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Creed Thomas Ruckman's smart phone buzzed and he pulled the rental SUV he'd picked up at the Portland airport to the side of the road just outside Cape Churn, a quaint Oregon seaside town. The caller ID displayed Blocked Sender. Probably The Man, his boss, who'd sent him on the red-eye flight from Alaska late the previous night, bumping mission status to urgent and a matter of national security.
Royce Fontaine orchestrated the band of Stealth Operations Specialists from their headquarters in Washington, for the most part. On occasion, he ran missions himself. The man was fearless and demanded no less from his operatives than what he expected of himself.
Creed hit the button on the headset hooked over his ear. "Thomas." He used Thomas and other aliases as his last name when he went undercoverRuckman had become just a name in his file back at headquarters.
"You in Cape Churn yet?" Royce's deep voice filled his head as if he were there in the vehicle with him.
"Just pulling into town. Any word on Phillip Ma-cias's whereabouts, or the location of the yacht I tagged in Russia?"
"That's what I'm calling about and why you're where you are. The GPS tracking device stalled off the coast of Cape Churn. Satellite images aren't picking up the boat at the location. Either they scuttled the boat or the boat sank. That's where you come in."
"I figured as much. None of my associates in Russia could tell me what's on board, or why it's so important to Macias."
"I put a bug in the ear of one of my contacts in the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance and monitoring division. He just sent word that something big is about to go down on the west coast, and Macias is at the center of it. There's a lot of subversive chatter by some of the people on their watch list."
"Any idea what?"
"Only hints at some type of explosions with the potential of killing entire cities of Americans."
Creed's heart sank to the bottom of his belly, then bounced back with a kick of adrenaline. "I figured it was something big. Macias is known for drama. When he's involved, it's go big or go home. Though they couldn't prove it, my informants told me he was responsible for last year's attacks on Chicago and D.C. in an event similar to the Greek Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei of 2010."
"Right," Fontaine agreed. "And he was only using pressure-cooker bombs in those instances. From what my NSA source said, he's going for a bigger bang, possibly dirty bombs." Royce paused, then continued. "The situation is critical. Since all of this is conjecture at this point, keep it on the down low. We don't know who Macias's contacts are, and we can't trust anyone. If it leaks to the press, we could lose the connection. You have to find out what Macias is up to, his contact for uranium, if that's his angle, and stop Armageddon from happening. Millions of lives are depending on you."
"No pressure, right? And what you're saying is that for all these years people have been prophesying California would one day fall into the ocean, that event may come earlier than we think."
"As soon as I can pull some of the others in on this mission, I'll send them your way. In the meantime, you're the lead man."
"Sounds like I'm the only man."
"For the moment, you are. I'm working intel from this end. I'll feed you everything I know as soon as I know." True to his word, Royce would do everything in his power to help him. The head of SOS kept his promises. "You've got all the information and the cover you need to find that yacht. Go get 'em."
"I'm on it." Creed hit the button on his earpiece to end the call, drew in a deep breath and drove into town, to the Cape Churn police station. He climbed out of the rental and entered the office, wearing shorts, flip-flops, sunglasses and a T-shirt with the image of a sailboat emblazoned across his chest. Pasting his friendliest insurance-adjuster grin on his face, he extended his hand to the man he presumed was the chief of police, the one person in town who would know a local from a transient, and where to go to get what he needed. "Hello, I'm Creed Thomas. Are you the police chief?"
"That would be me." He gripped Creed's hand in a firm handshake. "Tom Taggart. I don't believe I know you. New resident in town, or here on vacation?"
This was where his cover came into play. Until he knew the trustworthiness of the locals, he couldn't reveal the potential danger lurking in the quiet seaside town. "Actually, I'm here on business."
"What kind of business brings you to Cape Churn? Setting up a golf tournament? Team building weekend? Searching for a vacation home?" The chief smiled. "Just askwe're likely to have what you're looking for."
Creed removed his glasses, liking the older man's open, friendly face. "I'm looking for a boat."
"A boat?" Taggart's brows rose. "Renting, buying? Anything special you got in mind?"
"A missing boat, to be exact." He handed the chief his fake business card with Thomas Brothers Insurance written in bold lettering across the top. "I underwrote an insurance policy on a yacht we believe went down off the coast of Cape Churn in the past couple days."
"Is that so?" Taggart scratched his chin. "I don't recall receiving any reports of a ship in distress or BOLOs on missing persons."
