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JACK MERCHANT was drifting.
At the moment, he didn't care.
The outboard to his inflatable raft was silent, but nothing else was. Around and above him, machinery roared. He was drifting just inside the Charles River Dam, in what he thought of as sort of an industrial lagoon underneath the construction of the Big Dig.
Around him, everyone was working hard at the fantastically expensive construction under way. Beneath the girders of the overpass, a half dozen bright yellow boxcar-size containers were stacked like building blocks. A battered aluminum powerboat—presumably used by the work crew—looked like a kid's toy underneath all the construction. Billions of dollars were being poured into an enormous hole in the ground, the most expensive public works project in history. Or so Merchant thought he'd read.
It was early morning, and already the smell of diesel was in the air, the whine of car tires on the bridge. A construction worker was poised on the edge of a beam. He lifted both arms wide when signaling to the crane operator. For a moment, his body almost mirrored the shape of the new cable stay bridge behind him. Merchant raised his Nikon, got it. It was a digital camera, so he took a moment to look at the LCD on the back, cupping his hand around it so he could see the picture without the glare. "Yah," he whispered.
It was a decent shot, the man being aped by the glittering tower of concrete and cable steel. His arms were a bit low, however.
Merchant had played the role of a photographer, so he knew the details mattered.
But Merchant wasn't a photographer. Not a real one. Or not yet, anyhow.
If he had been a sniper, he would've had a hell of a shot, too.
But Merchant wasn't a sniper, either. He'd known plenty during his time in the Drug Enforcement Administration, but that was over now.
His raft started to drift around in the wrong direction.
He let it. Didn't matter really, not if drifting was your goal. He thought awhile about whether "drifting" and "goal" together constituted an oxymoron.
He decided not.
He put a wider lens on his camera and began to take some shots of the locks and pumping station. Two huge brick buildings connected by a glassed-in walkway over the three locks. The pumping station on the left, the State Police on the right. The three locks were closed now, the retractable pedestrian walkway continuing over each of the three massive gates.
He often walked to Boston from his marina over the locks. He'd go through the Paul Revere Park, over the pedestrian bridges into Boston. It wasn't even a ten-minute walk—assuming the warning lights didn't start swirling and one of the little bridges retract to let a boat into the lock. If it did, well, these days, Merchant was usually content to check out the boat or read the Plexiglas-encased facts posted along the walkway. By now, he pretty much had them memorized:
Six pump engines that can each displace 630,000 gallons of water per minute ... alewife and blueback herring are attracted to the fish ladder by the flow of fresh water and make their way up the Charles to lay their eggs ... the main purpose of the locks is to keep the Charles River at eight feet above low tide, and a haven for recreational boaters ...
Merchant took another few shots, trying to ignore the fact that his inflatable raft was leaking again.
He looked down and swore softly. Pushing at the sides, feeling that they were soft. His boat was soft and his butt was wet. "Damn," he said. "Damn, damn."
He'd patched the inflatable with a bicycle tire repair kit, and he could see from the bubbles along the inside floorboard that the patch was worth about as much as the nickel or so he'd paid for it.
He looked over his shoulder and saw that the construction worker had moved. Merchant raised the camera again.
This time, the composition was even better. The construction worker's arms were out completely now, waving to the crane operator, who was bringing in another I beam.
Merchant released the shutter, took several quick shots.
He stared at the LCD again, and scrolled through the pictures he'd taken that morning. None of the shots of the dam did it justice. He erased them. Of the construction worker shots, two were just OK, but two were pro quality.
He studied them both and decided one was perfect.
Merchant deleted all but the best shot. Figured someday he'd get around to printing it. But not now.
He had some skill, some talent. But not enough money to waste on a high-quality print that no one wanted to buy.
Definitely not a pro yet.
He knelt in the stern and started the outboard. It was awkward to do with the camera bag strap around his neck, trying to keep the bag balanced on his back. With all the water in the boat, he couldn't just set it down.
