Jack glanced at the reading from the Northstar 800 GPS. At their current cruising speed they should arrive at their destination in another three hours.
Exhaling out a stream of smoke, he stared out the windows across the upper deck of his salvage ship. He understood why his ship had been summoned to aid the search for the wreckage of Air Force One. The Fathom was the closest salvager with a deep-sea submersible on hand, and they were contractually obligated to lend the sub’s services during an emergency.
Still, though he knew his duty, he did not have to like it. He spit out his cigar and ground its fiery end into the ash tray. This was his ship.
Twelve years ago, using money from his settlement against General Dynamics after the shuttle accident, Jack had purchased the Deep Fathom from a shipyard auction house. The eighty-foot Fathom had originally been built as a research ship for the Woods Hole Institute back in 1973. In addition to the purchase price, he had been forced to take out a large loan to convert the aged research vessel into a modern salvage ship: adding a hydraulic cargo crane, upgrading to a five-ton capacity A-frame, and overhauling the Caterpillar marine diesel engine. He had also updated the navigation equipment and outfitted it so the Fathom could operate without outside assistance for weeks at a time. He added Naiad stabilizers, a Bauer diving compressor, and Village Marine water makers.
It had cost him his entire savings, but eventually the Fathom had become his home, his world. Over the years, he had gathered a team of scientists and fellow treasure hunters to his side. They became his new family.
Now, after twelve years, he was being called back to the world he had left behind.
The door to the pilothouse squeaked open behind him and a fresh cross-breeze blew in. “Jack, what are you still doing here?” It was Lisa. The doctor from UCLA scowled at him as she entered. In shorts and a bikini top, she did not look the part of an experienced medical researcher. Her limbs were deeply tanned, and her long blond hair had been bleached white by the months under the sun. She looked like she belonged on a beach, hanging on the arm of a muscled surfer. But Jack knew better. There was no sharper doctor on the high seas.
Lisa held open the door to let in another member of the crew. A lanky German shepherd loped inside the cabin and crossed to Jack’s side for a scratch behind the ear. The dog had been born aboard the Fathom, from a litter whelped during a storm in the South China Sea. Underweight and sickly, the pup had been abandoned by the bitch, and Jack took him in, nursing the pup back to health. That had been almost nine years ago.
“Elvis here was worried about you,” Lisa said. She sidled to the chair next to him, shoving Jack’s feet off.
Jack patted the large dog’s side and pointed to the cedar pillow in the corner. “Bed,” he ordered. The old dog crossed and collapsed into the thick pillow with a long sigh.
“Speaking of bed,” Lisa said, “I thought you were supposed to be relieved at sunrise. Shouldn’t you be trying to catch a nap?”
“Couldn’t sleep. Thought I might as well be useful.”
Lisa pushed away the ashtray to make room for the mug she brought in with her. She glanced at the navigation array. After five years on and off the Fathom, she had become a fairly skilled pilot herself. “Looks like we’ll be at the rendezvous site in less than three hours.” She faced Jack. “Maybe you should try to get some sleep. We’ve a long day ahead of us.”
“I’ve still got to—”
“Get some sleep,” she finished with a frown. She shoved her mug toward him. “Herbal tea. Try it. It’ll help you relax.”
He leaned over the steaming mug and sniffed. The medicinal tang was sharp after smoking his cigar. “I’ll pass.”
Lisa pushed the mug closer. “Drink it. Doctor’s orders.”
Jack rolled his eyes and picked up the cup. He took a few sips to placate her. It tasted as bad as it smelled. “Needs sugar,” he said.
“Sugar? And taint my healing herbs?” Lisa feigned shock and nudged the ashtray. “As it is, you have enough bad habits.”
He took another sip and stood. “I should check on Charlie. See how the tests are going.”
Lisa turned, her lips firm, her eyes hard. “Jack, Charlie and the gold aren’t going anywhere. Go to your cabin, shut the drapes, and try to sleep.”
“It will only—”
She held up a hand. Her expression softened, as did her words. “Listen, Jack. We all know what’s got you so anxious. Everyone’s been walking on eggshells around you.”
He opened his mouth to protest.
Lisa stopped him with a touch. She stood, parted his robe, and raised a hand to his chest. Jack did not flinch at such casual intimacy. Lisa had seen him naked many times. On such a small ship, privacy was limited. But more than that, years ago, when Lisa first arrived onboard, the two of them had played at being lovers. Eventually it became clear their feelings were more physical than heartfelt. Without a word, their trysts had eventually ended, settling into a warm companionship. More than friends, less than lovers.
