CHASING THE TRUTH Excerpt
He’d been lying to himself, Holt Forrester conceded as he dodged three men chest-bumping in the graveled parking area by the New Gorge River. Minutes earlier the trio had parachuted together to a flawless bull’s-eye landing. “Congratulations,” Holt called out without stopping.
Had he really thought he could handle the crush of people in attendance today? Managing his investments based on cold, hard data was one thing. Directing a tired mother with a wailing toddler to a port-a-potty was totally outside his comfort zone. Still...
Pausing, he glanced up to the gleaming span of bridge eight hundred and seventy-six feet above. Another jumper yelled a battle cry as he somersaulted off the platform. Moments later a white parachute popped open against the blue sky. Holt smiled.
Unbelievable. He’d actually done it. He’d pulled off the fund-raising event for breast cancer without a hitch. All the months of convincing everyone in the West Virginia government from the governor to the Division of Highways to allow this special day of BASE —bridge, antennae, spans or earth— jumping had paid off.
The adrenaline buzz of his own jump still pumped through Holt along with pride and satisfaction.
He had known those adventurers who thrilled to parachute free falls wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of a legal jump off the second highest bridge in the United States. All in the name of a good cause, the ‘Amanda Forrester Jump for Cancer’.
An event to honor his mother. He’d been only twelve when she had lost her battle to breast cancer, but the memories of her efforts to maintain a normal life for him and his father despite her pain remained seared in his soul.
The latest jumper splashed into the river. Volunteers gunned motorized inflatable rafts and raced toward the man to pluck him from the water.
Holt released a sigh of relief. So far the event had gone without any major injury to any of the participants. Only a cut here, a bruise there.
The only other thing that would make this day perfect would be to meet the woman with the smoky-warm voice who had called him from Double S Racing. Emma-Lee Dalton.
He looked around for his assistant. Ted would know if she had registered. He might not be able to find her in this crowd, but surely she would be at the auction following the jumps. Double S Racing had been more than generous in its donation of NASCAR racing memorabilia, and Holt suspected that the very enthusiastic Ms. Dalton was largely responsible. He wanted the opportunity to thank her in person...and see if the woman matched the voice, he admitted.
“Hey, Holt!” Stan Preston hurried toward him. “Did you see all NASCAR bumper stickers in the lot?”
“Yes, I did.”
Stan huffed to a stop. The older, heavier set man wore carefully-creased khaki’s, a blue oxford-collared shirt and navy windbreaker. He pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket and mopped his brow.
“Wasn’t I right about NASCAR? The fan loyalty is incredible. Once I got the word out that the organization had donated items for the auction, the fans hotfooted here.”
“You were right, Stan.” Not only had Holt been impressed with the man’s contacts at NASCAR, but he’d been amazed by the surge of registrations after the auction announcement.
The man beamed. “You understand now why a NASCAR sponsorship would be a smart business move for your launch of the new software line?”
“I’d be a fool not to.” Holt had met the insurance magnate when Stan had consulted with him about developing computer programs. When Stan had gotten it in his head that he wanted to start his own NASCAR team, Holt had been one of the first he’d hit up for sponsorships. A sponsorship seemed to be good business, but Stan’s new team might not be a good fit.
Holt never jumped into a deal, which is how he made his millions. He needed more data before he made his decision. He hadn’t even divulged to Stan the true nature of his latest computer venture. Although the Internet was alive with rumors, he was keeping the game under wraps for now as much as possible.
“Holt.” Stan looked concerned. “When I was checking out the auction display, I noticed a number of items from Double S Racing. The owner Gil Sizemore isn’t wooing you as a sponsor, is he?”
No point mentioning to Stan that he inexplicably had found himself flirting with the Double S’s representative. Hearing her bubbling laughter over the phone had caused him to hit the Delete key at an inopportune moment on a report he’d been reviewing at the time.
Holt shrugged. “My P.R. person mentioned that the individual racing teams might donate if I contacted them so I did. Business is business, no matter whether it’s for charity or not. You should know that better than anyone, Stan.”
The insurance magnate hadn’t exactly amassed all his agencies by being an emotional push-over.
Stan relaxed only fractionally. “I’m still trying to get you a few pit passes to the upcoming races. Those passes are harder to come by than a rate increase.”
Holt glanced up at the bridge. With her pink jumpsuit fluttering in the breeze, a woman stood on the edge of the platform and appeared to be talking with the volunteers. Why wasn’t she jumping? He glanced at his watch.
