Rick Weaver cut through the thickening crowd with little trouble. His imposing height of six foot three and his two-hundred-twenty-pound physique commanded respect. People parted for him as he neared the docks.
Curious, he looked around to find out what was going on. There were emergency vehicles everywhere. Mostly Queensland Police, plus several television news station vans. Just his luck something went down on the wharf the day he started his new assignment.
Signs hovering over the heads of the throng of people came into view as he drew nearer. Slogans touting SAVE THE REEF, TCI GO HOME, and ENVIRONMENTAL ASSASSINS were painted angrily across the wooden placards.
Once again his company had drawn the leftist sector’s attention. What in the hell is it this time?
Rick repositioned his duffel bag to his other shoulder and fished out his Treasure Chest Incorporated credentials. Warily, he eyed the crowd. At least they didn’t seem violent. The monotone chant of “Go home, TCI, go home” rose in volume as he edged toward the pier’s end, where a company transport awaited him.
Just another fifty feet and he’d be safe on the boat and on his way to the recovery site. The closer he got, the thicker the crowd became, and his aura of intimidation seemed to wane. People weren’t getting out of his way anymore. The occasional bump had escalated into a shove, and Rick felt his blood pressure building.
Keep your cool, mate.
He flashed a sneer at a man who stepped back into him, but resisted the urge to flatten the bloke. The college-age kid flashed him an apologetic grimace after sizing Rick up and moved aside. One foot at a time, sliding through the crowd and mindful of his duffel bag, he made his way persistently forward. It wouldn’t do TCI any favors to rough up an activist.
Through the shifting crowd, Rick saw Jack Louden. Seeing the old sailor’s sun-wrinkled face was a relief. Just a few more feet. A sign swung his way, and he ducked, bumping into a body behind him. The last thing he needed was to start a fight with these protesters. It was obvious they were not happy with his company, and he was sporting a navy Windbreaker bearing the TCI logo.
He whirled to apologize, and his voice was ripped from his lungs in a gasp as he lost himself in the glow of the warmest hazel eyes he’d ever seen. The girl before him was a stunning creature in her early twenties. Tall and all sleek, long curves. Her gaze locked on his, and the world around them fell away.
Unable to find his voice, he managed a smile. Her smooth, plump lips split and curled upward to reveal a perfect row of pearly white teeth. He couldn’t move, couldn’t pry his gaze from her. She simply stared right back with those deep, mesmerizing eyes peeking through shoulder-length strands of silky, auburn tresses. He’d never seen a more beautiful woman in all his thirty-three years.
It took him a moment longer to realize he was standing on the protester’s side of the picket line and staring at one. In her slender-fingered grasp was a sign with the slogan STOP RAPING MOTHER EARTH scrawled in big, fat print. The hypnotic hold her eyes had on him broke. The second she saw his embroidered emblem on his left breast, it would be over before it began.
“Pardon me, sheila,” he said and dipped his head in her direction. And just as he’d feared, she blinked, and her gaze fell to the incriminating logo embroidered on his jacket. Her eyes narrowed, storm clouds formed in the golden speckles of her gorgeous orbs, and her smile faded. Coldness overwhelmed him like someone had stolen the sun.
Rick winced. The look she gave him stung like none he’d ever had aimed at him before. He mustered an apologetic smile and moved past her. Quickly, he scrunched down, then dipped under the rope set up to keep civilians away from the dock, and took Jack’s hand. He gave it a firm shake. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the beautiful protester, and her gaze continued to hurl invisible daggers at him.
“Jack. Good to see you again, my old friend. What’s all this hullabaloo about?”
“It’s crazy, I tell ya. They started showing up a week ago, and they’ve been protesting us ever since.”
“I see that,” Rick acknowledged, watching the girl. From his vantage point, he could see more of her. Her khaki shorts were long but revealed slender, tan legs, with beautifully sculpted calves. More than ample breasts swelled beneath a black cotton double-pocketed work shirt, which she had tied in a knot. Something was different about her. She didn’t look like a banana bender, not that it mattered. Wherever she came from, she was extremely gorgeous.
“What in the world are they protesting?” Rick asked as Jack took his duffel bag and loaded it onto the company Zodiac.
“God knows what. Something about the reef.”
“But we’re doing a recovery op.”
“Yeah, you’d think they’d be thanking us. Salvaging that old Jap sub off the reef is doing them greenies a favor. But no, they’s got their panties in a wad over it.”
“Go figure.” Rick laughed, always finding Jack’s humor contagious.
“Let’s get out of here, Weaver. The skipper wants to bring you up to speed right away. Hopefully you can figure out who’s sabotaging the project.”
