Paradise isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Few people know this as well as Jesse McDermitt, retired Marine and former government operative. In the aftermath of an intense mission in coastal Mexico, Jesse wants nothing more than to get back to his boat; to just sail away and forget all about the firefight and his warrior past. The Caribbean sun is warm, the azure water inviting, he has the woman of his dreams at his side, and everything seems to be smooth sailing. Until a severed leg is found tangled in a line securing Jesse’s dinghy to his 61-foot sailing yacht, Salty Dog. The former owner of the appendage turns out to be the eighth victim of a lunatic who kills for money and a former Russian smuggler who won’t pass up a chance for one more big score. Jesse is forced to don the warrior’s mask once again. This time to catch a ghoulish killer who is stalking the villages and jungles outside Belize City.
Release date: April 20, 2020
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 382
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Rising Thunder: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
I felt the heat of the morning sun on my back. It’d only been an hour since it had risen into the Western Caribbean sky, but mornings were short lived this far south. Feeling invigorated after a deck shower to rinse the night’s salt off, I let the warmth of the sun dry my skin. Its rays felt good, but I finally shrugged into a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt. Too much exposure could be painful, especially in the tropics.
Salty Dog held a steady course toward the south-southwest, heeling only a few degrees on a beam reach. A near-constant eighteen knots of true wind speed had powered her through the night at a very consistent seven knots.
In fact, the night had passed easily and not a single change in the sail plan had been needed. The Dog had added another eighty miles under her keel since nightfall and slightly more than that the previous day. We’d probably traveled 175 nautical miles since weighing anchor off the coast of Cozumel just over a day ago.
It was hard to believe that less than two weeks had passed since Christmas Eve, when I’d taken my little Grady-White out on the Gulf of Mexico to meet up with Savannah and Florence. It seemed like a lifetime. We fit together better now than we had when we’d first met.
The sun was hot on the left side of my face and I relished the cool feel of the fresh, easterly breeze. The sky was clear, and the air smelled clean, as if scrubbed by the sea.
I checked the wind instruments. We had a true wind angle of 82° and in that direction, I knew there wasn’t anything—no land mass of any kind—all the way to the Windward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean, more than 1600 miles away.
Temperatures didn’t vary a whole lot between seasons in these little latitudes of the Caribbean. The Tropic of Cancer was a couple hundred miles astern. In early January, when a lot of folks were putting on heavy coats and boots, I preferred putting on a mask and fins. Always have.
South of the Yucatan, temperatures were in the low eighties by noon, and it rarely got below seventy at night. Add five degrees to both for summer and you had a year-round spread of only 15° between the coolest winter night and warmest summer day. With such perfect year-round weather, it was a wonder the beaches went unspoiled.
Just over the horizon to the west I knew there were miles and miles of mostly desolate beaches, punctuated here and there by small fishing villages; pueblos, as they were called in the Yucatan.
Exactly where we were didn’t matter all that much. I was living in the now and taking pleasure in every moment of it.
The autopilot controlled our direction and the wind governed our speed. Savannah and I took four-hour watches through the night, with me taking the mid-watch from 2200 to 0200. I’d relieved her just before sunrise and both she and Florence would be rising soon.
The course I’d laid in the previous evening took us through the middle of a sixteen-mile wide, two-thousand-foot-deep gap between the mainland and the atoll reef of Banco Chinchorro. We’d passed the narrowest part when I’d taken over, and I’d made a very slight course correction to reach our destination sometime later in the evening.
I glanced at my dive watch. Based on our current speed, I knew we were somewhere between Mahahual, Mexico and San Pedro, Belize, and I’d guess twenty-some miles offshore.
Finn came up from the companionway, followed closely by Woden. That meant the girls were up. Finn was my ten-year-old yellow Lab mix and Woden was a comparably aged rottweiler belonging to my daughter and her mom. The two dogs were about the same size—big.
Being on a boat with two large-breed dogs wasn’t easy. Fortunately, both of them were mild-mannered, due to their ages, they’d both grown up on boats and were well-trained. Like me, they’d mellowed as their facial hair turned gray. Also like me, they could, I knew, be very dangerous if provoked.
“You had a call,” Florence said, as she came up the steps after the dogs. “And Mom wants to know what you want for breakfast.”
