HER FINAL WORD (JACK RYDER Book 6)Willow Rose
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Lyford Cay, The Bahamas, March 2018
The dark ocean raged against the sides of the boat. They were going fast through the choppy waters, speeding through the night, laughing and holding hands. Ella Maria Chauncey and Henry Sakislov were standing in the front where splashes of water hit their faces. Their friends, Claire and Sebastian, were sitting in the back, making out on top of empty champagne bottles. Ella urged Henry to go even faster, and the boat almost flew across the waves, bumping across them, while she laughed wildly.
"Faster still," she said. "Faster."
Henry shook his head. "You're wild; do you know that?"
She laughed, and he pushed the boat up to its top speed.
Behind them, in the far distance, she could see the lights from Lyford Cay dancing, and she wished they could just keep going, just continue till they reached Cuba or maybe the Keys. Maybe they could go even further than that. Just disappear, get out of here. Start a new life somewhere else. She was fed up with her life and their gated community. Ella wanted to see the world.
"We should be getting back now," Henry said and slowed down. "Before our parents send out the Coast Guard to find us."
"No," Ella said and stared into the darkness ahead, where promises of different countries and exotic cultures called to her. "Not yet."
Henry looked at his watch. "It's almost midnight. Aren't you scared that they'll find out that you’ve snuck out? That you've gone boating in the middle of the night?"
Ella sighed and looked into Henry's eyes. He was such a kid. He didn't know anything, did he? Not about her life, he didn't. She had never told him anything. But, for once, he was actually right about one thing. It was a cliché to say that your parents would kill you if they found out you had done something they didn't approve of, but in her case, she did fear for her life when she got back home, even more than the sharks in the ocean in front of her.
She shook her head. "Sorry. I drifted off for just a second."
"Are we going back or what?" Claire asked and looked at her 2.4 million-dollar Rolex that her dad had given her for her sweet sixteen. "I have to get back."
"My dad is hosting a party, so I can stay out all night if I like," Sebastian said. "He'll never notice that I’m gone."
Henry scoffed. "Your dad never notices if you're gone."
Sebastian chuckled and emptied the last bottle of champagne. "Truth, dear friend."
"Claire is right," Henry said. "It's getting late. We really should be heading back."
He turned the boat while Ella exhaled, dissatisfied. She hated having to go back and could have gone on forever, the wind blowing in her face, continuing into oblivion where no one could hurt her.
Lyford Cay, The Bahamas, March 2018
They docked the boat behind Henry's dad's house and went back on shore. Ella looked at the many lights coming from the mansion where he lived. It was more than a hundred and fifty thousand square feet and housed almost a small city of in-house help, trying to maintain the big property. Ella herself had grown up on a similar property—even though it was smaller—with almost as many people working for her, so it wasn't that part that bothered her family.
It was Henry's dad. Henry's father was a hard-partying retail tycoon. He was pompous and didn't belong in Lyford Cay with his long grey hair and Hugh Hefner-lifestyle. And, worst of all, he once tried to buy their property, offering them way below what it was worth. That didn't go over well. To Ella, it was just an offer, but the Chaunceys saw it as a threat. Everything about the Sakislovs was an abomination, according to the Chaunceys. The Sakislovs belonged to the newly rich. And they were destroying everything in the small quiet gated community that had, up until some years ago, only been for the few. Now, they had invaded it and were bound to destroy everything it stood for. Henry's dad, Sergei, in the front of the line with his lifestyle of partying and women, bringing in the worlds of fashion, celebrities, and shiny new money. He was going to turn this place into Hollywood or even worse, West Palm Beach, swarming their once-so-secluded paradise with Russian oligarchs, software-company-owners-turned-millionaires-overnight, yoga bloggers, and You-Tube celebrities. It was a concern shared with a lot of other long-term inhabitants of the exclusive neighborhood.
To Ella, it seemed ridiculous. They all lived in mansions that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars—even though Ella's family's estate was less than half the size of Henry's dad's and therefore only worth about half the money, not to mention a lot less overwhelmingly decorated. They all had their houses filled with imported household help, maids, and garden people.
What did it even matter?
Claire and Ella hugged goodbye, and Ella watched her best friend help her boyfriend across the lawn to their golf cart they had parked there when they arrived. Sebastian insisted he wasn't too wasted to drive and took the wheel. Ella chuckled as she watched him zigzag across the lawn, scaring a flock of the three-hundred peacocks, parrots, and cockatoos that Henry's dad had free-ranging on his property.
Henry grabbed Ella's hand and kissed the top of it.
"I had a wonderful time," she said. "I wish we could do this every night."
Henry sighed and they walked toward the house, him holding his arm over her shoulder.
"Me too," he said.