That was more than he’d been told. He’d been on assignment off Curaçao, bringing up the loot of an early eighteenth-century Dutch sloop, when headquarters called and reassigned him to the salvage expedition off his homeland of Australia. No one had said anything about sabotage. With a battalion of protesters on the mainland, it was easy enough to guess who was involved.
“Yep. Some crazy loon is filching off our equipment during the night and flooding the damn site.”
“What do they want?”
“That’s for you to figure out, Rick.” Jack flashed a bright sailor’s grin. “Skipper knew you had police background—”
“Aye. So he figures you’re our best shot at catching him without getting the authorities involved.”
“Why not have the coppers deal with it?”
“The press would get ahold of it. Corporate’s afraid it would generate more sympathy for the protesters—”
Rick finished the thought. “Bad publicity for us. I get it.”
“It’s all good, mate. I know you’ll find out who it is.”
“Right. Let’s go.” Rick flicked his glance toward the beautiful protester. She was staring at him still. With a sweep of her slender fingers she brushed aside the long, dangling bangs shielding those intense eyes.
He smiled apologetically to her once more, even if he had nothing to be sorry for. How cruel fate seemed, to run into a girl like her, only to find out they were adversaries by circumstances outside his control. The magnetic attraction was undeniable and was flushed down the drain, all within the span of five minutes.
It was probably for the best. His taste in women always led to trouble. The hot ones were always high maintenance, and their motives were always ulterior. He’d been burned too many times to fall for another pretty face. And rocking body. And mesmerizing eyes. He sighed.
Jack took control of the 150-horsepower engine and fired it up with a jerk of the pull chord. Rick reeled in the ties and bumpers, and they were on their way. The dock of protesters drifted out of sight as they made their way toward the Lizard Island group.
The sun slid down into the horizon, painting the night sky a brilliant magenta, and left Rick to his thoughts, which he couldn’t stop from returning to those intoxicating hazel eyes. Two and a half hours later, the silhouette of the Cortez
came into view.
“Here we are,” Jack said as they pulled up along the ship’s aft landing. “I’ll secure the Zodiac. You best check in with the skipper.”
* * * *
Monroe Dawson let the heavy sign rest on her shoulder as she dwelled on her volcanic reaction to the TCI diver. At first sight, he was a dream. But his close-cropped hair, muscular build, and commanding gait all screamed soldier. It was bad enough the hunky treasure hunter worked for her nemesis, but ex-military was the worst-case scenario.
Her face flushed as she recalled how he’d attempted a charming smile in her direction while he lowered into the Zodiac. With his dashing looks and confident swagger, he thought he could win her over with a disarming grin. How arrogant. They were all like that, weren’t they?
As if a spike had been hammered into her heart, she winced, recalling her abusive father. He was military too. It had taken years for her weak-willed mother to find the courage to leave the drunken asshole. Brainwashed into a fighting machine, he had no business having children. Or a wife.
With a deflating sigh, she let loose the deep breath she’d been holding. She looked down at the fine hairs on her forearm standing on end. Every time she thought about her dad, her stomach twisted in a knot from the rage.
And then there was her stepdad.
Another product of the military, he’d charmed her mom, who just couldn’t say no to a man in uniform. They married when Monroe turned fourteen and had just gotten used to not having to answer to a domineering jarhead. At least Dan hadn’t ever raised a hand to either of them like her father.
No, his weapon of choice had been to hack away at their self-esteem. With scalpel precision, he carved anything that made her feel good about herself from her in bloody strips and left her pride a decimated husk of emptiness. Nothing was ever good enough for Dan.
The memory of his barking voice echoed in her mind, and she shivered. Like a straight shot of rage, it ignited her veins with the hatred she held for him.
“You need to go into the Marines. You need to learn discipline, young lady. And that’s the only way you’ll ever amount to anything. They’ll get you into college, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll amount to something worthwhile. They’ll teach you, you worthless little hippy.”
God, she hated soldiers.
The activists were beginning to disperse, and she blew her bangs from her eyes. Fate was cruel. Every time she met a man who tickled her fancy, he turned out to be military. She’d go straight to hell before she ever became like her mom. She’d never be anyone’s whipping post.
Monroe shook her head until her thoughts faded from her dad, her stepdad, and the sexy TCI diver. She had completed her daily mission of mingling with the protesters. By day, she participated in their useless marching, sign waving, and chanting, so they would remember her being on the mainland. An alibi. By night, she went to work on her real mission.