She held my satellite phone out to me. Not my private one, but the one Jack Armstrong had given me. I was one of many problem solvers for his global corporation, Armstrong Research. I contracted with the company’s Mobile Expeditionary Division, otherwise known as ARMED.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the phone. “Are there any of last night’s lobster tails left?”
“For breakfast?” she asked, as she sat on the starboard bench and looked toward the invisible shoreline.
“Ever had a lobster omelet?” I asked.
Finn and Woden walked around the helm, then sat down on opposite sides of it, both looking forward. Florence stroked Woden’s shiny black fur, then turned toward me, her eyes questioning. “I like lobster and I like eggs. Are they good together?”
“I like it,” I replied, looking at the recent call list on my phone.
“Then I’ll like it, too,” Florence said confidently. “Who was it?”
“John Wilson,” I replied, attempting to mask the concern in my voice.
Florence’s face became grave. “You said he was your handler?”
“I don’t think that was the word I used. He sometimes gives me assignments.”
“Do you have to take them?”
“No,” I replied. “I can say no, any time I want. I’m not an employee.”
“There are two-and-a-half tails left,” Florence said, rising from the bench and putting an arm around my shoulder for a quick hug. “I’ll go tell Mom we’re having omelets.”
After she left, I hit the redial button to call John back. He answered right away. “Where are you headed?”
“Ambergris Caye,” I replied. “What’s up?”
“Remember I borrowed Floridablanca?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was six weeks ago.”
“There’s been a development,” John said. “Weller’s mission didn’t go as planned.”
Ryan Weller was another contractor, like me, but he worked for Dark Water Research. Though I’d never met the man, I’d heard of him a few times, and knew that the two organizations worked together on occasion.
“Is he okay?”
“He’s hooked up with a bat-shit crazy woman,” John said. “Weller couldn’t make the shot; the target was holding a baby. The woman snatched up his rifle and emptied the magazine. They both got out, and I took them up to DWR’s headquarters in Texas City.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“He’s going back to finish the job.”
“What?” I said, surprised. “That’s suicide. His target’s bound to be ready.”
I knew only the basics of what John had been up to these last few weeks, and that was only because I owned Floridablanca. I’d bought her from John several years ago, after he’d lost an eye in a submersible accident. John had been providing logistical support for Weller, getting him in and out of Mexico, somewhere about 250 miles south of the Texas border. Dark Water didn’t have assets in the area, so they called Armstrong. All I knew was that Weller’s target had been a drug cartel boss.
“That’s why I’m calling you,” John said. “He might need some backup. A person who can reach out and touch somebody from a great distance.”
“When?” I asked. “And how long?”
“In two days,” he replied. “In and out in a matter of hours.”
I didn’t want to. I wanted nothing more than to spend as much time as I could with Savannah and Florence. But my sense of duty tugged at my ear.
“Contact Charity,” I said. “She’s in the Caymans. Have her pick me up at the airport in Chetumal tomorrow morning.”
I ended the call just as Florence came back up the steps, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a Thermos in the other. Savannah came up right behind her, carrying a large, covered plate.
“Scootch over,” Savannah said, smiling brightly. “Let Flo take the wheel. We already ate.”
Doing as I was told, I rose and moved to the port bench. Finn looked up at the dish Savannah was carrying and licked his chops.
“It’s on autopilot,” I said.
“Is there a change in plans?” Savannah asked, handing me the plate. Our daughter put the water bottle in a cup holder and refilled my mug from the Thermos.
“A slight change,” I replied. “I have to leave tomorrow, but I’ll be back in two days.”
Both Savannah’s and Florence’s faces fell.
“I know we talked about it,” Savannah said. “But I didn’t think something would come up so soon.”
I removed the cover from the plate and smiled. “I never know when or where,” I said, picking up a strip of crispy bacon. “But they don’t come often. And this isn’t a real job. I just need to go help a friend.”
“Someone like yourself?”
“Yeah. But he works for a different agency.”
“And what exactly will you have to do?” Savannah asked.
Florence was pretending not to pay attention, but she didn’t have much of a poker face.
“Provide support for a team that’s going after the leader of a drug cartel.”
Savannah looked out over the bow. “Are these men…this team…are they friends of yours? Do you know them?”
A very astute question. I didn’t actually know the men I had been asked to assist. I knew a little about them, had heard their names mentioned in quiet conversations with other operators, but that was it. What kind of allegiance did I owe?