There was something in the way he said it that had her worried. It had been in his eyes all night long. A sadness that she couldn't really figure out. Was something wrong between them? Was he breaking up with her? Did he know what she had done?
They walked inside and through one of the dining rooms, where Henry's dad had his fifty-foot dining table that could drop down into the floor and become a disco dance floor, once dinner, and bird droppings, were cleared. Ella chuckled when thinking about all the many times she had been at the house when younger for karaoke nights, where a flock of the young women he sometimes had staying with him danced while Henry's dad sang I Did it My Way.
She missed those times when their families didn't quarrel. When she could hang out with Henry anytime she wanted.
Henry kissed her forehead as they walked through the thirty-thousand-square-foot grand hall with its huge glass ceilings that Henry had once told Ella weighed a hundred thousand pounds.
Why the forehead and not my lips?
He walked her to the front door and closed it behind him. In the distance, they could hear the party Henry's dad was hosting by the pool at one of the guesthouses. It was far enough away for anyone not to be able to see Ella and Henry together.
Henry leaned over and finally kissed her properly. He smelled of champagne and ocean.
"You could stay," he said. "Sneak out in the morning?"
"That's probably not a good idea," she said.
"Why not?" he said, disappointed once again. He seemed aggressive in his way of talking to her, more than usual when she refused him.
They had been dating for a year now, and Ella hadn't been giving him what he wanted. She held it back, simply because she knew that was what you needed to do with a guy like Henry. He was used to girls throwing themse
lves at him and giving him everything, so he grew tired of them quickly. Keeping him chasing you was the only way to maintain his interest. But it left him frustrated every time.
"Come on," he said and kissed her again.
She pushed him away. "Not now, Henry."
He kissed her once more, holding her face between his hands so she couldn't move away.
"You're drunk," she said.
"So what?" he asked. "Since when does that stop you? Since when does anything hold you back from sleeping with anyone?"
"What are you talking about?" she said and pushed him away.
Henry always got worse when he was drunk. More demanding and entitled. This was the point when she needed to leave. She smiled, then stood on her tiptoes.
"You know I don't do drunks," she said and kissed his soft lips, then walked off, holding her sandals in her hand. Her swimsuit underneath her dress was still wet and had soaked the dress, keeping her nice and cool in the warm night.
"Ah, come on," he said, "You can't just leave me hanging like this?"
But she didn't give him more. Knowing she had to get away from him quickly, she waved casually.
"You sure I shouldn't walk you home at least?" he yelled after her, his voice quivering with the same sadness she had seen in his eyes.
She turned, and her dress swirled around as she walked backward, facing him.
"I'll be fine. Besides, you don't want anyone to see us together, do you?"
"I don't care," he said.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I could walk you halfway?"
"I'll be fine," she said.
"You sure?" he said, his eyes glaring at her hungrily.
She nodded. "Yes. It's a gated community, remember? What could possibly happen?"
Lyford Cay, The Bahamas, March 2018
She felt lightheaded from the champagne still in her veins, but remotely happy. Ella felt hopeful at this moment in her life for the first time in months. Turning sixteen made her even closer to that magical eighteen that she had longed for her entire life. The year when she would finally be able to leave, to decide for herself what to do, and do whatever she wanted.
She was supposed to go to Harvard. She knew it was expected, but Ella had other plans. There was an entire world out there waiting just for her and, like the European kids she often met at Jaw's Beach, she wanted to travel. She wanted to get away. And with the way things were, she probably would never return to what she often referred to as her prison because of the gates and the guards.
For most people, it was a dream to grow up in the Bahamas, but not for Ella. She dreamt of different places. She dreamt of New York and Paris. Her family owned condos in both places, so she wanted to stay in one of those, maybe go to an acting school, become an actress. She just hadn't quite figured out how to ask for it yet, and she kept postponing it, probably because she knew how her family felt about acting and Hollywood. It was going to kill them. Ella had always been the good girl, the one who did everything she was supposed to and never complained. It was going to come as a shock to everyone, especially to Henry. She wasn't sure if she loved him; for Ella, love had always been strange, and she wasn't sure she knew exactly how real love felt. But she liked him. She had fun with him.
Ella hummed as she walked down the road. In the distance, she could still hear the ocean as the waves crashed onto the shore and she enjoyed the smell of it. That was one thing she was going to miss once she left. The ocean. The turquoise blue ocean and snorkeling at the reefs. She had done that since she was just a young child and would definitely miss that part.
The rest? Not so much.
She walked in the grass on the side of the road, letting her toes sink into the thick grass and chuckled when it tickled her. She and Henry were neighbors, but since both properties were so big, there was a long way for her to walk home. Henry's estate went all the way to the end of the island. Sakislov Pointe it was called now. His dad had convinced the local government to rename it, much to most of the inhabitants at Lyford Cay's regret. Ella chuckled when thinking about all the trouble that man had caused in the neighborhood. It had been quite entertaining to watch while growing up along with his son. Ella didn't understand what the fuss was about. She liked Mr. Sakislov. He had always been very nice to her.
