The Runner

Chapter TWENTY-NINE

– Someone very close to you is in danger.

          San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Clara had her reasons for not saving Wheeler’s phone number on her digital contact list, but did she really doubt the veracity of his latest uncustomized text box claim? 

Clare didn’t pay too much attention to Wheeler’s punctuation usage or sentence casing.  She didn’t wake her faithful roommate either.  Saxa remained right by her side, no matter the continent or common era fallacy.  Apparently, the Christian rapture had already come to pass.  Clara had once again replaced Jayne as the tormented guardian of her own indestructible faith with a call waiting from a certifiable place.  She’d wait for Wheeler’s second text to come through, before allowing her innermost resolve to go to absolute club-rocking shit.  

Recycled hooks be damned straight through the turn of the previous century; Betty boy had just gone way too far.  Again.

– Alexis Alvarado Diaz

Clara made sure not to wake Saxa, as she slipped out onto the balcony of their hotel room.  They were staying in San Juan for a few days.  La Cabana to be exact.  Primates in the Caribbean had come and gone over the weekend.  Our venue happened to be a local stadium named after the first Puerto Rican baseball player to play for the majors in Clara and I’s hometown.  We had wrestled in our first official “Proving Ground” match against the skater girls of Smack, as well as Noelle, Ninah, and several full-time pros.  We had even survived our first in-ring encounter with the tightest Aussie duo to ever sweat with half their clothes off under a migrating Dominican sun, but after dialing Wheeler’s number Clara could do nothing but look angrily over thrashing waves.  Forget everything she still didn’t see moving towards a respectable beat in the dub-step remix of her least favorite Daddy Yankee song to date.

Before pressing “1” to make a donation to the new Parkinson’s research foundation on the island, she heard a brassy voice say, “Buenos dias.”

“Where the fuck do you get off?”

“Despite what you may think, this is not about you, Clara.”

Clare was twelve stories above the ground.  The top floor of the hotel in fact, and the wind gusts that morning were a bit wicked.  This made her no more or less livid than the moment she had seen Lexie’s full name appear on her phone.  Now she was at war with an outdated fact-checking machine.  Surely, Wheeler was the most resourceful man she had ever met, but there had to be a more progressive way for him to verify his findings than this.  Maybe he realized as much, because he asked Clare, “Is Saxa with you?”

Clara’s curiosity was keeping her quiet.  The horror of a new hangover-free day was just not on the horizon.  Not as her thoughts remained on Alexis rather than her own burgeoning string of dry heaves to come, as Wheeler’s voice fought its way through Clare’s morning-after nausea again. 

“Clara, put Saxa on the line.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me.”

Clara’s eyes were still adjusting to the blinding ball of beach top fury greeting her from somewhere over Tijuana.  She hadn’t had her first fight of the day with her sexy swimwear straps yet, but she did silently gasp as Wheeler added, “Maybe a visual will help.”

Clare was already stunned still.  Even though she knew what to expect next, Wheeler still advised her in a gentle tone, “Brace yourself, Clara.”

Forget Clare’s most respectable reason to almost get laid and wake up entangled in three sets of legs tanner than Saxa Cheung’s.  P.R. was no joke.  There were bound to be hot women everywhere she attempted to rediscover the face that reentered her consciousness after opening up the attached file Wheeler had just sent her. 

Alexis.  Sitting in an unfamiliar room with a privileged leech in Pastor Magoo’s ungeekable eye, but where?

“That’s not possible.  How did you—”

“Put—Saxa on the line.”

Clara did as she was told.  Not because she was afraid of what would happen once Wheeler lost his patience but because he was right.  Saxa was involved in all of this now.  Whatever strange, convoluted way of being they had all agreed to inhabit each other’s vengeful thoughts for the sake of a provocative ghost.  An unheard-of human rights movement with no base country but a definitive theoretical foundation.  If they were all fighting for the same thing, the least Clare could do was ease her way back through that sliding glass door and share her first unexpected call of the day with someone she wouldn’t mind waking up next to for the rest of her roll call-free days. 

Saxa was wide awake before she handed the phone over.  Clare quickly told her the situation, but the moment Saxa began speaking to Wheeler her voice became laced with more newborn delirium than “no work days off left this week” AM dread.

“Why won’t you leave us alone?  And what the fuck have you done—”

“Listen, I have a few conditions, and until they’re met I can’t guarantee Alexis’s safety.”

