Without a Trace

Without a Trace

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by Sandra K. Moore

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U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Nikki Bustillo has tracked her target to the bowels of a phantom ship—and she refuses to lose the scent now. But when her overseas contact is brutally murdered on the streets of Hong Kong, Nikki's manhunt is compromised. The mission came from the higher-ups at her alma mater, Athena Academy, and failure isn't an option. Her


U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Nikki Bustillo has tracked her target to the bowels of a phantom ship—and she refuses to lose the scent now. But when her overseas contact is brutally murdered on the streets of Hong Kong, Nikki's manhunt is compromised. The mission came from the higher-ups at her alma mater, Athena Academy, and failure isn't an option. Her only hope: the help of a maverick, martial arts expert, police detective. Nikki and her new partner will follow the enemy's shadowy trail out of the ocean and to the ends of the earth—even after their invisible foe turns the skilled trackers into vulnerable prey.

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Lieutenant Nikki Bustillo knew the shrimp boat her Coast Guard crew had just boarded for inspection was hiding something. It was as plain, she thought wryly, as the nose on her face.

She peered through the boat's rear pilothouse door at the ragged Hispanic crew members lined up in the vessel's stern. Yep. Definitely something wrong. Beneath the stench of day-old shrimp lay the almost overwhelming musk of fear. It emanated from the deckhands as strongly as the diesel fumes off the hot engines. This wasn't about having a net with its turtle extraction devices sewn shut, which was an illegal technique that caught more fish but threatened endangered sea turtles.

No, these crewmen were scared to death.

"Problem?" Ensign Rich Mansfield, the boarding team's rookie member, joined her in the trawler's pilothouse.

"The Montoya is carrying more than dinner."

Mansfield gave her a measured look. "How do you know?"

Nikki nodded at the fidgeting shrimper crew. "They look nervous to you?"

"Yeah. Sort of."

The truth was, these men didn't look any more nervous than any other crew Nikki's command had stopped in the past three weeks along Florida's coastline. But to put it mildly, they reeked of fear. Literally. The vessel was definitely carrying something besides shrimp. Cocaine was a good guess.

Mansfield hovered at her elbow as she thumbed through the vessel's shoddily kept logs. She would've had the fresh-out-of-cadet-training ensign pegged merely as a nuisance, except back in February she'd received an encrypted e-mail message from someone called Delphi warning her to watch her back: somebody called Arachne was getting her jollies kidnapping Athena Academy students andalumnae, and Nikki's name was on the wish list.

This Delphi had never contacted her before, but had known too many students—too many facts about too many of Nikki's friends—for Nikki to doubt she knew what she was talking about. Behind that e-mail had come a visit from a former classmate, Dana Velasco, confirming Delphi's assertion. Nikki had gotten the impression she—Nikki could only think of Delphi as "she"—was never wrong.

And Mansfield had a habit of pestering Nikki with a lot of questions she preferred not to answer.

He'd been particularly intrigued by her schooling. The Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women was unusual and he'd wanted to hear all about it. Fair enough. She'd given him the Cliff's Notes version and moved on to her rapid-fire years at Florida State University studying literature, then to her decision to join the Coast Guard.

The truth was, the Athena Academy was the first place where she'd felt like she belonged. After an early childhood filled with seven raucous older brothers, she'd felt like an all-girls school was somehow coming home. Her orientation group, the Hecates, had consisted of four other girls, each unique, each talented and gutsy and strong. How could she possibly explain her sense of sistership with these women? Especially to someone she didn't know. It didn't seem…right…to share that with a stranger.

After graduation, she'd hoped to put her unique strengths to good use: her eidetic memory, her particularly fine eye-hand coordination and her martial arts skills. Those strengths and a late-blooming love of the sea had led her inevitably to the Coast Guard, where she'd screamed up the command ladder, making lieutenant at twenty-three.

Her ability to unerringly locate the bags of cocaine, heroin bricks and pot stashes? Well, that was just a little something extra given to her when her mom's IVF doctor took a few liberties with her genetic material. It was why she could smell trouble in a man's sweat, and why she'd chosen drug interdiction as her Coast Guard career of choice.

When Delphi told her back in February that she'd been targeted for kidnapping because of her special ability, Nikki had had to take a few days to get adjusted to that reality. Her parents, who'd simply wanted a daughter instead of an eighth son, had applied to the Zuni, New Mexico, fertility lab in an attempt to have one. As far as Nikki knew, the only special order her parents had placed was for gender. And nothing else.

