The ticker tape on the bottom of the TV read: In an unusual turn of events, Investigator Anna McSwain assists law enforcement personnel in the arrest of Marty Cole, an officer with the Sutter Beach Vice Unit. Cole is another individual alleged to be involved in the pension fund scam that McSwain uncovered earlier this year.
Anna slipped her weapon back in its holster, and started down the path toward her own SUV, when…
POP – POP – POP – POP…
A sniper opened fire, and a round of bullets ripped into her chest. She stumbled and faltered; then fell like a dead weight to the ground.
It was immediate pandemonium at the scene. “Shots fired! Shots fired!” an officer screamed at the top of his lungs. “Officers take cover.” Uniformed officers took up defensive positions and scanned the area for the shooter.
FROM THE window in the living quarters of the firehouse, I had a clear view of the Sutter Beach Harbor. The Humidor was docked at the marina, its image reflected off the water from the light of the moon. With a quick search, I found out the private cruise ship pulled up to the dock just two days ago, and was supposed to set sail at Zero Hundred Hours, like Cody said. I stared at it. Anyone who looked at the awesome view would have no idea that innocent victims were somewhere on board, probably chained in some small space, and terrified.
Were they cold?
Did they know what was in store for them?
I shivered at the thought.
I returned to the sofa where I had documents and photos spread out on the coffee table. I wanted to keep all the sordid details of this case fresh in my mind. In just a few hours, Cody and I were going to attempt to crash a party. We didn’t have invitations, but we were the right age, so we figured if we could make it on board we could blend in. That was the problem, how to get on board undetected?
We went through all the scenarios. First, we combed the internet looking for images of that type of ship. The Humidor was a small, privately owned cruise ship, so we couldn’t find the exact layout, but I found one that was similar. We didn’t waste time trying to figure out ways to get past bouncers collecting invitations at the door. It wasn’t a nightclub, or rave, so we couldn’t just bribe our way in. Cody and I both knew how to scuba dive, so we could get over to the ship that way. But the heavy gear would complicate matters when trying to get on board during the party. Plus, we had to be dressed to the nines like the rest of the guests expected for the evening. Cody recommended a tandem-chute-jump from the Sutter Beach tour chopper. But I was afraid the sound would alert them to our presence, and it would be expensive to take a tour at night.
In the end, Cody and I came up with a plan we thought might work - at least we hoped so. We watched a couple of YouTube videos and walked ourselves through the steps a few times, until we had a timeline down. All we needed were a few supplies and a few hours. The party wasn’t until evening, so we had the morning and afternoon to put the plan into action.
I gave Cody some of the cash from the six-hundred-dollars Summer paid me. So much for making money. Then, he and Jaden went to a sporting goods store and a local spy shop. I stayed home to rifle through my mom’s closet for something to wear. I didn’t think Levi’s would pass for Mardi Gras attire. Now that I was closer to possibly knowing who took her away from me, I couldn’t help but get angry, as I sat on her bed and looked around at the photographs of the two of us.
At fourteen-hundred hours, when employees of The Humidor were busy prepping for the party, Cody and I donned our scuba gear, grabbed a waterproof duffel bag and swam around to the back side of the cruise ship. Thank goodness for the warm Santa-Ana winds. The water was comfortable. When we were sure the coast was clear, we grabbed onto metal clamps just under the emergency rafts and hefted ourselves onto the rail of an exterior stairway; then ascended up to the top deck.
I kept watch while Cody removed the supplies from the duffel. Then, he secured one end of a quarter-inch galvanized aircraft cable and a bungee brake to an outer rim of the ship, but in a location where it wouldn’t be detected - hopefully. The cable was two-hundred-feet long and would stretch over the distance from the ship to land. Once he was finished, he held onto the spool of cable and we slipped back into the water, loosening the wire along the way. When we reached land, he pulled the wire taut and we trekked up a hill to where Jaden was waiting.
While we slipped out of the gear, Jaden secured the other end of the cable wire to a tree, forming a zip line for us to cross over in the dark of night.
“We have to pull this off,” I said to both of them. Images of the victims chained to bunks kept going through my mind.
