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Vanquish of the Dragon Shroud
Murder, Intrigue, and the Hidden Wealth of the Red Nobility
By Gregory E. Seller
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Gregory E. Seller
All rights reserved.
A Celebration, Interrupted
She came to the surface and gasped for air. The Pacific Ocean swelled around her, forcing salt water and foam into her nose and eyes. She struggled to stay afloat. It was a moonless night, and the water was dark and frigid.
The winds known to Southern Californians as the Santa Anas could be warm and balmy, but they weren't warm that October night. The salt spray from the wind was so strong that it felt like thousands of little pins against her face. Her lips burned, and her eyes stung. Four-foot swells made the lights on the distant coastline appear and disappear with each passing wave. Maxine was disoriented and nearly in a state of panic.
Just moments before, she had been having a celebratory evening on a beautiful yacht with her husband, his business partner and his wife, and their most important client. They had just finished a toast to a record year and would be arriving on Catalina Island within the hour. The wind had picked up, and it was getting chilly on deck, so Maxine went below to get her wrap. As she left her cabin and came back upstairs, she heard the others out on deck. At first, it sounded like laughter, very loud and raucous. As she climbed the stairs, she could hear that it was not laughter but yelling.
The stairs took her to the salon, where she heard her companions arguing even more loudly. She had just opened the salon door to join the others on deck when suddenly there was an explosion. It knocked her to the floor, and the boat listed sharply to the port side.
Her husband, Logan, burst into the salon. His face was bleeding from a deep gash in his cheek. He pulled Maxine up off the floor.
"Oh my God, Logan! Your cheek! What happened?"
Picking her up in his arms, blood dripping from his face onto her dress, Logan simply said, "You'll forgive me."
He rushed her outside to the deck, but the others were gone. Before she knew what was happening, her husband lifted her up and threw her over the railing into the dark ocean.
She hit the water headfirst and went under. When she came to the surface, she screamed and looked back at the boat.
"My God, Logan, what are you doing?"
Logan was leaning over the railing and looking at her, but he did not jump in to save her. He had a pained look on his face and stared right at her. Blood was running down his face to his neck and over his white tuxedo shirt.
Max, struggling to stay afloat, yelled again for Logan. "For God's sake, Logan, please, help me!"
The boat was on fire, and the horn was sounding a distress call. The current was strong, and she could feel herself rapidly drifting away from the boat.
Logan stood at the railing for a moment. He then said something to her that she could not hear. He turned and ran back inside the burning boat.
Maxine screamed, "Logan! Logan!" but no one was on deck.
She tried to swim back to the boat, but the current was too strong. She had never been a good swimmer, though she was often described as having a "swimmer's body." She screamed for Logan, or for anyone on the boat who would hear her. No one came to the deck, which was now engulfed in dark smoke. She could hear voices in the distance and see the fire overtaking most of the boat. She fought to stay afloat while watching the sinking boat, still in sight but drifting away.
A few moments later, there was a bright flash and a larger explosion near the bow of the sinking yacht. A large wave swept over her, and Maxine was underwater, not knowing which way was up.
When she came to the surface, the ship was gone. The air smelled of fuel, and the smoke was heavy. She was treading water among the debris from the ship, some of which was still on fire. Bits of burning debris and embers were falling all around her. She heard a voice in the distance, but it was too dark to see who it was. There was a fire on the water, probably an oil slick. She could feel the heat against her face as it came closer to her.
A wave crashed over her head, and she was underwater again. She surfaced, fought for air, and tried to yell for help, but nothing would come out. Her chest was tight, and she felt pressure like a steel chain wrapping around her. Was it a heart attack or panic? Her breathing was getting short and shallow, and she was shivering.
Will this be it? This is how I die?
In a flood of emotion, she screamed for Logan, both angry at what he had done and hopeful for help. But there was no one to hear her screams. Her mind was racing. Why would he want me to die here, in this way? Murder by drowning at only thirty-five years old?
Her chest was getting even tighter, and she began losing the feeling in her feet. At first, they had tingled, but now they were numb from the cold. She could feel herself slipping farther and farther under the water with each passing wave. How much longer will I have? I can't die this way.
Debris from the exploded ship was now all around her. She saw a large piece of a plastic chair floating nearby, and she swam toward it. It was moving in the current faster than she was, but she knew she had to reach it. There were other pieces of debris but nothing as large as the piece of the plastic chair.
She finally reached the chair and placed it underneath her right arm. It helped to keep her head above the water. Still, she knew she would drown soon if she did not get help. The waves were simply too big for her to fight them much longer.
