The fifth book in the St. Kilda series, 2010
To Jan and Bill Croft
And the inimitable
You must believe me. St. Kilda Consulting is our best hope.”
Ambassador James Steele pinched the bridge of his nose and wished he had never met the woman who now sat opposite his desk. “Alara…”
“I’m no longer called that.”
Steele blew out a hard breath and wheeled his chair back from his desk. Very few people on earth could make him uncomfortable. The woman no longer called Alara was one of them.
And one of the most dangerous.
“Just as I no longer work for the government,” Steele said.
“We established that years ago.” Alara smiled almost sadly. Her silver hair gleamed, hair that once had been as black as her eyes. “In the shadow world, St. Kilda Consulting has made quite a reputation for itself. Trust is rare in any world. Even more so in the shadows.”
“You’re asking him to break that trust,” Emma Cross said, speaking up for the first time in fifteen minutes.
Steele and Alara turned sharply toward Emma, telling her what she’d already guessed-they had forgotten she was there.
All emotion faded from Alara’s expression. It was replaced by the frightening intelligence that had made her a legend within the nameless, anonymously funded government agencies whose initials changed frequently but whose purpose never changed.
“I came in soft,” Alara said coolly, “requesting, not threatening. I don’t have time for games with disillusioned children.” She looked at Steele. “According to our intelligence, America could lose a major population center in less than seven days. We need St. Kilda to prevent that. We will have what we need.”
Without looking away from Alara, Steele said, “Emma, summarize the facts as they were presented to us.”
Emma’s light green eyes watched her boss for a moment. Then she began speaking quickly, without emotion. “As given to us, no questions asked or qualifications offered. Ms. Alara’s department or departments have been following various overseas entities. One of those entities is suspected-”
“Known not suspected,” Alara cut in.
“-of stealing and reselling yachts,” Emma continued without pause. “One of the stolen yachts was specially modified to hold contraband-chemical, biological, and/or radioactive. Motives, whether the actors are state or nonstate, weren’t part of Alara’s presentation, which will make finding and stopping who or whatever is the enemy before time runs out just this side of impossible.” She looked at Alara. “No surprise the bureaucrats and politicians want to dump this steaming pile on St. Kilda’s doorstep.”
Steele almost smiled. Emma Cross had a pretty face and a bottom-line mind.
“The excuse for said dumping,” Emma continued, turning back to Steele, “is that St. Kilda has an agent who has been investigating missing yachts for an international insurer. The yacht, Blackbird, which I have been tracing, is a dead ringer for the stolen, refitted, and purportedly dangerous yacht pursued by Alara’s department. Or departments. The person, group, or entities responsible for theft of the nameless yacht weren’t identified. At all.”
Alara’s still-black eyebrows rose, but she said nothing about Emma’s coolly mocking summary. The older woman simply sat in her crisp business suit and pumps, looking like an employee of a middle-management team, back when women were called secretaries rather than administrative assistants.
“Satellite tracking and other intel confirm that a yacht believed to be Blackbird will be off-loaded from the container ship Shinhua Lotus at approximately fifteen hundred hours Pacific Coast time,” Emma continued. “According to St. Kilda’s investigation, an unknown transit captain will pick up the boat in Port of Seattle. We have no assurance that the yacht aboard the container ship is the same one that originally was loaded aboard the Lotus. We won’t have that assurance until someone finds a way to get aboard either the container ship or the yacht. I’m sure our would-be ‘client’ has the resources to covertly conduct that search.”
“Had,” Alara said. “Past tense.”
“You have a leak,” Emma said bluntly.
“Always probable,” Alara said. “St. Kilda has carefully and repeatedly distanced itself from any traceable connection with any U.S. intel agency. The targets won’t be looking for you. They sure as bloody hell are looking for us. We don’t have anyone on the ground who isn’t being followed.”
Emma kept her mouth shut because she hated agreeing with the other woman. Nothing personal. Just past experience. The officers and agents she had worked with all over the world had been decent people…at the lower levels. The further she went up the food chain, the less trustworthy the bosses became. Again, nothing personal. Just the Darwinian facts of survival in a highly politicized workplace whose rules changed with every headline.
“Do you have anything else you can tell St. Kilda?” Steele asked.
“Not at the present time,” Alara said.
Emma made a rude sound.
Steele didn’t bother.
“You aren’t required to help,” Alara pointed out.
“But it sure is hard to do business in the U.S. when everyone who works for St. Kilda is audited quarterly,” Emma said, “when St. Kilda personnel are stopped at the border, or their passports are jerked, or their driver’s license is revoked, their spouse fired, and every business that approaches St. Kilda is warned not-”
Steele held up his hand.
Emma swallowed the rest of her rant and waited. Steele knew how harassment worked. Good old Uncle’s bureaucrats could hound St. Kilda to death. Literally.
“That’s the price of living in a society you can’t fit around a campfire,” Alara said to Emma. “Cooperation is required in reality if not in law. Ambassador Steele knows this. Why don’t you?”
Emma hoped her teeth weren’t leaving skid marks on her tongue. She really wanted to unload on the older woman.
Because Alara was right. “Reality is a bitch, and she is always in heat,” Alara said. “When all else fails, you can count on that.” She glanced at her watch. “In or out?”
Steele rolled his chair to face Emma. “You’re off the hook on this one. Be prepared to brief another St. Kilda employee in less than an hour.”
“No,” Emma said. “I’m in.”
“I don’t want someone whose head isn’t in the game,” Alara said.
“No worries.” Emma’s smile was thin as a knife. “I’ve learned to use my head, not my heart. I’m in unless Steele says otherwise.”
“You’re in,” Steele said.
“Seven days, which began counting down at midnight,” Alara said, coming to her feet. “When the time is up, be prepared for panic and chaos. If we’re lucky, the deaths will be under ten thousand.” She looked at Emma with cold black eyes. “Be smarter than your mouth.”
Emma Cross gripped the round chromed bars of the pitching Zodiac’s radar bridge as it raced over the Puget Sound, twenty miles beyond Elliott Bay. St. Kilda Consulting had assured her that the boat driver was capable. But Joe Faroe hadn’t mentioned that the dude called Josh didn’t look old enough to drink.
Was I that young once?
Yeah, I must have been. Scary thought. You can make some shockingly dumb, entirely legal decisions at that age.
I sure did.
Josh must have, too. His eyes are a lot older than his body.
She had seen too many men like him while she worked as a case officer in places where local wars made headlines half a world away, innocents were blown to bloody rags, and nothing really changed.
Except her. She’d finally gotten out. Tribal wars had been burning along before she joined the CIA. The wars were still burning just fine without her. World without end, amen.
Until Alara had dropped into St. Kilda’s life.
She has to be wrong, Emma told herself. God knows it wouldn’t be the first time intel was bad.
But if she’s right…
The thought sent a chill through Emma that had nothing do with the cold water just inches away.
Automatically she hung on as the Zodiac bounced and skidded on the wake of a ship that was already miles behind them, headed for Elliott Bay’s muscular waterfront. She pulled her thoughts away from what she couldn’t change to what she might change.
Emma tapped the driver and shouted over the roar of the huge outboard engines. “Shut it down.”
He eased off the throttle. The boat slid down off plane and settled deeply in the steel-colored water. Like a skittish cat, the inflatable moved without warning in unexpected directions.
“You okay?” Josh asked.
“As in not wanting to hurl?”
He smiled crookedly. “Yeah.”
He gave her a slow onceover filled with obvious male appreciation and nodded. “Sure are.”
She laughed. “Thanks, darlin’, but no thanks.”
Josh looked at her eyes for a moment, nodded, and waited for his next order. No harm, no foul.
Emma wished she could say the same about her own job. Shading her eyes against the bright afternoon overcast, she looked west, toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Swells from the distant Pacific Ocean, plus choppy wind waves, batted at the twenty-foot-long Zodiac, lifting and dropping the rubber boat without warning. Some of the waves had white crests that streaked the gray water.
“We good?” she asked. “That wind’s kicking up.”
“We can take three times the blow, easy.”
Land looked real far away to her, but she’d learned to trust expert judgment. For all the pilot’s fresh-faced looks, he was utterly at home with the inflatable and Puget Sound.
“Let me know if that changes,” she said.
Even as Josh nodded, she switched her attention back to the western horizon. Ten minutes earlier, she’d spotted her target when it was only a dark blob squeezed between the shimmering gray sky and the darker gray sound.
Now the target was a huge ship plowing toward them like a falling mountain. Dark engine smoke boiled up from funnels behind the bridge deck. The deck cargo was a colorful collage of steel shipping containers stacked seven high. The boat was close enough that she could make out its white bow wave.
“That her?” Josh asked.
She lifted binoculars, spun the focus wheel, and scanned quickly. On the Zodiac’s shifting, uncertain platform, staring through unstabilized binoculars was a fast way to get seasick.
The collage of colors leaped forward and became a random checkerboard of blue and white and yellow and red and green, toy blocks for giants playing an unknown game.
“Meet the container ship Shinhua Lotus,” Emma said, lowering the glasses. “Standard cruising speed close to thirty knots. One hundred and eighty thousand horsepower. Her hull is steel, a thousand feet long. She’s stacked with more than fifteen thousand steel freight containers. One hundred and sixty thousand tons of international commerce at work.”
“Gotta be the most boring job in the world.”
She glanced quickly at him. “What?”
“Driving that pig between ports. Tugs do all the fun bits close in. The ship’s captain mostly just talks on the radio.”
She looked at the little boat that had carried her out to meet the Lotus. Twenty feet long, six feet wide and powered by two outboard engines. She touched the fabric of the Zodiac’s inflated side tube. It was only slightly thicker than the rubberized off-shore suit she wore. All that supported the boat was the breath of life, twenty pounds per square inch of air pressure.
And one of the biggest ships ever built was bearing down on them, carrying bad news in the shape of a yacht called Blackbird.
She lifted the binoculars again. The huge ship overwhelmed her field of view. Everything was a fast-forward slide show. Stacks of shipping containers in various company colors. The windshield of the bridge deck. The hammerhead crane next to the forward mast.
The black-hulled yacht perched in a cradle on top of stacks of steel boxes.
Hello, Blackbird. So you made it.
If that’s really you.
“How close can you get to the Lotus?” she asked.
“How close do you need?”
She pulled a camera from the waterproof bag at her feet. Unlike the binoculars, the camera had a computerized system to keep the field of view from dancing with every motion of the boat.
“I have to be able to see detail on a yacht sitting on top of the containers. A two-hundred-millimeter lens is the longest I have.”
That and intel satellite photos, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Too bad I don’t really trust Alara.
For all Emma could prove, the photos St. Kilda had been given could have been taken on the other side of the world a year ago. Or three years. Or twelve. Not that she was paranoid. It was just that she preferred facts that she’d checked out herself. Thoroughly. Recently.
“Two-hundred-millimeter lens.” Josh whistled through his teeth and narrowed his eyes. “And the lady wants details.”
“What’s the problem?”
He held up one finger. “That great pig up ahead is throwing a ten-foot bow wave.” A second finger uncurled. “The Coast Guard patrol boats would be on us like stink on a cat box. After 9/11, they lost their sense of humor about bending the rules.”
No news there for Emma. “You saying it can’t be done?”
“Depends. How bad do you want to swim or go to jail?”
“Not so much, thanks.” She let out a long breath and reminded herself that impatience was a quick way to die, and she was chasing nothing more dangerous than luxury yachts.
At least she had been, until Alara appeared like a puff of darkness.
“I can wait until the tugs are nudging that ‘great pig’ against a dock,” Emma said.
“If you’re working on a really short clock,” Josh said, “I’ll be glad to take a run at the Lotus right now.” He grinned suddenly. “It beats my usual gig-hauling seasick tourists out to chase whales.”
She thought about it, then shook her head. “It’s not life or death.”
She laughed silently, bitterly. That was why she’d quit the CIA and taken an assignment from St. Kilda to investigate yacht thefts. No alarms with this job. No adrenaline exploding through her body.
And best of all, no corrupt politics.
Guess again, she told herself. Then get over it.
“Back to shore?” Josh asked. “Not yet. Keep the Lotus in sight while you give me a sightseeing tour of the famous and beautiful Elliott Bay.”
“Legal distance maintained at all times?”
“Until I say otherwise.”
Standing on top of seventy-foot-high stacks of containers, with only the unforgiving steel deck below to catch him, MacKenzie Durand wrestled with the cargo sling that would lift the yacht off Shinhua Lotus. He looked up to the glassed-in cab of the deck crane, where the operator was waiting for directions.
Hope he knows what he’s doing, Mac thought as he held up his right hand and made a small circle in the air. Sign language for giving more slack to the cable that held the lifting frame.
The operator dropped the frame six inches at a time until Mac’s hand clenched into a fist.
The cable stopped instantly.
Damn, but it’s sweet to work with professionals, Mac thought as he began positioning the sling on the yacht’s black, salt-streaked hull. The man in the cab might be a miserable son of a bitch who beat his wife and was an officer in the most corrupt labor union on the waterfront, but when he was at the controls of his pet hammerhead crane, he could be as sure and gentle as a mother cradling a newborn.
Mac manhandled a wide strap into position just ahead of the spot on the hull where twin prop housings on Blackbird thrust out like eggbeaters. Lift points were crucial in controlling a vessel that weighed almost thirty tons.
Besides, if anything went wrong, he was going to be splat on ground zero. He’d been there, done that, and vowed never to be there again. He’d been the lucky one who survived.
At least he had been told that he was the lucky one. After a few years, he even believed it. During daylight.
At night, well, night was always there, waiting with the kind of dreams he woke from cold, sweating, biting back howls of fury and betrayal.
Long ago and far away, Mac told himself savagely. Pay attention to what’s happening now.
When he was satisfied with the position of the lifting strap, he signaled the crane operator to pick up cable. The frame went from slack to loaded. The aft strap was in front of the propellers and the forward strap was even with the front windshield. Both straps visibly stretched as the overhead cable tightened.
Just before Blackbird lifted out of its cradle, Mac clenched his fist overhead. Instantly the crane operator stopped bringing in cable.
Mac checked everything again before he scrambled up the ten-foot ladder that stood against the swim step at the stern of the yacht. When he was aboard Blackbird, he gave the crane operator a palm-out hand signal with fingers spread.
Take a break, five minutes.
The operator nodded and reached for a cigarette.
A Lotus deckhand appeared and took the ladder away from the yacht’s swim step.
Mac opened the salon door and went inside. He had been a professional transport skipper for five years. He was regularly dropped on the deck of a boat he had never seen before and was expected to take command of immediately. Since he didn’t plan on going down with any ship, he had developed a mental checklist as rigorous and detailed as an airline captain’s.
He liked the idea that if he died, it was his own screwup, not someone else’s.
The engine hatch was on the main deck, just behind the pilot seat and the galley. He opened the heavy, sound-proofed hatch and secured it.
The engines were at the stern, leaving an open area below waiting to be used for storage of extra equipment, parts, whatever-a real luxury on a forty-one-foot boat. He walked quickly through the anteroom to the engines. He had to duck a bit, but it was a lot easier access to the engines than he was accustomed to.
The first thing on his mental list was the big batteries. He snapped on their switches and checked the output. They had kept enough charge on the ten-day trip from Singapore to start the yacht’s engines and operate its various systems.
Next, he opened the seacocks that supplied saltwater to the cooling systems of the two shiny new diesel engines that drove the boat. Oversized engines, a special order that made for a cramped engine room.
Gotta love those yachties with more money than sense, Mac told himself.
Quickly but thoroughly, he checked the hose clamps on the through-hull fittings to make sure none had vibrated loose at sea. Cooling water was required. Gushers of saltwater in the bilge weren’t.
The through-hull fitting that normally supplied cooling water to the generator had been left open to drain rainwater or ocean spray out of the yacht during the voyage. Mac closed the seacock so the yacht wouldn’t sink minutes after it touched the waters of Elliott Bay.
He checked the through-hull fittings for the septic and water-maker systems, then the fuel lines that fed the two six-cylinder diesel engines. He had been assured there was enough fuel aboard to make Rosario, sixty miles to the north, but he was suspicious by nature.
It had saved his life more than once.
A shipping crew in Singapore, where the yacht had begun its voyage, could make hundreds of dollars by shorting the fuel tanks. Mac didn’t want to come into the Rosario rigging yard at the end of a tow line.
The sight gauges for both fuel tanks showed less than an inch of fuel.
Ah, human nature. All for me and screw you.
The good news was that the diesel fuel in the feed lines from the tanks looked clear. The bad news was that he would be visiting the fuel dock on the Elliott Bay waterfront.
With quick, economical motions he checked both fuel filter housings for water.
All good. At least the greedy sucks put in clean fuel.
What there was of it.
He looked carefully around the engine room. Salt water was as corrosive as acid to metal parts and systems. Even with the best care and maintenance, time and use and the sea would mark the yacht. But right now, she was bright and clean, shining with promise.
Mac loved taking a new boat on its first real cruise. It was like meeting a really interesting woman. Challenging. That was where the reward came-getting the best out of himself and an unknown boat.
No one else at risk, no one else to die, no one else to survive alone and sweat through nightmares the same way.
When Mac had finished his checklist, he climbed the inner steps back up out of the engine compartment into the salon. Plastic wrapped the upholstered furnishings and protected the narrow, varnished teak planks that were technically a deck but were too beautiful to be called anything but a floor. When he closed the hatch, it fit almost seamlessly into the floor in front of the sofa.
Opposite the sofa was another, bigger, L-shaped sofa. Nestled in the angle of the L was a teak dining table, also protected by plastic and cardboard. Polished black granite curved around the galley. It was tucked underneath wrappings. Everything was, except the wheel itself. Varnished teak gleamed with invitation.
Mac opened the teak panel that concealed two ranks of electrical circuit breakers and meters. He noted a scratch on the inside of the door. Cosmetic, not a problem. He checked each carefully labeled meter and breaker, going down the ranks, engaging breakers and energizing the circuits he expected to need.
The last two breakers he threw were marked Port and Starboard Engine start/stop. When he engaged them, two loud buzzers signaled that the diesels in the engine room were ready to go.
With a final check of the batteries, he went back through the salon, into the well, and up the narrow six-step stairway to the flying bridge. He checked the switch settings on bridge controls, then lifted his hand and twirled his fingers in a tight circle.
The overhead crane operator smoothly picked up five feet of cable, lifting the yacht up and out of its cradle. The fresh afternoon breeze off Puget Sound tried to turn Blackbird perpendicular to the container ship, but the operator had anticipated the wind and corrected for it. The overhead crane arm swung the yacht toward the huge ship’s outside rail.
For a second Mac felt like the boat was adrift, flying. This was the part of the job he didn’t like, when he had to trust his life to the crane operator’s skill.
He looked out over the waterfront toward the Seattle skyline beyond. The restless sound, the rain-washed city, the evergreen islands. The beautiful silver chaos of intersecting wakes-container ships, freighters, ferries, tugs, pleasure boats zipping about like water bugs.
One of the water bugs seemed to be fascinated by the process of off-loading the yacht. Mac had seen the Zodiac while he waited for the Lotus to be nudged into its berth. The little rubber boat had weaved through the commercial traffic, circling ferries and tugs, taking pictures of everything, even the Harbor Patrol boat that had barked at it for getting too close to the Lotus.
Sightseers, Mac thought, grateful that he no longer lived a life where the little inflatable would have been an instant threat. Sweet, innocent civilians.
He did a quick check of the water near the container ship, where he would soon be dropped into the busy bay. A small coastal freighter, freshly loaded with two dozen containers destined for local delivery, pushed west toward the San Juan Islands. Two Washington State ferries, one inbound to Seattle and the other headed across to Bainbridge Island, were passing one another a few hundred yards to the north. A City of Seattle fireboat was making way toward its station at Pier 48, and a dozen pleasure craft of varying sizes were crisscrossing the heavily traveled waters in the afternoon sunshine.
The black rubber Zodiac with two people aboard lay about a hundred yards offshore, bobbing and jerking in the wakes and chop. The open craft had a shiny stainless-steel radar arch and the logo of a local tour outfit. The captain and single passenger wore standard offshore gear to protect them from wind and spray in the open boat. The passenger was busy with the camera again.
The round black eye of the long-distance lens made the fine hairs on Mac’s neck lift.
Too many memories of sniper scopes.
He shook off his past and watched as the crane operator delicately lowered Blackbird into the water. Mac signaled for a stop. The operator held the boat in place in the cradle, afloat but not adrift. Mac checked his instruments once more, then touched the port start button on the console.
Beneath him, he felt as much as heard one huge engine rattle and cough. He held the switch closed while he glanced over his left shoulder toward the stern quarter of the boat. Black smoke belched, then cleared and belched again. The stuttering sound of engine ignition smoothed out into a comforting, throaty rumble.
The starboard engine started more easily and leveled out instantly. He went to the stainless-steel railing aft of the bridge and checked. Both exhaust ports were trailing diesel smoke. Beneath it, he could see the steady flow of cooling water.
Good to go.
He signaled thumbs-up to the crane operator. The yacht slipped down a few more inches until the water took the full weight of the boat. Moments later the slings went slack. Then the operator let out enough cable to ease the lifting frame far enough aft that the yacht was free.
The big power pods took over as Mac put the engine controls into forward. She felt solid. Clean. Good. A grand yacht doing what she had been designed to do. He left the joystick controls alone and worked with the old-fashioned throttle levers. Testing himself and a new control system in the busy bay was stupid. He’d try the joystick out later, when he was away from the crowds.
Mac idled away from the container docks. He purely loved the first instants of freedom, of being responsible only for himself. Grinning, he glanced over his shoulder to check the wake.
The black Zodiac was moving with him. No faster. No slower. Same direction. Same angle.
The hair on Mac’s neck stirred again in silent warning.
This time he didn’t ignore it. He got his binoculars out of the small duffel he always carried, and took a good, long look from the cover of the cabin.
You’re being paranoid, the civilian part of himself said.
The part of him that had been honed to a killing edge years ago just kept memorizing faces, features, and boat registration numbers.
Put me ashore there,” Emma said, pointing at the dock next to the Belltown Marina.
“Isn’t your car back at-”
“My problem, not yours,” she cut in.
While Josh headed for the dock, she stripped off the red Mustang suit and secured the camera in her backpack. They had wallowed behind in Blackbird’s wake for fifteen minutes, long enough for Emma to realize that solo surveillance on the water was even trickier than on city streets. Joe Faroe would be flying in as soon as he could, disguised as a tourist. Any more obvious backup for what was supposed to be an insurance investigation would send off warning bells in the wrong places.
All she could do was pray that Alara had some trustworthy people on the ground.
Leaks were something Emma didn’t want to share.
Josh brought the Zodiac up to the hotel dock, cutting his speed at the last moment and killing all momentum with a short burst of reverse power. Emma stood poised, one foot on the black rubber gunwale, and stepped off just a second before the Zodiac touched the dock.
“Call me if you want a different kind of tour,” Josh said, watching her hips.
With a cheerful wave, Emma went quickly up the ramp that led to Western Avenue. As she walked, she pulled out St. Kilda’s version of a sat/cell phone. The parts she most appreciated were the long-lived battery and built-in scrambler.
When she hit speed dial, she glanced over her shoulder. The Zodiac had backed out into open water and was now heading south, toward its dock next to the ferry terminal.
Blackbird had turned into the marina four hundred yards to the north and disappeared.
“Where are you and what are you doing?” her cell phone demanded.
It had become Faroe’s standard greeting when one of his operators called in. As operations director of St. Kilda Consulting, he had a lot to do and no time to waste doing it.
“Blackbird is on the wing,” she said, “headed for Belltown Marina.”
“For the night?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out.”
“Get aboard somehow. Before our guy in Singapore vanished, he left a scratch on the inside of the electrical panel cupboard. Given the dither factor on the satellite beacon, it’s a low-tech way to be certain that we’re talking about the same boat.”
Emma called up the interior of Blackbird from her mental file, located the panel, and said, “Will do.”
“Any bogies?” Faroe asked.
“So far, so good.”
“Said the skydiver as he reached for the ripcord.”
Weaving her way through herds of tourists, Emma half-smiled at the gallows humor. Vintage Faroe.
“If Blackbird is what we’re told it is,” he continued, “somebody is keeping tabs on her. Could be the man running her. Could be the man behind the tree. Find out.”
“Still getting the pings?” she asked.
Faroe covered the phone and said something she couldn’t hear.
Holding on to her backpack strap, Emma checked over her shoulder as she walked north. Old professional habits. She’d thought that quitting the Agency would strip away her professional paranoia.
It hadn’t. Maybe just being a woman alone in modern cities kept the reflexes alive. Maybe it was simply who she’d become. Whatever. It was part of her now, like dark hair and light green eyes.
Faroe’s voice came back to her ear. “Lane says the locator beacons are still coming through. The government dither must be turned way up on the satellites, because the beacon on the container ship and the one on Blackbird aren’t showing enough separation to set off our alarms.”
“The yacht is getting farther and farther from Shinhua Lotus. God, what if we have the wrong one?”
“That’s why the scratch is there. What’s the transit captain’s name?”
“On my to-do list.”
Faroe grunted. “Description?”
“I’ll get back to you on that along with the name.”
The phone went dead before she could say anything. She flipped it shut and tucked it into the holster at her waist without breaking stride. She didn’t notice the people around her unless they looked at her for more than a passing glance. Then she memorized them.
Nobody stood out-front, side, or behind.
So far, so good.
Belltown Marina was guarded by a gate with a coded and keyed entrance lock. Given enough time she’d be able to get the combination. But on an unusually warm October day, all she had to do was be a little lucky. People would be coming and going from their boats.
When she spotted two yachties walking up the long ramp from the water, she moved into position. As the gate opened, she caught it, holding it for the couple.
“Great timing,” Emma said. She tapped her cell phone. “I was just going to call my husband to let me in.”
The male looked her over, as if trying to decide whether she really belonged to the boating fraternity that might tie up to the most expensive overnight docks in Seattle.
Smiling, Emma pointed toward Blackbird, which was motoring at dead slow speed down one of the marina fairways, headed for the fuel dock. “We just got her delivered. Isn’t she a beauty?”
“Yeah,” the male said, still looking at her.
Emma’s smile stayed bright, even though the man’s eyes had come to a full stop on her breasts. She had dressed to emphasize her assets and lower a male IQ. Tight jeans, tight crop top, and the toned body to make it work. She wasn’t movie-star material, but she was plenty female.
And she’d learned a long time ago that men remembered breasts much better than faces. Telling questioners that the woman they’re asking about had a nice rack didn’t help anyone trying to find her.
“Hap, for God’s sake, get out of the way,” his companion said. She, too, was dressed to catch the male eye.
“I just wanted to make sure she wasn’t some street person.”
“She may be a street person, but not the kind you’re worried about.”
Emma slid through the gate and shut it behind her, leaving the couple to their practiced bickering. When she reached the interconnected docks at the water, she stopped, caught by the sight of Blackbird maneuvering in close quarters. Next to the container ship, the yacht had looked dainty, almost tiny. In the crowded fairways of the marina, she looked big.
Slowly, elegantly, the yacht turned in its own length. The man running her seemed almost motionless, but she could tell he was fully in control of the boat. She enjoyed watching that kind of skill at work.
Quickly she closed the distance to the fuel dock. Even if it hadn’t been her assignment, she would have been intrigued by the grace and restrained power of the black yacht.
And the captain. He was a big, rangy male with a saltwater tan and a dark, closely cropped black beard. His hair was equally short beneath a battered baseball cap. A faded black T-shirt tucked into his close-fitting, worn jeans.
For all his threadbare clothes, he was perfectly at home on the obviously expensive Blackbird. He touched the controls on the flying bridge with calm expertise, nudging a throttle for a second, then tapping it back to neutral and waiting for a moment to gauge Blackbird’s momentum and direction. He brought the yacht parallel to the fuel dock, letting the residual thrust slowly take the flared starboard bow over the edge of the dock without brushing the hull against the heavily tarred wood and rub rail.
The dockhand grabbed the mooring line that was draped over the yacht’s bow rail. She took a turn of the line around the steel cleat, and nodded up at the man on the bridge.
A propeller kicked for a second, then quit. The stern slid sideways and eased toward the dock. The inflated fenders dangling protectively from the yacht’s rails barely kissed the dock before Blackbird was at rest. The dockhand made a “cut it” motion with the side of her hand over her throat as she walked quickly back to the stern line.
Bounced, really. She wasn’t old enough to drink, but she wasn’t jailbait, either. Tight shorts and T-shirt aside, she knew exactly what she was doing on the fuel dock.
The engines stopped.
Emma knew just enough about boats to be impressed with how easy the captain made docking the big boat look. Even a lightweight aluminum rowboat had a mind of its own. The mass involved in a yacht Blackbird’s size was measured in tons. A lot of them.
The captain climbed down the steep fly-bridge stairs like a cat and vanished into the boat’s salon.
Swiftly Emma sorted through available strategies. She decided to stick with the IQ-lowering crop top. The lace inset between her breasts was a bigger tease than bare cleavage. The oldest approach in the world might be a hip-swinging cliché, but it was still around because it still worked. She tucked the left earpiece of her sunglasses into her cleavage, pulled out the colorful band that held her hair in a ponytail, shook her hair free, and sauntered forward.
Time to brighten the captain’s day-and get an invitation aboard.
Mac stepped out of the cabin and walked to the stainless-steel fuel plate that was flush with the deck. He went down on one knee to open up for fueling. Two prongs of the metal tool he held fit into indentions in the flat, circular fuel plate. A hard twist loosened the big, stainless-steel screw. While he turned the plate on its threads, he glanced at the fuel dock.
The lithe woman strolling down the ramp was older than the bouncy little line catcher who’d been hired by the fuel dock as eye candy for the yachting set. The woman with the small backpack over one shoulder moved with easy confidence. He liked that in a person, male or female.
But he wondered if he’d like the reason why she was interested in Blackbird.
Stop being paranoid. Yachties love to look at what’s on the water. Just because her hair is the same color as the woman on the Zodiac, there’s no reason to be wary. Lots of women have dark hair long enough to be pulled back in a ponytail or left free to fall to her shoulders.
And nice breasts. Real nice, not a bra line in sight.
His neck hairs ignored sweet reason and kept on voting for paranoia.
“That’s one beautiful yacht,” the woman called out to him.
Mac looked at her. There was only appreciation in her voice and in her expression. No reason to get upset. Blackbird was indeed a fine boat.
And the female wasn’t bad, either. Not fat, not skinny, with a spring to her stride that came from some kind of athletic activity. She was probably a few years past thirty. Her eyes were clear, light, and direct. Everything he liked in a woman.
Too bad she’s the one from the Zodiac.
It was in the line of her jaw, the curve of her ear, the narrow nose and full mouth. Dark hair now ruffled by the wind. The lacy gap in her top should have been illegal.
He didn’t know the game, but she was one intriguing player. “Thanks,” Mac said, standing up. He braced his arms on the railing, looked down, and drawled, “She’s very responsive.”
Her head tilted up toward him. She could have been friendly. She could have been measuring him for a coffin. Her eyes were a green that reminded him of the color of big ocean waves in the midst of breaking over the bow. Clear. Light green. Powerful. A warning a smart man listened to.
Oh, I’m listening.
Damn, she just might be worth the trouble.
And Mac knew she was trouble.
“You handle her well,” she said. “Have you had her long?”
Hell. She’s the wrong kind of trouble. She knows just how long I’ve been aboard this boat.
He glanced at the dock girl. She was waiting with a fat fuel hose. The nozzle was green.
“Diesel,” he said. Double-checking.
He took the nozzle and lifted the heavy fuel line aboard. The area around the deck’s fuel tank feed was protected by a white square of absorbent padding. He had cut a hole in the center to allow fueling. When the nozzle was in place, he looked at the dock girl.
“One hundred in each tank,” he said.
“One hundred diesel each,” she said, walking back to the pumps. “Fast or slow?”
Emma watched the fueling process and chewed over the fact that she’d made a mistake. Obviously he’d seen her aboard the Zodiac, and taken a good enough look through binoculars to know her even without her ponytail and Mustang gear. His dark eyes had gone blank the instant she asked how long he’d owned Blackbird.
He enjoyed her crop top, but it didn’t affect his IQ. A hard man in every way that counted.
Time for Plan B: Honesty.
“So much for light conversation,” she said clearly. “I’m Emma Cross and I’ve got a qualified buyer for Blackbird.”
“She’s not mine,” he said without looking up from the diesel nozzle. “I’m just delivering her.”
“So the owner is in Seattle.”
Mac didn’t answer.
“News flash,” Emma said crisply. “Being rude will just make me more pushy. I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, with or without your charming help.”
Mac almost smiled. “Charming, huh?”
“Yeah. Bet no one has ever accused you of that.”
This time Mac did smile. “No bet.”
Emma almost stepped back. The difference between this man with and without a smile was enough to make a woman think about doing whatever it took to keep the smile in place.
“Wow. You should try smiling more often, Mr. Whoever.”
He shook his head and decided he was going to find out just what kind of trouble this woman was. Give her enough rope and she might just tie herself up.
Now that was an intriguing thought. “MacKenzie Durand,” he said. “If you want me to answer, call me Mac.”
“One hundred!” called out the dockhand.
Mac loosened his grip on the nozzle, replaced the tank cover, and walked around the stern to the tank on the other side. The dockhand leaped forward to feed more hose aboard.
Emma looked at the thick hose, stepped behind the dockhand, lifted a few coils to help, and almost staggered.
Heavy. Who knew yachting was hard work?
Silently she revised her estimate of the captain’s physical strength. He was handling the stuff like it was garden hose. That rangy frame of his was deceptive.
“Hey, no need to get that cool top dirty,” the dockhand said. “I can handle it.”
“That’s what washing machines are for,” Emma said. “Do you do this all day?”
“Every day. The other dockhand quit. But I’m making a lot of money toward my degree.”
“That’s a lot of hose hauling,” Emma said.
“Beats waiting tables. I love being outside with boats.”
“Ready,” Mac called from the other side of the yacht.
“Coming on,” the dockhand said as she flipped a lever on one of the pumps. The dial began to spin, fast.
Another smaller yacht nosed in behind Blackbird. The dockhand went quickly to catch the lines.
Emma watched the dial on the fuel pump for a time. She was just reaching for the shutoff lever when the dockhand appeared, turned off the pump, and went back to feeding hose to the second boat.
“One hundred,” Emma called to Mac.
Moments later he appeared with the nozzle and heavy hose trailing. “New job?” he asked Emma.
The dockhand teleported into place, took the nozzle, then began dragging hose back and coiling it out of the way.
“Just a helping hand,” Emma said. “Poor kid has her work cut out for her.” She rubbed her hands on her jeans. “Permission to come aboard?”
“I’m on a short clock, but I can spare a few minutes.” He called out to the dockhand. “Go ahead and take care of the other boat. I can wait for the fuel ticket.”
She waved and looked grateful. The other customers were fishermen, eager to get out on the water.
Emma noted the military phrase as she headed for the stern of the boat. She grabbed the yacht’s stainless-steel rail, felt the grainy residue of salt spray, and lowered herself to the swim step. Her weight was nothing compared to that of Blackbird; the boat didn’t bounce or jerk as it accepted her.
Yet she sensed immediately the difference between dock and deck. Blackbird was alive with subtle motion.
Years peeled away and she was ten again, fishing with her father on the Great Lakes. She shook it off and concentrated on the mission.
“You aren’t staying in the marina?” she asked Mac.
He’d already decided to tell her the truth, because she could easily find it out anyway. Nothing like appearing helpful to catch someone off guard.
“I’m a transit captain,” he said, waving her toward the steps leading up to the deck. “I’m being paid to deliver this boat to the commissioning yard in Rosario.”
She walked onto the deck and looked around. “What’s a commissioning yard?”
“The hull and most of the interior of the boat is built in Shanghai. The navigation electronics, water maker, satellite linked chart plotter, TVs, radar, computer uplink, speakers, dishwasher, washer-dryer, stove, microwave, refrigerator, freezer, CD, DVD, and all the other expensive toys are added in the commissioning yard.”
She glanced at him. “So what kind of navigation system are you using to get to Rosario?”
“Paper charts and experience.”
He gestured her into the main salon.
“How long will the final work take?” she asked, looking around at the covered furniture-and the open panel on the breakers.
He shrugged. “Depends on how jammed up the commissioning yard is. Why?”
Emma stuck to the role she had developed over the last year on her St. Kilda assignment. “Have you ever worked for someone really, really, really rich?”
“That kind of money makes people impatient,” she said. “My client wants a yacht like Blackbird and he doesn’t want to wait a year or more for it. That’s how long the list is. A year, minimum, no matter what kind of money you have.”
“So he’s going to make the owner an offer he can’t refuse?”
She rolled her eyes. “Nothing that physical. Just a lot of green. Bales of it.”
Mac decided it was barely possible that her story was true. “Nice finder’s fee for you?”
“You bet.” She wandered toward the open panel. “The boats I’ve handled have been from one to eight million.”
“Relatively modest, for the kind of wealth you say your employer has.”
“He has five other boats,” Emma said, running her hand over the beautiful teak wheel. The cover story came easily to her lips. All those years of lying for a living, people dying, everybody lying, and no one gave a damn. “His wife saw a picture of a boat like Blackbird in a yachting magazine and decided that she had to have it. Yesterday.”
“Blackbird is small enough for the two of them to handle alone. Roomy enough for a captain if she changes her mind. And luxurious to the last full stop. You can get bigger boats for the money, but you can’t get better.”
Emma crouched down, rubbed her hand over the glorious teak, and glanced casually at the electronics panel.
The scratch was right where it should be, which meant Blackbird’s twin was still missing.
Good news or bad?
Both, probably. Luck seems to go that way.
Mac said nothing while Emma straightened and moved on to the galley. He decided he could get used to watching her.
“I doubt that Blackbird would go for much more than two, maybe three million after she’s commissioned,” he said. “Depends on the electronic toys and the demand in the marketplace.”
“And on how stubborn the present owner is about selling.” She shrugged, then faced Mac. Nice wasn’t getting the job done. Time for something else. “Price isn’t my problem. Getting the boat is. So just who owns Blackbird and how do I get hold of him? Make my life easy and I’ll see that you get paid for your time. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Sell your time?”
Her eyes were clear, green, patient, cool.
Mac’s smile was thin. He knew all about stubborn. He saw it in his mirror every morning. The razor edge of her tongue didn’t bother him. He’d been insulted a lot worse for a lot less reason.
But it meant that he didn’t have to play the amiable and easy game any longer.
“Yeah, that’s what I do,” he said, smiling. “Sell my time.”
This smile was different. It had Emma wishing the gun in her backpack was in her hand.
“How much time do you have on your clock?” she asked.
Blackbird moved restlessly, responding to a gust of wind. Mac didn’t have to look away from Emma to know that the afternoon westerlies had strengthened. The overcast was now a faint diamond haze.
Time to get going.
“I’m delivering the boat to Blue Water Marine Group,” Mac said. “Today.”
“Rosario. San Juan Islands.”
That could be checked. And would be.
“Is Blue Water Marine Group a broker?” she asked.
Emma throttled a flash of impatience. “Do they own this boat?” He shrugged.
