Rising Charity: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
It’d been a long time; a lot of things had changed. Since sailing away from Cane Garden Bay, Jesse McDermitt had changed. Waking one morning, the smell of rum still on his breath, Jesse realizes he doesn’t much like the change anymore. The mask which he’d freely put on didn’t fit right. It was the mask of a drifting, womanizing, boat bum, and it concealed his inner turmoil. Peeling off the mask, he soon realizes what a mess he’s in. Weeks of rigorous, open-ocean swims and increasingly deeper free dives, help put the strength back in his body. But physical strength wasn’t what was lacking. It wasn’t what had finally pulled him into a lifestyle that wasn’t his. He’d lost focus on the important things in life, the need to be part of something better. In a secluded anchorage, far from civilization, Jesse powers up his satellite phone for the first time in weeks. There is a message from Charity Styles, asking him for a meeting. She has a line on something they both need, something to focus on. A mission. From award-winning story-teller Wayne Stinnett, comes this 14th novel in his exciting Caribbean Adventure Series. Taking the reader from the deep-water canyons of Exuma Sound to the sport-fishing Mecca that is Bimini, Stinnett spins a fascinating tale of redemption and vengeance.
Release date: February 11, 2019
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 364
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Rising Charity: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
On a nearly barren promontory jutting out into Monterey Bay stands the oldest continuously active lighthouse on the west coast. Point Pinos Lighthouse rises above the rocky shoreline at the southern end of the bay and has been guiding mariners to safe harbor for more than 150 years.
Unlike many lighthouses, the Point Pinos light rises only slightly above the roof of the tender’s home, which was built around it. The high headland itself lifts the house well above the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay. Its piercing light can be seen for fifteen nautical miles out at sea, conditions permitting.
But on that early spring morning on the coast of California, conditions weren’t so permitting. The sky was gray with broken clouds scudding in off the ocean from a storm building to the north. The air was a brisk 60 degrees and seemed to be charged by the approaching gale. Though the wind blew steady at fifteen knots, an occasional gust would rattle the windows of the old lighthouse. To the west, out over the Pacific, the horizon was shrouded in mist.
Inland, just a couple hundred yards from the lighthouse, were the unnaturally green fields of Pacific Grove Golf Links and El Carmelo Cemetery. The color of the verdant sloping hills was a sharp contrast to the muted browns, grays, and greens of the uneven natural landscape.
Two men were watching through binoculars from the observation deck of the lighthouse. They’d arrived before dawn. And they weren’t looking out to sea.
One of the men was tall and ruggedly built, his tanned features and graying hair a match to the natural terrain he was observing. The other man, slight and balding, appeared as if he’d be more at home on the golf course.
The two men were gazing in the direction of the links and graves. The early morning players were strolling the greens in groups, breaking up in search of their balls and the opportunity to take another swing.
Occasionally a car pulled off or on to the road near the gate to the cemetery.
“How sure are you that she’ll be here?”
“I’m not,” the taller man replied in a gravelly voice. “You asked where I thought she might be, and this is my best guess.”
“And you haven’t had contact with her in over a year?”
The tall man shifted his weight as he continued to stare through powerful binoculars. “Correct.”
“So, how do you know she’ll be here?”
Lowering the binos, the rugged-looking man looked down at his companion. “Like I said, I don’t know. What I do know, Bremmer, is human nature. She was an only child, abandoned by her mother when she was very young and orphaned before reaching adulthood. I know she sailed into the Pacific a year ago last January. She has no family and few friends to speak of, and today marks ten years since she lost her father.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “She could be in Hong Kong for all I know. Or she might be standing right behind me. Do not take this woman’s abilities lightly.”
“I’ve read her jacket.”
Travis Stockwell raised his binos again, peering toward the cemetery. “Not all her training and exploits were written in her record book. I know, I sent her.”
Charlie Bremmer dressed in a gray business suit, sans the tie, looked out toward the links. “You keep alluding to that but never mention specifics. Our agency wants to know more.”
“Not from me, you don’t. I doubt she’ll even want to be a part of your organization.” Stockwell lowered his glasses and looked at the balding man. “By the way, your organization could use a better name.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not for me to decide,” Bremmer replied, looking up at the former Airborne officer. “We’re counting on you to persuade her, Colonel. You, as well as a few other people, have said she’s the only person who can find McDermitt.”
“I’ve spoken with two of the men in your old team,” Bremmer said.
Stockwell already knew that. “Yeah, Deuce called me right after you met with him. Without McDermitt, you won’t get him, and without him, his team’s out of reach. McDermitt’s another one who won’t want to be found. What do you want with him, anyway?”
“It’s not just you and Livingston who are of the opinion that he’s the absolute best at infiltration.”
“Yeah,” Stockwell said. “There’s that. He could be standing behind her, standing behind me, and neither of us would know it. But last I heard, he slipped off the deep end.”
“And nobody’s heard from him in over a year?”
“Have you ever been to old South Florida, Bremmer?”
“I am the AIC in our Miami office.”
“Fishermen settled the Keys more than a century before anyone even thought about draining the swamps to build a trading post and call it Miami. The people of the Keys are tough and resilient; that’s why they’re called Conchs. And they look after one another. He’s been back there now and again, I’m sure. But nobody on those bony rocks will say anything about it to an outsider. He’s one of them.”
“That was the gist of what Livingston said,” Bremmer replied, looking through the binos once more. “We want him to be one of us.”
“Deuce and I have talked,” Stockwell said, lowering his binoculars, and turning toward the man. “None of us have agreed to anything yet. And those two? Her and McDermitt? It’ll take a helluva lot more than money to win them over.”
“We’re counting on that,” Bremmer said. He paused, leaning forward until his binoculars almost touched the glass surrounding the lighthouse’s observation deck. “Is that her?”
“Yeah,” Stockwell said. He’d already seen her.
The woman arrived on a small scooter, wearing jeans, a blue flannel shirt, and boots. She had a small pack on her back and parked 100 feet from where Stockwell knew her father was buried.
