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Chapter One

Order from Amazon Order from Books a Million False Front“Hell, I have no idea if his wife is lying through her teeth, but I do know that we don’t want to pay out a two-million-dollar policy if she is. We’re talking traditional motives—sex and money—here, so it’s worth the cost of sending you in for a thorough investigation.”

The resolution on the video call couldn’t show the precise expression on Nick Griffin’s face, but Chris Green could take a good guess. The owner of Griffin Marine Casualty would be trying to suppress a sigh at the idea that a client would expect them to pay a claim of this size with nothing more than a verbal statement. “So you want me to fly out tomorrow?” Chris asked.

“That would be ideal, which is why I’m calling at the crack of dawn,” Nick said. “I can’t get you a direct flight, but I can get you there by noon, and I’ll make it first class for the inconvenience.”

Chris took a sip of coffee. “You have all the contacts lined up for me?”

“Yep, no problem with that, but time is critical here. If you can’t do it, I’ve got to make another call. With Horace gimped up and Dalton working an equally high profile case, you were my first choice.” Horace and Dalton were Griffin Marine’s two fulltime investigators.

In her mind, Chris was already running through the actions she would need to take in order to dash off to Belize and work another case for Nick. She hadn’t been to Belize except once and . . .

Nick’s voice was teasing. “Did I say please already?”

Chris laughed. “Yes, in the second sentence, although I like the first-class ticket part better.”

“I’ll book you out of Palm Beach through Dallas to Belize City and arrange transportation to the airport as soon as we finish this call and send you the info,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll make it one-way; we’ll figure out the return date later. And yes, it will be first class even if the wife isn’t the conniving, thieving bitch that the husband currently thinks she is.”

“Okay, you do that while I get my butt in gear to take care of things on this end,” Chris said, not certain of exactly what she was getting into.

With a nod, he disconnected the call, leaving Chris to sit for a few minutes, sipping coffee and thinking of the tasks to be accomplished. As much as she enjoyed Vero Beach, not having a major airport nearby did mean that direct flights were limited. Packing was the easiest part, although she needed to run a load of laundry. The few perishables in the refrigerator could go to the marina office. Lester, who owned Billy’s Marina where she was renting a slip, would keep an eye on the Maybe Tomorrow while she was gone. He admired the work she’d done on the Viking Motor Yacht, taking the older craft and customizing it for her home and office. They’d spent several hours over cold beverages with her mostly listening to stories of the ebb and flow of the many transient and more permanent residents of the Vero Beach marina. Chris was still in the transient category, but had been careful to cultivate useful relationships in case she decided to stay longer. Lester was a prime example. He ran a moderately priced marina without skimping on the necessities and knew most people in the boating community. He’d started work in the business with his father when he was in high school and kept the name “Billy’s” after his father passed away. Lester treated all of his residents in a friendly way, but the bond she’d forged with him meant he would watch over her boat as if it were his own.

The five months she’d spent in Vero Beach had been a needed respite after an intense and deadly situation in the Bahamas. She’d worked nearly a dozen freelance underwater investigations for three different insurance companies, none of the cases out of the ordinary. She’d enjoyed Treasure Coast diving during the peak summer season, but in truth, she was an admittedly spoiled warm-water diver, and in the fall and winter, she preferred the higher temperatures of the Keys, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and other tropical climates. She could easily stay over in Belize for a week or so for some recreational diving after the job was done.

Her mug now empty, Chris stood and looked around her. Although she’d had an entire wireless network installed on the boat, she usually kept the laptop and the small, portable printer on the desk area that was a flat section of the mahogany entertainment center. The main salon was comfortable, decorated in a West Indies motif, but unless she was watching television, she usually relaxed on the aft deck. Watching the night descend and the stars emerge was a pleasant way to spend the evening, especially with a drink or two in hand. She still considered herself to be new to on-board living, but had no regrets so far.

