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Turning into the hotel parking lot, Blake Whittaker guided his black sedan into the nearest available space and killed the engine. Instead of making an immediate grab for the bag in the passenger’s seat, he simply sat, staring into the distance.
It was amazing how things had changed since he’d last been in Port Rock. Almost seventeen years had passed since he’d last set foot in the small Maine fishing village. And while the old familiar landmarks were still in place, a lot of things looked different. The hotel, for instance, was new. Back when he was a kid the oceanfront acreage overlooking the bay was undeveloped, offering an unobstructed view of the open water and the small island that lay about a mile offshore.
Little Mer Island, he thought. That was where he’d be heading first thing tomorrow. To get there he’d have to rent a skiff, crossing over the wide-open waters of the bay.
A flush prickled Blake’s skin as his heart sped up. Despite the humidity permeating the warm summer night, he shivered. He hated deep water of any kind. Aside from a shower, he did his best to stay far away from the stuff. It didn’t matter if it only filled a swimming pool, or the wide-open ocean. The less he saw of it, the better.
Mouth going bone-dry, his grip on the steering wheel tightened as a series of images flashed through his mind. For a brief second he wasn’t a thirty-three-year-old man, but a four-year-old boy facing an insanely furious woman filling a deep old-fashioned claw-foot tub with ice-cold water.
Forcing himself back toward calm, Blake blew out a few quick hard puffs, filling his lungs and then quickly expelling the air. The strain of clenching his jaw made his teeth hurt. The last thing he needed was a full-blown panic attack while sitting in the parking lot. Thank God the lot was abandoned. There was no one around at such a late hour to see him melt down.
Catching hold of his fear and forcing himself to stuff it away, he slowly uncurled his fingers. A low curse slipped between his numb lips. “Damn.” Just thinking about his mother made him twitch, setting his nerves on edge.
He hadn’t expected that memory to come crawling out of nowhere and ambush him. He did his best to forget those petrifying moments when his mom was drunk on vodka and raging with malice.
Men. She hated them. Every last blasted one and . . .
And some things are best left alone, Blake reminded himself. Remembering his mother was like sticking his hand into a den of poisonous snakes. He was bound to get bitten, but he just couldn’t stop prodding the deadly reptiles.
He’d better stop it or he was going to get bitten. Badly.
Coming back to Port Rock certainly wasn’t helping matters. When he’d finally gotten old enough to leave it, he hadn’t intended to come back. Not ever. At the age of seventeen he’d gotten the hell out, going as far away as he could. A one-way bus ticket and a suitcase was all he had to his name. If he hadn’t just joined the army, he would’ve had no place to go at the end of the trip.
Blake rubbed his burning eyes. To be sane himself, to continue being sane, he had to quit tearing at the scars marking old wounds. There were a lot of ghosts lingering in his past, a lot of skeletons shoved into his family’s closets.
Shut them, bolt them, and go on. That was the way he’d always gotten things done. As a kid he’d put on the stiff upper lip, taken the beatings, and gone about the business of living as best he could.
Sighing again, he shifted his body in the uncomfortable seat, feeling the cramp in his legs. The three-and-a-half-hour trip through a massive thunderstorm had taken its toll on his nerves.
Palm rasping against a day’s growth of whiskers, he reached for the cup balanced between his splayed legs. He took a gulp of its contents: unsweetened black coffee. It was cold and tasted like shit. As much as he didn’t like coming back to Port Rock, he had a job to do. Not a hard one. Not even difficult. Just ask a few questions, poke around a little. It wasn’t rocket science.
But it was top secret.
As a special agent, Blake presently worked in the A51-ASD division of the FBI. Had it not been a highly covert organization, the A51 would have been familiar enough to tip off most Americans as to its purpose. After all, Area 51 was the nickname for a military base presently located in the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States. Supposedly the base’s primary purpose was the development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems.
That was somewhat true. And anyone not presently situated under a rock knew about the intense secrecy surrounding the base, one that had made it a popular subject among conspiracy theorists who held a belief in the existence of alien life on Earth.