“Do you have their telephone number?” she pressed.
“I use the VHF. That’s a radio.”
She told herself that she didn’t see a gleam of amusement in his nearly black eyes, but she didn’t believe it. She hoped he couldn’t see the gleam of temper in hers. She felt like a dumb trout rising for pieces of indigestible metal.
“I’d like to go with you to see how Blackbird rides,” she said evenly.
“I don’t want to sell my boss a pig.”
“I’d like to have you along.” He shrugged again. “No can do. Insurance only covers the transit captain.”
“I’ll risk it.”
“Blue Water Marine Group won’t.”
Emma knew a wall when she ran flat into it. She pulled her sunglasses out of her crop top and put them on. “Is there some way I can contact you?”
“I’m right here.”
She flashed her teeth. “So am I. I won’t be for long. How do people who aren’t standing on your feet get hold of you?”
“I move around a lot,” he said. “That’s the life of the transport skipper.”
“But you have a cell phone, right, one that rings almost anywhere?”
Mac decided that baiting wasn’t going to get him anywhere with this woman. She had a temper, and she kept it to herself. So he pulled out one of the stained business cards he always carried in his jeans.
She took it and slid it into her backpack as she walked to the swim step. “See you around, Captain.”
Mac didn’t doubt it.
Nor did he doubt that someone would be running his fingerprints soon. She had handled that card almost as carefully as a crime-scene tech.
Taras Demidov leaned against the sturdy pipe railing that kept careless pedestrians from falling fifteen feet into the waters of Belltown Marina. Part of him was amused by the railing. It summarized the difference between Russia and America. Russia believed citizens should watch out for themselves; if they got hurt, it wasn’t the government’s fault. America’s citizens believed the state should take care of them like children. Russia accepted a world of good and evil. Americans believed only in good.
Demidov enjoyed working with a culture that believed in God but not in the Devil. Americans were so genuinely surprised when flames burned through their flesh to the bone.
Unfortunately, the world wasn’t made up of Americans. The so-called nations of the Former Soviet Union understood about the reality of evil. Some of them contributed to it at every opportunity.
A movement in the marina caught his eye. He lifted his camera again, bracing the long lens on the railing. A light touch of his finger and the automatic focus homed in on the brunette who had reappeared from the cabin of Blackbird. Even though he knew that he wouldn’t be able to identify her at this distance, he took a series of quick pictures. Digital cameras were useful for fast transmission of images, but they just didn’t have the resolution of a good, slow film camera.
But tourists carried digital cameras. As long as he appeared to be a tourist he could vanish among the crowds. He was pushing it by having a long lens on the digital frame, something few tourists had. He wasn’t particularly worried. People saw what they expected to see. If anyone asked him a question, he would answer it in genial American English.
To the crowds around him, Demidov was just one more sightseer enjoying Seattle’s long summer days.
That startling, useful naïveté about strangers hadn’t changed since Demidov had first come to the U.S. many years ago, as a young commercial attaché in the Russian Consulate in San Francisco. He had been amazed then at his freedom of movement from city to city, state to state. He was still amazed. His movements were unwatched, unmarked, anonymous. As long as he stayed away from any Russian Federation consular buildings, he didn’t have to worry about FBI counterintelligence watchers.
All he had to do was wait for Shurik Temuri to appear and claim Blackbird. Unless the sullen old wolverine was disguised as a supple brown-haired female, Temuri was staying hidden in the background. Shadow man in a shadow world.
As was Demidov, who tracked the woman through the camera lens. She walked like an American, open and confident. Maybe she was the captain’s “friend.” Maybe she was a player. If she got close enough to the camera, he would find out if Moscow had any record of her.
Like a hunter slipping from blind to blind, Demidov tried to take pictures of the woman as she approached. If the crowd around him moved, he went with it. He was careful never to be alone against the sky. That could attract attention. Attention was the death of many a careful plan. And man.
He lined up for another attempt. She was almost close enough for a useful shot. He held his breath, waiting, waiting…
At the last instant the woman turned away, attracted by the white flash of a seagull diving for food thrown by laughing tourists. Turning away like that was a trick experienced agents had, an instinct that made them duck.
Or it could be what it looked like. Coincidence.
Demidov swore silently and turned in another direction, giving her his back as she reached the top of the ramp and slipped into a group of pedestrians. Like the woman, he didn’t want to give away his identity to strangers.
When he turned back, camera and hands shielding his face, he couldn’t find the woman. His mouth flattened. Thinking quickly, he took more pictures of nothing. He could follow her or follow Blackbird.
Demidov turned back to Belltown Marina. If the woman was a player, she would reappear when the yacht was delivered in Rosario. If not, it didn’t matter.
All that mattered was Blackbird.
NORTH OF SEATTLE
Emma pulled off at a rest stop and sat for a few minutes, pretending to talk into her cell phone. The people in the two cars and one long-haul rig that had followed her off the freeway got out, went into various restrooms, walked dogs, and stretched out cramped muscles. Everyone piled back into the same vehicles and left.
She watched her mirrors and told herself to stop being paranoid. Herself didn’t listen.
She blew out an impatient breath and punched two on her speed dial. The outgoing call to St. Kilda was automatically scrambled, just as incoming calls from St. Kilda were automatically decoded by her phone, which could use either satellite or cell connections. All of St. Kilda’s field agents carried the special phone. In a pinch, it could double as a camera, still or video, with or without sound.
“Faroe’s phone,” said a woman’s voice. “Grace speaking.”
“Emma Cross. Is he around?”
“Annalise has her daddy in a chokehold. Anything I can do for you?”
Emma laughed. “I’d like to see that.”
There was a brushing sound, then Faroe’s voice said, “Where are you and-”
“I’m north of Seattle, heading for a Puget Sound waterfront town called Rosario,” Emma cut in. “The captain is about six foot two inches, rangy, stronger than he looks, unusual coordination, maybe thirty-five, very dark brown eyes, short black hair and beard, no visible scars or missing digits or teeth.”
“MacKenzie Durand, called Mac, no ‘k,’ according to his card.”
“Impression?” Faroe asked.
“Warm smile, cold eyes. Very smart. In the right situation, I bet he’d be damned dangerous.”
Faroe grunted. “Somebody wasn’t happy to find out that Blackbird is the same vessel that left Shanghai.”
“Somebody will have to be happy with the radiation patch and business card I passed off in Seattle.”
“Somebody is never happy.”
“Yeah, I get that. The Blackbird is either owned or brokered by Blue Water Marine Group in Rosario,” she continued. “I’d like a fast run on them from research. Mac is a transit captain. Is the research in on him yet?”
“Still pulling threads. Stay on him and watch your back.”
“How many backs do you have?”
Emma closed her eyes. “Right.”
“If research turns up anything useful, it will appear on your computer or as a text on your phone.”
“I’d swear I was being followed when I left the Belltown Marina.”
“That’s the problem,” Emma said. “I never saw anyone. I just had this feeling I was being watched. I did all the standard things for dumping a tail, both on foot and after I got in my rental. Nothing popped.”
“How are you feeling now?”
“A little foolish for wasting time, but I’d do it all over again.”
“The dumping tail thing?” Faroe asked.
“Keep it up. Everyone who ever worked with you at the Agency mentioned your good instincts. Some folks didn’t like what you found with those instincts-”
“I’m shocked,” she cut in.
“But that’s why St. Kilda hired you,” he continued. “We’re not politicians. All we want are answers. Get them.”
Faroe disconnected before Emma could say anything.
She sat, staring at the phone, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, thinking.
I left the Agency because I got tired of shadows within shadows within darkness. Every shade of black and gray.
And now all my instincts are twitching like I’m in Baghdad.
She snapped the phone shut, started her rental Jeep, and headed north on Interstate 5.
Mac Durand slid the black-hulled yacht through the narrow channel at dead idle. By dark or sunlight, Winchester Passage was beautiful, distracting, something he didn’t need while single-handing a complex new boat in the ever-changing waters of North Puget Sound. The long-lasting twilight made everything difficult-seemingly clear but actually not.
Yet Stan Amanar had insisted that Blackbird be in Rosario tonight, even if it meant running after dark.
Mac didn’t like it. Deadheads-logs that had been soaking in the saltwater so long they floated straight up and down, exposing only a few inches of themselves above the water-were a constant danger. More than one twin-prop boat had met a deadhead and limped into the nearest port on one prop. Unlucky single-prop boats were towed or came in very slowly on a small kicker engine.
Some of the boats sank.
Never underestimate the sea.
Or a woman.
Mac smiled slightly. He was looking forward to seeing Emma Cross sometime soon. It would be interesting to find out what her game was. Or to get her out of her clothes, depending.
He didn’t get naked with crooks.
He picked up a channel marker a half-mile ahead and checked the paper chart spread out on the helm station in front of him. He would turn to port when the marker was abeam on his starboard side. Then it was a straight shot in two miles of deep water to the lights that marked the channel into Rosario.
Mac set aside the joystick controller and returned to the throttles, nudging them forward. Speed had its risks. So did going too slow and feeling his way in the dark. Without radar or an electronic chart plotter, he was cutting things close. Sight navigation in full darkness was a good way to be surprised to death.
Mac made his turn at the markers and brought the speed up more. The diesels purred and the wake boiled out behind the transom, a pearl fan spreading over the black water. He headed for town at what he estimated was the most efficient rate for both speed and fuel use-about fourteen knots. Engines like the ones in Blackbird’s belly could push the hull at more than twice that speed.
Two hundred yards outside the breakwater, he cut the throttles back to reduce his own wake. The marker at the outside end of the alley was flashing red against night-black water.
He picked up the hand-held VHF he had brought aboard. Blackbird wouldn’t have any proper electronics until after she was commissioned.
“Blue Water Marine, Blue Water Marine, Blue Water Marine, this is Blackbird outside the breakwater.”
The response was immediate.
“Blackbird, this is Blue Water Marine, switch and answer on six-eight.”
He twisted the channel selector and punched the transmit button. “Blue Water, this is Blackbird. You have somebody down there to catch a line?”
The man-made marina looked calm in the deceptive light, but tidal currents could be a bitch.
“With those pod drives, you won’t need help,” Bob Lovich said, “but we’re coming down to watch.”
Whatever, Mac thought impatiently, and punched the send button instead of answering. The worst part of this job is owners who don’t know as much as they think they do.
No matter what the spec sheet said, Blackbird was an untried boat. It took a lot of arrogance, plus a full helping of stupidity, to assume that the spec sheets were the same as the actual boat in the water.
He pulled the engines out of gear, flipped off the engine synchronizer, and stepped out onto the main deck. Quickly he coiled bow and stern lines and placed them on the gunwale where someone on the dock could reach them. Because he was cautious, he put most of the weight of the lines on the inside half of the gunwale. If something went wrong, the lines would slide to the deck, rather than into the sea, where they could tangle with the props and cripple the boat.
Caution was also why he tied fenders on the dock side of the boat. He didn’t want sudden wind or current to push him against the dock and mar Blackbird’s hull. Salt washed off. Scrapes didn’t.
As he stepped back into the cabin, he heard the radio’s impatient crackle.
“Stop wasting our time playing with fenders, Mac,” Lovich said. “That boat can dock herself.”
Only if the captain knows the drill. Even a pod drive isn’t idiot-proof.
Yeah, the worst part of his job was the owners.
Mac knew that Blackbird was equipped with the latest and greatest pod drives, but he didn’t want to rely on a system he’d never used in the close quarters of a marina. He knew what the boat would do if he used the twin throttles for maneuvering. He couldn’t say the same about the joystick for the pod drives.
Mac glanced around the deck, planning his moves, and then stepped back to the helm station inside and put the engines in gear. Dead-slow, he passed through the slot in the breakwater and entered the boat basin at a crawl. Using throttles and helm, he cruised down the outside alley, stopped and pivoted between two docks that were crowded with moored boats.
The Blue Water dock was flooded with light, more to discourage theft than for safety reasons. Mac saw three men waiting at a gap between a fifty-two-foot sailboat with tall aluminum masts and a smaller pleasure boat with a square stern and long, overhanging bowsprit. He recognized two of the men, Bob Lovich and Stan Amanar, owners of Blue Water Marine Group. The third man was a stranger.
On the approach, Mac kept going in and out of gear to keep his speed down. The gap awaiting him at the dock left him maybe two feet to spare on bow and stern.
Hoohah, this should be fun.
The tide was on a steep ebb. Beneath the glittering dark surface of the water, heavy currents pulled and shoved. He came out of gear and let Blackbird drift to a stop parallel with the gap where the three men stood, impatiently waiting for him.
Immediately Mac felt currents work on Blackbird, pushing it away from the dock. He stepped out and called to Amanar.
“You sure you want Blackbird in this spot? I’d hate to put a mark on your new boat.”
“Ever play video games?” Amanar asked.
“I’m male, what do you think?”
The stranger didn’t change expression. Though he looked about Mac’s age physically, his eyes were older than the first sin. Mac’s instincts started crawling over his neck. He’d seen men like this stranger before, usually on a killing field.
“Forget the wheel,” Amanar said. “Use the joystick. It’s just like a video game.”
Mac didn’t hide his skeptical look.
“Go ahead,” Amanar said. “We won’t charge for scratches.”
“Your boat, your money,” Mac said.
It’s a good thing I don’t have to like someone to work for him. I’d go broke otherwise.
He went back to the helm, checked that the joystick was powered up, then cautiously tapped the upright stick toward the nine o’clock position.
More quickly than he had expected, Blackbird moved sideways toward the dock. The short burst of power cut off the instant he released the joystick, but the boat continued to move slowly sideways.
Huh. It works.
He switched the stick toward the three o’clock position for half a second. It was enough to cancel the portside drift and bring the boat to a halt.
“Be damned,” Mac said softly.
He repeated the sequence, nine, then three. Blackbird edged regally sideways, then stopped. He pushed a little longer toward nine. The boat sucked in toward the dock.
Mother of all miracles. It really works.
Some of the pod drives he had used were clumsy. This one was sweet.
He checked forward and aft. The anchor mounted on the overhanging bowsprit of the powerboat ahead of him would whittle his margin for error down to inches, so he pushed the joystick toward six o’clock. Blackbird slid a few feet out from under the threat. He pushed toward nine again, twice. Each time the boat moved sideways, against the current, as though on rails.
“Really sweet,” he said, loud enough for the men on the dock to hear.
Amanar and Lovich laughed.
The stranger showed the emotions of a cement slab.
Mac nudged the black hull closer and closer until he felt the fenders touch the rail of the dock.
“Just punch the button that says ‘Maintain,’” Amanar called.
Mac did. The twin propellers took over automatically. Blackbird held nearly motionless against the dock.
Amanar took the bowline, then the stern line, and secured Blackbird to the dock.
Mac leaned on the rail and looked down. “You’re going to put me out of business. Nobody will need a captain anymore. A baby could do it.”
“Have to be a damn rich baby,” Amanar said. “Pod drives ain’t cheap. Shut it down. You’re good.”
Mac stepped back to the helm long enough to shut down the big engines.
Lovich said something to the stranger.
Mac watched the third man, a heavy-set male with a wide Slavic face, black eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and a well-combed mustache. He looked a lot younger than Lovich and Amanar, who were well advanced on the downhill slide to fifty. All in all, despite the longer hair, the stranger could have been Lovich’s nephew.
And he was colder and more confident than anyone Mac had ever met outside of a sniper reunion.
He caught a word or two of a language that could have been Eastern European or even Russian. Mac couldn’t be sure. Languages hadn’t been a specialty of his. He had been the backup medic and sniper for his team.
Memories stirred in him, black and red, screaming. He shoved them down and bolted the hatch.
Lose the replay, he told himself roughly. Long ago, far away, and nobody cares about it but you.
Mac shoved a line through one of the midship hawseholes and leaped onto the dock. As he bent to tie the line to a dock cleat, he deliberately brushed against the stranger.
Beneath the soft brown leather jacket there was solid muscle.
“Sorry,” Mac said. “Just need to get this line.”
The man stared at him with blank, black eyes.
Lovich murmured something in the stranger’s language.
The man watched Mac.
Suddenly the night was quiet, only the gentle lapping of water against the boats and the faint ringing sound of a loose stay hitting the mast on a nearby sailboat.
The third man said something.
Lovich nodded. “Let’s go aboard,” Amanar said, looking at his partner.
Mac watched the third man move. Though he had an athlete’s coordination, slight hesitations and adjustments in balance told Mac that the man wasn’t used to the transition between land and water. Yet his confidence was superb. He catalogued his surroundings with a few sweeping glances.
“You’re working late,” Mac said, glancing at his watch. He still had plenty of time to go to Tommy’s place for the promised drink.
Drinking and talking about the good old days weren’t Mac’s favorite ways to spend time.
Amanar hesitated, then said quickly, “We want to get a good look at her tonight. There’s going to be a rigging crew all over her soon. We have to turn her around fast.”
Mac nodded toward the dark stranger. “Is this your new owner?” Amanar didn’t answer. “If he is, tell him I know how he might double his money overnight,” Mac added.
The stranger stared at him rudely. He was a few inches under Mac’s height and perhaps forty pounds heavier. Muscle, not fat. He seemed to resent the English conversation.
Lovich quickly translated.
The stranger squinted at Mac, as though weighing him. “There’s a woman who got all wet and bothered over Blackbird the first time she saw the boat,” Mac explained casually, talking to the third man while Lovich translated. “She’s a qualified buyer with money sizzling in the pockets of her very tight jeans.”
Lovich was a good translator. He accompanied his words with hand gestures that outlined a shapely female butt.
The third man answered with a sharp string of words that took the smile off Lovich’s face.
“He says he’s not interested in selling.”
“Are you going to be around for a few days, or do you have another job?” Amanar asked Mac.
“I’m getting my boat ready for a cruise. I’ll be around.”
“Great. We don’t have anything right now, but you never know.”
Mac heard what wasn’t being said: Now get lost.
“You have my cell number,” Mac said. “I’d like my check. I’ve got some bills to take care of.”
“Stop by tomorrow morning,” Amanar said. “The bookkeeper is gone now.”
Mac nodded, not worried. Blue Water Marine Group had always paid him on time.
As he started to gather his charts and stow his gear in a red canvas duffel, the three men disappeared down into the engine room. He could hear their murmured conversation. All were speaking the third man’s language.
Mac heard someone rap a piece of metal on the side of the heavy, sheet-steel fuel tank on the port side. Then Amanar muttered a single word. If his tone could be trusted, it was praise rather than curse.
Duffel in hand, Mac stepped onto the dock. The marina parking lot was full of empty cars. The nearby streets had the usual traffic for a small town on a working night.
And Mac felt like he was being watched.
Shove that along with the memories.
The back of his neck didn’t listen.
He paused at the top of the marina ramp and looked around, trying to find a reason for his unease.
It wasn’t the cement-cold stranger. He was still below decks with the owners of Blue Water Marine.
Mac swept the front ranks of the parked vehicles on the marina lot, searching out spots where someone could see without being easily seen. There were pickup trucks, a few panel vans, and plenty of rusted-out urban beaters worth less than the gas in their tank. Nothing unusual.
Except the hair on his neck wouldn’t lie down.
Get over it. You’re in the good old U. S. of A., not on a mission. You promised Tommy you’d meet him. Quit looking for excuses to stay in town.
But I need a shower. Fact, not excuse.
His own boat was docked on the other side of the marina, a mile closer than the little house he owned. Mac cut across a corner of the parking lot, punched in a code at another gate, and vanished down the gangway.
Ambassador Steele turned away from the wall of television screens in his office/home. A quick push with his hands sent his wheelchair humming across the polished tile floor. He had a motorized wheelchair but preferred the modest exercise he got rolling himself around his large office.
He hit the button blinking on his phone and spoke so that the microphone could pick up his voice. “Steele.”
“Emma Cross, as requested.”
“Thank you, Dwayne.”
In the next room, his assistant transferred the call and went back to talking in a low voice into the headset he wore.
“You requested information on MacKenzie Durand, called Mac,” Steele said, forcing himself not to look at his watch.
“I’ll tell Grace as soon as we’re finished, but I wanted you to know right now that Durand could be a valuable ally or a lethal enemy. Until five years ago, he and his Special Ops team were deployed into some of the world’s nastiest places. On the last op, he was the only survivor. He quit and never looked back. Rumor is that the CIA hung his team out to dry with bad intel.”
At the other end of the line, Emma drew in her breath and stared out over the marina parking lot. “Mac wouldn’t be the first that happened to.”
“Or the last. The political back-stabbing among American intel agencies is St. Kilda’s biggest recruiting boost. That and the built-in lack of competence that comes from political hacks being appointed to high office.”
Emma wanted to laugh, but it hurt too much. “Amen. Been there, got screwed without being kissed, didn’t go back for seconds.”
Steele’s laugh was as unexpected as sunrise at midnight. “As I said, St. Kilda is more than happy to pick up the talented survivors. You’re one of them. Durand is another. As much of his background as I could get without ringing alarms is in a file waiting to be downloaded to your computer.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I want you to recruit Durand. You have all the skills.”
Emma blinked. She indeed had been trained by the Agency in recruiting locals. She had been very good at it.
And she had hated it.
“What if he doesn’t want to be recruited?” she asked.
“From what I’ve seen of him, I doubt that would work. He’s too self-confident, not needy or greedy.”
Steele let the silence lengthen before he said, “If Blackbird leaves port, you’ll have to follow. Durand is a transit captain. Connect the dots.”
“Yes, sir,” Emma said through her teeth.
Steele laughed again. “Why am I hearing echoes of ‘screw you, sir’?”
“Good ears?” she asked dryly.
“Don’t be surprised to see Grace and Annalise with Joe.”
“Family vacation,” she said. “Always heartwarming.”
“Joe loves the Pacific Northwest when it isn’t raining,” Steele said. “Ask anyone who knows him.”
“Fickle man. I hear it rains a lot here. That’s how it got so green.” But Emma understood what hadn’t been said-Faroe was traveling with his wife and daughter under cover of a vacation.
“Research is still digging,” Steele said. “We’ll get back to you.”
He broke the connection.
Emma rubbed her forearms, feeling chilled. She hoped it wasn’t her grave St. Kilda was digging.
She settled into the cold Jeep, booted up her laptop, and began reading-keeping one eye out for Mac to reappear. Living aboard a boat was illegal at the marina.
According to Mac’s file, he had a little cottage in town.
All she had to do was freeze her butt off waiting for him to go home.
Taras Demidov shifted in the plastic lawn chair he had put in the back of the beat-up van. He had purchased the vehicle for $850 cash and driven it off a dead lawn in front of a badly kept house. The panel van was a long way from the bulletproof limos and high-tech listening posts once available to Demidov, but he accepted it as he had accepted other changes.
Demidov had survived by making himself as useful to the twenty-first century’s political/criminal oligarchs as his father once had been to unashamed dictators. Information never went out of style. Neither did extortion and execution. Demidov was adept at whatever had to be done.
The van fit in well with the ragged assortment of vehicles in the marina parking lot. Hidden by the interior shadows of the vehicle, taking care to stay well back from the windshield and the lights of the parking lot, Demidov scanned the gate closing off the Blue Water Marine Group gangway.
Even the feral cats had vanished into the shadows. He’d last seen one of them chasing a rat around the big refuse bins at the edge of the parking lot, right next to the portable toilet that had been set out for marina visitors. Like the animals, the visitors had disappeared into the night.
The captain, who had docked Blackbird with admirable economy, had climbed the Blue Water ramp, crossed the parking lot, and disappeared into another arm of the marina. The view straight through the van’s windshield didn’t tell Demidov if the captain had stayed wherever he had gone.
He could get a better view by moving to the front of the van, but that would reveal his presence to anyone walking by. Better to limit both his exposure and his view to the top of the Blue Water ramp. In any case, the captain wasn’t his assignment.
Shurik Temuri was.
Perhaps I’ll just kill him now and end the game.
A pleasant dream, but Demidov knew it was unrealistic. His employer wanted to catch Temuri with enough evidence to thoroughly discredit him. Temuri dead was worth five thousand dollars. Temuri caught with his pants down was worth more than a million dollars in a bank on the Isle of Man.
That kind of math wasn’t hard to do. Even in the modern world of recession and inflation, a million dollars was a good payday.
Demidov sighed and set aside the glasses. The van stank of the slops bucket he used rather than revealing himself by crossing the open parking lot to a portable toilet each time he needed one. He ignored the ripe smell just as he ignored the uncomfortable lawn chair set behind the driver’s seat. An ear bug in his right ear monitored the Blue Water office. He monitored the VHF channel to the marina with his portable radio. He would eat, doze, and watch from the van until Temuri appeared.
Standard surveillance-exhausting, boring, and risky for a man working alone. At this point Demidov didn’t have a choice. He must wait, watch, and collect information. Information was his weapon of choice, although he preferred a silenced pistol for close work.
The bug he had put in the Blue Water office before it closed was transmitting nothing but static.
I should have bugged Lovich.
It had tempted Demidov, but the risk wasn’t worth the reward. The office of Blue Water Marine Group gave him much of the information he needed. If and when that changed, he would consider the problem again.
Until then, he would watch Blackbird more closely than a hen with one chick.
As he had every thirty minutes, Demidov checked his cell phone for a text message from his employer.
He switched screens to check on movement. The upper lat/long numbers hadn’t changed. The lower set reflected the location in Rosario.
He settled in for a long, uncomfortable night.
Carrying a bottle of bourbon in a paper bag, Mac climbed to the top of the marina gangway, pushed open the gate, and headed for the old pickup he used when he was in town. Marina parking was too expensive for anyone but tourists. He always left his truck in a lot a few blocks away, close to the commercial docks favored by fishing boats. As a rule, commercial boats didn’t play well with private marinas and yachties.
Before Mac got a block away from Blue Water Marine Group, he heard a car engine start up in the parking lot he’d left behind.
Just someone going home late, he told himself.
He turned right and headed for his truck. A minute later he stopped to fiddle with one of his shoes-and look over his back trail.
A white Jeep idled in the mouth of an alley. The headlights weren’t on, but the streetlight glanced off the windshield and grille, giving away the vehicle’s location. A shadow figure sat behind the wheel. The driver had been forced to expose himself in order to keep Mac in sight.
Okay, not someone going home late.
Mac stood and walked briskly toward his pickup truck. If someone was dying to talk to him, he’d take care of it after he saw Tommy. Until then, it would be easy enough to lose a watcher among the heaped seine nets and crab traps that stood watch over the commercial docks.
The dark hulls of fully rigged fishing boats tied off at the docks closed in around Mac. He moved lightly down another ramp, took a spur dock, and climbed back to the parking lot via a third ramp. Nobody noticed him. The fishermen who slept aboard were already deep in their dreams of nets filled with seething silver wealth.
When Mac surfaced at the parking lot, there was no sign of the white Jeep. He waited anyway, taking a long look at the shadows surrounding his truck. The only sound was his own heartbeat and the sudden scream of cats fighting or mating in the rough boulders that lined the working marina’s waterways.
Mac unlocked his truck. No light came on when he opened the door. He had spent too many years dodging bullets to ever feel comfortable about spotlighting himself when he climbed into a vehicle at night.
No headlights showed up in the parking lot. No lights came on in any of the moored boats. No one walked or waited near the parking lot exit.
Good to go.
Mac started the truck, wincing at the noise. But there was no help for it. A diesel engine was one loud son of a bitch. Not to mention the whine of a water pump that he should have replaced by now, but he had been too busy driving yachts for Blue Water and other brokers to manage any truck work on his own.
After a last look around, Mac put the truck in gear and headed across the lot, headlights off.
No car lights came on in front or in back of him.
He drove slowly through the jumble of cars, work trucks, crab and prawn pots, gill and seine nets, and the large metal drums designed to pull and store nets during the fishing season. He didn’t vary his speed, easing his way through the obstacle course without flashing his brake lights. He entered the street the same way. When he turned onto a more heavily used street, he flipped on his headlights and began driving like a regular citizen.
There wasn’t much flash and glitter in Rosario to distract Mac as he drove. It was a blue-collar, sweat-stained working town. Or it had been. Those glory days were more than a half-century gone, but the town refused to adjust to the new reality of tourists and boutiques. It was a battle that had been fought through the city council and mayor’s office for as long as Mac could remember.
As far as he could tell, about everyone lost. The fishing was gone, the forests logged out, the crabbing unpredictable, the town itself too poor to pave some of the streets within the city limits. People who lived in Rosario drove to nearby towns to shop for anything more durable than groceries and beer.
Through all the years, smuggling was the only Rosario industry that had truly thrived. Cigarettes north and marijuana south, a round trip that could net thousands or end in gunfire, prison, or death.
The smuggling was run by the Eastern European immigrants who had been fishermen and smugglers in their homeland. There had been no reason to change a winning combination when they emigrated to America a century or more ago. With each generation or each old-world conflict, their ranks grew. Overseas cousins, second cousins, relations by marriage, and relatives no American bothered to count fled to the New World when the Old World became deadly.
Once, Mac had thought of joining the local smuggling industry. A close friend of his had been Ukrainian, another was Salish Indian, giving him an entre into the closed worlds of Rosario’s immigrant and native communities. Mac had been seventeen and too full of testosterone to put up with the small town of his birth. But after a few smuggling runs, he got smart, left town, and joined the navy.
His best friend died two months later, simply vanished during a smuggling run. Tommy still survived, if anyone called living as a barely functioning alcoholic on the rez survival.
Most of the time Mac thought he’d made the right choice in leaving Rosario and smuggling behind. If he had any doubts, all he had to do was visit Tommy.
My own personal penance.
Yet Mac couldn’t figure out what he was paying for. He’d got out, Tommy had stayed, and life went on either way. Yet somehow Mac felt guilty, as if whatever life he’d enjoyed had come at Tommy’s expense. It was stupid, but there it was. Guilt for being born white in a time and place where non-whites were considered second class.
The distant flash of headlights in the rearview mirror shook Mac out of his bleak thoughts. There wasn’t much traffic out late on a weeknight. The people who had families to support were asleep. The people with habits to support had either scored or gone home with the shakes. The drinkers were wrapped up in their favorite bar, huddled protectively over their poison of choice. They wouldn’t move until they passed out or the bars closed.
God, I hate this town.
But I love Puget Sound.
The headlights in the rearview mirror jiggled again as the vehicle went over a rough patch of pavement. The state highway that headed out to the federal freeway always needed repair. Eventually the state highway would get what it needed, after the densely packed voters in Seattle got what they wanted. Simple math and electoral politics.
Mac slowed so he could turn onto Tribal Road without hitting his brakes. No point in making it easier if someone was following him. Since his white guilt had taken him many times to see Tommy, Mac knew the way. He could have driven without headlights, but he didn’t want to run over stray animals or people.
He watched in the rearview mirror as the headlights that had been behind him passed the Tribal Road’s turnoff.
So much for paranoids having real enemies, he told himself.
Tribal Road skirted the edge of tidal mudflats for several miles before heading into the scrubby, fourth-growth forest that bordered the tidal zone. The road was in the open until Mac reached the trees. He kept glancing at the rearview and side mirrors.
Brake lights glowed on the highway as a vehicle slowed, then made a U-turn and came back toward Mac. The vehicle turned onto Tribal Road.
Score one for paranoia, he thought unhappily.
He killed his headlights, accelerated hard, and prayed the tribal cops were drinking together. He didn’t lift his foot until he reached the bend in the road. Fifty yards later he turned and coasted onto twin dirt ruts that bored into the scrubby forest. The tires skidded a little in the shallow muck before they bit in. He kept coasting until he saw the old cedar stump. It was twelve feet high and wide enough to hide a truck behind, a leftover from the nineteenth century when big trees were cut off where the trunk finally began to narrow, no matter how high up that was. The fifteen-or twenty-foot-high stump was left behind to rot. With cedar, it took a long time.
He tucked behind the stump, turned the engine off, and yanked on the emergency brake. An instant later he was lowering the window.
A slight breeze. The scent of moldy forest and evergreen and salt. No lights anywhere. No sound but the irregular ticking of the truck’s engine as it cooled.
And the mosquitoes. It took them about ten seconds to realize there was fresh food available.
Chow down, he thought. I hope I poison you.
He heard a vehicle approaching from the direction of the highway. It was still several hundred yards away and closing fast.
Mac got out and eased the door shut behind him. From the dense shadow of the forest, he watched the narrow opening onto Tribal Road that was the only sign the rutted, partially overgrown track existed.
A car flashed by the cramped opening.
Pale. Could be white.
Could be a Jeep.
And it could be a tired driver returning to the rez after a long day on the water or working at the casino.
As the sound of the speeding car faded, Mac jogged toward Tribal Road, swearing at himself for being paranoid but not about to change. He hesitated in the shadow of the forest just long enough to be certain there wasn’t any traffic heading his way. When he was sure he was alone, he scuffed out the fresh tire marks he had left in the peaty mud when he had turned onto the nameless, overgrown dirt lane. Soon there was no clear sign of his recent passage.
To make doubly certain, he broke off a cedar branch as long as his arm and messed up the tire tracks even more. Then he threw the bough back into the woods and scattered some old forest debris over the lane. He’d just finished when heard a distant engine. He pushed deeper into the forest and waited.
He didn’t wait long.
Score two for paranoia.
A car was coming back down Tribal Road, heading for the state highway. The vehicle’s high beams were on and it was moving slowly. A flashlight speared through the open driver’s side window and probed the dark roadside.
The skin on the back of his neck tingled.
Mac was close enough to the road to recognize the body shape of the Jeep when it went by. But no matter how hard his paranoia worked, he couldn’t figure out even a stupid reason for someone to follow him.
Yet there it was as big as life, a white Jeep whose driver was shining a flashlight over every opening along Tribal Road, looking for him.
Mac wasn’t particularly worried about being found. He had been trained in escape and evasion by experts. He could vanish in bare desert at high noon. Nighttime in the forest was easy.
Mosquitoes sung nastily in the darkness.
He resigned himself to being fast food for bloodsuckers.
Headlights and the flashlight flickered through the woods as the prowling car slowly approached. The Jeep stopped at the far end of the tunnel. The beam of the flashlight ran over the shoulder where Mac had brushed away his tracks. As the driver studied the ground, the light twitched back and forth like a hunting cat’s tail.
The driver’s door opened.
No overhead light, Mac thought sourly. I wish that surprised me.
Without getting out, the driver bent over and held the light almost parallel to and only inches above the ground. The raking beam of light revealed more details than a light held at ninety degrees to the ground would have.
Someone has been trained in the basics of tracking. Mac breathed slowly, shallowly, making no sound. This just keeps getting better and better.
The light raked over the dirt lane. Mac hoped that he’d done a good enough job cleaning up.
Should have been more careful. Been a civilian too long.
At least he hadn’t left parallel lines in the muck with the branch. Not all of his training had been forgotten or ignored.
After a long minute, the flashlight snapped off and the Jeep drove on down the road.
Mac didn’t move until the sound of the Jeep’s tires had faded. Then he reached up and rubbed away the mosquito that had been drilling down into his neck. A second insect had already come and gone from his cheek. He could feel a welt rising there.
Damn. I’ll itch for hours.
But he kept standing in the night anyway, waiting, listening, waiting some more.
ON THE RESERVATION
After walking deeper into the forest for about half a mile on the dirt track, Mac came to the edge of a clearing. Waist-high weeds, several rusting wrecks, and one ancient flatbed truck piled with corroding crab traps landscaped the area around the old trailer house.
He paused in the shadows as he always did. And, as always, he felt like he was back in a war zone.
Maybe that’s why I hate coming here.
He shifted the bottle of bourbon and wished it was that easy, but he knew it wasn’t.
Tommy was all tied up with Mac’s own past, the wild times from child to man, running free when someone should have hauled him up by the scruff and shaken some sense into him. He’d been the youngest of three. His father had hit the road just after Mac’s birth. His mother hadn’t left physically; she’d just quietly drunk herself into an early grave. Hard work, but she’d kept at it until she reached her goal.
Tommy was headed down that same early-grave road. It wasn’t alcohol that would get him there, though it was certainly greasing the way. Tommy’s reckless rage was what would kill him, his certainty that someone or something had stolen everything worth having, leaving him with a double handful of dog shit.
Once, Mac had felt the same way. Then he’d grown up, taken responsibility for his choices, and clawed his way out of a life that should have destroyed him the way it had his mother and two older brothers.
He didn’t even know if one of his brothers was still alive. The other had died in a single car rollover on the highway outside Rosario an hour after the bars closed.
Maybe that’s why I visit Tommy. He’s all that’s left of my childhood.
Both of us.
Get over it, he told himself grimly. That boat sailed and sank a long time ago. Looking back is just another way of drowning.
The breeze shifted, bringing with it the stink of a trash fire smoldering in a fifty-five-gallon fuel drum. The rank odor of an overflowing outhouse lay heavily beneath the smoke. Light from a bare bulb gleamed weakly through the dirty window in the front of the trailer. Heavy metal music from his and Tommy’s childhood hammered through the darkness, making the mold-streaked trailer vibrate.
Mac walked swiftly across the clearing and pounded on the front door. “Yo, Tommy. You still awake? I brought the bourbon you said I owed you.”
It was the kind of bourbon Tommy couldn’t afford but knew he deserved.
Mac pounded harder. “Tommy, it’s Mac. You in there or did I make the drive for nothing?”
Part of Mac hoped that Tommy was gone. A big part.
The music stopped.
“Who’s there?” The voice was hoarse, wary.
“Dude! It’s about time. I thought you forgot me and sucked down the righteous booze alone.”
The door opened, framing Tommy’s narrow body in light. The smell of rancid takeout pizza rolled over Mac, competing with the other rank odors of the night.
“A whole bottle?” Mac said, shaking his head. “I never could drink like that.”
“Yeah, true fact. You’re a white pussy. Don’t just stand there looking stupid. Bring that bottle in.”
Mac walked inside and saw that it was still the maid’s year off. Even for a bachelor sea captain, the place was a mess.
Tommy opened the bourbon bottle and took a long swig. “Damn, but that’s primo. Just in time, too. I’m broke and tired of being straight.”
“I hear crabbing is really down,” Mac said.
“You hear right.” Tommy took another swig. “But I got me a sweet gig coming.”
“Good,” Mac said quickly, not wanting to hear more about any sweet gig Tommy might have.
Too late. Tommy was already talking.
“Gonna get rich, richer than the ass clowns that run the casino.”
Mac nodded and kept his mouth shut. He’d heard it all before, and if he came back to the rez, he’d hear it again.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tommy said. “I know you don’t believe me. Nobody believes me.”
“If getting rich was easy, there would be a lot more rich people,” Mac said mildly.
“If they can’t see the way, too bad.” Tommy took another long swig and sighed. “Better than a woman, not as good as crank.”
Mac frowned. “Thought you gave that crap up.”
“Did. Ran out of money. Did some deals.” Tommy shrugged his thin shoulders. “But now I’m goin’ for the gold. Just like a fuckin’ athlete.”
Laughter that wasn’t quite sane filled the small trailer.
Mac snagged the bottle and took what looked like a drink. It wasn’t. He planned on driving home. Soon. Obviously Tommy was riding the ragged edge of the shakes.
Coming off crank was a bitch.
