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Authors: Gloria Skurzynski

Escape From Fear

ESCAPE FROM FEAR

A MYSTERY IN VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK

GLORIA SKURZYNSKI AND ALANE FERGUSON

For Denise Georges,

who brought the island of St. John
to life for the authors

Text copyright © 2002 Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson
Cover illustration copyright © 2008 Jeffrey Mangiat

All rights reserved.
Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents is prohibited without written permission from the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Map by Carl Mehler, Director of Maps
Map research and production by Matt Chwastyk and Thomas L. Gray

Hawksbill turtle art by Joan Wolbier

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to living persons or events other than descriptions of natural phenomena is purely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Skurzynski, Gloria.
Escape from fear / by Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson. p. cm.—(Mysteries in our national parks; #9)
Summary: While at St. John National Park in the Virgin Islands for a seminar on coral reefs, the Landons help a wealthy thirteen-year-old to find his birth mother, whom he believes is in danger.

ISBN: 978-1-4263-0972-4
[1. Racially mixed people—Fiction. 2. Adoption—Fiction. 3. Poaching—Fiction. 4. National parks and reserves. 5. Virgin Islands of the United States—Fiction. 6. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Ferguson, Alane. II. Title. III. Series.
PZ7.S6287 Es 2002

[Fic]—dc21

2001005508

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors are very grateful to
Ginger Garrison, Marine Ecologist,
U.S. Geological Survey, and to the staff members
of Virgin Islands National Park
who so generously shared their expertise:
Denise Georges, Park Ranger;
Ken Wild, National Park Service archaeologist;
Schuler Brown, Chief Ranger;
Judy Shafer, Deputy Superintendent; and
Rafe Boulon, Chief, Resource Management; and a
special thanks to Miss Felicia, the basket-maker.

 

T
he beach stretched in front of him, a gleaming sweep of moonlit whiteness edged by a thick stand of trees. A perfect spot, the man told himself—secluded, wild, and most important of all, a place where there would be no witnesses.

It was when he'd dropped anchor into the ink-black water that he saw her, alone and vulnerable. Her eyes, large in the moonlight, watched him silently. She knew he was there.

“You see that?” he asked his accomplice, steadying himself as a wave broke against the bow. It sprayed a fine mist that glittered in the moonlight.

“I see dat. She be good, mon. So we goes an' catch dis one big beautiful t'ing.”

Yes, they would take her. More money would fatten his wallet thanks to this lucky find. She was icing on his cake. Slipping into the waves, he made his way toward her….

CHAPTER ONE

J
ack looked down, straining to catch a glimpse of ocean beneath him, but all he could see were endless white clouds floating like enormous swirls of meringue. After three hours in the air—just on this leg of the trip—he was more than anxious to reach his destination, Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John. He'd been dreaming of white beaches and turquoise waters, where rainbow-colored fish swam as thick as snowflakes and the water was as warm as the sunshine. After an icy Wyoming winter, he was ready for instant summer. Besides, with his skin the color of a fish's underbelly, he needed to get started on a tan.

“Jack, where's your sister?” his mother asked from a seat directly behind him.

“Looking for a
People
magazine,” Jack answered. “She's trying to mooch one out of First Class.”

“You know she's not supposed to go in there—if they catch her they'll toss her right back into Coach.” A beat later, she asked, “Don't you think she's been gone an awfully long time?”

Jack shrugged. “Mom, we're on an airplane. Even Ashley can't get lost on an airplane.”

His mother, Olivia, was small—already shorter than Jack, who, at 13, stood at almost five feet seven inches. Olivia's dark curly hair had been pulled into a ponytail, and she wore no makeup except lip gloss. Jack could see a three-inch stack of papers on her folding tray, marked with red lines and exclamation points that made the paper look as though it were bleeding red ink. Since they'd left Jackson Hole, she'd been poring though publications about coral reefs and hawksbill turtles, scratching notes in the margins of books and rereading research papers. National Parks frequently called Olivia, a wildlife veterinarian, for help when a species became threatened. The case in St. John involved a larger problem—Earth's coral reefs were dying at an alarming rate. Since much of Virgin Islands National Park on St. John lay underwater, reef loss was hurting many species, including the endangered hawksbill turtles.

“Steven, don't you think Ashley's been gone too long?” Olivia prodded. “It's been half an hour.”

Next to Olivia sat Jack's dad, Steven, his reading glasses perched on the end of his thin nose. Steven, a professional photographer, had immersed himself in the newest photography magazine. Jack could see the beginning of a bald spot in the overhead light that cast a small circle on the top of his father's blond head. “She's probably busy chatting with the flight attendants,” Steven murmured without looking up.

Olivia scanned the aisle. “Maybe you're right. I swear, that child has never met a stranger.”

