Adina had entered … but for her own secret reasons. She would smile and pose, and when the time was right, she would show everyone what a joke this was — what a joke her mom’s life was. How stupid the girls in her high school were for believing in this beauty and happily-ever-after crap. She would use the money from the publication of her exposé to buy that drum kit herself. Maybe she’d even write a song about the whole experience. “Artificial Girl.” Or “Teen Dream Armageddon.” Yeah. Adina liked the sound of that. She would be a beauty pageant Che Guevara7.
A thick fogbank had rolled in at dusk, and now, between the intense dark and the fog, it was impossible to see much of anything except for the volcano outlined by the moon. A small tickle ran up her neck. Adina had the feeling she was being watched. It was silly — they hadn’t found any other survivors and they hadn’t seen any other signs of life. Still, a shiver passed over her, and she forced herself to concentrate on the soothing sound of the waves coming in, going out. Soon, her eyelids flickered with fatigue.
A quick flash of lights near the volcano startled her awake. She stood up quickly, gasping as she got too close to the fire’s warmth. She looked again. Nothing. But she had seen them: short blasts, like signals. Or were the night and the events of the day getting the best of her? In the watery moonlight, the island’s volcano was a formless monster wearing a halo of thin gray clouds. Adina saw no repeat of the mysterious lights, but she hunched closer to the fire, grateful for its light like some primitive ancestor. The jungle nipped at her confidence with each sudden screech or low growl. She’d managed the heels. The swimsuit trauma. The endless interviews with steel-eyed judges asking if she’d ever sent naked pictures of herself to a boyfriend or anything else that could cast a shadow of scandal over the pageant. She’d thrown herself into each challenge with total commitment, thinking only about the endgame — taking down Miss Teen Dream for good. With each victory, she felt emboldened and determined. Giddy, almost.
Now, for the first time since she’d started this crazy project, she felt afraid.
Sheltered by the dark, the agent watched the girls sleeping on the beach and shook his head. This was not good, not at all. They were six weeks away from Operation Peacock, and this was a serious wrench in the monkey works. The Boss wasn’t going to like this. Better deliver the bad news now and get it over with.
The agent crept back to the catamaran stashed behind the rocks and paddled through rough surf to the far side of the island. As he walked onto the beach, a sudden hiss-growl came from the right. A nearly extinct breed of giant snake particular to the island leapt onto the sand, blocking the path. It puffed out its Elizabethan ruff of colorful neck webbing in warning, and with a terrifying hiss-screech, it lunged. In an instant, the bullet tore through the colorful neck. As it fell, the snake’s expression was one of surprise, as if it had shown up to work only to find someone else sitting in its desk and using its stapler. And then it was dead.
The agent lowered the silencer. Damn snakes. They had no manners. They were tasty, though. Just like chicken. But there were more important things to tend to, and so the agent rolled the creature’s corpse out into the surf, watching it go under. Then, whistling the jaunty Miss Teen Dream theme song about a world of pretty, the agent turned and disappeared into the jungle, covering any trace of his tracks.
Armed guards in black shirts nodded as the agent passed through security and into the secret compound. He punched in four digits on a keypad and the door hidden in the rock facade slid open. The elevator shot him down five floors. He took the hallway to the conference room and used the red phone. There was a beep and the agent said two words: “Operation Peacock.” He put the phone back on its base and waited. In a moment, the large screen on the wall crackled to life.
“This better be good,” the sleepy voice said from the screen.
The agent cleared his throat. “We’ve got a problem,” he said before giving a full status on the plane crash and the surviving girls. The person on the screen listened intently as the agent spoke.
“Agent Jones, in six weeks, Operation Peacock is a go. Nothing can interfere. Nothing. A rescue mission to the island will mean attention. We don’t want attention.”
“I understand. What about the girls?”
“Six weeks is a long time, Agent. And it’s a hostile island. They’ll be lucky to last two days,” the Boss answered. “Brief everyone in the morning. The official word is that there were no survivors. Operation Peacock goes on as scheduled.”