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It was good work.
Jack Merchant had been avoiding it for a long time, but the winch had finally frozen, leaving him no choice.
But now that he was into it, the parts spread out on an old beach towel, the problem found — he was enjoying himself. A little spring had come off the ratchet inside the winch. Without that little spring, the winch couldn't haul in the genoa sail. Without the genoa, there wasn't much reason even to take the boat from the dock. But Merchant had been lucky enough to get the spare part at the marina store. He had the tools, the knowledge, and the time.
He took a moment to look out over the harbor. The sun was low enough that from his angle the water was a rich sea green. It was late afternoon, middle of the week. And Merchant was at home. Truly, his boat, Lila, was also his home in Boston Harbor.
He was wearing an old bathing suit and a T-shirt. His bare feet felt good on the warm fiberglass sole. A little trickle of sweat was going down his spine, but the faint breeze was keeping his brow dry.
He figured it'd take forty minutes or so to grease each part carefully, wipe off the excess, and put the winch back together. Maybe an hour.
Either way, there should be plenty of time for him to take a sail that afternoon. First, buy some groceries, get some beer. Then maybe he'd head out to one of the harbor islands, drop the hook. Spend the night. Maybe a couple of nights. He had enough money to not worry for the next month, maybe two.
He turned back to the winch.
It was good work.
"You're not going to leave all that grease, are you?" Sarah asked. "You've got to wipe off each part."
Merchant looked up. "You," he said.
He was surprised she'd managed to get so close without him noticing.
Her back was to the sun, but he could see she was grinning at him.
"Well?" she said. "Do I need to tell you everything?"
Standing there with her hands in her back jeans pockets.
"I'm not interrupting?"
"Course you are."
"Too bad." She climbed onboard and leaned down to kiss him. Their lips touched just lightly, and Merchant did his best not to convey how much the pleasures of fixing the winch had just paled.
Sarah was in her late twenties, dark hair, green eyes. The body of an athlete, which she was.
She said, "I've missed you the past couple of times you were down at the office."
Sarah owned a marine repossession business down in New Bedford. Taking boats back from people who didn't make their payments. Since he'd come back to Boston a year ago, Merchant had helped her search and recover some of the tougher jobs. Helping her and keeping himself in dock fees and grocery money.
Merchant was fairly certain he was closer to Sarah than anyone on earth. And yet, he suspected she'd avoided him those last two times he'd been at her office.
Love, trust, intimacy.
Not always easy to get all three together.
"So," he said. "Seeing you does good things for my heart, as usual."
"No explaining your heart, sweetie." She stepped down into his cabin and rummaged around through the icebox until she found an iced tea. "Want one?"
"I had to see somebody in town and figured I'd stop by."
"Glad you did."
She climbed back up the stairs and sat beside him. "So can I help you put your winch back together?"
"I've got an assistant now?"
"More like a supervisor," she said. She kicked off her boat shoes and leaned back. They opened their iced teas, clinked them together, and drank.
"Hi, Jack," she said.
He said hi back. And refrained from asking her why she'd been avoiding him.
"So what have you got going on?" she asked.
He told her about some of the shooting he'd been doing. Back in his days as an undercover agent with the DEA, he had frequently posed as a pro photographer with a cocaine problem. Now that he was out, he'd been giving serious consideration to becoming a real photographer without the drug habit.
"Been working on the portfolio," he said. "Pretty soon I'm going to have enough of the marine stuff together, I'm going to make a submission to one of the stock houses. See how that flies."
"Gee, and the money will just roll in."
"Sarcasm isn't as attractive as you might think."
"Explains just one of my problems," she said. "So what else are you doing for real money?"
"Spending a little of it on beer and groceries." He told her about his plans to go out sailing for the afternoon. He didn't invite her, but the opening was there and she knew it.
"Sounds nice," she said. "But, the islands have been there for a long time and they'll probably still be there in a few days. Maybe even a week or so."
"So what have you got for me?"
"A referral, maybe."
"Some boat you've got paper on?"
"No. This is different."
"Is it a boat?"
"Uh-huh. Well, this is all clear to me now. Why do you have a guilty look on your face?"
"Don't want to take advantage of you. Don't want to take advantage of him."
"This client. This guy, really. He's in a spot, and he doesn't know what else to do. He came to me and I can't take the time out, and I'm really not sure anything can be done, and I don't want to take his money or lead him on and waste my own time for something that's hopeless."
"And so you thought of me."
She smiled quickly. "I think about you a lot. More than you'd know."
"Well, that's nice to hear. Be even better to see you some more."
"I know," she said. "Believe it or not, I'm working on it. But about this guy ..."
"Yes, about this guy."
