Jasper knew that he was in trouble because he had reached the point where he was giving serious consideration to the idea of getting married again.
His attention was deflected from the dangerous subject less than a moment later when he realized that someone was trying very hard to kill him.
At least, he thought someone was attempting to murder him.
Either way, as a distraction, the prospect was dazzlingly effective. Jasper immediately stopped thinking about finding a wife.
It was the blinding glare of hot, tropical sunlight on metal reflected in the rearview mirror that got Jasper's attention. He glanced up. The battered green Ford that had followed him from the tiny village on the island's north shore was suddenly much closer. In another few seconds the vehicle would be right on top of the Jeep's bumper.
The Ford shot out of the last narrow curve and bore down on the Jeep. The car's heavily tinted windows, common enough here in the South Pacific, made it impossible to see the face of the person at the wheel. Whoever he was, he was either very drunk or very high.
A tourist, Jasper thought. The Ford looked like one of the rusty rentals he had seen at the small agency in the village where he had selected the Jeep.
There was little room to maneuver on the tiny, two-lane road that encircled tiny Pelapili Island. Steep cliffs shot straight up on the left. On Jasper's right the terrain fell sharply away to the turquoise sea.
He had never wanted to take this vacation in paradise, Jasper thought. He should have listened to his own instincts instead of the urgings of his nephews and his friend, Al.
This was what came of allowing other people to push you into doing what they thought was best for you.
Jasper assessed the slim shoulder on the side of the pavement. There was almost no margin for driving error on this stretch of the road. One wrong move and a driver could expect to end up forty feet below on the lava-and boulder-encrusted beach.
He should have had his midlife crisis in the peace and comfort of his own home on Bainbridge Island. At least he could have been more certain of surviving it there.
But he'd made the extremely rare mistake of allowing others to talk him into doing something he really did not want to do.
"You've got to get away, Uncle Jasper," Kirby had declared with the shining confidence of a college freshman who has just finished his first course in psychology. "If you won't talk to a therapist, the least you can do is give yourself a complete change of scene."
"I hate to say it, but I think Kirby's right," Paul said. "You haven't been yourself lately. All this talk about selling Sloan & Associates, it's not like you, Uncle Jasper. Take a vacation. Get wild and crazy. Do something off-the-wall."
Jasper had eyed his nephews from the other side of his broad desk. Paul and Kirby were both enrolled for the summer quarter at the University of Washington. In addition, both had part-time jobs this year. They had their own apartment near the campus now, and they led very active lives. He did not believe for one moment that both just happened, by purest coincidence, to find themselves downtown this afternoon.
He did not believe both had been struck simultaneously by a whim to drop by his office, either. Jasper was fairly certain that he was the target of a planned ambush.
"I appreciate your concern," he said. "But I do not need or want a vacation. As far as selling the firm is concerned, trust me, I know what I'm doing."
"But Uncle Jasper," Paul protested. "You and Dad built this company from scratch. It's a part of you. It's in your blood."
"Let's not go overboard with the dramatics," Jasper said. "Hell, even my fiercest competitors will tell you that my timing is damn near perfect when it comes to business. I'm telling you that it's time for me to do something else."
Kirby frowned, his dark blue eyes grave with concern. "How is your sleep pattern, Uncle Jasper?"
"What's my sleep pattern got to do with anything?"
"We're studying clinical depression in my Psych class. Sleep disturbance is a major warning sign."
"My sleep habits have been just fine."
Jasper decided not to mention the fact that for the past month he had been waking up frequently at four in the morning. Unable to get back to sleep, he had gotten into the habit of going into the office very early to spend a couple of hours with the contents of his business files.
His excuse was that he wanted to go over every detail of the extensive operations of Sloan & Associates before he sold the firm to Al. But he knew the truth. He had a passion for order and routine. He found it soothing to sort through his elegantly arranged files. He knew few other people who could instantly retrieve decade-old corporate income tax records or an insurance policy that had been canceled five years earlier.
Maybe he could not control every aspect of his life, he thought, but he could damn sure handle the paperwork related to it.
"Well, what about your appetite?" Kirby surveyed him with a worried look. "Are you losing weight?"