Saxa’s eyes dashed over the quartzite close-up staring back at her from beside the bed.  Missing was Clara’s open geology textbook from ninth grade, as she continued to hold her tongue as firmly as her gaze on Saxa who pleaded, “Just let her go.”

Blondie Smalls might as well have been planting six-figure lilacs in front of Wheeler’s unblinking eyes acting this helpless.  He obviously didn’t know what to do with his money or his free time still, but instead of imagining what his last prisoner in a cave-mining world looked like squirming her way towards the equator in an unfamiliar hemisphere he began looking towards the future.

“First: you remain uninvolved in Alexis’s reacclimation into law-abiding society—and enjoy the rest of your vacation.  If you can.”

Saxa glanced at Clara, but she didn’t have the heart to turn over the glossiest page in an earth science textbook made exclusively of her best friend’s unshed tears.  She had, however, sat perfectly still while Clare double-braided her hair the same way she had seen demonstrated in jail. 

Fortunately for them both, being pampered by professional criminals was nothing like coauthoring Big Heist Cheung’s latest storybook makeover.  One that had preceded check-in at a gingerbread hotel with only one opening left for a Chinese cracker and four-foot block of cheese.  Even so, Clara had done more than expose Saxa’s dark roots while twisting away at the corners of a spare business card belonging to an exploited miller’s daughter from mainland China for hours on end.  At times, she had thought solely of Alexis, which she continued to do as Rumpelstiltskin swindled the golden complexion straight off a brand new day in the Shangri-La of Santa Domingo East.

Wheeler firmly noted, “This is a small request, but please understand, Saxa; your sister’s fate is of no absolute concern to me, and neither is Alexis’s.”

“Let Clara talk to her.”

“Why would I do that?  Do you two have any idea how much that rail project was worth?”

Saxa’s defiant stance against long-distance extortion had already begun to wane.  That was until she was prompted to recall being in Alexis’s position herself.

“I think I stopped caring the moment you forced me into a broken tailpipe on Thomas the Tank Engine Mountain and expected me to enjoy the fucking ride.  That is of course if you really weren’t planning on killing us all along.”

Wheeler didn’t bite.  He simply explained, “Clara will round up some friends, as usual.  I will guide them throughout their—travels, but I advise two search parties like last time.  One group will assist her in uncovering a vital link to Alexis’s current location here on the island.  The other—well­—the other probably won’t make out so well.”

Saxa wasn’t sure if Wheeler knew exactly where she and Clara were staying and she didn’t care.  She was sick of men.  Sick of their games.  Sick of private profiteers of the inflated ego as intergenerational groping remained on the rise worldwide.  Why?  For the sake of public decency of all things, because what older women always wanted happened to be born a decade or two too late.  Maybe like Saxa’s predisposition to avoid problems like this altogether at full speed, which would involve her disenfranchising the troubled girl she spoke of next.

“Don’t you think you put everyone through enough last summer?  Why are you doing this to Clara?”        

Wheeler answered evenly, “Everyone deserves a chance to play the hero.  You two have played the villain for long enough.  I’ll switch roles myself soon enough, and besides; I’m doing your friend a favor.  Alexis is a free woman if  someone is able to earn her freedom for her.  The sooner the better I suppose.”

And what exactly was Betty boy doing at this very moment?  He didn’t seem to be smiling after that last comment.  He seemed preoccupied, like he was waiting for a real challenge to come along like Clara had before she realized that big girls didn’t crush on married dudes.  They just got fucked over for the sake of real money in an extended credit line kind of forgiving capitalistic world.

Saxa began punching anything but legally binding holes straight through the heading on Allen Wheeler’s living will, as she assured him, “I’m going to put a bullet in your head the first chance I get.  If not me then Clara.”

“In due time.  After we find Jinghua.”

Maybe their obstinate behavior wouldn’t change a thing in the end.  Saxa would remain powerless.  Her sister would be delivered into the hands of yet another strange man with an unknown criminal past, which meant the best thing Saxa could do for their family name was head westward again. 

Before she did so, Clara called her name.  Wheeler hadn’t hung up yet.  He wouldn’t do so until he told her, “I’ll see you soon.”

Once she killed her end of the line, Saxa regarded the saddest set of green eyes still under lock and key that morning as Clara asked her, “What did he say?”

More importantly, what was a man more powerful than the American legal system capable of doing when he wasn’t busy ushering in a new era of colonialism in a Latin nation nowhere near the heart of Clara’s lockdown boo?

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