"That doesn't surprise me. The owner probably didn't know he was in distress until the ship went down, and his family won't be missing him for several days. I understand there was a significant amount of fog the night before last?"
"True." The chief nodded. "Folks around here call it the Devil's Shroud. Nothing but misfortune happens when it slides into the coast. Could be your boat got caught up in it."
"That's my bet. Fortunately, we have tracking devices on the yachts we insure, and I believe I can locate it. All I need is a guide to get me out to it. That's what I was hoping you could help me with."
"Depends on where you're going. The shallows around here are pretty treacherous, even on a calm day. If you have the GPS coordinate, and it's not in the middle of the rocks, I recommend Dave Logsdon's dive boat and Emma Jenkins as your guide. She's not a full-time diver, but she has the most diving experience all around the cape."
"Where can I find them?"
"Logsdon docks his boat at the Cape Churn Marina. It's early in the summer season, and schools aren't out yet. You might catch him, if he's not chartered."
A man wearing a navy blue police uniform entered the building behind Creed and removed his uniform cap.
The chief turned to the officer. "Gabe here can show you the way."
"Where to?" Gabe stuck out his hand. "Gabe McGregor."
Creed introduced himself.
"Mr. Thomas needs to hire a boat and a guide to look for a potentially sunken yacht his company insured."
"Think it got caught in the fog the other night?" Gabe ran a hand through his dark blond hair. "We haven't had any distress calls or bodies wash ashore."
"The GPS tracking device we installed on the craft indicates it's offshore, not moving. Too far to be anchored, which leads me to believe it's at the bottom."
"You'll want Dave Logsdon and"
"Emma Jenkins," the chief finished. "I've already briefed him on the best guide in the area. Would you show him how to get to the marina? I've got a meeting with the mayor in fifteen. We'd send a diver with you, but we're short staffed, and diving isn't necessarily a requirement for the job. I can put a call into the coast guard and have them start a search for survivors."
"Thanks." Creed would rather not get the coast guard involved just yet. "In the meantime, I'd like to check the location and make sure the boat wasn't stolen or the GPS device tossed overboard."
"I'll put out the word to be on the lookout for any casualties that might have washed ashore." The chief stepped around Creed and Gabe. "Gabe can take you to the marina and get you set up."
Gabe waved toward the door. "I can take you there, or you can follow me."
"I'll follow," Creed said.
"Dave's the most reliable captain in the area. He can get you just about anywhere, or close enough you can swim in. And Emma is the most experienced diver. Can't go wrong with her."
"Good to know." He didn't really care as long as he had a boat to get him to where he needed to go. He didn't necessarily need a local dive master to guide him in. Having received his training courtesy of the U.S. Navy SEALs, Creed could dive circles around most recreational divers. But to keep his cover, he'd go along with the locals and maybe learn something about who Phillip Macias was planning to meet with his Russian cargo.
The sooner the better. He had a feeling the yacht going down wasn't part of the plan, and whoever was expecting it would be in a hurry to get his hands on whatever was on board. If that happened, it could initiate a chain of events that could potentially destroy the entire western coast of the United States.
They're cancelling the Children's Wing Project.
The words echoed in Emma Jenkins's head as she shoved her duffel bag with her wet suit and regulator into the backseat of her Jeep. She slipped behind the wheel and headed for the marina, her chest hurting so badly she could barely breathe.
If she hadn't scheduled the week off, she might have been tempted to call in sick to the hospital where she worked as a nurse. The same hospital her former fiancé had swindled out of the funds raised to build the new children's wing eight months ago.
Laura Kurtz had called that morning with the news. "I wanted you to hear it from me first, and to assure you it's not your fault and no one thinks that way."
Yeah, right. If she hadn't introduced Randy Walters to the board of directors, he wouldn't have been offered the consultant position for raising funds for the new children's wing.
"If you're at fault," Laura had said, "then so am I for not seeing through his lies."
Emma had been so gullible, thinking Randy was trustworthy, loved her and really had planned to marry her in June. Her wedding dress still hung on her closet door, a painful reminder of the fool she'd been to trust a man.
"Take this week off as an opportunity to get yourself together, have some fun counting starfish or whatever it is you do on your dives, and come back refreshed. We need you here at Cape Churn Memorial. You're the best nurse we have."
At that point Emma had faked an incoming call, her voice choking on a sob she refused to release. Randy didn't deserve a single tear. He'd hurt her, but worse, he'd hurt the children of Cape Churn and the surrounding seaside towns by absconding with the money meant for the addition.
