The first light of day crept through the company jet’s windows and stalked the empty seats, flushing out the shadowy dreams of night that made the imagined become real. The pilot glanced back and seemed about to crack another cynical one-liner, until he saw what I clutched in my hands. He switched on the fasten seatbelt warning. Its perky ding penetrated the cottony pressure in my ears. We started our descent.
I looked out the window at the island below, then back to the satellite photos in front of me. Impossible. This was one of the most remote places on Earth, yet new satellite technology exposed ancient structures, three of them, hidden in the island’s dark jungle. What mysterious people could have built them? When? Why?
Jack had clipped a note to the overview photo of the island. Christa, This is nothing compared to the artifact you’re going to help me find. Your future partner (I hope), Jack. That last bit was particularly intriguing, but I’d vowed to myself not to leave Dad. I couldn’t be half a world away if he reached out for me from the depths of his trauma. Alone, he might sink back down, so deep this time that he’d be past the point of saving. PS, Jack had added, no doubt anticipating my reluctance, It’s worth a fortune, more than enough to help your father. The jet shuddered in a jolt of turbulence. I hoped this was more than another one of Jack’s pipe dreams.
We slid out of the heavens, the long flight across the Pacific and the rising sun behind us. Below, the crimson dawn spilled like blood across the mirror-flat ocean. The island, Jack’s island, sparkled like an emerald that God had dropped and left behind in His hurry to create the rest of the Earth.
The dawn brightened, revealing the dormant volcano’s steep, jungle-choked cliffs. They undulated vertically, with narrow valleys carved by slender waterfalls. A horseshoe-shaped cove hemmed in the island’s only beach. The file Jack had sent explained that it was home to a primitive village, settled by descendants of missionaries shipwrecked and marooned in 1880. A ring of coral, its black patches skulking beneath the surface, had caged in the island and kept out other curious travelers, until now.
That low-lying building on the island’s only flat plateau had to be the first phase of Dream Resort, “the place where your dream comes true.” And that strip barely longer than a suburban driveway must be what they claimed was a runway. I sealed the photos in the plastic bag in my daypack and tugged at the pack’s zipper to close it. It had grown stubborn since my last trip to the far reaches of the globe, but so had I. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the pack even though I’d switched to teaching history, not challenging it.
The jet’s wheels thumped down. We barreled down the runway gashed through the thick jungle. I squeezed my fingers into the cushy leather armrests and leaned into the aisle to see the drop off into the pounding Pacific coming up way too fast. “This runway isn’t another design flaw on the fix list,” I said. “Is it?”
The pilot whistled the first few measures of the Indiana Jones theme song.
I should have paid more attention to the emergency information I’d ignored on take-off, but in my experience, the cartoonish illustrations of passengers calmly escaping a terrifying death didn’t include one of a foolhardy female historian like me shoving open the door while the jet sank to the bottom of the ocean.
The pilot stopped whistling. “What the hell,” he said.
A man was standing at the jungle’s edge, about a hundred yards ahead of us. The guy wasn’t Jack, too short. He walked out and stopped dead center in the tarmac, turned his back to us and stretched his arms wide. The sun planted his shadow out in front of him like a giant cross. I dug my fingers deeper into the armrest. We sped right at him.
The pilot white-knuckled the yoke. “Damn. I think that’s Emmanuel. He’s got six kids back home.”
“Turn!” I yelled.
“Trees!” he yelled back.
The pilot was right. The runway was barely wider than the jet’s wingspan. Even a swerve could send us careening into the forest. “We’ve got to risk veering off.” My voice came out louder and more panicked than I intended. I cinched my lap belt tighter. “I’m not about to cause a father’s death as my first act in Paradise.”
“If we veer off to save him it could be our last act on Earth.”
A second man crashed through the wall of jungle and sprinted onto the runway, arms pumping, a rifle strapped across his back. I’d seen that intense stride before and that daypack beneath the rifle? It was a carbon copy of the one sitting in my lap. No, it couldn’t be Braydon. It couldn’t be the one man I’d spent the last six months avoiding. He didn’t know I was coming to the island. That was the last thing I wanted was for him to know. This didn’t make sense.
Whoever it was launched himself at the suicidal dad, tackled him to the tarmac and threw his body over him like a shield. The pilot slammed the jet hard right, pitching me against the window in an attempt to avoid hitting the men. My stomach clenched, ready for a sickening body-squashing bump beneath our tires.
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