Tommy grabbed the bottle again and flopped into an overstuffed chair that was held together by duct tape. A lamp with a bare bulb sat on the small table nearby. It cast his grinning features in stark angles, dark hollows, too many lines and not enough teeth for a man who hadn’t seen the other side of forty yet.
“Remember when we ran that load of cigarettes to Vancouver?” Tommy asked, swiping hair out of his face with a dirty hand.
“Long time ago. We were young and stupid.”
“Sweet money.” Tommy drank and swallowed, drank and swallowed, his Adam’s apple working like a piston. “That’s smart.”
“Lucky Karl. He didn’t have to live rat-turd poor on the rez.” Neither do you. But Mac kept that truth to himself. A man in Tommy’s shape could teeter from normal to enraged in a heartbeat.
“But I’m getting out,” Tommy said after another long drink. “Gonna take my money from my next job and head for white man’s land. Live like a fuckin’ sheik.”
“Sounds good.” As always.
Too bad it never came through.
The half bottle of booze that Tommy had bolted hit him suddenly. He shook his head and slumped back into the chair.
“Just the beginning,” Tommy mumbled. “And here I thought old Granny was just a mama’s boy. Turns out he’s a big swinging dick. Got rich friends.” Tommy frowned. “Mean bastard.” A shiver shook his wiry frame. “Goddam, he’s one mean son of a bitch.”
Mac frowned. Tommy wasn’t making any sense. He looked close to panic, eyes wide, sweating although the room was cold.
“You okay?” Mac asked.
Tommy took another long gulp. “Nothin’ wrong that a bottle of good bourbon won’t cure.”
Mac kept his mouth shut and wished he’d gone straight home from the marina.
Like the old saying-no good deed goes unpunished.
Before Tommy could swig again, Mac retrieved the bottle. “Careful, buddy,” Mac said. “That’s a load of alcohol hitting your system all at once.”
“Ain’t no pussy.”
“Somebody say you were?” Mac asked.
“A pussy wouldn’t take Blackbird out. Bad shit going down. Really bad. Gonna be rich. Gimme the bottle.”
Mac pretended to drink. Anything to keep the bourbon out of Tommy’s reach. He always had loved booze, but at the rate he was drinking, he was going to kill himself tonight.
“So when does your job begin?” Mac asked, trying to keep Tommy out of the bottle.
“The one that’s going to make you rich.”
“Need a drink.”
“Wait your turn.” Mac pretended to drink. The good news was that Tommy was going down fast, floating facedown in a bourbon sea.
“They been smuggling forever. Even before they got here.”
“Who?” Mac asked.
Lovich, Mac realized, understanding.
Grant Robert Lovich, known as Bobby to his cousins and Granny to the kids who hated him in school. Like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather. Outsiders to the whites and Indians alike. Determined outsiders.
“Thought we agreed a long time ago that what our parents believed was bullshit,” Mac said.
“Then how come they own Blue Water and I don’t have nothing? Only crooks make out in Rosario.”
The sullen cast to Tommy’s face was more warning than Mac needed.
Time to go. “Gimme the bottle,” Tommy snarled. “Fuckin’ foreigners. We was here first, now we got dirt.”
The kind of hopeless existence that destroys souls.
Mac went to the sink and poured out all but a taste of the bourbon. He gave the bottle to Tommy and walked out into the night.
Mac hoped whoever was following him caught up again. He felt like hitting something.
Emma hated parking in the open for a surveillance, but there wasn’t any choice. The Blue Water marina parking lot didn’t have so much as a leaf to hide behind. The best she could do was wedge the Jeep between two rumpled pickups and pretend not to be there at all. The puddles and mud she’d deliberately taken the Jeep through helped it to blend in. She was no longer driving a shiny white rental.
And she had a lovely view of Blackbird.
People wearing tool belts were swarming over the yacht. A man whose picture was on the billboard advertising Blue Water Marine Group was overseeing, shouting and waving his arms. If the billboard could be trusted, it was Bob Lovich himself giving orders. Another man stood nearby-above medium height, stocky build, wraparound sunglasses, and a coat cut to fit over a shoulder holster. He didn’t look like Stan Amanar, also featured on the billboard, but he might have been.
If Stan had dyed his hair recently. And grown a mustache.
Plastic sheeting and other protective materials had been yanked out of Blackbird and piled up on the dock. Colored wires were coiled on the deck and what looked like electronics were stacked in boxes inside the cabin.
She lowered her small binoculars and remembered what the elusive Mac Durand had said about expensive toys and yachts. It looked like Blackbird was being wired to the max.
Her cell phone vibrated against her waist. She looked at the ID window and almost groaned.
All she had for him was nothing. Oh-and a sore back from the motel bed. Hey, that was something, right?
Too bad it wasn’t anything useful.
“Cross,” she said, answering the phone.
“Where is he?”
“Good question,” she said. “I’ll get back to you with the answer.”
“Which is primary-Blackbird or MacKenzie Durand?”
“Then you better send more bodies,” she said. “I can only be in one place at a time.”
“Lost him, huh?”
Emma took a deep breath and a better grip on her temper. “Yes. He ditched me out on the rez last night. There are multiple exits on the rez, so I got a motel room near the marina and had a bad night’s sleep keeping an eye on Blackbird.”
“Did Durand make you?”
“ID,” Faroe said impatiently.
“Doubt it. The Jeep, quite probably. Me, no.”
“Steele is on my ass like a rash.”
“Try baby powder.”
Faroe laughed. “We’re flying in to meet Durand personally. We’ll be there tomorrow. Sooner if we can manage it without tripping wires and alarms.”
This going in soft is too damn slow, Emma thought, but didn’t say anything. Faroe knew the time limit as well as she did.
“Have you read Durand’s file?” Faroe asked.
“Three times.” And she’d wondered if Mac Durand had the same kind of nightmares she did.
“Steele wants him. So do I.”
“A hard man is good to find,” she shot back. “I’m working on it. That man you’re interested in is a ghost. He flat vanished into the rez. Early this morning I went by the address in his files. A nineteen-twenties cottage. His truck was in the driveway. By all external signs, he was sleeping at home like a good citizen. Now, I can cover MacKenzie or Blackbird, take your pick.”
“Long night?” Faroe asked.
Emma made a disgusted noise. “Yeah.”
“Anything happening on Blackbird right now?”
“She’s swarming with technicians.”
“So she won’t be leaving the dock in the next hour or two,” Faroe said.
“It looks that way. Want to bet on it?”
“For an hour or two, yes. Go track down Durand and make your pitch.”
“You’re the boss.”
She closed the phone and reached for the ignition key.
The passenger door opened. MacKenzie Durand slid into the seat next to her.
“Breakfast or lunch?” he asked. “You’re buying.”
The vibration of a cell phone against his ribs woke Demidov from his doze. Without moving anything but his eyelids, he looked around. It was hard to see out through the smoked windows in the front of the van, and the rear door windows were even darker. Demidov approved. People had an even harder time looking in than he did looking out.
The parking lot had tourists and boat owners coming and going. At the moment, nobody was walking nearby.
Most important, Blackbird was still at the dock.
People were still busy ripping things out of the yacht and putting other things in. Binoculars had told him that everything being installed on the boat came from a legitimate commercial source.
The bug in Blue Water Marine Group’s office had told him the same thing. Even so, he’d checked every name on the boxes. His computer told him that each was a common supplier for Blue Water boats.
His ribs vibrated again.
Demidov reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Since only one man had this number, he knew who he would be talking to.
“Yes?” he said in quiet Russian.
“I need more time. Get it for me.”
“The boat can’t leave until after tomorrow, at the earliest.”
“Nothing of interest has been put on board yet,” Demidov said. “Even at night, when you would expect it. They have the ship lit up like a stage. It would take a fool or a very, very clever man to sneak by while anyone could be watching. Temuri is not that clever.”
“My source tells me the exchange will be made in Canada.”
“If I knew that, fool, I wouldn’t need you to follow the ship. Make sure Blackbird does not leave until Thursday. Friday would be better.”
Demidov bit back a curse. He was safer working alone-no one to betray him-but being alone on a job this complex wasn’t easy.
“Then I will sabotage the boat so-”
“No! Too unpredictable. Blackbird must fly. Later than Saturday isn’t acceptable. Earlier than Thursday isn’t acceptable.”
The connection ended, leaving Demidov alone in the sun-struck, stinking van. He didn’t notice the smell or the heat or the random Blue Water Marine Group office noise bleeding through his ear bug. Like a computer programmed to find certain words, he wouldn’t focus on the bug until it said something interesting.
Thinking of various ways to make certain the Blackbird didn’t leave the dock until Thursday, Demidov dozed, catlike, both resting and alert. For a man working alone, death was the most reliable way of carrying out a mission. The only question was whose death would get the job done.
RESERVATION OUTSIDE ROSARIO
Emma drove into the casino’s parking lot in the same silence she’d maintained since Mac had invited himself into the Jeep. She still hadn’t decided whether to slug him for his attitude or hug him for making her mission easier.
She turned off the engine and faced him.
“Dealer’s choice,” she said. “For now, you’re the dealer.”
Mac smiled slowly. “You decided that two seconds after I opened the door. Why the silent treatment?”
“Poor baby. Are you used to nervous chatter?”
“I won’t get that from you, will I?”
“I’m told the food is edible here.” She opened the door and got out. “Breakfast or lunch.”
Mac slid out and faced her over the top of the Jeep. “Food is better at the bowling alley.”
“A local’s place?”
“I don’t do local when I’m working a small town. I don’t fit it in.”
He nodded again, as though he’d expected the answer.
“I haven’t been to the casino,” she said, “but I’m guessing I won’t be all that unusual.”
“Good-looking women are always noticed.”
Emma took a mental inventory of herself-jeans, a loose T-shirt, rugged sandals that would have been at home on a hiking trail-and said, “In this outfit, I’ll pass without a second glance.”
“Probably. I liked the crop top better.”
Ignoring him, she locked the Jeep and headed toward the casino entrance, leaving Mac to follow or not, his choice.
He followed, smiling to himself. Ms. Emma Cross didn’t like having the initiative taken out of her hands. He could understand that. He felt exactly the same way.
Mac caught up with her before she reached the casino’s double doors. Unlike Nevada casinos, this one lacked the clamor and clang and razzle-dazzle of slot machines. Without that kind of relentless, come-and-bet-your-life atmosphere, the casino echoed like the nearly empty warehouse it was. The only action was at the poker machines, where retirees old enough to know better and too bored to care fed the electronic monsters.
“How can they take the excitement?” Emma said under her breath.
“Clean living and constant prayer.”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Good to know.”
“Two,” Mac said to the unsmiling hostess.
The woman waved her hand toward ranks of empty tables. “Sit anywhere you want. Someone will be over to take your order.”
Mac led Emma to a corner and chose a seat next to the wall. She selected a nearby chair and moved it slightly, keeping an eye on the entrance.
“Talk,” she said to him.
“What do you want?”
“Why are you following me?” he countered.
Emma sighed. She’d guessed he wouldn’t make it easy. That didn’t mean she liked being right.
The server appeared and said, “Coffee.”
It was a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offer.
Emma looked at the server. She had the same dark, expressionless face and bad hair that the hostess did, plus all the welcome of a No Parking sign.
“Coffee,” Emma said.
The server started to leave.
“Coffee and menus,” Mac said.
The woman walked off without a word.
“Are they always this friendly or is it a special effort?” Emma asked.
“They’re tribe. They won’t be fired.”
Emma glanced at her watch. The time she could safely ignore Blackbird was ticking away. Since Mac kept pushing the ball into her court, she’d take it and ram it down his coy throat.
“My boss would like to hire you,” she said.
“The boss with more money than sense?”
“Have you ever heard of St. Kilda Consulting?” she asked calmly.
Mac frowned and searched through his memory. “Civilian. Private. International. Kidnap security.”
“Among other things.”
“What do they want me to do?”
Emma looked at Mac’s clear dark eyes and wondered why she kept thinking he was laughing at her.
“You’ll have to ask Joe Faroe,” she said.
“What do you do for him?”
“You can ask him that, too.”
“I’m asking you,” Mac said.
“Do you know if or when Blackbird is leaving port?”
“Can you find out?” she pressed.
Then she closed her eyes and took a better grip on her temper. She knew how to recruit someone.
This wasn’t the way.
“Sorry,” she said. “Perhaps I should-” She stopped abruptly.
The server showed up with coffee, splashed it into their cups, and dropped two menus on the far side of the table.
Emma picked up the coffee, sipped, and grimaced. “Colder than the hostess. Pass the sugar, please.”
Mac’s smile was the warmest thing in the casino.
She enjoyed the vision, then smiled herself.
“If you’re interested in making some honest money,” she said, “I’ll put you in touch with Joe Faroe. Whatever St. Kilda wants from you will be legal in whatever country you do it in.” So far, anyway. “They don’t play politics, they’ve been honest with me, and they pay on time.”
“Do they work for the good guys or just anyone who pays?”
“Find me some good guys and I’ll let you know,” she said. Then she met Mac’s dark eyes. “They’re more trustworthy than the government.”
“In this world, that’s as good as it gets.”
His expression changed. “I left that world.”
She laughed, as much at herself as at him. “Sorry, babe. It’s the only world there is.”
“If you can’t tell me what you’re doing for St. Kilda, I’m not interested in talking to Joe Faroe.”
Emma decided quickly. As long as her existing cover got the job done, she’d stay with it. “Missing yachts.”
“Not yet. Just yachts that are made in Asia and ‘fall off the ship’ before they get here.”
“They go through Vladivostok?”
Though Emma’s expression didn’t change, Mac sensed that she had come to a point.
“How did you know?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Anything that transits through the FSU is fair game for the local strongmen. Think of it as paying a toll.”
“The insurance company is tired of that game.”
“What can I do about it?” he asked. “I’m not in Vladivostok.”
“A year ago, a black-hulled, forty-one-foot boat-the exact twin of Blackbird-disappeared in transit from Asia.”
“It happens,” Mac said.
“Somehow only the multimillion-dollar yachts fall off in transit.”
“Shock and awe.”
“We’ve been watching Blackbird since Singapore,” Emma said, ignoring his sarcasm. “We want to keep on watching it until-” She stopped abruptly.
The server strolled up. “You ready to order?”
“Hamburger and fries,” Mac said without looking away from Emma. “Salad with blue cheese.”
“The same,” Emma said. It wouldn’t be the first cold hamburger and fries she’d eaten.
“There’s a fish special,” the server said.
“I smelled it first thing,” Mac said. “I’ll stick with the cow.”
“Whatever. You want beer?”
Idly Emma wondered if they served the beer as warm as the coffee was cold.
“Coffee’s fine,” he said.
“Same here,” Emma said.
The server turned and walked off in sneakers so old they fit like slippers. No socks.
When they were alone again, Emma said, “-Blackbird is delivered to its owner. Then the insurance company is off the hook.”
The continuation of a previous conversation didn’t throw Mac.
She hadn’t expected it to.
“What if the owner isn’t in Rosario?” Mac asked.
“I’ll need a captain and a boat to follow Blackbird until the owner appears and signs off.”
“A thousand a day, plus fuel.”
“Tell it to Faroe.” She held out her cell phone. “Punch two.”
Using his index finger, Mac nudged the phone away. “I don’t work for anyone I haven’t had face time with.”
“You’re going to love Faroe. He feels the same way.”
“When do I see him?”
“Tomorrow, unless he gets lucky and gets here sooner.”
Emma looked around the casino. “Right here? Doubt it. Probably at his motel in Rosario.”
“You’ll know when I do.”
There must have been a replicator in the kitchen, because the server appeared with two plates of food and two small bowls of salad. She dumped them on the table. French fries leaped onto the cloudy surface. The salad was too heavy with dressing to scatter.
This so won’t be worth the calories, Emma thought.
But she needed fuel. It would be a long day and a longer night.
She picked up her burger and bit down. Not quite as cold as the coffee. Definitely warmer than the fries.
“Ketchup?” Mac asked, holding out a plastic squeeze bottle to Emma.
The server dug in her pocket until she found a piece of paper. She dropped the bill on the table and walked away to talk to the hostess.
Emma finished slathering ketchup over her food before she looked at the bill. Without a word she dug a ten and a twenty out of her wallet and put them on the check.
“I can make change,” Mac offered.
He lifted black eyebrows. “Fine tip for lousy service.”
“Her ankles are swollen.”
He bit into his own hamburger, chewed, and swallowed. “I think I like you.”
“Same goes.” She lifted a limp, ketchup-drenched fry. “I think.”
Mac’s slow smile transformed his face. “Get back to me when you know for sure.”
“I’ll have to find you first.”
“I’ll be nearby.” He looked at her expression and knew she wasn’t happy. Fair enough. Neither was he.
He couldn’t wait to see what a sober Tommy had to say for himself.
ON THE RESERVATION
As Mac turned onto Tribal Road, he kept watching his mirrors. Apparently the intriguing Ms. Cross was more interested in hanging out at the marina than she was in following him. All he saw behind him was the glorious blue sky and whipped-cream clouds of a San Juan Islands autumn.
The air flowing through the open truck windows was cool, silky, and rich with the smell of intertidal mud flats. The state highway leading past the casino and gas/liquor store deeper into the reservation was lightly, if carefully, traveled. The few vehicles that were out had no interest in anything but getting wherever they were going without getting tagged by the state, county, city, or tribal speed teams that haunted the area.
When he turned off the highway, Mac set the cruise control to equal the ridiculously low posted speed limit on the rez. Zero tolerance for outsiders was the rule. Just one more way of getting even.
Or getting respect, depending on which side of the rez blanket you were born and raised.
Mac turned off onto the rutted, overgrown dirt lane that led to Tommy’s trailer. The truck’s water pump was making the kind of unhappy mechanical noises that told him he’d be lucky to get home without a tow truck. He hoped everything would hold out until tomorrow, when the much-needed water pump would finally be in stock at the Rosario auto supply store.
All around the truck, alder and big-leaf maple competed with cedar for a place in the wet earth. In the mixed forest, twilight was pretty much an all-day thing. He parked behind the old cedar stump, locked up, and walked deeper into the trees. When he reached the clearing, the trash fire and outhouse still flavored the air, telling him that Tommy was probably still around.
“Yo, Tommy! You there?” Mac called.
“Who cares?” Tommy called back, opening the front door a crack and peering out.
“Hey, it’s me,” Mac said. Tommy looked a little wild-eyed, but it could just be a hangover.
Hope it isn’t crank. He’s snake-mean on that poison.
“Thought you might like food and a beer, my treat,” Mac said. “We didn’t get much time to talk last night.”
The broken screen leaned drunkenly, halfway covering the front door. Tommy kicked the bent frame out of the way.
“Last night?” Tommy stared and shook himself hard, like a dog coming out of water. “You here last night?”
“That bourbon really tanked you.”
Tommy blinked, rubbed the dense beard shadow on his face, and blinked again. His hazel eyes began to clear. With his chestnut hair, Tommy looked less Native American than Mac did. They used to joke about it.
These days, Tommy didn’t have much sense of humor.
“Oh. Yeah. You were here.” Tommy cleared his throat. “Guess I had a little too much.” He looked behind Mac. “You alone?”
Mac nodded and wondered why Tommy cared. He was giving off a deadly-edgy kind of vibe.
“You tweaking?” Mac asked.
“Nah. Got any more bourbon?”
“They have beer at the bowling alley.”
“Can’t leave,” Tommy said roughly.
“Problem with the town cops?”
“No. Just waiting. Got a job coming down. Supposed to be tomorrow, but could be sooner. Dude’s going to pick me up here. I have to be ready to roll.”
“It won’t be today.” Mac watched Tommy without seeming to. “Blackbird is still being fitted out.”
Tommy flinched and looked away. “What the hell you talking about?”
“Your job. Blue Water Marine Group wants a boat moved. The boat’s name is Blackbird.”
“Who told you about that?” Tommy snarled, flushing. “They told me they’d beat the crap out of me if I-” He stopped abruptly. “They wanted it real quiet, you know? How’d you find out?”
“I brought Blackbird from Seattle.”
It wasn’t really an answer, but Tommy nodded.
“You want it quiet,” Mac said, “it’s quiet.”
Tommy made a visible effort to calm himself. He dug a limp cigarette out of his T-shirt pocket, lit it with a match, and took a long draw.
“Quiet. Yeah. Dead quiet.” He laughed wildly, then looked around the dark clearing as though expecting people to be listening behind every tree. “Let’s go inside. Better there.”
Mac doubted it, but followed Tommy into the trailer. Mac didn’t know if the man’s paranoia was a side effect of tweaking or based in reality.
“You never used to worry about Stan,” Mac said easily.
“Screw him.” Tommy slammed and locked the door. “It’s his buddy I worry about.”
“That pussy?” Tommy waved his cigarette in dismissal. “Nah. The other one. Temuri. At least I think that’s the bastard’s name. Blood brother to a shark.”
Mac filed the name and went back to fishing for information. The instincts he had tried to leave behind in Afghanistan had taken a single look at Temuri and come to a quivering point.
That was one stone killer.
“Wonder why Bob and Stan got in bed with someone like that,” Mac said.
Tommy went to the window, stood to the side, and looked out. “Money, dude. What else?”
“Are they hurting?”
“Isn’t everyone?” Tommy kept squinting out the window, searching the dim forest. “Besides, I heard Stan talking about it in the inner office with Bob. The Temuri dude is a prick, but he’s some kind of family.”
Mac shrugged. “So long as they pay.”
“Oh yeah. Half up front. Half on delivery. Forty big ones. Supposed to go tomorrow. Having trouble with some of the electronics. Wrong size or some such crap.”
“Forty thousand American?” Mac asked, black eyes narrowed. That was a lot for the kind of short-haul transit the other man did.
Tommy nodded, making his lank hair jerk.
“Sweet,” Mac said. “Want another hand aboard?”
Tommy turned on him with a snarl. “No. And you never heard of the job, hear me?”
“Sure,” Mac said easily. Unless Tommy was taking the boat across the ocean to Vladivostok, it was an outrageous payday. “Long trip, huh?”
Tommy took a hard drag before he ground the cigarette out under his shoe. “Don’t know.”
Mac didn’t push it anymore. “You hear anything from Jeremy?” he said, asking after the last of the wild ones who once had run together as a teenage pack.
“What do you care?”
“Shove the attitude. It’s me, Mac, the dude you used to steal crabs and boost beer with. Sometimes Jeremy went along, remember?”
Tommy blinked, seemed to refocus. “Sorry, man. I’m a little tweaked, waiting for this job. I really need it.”
“I get that.”
“Jeremy’s pulling pots for some white guy.”
“Thought crabbing was closed.”
Tommy lit another cigarette. “The white guy’s a sport crabber.”
Mac didn’t need to hear the details. If Jeremy got caught-unlikely, given that the fish cops couldn’t afford to put gas in their boat-he played the Indian card. White courts couldn’t touch him. Tribal courts wouldn’t.
“It’s a living,” Mac said.
“And all the crab you can eat or sell on the side.”
With a jerky movement, Tommy flicked ash onto the floor of the trailer. “It’s still shit. That’s all we ever get. Fucking whites.”
“Present company excepted,” Mac said neutrally.
“Huh?” Tommy blinked, focused again. “You know I don’t think of you as white.”
“And I don’t think of you as not white. Ain’t we the rainbow pair.”
Reluctantly Tommy smiled, then laughed, the kind of laugh that reminded Mac of all the good times they’d had as kids, running wild in a ragged land. They hadn’t been innocent, but they hadn’t believed in death.
If that isn’t innocence, what is?
He and Tommy had come a long way since then. They hadn’t ended up at the same place.
The Learjet turned in the late afternoon sunlight and lined up for its final approach to the asphalt strip at the Lopez County Airport. The co-pilot stuck his head through the open cockpit doorway.
“Short-runway landing coming up,” he called back into the cabin. “Come and get this sweet little thing before she ends up as part of the electronics.”
“I’m on it,” Joe Faroe said before his wife could get up.
He put aside his laptop and went forward to grab his daughter, who was examining every ripple and shadow on the plane’s floor. He swung her up easily into the crook of one long arm.
“Did you find any yummy cigarette butts or globs of things better left unidentified?” he asked her.
She drooled and patted his mouth.
“Haven’t you ever heard of don’t ask, don’t tell?” Grace said without looking up from the computer on her lap.
“Don’t you listen to her, sweetie,” Faroe said. He lowered Annalise into the special airline seat and fastened her restraint. “You always want to come to Daddy and tell all, especially about boys.”
Grace shook her head. “You just keep dreaming, darling. You’re cute.”
Faroe stretched, then sat in the seat next to Annalise and fastened his own seatbelt. “You’re the only one who thinks so.”
She flashed him a look out of dark eyes that made him wish he was alone with her. In bed.
“That’s because I know you so well,” Grace said.
He smiled slowly. “I love you.”
“Same goes. And the light of your life is chewing on her restraint.”
He looked over at Annalise. “Gumming it, actually.”
“Good for her immune system,” Faroe said.
Grace rolled her eyes. “Give her a cracker.”
“She’ll just turn it into mush and smear it over everything in reach, including her loving daddy. They’ll bill us extra for cleaning the plane. Why don’t they make kids’ chewies as tough as the ones for dogs?”
“Do you know what dog chewies are made of?”
“And bull pizzles.”
“What?” Faroe asked.
“Penises. From male bovines.”
“Tell me you’re joking.”
“Cover your ears, sweetie,” Faroe said to Annalise as he reached into the bag beneath her seat. “Your mama’s talking dirty. Here you go, beautiful.”
Chubby fingers wrapped around the thick cracker Faroe held out. She shoved a corner of it into her drooling mouth and gummed blissfully.
“You strapped in?” he asked Grace.
“The instant I got back from the head.” She finished the document page and went on to the next as the pilot announced the upcoming landing. She had one more recommendation to file before she could devote her full attention to the brushfire presently burning St. Kilda’s ass. “Someone should just blow that place to the darkest reaches of hell.”
“The Highway of Shame,” Faroe said.
“Where young girls sell themselves to old men and sadists for a handful of rotten food,” Grace said wearily. “Then there are all the weapons, nuclear and otherwise, that trundle along that freeway to hell. Not to mention the traffic in children destined for foreign whorehouses.”
Faroe looked at his daughter and silently vowed it would never happen to her.
“It’s why we keep working bad hours,” Grace said, understanding her husband.
“It’s never enough.”
“No,” she agreed. “It’s never enough. But it’s all we have.”
“I still want you the hell away from Seattle.”
“We’ve been over this so often I feel like a digital recording. If you’re here without me and Annalise, it’s news to anyone who’s watching you. Deal with it, Joe. A lot of bad people care about where you are and what you’re doing.”
“As the unforgettable Alara said, if we go in soft, we have a fallback position.”
“I don’t like it having you and Annalise here. If Alara is right, it’s too damn dangerous.”
“You think I like having Annalise here?” Grace looked at their sleeping child. “But liking it doesn’t matter.” She let out a long breath. “I believe in St. Kilda. So we do what we can do. If that goes to hell, we do something else.”
“Fast,” Faroe muttered.
And pray that fast was quick enough.
Emma kept one eye on her watch and the other on Blackbird. It was still crawling with techs, but there were a lot less boxes waiting on the dock to be installed on the boat.
Damn it, Mac. Where are you?
She sensed he was out there, somewhere, watching as she was watching. But she couldn’t keep an eye on Blackbird and MacKenzie Durand at the same time.
I’ll be nearby.
She grimaced as she remembered his words. Yeah. Right. We have an appointment, big boy. You don’t know where or when.
Her cell phone rang. Faroe. She picked it up.
“He’s not here,” she said.
“But he kept his promise,” Faroe said. “He’s nearby. You can’t see him from where you are. I can. Come toward the second marina ramp. He’s talking with the lady in the shrimp shack. Which is a boat. When Captain Di of the No Shrimp is lucky, she sells fresh prawns off the back deck to locals who know how to find her. You’re going to buy some.”
“You’re telling me to leave Blackbird uncovered.”
“Grace can see into the marina from our motel room. Annalise is sleeping like the innocent she is. We’re covered.”
“See you at the shrimp shack.”
Emma disconnected, got out, locked the Jeep, and walked across the parking lot toward the second marina ramp. As she went down the ramp, she discovered that the “shrimp shack” was indeed a scow tied off just below the ramp. The idea of eating fresh, never-frozen, never-chemically altered shrimp made her stomach growl.
“I hope Captain Di was lucky,” Emma said, licking her lips as she walked up to Mac.
Mac watched her tongue and decided prawns were the least he could do for her.
Captain Di’s laugh was as big as she was. It echoed up the ramp. “Mac there has a hungry look about him.”
He smiled. “Nothing better than prawns. Well, almost nothing.” The woman laughed again, grabbed a small net, and headed for the live tanks at the stern of her boat. “How many pounds?”
“Coon-stripe or spot?” he asked.
“Two pounds.” Mac looked at her. “I’ll cook aboard the Autonomy.”
“Make it four,” Emma said in a low voice. “I crave prawns after days of fast food. And there will be at least one more eating with us.”
“That explains why I’ve been feeling like I have crosshairs on the back of my neck,” Mac said, his voice equally soft. Then, in a carrying tone, “Make it a heavy four, Captain Di. The lady is hungry.”
The sound of Di’s laugh covered any noise Faroe might have made coming down the marina ramp. Mac turned around anyway, warned by the vibration of the dock beneath his feet.
Faroe nodded at him, but walked right past toward the Autonomy. Without hesitation he swung aboard Mac’s boat.
“He has his own boat,” Emma said softly.
“Looks like it.”
“Is your boat locked?”
“Would it make a difference?”
She almost smiled. “Probably not.”
She walked back on the dock until she was even with the stern of No Shrimp. Captain Di was weighing and wrapping prawns. Their bodies snapped and rustled against the clear plastic bag. Emma recognized the tails, but the whole animal was something she hadn’t seen alive. She paid for the prawns and walked back to Mac carrying dinner squirming in a plastic bag.
“Modern woman,” Captain Di said, nodding and pocketing the cash with approval.
“You have no idea,” Mac said.
Captain Di’s laughter followed them down the dock.
“Does that mean you’ll clean them?” Mac asked. “Or are we eating them Asian style?”
She raised her eyebrows in silent question.
“Whole,” Mac said.
“Forget it. I’ll help clean them.”
“Ever done it before?”
“No. Is it tricky?”
He glanced at her. “Basically, you just rip their little heads off.”
“I think my skill level is up to that.”
“How about your stomach?”
“Beats eating them whole.”
Mac was still trying not to laugh as he helped Emma aboard the Autonomy. When he opened the salon door, Faroe was sitting at the shadowed banquette, watching the readout on a palm-sized electronic device.
Nobody spoke until Mac closed the door.
“Boat’s clean,” Faroe said, coming to his feet. “So are both of you.” He held out his hand to Mac. “Joe Faroe. Sorry about the informality.”
Mac looked at Faroe, shook his hand, and said, “Usually I dump people over the side when they come aboard without permission.”
Faroe nodded. “It’s the same on my boat. The TAZ is my own private place.”
“TAZ?” Emma asked.
“As in Temporary Autonomous Zone,” Faroe said.
She looked at Mac. “I sense an area of agreement here.”
“Autonomy,” Faroe said. “Nice thing to have.”
“Or to think you have,” Mac said neutrally.
Faroe’s smile made him look younger, less like a man you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. His intense green eyes gleamed with humor. “Like she said, an area of agreement.”
“We’ll see.” Mac took the plastic bag from Emma. “Why don’t we clean these while your boss explains why I shouldn’t treat him like a big prawn?”
“Rip his head off?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He took her to the galley and emptied the prawns into the sink.
She looked at the seething, snapping mass, like Halloween with ebony eyes and countless orange bodies. “Now what?”
“Grab the head in one hand and the body in the other and twist, like wringing a washrag,” Mac said. “But be careful. Spot prawns have pointy parts that draw blood.”
“So does Joe.”
Mac remembered Faroe’s relaxed yet fully balanced moves as he boarded the boat. “That’s why I’m cleaning prawns instead of him.”
Faroe looked from one to the other and shook his head. “Grace was right about you.”
“Who?” they said simultaneously.
“Move over,” was all Faroe said. “I’ll help rip heads.”
“Keep your hands clean and open one of the New Zealand whites I have in the fridge,” Mac said. “Glasses are in the cupboard next to the sink.” To Emma he said, “Put the tails in the blue plastic bowl to your right.”
“This is going to be interesting,” Faroe said, opening the tiny fridge.
“What?” Mac asked.
“You like to give orders. So do I. Could be interesting when we work together.”
“If, not when.”
Faroe ignored him.
Before they had cleaned half the prawns, Faroe had the wine opened, poured, and was rummaging through the galley for a big pot to heat water in. While the water came to a boil, the men finished cleaning dinner and talked about the joys and drawbacks of boat ownership.
No one mentioned Blackbird.
Emma left the men to sizing each other up, took her wounded fingers to the head, and washed them thoroughly. The flesh of the prawns looked like translucent pearl, but the “sharp bits” protecting the succulent flesh drew blood and stung like the devil. She dried her hands and rejoined the men.
They both cleaned prawns with an efficiency she could only admire.
After a bare taste of the crisp white wine, she set the table and tore up the salad makings she had found in the fridge. A loaf of fresh bread with butter rounded out the meal.
When they sat down to the very fresh, just-barely-cooked prawns, she looked at her fingers ruefully.
“I’m still oozing,” she said.
“Told you they were sharp,” Mac said.
“Don’t hire him,” she said to Faroe. “I hate the ‘told you so’ kind of man.”
Faroe ignored both of them. He savored the succulent delicacy. When he took a break to breathe, he praised the lines and workmanship of Autonomy.
Despite himself, Mac began to relax. There was little that he liked better than sharing his love of his boat.
Making small, throaty sounds of pleasure, Emma went through the prawns like a quick-fingered lawn mower, leaving nothing but small pieces of shell behind. Then she wiped her hands, took her plate to the galley sink, and drank her fifth sip of wine while she finished her salad.
“It’s getting too dark to watch Blackbird from the motel window,” she said, reaching for her small purse. “Unless you brought night-viewing equipment?”
“We’re on vacation,” Faroe said. “But if you need it, I’ll get it. So far they’ve kept the dock lit up like opening night.”
Mac said, “Don’t worry about Blackbird. She’s not going anywhere until tomorrow.”
“How do you know?” Faroe asked.
“Common sense. And her transit captain told me.”
Faroe didn’t move, didn’t shift his expression, but suddenly Mac was the sole focus of the other man’s attention.
“Why?” Faroe asked.
“I’ve known him since first grade,” Mac said. “The common sense took a lot longer.” He wiped his hands as he met Faroe’s hard green eyes. “And I pushed.”
“Are transit jobs usually secret?” Emma asked.
Both men said, “No.”
Faroe asked, “Is he smuggling?”
“Why would I tell you?” Mac said. “I’ve barely known you for an hour.”
She watched them exchange level looks and wondered how badly this “interview” was about to end.
“If it’s weed or cigarettes,” Faroe said, “I’ll kiss your friend on all four cheeks and wish him bon voyage.”
Mac looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded. “Tommy didn’t mention smuggling to me. That doesn’t mean he isn’t carrying hot cargo. It just means he didn’t talk about it with me.”
“Would he?” Emma asked.
Mac shrugged and looked at her. “Usually, yes. He always talks about his next run like it will be the answer to all his problems.”
“It never is,” Faroe said. Not a guess.
“No, it never is.” Mac sighed and ran his hand over his short hair. “Damn, I don’t want to get Tommy into any more trouble than he’s found all by himself.”
“St. Kilda isn’t looking to hang the errand boy,” Faroe said. “We don’t fish for minnows.”
“Not even to use as live bait for bigger fish?” Emma asked, thinking of her own childhood.
Mac looked at Faroe and waited. “We work very hard to limit any collateral damage,” Faroe said. “But we’re not perfect.”
“Nothing human is,” Mac said. “But some things sure are more imperfect than others.”
“You want to investigate St. Kilda before you sign up?” Faroe asked. “If we talk long enough, we’ll find people who know people who know other people.”
“I already did. ‘Merry’ Marty Jones sends you this.” Slowly Mac raised the middle finger of his right hand.
Faroe almost fell off his chair laughing. “Good to know the son of a bitch is as mean as ever. If he wasn’t pushing eighty, I’d harass his ass into signing on with St. Kilda.” Then Faroe’s smile vanished. “You in or out?”
“I’ve got a few more calls that I’m waiting to be returned.”
“Don’t wait too long,” Faroe said bluntly. “This op has a real short clock on it. Call the instant you decide.”
Mac gave Faroe a long look before he nodded curtly.
Faroe headed for the door, with Emma right behind him. She paused at the open door.
“What if we have to contact you?” she asked Mac.
“I have your cell phone number.”
Emma bit back what she thought of Mac’s response, turned on her heel, and followed Faroe. They had a lot of intel to go over together and damn little time.
There was never enough time.
ON THE REZ
A stiff breeze blew through the mixed forest, making needles whisper and leaves rattle. Demidov was just another shadow moving among shadows, sliding between the scrubby trees with an eerie kind of grace. It had taken him an hour to discover the overgrown dirt lane leading into the forest. The “address” he’d found in the Blue Water Marine Group’s office was more of a general direction than any specific guide.
The reservation reminded him of the farthest fringes of Vladivostok, where cart roads became footpaths that unraveled into the wild, ragged land, places where somebody’s location was a matter of spirited discussion among natives.
The wind helped Demidov find his destination. He followed the odor of feces and burning trash to the moonlit clearing where bottles and plastic bags studded the wrecked vehicles in bizarre decoration. Again, it reminded him of Vladivostok. Even the can of kerosene he carried brought back memories.
There was one light burning in the sagging trailer at the far side of the clearing. Demidov circled the trailer once, then again, before he climbed carefully up the broken steps at the back door. After listening for a minute, he caught the stem of the handle in a pair of grip-lock pliers, and twisted. The lock came apart with the small whine of inferior metal.
He slid back into the shadows and waited. One minute. Two.
The trailer remained quiet, motionless but for the occasional quiver beneath the rising wind.
Demidov waited some more. If he was a religious man, he would have prayed, but his only god was power, so he simply waited, listening.
No noises came from inside the trailer.
Quietly he skimmed over the broken steps and through the door, a shadow dancer taking his place on a shabby stage. Any small noises he made were simply part of the performance, the night and the wind and the forest dancing together.
The inside of the trailer smelled like the clearing, with an overlay of sour pizza and beer. His target was facedown on a lumpy couch, snoring into the crook of his arm. Crushed beer cans lay scattered on the floor like a fallen house of cards.
A loaded, cocked pistol waited among the cans.
This becomes more like Vladivostok with every moment, Demidov thought in wry disgust. Fear makes them drink. Too much alcohol makes even the smartest of them a fool.
Demidov had planned to question the target, but experience told him that even intense pain couldn’t cut through some alcohol stupors. He set the kerosene can aside, picked up Tommy’s gun, and frowned.
A man would have to put this.22 caliber toy up a target’s ass to make any impression.
Worse, my silencer won’t fit this barrel.
Damp salt air magnified sound like a megaphone. Demidov wanted to be off the reservation and out of sight before any alarm went out. He put the little pistol out of reach without bothering to wipe it. There was no chance of fingerprints; his thin, black driving gloves covered all manner of problems.