Ella felt a sudden shiver and sped up. She passed the main entrance to Henry's estate—what was often referred to at her household as The Russian Invasion. It had pompous marble statues outside, almost monuments that were staring down at her, making her uncomfortable. It was like they were scolding her for being out so late.
Ella hurried. It wasn't so far anymore. She had never been out this late in their neighborhood, and what usually made her feel safe and almost smothered, now gave her an uneasy feeling. The huge statues suddenly looked like monuments on graves.
Ella took a deep breath and sped up more. A flock of black vultures took off from a treetop and startled her. She was running now. Running to get home faster, hurrying through the darkness, jumping from streetlight to streetlight.
Almost there, Ella, she reassured herself. Just a little further down the road.
An iguana stared at her while sitting on a rock, its eyes flickering back and forth on the side of its head. Ella ran past it, her heart pounding in her chest. There was a smell of rain in the air, and she worried a storm might be coming.
Ahead of her in the road, she spotted a shadow. Ella stopped running. The figure stood still, glaring at her. It suddenly took off and rushed toward her. Ella gasped and stood like she was frozen at first, until she realized this person was coming after her.
By then, it was too late.
Ella turned around and ran while the perpetrator's shoes were clapping loudly on the asphalt behind her, coming closer and closer.
Nassau, Bahamas, October 2018
"I can't find anyone by that name anywhere. I am sorry."
The woman behind the old computer didn't look up at me as she said the words. I stared at her, doubting she had even tried. She had barely touched the keyboard in front of her.
"Please," I said and pointed at Emily sitting beside me. "I’m trying to find her family. I’ve tried online; I’ve been to three different official buildings here in Nassau just this morning. No one seems to be able to locate anyone from her family. Her mother is dead, and so are her grandparents. I know they came from the Bahamas. They migrated to Florida in nineteen seventy-five, right before her mother, Lisa, was born. All I know is that the grandmother was called Valentina Rojas and her husband was Augustin Rojas. Could you please try again? Please?"
The woman looked at me over her glasses, then exhaled. I could sense she didn't care much about having to do this, but I wasn't going to give up. We had been sent around to so many different public authorities; I couldn't even tell them apart anymore. No one seemed to be able to access the records. As soon as I mentioned how old they were, they all gave me that same look.
The woman glanced at the note where I had written the two names, then tried again, tapping with her long—very fake—fingernails clacking along the keyboard. I sighed, then looked at Emily. She was biting her nails, and I could tell she was about to lose hope. I had thought it would be easy to find her family, but as it turned out, it wasn't. I just really wanted her to find someone she was related to, but so far, we had been in the Bahamas for three days and still hadn't found a single soul. Nothing about this trip had been as easy as I had thought it would be. Emily and I had fought a lot, and the tension between us seemed worse than ever.
I sighed and rubbed my sweating forehead. It was hot in the building, as it had been in all the other public buildings. The Bahamians had AC, but it didn't seem as effective as the ones we had back home. I turned and looked at Emily, who didn't even want to look at me. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. This was supposed to be a trip of bonding for us, a trip where I made her feel loved like m
y mother had told me to. This was a trip for her to get better. But still, she was hardly eating, and she seemed more annoyed with me than ever. What was I doing wrong?
While the lady tapped on her computer—not putting very much effort into what she was doing—I wondered about my former colleague Mike Wagner and what we had just gone through. How he had been able to hide his true nature from us all while killing all those people. It was still so hard to comprehend. I had trusted him all my adult life while on the force. He had been a friend. I still couldn't fathom the things he had done. Who could I trust after this? Who did I dare to trust?
I could still see the rage in his eyes as I shot him in the forehead. It was the hardest decision I had to make in my life in uniform, but it had to be done. Still, it gave me nightmares, and during the day, I could drift off, thinking about him and that feeling that had rushed through me as I fired my weapon. It was so definite, so fatal. I kept wondering if there could have been another way to end it, whether I should have done something different.
My boss, Weasel, head of the Cocoa Beach Police Department, had thought it was an excellent idea that I took some time off while they closed the case back home, but even though I was far away, I had brought it all with me emotionally, and I couldn't help but feel devastated from time to time.
"I'm sorry," the woman said and looked at me. "They don't exist in any of our records."
"You mean to tell me they never had a driver's license? They never registered to vote or even bought a house?"
The lady lifted her eyebrows and gave me a look to let me know she was getting tired of this conversation.
"It was in seventy-five they left," she said. "That was a long time ago."
"And the last name? You don't get anyone else showing up with that last name when you search?"
She shook her head, but I could swear she had no idea.