The Redcards: 1- Red Fox
The little boat ploughed through the waves, every shuddering impact sending salty spray backwards. The five people on board were hunched low, already drenched despite their waterproof clothing. Dale Fox was even more exposed than the rest of them; sitting on a bench at the rear, steering the five-metre tender towards the beach. As the engine spluttered, the four pale faces ahead of him turned to him, panicked. Dale throttled back and the engine noise returned to normal. He was beyond relieved to see that the wind and the waves were weakening. They were sheltered by the headland now; they’d be safe in a couple of minutes.
Fox knew he and his family were fortunate to have escaped the chaos engulfing the rest of the planet but getting to the South China Sea had not been easy. As well as his wife, Marie, and their daughter, Julie, he was accompanied by his co-worker Luiz and Luiz’s sister, Anna. They had hoped to get aboard the island’s large, well-equipped support ship but so had many others and it was now a disorganised, dangerous place to be. Fox and Luiz had swiftly come up with an alternative plan. They had bought the boat from a local fisherman and made the thirty-two-kilometre journey from the nearest island.
‘There!’ shouted Luiz, pointing to a narrow channel that ran between two rocky outcrops. The beach was only ten metres beyond it.
‘I see it!’ replied Fox.
‘Careful, Dale – the currents are running quick today.’
Fox was relieved to have the capable Luiz with him. Though they both worked on the island, they’d never spent much time together. But they’d bumped into each other at the airport in Manila and discovered that they both had the same idea: to seek refuge for themselves and their families on the island. They hadn’t asked Mr. Chang – the owner of the island and their employer – but this wasn’t a time for such niceties. It was a time to do whatever you had to.
Fox pulled down his hood and turned the boat towards the shore. Fearful that the current would wash the vessel down onto the rocks, he kept his speed up, only throttling back when they neared the beach. Luiz went up to the bow, leaping down as the boat slid onto the sand. Fox cut the engine and climbed forward. He and Luiz helped Marie, Julie and Anna onto the beach, then the pair of them hauled the boat up as far as they could.
Always keen to help, Marie began taking out their packs and piling them up on the sand. Anna put her hands together and looked at the sky, whispering a prayer in Spanish. Julie – who had just turned seven – looked at the line of wind-lashed palm trees behind the beach then back at her father, eyes wide with fear.
‘What do we do now, Dad?’
It was a good question, and not one Fox had entirely thought through. For days he had been consumed with nothing more than getting his family to the one place that might be considered safe. He had been on leave in Chicago when the virus had struck and, as it spread around the globe, he’d realised he needed to move fast. Within their packs were a few changes of clothes, their phones, their documents, a bit of cash and some food.
‘You hungry, sweetheart?’ asked Fox, thinking it wise to distract her for a moment.
‘Very!’ replied Julie. ‘I felt sick on the boat but now I’m better.’
Marie watched her husband take out a bag containing various bits of candy and chocolate. ‘Shouldn’t we conserve what we have?’
‘Don’t worry. Once we reach the centre of the island, we’ll be fine. Mr. Chang has enough food here to last for centuries.’
Marie looked far from convinced but thankfully said nothing in front of Julie, who was already unwrapping the chocolate. The truth was that – having not contacted anyone on Mr. Chang’s team – they had no idea how they would be treated.
Leaving his wife and daughter talking to Anna, Fox helped Luiz carry the packs up to the treeline. Though the shorter man, Luiz was stocky and powerfully-built. He was a construction supervisor by trade, while Fox was an electrical engineer.
‘Maybe we should sink it,’ said Luiz as they trudged up the sand.
‘The boat – why?’
‘Because then they can’t put us back in it and send us away.’
‘Carelli wouldn’t do that.’
The island’s head of security was a long-time employee of Mr. Chang. Fox had encountered a lot of security guys in his time and Carelli was fairer and more friendly than most.
‘He’s a family man too,’ he added. ‘He’ll understand.’
‘But what about Chang himself?’ said Luiz as they returned to collect the rest of the packs. ‘He’s building this place to retire in peace. Now the world’s gone to hell, is he going to want the likes of us here?’
‘You mentioned the key word,’ replied Fox. ‘Building. It’s not finished yet. He needs the likes of us.’
Despite his words, Fox couldn’t help feeling nervous as they cut their way through heavy undergrowth. Sweating heavily, he ran a hand through his sodden hair. Its red tones had marked him out since his youth but over time he’d come to value its distinctive quality. At high school and college, he’d always been ‘Red’ Fox.
Luiz knew roughly where they were but this was an untouched part of the island with no structures or paths. He was doing well though, slashing through thick vines and plants with a hefty machete. Behind him came Anna, Julie and Marie, with Fox bringing up the rear. In the end, they’d decided to drag the boat up to the trees and leave it there.