Demidov reached into his long leather coat and pulled out one of his own guns, an SR-1 Vektor. Eighteen rounds, quite reliable as long as the safety was put out of commission with thin tape. With the correct ammunition, the Vektor was capable of penetrating body armor, cars, walls, and light armor plate.
But tonight he was loaded for a much more fragile target. Swiftly, silently, Demidov walked forward. Habit, not necessity. The target’s snores were louder than the wind. With his gloved left hand, he reached between Tommy’s legs, found his testicles, and squeezed hard. Sometimes a sudden, brutal shock of pain could wake up even the most sodden drunk.
Tommy made a sound rather like that of the back-door lock giving way, but his eyelids didn’t open.
Demidov gave another crank, twisting as he squeezed.
With another whine, Tommy tried to curl protectively around himself. His body didn’t respond. He was under too deep.
His eyelids quivered and stayed closed.
I don’t have time for this drunken shit-eater.
With a word of disgust, Demidov released the other man’s slack flesh. He knew men who would have enjoyed trying to wake Tommy up, but Demidov wasn’t one of them. To him, torture was a means to an end, like kerosene or a silencer. A tool, not a pleasure.
If he had been worried about misleading the authorities, he would have simply poured kerosene and let them decide if it was accident, suicide, or murder. But all he was concerned about was making sure the job got done. Once, such a weapon as his had been rare outside of Russia, too distinctive to use overseas. The modern weapons trade had changed that. Using a Vektor was no longer like leaving his name written on a corpse.
Demidov took out his 9 mm pistol, pulled a sofa pillow over the target to limit the back splash of gore, and shot Tommy twice in the head.
Moving quickly, Demidov poured kerosene on and around the body. He lit it with matches the dead man had dropped. When he was sure that the fire would take hold, he went out the same way he had come in, a dark dancer moving through the forest.
The sirens had already awakened Emma. She was just getting back to sleep when her cell phone vibrated and warbled on the motel’s end table. With an impatient movement she snagged the phone.
“What,” she snarled.
“I’m out front in your Jeep,” Mac said. “In three minutes I leave without you.”
“I have the keys.”
“I don’t need them.”
The line went dead.
Emma had slept fully clothed-shoes, socks, jeans, and a black pullover-too exhausted after her turn watching Blackbird to care about undressing. She grabbed her purse and a jacket and ran out.
Twenty seconds after Mac had hung up on her, she was in the parking lot of the motel.
Sure enough, he was sitting at the wheel of her Jeep. Wires dangled from the console. She got in the passenger seat, threw him the keys, and shut the door very quietly when she really wanted to slam it.
“Is it Blackbird?” she asked as he drove out of the parking lot without benefit of headlights.
He went down a side street, turned onto an eastbound feeder street, and flipped on the lights.
“Where’s your truck?” she asked.
“Crapped out, waiting for a new water pump.”
Emma turned toward him. “You have about ten seconds to tell me what the hell is going on. If I don’t like what I hear, I’m going to reach into my girly purse, pull out a Glock, and turn you into splatter patterns.”
Mac gave her a sideways look and started talking. “I have a police scanner at my house. There was a fire on the rez. They’re talking about arson. One crispy critter in the ashes.”
She grimaced. She’d seen-and smelled-enough of that kind of death in Iraq to last her a lifetime.
“I don’t know how firemen stand it,” she said.
Mac didn’t have to ask what she meant.
“Some of them turn vegetarian for a while,” he said. “Then they get over it and go back to rare beef.”
“Glad to know I wasn’t the only one.”
“Where?” he asked.
“Baghdad. You?” she asked, wondering if he would lie.
Or if his file had.
“Afghanistan,” he said shortly, accelerating onto the highway, “well beyond any city.”
“Out with the tribes?” she asked casually.
“Not much else out there but rock. Got a lot of that, all of it standing on end.”
“How long were you there?”
“Why do you care?”
“Call me curious,” she said.
“Call me classified.”
Behind them an official vehicle came on fast, light bar flashing and siren screaming the need for speed.
Mac pulled over like a good citizen.
The sheriff’s car blew past them into the darkness.
“Guess he’s late to the barbeque,” Mac said.
She grimaced, thought about calling Faroe, and decided against it until she knew more. There was no point in waking her boss up to share the ignorance.
“I’ll wait until the sheriff’s car is out of sight,” Mac said. “Then I’m going to speed like a dirty bastard. Every official in a twelve-mile radius will already be at the fire.”
Mac hit the accelerator hard. Being a rental, the Jeep took its time getting up to eighty.
And that was all it had. Eighty.
“What a piece of crap,” he muttered.
“Wheels need alignment or balancing,” Emma said. “Or both.”
“What it needs is another engine.”
“That, too. Sweet thing is, the mileage really sucks.”
Mac almost smiled. Emma was that rare find in a partner, male or female-easy to be with.
Especially when she pulled a Glock from her purse and checked it over with the motions of someone who knew which end of a gun bit and which didn’t.
“Think we’ll need that?” he asked.
“I think I’d rather be ready than point my index finger and say ‘bang.’” She put the weapon back into her purse.
They drove in silence until they rounded the long curve half a mile from Tommy’s lane. Instantly Mac lifted his foot off the accelerator and began losing speed fast.
At least sixteen official vehicles were parked on both sides of Tribal Road, light bars wheeling. The lane to Tommy’s trailer was choked with more vehicles. Their lights stabbed through the woods in flashes of blue and red and spotlight-white.
Wary of making a loud screeching noise, Mac slowly engaged the emergency brake.
“Tommy’s place,” he said.
“How did you know?” Emma asked tightly, reaching for her cell phone. “Was the address on the scanner?”
“Not in so many words. But even on the rez, most people have addresses. The place that burned didn’t.” He glanced at her phone. “Don’t bother waking Faroe up yet. We don’t know what’s going on.”
Dead slow, the Jeep bumped along the verge of the road. After about sixty feet, Mac stopped, reversed, cranked the wheel, and started backing up. Once there had been another nameless lane here, but someone had moved on or died and everything was completely overgrown now.
As the Jeep backed in, it bent brush and small saplings away from the vehicle. Branches shivered and scraped. Most of the undergrowth sprang back upright after the Jeep passed.
When they were invisible from the road, Mac turned and looked Emma over, taking in her outfit.
Before he could open his mouth, she started removing her watch and small earrings, things that could reflect light, giving away her position. It had been years since she had been trained in covert ops, but it was coming back to her. Along with a wave of adrenaline.
“Any mud nearby?” she asked.
“I don’t think I’ll need it for camouflage. I don’t want to get that close.”
“If you think I’m staying here, you’re not smart enough to sign on with St. Kilda.”
Mac had been expecting that since he’d seen the Glock. He didn’t waste time arguing with her. He just fished around on the floor and tossed her one of the black knit caps he had stuffed under the seat.
“Pull it on,” he said, reaching down again for his own cap.
“Knife,” he said. “Quieter than a gun.”
His lips quirked. “I’ve got a good arm.”
Together they eased out into the night. Emma followed him as he angled through brush and around bigger trees, always holding his course to the same general direction. When the moonlight was bright enough, she could see the faint line of the overgrown trail Mac was following. She tried to make as little noise as he did, but it had been a long time since she’d gone through night training.
They walked for ten minutes before they began to catch the smell of burning excrement and garbage, bitter and foul and disgusting, like a trash fire jacked on steroids. Through a screen of trees and brush, they saw flashes of bright red lights on emergency vehicles and the steady white spears of headlights parked at all angles.
Emma didn’t need Mac’s signal to freeze and drop. She was already on her belly, wriggling as close as she could. A hand on her ankle halted her. Mac slithered along her left side and breathed into her ear.
For an instant she didn’t understand. Then it came back to her in a rush of memory and knowledge. She nodded. She wouldn’t get close enough to the action that her eyes reflected light.
What remained of the trailer was a sullen, stinking pile of twisted wreckage. Firemen circled it in turnout gear. They called back and forth, kicking at rubble and bent metal, looking for anything that still was hot enough to produce flames. Occasional bursts of water from their hoses added to the stench.
She leaned close enough to Mac’s ear to feel the heat of his body. “Overgrown wreck,” she breathed. “Two o’clock.”
Eyes narrowed, Mac judged the possibilities. His face looked grim in the pulsing light from the clearing. His black gaze switched to hers, then vanished as his lips brushed her ear.
“Wait here. You’re out of practice.”
She went stiff, then relaxed. When it came to slithering through the woods, he was better than she was. A lot better. She’d been trained for city work, recruiting rather than recon.
She signaled for him to go. Then she got as close to the pungent forest floor as she could and still peer through the undergrowth into the clearing.
Mac set off at an angle to a place where there was a group of rez types talking and gesturing. They were so engrossed by the grisly scene that Mac could have walked right up to them.
He didn’t. He just got close enough to eavesdrop.
“…was always looking for trouble.”
“Sure found it.” The man spat on the churned ground.
Mac saw the glint of a badge at the man’s belt and recognized him as a tribal cop.
“Arson. Damn.” The smaller man almost danced in place with excitement. “Wonder who did it?”
“Half the rez hated Tommy’s ass.” The cop spat again, as though the taste of the air was getting to him. “Besides, he might be out on a boat. Might be someone else was sleeping in his trailer.”
Mac hoped the cop was right but doubted it. Tommy hadn’t had any other place to go while he waited for Blackbird.
And he’d been scared.
Floodlights from two fire engines played back and forth over the lumpy, twisted rubble like stiff white fingers combing the wreckage.
“There,” called one of the firemen.
The floodlights paused, then converged on a corner of the ruins. The wind swirled, increasing the unmistakable odor of barbeque gone wrong.
Ugly memories drenched Mac, men burning, dying, dead. Long ago, far away, and as fresh as the bile rising up his throat. He’d hoped never to smell that particular kind of death again.
“Jesus Christ,” the fireman said. “Half his skull is gone. I mean, just flat gone. What the-”
“Knock it off!” said a woman’s voice. “This is a crime scene.”
Mac understood the words that the woman was too well-trained to say: Civilians around. Shut up.
The woman who spoke wasn’t from the rez, but people gave way to her just the same.
Silence descended as she strode into the harsh light of the clearing.
She was on the downhill side of forty-five and didn’t give a damn. Her blond-gray hair wasn’t dyed and she wore no makeup. She was dressed in a pale windbreaker and dark slacks. As she walked up to the firemen, the floodlights caught three large block letters on the back of her jacket.
Hold your ankles and brace yourselves, boys and girls, Mac thought bitterly. This just became an official Mongolian goat-fuck.
He eased back into thicker cover and silently, quickly made his way to Emma. A curt signal had her wriggling backward. When he was certain her retreat hadn’t attracted any attention, he followed.
Once they were well back into the forest, hidden by the night and the restless wind, he signaled for her to stand. Silently he led the way deeper into the trees. Neither of them spoke until they were in the Jeep and had driven down the road, out of sight of the cluster of vehicles. He flipped on the headlights.
“You okay?” Mac asked.
“Swallowing hard,” Emma said tightly.
“Tell me if you need to pull over.”
“Tough guy, huh? The smell didn’t get to you.”
“You learn not to throw up. Too much noise will get you dead real quick.” His hands flexed on the wheel, as hard as his voice. “FBI was on the fire scene.”
Emma’s head hit the back of the seat. “This just gets better and better.”
“Let’s go wake up Faroe. I’m signing on.”
Mac, Emma, and Grace Silva-Faroe sat at a small dinette table in the motel suite Faroe had rented. Nobody spoke while Mac read and signed the papers that would make him a contract agent for St. Kilda Consulting, assigned to missing yachts in general and one called Blackbird in particular.
From a nearby bedroom came the pealing laughter of Annalise Faroe as her daddy took her for a shoulder-high tour of the suite. His “Shhhh, sweetie, let the civilians sleep” was ignored by Annalise.
Grace watched out the window toward the Blue Water Marine Group. People were still crawling over Blackbird. But not as many. Empty boxes went up the ramp much more often now than full boxes went down.
She had been as relieved as Faroe when Mac turned up at their door in the middle of the night. With a silent sigh, she stacked papers Mac had signed and handed him a St. Kilda sat/cell phone.
“You’ll continue working with Emma,” Grace said. “She’ll be the senior partner.”
“Except if we’re on a boat,” Mac said. “I know more about the water than she does.”
Grace looked at Emma.
“No problem,” Emma said. “If it floats, I’m junior partner.”
Grace stashed the papers in her briefcase and looked at Mac. “What do you know about Bob Lovich and Stan Amanar?”
“They’re descended from a long line of hardworking fishermen and part-time smugglers.”
Mac shook his head. “You have to understand how it is in Rosario. There are three major factions. One is the Eastern European immigrants and their descendants who still speak the mother language. Or languages. They’re a hard-headed, suspicious clan. Damn few marry out, especially if you’re talking about the smugglers.”
“Common enough for immigrant communities,” Grace said. “Particularly those who make a living outside the law.”
“Like the Sicilians,” Emma said.
Grace nodded. “Or the Asian tongs.”
“The second faction is the white businessmen who have been here long enough to own the mayor and city council,” Mac continued. “They have a lot of the official, legal power, but they don’t mess with the immigrants and their ways. The white power structure ignores nearly all the smuggling, gambling, prostitution, after-hours bottle clubs, and the like.”
“What about the police?” Emma asked.
“Anyone who tries to do real cop work finds himself out of a job pretty quick.” Mac shrugged. “Basically, the police keep the streets clean for the businessmen and yachties.”
“Again, pretty standard,” Grace said.
“Except for the murder rate,” Mac said. “This sweet little town holds the lowest U.S. record for unsolved murders per capita.”
Grace lifted her dark eyebrows. “Like the one on the rez tonight?”
“Most aren’t that obvious. Just people who go missing when there’s a shift in the immigrant power structure. Low-level smugglers, usually.”
“You were one of them, weren’t you?” Emma guessed.
“I ran away when I was seventeen,” Mac said. “Hated the ever-stinking guts of this place. One of my best friends died in a ‘fishing accident’ after I left. The body was never found. He was moving cigarettes north and weed south in a small, hell-fast boat. Tommy was, too, but he survived. Until last night.”
“The rez is the third faction?” Grace asked.
“Yeah. There’s some pushing and shoving at the smuggling trough between the rez and the clan, but nothing like between the Sicilians or the Asian tongs or the Russian mafiyas in our big cities.”
“Where do the Mexicans come in?” Grace asked. “I’ve seen more than a few since we got here.”
“The ones who are illegal keep their head down,” Mac said. “The legal ones invest in Mexican food joints, the mayor, and the city council.”
“In other words, the Mexicans are pretty much ignored, except to be milked,” Grace said.
“They came too late to the Pacific Northwest to have much traction in local crime,” Mac pointed out.
“Unlike the southern border states,” Grace said wearily. “Nice to know that the Pacific Northwest is holding up its end of the twenty percent of world Gross Domestic Product that is the result of crime.”
“Also known as the shadow economy,” Emma said. “Does anything ever change?”
“I can’t fix the world,” Grace said. “But I can fix what I trip over.” Or what is shoved down my throat.
Faroe passed the dinette, stroking Grace’s cheek on the way by. Annalise was blissfully slack in his arms. Laughing one minute, sleeping deep the next. A look passed between man and wife. He shook his head in answer to the unspoken question and vanished into Annalise’s room.
Grace looked at Mac. “You’ve given me a general picture. What about Bob Lovich and Stan Amanar in particular?”
“First cousins,” Mac said. “Closer than most brothers. When their ancestors emigrated, it was from the part of Russia we call Georgia, with a lot of Ukrainian cousins thrown in. Close cousins.”
“No love for Russia,” Grace said.
“Not as tsarist Russia, the U.S.S.R., or the new Russia,” Mac agreed. “Don’t get me wrong. Rosario’s immigrant community isn’t awash in old-country nationalists. They wear the ancestral costumes and cook the food and speak a dialect of the home languages, but all they really care about is the clan here and now in America.”
“So they don’t have much contact with the Old World?” Emma asked him.
“They’re still bringing over cousins and cousins of cousins, especially after the Wall fell, but if there are dodgy business contacts in the Old World, I don’t know about them.”
At the back of her mind Grace listened to the soft sound of the door to the other room closing. When Faroe’s big hands settled on her shoulders and began to work on knots, she sighed in relief. She hadn’t realized how tight she’d become.
But nothing showed on her face when she said to Mac, “Tommy was Blackbird’s transit captain. What are your chances of being tapped as his replacement?”
“Pretty good,” Mac said. “I do a lot of work for Blue Water Marine. So do a few other captains. I don’t know who’s in port now.”
“If they go with someone else, are you ready to follow Blackbird right now?” Faroe asked quietly.
Mac went through a mental checklist in his head. “Blackbird is fast for her size. If they run above fourteen knots, I’ll have to make it up at night.”
“If it comes to that, we’ll rent you a faster boat,” Grace said.
“Fuel tanks are full on my boat,” Mac continued. “Water tank is full. Engine is good. Oil is good. Electrical is solid. So is the generator. Rations are adequate for a week. I was going out if no new job turned up.”
“Adequate for two?” Emma asked.
“It won’t be fancy,” he said, looking at her.
“And here I was dreaming of fresh prawns and champagne.”
Grace smiled tiredly. “Emma will check out of her room immediately and move aboard. Joe will organize our watch times.”
Faroe stroked his hand over Grace’s head and said, “I’ll take it until six. You haven’t slept well since you met Alara.”
“Who could?” Grace asked under her breath.
Faroe looked at Mac. “You’ve signed on, so we can tell you why we’re after Blackbird. You can access Emma’s computer for facts, guesses, estimates, and updates about this whole nasty cluster, so I’ll give you the short form.”
Mac measured Faroe’s grim expression and braced himself.
“Blackbird is a dead ringer for Black Swan,” Faroe said. “That yacht went missing somewhere between Vladivostok and Portland a year ago. Yet Blackbird was built from the hull up in Singapore after that and shipped safely to Elliott Bay.”
Faroe almost smiled. The more he was around Mac, the better he liked him.
“A woman who is no longer known as Alara,” Faroe said, “came to St. Kilda and requested in the most forceful possible way that we assist Uncle Sam in following Blackbird and finding out whether her hidden or intended cargo is biological, chemical, or fissionable.”
Mac closed his eyes as his breath hissed out in a savage curse. “So this Alara woman has a network full of leaks and a stinking rose she wants pinned somewhere else. She pass along any other helpful little hints?”
Grace smiled. “Ambassador Steele was right. You have a top quality, bottom line mind. She gave us seven days. This is day three.”
“And after seven?”
“We risk losing a major city,” Emma said.
Mac didn’t ask which one. No matter where this dirty deal went down, civilians would die. A lot of them. The fact that they were innocent wouldn’t make them any less dead.
Seven days? Christ. Seven months wouldn’t be enough.
But Mac didn’t say anything aloud. Complaining about the huge serving of shit on your plate just wasted time. All you could do was grab a spoon and start eating.
“I’m going to be spending a lot of time with your computer,” Mac said to Emma.
“While you do,” Faroe said, “she can work on learning how to handle boat lines, fenders, and other matey stuff.”
Emma made a startled sound.
With a dark-eyed smile, Grace said, “If I can learn how to be a first mate to my snarling Captain Joe, you can learn from sweet, gentle Captain Mac.”
“Sweet? Gentle?” Emma glanced sideways at Mac.
He tried to look sweet and gentle. Given the information he’d just received, it wasn’t possible.
“Tell me lines aren’t as heavy as fuel hoses,” Emma said.
“They aren’t as heavy.” He lowered his eyelids to half mast. “And I can be very gentle.”
She shook her head. She’d walked right into that one.
“Emma has her cover story,” Grace said, no longer trying not to yawn. “Mac came with his intact. As for why you’re suddenly joined at the hip, I suggest going with the tried and true.”
“Sex,” Emma said, grimacing.
“Sex,” Grace agreed. “Start practicing snuggling and snogging in public.”
Mac and Emma looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Snogging?”
“Look it up,” Grace said. “It will grow on you.”
Timothy Harrow ignored the inbox marked Urgent on his desk. Pragmatically speaking, it was a low designation of priority. Everything that came across his desk was urgent. The only question was of degree.
At the moment, he was frowning over an email that was a good deal more than urgent. Somebody’s ass was going to get burned. His job was to make sure it didn’t belong to the Deputy Director of Operations, his immediate boss. Hopefully he could save his boss by putting the fire out. If that didn’t work, some serious finger-pointing was going down.
And if the op blew up…
Don’t think about it. Just make sure it doesn’t happen.
At the highest levels, politics was a blood sport.
Harrow hit the intercom button. “Duke? Got a minute?”
“Make it fast. I have to brief the DO over the mess in Caracas in five and then brief his boss on the uncivil war heating up between the narcos and elected Mexican politicians. You have anything that’s going to make my life easier?”
Harrow sincerely doubted it. “You told me to keep you current on anything coming out of Rosario, Washington, state of.”
“An Indian on the rez bought it, execution style. Half his head blown off and his trailer burned down around his dead ears.”
“Weapon was an SR-1 Vektor. Silenced, from the condition of the bullets. Less deformation that way. Either the victim or the killer-or both-had ties to the item we discussed Sunday.”
“Sometimes I wish that Berlin still had a wall,” Duke said. “I’m told this job was a hell of a lot easier back then. How good is your source?”
“FBI. They get called in on major rez crimes.”
“You trust an FBI agent?”
Cooperation between the two agencies was a minefield filled with back-stabbing, misdirection, and agent eat officer.
Politics as usual.
“The agent owed me a favor,” Harrow said. “Even if he didn’t, he’s reliable.”
“Stay on top of it,” the DDO said. “If it moves off the rez to Canada, somebody will stick us with the ticket.”
“Then I’m praying it doesn’t.”
Neither one of them wanted to testify before the kind of political investigation committees that would be formed if the op that wasn’t quite the CIA’s went south.
Shurik Temuri trimmed his fingernails with a very sharp Japanese folding knife. The big, wedge-shaped blade hadn’t been designed for manicures, but Temuri didn’t care. He simply wanted to flash the lethal knife as he browbeat the two stupid Americans.
Once the knife appeared, any Georgian with balls would have pulled his own knife and begun working on fingernails or other body parts. But it seemed that Lovich and Amanar had lived a soft life too long to recognize the old-country insult of an unsheathed knife.
It was the same problem with the language the cousins spoke-an outdated, corrupt form of what any proper Georgian would speak.
“So what did your informant tell you?” Temuri asked Amanar.
“Don’t call him an informant,” Amanar said unhappily. “He’s the chief of police. He briefed me along with other members of the city council, that’s all.”
“Policemen are always informants to politicians.” Temuri shaved off a piece of nail. “Unless they’re the politician as well as the policeman.”
“Look, I keep telling you that you aren’t back in the old country,” Amanar said. “This system is different.”
“What is it Americans say? Shit of the bull?” Temuri waved the knife. “Police and politics are the same everywhere. What did he say to you?”
Blank faced, Lovich looked out the window. He wanted no part in this conversation.
Amanar started to argue with Temuri, then shrugged. The Georgian simply didn’t grasp the nuances of American politics. Or maybe the other way around. Whatever.
Either way, Blackbird needed a captain.
“I was told that the Indian was shot twice in the back of the head,” Amanar said. “Then the murderers doused the trailer with kerosene and lit it off. Any real evidence was destroyed in the fire.”
“Murderers? More than one?” Temuri asked.
“Uh…that’s what the police chief said.”
Another crescent of nail shaving hit the carpet. “One child with balls could have executed the Indian and burned the place down.”
“Look, I’m just telling you what I was told.”
Amanar kept talking in his out-of-date dialect. “The body was almost burned beyond recognition. The assumption is that it’s Tommy. Considering that he isn’t answering his cell phone and can’t be found, we’re going with Tommy as the corpse. Even if he’s alive and running, we can’t count on him anymore. My cousin and I are really, really unhappy with how this is turning out.”
“Yeah,” Lovich said in English. “This talk about an execution isn’t making me feel the love.”
Temuri gave him a hard look for speaking in English. Then he turned his attention back to Amanar. “Is there a problem?”
“The chief didn’t say anything about any execution,” Amanar said. “He thinks it was some kind of ongoing, uh, argument about fishing rights or something among the Indians.”
“Why, then, is your Federal Bureau of Investigation involved?” Temuri demanded, his dark eyes glittering with temper.
“They always investigate crimes of violence on reservations. That’s what the chief said, anyway.”
Temuri spit on the rug.
Amanar winced but didn’t say anything.
“Amateurs,” Temuri said.
The knife flashed so quickly Amanar couldn’t see much beyond a metallic blur. He swallowed hard and didn’t ask just who the amateurs were that Temuri spit upon.
“You are telling me a cheap murder on a tribal reserve that is mostly scrub timber and blackberry bushes is worth the attention of no fewer than fifty federal agents,” Temuri said with a deadly lack of inflection.
“Fifty? Are you sure? The chief never said anything about that many feds.” Amanar shook his head in disbelief. “How did you find that out?”
“I drove by the tribal headquarters building and counted the shiny four-door sedans parked there. That is called intelligence work. I know Chechens who can drive by a Russian barracks and tell you within five men the number of soldiers housed there. It is how we determine the number of bullets issued to our freedom fighters.”
Amanar started sweating. “I don’t like this talk about soldiers and attacks. You told us this was a simple smuggling operation, like dope or cigarettes. That’s all we signed on for. We’re Americans, not freedom fighters or terrorists.”
“Yet you smuggle the narco to sell to children and addicts?”
“It’s not the same,” Amanar said impatiently. “It’s just a game. Dope doesn’t hurt anybody. Guns do. My cousin and I don’t want anything to do with anyone else’s wars.”
Temuri stared at him, then tested the edge of the knife on Lovich’s wooden desk.
Lovich worked hard on ignoring him.
“What of the people of yours who disappeared at sea years ago?” Temuri asked. “Was that all part of the game that hurt no one?”
The two boat brokers traded startled glances.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” Lovich said in English. “Why the hell did-”
“I didn’t tell him,” Amanar said in the same language. “Now shut up. He knows more English than he lets on.”
Sullenly, Lovich returned to staring out at the bay.
“Look, I don’t know who you’ve been talking to or what they’ve been saying,” Amanar said. “We never killed anybody. Accidents happen, especially when you’re in a small boat on big water.”
“I know precisely what happened and why,” Temuri said. He carved another groove in the desk. Wood shavings fell on the rug next to neat slices from his nails. “So would your police, if they ever decided to investigate. Yet death at sea is a federal matter, is it not? I am told death has no limitation in the United States.”
Amanar got the point: Temuri knew that the statute of limitations on murder had no end date.
“And then the monies owed-taxes, yes,” Temuri said. “Is there a limitation on them?”
Amanar and Lovich exchanged a long look before Amanar gave in, turned away, and asked the question whose answer neither cousin would like.
“What do you want?” he asked Temuri.
“A captain for my Blackbird. You have until tomorrow at dawn.”
Neither Lovich nor Amanar asked what would happen if they failed Temuri. They really didn’t want to know.
Taras Demidov swallowed the last of three hamburgers, squeezed the final drops in the tenth packet of ketchup over a pile of fries, and took a sip of the surprisingly awful coffee. No amount of sugar smothered the bitterness.
But it did take the smell inside the van off his tongue.
Eating fries, Demidov listened through his ear bug while the two cousins continued arguing over possible replacements for the Indian who had been taken out of the game. Demidov didn’t bother to sort out the voices. Only the topic mattered to him.
“And I tell you, your wife’s nephew isn’t up to a boat that size.”
“Stupid shit deserves to die. He knocked up his own cousin.”
“Still a cousin. I say we use Durand.”
“Who’d miss him? No family, no friends except maybe Tommy, not even a regular hump in town.”
“Tommy was stupid. Durand isn’t.”
“If Durand’s so smart, why ain’t he rich?”
Demidov laughed soundlessly as he stood and walked the few steps to the slops bucket. The cousins came from families that had lived in America so long they had absorbed the culture whether or not they wished to.
“Temuri wants Blackbird out of here by tomorrow at dawn, no later. None of the other captains we use are available right now. You want to drive that boat yourself?”
“Fine. Whatever. If no one else can take the job by this afternoon, I’ll call Durand. Temuri won’t like it. He didn’t take to Durand.”
“So let Temuri drive the boat.”
“He’d make us drive it. Better we get Durand. He doesn’t have kids.”
“You don’t know anyone’s going to die.”
“You want to bet your life on it?”
Listening to the cousins wrangle, Demidov shook off the last drops and zipped up. It was time to message his boss and make him smile.
Blackbird wouldn’t be going anywhere today.
If I tie any more ropes-lines-to this cleat,” Emma said, wiping sweat off her forehead, “I’m going to yank it out of the dock and put it where your sun don’t shine.”
Mac hid his smile by reaching into the grocery bag and pulling out a chocolate bar. “Truce?”
“You have a sandwich to go with that?”
“Truce.” She jerked the line tight, leaving two neat, secure figure-eights of line lying on the cleat. “Is it always this hot in October?”
“No,” he said. “It won’t last. You want to take a turn at the computer?”
She looked at him blankly. “Did something, um, new come in?”
“I’m talking about the other computer. You know, chart-plotting and navigation and-”
“No, thanks. Knock yourself out.”
She stretched her back muscles. Handling fat lines and big fenders-always at strange angles that increased the stress of leverage on her body-used more strength than she would have guessed.
“After lunch, then,” he said.
She looked at his expression and knew she was going to learn more about boat handling than she’d ever wanted to. At least Faroe and his magic electronic machine had been by before dawn, assuring them that Autonomy was still without bugs. They could talk freely, if carefully.
“Sure,” she said, concealing a sigh. “Can’t wait.”
Mac took her hand, drew her close, and nuzzled her neck. “You’ve got to learn enough so that if I’m out of commission you’ll be able to do whatever has to be done. Both our lives could depend on it.”
“I hear you.” She bit his ear. “Now feed me.”
She laughed, hugged him hard for anybody who might be watching, and was tempted to take him up on his offer.
So she did.
He tasted fine, coffee and salt air and man. A lot of man, covering her from lips to knees, settling in for a good long kiss. She told herself she wanted to pull away, then gave up lying and returned as good as she got. Everywhere she touched him he was hot, way too hot. From the feel of the erection pressing against her stomach, he felt the same way about her.
Slowly, very slowly, they separated.
“Whew,” she said against his lips. “That should have melted anyone’s binoculars.”
“Sure set my jeans on fire.”
“I noticed.” She smiled. “I’d show you how much I appreciate it, but we’d get arrested.”
Her stomach growled.
He laughed and shook his head. “Lunch? Normal kind?”
“Lunch,” she agreed. “Boring kind.”
Emma followed Mac inside, grabbed the local newspaper out of the grocery bag and sat at the banquette.
It was that or grab Mac right where his jeans fit so well.
Down, girl. Think work. Work. WORK.
She skimmed the headlines while he unwrapped sandwiches and took out bottles of iced tea. Nothing new on the rez fire. Not that she expected anything. Once the feds got involved, usually chatty sources took a vow of silence.
St. Kilda hadn’t been a whole lot of help in the information department either. Reams of Alara’s background briefings had appeared on Emma’s computer along with conclusions that varied from bureau-babble to useless. A lot of words wasted when two words would do it: We’re trying.
Mac wedged more fresh vegetables into the small fridge and folded the paper bag for reuse. Between the check from Blue Water Marine Group and St. Kilda’s “petty cash” advance, he wasn’t worried about paying for his next meal.
He made a point of not noticing that Emma was back to wearing one of her eye-candy outfits. Her short shorts and tight crop top told him what he already knew-playing her lover was going to be hard on him. Literally.
Get your mind out of your pants and into the game.
Good advice. He was trying hard to take it.
Hard. Really hard.
Sex was easy to ignore only when you were getting some regularly. Having Emma close by reminded Mac that he’d been on short rations recently. He shut the fridge door.
Warily, Emma watched him from the corner of her eye. The waves of testosterone were thick enough to float on. Problem was, she was tempted to dive right in.
Hey, at least I don’t have to worry about the temperature of the water, she thought wryly. It would be hot.
She took a bite out of her ham sandwich, chewed, and wished she was sipping on him rather than on iced tea.
Mac settled onto the bench seat opposite her, unwrapped his sandwich, and said, “Anything new?”
Emma opened her bag of chips. “Not in the last half hour.”
“Tell me more about Black Swan. Damn little was on your computer.”
“Blue Water Marine Group franchises yacht dealerships,” she said, “mainly on the West Coast. The hulls are laid in Malaysia and the fancy teak work is done there. The boats are mostly finished by the time they go on a container ship.”
Mac took a big bite from his meatball sub.
“Several other high-end boat names also have the major work done in Malaysia,” she said. “Costs less and the craftsmanship is better than good.”
He nodded. “I’ve picked up more than one overseas boat in Seattle for Blue Water.”
“There’s one you didn’t pick up. About a year ago, there was a yacht called Black Swan.”
He waited, chewing an oversize chunk of meatball sub.
“We don’t know where it was hijacked off the container ship,” Emma said. “Irkutsk or Vladivostok are most likely.”
“Was Swan really identical to Blackbird?”
“In every way we’ve been able to confirm.”
Mac chewed on that for a while. Then he opened his tea. “St. Kilda has been working this for a year?”
“Investigating yacht thefts? Yes.”
“Are the thefts tied together?”
“No pattern has been found beyond the fact of the luxury yachts themselves. Every major American shipbuilder in Malaysia has been hit. If one of the Russian mafiyas is running the scam, we can’t find names. Black Swan was the loss that pulled the pin on the patience grenade of the insurance arm of IYBC-that’s International Yacht Builders Consortium to non-native speakers.”
“Were all the missing boats about the same size?” he asked.
“So far, nothing smaller than forty-one feet or bigger than seventy-three has been hijacked. The smaller boats are the really high-end ones.”
“Within that size range, the estimates are that at least two yachts a year have been lost in the last decade from container ships departing Malaysia. It adds up to a lot of millions, and that’s just from the boats covered by the Consortium’s insurance program. Other insurers have losses as big or bigger. They’re all tired of paying without really playing.”
Mac ate and turned over pieces of the puzzle in his mind. “Unless you dupe in a bunch of undercover agents along various water-fronts, the insurers have a hard slog ahead. All a hijacker needs is one crooked shift on harbor duty and a big-ass hammerhead crane.”
“That pretty much describes any of the big ports along Malaysia and the Pacific coastline of the FSU. Excuse me, Russian Federation. Wonder what they’ll be called a year from now?” She shrugged.
“But I’d lay good money on hijacked yachts being used to shuttle mafiya brass around the Caspian Sea. When it comes to bare-assed naked thievery, I’ll put the mafiyas against anything the globe can offer.”
“How did the insurance claims explain the losses?”
“Rogue waves. Each and every one of them.”
Mac raised dark eyebrows. “With all the satellites in orbit measuring changes in height of the ocean surface, and the amount of traffic in the shipping lanes, there should be plenty of warnings on the air about rogue waves in the containership transit zones.”
“You’d think,” Emma agreed wryly. “But, damn, those sneaky mountains of water just keep rushing up and washing really expensive yachts into the drink. Nothing cheap, mind you. No wannabe yachts need apply.”
“Is there a chance that the Consortium is some kind of stalking horse for the opposition?” Mac asked.
“If they are, St. Kilda couldn’t find it. And yes, we looked. We’re real picky about our clients.”
When we have the choice.
For a few minutes there was nothing but the small sounds of lunch being devoured.
“Is Blackbird going to the same owner who commissioned Swan?” Mac asked.
“Not on any documents we could find. Swan was on her way to Portland, Oregon. Owner was a really pissed-off class-action attorney whose bouncing buddy spent just hours on the boat’s design. Hours, I tell you. Getting a black hull and matching swim step cost buttloads of money. Buttloads, I tell you.”
Mac smiled. “Bent your ear, did she?”
“He,” Emma said. “Before I was assigned to the case, he chewed on insurance agents while his lover threatened class-action suits in all possible venues, known and unknown.”
“Class action for yachties?” Mac shook his head and laughed over his vanishing sandwich.
She smiled. “You and Faroe think alike.”
“I know those yacht hulls come off the production line like big cars, only in much smaller numbers,” Mac said. “But what are the chances of two rich yachties going to Blue Water Marine Group franchises in two states and insisting on identical interior design and black on the hull and swim step? And throwing in whacking great oversize engines just for kicks and giggles?”
“Same questions Faroe asked. Their son is still trying to calculate the odds, and Lane is some kind of math-computer guru.”
Silently Mac finished his sandwich, took a big swallow of iced tea, and rapped his knuckles slowly, gently, on the table.
Emma could tell when a man was thinking hard. She shut up and waited.
“If it wasn’t for the built-alike thing,” Mac said finally, “I’d say that the thefts were probably done by unrelated gangs in various Malaysian and FSU ports that were lifting anything they could get a sling under.”
“The identical-twin thing is why I was assigned up close and personal to Blackbird. Faroe really hates coincidences.”
“Very. People who believe his easygoing, howya-doing act deserve what they get. Then there’s the name of the first ship.”
“Black Swan?” Mac shrugged. “I know the term-something that is believed to be impossible until it happens.”
“The name got popular after the World Trade Center was brought down by terrorists. We were like the Europeans who had never seen a black swan until they discovered Australia. Black swans were an event impossible to forecast, therefore impossible to prepare for.”
“Like winning a lawsuit based on the fact that people who drink coffee are too stupid to know that coffee is hot?” Mac asked dryly. “Could be the lawyer who ordered the yacht has a really twisted sense of humor. A name like that deserves hijacking.”
“I know. But I just…”
“Don’t like it?” Mac finished.
She shrugged. “Sort of like a raised middle finger.”
“Like I said. Twisted. And yes, I read a book called The Black Swan. Along with about a million other people in the U.S.”
“Pretty much what St. Kilda said.” She sighed. “Wish Blue Water would call and hire you.”
“Don’t like your little bunk?”
He’d offered to share the stateroom with her, but she’d had an attack of common sense and taken the tiny second cabin with its cramped bed.
“I don’t like waiting,” she said. “I’m used to it, but I’ll never enjoy it.”
Before Mac could answer, his cell phone rang. He looked at the incoming message ID: Blue Water Marine Group.
“Your wait just might be over,” Mac said.
Demidov watched Temuri pace the dock, his very presence driving the techs to work faster. Temuri was a muscular, silent shadow ensuring that no one slacked off or lifted a few expensive electronics for individual profit.
Watching Temuri was like looking in a mirror.
Once, we would have worked together, Demidov thought. Now…
The world had changed. Temuri was on the other side of a deadly divide running through the Russian Federation like an earthquake fault. So far the pushing, shoving, strutting, and killing among former satellite regions had stopped short of outright civil war.
Demidov’s job was to see that didn’t change.
Temuri’s job was the opposite.
Since Blue Water Marine had lost their captain, Temuri was pushing to finish the installation of the same electronics he’d been willing to leave ashore before Tommy died.
Demidov smiled. Temuri was making the best of a situation he didn’t really control. More than once, Demidov had done the same. It was called surviving in a game whose rules changed without warning or apology.
