Chapter One of UnderBelly

CHAPTER 1

 

They say your senses heighten when one is lost.  It went pitch black right after Victor threatened to shoot everybody, so maybe fear had something to do with it as well.  Whatever the explanation might be, I heard a symphony of heartbeat and breath, accompanied by the tap and shuffle of dancing feet playing in the darkness.

“Turn on the damn lights,” shouted Victor.

“It is time to leave,” whispered Ch’ing.

Victor blocked the only entrance to the chamber.  Since he was armed with an automatic weapon, it didn’t seem possible we could get past him.  Sifu is like a father to me and I trust him with my life.  If he says it’s time to leave, then he has a way out.  I was ready but wasn’t going anywhere without Ginny.

Victor was once Ginny’s most trusted employee.  The traitor now works for the pharmaceutical giant, Pathogen.  He tracked us across continents and into the belly of the Earth.  Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, not even a secret chamber hidden far below a lost pyramid is enough to keep him at bay.

He plans to kill us and I’m not sure why he didn’t do it when he had the chance.  Instead, he opted to profane this sacred place with gunfire.  He’s a jerk all right, but Victor’s need for a dramatic entrance has cost him the kill…so far.

We dove for cover when he blasted off a round, but other than the cover of darkness, there isn’t much to hide behind.  Council chambers is an eight sided room carved out of stone.  On each face sits a marble throne.  In the center is a pool of clear water that has no bottom the eye can see.

The dancing feet belong to an ancient council.  They are a hodgepodge of the strangest characters you have ever laid eyes upon and they have an even stranger agenda.  Just before Victor made his dramatic appearance, they delivered a powerful new medicine to Ginny and me on the condition we freely spread it across the world.

There’s just one problem.  Victor’s new boss, Wilbur Goth, C.E.O. of Pathogen, wants the medicine for himself and he will do anything to stop us.  It was Goth who ordered Victor to kill us.

My name is Grant Li.  Up until a few days ago, I had a promising legal career ahead of me, but now I’m an unemployed attorney.  In my first big case, I defended Goth against charges that he intentionally deceived the public about the risks of Gutchriem, an acid-reflux medicine that is believed to be killing people.  I won the case, but now there is new evidence that Gutchriem is laced with a deadly virus.

Ginny Bardough is a childhood friend and my one true love.  Up until a few days ago, it had been years since we had last seen each.  Our reunion has not been easy.  So far, we’ve had to overcome huge obstacles, including our present situation with Victor.  If we get out of this alive, I plan to marry her as soon as my divorce is final.

She was lying next to me at the edge of the pool.  Not exactly touching, but close enough I could feel strands of her raven hair tickling my shoulder.  The polished stone floor was just shy of slippery and surprisingly warm.  The scent of gunpowder quickly gave way to a stream of air that smelled as fresh as the blue sky after a summer squall.

Ch’ing is usually relaxed, but I sensed an urgency in his whisper, “Take my hand.”

“I have enough lead to cover every square inch of this God forsaken hole in the Earth,” shouted Victor.  “If you don’t turn the lights back on like I said, then I’m going to start shooting and I won’t stop until every last living thing in here is dead.”

I led a lunatic into this sacred place and I knew I should do something about the danger I put everyone in, but Sifu is right.  It’s time to flee.  We need to get home with the medicine.  Mom is trapped inside a coma and the nursing home is about to evict her.  We also need to stop Pathogen from using a dangerous virus against innocent people.

“Aaawk, bring the babe with you,” squawked Bird in a voice loud enough to wake the dead.

Bird is a Macaw I inherited from Dad.  It turns out he is more than he seems.  He claims his real name is Juan Ponce de León, and I’m starting to believe him, since he is one of the mucky-mucks on the council of elders.

Ginny inched a little closer.

“Give me your hand,” I whispered.

She didn’t hesitate.  Once her hand was firmly in mine, we rose together as quietly as we could.  Despite our best efforts, we made enough noise that a stealthy escape was out of the question.

I turned to Ch’ing and whispered, “We’re ready.  Let’s go.”

Whether he heard me is hard to say since the room erupted into a second round of gunfire that sent us back peddling.  When my heel caught on something hard, I instinctively looked down to see what it could be and caught a glimpse of Ginny’s face in the gun flash.

I thought the shadows were playing tricks on me until I smelled blood mixed with the gun smoke.  I’m not sure if the searing pain I felt was from a bullet or the heartache of seeing blood splattered across Ginny’s face.  Either way, it hurt like hell.

As I fell backward I could not help but wonder what might have been had I not spent a lifetime avoiding Ginny.  I tried to let her go, but she had me in a death grip and pulled with all her might.

