Sneak Peek: Devil’s Harbor by Alex Gilly

Devil's Harbor by Alex GillyNick Finn and his partner and brother-in-law, Diego Jimenez, are used to rough water. As Marine Interdiction Agents for Customs and Border Protection, the two hunt drug smugglers, human traffickers, and other criminals who hide in the vastness of the waters surrounding southern California.

With heart-stopping thrills, a Walter White-esque villain, and a fascinating hero, Alex Gilly’s Devil’s Harbor is a thriller unlike any you have read before. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER ONE

Nine days after Finn had shot and killed Rafael Aparición Perez, he was back on patrol, looking out over the Interceptor’s stern. It was the end of a cool autumn day, with the Santa Anas blowing exhaust fumes inboard and shreds of cloud off the San Gabriel Mountains, across Los Angeles and out over the dirty, wind-chopped sea. Night was falling, and in the two minutes since they’d left the dock, the water’s color had changed from police-uniform blue to slate.

Diego was slouched in the helmsman’s seat, one leg dangling, as he helmed the Interceptor at no-wake speed toward the gap in the breakwater that protected the vast Terminal Island port complex from the Pacific’s swells. He was wearing a pair of blue Customs and Border Protection overalls, a low-profile life jacket over that. The black grip of a Heckler & Koch P2000 stuck out from the holster on his utility belt. He was arguing that Finn shouldn’t have shot Perez, enumerating the reasons it had been a bad idea.

Finn, wearing the same CBP uniform and carrying the same service-issue handgun on his hip, was only half listening to his young patrol partner. He felt the low-rev shudder of the four 300-horsepower Mercury outboards passing through the floor and up through his legs. After more than a week of mandatory leave, it felt good to be back on the water.

“You shouldn’t have shot him,” Diego said again.

“He was shooting at us.”

“I’m telling you, it’s gonna be a giant headache, for the both of us,” said Diego, not hearing Finn.

“It’ll blow over,” said Finn.

Diego didn’t look convinced. They were nearing the breakwater.

“What did Mona say about it?” said Diego.

Finn turned to face him and said, “She’s glad I wasn’t the one who got killed.”

“She say it like that?”

“Her words exactly.”

“What about me? She say she was glad I wasn’t killed either?”

“She didn’t say.”

Among other things, Finn had missed the shipboard banter during his week off. Moping around the house hadn’t been good for him. It had darkened his mood.

“If one of us was killed, who do you think she’d be more upset about, you or me?” said Diego.

“I’m her husband.”

“Yeah, but she’s my sister. What’s worse, a dead husband or a dead brother?”

“A dead husband, no question.”

Diego shook his head. “Your husband gets killed, you can always get another. But you only get one brother.”

“Maybe. But when I asked, she said she’d choose me over you.”

They were passing the breakwater now. The gulls on the rocks squawked.

“You actually asked that?” said Diego.

“Yup,” lied Finn.

“Really? And that’s what she said?”

“Her words exactly.”

Diego shook his head. “Dude. That’s fucked up.”

Finn turned back toward the stern to hide his grin. The sun was setting and he watched the fading light gild the playing fields and gardens of the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, its garden plots a glade amid the mesas of container stacks and forests of giant cranes in the port behind it. The stacks and prison buildings protected the water in the channels at either side of the island from the wind, and the low-slung light now gave it a lacquered look, like the surface of a newly waxed car. The sheen made the water look clean, but Finn knew better. He’d seen what dregs the city flushed out through its sewers and overflow outlets.

He knew what drifted in the depths.

The outboards roared to life and sent him lurching toward the stern. They had passed into open water, and Diego had opened the throttles.

He’d neglected to warn Finn.

An hour later, Finn took the helm from Diego. He leaned against the chair and pulled back the throttles, leaving just enough thrust to give the Interceptor way. The Santa Anas and the chop had died down. Now the sea was dark and quiet. They were five miles off Santa Catalina Island, about midway between Two Harbors and the resort town of Avalon.

Not far from where he’d shot Perez.

Finn rested his hands on the wheel, the boat drifting ahead, his fingers reading her slightest movements, his whole body in its element. He sensed the effect that the current streaming alongside Catalina was having on the boat, how the waves refracting off the island were nudging her bow eastward, toward Newport. Instinctively he held the wheel a quarter inch off-center so that she tracked true. He gazed out at the starlight reflecting off the sea and, though he couldn’t see it, he knew the flow was slackening, that the new moon had brought with it a spring tide, that the water would be higher than usual, and that, when it started ebbing, it would travel at least two knots.

He let go of the wheel and scanned the darkness through the night-vision binoculars. The thirty-nine-foot Midnight Express Interceptor was a state-of-the-art boat fitted with state-of-the-art navigation electronics, and Finn loved it dearly. But he’d served in the Maritime Expeditionary Security Force in the Gulf, aboard inshore boats patrolling the waters around the Al-Basrah Oil Terminal, keeping it, the contractors rebuilding it, and the supertankers docking at it safe from insurgents, and he’d seen the damage that blind faith in marine electronics could cause. He took advice from the machines, but he trusted only his own eyes.