Now that the delay his boss had wanted was accomplished, there was little left in Rosario to interest Demidov. Mentally he went through his pre-departure checklist. It had come down to a simple choice. He could go north now and wait for Blackbird, or he could stay here and watch Blackbird leave. Then he would chase her northward sea passage, but he would be on land. Roads wound around mountains and bays and waddled through towns. The course over water was as the crow-or seagull-flew.
When presented with the choice of staying or leaving, Grigori Sidorov’s message had been terse.
Demidov put a lid on the bucket, changed all of his ID to that of a Canadian national who had been stamped through U.S. customs eight days ago, and drove out of the parking lot. He dumped the bucket in a vacant lot, left the van in long-term ferry parking, and effectively vanished.
Until Sidorov ordered otherwise, he was headed north.
Ready?” Mac asked, squeezing Emma’s shoulder and pulling her closer to his side.
She slid her left hand into his left back jeans pocket and leaned into him. The radiation patch he had in his jeans poked her finger. “More than.”
Just a game, Mac told himself.
He settled Emma’s lithe body closer against him, and envied the patch she wore inside her bra.
I’ll enjoy the fringe bennies of our cover, Mac thought. But not too much.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Emma rubbed his butt lightly.
“Watch it, woman,” he muttered.
She tilted her head back and glanced down to where her hand was in his pocket. “Worth watching.”
Mac set his back teeth.
She pinched him. “Loosen up, big guy. We’re supposed to be friends, remember?”
“Friends?” he retorted.
She gave him a look that made his jeans feel tighter. But then, she always made him feel that way.
“You’re good at this,” he breathed into her ear. “Too good.”
“You make it easy. The last dude I had to play the benefits game with was twice my age, four times my weight, and had breath like a donkey fart.”
Mac fought it, but he laughed.
She stood on her tiptoes and breathed in his ear. “Much better. When you smile, it’s easy to see how you hooked up so fast with a woman who doesn’t have donkey breath.”
Still smiling, Mac punched in the marina gate code, ushered her through, and let the metal gate clang loudly shut behind them. Down on the dock, Lovich and Amanar looked up and waved.
The third man just stared at them.
Mac dropped a nibbling kiss on Emma’s bare neck. “Watch Stoneface. He’s murder on two feet.”
“Got it. I’m all big eyes, big smile, and tiny mind.”
“Keep your mouth shut and they just might believe that.”
Making like Siamese twins, Mac and Emma strolled down the gangway.
The three men waiting for them were the only people on the dock near the Blackbird who weren’t moving fast. A half-dozen technicians and riggers swarmed over the boat like pirates on a prize. On the flying bridge, two men shoved electronics leads down through the stainless-steel tubes of the radar arch. A flat ten-mile radar antenna and domes for satellite television and telephone were already in place. Inside, at the helm, a tech installed the multipurpose screen for a chart plotter, radar receiver, and depth sounder.
“You meant it when you said you were in a hurry,” Mac drawled as he looked at the controlled frenzy.
“The boat’s gotta sail tomorrow,” Amanar said. “First light. We’ve already been delayed by losing a captain. We asked for more time and didn’t get it. We’ve been running double shifts and then some, but she’ll be ready. You’ll have to do sea trials along the way.”
Mac didn’t point out that he hadn’t been hired. All he said was, “New owner must have lots of green if he’ll underwrite that fast a commissioning.”
“The perfect customer,” Lovich said. “Cost is no object.” He ran his hand over the close-cropped, graying beard on his chin and looked around. “Let’s go to the office.”
“Whatever,” Mac said mildly, even as he slid in the knife. “We’re in kind of a hurry ourselves. Taking my boat out for a week or so.”
Let Amanar chew on that.
Frowning, Amanar looked at Emma. He started to say something, then shrugged and led the way up the ramp to the Blue Water dealership office. Lovich followed.
Stoneface watched them from the dock.
Both brokers were unusually quiet until they were inside the office with the door closed behind them. Amanar stood behind the desk, keeping an eye on the activity on the dock. Lovich pulled the tabs on three cans of light beer. He set one each in front of Amanar and Mac, then took one for himself.
Apparently Emma was invisible.
“Thanks,” Mac said, pretending to drink. He hated light beer. “Getting Autonomy ready is thirsty work.”
He tilted the can toward Emma. She sipped, made a throaty noise, sucked, and licked her lips like a porn star with a bratwurst.
“What’s on your mind?” Mac asked Amanar.
Amanar looked over Mac’s latest girlfriend.
Emma admired her freshly painted fingernails. She’d learned that the ropes-lines-ate manicures, but there was the image thing to uphold. A dumb piece of ass without scarlet finger-and toenails? Ain’t happening.
“We want to talk business,” Amanar said curtly. “Lose the candy.”
“Her candy is my business,” Mac said. “She knows when to close her mouth.”
“Over your cock,” Lovich muttered.
Emma leaned harder into Mac. The tension snaking through his body reminded her of just how strong he was. It also told her that he didn’t like her being the target of trash talk.
“Are they talking cash?” she asked Mac, just loud enough for the other two men to overhear.
He looked at Amanar and Lovich. “You talking cash?”
The cousins looked at each other. Neither liked it, but they were getting the game plan. Play with the candy or play without a captain.
“Yes,” Amanar said. “Twenty thousand, up front. Twenty on delivery. Expenses are on you.”
At that pay rate, Mac wasn’t surprised. “How long, which boat, where, and when?”
“Blackbird. Tomorrow before dawn. You head up the Inside Passage toward Broughton Island. You’ve got five days to get there. If the buyer can’t take it over somewhere along the way, you’ll get more instructions.”
Mac lifted his black eyebrows. But he didn’t say anything. The brokers knew just how unusual the cash assignment sailing to nowhere specific was.
Amanar’s lips thinned when Mac didn’t grab the money and kiss him on all four cheeks.
“The new owner is involved in negotiations to sell one of his businesses. His schedule is hour-to-hour, so yours has to be, too,” Amanar said impatiently. “That’s why the boat will be in your name, in case things fall through and you have to bring Blackbird back here. It all depends on the negotiations. The money’s good, so what’s your problem?”
“I was looking forward to some time off,” Mac said easily. He tucked Emma closer to his side. “But we can take a ride on your boat instead of mine.”
The broker snatched up a colored pencil and started drumming the end on the desk blotter.
“Look,” Amanar finally said, “just drive Blackbird north, follow directions, fly home when the owner takes over, and then take your pussy cruise.”
“If money was all I wanted out of life, I’d be working another job,” Mac said. “See you around, boys.”
Holding Emma close, Mac headed for the door.
“Hey, ease up,” Lovich said quickly. “You want to take some cock-rider along, we don’t care.” He stared at Amanar. “Do we?”
“C’mon, Mac,” Emma said, pouting. “I have a passport. I’m between jobs, between husbands, between everything. I just want to finally have a little fun.”
“Your family won’t mind?” Amanar acted like he had just noticed that Emma was in the room.
“You talking to me?” she asked.
“Am I looking anywhere else?” Amanar retorted.
“Babe,” she said, smiling and stretching slowly, “I’m here because I don’t want a steady man, don’t want a steady job, don’t want two kids, and don’t want a white picket fence in the ’burbs. You feeling me?”
The two cousins looked at each other. They spoke quickly in the old-country language.
All Mac understood was the word Temuri, because it was repeated several times, in a louder voice each time.
A curse? A name? Stoneface, maybe? Mac wished he knew, but languages hadn’t been his area of expertise.
Emma looked bored, but the tension in her body told Mac that she was listening to every word. He hoped she understood more than he did.
“I hear you,” Amanar said finally to his cousin, “but I don’t like it.”
Lovich nodded and looked at Mac. “You in?”
“If you’re smuggling anything to Canada, tell me now,” Mac said.
His voice said that this demand wasn’t negotiable.
“Nah,” Lovich said. “We leave that to the Indians.”
“Bullshit,” Mac said. “I grew up here, remember?”
“Hey, we changed,” Lovich said. “Money’s not as good, but we sleep a lot better.”
“If I find any extra cargo,” Mac said, “it’s going to the bottom.”
“Blackbird is clean,” Amanar said. “You want to go over it, you’ll have plenty of time before you hit Canadian waters. How you use your time is your problem.”
Mac thought about it, then nodded. “I want twelve thousand now, eight thousand when we board tomorrow. For expenses. I’m not signing off on any fuel slips for a yacht I don’t really own, haven’t chartered, and haven’t been hired as a transit captain on.”
Amanar smiled at Lovich, who headed for the office safe.
“Cash is smart,” Amanar said. “The new owner is the eccentric kind. Wants his privacy. So don’t be hitting the bars tonight, bragging about this job.”
“Men in bars are looking for women,” Mac said. “I’ve got mine.”
Emma stretched up and nibbled on his ear. “Sure do, babe.”
Mac returned the favor, with interest, as Amanar counted out the money Lovich had fetched. While Mac counted bills, Emma went back to her invisible act.
The bills were hundreds. Nonsequential, used hundreds, anonymous as dirt and a lot more valuable.
The hell they’ve cleaned up, Mac thought.
But he kept his mouth closed, finished his own counting, and stuffed twelve thousand dollars in hundreds into his front jeans pocket. After the round of mutual nibbling, it was a tight fit.
When he was done, Mac put his arm around Emma, her hand returned to his back pocket like a homing pigeon, and they headed for the door as a unit.
“Before first light tomorrow,” Amanar said.
“Eight thousand on the dock,” Mac said.
“Don’t count it until you’re inside,” Lovich called out.
“If you think I’m that stupid,” Mac said without turning around, “you’re a dickhead for hiring me.”
The door closed behind them.
Voices erupted in the office.
“Walk slower,” Emma said, nibbling on his ear. “It’s hard to hear.”
“You understand that racket?”
“Enough to get words here and there. Sounds like bastard Russian of some kind. Almost a dialect. For sure those yutzes haven’t been to Moscow lately.”
Slowly, nibbling between every other step, Emma and Mac walked out to the parking lot. The more she heard, the less she understood.
It can’t be the same Shurik Temuri. Last I saw a bulletin about him, he was selling arms to a separatist splinter group in the Ukraine.
Nobody had known which side of the war games Temuri had been on. All they knew was that he was making a lot of money playing.
“What’s wrong?” Mac asked softly.
“I don’t know. But I know something is.”
“We knew that already.”
“There’s knowing and then there’s knowing,” she said. “Let’s move. If Faroe hasn’t already taken a surveillance photo of Stoneface, it just went to the top of St. Kilda’s must-do list.”
Tim Harrow glanced idly around the tapas bar. It was small, plush, and preferred by congressmen meeting lobbyists for a little off-the-record monkey business. Just one of the many open secrets of Washington, D.C., that the press corps never got around to “discovering” until one of the congressmen pissed on some editor’s private crusade for truth, justice, and headlines.
Don’t ask. Don’t tell.
Happy hour begins at 10:00 A.M.
Although Harrow’s expression didn’t show it, he was annoyed at being there. Usually his contact was happy with coded emails or black-box telephone calls.
Maybe she was looking for a little action.
The thought eased a lot of Harrow’s irritation. Carin Richards was as good on her knees as she was in back-channel communications.
The beveled glass and mahogany bar door opened. A woman dressed in the D.C. uniform-good quality business suit in a subdued blue, leather briefcase, short dark hair, medium heels, and simple jewelry-walked through the crowded bar area to the quiet booth where Harrow waited.
No one hit on her. She wasn’t dressed for it, wasn’t swinging her ass for it, and wasn’t looking around for it. Just one more lobbyist having a drink after a long day.
Except this lobbyist was an FBI agent and an old friend. With benefits.
Harrow smiled as she slid into the small booth opposite him. She toasted him silently with the drink he had ordered for her. As she did, she leaned forward and said a name.
Harrow’s expression didn’t change.
“Mean anything to you?” Carin asked.
“In what context?”
“Rosario, Washington, state of.”
“The rez murder?” Harrow asked.
“Big coincidence otherwise.”
Harrow sipped his neat Scotch. “As far as we’re concerned, that’s not a familiar context for him.”
“No shit. My boss-and his boss, and the one above, all the way up to top of the mountain-is stroking out over the fact that your people didn’t warn them that your good buddy is on U.S. soil. Where you, by the way, are specifically not permitted to act under the laws we all know and love. This is an unofficial warning. The official one will land as soon as my people can speak in language fit to print on a memo. We want Temuri. Bad.”
“How certain are you of the identity?” Harrow asked.
“Ninety-three point six probability, based on a surveillance photo that came through back channels. And yes, we trust the source.”
Harrow sipped when he wanted to hurl the heavy glass into the booth across the bar. “I’ll look into it.”
“You do that. Real fast.” She waved a server over. “I’m hungry. How about you?”
He’d just lost his appetite, but he knew he might as well eat. He had a long night of work ahead. Silently he damned all informants who couldn’t be trusted to stay bought.
Not that anyone with two brain cells expected Temuri to do anything but what he was best at. Betrayal.
“Knock yourself out,” Harrow said. “I’m buying.”
“You bet you are. My expense account gets maxed out at a soda machine.”
Emma took a long, hidden breath and walked next to Mac. Both of them were carrying a duffel and wearing wind jackets. It might be one of the rare, almost warm dawns the Pacific Northwest got after summer, but experience told her that the water was always cooler than the land. Direct sunlight was different. She planned on a little sunning on a sheltered part of the yacht. No reason she couldn’t read files outside.
Mac pushed a marina cart filled with enough food and water to get them to Campbell River in a day. It would be a long haul and a fast way to determine if Blackbird had any kinks to work out, especially with all the electronics that had been wired in by harried techs.
The bulkiest item Mac had was a box of paper charts that covered the Inside Passage all the way to southeast Alaska.
The twelve thousand in cash was in St. Kilda’s care. Mac wouldn’t leave until he had a fresh eight thousand for his pocket. In Canada, fuel was priced like liquid gold. He wanted to be certain he had plenty of cash for the ride, no matter how fast he pushed Blackbird.
The only thing lacking in their equipment was any kind of radiation detector, chemical sniffer, or even a bug detector. St. Kilda didn’t want to risk tipping off anyone that the transit captain suspected this was more than a somewhat dodgy delivery.
Better to assume they were bugged and act accordingly.
The radiation patches they had worn to the Blue Water office yesterday had showed zero exposure above the expected norm. No one in the Blue Water office had unusual exposure, so they hadn’t been handling fissionable material. Chemical and biological were still on the suspect list, and would stay there until there was a reason to cross them off.
There weren’t any room lights on in any of the motels that serviced the marina. Emma didn’t need that kind of signal to be certain Faroe or Grace was watching.
She had turned her gun over to Faroe. A girlie.22 purse pistol might have been explained away as a city girl’s paranoia, but the Glock? Way too much firepower. Illegal to carry in Canada, too.
Mac had kept his knife. Male necessity, apparently, expected and accepted by all but the airlines.
A restless night in separate beds hadn’t done either of them any good. Today Mac kept watching her, catching himself, and looking away.
It will be even more fun aboard Blackbird, she thought. Sharing a bed. God. Never saw that one coming.
Faroe had. So had Grace. They had told her-and Mac-to suck it up and do the job.
Mac had made it clear he would rather do Emma.
It was mutual.
While she waited, he punched in Blue Water’s code at the gate. The techs were gone, but portable work lights set up on the dock still flooded the yacht. A cool breeze rose with the distant dawn, ruffling the marina’s polished black surface.
Lovich waited for them at the bottom of the ramp. Silently he passed keys and a thick envelope to Mac, ignored Emma, then followed them aboard Blackbird. Heavy privacy screens shielded the salon. Light gleamed faintly through various cracks.
Mac opened the stern door into the salon. When he saw that someone was waiting for them, he shouldered Emma aside and went in first.
A blunt-faced man with dark shoulder-length hair and a darker mustache was seated on one of the salon sofas. Even in the filtered light, his black eyes glittered. He had no expression.
“Are you going to introduce us,” Mac said to Amanar, “or should I just call him Stoneface?”
The third man said something that sounded rude, crude, and insulting. Then he gestured bluntly toward the cargo they had carried aboard.
Amanar’s face seemed to flatten, but he did as he was told. He searched everything Mac and Emma had carried onto the boat, including the seams of the duffels. He found nothing unexpected.
Stoneface grunted and gestured.
“Sorry,” Lovich said in a low voice. “I have to search you. Mr. Paranoid over there thinks you might be wearing a wire.”
Score one for Faroe’s own paranoia, Mac thought. A great big one.
Without Faroe’s mandate that they go in as soft as possible, they would have brought along something that could detect bugs, radiation, and certain chemicals.
And they would have been busted before they even left the dock.
“No problem,” Mac said calmly, holding out his arms. “But you touch her and you’ll be eating your own hands.”
Amanar said something quickly to Stoneface.
Stoneface looked at Emma and said something.
“Um…” Amanar cleared his throat. “He says it’s not optional.”
Calmly Emma began stripping.
Four men stared at her, not knowing what she knew-she’d worn her string bikini under her clothes. Though there were clouds racing across the stars, she had hopes of sitting on a sunny deck.
When she was done removing clothes, she lifted her hair off her neck with both hands, pirouetted, and then stood with her hands on her hips in unsubtle female challenge.
If she was wearing anything but skin, it would take more than a strip search to reveal it.
“Put your clothes on,” Mac said gruffly.
She gave him a real slow smile. “You sure, big guy?”
Mac’s eyelids lowered. “Babe. You need spanking.”
She licked her lips and lowered her eyelids right back at him. “Works for me.”
He forced himself to look at Stoneface. “You feel more like a man now?”
Lovich cleared his throat, went through Emma’s clothes like they burned, and threw them at her.
She wiggled into her jeans, slid into her snug black pullover and ignored the wind jacket. She clipped on her cell phone and smoothed everything in place with slow hands as she waited for orders like a good little girl.
Or a really bad one.
Mac didn’t know whether to cheer or strangle her. She’d taken what could have been an ugly situation and turned it into a farce. He glanced over at Amanar. The yacht broker’s cheekbones were flushed. With jerky motions he searched the stuff they had brought aboard. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, condoms, clothes, cooking supplies.
Emma watched indifferently. She knew there was nothing more deadly than hot sauce in the provisions.
Stoneface saw that Emma and Mac both had computers and fired off fast questions.
Lovich asked, “Why the computers?”
She rolled her eyes like a four-year-old. “Same reason I have a cell phone. Just because I’m on vacation doesn’t mean I’m unplugged. How else can I keep up with the latest Hollywood sex swaps?” Before Lovich could ask, she added, “Mac uses his as a backup nav system. He’s real cautious.”
Stoneface let them keep the computers. And the camera Emma had brought with her. Their cell phones drew a look, but he didn’t touch them. In the modern world, cell phones were like oxygen, a required part of living.
Silently Mac kept counting the money he’d been given. Accurate to the last rumpled bill. Nice to work with professional crooks. They paid up front and on time, in cash.
“Sorry about the search,” Lovich said roughly. “He’s from the old country. Doesn’t even trust his reflection in a mirror.”
“I’m surprised he has a reflection,” Mac said. “We finished with the party games now?”
Stoneface got to his feet and stalked out the door. Seconds later he reappeared on the dock. With smooth, powerful strides, he went up the gangway and vanished.
Both cousins let out a silent breath.
“The fuel tanks are full,” Amanar said to Mac. “When you get to Campbell River, top up the tanks. Then motor north like you’re going to the Broughton Archipelago. You’ll hear from us if and when we want you to change course. You have five days to get to the Broughtons, max. The owner could be ready to pick up even sooner.”
“Weather permitting,” Mac said neutrally.
“That boat will take anything the Inside Passage can dish out,” Amanar said.
“That boat hasn’t had a shakedown cruise. You know as well as I do that something will go wrong. Likely more than one thing. Just a fact of life and complex electronic and mechanical systems.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Amanar glanced quickly at his cousin, and just as quickly away. “Get going. Don’t spare the fuel-you’re sure as hell being paid for it. You’ll hear from us.”
Mac stuffed the money into the front pocket of his jeans. “Any preferences in Campbell’s fuel docks or is it captain’s choice?”
Emma swallowed laughter. She hadn’t known Mac long, yet she had no doubt that he was pissed.
“Uh…no,” Lovich said. “All the documentation you need for crossing the border is in that ring binder,” he added, waving a hand to the wide, padded pilot’s bench.
Mac picked up the binder, read through the documentation, and looked up. “Anything else I need to know? Radio codes, rules of the sea, Canadian nav markers?”
Amanar’s mouth flattened at the unsubtle mockery. “You’re being well paid.”
“Did I complain about the money?” Mac asked.
Lovich grabbed his cousin’s arm. “C’mon. I’m ready for breakfast. It will be good for what ails us.”
With a final glare at Mac, Amanar allowed himself to be led out the door.
Emma was careful not to say anything she wouldn’t mind having overhead. “What a dickhead.”
Mac smiled. “I’ll start the engines. You pick up all the lines that are loose.”
“As in not under tension holding the boat against the dock.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I’m still back with dickhead.”
“Come here a minute and put those sexy lips to work.”
She gave him a startled look, but did as he asked.
His mouth brushed over hers, lingered, then he breathed against her ear, “You did good, partner. Real good. Nice bathing suit. Now get that beautiful butt out on the dock.”
“I like your butt, too.”
Mac laughed out loud.
Smiling, Emma sauntered out the door and onto the dock. She heard various buzzers, bells, and engine noises while she picked up two of Blackbird’s four dock lines. By the time she got the loose lines coiled and tossed onto the deck, the engines had farted happily and settled in to a muscular purring.
She ignored the three men watching from the top of the gangway.
Mac signaled for her to pick up the forward spring line and toss it aboard. When she was finished, he stepped out on deck with a portable joystick controller.
“Leave a half-loop around the cleat on the aft springer and hand me the line,” Mac said.
Emma had already gone over this maneuver several times before on Autonomy. She understood that the loop was backup in case something went south with the joystick or the engines. She passed the line up to him and hopped aboard via the black swim step and stern gunwale gate.
He gave the joystick the lightest of nudges. Blackbird tugged against the line. He nudged the stick in the opposite direction, nodded to Emma, and handed her the line. She flipped it off the cleat and brought it safely aboard while Mac maneuvered the big boat away from the dock and into the fairway. With a wary eye to wind and current, he turned Blackbird in its own length and motored slowly out of the marina.
“Where to, besides north?” Emma asked.
“James Island. We’ll put down a lunch hook and give everything a going over.”
“Ah, sure thing.” She leaned close and murmured, “What’s a lunch hook?”
“Get a wind jacket and come up to the bow. With this toy,” he waved the joystick at her, “I can hang out up there and see everything on the water.”
And not be overheard by any salon bugs.
“Gotcha,” she said, grabbing her wind jacket.
When both of them were on the bow, Mac began talking to Emma without looking at her.
“A lunch hook is a small anchor with a short scope,” he said, pointing to the smaller of the two anchors resting on the bowsprit. “In other words, short work for a short stay.”
She fought against a smile. “Not asking what a short scope is. Guys get unhappy talking about duration or length or heft.”
Mac shook his head and laughed. He didn’t want to like Emma. He just wanted to get the job done. But she made being together easy.
“Did you see the look on Lovich’s face when you stripped?” Mac asked.
“I was too busy watching Amanar swallow his tongue.”
“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?”
“Hey, I was stationed way too long in cultures that spent so much time ignoring and suppressing sex that a man couldn’t breathe air within ten feet of a woman and not get hard.” Emma shrugged. “If they’re thinking about tits and ass, they’re not thinking about the job, are they?”
“What about me?”
“You have enough wattage to do two things at once.”
“Babe, I hope so,” he said, blowing out a breath. She had looked way too edible in a bikini. “What does a captain have to do for a cup of coffee?”
“Let me think about all the delicious possibilities.”
“Make coffee while you think.”
“You like yours with sugar or salt?” she asked.
He grabbed her, kissed her hard, and growled, “Sugar on the side.”
“Not touching that,” she said, retreating hastily.
“That’s what they all say.”
She muffled a laugh. “Should I toss the galley while I make coffee?”
“Only if you’re bored. We’ll have plenty of time at James Island.”
Mac didn’t look away from the water until he heard the salon door close. Then he let out another long breath and forced his mind back to the job at hand. It was hard.
Way too hard.
Faroe, are you nucking futz? She’s too much woman for this game.
Then Mac thought of Grace. That, too, was a lot of woman. And it didn’t get in the way of her brains one bit. Or Faroe’s.
Count backward by sevens.
Ninety-three, eighty-six, seventy-nine…
Grace Silva-Faroe leaned back on the uncomfortable motel couch. Annalise lay in her arms, drooling on her momma’s dark green blouse, blissed out and blowing bubbles.
Faroe scrambled eggs in the kitchenette, sent the toast on another round trip, and watched the computer he’d set up next to the tiny stove. Information scrolled by at a speed that would have made a lot of people dizzy. Faroe just read, absorbed, and made breakfast. When there was a break in the information stream, he looked over his shoulder.
“Nice work, amada,” he said, grinning at Grace and his relaxed daughter.
Grace just smiled and stroked Annalise’s silky, wild mop of hair.
“Will she sleep long?” he asked.
“Should be out for hours,” Grace said. “She spent most of yesterday and last night exploring for forbidden fruit.”
“I like her priorities. Want to snuggle her some more or should I put her in the playpen?”
“Did the long-distance shot you got of the dude yesterday morning-what’s his name-the guy with the cousins get any hits?”
Faroe fielded the change of subject without hesitation. “Temuri. Research ran it through St. Kilda’s magic computers. Because he’s playing nice, Steele sent a digital copy to Alara and the FBI as soon as we knew.”
Grace’s lazy stroking of Annalise’s relaxed body stopped. “The FBI? What did Alara think about that?”
“No backwash that I know of. Hell, she probably did the same herself. Think of it as a bit of polite ass-covering. The FBI is still doing push-ups over that rez execution. Since St. Kilda just happened to be here on a different matter, we felt duty bound to point out to the FBI a possible connection with the new killer in town.”
The judge that Grace had once been couldn’t help pointing out, “We don’t know he’s a killer.”
“I’ll take Mac’s word for it. That boy has the training to sort out the wannabes from the shooters.”
She sighed and didn’t disagree. “What did research find on Temuri, under all spelling variants?”
“His first name is Shurik-street name of Sure to his fellow thugs who happen to speak some dialect of English. He’s a snake-mean son of a bitch who appears in the top fifteen of nearly all the international shit lists.”
“Good thing your daughter is asleep.”
Faroe smiled. “No matter how much we shelter her, her peers will tell her all the forbidden words by the time she hits first grade.”
“In several languages,” Grace agreed wryly. “Anything useful on Temuri, besides his likelihood of going directly to hell?”
“He’s either Georgian or Ukrainian, depending on if you’re talking about his mother or his father. Like a lot of men who made fortunes in the wild economic frontier of the Former Soviet Union, he comes from a long line of former KGB turned businessmen/crime bosses.”
“I’m shocked,” Grace said, kissing her daughter’s soft cheek.
“Me, too. Daddy Temuri picked the wrong side of the Putin/Georgian wars, so son Temuri got an early start in the killing business. He’s good for seven hits that we know of, and suspected of a whole lot more. Did I mention that he’s as smart as he is deadly? Rich, too, with enough cash in offshore accounts that if/when Russian tanks start rolling into Georgia, he’ll be positioned to disappear or become a nuclear thorn in Russia’s flesh. Dealer’s choice, and the guys with the nukes do the dealing.”
“In other words, one more region with a grudge backed up by thugs with nukes. Sweet. How did he get his radioactive toys?”
“Probably the usual way-theft from failed Soviet-era nuclear installations and/or purchase on the international arms black market. Ditto for chemical and biological weapons. Anyone who thinks all those goodies are under lock and key is living on Planet Denial.”
Grace sighed. Time to leave Denial and reenter the other world, the one beyond the warmth of her family. She gave her daughter’s hair a final stroke.
Before Grace could shift to her feet, Faroe gently scooped up their daughter, put her in the portable bed/playpen, and covered her with her favorite snuggly blanket. She sighed and blew bubbles into the fuzzy, zebra-striped cloth.
“If Temuri’s family had swung the Putin way,” Faroe continued, “Shurik would probably be in the top tier of Russian government or industry or crime. Same thing, a lot of the time.”
Grace went to the tiny dinette table. “What are two homeboys like Lovich and Amanar doing hanging out with that kind of international weight?” she asked between bites.
“Business,” Faroe said, sitting next to her. “The black kind.”
“Big duh moment. Is Alara still ‘helping’ St. Kilda with information?”
“Reams of it, from every U.S. intelligence agency, named and unnamed, plus a few that Steele hadn’t heard of until now. Problem is, she isn’t giving us much that we couldn’t have found out on our own, even in the time we have.”
Grace shrugged. “We knew she would hold back. Or have people holding back from giving her necessary intel until the last possible instant-if they give it away at all.”
Faroe wished he could argue with her, but he couldn’t. He’d gone to jail for a politician’s photo-op. Nothing personal. Just the way things were. Until there was no other choice, politicians and bureaucrats would rather bury the dead and have live-broadcast Senate committee investigations of nothing useful than put their own assets on the line.
Public theater, the politicians’ way to get around campaign spending limits. Ring the publicity bell with TV and Internet instant coverage, all in the name of public service, of course.
“I gave Lane the go-ahead to enter some closed databases,” Faroe said as he loaded eggs onto his own toast. “We should know more soon.”
“Sometimes I worry about what we’re teaching our son.”
“You mean what I’m teaching him.”
“You, Steele, me, and now he’s got a thing for Mary.”
“St. Kilda’s Mary? Our very own long-gun specialist?” Faroe asked.
“Aka sniper,” Grace said.
“Really? Since when?”
Grace gave him a startled look. “Earth to Joe. Mary has been St. Kilda’s sniper since before I-”
“No, I meant Lane. Since when?”
“Since she’s been training him on the gun range.”
“She says he’s a natural shot. Steady hands, great eyes-yours, by the way. Hands, too, come to think of it.”
Faroe grinned. “That’s my boy.”
“Has your temper, too.”
“Nope. Can’t take credit for that one. I’m even tempered.”
Grace gave him a dark, sideways look. “Yeah. All bad, all the time.”
“It’s a miracle you married me.”
She smiled over her coffee cup. “It’s all in your hands.”
“With our daughter in the room, I only talk about your hands.”
“You finished with breakfast?” Faroe asked.
“Got some handwork I want to show you.”
Grace smiled and ate faster. In this world, she had learned to take her desserts whenever they were within reach. Life’s only guarantee was that no one got out alive.
Mac fired up the winch and lowered the small anchor into the dark, restless water. When the sun made a swift appearance among the low, racing clouds, fir trees were reflected in rippling green lines on the surface of the water. In the background, the engine-room blower whined as it cleared heat away from the big diesels.
When he was sure the anchor would hold for as long as it had to, he turned his attention back to Emma, who had been watching closely his every move. If she had to, he’d bet that now she could do a creditable job of setting a lunch hook.
“So Stoneface-Temuri-doesn’t think a lot of you?” Mac asked softly.
“Pretty much,” Emma said, her voice as low as his. There were other boats nearby on the water, and sound carried way too well. “To call me female plumbing with two feet and three openings comes close.”
Mac made a choked noise.
“But his accent is different from his cousins,” she continued. “Much more modern Russian, with a solid whiff of breakaway Georgian when he’s angry.”
“You must have a really good ear.”
“That’s what every language instructor I ever had said.” She shrugged. “To me, it’s like breathing, only easier.”
“My team’s language tech was like that. Spooky.”
“As in CIA?”
“As in scary good,” he said.
“The CIA isn’t good?”
“Their political games killed every man on my forward recon team,” Mac said with a deadly lack of inflection. “Took me three months to get out of the hospital.” He bent over to secure the wind-lass chain. “The CIA are miserable shits.”
“Guess that makes me a former miserable shit.”
Mac went still, then straightened hard and fast. “You’re Agency?”
“I was. I taught English as a second language in some really ugly places while I recruited and ran covert agents. I understand eight languages and am fluent in five. Or used to be. Hard to stay on top of your game when you’re not practicing daily.” She turned toward him and looked up, her expressionless face only inches from his chest. “Is that a problem for you?”
“Were you ever in Afghanistan?”
“Then there’s no problem.”
After she studied him for a few moments, she nodded. “Are we searching for bugs or contraband?”
“Both. If it’s a voice-activated bug any idiot would have found, it goes to the bottom. Otherwise we leave it until we figure out a believable, ‘accidental’ way to get rid it.”
“Considering the ambient noise level of those diesels,” she said, “plus the wind gusting and the water splashing and whatever that pump is that runs half the time-”
“Refrigeration unit,” Mac cut in. “If it was the bilge pump, we’d be in deep water.”
“What with one thing and another,” she continued, “I’d be surprised if any voice-activated bugs are aboard. Or if they are, they’re pretty much useless unless we’re right on top of them.”
“Good point. I’m so used to the background sounds, I don’t notice them unless something goes wrong.”
“If I was the one in charge of this op,” Emma said, “I’d stick in a locator bug or three and let the chatter go.”
“Contraband aboard now?”
“I’ll take money on either side of that bet.”
“So will I. C’mon. Let’s go treasure hunting.”
He led the way to the engine hatch in the middle of the salon. When he opened it, residual heat from the diesels poured out. Blower noise tripled. He latched the hatch open.
“We’ll do forward quarters first,” he said against her ear. “Engine room is pretty warm right now.”
“Another reason not to put a voice-activated bug down there. Touchy electronics. Too hot? Too many vibrations? Paff.”
“Locator bugs are a lot tougher.”
“Since they often get stuck inside an engine compartment or under a vehicle chassis, they have to be.”
Emma searched the obvious hiding places-clothes lockers, cabinets, drawers, under the mattress, inside the pillows, in the anchor locker-while Mac quickly, methodically searched the odd spaces only someone accustomed to boats would think of using. She watched in growing amazement while he unscrewed what looked like solid panels to reveal storage areas or wiring races in the walls and floor. Ceiling tiles shifted to reveal a small safe. Empty. Stairway treads opened to more storage beneath. There was another small safe in the floor of the head. Empty.
The galley, pilot’s seat, storage lockers, chairs, cushions, second bedroom, and everything else inside were exactly what they appeared to be. Harmless.
The outside deck storage areas were equally bare of contraband. Same for the flying bridge. The inflatable boat resting on its upper-deck chocks was as innocent as a baby’s smile.
The water tank and the fuel tanks were next on the list.
Emma’s stomach began thinking about breakfast. Coffee and a muffin didn’t get it done when she was working. Or maybe just being on the water made her appetite sit up and beg.
Or it could be that searches were almost as boring as stakeouts. It made watching trees grow look exciting.
Mac opened the fill ports up on the deck, unfolded a telescoping measuring rod, and probed the water tank.
“Can’t you just check it visually down in the hold?” Emma asked.
“Tank is opaque.”
“Well, that’s dumb.”
“Gotta love tradition. Wipe this down, would you?” he asked, handing the wet rod to her.
“Just don’t want it dripping water in the fuel tanks.”
Emma yanked out her pullover, wrapped the hem around the rod, and began wiping. By the time she finished, he had closed the water fill port and opened one fuel port. She handed over the rod.
“If you think I’m going to wipe diesel off this, you’re nuts,” she said.
“Did you see where the fuel rags were?”
“In the back deck locker. But they weren’t rags. They were absorbent white squares, some kind of paper. You used them in Seattle.”
“You’re more than just a pretty face.”
She gave him a disgusted look. “If you’re just figuring that out, you’re a lot dumber than I thought.”
Smiling, Mac probed the starboard fuel tank. The bottom was right where he expected it to be. Same for the port tank.
“No false bottom,” he said. “Both tanks are the same, but I’d already guessed that from the trim. Fuel tanks are baffled, though, so it’s possible that matching compartments are either equally full or equally empty.”
“Trim? As in fancy bits?”
“Trim is how the boat rides in the water.”
“We’re still floating.”
“Always a good sign,” he agreed. “But if the boat is badly loaded or designed-or if one fuel tank is holding something that weighs more or less than diesel-the trim reflects that.”
“Considering how heavy Blackbird is, you’d have to be smuggling gold to tip it one way or another.”
“Or have a solid gold keel.”
Her eyes widened. “Do people still do that?”
“Not so much now. Ounce for ounce, diamonds are worth a lot more.”
“That’s what I thought. Now what?”
Her stomach growled.
“I’ll check out the black-water tank and the tool room while you make something to eat. Sandwiches work for me.”
“Anything edible works for me.” She skirted the open engine hatch, glanced down into the dazzling white tool room, and went to the galley.
Mac went below, through the nearly empty tool room and into the engine room. The big diesels crowded the space, telling him what he already knew: some idiot had ordered more power than the boat was designed to handle efficiently. As a result, the engine room was unusually cramped. No matter how careful he was, every single time he changed position he bumped his head, elbows, or knees.
As he worked his way through the mess, he thoroughly cursed the size of the engines.
Emma stuck her head into the hatch. “Need any help?”
“I’m beating my brains out just fine all by myself, thanks.”
“All I found was cheese and the hard rolls we brought aboard.”
“Bring it on.” He wiped sweat off his face. “I’ll grill it on an engine.”
“In a minute. Right now I’m on my knees thanking God that I don’t have to change the zincs on this bastard.”
“Should I ask what zincs are?”
Mac wiped his eyes with his T-shirt, and looked around the engine room. When it came time to change the zincs, frustration would be the order of the day. With those big diesels crowding the space, even something as simple as checking fill levels on various tanks required a contortionist.
The only good news was that the black-water tank had a clear stripe to let everyone know when it was getting close to time to pump out. He checked the other tanks as best he could, tapping and listening and tapping again.
The first locator bug was attached to one of the colorful wires snaking from the various subsystems to the breaker board.
The second beacon was stuck to the back side of the water tank. A third was in a toolbox that held spare fuses.
A fourth was taped to the bottom side of the duckboards that covered the bilge.
Talk about redundant systems and overkill, Mac thought as he found a fifth locator bug. Someone really wants to know where this bucket is at all times.
He pulled out the cell phone that Faroe had given him, took photos of everything, and sent them to St. Kilda. Wiping his eyes again, he hoped that he’d found every bug. He really doubted it, but a man could hope.
And keep his weapon handy.
Ambassador Steele frowned at one of the many electronic screens that filled all but the doorways and window walls of his oddly shaped office. His silver hair gleamed in the room’s full-spectrum lighting.
“Is research saying that all of these bugs came from different sources?” Steele asked.
The ruby in Dwayne’s pinky ring gleamed with each movement of his elegant, dark hands over the computer keys. The digital photos Faroe had sent weren’t museum quality, but they got the job done.
“Not all of them,” Dwayne said. “The one we planted on Blackbird in Singapore came from the good old U.S. of A. The others didn’t. Of course, someone could have bought any or all of the bugs at some second-world spy bazaar or first-world swap meet. Two of those trinkets are almost old enough to vote.”
Steele looked at him sharply.
“Joke,” Dwayne said without looking away from his computer. “The bigger they are, the older they are. One of these is downright clunky. Of course, it will still work when the newer, thinner, more finicky models go dead.”
“Basically,” Steele said, “anyone could have planted the bugs on Blackbird at any time since the engines and tanks were put in place.”
