by Nene Adams
Former Navy captain Meredith Reid is living a quiet life, running a charter boat out of Miami, Florida. Business is slow but she can’t complain. When Rue Stanton wants to hire Meredith’s services and offers a generous charter fee but won’t disclose her destination, Meredith is intrigued but skeptical.
Rue Stanton specializes in recovering rare and often stolen goods for the wealthy. Involving the authorities is never an option. The fewer people who know the details of each trip, the better. Rue’s latest quest involves a German U-boat filled with looted art and treasure, and she needs Meredith’s help to get to Cancún, Mexico.
When a bomb blast interrupts their first meeting, Meredith and Rue begin their journey across the globe—working to stay one step ahead of someone who is obviously looking for the same treasure. And as if things aren’t complicated enough, their growing attraction is making it harder and harder for them to keep their eyes on the prize…
The Lesbian Review
This book makes me wish very much that we could get more from Nene Adams. If you’re a fan of action novels with strong lesbian protagonists (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t be), you should check this out today.
Lesbian Reading Room
I found this great entertainment–an interesting read and an unusual story.… is a wonderful action adventure romp with a large dose of cloak and dagger, a heap of humour and a large cast of interesting characters. Nene Adams was an amazing storyteller and this is no exception, it literally carries you away.
Praise for Nene Adams
The Consequence of Murder —
GCLS Goldie Awards
Burn All Alike— Finalist, Lesbian Paranormal.
Meredith Reid lifted the bottle of Red Stripe to her lips, hesitated, and took a drink.
The restaurant was a little too noisy, a little too crowded, a little too touristy for her tastes, but she had a great view of the marina from the terrace. She enjoyed the breeze coming off the water and the smell of salt in the air. Sitting here also gave her more privacy for the meeting with her new client, who was—she checked her watch—fourteen minutes late.
“You should try the oysters,” said an unfamiliar female voice from behind her chair. “I hear they’re so fresh, they practically jump in your mouth. It’s one of the things I love about Miami. The seafood is to die for.”
“I don’t care much for oysters,” Meredith replied, concealing her surprise. She put the beer bottle on the table as a woman sat down opposite her. “Ms. Stanton, right?”
“Please, it’s Fairuza—my Turkish grandmother’s fault—but you can call me Rue.”
“In that case, I’m Meredith. Or Mer, if you’re feeling particularly informal.”
“Not Captain Reid?”
Meredith’s mood instantly darkened. There had been a time, before she resigned her naval officer’s commission, when she’d taken pride in the title. “Just Meredith is fine,” she said coolly, taking a drink of beer. Swallowing past the knot in her throat took an effort.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No offense taken.”
The harried waitress arrived, took Rue’s mojito order, offered to bring Meredith another bottle of Red Stripe, and hastened back inside the restaurant.
Rue picked up the menu and studied Meredith over the edge.
Meredith knew her appearance wasn’t impressive: rawboned, suntanned, with a mop of curly brown hair, brown eyes and a souvenir from a bar scuffle during her Annapolis days in the form of a crooked nose. Her clean T-shirt and jeans weren’t as businesslike as Rue’s designer power suit—which probably cost more than her yearly marina slip rental—but the woman wanted to hire her boat, not negotiate a corporate merger.
In turn, she took the opportunity to size up Rue more closely. She knew nothing about Rue other than her stated desire, via their telephone chat, to charter a boat to an unspecified location for an unknown purpose. Under the circumstances, she might’ve been suspicious, but Rue didn’t ping her radar as the criminal type.
Rue was so well groomed she practically shone. Her dark auburn hair was swept back smoothly in a French twist. No jewelry. Just the right amount of makeup. Beautiful. Almost too beautiful, in fact. Her face showed signs of cosmetic surgery.
Definitely cheekbone implants, Meredith thought. Nose job. Facelift too, judging by the pale scarring in front of her ears, though Rue seemed kind of young for the procedure. She snorted quietly. Superficial, vain women started self-improvements early, before time had a chance to leave its mark. Why would a woman like that want to hire a boat like hers? she wondered, finishing her beer in time to accept the second bottle brought by the waitress.
Rue broke off her scrutiny to order a dozen raw oysters from the waitress. She glanced over. “Do you mind? Or would you prefer to go straight to the entrée?” she asked.
“I’m good,” Meredith replied. Noticing the waitress’s impatient shuffling, she went on, “Go ahead and enjoy your appetizer. I’ll order something later.”
The waitress scurried away.
“Well, as I told you when we spoke the other day,” Rue said after taking a sip from her mojito, “I’m looking to charter a boat, no questions asked or answered.” She wiped the lipstick smudge off the cocktail glass’s rim with her thumb.