But with the warning from Delphi concerning Athena students with "abilities," Nikki had set about methodically reviewing the files of her fellow crew members, just to cover her bases. Then Mansfield had arrived a month ago and started hanging around her like a bad high school crush.

She regarded him now as he shuffled through greasy work orders and pay slips in a console drawer. Maybe he was just an Anglo with a fascination for Cuban women. Okay, so she was second-generation Cuban-American, born and bred inArizona, but she knew her way around Spanish—vocabulary was a helluva lot simpler when you had a photographic memory—even if her pronunciation left a little something to be desired.

With Mansfield still at her elbow, she radioed her captain aboard the cutter Undaunted and let him know what was going down.

"Another hunch?" Captain Pickens's voice growled in response.

"Yes, sir."

"Go with it."

"Yes, sir." She turned to Mansfield. "Let's see what they've got in the hold."

She set two members of her boarding team to stand guard over the trawler's captain and crew while the rest fanned out and started a search for drugs.

It had begun as a more or less routine stop. The ancient trawler, common to this part of the south Florida coastline, had looked a bit light as the Undaunted cruised into visual range. Normally the bottom paint of a fully loaded shrimp boat lay underwater. This trawler's bottom paint showed a clear six inches out of the water, suggesting that the concrete ballast used to steady the trawler in rough seas had been replaced with something much lighter. Like cocaine.

When Mansfield yanked open the main hatch, fear musk—a cross between burnt coffee and battery acid—surged from the general vicinity of the shrimper captain.

"Got a problem?" Nikki asked the captain in Spanish.

He shrugged, looking sullen, though his gaze kept darting at the guardsmen disappearing into the hold.

"How long have you been piloting this vessel?"

Nikki asked the usual questions while her squad members poked through the compartments where the shrimp were stored. The captain muttered his answers, which she jotted down in a small notebook. The Montoya rolled gently as fat waves slid beneath her, and the sun glared off the water and steel.

After a few minutes, Mansfield was back, wiping sweat from his face and looking queasy.

"Nothing," he said.

"You've been thorough." She made it a statement, so he'd understand thoroughness was expected, no matter how bad the job stank.

"Yes, ma'am."

Nikki narrowed her eyes at the shrimp boat captain. Burnt coffee assaulted her nostrils. The man was scared, and the strength of the scent couldn't be just because he had more than his allowed catch aboard.

"Look again," she told Mansfield.

"But—" He caught himself before protesting a direct order.

She leveled a measuring gaze at him. Maybe that was why she didn't trust him. Because he couldn't stomach the job. Hell, she knew what that was like, but it didn't mean she'd cut him any more slack than her CO had ever cut her. "You'll get used to it. Come on."

Nikki gripped the edges of the storage hatch, took a deep breath, held it and leaned into the hold. Something hard touched her shoulder; Ensign Artie Jackson held out a heavy-duty flashlight, which she took. Light splashed over the dead shrimp and rusting steel hull. The plastic liner that held the shrimp was cracked and stained from years of use. Stifling heat pressed in on her, bringing a quick burst of sweat to her face and neck. From the looks of it, this shrimp wasn't a fresh catch.

She let go the breath she was holding and sniffed.

The musk of coffee bored past the acrid, salty smell of dead sea creatures and washed over her in a hot wave. Nikki grit her teeth against nausea. Terror. Terror like nothing she'd ever smelled before. Terror and…grief?

She leaned away from the hatch and squinted into the afternoon sun. "Get me a rake or shovel or something!" The wind lifting over the trawler's rail cooled her face.

Jackson handed her a shrimp rake. Nikki coughed hard a few times, then shook herself mentally. Get a grip. It's just rotting critters.

The days-old dead sea life she could handle. It was what lay beneath that had her reeling.

She reached the rake down and scraped a bare spot inside the storage unit, then dropped through the deck hatch. A few minutes of hard work had cleared a broad swath, revealing another hinged hatch immediately beneath her feet. It was roughly two feet by two feet, with a pull handle. She would have smiled at her success, but the bitter scent of fear ratcheted her nerves another notch tighter.

Nikki stepped aside, pulled her sidearm, grabbed the handle and yanked the hatch open.

It was like looking into a mass grave. People in ragged, stained clothing lay piled on each other, huddled, clutching pillowcases or battered backpacks. One, a boy no more than thirteen, stirred and opened his eyes, squinting against the flashlight's beam but too weak to hold up a hand for shade. The rest were still.

"Shit." Nikki raised her head. "We've got refugees! Jackson! Take the captain and crew into custody. Mansfield, radio the captain. We'll need a chopper."

Nikki leaned in and grasped the boy's hand. "I'm here to get you out," she said in Spanish.