“Their lives are in the hands of two eighteen-year-olds…”
A FEW hours later, Cody and I stood at the top of the hill overlooking the harbor. We were both dressed in dark-jump suits and night-goggles. Rope gear and harnesses were secured around our waists. At the marina, The Humidor was lit up with thousands of twinkling lights, indicating the party was underway. Limousines, Hummers and exotic sports cars continued to drop off late arrivals dressed to the nines at the red-carpet plank that led to the main deck where the party was underway.
At the sound of a car door shutting behind me, I turned around to see Jaden as he trudged up the incline, carrying Cody’s camera bag. When he reached us, he opened it and pulled out Cody’s Canon camera and the tri-pod.
I looked at Cody, aghast. “You’re having him film this?”
Cody shrugged. “Are you kidding? This is the perfect advertising tool.”
“It’s not a spy flick, Cody.”
“C’mon Syd, how often do sleuths get to handle situations like this, saving victims on a frigging cruise-liner? Man, we’re doing something no veteran P.I. ever gets to do. It sure beats rifling through documents in a cold basement.”
I shuttered. “What if we don’t save them? Have you thought of that? This is serious stuff, Cody.”
Cody put both hands on my arms, and stared into my eyes. “Not saving them, is not an option. You got us here, this far. We will save them!”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I hate crying, but lately, I seem to be doing it, a lot.
Jaden nodded, and he looked serious and sincere. “I hate to say it, Syd. But numb-nuts is right. You took the skills your mom taught you, and you worked this case. You have a chance to stop what’s happening, long before that boat takes them anywhere.”
I inhaled a gulp of air and let it out. “Okay,” I finally responded, after what felt like an eternity.
Cody looked over at Jaden, and chortled. “Numb-nuts…? Sounds like something my grumpy grandfather would say.”
Jaden shrugged, and proceeded to set up the tri-pod and camera. “Okay, all set?”
Cody looked at me. “I’m ready.”
“Me too,” I said, and I took another deep breath.
Jaden gave us both a look that went from fear and admiration, all rolled into one. “Promise you won’t do anything stupid.”
He did a hand-fist with Cody. Then clumsily gave me a bear hug. “And get back here in one piece, or I’ll have to kick both your asses.”
We did one more check of the zip line. It should hold up to three-hundred-fifty pounds. Cody probably weighed in at one-seventy-five. I was one-hundred ten soaking wet, so we should be fine. Using a carabineer, I secured the harness around my waist to the harness on Cody. A few seconds later, I was hanging onto his waist as we were gliding in tandem across the Pacific Ocean - high above the waves - the same way we used to when flying down from the firehouse roof. If it weren’t for the danger we were heading into, this would have been a friggin blast.
The bungee brake Cody installed earlier; stopped us from crashing into the boat at a high-rate of speed. We took a couple minutes to catch our breath, and make sure the coast was clear. When Cody gave me thumbs up, we latched onto the railing, hauled ourselves over and landed with a thud on the deck. We hurried out of the jumpsuits and goggles; then smoothed out the wrinkles of our party clothes, and tucked the gear out of sight. It was pretty dark up on the deck, so someone would have to be physically looking for them to find them. I spotted the stairwell when we were on board earlier, so I grabbed Cody by the hand and led the way.
WE MADE it down to the door to the Starboard Deck, the floor of the ship where the party was in full swing. Before we opened the door, we adjusted our attire. Cody was dressed in a rented black tuxedo with a matching black-collared shirt.
“Will this suffice?” he said, while looking to me for approval.
I gave him the once over. The cheerleaders would think he looked like a model straight off the cover of a romance novel, but I tried to push thoughts like that out of my head. I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good friendship. Plus, I didn’t want to encourage his already-inflated ego.
“It’ll do,” I teased. But, he did look good, a little too good for comfort. My stomach did a little flip flop, something I’ve never experienced before the last couple days. Could my mom have been right about Cody and me, and any possible feelings we might have for each other?”
I stepped out of the cover of darkness, and it was his turn to gawk, but probably not for the same reason. He was stunned. I found a silver halter dress in my mom’s closet and picked up a matching pair of sandals. I had to practice walking in front of a mirror for a good twenty minutes before I was used to them. It would have drawn attention to us, if I walked in looking like a bumbling idiot. My entire life was spent in cowboy boots, Uggs, or my Reebok Cross-Trainers, none of which had three-inch heels. I also purchased a mask with feathers to fit in with the Mardi Gras theme. It would also keep my identity hidden.
