THE RAVEN SOCIETY: CONSPIRACY IGNITED
Southern California, 2005
Gasping air, Eric’s face slapped the dark, cold water in the marina. Chest and legs next. Saltwater exploded as the whacking sound turned muffled, then quiet, like a closing coffin. Underwater, he had to pull himself together, move his arms, go deeper—to escape the maniac. The huge sonofabitch in a black wetsuit had tossed his 210 pounds, like dead fish, from the boat into the sea. As Lieutenant Eric Ridge, he’d taken plenty of water survival courses training as a combat pilot in Southeast Asia. But none of them, nada, mentioned submerging at night with your head split open and no time to suck in air. In the pitch-black water, his eyes darted back and forth. His heart beat fast. It pulsated. What about the new stent? Left anterior descending artery. The widow maker. No time. Had to push past it. He had one chance. He flipped around, swam deeper and headed back—toward the maniac.
Ridge’s arms stretched out and pulled water, like oars. His mind swirled. Decades, in courtrooms. Fighting for justice. Against powerful—for those less so. Sometimes thankless, soul-crushing, even dangerous. But this—way beyond that. Why? Payback? Intimidation? Madman on the loose?
Beneath the boat, Ridge grabbed one of two rear propellers. He pulled up. Craning his neck left, he pushed his right ear into the flat bottom, and forced his mouth and nose into a small air pocket created by the slightly elevated swim step. He hoped to God he hadn’t left the boat keys where the psycho could switch on the props. Rip him to shreds. Ridge used short, measured breaths to control heartbeat. But the real problem—was the blood. The crazy had sliced open his forehead. Ridge pressed his left hand above his eyes to slow the bleeding. His mind raced, Who the hell was that bastard? What new case was he screaming about? Why?
He caught himself. Wasting time he didn’t have. Any minute the maniac would figure out where he was hiding. Stay here, a sitting duck. Or swim out and be seen. Helluva choice.
Releasing his forehead enough to read fluorescent numbers on his dive watch, Ridge let just two minutes go by. His thoughts flashed to his son, Sean, who had drowned. Amphibious ops…port city of Umm Qasr, invading Iraq. Ridge stopped breathing. Pictured Sean. Then he switched back on and drew in deeper breaths. He had to do something. But what? Seconds later, sucking in a long pull of air, he released the prop, and started to sink. He reached into the right pocket of his jeans for his pocketknife. Hoping the cold water had slowed the bleeding, he dropped his left hand from his head and snapped open the knife. He quickly cut off both sleeves of his flannel shirt, tied the cuffs together and wrapped it tightly around his head. He pushed water down with both arms and kicked to propel himself back to the air pocket. Grabbing the prop, he pulled up, pushed his left ear into the fiberglass bottom, and took in a long, slow breath.
In through the nose, out through the mouth. Then another. He whiffed a strange blend of fish and fumes. Not good.
Another long, long breath and Ridge dove down. He was six-feet two-inches tall and estimated the bottom at 20 feet. He pivoted left and swam across the sand, like a manta ray, another 15 feet north. Feeling he had passed the finger dock and the sailboat in the next slip, he pivoted up and pushed water down with both hands, twisting in place to face south toward his boat. As his wrapped head slowly broke water, he sucked in a deep breath. The neighboring 30-foot sailboat was between him and the maniac. Ridge pulled himself along the side of the sailboat, peered out beyond the back toward his boat and witnessed holy Hell.
Fire erupted from the rear of his boat like a flamethrower aimed at the heavens. He choked on burning rubber and smoke. Grit in the air. Heat braised his face. The water’s surface had turned colors—eerie orange, blue and red hues—against the night sky, broken only by sheets of reflected flames. Just south of his slip, a Los Angeles County patrol boat, red and blue lights gleaming, sprayed a torrent of high-pressure water into the blaze. His heart and stomach sank.
A flood of light engulfed him followed by a familiar voice, “Eric? Eric Ridge? That you? Thought it was your boat. It’s Patty Barnes. Hang on, we’ll get you out.”
Ridge had met Patrisse Barnes, the first African American woman in the Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol, fifteen years ago. She had testified for him at trial, and they kept in touch. Now she held senior rank.
“Jones,” she said to another patrol officer, “jump in there. Help him mount the swim ladder. Then cross the sailboat—to the pier. Meet you there.”
By the time Ridge flopped exhausted on the wooden dock, Patty had her medical kit open. Ridge’s hand went to his makeshift headband and throbbing head. Patty knelt on one knee and unwrapped the sleeves. “That’s a hell of a slice across your forehead. Here, stay down. Put pressure on it with this. Paramedic truck—on the way. You’re gonna need stitches, Eric. I’m guessing at least a dozen.”