She climbed off her scooter and stood, looking all around. She was tall and lean, with her hair piled beneath a faded blue cap, but a few blond locks fell on either side of her face.
“She’s beautiful,” Bremmer said.
“She’s also a cold-blooded killer, Bremmer. If you screw this up, neither of us might ever leave here. Shut up and let me do the talking.”
“It’s my meet,” Stockwell said, putting away his field glasses, and glaring at the man. “She was my asset. And I think a part of her saw me as a friend. Now, let’s go.”
Exiting the front of the lightkeeper’s house, the two men got into a white Suburban with dark-tinted glass. Though the cemetery was only 200 yards from the lighthouse, the rugged landscape made it faster and easier to take the road around the point. Fast and easy didn’t relieve the anxiety Stockwell felt. But he knew he’d feel even more anxious out in the open.
Bremmer pulled into a parking spot just past the cemetery entrance and shut off the engine. “I hate cemeteries. Depressing use of land.”
As he reached for the door handle, Stockwell stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Sit tight, Bremmer.”
A narrow lane turned off the entrance road and ran parallel to the main road. Stockwell could see the scooter, leaning on its stand, but the woman was nowhere in sight.
Stockwell put both hands on his knees. “Roll down the windows and keep your hands on the wheel.”
“Just do it, Bremmer. She was expecting us.”
“I don’t see her.”
“Me neither,” Stockwell said, his eyes searching among all the headstones. “And with this lady, that’s damned unnerving.”
“You said she was your asset.”
“I told you I haven’t had any contact with her in a year,” Stockwell replied. “And at that time, she suspected I might be trying to kill her. So not seeing her has me a little on edge. Best thing to do is sit tight and let her make the next move.”
“You need to be a bit more forthcoming, Colonel.”
Stockwell’s eyes saw movement far to the left. But it was just a crow on a low tree branch, flapping its wings. “Yeah, well, in my business that shit’ll get you killed.”
For ten minutes, the two men sat silently in the car, looking beyond the weathered picket fence in the direction of the scooter. The only movement either man saw were occasional crows flying from tree to tree. The engine ticked as the metal cooled. An old man walked by on the road, carrying a bag.
There was the slightest sound of crunching stone outside his window, and Stockwell froze. Before he could even turn his head toward the passenger-side mirror, the long barrel of a suppressed pistol was placed against the side of his head.
“What do you want?” Charity Styles asked, her voice calm and deadly serious.
Stockwell didn’t flinch. He kept both hands on his knees, and prayed Bremmer kept his on the wheel.
“No, the man knows exactly where he is. But you don’t.”
“We’re just here to talk,” Bremmer said. Stockwell winced slightly.
“Shut up, whoever you are,” Charity hissed. “Or the next thing you won’t feel is a nine-millimeter jacketed round exiting Stockwell’s skull and entering yours.”
Neither man said anything.
Charity pressed the muzzle of the suppressed handgun harder against the side of Stockwell’s head. “With all due respect, Colonel, I asked you what you wanted.”
Though he’d spent 30 years in service to his country in some of the most dangerous places in the world, Stockwell had only felt fear a handful of times in his career. This was one of them. In every dangerous encounter he’d had, he knew he had his soldiers around him. Now he had only Bremmer, and the woman with the gun was one of the most dangerous people he’d ever worked with. What made her truly frightening were the violent demons locked in her mind.
“We want you to find Jesse.”
“So the man beside me can ask you and him for help.”
“Unlock the back door.”
Bremmer moved his left hand very slowly and pushed the button. The doors unlocked.
“Both of you,” Charity ordered. “Left hand only— disarm and toss them in the back.”
“I’m unarmed,” Bremmer said.
“That makes you a dumbass, mister.”
Slowly, Stockwell pulled his jacket open with his left hand. Even more slowly, he lifted his Colt with two fingers and moved it over his head, so Charity could see it the whole way. Releasing it, the Colt fell to the floor behind him.
“And the backup on your ankle, if you don’t mind, Colonel.”
Stockwell complied, and in an instant, Charity opened the back door and slid in. Stockwell didn’t have to see that she’d picked up his Colt; he heard the cock of the hammer.
“You won’t be offended if I don’t take you at your word,” she said, reaching over Bremmer’s left shoulder, and holding Stockwell’s pistol against the man’s chest with her left hand. “Hope you’re not ticklish. If you move even the slightest, you will die.”
Stockwell noticed that his Colt needed only change a few degrees of angle to be pointing at him. Charity used her right hand to search under Bremmer’s jacket and all around his waistband. Stockwell knew full well that she was equally adept at offhand shooting and was more than familiar with a Colt 1911. He also knew that there was a round in the chamber. As did she.
Satisfied, Charity sat back in the middle of the backseat. “How did you know where I was?”
“Your father died ten years ago,” Stockwell said, quietly. “He was all you had. I took a guess. I apologize for intruding.”
“You got a lot of balls interrupting me. I saw you in the lighthouse.”
“We were going to wait here until you were through,” Stockwell said. “We really do need your help. You know the man’s true worth better than anyone. Even Deuce.”
“Who’s this guy?”
“Charlie Bremmer,” Stockwell replied. “He can tell you who he works for.”
“Well?” Charity asked, bumping the back of the other man’s seat.
“I’m the associate-in-charge in the Miami recruiting office for Armstrong Research. I oversee the Mobile Operational Readiness Division of the company, working together with the expeditionary division.”
“Say what?” Charity asked.
Travis grinned slightly.
“I heard you the first time. Quite a mouthful.”
“I get that a lot,” Bremmer said. “We’re working on it.”
“And just what does this word-vomit organization want with me and Jesse?”
“I can only talk to him about that,” Bremmer said, with a gulp.
“So, give Jesse a call,” Charity said, slumping back in her seat. “That’s what I do.”
“We don’t know how to reach Captain McDermitt.”
“We just want to talk,” Stockwell said. “Hear Armstrong out, that’s all.”
