Still reeling from the tragic loss of his girlfriend and his treasured boat, retired U.S. Naval officer and private investigator John Caine returns to action when a wealthy San Diego woman hires him to investigate the death of her software mogul husband. From Hawaii to California to Mexico, Caine sets out to find what happened to Paul Peters-and the millions embezzled from his firm.
With the comely widow barely an arm's length away, Caine dives into a hotbed of Mexican justice, predatory sex, bullets and border politics to follow the money and find the truth. Award-winning author Charles Knief plots a spine-tingling read with a hair-raising payoff in this brilliant new mystery.
About the Author
Charles Knief is the author of Diamond Head, the 1995 SMP/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest winner. He and his wife divide their time between Hawaii and California.
Charles Knief is a former airborne soldier, pilot, and engineer. He has traveled widely and lived in Hawaii for a number of years. His first John Caine adventure, Diamond Head, won the SMP/ PWA contest for Best First Private Eye novel in 1995. He and his wife currently live in Irvine, California.
Read an Excerpt
By Charles Knief
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 ILDI Co.
All rights reserved.
"I didn't think you were gonna make it," Dennis Dillingham growled as I jumped aboard. Dennis captains and owns the Mako, making a living chartering out to dive shops in Waikiki. It's his business and I think it's his home. Dillingham's a small blond man with an enormous walrus mustache and skin that's similar in color and texture to an old baseball mitt. He's always barefoot, and I think he only owns one pair of faded green shorts. I've never seen him wear a shirt.
"Just got the call twenty minutes ago," I said, dropping my day pack on a berth cushion and changing into my wet suit. Tom Cotton, a shop owner and fellow divemaster in Waikiki, called and begged me to take his group, citing last-minute emergencies with his teenage daughter. It had happened often enough I didn't ask, just jumped in my Jeep and raced to the Waianae boat harbor. I don't charge him for my time when I cover him. It's more of a hobby.
"Tom brought your gear. Your group is over there." Dennis pointed to four Japanese men dressed in neon-yellow wet suits standing in a huddle at the stern, inspecting their equipment. "It ought to be easy keeping track of 'em in those outfits." Dennis shares my preference for dark-colored gear, the avoidance of bright and flashy colors, anything that might attract the attention of creatures in the water possessed of curiosity, hunger, and sharp teeth, a dangerous combination. My suit is dark blue and black. All the rest of my gear is black. I exchange my shiny stainless-steel Rolex for a black-plastic Casio when I go into the water. I carry two knives, a Phrobis and my Buckmaster, and a .44 Magnum bangstick. No matter where I am, I like to be in contention for a spot at the top of the food chain.
"Thanks, Dennis." I studied my charges. Only four divers. They would be easily managed. I hoped they spoke English, and then realized they would have to. Tom's dive shop doesn't aggressively advertise for Japanese tourists. Some shops in Waikiki are nisei-owned and their instructors and divemasters all speak fluent Japanese. It's to everyone's advantage that they work that part of the market. We all want our guests to come back, and if tourist divers have a bad time due to anyone's ignorance, no one benefits. But Tom's a businessman. When the occasional foreign tourist finds him, he's always ready to make a sale or charter a dive.
I introduced myself to the four men and we sized each other up. There was some bowing and some shaking of hands, the usual mixing of the cultures. I bowed and they shook my hand. Everybody grinned.
I sensed the short, thickly built man with a gray brush cut was in charge, the head hotshot, surrounded by three junior hotshots, on a business-reward outing. I immediately liked the man. He was powerful, used to giving orders and having them obeyed, but he looked intently at me and listened to what I had to say. I was sensei, the teacher, and he was the pupil. I could tell why he had risen to the top.
I like the average Japanese tourist. Apart from the fact that the money they pumped into the economy spared Hawaii most of the effects of the latest worldwide recession, they are polite, well-mannered guests. They don't get drunk and throw furniture out of hotel windows. They don't drive down the streets of Honolulu at ninety miles an hour. If they are involved in a crime, they are usually the victims. They typically travel in groups, bring their families, spend copious amounts of money, take their hundreds of photographs, and return to Japan to be replaced by another group. They are quiet, generous, and interchangeable. They come, they spend, and they go home.
Veni, vidi, photi.
I came. I saw. I took a lot of pictures.
Everything this group wore was new. Brand-new. I would not have been surprised to find price tags attached. Tom must have been delighted to have these guys walk into his store. They sported about five thousand dollars' worth of gear.
Their certification cards all were current. Their equipment, right off the rack from Tom's shop, was correctly assembled. They listened to my briefing about the dive. They answered my questions intelligently. I was impressed with their depth of knowledge about diving in general, and about diving in Hawaii in particular.
I knew this would be an easy afternoon.
There were four divemasters aboard, each with three to five divers. The boat wasn't full. We would have room to spread out. I emphasized to my group the necessity of staying with me once we were on the wreck of the Mahi.
