Without a Trace… Chapter 35

Jostled by the harsh landing at Aruba’s international airport, Steve glanced out the window of the private jet and said a silent prayer for his wife and daughter. Agent Smythe occupied the seat beside him, typing furiously on a laptop computer. “You writing a book?” Steve asked the agent, who wore a mask of concentration.

Smythe ignored the comment and let his fingers dance on the small keyboard.

Steve unfastened his seatbelt and stretched his arms over his head. Helping the FBI meant helping himself in the process; at least he wanted to believe that. He had to believe that. He had few options with the Mexican authorities and fewer still with the U.S. Embassy. Stonewalled by the Assistant Deputy and his inept office, he grew increasingly hostile toward their unwillingness to tap the resources needed to help an American patriot.

Steve watched Agent Riker assemble her gear and put her cell phone in her bag. When the pilot cut the engines, she pulled the lever on the main cabin hatch and deployed the stairs.

Steve hustled beside Agent Smythe to the unmarked van waiting outside the hangar. A breeze carried the oily scent of jet fuel vapors rippling above the hot tarmac. “How far is the Coast Guard Cutter?”

Riker climbed in the front passenger seat and adjusted her pistol harness before turning her body against the bolstered cushion. “About an hour from the coast. The van’ll drop us at the marina. There’s a boat waiting there to pick us up.”

Smythe popped open his briefcase and fumbled for his sunglasses. “It’s a short ride to the Cutter, assuming the weather holds.”

Smythe closed his briefcase. “I checked the weather before we left. There’s a nasty storm front heading our way.”

Steve forced a smile. He knew on an average day, recreational diving anywhere in the Caribbean offered a welcome retreat from the rolling waves of the North Atlantic. He also knew the threat of bad weather could bring gusty winds, which in turn would bring high seas, strong currents, and a sharp decrease in underwater visibility. Well before three hundred feet below the surface, natural sunlight ceased to exist, adding further complexity to an already dangerous dive.

Staring out the van’s darkened windows, Steve watched Aruba’s landscape unfold at sixty miles an hour. Fringed with rows of palm trees, the beaches along the western shore displayed a plethora of white sand spreading out along the edges of the Caribbean’s ubiquitous turquoise water. He felt drained but not sleepy; awake, but not completely conscious, as if the family vacation he’d embarked on was merely a figment of his imagination; a nightmare gone awry in an otherwise perfect night’s sleep.

“You still with us?” Riker snapped.

Steve blinked, not from the agent’s harsh tone of voice, but from the whiff of garlic he caught from her breath. “Present and accounted for,” he replied without thinking. He sat upright in the vinyl bench seat as the van turned away from the main highway and proceeded along a gravel road to a pier extending from the shore, where a rigid-hull inflatable was tethered. An outboard engine mounted on a wooden transom revved in neutral under the control of the driver behind the center console.

When the van pulled up and stopped, Steve unloaded his duffel bag and slung the carrying strap around his shoulder. He assisted Riker and Smythe with their gear as well, loading the stowage compartments on the small boat before the van disappeared.

* * *

“Ahoy the bridge,” Smythe called out when the group arrived on board the Coast Guard Cutter.

“You couldn’t stay away, could you?” the Coast Guard Captain replied from a loud speaker. Eager to greet his arrivals, he left the bridge in his crisp, white uniform and extended a hearty handshake to Steve. “I’m Captain Martin. Welcome aboard the Chincoteague.”

“Steve Chambers. I assume you know these two.” He nodded at Riker and Smythe.

The Captain frowned. Tall and lean with a dark tan and brilliant blue eyes the color of a Colorado sky, he dressed the part of a movie star in command of a Coast Guard vessel. He wore an emerald class ring on his right ring finger and a platinum wedding band on his left. A graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, he’d quickly risen through the ranks as a helicopter pilot before his 20/20 eyesight faded. A twenty year veteran, he’d spent the last ten years piloting ships on search and rescue missions before taking a final assignment in Miami’s Seventh District.

Steve surveyed the Coast Guard Cutter. “I’m not sure how much you know about my situation.”

“I’ve been in touch with the FBI since yesterday morning. They filled me in on the details about your family. I sincerely hope this mission will be as valuable to you as it is to your country.”

“Me too,” Steve acknowledged. “I didn’t realize the FBI had jurisdiction over you.”

“They don’t,” the Captain stated matter-of-factly as Smythe and Riker advanced beyond the guardrail near the .50 caliber machine guns mounted on the foredeck. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you below.”

“Sir, if it’s all the same to you, I’m good to go right now.”

“Not with our equipment situation. The mixed gas readings on the air supply unit are inconsistent. We don’t know if the problem is with the gas or a busted gauge. My best man’s working on it.”

“How long before it’s operational?”

“Ensign Ngyne is top shelf. He’ll have it fixed by morning.” The Captain paused by the radar platform where the American flag hung from a pole in a polished brass socket. “Are you certain you’re up for this?”

“Absolutely, Skipper.” Steve wiped the sweat beading on the side of his head. “What do you know about the FBI’s investigation?”

“Not much more than you, I suppose. The Bureau’s been tight-lipped. I can tell you I’m not happy about this situation. I’ve been ordered to have a civilian engage in a deep diving exercise on my ship. The only reason I’m agreeing is because they condescended to provide me details of your record.”

Steve followed the Captain down the winding metal staircase inside the ship. “I take it you’re not a big fan of the Bureau?”

“Let’s just say I do what I’m ordered to.” The Captain pointed to a row of sleeping racks mounted against the ship’s bulkhead. Made from planks of wood secured to sheets of welded steel, the sleeping quarters provided minimal accommodations for the majority of enlisted crew. “Drop your gear and follow me.”

Steve threw his duffel on a bottom rack. Memories of close-quarter work on naval ships came flooding back. “This Cutter is an Island Class.”

“You know your vessels.”

Steve ducked under an overhead steam pipe. “She spans one hundred and ten feet length overall with a one hundred and fifty ton displacement. A maximum range of over three thousand miles. Max speed of twenty-six knots with a full complement of gear and a crew of fourteen enlisted men and two officers. One twenty-five millimeter machine gun mounted aft and twin fifty caliber guns mounted forward.”

The Captain slapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I’m glad the Navy taught you something.”

Steve smiled to himself. Not a physical smile on his face, but an inner smile he hadn’t felt in days. He liked the Captain for who he was and what he stood for. Under different circumstances he could see himself tipping back a couple of beers with his new companion.

* * *

The Captain walked toward the bulkhead leading out to the upper deck. He knew in his heart what Steve Chambers wanted to hear. And as Captain of the vessel, he knew more was at stake than the lives of one wife and one daughter—no matter how badly Steve Chambers wanted to believe otherwise.

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