“I know of them,” I said solemnly. “But never met either of them. One’s a former SEAL and the other one’s a Ranger.”
“So how do you know anything about them?” Florence asked.
“Spec Ops is a small community within the military,” I replied. “Of the two-and-a-half million people in the U.S. Armed Forces, less than half a percent are Spec Ops. Of those, only a couple hundred would be in leadership roles. Exploits are talked about.”
“What exploits do you know these men were involved in?” Savannah asked.
“They’re men like I once was—snake-eaters—the pointy tip of the spear. They stand with clear minds and strong arms and say, ‘not on my watch.’ They are men who understand the true meaning of molon labe.”
“That means ‘come take them’ in Greek,” Florence said, looking slightly bewildered. “I saw it on a car’s bumper once and looked it up. But I don’t get what it’s supposed to mean. Come take what?”
I gazed up at my daughter. She was highly intelligent, just like her mom. She’d seen a good bit of the world—more than most seventeen-year-olds, and under Savannah’s tutelage, she had a better education than most college grads. But having been boat-schooled, as they called it, she’d led a bit of a sheltered life so far, naïve to the evils out there.
“People who put it on a bumper sticker have no idea of the true meaning. They use it as a protest, thinking the government wants to take their guns away. They strut like peacocks and say, ‘come take them.’ Most couldn’t pour sand out of a boot with the instructions on the heel.”
“What’s it really mean, Dad?”
Could she understand? Could anyone who’d never had to fight for their life and the lives of others ever understand the kind of commitment it took to stand between the innocent, faceless masses and an enemy bent on destroying them, knowing that the best you could do was slow the inevitable?
“Molon labe was the Spartan king’s response when Xerxes demanded they lay down their weapons and surrender during the Battle of Thermopylae about twenty-five hundred years ago. Leonidas replied, ‘Come take them.’”
I saw her confusion as she frowned at me. “Who won the battle? Xerxes or Leonidas?”
“Who ultimately won the battle is the reason the term is important,” I replied, studying her face. I bent and patted Finn on the shoulder as I looked out over the water. “The Spartans were vastly outnumbered,” I said, not looking at her. “At least two hundred to one, though some scholars say that number might have been more than a thousand to one. They didn’t have any chance of surviving the battle, much less winning it. That wasn’t what they fought for. The Spartans gave their lives, every single man, defending a pass to slow the Persian invasion and give the Greek army and navy time to fortify. The Spartans all died on that pass, yes. But their stand saved hundreds of thousands of their people. In the end, thanks to the time Leonidas and his Spartans provided, the Persians were turned back.”
I could see her eyes moisten a little. “They fought knowing they would die?”
“Yes,” I replied frankly. “They knew their sacrifice would save others.”
“Will that happen to you?” Florence asked.
I leaned over and put my arm around her. “No. Leonidas and his men had warrior hearts, of that we have no doubt, but today’s warriors have the advantage of a lot of technology. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
She looked into my eyes and nodded. “I believe you. You’re kinda scary-looking sometimes.”
I laughed and pulled her head to my shoulder. “Scary worked for Blackbeard.”
“I know you said these calls were infrequent,” Savannah said, sitting next to me, her bare thigh against mine. “I just thought we’d have a bit more time together before you had to go.”
“It’s likely to be a good while before the next one.”
She smiled, but I could still sense the worry. Finally, her eyes seemed to resolve. “You have to go,” she said flatly. “You’re the kind of guy who stands up for two sisters who drank too much. It’s one of the things I love most about you.”
The memory of my first encounter with Savannah and her late sister, Charlotte, came vividly to my mind. They’d been targeted by human traffickers and were probably just minutes from being abducted when a friend and I waded into the fray. The two of us took on four guys who were bigger and we stacked them up like so much cord wood.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” I said.
I could see the spark of memory in her eyes, too. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll be fine. It’s not like Flo and I haven’t spent time alone on a boat before.”
That was true. Savannah had lived on her fifty-foot Grand Banks trawler, Sea Biscuit, since before Florence was born. She knew people in Belize, and it was a safer place than many others in this part of the Caribbean Basin.
“Do you really have to go?” Florence asked.