He pulled the rope, and the small motor growled to life. He sounded his air horn, two long blasts and two short, and waited while the lock operator up in the glassed-in walkway opened the gate of the smallest lock. Smallest, maybe, but able to handle a yacht. Several of them, in fact.
Merchant twisted the throttle and his eight-foot dinghy entered. Water was bubbling up around his legs now, and he squirmed a bit, and put the camera bag on his lap.
The high cement walls rose on each side. He puttered slowly toward the second set of gates. Once the water level matched the harbor, the gates would open and he could head out into the harbor.
Big production for such a small craft. He felt a bit silly, sitting in a small waterlogged boat plinking pictures that no one wanted. But the lock operator up there presumably had nothing else to do. The way Merchant saw it, they were giving each other some reason for being.
At last, the gates swung open.
Merchant twisted the throttle and headed to his marina. Not a long journey, it was all of about two hundred yards away. He saw the yard owner out near the sliding doors of his office. Merchant kept looking straight ahead, hoping they could leave it like that.
But the owner came onto the deck outside the office, his hands on his hips. He had a face like a hawk, with a nose to match. Just staring.
Merchant had paid his dock fees every month on time, but the owner seemed to be reading how close it was all getting.
Merchant kept the outboard puttering along, trying to look like a guy who could pay his bills. Shouldn't have been hard: he'd paid his way all his life without a problem.
But with the water sloshing around the boat bottom, the outboard overdue for a tune-up and coughing up a small cloud of blue smoke, he didn't look the part. He nodded to the owner, and the owner nodded back and went into the office.
Merchant brought the inflatable up to the dinghy dock and killed the engine. He put the camera bag on the dock and tied the boat off. He was relieved that the marina owner didn't come out to talk with him.
The lawyer had pretty much wiped out his savings. Even so, Merchant had thought he'd be all right when he came back to Boston. He had taken on some boatyard work just to pay the bills. Mindless stuff, scraping hulls and docks and painting. But it was summer now, and the regular crews had everything under control. And Merchant hadn't yet figured out a new career. Not even close.
He slung his camera bag over his shoulder and started for his boat, the Lila. She was a forty-foot sloop, bought during his very different life, which had pretty much ended about three months ago. He loved having her, but she consumed money, digested bales of it. Just last month, a minor engine repair had turned out to be a major overhaul. Nevertheless, Merchant wanted to keep her. He wanted that very much.
He thought quite a bit these days about how the boat was a gift from his past. A gift from a different person, almost. He wondered if maybe everyone's life was like that, full of pieces and tools that could be taken and reshaped for something new.
The photography maybe. There might be something there. He had the equipment, and it seemed like he might actually have some talent for it. Maybe a pro photographer with an emphasis on marine life? Highly competitive field. Every yahoo with a nice camera thought he could do it. And that was all he was at the moment, a yahoo with a nice camera.
He wondered what gift he'd find in Boston.
Charlestown, actually. The marina was a stone's throw from Boston proper and yet so insulated and clannish it might as well have been a thousand miles away. A place where a lot of very dangerous people had good reason to hate him.
Early in his career with the DEA, Merchant had spent a year undercover in Charlestown chasing down a major cocaine and PCP distribution ring. People were being killed, and yet no one dared speak. With his black hair and weather-burned skin, Merchant could pass for Black Irish. He had thrown himself entirely into his role, making trafficking-weight buys and sells to small-timers until he could bust them and turn them out. That done, he'd send them in wired. On a few occasions, he got in himself. He was able to bring down a half dozen men, who each found time during their defense to meet his eyes across the courtroom, to let him know that he had made an enemy for life.
Back then, he didn't care. It was worth a promotion and a new assignment in the Virgin Islands.
Now it gave him reason to look over his shoulder.
