The Water Keeper by Charles Martin

Prologue


Three miles distant, the trail of smoke spiraled upward. Thick and black, it poured from the twin supercharged diesels housed in the engine room. Orange and red flames licked the smoke against a fading blue skyline, telling me the fire was hot and growing. When the heat hit the fuel tanks, it would blow the entire multimillion-dollar yacht into a zillion pieces, sending fragments to the ocean floor.

I turned the wheel of my twenty-four-foot center console hard to starboard and slammed the throttle forward. The wind had picked up and whitecaps topped the two- to three-foot chop. I adjusted the trim tabs down to bring the stern higher in the water, and the Boston Whaler began skidding toward the sinking vessel. I crossed the distance in just over three minutes. The 244-foot Gone to Market sat listing on her lee side, adrift. The hundred or so bullet holes across her stern explained her loss of rudder and engine. And possibly the fire.

They also told me that Fingers had made it to the boat.

Waves crashed over the bow and water was pouring into the main-level galley and guest rooms. The stern was already lifting in the water as the bow filled, pulling her nose dangerously toward the bottom of the Atlantic. Whether by explosion or water, she wouldn’t be able to take much more. I ran the Whaler up her stern, beaching it on her swim platform. I rigged a bow line loosely to a grab rail and jumped onto the main-deck lounge, where I found three bodies with multiple bullet holes. I climbed the spiral staircase up one level to the bridge-deck lounge, finding two more bodies.

No sign of Fingers.

I kicked open the ship’s-office door, tripped over another body, and ran into the bridge, where I was met by a wave of salt water pouring through the shattered front glass. Anyone in there had already been washed out to sea. I climbed to the top floor and onto the owner’s-deck lounge. Victor’s wife lay awkwardly across the floor. She’d been shot three times, telling me Fingers had gotten to her before she got to him. But the gun in her hand was empty. Which was bad. I pulled an ax off the wall and cut through the Honduran mahogany doors into Victor’s stateroom. Victor, also shot three times, lay twisted with his neck forcibly broken. Suggesting he’d suffered pain on his way out. Which was good.

The vessel rocked forward, telling me she was reaching the tipping point. Telling me I only had moments to find Fingers and the girls and get off this thing before she dragged us down with her or blew us into the sky. I descended the stairs and turned aft into the engine room, but it was flooded. I waded fore through waist-deep water into the crew cabins, past Victor’s prayer shrine, and toward the door of the anchor room where the water had turned red.

And there I found Fingers.

Actually, I heard him before I saw him. The gurgle of his breathing. When I turned the corner, he smiled but the laughter was gone. He held his Sig Sauer but couldn’t raise his hand even though the pistol was empty. I cradled his head and started to drag him topside, but he pointed at the anchor-hold door. All he could muster was “There . . .”

Water poured through the crack beneath the door, proving the room had flooded. I pulled on the latch, but pressure from inside made opening the door impossible. I waded back into the engine room, swam to the far side—trying not to breathe the toxic and eye-burning smoke—lifted a wedge bar off the wall, and returned to the anchor hold. I slid the tip in against the lock mechanism and pulled, using my legs as leverage.

I heard laughter behind me. “That all you got?” Fingers choked, splattering me with blood. “Pull harder.”

So I pulled with everything he once had. When the pressure from the inside and my leverage on the outside broke the lock, the door slammed open, pinning Fingers and me against the wall until the water level balanced out. As it did, I could hear girls screaming, but the sound was muted by the water. Fingers pointed at the scuba tank just inside the door. Next to it hung an assortment of weights and gear, including an underwater spotlight. I checked the regulator, fed my arms through the straps, clicked on the light, and swam down the stairs leading into the dark belly of the ship.

There I found seven scared girls in a tight group breathing the last of a trapped air bubble in the now-submerged nose of the bow. With a little prompting and a quick comment about the Titanic, we formed a daisy chain, and I led them through the dark water and up the stairs. When the girls saw daylight, they swam out and started climbing up the now-inclining keel toward the main-deck lounge and the Whaler.

Each of them was scared, shaking, and mostly naked. Marie was not among them. I swam back into the dark hole but Marie was not there.