Ridge, pressing harder on the compress, stared up at her. “With this hard head, it’ll take a riveting gun. The boat’s gone—right?”
“No. Fire’s under control. We’ll have it out in a bit. But you need to lay back. Keep that compress tight to your head. Don’t shut your eyes. No snoozing! Why did this happen? Talk to me.”
Laying back, woozy, fading in and out, he turned toward Patty. “Not sure why…why these things happen to me. Lucky, I guess.”
“Right. I meant, how’d this happen?”
“No moon. Gonna watch a movie with my laptop…on deck. But the rear deck lights—too bright. Shit. I lit a candle.”
“That wasn’t caused by a candle.”
“I’d just lit the thing, and someone showed up on the finger dock, headed my way.”
Patty moved in closer. Her face twisted into a question mark. “Looking like what?”
Ridge’s eyes opened fully. His heart thumped. “That’s the thing…hulk of a guy, huge shoulders, in a black wetsuit and diving mask. At first, figured it’s the diver who cleaned boat bottoms in the marina. But he never works at night. And anyway, this guy…too big, and carrying one of those four-foot bodyboards—like the ones near my dock box.”
“Whatta he say?”
“Nothing, he just hauled off and smashed the board against my face. Like a firecracker flashing in my head. Must have blacked out. Next thing, I’m sprawled on the boat deck, near the rear door. He jumped on me—shined a flashlight in my eyes.”
For the first time, Patty smiled. “No damn manners these days.”
Ridge grimaced; it hurt. “Remind me to sue his butt.”
Nodding, Patty said, “Did you see his face?”
“Couldn’t see. Wiped my eyes, and my hand came back soaked in blood. Then the son of a bitch lowered his head into my face and yelled, ‘We’re watching you. Drop the fuckin’ new case. Now.’”
“Yeah, but if threatened lawyers drop cases…soon no one gets justice. And anyway, who the hell is he?
“The guy who smashed your face with a board. Did he say anything else?”
“No. Just flipped me over, yanked me up and flung me from the boat. Shoot—he could have just asked to use the board.”
“Right. What did you do next?”
“I swam back…underwater…came up beneath the stern near the props. The only flat area under the boat. I thought the swim step might give me an air pocket. It did. Then, worked my way underwater to where ya found me. See anyone?”
“We were on night patrol, in the outlet, passing your dock. Saw the fire erupt. Got on it right away. But didn’t see a soul, not a soul, til you.”
“Anything left of the boat?”
Patty’s lips smashed together, but her head nodded slightly. “Fire’s out, stern’s a mess.”
“Anyone else hurt?”
“Eric—there you go, frettin’ about other people. Let’s worry about you.”
Ridge raised his head. Patty’s face filled his vision. “But…was anyone else hurt?”
Patty’s eyes rolled to the sky. Her head tilted back as if shot. She frowned and shook her head. “No.”
Ridge lowered himself. Head on the dock. “Got people counting on me. Gotta get back.”
“We’ll get you back. Just keep talking.”
He turned his head and looked directly in her eyes. “Patty, how the hell did my head get torn apart…by a lousy plastic bodyboard?”
“That one I can answer. Found the front part of the board in the water. Looks like it was the see-through bubble; the one you look through to see under water. Brittle. Curved outward. Must have shattered and sliced your skin where the board hit. It’s nasty Eric. Real nasty. Lotta blood. Stay awake. Keep pressure on it.”
Ridge pushed harder on the compress and shut his eyes. His mind slipped to never seeing his wife again. Or his daughter.
Patty said, “You alright?”
He snapped out of it. “Never better. How we gonna catch this bastard?”
“You nailed that huge oil company…dumping pollutants offshore.”
Ridge tried to grin. “Yeah. A lotta luck. And your testimony.”
“Sure. But you nailed ‘em. You’ll get this guy too, before he beats and bullies someone else.”
Ridge forced his eyelids up, about halfway. Looking through lashes at Patty, he mumbled, “Bullies—why I became a lawyer. To take ’em down.”
“Damn right,” said Patty.
Ridge struggled with the urge to shut his eyes. Things got dark, murky. Murkier. He thought about family. Friends. Then, in what seemed seconds, he gazed over at Patty’s hazy outline. She was standing now. Looking toward the parking lot.
“Eric—the paramedic truck! Thank God. You’re pale, so damn pale. Stay with me.”