He couldn't even explain to himself why he'd decided this would be his new home; maybe it was a perverse sense of entitlement that, even if he had been drummed out of the DEA, at least he could go wherever the hell he wanted to go.
A perverse sense of entitlement.
He liked the sound of that.
He was busy with the steady mental debate about what he should do with himself now that he was flat out of a career when he saw through one of Lila's cabin portholes something move.
There was someone on his boat.
His overwhelming feeling at the moment was sadness. Even as he started back to get behind another boat on a finger dock. Sadness. Even as he was checking to see if there was other movement, if he was already surrounded.
Sadness that some aspects of the life would never change, no matter how much he wanted them to.
Automatically, he reached into his camera bag for his handgun. It was always there, a nine-millimeter SIG-Sauer.
He came up empty.
This was a change, another gift from his recent past—he no longer carried a gun.
It almost made him laugh.
MERCHANT WAITED and listened.
He heard a thin, whistling tune from whoever was onboard. The tune sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it. And a few moments after that, he smelled bacon frying.
Merchant boarded his boat, picking up a winch handle as he stepped into the cockpit.
Sarah Ballard was standing in the galley, the fry pan filled with bacon. The galley was a mess of flour and open cupboards. Sarah looked up and saw Merchant standing there, the heavy chrome metal glinting in his hand. She said, "You want bunny ears on your pancakes, or plain?"
"Sarah girl," he said, letting out his breath. He slipped the handle back into the winch and said, "Bunny ears."
He stepped down into the cabin. "I thought I had a lock on the cabin. Saving my bacon and such."
"Oh, shut up and kiss me."
He did, and they both kept it no more than friendly.
"What're you doing here?" Merchant said. He liked Sarah. Once upon a time, he had even hoped she'd be more than a friend. But considering what she did for a living, now he felt more than a little wary.
She moved back to the stove. "Cooking you breakfast. Now sit down."
"The big boss," he said. "I forgot."
"Shame on you, then." She slid the spatula under the bacon and dropped a half dozen strips onto a plate covered with paper towels. She drained most of the fat into an empty coffee can in the sink, and then ladled the pancake batter into the pan. She nodded to the coffeepot. "Left you a cup."
Merchant poured the coffee, noting the dribble of egg whites, flour, and cooking oil on the countertop. Her cooking skills hadn't improved over time, he could see.
"Only way to keep sane living aboard is to keep everything in its place," he said. "Thought you'd know that by now."
"Yeah, right." She waved the spatula at the small pile of tools, sawdust, and wood strips on the floor of the main cabin. "Give me a lecture, Merchant."
He looked forward. She had a point. He said, "By tomorrow I'll be done. Got a little rot along the edge of the sole there."
"Handy these days, are you?"
"Yeah." He looked at her sharply. "Really, why are you here?" Sarah flipped a pancake. Gave him a Cheshire cat smile. She said, "You look soaked.
Why don't you change?"
She was probably just under thirty now, Merchant figured. Tall, rich black hair, long legs. Heart-stopping body. More fit than he remembered her. Much more fit, actually. High cheekbones more defined, muscle definition in her arms, the way she held herself.
"I'll be right back." He made his way into the forward cabin. He changed into dry shorts and a T-shirt, and then came back to the galley.
He said, "What've you been doing to yourself?"
"The bod? I like to work out."
"I'd say so."
She looked at him critically. "Wish I could say the same of you."
He laughed. "Nice."
"Just look like you could use more sleep, is all. Maybe a shave every once in a while."
Sarah was wearing jeans, boat shoes, a black T-shirt. The shirt was old and faded. A gift from her brother, Merchant knew. It was emblazoned with a promo for the old cult movie Repo Man. A car floated on her back, a greenish light glowing from the trunk. Joel had hand-painted the letters wo in the middle of the title, changing it to REPO WOMAN.
That was what Sarah was, a repo woman. Only for boats, not cars.
"So are you here to take my boat or what?" Merchant said.