Nonchalantly, she told a few of the protesters she’d come to know that she was going to hit the books. It was true she was working on her master’s thesis, but she needed to get to her base camp before the sun set. Quickly, she left the dock and made her way to the boat she’d stashed under the pier.
* * * *
It was hard for Rick to understand, but then green activists had become fairly radical over the last couple of decades. It was difficult not to suspect them even though the skipper had no leads. Someone was stealing their salvage equipment from the dive site fifty feet below them and sometimes right off their ship.
Over the last two weeks, they had lost over a quarter million dollars in specialized gear, and Rick had been assigned security detail. He was a diver, not a detective, but whoever it was, they were going down.
Staring seaward, he loved how even in the dark of night, the moonlight penetrated the crystalline waters of the Coral Sea. He could trace the outline of the World War II Japanese submarine. Its ocean-gray silhouette was a stark contrast to the purples and pinks of the coral bed it had accidentally run aground on in 1942.
Like Jack had said, Rick couldn’t understand why the activists would be upset with them for removing the forgotten junk. It had already done its damage to the reef long before they ever came along. Once the sub’s carcass was carefully removed, the environmentally threatened underwater wonder of the world could finally heal and return to its original state.
Whatever their problem was, TCI couldn’t afford to lose any more equipment. Nontreasure salvage operations had a thin profit margin as it was. According to the skipper, the thieves had struck every single night. With that in mind, Rick made his way to the landing and suited up. It was time to go hunting.
Taking a diving torpedo, he plunged to midpoint, circled the rusted corpse of a ship without any lights, and kept a sharp eye for a sign of the culprits. They had to use lights, and he’d see them coming from a long ways off, move in, and make the capture.
To his surprise, it didn’t take long. A small wake on the surface came in from the north, and he rose to a depth of eight feet and followed. The small craft stopped one hundred meters ahead of him and, daringly, within three hundred meters of the Cortez
, just out of visual range in the dark. The tiny personal watercraft was too small to pick up on radar as well. How clever. No one would’ve thought they were that bold.
Rick checked his speargun and knife and moved in. He killed the engine twenty meters off and hovered just beneath the waves. Deciding it would be even better to catch them with all the stolen equipment, he waited to follow the thieves back to their lair.
A flurry of bubbles plummeted to the reef below, and he knew they’d weighed anchor. Then a splash from the surface heralded the thieves were beginning their dive. The submarine was only seventeen meters below the surface and was ten meters tall.
They turned on a beam of light, and it aimed downward. Moving in quickly, Rick planted a GPS beacon on the small raft’s hull, just in case he lost them. He hooked a wire harness around the propeller guard so the thief would tow him to their hideout unwittingly. Grinning around his breathing apparatus, he drifted away, trailing the tow wire behind him.
Let’s see just how clever you are, little bandit.
Rick waited and watched from a distance like a shadow in the night waters. Unless they aimed their light directly on him, they’d never even know he was there. A quick check of his receiver told him the beacon was working perfectly. It was just a matter of time now.
Ten minutes went by, and the light emerged from the dark ship’s hull and began an ascent back to the surface. Rick gripped his torpedo tighter, ready to follow. The tropical waters churned as the thief fired up the additional fifteen-horsepower electric engine they used to get around quietly. For a second, he worried it might struggle with his weight, but it pulled him twenty yards behind with little trouble.
Grinning again, he fell into line behind the craft and followed at a depth of one meter, using their gentle wake to disguise his chase. He checked his air gauge and realized he only had a half hour of air left. Given the size of their engine, they had to have a larger vessel nearby. That meant reinforcements possibly. He’d be drastically outnumbered. But he was an ex-commando, and they were puny activists. Fear was a formidable ally, and in this instance, it was on his side.
The small PWC headed north by northwest toward the Lizard Islands that lay less than a half mile away from the dive site. Once out of earshot, they fired the main engine, and they towed Rick at a much faster pace. Closer and closer they went and circled around to Palfoy Island.
Rick let go of the tow wire as the craft beached and the water was shallow enough for him to walk in. Twenty feet from shore, he tied off his torpedo to a rock on the ocean floor, keeping it secured just beneath the waves.
Looking to the shore, he saw a single silhouette dragging the PWC onto the beach and similarly securing it with rope. They took an extra minute to cover it with palm fronds. Up beach there was a small shanty. The island was part of a national park, and as far as he knew, Palfoy was off-limits to civilians.
But his mark wasn’t a civilian. They were essentially a terrorist. A radical activist willing to break the law for their cause. A zealot. Commando or not, Rick had to be cautious. He cocked the speargun and made his way after the dark figure disappearing into the small palm-tree shack.