Only thirty minutes left in the permitted time, and he had at least that number of people waiting for their turn. “Excuse me, Stan.”
Walking toward the river bank, he spotted his personal assistant helping another jumper. “Ted, I need your radio.”
“Sure thing, Holt.” The young man hurried over and handed him it. He pointed out the solid line of bystanders lining the bridge above.
“Can you believe all the people who came to watch? What a show they got today! The vendors are selling food and souvenirs like hot cakes. This is going to rake in a ton of money.”
“I couldn’t have pulled this off without your help, Ted.”
The assistant flushed at the praise, but one of the volunteers called for him from the control center they had set up by the river. He hurried off.
Holt looked up again. That woman in her pink jumpsuit still stood there. Was she frozen with fear?
He activated the walkie-talkie. “Davey, what’s the hold-up? If that woman’s gotten cold feet, get her out of there.”
Not everyone could stand at the end of the sixteen-foot long ledge and take that step off into emptiness.
“Not cold feet, Holt. She’s just going on and on about how pretty the gorge is and what a momentous occasion this is.”
He rolled his eyes. “Tell her to gawk later.”
Moments later, the woman directed a smart salute at him. Then she lowered both arms to her sides. This was it. That minute when you prepare mentally for the leap and say a prayer.
Then he felt it, the breeze stirring.
“Holt!” Ted ran toward him. “The storm we’ve been watching is now coming faster.”
Holt raised the receiver. “Davey, weather’s moving in. Stop the jumpers...”
Too late. The woman raised her arms and executed a perfect swan dive off the platform.
He handed off the radio to Ted and raced to the water’s edge.
One second. Alone in the air she would experience perfect quietude, not the howling wind when one jumps out of a plane.
Two seconds. She would be picking up speed with wind whistling through her clothes and the ground rushing toward her.
Three seconds. Pull the chute.
Too long, too long. She would hit the ground hard.
Relief flooded him as the purple-and-red parachute snapped open, making a colorful splash against the darkening sky. He watched as she guided it. She was going for a bull’s-eye landing in the taped off spot behind him.
He’d made it himself so he understood the desire to make a controlled landing, one where you bested the elements.
The wind picked up and the chute turned. He recognized by her movements that the woman was going with the change and would land in the river where the rafts waited to pick up any jumper.
As her feet touched the water a gust of wind caught the parachute full blast, dragging her like a rag doll along the river straight toward an outcropping of boulders.
Holt raced along the edge and then splashed into the shallow depths on a diagonal path to the woman struggling to release the harness.
Ten feet to go. The water was now waist-high. Five feet. He lunged.
Cold water sprayed, blinding him, but he had a handful of fabric. He dug his heals into the soft river bed and braced himself. The force of the wind-dragged parachute jerked his shoulder, but he held on.
He blinked until he could see. He had her by one of the chest straps. She reached up and gripped his wrist.
Step by precarious step, he eased backwards. When he reached the shallows, the woman scrabbled for and found her footing. Circling his other arm around her waist, he hauled her up against his body and held on.
Beside him Ted jumped into the water and made his way over to the chute lines. Others joined him and worked to collapse the parachute.
Holt reached between their bodies and released the clasp and slipped the straps over her shoulders. She shimmied out of the harness, but as she stepped clear, she tripped, stumbling against him. He staggered and lost his footing. Together they fell.
He hit the ground, the jolt sending a hiss of pain through his clenched teeth. The jumper sprawled on top of him.
“Hey, are you all right?” Concern filled her voice. Elbows and knees, one dangerously close to causing him real pain, flayed as she struggled to move off him.
“Hold still.” He managed to sit up and found himself face-to-face with her straddling his lap. Incredibly, laughter filled the bright blue eyes as she scrutinized him. Her soft body shifted, causing an all-together different physical reaction, as she reached up and removed her helmet.
Honey-blond hair tumbled across her shoulders as she gave him a bright smile. “That was sooo awesome! I can’t believe that I just jumped a three-hundred-and-forty-five million-year-old gorge.”
He didn’t know whether to dump her back in the river or kiss her.
“Oh by the way.” She extended a slender hand and bemused he gripped it. A strange sensation surged along his arm as if circuit had been completed and her life force was pumping into him at a million bits a second.
“I’m Emma-Lee Dalton.”
© 2010 Carol Stephenson