“Are you turning into a girl?” he mocked. “First I see you in makeup, and now this. You look … different.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by, different, and I was afraid to ask. But, I think he approved.
“Well, don’t get cocky,” I said, and I gave him a light punch on the arm. “I can still kick your butt if I have to.”
He chuckled. “I knew you were in there, somewhere. But, if I recall, it was you who landed on her butt during our last workout.”
“Yeah, but it’s you that is in the monkey suit.”
“Touche,” he said. “Um Syd, where’s the gun?”
The dress had a slit up the side, so I pulled the material to the side. A Walther CP99 pistol - fully loaded - was strapped to my thigh. The pistol only shoots eight rounds of pellets, but I had Cody pick up a pack of hi-impact hollow points. The bad guys have real guns, but I was hoping they wouldn’t get a chance to use them. If they did, I was fully prepared to fire back. Besides, until a pellet flew out of the weapon, the gun resembled the real thing, so it could at least keep someone at bay. It was the gun my mom let me use when she went to the shooting range for target practice, and I conned her into taking me along. I wouldn’t go out in public with it. They have become a major problem for law enforcement in recent years, because the gun looks so much like the real thing. The pellets could knock the wind out of you, and give you some good welts, but they weren’t fatal.
Cody smiled. “Sweet.”
“I also have a nail file from my army knife, in case we need to pick any locks,” I said, and showed him a metal clasp with a magnet that I sewed inside the dress. The nail file was stuck to it.
“Cool. Any news from Carter?”
“Not yet,” I said, reminding myself that he’s on it, but he has to get through the bureaucracy first.
“Let’s hope all the bad guys decide to make an appearance, and they can round them all up at the same time. Turn on your mic, and let’s do a quick check. I need to make sure I can hear you if we get separated.”
I tapped a microphone that was attached to the inside material of the halter, next to a nail file secured to a metallic clamp. “Checking, 1, 2, 3… Cody Beck is a…”
He tapped the tiny earpiece in his ear. “…Gorgeous specimen…?”
I shook my head. For as long as I’ve known Cody, which was since elementary school, he has always been sure of himself.
He said, “Can you hear me, okay?”
“Unfortunately, loud and clear...”
He smiled. “Then, let’s rock and roll.”
We stepped through the door and into the ballroom, where the party was in full swing. The first thing we noticed was; we were underdressed. The guests in attendance took the whole Mardi Gras thing way too seriously. There were jokers, jesters, phantoms and vampires. Some were dressed in funny costumes. Others chose serious - like Mother Theresa and the Pope. A group of girls were dressed as belly dancers. Turquoise, maroon and gold lights flickered in a magnificent light show.
A DJ stood on a platform in the center of the room, surrounded by mixers, amps and speakers as he played a list of tunes to keep the crowd on their feet. Ghosts flew around the room, high above the partiers. Actually, they were people dressed as ghosts, with their hands on the button of a remote to the contraption on their backs, which were probably portable jet-packs.
I noticed some late arrivals signing a guest book, so I walked over and glanced at the list; then attempted to return to Cody’s side. Before I made it back, a guy dressed as a knight in shining armor, approached me.
“I thought I knew everyone invited to this shin dig,” he said, and he tried to corner me, “but, I haven’t met you. Would you care to dance?”
Before I could respond, Cody whisked me away. “She’s with me,” he said, and he ushered me out onto the dance floor.
“Smooth,” I said.
He shrugged, trying to make light of it. “I just don’t want you to get side-tracked,” he said, and he smiled.
I got the impression he was jealous, but brushed it aside. Why would he be interested in me? “Some of the players are here, but not all,” I told him, as we moved to the tunes.
“Maybe they’re members and they don’t have to sign the guest book,” Cody responded.
“Maybe we should separate and try to mingle, and try to ask around in a discreet way. There are a lot of people here, and a lot of ground to cover.” We couldn’t find the exact floor plan for The Humidor, but the one we found was enough for us to get an idea of the layout.
“I’d prefer to finish the dance, but we did come here for a reason, so…” We left the dance floor, but he looked a little disappointed.
“Don’t forget,” I said. “Be discreet.”
“I am the king of evasiveness,” Cody said. As we started to separate, he grabbed my forearm. “Syd, stay safe…”