Authors: Thomas Donahue,Karen Donahue
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Murder, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths
For Beverly Hills, it was particularly cold, even for February. Joseph Miller zipped up his black leather jacket, squeezed the cigarette between his finger and thumb, then flicked the half-finished butt against the short brick wall––the red glow of heat lit up like a sparkler in the darkness and then dispersed into the predawn breeze.
The veteran reporter from the
Los Angeles Times
rubbed his hands together while he scanned the perimeter of the empty park off Rodeo Drive at Santa Monica Boulevard.
The journalist in him wondered how the multitudes of homeless people, a few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, were faring through the long night. Miller lifted his left wrist and glanced at the dials against the white face of his vintage Bulova––3:30 a.m.
“Where the hell
you?” the investigative reporter said aloud to the emptiness of the square. He popped open the almost empty cigarette pack, slid out another, and lit it. Over the next half hour, Miller paced along the winding concrete sidewalk in anticipation of the one person who could help him win a Pulitzer Prize. He’d been in the game long enough to know that the story was that big.
It doesn’t feel right. He’s not coming.
Miller angled toward the street and within a few steps, the bells of the Catholic cathedral sounded their 4:00 a.m. chime across the city. He swung back.
I need to wait it out to verify the story.
The reporter slipped his hands inside his jacket pockets to fight the chill deep in his fingers.
He methodically studied the streets in all directions for his contact. Except for the occasional car passing, this enclave of the exceptionally wealthy would remain quiet for hours.
Miller slipped under the high overhead light, leaned against the black pole, and worked his cheap lighter. In the distant darkness, he caught the image of a tall, muscular man suddenly appear from a shadowy alleyway behind one of the high-end boutiques. Dressed in black and moving stealthily, the man’s gaze seemed to home in on the reporter.
The investigative journalist’s instincts sensed trouble. From the center of the park, Miller’s eyes searched left and right for an escape route, or for help. None. His knees began to shake—he’d been on his feet for hours. Before he could react and run, he heard the deep voice of the approaching giant.
“Miller?” asked the
six-foot-five goliath as he came into the soft light of the park lamp.
The reporter flinched at the sound of his name while hurriedly studying the solid-jawed face that was ambivalent to the surroundings. His eyes went down to the man’s forearm, and he recognized the familiar eagle tattoo. Miller felt the tension ease. He took a deep breath and exhaled.
It’s going to be okay
, he reassured himself. The reporter nodded to the man that he was Miller, and then he reached into his coat pocket for a recorder.
The man grabbed the reporter’s arm with such speed and force that Miller’s brain jumped to a new level of fear.
“It’s just for my notes.”
Miller held his open hand out for the person to see the digital recorder. “I’ve only got a few questions—is that all right?” He awaited instructions.
The piercing eyes signaled for him to continue. “You alone?” asked the intimidating figure.
“Yeah.” Miller pointed to the lone park bench a few feet away. “Can we sit?” The reporter sat, while the large man remained standing.
“Did you discuss this meeting or your story with anyone?”
“I’m a journalist. I don’t talk about my stories until I have all the facts. Hell, I don’t even know your name.”
“Michael. That’s all you need to know for now.” He gave a sweeping scan of the park and surrounding streets. “Give me your phone.”
Miller pulled it from his pocket and handed it to the man. “Look, I just need you to confirm certain things, that’s all—”
Before the journalist’s final words escaped into the cold morning air, Michael’s large right hand clamped onto his throat like a pit bull attack. While the massive strength behind the forearm lifted him off the bench, his last breath burned in his lungs. He fought. He struggled. He beat back. The claw tightened. The cracking—his throat, his bones, his cartilage. Miller pried at the single hand still wrenched around his crushed larynx.
“You dug into the wrong story.”
“I’ll stop working the story,” the reporter wanted to say, but there were no words left that could escape the destroyed vocal cords. His fingers tingled and weakened. His mind faded into confusion. His arms were heavy—they dropped to his side. His vision blurred.
The morning sun had called her out to play on the big, blue Pacific. At least that’s how Marin Ryan saw it, and she was making the most of it with her new toy. The sky clear, the surface shimmering and flat, the swells small, she pushed the throttles forward. The criminology professor could feel the grin broaden on her face as her new boat climbed onto plane and shot toward the GPS waypoint on the navigation screen indicating the marker buoy to the Newport Beach Harbor entrance.
Her heart thumped faster as she rounded the floating red buoy and saw the sleeping sea lions on its small, steel deck. The two-foot wake from her boat jolted the gently rolling structure, setting the huge iron bell into erratic clangs. The thousand-pound creatures made their hostile feelings known by bellowing out their low resonant roars. She smiled, loving the communication from nature’s pinnipeds.
