The Survivors Club Online - J. Carson Black

SEPTEMBER 2012

The Hilton Atlanta

Alec Sheppard rested his hands on his knees and took a few breaths before turning to walk clockwise around the hotel’s running track. The late September sun turned sultry, the golden light flaring off the windows of the convention center across the way. It had taken him a long time to come back from the accident, but he’d been put together pretty well, and while he wasn’t the runner he once was, he could still keep up a good clip. As he walked, he gazed out at the downtown Atlanta skyline. The sun was sinking, an orange ball in the sky. He looked down at the building below him—a down-in-the-mouth bar.

His wife had left him. He didn’t blame her. She couldn’t understand his “obsession with skydiving.” Didn’t understand why a few weeks after he fell into that swamp in Florida he was already thinking about it. She said he was like a kid, and not in a good way. How could they begin to think about having children when he was like a cocked gun, ready to explode in her face at any minute? Annette was not a risk taker. He’d known that when they got married a couple of years ago. What had seemed an interesting conversation piece when she was his girlfriend had turned into reality. He lived, ate, breathed, and slept risk. He was risky in his investments (that didn’t turn out too well early on, but he was on the rebound and his presence here in Atlanta was proof of that), and according to Annette he had a risky lifestyle—he was an adrenaline junkie.

Two weeks ago she’d left, wrestling two suitcases to the front door, her face a cold mask. And then the mask crumpled and she cried in long, jagged sobs. He remembered then the reason he’d married her, how much he had loved her, and reached out to steady her by the shoulders, to hold her, to comfort her, as he had done so many times before.

She’d slapped him across the face and said the last words she spoke to him face-to-face. “You!” she said. “You, you…” And turned and walked out into the sunshine, toward her car and the moving van that would take everything away and leave his house and soul empty.

Yet here he was, the blood pumping through him, every sense alive, reveling in the moment. What a bastard. But he could run. He’d been pounding it out on the oval track running around the edge of the hotel, feeling free again and thinking about another jump. Not for a while yet—he had to be in good shape—but he was thinking about it. He even knew where he wanted to go: SkyView Jump Center in Houston. He lived in Houston, so it was the obvious place to start back.

He felt a twinge in his hip. The hairline fracture of the pelvis wasn’t back to a hundred percent, and he wouldn’t be jumping for a while. But he would.

He couldn’t wait to get back in the air.

As Alec walked through the reddening gloom, the sun torching the buildings one more time before going under, he was aware of someone coming at him. A jogger, the rhythmic sound of his running shoes hitting the ground—one-two, one-two. Alec nodded to him as they were about to pass each other, and suddenly something slapped his chest.

Stunned, he watched as the guy kept jogging, one-two, one-two, one-two. Already just a figure in the gloom. Had the jogger assaulted him? Slapped him? Hit him? He looked down, half expecting to see blood from a bullet wound. Shock, he thought. I’m too shocked to know I’m hit. And yes, there was red there, on the center of his chest. But it wasn’t blood.

It was a red sticker. The kind you might see on a broken-down car’s back window to indicate it needed to be towed.

The only thing on it was a number.

Five.

He peeled the sticker off his T-shirt and looked in the direction of the hotel door. Aware that he’d heard the door open and close while he was still feeling his chest for blood. Also aware that his heart was thumping much harder than it ever did before he jumped out of an airplane.

The sticky stuff on the back adhered to his knuckles, and it took him a minute to fold the thing up so it didn’t stick to his fingers. Now what?

He started back along the track, feeling a slight chill now as the