Charity leaned forward again and glared at Stockwell. “And how is this Armstrong Whatever-it-is different from what we did before?”
“For one thing,” Travis began, “It seems to be privately funded. No government oversights.”
“And nobody gets killed,” Bremmer added.
“Seems to be?” Charity asked, ignoring Bremmer.
Someone always gets killed.
“A few others have been approached besides me.” Travis turned his head toward Bremmer. “But so far they haven’t been real forthcoming with enough information for me to make any decision. I was asked to find you, both because they wanted to talk to you and also so you could help find Jesse. They’re also interested in Deuce and a few other people you probably never met. But Deuce and I aren’t going to decide without Jesse’s input.”
Charity sat back in her seat. Stockwell and Bremmer slowly turned their heads. Though she looked relaxed and fully composed, it hadn’t escaped Stockwell’s attention that the suppressed weapon in her right hand, and his Colt in her left, were both leveled at the middle of their backs. And Bremmer had been right. She was even more beautiful than when he’d last seen her.
“Your time off seems to have agreed with you,” Travis said.
“All of us?” she asked. “Working together again? Doing what, exactly?”
“For security reasons, I can’t say much right now,” Bremmer began, “I will tell you this. Our organization is on the good side. We’re well-funded. And our intent is to thwart evil without hurting anyone.”
“Big words, Bremmer,” Charity said, scowling at him. “And well-rehearsed, I’m sure. But do you think I care about money, Bremmer? I have more than I can spend in two lifetimes.”
“No, I don’t think you care at all about material things,” he replied confidently. “That’s one of the reasons most of you were chosen. That and your individual skills.”
“What individual skills would those be?”
“In your case,” Bremmer said, “and yes, we do want you on board also, your notoriety as one of the best Olympic and long-distance swimmers of modern times. In Captain McDermitt’s case, his reputation as a charter boat captain and his ability to see things others miss.”
“You’re tipping your hand,” Charity said. “And you have nothing. Anyone who knows Jesse knows he never really liked chartering tourists.”
“Yet he was once very successful at it,” Bremmer said. “We’re looking for a crew to operate, and supply logistics to, a small fleet of remarkable research vessels.”
Bremmer actually smiled. “The full scope of our plans will be unveiled to very few, very closely vetted, former operatives who believe in justice and self-determination.”
“More big words,” Charity said. “But that’s not enough to get me back into the fold. Nor Jesse, considering his current state.”
Stockwell turned in his seat. “What current state?”
“Mostly drinking,” she replied honestly. “And hanging around with the wrong people. But hey, the man’s finally having fun. Whatever he thinks of as fun, anyway.”
Bremmer’s finger tapped the wheel as he studied Charity in the mirror. “That may present a problem,” he said. “At any rate, I can tell you one more thing. Our goal is to collapse the plans of those who would oppose liberty and civility, whether it’s socially, economically, or environmentally, in such a way that they won’t be taken seriously by anyone again.”
“Collapse the plans?”
“Outsmart them and make them look like fools,” Stockwell said. “I asked the same question.”
“The meeting will be at an as-yet-to-be-determined location,” Bremmer said. “On the water, at the precise time of the vernal equinox. The coordinates will be delivered to Mister Livingston’s office by private courier two days before the meet.”
The flight was only going to last 30 minutes, so Charity relaxed and looked around the empty cabin. This was the last leg of a four-part journey during which she’d not been in control. For the last three years, anywhere she’d traveled, she’d been at the helm, or sharing the task.
She’d felt trapped on the previous three flights, a part of her mind urging her to get out, or at least get to the flight deck. But since 9/11, the pilots were separated from the passengers by a bulletproof door, locked from the inside.
The first flight, she’d ridden in first class, surrounded by business people texting on cell phones, typing on tablets, or reading into voice recorders during the short hop from Monterey to LA. She flew first class again from there to Miami. But her seat was at the back row of the first-class cabin, separated from an excited family by only the thickness of her slightly wider seat and a curtain that the flight attendants left open. Apparently, the family was with a group of tourists, chattering away, ignoring the crying babies as they flew across the country.
The third leg to Nassau was on a smaller plane, no first class. Most of the people were tired anyway and on their way to their final destination. Charity remembered seeing quite a few of them on the flight out of LAX. Spotting someone she’d seen before always bothered her, made her nervous.
At the airport in Nassau, she kept stopping and glancing behind her, to check if anyone she recognized was following her to the Bahamas Air concourse. The gate was empty, but her flight wasn’t for more than an hour. When she asked at the desk if the plane would be on time, the ticket agent told her to wait just a moment before disappearing through the door leading down to the tarmac.
The plane Charity was scheduled on wasn’t due to leave for an hour. But the ticket agent had caught the crew of the earlier flight just in time, changed Charity’s ticket to the flight about to take off, and escorted her down. She’d boarded as the pilot was starting the engines. With all the seats available, she sat in the back, on the starboard side of the aircraft.
Through the forward windows, she could spot Exuma Sound’s deep blue waters beckoning her, out on the edge of the horizon.
Great Exuma was barely visible, as if about to slide into the Sound from the far side. Puffy white clouds stretched the length of the bank of islands.
The Tongue of the Ocean lay below the right wing, stretching out to the west. Charity stared down at the cobalt waters. The submerged banks encircling nearly all of the abyss had once been dry land, surrounding an inland sea.
It was because of those shallow banks encompassing the 6000-foot-deep sea that the navy had chosen the TOTO as a location to conduct sonar and guidance tests. They worked closely with civilian researchers from the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center on Andros Island. The larger northern part of Andros was just visible, where the deep blue waters of the TOTO faded to green just inside the barrier reef. Ahead, far across those deep waters, lay southern Andros, now obscured by clouds.
It had taken Charity two days to get Wind Dancer buttoned up and secured at Monterey Bay Boat Works. That was another reason she’d gone to Monterey. That and to pay respects to her father.
She’d called the yard a week before arriving to arrange for a list of long-overdue service items to be taken care of. Work that needed to be performed with Dancer out of the water.