She steered between the rock jetties and then slowed to the five-mile-per-hour speed limit inside the breakwater. The sleek design of the smoked windows showed off the elegant vessel while it knifed its way through the calm water, with barely a ripple of wake. The 36-foot Carver Mariner had initially captured her attention with its derivation of her name, Marin, but now it proved to be everything she needed in a boat—and longed for—speed, agility, and size.
The light onshore breeze cooled her tanned face while she gradually made her way through one of the largest small yacht harbors in America. She took in the spectacular views along the route––boats bobbing restlessly at their moorings, sea gulls soaring overhead in the cloudless blue sky, pelicans taking their fearless dives from great heights, and the small islands with their multimillion dollar houses of movie stars and business moguls perched at water’s edge.
On the final turn leading into the Blue Water Marina, she lifted her left hand from the throttle and pushed back a stray blonde strand that had fallen over her eyes. Under the shade of the navy blue canvas canopy, the five-foot-seven woman stood tall behind the wheel of her own vessel. This magnificent craft was all hers.
How incredible is that?
Marin took a deep breath. Ahead awaited the long and narrow runway to the new slip for her brand new boat. She carefully gauged the breeze and then the water current below. There was a definite tremble in her fingertips—it had been awhile since she had docked a boat. The trust in her abilities began to wane when she approached the tight lane of expensive yachts lining both sides of her path. Their protruding bows, with sharp claw-like anchors, felt as if they were closing in while she continued down the narrow passage.
Her fingers delicately worked the controls. Space became tighter and tighter. She took another breath. While the vessel inched its way along, her feet detected the ever so slight movement sideways to her left. She glanced up for an instant at the clubhouse to check what her senses had detected––wind increase. The American flag on the mast above the red tiled roof blew steadily west to east.
Out of the corner of her eye, she recognized someone.
Pay attention to what you’re doing.
Marin couldn’t help it, she had to take another look. There on the largest yacht in the line of boats was John Hunter, sitting at a table on the upper deck of a yacht. He hadn’t changed since college.
It was a long time ago.
Tender feelings returned all too quickly.
There were four people at the table having breakfast—next to him was an attractive woman with light brown hair, and across from them, another young couple. They were enjoying the beautiful morning and hadn’t paid any attention to her smaller boat heading up the runway.
It was good he hadn’t noticed her––she didn’t want any witnesses on her first day at the helm. By the time she had focused back on the task, the boat had overshot the slip.
. With her palms damp, Marin drew the two levers to the top position, setting the propellers into neutral. Without hesitation, she slipped them into reverse for an instant. The boat came to a near stop.
Her emerald eyes tried to focus on the sign on top of the concrete pylon ahead––slip E-28––her boat’s new home. She stared at the tiny slot.
It’s too small for my boat.
The left side of her brain began to dominate the process. She shook her head.
It’s an optical illusion––concentrate
Without using the steering wheel, she feathered the controls––left into reverse, right into forward, and the craft pivoted in place. Marin nudged the levers into reverse, first left, then right, then left again and her boat snaked its way backwards into the small opening.
John Hunter glanced up from his breakfast. At that moment, he set down his cloth napkin, said something to the others, and started for the back rail of the upper deck. “Need any help?” he shouted to her.
She gave an appropriate wave to her new neighbor indicating she didn’t need his help. At six-foot-three, he was still in great shape with those broad shoulders.
I’ll bet he still surfs
. Not recognizing her, he grinned, nodded, and returned the friendly wave.
Well, it’s been over seven years.
The swim step of the Carver gently came to a stop at the foot of the dock. Professor Marin Ryan felt elated––almost defiant––the master of her own vessel.
She peeked over at his huge motor yacht in the slip two down from hers. Its three-story deck towered over the others in the marina. She noticed the name painted in gold letters on the transom––
It’s his boat.
“Nice job.” John had hurriedly made his way down the two flights of steps and suddenly appeared on the lower deck of his boat. Without hesitation, he made his way over to her slip.
She kept one hand at the controls to steady the boat in the breeze. The other hand she used to signal that she was okay and could handle it.
He took the gesture to mean that she wouldn’t mind an assist.
Marin watched him cross the narrow dock and grab a line from the back of her boat. His eyes focused on the task at hand. Hers didn’t. The former Wisconsin boy who grew up in farm country had evolved from college computer-geek to surfer to boater and looked every bit the part of the laid-back Californian. His windblown sandy hair and untucked coral T-shirt contrasted nicely with his tanned face––obvious signs of outdoor coastal living. She could see that his two-hundred pounds still tapered into the sexy 34-inch waist. With graceful agility, he unraveled the line from the stern and looped it in a figure eight around the dock cleat.
She took off her dark blue jacket and tossed it on to the seat. After turning back to the console, she flipped one switch, and the port engine went silent. Another toggle, and the starboard engine rested.
“Nice job, Captain,” he called up when he finished tying off the other rear cleat and headed forward to the bow cleats.