On the verge of drowning, she thought only of Logan. She loved him so; how could he have thrown her into the water? And why? To kill her or to save her? Her heart told her it was the latter, but her mind told her otherwise. There were life rafts on the boat — and life jackets and life preservers. Throwing her into the water with a life jacket would have been different. But tossing her overboard into the cold, dark water with no life jacket could only mean he had wanted her gone. But why?
She reached for her neck to feel the beautiful necklace Logan had given her on the way down to the boat that night. She clutched it with her left hand while her right arm clung to the floating piece of plastic.
Just before they had arrived at the pier that night, Logan had pulled a small box from under the backseat of the limousine. "A little bon voyage gift," he had whispered to her.
"What? For a trip to Catalina I get a gift?" She'd opened the box, and her mouth had dropped. It was an extraordinary platinum pendant with white and yellow diamonds. Red rubies spelled out "Maxy," which was what Logan had called her since they had first met at college. It was large and somewhat heavy for a pendant. Logan had had it engraved with "IL MIO CUORE 'E TUO PER SEMPRE" which in Italian meant "My heart is yours forever." It was etched in beautiful script on the back of the pendant.
Max had smiled and shaken her head. "I don't believe it. I just don't believe it."
Logan had whispered to her, "Had it made for you. Wanted to give it to you on our anniversary, but it wasn't done yet. Your friend Julian is fast with the money but slow with the goods, if you know what I mean."
Julian was a jeweler in Beverly Hills whom Max's family had used for decades. He was in his eighties now, and while still very talented, he wasn't much good at custom jewelry anymore, unless you could wait forever to have it created.
Max had been stunned. "You designed it, and Julian made it? I'm overwhelmed, sweetheart."
For the design of the pendant, Logan had used an art deco pattern that Maxine loved. She called it "travel streamline," and it wasn't a feminine pattern by any means. In fact, it was rather masculine. But Max loved the art deco look and used it in many of her design projects. Why had he given her this special gift tonight, if he had planned to kill her the same evening?
Panicked and cold, she let herself drift in the direction of the waves as the current carried her closer to some lights in the distance. More debris? Or perhaps it was another boat? Her eyelids were so swollen she could no longer focus.
The lights drew closer, but she was losing consciousness. She knew hypothermia was starting to set in. Her hands were tingling, and her lips were painfully raw and burning from the salt water. The distant lights grew closer. It looked like a boat. She tried to yell, but as she opened her mouth, more seawater rushed in. It made her vomit, and she again struggled to breathe.
A moment later, her eyes swelled shut and she slipped out of consciousness.CHAPTER 2
Night Turns to Day
In the early hours of the next morning, while it was still dark, divers retrieved one badly burned body about five hundred yards from where the boat had gone down. Four of the other passengers, plucked from the sea by the coast guard the night before, were now at Coast Hospital in Laguna Beach. One passenger was missing.
The boat's owner, Ethan Chandler, and his wife, Jaclyn, were exhausted and confused but sharing coffee with their coast guard rescuers and the Coast Hospital Emergency Room staff. In an adjoining room, Viktor Lucienne and his assistant, Brigitte (pronounced in the French manner) Archambault, were on the phone with Viktor's business associates in Paris. They were speaking passionately in French, assuring them they were well. Aside from a bad cut on his right hand, Viktor was fine. The ship's captain was still unconscious and in intensive care. The first mate had a broken leg and face lacerations and was in surgery.
The two other passengers, Maxine and Logan Aronheart, were missing. The survivors were certain that the charred body was either Maxine's or Logan's and that the other likely drowned or, by some remote possibility, might still be floating in the waters off Dana Point Harbor.
Ethan became agitated. Running his fingers through his hair and wiping his brow, he was looking at the name tags of his coast guard rescuers. "Who is in charge of rescuing the missing passenger?"
"It's no longer a rescue operation, sir. It's a recovery," one of the coast guard officers said.
They had just arrived at the hospital to interview the passengers their fellow crew members had rescued earlier that morning.
Ethan was confused. "What do you mean a recovery and not a rescue?"
"We're looking for one more body," he replied.
"What's your name?" Ethan asked.
"I'm Captain Westmore. It's my ship and crew that responded to your distress call last night."
"But that missing person could be alive, right?" Ethan asked.
"Not likely, sir. We have two cutters and a helicopter still looking, but with the water temperatures and surf conditions, it is not likely the missing passenger will be found alive. Unless of course they are an Olympic swimmer."
Ethan frowned. "How long will you keep looking?"
"There's not a definite time period, sir."
"But you will keep looking until you find the other passenger, right?"
"That's the objective, sir."