Meredith shrugged. “You don’t seem the type.” When Rue’s eyebrows rose, she added, “My usual charters are deep sea fishing. Sometimes I head down to the islands. But let me be clear, Lady Vic is no party boat. I don’t tolerate drugs or liquor. And if you’re into something illegal, like smuggling, I’ll take a pass right now.”
“I have no contraband to declare. If you can make the arrangements, I’d like to leave tomorrow morning.” Rue held up a hand to forestall her protest. “I’m more than willing to pay extra for the inconvenience. Say, half again your usual fee?”
Meredith snapped her mouth closed. Frankly, she needed the money. Her charter business had run dry. She loved Lady Vic, but a twelve-year-old, forty-two-foot lobster boat cruiser couldn’t compete with the bigger, fancier, faster yachts for hire. The best she’d scraped up lately had been a quick run to Kingston.
“Suppose I agree,” she offered. “Where are we going?”
“Whereabouts in Mexico?”
“I prefer to keep our destination private until we’re underway. It’s on the Caribbean side, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
The waitress returned bearing a tray of freshly shucked oysters on a bed of ice and rock salt. Rue squeezed a lemon wedge over the oysters before picking up a shell and slurping the contents. Her expression suggested she’d found paradise.
Meredith ordered a glass of sparkling water to dilute the beers she’d drunk. “Why Mexico? And why the hush-hush?” she asked.
“I’d rather not say,” Rue replied while choosing another oyster. “No questions answered, remember?”
Meredith scowled. “I’d rather not have my license yanked or face jail time because my passenger’s into something hinky she kept under her hat.”
“Ms. Reid…I mean, Meredith.” Rue dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “I don’t know how else to assure you of my intentions except give you my word: nothing I want to do in Mexico is illegal, immoral, or even breaks any of the Ten Commandments. To be honest, you’re a last-minute substitute for the person I’d previously hired. He had to cancel the charter due to an accident. Since it’s prime tourist season in these parts, I didn’t have a lot of choice when it came to boats. You were the last call I made.”
Knowing Rue felt she was scraping the bottom of the barrel stung. Meredith bristled on Lady Vic’s behalf. Rue gulped another three oysters in the time it took her to wrestle her immediate furious reaction down to irritation. “Be that as it may, I won’t tolerate being kept completely in the dark,” she said, her tone coming out more clipped than she’d intended. “Either tell me right now what this is about, or I’m walking—”
White lightning flashed in her vision, followed by a deafening roar and a wave of immense pressure. The world ended. She ended, too, apart from a single thought following her into the darkness: the word “bomb.”
What seemed like a long time later, Meredith opened her eyes to fire, smoke and chaos. She lay on her side on the terrace, partially shielded by the upturned table. Sounds stuttered and echoed hollowly in her skull as if coming from the bottom of a well.
A person stumbled past her. A man. One shoe on, the other off, his socked foot leaving a blood trail through glass and debris. She fought to remember what happened. A heavy charred smell lingered on the air. Had a gas stove exploded inside the restaurant?
Her sluggish wits left her in a semidaze. She tried taking a mental inventory to figure out how badly she’d been injured. No broken bones, she decided, but she had bitten her bottom lip and her right arm felt like a loan shark’s enforcer had taken a baseball bat to it. She pushed herself up, careful of her sore arm, and glanced around.
The wall of glass on this side of the restaurant was gone, blown outward and scattered like glittering diamond confetti over the terrace. Patrons stayed where they had fallen or wandered the area like hollow-eyed zombies. She seemed poised on the edge of shock herself and felt relieved she hadn’t been injured worse. Then she remembered Rue Stanton.
She checked the area where she thought Rue had been sitting and found no sign of the woman. Alarmed, she started to call out Rue’s name. She felt a touch on her shoulder. Her neck cracked loudly when she turned her head.
“How are you?” Rue asked, squatting next to her.
“Been better,” Meredith replied, hoping like hell her hearing returned to normal soon. “Been worse too.” Her stomach lurched. She clenched her jaw, breathing through the nausea. A glance at Rue showed no blood or obvious signs of injury.
Rue gave her a tight smile. “Come on, we need to get out of here.” She gripped Meredith’s arm—thankfully not the bruised one—and tugged hard, trying to pull her upright.
“Okay, okay, give me a sec.” Meredith cooperated and finally stood on her feet, swaying when her knees wobbled and nearly dumped her back on the floor.
Rue didn’t appear to notice. She looked frazzled, her hair hanging in clumps around her face. “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she chanted under her breath.
Meredith let Rue lead her across the terrace and down the steps, around the side of the building, through an alley, and out to the street. Not until Rue pushed her into the passenger seat of a compact black sedan did she think to protest.
