“I don’t like the look of those clouds.” Chef stared at the rapidly darkening horizon from the deck of the thirty-five-foot fishing charter. “Looks like a storm’s coming in.”
Chris, the skipper and his long-time friend and business partner agreed. “Yeah, let’s give it a couple of hours and then head for home. I don’t want to get caught in that.”
“Strange, the forecast didn’t mention a storm,” Rick, the third member of their crew pointed out.
Chris shrugged. “You can never trust those things a hundred percent. Remember that freak squall back in 2002. Damn near capsized the boat.”
Chef nodded, “Yeah, closest I ever came to swimming with the fish.”
By mid-afternoon, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Dark storm clouds had gathered overhead and it had started to rain.
“Time to get out of here,” Chef yelled into the driving wind.
“Definitely,” Chris who was at the helm shouted back. They were forty miles out and land was not yet visible. Chris turned Lucky Strike around so it was headed for the marina at Astoria where he lived and where Chinook Fishing Charters was based.
Half an hour later, the blinding rain ensured they couldn’t see two meters in front of them.
Is that hail? Chris thought incredulously as he battled to keep the boat heading towards the buoys he knew would guide him home. The salty wind blew dead offshore with a steady, mighty roar, causing the thirty-five footer to buck and heave.
Rick had gone below deck, but Chef hung on grimly next to him at the helm.
The waves were now twenty-foot and climbing, but had no regularity, no rhythm. Rare glimpses of the sea surface through the bucketing rain showed formidable crests and peaks cast in an eerie grey shadow, pock-marked by the violent downfall.
“I’ve never seen a storm come in so fast,” Chef shouted to his friend who was gripping the wheel for all he was worth.
“Where’s the goddamn buoy?” Chris yelled back. He checked his position on the dashboard. “We’re on the right course. We should have seen it by now.”
Chef scanned the ocean around them or rather what he could see of it.
“I don’t see it, but then I can’t see much except the freakin’ rain!”
Rick popped his head through the hatch and yelled, “Radio says force ten gale.”
“Shit,” Chris whispered, sending a silent prayer towards the heavens. A force ten gale was known in sailing circles as a ‘survivor’ storm because it was the point at which the crew normally lost control of the vessel and the wind and sea became the true master.
“Do you think we should try to outrun it?” Rick shouted worriedly. “We could run with the wind, try and get out of its way.”
“We could, although it would send us further out to sea,” Chef warned. They both looked at Chris for guidance.
He shook his head. “The waves aren’t breaking yet, so our risk of capsizing is low. Lucky Strike has good stability, if we keep the bow pointing into the waves, we should be okay.”
Chef nodded in agreement. They all knew that breaking waves posed the greatest threat when sailing in heavy weather and could easily capsize a boat if hit side-on.
“Right on,” Rick yelled, “any sight of that buoy yet?”
Just then the boat hit a massive swell and Rick fell backward out of sight.
“You okay?” Chef shouted, bending down to take a look.
“Hang on!” screamed Chris, as the bow of the boat came crashing down amidst a sea of froth and spray that left them both catching their breath.
“Hope he’s okay,” Chef muttered.
“He can take care of himself,” Chris said wearily, “We have to get this boat into the river mouth and find some shelter.”
“Won’t the current be all wrong?” Chef was scratching his head. “In a storm like this, the wind will be against the current. If you want breaking waves that is where we’ll find them.”
Chris grimaced. “We’ll have to take that chance. I don’t see any other option.”
“Want me to take over?” Chef asked, glancing at his friend’s pale face.
Chris shook his head. “Try to radio base again. Lilly must be there now. Tell her we’re having a bit of trouble but should be back by nightfall.”
“God willing,” Chef muttered as he picked up the radio and began twiddling frequencies.
“What’s that?” Chris pointed towards the north.
“It’s a light. A motorboat?” Chef’s question hung unanswered as they both blinked into the rain.
“It’s coming closer,” said Chris. “I hope they can see us. Brace yourself!” he yelled as another monster swell caused the boat to launch sickeningly into the air. It came down with a crashing thud that seemed to expel the air from everybody on board but remained intact.
“That’s my girl!” Chef smacked his hand onto the sodden skipper’s chair.
“Get on the radio. See if you can contact that boat heading straight for us. I don’t think they’ve seen us in the storm.” Chris stared worriedly at the dancing lights a hundred metres away.
Chef held the radio to his mouth.