Jasper wrapped his hands around the arms of his chair and glowered at Kirby. "If I want a professional psychological opinion, I'll call a real shrink, not someone who just got out of Psych 101."
An hour later, over lunch at a small Italian restaurant near the Pike Place Market, Al Okamoto stunned Jasper by agreeing with Paul's and Kirby's verdict.
"They're right." A] forked up a swirl of his spaghetti puttanesca. "You need to get away for a while. Take a vacation. When you come back we'll talk about whether or not you still want to sell Sloan & Associates to me."
"Hell, you too?" Jasper shoved aside his unfinished plate of Dungeness crab-filled ravioli. He had not been about to admit it to Kirby that afternoon, but lately his normally healthy appetite had been a little off. "What is it with everyone today? So what if I've put in a few extra hours on the Slater project? I'm just trying to get everything in order for the sale."
Al's gaze narrowed. "It's not the Slater deal. That's routine, and you know it. You could have handled it in your sleep. If you were getting any sleep, that is, which I doubt."
Jasper folded his arms on the table. "Now you're telling me I look tired? Damn it, Al..."
"I'm telling you that you need a break, that's all. A weekend off isn't going to do the trick. Take a month. Go veg out on some remote, tropical island. Swim in the ocean, sit under a palm tree. Drink a few margaritas."
"I'm warning you, pal, if you're about to tell me that I'm depressed..."
"You're not depressed, you're having a midlife crisis."
Jasper stared at him. "Are you crazy? I am not having any such thing."
"You know what one looks like, do you?"
"Everyone knows what a midlife crisis looks like. Affairs with very young women. Flashy red sports cars. A divorce."
"In case you've forgotten, my divorce took place nearly eight years ago. I am not interested in buying a Ferrari that would probably get stolen and sent to a chop shop the first week I owned it. And I haven't had an affair in -- " Jasper broke off suddenly. "In a while."
"A long while." Al aimed his fork at Jasper. "You don't get out enough. That's one of your problems. You lack a normal social life."
"So I'm not a party animal. So sue me."
Al sighed. "I've known you for over five years. I can tell you that you never do anything the usual way. Stands to reason that you wouldn't have a typical, run-of-the-mill midlife crisis. Instead of an explosion, you're going through a controlled meltdown."
"For which you recommend a tropical island vacation?"
"Why not? It's worth a try. Pick one of those incredibly expensive luxury resorts located on some undiscovered island. The kind of place that specializes in unstressing seriously overworked executives."
"How do they manage the unstressing part?" Jasper asked.
Al forked up another bite of pasta. "They give you a room with no phone, no fax, no television, no air conditioner, and no clocks."
"We used to call that kind of hotel a flophouse."
"It's the latest thing in upscale, high-end vacations," Al assured him around a mouthful of spaghetti. "Costs a fortune. What have you got to lose?"
"I dunno. A fortune maybe?"
"You can afford it. Look, Paul and Kirby and I have already picked out an ideal spot. An island called Pelapili. It's at the far end of the Hawaiian chain. We made the reservations for you."
"You did what?"
"You're going to stay there for a full month."
"The hell I am, I've got a business to run."
"I'm the vice president, second largest shareholder, and the chief associate in Sloan & Associates, remember? You say you want to sell out to me. If you can't trust me to hold the company together for a mere month, who can you trust?"
In the end, Jasper had run out of excuses. A week later he had found himself on a plane to Pelapili Island.
For the past three and a half weeks he had dutifully fully followed the agenda that Al, Kirby, and Paul had outlined for him.
Every morning he swam in the pristine, clear waters of the bay that was only a few steps from his high-priced, lowtech cottage. He spent a lot of time reading boring thrillers in the shade of a palm tree, and he drank a few salt-rimmed margaritas in the evenings.
On days when he could not stand the enforced tranquillity for another minute, he used the rented Jeep to sneak into the village to buy a copy of the Wall Street Journal.
The newspapers were always at least three days old by the time they reached Pelapili, but he treasured each one. Like some demented alchemist, he examined every inch of print for occult secrets related to the world of business.
Jasper thrived on information. As far as he was concerned, it was not just power, it was magic. It was the lifeblood of his work as a venture capitalist. He collected information, organized it, and filed it.