"He's lost a lot. Everything that matters. And he came to me to help him track down a boat."
"At least that sounds like familiar territory."
"Sounds it, but it's not." She checked her watch and looked up the dock. Merchant followed her eyes and saw a man walking toward them. He moved along slowly, as if he were tired.
"This him?" Merchant said. "You brought him here?"
"Listen to him," she said. "And be nice. He's lost his family."
"What do you mean, he lost them? And I'm supposed to help find them?"
"That's for you to decide."
"Did you say I could help him with that?"
"No. I said you'd listen. That I promised."
Merchant looked back at the man. Now he was right at the bow, just stepping on the finger pier to Merchant's boat. Even from there, Merchant could read the pain. The stiffness in his walk, the pallor under his sun-reddened skin.
Trouble, Merchant thought.
But he carefully folded the towel around the winch parts, and moved them aside.
Making room for the man.CHAPTER 2
Sarah introduced Merchant to Matt Coulter.
"Come on up," Merchant said.
Coulter climbed up the three wooden steps slowly, but stepped into the cockpit without that tentative quality non-sailors sometimes displayed. He looked around the boat quickly, giving it an automatic appraisal in a way Merchant knew he did himself every time he climbed aboard someone else's boat.
Coulter was a sinewy-looking man. Middle height, sun-bleached hair, pale blue eyes. Mid-thirties. New-looking jeans, boat shoes, and a tan polo shirt. The clothes looked a trifle too big for him. There was a scar along his right temple and the back of his head where the hair had been shaved and was just beginning to grow back.
Surgery, it looked like.
Coulter saw him looking and seemed to wait, to let Merchant make his own judgments.
And then he said, "I'm patched up with baling twine, huh?"
"How are you doing?" Merchant said.
"Little better most days. Two weeks back I was in a hospital bed with tubes in my arms, so this is a move in the right direction. How much did Sarah tell you about my situation?"
"Not much," she said. "I thought he should hear it from you."
Coulter gave a faint smile. "Bad as that, is it?"
Merchant gestured for Coulter to sit, and offered him something to drink.
Coulter declined the drink, and they all sat down. Coulter said to Merchant, "Did you read about me and my family at all? Seagull?"
The boat name was faintly familiar.
"Almost a month back," Coulter said.
"The sinking," Merchant said. "A sailboat off the coast, dismasted, right?"
"That's right. That was my boat, my family."
Merchant glanced at Sarah.
Couldn't help it. He wanted to say, What-the-hell-did-you-bring-him-to-me-for? But Merchant had been brought up better than that.
The sinking had made the news for several days: a man bringing his boat home from Florida. Boat dismasted. Wife dead. Children lost at sea. He was the only survivor.
"I'm so sorry," Merchant said. "That's a terrible loss." He lifted his hands and dropped them, uselessly. Not knowing what else to say.
"It's worse than you think."
Coulter said, "It's worse because I believe my children are still alive and I can't get anyone to help me find them."
"No, you don't," Coulter said. "But I see the way your face changes. I see it from everyone I talk to. The look of sympathy. The glance to my head, the scar. And, yes, I was out of it for weeks. And yes, things are screwed up in my head. I've lost big hunks of memory. But not about this. They're still alive. Or at least they were the last I saw them. They didn't drown at sea, I know that. And I want you to help me find them."
Merchant gestured to his boat. "This is it for me. A sailboat. Makes seven knots under the very best of circumstances. Figure four to five for an average. I'm not equipped for a search at sea. Really, the Coast Guard is your best option."
"I know all that. And they've done what they do. By now in their eyes, I'm a desperate father, a nut, a sad case. Someone who doesn't know how to accept reality. And that's probably what you're thinking right about now."
Merchant didn't say anything.
Neither did Sarah.
"The difference," Coulter said, slowly, "is that I'm willing to pay you a substantial amount to help me look."
"I've read about you. What happened with you and Sarah last year. The Baylors, that couple taking off in their boat, the trouble you ran into."
"I wouldn't see that as a reference," Merchant said. "Both Sarah and I got shot. People around us were killed. How's that a reference?"
"You found the boat," Coulter said. He leaned forward and touched Merchant's arm. "You found the damn boat."
Close up, Merchant could see the fatigue in Coulter's eyes even more clearly. Could feel the shakiness in his hand as he touched Merchant's arm.
"Isn't Seagull about a hundred feet underwater?" he said.
"I don't care about Seagull. If I had her on land I'd douse her in gasoline and throw the match. All you need to know about her is that the insurance company paid up. I've got money. So triple — quadruple — whatever you make repossessing a boat and I'll give it to you, if you help me find the boat that took them."