“To the approaching motor boat. This is Lucky Strike. I repeat this is Lucky Strike. We are directly in front of you. Please alter your course. Over.”
“To the approaching motor boat. To the approaching motor boat. This is Lucky Strike, Lucky Strike, Lucky Strike. We are directly in front of you. Please alter your course. Over.”
“Why don’t they answer?” Chris muttered. They must be able to hear us.
Now all of a sudden the threat of the storm paled in comparison to the threat of the approaching motor boat, directly in their path.
“It’s not moving out of the way!” screamed Chef. “Ahoy there, you idiots! Change your course.”
“They won’t hear you, buddy,” Chris told him hoarsely. “Keep trying the radio. It’s our only hope.”
Chef kept repeating the same thing, his voice becoming more desperate each time but there was no reply except for the crackling static of the onboard radio and the deafening roar of the gale.
The motorboat was now only twenty meters away.
“We’re going to hit it!” screamed Chris heaving the wheel to the left and knowingly positioning the side of the boat in direct onslaught of the breaking waves.
“Shit, where are the life vests? Rick! Rick, we need the vests!”
When Rick didn’t reply, Chef said, “I’m going down. I’ll grab you a vest.”
“Be careful down there,” shouted Chris hanging onto the wheel while the boat twisted and bucked as if it had a mind of its own. He’d officially lost all control over the vessel and he knew it was only a matter of time before they’d capsize.
He picked up the radio and swiveled the knob to channel 16, the distress channel. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Lucky Strike. Lucky Strike. Lucky Strike. We’re broadside and going over, we need assistance. Over.”
Back in Astoria, the US Coast Guard picked up the distress signal. Tim Traven was operating the satellite radio and responded to Chris’s call.
“This is the US Coast Guard. What is your position? Over.”
As Chris gave them his coordinates a giant wave at least forty-foot high broke on the port side causing the fishing boat to heave over onto its side. He screamed a warning to his friends below and tried unsuccessfully to hang on as the forceful body of water sent him sprawling across the deck.
At the station, Tim heard the smash and lost connection. He jotted down the first few coordinates, while simultaneously getting on the phone to contact the three lifeboat stations that maintain surface search and rescue on the north Oregon coastline. Within ten minutes the Coast Guard had launched their forty-seven-foot motor lifeboat specifically made for heavy weather and were headed due north according to the coordinates that the quick-acting Tim Traven had relayed. It didn’t sound good and Tim prayed that the rescue team would reach the hapless Lucky Strike in time to save its crew.
Chris was hurled against the edge of the boat and clung to the railing as tons of water swept over the side like a raging river. Lucky Strike hovered on its side for a few moments, undulating slowly, as if trying to decide whether to roll over onto its belly or not.
Come on, prayed Chris, kneeling in foam up to his waist. Come on baby.
He was acutely aware that he didn’t have a life jacket on. He didn’t want to think of his chances if he were thrown into the seething ocean. There was no sign of Chef or Rick. The spray stung his face as he hung on. Then the thirty-five footer gave an almighty creak as another wave hit her hull, sending her lunging over onto her starboard side.
Chris kicked away from the boat to avoid it landing on top of him. He swam strongly away from the overturned vessel, shouting his friend’s names, hoping against hope that they would miraculously appear from under the hull with an extra life-vest. The water was freezing and he shivered violently as he watched the creamy breakers pummel the exposed hull. Soon the torrents of rain and churning swells made it impossible for him to stay afloat and he felt his strength ebbing away. Foamy crests broke over his head and he gulped in mouthfuls of salty sea water. He started to choke, his vision became hazy and his limbs ceased to work.
Oh my God. I’m going to drown!
He made one last desperate attempt to swim towards the overturned Lucky Strike, but she was no longer visible. He was completely alone, adrift in the midst of one of the worst storms to hit the Oregon coastline in twenty years.
He didn’t last long after that. The freezing temperature caused his mind to slow down and hyperthermia set in. The last thing Chris remembered was floating on his back listening to the hollow howl of the wind as the darkness set in.
Munro Crane stared at the stranger’s face through a sea of tuxedos and ball dresses and was immediately transported back to a dusty mountain road somewhere north of Helmand Province roughly five years earlier. Not in his wildest dreams had he ever thought he’d see that face again.
