A buzz split the dark silence of Riley’s room and jerked her away from fondling the chiseled backside of the magnificent hunk of a man lying next to her—in her dreams. She growled as her perfect scene of spectacular glutes melted away. Her semi-conscious mind replaced the scene with her mother walking into the room, reaching out for her. Her mom’s icy fingertips slithered down one shoulder and Riley’s eyes snapped open.
Half coherent, Riley groaned, rolled over, and reached out toward the nightstand. Her fingers brushed the phone causing the screen to light up. Her mother’s cheery smile filled the screen as the phone slipped from her fingers and dropped to the floor.
“This better be life or death,” Riley hissed.
Stretching out for the phone, she balanced herself with one hand extended to the floor, but she couldn’t reach it before the buzzing started over.
“For the love of all that’s good! A brilliant scientist and yet she can’t tell time.”
Snatching the blasted thing, she slumped back onto the bed and fumbled for the answer button.
“Mom, you do realize it’s the middle of the night. You might be a night owl, but most of civilization is asleep this time of night. I told you I had to get up early tomorrow—well, today….” Riley stopped the rant when she realized she was talking to static. She ended the connection but noticed there was a message.
Riley dropped the phone back on the nightstand and snuggled back into bed. She rolled over to try and reclaim the ravishing male specimen attached to that exquisite ass. But Mr. Beefcake had disappeared right along with whatever chance she had of sleeping.
She sighed, grabbed her phone, and clicked on her voicemail.
“Riley, it’s Mom.”
Mom was breathing hard and there was a high, terrified pitch to her voice. “Our ship—” A loudspeaker in the background squawked to life and drowned out her voice. “My research, it’s—” Static drowned out mom’s voice. “Riley, don’t let them get my research.”
“Claudia, we must go now!” cried a male voice in the background. “Get to the lifeboats. Oh, shit! No, we can’t go that way. The water—” Static.
Riley wasn’t sure who was talking to Mom, maybe one of her numerous assistants?
She couldn’t be sure with all the noise in the background. Riley bolted out of bed and started pacing the floor, her phone crammed to her ear.
“I love you, Riley.” Her mother panted between words, sounding as if she was running as she spoke.
The phone went dead.
A few short hours ago the marina was deserted, except for Dagger and a couple of snoring Harbor Seals sunning themselves on the dock. Now the marina was bustling with people.
“Hey, Dagger. You’re down here early, even for you. What’s up?” Kaleb asked. He grabbed a handful of diving gear from the pull cart on the dock and handed it to his partner.
Dagger took the well-worn dry suit, nearly-new top-of-the-line swim fins, along with towels and dry clothes, and stacked them alongside a pile of items he’d already loaded into the thirty-five-foot inboard runabout. They purchased this specific motorboat for its speed, maneuverability, and the diver’s platform off the stern.
“We got a new contract early this morning. I agreed to head out first thing. The San Diego Police requested inspection and video of a research ship,” Dagger Eastin said, never missing a beat in his loading process.
“Nice! Why didn’t you text me or Stone?” Kaleb asked.
“Like I said, it was early.”
“You forwarded the damned office phone to your cell again, didn’t you?”
Dagger frowned at Kaleb. “Hello—new business. If we don’t get our company into the black in the next six months, we’re gonna be in deep shit.”
“I feel like a broken record. The three of us are partners. Which means it’s all our asses on the line. We’re doing all we can do, Dagger. Maybe we should’ve gone back to Washington to homeport the business.”
“I know you’d prefer to head back home, but we agreed to go into business together. For Stone, you, and me to pull our weight throughout the year, San Diego is the ideal place. This is a warm water port. The only time we need to pull the boat out of the water is for maintenance. It saves us a load of money not to pull it out every winter and place it in dry storage. You have to admit we have better coverage of the west coast and a greater ability to bring in more business.”
“Yeah, I know, but it sure is more expensive to operate a business here. Either way, it won’t make a hill of beans if you don’t take some time off and sleep every now and then.”
“I’ll sleep when the business is solid.”
Kaleb shook his head. “And I always thought it was the military that made you rigid. Shit, you are one bull-headed SOB.”
Dagger threw kisses at Kaleb. “I love you, too,” he said between smacking sounds.
“Holy hell, knock it off. It’s too early for this crap.” Kaleb snapped. “Which one of us do you want to go with you?”
“No way. You know better. You might be one bad-ass diver, but no one dives alone.” Kaleb clenched his hands into fists so tightly his knuckles turned white. “I’m going to get my gear.”
“No, you’re not.” Dagger grabbed Kaleb by the arm, stopping him. “You and Stone are staying here, I need you on point.
“I’m only going there to get some video and an initial feel for what we are dealing with. I won’t be down for long. The place will be crawling with Coast Guard. There’ll be plenty of eyes on me. I don’t need you babysitting me. What we do need is another paying gig. Helping your friend’s sister was a nice thing to do, don’t get me wrong. But the electric company won’t take a feel-good story for payment.”
“Cute, Dagger—and yeah, you do need a babysitter. If you show up and the Coast Guard isn’t on site, you radio back and we’ll come out to cover you. I mean it,” Kaleb said, challenging his partner’s glare. “No one, not even hot-shot Dagger Eastin dives alone. And if we find out you did…well, trust me, you don’t want to go there.”
“Yes, mommy. I’ll behave.” Not waiting for a comeback, he changed subjects and barked orders at Kaleb. “Send Stone a text. Get him up to speed. Make sure you find another contract today—preferably one that makes us some money. No more donating time until our bills are paid if you want to keep the lights on and not have to bunk at the shop.”
