The plane was arriving an hour late due to the air traffic congestion at the main airport in the country's capital city of Malen. Flight delays have been the norm lately, thought Jon Aster as he looked around the crowded terminal. He had been travelling extensively in the past three years since he took on this job. He liked the mobility and the freedom it gave him, but the constant delays in the airports were starting to make it less and less enjoyable. Already, he missed Lisa and remembered her face and her tender gaze as he left her that morning. He would have stayed longer with her if not for this business trip that his manager said could last a few days.
The steady buzz of conversation and noise that accompanied human activity inside the terminal was drowned by the pleasant voice of an airline staff. With a light tone that sounded like the female host of a radio morning show, she spoke the words as if announcing something delightful rather than another hour of delay. There were groans of disappointment from waiting passengers and a woman spoke loudly to her companion that she would not fly with the perennially late airline again.
Jon had heard such protests before and could understand the dismay from the waiting passengers. He knew as well that the delayed flights were mainly due to the inadequate capacity of the existing airport and the increase of flights using the international hub. There were plans to build two new airports in the outskirts of the capital (perhaps a decade too late, he thought), but until these were finished, there was not much that the passengers nor the airlines could do. That is, except wait for the delayed flight as patiently as possible.
Jon looked around and saw a family of three rising from where they were seated in the waiting area. The father was carrying a baby girl who was sleeping peacefully in his arm. His wife held on to him as she pulled their luggage from behind. After hearing the announcement, the young family probably thought they could go to the airport lounge or the food court for a snack.
Jon thought of Lisa and imagined them to be that small family leaving for the food court. He remembered how he hurriedly said his goodbyes because he was running late for this flight. Not that it mattered now, but he could have waited another hour, or two.
Jon took out his laptop and opened his default search engine. He typed 'Orsica' and pressed 'search'. I might as well know where I am going, he thought. Immediately, the screen filled with amazing scenery of turquoise waters and white sand beaches as well as rocky mountainsides and a picturesque coastal village in the Mediterranean. Jon frowned as he realized that the search engine's algorithm suggested the French island of Corsica instead of his original query.
He next typed 'Cardena', his port of destination, and from which he would be travelling by boat to the island of Orsica. He clicked on the topmost link given by the search engine and was taken to the tourism web page of the island province. Instead of the Mediterranean, he saw the tropical beaches of the Pacific with coconut trees casting shadows on white pristine sand.
Cardena was one of the biggest provinces south of the capital and going there and visiting its many amazing islands had been one of the items on Jon's bucket list. As his clients were mostly located in the capital and the mountainous northern regions, he felt elated when he was told by his manager that he finally got an assignment to the south.
With renewed enthusiasm, Jon thought of inviting Lisa to fly over to him after a week when he had already finished his work with his client. She did say she had a cousin in Cardena and had been planning to visit for a long time. Jon thought that he and Lisa could have a brief holiday in Cardena and see its amazing beaches after he had finished with his work.
Not finding any information on Orsica from the web, Jon clicked on the file explorer icon and opened the brief sent to him by his manager to find out more about his destination.
Orsica is an isolated island one hundred sixty-six kilometers from the mainland, Jon read. Getting there would require travelling a few hours to a small dock and another four hours by ferry. Jon groaned as he felt his stomach sink. He gets extremely dizzy and nauseous when travelling by sea and four hours of tossing around while on a small ferry did not bode well. He remembered his last ferry ride a year ago and how he felt nauseous all throughout the trip.
An email notification popped up from below the screen telling Jon that an email had arrived from his client. Jon clicked on the notification icon and read his client’s email.
Dear Mr. Estrella,
Thank you for agreeing to come to my beautiful island to meet me in person. The matter we are going to discuss is too important and confidential that I could not risk talking to you about it on the phone. I hope that you will be most comfortable on your trip. A driver will be meeting you when you arrive at the airport and he will take you to the dock to board my private boat.
Jon closed his laptop and heaved a sigh. At least there will be someone to meet him at the airport when he arrives and… a private boat! Jon tried to recall the contents of the dossier that his boss handed him just a week ago. Jon remembered reading the client's net worth and whistling at the huge amount. His client owned the whole island and had cleared a portion of the western coast of Orsica to build an enormous house on top of a mountain that was accessible only through cable car. Of course, he can afford a private boat!
Taking off his glasses, Jon stood up and approached a large LED screen near the center of the terminal. Jon hoped to see the updated time of departure. He found his flight near the bottom, but instead of the new ETD, there were only red capital letters indicating DELAYED.