The yard owner had been a long-time friend of Charity’s father and had helped keep his old Alden sloop in top shape for all of Charity’s childhood and adolescence. He’d been ecstatic hearing from her after ten years. He’d been full of questions, but Charity had told him that she was on a sat-phone, and George became all business.
It’d been nearly two years, two oceans, and 20,000 miles since Dancer was out of the water and the bottom needed to be cleaned, scraped, caulked, and repainted. George had beamed when she’d idled up to his dock in a boat that looked very much like her dad’s.
When she’d learned that his business was slow and the yard faltering, she added a lot of extra work to the order. She left him with $20,000 in cash to order whatever he deemed necessary and told him she could send more if that wasn’t enough, since she planned to be gone for at least two or three weeks.
Leaving George to haul Dancer out, she’d rented a scooter and gone to a nearby hotel, paying for a room for two nights. Once she’d showered, Charity had called to check on flights to the Bahamas and then gone to bed.
She’d agreed to meet with Stockwell and Bremmer again the day after the incident at the cemetery. Over the last year-and-a-half she’d talked to McDermitt at least twice a month and he’d finally convinced her that neither Stockwell nor anyone else was a threat to her. Jesse trusted the man and she trusted Jesse. Still, seeing Stockwell again had brought back the dark storm clouds in her mind.
Charity had been late to the second meeting, and she was tired. Packing for a week away wasn’t much work for her. She’d only packed a few things and would buy more if she had to. But she’d worked since before dawn, walking George through the boat, explaining everything she wanted done. Then she’d pitched in and helped his shipwrights with the prep work until it was time to go.
She’d insisted that the second meeting be in a busy public place, a bar called Sandbar and Grill on the municipal wharf.
Neither Stockwell or Bremmer mentioned her tardiness, though she’d been more than 30 minutes late. In the noisy bar, Bremmer had described his organization a little more, calling it a self-funded vigilante group, committed to non-violence except as a last resort. He’d told her that the founders had a combined net worth that was greater than a few industrialized countries and had pooled their considerable resources to form an alliance aimed at correcting injustices around the world. Bremmer had admitted that he’d never met any of them in person, except Mr. Armstrong, and Bremmer’s counterpart in the expeditionary side of the company.
She’d liked the organization’s mission, providing what Bremmer had told her was true, and had finally agreed to go to McDermitt and talk to him. She’d been bumming around the South Pacific and Australia for the last year without purpose. This might be something she could sink her teeth into.
With the meeting in just a little over a week, there was no way she could sail there, and she really did need to have the work done on her boat. When she’d asked about transportation, Bremmer had immediately produced an AmEx black card with her alias embossed on it. She was duly impressed, having one just like it. He’d also given her a business card, with just the word Logistics and a phone number on it.
“Call that number,” Bremmer had told her. “Whoever answers, and it’s rarely the same person, give them the name on your AmEx card, what you need, and where and when you need it. Give them 24 hours and it’ll be there. Less notice than that, and you might have to improvise. Never call for the same thing twice. One call per request.”
Bremmer had instructed her to go to wherever in the world Jesse McDermitt was, by any means she chose, and try to convince him to meet. He’d assured her that what would be discussed at this meeting would pique both her and Jesse’s interest.
Now, on final approach to Dead Man’s Cay Airport on Long Island, Charity looked out the window. Just below the plane’s starboard wing, submerged canyons between Dollar Cay and Sandy Cay looked like miniature rivers and tributaries of indigo ink, carving through the surrounding shallower waters dotted here and there with gold sandbars. The canyons were carved by water draining from the relatively flat sea floor into the abyssal depths to the south and east. Anchored on the edge of the easternmost cleft lay a Formosa ketch.
Charity smiled, remembering the many nights aboard the boat with Victor. Jesse had been reluctant to accept it, but Salty Dog was now his home and had been for some time. Charity’s late boyfriend, Victor Pitt, had been murdered in Nassau, leaving the boat to her.
When the plane touched down, Charity gathered up her backpack and shoulder bag from the seat across the aisle. She smiled at the pilots and thanked them for the ride. Both men smiled back.
Hurrying through the small, nearly vacant, terminal building, Charity found a lone car waiting outside. The driver, an older black man, was leaning against the fender holding a sign, Gabriella Fleming. He pushed away from the car quickly as she approached.
Okay, that’s pretty good, she thought.
She strode toward the man, her right hand resting on her open purse out of habit. She was unarmed. “Hello, I’m Gabby Fleming.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the driver said. He was middle-aged, with ebony skin stretched tight over a lean face. “I am to take you north, but dey didn’t give me a destination. Do you know it?”
“I will when I see it,” she said, opening the back door, and getting into the car.
If it’s there, Charity thought, closing the door.
Getting a car to meet her at the airport was one thing but arranging a 24-foot center- console boat to be waiting with the keys in it was another story altogether.
The old car smelled of marijuana. Charity wondered if the driver worked for Armstrong or was just a hired local. It reminded her of the day she’d first seen Vic. He’d just exited a taxi and she was on her way to meet Stockwell on Grand Cayman Island. That taxi had smelled the same.
Within minutes, they were leaving the airport. Turning north on Queen’s Highway, they passed through a few small townships. Then, after several miles, the clear waters of New Found Harbour appeared on the left side of the road.
“Right up there,” Charity said. “See that boat anchored near shore? The center-console with the red T-top? Just pull over there.”
When she tried to pay the man, he told her he’d already been paid. She gave him a nice tip, just the same. Charity threw her backpack over her shoulder and waited for the car to turn around. When it disappeared around a curve, she crossed the road and moved quickly down a rocky path to a small beach. There, she kept walking out into the water toward the sleek-looking Contender. It was anchored in three feet of water and there didn’t seem to be anyone aboard. Charity hadn’t expected there to be.
“Okay,” she said aloud, “now I’m duly impressed.”