The crackpots weren’t wrong, either. Blake Whittaker knew for a fact the federal government took the existence of aliens very seriously. The genesis of the current operations stemmed from an incident in 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico. At that time, the military had supposedly recovered alien craft and corpses, purportedly held under lock and key, never to be revealed to the public.
It was absolutely true in every respect.
The ASD had been created to cover not only future occurrences of possible alien activity, but also to investigate other incidents deemed alien, paranormal, or hereby inexplicable.
Curious. Strange. Bizarre. You name it, the ASD had an agent on it.
And that was why he was in Port Rock. Because something curious had taken not only a strange turn, but a bizarre one as well.
It had all begun in the 1950s, when an intense concentration of electromagnetic energy was located in the Mediterranean Sea. There was no rhyme or reason why the energy should be at that precise spot, or what caused it. Using the latest technology in deep-sea exploration, scientists had yet to discover the source. Given the location of the disturbance, most theories ranged from a geothermal field due to volcanic activity, to some sort of alien homing signal or beacon.
For the most part, the energy seemed to be harmless, a phenomenon never to be explained. Naval ships in the area monitored it, and no changes had been reported in the last sixty years. Whatever it was simply was.
And then something happened.
From the data he had, Whittaker knew that an undersea salvage group, working under the name of Recoveries, Inc., had moved into the area. The outfit had recently filed in federal court for salvage rights for what they claimed to be the lost civilization of Ishaldi. Nothing unusual there. Treasure hunters regularly hit the Mediterranean in search of everything from ancient Egyptian barges to Spanish warships to World War II aircraft. After all, for the three quarters of the globe, the Mediterranean Sea was the uniting element and the center of world history.
What had exactly occurred was still to be explained. During the first dive, tragedy had struck, some kind of seismic activity taking place deep beneath the water. The resulting quake was strong enough to be detected by hydrophones, and was unlike anything scientists had ever heard through decades of listening.
The undersea quake had also claimed a victim. Jake Massey, the archaeologist leading the recovery efforts, had been reported missing at sea. A month had passed since that fateful day and his body had yet to be recovered.
More interesting than the quake and the regrettable loss of life was the fact that the former low-level energy field had gone haywire. The electromagnetic field had suddenly tripled in strength. Its signal—if it could be called that—had begun to interfere with radar and radio transmissions, seemingly swallowing up everything electronic in a single gulp. It was like a big black hole had suddenly opened at the bottom of the sea. No ship could get within ten miles of the location without interference. As the area was one of the most heavily sailed shipping lanes in the world, it was a pain in the ass for seacraft to detour around.
In the scheme of things, Blake’s job was fairly simple. He’d been sent to question Massey’s partner about the incident. The feds wanted to know if Randall’s crew had seen, heard, or encountered something outside the norm during their time beneath the water. Given that the seismic activity had taken place at a depth of more than three miles beneath the water, Whittaker sincerely doubted they would have any useful information to offer.
Blake grimaced, tossing the empty cup onto the floor on the passenger’s side. Flicking on an overhead light, he consulted his notes, a chicken scratch of random information on a pocket-sized pad.
According to intelligence, Kenneth Randall presently lived on Little Mer with his wife, Tessa. Since the loss of Jake Massey, the group had suspended all salvage efforts and the company had gone inactive. An investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard, which monitored recovery efforts in the Mediterranean, had ruled Massey the victim of an unfortunate accident.
Still, the A51-ASD had a job to do. And that meant sending an agent out to ask a few questions and poke around a little. His conclusions on the matter would be the deciding factor on whether a follow-up was warranted or if the matter was marked closed.
The barest trace of a smile crossed Blake’s lips. Most of the incidents he looked into turned out to be bogus, of no real scientific value. He’d worked for the agency for almost five years and had yet to see anything unusual. . Logic and science could usually explain away most of the reported phenomena.
