subsequently sentenced to life on the South Pacific island prison, and every rescued prisoner was found and returned. But Summer had done it without inside help. Her group had built a DIY submarine and she’d piloted it immediately after a hurricane, while the naval blockade was out of the area. At least that’s what she’d told them when she’d washed up on the beach. According to her, the submarine was at the bottom of the ocean. She’d had to break the glass to exit the cockpit, causing the sub to swamp and the weight of the water in the cab to pull the pontoons and the sub into the oceanic depths.
Cesar and the men of Project Freedom had taken Summer to their earth-sheltered bunker. When she’d been introduced to Jacob, she’d stared at him as if she knew him, but Jacob had never met Summer before. She’d been given a room, access to a shower, fresh clothes, and an MRE of spaghetti and meatballs. After Summer’s meal and shower, they had planned to interview her, but she’d fallen asleep in her room, obviously exhausted. Everyone had been chomping at the bit to interview her, especially Rebecca, but nobody had the heart to wake her after her ordeal.
The next morning, Jacob, Rebecca, Cesar, the two mercenaries, and a few of Cesar’s men sat around a table eating breakfast. Most ate cereal in reconstituted milk. When Summer walked into the mess hall, all conversations stopped. Summer wore clean fatigues and a T-shirt that was too big. Her wavy brown hair cut above her ears like a man. Despite the clothes and the haircut, her beauty was undeniable. She had sea blue eyes, with a round, symmetrical face, and beautiful ivory skin, despite being a bit sun burnt. The men noticed, but they weren’t disrespectful.
“Good morning. Are you hungry?” Cesar asked with a smile.
She smiled back, almost sheepish, and nodded.
“We have cereal.”
“That would be great. Thank you, Cesar.”
Cesar instructed one of his men to bring her breakfast. He pulled out a chair next to him and said, “Please, sit.”
Summer sat next to Cesar and across from Rebecca and Jacob at the table.
Cesar made eye contact with Summer and said, “After breakfast, I’d like to interview you about yesterday’s events and your time on the island. Would that be okay?”
Summer nodded again. “That would be fine.” One of Cesar’s men placed Summer’s cereal and a glass of water in front of her.
“We also have coffee, if you prefer.”
“No, thank you. I’m not sure I can take the caffeine.”
As Summer ate her cereal, Rebecca asked, “Did you know anyone on the island named Derek Reeves?”
Summer swallowed and replied, “I knew a Derek, but I didn’t know his last name.”
“He’s average height. Dark, wavy hair. A beard. Tan skin.”
“That’s most men on the island.” Summer paused for an instant. “The one I knew supposedly killed some Chinese banker for killing his girlfriend.”
Rebecca’s eyes bulged. “That’s him!”
“That can’t be,” Jacob said, shaking his head.
“We came in on the same prison ship,” Summer said. “I met him on the beach—”
“This should probably wait until Cesar’s had a chance to interview her.”
Rebecca glared at her husband. “Don’t interrupt her. She knew Derek. This is why we’re here.”
“It’s Cesar’s show, not ours.” Jacob looked across the table to Cesar for back up, but he was stone-faced.
“Not for the money we’re paying him. You think I don’t know about your metal suitcase?”
Jacob pursed his lips, but didn’t respond.
Rebecca addressed Cesar. “Do you mind if I talk to Summer?”
“By all means, Mrs. Roth,” Cesar replied.
Jacob gritted his teeth and clenched his fists under the table.
“I’m sorry. Please continue,” Rebecca said to Summer.
“I met him on the beach,” Summer said. “He was roommates on the boat with my fiancé.”
“Your fiancé was on the prison ship too?”
Summer swallowed hard. “I’d rather not talk about him.”
Rebecca nodded. “I understand.”
“Derek and I were taken by the Aryans. They gather up all the new prisoners and sell them like slaves. I was lucky. I was purchased by a group called 1776. They were really good people.”
Rebecca arched her eyebrows. “Were?”