The boy struggled to keep his eyes open. "America?"

"Sí. ¿Cuál es tu nombre?"


"Come on, Eduardo."

Nikki tugged the boy through the hidden hatch. The child was weak and thin, as if he'd spent days in the boat's bowels with no food or water. He could barely move and his skin felt like parchment. Nikki handed him up to Mansfield, who'd called in the mission and was ready to haul refugees onto the deck.

"Ninety miles isn't that long," Mansfield muttered, referring to the nautical distance from Cuba to Miami.

"No," Nikki replied grimly as anger flash-fired in her stomach, "but I'm guessing these passengers weren't meant to arrive."

She kept count as they pulled out man after woman after child. Her boarding crew, in full-out rescue mode, worked quickly. Still, it was well over an hour to move the refugees out and give them water.

"One last check." Nikki held the flashlight out to Mansfield, who blanched, green around the gills.

"There may be more people down there. Are you going to do your job or not?"

Mansfield shook his head.

Nikki tamped down her anger-fueled disgust at his cowardice. "Never mind."

She lowered herself back into the hold and played the flashlight beam over the paint-peeling sides.

"How's it look, boss?" Jackson's voice echoed hollowly in the now-empty hold.

"Gotta do it right."

He grunted as she crawled methodically through the wretched space, which was only three feet high. No wonder the terror had been so great. The shrimper was a death trap—no air circulation, hotter 'n hell, with over a hundred and forty people crammed inside. Toward the stern, the shrimper's internal bulkheads provided too many shadows and too much cover for Nikki to assume they'd found everyone.

The coffee scent still lingered, as it would for several more days. If the emotion was strong enough—the rage or terror or love—it made sort of an imprint, and the stronger the emotion, the clearer and more lasting it was. She concentrated on that smell rather than what was wafting off the floor she crawled across, avoiding puddles and slicks of human bodily fluids. The detritus of desperation.

And to starboard, deep in the stern, Nikki found the girl.

She might have been eleven years old, maybe twelve, huddled against the boat's bulkhead, her jeans stained and her shirt torn. As the light splashed across the girl's face, Nikki was struck by a sense of familiarity. But there was no way she could know this child. She touched the girl's sweat-slickened hand, glad to find her alive. Barely alive.

"Got another one!" Nikki shouted back at the hatch. "She needs a medic!"

Nikki quickly pulled the child into her arms and started the laborious journey to the hatch. Ignoring the wetness seeping through her uniform, she concentrated instead on speed. The girl's breathing was extremely shallow and her cold skin said she was in shock.

It took only a few more moments to lift the child—she weighed so little—into Jackson's arms, then follow him into the pilothouse. Jackson's bulging forearm looked obscenely strong next to the girl's skinny limbs as he laid her carefully on a workbench Mansfield had cleared of clutter.

"Where's the doc?"

"He's got his hands full on deck."

"He needs to be in here," Nikki snapped. "Mansfield! Get the doc in here, now!" And when he hesitated, she shouted, "Don't hang around, ensign!"

Mansfield jerked into gear and headed out onto the deck. Nikki dug through a gear bag for a space blanket, frustrated by the piles of supplies that got in her way. There! Shaking the blanket out, she turned to cover the girl, but Jackson cursed suddenly and started CPR.

"We're gonna lose her!"

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3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
Delphi, whom she has never met, warned the Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women graduates that Arachne was kidnapping alumni. One of them Coast Guard Lieutenant Nikki Bustillo heeds the warning alertly watching her crewmates just in case. She loves her job working drug interdiction as she has the DNA enhanced ability to ¿smell trouble in a man¿s sweat¿. --- After stopping a shrimp boat containing harshly treated refugees trying to sneak into the States, Nikki receives an encrypted message from Athena¿s Delphi. She checks with her friend Two-Finger Jimmy who provides her information on a ship owned by S.H.A. leaving Miami for Hong Kong allegedly carrying textiles. Nikki believes they are carting human cargo. She heads to Hong Kong where she works with local police detective Johnny Zhao. However, as they find themselves in deep trouble from a powerful adversary with international criminal connections, they are attracted to one another, but Nikki wants his respect while Johnny needs her safe after his previous contact was murdered. --- The latest Athena Academy alumni adventure is a superb romantic suspense thriller that focuses on human trafficking. The story line is fast-paced and the lead couple a strong pairing who understands mission supersedes love. Although I am bias when it comes to this consistently entertaining series, newcomers will see why as Sandra K. Moore provides a great entry in a strong saga. --- Harriet Klausner