Her effort was heroic, but it was not enough.  The momentum from the fall, coupled with the dead weight of my body carried us both into the water.  I fought it at first.  I fought like the dickens for the life we could have together, but the powerful current sucked us down into a spiraling whirlpool of liquid death.

When I had nothing left and the fight was lost, fear began to creep into the corners of my mind.  I didn’t like it one bit.  I might not win the fight against the current, but fear is a product of my mind and therefore, it is something I can control.  Instead of fear, I chose to fill my mind with peace.

Once I stopped fighting the whirlpool, I began to notice how it good it felt…like I was wrapped in a liquid cocoon.  It was not warm, nor was it cold.  It was the perfect temperature, like the womb.  It was weird time to think of the womb.  At first, I thought it was the beginning of a life review, or could just as easily have been my imagination, but somehow I am certain I could remember the time in my mother’s womb.

Every cell felt new and fresh as all that I am began to fall into its proper place.  It was pure bliss until I saw Ginny’s desperate face close to mine.

I reached for her just as everything began to fade out.  The last thing I remember was her lips mashing mine while her tongue forced my mouth open.  It was if she was trying to breathe life into me, or then again, maybe it was just a goodbye kiss.

After that, there was nothing until I awoke alone on a tropical beach that sparkled in the sunlight like a field of tiny diamonds.  Sand usually makes me feel dirty and has an annoying way of creeping into unwanted places, so when I visit the beach I try to minimize contact with it.

I usually carry a beach chair with me rather than sit on a towel, but for some strange reason, I felt an overwhelming urge to roll among these sparkling lights, so that’s exactly what I did, rolling haphazardly like a Texas tumbleweed along water’s edge.

When I finally rolled to a stop and allowed myself to relax into the sand, it felt like a thousand tiny hands massaged away the old and left me tingling fresh, as if I had just shed an old skin and replaced it with a shiny new me.  The diamond beach shredded the false and left a virgin field where a more authentic me could flourish.

There was something special about this place.  It was rich and full of infinite possibilities and I was determined to choose among them with the greatest care.  Inhaling deeply, I filled my lungs with fresh air and allowed it to nourish the seedlings of change.

It was good to be alive.  Allowing the joy to spread into my arms and legs, I stretched them wide and began sweeping sand angels.  A nearby sea turtle paused in her nest making, gave me a long frank assessment and then dismissed me as an amateur.

Sea turtles get big, but this girl looked like she had swallowed enough steroids to compete in a bodybuilding contest.  She was eighteen feet long and more than twice the size of any sea turtle I had ever seen.

The Ancients revered the tortoise and legend has it that Taoist longevity practices evolved from observations of its slow movements.  Energy cultivation begins with conservation.  Chi is not something you should waste.  Given everything I had survived lately, I was starting to feel immortal.

I had survived a knife fight with an ex-special forces war hero, got shot in the back, grappled an anaconda with monstrous teeth and went berserker on a machete carrying psycho intent on doing Ginny harm.  I don’t know how many guns had been pointed in my face before I was flushed down the drain of a lost South American pyramid and landed on this beach.

By all reckoning, I should be dead, and the presence of the sea turtle added to the sense this was part of some personal vision of an afterlife.  In the ultimate battle, the tortoise is the Dark Warrior of the North who emerges from the water and escapes the clutches of the Grim Reaper.

Yet, here I was making sand angels next to the mother of all sea turtles.  Her presence was no accident.  If I had learned nothing else from Ch’ing, the one thing he taught me was to pay attention and never assume events are accidental.  The Universe gladly delivers the message we most need to hear.  All we have to do is pay attention and the way will become clear.

I took a slow deep breath and focused on a pinpoint of light at the still point of my being.  It is from this vantage point that each of us co-creates life with all sentient beings.  The stillness expanded until it filled me with emptiness.  When I couldn’t contain it any longer, peace spilled into the world around me, as it should, since we are all in this together.

When I finally opened my eyes, the sun was overhead and I stared directly into it.  For some odd reason, the light didn’t hurt my eyes.  The teaching that the sun’s light will blind us is supported by a lifetime of pain whenever we get too big of a dose.  For this reason, I was torn between letting the light in or snapping the lids shut.

This light was softer than usual and it cast a coral tint to the skyline.  That would normally mean the day was nearly over, but the sun was straight above so I figured it was high noon.

On the distant horizon, a large bird hitched an updraft to gain elevation.  As it spiraled upward, I caught a glimpse of a long tail.  Maybe it was a trick of the light, but it was not a bird’s tail exactly.  Instead, it looked as if belonged to a monkey, but with a fin at the end molded into the shape of a four-faced spearhead.

The bird’s cry was haunting as if the beast was searching for a lost love.  Then again, perhaps I was projecting my own feelings onto it.  Ginny was still alive.  I could feel it and it was time to find her.