First Pages

THE RAVEN SOCIETY

Chapter 1

Southern California, 2005

Gasping air, Eric Ridge’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 Ridge’s 210 pounds, like dead fish, from the boat into the sea. As a combat pilot, before law school, Ridge had taken plenty of water survival courses. 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, Ridge’s eyes darted back and forth. His heart beat fast. It pulsated. What about the new stent? Left anterior descending artery. The LAD. The widow maker. No time. Had to push past it. Ridge had one chance. He flipped around, swam deeper and headed back—towards the maniac.

Ridge’s arms stretched out and pulled water, like oars. His mind swirled. Decades, battling for justice. One case at a time. Against powerful—for those less so. Sometimes thankless, soul-crushing, even dangerous. But this—way beyond that. Why? Payback? Intimidation? A 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. He forced his mouth and nose into a small air pocket created by the slightly elevated swim step. Ridge hoped to God he hadn’t left the boat keys where the psycho could switch on the props. Rip him to shreds. He 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. Jayne, his wife. Jenny, his daughter. Who the hell was that bastard? What case did he scream about? Why?

Ridge 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, repeatedly gulping air and catching his breath. Damn it—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. He snapped open the knife and quickly cut off the left sleeve of his flannel shirt. Ridge wrapped it tightly around his head. He swung 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. Through his mouth and nose. 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. Ridge 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 towards 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 towards his boat and witnessed holy Hell.

Fire erupted from the rear of his boat like a flamethrower aimed at the heavens. Ridge 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. Ridge’s stomach and heart sank.

A flood of light engulfed him followed by a familiar voice, “Eric? Eric Ridge? My God. Is that you? It’s Patty Barnes. Hang on, we’ll get you out.”

Ridge had met Patty, 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 sleeve. “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 about ten.”

Ridge, pressing harder on the compress, stared up at her. “My boat’s gone?”

“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 towards Patty. “Not sure why…why things like this happen to me. Just lucky, I guess.”

“Right. I meant, how’d this happen?”

“No moon. Gonna watch a movie. My iPad…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 damn 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 was the diver who cleaned boat bottoms in the marina. But he never works at night. And anyway, this guy…too big, and he was carrying one of those four-foot bodyboards—like the ones I keep near my dock box.”

“Whatta he say?”

“Nothing, he hauled off and smashed the damn 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. “Right. Remind me to sue his ass.”

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 bellowed, ‘We’re watching you. Drop the fucking case. Now.’”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, because he flipped me, yanked me up and flung me from the boat. I swam back…underwater…and 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 nightly 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, up and down. “Fire’s out, stern’s a mess.”

“Anyone else hurt?”

“Eric—always frettin’ about others. You need to strap yourself in now. 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 lifted as if shot. She frowned a bit. “No.”

Ridge lowered himself. Head on the dock. “Got people counting on me. Gotta get back.”

“We’ll get you back. Just keep talking.”

Ridge turned his head. Looked directly in her eyes. “Patty, how in hell’s name did my forehead 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. It was brittle. Curved outward. Must have shattered and sliced your skin where the board hit. It’s nasty Eric. Real nasty. Stay awake. Keep pressure on it.”

Ridge pressed harder on the compress. Shut his eyes. Worked to slow his heartbeat. “Patty—how we gonna catch this bastard?”

“You nailed that huge oil company…dumping pollutants off shore.”

“With your testimony.”

“Sure. But you nailed ‘em; you can get this guy too. Before he does this to others.”

Ridge forced his eyelids up, about halfway. Looking through lashes at Patty, he smiled a bit and mumbled, “Hope so. Gotta remember. Tough never quits.”

 Struggling 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 towards the parking lot.

“Eric—the paramedic truck! Thank God. You’re pale, so pale. Stay with me.”