Jon decided to stretch his legs and walked to a nearby bookstand where he looked for a travel guide on Orsica. Finding nothing, he asked the store clerk if there were any brochures or maps, but the clerk merely gave him a shrug and turned away to serve another customer.
Giving up, Jon decided to buy himself a cup of cappuccino from one of the coffee shops and sat at an empty table. Using his hand, he brushed off the crumbs left by the previous customer. Jon then rested his elbow on the table's polished wooden surface. If Orsica really was a beautiful island, I wonder why it's not too well known, Jon thought.
After taking one sip of the hot beverage, Jon took out his phone to look at the weather at his destination. He frowned as his phone returned a 'no connection' message. He looked at the wifi strength indicator at the top of his phone's screen - all bars were shaded, indicating very strong signal. Pocketing his phone, he wondered if the airport's wifi network was as congested as the air traffic.
Jon recalled the short email he got from his client and thought it curious how the client closed his message - 'your friend'. It seemed as if he had known Jon for a long time when Jon knew that they had not met before. Jon had no idea what his client looked like and could not remember talking to him.
"Dante… Dante…" Jon murmured as he recalled the 14th century Italian writer and his Divine Comedy. There were three parts to the epic poem, but for some reason, Jon only thought of the first one – Inferno. The images of hell flooded his mind – tormented souls that reside in the nine circles of hell. For a moment, he thought he could hear cries of anguish and pain as well as see writhing bodies amidst the red flames and scorching heat.
Suddenly, he felt as if his hands were burning and he was back at the airport holding his hot cup of coffee. He sighed and drank the rest of his cappuccino. He tried to clear his mind of hellish images and decided to think again of Lisa and how it would be like living with her when they get married. Jon had not asked her yet, but the thought had already crossed his mind hundreds of times in the past few weeks that it felt to him like they were already engaged.
Jon remembered holding Lisa’s hand as he kissed her cheek before he left. Lisa did not show it, but he was sure that she missed him during these long business travels as much as he missed her. He wondered what she was doing that very moment and how she thought about where their relationship was going. Nowhere, she would probably tell herself, as Jon's work always came first.
Jon took his empty paper cup and threw it into the recycle bin. Perhaps this should be his last assignment before he transfers to a new job, Jon thought. What if he just leaves the terminal now and go back to Lisa? Just forget the flight… forget his client… forget Dante…
Jon would think of this moment a few days later and regret deeply that he decided to board that plane and made the choice that led him to the path of disaster and ruin.
It was a short two-hour flight and Jon felt comfortable in his first-class seat. He turned on the in-seat massager and tried to relax. Immediately, he felt the gentle movements of the massager loosen the tense muscles of his back. He then flipped the pages of the inflight magazine and started reading about new destinations available to the airline. When nothing took his interest, he replaced the magazine in the seat pocket and tried to take a nap. He drifted in and out of sleep, seeing foreboding images of castles and howling wolves. Clouds drifted over the moon and casted eerie shadows over the walls and towers of a gray medieval castle. The wind blew fiercely, carrying dried leaves from branches of trees and leaving them as bare skeletons silhouetted against the evening sky. The leaden clouds continued to drift overhead and once more revealed the ominous silver moon to the delight of the howling wolves. Jon woke up inside what appeared to be a dimly lit dungeon wit
As they resumed their journey, Jon saw the poor state of the villagers' houses and the still evident signs of the devastation caused by the recent typhoon. Trees that had their branches torn off by the strong winds were still growing new leaves and in some sections of the road, felled trees were simply moved to the side to give way to the infrequent traffic of trucks and passenger buses. Jorge said that not all of the roads had been cleared of landslide and debris and had they taken the usual route, they would have extended their trip by more than an hour. Fortunately, Jorge knew of an alternate route that led through dirt roads used by farmers bringing their produce to the market.The province was frequented by typhoons and was the worst hit area when a Category 5 ravaged the region a few months ago. Warnings had been given by the national weather bureau about the intensity of the typhoon before it struck and meteorologists noted the probability of storm surges. Howeve
