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Efrim thought if he kept very still, Machii might not kill him. He lay belowdecks, wrists bound behind him and ankles tugged together with the same zebra-stripe duct tape he had over his mouth. The duct tape might kill him, even if Machii and his guys decided not to. Dried blood plugged one nostril, so Efrin could only breathe through the other—the left—in a desperate, steady wheeze.
His head pounded, still ringing from the fists and boots and the gun butt that had struck his skull. Blood had leaked from his right ear, his lips were split, and his tongue had found three broken teeth. From the neck down, he knew he was worse off. Left forearm broken. No telling how many ribs. His balls felt like they’d been kicked all the way up into his stomach.
But you’re alive, he thought, forcing his heart to slow, forcing his breathing to steady. That wheezing sound from his one open nostril kept him alive. A cloth bag, someone’s stinking laundry bag, had been yanked over his head, and he knew if he squirmed and twisted and dragged his head on the floor of the wheelhouse he might get it off, but what would that earn him? A few seconds’ glimpse of the interior of the wheelhouse and then more broken ribs, maybe another boot to his broken nose that would close his other nostril, ending his life.
Forcing himself to breathe, to be quiet and still, Efrim tried to think. How long had they been out on the boat? How far might they be from the Big Island now? Where the hell were they taking him? He’d been unconscious for a bit—too many knocks on the skull—but couldn’t be sure exactly how long. Too many questions … and all of them just a distraction from the big one, the only one that mattered. Yes, he was still alive. But why? Why the hell hadn’t they just cut his throat or put a bullet in his brain?
And what about Isko? Efrim had heard them beating on his friends, heard Isko cry out, but nothing after that. Guilt weighed on him. The others had been greedy little shits, just like Efrim himself. They’d all known what they were getting into. But Isko had only gotten involved because he and Efrim had been friends forever, and now that loyalty had led him here.
The sway of the boat and the hum of its engine as they cut across the water helped to calm him, let him think. Did he have something Machii wanted, some bit of information? Or maybe … shit, maybe they’d admired his work. Maybe they’d take him into their operation, make him earn back the money he’d cost them. Shit, was that even possible?
He tasted copper. Blood. Wanted to spit it out, but the zebra duct tape blocked his mouth so he had to swallow, and only then did he realize how much harder it had become to breathe. How much thinner the wheeze coming from his one open nostril sounded. His chest began to hurt and he tried to quicken and deepen each breath, but panic ignited in his brain. Blood or mucus or some combination had started pooling, closing off his last breathing passage, and blackness crept in at the edges of his mind.
Efrim shoved his tongue out. Up and down, working the edges of the zebra duct tape. Strongest muscle in the body, they said, and he jammed it against the tape, wheezing, panicking.
One of Machii’s men cursed in Tagalog and kicked him in the side. Cracked ribs broke and he felt something stabbing inside him, but then his tongue poked out the top of his mouth, forcing the duct tape away from his upper lip, and he dragged in a breath of sweet Pacific Ocean air that had been filtered through a dirty laundry bag. Pain singing in his broken ribs, Efrim sighed and let his body relax and he said nothing, just kept working at the zebra duct tape to guarantee he’d continue to breathe.
He’d barely noticed that the boat had slowed. Now as he gratefully inhaled, he felt the floor rocking harder beneath him and listened to the engine and realized the skipper had throttled down, nearly to a stop. His pulse quickened and his thoughts spun. What were the magic words, here? What could he say to convince Machii?
Hands grabbed his ankles, dragged him across the wheelhouse floor. He’d barely managed the first syllable of his pleading when those hands hauled him over the threshold of the hatch and out onto the deck. His ribs bumped up over the four-inch threshold and he screamed as things tore inside him.
“Shut him up,” a voice said, clipped words, an audible snarl.