He sometimes thought that in a former life he had probably been a librarian. He occasionally had fleeting images of himself poring over papyruses in an ancient library in Alexandria or Athens.
Cutting himself off from the flow of daily business information in the name of relaxation had been a serious mistake. He knew that now.
He still did not know if he was in the midst of a midlife crisis, but he had come to one definite conclusion: He was bored. He was a goal-oriented person, and the only goal he'd had until now on Pelapili was to get off the island.
Things had changed in the last sixty seconds, however. He had a new goal. A very clear one. He wanted to avoid going over the edge of the cliff into the jeweled sea.
The car was almost on top of him. On the off-chance that the driver was simply incredibly impatient, Jasper tried easing cautiously toward the shoulder. The Ford now had room to pass, if that was the objective.
For a few seconds Jasper thought that was what would happen. The nose of the Ford pulled out into the other lane. But instead of accelerating on past, it nipped at the fender of Jasper's Jeep.
Metal screamed against metal. A shudder went through the Jeep. Jasper fought the instinct to swerve away from the Ford. There was no room left on the right-hand shoulder. Another foot and he would be airborne out over the rocky cove.
The reality of what was happening slammed through him. The Ford really was trying to force the Jeep over the edge of the cliff. Jasper knew that he would die an unpleasant but probably very speedy death if he did not act quickly.
The green Ford was alongside the Jeep now, preparing for another nudge.
Jasper forced himself to think of the situation as a business problem. A matter of timing.
His timing was really quite good when it came to some things.
He slid into that distant, dispassionate state of mind that came over him whenever he concentrated on work. The world did not exactly go into slow motion, but it did appear in very sharp focus.
The goal became crystal clear. He would not go over the side and down the cliff.
The path to that goal was equally obvious. He had to go on the attack.
He was intensely aware of the physical dimensions of the space around him. He gauged the distance to the upcoming curve and the speed of his own vehicle. He sensed the driver of the Ford had nerved himself for another strike.
Jasper turned the wheel, aiming the Jeep's bumper at the Ford's side. There was a shudder and another grating shriek of metal-on-metal. Jasper edged closer.
The Ford swerved to avoid the second impact. It went into the next curve in the wrong lane. The driver, apparently panicked by the thought of meeting an oncoming vehicle, overcorrected wildly.
For an instant Jasper thought the Ford would go straight over the edge of the cliff. Somehow, it managed to cling to the road.
Jasper slowed quickly and went cautiously into the turn. When he came out of it he caught a fleeting glimpse of the Ford. It was already several hundred feet ahead. As he watched, it disappeared around another curve.
The driver of the Ford had obviously decided to abandon the assault on the jeep. Jasper wondered if the other man, assuming it was a man, had lost his nerve or simply sobered up very quickly after the near-death experience on the curve.
Drunken driving or maybe an incident of road rage, Jasper told himself. That was the only logical explanation.
To entertain for even a moment the possibility that someone had deliberately tried to kill him would constitute a sure sign of incipient paranoia. Kirby would have a field day. Probably drag Jasper off to his psychology class for show-and-tell.
Damn. He hadn't even gotten the license number.
Jasper tried to summon up an image of the rear of the green car. He was very good with numbers.
But when he replayed the discrete mental pictures he had of the Ford, he realized he did not remember seeing a license plate.
A near accident. That was the only explanation.
Don't go paranoid on me here, Sloan.
He spent most of the warm, tropical night brooding on the veranda of his overpriced, amenity-free cottage. For a long time he sat in the wicker chair and watched the silver moonlight slide across the surface of the sea. He could not explain why the uneasiness within him increased with every passing hour.
He had put the incident on the island road firmly in perspective. He knew that it was illogical to think for one moment that anyone here on Pelapili had any reason to try to murder him. No, it was not the brush with disaster that afternoon that was creating the disturbing sensation.
But the restlessness would not be banished. He wondered if he was suffering from an overdose of papaya, sand, and margaritas. The problem with paradise was that it held no challenge.
At two in the morning he realized that it was time to go back to Seattle.
Copyright © 1998 by Jayne Ann Krentz