“Slave driver. You really know how to ruin a great morning.” Kaleb tossed Dagger the rest of his gear. “Anything else, Mom?”
“That’s it.” Dagger secured his equipment and started the engine. “Oh, for shit’s sake. Who was the last douche to take this thing out? The tank is half empty. What’s the rule?”
“You take it, you fill it—Don’t give me that look. It wasn’t me this time. I had my fill of your ranting last time. I’ll let Stone know he was a bad boy.”
“Fat lotta good that does me now.” Dagger shook his head in disappointment. He hated playing the heavy; but if he didn’t do it, no one would. “Grab the bow line. I gotta haul ass over to the fuel dock before the queue gets too long.”
Kaleb tossed the ropes into the runabout as Dagger started backing the vessel out of their slip. “Remember, Dagger. No diving if the Coast Guard isn’t on site. Don’t forget. I gotta couple buddies I can contact,” he threatened. “Don’t think I won’t damn well know if you’re giving me the brush off. Make sure to shoot us a text when you get on site or I just might have to drop in on you.”
Dagger waved at Kaleb without glancing at him and roared off toward the fuel dock.
Deep blue ocean stretched out before Dagger. In the distance he could make out the white hulls of two Coast Guard cutters. The sea shimmered in the early morning light.
Dagger pulled the handset from its cradle.
“US Coast Guard Cutter Chinook, this is motor vessel Salvage Hunter approximately one hundred and fifty yards out. We’ve been contracted by SDPD to assist in the investigation. Over.” Dagger was home on the water. A sizzle of anticipation shot through him.
“Roger, Salvage Hunter. This is Chinook. Hold tight while we confirm your status. Divers in the water. Over.” The man’s voice commanded.
“Roger, Salvage Hunter standing by. Out.”
Dagger cut his engines. Figuring it would take them some time, he stripped down and pulled on his dry suit and checked his gear. The ocean didn’t allow second chances. One faulty gauge or leaky hose could mean your death.
“Salvage Hunter, identity and authorization confirmed. Be advised we still have divers in the water. Over.”
“Roger, Chinook. Requesting status of investigation. Over.”
“No survivors found. We have retrieved sixteen bodies. Crew manifest states a total of nineteen, including crew and research team. Over.”
“Were life boats put into the water? Over.”
“We found one life boat among the floating wreckage. My men believe it broke loose when the ship sank. Last night the weather was driving rain. My guess is the life boat wasn’t tied down properly. The other three boats are still stowed on the ship’s deck. Over.”
“Roger. Has the vessel been searched for survivors? Over.”
“Confirmed, none found. Over.”
“Request approach to begin investigation. Over.”
“Approach granted; stop at sixty yards out on starboard side. Out.”
Dagger hung up the handheld and started the engines. He moved into position and cut his engines as instructed, leaving the requested distance from the Coast Guard’s ship, and dropped anchor. He went up to the deck to raise the diving flag, then stopped and grabbed his phone to text his partners:
Coast Guard Cutter Chinook and a second ship on site. Starting diving operation. Will contact when heading back.
He hit send and locked the phone in the safe; not knowing exactly who might board his vessel.
Dagger headed topside, with an Alpha dive flag under one arm and a red buoy in his other hand. The red buoy was the universal sign of a claimed salvage site. He ran the Alpha dive flag up the flagstaff perched on the roof of the forward cabin. Moving to the stern of the runabout, he dropped the diving platform, sat down, and pulled on his dive hoodie and neck seal. He slid his MK3 knife into the neoprene holster and attached a spear gun to the back of his hips, right below his tanks. Before getting wet, he triple-checked his breathing equipment.
He slipped into the water, grabbed the buoy and the five-pound weight equipped with a retractable line, and swam toward the wreck. When he was over the site, he attached the clip on the line to the bottom of the buoy and released the buoy. He headed down to the wreck where he’d drop the weight on the ocean floor.
The water was calm and a clear lapis color. A few feet under, Dagger swam by two Coast Guard divers and gave them a thumbs-up. The blue of the ocean darkened with every foot he descended. He switched on his light as the blue bled into a colorless gray. The dark outline of the eighty-five-foot research ship came into view. Pulling out his video camera he switched on the attached high-powered, compact light and started filming. He approached slowly, making sure to include everything.
The ship had come to rest on its port side at approximately a thirty-degree angle. While upright vessels were the easiest to work on, he couldn’t ask for a much better scenario. He thought of the contract they closed last week. The ship had settled on its deck, with the stern embedded into the ocean floor. He silently laughed as he recalled Stone’s colorful tirade over trying to move around inside without wanting to spew his lunch.
Dagger swam to the stern and then around to the port side, recording the scene. He glided through the water using his fins as little as possible to avoid disturbing the bottom.
Everything appeared intact until he reached the front third of the ship. A large ragged horizontal gouge ran a good nine feet along the side of the metal-hulled ship. It looked as though an object sliced the hull. What could have done this?
Dagger squinted and zoomed in closer. The gash showed no signs of paint transfer, and the edges of the ripped hull were bent inward and scorched. He slowed his breathing and filmed even more slowly.
After Dagger was satisfied he’d recorded all the details on the outside of the vessel, he moved inside. He painstakingly moved through room by room, documenting everything.
As the Coast Guard said, he found no bodies on board and no signs of a struggle. Aside from the expected turmoil due to the inrush of water, the inside appeared normal, or as normal as a sunken ship could look sitting at a thirty-degree angle. He finished his inspection and headed for the surface.