The night Savannah and Florence had invited me to dinner on Sea Biscuit to watch for Santa Claus, I’d explained to them about my work with Armstrong Research. Probably too much. But that hadn’t turned Savannah away.
I smiled at Florence. “You know I don’t. But someone needs help with a problem he encountered and it’s right here in Mexico.”
Florence looked at the chart plotter. “Mexico’s eastern coastline is over fifteen hundred miles long, Dad. All but about ten nautical miles of that are behind us.”
“True,” I said, taking a bite of the omelet and savoring the flavors of the grilled lobster, eggs, peppers, and spices before swallowing. “But I won’t be following the coastline. It will only take me a few hours to get to where John is and figure out what to do. He said it’d only take a couple of hours. So, I’ll be back in two days. Think you can plot us a course to Chetumal?”
“Why there?” Florence asked, working the chart plotter.
“Customs,” I replied. “No sense for me to clear into Belize, then turn right around and clear back into Mexico. It’ll save a lot of time to fly out of Chetumal.”
Not that I expected or even planned to come in contact with any Mexican customs agents. Where I’d be going would be more like The Wild West on steroids.
“Will we be waiting there in Chetumal?” Savannah asked.
“No,” I said, putting the last forkful in my mouth and washing it down with coffee. “You can handle the Dog up to your friend’s place without me. Once I finish up, I’ll have Charity drop me off in Belize City, clear customs and meet you there.”
“Course laid in for the ferry dock,” Florence said. “But there’s a long peninsula to get past. It goes all the way down into Belize.”
“Zoom in on the skinny part,” I told her. “Look for Zaragoza Canal. It was dredged to nine feet just a few months ago.”
“Got it. It’s eighteen nautical miles at a heading of two-four-zero degrees, Captain. We can probably get there at high tide. Spinnaker?”
I smiled at her. Florence was an excellent navigator and becoming an astute sailor. Once we turned, we’d have the wind on our port quarter, not quite a downwind run, but close.
“I’ll break it out,” I said, gulping down my coffee.
Savannah took my plate and empty mug and headed for the companionway. “Give me a minute to put these away and I’ll douse the mizzen.”
As Florence furled the genoa from her place at the helm, I went forward, opened the sail locker on the bow, and lifted out the spinnaker bag. Salty Dog started turning as I hoisted the spinnaker and Savannah lowered the mizzen sail. Florence eased out the main as she made the turn.
“Take up that starboard spinnaker sheet a little,” I instructed Florence when I got back to the cockpit.
She inserted the winch handle and trimmed the sail, bringing the big, asymmetrical spinnaker slightly around on the starboard side.
“Is that good?” Florence asked.
I looked up at the sails. “What do you think?”
She followed my gaze and nodded. “Looks good. We’ll reach the canal before the noon high tide.”
“We’ll have to drop the sails and start the engine to get through the reef and the canal. Then it’s another three hours through Chetumal Bay to get to the ferry dock.”
“That will put us there before sunset at least. Go get some rest, Dad.”
“Yeah,” Savannah added. “I’ll wake you when we have the markers in sight.”
Savannah and I had pulled the night watch after Florence had gone to bed. I’d held her in my arms, lounging in the cockpit, and counting shooting stars for a couple of hours. Then I’d taken a four-hour nap and afterward relieved her so she could get some sleep.
Minutes after my head hit the pillow, I heard the creak of the second companionway step. Then Savannah opened the hatch and came into the cabin.
“Flo’s having fun,” she said, closing the hatch behind her. “She’s fine in daylight. Move over.”
Early the next morning, we pulled anchor and motored over to the ferry dock. I hugged them both tightly, not yet ready to be separated after not having been a part of their lives for so long.
I waited for a cab to take me to the nearby airport as I watched Salty Dog head away from the dock. I had no idea what the future held in store for me, but I wanted Savannah and Florence to be a part of it.
I’d only brought a go-bag with a couple of changes of clothes. Anything else I might need, I’d get from Floridablanca.
When I got to the private aviation building at the airport, Charity Styles was waiting. She was standing on a ladder, checking the turbine on her shiny, black Bell UH-1 Iroquois, commonly called a Huey. She wore a matching black flight suit and jungle boots.
“Anything wrong?” I asked.
Charity looked down at me and smiled. “Nothing now. I had a fluid leak some time back and I just like to keep an eye on it.”