Back then, in Afghanistan, the face had belonged to an Afghan soldier, but now it belonged to a handsome Armani-clad businessman. It was older, more lined, but the eyes were the same – dark, aggressive and bitter. Despite the camouflage of the fine suit and the opulent surroundings, those eyes had not changed.
The stranger’s gaze finally settled on Crane and for a moment neither blinked as they both struggled to comprehend what they were seeing.
Crane felt as if he’d been pole-axed. What did you say to the man who had pulled you out of the rubble in a demolished bunker and dragged you a mile to safety, when he could have just walked away and left you for dead?
He inclined his head in a greeting. The businessman said something to the politician he was talking to and nodded towards Crane. Crane recognized the man as Senator Travis Malloy. The soldier had some influential friends. He unconsciously stored the information away for future use. In his days in the Special Forces, he’d been trained to observe and remember.
The businessman made his way towards Crane who was sitting at the bar and stopped in front of him.
“Comrade,” was all he said as he stared at the man whose life he had saved all those years ago.
“I guess I’m finally being given a chance to say thank you,” Crane said sincerely, and held out his hand.
The man tilted his head in acknowledgement and shook the proffered hand. “No problem. You would have done the same I’m sure, under the circumstances. We were fighting on the same side, after all.”
It was true. In his Special Forces unit, members of his team would never leave a fallen colleague behind. Not consciously anyway. In his situation, the soldiers that had attacked the Taliban hideout that day hadn’t known he was there. How could they? He’d been buried in rubble. He’d later learned that a dedicated search and rescue team had gone out in search of him, but having found no trace they’d returned to base and he’d been declared missing in action, presumed dead.
“Yeah, well I’m grateful none the less.”
“I’m glad to see you made it out. I almost lost you a couple of times. You were badly injured.”
He didn’t know the worst of it.
“A couple of teenagers found me and dragged me into the hamlet. Luckily there was a woman there with some medical knowledge – else I probably wouldn’t have survived.”
“It wasn’t your time to go,” the soldier acknowledged with a wry smile and a shrug. “My name is Kaz, by the way. Kaz Erkel.”
“You live here in Portland, Munro?”
Crane paused at the familiar use of his first name. Most people just called him Crane. He didn’t correct Kaz though. The man was just being friendly.
“No, not really. I live east of here. I’ve got a cabin out in the forest.”
“An outdoors man, then? It figures.” Kaz nodded towards Crane’s attire.
Crane shrugged. Despite the formality of the occasion, he still wore black combat pants, a black t-shirt, and army boots. He didn’t see the point of dressing up for a party he was only going to be at for an hour tops.
“But not you?” He took in the tailored suit, shiny black shoes and impeccably manicured fingernails. Always observing.
Kaz sighed, “No, never was the outdoors type. Grew up in California and graduated with an MBA from Stanford.”
Crane was studying him curiously. “You were a good soldier,” he said.
“I was an angry soldier. Not a good one,” Kaz replied immediately. Crane didn’t miss the wry grin. “The Taliban murdered my father and his family. I wanted revenge.”
“Revenge is a powerful motivator,” Crane agreed. Now it made sense. Kaz had joined forces with the Afghan army to avenge his father. But this was Kaz’s domain. This was the kind of life he was born into. Not Afghanistan.
When Crane had looked up all those years ago and seen Kaz’s face staring down at him, he had assumed that the soldier was an Afghan. They had not spoken, Crane hadn’t been able to, so speech identification had been out of the question. Every time he thought of the soldier that saved his life, he thought of him in combat gear on that dusty road, grease on his face and an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Now he realized that picture was all wrong. This was the context his savior fitted into, this gilt-edged political terrain with its champagne and caviar and false promises – not Afghanistan.
For Crane it was the total opposite. Being a soldier had come naturally to him. It was something he excelled at. Even during his nine-week basic combat training, also known as boot camp, the physical activity invigorated him. He thrived on pitting his skills against nature and surviving in the wilderness. He had a natural sense of direction could find his way back to base camp from just about anywhere. Naturally, fit and used to pushing himself mentally, he graduated top of his class and automatically progressed to Advanced Individual Training with a recommendation for Special Forces.
Hob-knobbing with fast-talking politicians and suave businessmen in five-star hotel conference rooms was definitely not his forte. In fact, if it wasn’t for his friend Doug requesting his presence at this shin-dig, he’d probably be blasting his Perception Overflow X model kayak over the steep, fast rapids on the Salmon River right now. That was as close as he got to a war zone these days.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. I learned a thing or two during the war. I look at things completely differently now.” Kaz was saying seriously but Crane sensed an underlying bitterness that his hard eyes could not veil.