“They’re all dead now.” Summer looked down.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Cesar interjected.
“I’m so sorry,” Rebecca echoed.
Summer raised her gaze back to Rebecca. “Was Derek your brother?”
“We ended up in the same group.”
“You said everyone in the group is dead.” Rebecca’s voice trembled.
“When I left, myself and Derek and Fred were the only ones left.”
Rebecca breathed a sigh of relief. “So, he’s alive?”
“I don’t know. Derek and Fred helped launch me in the submarine. I thought Fred was gonna pilot the sub, but …” Summer shook her head. “He wanted to stay with his family.” She took a deep breath. “I thought Derek and I could fit together in the sub but it was too small and Fred wasn’t sure there would be enough power with the extra weight. So, I left, but before I left, the Netas were shooting at us. I don’t know what happened to Fred and Derek, but I think they might’ve been killed by the Netas.”
Rebecca leaned forward, like a dog eager for a treat. “But you don’t know for sure?”
Summer shook her head again. “I don’t.”
“Who are the Netas?” Jacob asked.
“They’re a Puerto Rican gang that never left. When the hurricanes came, they looted the island. They took all the leftover military stuff.”
“We have drone footage of Derek dead. Would you look at it?” Rebecca asked.
“Sure,” Summer replied.
Jacob coughed, nearly choking on his cereal. He cleared his throat and said, “Don’t you think she’s been through enough?”
“I’d like to help.”
“It’s not necessary. The drone footage is definitive proof. Summer herself said that he was likely killed by the Netas.”
Rebecca shook her head. “Summer said he might’ve been killed by the Netas. And this drone footage doesn’t add up. Derek was alive yesterday morning, the same time that the drone supposedly found him dead. What are the chances?”
Jacob replied, “What are the chances that we find the first
person ever to escape the island prison and she knew Derek?”
Chapter 3: Summer and the Roths
Summer sat across from Cesar at his desk. He was clean-shaven, his face boyish, his dark hair parted to the side, yet he had a presence that his employees responded to.
“What is it that you do here?” Summer asked, her hands folded in her lap.
“We’re in the import export business, and we do a bit of location and recovery,” Cesar replied, his hands steepled on the desktop.
“What do you mean by location and recovery?”
“We help families of island prisoners find their loved ones.”
“That’s why the Roths are here.”
“Precisely,” Cesar said. “We rescued you, didn’t we?”
Summer nodded. “I’m very grateful.”
“I’m sure you are, and I’m sure you can’t pay us back.”
Summer swallowed, her stomach tumbling. “No.”
“There is a way.” Cesar smiled. “First, I’d like for you to tell me about the flash drive.”
“You went through my stuff?”
“Forgive me. This is a secure facility and we don’t know you.” Cesar leaned forward, his elbows now on the desktop. “Do you know what’s on the flash drive?”
“You didn’t look at it?”
“My men simply checked for anything that could be dangerous. A flash drive is only dangerous if you open it.”
“It’s footage from the island. It supposedly proves that the US government is sending activists there. I’m supposed to take it to Panama.”
“Ah, Silver City.”
Summer’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“Silver City in Panama has the largest agorist community in the world. It’s a poorly kept secret.”
“Can you help me get there?” Summer said, excitement in her voice.
Cesar pressed his lips together, silent for a few seconds. “If you can help me, I can help you.”
Summer’s expression darkened. “I can’t give you the flash drive.”
“Of course not. But I’d like to watch it and possibly make a copy if it’s something I might find useful.”
“What would you need it for?”
“Information is power, but proof of the information is more powerful.” Cesar opened his laptop and turned the screen toward Summer. He walked around his desk, next to Summer, and held out his hand. “The flash drive.”