Tucking his pad away, Blake ran his fingers through his hair. He caught a brief glimpse of half his face in the rearview mirror, a thatch of messy black hair and bloodshot blue-gray eyes. Lines of disgruntlement puckered his forehead. Shadows lingered behind his gaze, the ghosts of disappointment and disillusionment. One of his irises had a thin streak of amber through the lower half, as though someone had taken an eraser and begun to rub out one color before replacing it with another. People, especially the crazy ones, were frequently unsettled by that odd eye. It was something he used to good effect when employing his best “don’t lie to me” agent stare.
Blake glanced at the single bag he’d packed for the trip. Aside from a necessary change of clothes and his netbook, he carried only a wallet, his cell, and his service weapon. Spending a lot of time on the road had taught him to travel light. He didn’t plan to be in Port Rock more than a day.
The sooner I can leave, the better. He didn’t want to hang around his old hometown, rehashing memories that were better left alone. Some things needed to stay buried.
Opening the car door, Blake got out. The cool breeze winnowing off the bay was like a balm on his flushed skin. A day’s worth of sweat clung to his flesh. He felt wet patches under his arms, trickles of perspiration making its way down his spine to his underwear. Sweat fogged his vision as he pushed a mat of sticky hair off his forehead.
He pulled in a deep breath, letting the crisp sea air clear his foggy mind. Stretching his arms wide, he rolled his shoulders, trying to relieve the ache at the base of his neck. He’d wasted enough time. Right now what he needed most was a hot shower and cool, clean sheets.
Grabbing his bag off the passenger’s seat, he locked the car and headed toward the brightly lit lobby. Wrap things up tomorrow and I’ll be on my way to Boston by six.
Gwen Lonike glanced up at the clock on the wall and sighed. At ten after one in the morning, her night was just getting started. “Shit.”
She hated being up this late, but her night clerk had called in sick an hour before the eleven-o’clock shift change. Naturally the three-to-eleven clerk didn’t want to pull a double and her part-time emergency clerk wasn’t answering the phone. That left Gwen, who’d already put in an endlessly long day, the only one to cover the graveyard shift.
Reaching for her mug of freshly brewed coffee, Gwen took a deep gulp. Her eyelids felt like lead weights. Despite the babble of the television playing in the lobby, she was having trouble staying awake. A single reservation had yet to be claimed. Once the last guest had checked in, she could catch a quick snooze on the sofa in the reception area.
She sighed again. “Oh, goddess,” she murmured to no one in particular. “Why can’t I hire reliable help?”
Gwen looked around the hotel’s lobby. By The Sea was located on approximately five oceanfront acres overlooking the bay. A short walk would take visitors to the shore for a better view of the tall master schooners sailing the bay, as well as the working lobster boats coming into port with the day’s catch. Perched in the distance was the famous lighthouse of Little Mer Island. Unlike larger chain hotels, hers was independent, with a smaller, more intimate appeal.
Gwen checked the clock again, disappointed to find a mere twenty minutes had passed since her mind had wandered off on a variety of paths. She’d already cleaned the lobby, run the nightly audit, and flipped through a variety of satellite channels. A night clerk’s job was basically just babysitting the front desk, being available to check in late-coming guests and set wake-up calls. At five, the morning greeter would arrive to begin setting up the breakfast bar. At seven, her relief would arrive. Then she could crash and burn until noon.
Other than that, the work was mind-numbingly boring.
Yawning, she contemplated the paperback she’d picked out of the basket the local library regularly refreshed for the guests. She’d picked out some legal thriller, not exactly terrible but not really interesting enough to keep on reading.
The bell over the door tinkled, indicating the arrival of a living, breathing soul.
Bypassing the gift shop that had closed at nine, a man hurried over to the front desk. Dressed in a navy suit that looked like he’d slept in it for a week, he carried only a single small bag.
Standing up, Gwen briefly eyed her computer screen before looking at the man across the desk. Layered black hair, pale skin, face weary with fatigue. Tall and lean, he was kind of attractive in a messy, rumpled sort of way.
Not that she was looking. The rule for all hotel employees was a strict one: No fraternizing with the guests.
That included the owner.
“Mr. Whittaker, I presume?” she asked, pasting on a perky smile of welcome. Though she was tired and more than a little grumpy herself, there was no reason not to give a paying guest a proper welcome.