She closed the panel and climbed down, still smiling. “It’s good to see you again, Jesse,” Charity said, hugging me tightly. “Rumor has it you have some passengers aboard Salty Dog these days.”
News traveled fast. Especially in the social circles the two of us moved in. I had no doubt that the information about my sailing off with Savannah and Florence had reached everyone I knew by now. And probably a lot of people I didn’t know. My first mate, Jimmy Saunders, had been there at the dock when we left. The two fastest ways to spread the word around the Keys was telephone and tell Jimmy.
Our decision had been spur of the moment. I’d just blurted it out and asked them to go sailing with me. When Florence had asked where to, I’d jokingly told her anywhere she wanted to go. She’d chosen Belize. Savannah and I had just looked from Florence to one another for a moment and smiled.
“We’re taking one day at a time,” I said. “Any idea what John’s into up in Tampico?”
She slid the cargo door open and took my pack before climbing aboard. I followed and she tossed my bag on a seat, then opened the storage area built into the floor. Inside was a bunch of camera equipment—lenses, camera bodies, flash attachments, all kinds of gear—each piece nestled into a fitted foam insert.
After looking around, she quickly pushed a release catch hidden on an equipment rack and I heard a click.
“I figured you might want this,” she said, lifting out the tray full of camera gear.
Inside the cavity lay a black tactical rifle case. I opened it and found an M-40A3 rifle. I’d used similar weapons while in the Marine Corps.
“Who does it belong to?” I asked, lifting it slightly and checking the action.
“You, now,” she replied. “I was planning to wait until your birthday. I had Sherri rebuild it and zero it to three hundred yards.”
I looked up at her. “Sherri Fallon?”
“We stay in touch,” Charity replied. “You never know when you’ll need a good armorer.”
Several years ago, Sherri Fallon had been a part of Deuce Livingston’s Homeland Security team. Deuce was now my partner in a security business in Key Largo. Before joining Deuce’s team, Sherri had been an armorer for Miami/Dade PD and had returned to that job after the team was broken up. She’d also been an accomplished stage actress and had helped the other team members improve their ability to think on the fly through improvisational skits.
“Or a good improv actor,” I added, placing the rifle back in its case in its hiding spot. “Thanks. That’s a very thoughtful and timely gift.”
“You’re easy to shop for,” she said with a smile. “Guns, ammo, or tackle.”
I smiled back at her. Charity and I had an odd relationship. We’d both been in tough situations, though I couldn’t imagine the horror she’d endured at the hands of Taliban captors not long after 9/11. She’d been tortured, raped, and degraded, but in the end, she’d cut the leader’s throat with his own knife.
“How soon can we make Tampico?” I asked.
Charity inserted the false bottom and closed the hatch. “Oh, we’re not going to Tampico. At least not directly. We’re going for a boat ride.”
She closed the cargo door and then carried the ladder back to the hangar before the two of us climbed into the cockpit. Charity went through a quick preflight before firing up the big turbine engine. Ninety minutes later, we made visual contact with one of Dark Water’s ships, the Star of Galveston, a long-range tug. It wasn’t easy, and if it had been anyone else at the controls, it would have been scary, but Charity managed to put the bird down on the boat’s long work deck at the stern.
She shut down the turbine and started her postflight as I got out. Several deck hands immediately began lashing her helo to the deck.
“Jesse McDermitt?” a man said as he approached.
“Guilty as charged,” I replied.
He extended his hand. “Rick Hayes,” he said. “I’ve heard of you.”
I shook his hand. “All good, I hope.”
“Depends on if the legend of Mogadishu is true,” he said, as I opened the cargo door to get our gear out.
I stopped and turned to face him. “I don’t count that as a win,” I said. “I made the shot, but the kid was killed an hour later.”
“But a thousand yards? And a moving target?”
“Guys are shooting a lot farther today with even more precise accuracy. And like I said, my time in the Mog was a failure.”
He searched my eyes a moment, then shrugged. “Is that a woman I saw flying that bird?”
“One of my associates, Charity Styles.”
“She sure looks fine from what I see. C’mon. I’ll show you to the bridge. We’ll be meeting up with John Wilson in a couple of hours.”
At noon, Floridablanca came into sight on the horizon. As she got nearer, I went to the stern with my gear. Hayes accompanied me; a backpack slung over one shoulder.