Steele muttered something in Urdu.
Dwayne winced. When Steele started talking in tongues, some asses were going to get chapped.
“I’ll let you tell Joe Faroe how little we have,” Steele said.
One of those chapped asses would be Dwayne’s. Faroe never had taken failure with grace.
A ctivate sleeper.
Only two words had been texted to Taras Demidov’s cell phone. Two words that conjured a world long lost, when only two powers ruled the planet.
Or seemed to.
And nothing was ever as it seemed.
Demidov erased the text message and drove his small white Japanese car off the Horseshoe Bay ferry at Nanaimo, Vancouver Island. His wallet was thick with Canada’s modestly colorful currency, his pockets clanked with one-and two-dollar coins.
Best of all, the last time he had checked the locator numbers, he was still ahead of Blackbird. The cautious captain apparently had done everything but dismantle the yacht to reassure himself that there was no contraband aboard.
Demidov crawled in a line of vehicles until he got onto the bypass around Nanaimo. He drove north toward Lantzville, a small coastal community that had been buried under the sprawling waves of housing developments and malls surging out from Nanaimo. His destination was just beyond Lantzville, in an undeveloped area overlooking Nanoose Bay.
When he held down the accelerator, his small rental whined. Reluctantly the car increased speed. In the old days, he would have traveled under diplomatic immunity in a powerful black Mercedes. He still had the diplomatic passport-and the connections to make it stick-but he preferred using the fake Canadian identity.
It was more anonymous.
As a Canadian, his cover would probably hold for the return trip into the United States, where he would disappear back into the loose diplomatic community representing the Russian Federation. Such ease of movement was difficult for people with foreign diplomatic credentials, particularly those from nations who might be unfriendly to the U.S. Unfriendly diplomats were required to seek formal permission to travel more than twenty-five or fifty miles from their consulates or embassies.
Demidov amused himself by thinking about the multiple copies of his itinerary he wouldn’t be filing.
Even if he had to blow this cover, he could slip back into the U.S. through the woods east of Blaine, Washington, and return to Seattle with its consular protection. Russian security officers paid professional marijuana smugglers for current maps of the sensors and guard posts on the American side. Despite the Homeland Security Act, illegal passage between Canada and the U.S. was easy. Only legitimate citizens had difficulty and long waits.
He switched screens on the cell phone he’d left on the passenger seat. Nothing unexpected.
His target was being slow, if predictable. After a delay in American waters, Blackbird had resumed its northerly course. But if the big American had found the bug that had been put aboard in Asia, he hadn’t disabled it. Moscow Center was locked on Blackbird’s locator signal. Everything was on track.
Demidov was locked on the location of a sleeper who had been under so long he wondered if she still spoke Russian. To find her address, he followed the electronic maps on a device attached to the dashboard. It was amusing to have so much accurate, on-the-ground information about local roads at his fingertips. Even where the technology existed in Russia, his country wasn’t nearly so helpful to visitors.
Some things never changed. Paranoia was one. Staying alive was another. Demidov understood the necessity of the first for the second.
The colorful little display panel on his dashboard directed him to a small, weather-beaten house in a grove of cedar and alder trees overlooking Nanoose Bay. Demidov lowered the window, turned off the ignition, and simply sat, letting the sounds of the place wash over him.
Whisper of sea breeze edged with salt and cold.
Silently he got out, eased the door shut, and looked through the trees toward the saltwater. A big, gray-hulled service vessel with a large white number painted on its side slid through the chain of islands at the mouth of the bay. There were other boats on the water, smaller boats, civilians rushing around, ignoring the official naval installation that had become an accepted, if sometimes irritating, part of their daily lives.
The sweeping view on the cliff was the reason for putting a sleeper in place at this spot. The ships coming and going were mostly Canadian naval vessels, with regular visits from U.S. vessels for joint actions in Whiskey Gulf. Each ship that paid a visit to the wharves tucked into the blind end of the bay had to pass beneath the wooded bluff. The sleeper logged the movements and duly reported to her homeland.
Or she once had. The reports had stopped a few years after the government stopped sending payments to her Hong Kong account.
Demidov walked to the other vehicle that was parked beneath the trees. He touched the hood of the car. Cold.
He listened for a time and finally picked out the sound of a radio or television underneath the natural sounds. It was coming from the cabin. Swiftly, silently, he walked up the overgrown path and knocked on the door.
Footsteps approached. The door opened.
The trim, aging woman with the unlikely red hair wasn’t the same as his memories, but there was no doubt of her identity. The female wearing a gray fisherman’s sweater and lightweight wool pants was the same agent he had put in place a lifetime ago.
The world had changed a lot since then. But not enough to free Galina Federova, known to her Canadian friends as Lina Fredric.
She stared at him for a long three count. Understanding-and a deep current of wariness-darkened her blue eyes.
“Galina,” Demidov said. “Invite in an old friend.”
She started to slam the door. Then she noticed his left hand deep in his jacket pocket, sensed as much as saw the deadly weight his fingers were wrapped around. Fear streaked through her, followed by anger.
So many years.
So many, and still not enough.
She had finally believed she was free. And now he stood in front of her, holding a weapon hidden in one pocket.
“And what do you have in your other pocket, Taras?” she asked coldly. “Money? Another weapon?”
“A different kind of shot, Galina.” He smiled, deepening the lines in his face. “Vodka. Much preferred, yes?”
“My name is Lina.”
“But of course. Let me in, Lina.”
The dark hair she remembered was steel gray now, thinner, but the deadly grace of the man himself hadn’t changed. In a physical confrontation with him, she would lose.
Without a word she turned her back on him and walked into her small house, leaving him to stay or follow as he wished.
It is always what he wishes, she thought bitterly. So much changes, but that never changes.
Damn Taras for the devil he is.
Demidov shut the door and followed his unhappy hostess down a short hallway into a living room with three big picture windows that faced out onto the water. The gray ship entering the harbor was in the middle of the view.
“I see the Americans are still using the torpedo test range,” Demidov said.
He walked over to a telescope on a tripod that was set up by the big window. Turning his back to her, he closed one eye and looked through the eyepiece. The point of focus wasn’t the channel where big ships came and went, but a small island perhaps a mile offshore where fir trees clung to rocky outcrops. The biggest fir’s storm-twisted crown held the immense weight of an old eagle nest.
Demidov’s mouth curved in amusement and envy. Once he had loved to fish Kamchatka’s wild lands. Once, a lifetime ago. He could hardly remember that boy now, only his young enthusiasms and savage ambition.
“The ships come and they go,” Lina said. “Destroyers and submarines and patrol boats from the Canadian forces, as well as games with American ships. I quit paying attention after the deposits stopped coming to my account at Bank of Hong Kong.” Her hand made a dismissing movement. “There are other ways to survive than spying. I found one that worked for me.”
Demidov adjusted the focus on the telescope. Though decades old, the instrument was still good. Fallen feathers and unwanted boney bits leaped into focus, debris of a predator.
“So you resigned in place,” Demidov said.
He glanced at the woman who stood, arms folded across her chest, staring out at the water.
“Don’t you think it would have been wise to turn in your equipment?” he asked, his voice mild. “This house is in your name but it still belongs, technically, to the Russian people. Just as it did when your predecessor lived here.”
Lina’s smile was a grim curve. “I took my share of the state’s assets, just like everybody with any sense. Why do you care? You’re too smart to be working for a fallen regime. Everyone who originally hired us has long since turned to civilian pursuits. Much more profitable, if equally violent.”
Demidov watched her smallest movement. They had been lovers once, a lifetime ago, when the world was different and people were the same. Maybe she had better memories than he did of those times. She had always been more of a romantic than he was or ever would be.
Like the generations of eagles that had built the huge nest, he survived. And like the eagles, when he became too old for the hunt, he would die.
Soon. A handful of years, maybe more. Maybe less.
In the end, luck rules.
His great-grandfather had lived to be one hundred and four, but he had been a peasant, a grass-eater. His great-grandson was a predator.
“I take my satisfaction from doing my job well, not from my paycheck,” Demidov said.
She shrugged. The movement was tight, impatient, almost a flinch. “So you stayed with the spiders in the KGB web, waiting for your blood meals to come trembling to you.”
He laughed softly. “Still the romantic. What have you done to occupy your clever mind since the fall of our great and noble Soviet Union, followed by the rise of capitalist Russia?”
“Old history. All of it. I’m no longer a part of that.”
“I’m disappointed, Lina. I trained you so…thoroughly.”
She gave him a sideways look that hadn’t changed through all the years.
“You taught me to be a wise little spider, alert for the tiny vibrations at the edge of my web,” she said. “That kind of teaching doesn’t fade. Nor does the teacher. You know what I’ve been doing as well as anyone does.”
“From spy to licensed fishing guide,” Demidov said. “Quite a good one, I hear. I’m impressed.”
“Stop pretending to be an old friend. What do you want?”
“You have a fast boat. When it doesn’t carry summer fishermen, it carries other cargo. B.C. Bud, yes? Marijuana. Illegal in your adopted country as well as in the country you smuggle it into.”
Lina closed her eyes. It had been many years since she had smuggled British Columbia’s premier cash crop, but time didn’t matter. Demidov knew enough about her to crush the small, fragile world she had built for herself from the wreckage of empire.
And he would do just that if she didn’t obey him.
Fear left her along with choice. She would do whatever he wanted. All that remained was waiting for orders.
“I was raised on the water,” she said. “That’s why I was given this assignment. As for the rest, a woman alone does what she must to survive. The training passed on to us from Lubyanka Street was rather useful in my new life, at first. Today, my boat isn’t a racehorse. I chase salmon, not outrun police.”
Demidov reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the bottle of Grey Goose that he had purchased in the duty-free shop on his ride north. He held the bottle by its neck with his thumb and forefinger. In his other fingers he held a fan of photos. They showed a modified trawler style boat with a black hull.
“If you would just produce two glasses, my old love,” Demidov said, “we will toast one another as we used to do. So much more civilized. Then I will tell you why I request your help.”
Lina stared at him for a long time, seeing the young wolf beneath the older, harder exterior. If anything, he was more dangerous than he had been so many years ago.
“You’re very good,” she said. “I almost believe my cooperation is a voluntary matter. Almost.”
Demidov waited, one hand holding out the vodka and photos, the other in his pocket holding a knife.
“Two glasses,” she agreed. “I prefer vodka to blood.”
Timothy Harrow hadn’t personally met the FBI agent in front of him until two minutes ago. That didn’t keep the man from chewing out Harrow’s ass.
“-bad enough, don’t you think?” the agent demanded.
Harrow didn’t have a chance to answer, because the agent kept on speaking with hard, clipped words.
“No, you had to go and keep Temuri’s presence on U.S. soil from us, when you bloody well knew we’ve been chasing him for seven years!”
Harrow told himself that he wouldn’t show his impatience by fiddling with his pen, his notebook, or anything else on his desk.
The ranting FBI agent was wearing a sports jacket, open-necked shirt, jeans, loafers, and an expression of acute irritation. He looked like he’d been hauled in from the relaxed West Coast through a wormhole and then plugged into a live electrical socket.
Harrow felt the same way, but hid it better. Old School versus New Wave.
“We’ve been chasing Temuri ever since we busted a shipment of vials headed for Afghanistan,” Harrow said evenly.
“Vials? Biological stuff? Not nukes or chemicals?”
“He’s an equal opportunity vendor,” Harrow said. “You need it, Temuri will deliver it. For a price.”
“What he is or isn’t selling overseas is no excuse for not telling the FBI that Temuri was in the U.S. where he could be detained and questioned!”
Harrow looked at the younger man. Still eager. Still a believer. Every agency and bureau needed them, but Harrow just didn’t have time or patience for the dance right now.
The interoffice phone buzzed, reminding Harrow of his next appointment-a senator fishing for a headline to shove up the present administration’s ass. Harrow’s boss hadn’t decided whether to play or pass, so effusive stalling was in order. Harrow could do that half-asleep. In fact, he often did.
After the interview he was packing for a fast trip to western British Columbia, Canada. At least, he hoped it would be fast.
Slow would mean the end of careers and lives.
“Your department will have a formal apology as soon as I find the proper security clearance for it,” Harrow said.
“The op,” Harrow cut in, “has moved out of the U.S, as your boss already knows. It has been turned over to us. If we discover anything we can share, you’ll be right behind Congress on our show-and-tell list.”
In other words, you’ve been cut out of the game.
The agent got the message. It was one he had passed out a lot on his own turf. That didn’t mean he liked getting it.
Vibrating with anger, he stalked out of the office.
When the senior senator from Minnesota walked into Harrow’s office, passing by a tight-lipped FBI agent, Harrow was mentally plotting various approaches to former CIA officer Emma Cross.
It would help if he knew what the soured op had been about, but all Duke had told him was to be prepared to fly out on a moment’s notice.
Harrow rose to his feet, smiled, and greeted the senator.
SAN JUAN ISLANDS
Emma sat in a swivel armchair on the flying bridge next to Mac. She watched the radar sweeping over the electronic chart on the computer’s wide screen. Nothing-land, boat, or seaplane-was close enough to worry about, yet Mac’s dark eyes kept probing the blue water ahead.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“Floating debris, logs, deadheads, clumps of seaweed, anything that can put a dent in my day.”
She frowned and looked out at the water. “Is there a lot of that going around?”
“It’s worse in spring, when the melt comes and scours the riverbanks and vomits out dead forests to clutter up the sound. But we’ve been having big tides, the ones that lift centuries-old logs off beaches and send them out in the currents to play with anything else that floats.”
She glanced at the various boats within sight. “I can see why the ferry and the big freighter aren’t worried about a few random chunks of wood, but why are all those pleasure craft racing around? And I do mean racing.”
“Some of the captains are playing the odds. Most are watching as carefully as I am. Even then,” he shrugged, “shit happens. That’s why pleasure boats don’t run at night out here, unless they have a steel hull and skegs protecting their props. Pod drives like ours just have to take their chances.”
“We have skegs, but no guarantees. Like commuting on a freeway-sooner or later there will be a wreck. You just hope it’s not yours, because you have to keep on driving to make a living.”
“The waterhole theory of life at work,” Emma said.
He looked at her in silent question.
“Think of grazers approaching a waterhole at the end of the day,” she said. “They know lions are lying in wait, but there’s no choice. Water is just behind oxygen in our drive for life. So the grazers sweat and snort and shy and sidle closer to the water, knowing an individual blood sacrifice must be paid so that the rest of the herd can drink. Can survive.”
Mac smiled like a hungry lion. “And everybody’s hoping it isn’t his turn to die.”
“Yeah.” She frowned and rubbed her hands over her arms. “I just wish I didn’t feel like Blackbird is a floating sacrifice for the good of the human herd.”
He didn’t argue with her, which didn’t make her feel better.
“So, we won’t be running at night?” Emma asked.
“Not unless we have to. Take the controls. Let’s see how much you learned. And be grateful you already knew how to plot a course on paper.”
“Basic training,” she said. “Like riding a bike. Never goes away.”
Unfortunately, knowing how to plot paper courses and run the boat’s computer and understanding the theory of throttle movements wasn’t the same as actually driving all those tons of yacht on a fluid, shifting, unmarked road.
“Pod drive?” she asked hopefully. She’d played more than her share of video games.
“Too easy. Better you learn the hard way so you can appreciate the easy way.”
She grimaced. “You sure? Theory is one thing…”
“You’d rather practice with me dead on the deck and bullets screaming around?”
“God, Mac. You should write a book on sweet talk.”
“Tell me that tomorrow morning.”
She looked at his dark, dark eyes and felt like she was soaring off a cliff, flying high, no land in sight.
She liked it.
He said something under his breath, gestured to the controls, and slid out of the wheel seat.
Steering the boat suddenly seemed safer than looking in Mac’s eyes. Emma took the controls and concentrated on something besides the unnerving pulse of heat in her blood.
He watched silently, letting her learn firsthand the difference between driving a car and a boat. Once she caught on to correcting for tide and currents, he told her to plot a point ahead and lock it into the autopilot. She touched the screen quickly, answered the computer’s prompts, and let go of the wheel.
Blackbird sailed on, correcting its course via satellite, uncaring whether it was under human or electronic control.
“You’re a quick study,” Mac said.
“I’ve had to be.” She smiled suddenly. “Besides, I like challenges.” Mac wished he could take this challenging woman down to the master suite and see what each could teach and learn.
“We’ll be crossing over the international line in an hour,” Mac said, looking at the computer.
“What’s our border protocol?”
“In the old days, we’d call Canadian customs, give them our stats, and hope the waterhole theory holds.”
“Meaning?” she asked.
“Meaning they would log Blackbird into their computers, give us an entry number to stick in the window by the pilot seat downstairs, and we would sail on without a pause.”
“Old days, huh? Would that be pre-9/11?”
“And today?” she asked.
“The lion always pounces.”
“Technically we probably should go through the closest customs,” he said. “But what we’re going to do is take the protected run through the Gulf Islands to Nanaimo, and get inspected there. For going to Campbell River, it’s quicker.”
It definitely was a smoother ride. Until he knew more about how Emma’s stomach took rough water, he’d stick to the easy route.
“How detailed is the inspection?” she asked.
“Depends on how nice the U.S. is feeling toward Canada, and vice versa. If we’ve been giving Canadian yachties a special look-see at our border, we get the same in return. Or if the Canadians are miffed about a U.S. import tax on their lumber, they squeeze tourists. Same for our side. There can be any number of reasons for dicking with border crossings that have zero to do with anyone’s security-except the politicians’.”
“How unsurprising,” she said.
In silence Mac watched Emma handling the boat, altering course on instruction, entering waypoints into the plotter, checking tides in Nanaimo at various possible arrival times, watching gauges for problems, and doing all the other things that added up to driving a boat.
In return, Mac watched the radar screen that overlaid the charts, his eyes alert for anything that followed their course, random alterations included.
“And?” she asked after he had studied the radar a particularly long time.
“Nothing that makes my neck tingle.”
She watched Blackbird cut through blue water to the imaginary but very real international line in the water. When their radar showed the boat entering Canadian territory, Emma looked at Mac.
“How long does inspection take?” she asked.
“Normally it’s just a courtesy,” Mac said. “You show passports, get a number, put the number on both sides of the front cabin, throw out whatever fruits are in season, and you’re good to go. Fifteen minutes on a busy day.”
“Friendly, in a word.”
“Anything to grease the flow of commerce and tourism-as long as someone isn’t suffering from short dick syndrome.”
She nodded. “Okay. I’ll go back to learning to drive.”
To get a feel for manually steering the boat under different water conditions, Emma took off the automatic navigation and guided Blackbird through the choppy waters that marked the fluid boundary between sovereign nations. The motion of the boat changed and the speed dropped.
Tidal line, she thought, remembering Mac’s explanations. Or currents. Maybe both together.
Gently she nudged the throttles up until they were making about nineteen knots again.
Mac watched for a few moments, then said, “Push it to the max. Let’s find out what these big engines are really made of.”
And how Emma’s stomach was.
Ambassador Steele rolled his chair from one workstation to another, talking through his headset the whole time. He stopped rolling long enough for his fingers to fly over a computer keyboard. One of the wall screens blinked and showed a close-up of a dirty village whose open sewers festered among glorious mountain peaks.
Dwayne glanced over. The name on the bottom of the screen was Ecuador. But for that, the village could have been in any mountainous country where poverty and villages prevailed.
“The op is compromised,” Steele said. “Evac is on the way to primary location. You have less than ninety minutes to extraction.” He paused. “Good. And if you see that lying toad on the way out, step on him.”
Dwayne winced. Steele was at his most lethal when his voice was neutral. A click told Dwayne that his boss had disconnected.
“Did we get the kidnap victim out in one piece?” Dwayne asked.
“I’ll tell you in ninety-one minutes.”
Dwayne pursed lips that more than one woman had openly lusted after. He blew out a long breath that was also a curse. “So the government was in on it after all?”
“Crotch-deep and still sinking.” Steele sped toward another station, another screen. “That’s why factions are useful, though slippery. It’s the ones that aren’t getting a cut of the ransom money that get chatty.”
“And then they go to another faction and sell the same information.” Sell us out.
Steele shrugged. “If we can buy someone, we can be assured that someone else can and will. Just a matter of who gets to the finish line alive. Has Alara returned my call?”
“Twice.” Dwayne glanced at a bank of lights on his desk. Number Four was still blinking. “Transferring line four to your headset.”
Before Dwayne had finished speaking, Steele was.
“Alara. Thank you for getting back so quickly. What have you discovered?”
The voice on the other end of the line was as clear and precise as Steele’s. “Somebody in the FBI stuck a screw-you flag on Blackbird’s name in the Canadian customs’ computer system.”
“Any reason, other than the usual?”
“An inter-agency pissing contest.”
“That would be the usual,” Steele said.
“The FBI was quite unhappy that they weren’t made aware of Temuri’s presence within U.S. jurisdiction.”
“According to Joe Faroe, Temuri left Rosario shortly after Blackbird did.”
“The FBI was notified as soon as Temuri’s car turned onto Interstate 5, heading north or south,” Alara said blandly. “Our informant couldn’t be certain of the direction. In fact, he wasn’t certain that it was Temuri’s car until we traced the plates back to a rental agency. As soon as we were certain, one of my co-workers shared the information with the FBI.”
“Pity it was too late to catch him,” Steele said, his voice deadly neutral. “Any sign of other computer tags on Blackbird or its crew?”
“Any new information?”
“I’ve sent many files to your computer,” Alara said.
“My dear, if I were a farmer, I would be ecstatic at the amount of fertilizer you’ve given to me.”
Alara beat Steele to the disconnect button.
After being at full throttle, or even at sixteen knots, four to six knots was a yawning crawl. Emma felt like giving back the controls to Mac, who had let her take over as soon as they were through Dodd Narrows.
She wouldn’t have touched the controls in the narrows. The current had been running at six knots and the slot looked like a churning, foaming invitation to disaster.
Mac had brought Blackbird through without hesitation. “Are they serious?” Emma asked, looking at the “speed limit” sign floating at the beginning of Nanaimo Harbor.
“Very,” Mac said. “Enjoy the slow-motion scenery.”
She shook her head, but didn’t argue, just kept easing off the throttles. After some time at Blackbird’s controls, she was more relaxed, if no less alert to the hazards on the water.
She spared the scenery a few admiring glances. Nanaimo was a surprising gem set about halfway up to Campbell River on the east side of Vancouver Island, right in the middle of boating paradise-green and blue and white, rocky islets, whipped-cream clouds, and picturesque shoreline. The water was alive with workboats and cruisers, water taxis and the single-and twin-engine seaplanes of three different airlines. Not enough commerce to totally destroy the ambience, yet enough to sustain a small city.
“That smell,” she said.
“Pulp mill,” Mac answered. “Used to be the perfume of the Pacific Northwest, the engine of growth. Now, so few lumber operations are active that the smell is almost nostalgic.”
“Nostalgic.” She cleared her throat. “That’s one word for it. I suppose you get nostalgic over the odor of fish canneries.”
“Me? No. But a lot of old men who used to provide a good living for their children and grandchildren sure would.”
“The world still eats boatloads of fish.”
“Processed by factory ships on the high seas, ships fed by trawlers clear-cutting the ocean bottom far away from shore,” Mac said. “Out of sight, out of mind, the way clear-cutting forests used to be.”
As he spoke, he kept a wary eye on a nearby sailboat struggling with the Pacific Northwest’s famously fickle winds. But he couldn’t decide if it was the on-and-off wind or the captain’s inexperience that was causing the bigger problem.
Then there were the young kayakers larking about in chunky, wide-bottomed plastic craft, ignoring shouted directions from the leader of their colorful little flock.
Not to mention the aluminum workboat that thought speed limits were for tourists. It was leaving a wake steep enough to cap-size a careless or inexperienced kayaker.
Emma had also noticed the sudden complications of her life as newbie captain. Trying to figure out where the sailboat, kayakers, and speeding workboat would/might intersect with Blackbird gave her a headache.
“I just surpassed my pay grade,” she said. “The wheel is yours.”
“Positive. It’s not an emergency, so I’m outta here.”
She switched places with Mac.
After a few moments she got twitchy. To everyone else, she and Mac looked like a couple on an autumn vacation, but they weren’t on vacation. The gap between appearance and reality kept smacking her in the face. She just wasn’t used to the double game. Or triple. Maybe more.
“When I was in training,” she said, “we spent hundreds of hours preparing for border crossings. Potentially, they’re always the most dangerous part of any operation.”
“You aren’t crossing from Casablanca to Lisbon, sweetheart,” he said, doing a reasonable impression of Humphrey Bogart.
She smiled in spite of her restlessness. “You’re saying the natives really are friendly? Even after Steele’s heads-up call?”
“Oh, we’ll probably get tossed, thanks to the FBI ass clown who put a flag in the Canadian customs’ computer.” Mac’s dark eyes checked gauges. “But I doubt if it will be a rubber-hose experience. America as a nation may be genially despised, but our money is always welcome.”
“If the government isn’t the problem, why did Lovich and Amanar send you on Blackbird? Why didn’t they just take the boat themselves?”
“Same question Faroe asked. And I asked,” Mac said.
“And the answer is?”
He shrugged and adjusted the throttles so that the sailboat and the most foolish kayakers could get tangled up without him. The workboat was little more than a frothing, receding wake, throwing small craft around like wood chips. Somehow the kayakers had managed to stay human side up.
“I think Blue Water wanted to establish an unremarkable profile for Blackbird in Canada,” Mac said.
“New owner and new girlfriend taking new boat for a cruise?”
“Pretty much. Nothing special. Nothing different. Nothing unexpected. Absolutely nothing to notice.”
“Amanar didn’t expect the FBI to say that we’re smuggling in enough champagne for a party of two hundred,” Emma said, thinking about Steele’s call. “If we don’t get through Canadian customs…” She hesitated. “I can’t figure out if that’s good or bad. It’s certainly a game changer.”
Mac eased through the kayakers without upsetting anyone. The sailboat had lowered yards of flapping cloth and gone back to good old diesel power.
“But since we don’t know what the game is,” he said, “we don’t know if this is opportunity knocking or an IED ticking by the roadside.”
She winced. “I don’t suppose Alara gave any hints to Steele. Beyond the champagne charade.”
“You don’t suppose correctly.”
She started to say something, then looked at him. “Was that grammatically possible?”
“Did you understand me?”
“Yes. Frightening, but true.”
“Then it was possible.”
Laughing, enjoying his quick mind, Emma put her head against Mac’s shoulder. And bit him.
He gave her a look that went from startled to smoky in one second flat.
“Shouldn’t we go through the border protocol again?” she asked as though nothing had happened.
“There are a lot of things I’d like to do. Doubt that they’re in the protocol manual.”
“You’d be surprised. The manual is very…thorough.”
“Some day you’re going to read it to me,” he said. “Thoroughly.”
Emma thought of all the dreary paragraphs and subparagraphs. “You’d fall asleep.”
She wanted to. Really wanted to.
“Border protocol,” she said.
“Nothing we haven’t covered. You help me dock-”
“That’s a whole different thing we haven’t talked much about.”
“-then get back aboard immediately,” Mac said, ignoring her interruption. “I take our passports and Blackbird’s papers to the official on duty. He runs them through the computer, asks a few questions, and decides to search the boat or not. Either way, you don’t set foot on the dock again until the official tells you to, or I have an entry number, or we’re told to take our ugly American selves back south.”
“Are you worried that we won’t get the magic number?” he asked.
“I’d be surprised if we got turned back,” Emma said. “The FBI isn’t stupid. They’ll get in the CIA’s knickers just to remind everyone to play nice, but they won’t intentionally blow an op.”
“It happens. Too many agencies. Too many secrets. Too little real cooperation, because budgets depend on delivering departmental success stories. Partial gold stars for taking part in joint operations doesn’t get you as many points as getting a job done within your own department.”
“Sounds like branches of the military fighting over whose elite ops get used in a high-profile rescue,” Mac said, disgust clear in his voice. “None of the brass cares about the poor sucks caught behind enemy lines, just who gets the glory for saving the day.”
“The really good news is that our enemies are the same.”
“Oh, yeah. Petty, jealous, kiss-up, shit-down humans.”
“Huh,” he said. “Never looked at it that way.”
“I don’t know.”
She smiled rather grimly.
“Makes the amount of cooperation between Canadian and American border guards all the more impressive,” Mac said. “And I don’t mean the tit for tat of international politics. I mean that the Canadians and the U.S. exchange information on boats crossing the border. The entry number you get from Canada is logged in right next to your return number when you check back into the States.”
“I’m guessing that’s post-9/11,” she said.
He nodded. “Even with ‘heightened security,’ most of the yacht traffic between countries doesn’t get more of a look-over than a car full of tourists at the land border crossings.”
“Probably because the terrorists everyone is worried about don’t use expensive yachts for transport. Neither do smugglers. If you’re caught with contraband, it’s not worth the price of losing a multimillion-dollar yacht. Not cost effective.”
“But yutzes with small, fast boats and smaller brains…real cost effective,” Mac said.
“What would a barbecue be without hot dogs?” Mac asked bitterly.
Emma remembered the reservation and wished she’d kept her smart mouth shut.
NEAR NANOOSE BAY
Demidov looked at the lower set of latitude and longitude numbers on his cell phone, the ones that were direct from the locator aboard Blackbird. Reassured, he turned back to the charts of the water between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada. He had the charts spread over Lina’s small living room floor. Every time the breeze shifted the window curtains, the big charts fluttered.
“I’m surprised this isn’t all on a computer,” he said.
In the daylight pouring through the front windows, Lina’s red hair was younger than her skin. She tossed stray locks behind her shoulder with the practiced moves of the flirt she’d once been. But her blue eyes didn’t tease. Their color was a bit faded and a whole lot harder than it had been back when she was an untried agent assigned to Taras Demidov.
“I have a chart plotter and sonar on my boat,” she said. “It’s all I need for fishing.”
Demidov didn’t bother saying that it wasn’t enough for him. He checked the numbers again, then nodded abruptly.
“What?” she asked.
He glanced at her, then back to the charts.
Blackbird wouldn’t be sailing up the Inside Passage right away. The yacht had gone into Nanaimo harbor, to check in with Canadian customs. Even if it was the usual cursory inspection, there would be time for him to set up the interception. After that…
After that, it depended on Blackbird’s captain.
“Taras?” she asked. “Is something wrong?”
“Something is always wrong. It’s just a matter of finding out what and where and when,” Demidov said. “Your boat. Is it ready to use?”
“Always. That’s how I make my living.”
“Come, you will show me about this living.”
Mac let the boat idle for a moment, feeling what the tidal currents and the wind were doing to Blackbird. The brisk northwest wind was strong enough that even the yacht felt its push and pull. The customs dock and its claustrophobic modular shed waited for them. It didn’t look like there was anyone in the small office yet, but someone was strolling down the long ramp that went up and away from the water to much larger headquarters.
Mac tapped the battery-operated headset he wore. The microphone was the size of a bumblebee hovering just beyond reach of his lips. Low tech compared to what he’d used in war zones, but it got the job done.
Ate nine-volt batteries, though.
“Ready?” he asked.
“No, but I’m awaiting detailed instructions.”
Though they couldn’t see each other, the headphones they wore made it seem like they were standing side by side.
“You have your PFD cinched tight?” he asked.
Emma fingered the straps of the flat life vest she wore. It wouldn’t inflate unless she hit the water, which she really didn’t want to do.
“I’m good,” she said. “The lines are all coiled and ready to go.”
“This landing is going to be different,” Mac said. “Bowline first, then stern, then forward spring line. Don’t worry about pretty or efficient. Just get it done. Step off onto the dock when I bring her alongside. Ready?”
Frowning, she thought through the steps.
“Unless you want to take the controls?” he invited.
She’d learned to like it in the few minutes he’d let her play with it before they got into real traffic near the harbor. Then he’d made her switch to old-fashioned throttles for control. The pod drive was sexy and easy, but it wasn’t something he really trusted.
“Nope,” Mac said.
“Then it’s all yours,” she said.
After a few moments he heard her counting, “Three, two, one-I’m on the dock.”
He saw the flash of colorful shirt and long legs as Emma took the bowline and brought it partway back on the dock before she went to tie off. Using a wooden bull nose to tie off on rather than a big metal cleat threw off her rhythm, but she secured the line with the double half-hitch knot Mac had taught her.
“I like cleats better,” she said, tugging hard on the line.
“So do I. Easier on the lines. But when in Canada…”
“Do as the Canadians,” she finished.
Despite the headset that kept wanting to fall into the water every time she leaned over, she got the bow tied off.
“Secure, Captain,” she said.
Wind gusted across the dock, catching Emma by surprise.
“Yikes,” she said. “The wind is trying to shove me off the dock. You, too. The boat’s butt-stern-is too far away for me to reach that line.”
“It won’t be.”
The bow came up against the line that was already tied off to the dock. Gently Mac applied the throttle. Despite the wind and tide, the stern swung majestically back in line with the dock. He didn’t even bother to use special thrusters. He wanted to know how Blackbird would act if some of the fancy electronics cut out.
As Emma watched the big boat snuggle against the dock, she had a gut understanding of the multiple forces at work, and the elegance of Mac’s skill. He could have used the pod drives so that he could hold the boat against the dock and handle the lines himself.
But he loved the feel of the currents and wind, weight and momentum, the sound of line creaking as it took Blackbird’s weight and brought the stern back to kiss the dock.
“Beautiful,” she said.
His grin was a flash of white against his dark skin. “Don’t forget the stern line.”
“Oops.” She sprinted to the stern, grabbed the line, and tied it off without losing her headset.
Mac walked back to the stern and looked over the rail. “Good work.”
“I just had a gut insight that Blackbird always lives at the intersection of two huge forces, water and atmosphere, and we hope to control it all with a third force called the engine. Plus momentum, did I mention that?”
He gave her an unnecessary hand getting aboard.
“Kind of like us,” she said, “sliding around between forces we can’t really control, only staying afloat for as long as we can. And docking, coming to stasis with all those forces? Whole other thing entirely.”
He looked at her, traced her mouth with his thumb, and said, “Stay aboard until you’re told otherwise.”
He switched off his headphones, handed them to her, and stepped onto the dock carrying various papers in his big hand. There was a short ramp up to a modular building that had suffered a severe outbreak of official signage. In its earnest desire not to favor the English language over French-which was spoken by a minority of citizens in the eastern provinces-Canada had doubled the paperwork of the government bureaucracy.
Mac wondered if Canada would make the same accommodation for the big, and rapidly growing much bigger, population of Chinese in the western provinces. Somehow he doubted it. Forced parity seemed reserved for those of European descent living along the Atlantic Coast.
The dark-skinned customs clerk walked past Mac and unlocked the door to the cramped modular. He stood behind the counter, looked at Mac with the dispassionate eyes of a loan officer or a hit man, and spoke English oddly mixed with a Bombay lilt and British precision.
Mac presented his passport and Emma’s, along with the newly issued U.S. Coast Guard documentation for Blackbird.
The clerk, whose nameplate said he was Singh, Edward, left the counter and went to a computer, whose screen was angled away from the counter. Singh’s fingers raced over the keyboard. He yanked the mouse across the desk like he was drilling down through a multilevel secured website.
Singh read, then reread the screen message, then deliberately killed it and came back to the counter.
“Where is this boat, exactly?” he asked.
“Right outside, sir, tied to the dock.”
Singh gathered up the documents like he was afraid Mac would snatch them back. The clerk marched stiffly toward an office beyond the end of the counter.
A balding Caucasian male in a uniform shirt with epaulettes and extra patches appeared in the doorway of the office that had seemed empty from the dock. Singh briefed his boss in hushed tones. As he spoke, both men glanced over at Mac from time to time.
Mac kept his game face on and cursed the flag that the FBI had tucked into the border-watch computers.
After a moment, the boss issued a clipped set of orders and turned away. Singh walked back smartly, grabbed a uniform hat from beneath the counter, and came through the swinging gate.
“Your boat must be inspected,” he told Mac without meeting his eyes. “Come with me now.”
Like Mac had a choice. “Sure.”
As he followed the small bureaucrat, Mac cursed the FBI’s middle-finger salute. Wasted time.
They didn’t have it to waste.
Deliberately Mac didn’t do the math in his head, the countdown to disaster that beat in his brain and blood and heart. He did the only thing he could do at the moment, which was to follow a Canadian border bureaucrat down the short ramp to Blackbird.
Emma was standing in the cockpit, talking on Mac’s phone. She took one look and ended the call with a terse, “Later, babe.”
“You are the passenger?” the inspector demanded. He consulted the two passports in his hand. “Emma Cross?”
Emma nodded. “Yes, is-”
“Come with me,” he interrupted, leading the way off Blackbird and down the dock. When Mac started to follow, the inspector stopped him with one hand. “I wish to speak with her alone.”
She looked at Mac, shrugged, and stepped onto the dock to follow the inspector. As she walked, she quickly organized her thoughts for a more formal interrogation than they had been expecting. Agency training had focused on border crossings and customs inspections because those were the areas that most often tripped up agents and handlers. St. Kilda had already composed a backstory of her relationship with Mac that told the truth whenever possible.
Emma approved of that. The truth was much easier to remember than an intricate web of lies.
“Miss, uh, Cross,” the inspector began, checking her face against the photo in her passport. “Where do you live?”
“Seattle, Washington,” she said.
Though she had an address memorized and documented, thanks to St. Kilda, she didn’t offer any more information because Singh hadn’t asked for it.
Truth and lies, separation and balance.
“Where are you going in Canada?” he asked quickly, watching her eyes and body language for signs she might be lying.
“I don’t know. It was one of those spontaneous things. We’re just heading north up the Inside Passage for as long as it works for us.”
“What is your relationship to”-he checked the other passport in his hand-“Mr. Durand?”
Emma wanted to make a smart remark about Adam and Eve, but she knew better. “He’s the captain. I’m training to be a first mate.”
“How long have you known Mr. Durand?”
She smiled like a woman remembering a satisfying, steamy night. “Not long. We met at a fuel dock in Seattle, liked what we saw, and decided to hook up as long as it lasted.”
The inspector’s eyes changed. He gave her an up-and-down look that suggested he might enjoy hooking up with her. Then he blinked and his training kicked in.
“Are you bringing any alcohol or firearms with you?” he asked.
She frowned. “I haven’t seen any, but you’ll have to ask Mac. He’s the owner. I’m just along for the ride.”
“I saw you handling the lines when you arrived at the dock. You seemed too competent for a recent ‘hook up.’”
“Mac is a good teacher,” she said with a slow smile. “He doesn’t yell or anything. I’d never even been on a boat this size, but he makes everything easy. All I have to do is listen and follow instructions.”
Again, the truth…as far as it went.
“Wait here,” Singh ordered, handing her passport over.
He marched down the dock to confront Mac and, undoubtedly, ask the same questions all over again.
Emma examined her manicure, which was being rapidly deconstructed by handling lines. She didn’t worry about what was happening at the other end of the dock. Mac was a solid partner. In an odd way, they were closer than if they were simply vacation lovers. They clicked under pressure, anticipating one another’s moves like cops in a squad car.