Checking off the to-do list she’d made took all morning. Nick’s e-mail with the travel information and the preliminary report about the claim arrived as promised, and Chris printed the two-page document to read on the airplane. She called her close friend Melanie and invited her to dinner. Pleased with her efficiency and foresight in making dinner reservations at eight o’clock, she was able to squeeze in a workout at the mixed martial arts studio. Since her total beauty regimen consisted of showering, applying deodorant and moisturizer, and running a brush through her naturally curly short hair, she never required more than about thirty minutes to go from sweat-soaked to any of the four dresses that she kept on board.

Melanie’s fiancé was out of town so dinner was a girls-only affair, and neither woman was inclined to linger beyond a single cup of espresso. It was not long after ten when Chris returned to the dock, and rather than her typical nightcap under the stars, she poured a dark Cruzan estate rum into a heavy, hand-blown green-tinted doubles glass and sat at the computer once more. She pulled up a map of Belize and studied it briefly. Her base of operations would be Ambergris Caye, the largest island of Belize. It lay between mainland Belize and the world’s second largest barrier reef. And she wouldn’t be there alone. According to Nick, a man named Riley Winters would meet her at the airport. He was apparently an agent for Bluewater Marine Casualty, an insurance company owned by one of Nick’s friends; he was “on loan” to Nick, although Chris wasn’t entirely certain of what that meant.

Finally, Chris yawned and shut down the computer to pack it. The shuttle was scheduled to pick her up at 4:30 a.m., and while she didn’t mind the early hour, she did want to get at least some sleep.

As the plane traveled west and south to the small Central American country of Belize, it didn’t take Chris long to read the understandably eyebrow-raising insurance claim of Crystal Blackwell about the fate of her 115-foot Denison high-speed yacht, Mine, Too. The story of an attempted hijacking that ended in a fire that destroyed the yacht was plausible, even the part about Crystal, her bodyguard, and the captain escaping in the tender as the would-be pirates fled. As often happened, though, questions had begun to arise as more details came to light. The situation was compounded by an enraged telephone call from Tiffany Roberts to Crystal’s husband, Norman Blackwell. Tiffany was the girlfriend of the bodyguard, Conan Carpenter, also known as CC. The call had actually been taken by Mr. Blackwell’s personal assistant, who described it as a vehement diatribe: “Ms. Roberts wanted Mr. Blackwell to tell ‘his bleached-blonde, boob-enhanced, man-stealing bitch of a wife’ to give her man (meaning Mr. Carpenter) back.”

Although Mr. Blackwell declined to speak with Ms. Roberts, he had initiated the conversation with Nick, agreeing that a careful investigation of the yacht fire was in order, and there had apparently been some discussion about a private investigator being engaged to look into the relationship between the bodyguard and wife. That, however, was definitely not Chris’s area, and she wasn’t particularly interested in it.

Chris’s role, as she understood it, was to dive the site where the craft had sunk and determine if the events could have unfolded as described. The location provided was at a depth of approximately 150 feet, which required technical diving to see if the physical evidence supported armed assault and then fire. Chris would look for, and report on, bullet holes and burned sections. Determining whether the attack and fire had been for real or possibly staged, as had been hinted at, was the next step. Chris wasn’t sure if she would be involved in that aspect, but she assumed Nick would let her know. The part that she was most puzzled about was: if it had been a setup, what was the motive? It didn’t appear that Mr. Blackwell himself was after the insurance money. How would his wife benefit if she was involved in a scam? Could it be a seriously over-the-top act of spite? That didn’t sound rational, but if it was one thing that Chris understood, being wealthy did not exempt one from irrational behavior, and in some cases, it seemed to exacerbate it with the “ordinary rules don’t apply to us” mentality. She expected she would learn more soon and closed the thin file to take advantage of the first-class accommodations to catch a nap in comfort.

Her flights were delay-free, and when Chris emerged from Customs, she quickly spotted a man holding a handwritten, rectangular cardboard sign with her name. “Hi, I’m Riley,” he said, dropping the sign to his left side and extending his right hand.