Wiping sweat from his brow, Fox watched his daughter glance around with curious eyes. They had already seen a yellow snake and some exotic bird; he was thankful that young Julie was treating this like an adventure, not a fight for survival.
Suddenly thirsty, he was about to retrieve a bottle of water from his pack when he heard a shout. He froze, as did the others; all watching as several large shapes crashed through the undergrowth towards them. Fox rushed forward and held his daughter, now wondering if he should have brought a gun after all.
The three black-clad security operatives emerged from the greenery; tall, muscular men with shaven heads. They were all holding assault rifles with oversize magazines.
Marie glanced back at her husband, face rigid with fear.
Luiz dropped the machete. ‘It’s okay, guy – we’re employees. Please take us to Michael Dubois, he’s Head of Operations.’
‘I know who Dubois is,’ snapped the eldest of the three. ‘But the Head of Security will decide where you go. And don’t be surprised if it’s back to wherever you came from.’
‘No problem,’ said Luiz. ‘Carelli knows us.’
‘Carelli’s didn’t make it back to the island,’ said the operative. ‘The new Head of Security is Mr. Bryce.’
Fox grimaced and shook his head. Mark Bryce was an ex-US army officer who Carelli had used when he needed something unpleasant done. Bryce was uncaring and ruthless.
The lead operative was still aiming his gun at them. ‘Let’s be clear – do as we say but you keep your distance. For all we know, you’re infected. Let’s move out!’
Despite the circumstances, Fox felt relieved to be back in familiar surroundings. Construction on some areas of the island was quite advanced: Mr. Chang’s residence, the power station, the leisure complex and the observation tower were almost complete. Other areas such as the ornamental garden, the treehouse and the medical facility were still under construction, covered with scaffolding and surrounded by building materials and vehicles. Fox was used to seeing hundreds of people at work but now he counted only twenty or so as they were escorted to the Security HQ.
As they approached the black building topped by aerials and a radar dish, the familiar figure of Mark Bryce appeared. Tall, chiselled and narrow-eyed, Bryce surveyed the five captives. ‘Put them in with the others.’
‘You can’t do that,’ said Fox. ‘We’re employees. I’d like to talk to Michael Dubois.’
‘Mr. Dubois is in a meeting,’ said Bryce. ‘And by the time he finishes it, you’ll be off the island.’ He turned to his subordinate. ‘Leon, as soon as the launch is ready, take them all down to the dock.’
‘Bryce, come on!’ implored Luiz but the man simply wasn’t listening. Still keeping their distance, Leon and the two others took the five around to the rear of the building. Using an ID card, he opened a door and gestured for them to enter.
Now Marie spoke up: ‘You’re going to put a seven-year-old girl in prison?’
‘Not for long. In you go.’
Fox was last through the door and he tried one last gambit. ‘I know Mr. Chang. I’ve spoken to him personally several times.’
This was true, though he wasn’t sure that the reclusive billionaire would remember him.
‘Wow,’ said Leon sarcastically. ‘Lucky you.’
He shoved Fox inside and shut the door behind him. Fox just about stopped himself swearing. They were now inside a five-metre metal box with two others for company. The men looked like locals and at least seemed friendly.
‘How did you end up here?’ Luiz asked them.
‘We sneaked aboard the supply ship last week,’ said one of the men. ‘They found us yesterday. Can’t believe we’re going back – back into that hell.’
Julie must have been tired because she soon fell asleep, lying against her mother on the floor. The four adults remained quiet. It seemed like there was nothing to say: all their efforts of the last few days had been for nothing. When the locals asked if he wanted to play poker, Fox agreed; at least it would keep him occupied.
It turned out that the pair were from the nearby Paracel islands. They were using matches for counters and preferred Texas Hold Em, which suited Fox fine. He did badly on the first few games but then experienced a winning streak that stretched to no less than eight. He had all but three of the hundred matches. The local men couldn’t believe it and Fox wished that this good fortune could have manifested itself in another way.
Then, barely an hour after they’d been imprisoned, the door opened. Leon ordered the five of them out and they found themselves facing Bryce, Michael Dubois and Wolf Chang himself. It was notable that all three men kept their distance. Dubois wore a smart shirt and jacket while the sixty-something Chang favoured an elegant cream linen suit.
Dubois spoke up first. ‘Mr. Chang and I were meeting in the observation tower. We saw you being brought in.’
Bryce looked sourly at the floor.
‘I understand you came in via a small boat,’ added Mr. Chang, hands clasped in front of him, speaking quietly but intently. Though his English was perfect, a strong Chinese accent remained. ‘I do admire initiative and we do need qualified workers. Also, I am reluctant to turn away a young child. But we must be careful. You will undergo a period of isolation to establish if you have been infected. If that passes and you do not manifest symptoms, you may remain here.’
Julie looked up at her parents. ‘Does that mean we’re safe?’
‘I hope so, my dear,’ said Chang with a slight smile. ‘I do hope so.’