She shoved her passport into one hip pocket and pulled her cell phone out of the other. She dialed into the St. Kilda secure network. Faroe answered on the first ring.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Hey, girlfriend. I told you not to worry. Mac’s one of the good guys. Even if we have to stand on the dock for a few hours while they look for whatever we shouldn’t have on board.”
“Girlfriend?” Faroe made a sound that could have been a laugh. “So the customs dude is still hassling you?”
“You know Canada’s motto: Good government and plenty of it.”
“Given that one of you is supposed to be a rich yachtie, you probably won’t get a body cavity search.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet,” she said, making sure she was loud enough to be heard at the other end of the dock.
“Obviously you’ve never had one,” Faroe retorted.
“Wanna compare notes?”
“No,” he said. “We found out from back-channel sources, not Alara’s, that, among other no-nos, Temuri is an active member of the suitcase nuke trade. Especially in the last three years.”
“Gee, where have I heard that before?”
“And you didn’t want to go back to hearing about portable nukes. That’s why you quit the Agency.”
“April Fool on me,” she said, watching Mac and the inspector from the corner of her eye.
Neither one looked upset.
“The same source that mentioned suitcase nukes floated the idea that you’d never really left Uncle Sam.”
Emma got the point very quickly. Someone was trying to separate her from St. Kilda, in trust if not in fact.
“You have to stop believing the Internet gossip sites,” she said. “Pretty soon you’ll believe that Elvis was Michael Jackson’s son.”
There was a beat of silence, then swallowed laughter. “Um, I think you have that the wrong way around.”
“Actually, I think the sites do.”
“I know they do. St. Kilda backs their people, Emma. All the way to the wall.”
“And if you find out you’re wrong?” she asked cheerfully, smiling at Mac.
“We bury our mistakes under that wall.”
“I hear you, girlfriend. Sounds good to me.”
Mac and the inspector went aboard Blackbird.
Emma stopped calling her boss girlfriend. Turning so that no microphone or lip-reader could gather information, she spoke quickly.
“If the Agency thought there was a radioactive threat moving through Canada to the U.S.,” she said, “they’d add as many layers of deniability as they could, and then they’d flat clean house, no matter which side of which border.”
“That kind of robust foreign policy is out of favor right now.”
“Only in public.”
“Alara mentioned something about that,” Faroe said drily. “She’s outmaneuvered the FBI for now, but they really want Temuri. Alara is more polite-”
“-but she’d like Temuri’s ass on a spear. Steele said Temuri’s ass didn’t interest him, but if St. Kilda’s operatives got hurt by any of Uncle Sam’s players, he’d air some political underwear that would make Watergate look like a potluck at a small-town Lutheran church.”
“Okay, I’m impressed. St. Kilda’s version of nuclear détente. Mutual annihilation.”
“You’re quick. So is Alara. She’s no longer kicking our butt every half hour. And she’s sending less bullshit files. The Cover Your Ass part of the program is over.”
“So the bloodletting begins,” Emma said under her breath.
“Pretty much. Our job is to make sure it’s the bad guys who bleed.”
“If they get in our way, they bleed.”
The windows of Steele’s office were guaranteed bulletproof, eavesdropping proof, and weatherproof. He liked staring through the oddly tinted glass at the hive below. The surge and stall of traffic, the amoebic warfare between pedestrians and Yellow Cabs, the frustration of sirens wailing and wailing and not moving at all-the whole metropolitan mess amused and bemused him. So much change since humans first painted cave ceilings in reverence and hope.
Steele doubted it. Just as he doubted the phantom, piercing pain from his nerveless legs would evolve into something useful, such as a precursor to true feeling.
It had been a long time since he’d walked, even in his dreams.
“The woman formerly known as Alara is waiting outside your office,” Dwayne said, his voice rich with irony. “You’re forty-seven seconds late for her appointment. And counting. Should I let her in, or should I leave you wallowing in your whither-humanity moment?”
Steele smiled and looked toward the man who knew him better than his starry-eyed, change-the-world parents ever had. “Wallowing is one of the few human activities that doesn’t require legs.”
Dwayne frowned. “You’re in pain. I’ll call Harley.”
Harley, the big bodyguard-nurse-caregiver, was as much an extension of Steele in private as Dwayne was in public.
There was barely a hesitation before Steele shook his head and said, “This one is too important.”
“They all are.”
“Yes.” Steele sighed. “But this one is. Show Alara in. Then, perhaps, some music, a nap.”
Steele shrugged. “Let her in.”
Dwayne wanted to insist, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. His boss didn’t have energy to waste chewing out a stubborn employee who was also a friend.
Tight-lipped, Dwayne went to the locked door of Steele’s office, opened it, and ushered Alara inside. She was wearing one of her old-school dark suits, dark pumps, dark blouse against dark-toast skin. If her straight, short hair hadn’t been silver, she would have been a study in darkness.
“Coffee, tea, water, soda, something stronger?” Dwayne asked.
“Water, thank you. And privacy.”
“We’ve been through this before,” Steele said. “Unless you know something about Dwayne that I don’t-and have proof-he stays.”
In silence, Alara took a seat across from Steele’s desk and waited until he wheeled into place opposite her. Dwayne put a bottle of water in front of her, refreshed Steele’s water supply, and went back to his own office, which was an extension of the main office whose heavy doors could be shut if Steele required privacy. Steele had made it clear that he didn’t.
Two of the five phones in front of Dwayne showed calls on hold. All three of his computer screens showed message alerts. He put on his headset and went back to work.
Alara listened to the low murmur of Dwayne’s voice and the muted, hollow clicks of his computer keyboard.
“It is a dangerous luxury,” Alara said.
“Trusting your assistant.”
“Again, we have had this conversation before. If you have nothing new to add, I have calls waiting.”
She raised her eyebrows at Steele’s unusually curt manner. She almost asked if he was in pain, then stopped herself. The bullet that had taken Steele’s legs so long ago still echoed through other lives.
So many things that might have been.
But are not.
“Do you have anything new for me?” Alara asked.
“Did I call you?” Steele countered.
She nodded once, conceding the point. “Like pulling hen’s teeth.”
“To pull teeth, there must be teeth to pull.”
“Exactly. Shurik Temuri is a member of Georgia’s most secret government security agency,” she said evenly. “A very high-ranking member.”
“Is his trade in death and destruction private and personal, or an aspect of state business?”
“Unknown. However, most men in his position within the Russian Federation have lucrative quasi-personal sidelines-drugs, extortion, human traffic, and so on.”
“That would complicate, rather than simplify, this matter,” Steele said. “At the very least, it adds a layer of deniability to Temuri’s employer if its employee is caught with his hand in the wrong cookie jar.”
“I noted the same thing.”
“And?” Steele asked.
“Nothing. Just one more piece added to the puzzle we must solve.”
“Delightful. No wonder I anticipate your visits.” He drank from his water glass. “Anything else?”
“Where is Blackbird?”
“In Canadian customs, being vetted.”
She hissed with impatience. “Idiots.”
Steele didn’t ask if she was referring to Canadian customs, the crew of Blackbird, or the FBI agent who had whispered suspicions into an international ear. There was more than enough idiocy to go around.
“Time is wasting,” she said.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I loved you once.”
In the sudden silence, the hollow tapping coming from Dwayne’s office sounded like ghostly Morse code.
Alara stood, her smile caught between sorrow and amusement, and said huskily, “It was a long time ago. Call me when Blackbird sails again. We must find those teeth to pull.”
The northwest wind had gone from gusty to full-time blow. The only clouds left were those clinging to the mountain peaks on Vancouver Island and the mainland. The radio in Blackbird’s cockpit spit static and a small-craft wind warning. Ten to twenty knots with occasional gusts up to twenty-five.
Emma looked outside doubtfully. If the wind got much worse, the Strait of Georgia was going to be more white than blue or gray.
Mac listened to the radio, looked at the computer, measured the state of the water beyond the sheltered marina, sensed the muscular rumble of big diesels beneath his feet, and remembered Amanar’s confidence that Blackbird could take anything the Inside Passage could dish out.
Easy to say when you aren’t on deck.
But it would be much better to find out in twenty-five-knot winds than in forty-five.
“Stand by, Emma,” he said through the headphones when she reached for the stern line. “I’m calling my special weather guesser.”
The door to the customs modular slammed hard behind Singh. The wind-assisted closing made the small building shudder.
“Standing by,” Emma said.
Mac flipped the mic away from his mouth as he punched the speed dial of his cell phone. The call was answered immediately.
“Faroe here. Where are you?”
“Nanaimo customs dock,” Mac said, “getting ready to leave.”
“I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.”
“The wind is kicking up. Small-craft warning just went out for Nanaimo on south. I’m holding Blackbird against the dock with the pod drive as we speak.”
“If I knew Blackbird better,” Mac said, “I’d already be heading north with a grin on my face. But we really haven’t had a shakedown cruise.”
“You pushed her to get to Nanaimo so fast. Had to be doing more than twenty knots,” Faroe said.
“Nothing came loose. But the water was pretty much glass.”
All Mac heard for a few moments was silence infused by the rush of wind over the cell phone’s small microphone.
“Is it dangerous if you go now?” Faroe asked.
“If I thought it was, I wouldn’t have called. I’d have found dock space in one of the marinas. But it could get dodgy if something cuts out because a cap or a screw or a fitting wasn’t tightened down.”
“As you said, shakedown cruise. Any worries with her on the way up?”
“No, she’s a really sweet boat. I’m tempted to sail off into the sunset with her, because I sure never could afford to buy a ride like this.”
Faroe laughed. “What does your gut say about going north?”
“I trust Blackbird. It’s the weather-guessers I’m iffy about.”
“How’s Emma doing?”
“She’s a first-rate first mate,” Mac said.
“Say that ten times fast without stumbling and I’ll know you haven’t been drinking.”
“I don’t drink when I’m working, unless it’s a cover. And then it only looks like I’m drinking.”
“One of the things I really like about you,” Faroe agreed. He paused, swore under his breath, and said, “Alara visited Steele again. Temuri not only has criminal connections, he’s a top member of Georgia’s secret service.”
“This is getting all the earmarks of a really grand cluster.”
“We’ve wasted a lot of water time in Nanaimo.”
“Alara said the same thing.”
“What did Steele say?” Mac asked.
“He hires people he trusts. When it comes to sailing conditions, it’s your call, Captain.”
“We’re going north. If the wind drops the way it should, we’ll be in Campbell River well before dark.”
“If not?” Faroe asked.
“We’ll get to see how Emma likes being aboard Blackbird when its plowing into the wind at speed.”
“Let me know.”
Faroe ended the call.
Mac flipped the headphone mic back into place and signaled Emma to release the line. He watched her leap lightly onto the swim step, stern line in hand. He eased off the pod drive and waited to see if the yacht would respond as expected to the twin forces of water and wind.
The wind peeled the bow away from the customs dock. The stern followed, but not so quickly that the swim step banged against the dock. The wind was doing more pushing sideways than turning the boat.
Mack took a quick look around the marina, making certain that nothing had popped up on the water that hadn’t been there the last time he looked.
“Clear,” Emma said calmly into the mic.
He stepped into the cabin and let the boat drift until he was certain that turning the bow more wouldn’t slam the stern into the dock. Then he shut off the joystick, picked up the throttles, checked that the engines were in sync, and put them in gear.
“Pick up all the lines and fenders and stow them the way I showed you,” Mac said. “If you need help-”
“No help. Just time.”
“-let me know,” he finished.
He divided his attention between the course and Emma. She worked over the four lines, only had to coil one of them twice, tied each off neatly, and stowed them in an on-deck locker. Then she began dragging fenders into another area and hanging them out of the way by their own lines.
Mac had handled a lot of fenders. He knew that they were heavier than they looked, especially when you were holding them at arm’s length half the time. It would have been easier if there had been fender holders on the rails, but there weren’t.
Emma had caught on fast to the role of first mate. She didn’t question why he wanted the deck clear of lines and fenders now and not on the way to Canada, or why he did things one way and not another. When she’d said that he was the boss on the water, she’d meant it.
Mac saw the blinking yellow channel light that warned of a float-plane coming in or taking off. He stepped out long enough to get a visual, then went back into the cabin.
Emma looked up when the roar of a small plane drowned out everything else. She could see the pilot as he thundered by, floats barely forty feet overhead.
Another plane came a minute behind the first. Since she knew what the sound was now, she ignored it and continued wrestling with cold fenders and cranky lines. As she did, she tried to imagine what it would be like doing the job on a heaving deck in a sleet storm.
I’ll pass, thanks.
She made a mental note to ask Mac if sleet was in their immediate future. She didn’t think her deck shoes were up to that kind of traction.
By the time Emma was finished with first-mate duties, she was ready to add layers to her eye-candy outfit. She went into the salon, hurried past the pilot station, and ducked below to the master stateroom with its big bed, closet, and drawers, all built into the hull. She could walk around three sides of the bed, which Mac had assured her was a real luxury. When she thought about making a bed with only one open side, she had to agree.
The clothes she’d brought in her duffel didn’t fill up a tenth of the space allotted to the “first mate.” She swapped shorts, boat sandals, and crop top for jeans, a T-shirt, and boat shoes with socks. She yanked a black sweater over her head, pulled her hair out from under the collar, put her cell phone on her belt, and called it good.
When she climbed the short stairway up into the galley, Mac was watching the electronic chart with unusual attention. She looked out the window and saw why. The big harbor had vanished. There was a tiny island off their right-starboard-side that looked close enough to touch. The miniature marina on the port side wasn’t nearly as close.
Instead of asking why they were scraping an islet when there was plenty of water on the other side, she studied the chart and their projected course.
“Yikes,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s a narrow channel out of the north end of the harbor, but it saves time and dodging ferries coming in from the strait.”
Silently she looked through the windows, comparing the electronic chart to what she could see. Nearby, just off the bow, a bright buoy swung in the current at the end of its anchor chain.
“What’s that?” she asked. “A weird channel marker?”
Mac punched a button, zooming in on the chart symbol for the buoy.
She leaned in to look at the chart, then looked outside, and listened to Mac. She could learn from books, but she’d discovered long ago that she was what was called a “directed” learner-if she experienced it physically as well as intellectually, she learned much faster.
“That marks Oregon Rock,” he said. “At low tide, it’s only a few feet below the water, right at the entrance to the Nanaimo Yacht Club,” he said. “There’s another rock forty yards north. I could run us over it-”
“No thanks,” she cut in.
“-but I’d like to stay afloat.”
On the islet that crowded the narrow channel, trees bent to the wind. Watercraft of all sizes poured into the far end of the channel, chased off the strait by the growing wind. She stood on tiptoe, peered into the water, and saw a shadow beneath the surface. The buoy was connected to it by a slimy green chain.
“I prefer deeper water,” she said, measuring the size and closeness of the hazard. “And plenty of it.”
Mac’s smile flashed beneath his short beard. “I hear you.”
“You’d think an ohmygod-rock like that one would be marked with bells, whistles, bonfires, and brass bands,” she said.
“The farther north you go, the less bells and whistles there are. You have to pay attention to your charts and whatever nav markers exist. Go far enough north, and you’re lucky to find nav markers in a harbor, much less away from it.”
“Are the electronic charts as good as paper?”
“Mostly. Often better. But like paper, it’s all information that someone on the ground-or water, in our case-has supplied.”
“Good intel, good result,” she said. “Bad intel, or none, and you’re hung out to dry.”
Mac went still, fighting memories. It took a few moments to shove the bloody past back into the basements of his mind.
“Nice thing about paper charts,” he said, “is they don’t go down if a circuit trips.”
“Where is the paper chart of this channel?”
“In my mind. I’ve done this a few times,” he said.
“What if I have to do it by myself?”
“Top chart.” He pointed.
She went to the pile of folded charts that were to the left of the galley sink, took the first chart, and started to orient herself. Since the electronic chart was on the “heads-up” mode-whatever was on the chart in front of the triangle that represented the boat was also what was visible beyond the bow-she turned the chart until it showed what was in front of her, rather than true north.
The channel looked even more narrow on paper.
“Tell me this is safe,” she said.
“Shoving this whacking great boat through the eye of a small damn needle.”
“Bigger boats go through without problem.”
“Knowing there are bigger fools on the water isn’t comforting.”
Mac laughed. “Have I mentioned that I like you, Emma Cross?”
“That’s me, Ms. Congeniality.”
But she smiled at him before she stared at the water swirling around the nearly exposed tip of the second rock in the channel. She told herself that it was all good. If Mac wasn’t worried, she wasn’t worried. And he wasn’t worried.
Alert, yes. Worried, no.
The second shadow slid by beneath the water, chained to another buoy. She let out a relieved breath when the channel opened up in front of them. They dodged through the flotilla of small craft running for harbor.
As soon as they were out of the lee of the islet, the wind whooshed over the yacht and the water changed, becoming rougher. Out in the strait, whitecaps were turning over.
“In a few minutes we’ll be using the fourth chart,” Mac said. While she replaced the chart she’d been looking at with a new one, he stepped close to her and added, “Faroe passed on a blast from Alara. Temuri is very well connected to Georgia’s most-secret service.”
Her hands stilled as he stepped back to the wheel. “About all this sweet talk, Mac. I don’t think my heart can take it.” But even as she spoke, she was running possibilities in her mind. It was one of the things she did best. None of the possibilities made their life easier.
“Bloody hell,” she said as she smoothed out the chart.
He looked at her.
She closed her eyes for an instant, then met his dark glance. “I’d rather have dealt with international crime lords.”
“Why? Killers are killers.”
“With crime, motivation is a lot easier to discover. Money is the primary mover. Everything else follows, including power. If you know motivation, you know your enemy’s weak point and can plan accordingly. But politics is like building something on the tip of a flame. Every breeze changes the lay of the land. Motivation follows the breeze.”
The curve of his mouth changed. “Pretty much how Faroe and I feel about it.”
“God, I hate politics and politicians. Give me a gang-banger any day. How good is Alara’s intel?”
“Your guess is better than mine. You were in the business more recently than I was,” he said, coming up on the throttles.
Open water lay ahead.
She fiddled with her phone. “Has Steele put Alara through research?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Emma hit speed dial.
“Got a problem?” Faroe asked by way of greeting.
“What do St. Kilda’s data banks say about Alara?”
“Nothing you couldn’t get by searching a few very academic magazines and some former State Department types who have online blogs.”
“What does the gossip side of research say?” Emma asked.
“Twice divorced, various lovers at various times, never married a third time, three children, eight grandchildren, career government in departments whose names mean nothing and whose funding isn’t questioned by Congress. Retired nine years ago.”
“Someone’s file needs updating.”
“Someone didn’t retire,” Faroe agreed.
“What did Steele tell you?”
“That she’s one of the shining ones still left playing a tarnished game.”
“Yeah, huh. Grace thinks that any ambitions Alara has are related to making sure her grandchildren don’t inherit a world where every balcony has a dictator with a suitcase full of secondhand nukes.”
Emma let out a slow breath. “Then we have the same goal.”
“Now pray that you have the same path to that goal.”
STRAIT OF GEORGIA
Lina Fredric, who wanted very much to forget that she had started life as Galina Federova, watched Taras Demidov from the corner of her eye. Though the water was choppy, headed toward outright rough, the motion didn’t appear to bother his stomach.
But of course, Lina thought. Nothing short of a nuclear blast would upset that man.
At least he is paying me well. Quite well.
It could have been much worse. Whether in the “free world” or the FSU, money and violence talked very clearly. She preferred money. So far, Demidov seemed to share her preference. If that changed…
Mentally Lina shrugged. Even though she had learned that he carried a knife rather than a gun, she didn’t fancy her chances against Demidov in physical combat. She’d grown soft over the years. He hadn’t.
The static and snatches of words from the VHF radio made a familiar background for her thoughts.
“Sun Raider to XTSea 4EVR, switch to channel…”
The only good news about the shifting weather was that the clouds were being blown out by the northwest wind. Clear skies were nice but the price was wind, which meant rougher water, especially when the tide changed and the wind pushed against the flooding water.
A gust of wind, a small trough, and the Redhead II lurched beneath Demidov. Though he was sitting down, the sudden motion jerked him like a puppet. He muttered a Russian curse, lowered the binoculars, and rubbed his eyes. With barely veiled impatience, he switched his attention from binoculars to his special cell phone. Relieved not to be viewing a world that jumped about like water drops in a hot skillet, he keyed in a number.
After a few moments, two sets of latitude and longitude numbers appeared on the small screen. A cold, thin smile stretched his lips as he checked, then checked the lower numbers again.
Blackbird was out of Canadian customs and working her way north from Nanaimo.
North, where Demidov lay in wait.
STRAIT OF GEORGIA
When Emma glanced up from making a late lunch in the galley, she was glad she’d ditched the eye-candy look. The waters north of Nanaimo were colder somehow, even though the temperature reading on Blackbird’s many gauges had shifted only a few degrees down after leaving the harbor.
“Brrrr,” she said.
Mac gave her a fast look. “Brrrr? The temperature inside the cabin hasn’t changed that much.” He half-smiled. “I’ll turn up the heat if you go back to the tube top.”
She shook her head. “Men.”
“That would be me.”
She laughed and sliced cheese. “It’s just that the water seems different out here. Like the whole world is colder.”
“Until now, we’ve been pretty much sheltered by either the San Juan Islands or Canada’s Gulf Islands. The Strait of Georgia is long enough and wide enough for the wind to work the water. It’s a good fetch from Campbell River to the Gulf Islands. The wind is free to play. So it does.”
Emma measured the increasingly choppy water. The whitecaps that had looked so tiny from the harbor weren’t all that small-they were riding the backs of steep-sided, wind-stacked waves that looked to be three feet high.
“Is it always like this?” she asked.
“It can be calm as a cup of tea. It can be six-foot razor waves. It can be like now, two or three foot waves with some wind chop on top. A little snotty, but hardly noticeable on a boat the size of Blackbird.”
“So what happened between here and Nanaimo. Just the wind?”
“Partly wind, partly the water itself, and a good bit that we’re heading right into it,” Mac said. “The tide is pushing to the north and the wind is shoving to the south. Irresistible force meets immovable object, and we’re caught between.”
She reached for crackers, braced herself against an unexpected motion, and waited. The next motion was equally unexpected.
“There’s no rhythm to the waves,” she said.
“We’re in the strait, not out on the ocean. The period between waves is shorter in the strait, less rhythmic. Unreliable. Makes for a spine-hammering ride if you’re in a small boat.”
Carefully she stacked crackers, cheese, celery, and sliced sausage on a plate with a rim around the top and a rubber ring on the bottom. Then she looked through the windows at a world of water, wind, and sky.
“You don’t think of Blackbird as small?” she asked.
“Compared to a ferry or a containership, yes. Compared to most of the pleasure craft on the water, no. We’re big enough that we’re officially allowed to decide if we want to play in gale force winds, which would make these winds look like a baby’s breath.”
“Pass,” she muttered.
She looked at him, surprised. “It wouldn’t be safe?”
“Safe ain’t the same as fun,” he said. “I’d rather be tied up snug in port listening to rigging lines slap and sing than out hammering my spine through a storm. On my own time I’m a pleasure boater, not a masochist.”
A few of the waves that broke against the bow sprayed over the decks and dotted the windshield with saltwater. Emma was aware of a change in motion, but she didn’t feel any need to hang on to things when she moved around the galley.
“Will it get rougher?” she asked.
“If the wind doesn’t drop, yes. It’s supposed to fall off as we go to the north. That’s why we’re running for Campbell River.”
“What if it gets worse?”
“Depends,” he said.
“That’s an all-around, universally unsatisfactory answer. You want tea?”
He gave her a sideways glance. “Depends.”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“Yes to the no?”
Laughing quietly, she put a bottle of iced tea in a holder near the wheel and gave him the food.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
Watching the water, she shook her head.
“You work on this plate,” he said, handing over the wheel. “I’ll make more after I take a bio break.”
Before Emma could think of an excuse, she was left with the wheel and her doubts about steering Blackbird in anything but calm water.
“Put it on auto if you want,” Mac called over his shoulder as he disappeared below with a handheld VHF radio. “Just make sure you stay well outside those rocks and islands.”
“What rocks and islands?”
“Zoom out on the chart. You’ll see what I mean.”
She zoomed out on the computer screen, saw what he meant, and frowned. Going around the various small islands would take longer. But then, going aground would waste even more time.
Mac’s voice floated up from below. “If you’re nervous, I can keep an eye on things while I pee off the stern.”
“Great, I’m stuck on a boat with a flasher.”
“Flashers are used with downriggers. For trolling. Wanna see how it’s done?”
“MacKenzie, just pee!”
Laughter, then she was alone with Blackbird and frisky water. She thought about putting the controls on auto, then decided to try learning the rhythms-if any-of boat and water.
With her hands on the wheel, Blackbird became a living presence caught between external forces and its own nature. The balance between vessel and water shifted continually. At the edges of her concentration she heard the sounds of the head flushing and the static of a VHF radio. Mac was talking to someone.
She was too busy to wonder who or why. She oversteered a few waves, overthought a few more, and was surprised by several. The waves seemed steeper than they had been.
At least some of them did. The problem was, she couldn’t tell which ones until it was too late to do much but stagger on through.
“Different when the water is choppy,” Mac said cheerfully as he climbed up from the lower deck.
Emma’s hands were clenched around the wheel. She stood in front of it, stiff-legged, her face tense.
“A lot more motion,” she agreed curtly.
“Ever ride a horse with a western saddle?”
“Move with the boat as you would a horse,” Mac said. “Loosen your knees. Let your spine flex. Fighting against the motion just tires you out.”
She looked at him. He was relaxed, balanced, his legs apart and his knees loose.
He looked good. Edible, even.
Blackbird took advantage of her lack of attention. The bow slid off the heading, pushed by the quartering waves.
“You’d better grab it,” Mac said.
He moved closer as he took a cracker and a slice of cheese from the plate by the pilot station.
Emma turned the wheel too hard. She knew it even before the boat’s bow went past centerline.
“Damn,” she said under her breath as she swung the wheel hard the other way.
“Give the helm a chance to respond before you crank on the wheel again,” he suggested.
“I know,” she said, remembering his instructions when she took the wheel on and off during the run to Nanaimo. “I’m just not doing it. The choppy water makes everything different.”
“Relax. Have a cracker.”
He fed one to her before she could object.
She chewed through the cracker and cheese, forced herself to slow down, and handled the helm more gently. To her relief, the boat responded. The motion evened out.
“Good,” he said. “Now, look at the compass. Try to steer a course of 340 degrees.”
She studied the compass dial beneath its glass dome and identified the 340-degree mark. It danced slowly with each motion. She tried to make tiny corrections on the helm to keep the alignment exact.
“Remember what I told you before?” he asked calmly, picking up another cracker. “Five degrees on either side is fine. It all evens out on the water. Blackbird isn’t suspended like a race car, where every little twitch from the driver results in a big change in the car’s direction.”
Emma loosened her grip on the wheel and eased the tension from her shoulders and legs. She quickly realized that if she didn’t try to anticipate every little motion of the boat, she felt more relaxed.
Not more in control, just less unhappy about it.
“Check the compass heading from time to time and save your real attention for watching the water ahead,” Mac said. “You can’t avoid the waves, but you can dodge rafts of seaweed and logs.”
“Yikes.” Emma narrowed her eyes and stared out at the water.
“I’d forgotten about the logs.”
“Seaweed will shut down your cooling system real quick. Hot engines freeze up. Bad luck all around.”
“God, Mac. All the sweet talk. Don’t know if I can take it.”
Smiling, he crunched into another cracker, this time with a slice of sausage and cheese.
As water rolled on beneath the hull, Blackbird and Emma reached a wordless understanding. She didn’t crawl all over the controls and the boat settled into doing what caused the least motion while still sticking to a route that would lead eventually to Campbell River. Like a horse trained to the western style of riding, Blackbird responded best to a light hand on the reins.
Mac reduced the plate of food to random crumbs before he looked up. “Did you eat?”
“The cracker you fed me.”
He stepped over to the galley, sliced, assembled, and threw in some potato chips and cookies for variety. Celery tasted fine when you’d been out on the water for a week and fresh greens had been scarce. But celery the first day of a trip? Not if he had a choice.
Mac went back to stand next to Emma and started feeding her crackers and cheese. He told himself that there was nothing sexy about giving a woman food from his fingers. Nothing sexy about watching her tongue lick away crumbs. Nothing sexy about the accidental touch of her lips. Nothing…
The hell with it.
He’d never been real good at lying to himself.
“Yeah?” he asked absently, watching her tongue.
“This marked-off area…” She pointed to the computer chart.
“Whiskey Gulf,” he said without looking at the chart. “A Canadian naval firing range. I just called, and they’re not active until dawn tomorrow, so we don’t have to go around. Keep on this course until I tell you otherwise.”
“Okay. Er, aye, aye, Captain.”
Mac wondered if she’d take orders as well in bed. Or give them.
Hold that good thought until we-
The primary VHF radio resting in a holder by the wheel came to life with an update of the past weather report. Emma tried to listen, steer, and keep the speed up in the face of rapidly changing wind and water.
When the radio stopped spitting words, she swallowed half-chewed food and said to Mac, “Translation?”
“Small-craft warning has been shifted to include Campbell River.”
“If I was in a small boat, I’d come about and run back to Nanaimo, just like them.” He pointed to their port side. Miles away, two small white boats raced along the shore.
“But we’re a big girl, right?” she asked, lightly turning the wheel, anticipating the next action of boat and water.
“You sure are.” He popped a chocolate cookie into his mouth.
Blackbird rose to meet the choppy waves, slid through, and lined up for another round of whatever the strait delivered.
“Good,” he said simply. “You’re a natural on water.”
She looked pleased. “Thanks. Eat more cookies. It improves your sweet talk.”
“I’m not sweet-talking. People can learn navigation and rules, but a feel for the water can’t be taught. It’s there or it isn’t.”
“Or shooting.” He crunched into another cookie.
“About that sweet talk…”
“I’m practicing,” he said. “See? I’m eating cookies.”
“And I’m thinking it would take more than cookies to sweeten your tongue.”
“If we were on calm water, I’d prove how wrong you are.”
She looked at him, knew what he meant, thought about how good he’d felt when she petted him in her arm-candy mode. She took a breath and reminded both of them, “We’re not on calm water. Damn it.”
Then she shut up and concentrated on handling the boat instead of its captain.
STRAIT OF GEORGIA
Lina felt the increasing strength of wind in the action of the water. A meter high and occasionally higher, the steep-sided, unevenly spaced waves broke over whichever part of the Redhead II was handy. Even seated, with the wheel to hang on to, the open cockpit of the boat was an uncomfortable ride.
Wet, too, despite the cloudless sky.
Her only consolation was that Demidov had to be more miserable than she was. He wore the cheap slickers she used for clients who didn’t bring their own. She was in a medium weight Mustang suit and wore warm, waterproof boots. He didn’t. She was accustomed to being on the water. He wasn’t.
Never know it from looking at him, she thought sourly.
Driving in circles waiting for Demidov to do something was even more boring than trolling in circles waiting for a salmon to bite.
“Where are they?” she finally asked him.
Despite her intentions, her voice came out sharp, demanding.
Demidov glanced at the small, bright screen of the cell phone. “Head five degrees more to the southeast.”
She looked at the compass, then at water.
“I’ll have to tack back and forth on that heading,” she said, “or I’ll take on too much water over the stern. My boat isn’t designed for following seas.”
“Just get us five degrees to the southeast.”
When Lina put the boat into a turn, she made certain he was the one who got whitewashed by the waves. A petty triumph, but with Demidov, she took what victories she could.
Why wasn’t he murdered? So many others were.
But Taras Demidov was still alive. She was stuck with the devil himself until he had no more use for her.
Rather distantly, Lina hoped he left her alive when she no longer served a purpose.
Kill him yourself. Shove him overboard and leave him for the crabs.
She rejected the thought almost as soon as it came. Even in rough water, scanning the strait through binoculars, Demidov had the balance and predatory awareness of a cat. It was unnatural. Unnerving.
If anyone went overboard, it would be her.
It infuriated Lina that she had grown older while he had grown more dangerous, but she wasn’t stupid enough to act on her emotions. In that, at least, she was his equal.
“That’s far enough,” Demidov said abruptly. “Turn off the big outboards and get on the little one.”
“Are you talking about the kicker?”
“Is that the small engine?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then do it.”
Lina bit back her objections. Her gear would keep her dry from the neck down-she hated hats and only wore them when the temperatures dropped below freezing. If she got a saltwater face wash and cold water down her back today, she’d still be more comfortable than the devil who had commandeered her boat.
She cut the big outboards and staggered back to the stern, thrown off-balance by the choppy, unpredictable waves. Not for the first time, she wished she’d replaced the little kicker with a bigger one that had an electronic starter. But she hadn’t. She would pay for that now.
As she reached for the pull rope to start the kicker, water slammed into the boat and spray slapped across her face. She yanked the starter rope once, and again, then again. On the fourth try the small outboard shuddered, belched a cloud of unburned gas and oil that wind swept back into the boat, and died.
Demidov looked sharply at her.
She ignored him and yanked on the starter rope again. This time the engine not only caught, it held. Bracing herself on the stern gunwale, she steered Redhead II with the kicker.
It wasn’t easy, but it could be done.
Rather savagely she hoped that Demidov appreciated the uneven, sloppy, stomach-churning ride.
At least it isn’t raining, she thought. It shouldn’t take long for Blackbird to spot us.
STRAIT OF GEORGIA
Emma was comfortable enough with the wind and water that she had hopped up into the pilot’s seat behind the wheel. More a loveseat than a simple chair, the cushion was big enough for two to use. Once she sat down, the riding-a-horse analogy was even more apt. She let the motion of the boat go through her spine in an invisible wave.
Mac settled on the padded bench seat next to her, close enough for her to feel his warmth. She liked that almost as much as the fact that both of them were relaxed with the silence and one another.
The multitude of pleasure boats that had cluttered the water near Nanaimo had disappeared. The few boats she could see were well off in the distance, much closer to land, leaving white streaks on the water as they slammed from wave-top to wave-top in a run for whatever safe anchorage was within reach.
“How often do they change the weather report?” Emma finally asked.
“On the weather?” she asked sweetly.
“On how bad they missed the forecast the first time.”
“I don’t know much about weather, and less about water, but…” Her voice faded into the hiss and smack of waves against the hull.
“Yeah.” Mac looked at the whitecaps, measured how much spray lifted into the air. “The wind looks closer to twenty than fifteen, much less ten. The gusts are at least twenty-five.”
“Still want to go to Campbell River?” she asked.
“Is your stomach kicking?”
Emma looked surprised. “No. Should it be?”
“Some people get seasick on a floating dock.”
“Guess I’m not one of them.”
“We could take a lot more wind than this and be perfectly safe,” Mac said. “Unless you’re uneasy-”
“As in puke green?” she said, smiling.
“So kick the throttles up a notch and keep going.”
“How much is a notch?” she asked.
“Take it up to twenty knots, more if the motion doesn’t bother you. We’ve got time to make up.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” she said, and hit the throttles.
The sound of the diesels deepened. The wake behind the boat churned out even more white. Surprisingly, the ride didn’t change much, neither smoother nor rougher. The fuel consumption sure shifted, though.
“We’re filling up the tanks in Campbell, right?” she asked.
“We eat a lot more diesel at this speed.”
“Wait until you see it above twenty-four knots. Sucks diesel like water flushing down a head,” he said.
“If you can afford Blackbird, the cost of the fuel it takes to run her is small change.”
As Mac spoke, he reached across Emma for the binoculars that were held snugly in a grip near the pilot station.
“Looking for logs?” she asked.
“If I have to use glasses to find them, the logs are too far away to worry about.”
“Good to know. I’ve been wondering.”
After a moment Emma straightened in the seat and leaned over the wheel, staring into the water ahead.
“Is that a boat out there?” she asked. “Just to the left of the bow.”
Mac was already watching the shape through the binoculars.
“Twenty-eight-foot motorboat. Red gunwale stripe. Fisherman’s special. You want to see something suck fuel? Try opening the throttles on those two big Yamahas strapped to the stern of that boat. Probably go twenty-two knots, maybe twenty-four. Hell of a butt-breaking ride, though. Especially in this chop.”
“Is that why the boat is going so slow? It’s barely moving.”
Mac refocused the glasses.
Redhead II all but disappeared as a wave broke against its side. Someone with wild, wet red hair was hunched over the steering arm of the kicker, getting whitewashed as often as not.
The boat wallowed like a half-beached log.
“They’re on the kicker but no fishing gear is out,” Mac said. “Steer an intercept course.”
Emma started to ask about kickers and fishing gear, but Mac leaned across her and lifted the radio microphone out of its cradle. Before he could use it, the radio crackled to life.
“…calling the black-hulled yacht off Nanoose,” said a man’s voice. “I have a visual of you.”
“Blackbird here. I didn’t catch your name. Switch to six-eight.”
A few seconds later, on the new channel, a man’s voice said, “Blackbird, we’re having trouble with a fuel filter or the electrical system. Hard to be certain in this water. Can you assist us?”
It wasn’t a request Mac could or would refuse. He was the only boat within sight, he had the skill and the means to aid the smaller boat, and the weather was going downhill. Marine law-and simple decency-insisted he do what he could to help.
He focused the glasses on the stern of the pitching boat, where her name was written in bold script.
“Redhead II,” he said, “stand by for assistance. Can you turn her into the wind?”
“I think-yes, the captain says we can.”
“That will make it easier. Stand by on six-eight, please.”
Staring at the boat ahead, Mac held the microphone, then said, “I’ll take it from here.”
Emma shot out of the pilot position. The thought of steering Blackbird close to another boat in this water was enough to lift the hair on the back of her neck. Mac, on the other hand, seemed to take it for granted.
“Call Faroe,” Mac said as he took the wheel. “Have him check the registration on a Canadian pleasure boat, about twenty-eight feet, called Redhead II.”
Maybe it’s not the idea of getting close to the boat that’s making my neck tingle, she thought.
“Are you suspicious?” she asked.
“Now that I’m not busy running the boat, yes.”
“If you can, get a photo of both people on Redhead II,” he said, easing back on the throttles.
“Dumb arm-candy taking shots for the folks back home?”
“Better that no one catches you and wonders why you’re taking pictures.”
“My camera’s zoom will be a snotty bitch to use out here.”
“I have faith in you.”
Emma wanted to roll her eyes. Instead, she punched Faroe’s number on her phone.
A voice answered immediately.
“Hi, Emma. This is Lane. Dad and Mom are on other lines. Since you didn’t roll over to Steele, he’s busy, too.”
Emma looked at her phone. “You sound just like Faroe. Can you take a message?”
She heard a swivel-type office chair squeak and rattle across a tiled floor.
“Sure,” Lane said. “Ready.”
“Are you up north pretending to be on vacation?”
“Nope. San Diego. I’ve got university classes, but not today.” His voice said just how much he loved being left behind.
Quickly she relayed Mac’s request, and added, “I’ll be sending jpgs ASAP and will want the people in them identified double-ASAP.”
Lane grunted, sounding so much like Faroe that she couldn’t help smiling. If she could have a kid like Lane…well, the idea of a family suddenly appealed. She wondered idly how Mac felt about it.
“Processing boat ID as we speak,” Lane said. “Want me to call back with the info?”