Ethan got up from his chair and gazed at his wife for a moment. Standing over six feet two inches tall and with thick blond hair, Ethan still had that surfer look, although he had grown up in Connecticut and not Southern California. Looking older than his thirty-six years, Ethan was still strikingly handsome. He had an arrogant, self-confident personality but could be very charming, particularly with women. He was the only son of a wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, surgeon. Ethan and Logan had met at college. Fast friends since freshman year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he and Logan were like brothers. After graduation, they went to separate coasts but remained close friends. Ten years earlier, Ethan had asked Logan to join him as a partner in a new hedge fund he was starting. Logan agreed, and for the past ten years, they had both made more money than they ever imagined.
Ethan looked at Captain Westmore and asked him when the identity of the burned body would be known.
"That's up to the county coroner," he replied.
"Well, couldn't you tell if it was a man or a woman?" Ethan asked. "Surely you know that much?"
The captain hesitated for a moment and then said, "I'd be speculating, sir. I didn't actually see the body."
"Then speculate, damn it!" Ethan was becoming even more agitated and walked across the room to approach the captain. His wife went to him to try to calm him down.
"Ethan, please! I'm upset about Max and Logan too, but get control of yourself!" Jaclyn held him by the shoulders and gave him a steady gaze, as if she were transmitting a thought to him. Ethan relaxed. Jaclyn, a former model and child beauty queen, was the epitome of think-before-you-speak training. Normally calm and collected, Jaclyn was hard to rattle and very aware of her appearance and demeanor. Ethan was the opposite, impulsive and animated. Their starkly different personalities actually made them a good pair — most of the time.
"I'd rather you speak with the coroner, sir," said the captain. He then motioned to one of his officers to come forward. He took a clipboard from the officer and approached Ethan. "Sir, we have some questions for you and your ship's captain, when you are up to it."
"Questions? What do you want to know? I wasn't the one sailing the ship."
"I understand that, sir, but we are trying to determine the cause of the fire and explosion. As the ship's owner, we'd like to know if you were aware of any mechanical problems before the fire."
"I'm not a mechanic," he snapped back. "I just owned the damned thing. You'll have to ask Clint about any of that stuff."
"Is that the captain's name — Clint?"
"Can you give me his full name?"
"Clinton Grays," Ethan said.
"And your relationship with him?"
"Relationship? He's my captain. He sails my damned boat. Takes care of it."
"How long has he worked for you?"
"Since I got the boat ... over three years."
"Do you have the maintenance records for the boat, sir?"
"No. You'll have to get all that from Clint."
"He's not in very good shape now, sir, so if there is anything at all you can tell us that would be helpful in determining the cause of the fire, that would be appreciated."
Ethan bolted out of his chair and pointed his finger at Captain Westmore. "Someone is dead! My best friend or his wife or both! You're concerned about the cause of the fucking fire when someone is dead and someone else is missing? I want to know the identity of that burned body. That's what I want to know. And you aren't doing anything about it! Is it Maxine or Logan who's in the morgue?"
The captain put his hands up in the air and said, "Sir, please calm down. You'll have to speak with the county coroner. She has the body, and it is up to her to identify the deceased. My job is to try to determine the cause of the fire and locate any survivors. Everything else is up to the county coroner and the DA."
"The DA? What the hell does the DA have to do with it?" Ethan shouted.
"One of your passengers is dead, sir. Another is missing. You owned the boat and employed the captain."
"Oh, now I get it! Well, screw you! You can talk with Clint when he wakes up, and if you have any other questions for me, you can speak with my attorney."
Jaclyn got up from her chair, put both of her hands on Ethan's chest, and spoke directly into his face. "What's wrong with you, Ethan? These people rescued us. They saved our lives. Get a grip on yourself. You're embarrassing me."
"Sit down, Jackie. I know they saved our lives. But Logan and Max are missing or dead, and this guy is asking stupid questions instead of looking for them."
Captain Westmore waved his two officers away and tipped his hat at Ethan. "Why don't you go home, get some rest, and we'll contact you later."
Ethan put his hand on his forehead. He then shook his head and waved the captain away, as if shooing off a fly. Jaclyn, with one hand on her hip, pushed Ethan in the shoulder with the other hand and left the room.
Standing alone by the window, Ethan stared out at the ocean. The hospital sat across the highway from the beach, and it was a crystal-clear fall Sunday morning in Southern California. The storm had cleared out, and the wind had blown away the coastal haze. Catalina Island, about twenty miles offshore, was so clear that Ethan could see the white cliffs near the town of Avalon, at the southern tip of the island. Catalina was their destination last night. Ethan had arranged a surprise dinner in the Casino building, complete with a small orchestra. It was to be an evening of celebration, business success stories, and dancing. Instead, it became a night of terror and death.
Excerpted from Vanquish of the Dragon Shroud by Gregory E. Seller. Copyright © 2015 Gregory E. Seller. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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