Marin rushed down the steep stairway and opened the small transom door that led to the swim step. She turned back to the open cabin door on her boat. “Come on, girl.”
A yelp of excitement came from the darkened stateroom. Through the opening launched a colorful beagle, racing across the deck. In a single hurdle, the dog ran through the open transom door and jumped on to the dock to follow Marin.
John Hunter dropped the bow line when he heard Marin’s voice. His warm blue eyes stared at her, mouth slightly open, arms to his sides––stunned and speechless.
Embarrassed by his frozen gaze, she said, “Hello, John. It’s been a long time.”
“I’m just. . . .” He fell back into the trance.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you kidding me?” He extended his arms out and wrapped them around her. “This is the second happiest day of my life.”
She melted to his touch. “What’s the first?” she playfully whispered in his ear.
“The day we met in college and you changed my life.”
In a neighboring town, Michael reached down with his large, muscular hands, and in one effortless motion, lifted his four-year-old son high over his head.
“Pauly, you’re flying,” Nancy shouted. The boy’s mother was as happy as her two boys that Michael was home again.
Pauly giggled with excitement. Fearless, he spread his arms wide and made the sound of a fighter jet, “Shiioo.” At the top of the arch, the father let go. The boy suddenly dropped toward the earth only to be swooped up again before the pending crash. Never a flinch.
After gliding his fighter pilot, Pauly, into a safe landing at his mom’s feet, Michael pulled the vibrating phone from his pocket and glanced at the screen.
Instead of answering, he sent the caller to phonemail. The annoying bursts of pulsation stopped.
He picked up the spatula from the side table and flipped two of the burgers on the grill before it buzzed again. He held up his vibrating phone to his friend at the table. “Hey, Fitz, take over for me here.” Michael tossed the utensil.
The redheaded man snatched the spatula in flight. “Hey, man, where you goin’?”
“Gotta take this call.” Michael double-timed past the sparkling pool toward the backdoor of his ranch-style California home. The phone stopped. Three steps inside the house, it began again its relentless summoning. Through the kitchen and into the garage, Michael fumbled for his keys. He unlocked the heavy door in the far corner of the garage. Inside his secure office, he tapped the screen to answer.
“Admiral, what’s on your mind?”
“Son, where are you?” the man demanded in his usual irritable tone.
“At home. I’ve been in Abu Dhabi for the past three weeks. You know the security business––probably be heading back in a week or two.” He paused and took a deep breath, knowing he wasn’t going to like the answer to his next question. “What do you want, sir?”
“Someone’s getting close to finding out what happened.” Michael let out a breath. He thought to himself––that reporter in Beverly Hills three years ago was a big mistake—now he was tied to this permanently.
“The only time you call me is when you have a problem that needs to be fixed. This time, get someone else to do your dirty work.” He disconnected.
The phone vibrated again. He connected without saying a word.
problem,” the voice said. “Like the reporter, this one’s digging around. If she finds out what happened . . . then the whole thing unravels, and we go down.” The former admiral repeated the phrase, with emphasis, “
“She?” Michael’s shoulders slumped. He clenched his fist and sensed the veins in his neck were ready to explode. “I’m about done with you, sir.”
“We’ll be done with it all soon enough. First, you deal with her. Then we close up the last two sources of leaks and it becomes a complete dead end. I’ll deal with one, and you take care of the other. This’ll be the last time.”
“I doubt it.” There was anger in Michael’s voice.
“No one will come snooping around after you’re done.” The caller waited for a response.
“Post it on the site,” Michael commanded.
“Already there––1978. It must be done immediately, before she pieces it together.”
“I need time to do it right.”
“We don’t have time. Just get it done, sailor. I sent a package to the drop box––it should be more than enough.” The phone went dead.
Michael spun his desk chair around, sat down, and swiveled back to the computer screen. After booting up and accessing Google, he typed in an Internet address that led him to a used car site. In the search field, he entered––1978 Corvette. Thirty-two hits appeared on the screen. All but one had sleek pictures of silver, black, or red high performance cars next to the sales blurbs. He opened the only ad without a picture and read it.
1978 yellow Corvette.
She’s been professionally restored in Newport Beach, Calif.
Interior leather custom by Sutherland.
It’s a regular sight on the streets of Laguna Beach, Calif.
Leave a message at one of the following numbers:
333-6390, 117-5513, 333-5194, 117-4953
The code was clear. He studied the ad again. First target––a blonde woman, some type of professional—she can be found in Newport Beach.
The second target he had known for years––Kent Sutherland in Laguna.
So, you’re one of the leaks.
He hit his Google Earth icon on his desktop and typed in Newport Beach. The globe spun and then zoomed in on the small Orange County town along the Pacific coast. He entered the first two phone numbers from the ad into the GPS coordinates and added the requisite zeros––333639.00N, 1175513.00W.