Setting his single bag down on the floor beside his feet, the man nodded. “Yeah, that’s me.” Reaching into his pocket, he drew out his driver’s license and credit card. “Sorry I’m in so late.”
Gwen accepted his offering, opening his folio and running his card for the single room he’d reserved. While she was waiting on the printer to do its thing, she programmed a key card that would give him access to the room. She handed it over, along with the paperwork for his signature.
“That is a nonsmoking room?”
Gwen nodded. “Yes. All the nonsmoking rooms are on the first floor. You’re number twenty-eight.”
Blake Whittaker nodded as he signed. “Good enough. There is a reserve on that room in case I decide to stay a second night, right?”
Gwen gave him back his card and license. “I’ve got the room on tentative hold until noon tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know by then whether or not you’re going to stay longer.”
Whittaker thought a moment, then shook his head. “I’m not sure how long business is going to take. Can you give me until around six to decide?”
She shook her head. “Check-out is at noon, and check-in begins by two. That’s the absolute latest I could hold the room.” If he was going to let it go, she’d still have to schedule it for cleaning. Since the maids left by one, that meant she’d have to clean it herself if she wanted it active.
“Come on . . .” Blake Whittaker’s gaze searched for and found her name tag. “Gwen. Surely as manager you’ve got a little pull around here.” He flashed a smile that lit up his eyes. For a moment he was almost animated.
“Owner,” Gwen corrected. “And you let me know something by at least four or I’ll go ahead and charge your card whether or not you stay on.”
He nodded. “Not going to miss a dime, are you?”
She widened her smile. “Not in this economy.”
Whittaker turned toward the wide bay windows overlooking the distant water. “You can save me a little time tomorrow by telling me the best way to reach Little Mer Island. Do they still run a skiff for tourists to see the lighthouse?”
Gwen shook her head. The island tours had ceased a couple of years after her parents were killed, and that had been over sixteen years ago. The fact that he had some familiarity with the island pegged him as a former local. “The island is closed to visitors nowadays,” she answered, keeping her answer short and simple. “The owners prefer their privacy.” If Whittaker entertained any notions of seeing the famous landmark, he’d have to do it from a distance.
Shifting gears, he said, “I’m actually going there on business, not to see the sights,” he countered. “I understand Kenneth Randall lives there with his wife, Tessa. She’s the actual owner of the island, right?”
Gwen’s heart lurched. “Yes, along with her sisters.” She narrowed her eyes. “And I’m one of them.”
Square jaw hardening, he nodded. “I know. That’s why I’m talking to you.”
Oh, yeah. He was a real funny guy. Just the kind she didn’t like. “So what do you want?”
Blake Whittaker reached back into his pocket. He flashed a badge. “FBI,” he said crisply. “I’m Special Agent Whittaker, from the field office in Boston.”
Gwen looked long and hard at the identification he presented. Damned if it didn’t look real.
Invisible fingers clamped tightly around her throat. Her attitude vanished. This could be serious. Very serious. What could the FBI possibly want with her brand-new brother-in-law? “I—I don’t understand. What’s going on?” Her voice was little more than a nervous squeak.
Whittaker noted her distress. “Now, calm down,” he countered. “It’s a routine follow-up. I just want to talk to them about the day Jake—” He broke off, fumbling for a small notebook.
Trying to clear her mind, Gwen suddenly felt both sick and shaky. She considered her options for a few seconds, then decided it wouldn’t be worth trying to pretend she knew nothing. Lying would only make things worse.
Mouth cotton dry, she forced the single word out. “Massey.”
“Jake Massey. Right. About the circumstances under which he disappeared.”
The invisible fingers moved higher. Gwen’s head felt as though it were being squeezed in a vise grip. “I was under the impression the coast guard had already investigated the matter and concluded it was an accident.”
Whittaker tucked his badge away. “This is just a follow-up, ma’am. Nothing for you to get alarmed about. It’s standard procedure.”