And then, there was the phantom. Over the last four months, Finn and Diego had picked up a signal off Catalina three times on the radar, had gone looking for it three times, and three times had come up empty-handed. The last time it had happened was the night he’d shot Perez.

He let the binoculars hang around his neck and killed the engines. He planned to drift awhile, wait for the tide to turn, and enjoy being out on the dark, quiet sea. He heard Diego snap shut his Zippo lighter and saw the orange glow of the cigarette’s ember brighten. Finn stared into the darkness and retreated into his thoughts.

When Perez had opened fire, maybe what he should’ve done was drop back to a safe distance and called for backup. Instead of returning fire, maybe he should’ve ensured the safety of himself and his crew first. There’d been no reason to get into a firefight. “You’re not in a war zone anymore,” Mona had said. Her words had been looping in his head ever since, and he hadn’t been sleeping right. For the first time in a year and a half, he’d felt like a drink—another reason to get back on the water.

On the other hand, the guy had been shooting at him; all he’d done was return fire and hit his target. It seemed simple enough, and part of him resented Mona for not seeing it like that. He thought he’d just been unlucky, that when his shot had hit his target, Perez and his weapon had splashed into the sea. They’d recovered Perez’s body, but his gun had gone straight to the bottom.

Out in the patch of night into which he was staring, he saw something shift. He raised the binoculars to his eyes.

“What?” said Diego.

“Thought I saw something.”

He stared through the glasses for a full minute before looking down at the radar. Dozens of green dots to the east of their position revealed all the vessels plying the channel into the Port of Los Angeles. Most were tracking north or south, heading into or leaving Long Beach. He checked his watch. The glow-in-the-dark face told him that it was close to midnight. He pointed at a dot tracking eastward from the island.

“There,” he said, looking up from the screen in time to see Diego flick his cigarette butt into the sea.

Finn got behind the wheel and pushed down the throttles. The nose tilted up and the boat gathered speed, lifting until it was on the plane. Wind blasted through the cockpit. Diego held fast to the handles on the console, the instruments’ green glow lighting his face so that he looked like a creepy magician Finn had once seen on a fun-park poster as a boy.

“Moving slow like that, might be just a fishing boat,” said Diego, shouting against the roar of the engines.

“No. She’s the phantom,” said Finn.

At the intercept point, he pulled her back into neutral. The roar died, the way fell off her, and her knifelike bow dropped. He looked down at the display. Half a mile of water separated the two vessels, according to the radar. Diego stepped onto the aft deck and scanned the darkness through the night-vision binoculars.

“You see it?” said Finn.

“I don’t see anything,” said Diego.

“It’s right there,” said Finn.

“Yeah, well, I don’t see it. She’s got her lights out, that’s for sure.”

“Give me the binoculars.”

Diego was right. The binoculars revealed nothing. Yet, there she was, on the radar.

“Kill the lights,” said Finn.

Diego switched off their navigation and interior lights and dimmed the display, blacking out the boat. Water splashed against the hull. It sounded louder in the dark.

“I don’t like it,” said Diego.

Finn didn’t, either. “Better get the M4,” he said.

He switched the lights back on. Diego hadn’t moved.

“Did you hear me?”

“Why? We got nothing to shoot at.”

“We got an unidentified boat blacked out right under our nose, Diego. I don’t want to get shot.”

“Let’s find it first, see who it is. Could be nothing, Finn. Could be some bozo on a Sunseeker he bought last week, looking for Avalon.” Then, more quietly, he added, “I don’t need you shooting another Mexican.”

Finn stared at his friend. “You’re an idiot, you know that?” he said. “Fine, I’ll get it myself.”

He started moving toward the forward cubby where they kept the M4 carbine.

Diego pointed at the screen. “Don’t bother,” he said.

Finn looked at the radar.

The green dot was gone.

Finn pushed the twelve hundred horses wide open and sent the boat straight into the blackness at forty knots, the boat leaping from the crests of unseen waves, the whine of her spinning blades rising an octave each time they broke free from the surface. He knew what he was risking. It was new-moon dark; driftwood, migrating whales, and containers floating just below the surface were not uncommon in the channel.

He didn’t care.

They reached the point where the phantom had been when her echo had disappeared. He slowed down, looped the boat across her own wake, and idled the engines.

Nothing but cold air and dark sea.

“How does a boat just disappear like that?” said Diego, turning 360 degrees with the binoculars. Finn looked at the compass dome and speculated on which direction the phantom might have gone. North, toward Oxnard or Santa Rosa Island? West, back to Catalina? Southwest, to the naval base on San Clemente?

The naval base brought to Finn’s mind another axis. “Maybe she’s a sub,” he said, “one of those narco-subs.”

Diego lowered the goggles. “Seems weird how she didn’t dive till she’s this far north of the line,” he said.

“Maybe she’s too small, a custom job with a limited amount of air, built in some guy’s backyard,” said Finn. “So she stays on the surface as long as possible, till she sees us or the Coast Guard.”