The map enlarged to ground level, transitioning into a 3D image of a residential unit––some type of low rise condo or apartment building. He moved the image around on the screen, checking the front, back, and sides of the building. He zoomed out and examined the streets in the neighborhood.
Good cover––that’s where I’ll do it.
He slid the curser over the building, and a dialogue box opened with a specific address. He memorized it.
Next to the dialogue box was a camera icon representing some tourist travel photos. He clicked it open. Instead of the expected picture of a sunset or ocean scene, a page of data appeared. “Let’s see.” He reviewed the bio of the woman, making mental notes of the descriptive details. Her degrees from a prestigious school caught his attention. He nodded. “So, you’re a doctor,” he mumbled. He continued to read and digest the smallest of details––height, weight, and car. At the bottom of the information was the attractive blonde woman’s college ID photo.
She’s a looker.
He clenched his teeth while he thought about the assignment. When he exited from the page, the photo icon vanished from the Google Earth map as if it had never existed.
The second set of phone numbers, or more specifically, the other GPS coordinates, led him to Sutherland’s house overlooking the Pacific on the cliffs above Laguna Beach. He shook his head slowly. His trained senses caught the faint sound on the other side of the door before the knob turned.
“Michael, what are you doing in there?” Nancy demanded. “The burgers are ready.”
“One more minute,” he shouted back.
“This job of yours. . . .” Her voice faded until he heard the door to the kitchen slam.
He rapidly tapped the keys commanding the laptop to erase his search history.
Three minutes later, he appeared in the backyard and walked over to his friend.
“Here are your burgers.” Fitz set the paper plate on the table.
Michael grabbed it, reached into the ice chest, and pulled out a Budweiser. In two minutes, he had wolfed down the burgers and a couple of beers. His two sons climbed from the pool and ran across the deck toward him.
“Daddy, give me a ride,” Pauly shouted. The four-year-old jumped on his father’s right foot and grabbed tightly to the tree trunk of a thigh. Mikey, the-five-year-old, was not going to be denied and leapt on to the other foot.
Michael transported his sons over to the table and deposited them with their lonely, angry mother. Her gaze burned deep into him.
“You know the drill.” He shrugged his shoulders. “When I get the call, I go. It’s what I do.”
Nancy signaled the boys back into the water. “Keep an eye on them.” She stormed into the house.
Michael plopped down next to his buddy, Fitz. The two battle buddies opened another Bud under the hot California sun. Their conversation transitioned to a more serious tone.
“Man, we could be in prison instead of lying here by the pool.” Fitz shook his head slowly. “The stuff those CIA boys had us do in Afghanistan.” His face winced, and his eyes opened wider. “Buddy, you took the heat for a lot of it. It wasn’t right.”
The patio door opened, and a small canvas bag flew out to the concrete pool deck. “You might need some clothes where ever you’re going.” Her voice from inside the house added, “Make sure you say goodbye to the boys this time.”
“I’ll only be gone for a day or two.”
“Just tell them goodbye,” she said.
Both boys jumped out of the pool and slowly walked over to their father. While the older son stood at attention, fighting off the disappointment about the news of their father leaving again, the younger boy, Pauly, started to cry.
“Sailor,” Michael said, with a sternness in his voice.
Both boys came to attention and gave a crisp salute to their dad.
He returned the gesture, then turned to his friend and stared coldly into the bloodshot eyes.
“Fitz, let’s call it a day. I’ve got to get going.”
Twenty-minutes later, Michael was in his private office, door closed, yanking his empty gym bag from the closet. He turned to the six-foot-high safe and dialed in the combination. The door cracked open to his personal arsenal. His first choice was the black Sig P226 tactical handgun with suppressor and laser sight. Michael popped out the thirteen-shot magazine, estimated the weight of the nine millimeter rounds, and tapped it against his knee before snapping it back in. After he slipped the gun into the inner pocket of the bag, he tossed two more full magazines in next to the weapon.
He reached back into the safe and grabbed a bound stack of hundred dollar bills.
This’ll keep me going until I pick up the $30K at the dropbox.
While trying to work through an initial, tentative plan, he closed the safe and spun the tumbler.
This could get ugly if I don’t take some serious time to develop a good plan.
A moment later, with his heavy bag slung over his shoulder, he opened the door to the garage.
After tapping the key fob, the power-lift gate raised on his black Suburban. Michael slipped the rear carpet back, opened the concealed compartment in the floor, and tucked the bag inside. Before he closed the rear hatch, he took down his wetsuit and dive bag from the far wall and tossed them on to the car floor over the hidden cavity. His hand rested high on the open hatch door while he thought.
The wetsuit doesn’t look right.
His eyes glanced over at the set of scuba tanks in the corner.
. He attached a regulator to the tank’s valve and checked the pressure.