Lifting her duffle, she tossed it over the low transom, then flipped the stern boarding ladder down and climbed aboard. Charity dumped her pack and purse on the left seat and searched the console. She found the key in a small glove box below the helm.
The engine, a 300-horsepower Yamaha, fired up instantly, then settled into a quiet burble. She let it run for a few minutes, while she secured the boarding ladder and familiarized herself with the instruments. Clicking through the digital gauge, she noticed that the engine only had 31 hours on it. Not brand-new, but probably this year’s model.
The combination chart plotter and depth sounder showed that she had just a foot of water under the keel. Farther from the beach, the water deepened to ten feet with a few small patch reefs, but mostly a flat, sandy bottom.
Zooming out, she found the place where Jesse was anchored. The lines showing depth were tightly packed, indicating a steep drop off. Not deep, but very sudden. The four-mile jaunt would be easy. The beginning of the fissure in the sea bottom was just east of two small islands to the southwest of where she was now. They were too far away to see but should come into view within a mile or two. Then she’d only need to stay in the dark blue water the rest of the way. A simple run. There was no need to figure out how to program a destination.
After quickly hauling up the anchor, Charity moved to the helm and turned the boat seaward. When the water was deep enough, she brought it up on plane and turned southwest. Zooming the GPS so she could watch for patch reefs and shallows, she soon realized it was unnecessary. The water was so clear, she could see the dark shapes of the reefs far ahead of the boat.
When she passed beyond the two small islands and turned south, Charity saw Salty Dog lying at anchor, its tiny inflatable dinghy floating alongside. She steered a course along the edge of the deep-water drop off and slowed to idle speed as she neared the ketch.
She’d called Jesse the day before leaving Monterey and had asked if she could meet with him. He’d seemed reluctant at first, which was unlike him, but finally told her where she could find him.
“Ahoy Salty Dog!” she shouted, when her boat was twenty or so yards away.
Shifting to neutral, Charity waited.
There was no answer. Charity called out again, wishing she had a hand-held VHF at least. Again, Jesse didn’t respond. Worried, she put the Yamaha in gear and idled toward the much larger vessel.
“Jesse!” Charity shouted, as her bow came alongside the ketch. “Are you okay? It’s Charity.”
Still no answer. She idled forward along the port side, then shifted to neutral. Hurriedly, she tied off two fenders to the starboard cleats, to keep the boats from bumping into one another, then came alongside and tied off to the big ketch’s deck cleats.
Gaining the Dog’s deck, she moved quickly around to the starboard side of the cockpit. The companionway hatch was open and inviting, just as she remembered.
Knowing that Jesse had a large dog named Finn, she moved cautiously and shouted down into the cabin, “McDermitt! It’s me.”
Nothing. It was unlike Jesse to leave anything unsecured. She was worried the new lifestyle he seemed to be a part of might have taken its toll and he was sick or injured. Or someone had surprised him.
Charity turned to the helm and opened the cabinet on the starboard side of the pedestal. She reached inside and pushed up against the underside of the cabinet top and the false bottom she knew was there. It clicked and lowered on its hinge, dropping something heavy into her hand.
Removing the cloth-wrapped bundle, she unfolded the oily rag and found a nine-millimeter Sig Sauer. She pulled the slide back slightly. There was a round in the chamber. The gun was clean and well-oiled.
At least he hadn’t been neglecting the important things, she thought.
Climbing quickly down the steps to the pilothouse, she noticed that everything was in order, just as it had been when Vic owned the boat. She turned right and went aft, opening the engine room door and peering inside. It was clean and orderly too. Jesse had installed a new air compressor, its long hoses hanging from the overhead next to a deck hatch that hadn’t been there when the boat was Victor’s.
With the Sig up and leading the way, she continued aft. The master stateroom was empty, the bunk unmade. Aside from that, everything looked fine. No sign of a struggle.
Going forward again, Charity checked the lower salon, the forward head, and the office that Vic had converted from the original guest v-berth. The boat was deserted.
Up on deck, Charity looked all around. There wasn’t anyone in sight. She noticed that the boarding ladder was hanging on the starboard side. She hadn’t seen it when she’d first arrived. Had Jesse gone swimming or diving?
Taking a deck chair from the forward storage box, she set it up on the stern and sat down to wait.
She’d told Jesse that she’d be arriving that afternoon, but hadn’t given him a precise time, since she didn’t know it when they’d talked. And even if she had, she was at least an hour earlier than she’d planned.
The dinghy was there, so he’d probably just gone for a swim. But where was the dog?
Over the last year, Jesse had changed. Their weekly calls, via the two sat-phones he’d bought just for the two of them, had grown less frequent. When she’d called him before leaving California, it was the first time they’d talked in nearly a month. Most of the times she’d called him, he’d sounded drunk. A couple of times, she’d heard people laughing and talking in the background. On more than one occasion, it had sounded like she’d interrupted a frat party. It was obvious that he’d begun hanging out with a younger, more boisterous crowd.
Charity had enjoyed a few wild times in the past year herself. After sailing to French Polynesia, she’d reunited one of her passengers with her family. It had been an awkward time, and Charity had felt completely out of place. Moana had only been ten years old when she’d been taken from her island by a pair of men on a large sailboat. Charity had returned the girl at the physical age of 24. Her baby brothers were now grown men, and her parents prematurely aged. Intellectually, Moana had still been a ten-year-old.
A week later, in the Marshall Islands, she and her other passenger, Fiona Russo, had gone to a local navy bar for drinks. Things got out of hand with a few drunken sailors, who thought that any single American woman in a bar on the island of Kwajalein was fair game.
Russo had always dreamed of visiting Australia, so they had. After provisioning in Samoa, the two women had crossed the southern Pacific for another 3000 miles, with stops in Fiji and New Caledonia, before finally sailing into Sydney Harbor.
Somewhere along the way, Fiona had finally made peace with her past, burying it forever. In Sydney, Charity had treated her friend to a shopping spree, buying far too many clothes for both of them, and not just sailing garb. They’d been invited to a party aboard a neighboring yacht, owned by a very rich Aussie businessman.
