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Deadly Doubloons

Chapter One

Order from Amazon Order from Barnes & Noble Chris Green was relaxing on a stowaway seat, not watching any particular constellation in the clear sky. It had once again been a busy day as she made progress on repairing and customizing Maybe Tomorrow, the aptly named boat that was now her home, or at least what she was planning to be her home. The lights within the marina were minimal. The dock master’s office was quiet for the evening, and the few other residents at the tail end of February were already below in their cabins. The office at almost the opposite end of the dock was actually manned twenty-four hours a day, but with only one person routinely on the ten-to-six shift. It was Hector tonight, a graduate student who used the night shift to work on his thesis, which had something to do with promoting deep water aquaculture through the use of artificial reefs. There was rarely any scheduled nighttime activity in the marina, and as long as Hector made his rounds, the manager was happy.

Chris had been out earlier, biking the short distance to the Captain’s Table for dinner with the Weltons, an enjoyable couple who were not prone to lingering late, especially not on a Tuesday. She hadn’t told anyone that today was her thirty-second birthday and going out with the Weltons had been a nice way to quietly celebrate. It had been unseasonably warm for February, and unless it was raining or particularly windy, Chris’s nightly ritual was to sit like this up and forward on the boat, relishing the estate rum that had won her over from her native Kentucky bourbon. She loved watching the sky in its many variations of clarity, cloudiness, slender crescent moon to full silvery-white orb; from nights when not a star was visible to nights when it might as well have been a sequined cloak. She could lose herself in that sky and forget about the emotionally charged events of the past year that had brought her from Florida to Galveston, oddly enough by way of California. She was vaguely thinking these thoughts when she heard a faint sound that she couldn’t immediately place. It was followed by a shuddering noise thundering across the marina and then a fireball shot into the dark from an explosion midway between her slip and the office.

She rolled from the pad and quickly moved to the railing, taking in the scene. Flames burned around the engine compartment of the My Day Off, an older 260 Sundancer. Cracklings and poppings filled the air; lights were flipped on throughout the marina. She heard garbled shouts, indistinguishable words. Chris knew the slip to one side of My Day was vacant, and the Rinker on the other was unoccupied, but even without a wind, flames might easily jump. She quickly exited through the cockpit; grabbed a fire extinguisher; slid into her boat shoes, which were on the rear deck; and met Hector, Larry Rundle, and Jake Deely, each equipped as she was, on the dock. The heat from the burning boat washed over them. Poised for action, they looked to Hector, who, although the youngest among them, was technically in charge. Judging by the look on his face, he knew what had to be done.

“Fire response is on the way,” he said. “Larry, I’ll get this end; you get the other. Jake, can you take the dock, and Chris, you watch the Rinker, okay?”

They each moved into position as flames shot in multiple directions, sparks flinging in tiny, brilliant bursts and taking hold in every spot where the streams from the extinguishers couldn’t reach. The boat was beyond saving so protecting the surrounding area became the objective. Although the wind was slack, meaning that the fire probably wouldn’t leap to either the dock or the Rinker, Jake and Chris were ready in case that changed.

Sirens announced the arrival of the professionals, and within minutes, a fire truck and a black and white patrol car pulled close to them, men scrambling out to take charge. Chris, Hector, Larry, and Jake fell back toward the gathered crowd as the firefighters took over. There were no rookies among the marina residents, even the overnighters were experienced enough to stay out of the way. Questions and speculation passed calmly among them. Chris knew them all by sight, most by name. They were dressed in an assortment of lightweight slacks and long sleeved shirts like she was or sweats; a few wore robes and night clothes. The fire marshal’s sedan joined the other vehicles, and within a quarter of an hour, the situation was apparently under control. The crowd began to disperse with sympathetic sounds for the owner’s loss but sighs of relief that the fire hadn’t spread. Larry’s wife, Patricia, was the last to leave. She spoke to Larry quietly before kissing him on the cheek and retracing her steps to their 1986 forty-one-foot Hatteras, It’s About Time.

Larry joined Chris, Hector, and Jake who had unconsciously drawn closer as a small group, ready to answer what they could for the fire marshal. It wouldn’t be much based on what they discussed among themselves and had already reported to the senior policeman who had taken their statements. Hector had been inside the office, his next round not due for almost thirty minutes. He had seen nothing unusual when he had previously checked the grounds. Larry had actually been on the deck of Jake’s Grady-White 330, My Playmate, and My Day was not visible from his slip. Neither of them had noticed movement within the marina, and Jake knew all the regulars. Unless there was a late check-in, 9:00 p.m. was the usual quiet time for everyone. It was not a written policy, merely the rhythm of this particular group. The weekends were livelier, of course, and the transient population would increase by as much as 30 percent during the height of summer.

“Probably an electrical short,” Larry surmised. The street light they were standing under reflected off his shaved bald head. “Happens a lot with boats that aren’t used much.” After twenty-three years in the Navy, he and Patricia were leisurely touring the Gulf Coast, visiting adult children, friends, and relatives scattered between Florida and Texas. Galveston was their turnaround destination, and they had decided to spend a few weeks in the marina before starting the long run back to Jacksonville. Chris was friendly with them, as she was with the other residents, but she didn’t join what she thought was a standing nightcap with Larry and Jake, who was also former Navy.