"I don't understand," Merchant said. "If Seagull —"
"Forget that! I'm not making myself clear...." Coulter passed a hand over his face. Trying to collect himself, it seemed. He said, "The boat I'm looking for is the one that took them away. The one that took Sean and Laurie."
Coulter's eyes filled, but he didn't stop. "That's the boat I want you to find. The one that took them away."CHAPTER 3
Merchant said, "What do you mean, 'took them'?"
"Just that. They were our rescue."
"The rescue crew took your kids?" Merchant said. "Why?"
"I don't know," Coulter said.
"What's the name of this boat?"
"I don't know."
Sarah said, "He's had a lot of memory loss, Jack."
"I told you, huge gaps," Coulter said. "I have no problem with my long-term memory. I can tell you how I met C.C., tell you about the birth of both our children. Can tell you about the past twenty-five years. Can tell you most of what happened on our trip back. But after we got off the boat, into the raft, it's spotty. Doctors don't agree why. My surgeon says it's a result of physical trauma. The shrink says my psyche is defending me against the horror of what happened to my family — or, hey, maybe it was the knock on the head. Both doctors say the rest of it may come back soon, later, or never."
"I see," Merchant said.
"Yeah, you see," Coulter said.
Merchant could see the very act of being there was taking a lot out of the man. Merchant had suffered minor concussions twice in his DEA career, and he knew how the physical and mental weakness could hang on.
Sarah said, "Tell Jack about what you know. About the dismasting."
"Yeah. OK." Coulter seemed to gather his thoughts and told in a flat, unemotional voice how the mast had broken, his efforts to cut the stays, the puncture of his hull. "There was no choice but to abandon Seagull. C.C. worked with the kids while I got the raft in the water. She took the handheld radio and the GPS, so we could call out our position. We had an emergency kit in the raft with flares. We'd drilled all this plenty of times and it was paying off."
"Everyone wearing vests?"
"Absolutely. Which is one of the things I've been hammering to the Coast Guard. We were all wearing vests. They found me and C.C. If they found us out there, why didn't they find the kids?"
Merchant nodded. But he — and he suspected Coulter — knew the answer to that was brutally simple.
It was a big ocean.
No matter how well the Coast Guard searched, his children could still be out there. Subject to the horrors of the elements, scavengers, and time.
Merchant said, "Did your wife get through to anyone on the VHF?"
Coulter shook his head. "I don't know. It's here that my thinking gets convoluted. It's just flashes of memory. This boat comes out of the dark. We see the port lights. Red lights moving not too far from us. I remember the sound of big diesel engines."
Merchant waited, and then said, "And did something go wrong? Did they capsize you?"
Coulter shook his head. "I don't know. This is as far as I get."
"OK," Merchant said. "You remember what the boat looked like?"
Coulter shook his head. "It's like snapshots. Details, but nothing very cohesive. Big white cruiser sportfisherman. Maybe forty-five feet long. Getting closer and closer."
"Did you get aboard?"
"I don't know."
"That's it?" Merchant said.
"Just about. I've got impressions. Fear for my family, I know that. A huge sense that I had done something wrong."
"But that could just be the situation, that you had them out there at all."
"It could be. Because I certainly felt that. But this is something different. A different feeling, but without a specific reason, you know?"
"I guess. But from what you're saying, this boat might have just run over you."
"No," Coulter said. "No, that's not what happened. I don't know what did, but it wasn't that."
"How can you be sure?"
"I just am."
Coulter took a deep breath. Regained himself. He said, "The next thing I remember there's a tremendous white light overhead. Noise. And I was cold. Very cold. It must've been the Coast Guard helicopter, though I don't remember it exactly. They'd been following the EPIRB signal until it went silent, but they had a fix on the location."
"Why did it go silent?"
"I don't know. They couldn't find it."
"Those things don't just sink."
"I know. That's my point. Something had to happen to it to make it go silent."
"And the raft wasn't found?"
"No. I was very lucky. They'd found me on the first pass of their search grid. They put a diver in the water, and he got me into the basket. They found C.C. about a quarter-mile away."
He paused here. Tried to speak, and then paused again. He rubbed his hands along his legs, as if attempting to get warm. Then he said, "The autopsy said she died from a blow to the head. But I don't really remember any of that. I was unconscious. A coma. It wasn't until almost a week and a half later that I came out of it. And then a couple of days of me going in and out, and asking for C.C., before I woke up to find a nurse beside my bed. I asked where my wife was. The way the nurse managed not to answer me, I just knew it was the worst news. If I could have, I would've crawled back inside my broken head and died."
"Tell me about the head wound," Merchant said.
Excerpted from The Mayday by Bill Eidson. Copyright © 2005 Bill Eidson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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