"All right," she said. "I wish you'd just shut up and let me feed you some breakfast. But yes, I've got paper on your boat."
"Ah, for Christ's sakes," Merchant said.
She put her hand up. "Please. I think I can help out."
"I'll get to that."
"You'll get to that?"
"Yep. Meanwhile, I want to know why you haven't called me. You've been here how long?"
Merchant paused. Wanting to know exactly how she intended to help out with towing his boat away and leaving him on the dock.
He was only one payment behind.
He said, "You're just going to take it?"
God, was he whining? Sounded damned close to his own ears.
"Shush," she said. "C'mon, why haven't I heard from you?"
He sighed. "I've been here about three months. Believe me, you haven't missed anything. I've been lousy company. You're just going to take the boat?"
She ignored the last. "Yeah, like I ever looked to you for laughs." She flipped a pancake onto a plate. "Here, the first one's always the greasiest. You eat it." She put another ladle of batter into the pan.
Merchant cut the right ear off the bunny, tasted it, found it was indeed greasy on the outside, but light on the inside. He told Sarah where to find the syrup, and she passed it to him.
She said, "Been what, almost five years?"
She was silent for a moment.
He said, "I should have been in better touch. But I was undercover a lot of that time. You tend to get cut off." He looked at her hand. No ring. "So, you're not married."
She looked at him quickly with something going through her eyes. Hurt, anger, he couldn't tell. "My, you have been out of touch," she said.
"What's that mean?"
"Later." She flipped a pancake onto her plate and sat down across from him. She looked at him straight on. Dark green eyes with gold flecks. "I missed you."
Merchant smiled at her. He was surprised that he could under the circumstances. But he did like her. Always had. He said, "How you been standing up with it all?"
"I miss the kid."
"Yeah, I'd expect."
"Doesn't seem to make a hell of a lot of difference, the time."
Merchant could imagine. He had a younger sister living up in New Hampshire, just divorced her idiot of a husband.
He loved her like crazy, so he could imagine.
He said, "So the first you heard I was here was the bank paper on Lila?"
"No. Last week, I heard. Henriques."
"You're kidding. Where'd you see him?"
Excerpted from The Repo by Bill Eidson. Copyright © 2003 Bill Eidson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 9, 2008
Forced into an early retirement, former DEA agent Jack Merchant wastes time passing aimlessly sailing in the waters off Charleston, Massachusetts. He is bored and knows he is stuck in a watery rut, but though he loathes what has become of him, Jack seems unable to do anything but languish in self-pity.<P> Repo woman Sarah Ballard offers Jack a deal that if he fails to accept he will lose his sloop the Lila as she possesses the past due bank notes. Sarah knows Jack from an encounter five years ago and uses his debt as a blackmail tool to obtain his help as her own business teeters on the brink of failure. In one week, MassBank demands she locate former Veep Paul Baylor and his wife, who apparently embezzled bank cash or else. Sarah and Jack begin the quest to find the Baylors, but soon end up in the same knotted mess that has engulfed their prey.<P> The sleuthing is well done and exciting and that alone should hook the audience, as the investigation is as complex as it gets because it seems so straightforward and simple. However, the key to this delightful maritime mystery is the cast. Not only do the lead duo and the vanished pair come across as genuine, especially THE REPO woman, but the support crew provides depth whether they are in Massachusetts or not. Bill Eidson writes a powerful tale that readers will demand more rough sailing from this talented author.<P> Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 23, 2003
I read Frames per Second by this author a few years ago,and remember him as being pretty good. His new one, The Repo, is even better, with a tough, ex-DEA agent and his even tougher partner, sexy Sarah Ballard, who owns a boat repo business. Together they have to track down a rich couple who disappeared on their yacht, but the spoiled yuppies turn out to be big trouble. This is a super fast, intelligent story involving high-seas adventure, computer crimes, and one sicko behind it all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.