“That would make sense,” Jake nodded, his lean, tanned face turned toward the sodden ruins of the boat, where tendrils of smoke were dissipating. The sleeves of his faded orange University of Texas sweatshirt were pushed to his elbows, and his equally faded jeans sported smeared, yet identifiable paint splotches in white and blue. He was one of the longest term residents of the marina. His mechanical and fiberglass repair skills were almost always in demand when he wasn’t working for a marine towing service or substituting as a captain for a charter fishing boat. If you needed to know the source for a service or anything related to boats in Galveston, Jake was the man to talk to.

Chris mentally cataloged this as she searched in her mind for what she had heard right before the explosion. It might not be related, but something had stirred her from star gazing. A voice? No. A clang? No. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to reconstruct the scene and was interrupted by a baritone voice.

“Thanks for waiting. I’m Riley Sanders, the on-shift fire investigator.” He was probably in his late forties, early fifties, taller than Larry and Hector, maybe half-a-head shorter than Jake. Broad through the shoulders, Sanders wore a loosely fitting Galveston Fire Department windbreaker and had dark eyes slightly hooded in his deep brown face. His grip was quick and firm as he shook hands. He nodded in the direction of the policeman with whom they had spoken. “I got the preliminary information, so I’ll make this as fast as I can.”

They introduced themselves, and Chris hung back a step, allowing the others to go first, running sounds through her mind. Sanders was obviously experienced and smoothly completed his questions, giving Hector his card as the three men turned away.

“Hey, Chris, we’re going back to my place— come on over,” Jake suggested, spinning around.

“Thanks, but I’ll take a rain check,” she said with a wave. Jake nodded and caught up with Larry.

She turned to Sanders, who was eyeing her. “You look like you might have thought of something,” Sanders said, pen poised over the notebook in his hand.

Chris cocked her head in the direction of the water. “I can’t be sure, but I think I heard an outboard being cranked maybe a minute or so before the explosion. It was really muffled, though, and that’s why I couldn’t place it at first.”

“Did you see anything, any movement in the marina or around the boat?”

She was shaking her head. “No, nothing. I was looking up,” she pointed to the stars, “and not out, but it had to be out a ways for it to be so faint.”

“Okay, thanks,” Sanders said and snapped his notebook shut, extending his right hand to shake and giving her a card with his left hand. “You know the drill, I assume. Give me a call if anything else comes to mind.”

Chris slipped his card into the pocket of her navy blue trail pants as she turned away and headed back to her boat. The marina had returned to the familiar calm of a weeknight as she stepped aboard the fifty-foot Viking Motor Yacht that she was transforming into her home. She replaced the unused fire extinguisher in the holder and went below to pour another rum. There was no way she was going to be able to sleep without unwinding for a while longer and one more should do it. She’d only turned Jake and Larry down because she knew from experience that having just one drink with them was unlikely. While she was ordinarily up for that and they all needed something to help bring them down from the excitement, she needed the quiet to unwind and think through the past hour rather than share boozy camaraderie. Her muscles had tightened with the instinctive adrenaline rush from having heard the explosion and seen the flames, the fear of fire ingrained in everyone who worked around or lived on boats. If she recalled correctly, the boat’s owner was a guy named Rob, Ron, Rod—one of those and he lived somewhere in Houston. He came down mostly on long weekends, and she really hadn’t seen him more than a couple of times since she’d checked into the marina, basically the standard “Hi, how are you?” type of exchange.

On the way up top, Chris grabbed a royal blue hooded rain jacket that she kept on a hook by the salon entrance. The temperature felt as if it had dropped, although that too might be simply an effect of the night’s excitement wearing off. Her drink was where she’d left it, the ice melted into the half-inch of rum in the heavy, hand-blown, green glass from Mexico. She poured the little bit of liquid over the fresh drink, giving it a gentle stir with her finger. This was the dark, mellow estate rum that neither required nor should be mixed with anything other than perhaps a splash of water, only one or two ice cubes needed. She kept regular rum for general purposes, and she was continually open to new high-quality choices. Cruzan, Guatemalan, Jamaican, most of the islands in the Caribbean made legitimate claims as to fine rums, and she had yet to make her way through all the offerings. Although it wasn’t precisely a quest, it was certainly a worthy hobby.

Chris set the fresh glass next to the empty, pulled the jacket on, then took her drink to the railing to gaze out across the dark water. Lights dimmed to where there was only the glow from the parking lot, the office and one or two boats. Silence folded over her, broken only occasionally by muted sounds from beyond the marina drifting in as tiny waves lapped against the hulls and dock pilings.

She was certain now that it was a motor she’d heard earlier, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. There were two other marinas in close proximity, and anyone could have been coming in or going out of one of them for a late evening. As Larry said, electrical shorts were a common cause of fires, much as they were in older homes, and at this point, there was no reason to think that the blaze was anything other than an accident. The breeze picked up about the time she took the last swallow, and she felt her shoulders relax, ready for sleep. She gathered the extra glass along with the stowaway seat and went below, the refinished teak decking creaking slightly as she passed through the salon into the main stateroom. Before she sleepily closed her eyes, she wondered if anyone had contacted the owner of My Day yet.