“Hey, we shouldn’t leave the scene,” she said, repeating herself when Rue slid behind the steering wheel, slung a briefcase under the driver’s seat, and stuck a key in the ignition. Her tongue was too thick, fumbling on the words in her mouth. “People need help. And we’ll have to give a statement to the police.”
“Where’s it docked?” Rue asked tersely.
“What?” Meredith rubbed the side of her head, wishing she could reach in and tear out the cotton wool swaddling her thoughts.
“Your boat. Where’s it docked?”
A fire truck wailed past, followed by four police cruisers flashing blue and red lights, and a couple of ambulances. People began gathering on the other side of the street, most holding cell phones aloft to take pictures and videos of the burning restaurant.
Meredith gave up and told Rue the name of the marina and the slip number.
The journey took longer than usual due to rubberneckers slowing their cars to a crawl to gawk at the fire. Rue drove intently, both hands white-knuckled on the wheel. She didn’t pause for yellow traffic lights, but floored the gas pedal and flew through intersections with blatant disregard for other vehicles. Meredith hoped they survived the trip.
After arriving at the marina lot, Rue parked the car, turned off the engine, and shifted in the seat. “We need to leave as soon as possible. Are you good to go?”
“Not exactly.” Meredith closed her eyes to block out the too-bright sparkle of sunlight on the water. She rested her head against the headrest. At least her hearing had improved. She clearly made out the impatient grinding of Rue’s teeth.
“I’m not kidding,” Rue said, poking her upper arm.
Meredith sighed. “What’s the rush?” she asked, opening her eyes and focusing on Rue. “And I already told you, until you tell me what’s going on, my boat stays put.”
“There’s no time. We should get underway right now,” Rue insisted. “When we’re in open water, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
Rue sat quietly, staring into the middle distance as if debating with herself. At last she said, “All right, fine. I want you to take me to Los Dolores, a fishing village on an island south of Cancún called Isla Azul. Satisfied?”
“What’s in Los Dolores?”
“My business, not yours.” Rue remained tense. “Nothing illegal, like I said. All you need to know is I’ll pay you for your time and trouble. Hell, if we leave within the next ten minutes, I’ll double your fee. Sound good?”
Meredith wasn’t reassured by Rue’s generosity. In her experience, people only offered a lot of money when they were desperate to get away from something—or someone—or get to a place in a hurry. The cause of their haste was rarely legitimate. “Why are you so hot to leave Miami so quickly?” she asked. As soon as the question left her mouth, a possible answer struck her. “Are you a fugitive?”
“No. I’m just someone who wants to pay you in exchange for the temporary rental of your boat and your sailing expertise.” Rue yanked the briefcase out from under her seat, opened it, and withdrew a stack of money.
Three or four thousand dollars, Meredith noted when the wad fell in her lap. “A charter costs about nine grand for a round trip from Miami to Cancún.”
“I can get more money and it’s not a round trip. Drop me off in Los Dolores and we’re done, okay? I’ll make my own travel arrangements from there.”
The deal still sounded extremely shady, but Meredith had a headache, she wanted to put some ice on her bruised arm, and she was desperate for aspirin. “Make it ten grand.”
“You have a valid passport on you?”
Meredith gathered up the money, opened the car door, and stepped outside, glancing at Rue over her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?” she asked, beginning to head to the dock.
She heard Rue scrambling out of the car.
Sitting at the Lady Vic’s helm station three hours later, staring out at the wide, impossibly blue expanse of ocean stretching to meet the cloud-streaked horizon, Meredith should have felt peaceful and calm. Instead, her insides griped as if she’d eaten barbed wire.
Not that Rue Stanton was a bad passenger. The woman gained her sea legs quickly and without complaint—few things worse than green-faced, puking lubbers—but to go with the suitcase she’d taken from the trunk of her car, she’d brought brand-new scuba equipment aboard.
The diving gear troubled her. Questioning Rue resulted in no adequate answers, only evasions that seemed to confirm her darkest suspicions. She’d never liked being kept in the dark by her superior officers when she’d served in the navy and she sure as hell didn’t like it now. Somebody always got screwed when it came to need-to-know status, and what she didn’t know might boomerang around to bite her in the ass.
As a distraction from her pessimistic thoughts, she double-checked the boat’s heading. From Miami to Cancún, their route skirted the northern tip of Cuba, a somewhat tricky feat of navigation. She had to ensure the boat stayed outside the communist country’s territorial waters or she risked trouble with the US Coast Guard.
After setting the autopilot, Meredith went belowdecks to find Rue sitting on the L-shaped settee on the starboard side of the salon.
Rue sat with her legs tucked under, her head bent over a book in her lap. Sunlight from a porthole turned her auburn hair to fire. On sighting Meredith, she slapped the book closed and asked, “How are we doing?”