She looked out over the bow of Blackbird. They were closing quickly with the smaller boat.
“Only if it’s in the next two minutes,” she said. “After that, send to my computer. Or Mac’s. Whatever. Just get it to us.”
“Gotcha. Dad’s line just opened. If he has any questions, he’ll call in the next two minutes.”
The connection ended with an abruptness that reminded her of Faroe all over again.
“Faroe’s son is running the boat’s name for us,” Emma told Mac.
“He any good?”
She stared at him, then realized he’d been part of St. Kilda for only a few days. “He’s as good as our researchers. And that means really good.”
All Mac said was, “Get your camera and be ready to shoot through the window. If that isn’t close enough, show yourself. They might not like it, but they can hardly object. If they’re legitimate.”
Emma went to the canvas purse she had brought aboard. While Mac cautiously maneuvered closer to the other boat-and then closer still, until Emma held her breath-she turned on her camera. She felt like a witness watching two trains slide toward collision.
Silently she hoped Mac was as good as she thought he was. Otherwise it was going to get ugly for the little boat.
Not to mention unhappy for Blackbird and its crew.
She stood in mid-cabin and focused through the least spray-washed window she could find. The figure of a woman braced next to the small outboard jumped and jittered in the focus.
Emma switched to the electronic motor drive, hoped her battery could take the hit, and did her best to keep one or another of the two people in the field of focus. The clicking sound that told images were being taken came so close together it was like a single ripple.
She switched off motor drive, braced her feet farther apart, and reviewed the photos. No single one was good, but there were enough separate parts in focus with all the shots that a good ID program should be able to work its electronic miracle among St. Kilda’s huge databases.
“I’m sending the jpgs,” she said.
“Make it fast. I may need you on deck.”
“Making it fast, Captain, sir!” she shot back.
With practiced motions she plugged her camera into her computer, created a new file, downloaded the photos, and sent them MOST URGENT to St. Kilda. In the background she heard Mac try-and fail-to raise the Redhead II.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, closing up the computer and putting away the camera.
“They’re not answering.”
“Maybe the electronic problem took out their radio.”
Mac made a sound that could have meant anything. “You have your good deck shoes on?”
“See if you can shout across to Redhead II.” A wave sprayed against the port windows. “Unless you’d rather sit here holding station with Blackbird?”
She looked at the scant yards separating the gunwales of the two boats and said, “No, thanks. It’s all yours.”
“You’ll need a jacket.”
“I’ll be fine, Mom.”
Mac shut up and concentrated on keeping enough, but not too much, separation with the other boat. He could have used the joystick. Probably should have. He just preferred the old-fashioned way. New toys meant new problems as well as new solutions. For now, he’d take the devil he knew.
He opened the pilot door to let Emma out. The outside air was beyond fresh and bracing. It was cold. The damp edge of salt spray didn’t help.
Emma ignored the temperature. She braced herself on the railing, remembered her arm-candy role, and called out, “What’s up with your radio?”
The woman steering with the kicker said nothing, simply looked at her companion. The man stepped up to the rail of the Redhead II. For the first time Emma got a clear look at his whole face.
I’ve seen him before, she thought. Or someone who looks a lot like him. Mug shots? Long-distance surveillance?
“What I have to say to you is too sensitive to be put out over a public radio,” he said.
At first Emma thought she hadn’t heard correctly. Then she knew she had.
Mac had really good instincts.
“What?” she yelled.
“Follow me to calmer water. There we will discuss Shurik Temuri, Stan Amanar, Bob Lovich, and the extreme danger you are in.”
She gave Mac a do-you-get-this-dude look through the open cabin door.
He caught the other captain’s eye and made a wind-it-up motion with his hand.
The woman staggered from the kicker to the cockpit and fired up the big outboards.
Mac gave Redhead II plenty of room before he followed.
Emma came back into the cabin. “It’s not like we have a whole lot of choice. Shurik Temuri is someone we have to know more about.”
“Yeah. An opportunity we can’t refuse.”
Mac hoped they were doing the right thing. Because the wrong thing was a fast way to die.
Good work, Lane,” Faroe said over the phone. “Thanks.”
“I told you I’d be more useful if I-”
“Get a degree,” Faroe cut in. “Your mother and I both agree on that. Emphatically.”
Lane groaned or growled. It was hard to be certain.
“I’ll let you know if I find anything else useful,” Lane said.
Faroe was glad he wasn’t on visual. He didn’t have to hide his smile. He’d felt just like Lane when he was young.
And Faroe was determined that Lane wouldn’t make the same mistakes his daddy had.
“Just don’t tell Steele that I whispered through a couple of his databases,” Lane added.
Faroe came to a point. “You did what?”
“I’ll make a patch before class tomorrow. When I give it to Dwayne, I’ll tell Steele. No one will be able to use that route again.”
“I’m impressed. Frightened, actually.”
Lane snickered. “I had help.”
“Your ‘swarming’ buddies?”
“One of them. She’s über.”
Faroe hesitated, but couldn’t help saying, “She’d damn well better be über quiet.”
“I didn’t tell her anything that would point to St. Kilda Consulting. We give each other puzzles all the time, then race to see who gets there first, and how. If it will make Steele feel any better, she found the same way in that I did. Usually there are two or three paths, at least.”
“You’ll be the first to know Steele’s mood. Get that patch made yesterday and talk to him yourself.”
Faroe hung up and rubbed his eyes. “This ‘vacation’ is going to be the death of me.”
“What now?” Grace shut Annalise’s bedroom door behind her and hoped their cranky daughter would take a nap. Her sleep schedule was all over the place.
Sort of like her parents. “Lane hacked into one or more of St. Kilda’s databases,” Faroe said.
“Mother of God.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” he agreed dryly. “Father of Satan is another. But Lane’s making a patch to keep other hackers out, so I’ll give the honors to Mom rather than Dad. Lane sent the information he got to Emma’s computer. And mine.”
Grace sat down next to him on the couch and sighed. “Have I told you lately that I love you and don’t know how I would have handled Lane alone?”
Faroe set aside the computer, pulled Grace into his lap, and nuzzled her neck. “You would have done fine, but thanks for sharing him with me. And Annalise. If we survive them, we can conquer the world.”
Laughing, she settled closer, letting her husband’s warmth sink through to her bones. “Flip you to see who talks to Steele next.”
“Tails,” Faroe said as he smoothly flipped Grace out of his lap and onto her back on the couch. Head up. “You lose.”
Her arms tightened around his neck. “Two out of three?”
“Think she’ll sleep that long?”
“Let’s find out.”
STRAIT OF GEORGIA
Lane got us a lot of stuff,” Emma said, frowning at her computer screen.
“Do you read Cyrillic?”
“Enough to make out road signs,” Mac said. “Maybe.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve read more than memos. It’s coming back, but slowly. Apparently Lane didn’t think to translate it.”
“So he’s a Russian agent?” Mac asked.
Mac have her a look. “Demidov.”
“He was a Russian agent. Supposed to be freelance now, though he still has active Russian Federation diplomatic credentials.”
Mac made a sound that said he was listening.
“He’s most often known to the English-speaking world as Taras Demidov,” she said, “though he has several other aliases. I have to assume he has all the necessary documentation to back up those identities,” she added. “He’s certainly in a position to get whatever papers he needs.”
“Welcome to the post-Wall world, where no one works for the name signing his paycheck.”
“And no one has the same name as the dude cashing it.” She laughed curtly. “I don’t like that world. For all the good it does me.”
“Now you know why ostriches prefer sand. Much more comfortable.”
“Until somebody kicks your feathered butt.”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s the downside.”
Emma looked up from the computer. “The water is a lot calmer.”
“We’re in the lee of a small island. Soon it will be quiet enough to safely take a passenger aboard, which I’m not wanting to do, even if we lock down our cell phones and computers. I’m hoping he’ll settle for shouting across the water.”
She skimmed content faster, deciding nuances could wait until there was more time. “Demidov is a shooter.”
“Sniper?” Mac asked.
“Is that professional interest I hear in your voice?”
“I used to keep track of the ones that got away. Otherwise they had a nasty habit of turning up in my rearview mirror.”
“Sorry I asked,” she said. “And no, Demidov is an executioner, not a sniper. Close work. Really close. He has nine confirmed kills and three times that many suspected.”
“Yeah,” she said absently. “Just what every mother dreams of for her little girl.”
“In a lot of places in the world, you’d be exactly right. Having the protection of a mafiya type beats starvation or selling your daughter into the skin trade.”
Emma let out a long breath. There were aspects of the modern world she really despised.
Not that things had been much different a thousand years ago.
At least most places have laws against slavery now, she told herself tiredly. That’s something.
“Anything about the female, or is she a local hire?” Mac asked.
“The woman aboard Redhead II is Lina Fredric, born Galina Federova. She’s the registered owner of the boat.”
Emma frowned and skimmed as quickly as she could. “If she’s a sleeper for Russia, she’s been in place so long she’s put roots down and grown moss. No dings on her record. Naturalized Canadian citizen, pays all taxes on time, doesn’t speed, doesn’t get in bar fights, ekes out a good-enough living taking fishermen after salmon. Once rumored to hang with drug runners, but never caught with so much as a whiff of anything contraband.”
Mac thought of the time when he’d driven a fast boat flat-out in the dark, sure that he’d live forever.
“A young man’s game,” he said. “Fool’s game.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” She scanned quickly. “If the birth date is correct, Lina aka Galina just turned fifty.”
“He’s fifty-seven, if we can trust the stats. And the chances of him just choosing Lina Fredric from one of the what-to-do tourist pamphlets on a Canadian ferry are zero and negative.”
“So…a sleeper rather than a shooter?” Mac asked.
“Until we have a reason to think otherwise, yes.”
“Anything else we should know before Redhead II finds a quiet place to chat?”
Mac bit back an urge to tell her to look faster.
“Demidov often works for a mafiya head turned philanthropist. At least, that’s what some sources say. Others say he’s a kingmaker rather than a rainmaker.”
“His boss,” Emma said. “Name of Sidorov, according to one source. Others say it’s Lubakov, or his son or brother-in-law or nephew. All names could be aliases. Could be ten other people. The players change too often to keep a scorecard. Whatever, Demidov climbed the ranks by playing brass-knuckle hardball, with extra innings of shoot, shovel, and shut-up.”
Mac smiled unwillingly. “Demidov and his boss probably work for the national government or the higher ranks of the crime lords.”
“Often the same people,” she said. “One-stop shopping at its finest.”
“Lock down the electronics. Redhead II slowing.” Mac gave her the code on his computer and locked his cell phone himself.
Emma hit keys quickly on her computer, did the same for his, and went below to shove both computers under the mattress in the master stateroom. Not proof against a real thief, but all she wanted was to minimize the chances of “accidental” discovery by a guest on the boat.
By the time she came back to the main cabin and locked down her cell phone, Mac had turned on the joystick and was inching closer to Redhead II. The water was almost as calm as a backyard swimming pool-with teenagers performing cannonball dives. But much nicer than the open strait.
“Lee of the island,” she said, sighing. “I think I’m in love.”
“Would you rather handle the talk or the joystick?” was all Mac said.
She decided that the water wasn’t all that calm. “Talk.”
“Put out fenders on the starboard side so that they’ll protect us from the Redhead II.” Without looking away from the other boat, he handed her one of the headsets. He was already wearing the other.
She yanked the headset into place and turned it on. “You there?”
“With Demidov, I’m going for total arm candy with just enough brains so a man knows the difference between me and a blow-up doll,” she said.
“Can’t wait for you to try out that act with me,” was all Mac said.
“That way, I have a fallback position,” she added. “With him, not you.”
She put four fenders overboard in record time before she looked up to check their position.
Redhead II was breathtakingly close.
“Good god. Why don’t I just throw him a headphone?” she muttered under her breath.
“We may need it later,” Mac said. “If you can keep him off the boat-”
“I’d rather drown him than let him aboard,” she said quickly.
“Get his info first, then do whatever you can get away with.”
She laughed. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, just what every mother wants for her daughter.”
“No. Just what every daughter wants for herself.”
Emma stepped outside.
Like Mac, Lina was at the wheel, working to keep the two boats close enough, but not too close. Demidov was standing on the port side, waiting. He had his hands in the pockets of his jacket, staring across to Blackbird.
At that moment, Emma believed every word in the files about Demidov that she had just scanned. Her pulse jumped, but not in a happy way.
That is one really hard piece of work, she thought. If you’re fooled by the gray hair, you’re dead.
She moved her microphone a few inches to the side. No use shouting in Mac’s ears. This way, he might be able to hear both conversations.
“Hi, I’m Emma,” she said, pitching her voice to reach across the boats. “Who are you?”
“I would rather come aboard to talk,” Demidov said.
His face was angular, lean, fined down like that of a ballet dancer still trying to hold center stage with dancers half his age.
It made him look all the more dangerous.
Discipline, experience, and talent all in one package, she thought unhappily.
Then she got down to work.
“The captain told me he would rather talk over the sides. Gunwales?” she asked, going for nautically clueless. “Is that what you call them?”
“I wish to make a business proposition,” he said, ignoring her attempt to engage him in getting-to-know-you chatter.
“That’s the captain’s department,” she said. “I’m just a first mate in training. But I know he doesn’t like strangers on board. He’s really touchy that way.”
If Demidov was surprised or angry, it didn’t show in his body language. “We don’t need to be strangers.”
Emma pretended to be listening to her earphones. “Babe, I can’t follow two people at once,” she complained. Then she glanced at Demidov. “I didn’t mean you. I’m listening to Captain Babe.”
A strangled sound came through her earphones-Mac trying not to laugh out loud.
“All right, all right, I’ll ask him,” she said with a whiny edge in her voice. A few seconds later she looked back to Demidov. “Captain Babe wants to know if coming aboard is, uh, required.” Then she held up her hand before Demidov could answer. “Captain Babe says he’ll waste some fuel out of curiosity, but he won’t risk the boat.”
Demidov thought about it for two seconds. “Shurik Temuri may be a covert actor, but he is not one of ours.”
Talk about cutting to the chase, Emma thought, but she kept her game face on. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
“To you?” Demidov’s upper lip almost curled. “No. To your Captain Babe, yes.”
She looked blank. “Uh, he wants to know who ‘ours’ is.” She shook her head and asked Demidov, “Does that make sense?”
This time the Russian didn’t bother to conceal his contempt. “I work for the Russian Federation. Shurik Temuri is Georgian.”
“Georgia?” she asked. “As in really yummy peaches? Shurik doesn’t sound like a Southern name. I’m getting confused, here.”
Mac made another strangled sound in her ear.
“What?” she whined into her microphone. “Everyone knows about Georgia peaches.”
“Quit teasing him or he’ll demand to come aboard,” Mac said.
“Can your captain hear me?” Demidov asked impatiently.
“Can you?” she asked the mic.
“He says he can.” Her voice was doubtful.
“Excellent,” Demidov said. “Then you will shut up and let us talk.”
“Well, that’s just rude,” she said.
“Emma,” came through her headphones.
“Oh, fine, just see if I handle your lines again,” she said into the microphone. Then she waved at Demidov. “Talk. Captain Babe is listening.”
Demidov looked past her and pitched his voice to carry into Blackbird’s cabin. “Temuri was once a citizen of Russia. Now he is its enemy.”
“And the captain cares…because?” she muttered.
“Good question. Why do I care?”
Emma pushed. “He said, why should he care?”
“That is something he shouldn’t discuss through an intermediary,” Demidov said.
His expression told her that he had a much less polite word than intermediary in mind. Whore, probably. Or worse. Temuri certainly had been creative.
She turned to Mac, silently questioning.
“I want to get to Campbell River tonight,” he said, covering his mic.
“I heard him,” Demidov cut in. “Shurik Temuri is a relative of Stan Amanar and Bob Lovich.”
Very quickly Mac came out on deck, holding the joystick. Emma gave him a look and stepped back, well out of the way.
“Keep talking,” Mac said. “Tell me why I wasted fuel on you.”
“Have you told your so-called first mate that she is a party to smuggling?”
Emma let her eyes go wide. “Über kewl! What kind?”
Both men ignored her.
“No contraband is on board,” Mac said. “I made sure of it. The Canadians double-checked.”
“You are only on the first leg of the smuggling trip.”
Mac waited, watching the Russian with no expression.
“I hadn’t taken you for a fool.” Demidov glanced toward Emma. “But that would account for your companion.”
“I don’t screw her brain,” Mac said. “What am I supposed to be smuggling if the owner doesn’t show up-”
“He won’t,” Demidov cut in.
“-and I take Blackbird back to the States?”
“You’ll be smuggling death,” Demidov said.
“In what form?” Mac shot back.
“Temuri trades in weapons, whether biological, nuclear, or conventional.”
“You don’t care about your country?” Demidov asked sharply.
“Why do you?” Mac asked.
“Temuri is a traitor.”
“If he was, I wouldn’t be here,” Demidov said. “He wants to hold an American city for political ransom. Or worse.”
Emma was glad she had already talked to Alara. Otherwise she would have jumped over the railing and landed on Demidov with both feet and a sharp knife, demanding information.
He spoke the words so calmly, as if terrifying and then wiping out a large city was a perfectly normal way to go about international politics.
“Why?” Mac asked, nudging the joystick.
Demidov hesitated, shrugged. “My people-”
“The Russian government?” Mac cut in.
“Yes. We assume Temuri plans to blame the entire episode on Russia.” Demidov connected the dots for Emma. “Then the U.S. would side with Georgia more forcefully on the Russian-Georgian border disputes.”
“If we lost a city, we’d probably do a hell of a lot more than take sides,” Mac said.
“If you could prove guilt, yes. Or perhaps, no. International politics is never what it seems.”
“No shit.” Mac nudged the joystick, waited to see the result, and asked, “What do you want from me?”
“We don’t know all of Temuri’s plot, just his goal, but we are certain that Blackbird is key to the matter.”
Where have I heard this before? Emma thought. When even the bad guys don’t know who’s on first, the game is beyond lunatic.
But she didn’t so much as glance at Mac to find out how he’d taken the non-news.
“So where do I come in?” Mac asked.
“It’s quite simple,” Demidov said. “I will transfer fifteen thousand dollars to whatever bank account you give me. In return, you will tell me when you are contacted and what you are told to do. At that time, I’ll transfer another fifteen thousand dollars to your account. That will more than cover any loss you have from Lovich and Amanar.”
Mac thought about it. “Do Lovich and Amanar know what’s really going on?”
“Unlikely. They are too soft.”
Mac hated to agree with Demidov, but he did. “What if I take your fifteen thousand and blow you off?”
“I will kill you.”
“Figured that,” Mac said.
“Do we have a deal?”
Dwayne tapped on the door of the suite that was part of Ambassador Steele’s top-floor offices and residence.
Harley opened the door instantly. Behind him Manhattan blazed across the windows like a 3-D light show.
“Alara is here,” Dwayne said very softly.
“He just got to-” began Harley.
“I’m awake, Harley,” Steele called from the darkened room. “Help me into my chair.”
Dwayne winced. Steele must be really tired. Usually he only needed Harley’s help with stairs or narrow doors. Steele might be retirement age, but his arms and chest were strong from hauling the rest of him around.
“Has he eaten?” Dwayne asked Harley in a low voice.
“Bring some omelets and fruit, toast, crackers, cheese, whatever. And tea. You could try herbal-”
“You’d end up wearing it,” Steele interrupted impatiently.
“On Harley it would look good,” Dwayne said. He watched as the big, muscular, bodyguard-nurse walked to Steele’s bed. “Is your partner still out of town?”
“Yes.” Harley bent and lifted Steele easily. “His mother is sick, so he stayed in Kirkland to help her.”
“Washington?” Dwayne asked.
“Isn’t that close to Seattle?” Steele asked at the same time.
“Right next door, why?” Harley said.
“When your partner gets back,” Dwayne said quickly, “let me know. My girlfriend likes you better than she’s liking me lately. We’ll have both of you for dinner.”
“She cooking?” Harley asked, carefully settling Steele into his wheelchair.
“If both of you come,” Dwayne said, “you’ll get Cajun guaranteed to smoke your eyeballs black.”
“Stop,” Steele said. “I’m drooling like Pavlov’s dog.”
“I’ll get the recipe, boss,” Harley promised. “Meanwhile, I’ll start cooking those omelets.”
“Thank you,” Steele said. “On nights like these, you’re better to me than I deserve.”
“I’ll be sure to bring that up around bonus time,” Harley said mildly. “Do you want your tie back?”
Steele straightened the collar of his dress shirt. “No. Just a sweater. It’s a bit chill tonight.”
Dwayne and Harley exchanged a glance that Steele didn’t see. Harley went to the closet, took a soft charcoal pullover from the top shelf, and handed it to Steele.
A few moments later, Steele rolled his chair out to meet Alara.
“It would be terribly convenient to communicate by phone,” he said by way of greeting.
“As I told you the first time you brought it up, for some communications I don’t trust phones or computers,” Alara said crisply. “They’re too easily compromised. My hotel room has been bugged four separate times in the past few days.”
Steele made a sound of disgust, then shifted to ease the legs he wasn’t supposed to feel. “If only our various government agencies would stop fighting one another and concentrate on the designated enemy.”
“That will happen about the time lions become vegans.”
Steele would have smiled if he wasn’t so tired.
“We agree with the ID of Taras Demidov as a Russian shooter,” Alara continued. “The woman, Galina Federova, is one of the many abandoned sleepers gone to earth beyond the shores of former empire. She was a minor player. Demidov ran her along with his other numerous agents. The files are so old, they should be classified as historic rather than active.”
“So should we, but we live on anyway.”
Alara’s smile was swift and real. “Demidov may or may not know what Temuri is smuggling.”
“I hope you didn’t leave your hotel just to tell me what I already know.”
“Temuri’s family is Georgian and Ukrainian, raised in Russia. He works for whichever side pays him best.”
“Did you learn anything new?” Steele asked bluntly.
“Ah, old friend, you are in pain.”
“That’s how I know I’m alive. Answer my question.”
“The sum of fifteen thousand dollars has been transferred from an account funded by one of the many arms of Russian intelligence to a St. Kilda Consulting account. Demidov has the connections to move very quickly, as apparently the order came through barely an hour ago.”
Steele’s black eyebrows rose. “Impressive. Your connections, as well as his.”
“So Demidov is indeed working for some aspect of the Russian government.”
“They are paying him,” Alara said. “It isn’t always the same thing. You will tell me immediately if your agent calls about contact by or from Shurik Temuri.”
Steele waited for several beats, then nodded. “As we agreed. Speaking of which…”
Alara waited, poised like a falcon ready to fly.
“Since when are Russia and the United States working the same side of the street?” Steele asked. “Did I miss the memo? Or is it the usual case of politics making ridiculous bedmates?”
“We have cooperated with Russia in the past, when both parties had the same goal.”
“Do you trust Demidov?”
Alara laughed in genuine amusement. “Do you?”
Steele rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Have Demidov and Temuri ever worked together in the past?”
She looked thoughtful. “Possible, but unlikely. Demidov is of another generation, political not criminal. Temuri came up through the mafiya. His family is rabidly against Russia. Temuri is simply rabid.”
“He has a lot of competition,” Steele said.
“That is the nature of life among the ruins. It suits Temuri. The most recent intel we have puts him with Chechen separatists, many of whom draw support from Wahabbi fundamentalists in the Middle East. Money, to be precise. A great deal of petro dollars.”
“Is Temuri selling them nukes?” Steele asked.
“Not the finished product. Not yet. Fissionable materials only. More suited to blackmail than to bombs. He is the middleman for more ordinary weapons, as well. We also believe he is responsible for at least one of the outbreaks of bubonic plague that have occurred on the fringes of former empire. One instance of plague served to keep the Russians out of a strategic area.”
“What if we take Temuri alive?”
“The Russians have offered a million dollars American to anyone who turns him over to them alive,” Alara said. “Dead? Perhaps he would be useful to Russia as fertilizer, nothing more.”
“Does Uncle Sam have any preferences about Temuri?”
“We would…enjoy…talking with him. But it is not required. Proof of death is. He has several rewards on his head. In fact, he is worth more dead to us than alive to Russia.”
“I’m not a bounty hunter.”
“Yet St. Kilda has collected bounties in the past.”
“Any bodies on our ticket were made on the way to a different goal,” Steele said. “Did you trace the telephone number Demidov gave our agent as a contact?”
“Useless. The phone was probably recently purchased and won’t be in anyone’s electronic files for a week or so. Too late to do us any good.”
“Do you know any more about what is actually at risk than Demidov does?”
Alara’s mouth tightened. “No. We are unhappy to find out he knew that much. It means there are more loose ends than we thought.”
“And the time limit?”
“Unchanged.” She stood up. “I wish your agents luck. We all will need it.”
STRAIT OF GEORGIA
Blackbird rose on the breast of the creaming wave. Wind combed salt spray from the sea and dashed it over the windshield. Hands light on the wheel, Emma held the yacht’s bow into the weather, enjoying the swell and rush of water. Mac was at the dining table, awash in charts. He kept them corralled with a casual ease she envied. She was just learning to be at home on the restless strait.
He was at home.
Her phone rang.
“I’ll get it,” Mac said, reaching into her purse. “It’s Faroe.”
“So talk to him. I’m busy.”
Mac answered the phone. “We’re about an hour south of Campbell. Where are you?”
“Hello to you, too,” Grace said.
“Sorry. I was expecting your husband. Hello, how are you, how is Annalise, and why are you calling?”
“Faroe is looking at reports from various Canadian marine weather stations on his computer. He’s making unhappy noises.”
“We’re fine. Blackbird may be beautiful, but she’s not just a pretty face. She’s built for this part of the world.”
“How is Emma taking to it?”
“Fish to water,” Mac said. “Quick and smart. You may not get her back.”
“Thinking about keeping her?” Grace asked, amused.
“What does she think about it?”
“No screaming yet,” Mac said.
“Give yourself time. It doesn’t always happen for new lovers the first few rounds.”
Mac made a choked sound. “Joe wants to know if you’re going to run through the night,” Grace continued.
“No. Even if the water was calm and my first mate had all the appeal of moldy concrete, I wouldn’t run in the dark past all those coastal log yards unless something bigger and meaner than me was closing in fast.”
“See any cruise ships?” Grace asked.
“Four of them so far, but none are headed toward Campbell. You expecting trouble from a bunch of retired folks on their dream vacations?”
“No. I just always wanted to see a cruise ship from a distance. All those lights and glamour.”
“Only at night. Close up in daylight, at the end of a season, cruise ships look like hookers after a hard night.”
“You and Faroe. Not happy unless you’re captain. Let us know if anything changes. We’ll do the same. Hello and good-bye to your first mate.”
Mac closed the phone and answered the question Emma hadn’t asked. “Faroe is following the weather up here and got nervous.”
“Is this the kind of water you call snotty?” Emma asked.
“Getting there,” Mac said. “If I want to use the electronic charts, are you happy steering by compass for a few minutes?”
“Better that than autopilot. It doesn’t correct fast enough for this kind of water.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said without heat. “So I’m a slow learner.”
Suddenly she felt his heat and sheer bulk along the left side of her body. The warm, slightly rough surface of his fingertips traced from her left cheekbone to her jaw, her throat, and lingered on her pulse. Her heart stopped, then beat double time. His breath brushed her ear.
“Emma-love, you are anything but slow.”
She plucked at her sweater and let out a long breath. “Getting hot in here, Captain.”
Teeth closed gently on her earlobe. “If the water was calm, it’d be a whole lot hotter. But I want to be in Campbell before dark, so medium warm is as good as it gets for now. Hot comes later.”
She cleared her throat. “You keep nibbling like that, you’re going to distract me.”
“My hands are in my pockets,” he pointed out.
She moved her head quickly, caught one of his fingertips, and sucked it into her mouth for a thorough tasting. She released it slowly, enjoying the flush of color high on his cheekbones.
“My hands are on the wheel,” she said.
He took a long breath, then another. “Point taken. Damn it.”
She laughed softly and moved aside so that he could get to the chart plotter while she steered. “All yours, Captain.”
“I keep mine,” Emma said.
“So do I.”
She cleared her throat. “So…good. I won’t have to date myself tonight.” She shook her head hard, trying to clear the haze of lust.
“God, Mac. Is it something you were born with, or did you take classes?”
He blinked, then smiled slowly. “I’m learning from my first mate. One hell of a teacher. Can’t wait for night school to begin.”
She blew out her breath and ignored him. It was that or jump him, and Blackbird really did need a guiding hand. Two hands, actually. The waves were building with the wind. And the wind had teeth in it, forewarning of the cold autumn gales Mac had talked about.
“Is this weather as bad as it looks?” she asked after a time.
Mac didn’t even glance up from the electronic chart plotter he was putting through its paces. “Not for us. If we were in a small boat, yes, I’d already be ashore or real close to it. Out here, size matters.”
“Not touching that.”
“Ever?” he asked.
“Not hearing you. La la la la. Not a single tempting word.”
Mac laughed and quit teasing her-and himself-for the moment. He checked the boat’s position, the tide, the currents, and the time to Campbell River. It would be an interesting ride. They were right on schedule for a beating from the steep tidal currents just south of Campbell River. The wicked water would slow them down, but they should make Campbell before dark.
Mac could hardly wait.
But he kept at work on the chart plotter, trying out various possibilities for the next day of running. The beauty of a boat like Blackbird was that speed opened up so many choices that a six-knot boat didn’t have. The downside was that choices led to more opportunities to screw up.
That’s how you learn, Mac reminded himself. And along the learning way, you try real hard not to make the kind of mistakes that are fatal.
Not to mention praying that somebody else didn’t make those mistakes for you.
The front door closed behind Timothy Harrow with a weighty restraint that whispered of money. As he walked down the echoing marble foyer, he pulled off his suit coat, yanked his tie loose, looked at the muted gleam of bottles in the home bar, and sighed.
He’d rather have a woman. Unfortunately, his wife-soon to be ex-wife-had discovered that sometimes any woman would do for him. It wasn’t anything against her, certainly nothing personal. It was just the way he was.
He looked around the suburban home that had become a house with the divorce decree and decided all over again that his career was a relationship killer. He should have stuck with serial affairs. Or found a wife who understood the demands of his career. Marrying a beautiful, ambitious lawyer had been a head-banging mistake, one he’d be making payments on for the rest of his life. Unless the clever bitch remarried.
And speaking of clever bitches…
He picked his cell phone off the table and looked at his contacts, searching for the personal number of his FBI contact. Information or a hookup, either would be fine with him. Both would be better. But before he could find the number, someone knocked at the front door.
Harrow locked and set aside the phone before he pulled out the drawer in the end table by his chair, saw that his pistol was in its usual place, and picked it up. He checked the load and flicked the safety off. Holding the weapon more or less out of sight along his right leg, he went to the security screen at the end of the foyer leading to the front door.
The surveillance camera showed Duke standing at the front door, but far enough back to make ID easy. What everyone hoped would be the final heat wave of the year had left Duke’s expensive suit wrinkled and his bald head sweating in the porch light.
He was alone. Even his driver-bodyguard wasn’t in sight. Suddenly the Scotch looked more likely to Harrow than a hookup. With a subdued curse, he opened the door and let his boss into the mechanically cooled air of the house.
“You look like you could use a drink,” Harrow said.
Duke ran a palm over his head. “You alone?”
“Yes.” Harrow put the safety on his pistol and led the way to the living room.
“Nice place,” Duke said.
“It will be Pam’s in a few weeks.” The end table drawer shut with emphasis.
Duke grunted. “Yeah, she’s a shark.”
“And a bitch. You want some bourbon?”
“What’s up?” Meaning: What’s too hot to talk about over the phone?
“I don’t know.”
Harrow didn’t ask any more. Whether Duke didn’t, wouldn’t, or couldn’t share wasn’t the point. The point was that something had sent a jolt through intelligence networks, a shot hot enough to burn some very important butts.
“How can I help?” Harrow asked.
It was the question that had taken him very near the top of the pyramid at an age when most people were still wondering what they would do when they grew up.
“One of Shurik Temuri’s aliases entered Canada through Blaine,” Duke said. “That’s on the northern border of Washington State.”
Harrow made a sound that said he was paying attention.
“By the time we got someone on Temuri, he’d ditched the rental. We’re going through the records of nearby car rentals as fast as we can get to them, but it will take time. We don’t have time.”
The Scotch looked more like nectar with every word Harrow’s boss spoke.
“Is there anything I’ve missed in Temuri’s file?” Harrow asked carefully.
“But we’re upset that he’s in Canada.”
“Yes. He’s on our ticket, now,” Duke said.
Says who? Harrow thought. Nobody told me about an op, especially good old Duke.
Harrow didn’t say anything out loud, just waited, hoping his boss would say something useful.
Duke was an old hand at the silence game.
Harrow gave up and asked, “What’s the op?”
“It’s an old sting that went south,” Duke said. “A few years back, a political golden-boy decided that it would be useful to catch a well-connected Russian dirty in the U.S.”
It was a time-honored way to recruit double agents. Nothing new. Certainly nothing to send Harrow’s boss roaming wealthy D.C. suburbs when he should be home having a drink.
“What was the contraband?” Harrow asked.
“A hundred million in counterfeit cash.”
Harrow didn’t bother to hide his surprise. “That’s a lot of dirty to set someone up with. A million would have been more than enough.”
Duke shrugged. “It wasn’t my op. It was political from the get-go. Politicians don’t notice a million here or there. Not anymore. To make a splash in the headlines you need a splashy amount of money, plus the threat of levering a corner of the U.S. economy off the rails, which would yank the rest of the economy down into the train wreck, one financial sector at a time. People are still goosey about 2008.”
“Not to the politicians who were voted out and went back to mowing lawns for a living,” Duke said. “They won’t forget until they die. Neither will their children. Hell, the last thing my grandpa said to me was ‘Don’t trust banks or the stock market. Don’t forget the Great Depression.’ Turns out he had wads of cash buried in the rose garden.”
Harrow’s interest in Scotch turned into the stabbing of a migraine beginning behind his right eye.
“Anyway,” Duke said, “Temuri somehow made off with the really good-looking bad cash our side had used to set up the sting. Temuri is getting ready to run it into the U.S.”
This just gets better and better, Harrow thought unhappily, heading toward a grade-A cluster.
He rubbed his right eyelid and asked bluntly, “Is Emma Cross a willing or unwilling participant in all this?”
“Unknown. Personally, I suspect she’s former Agency with an ax to grind. Think how bad we’ll look if it’s revealed that we helped a foreign national get hold of a hundred million in good-looking fake cash.”
“I thought this was a political ploy, not one of our ops.”
Duke gave him a disgusted look. “It’s all politics, boy. Thought you’d figured that out by now.”
Harrow grimaced. “So do you want the bad money or Temuri or Emma Cross?”
“All three would be gravy.”
“What’s the meat?”
“Get that money any way you can,” Duke said. “Destroy it. No money, no headlines. No headlines, everyone goes back to playing in their own national sandbox.”
“Where’s the cash?”
“Hidden aboard a yacht called Blackbird, which is somewhere in British Columbia. Campbell River is what we were told. Somebody up the line has a locator on the boat and is keeping a watch.”
“How soon can you get me there with a good, quiet team?” Harrow asked.
“The team is already in place. As soon as the storm along Vancouver’s east coast dies down, we’ll fly you on recon. Once you ID the boat, you get the team and find a way to take the boat. Then you find the money, destroy it, and everybody goes home. Questions?”
“Are you worried about witnesses?”
“Go in soft,” Harrow said. “No need to worry. And if you go in hard…”
Shoot, shovel, shut up. Everybody’s favorite fallback solution when money and threats don’t work.
Harrow’s right eyeball felt like it was being gouged out of its socket. “Does Canada know?” he asked.
“Am I using my own name?”
“She’s going to recognize you anyway, right?” Duke asked.
The headache shot through Harrow’s right eye socket and along the back of his skull. It didn’t take a bureaucratic genius to see that he’d been nominated the sacrificial goat in this game of tin gods.
“The team I got you is really good,” Duke said. “They won’t talk no matter what goes down.”
Harrow just looked at him.
“Shit.” Duke sighed. “I’m sorry. I tried to take it myself. They said no and then switched my bodyguard. I’m locked down.” He looked at his watch. “In two minutes my new ‘bodyguards’ will drag my ass out of here. I’ll do everything I can to help you. I’m sorry, Tim. Really sorry.”
So was Harrow.
The thirty-five-knot wind ripping through Campbell River’s Discovery Harbor made Blackbird flinch and her fenders rub against the dock. The water in even the most protected fairways sported small whitecaps. All through the marina, loose stays rang against masts, keeping an odd sort of time with the wail of rushing air. The docks were filled to capacity, a man-made forest of metal masts and small boats leaning away from the wind.
Emma felt the seat give as Mac slid in next to her on the couch behind the dining table.
“Anything new on the weather?” she asked, glancing up from her computer.
“General consensus is that the wind should die down around dawn.”
“If it doesn’t?”
“We go out against the floodtide,” he said. “That way the wind and the water will both be moving the same way.”
“Which means less wind chop?” she asked.
“And more fuel expenditure. Fortunately, we can afford it.”
Emma made a sound. “I’m still in shock over what it cost to fill this baby up. Both tanks.”
“They’re cross-connected, so that you end up drawing down both.” The leather banquette seat creaked as he moved closer. “The generator runs off the starboard tank.”
She felt his body heat and automatically moved to give him more room. When he took that, and more, she smiled. And stayed put.
“You get through to Faroe?” Mac asked, glancing at her cell phone.
“By way of Grace, who had to pry a cooing Annalise from her daddy’s arms.”
Mac grinned. “Gotta admit, watching him with that little charmer makes me smile. A really unlikely combination.”
“You and smiling?” she asked, wide-eyed.
He leaned close enough to nip her ear. “Someone as deadly as Faroe with a drooling, cooing, cracker-smeared toddler in his arms.”
She gave him a nip right back. “Grace and Faroe both agreed that Demidov could have been lying.”
“From hello to good-bye and most spots in between,” Mac agreed, watching her lips.
“He probably was telling the truth about his government’s relationship with the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia,” she said. “They’ve been at one another’s balls since the Berlin Wall came down.”
“And the U.S. has been playing ‘Let’s you and him fight’ for just as long,” Mac said. “What doesn’t make sense is that Georgia would sponsor an attack of any sort inside the borders of its most powerful ally, the U.S.A. That moves straight down from stupid to suicidal.”
“You know that because you’re intelligent and you follow international news from time to time. I know the truth about the Republic of Georgia for reasons that national security prevents me from listing.”
Mac stole the last sip of coffee from her cup.
She ignored him and kept talking. “But how much would the average transit captain/dope smuggler and his arm candy know? Demidov made an educated guess that we’re as self-centered and internationally ill informed as the average American. For Jack and Jill Average, the Caucasus Mountains are a long way from anything meaningful, like finding a parking place or paying the bills.”
Mac wished he could disagree, but he couldn’t. Too many citizens were happily uninformed about the larger world.
For a moment, Emma looked wistful. “I wanted to be Jill Average. That’s why I quit the Agency.”
“And I hoped to be Jack.”
Mac put his hand on top of hers on the varnished teak table. She wove their fingers together.
“I guess that makes us stupid,” she said, sighing.