Summer hesitated, wondering if she should trust him. Then she removed the flash drive from her pocket and placed it in Cesar’s open palm. He inserted the flash drive into his laptop, and sat in the plastic chair next to Summer. They watched Roger Kroenig, the former congressman, with the Spanish fort at his back. He looked so young compared to the man Summer had met only seven years later. His hair was brown then, his face hadn’t been ravaged with wrinkles and sun damage. The stress of Psycho Island unnaturally sped the aging process. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes as Roger told his story about how he was snatched from his home in the middle of the night, and declared an unlawful enemy combatant. From there, he was quickly given the Anti-social Personality Test, declared a sociopath, and shipped to the island, all with the efficiency of Amazon Prime Delivery.
Other activists gave their full names, sent messages of love to their wives and children, and told their arrest and sentencing story, which were all nearly identical to Roger’s.
Summer had to look away when they showed footage of the gladiator games run by the Aryans. There was also video of gang warfare, and the Netas with their weapons and military vehicles. The video showed dead bodies and brutality and pure unadulterated evil. Summer understood. Roger had stated the facts in the interviews, but he’d videoed the brutality because he wanted the world to see, but more importantly, he wanted the world to feel. Ever the brilliant politician, even incarcerated on an island hellhole, Roger knew that appealing to human emotion was the most powerful form of persuasion.
At the end of the video, Cesar said straight-faced, “Do you mind if I make a copy?”
Summer was in a trance, reliving her own personal hell.
“Ms. Fitzgerald? Are you okay?”
Summer blinked, a tear spilling down her face. She wiped her eyes with her thumb and index finger. “I’m fine.”
“Do you mind if I make a copy?”
Cesar copied the video and handed the flash drive back to Summer.
“Is that it?” Summer asked, placing the flash drive back in her pocket.
“One more thing. The footage that Mrs. Roth asked you to watch of Derek Reeves …”
“What about it?”
“I want you to tell her that it is Derek and it looks authentic.”
Summer crossed her arms over her chest and glowered at Cesar. “It’s not authentic, is it?”
“The Roths need closure. If you can help me give that to them, I’m sure we can send you to Panama with some new clothes and money in your pocket.”
Summer sat in the command center, watching footage of another tropical wasteland. Rebecca and Jacob stood behind her, watching over her shoulder. Cesar sat next to her at the metal desk.
She saw thin men and women wearing rags, even a few children. She saw men with machetes and shotguns. But she also saw people farming and hunting and trading. And she didn’t recognize anything that looked familiar. If Derek was shot and killed by the Netas, the killing likely would’ve occurred in front of the old Spanish fort. The dead man did indeed look like Derek, but his body was nowhere near the fort. In fact, it was in a place she’d never seen before.
At the end of the video, Cesar said, “What do you think, Ms. Fitzgerald?”
Summer turned in her chair, looking up at Rebecca. “May I talk to you alone?”
“I won’t allow it,” Jacob said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“It’s not your choice,” Rebecca replied through gritted teeth.
“I’m paying for this operation.”
“I don’t give a shit. I’ll speak to whoever I damn well please.”
Summer had wondered about the Roths. Jacob had to be wealthy. He was short and thin, with a small paunch. He looked to be about fifty. And Rebecca looked like the prototypical trophy wife. Why does she care so much about Derek, her ex-husband?
Summer stood from her seat. “We can talk in my room if you want?”
“That’s a great idea,” Rebecca replied.
The two ladies left the command center, leaving the men speechless. Summer’s little room was only a few doors down from the command center. Rebecca entered the room and shut the door behind them. Rebecca was naturally pretty with high cheekbones and bright brown eyes. She was likely improved with a perfect thin nose, pouty collagen lips, and perky breast implants. If it wasn’t for Summer’s work as a nurse, she might not have noticed the improvements. They were very well done.
“What did you see?” Rebecca asked.
“I need to get to Panama,” Summer said. “If I tell you what I saw, can you help me?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Cesar asked me to tell you that it’s Derek in the video.”
Rebecca cocked her head in confusion. “Why would he do that?” Then her eyes widened. “Unless … this is all bullshit.”