The weather was calm, much to Jon's relief. He could see clearly across the ocean to the line of the distant horizon, broken only by a few islands that seemed to sprout out of the water. The leaves of the coconut trees that lined the beach barely swayed in the almost imperceptible breeze and the sky was a bright blue with a few seagulls flying across it. The occasional call of the birds could be heard in harmony with the rhythmic sound of the waves gently lapping the sandy beach.In other circumstances, Jon would have enjoyed relaxing and swimming in these turquoise waters. He could imagine himself hanging from a hammock between two coconut trees and sipping a glass of ice cold tropical fruit juice as he listened to the soothing sound of the waves. He wanted to close his eyes that very moment and lie on the sand as he listened to the sea that beckoned like a welcoming innkeeper, inviting wearied travelers to rest.The sound of laughter caught Jon's attention and he turned his gaze to
The sharks continued to encircle the boat as it made its way through the tiny islets that seemed to sprout from the sea. The formations became more fantastic and grotesque as they moved southerly. The sun had moved closer to the horizon and the occasional flock of birds that flew overhead were already flying home.Jon decided to go to the deck to catch some air and watch the islets as the boat cruised along. The sharks had increased in number since he last saw them a few minutes ago with Captain Salazar. He felt agitated as he remembered the many stories and myths that revolved around these creatures. The closest encounter he had had with sharks before was when he went to an Aquatic Adventure theme park with Lisa a year ago. Before that, his knowledge of sharks were mostly from the movies he watched.Lisa had always been the expert on these things, Jon thought, as he tried to recall their previous conversations about the ocean predators.Shark attacks are fierce
Jon stayed inside his cabin for the rest of the journey. He felt claustrophobic and without anything of interest to look at, felt every movement of the boat. He could not take his mind off the image of the body being dragged across the deck and the trail of smeared blood. The crew did not seem at all disturbed by what they were doing, as if it was just some cargo that needed to be transferred somewhere. As for Captain Salazar, he seemed not in the least affected that one of his crew had died, but furious that Jon witnessed the body being pulled across the deck. Jon thought about the poor crew member who fell overboard and wondered if he or she was one of those who served him not too long ago. He inadvertently began recalling the faces of the crew whom he met when a question surfaced in his mind. How were they able to recover the body from the sharks? That one, Jon can answer: Perhaps they have tools on board, maybe a net or hooks, whatever they use for fishing. Then, another question c
"I am glad to hear you say that. As you can see, I have amassed considerable wealth over the years and I am also aware how easily these can be taken away from me. That would have been the case had I not discovered the duplicity of someone I placed my trust to." Dante heaved a sigh, his eyes appeared to be searching the far wall."I don't know what more reassurance I can give you, Sir, but I'm sure you have heard of our firm's reputation and our promise to all our clients," said Jon, remembering the marketing materials he was required to read at the start of his employment. "We have been in the business for more than a century and we have grown with our partners over the years. In fact-""It is not your firm that I'm worried about." Dante cut Jon mid-speech. "I have had transactions with your firm many years ago. What I am looking for is someone whom I could trust with my work, someone who would see it through whatever happens."Dante seemed composed as he faced
The way that Dante brushed off the death of one of the people under his employ like some mundane occurrence troubled Jon. He too nearly lost his life to the sharks if not for the quickness of Captain Salazar. Or is Dante intentionally evading discussion of the incident? Could he be hiding something?Questions flooded Jon's head, but he decided not to talk about the incident any further with his client. Dante seemed to be no different from the captain of the Golden Cowrie as to his apathy and coldness towards people under his employ. If not for the difference in physical appearance and state of health, Jon would have thought of Dante and the captain as the same person.Dante seemed more alive than when Jon saw him at the entrance hall earlier. His movements were faster, his speech clearer, and his face, though still pale, seemed more relaxed and youthful. Perhaps, there was some truth when he likened himself to nocturnal creatures who become fully awake at night as they
Jon looked at the painting and was immediately transfixed by the glowing eyes of a dark creature that appeared to be coming out of an abyss. The red eyes seemed to glow even brighter the more Jon looked at them and he felt paralyzed under the creature's hypnotic stare. He felt as if he were floating and being led through a tunnel of concentric circles of smoky grays and coal black, down a spiraling path into what chasm the creature seemed to have come from. Jon felt himself falling into that unknown world which seemed devoid of light and color as screams of agony filled his ears.Jon blinked and suddenly found himself back in the library looking at the strange picture. He felt his feet touching the floor and heard the soft hum of the library's air conditioning. Still looking at the painting, he gazed at the creature again and recognized the combined features of the bat and snake.Dante watched with a self-satisfied air as Jon stood transfixed in front of the painting.<