“Please…,” he groaned. Did he dare say the man’s name, reveal he knew exactly who’d taken him, and why? Maybe he’d better not. But as he curled into a fetal ball, trying to make himself the smallest target, hoping to protect the shattered ribs that were daggers now inside him, he couldn’t stop the words from coming. “Machii, please, I can help.”
The zebra duct tape had come almost completely free of his lips.
Someone crouched beside him, he heard the shuffle of their shoes and a grunt, and then a strong hand clamped over his face as if to shush him.
“Don’t talk,” someone said quietly. “Better for you.”
He wanted to ask about Isko but kept his mouth shut.
Other hands took hold of him, hauled him up from the deck, forced him to stand. He grunted quietly, hissed between his teeth, leaned on the unbroken leg. Efrim wanted to whisper further pleas, but if silence would be better for him then he would do his best. He stood on one foot on the deck, letting the hands clutching at his bloodied clothing hold him in place. The boat swayed, the engine idled, and he listened to men grunt and murmur to one another as something was dumped overboard. Half a dozen somethings, hitting the water with heavy splashes, and tears spilled from his eyes, both because he knew those heavy somethings had been his friends and because he was not among them.
Machii. He wanted to speak up again, to make his case, to ask what the hell was going on.
When strong hands clutched his head, he wanted to cry out, but still he bit his tongue. Then he felt warm breath, even through the fabric of the laundry bag, and Machii spoke to him.
“You wonder why you’re still in the land of the living.”
Efrim would have nodded, but Machii held his head firmly.
“I’ll tell you. I liked you, Ef. I knew you were dumb as a rock, but I liked you. What I did not understand was precisely how dumb you really were. You made me regret liking you. You hurt my feelings, Ef.”
For half a second, Efrim didn’t know what Machii wanted him to do. But Machii hadn’t been talking to him. Hands lifted him. Broken bones ground together, but he struggled anyway as they raised him off the deck. Fear washed over him. He thrashed, screaming for them to stop, shouting for Machii as if the man were his friend instead of a brutal, merciless, soulless killer. Even then, it still hadn’t clicked for Efrim … not until he felt himself hoisted, felt the strength of the men carrying him as they cocked their arms.
They hurled him into nothing. Efrim screamed inside the dirty laundry bag, his nostrils still clogged with his blood. The bag flew off as he fell and he had a glimpse of the boat’s hull and then he hit the water, plunging deep, the shock of it driving all the air from his lungs in one drowning bellow. He snapped his mouth shut, eyes bulging, adjusting, more light underwater than there had been inside that bag. If only he’d taken a breath and held it, he might have a moment.
Dumb. Efrim knew the level of his own stupidity. It had put him here. Yet the shock of the water snapped his thoughts into some order of clarity and he twisted around, chest already burning for air, and spotted the broken and bloody corpses of his friends surrounding him.
One of those corpses opened its eyes.
Isko. Not dead after all. The water had shocked him backed to consciousness, and now as Efrim stared in astonishment Isko glanced about underwater, then turned and started to swim past the bodies of their dead friends.
Go, brother. Go! Efrim thought.
Pain screaming in his broken limbs, he kicked toward the surface, knowing Machii would still kill him but thinking he could buy Isko a moment or two and wanting only, in that moment, not to drown. Anything but that. Anything but the suffocating pressure that crushed his chest and made his brain cry out for him to open his mouth, to inhale, to breathe.
Something dark flashed by in the water. Nothing mattered but breathing, and yet somehow a deeper fear was triggered in the most primal part of his brain. From the corner of his eye he saw a corpse jerk, tugged, bleeding into the water.
Efrim reached the surface, gasping for breath, sucking in sweet blessed air.
Something bumped his thigh, nudged him hard, and then he felt razor teeth clamp down and rip his flesh, felt himself dragged and twisted, and he screamed as he went under for a second time.
Eyes open, in a cloud of his own blood, mind numb, he saw the sharks feeding on the bodies floating around him. Saw the cold, dull, black eyes of the one knifing toward him. The one who would end him.
Swim, Isko, he thought.
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