“War changes a man,” Crane concurred.
“Did it change you?” Kaz asked suddenly. Crane raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“I’ve always been a soldier,” he replied, “but yes, I suppose it did. After the injury, I retired from the armed forces. My ankle will never be the same again.” He tapped his left food against the bar stool.
“So what you do now?” Kaz pulled out the stool next to Crane and sat down. Even that he did stylishly, Crane thought.
“I’m a private investigator,” he said slowly, watching Kaz for a reaction. Most people considered it a step down the career ladder. Others were intrigued, usually the ones who read too many detective novels. Which category would Kaz fall into?
“How interesting. Are you for hire?” Kaz’s eyes were bright with curiosity. Crane was taken aback. That was one question he was not expecting.
“Um, yeah, I guess so. You need some work done?” An uneasy feeling built in the pit of his stomach.
Kaz nodded slowly. “I could utilize your services for a week or so. It wouldn’t be what you’re used to though. Not very exciting. It’s mainly a surveillance job. In fact, I’d do it myself, but it would be a bit… well, obvious, if you know what I mean?”
The feeling grew stronger. Crane took a sip of his club soda. He’d grown to trust his instinct over the years. It had never done him wrong.
“Want a drink?” he offered.
“Johnnie Walker on the rocks,” Kaz told the bartender in a voice used to ordering people around.
“Surveillance?” Crane enquired when Kaz had been given his drink.
“Mm… it’s a rather delicate issue.” He studied Crane from under long eyelashes and hesitated as if making a mental decision. “Can I trust you?”
“My work is strictly confidential,” replied Crane.
“Glad to hear it. It involves my wife you see.”
“You want me to spy on your wife?” Crane struggled to keep the surprise out of his voice.
Kaz didn’t look remotely uncomfortable with the idea. “I know it might seem a little strange, but hear me out.”
Crane tried to keep an open mind.
Kaz shifted on his stool. “I love my wife very much and have since the first moment we met. She’s had a few mental problems over the years. She’s prone to anxiety and takes anti-depressants, that kind of thing. Lately, I’ve noticed a change in her. She seems more distant, more detached, and she disappears for hours at a time and won’t say where she’s been or what she’s been doing. I’m worried she might be involved in something… dangerous.”
Crane frowned. “What do you mean, dangerous?”
Kaz shrugged, not making eye contact. “Maybe drugs, or maybe she’s seeing someone she shouldn’t be. There are a lot of crazies out there, as you know.”
Okay, now they were getting closer to the truth.
“Are you worried she may be having an affair?”
Kaz looked away. “Is it wrong to want to know the truth?” He took a sip of his drink, his hand steady and unwavering.
Crane sighed inwardly. This was the last thing he needed. To spy on some guy’s wife because he couldn’t handle the fact she was having an affair. Except it wasn’t just some guy, it was the guy who had saved his life. He owed him and unfortunately, it was payback time.
“Okay, I understand. Here’s the deal. I’ll find out what’s going on with your wife. It shouldn’t take longer than a week or two. If she is having an affair, I’ll know in a couple of days.”
Kaz beamed. “Great, thanks. Here’s my cell number. You can contact me anytime on it, day or night.” He slid a business card across the bar.
Crane acknowledged it with a nod but didn’t pick it up. Kaz got up as if to leave.
“Hey, what’s her name?” Crane asked. He knew nothing about this woman. Not even what she looked like.
“Sarah. Her name is Sarah. She drives a silver Mercedes SLK convertible and every morning she works out at Lloyds Fitness Centre. That might be a good place to start. This is my address,” he took a stylish silver pen out of his jacket pocket and reached for his business card. On the back, he scribbled an address near the lake, a very exclusive area.
So Kaz Erkel had money. Crane wasn’t surprised. It fit. The fancy clothes, the high-flying friends, the manicure.
“Do you have a picture of her?”
He shook his head. “I’ll email you.”
It was Crane’s turn to hand over his card. Cheaper paper, zero design. Just his name, occupation and email address.
Kaz flicked the card with his forefinger. A gesture of confirmation.
“What are your rates?” he asked idly.
“None,” said Crane firmly. “I owe you. Let’s just call it a favor.”
Kaz nodded, accepting his answer for what it was – payback.