Fiona and Charity had dressed for the party on the elegant yacht. It was mostly attended by other wealthy business people and their spouses, but there were quite a few single people as well. Young men of means treated them both the way Charity had been telling Fiona women should be treated. With the respect that all people deserved.
They’d sailed up the coast all the way to Brisbane, stopping along the way many times. In each new marina, there was no shortage of men who were eager to be seen with the two American women sailing the antique sloop.
After two months in Brisbane, Fiona had decided she liked it there. She’d found a job, met a very respectable young man, and fallen in love. Charity had used her contacts to check the man out. Humble beginnings, old money earned honestly and handed down from generation to generation without drama.
Parting company with a tearful goodbye, Charity had sailed back to Sydney. There, she’d dated a succession of men, and had even brought a few back to her boat, just to satisfy her own needs. But there was no spark, no fire. So, one day she decided it was time for the ultimate challenge.
Plotting a course from Australia to California had been no easy task. It was over 6,500 nautical miles away. The shortest leg, Samoa to Oahu, had taken eighteen straight days of sailing, day and night. She’d stopped at several ports, saving her energy for the long ocean crossings.
The journey across the Pacific had taken her three months. She and Dancer had sailed into San Francisco Bay exhausted and beat up. That had been just over a month before she’d gone to her father’s grave.
Hearing the blow of a dolphin, Charity glanced toward the sound. It wasn’t a dolphin at all. A big yellow dog was swimming silently and effortlessly alongside a man wearing long fins. They were swimming straight toward the boat, about 100 yards away. The man arched his back and disappeared below the surface. She could just make out his shadow gliding across the bottom, the dog continuing to swim above him. The man stayed under a long time, Charity guessed more than a minute, and closed the distance by half. Then he surfaced and blew the water from his snorkel with a whoosh, sounding much like a dolphin.
Charity stood. Finn saw her and started barking. Jesse stopped and raised his head.
The shadow below me moved with effortless precision. The gin-clear water hid nothing, and the approaching shadow frightened small fish into hiding. The sun was high over a cloudless sky and it felt warm on my shoulders. The water was cooler, about 78 degrees. But I was only in it for an hour at a time and working every muscle during that hour, so hypothermia wasn’t an issue.
I’d stopped counting kicks long ago. Now, my brain measured time the way the fish and dolphins do, by the angle of the sun. I knew how long I had left on this swim, almost to the minute. When I surfaced, the slow, measured breaths I took through the snorkel rising above the back of my head were neither forced, nor labored.
To my left, the sandy bottom was four feet deep and extended toward shore at a slight incline. To my right, the sand gave way to a ragged limestone cliff, dropping into water that was measured in fathoms.
A dolphin appeared suddenly from the deep. An Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. It didn’t seem surprised or threatened by my appearance. It simply swam along lazily at my relatively slow pace, about ten feet away. He could easily quadruple my speed and disappear.
I slowly rose toward the surface for a breath of air. Incredibly, the dolphin did the same. We each exhaled, took a single breath, and dove beneath the waves once more.
I couldn’t help it. I smiled.
The dolphin continued to swim slowly along next to me, as if studying me. Its lung capacity was far greater than mine. I had to surface two or three times to its one. And it probably wasn’t even trying. After several minutes, the dolphin disappeared over the ledge and was gone. Probably headed off to tell his friends about the crazy human he’d encountered swimming in the middle of the ocean.
I continued swimming and thinking. An hour each way to the island with my body on auto-pilot allowed my mind to wander.
When Charity had called me, I’d been tempted to ignore the phone’s alert. If it was important, she’d follow it with a text. But a part of me was glad I’d taken the call. I knew that she’d been all the way to Australia and had only recently returned to the States. She’d sounded sort of cryptic and didn’t say exactly what it was that she wanted to meet with me about, only that she didn’t want to talk about it on the phone. Not even our secure satellite phones. That alone told me it was important. If her travel plans weren’t delayed, she’d arrive in an hour. More than enough time for my swim.
The truth was, I’d been living life way too large for over a year, just wandering aimlessly around the Bahamas and northern Caribbean. I’d been as far as the Windward Islands and indulged in things that I’d once thought poisonous to my body. I’d involved myself in matters that were none of my business and enticed more than one woman onto my boat.
Waking up two months ago with a massive hangover, only to find my boat had been ransacked, was the final wake-up call. She hadn’t gotten away with much, just some electronics and a few hundred in cash that she’d found in my pants pocket. She’d had an accomplice, I’m sure.
I’d stumbled up on deck with Finn that morning. The bright tropical sun had burned into my eyes like lasers. She’d even stolen my sunglasses. But the hiding spots on my boat had been untouched.
Throwing off the lines, I’d sailed day and night to reach Conch Harbor on the lee side of Long Key. The deep cuts and blue hole were the perfect place to get my neglected body back into shape.
There was something coming. Deep in my gut, I knew there had to be something out there that a boat bum and washed-up old Jarhead could do besides greeting customers at Walmart. I had no idea what it was, but I felt certain I’d recognize it when the time came. Chance favors the prepared mind. And a prepared mind needed a prepared body.
For the last six weeks, I’d eaten from the sea, run on the loose powdery sand, swum laps around the islands, and free dived in the deep, clear water. If another boat dropped anchor nearby, I moved. Having people around would be a disruption I didn’t want.
Overcoming the deep dive into debauchery and self-indulgence wasn’t easy. And when Charity called, I didn’t think I was completely ready for normal people again. Admittedly, coming to grips with the fact that Savannah had had a life after our affair ten years ago had taken the wind out of my sails.
The feeling was a kind of a throwback to my youth. I’d learned that no part of the world was there just for my amusement. At least, no part of that world. I’d countered it by trying to find a life for myself.
The life I’d blindly stumbled into was one of drunken beach parties, dope, and cavorting with younger and younger women. I’d financed dozens of crazy parties and become the rich and experienced older guy that all the young ladies wanted to hang out with.