Emma's only hope at redemption lay in the sea. Call it a hunch, but today was the day her luck would change. She could feel it in her bones and flowing in her blood, the same blood that flowed through the long line of Cape Churn Jenkinses, who'd helped establish this little town on the coast of Oregon in the mid-eighteen hundreds. The sole surviving Jenkins, she had an obligation to redeem the family name.
As she turned her Jeep into the marina parking lot, her heartbeat slipped into an unsteady rhythm, her breath coming in shorter bursts as excitement mounted.
Today would be the day she found the wreck of the Anna Maria, a ship legend told of having sunk in the Devil's Shroud in the late 1700s. She climbed out of her vehicle, grabbed her duffel and hurried toward destiny.
The boat that would get her there, the Reel Dive, rocked gently against its mooring. Dave Logsdon trotted along the dock carrying a cooler, probably filled with beer, his flip-flops making soft slapping sounds. He wore a worn U2 T-shirt and cargo shorts stained from fish guts and bait and frayed at the edges. An L.A. Dodgers baseball cap perched on his curly blond hair, tipped back so that he could see. "Some fog we had the past couple nights, wasn't it?"
"Unfortunately." Emma climbed aboard, unzipped her bag and slipped her diving mask and headlamp over her head. She adjusted the straps and removed it, laying it aside while she dug out the rest of her diving gear. "Had plenty of accident victims in the emergency room."
Dave shook his head. "It was pretty bad out here. Must have been a disturbance farther out to sea. We had plenty of waves to go along with being socked in with the Devil's Shroud."
"Not a good night to be out on the water." According to the legends and the written records, a similar night, over two hundred years ago, had led to the disappearance of the Spanish galleon, the Anna Maria.
Nothing penetrated the choking blanket of fog the locals had nicknamed the Devil's Shroud. Ships caught in its deadly clutches ran aground in the deadly shallows of the reefs surrounding the jut of land called Cape Churn.
The Anna Maria had been spotted out to sea, nearing the Cape on its northern journey to the mouth of the Columbia River, navigating the jagged coastline between the rocky islands peppering the ocean floor. She'd been due to dock the next morning in the harbor town of Cape Churn, laden with gold coins and priceless china from the Far East. When the shroud descended, the ship and all aboard had perished.
Records kept by colonists placed the ship near the rocky shallows, but all efforts to locate the ship had come up empty.
Until now. Emma laid out her equipment, one piece at a time, going over her dive plan in her head. The dive that would fix everything in her life. Failure wasn't an option. Her life, her reputation at the hospital and in the community, depended on her finding a treasure sufficient to cover the cost of the new wing.
A moment of doubt slipped beneath her forced bravado. Why did she think she had a chance to find the Anna Maria when no one else had? Any sane person would conclude she had the same chances of winning the lottery as finding the two-hundred-year-old wreck.
"Ready?" Dave asked, leaping aboard.
"Almost." Emma shoved aside her misgivings and tested the flow of compressed air from the tank to the regulator, sucking in a deep breath and letting it out. She looked around at the equipment stacked on the deck. Buoyancy control device, or BCD, wrist dive computer with a built-in GPS, cylinder, regulator, booties, fins, wet suit, gloves, mask and diving knife. The most important item was the map she'd drawn of Cape Churn after researching her great-grandfather's logbooks and journals that had been kept by the long since deceased lighthouse keeper from the late eighteen hundreds.
Emma straightened. "Do you have the location entered in your GPS?"
After a great deal of research and studying old letters and documents, she'd calculated a back azimuth from the locations reporting a sighting of the Anna Maria and determined the coordinates accordingly.
Three years ago, she'd established a grid extending six hundred yards outward from that location, taking into account tide and ocean currents. Over the years, she'd dived the grid, meticulously ruling out one section after another until now. The final grid, her last hope to find the Anna Maria and keep alive the dream of a hospital addition benefiting the children.
A tentative thrill of anticipation shimmied across her skin.
Dave climbed the ladder to the helm and paused at the top, his back still to her as he faced the dock. "What's with the police car?"
Emma glanced up, her gaze scanning the parking lot.
An SUV with Cape Churn Police written on the side pulled to a stop, and Officer Gabe McGregor got out.
Emma smiled and waved. Gabe and his fiancée, Kayla Davies, were friends of hers, though too often she felt like a pathetic odd man out to their loving family.