Chris wouldn’t call him skinny, although he could probably have put on another twenty pounds without changing his pant size. He was taller than her by half a head and wore his dark hair cut short enough to almost hide the natural curliness. His thin nose fit a narrow face, but with rounding to his chin that kept it from being sharp. His brown eyes were friendly, and his smile revealed a slight crookedness on the bottom teeth. His grip was firm, nails clipped short. There was no mark left by a wedding ring. A single onyx stud was in his left earlobe, and he was dressed in navy mid-thigh shorts and a navy and red striped polo shirt. Brown boat shoes and a pair of sunglasses dangling from his neck matched his overall tanned, outdoor look.

“You’re a light packer,” he said, reaching for her bright blue rolling duffle, which was affixed with a chartreuse luggage tag that made it easy to spot.

“It’s a habit I developed a long time ago,” Chris said with a smile, slinging her purple backpack over her shoulder. It contained the essentials: a change of underwear, swimsuit, a wrinkle-free black dress, a clean shirt, a bag of toiletries, her regulators, notebook computer, and camera. The Cannon G15 with a housing and dual function strobe/video light was compact and suited most of her requirements. She didn’t have the desire to spend thousands of dollars on setups that were the domain of avid and professional underwater photographers.

“The boat ride to Ambergris Caye is a little under two hours,” he said, leading her out of the terminal into the heat of Belize City, “and I have lunch on board unless you need to stop for something else.”

“I’m good,” she replied, the humidity striking her as they approached the taxi. As soon as possible, she intended to shed the turquoise blue long-sleeved cotton shirt she was wearing over her sky-blue tank top. The tank top and the turquoise blue Capri pants, which were a lightweight cotton blend that wore well in the tropical climate, would be sufficient.

After Riley had given the address to the driver, she asked, “How long have you worked for Bluewater?”

He waved a hand toward the buildings they were driving past. “Not quite four years. I came out of Galveston; that’s how I know Nick. Our companies have a basic reciprocal agreement, although we don’t get a lot of cases that cross between us. This is the first one in over a year. You read the file?”

“Yes, and I’ve got a couple of questions,” Chris said, trying not to clutch the seat as the taxi driver slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting a bicycle that shot across the street. This was either accepted practice or the driver was remarkably even tempered because there was no muttered or shouted invectives.

“I imagine more than a couple.” Riley grinned and tapped the driver on the shoulder when they passed into the marina. They turned left, rolling slowly among a mix of boats, and stopped at a slip with a cruiser, twin Mercury outboards, and an integrated swim platform. “You go aboard; I’ll take care of this and bring your bag,” Riley said.

Chris took her purse and backpack and stepped through the transom, stopping on the deck, not wanting to be too invasive. She assumed there had been seating at one time, but Riley or someone had replaced it with a short starboard bench and another against the back offset from the engines. The two benches were set with tank holders with open space underneath for gear.

Riley swung her duffle through the transom. “I’ve got it,” Chris said, taking her bag and wedging it under the starboard bench as he joined her.

Riley motioned up a step to a padded L-shaped bench with a table. “Sandwiches, chips, and fruit okay for you? I thought we’d eat while underway. I’ll take you to a real restaurant tonight.”

“That’s fine,” Chris said, looking around approvingly. “Is this a Doral 350SC?”

Riley pointed to the steps leading into the galley. “Yeah, it’s a little older, but in great shape. Other than swapping out the passenger section to set up for scuba and updating the electronics, I didn’t make any changes. I can still fit three people around the table for cruising, and it makes for a nice ride. Decent galley, cabin, and full head.” Riley pointed to the upper area. “If you want to grab a seat, I’ll get lunch and we’ll head out.”

Chris nodded and carried her backpack and purse to the table as Riley went below. She removed her long-sleeved shirt and tucked it into the backpack before she settled onto the short side of the bench closest to the captain’s chair. A brown pelican glided overhead toward open water, and a pair of seagulls squawked their presence in the opposite direction. The only other movement in the harbor was too far down to make out details.

Riley brought up a clear plastic rectangular container with sandwiches, bags of potato chips, a smaller container of slices of mango, napkins, and plastic forks. He had two bottles of water tucked under his arm. “I’ve got beer if you’d rather,” he said, putting the containers on the table.