I was nearing fifty and the years had taken a toll. But not nearly the price I’d paid in the last year. Call it a mid-life crisis or whatever, but I knew I had to make some changes, both mentally and physically. At that age, men in corporate America were just hitting their stride, wielding great power. There were still a lot of things I could do, a lot of things I wanted to do. I just wasn’t sure of my direction. I would have to force my way into the modern 21st century lifestyle of my own peers.
Slowly wasting away on my island hadn’t been the answer. Nor had gallivanting around the Caribbean, looking for bigger opponents to knock down and younger women to bed down. I felt my life had really had purpose during my time as an active-duty Marine. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when I’d only been retired two years, the Corps had said I was too old to re-enlist. Another period that had purpose was the four years I’d spent working and training with Deuce Livingston’s team of snake-eating counterterrorist operatives. I just had to find a new objective in life.
Swimming allowed me to think. It took a while to rebuild the endurance, but every day for the last week, I’d made this five-mile swim to a tiny island at the west end of this little chain. There, I’d run ten laps around the little island, perhaps four miles, then put the fins on and swum back to the boat. Each day, I was back aboard a little sooner.
I’d eaten fish, lobster, crab, chitons, coconut, wild mango, and almonds. I’d dumped what little booze was left on the boat and drunk only water. It had taken a year of laziness to add what I guessed was a good ten pounds of fat around my middle, weight gained from all kinds of over-indulgence.
It had become a challenge to get lobster from deeper and deeper water. Soon, I was taking the dingy out to the canyons that fringed the drop into the deep waters of Exuma Sound, making free dives to 100 feet and occasionally bringing up dinner. I’d passed 120 a few times and could now stay submerged for nearly two full minutes.
The pounds slowly melted away. I’d always considered swimming and running the ultimate exercises. Weight lifting built a powerful but bulky body. For endurance, you wanted long, sinewy muscle and high lung capacity.
I’d used Finn’s clippers to cut my hair short, as close as I could get it on my own to a regulation high-and-tight. I shaved daily until I ran out of blades. Then I’d honed my favorite filet knife to a razor’s edge. In the mirror, I’d been able to see the change. And for the most part, my mind was clear. Memories faded in and out, like watching a movie of someone else’s life.
All these thoughts flowed into and through my consciousness, as my body plowed through the water on auto-pilot. With my new, extra-long fins, I could now maintain what would be idle speed for some boats and could do it for miles on end. While idle speed doesn’t sound like much on a boat, swimming ten nautical miles in just over two hours is pretty damned fast. Of course, I was using fins. I’d bought a pair of Cressi fins with interchangeable blades. The 30-inch attachments transformed me into a dolphin, transmitting the power from my legs to the water far better than any I’d used in the past. The added resistance pushed my thigh muscles to capacity with every kick.
Six weeks of constant training, exercising, and pushing my body beyond its limits had me in possibly the best physical condition of my life. But not without aches and pains. At my age, that was unavoidable.
Pain is weakness leaving the body. That was the constant mantra in Marine Corps PT. But time took a toll on joints. The calcium found in almonds helped and I doubled up on them, stripping two trees of their nuts in a month.
Swimming across the deep canyon, I raised my head and blew my snorkel clear. Salty Dog rested easily at anchor and I turned toward her and dove again. With slow, measured kicks of the 30-inch-long fins, I moved effortlessly across the sandy bottom, covering 50 yards before surfacing for air.
Finn had taken to waiting for me on the beach at the entrance to the anchorage and I spotted his shadow, now moving toward my own. He could probably swim for hours if I let him. But on the long swims, I’d made him wait on the boat. In the last week, he’d decided on his own to go ashore to explore, while he waited to join me on the last leg.
I surfaced next to him and blew the water from my snorkel.
“Wanna race to the boat?” I asked him, as he swam toward me.
Turning instantly, Finn poured on the coal. He loved a good race, and I made sure that when I did beat him, which was rarely, it wasn’t by much. Dogs needed positive reinforcement, too.
I put my snorkel back in my mouth, dove, and easily caught up to him. Underwater, I went for distance, not speed, taking long, fluid kicks with the fins, while streamlining my body to its fullest.
From below, Finn’s graceful technique was easily observed. His front paws never came out of the water, nor even close to the surface. Most dogs aren’t efficient swimmers because they’re not very buoyant. They use most of their energy to keep their head above water. Their paws frantically beat the surface, in what looks like near panic. But Labs have webbing between the toes of their very large paws, and a dense underfur that traps air to make them more buoyant. From below, he looked like one of those Tennessee Walkers, head up, and opposing legs taking long strides.
When I surfaced next to Finn, he was barking. Stopping, I saw someone standing near the boarding ladder on my boat. Charity.
I waved, then dove and followed the bottom toward the large shadow Salty Dog cast, easily outdistancing Finn now. He knew Charity, but not well. And I didn’t want him clawing up the side of the boat trying to get at someone he might consider an intruder. Coming up next to the ladder, I quickly pulled my fins off and handed them up.
“Sorry for boarding without permission,” Charity said. “I called out and didn’t get an answer, so I got worried.”
Quickly climbing the ladder, I stepped up onto the deck next to her. She’d changed a little since I’d last seen her. For the better. If anything, she looked healthier, more tanned, and leaner. But the real change was in her eyes. She’d always had a far-off gaze, as if she were looking right through you. Now her eyes were a clear, bright blue, and focused on mine.
I gripped her shoulders. “Damn, it’s good to see an old friend again. I’d hug you, but I’m dripping wet.”
She stepped forward, putting her arms around my waist, and squeezing tightly. I cradled her head against my chest for a moment and held her close. Charity and I had a history together and shared a deep, emotional attachment. I felt closer to her than I ever had with either of my wives or even my old friend, Rusty Thurman.
Years ago, Charity and I had spent several weeks together, alone on my boat, Gaspar’s Revenge. She was an amazingly beautiful woman, but we’d never been physically intimate, since she still contended with psychological issues stemming from her captivity and torture at the hands of Taliban fighters. But we’d shared our darkest secrets during those few weeks.