Hearing his words of reassurance, Gwen naturally assumed the worst. “Surely you don’t think they killed Jake and threw him overboard or something like that,” she spluttered. The words sounded stupid the moment they left her mouth.
Brows knitting in obvious surprise, Whittaker looked at her with all the patience in the world. “I’m not saying anything of the sort, ma’am. I simply need to ask a few questions to clarify the facts.” He offered a brief smile. “And if I can get some cooperation, I’m pretty sure you can have your room back by two.”
Gwen looked at him suspiciously. You were never supposed to trust the men in black. “You won’t need to stay longer?”
In a gesture of appeasement, Whittaker put his hand over his heart. “Believe me when I say I sincerely hope I don’t have to spend more than one night in this town. In fact, I’d like to get the hell out ASAP.”
Gwen swallowed hard. “Meet me in the lobby at seven,” she allowed. “I’ll take you across the bay to Little Mer.” It wasn’t like he couldn’t get across himself. All he’d have to do was walk into the sheriff’s office and make the request.
A frown briefly cast a shadow on Whittaker’s features. “Sounds like a plan to me.” To distract himself, he glanced at his watch. “But if I’m going to make it out that early, I’m going to need some sleep.”
Licking her dry lips, Gwen allowed a thin smile. “Of course.” She pointed left. “Just follow that corridor to the end, and take the stairs.”
Agent Whittaker bent and claimed his single bag. “Thanks.”
Gwen forced out an answer. “My pleasure.” It wasn’t. She lied.
“Be here tomorrow, right?”
Jaw tightening, Gwen took a moment to clear her throat. “That’s what I said.”
“Thanks again. Appreciate your time.” Whittaker turned away from the desk, trekking back through the lobby.
Gwen watched him go, keeping an eye on him until he disappeared. At this point she didn’t trust this dude as far as she could throw him. The fact that he was poking around the events in the Mediterranean meant the matter wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. Why waste valuable manpower running down the facts of an incident the U.S. Coast Guard had already cleared?
She fingered the folio she had yet to file. “Something’s up.”
And it all revolved around Jake Massey.
Although she couldn’t prove it as fact, Gwen suspected the archaeologist might have been involved in some unsavory business involving the smuggling of stolen artifacts. When he’d arrived back in Port Rock with the pieces purportedly gathered from the ruins of Ishaldi, he hadn’t exactly explained how he’d gotten them into the United States.
It wouldn’t be the first time Jake had been caught manipulating the facts, or using those manipulations to fatten his checkbook. After getting bounced out of U Maine and losing his sea grants, Jake had kicked around as a treasure hunter. Could be the feds weren’t interested in Ishaldi as a historical rediscovery, but rather the monetary value such a find would entail.
Sitting back down, Gwen pinched the bridge of her nose and squinched her eyes shut. “I shouldn’t have trusted the bastard.” Eager to keep Jake’s findings under some sort of control, she was the one who’d bought him back to Little Mer Island.
And, if she were brutally honest with herself, she had been more than willing to share in any of the bounty that might come to the surface. The hotel was breaking even, but barely, and Tessa was struggling under the upkeep on Little Mer. At that point in time, the money they had just wasn’t going far enough.
Their circumstances had changed, fortunately for the better.
Still, the last thing any one of them needed was a G-man poking his nose into their business. He might find out more than he needed to know.
Like that mermaid thing they were trying to keep on the QT.
Oh, goddess above. What if they’ve found out about the sea-gate?
Having the federal government in the know would be disastrous.
Gwen pressed a hand to her forehead. The beginnings of a headache beat at her temples. “I’ve got to squelch this,” she murmured.
The minutes ticked away. A plan began to take shape.
As the one taking Whittaker to the island, she had the upper hand. Keeping the agent by her side until he left Port Rock would allow her to control what he saw and heard.
All she had to do was give her sisters a little heads-up.
Retrieving her cell phone from her purse, Gwen pecked out a quick message and hit send. She could warn Addison, and Addison, in turn, could get word to Tessa and Kenneth.
A quick smile of satisfaction crossed her lips. She hated to be deceitful, but when it came to family, the Lonike girls had to stick together.