“Water’s good for now,” Chris said, as he placed one bottle in the cup holder built into the table and the other by the captain’s chair. “You want me to cast off for you?”

He grinned. “Sure, then we’ll eat as soon as we clear the harbor.” Chris scooted out while Riley took his place and fired the engines, the sound loud in the afternoon quiet. Chris released both lines, hopped back onto the boat, and waved at a sailboat entering the harbor. Riley waited until the boat was well clear before he eased from the slip.

They were in open water within minutes, and Riley engaged the autopilot for the brief time it took them to eat. Conversation focused on their respective boats instead of business. When they were finished, Chris offered to take everything below. She surveyed the small, but functional galley as she rinsed both containers then left them upside down in the sink. She retrieved two more bottles of water.

Back on deck, she sat sideways on the bench so she could face Riley. He pointed ahead. “Did you do Ambergris Caye when you were here before?”

“No, we went on one of the live-aboard vessels out of Belize City and then did a day of land excursions to the Mayan temples. I would have liked to have gone over to Ambergris though, and it was on my list for a return trip.”

Riley swiveled his chair to face her. “We’re going to Stingray Point, not too far from San Pedro. It’s a great place owned by some friends, and it has everything we need. We’ll plan the dive for tomorrow morning, if that’s okay with you.”

“Sure,” Chris said. “You diving with me?”

Riley shook his head. “I’m  not tech qualified. We’ll be using one of Martha’s boats from Stingray; she’s the wife and co-owner. The captain will go in with you while I do support. By the way, the distraught Mrs. Blackwell and the bodyguard are ensconced at a lovely villa not far from where we’ll be staying. I assume you’ll want to do a follow-up interview after you’ve had a look at the yacht. Or what’s left of it.”

Chris brushed strands of hair from her forehead. “Have you spoken with them already or just read the report?”

“The report,” he answered. By the shake of his head, Chris could tell he was finding the report difficult to believe. “We get drug-related issues here. Not boat hijackings. This isn’t Somalia.”

“That part does sound rather flaky, although fairly well told, and she does travel with a bodyguard,” Chris said. “My biggest question is: why there was a different captain and no other crew?”

“I did follow up on that,” he said, obviously having difficulty in keeping a straight face. “Apparently, the two-million-dollar yacht was no longer sufficient. Mr. Blackwell had decided to buy a 112-foot Westport that was available in Tampa.” His eyes crinkled humorously. “I understand he got it for a bargain price of not quite four million dollars. Anyway, the deal apparently came through more quickly than anticipated, and Mrs. Blackwell was here with the Mine, Too, and the regular crew of three. Mr. Blackwell’s broker had a tentative buyer for it, but Mrs. Blackwell was not thrilled with the idea of cutting short her stay. She said that he could take the crew to get the new yacht, and she would have someone arrange for a local crew to finish her trip. When she was ready, she said, he could sell Mine, Too.

Chris scratched above her left eyebrow. “That actually does make sense if you live that type of lifestyle. Still, if there is usually a crew of three, why not that day?”

“A good question indeed,” Riley said. “The Coast Guard official I spoke with said he didn’t put it in the report because it wasn’t pertinent to them, but allegedly the two other crew, who are brothers, had some sort of family emergency to deal with and the cruise planned for that day wasn’t arduous. Mrs. Blackwell and Carpenter apparently made the decision to go with only the captain.”

Chris shrugged. “Again feasible, but yeah, depending on what I find, I think a follow-up interview is going to be in order.”

Riley lifted one finger to make another point. “And speaking of interview,” he said, grinning, “you’ll also want to speak with Ken Kenison. He’s the investigator that Mr. Blackwell hired from a company called McKenzie Security; he is also staying at Stingray Point. He’s allegedly there for bird watching.”

Chris couldn’t keep from laughing. “What a great excuse to have binoculars and a camera.”

“I haven’t really talked to him, just made the reservation,” Riley said. “He came in yesterday and took the puddle jumper over from Belize City. He knows about you, by the way, so he’ll probably introduce himself today or tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Chris said. “This should be interesting. Now let’s talk about the dive site.”