Diego nodded. “That would explain her vanishing act.”

Finn switched on the sounder and turned the beam-width knob to its maximum so that the sounder revealed the widest possible wedge of water beneath them. Schools of fish at different depths appeared as bright green arcs.

“Jesus, look at that,” said Diego, pointing at a slow-moving, inch-long block of solid green.

“Whale?” said Finn.

“Not on its own. A big shark, more likely. Real big.”

A swarm of butterflies took flight in Finn’s gut. He hated sharks.

He nudged the throttle forward and set the Interceptor on a course to follow the phantom’s projected track. If the phantom was a sub and she hadn’t changed course, the sounder would pick her up.

By five A.M. they were back at their original intercept point for the tenth time. They’d sounded the depths of a large patch of water north, east, and south of Two Harbors and had found nothing but fish. The radar had not picked up the phantom again.

The two CBP marine interdiction agents gave up the search and resumed their patrol. An hour passed without incident and in silence before Finn said, “About Perez … have we got a problem there, Diego?”

Diego lit a cigarette. “If you mean for the incident report, no. The guy opened fire and you returned it. That’s what happened and that’s what I told them. If you mean out here…” He dragged on the cigarette and searched for words. “You were a sniper in the navy, right?”

“I was the designated marksman on our patrol boat. “

“And for that you had sniper training, right?”

Finn nodded in the dark. “Sure, I had a bit of training,” he said. In fact, Finn had served with the navy’s Maritime Expeditionary Security Force, and had been trained to shoot accurately from one moving boat at another. Finn was a very good shot.

“And you were in Iraq, so, you know, you’ve probably been in firefights before,” said Diego. “Me, I’ve never been shot at, or seen anyone get killed before. I’m not too proud to say, it shook me up.”

Finn got where Diego was coming from. The CBP Office of Air and Marine was nominally a civilian organization, not a military one, but the fact was that 90 percent of the guys serving in it were ex-military. Diego was one of the 10 percent. He’d started out in a booth at San Ysidro, waving through cars.

“You’ve seen bodies before,” he said. “How many floaters have you and I pulled out?”

“I don’t mean Perez. I mean you. I’d never seen someone kill another human being. You were just so cold. It shook me up, man, after knowing you all these years.”

The sun was rising. Finn stared into the blackness to the west, screwing up his eyes.

“You get used to it.”

He realized he’d said the exact same thing to Mona. He was speaking the words without believing them.

An irregular shape in the near water caught his eye. He grabbed the handheld marine spotlight and trailed its beam over the water.

The beam passed over something matt and gray floating on the sea’s shimmering, blue-black surface. Phlegm caught in his throat. He jerked the beam back to the object.

“Over there…”

“I see it,” said Diego. He took the wheel and drove the boat toward it.

They drew nearer. Both men recognized it long before they drew alongside. Over the years, they’d pulled dozens of floaters from the water—freighter-crew suicides, murder victims dumped from boats, rank, fish-eaten John Does. It was almost a routine part of their jobs, yet neither man had ever managed to formulate the right thing to say. So they did what they always did and said nothing. Diego handed Finn a set of latex gloves and pulled on a pair himself. Finn passed him the handheld spotlight and took out the boat hook from under the rail. He was nervous. A dead body in the water was like a beacon to sharks. Diego used one hand to keep the spotlight shining on the body, the other to steer the boat toward it. Finn leaned far out, with his thighs pressed against the rail, holding the gaff pole in both hands, his torso bent forward, just a couple of feet above the water. He sensed a presence beneath him and looked down. A huge black shape glided beneath the hull. He jerked back into an upright position.

“Jesus,” he said, sweating cold.

“What?” said Diego.

“Shark.”

“Well, hurry up, then.”

Finn leaned out again, not so far this time. He kept one hand on the rail and with the other gaffed the body and pulled it aboard as quickly as he could. He was surprised at how light it was.

Then he saw why.

The shark had taken the man’s legs.

He laid the body down on the stern deck.

The sweetish, sickening stench told Finn that the bloated corpse had started to putrefy. He made a point of not looking at the stubs where the man’s legs should’ve been and instead concentrated on his face.

The floater was a young Latino man. He had on a blue-and-white Dallas Cowboys jersey, the hem black with blood. There was peach fuzz on his upper lip. Rust-colored liquid streamed out of his mouth. His hazel eyes pointed at the lightening sky.

Finn went forward to fetch the body bag from the cubby. When he came out, he saw Diego looking at the GPS, fixing their position. Diego took the white plastic bag from him and wrote their coordinates and the time on it with a Sharpie. They laid the bag down next to the body and unzipped it.

Once they’d bagged the body, Diego turned to Finn as though he wanted to say something. But whatever it was slipped away unsaid. Instead, he picked up the mic and radioed in what they’d found.

Finn turned toward the eastern horizon. He heard his own shallow breathing and the sound of the water slapping against the fiberglass hull. In the far distance, first light was creeping over the endless sprawl of Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2015 by Alexander Gilly

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