In the end, we’d both laughingly agreed that the world would probably implode if our collective hunger was unleashed at the same time in a physical way. The truth was, I knew that no man could match her passion, and I’d kill myself trying to do it. But I’d been on a pretty steady diet of one-night stands, some of which lasted for many days, and now it’d been nearly two months since I’d held a woman. I didn’t even know the last one’s name.
Finn climbed up the ladder and proceeded to shake the water from his coat, sending droplets and mist flying in all directions.
I pushed Charity back and looked into her eyes. “You look like a million bucks.”
Her eyes drifted down to my body. “And you look priceless! I was expecting to find a drunk old fool.”
Lifting the port bench seat, I grabbed a towel and dried off. “If you’d come here a couple of months ago, that’s what you would have found.”
I pulled on a faded T-shirt that once had either the Gaspar’s Revenge or Rusty Anchor logo on it. I only had a few changes of clothes on board. The salt and sun were hard on them.
She eyed me sharply. “What changed?”
“I did,” I replied, extending a hand toward the cockpit and the shade the Bimini top offered. “I just decided it was time to get back to the business of living.”
“I’m sorry about Savannah,” she said, stepping beneath the Bimini, and moving around to the other side of the fold-up table in front of the helm.
I’d told Charity about finding Savannah in Cane Garden Bay, just a few days after it happened. After that, neither of us spoke of her again. Sitting down across from Charity, I studied her face for some indication of why she’d flown all the way across the country and then some. Her expression was one of relief—I guess for not finding me dead or dying.
“Nice ride,” I said, indicating the sleek center-console tied off to the port side. “Where’d you get it?”
“A perk from a company I’m thinking of hooking up with,” she replied. “I guess you’re wondering why I called to meet with you.”
It didn’t matter what she needed help with, I was ready, willing, and hopefully able, and I told her as much.
“I don’t need anything,” she said. “Except maybe something to do, a job or whatever. And I think I may have found it.”
“Not a nine-to-five,” she said. “Neither of us fits that mold. But I think it might be something that would give me direction again.”
“You could have told me that over the phone.” I reached into a cooler and took out two water bottles, offering her one. “It’s RO,” I explained. “I had the last store-bought water two weeks ago. What sorta job?”
Charity accepted the bottle and took a drink. “Reverse osmosis water from seawater like this is probably better than spring water.” She turned her head slightly, gazing out over the water for a moment. When she looked back, I could see fiery conviction in her eyes. “They’re putting together a new team.”
“Who is? Deuce?”
“I’ve been told that he was asked to join. As was Colonel Stockwell.”
Stockwell? I thought.
“I was under the impression that you didn’t trust him,” I said, watching her eyes. I grinned. “Those convinced against their will, are of the same opinion still.”
She grinned back. “You’re a poet and don’t know it.”
“A Papism. Funny how things he used to say come back to me.”
Charity knew that I’d been raised by my grandparents from the age of eight, and I’d explained to her how I looked at life through the eyes of a previous generation. She knew who Pap was; one of the Greatest Generation. A Marine Veteran from World War II.
“You convinced me Stockwell was okay,” she said. “Or don’t you remember our conversations this past year?”
It was my turn to look down at the deck. “It’s been kind of a blur.”
“Yeah, weed will do that,” she said, not taking it easy on me. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking,” I replied. “For thirteen months after Tortola, I unplugged my brain and just did whatever felt good.”
“From the fragments of conversation I heard in the background during some of our calls, it seemed like you did whoever felt good.”
“Yeah, I’m not real proud of that either.”
Charity was the only one who could talk like that to me. Even Rusty knew where the line was. She and I had no boundaries. She put it aside and went on to tell me about Stockwell meeting her in California just last week. He’d been asked to find her, so she could find me.
“Me? I thought this was about a job offer you had.”
“It’s a big organization, Jesse. Well-funded, too. They’re creating a group of operatives that sounds like it could rival all of DHS combined.”
“What department will it fall under?” I asked. “State or Defense?”
“Private research,” she replied.
“Research?” I asked, completely puzzled.
“They do legitimate research,” she began. “Nobody has been completely read-in yet, but it seems the founders, particularly a man named Jack Armstrong, have long- established roots in ocean engineering and research. And they’re all filthy rich.”
“I have a pretty good nest egg.”
“Not like this, Jesse. Armstrong makes as much in a single month as you and I are worth combined.”
I pushed my hair back to wring the water out, forgetting that I’d cut it all off. “I just don’t see Stockwell getting involved in any kind of research project.”
Charity’s eyes danced. “That’s not all they do.”
Charity went into operational mode, recounting word-for-word what Stockwell and a man named Charlie Bremmer had told her at their second meeting. Over the next hour, with the sun drifting westward toward the horizon, she explained all she’d learned about Armstrong Research.
“I get why they want door-kickers,” I said. “And I think I can still kick ’em down as well as the next guy, but the reasons stated for wanting me and you don’t make sense.”
“Yeah, I didn’t get that either. And Bremmer wouldn’t elaborate. What’s Olympic swimming and running a charter business have to do with correcting injustices preserving self-determination?”
“No clue,” I said. But my curiosity was piqued. “And the meeting time and place? What the hell’s that about?”
“The equinox isn’t just a day,” she said. “But a specific time of day.”
“I know,” I said. “I was born on that day, just a few minutes after spring began. And a precise place in time in the middle of the ocean?”
Charity grinned. “I asked him that same question. He said it was so slower boats could rendezvous on time. Arrival at a preset location at a precise time, no earlier and no later, he said would be the first test.”
“I haven’t taken a test in decades,” I said. But I was interested. “Are you going to the meeting?”
“I think I’ll wait and see what Deuce does.”
“He hasn’t even decided if he’ll attend?” I asked. “It’s next Saturday.”
Charity smiled again. “He’s waiting to see if you’re going.”
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