She traced a finger down from his collarbone, trailing through the coarse black hair on his chest. Her finger was warm on his skin. But as it moved below his right nipple, the feeling vanished. Jack knew why. Across the middle of his chest lay a swath of trailing scars. Old burns. The scars were pale against his bronzed skin. Numb and dead.
Jack shivered as he felt Lisa’s touch return, past the scarring, just above his navel. Her finger traveled still lower and crooked into the waistband of his trunks. She pulled him nearer. She whispered, “Let it go, Jack. The past can’t be changed. Only forgiven and forgotten.”
Gently pushing her hand away, he stepped back. Those were easy words for Lisa to say, a girl who had led a charmed life in Southern California.
She stared up at him, her eyes slightly wounded. “You weren’t found at fault, Jack. You were even offered the goddamn Medal of Honor.”
“I turned it down,” he said, swinging away. He headed toward the door. The shuttle accident was a private matter, a subject he did not want to share and discuss. Not with anyone. He had enough of that from the Navy’s psychiatrists. Free of the pilothouse, he hurried down the steps to the boat deck.
Her heart heavy, Lisa watched the large man retreat out the door.
In the corner, Elvis had lifted his head from the bed, and watched his master storm out. The big dog grumbled under his breath, a throaty complaint.
Lisa settled into the pilot’s seat, still warm from its previous occupant. “My words exactly, Elvis.” She sagged into the chair. Though their fiery relationship had died to ash, Lisa could still touch the warmth of her old feelings: Jack’s hard body holding her tight, the heat of his mouth on her breasts and neck, his lovemaking both rough and tender. He was an attentive lover, one of the best she had ever experienced. However, strong hands and legs couldn’t build a relationship by themselves. It took an even stronger heart. Jack loved her. She never doubted this, but there was a part of Jack’s heart that was as dead and numb as the scars on his chest. She had never found a way to heal this old wound—and doubted she ever could. Jack would not let it heal.
Lisa reached for the mug of herbal tea and dumped its contents into the trashcan. She had spiked the tea with Halcyon before climbing up here. Jack needed to sleep, and the sleeping pill hidden in her elixir should help him relax.
At least, she hoped. She had never seen Jack this bad before. He was normally outgoing, quick to smile and joke, full of an energy that shone from his skin. But there had been times in the past when he would sink into a funk, drift away from the others, hole up in his cabin or pilothouse. They had all learned to give Jack the space he needed during these times. But the past twenty-four hours had been his worst.
The door on the opposite side of the pilothouse suddenly crashed open. Lisa jumped at the noise, caught off guard by her reverie. From his corner, Elvis let out a warning bark.
Lisa swung around as two people shoved their way inside, still in mid-argument.
Charlie Mollier’s face was darker than its usual Jamaican mocha. The geologist’s eyes were lit with an inner fire. “You can’t be serious, Kendall. Those gold bars weigh fifty stone each. They’re worth a half-million U.S. easy.”
Kendall McMillan simply shrugged, unimpressed by the larger man’s tirade. McMillan was an accountant from Chase Manhattan Bank, assigned to be present here when the wealth of the Kochi Maru was brought to the surface, to watch after the bank’s investment. “Perhaps, Mr. Mollier, but as your laboratory results proved, the bullion is full of impurities. Not even sixteen carat. The bank has offered a good deal.”
“You’re a bloody thief!” Charlie sputtered angrily. The geologist finally seemed to see Lisa. “Can you believe this mon?”
“What’s going on?”
“Where’s Jack?” Charlie answered. “I thought he was up here.”
“Gone down below.”
“Where?” Charlie crossed to the opposite door. “I need to tell him—”
“No, you don’t, Charlie. The captain has enough on his plate right now. Let him be.” Lisa glanced at McMillan.
Where Charlie was dressed in his usual deckwear—a baggy set of trunks hanging down to his knees with a floral Jamaican shirt—McMillan wore Sperry deck shoes, khaki slacks, and a smart shirt buttoned to the top. The middle-aged accountant had been on board the Fathom for almost two months now, but he had yet to relax into the casual routine of the ship. Even his red hair was carefully trimmed and combed.
“What’s this all about?” Lisa asked.
McMillan drew himself straighter under her gaze. “As I was explaining to Mr. Mollier after reviewing his laboratory analysis, there is no way the bank will pay current market price for the gold. The old bullion is full of impurities. I’ve used the satellite phone to confirm my own estimates with the bank’s experts.”
Charlie threw his hands in the air. “It’s high seas piracy.”