“If you don’t mind,” Hayes said, “I’m going to ride along. You’ll need a good spotter and Weller’s my partner.”
His words were a statement of fact, not a question of permission. One glance at his steely resolve and I knew I’d have done the same had it been Deuce.
“Could be a shit storm where we’re going,” I offered.
Hayes looked over to where Charity was coming down the ladder from the bridge. “It’d be worth a shit storm to hang out with your pilot friend. She single?”
“She is,” I replied. “But I wouldn’t take that as encouragement.”
Floridablanca was soon alongside, fenders out all along her port rail. The tug slowed and Floridablanca matched her ten-knot speed. Both boats were heavy steel vessels, though the tug was twice the size. They each bulled through the heavy chop with little effort. Stopping would cause both boats to be less stable.
The tug’s open deck was a little lower than Floridablanca’s cockpit rail. When the fenders made contact, John turned slightly, welding the two hulls together for a moment.
I tossed my gear down into the aft cockpit and grabbed the upper rail over its roof, swinging feet first over the tug’s rail and down to Floridablanca’s deck. Charity landed nimbly beside me, and Hayes came over right behind her, grinning.
I nodded toward the little red light on the camera mounted to the corner of the overhead and Floridablanca turned away from the tug.
“Just drop your gear anywhere,” I told Hayes, as I opened the hatch for Charity and followed her through the salon. She went down to the cabin area as I mounted the steps to the command bridge.
“Welcome back,” John said to Hayes, when we joined him at the helm. The fact that they knew each other wasn’t a surprise. They’d probably met during Weller’s first failed attempt. “Jesse, if you’ll take the wheel, I’ll bring the Mercedes engines online, and we can be in Tampico before nightfall.”
After John went aft, Hayes said, “I asked John if you guys could keep the helo local until this is over. Star of Galveston will remain six miles off the coast.”
“That have anything to do with the pilot being a blonde?”
“Didn’t know that when I made the request,” he replied.
“That’s completely up to her,” I said. “But since she’s here and her bird’s lashed down on your boat, I assume she’s already agreed.”
“We’ll meet up with Ryan and Kendra tonight. We have good intel on what’s going to go down. Ryan’s bringing the bait in after dark and we have a rental that can take us to the spot where you need to be.”
* * * * *
After the clandestine meeting with Ryan Weller and Kendra Diaz, we had a rudimentary plan. No plan survived first encounter with an enemy force, so you laid out and coordinated the launch of the operation as best you could, included a couple of possible scenarios for when the shit hit the fan, and outlined the rest to the final objective.
When Hayes took us back to Floridablanca, he handed me a set of keys and pointed to a black truck in the corner of the lot. “I checked it out. It’s banged up but everything works.”
The truck was a Nissan Titan. A big four-door 4x4 with a stubby utility bed. It had oversized all-terrain tires, heavy duty bumpers and a brush guard, or what the locals called a tumba burro, which means to literally “knock out the donkey.” It was fitted with big driving lights. It’d seen some abuse, judging by the dented fenders and doors on the passenger side—it appeared to have rolled over at some point—but the doors worked, and the fenders were still solidly mounted.
After moving it closer to the boat, Hayes helped us load our gear into the backseat.
“I’ll meet you out there at dawn,” he said when we’d finished.
“You’re not staying?” Charity asked.
“No…I’m, uh, sleeping in the bush,” he replied.
I nodded, knowing exactly where he was going. Weller was the one putting himself at risk. He had the most to gain and the most to lose. Hayes was his partner and he was going to go out to the rendezvous point and scout the whole area, making sure there were no surprises.
“In the bush?” Charity asked.
Hayes took a step back and pointed south. “Yeah. Out there. I need to make sure nothing’s out there that might keep things from going as planned.”
He turned and hurried toward his car.
Charity and I went back to the boat. John was coming down the dock step, carrying a seabag over his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” I asked, recognizing his luggage.
He pointed to the top of a luxury hotel. “Got a penthouse room,” he said with a wink.
Or maybe he’d just blinked. With his other eye missing and the socket covered with a patch, you couldn’t tell.
“Penthouse?” Charity asked.
“Go big or go home,” he said. “I met a lady here two weeks ago. She agreed to meet me for drinks in the hotel bar tonight. I have just enough time for a shower. Besides, you won’t need me for two days, so I’m going to make the most of it.”