“Which is why she's been so good with our foster kids.” Pulling off his glasses, Steven dropped them into his shirt pocket and said, “You know, I was just thinking how long it's been since we've had a trip with just the four of us. It seems we've had a foster kid or two to stir things up on every single park visit. What are we going to do without all the excitement?”

“Rest. Play. Relax!” Jack broke in. At least, that was what he was counting on. What his dad said was true—every single time the Landons had been scheduled to leave on a trip, it seemed, a foster kid materialized at almost the last second. But not this trip. Now it was just his own family on the way to paradise, exactly the way Jack wanted it. Settling back into his seat, he heard his mother murmur something he couldn't quite make out, to which his father replied, “OK, if it will make you feel better, I'll go find her.”

“You don't need to, Dad,” Jack said, pointing. “There she is. Check it out—Ashley's coming from First Class. And it looks like she's bringing a friend.”

His sister's small frame seemed to bounce with every step as she made her way down the narrow aisle. Behind her was a boy close to Jack's age, as perfectly pressed as an airline pilot—tan khakis, the kind with a knife pleat down the front, topped by an impeccably tailored navy-blue blazer worn over a red-and-white cotton shirt. Whoever this guy was, it looked as though he definitely did not want to trail after Ashley through Coach. Poor sucker, Jack thought. He wasn't the first to be pulled into Ashley's tractor beam.

“Hey, Jack, Mom, Dad, say ‘hi' to Forrest,” Ashley urged, presenting Forrest with a wave of her hand. “I practically dragged him back here, but I told him he just
had
to come and meet you all.”

“How do you do, Mr. and Dr. Landon,” Forrest said, giving a slight bow. “Hello, Jack. Your sister has told me a lot about you.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” Jack muttered.

Tall and thin, Forrest had skin the color of mocha ice cream. Dark, close-cropped hair wreathed his scalp in tight curls. His lips were full, his nose wide and strong, but Jack noticed something else about him: When he spoke, Forrest's dark, almond eyes never quite met Jack's, as if he were looking just the barest degree beyond Jack's head. Strange, Jack thought.

“You're not going to believe how I met him!” Ashley announced. “We've been talking the whole time I've been gone.” A smaller version of Olivia, Ashley had the same mass of ringlets, totally opposite of the straight, yellow hair Jack had inherited from his father. “There was a
People
magazine on an empty seat next to him in First Class,” she went on, “and I asked if he was reading it and he said ‘no' and we started talking and I told him about you, Mom, and your hawksbill turtles missing from the coral reefs and then the flight attendant came and she said I had to leave but Forrest told her I was a friend of his and I could stay if he said so. He made her bring me a Coke and she put it in a real glass, not in a plastic cup like we get in Coach. The seats in First Class are enormous—it's like they have their own sofa! And you know what else?”

“Don't worry, she's always like this,” Jack interjected. “Ashley doesn't have an ‘off' button. But we keep looking for one.” He started to smile, but decided not to when he saw Forrest's unamused expression.

“Very funny, Jack. Ha, ha,” Ashley said. Dropping into her seat, she hardly missed a breath. “What I was
going
to say before I was so
rudely
interrupted was that Forrest's dad is a United States diplomat. Forrest something-something. What is it again?” She looked at Forrest expectantly.

Hesitating, the boy said, “Forrest Winthrop III.”

“Right. Which makes you Forrest Winthrop IV, right?”

“Your father's a diplomat?” Olivia asked. “Hmm, very impressive. I'd like to meet him.”

“That's just it, Mom,” Ashley rushed in. “His dad's not here. Or his mom. Forrest is flying all by himself. He's only 13, and he came all the way from Denver through two different airports—he's been traveling over 12 hours already.”

Surprised, Jack said, “Twelve hours by yourself? Man, that's a lot of flying.”

“I've been negotiating airports all my life,” Forrest answered indifferently.

It was hard to believe that he and Forrest were the same age. Sitting up taller, Jack squared his shoulders, hoping it made him look more mature. Just then a woman with a baby came up behind Forrest, waiting for the aisle to clear. She looked at him impatiently. In one fluid motion, Forrest stepped aside and signaled her to walk on, his movement as graceful as a dancer's. Then, clasping his hands behind his back, he turned his attention back to the Landons. For some reason, Jack felt irritated. He tried to push the feeling down and keep his own face blank.

Steven asked, “Are your parents going to meet you in St. Thomas, Forrest?”

“No.” Hesitating, he said, “My…cousins.”

“Your cousins are coming to the airport?”

“Yes.”

“If you'd like us to wait to make sure they arrive—”

“Thank you, but that won't be necessary.” It was then that Jack saw a change in Forrest's face, a new expression pulled into place like a mask. A perfect smile flashed across perfect white teeth, as though it had been rehearsed a thousand times, but there was something the smile didn't quite cover. Jack wondered if Steven and Olivia saw it, too.