For a trained diver, the eight-hundred-ton minesweeper is an extraordinarily exciting experience. There are few chances to get into trouble. The water is clear, the current nearly nonexistent, and the fauna is, for the most part, friendly. But because fools are so ingenious that nothing is really foolproof, those few chances can be lethal. At nearly ninety feet, the Mahi is at the lower range of safe sport diving. My computer would tell me when it was time to rise. Failure to follow its calculations could result in a case of the bends, a painful, potentially crippling affliction. Worse, the interior of the hull is enclosed.
Unlike other ships that were sunk as artificial reefs, no large holes have been cut into the hull to allow access to the interior. The Mahi is intact. She has been down a long time and inside she is cold, dark, and full of accumulated silt. All her hatches are open. The unlimited visibility outside the ship lures some of the foolish to try the interior. With lights, the undisturbed water is at first crystal clear; it's similar to cave diving. What the uninitiated diver doesn't know is that while he's swimming through the still water inside the hull, his fins are kicking up a curtain of silt behind him, decreasing the visibility to zero. Any ship is a labyrinth of holds and passageways, each with several vertical ladders and horizontal ducts. Without an intimate knowledge of the ship, or without a guideline, a diver could run out of air before finding a way out. If he doesn't run out of air, he faces the danger of exceeding maximum bottom time, risking the bends. Invading old ships is a dangerous business.
I knew the Mahi. I'd been inside her more than thirty times. I knew human nature and understood that at least once, for whatever reason, one of my charges would decide to go exploring.
George, one of the other divemasters, had a group of three gung ho college boys from Southern California, smart-ass know-it-alls who were too busy trying to impress each other to listen to instructions. Watching them prepare their equipment, I concluded that even though they had certification cards, they didn't know what they were doing. Had they been mine, I would have canceled their tickets, refunded their money, and let them live. Unhappy is better than dead. But George has six children at home and augments his navy chief's pay with divemaster fees and tips; he probably thought it over too many times and decided they would change their attitudes when they got into the water.
Once on the bottom, their cocky look-Ma-no-hands attitudes got worse. I watched them as hard as I watched my own group, who followed me like baby ducks follow their mama. The kids refused to follow George and, after a brief tour of the upper decks of the Mahi, produced lights and plunged into the hull.
I turned my charges over to George and went, knowing they would get into trouble.
They did. A black wall of silted water hovered bulkhead to bulkhead, just inside a hatchway, evidence of their incursion.
After tying my guideline onto the ship's ladder and yanking it tight, I crept forward into the silt, feeling blindly along the companionway to one of the ship's holds. I didn't bother with a light.
The first diver found me within the first twenty feet. When I touched him, he turned and ripped off my face mask in his panic. I put a headlock on him and dragged him toward the hatch. When we emerged from the silt into clear water, he tried to bolt for the surface. I collared him again, this time applying intense and specific pressure against one of his nerve trigger points, an experience so urgently painful it got his full and immediate attention. He stopped struggling and got quiet, the way people do when experiencing great pain, and I released the pressure, still keeping my fingers close to the spot in case he needed reminding. I brought him to another divemaster and signaled that this one had to go up. When I was certain he would do as he was told, I put my mask back on, cleared it, and went back in.
The other two were together and it took me a long time to find them. When I did, in relatively clear water at the dead end of a large ventilation duct that branched out into smaller ducts that were impossible for a tanked diver to get into, they weren't as panicky as their friend, probably because they could see, but they were anxious. The cloud of silt lay beyond the last bend in the duct and they had realized their problem and stayed put.
I tied them onto the guideline and had them hang on to my weight belt. We inched slowly into the silt, our only path to the surface the thin guideline. It took some time, longer than it should have taken. Halfway there, or where I believed was halfway there, the computer beeped its alarm, an urgent sound, demanding our immediate departure for the surface. All divers know that sound. The hand on my belt pulled me backward as one of the kids tried to get past. I blocked his path. We struggled briefly and suddenly I was fighting two terrified young men, each trying wildly to move ahead of me in the tight confines of the old duct.
This was not what I was trained to do. Killing them would have been easy. My problem was keeping them alive in spite of themselves.
As we fought, I kept moving forward, following the line. My bulk, increased by my tank and other equipment, prevented the boys from moving me out of the way. There just wasn't enough space. I used my fins to keep them back, roiling water at their faces.
The walls of the shaft opened into a bigger space. One of the youngsters slipped the line and eeled past me, kicking and gouging, an unseen, maniacal force. I got a hand on his gear, but he shook me loose. Then he was gone.
Some people seem determined, aimed at their own destruction like lemmings. There was nothing I could do for that one. I went back for the remaining diver, slowly feeling through the murky water, dependent entirely upon sense of touch, forcing my body to go through the motions and my mind to keep the terror down to manageable levels.
We found each other, outstretched fingers brushing in the dark.