He, too, hurried off, leaving us alone on the dock.
“You can have the master,” I said, never sure around Charity.
“No way,” she said. “Your boat, your bed. And I kind of like that little forward cabin, anyway. Reminds me of Wind Dancer in a way.”
We went back aboard, and I got two beers from the fridge, offering her one. She nodded and I removed the tops, then handed hers over.
“What do you think of those guys?” Charity asked.
She’d been flirting with both men, even with Kendra right there. Hayes and Weller hadn’t even noticed, but the Latin lady did.
“What do you mean?”
She turned and faced me. “I’m here as your backup. I don’t know them, but I know about them. Or at least what each did in the military. So, why are they doing this now? Is there some intangible reward we don’t know about?”
Even though she’d flirted with them, she still suspected their motivation. After the things Charity had endured, it was a wonder she wasn’t more jaded. But the relationship we had wasn’t like ones she had with anyone else. At least not that I knew of. With Deuce and the others, she’d always been slightly aloof. In public, or around people she didn’t know, like tonight, she played the part of the fun-loving California girl she might have been, had circumstances not been what they were.
But I knew the real Charity; all her insecurities and weaknesses, her convictions, what drove her, and what kept her going in the face of so much adversity. When it was just the two of us, she wasn’t afraid to be herself.
“Let’s go up to the bridge,” I said, and led the way up the three steps to Floridablanca’s nerve center.
I sat down at the helm and looked out over the bow toward open water. Charity sat on the low nav station desk, then swiveled around, bringing her feet up on the desk and wrapping her arms around her knees. She looked out over the water, leaning against the glass on the starboard side of the raised pilothouse.
How long had it been?
Ten years? No, it was eleven years ago. Charity and I had gone after a man named Jason Smith. He’d once been the head of Deuce’s Homeland Security team, but he’d turned out to be a murderer.
Smith had been responsible for the death of a young Marine named Jared Williams, whom Charity had been involved with.
We’d chased Smith from island to island for weeks, always a step behind. During many of those nights, Charity and I had sat as we were now; me at the helm, and her sitting beside me.
We’d finally caught up to Smith in the Turks and Caicos Islands, southeast of the southern Bahamas. Charity had snapped his neck in an alley in Cockburn Town.
We hadn’t returned straight home after that. Call it decompression or coming to grips, but we’d continued our nightly talks. We’d opened up to one another. I’d told her of the dreams I sometimes had, dreams of dead people.
Charity had later told me that our time on the water, just the two of us, was better than all the time she’d spent talking to therapists, psychologists, and even Victor.
“Weller has a vested interest,” I said, in answer to her question. “Taking out the cartel means there’s no longer a bounty on him.”
“Hayes is you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“He and Weller are friends,” I said. “Like you and me. With special skills that complement each other. They might have their faults, but ethically?” I thought about it a moment. I was a good judge of people. Or I liked to think so. “I trust them,” I said. “They’re a couple guys I know I can count on and I know they’ll do what’s right.”
“What about you and Savannah?” she asked, looking through the windshield toward the channel markers in the distance. “Is she finally the one woman who can bring down the legendary Jesse McDermitt?”
I laughed. “Legendary?”
She turned and looked directly at me, her pale blue eyes becoming more serious. “You’ve been through a few women, Jesse. Some you scared away, some you sent away, and one who—”
“You’re keeping tally?” I asked, avoiding the mention of Alex.
“It wouldn’t be a legend unless it was epic,” she said. “Come on, you really don’t know?”
“The man who disappeared from the legend a few years ago,” she said. “Nobody in the cruising community knows where he went or why, but his name has been made into a verb. I hear it mentioned sometimes on one of the nets.”
She was talking about one of the many amateur radio cruiser networks, which shared news and information among the cruising community all over the world, though I had no idea how any of that applied to me.
“You really haven’t heard?”
“I haven’t tuned in on any of the nets in a while,” I admitted. “What are you talking about?”
“You weren’t the first,” she said, suppressing a grin. “And you certainly won’t be the last, but among younger cruisers these days, if a guy drags a girl along and then dumps her in a strange port, it’s called pulling a Jesse. It’s even the same if it’s the other way around. I’ve pulled a Jesse myself once or twice.”
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