Glancing at what looked to be a very expensive watch, Forrest said, “Well, Ashley, I'm glad you talked me into meeting your family, but I'd better get back to my seat. We should be making our final descent soon.”

 

He held out his hand to Steven. “Mr. Landon, it was a pleasure to meet you.” And to Olivia, “Dr. Landon, I wish you luck with your turtles. Jack, enjoy your trip, and Ashley, come to First Class anytime. Good-bye.”

“Bye,” Ashley said, giving a tiny wave. “Thanks again for the Coke.”

Like the wizard in Oz, Forrest disappeared behind the curtain into First Class.

“Isn't he something?” Ashley asked, eyes wide. “The way he talks it's like he's 30 years old. He goes to a private school. And he's on the soccer team.”

Steven nodded. “Yes, he's very impressive. I'm surprised his parents let him go it alone like that, but he seems to be doing fine. So, Ashley, you managed to weasel a Coke out of him, did you?” Steven chuckled. “Figures. I'm amazed you didn't finagle a whole meal.”

“Forrest asked if I wanted one, but I said I wasn't hungry. He must have piles of money. You know, we've had lots of kids staying with us, but I've never met anyone like Forrest.”

“The very rich are different from you and me,” Olivia said without looking up from her reading. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said that. I think he's right.”

Steven rubbed his chin, thoughtful. “Maybe not. When all is said and done, Forrest's still a child. I want to keep an eye on him and make sure he hooks up with his cousins when we land. The airport is no place for a kid, no matter how rich he is.”

Jack pressed his head against the window and looked into the darkening sky. Typical, he thought. His parents had always held out their hands to anyone who needed help. Fortunately, Forrest looked as though he was managing fine on his own. That was good. There was something about that guy Jack didn't like, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. Well, it didn't make any difference. They'd land at the airport and go their separate ways, and that would be the end of it.

The sun was setting in a ball of fire, turning the night sky ablaze. As they made their descent, the sun disappeared completely, sending the plane into a velvet darkness.

“I see lights. Is that St. Thomas?” Ashley asked, leaning across Jack to press her face against his window.

“I think so. Wow, look at all those lights—it's like the island is on fire. A lot of people must live there!”

St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was not the Landons' final destination, but it was the island with the nearest airport. They'd take a ferry to St. John.

“I can't believe we're almost here!” Ashley exclaimed. “First thing tomorrow I want to go snorkeling and stay in the water until night.”

“If you do, you'll wrinkle up like a raisin,” Jack told her. “Remember Hawaii? Mom said we were going to have to iron you back to normal.”

“So?” Ashley retorted. “It was worth it. I wonder if Forrest is going to snorkel.”

“If he does he won't wrinkle. He's w-a-a-y too starched for that.”

Punching him in the arm, Ashley said, “I thought he was nice!”

“Yeah, whatever.” Before she could say anything more, Jack exclaimed, “Look, we're about to touch down. Three…two…one!”

They landed with a gentle bump, the engines screaming as the plane came to a stop. Everyone spilled out of their seats, popping open overhead bins and crowding into the aisle until no one moved at all. No one, Jack realized, except those in First Class, who got to leave the plane ahead of everyone else. The rest of the passengers, weary from the long flight, had to wait before they slowly filed off the plane.

Once outside, the first thing Jack noticed was the humidity. It enfolded him like a wet blanket, thick and heavy with smoky airplane fuel that mingled with the honeyed scent of island flowers. Lights blazed overhead, so bright that Jack cast a shadow as he made his way inside the small, crowded terminal. His attention was immediately caught by some men in cotton shirts and pants of wildly colored prints, wearing hats that sat high on their heads.

“Rastifarians,” his mother explained. “They don't ever cut their hair. They tuck it up into those hats.”

Through the milling people, Jack spotted Forrest at an information desk. He looked at Jack, then turned away quickly, as though Jack were now a complete stranger. The woman behind the counter handed a map to Forrest and pointed to a main exit.

“Are you noticing Forrest?” Steven asked Olivia.

“Yes, I'm noticing. There's no one here to meet him.”

“I wonder where his cousins are.”

The carousel turned slowly, churning out bag after bag like a giant Pez dispenser. Jack grabbed his and Ashley's, while Steven pulled out the one he and Olivia shared. Jack noticed his father's eyes were still locked on Forrest, who was handing the woman a credit card.

“Come on, Dad, don't worry about Forrest,” Jack pleaded. “He'll be fine.”

“I'm sure you're right,” Steven answered, his hand resting lightly on Jack's shoulder. “But I think I'll go talk to him, just to be sure.”

Too late. Quickly, efficiently, Forrest slipped his wallet into his pants pocket and glided out the door, disappearing into the night, all alone.

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