“We’re getting there. Lady Vic may not be built for speed, but she’s safe and stable.” Meredith sat down on the settee about an arm’s length from Rue. “You’re lucky I stocked up on food, water and fuel the other day.”
“I take it we won’t run out of any of those things before we reach Mexico.”
“That’s right. As for tonight’s meal, I’m no gourmet chef, but the pantry’s full of staples and I can rustle up a sandwich whenever you want some dinner.”
“Thanks, sounds great.” Rue’s smile didn’t quite touch her eyes. Her gaze drifted to the book in her lap. After fidgeting slightly, she glanced up.
For the first time, Meredith realized Rue had heterochromia. Her left eye was a cool, steely blue, almost matching the settee’s upholstery, while the other eye was brown, the color of fine Spanish sherry. The effect reminded her of a Turkish Van cat she’d once owned.
“What do you do for a living?” Meredith asked.
To her surprise, Rue answered readily. “I’m an art recovery specialist. People hire me to investigate art thefts and retrieve the stolen items.”
“Not necessarily. It’s not all cloak-and-dagger stuff, you know. Most of the time, I negotiate with the thieves on behalf of the painting’s owners. A lot of my clients are private collectors who just want their property returned without a hassle, and they’re willing to offer rewards and unofficial amnesty from prosecution to get it.”
“And insurance companies and the police aren’t likely to offer anything to thieves except a prison sentence, which is why you get called instead,” Meredith guessed.
“Exactly. I usually get results.”
“What you do…is that legal?”
Rue looked cagey. “Let’s just say I often skirt a fine line and leave it at that.”
Meredith nodded toward the book. “Part of a new case?” When Rue said nothing else, she firmed her expression and went on. “You said you’d tell me what our trip to Mexico is about when we were in open water. Well, it doesn’t get more open than this.” Her gesture encompassed the ocean outside the ship’s hull.
“How about we save my story for after dinner?” Rue asked. “Please tell me you have a shower. I feel positively grubby.” She pinched her blouse between her thumb and forefinger, pulling the soiled fabric away from her body. The restaurant explosion had left dark, briny-smelling stains on her clothes from the oysters. “I think I might still have glass in my bra.”
“The head—the bathroom—is behind this door,” Meredith said, pointing to port. “Toilet, sink and shower, but don’t count on the hot water. I wouldn’t linger if I were you.”
“Thanks.” Rue rose and went into the head. She took the book with her, much to Meredith’s disappointment.
While waiting for Rue to finish showering, Meredith walked above decks to the mid-galley, opposite the built-in dinette. Thank God she had gone grocery shopping before her meeting, otherwise they’d have been reduced to a jar of peanut butter, a bottle of hot sauce, and a box of stale saltine crackers.
The pair of drawer refrigerators under the helm seats were crammed full with an assortment of sliced meats and cheeses from the deli and a few other perishables, like half-and-half, yogurt, butter, and a well-wrapped package of red snapper fillets given to her that morning by a neighbor at the marina. She also kept a supply of her sole vice: whole roasted Guatemalan coffee beans costing sixteen dollars an ounce. Serving in the navy had spoiled her for civilian coffee. She deemed these beans an adequate substitute.
“What’s on the menu?” asked Rue, walking into the mid-galley and rubbing her wet hair with a towel. She had changed from her soiled business suit to a boatnecked shirt and navy blue shorts that showcased her legs. Unlike many redheads, her skin tone was warm rather than pasty, hinting at gold. Her bare feet made no sound on the deck.
Meredith caught herself staring at the elegant turn of Rue’s calf and cleared her throat. “Sandwiches, right? I’ve got turkey, ham, pastrami, cappicola, soppressata, roast beef, provolone, Swiss, pepper jack, Havarti—”
“Sorry I asked!” Rue laughed. “Everything sounds good. I’m not a picky eater. Is there a place outside we can sit? The sun’s gone down a little, it’s not so bright now.”
“Sure, there’s a seating area just behind here in the stern. I’ll make dinner and bring it through. Want something to drink?”
Meredith quickly built a couple of turkey and Swiss sandwiches on whole wheat bread with a smear of lemon mayonnaise. The sandwiches went on nonslip plates, along with a bright Florida orange each. She carried the plates out and handed one to Rue.
They ate in silence. When Meredith finished, she said, “I’m ready to listen if you’re ready to talk.” She didn’t add that if Rue put her off one more time, she’d alter course and haul ass back to Miami. The threat was implied by her tone, she hoped.
Rue made a face, but nodded. “First thing is…well, I don’t know quite how to put this so it won’t sound too alarming.”
Meredith leaned forward, her skin prickling despite the heat. “Go on. I can take it.”
“You remember the explosion in the restaurant?”
“That wasn’t an accident. Someone’s trying to kill me.”