Touch galvanized him. The kid's arms and legs climbed over me, punching me, kicking me, elbowing and kneeing me. It was like dancing with an octopus. I lost my mask. A knee to the jaw knocked my regulator loose. An elbow crashed against my temple. I saw stars.
I went for the pressure point I'd used on his companion but couldn't find it, the kid jumping around like he'd taken a big PCP hit, making it impossible to get my hands on him. I couldn't get him off me and I couldn't reach him. Every time I tried, he'd move away, out of reach.
I'd just exhaled when I lost my regulator and needed air. Fast. I couldn't see in the dark murky water, but black spots began appearing, overlaying the black in front of my eyes, and the roaring of blood in my ears got suddenly louder than the bubbles from our regulators.
We kept fighting and moving along the line and suddenly we were in a tightly enclosed space again. I grabbed the kid around his neck, cutting off blood supply to his brain. He went limp, stopped struggling, and for a moment I wondered if I'd killed him. I let up and he punched me, a weak and ineffective punch, but it made me smile.
Keeping his neck in the vise of my right arm, I reached behind me, feeling for one of the two regulators I use, found it, and shoved it in my mouth before the black spots entirely covered my vision.
Joni Mitchell was right when she wrote about not missing something until it's gone.
I located the line and hauled on it. Still tight. I began dragging the kid along with me. It took longer that way. He'd become passive in my grip, but I didn't trust his judgment enough to let him loose.
We followed two more turns and the computer beeped again. We had one minute to get out of the Mahi and begin our ascent.
I towed the kid along until the black became lighter and suddenly we were out of the blackness and into the blue-gray amphitheater of the Pacific.
George and the other two divemasters hovered above, guardian angels, there to lead us home.
I signaled with two fingers and turned the kid over to one of the other instructors.
George shook his head, holding up one.
Gathering my line, I went back in and they took the kid to the Mako.
He wasn't very far inside. I found him by accident, making the same wrong turn he had, just ten feet inside a dead end in an old service compartment. He'd cut his line to get free of me, but some of it dragged behind him, and I discovered it against the bulkhead and followed.
The young man had given up to his terror. I pulled on the rope and I felt something float toward me, bubbles erupting from a regulator, no fight left. Reaching out, I groped in the darkness until I grasped a hand that closed on mine. I squeezed and got no response other than the gentle pressure already there.
We went up together, rising slower than our bubbles, stopping at the forty-foot marker while I fed more information into the computer. We got lucky, just missing the painful hours in the hyperbaric chamber at the Barber's Point Coast Guard Station.
I checked his air. His tank was nearly depleted but I judged we'd make it. I don't use much and had a reserve, but in his panic he had consumed more. We moved to the fifteen-foot bar hanging below the dive boat and held on to the white plastic pipe the way kids hold on to the crossbar on a roller coaster. I looked down and almost got vertigo, the water so clear I could pick out details of the Mahi's upper decks seventy feet below. It was like hovering in the air above the ship. We hung under the Mako until my computer told us we'd purged the nitrogen from our systems. I shared my air for the last couple of minutes with the kid, using body language and hand signals to keep him from rising toward the light.
We finally broke the surface, returning to the air and the bright Hawaiian sunshine. The young men, white-faced and sober, kept silent as they boarded. That's what facing your mortality will do for you. I thought about yelling at them, but figured they'd had enough punishment. They were college kids. Maybe they were smart enough to have learned a lesson. If so, this experience would have been worth it.
I had my doubts, but it never hurt to hope.
Everyone else was back aboard the Mako. My group — now George's — watched me bring the boys aboard. They spoke rapid and quiet Japanese to one another all the way back to the harbor.
Dennis called me up to the pilothouse.
"Your nose is bleeding."
I wiped my upper lip. My fingers came away with bright blood. Dennis handed me a bandanna.
"Dumb shits," he said, his voice heavy with disgust. "They violate every goddamn rule, run from their divemaster, get themselves killed, and we get sued. Thanks, Caine."
"They looked like trouble."
"They look like shit now, but they'll be all right. Give them something to talk about when they get home." Dennis looked at me, squinting against the glare of the hot January sun glinting off the smooth Pacific swells. "You got a call on the ship-to-shore. Fella at the dock needs to speak with you pronto."
"He say his name?"
"J. Lawrence Tishman, attorney-at-law. What'd you do? Knock somebody up?"
I shook my head. "Can't. Had the operation."
"If your girlfriend ain't late, then it must be your car payment."
"Don't have one."
"Maybe your uncle died."
"Yeah. That must be it." The only uncle I had was named Sam. He'd be around long after I was gone.
"He's wearing a tan suit," Dennis added, wrinkle lines bunching up around his eyes.
"Suit? Like with a tie?"
"Must not be from around here."
I went back to check on my original group and to apologize for leaving them. I ignored the college boys. If they approached me, we'd talk. Without their initiative, I'd leave them alone.
"We understand," said the senior executive. "George showed us wonderful things."
Excerpted from Sand Dollars by Charles Knief. Copyright © 1998 ILDI Co.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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