Authors: P. T. Deutermann
He leaned back in his chair, visibly surprised. “Really,” he said. “Maybe I’d better get a sandwich after all.”
Pardee volunteered to stand in line and order for all three of us while I debriefed my visit from the local constabulary and the news that Allie had made a call to the power plant the day before she died.
That really threw him. “She did? Do you know who she called?”
I shook my head. “All we know is that her cell phone called your central number at Helios. Does your switchboard record calls coming in?”
“No,” he said. “Unless it’s a threat or a crank call; then the operator can hit a capture-record button, but otherwise, no, calls are just calls. And if that’s not Carl Trask in the cask, who the fuck is it?”
“Slow down, Ari,” I said. “We have one guy, admittedly a senior cop, telling us he’s pretty sure he saw Trask at the Southport marina. Pretty sure doesn’t hack it. Until one of
us sees him, we don’t actually
anything.” Then I told him about the note and our plan to rendezvous with Trask to find out what the hell he was doing.
“Besides being AWOL from Helios?” Ari said. “We’ve temporarily suspended his access and clearances. If he’s running some kind of security test, the only place he can get into right now is the public admin building, where his current security clearance level is zero.”
“We have indications that Trask is part of a Homeland Security undercover operation at the container port,” I said. “I don’t want to go into detail about that just now, but it might explain some of his strange comings and goings. So: We’ll meet, we’ll talk, and then maybe we’ll know more.”
“That may well be,” Ari said, “but as far as I’m concerned, he’s got a job to do at Helios, and we have a major physical security breach investigation going on right now. That’s where he’s supposed to be, not out there playing cowboys and Indians with his black-ops pals. You want a new job?”
“Been there, done that. Look, until we actually confirm all this, I’d like you to
share this news with the Bureau.”
He nodded. “Okay; we’re not exactly best friends right now, anyway. Those guys are probing everything that’s not nailed down, even stuff that has no bearing on the floater in the moonpool.”
“That’s what they do,” I said. “Especially when it’s new ground for them. They learn, then they dig, and learn some more. It’s their strength.”
“Well, right now, all their digging is upsetting my engineers. If this shit keeps up, our chief engineer is going to recommend a safety shutdown, and the NRC does not want that to happen.”
“Because they’d have to explain why to the secretary of energy
the rest of the power industry.”
He laughed. “
If someone asks the right questions, that could lead to a system-wide shutdown. Think nationwide rolling blackouts.”
“But you said the plant, the power-generation side, anyway, wasn’t affected by the moonpool. So why a system-wide shutdown?”
“Because the technical and physical security systems are totally integrated; they’re the same system for the whole plant. If it failed at Helios, it could fail at any of the BWR plants. That would technically make all the plants, by definition, no longer safe to operate. Those are NRC rules, so they’d be squatting on their own petard, to mangle the metaphor. I need Trask back, and yesterday would be nice.”
“You’re thinking the same thing that I am, then?” I said. “Trask had to be a part of getting that guy in, whoever he is?”
He ran his fingers over his shining bald head. “There are no indications that the security system failed in the physical or electronic sense. Ergo, yes, someone with access and clearance had to be involved.”
“Trask, or a helper?”
“That’s my problem: If we can’t find out how the floater got in there, then the default assumption has to be that the system failed.”
“And they’re interviewing everybody? That Russian, for instance, and her people, the operating engineers?”
“Oh, hell, yes, three times a day. We’re going to be sitting down with lie detectors shortly. The company’s sending down a battalion of lawyers, which made the Bureau really happy.”
Pardee showed up with sandwiches and iced tea. I could see that Ari wasn’t really hungry, but he ate anyway. We chewed through lunch in silence, and then he looked at his watch again. I told him we’d get back to him first thing, either late tonight or in the morning, when we had something. He thanked us for lunch and then pushed back his chair.
“If it’s him, you tell that crazy bastard to get back in,” he said. “I don’t care what or who else he’s screwing around with—we need him back at Helios, now.”
At eleven that night, Tony and I arrived at the designated rendezvous point, which was a point just to seaward of where
the Cape Fear River poured out into the Atlantic. The night was dark and cold, with a steady fifteen-knot breeze kicking up some small whitecaps around us. Tony had noted that the rendezvous time would coincide with slack water following an ebb tide, which would minimize the current coming across the bar. Otherwise, we’d have had a tough time staying in the lat-long position designated in the note. To the north the lights of Kure Beach twinkled over the dunes; to our west were Southport and the Oak Island pilots’ station. The actual rendezvous position was nearly alongside the so-called sea buoy, the first buoy that a ship entering the Cape Fear estuary encountered. The buoys had all looked small from a distance, but this thing was big, some fifteen feet high. It was festooned with barnacles, radar reflectors, bird manure, the blinking light, and a crowd of sleeping pelicans.
Tony kept checking the radar for any contacts, especially one of those huge container ships. There were some big blobs on the scope up near the container port, but they were most likely tied up to the pier. The layout of the river entrance and the shorelines of the estuary stood out in sharp green lines on the radarscope display. The boat had been bouncing around quite a bit when we stopped, so Tony put us on a two-mile racetrack pattern, which kept the motion to a minimum as we idled around, waiting for Trask. I’d left Pardee back at the house so we’d have a base of communications ashore, and I’d briefed Tony on the way out to the rendezvous. He’d had some questions.
“If Trask is working undercover for Homeland Security, how come the Bureau doesn’t know that? I mean, aren’t they supposed to be talking to each other these days?”
“That’s the theory,” I said, “but, remember, out of all those alphabets, the FBI is the one that is not inside the Homeland Security mantle. My guess is they both hold back from each other.”
He turned the wheel to go back downwind and looked again into the radarscope cone. “But why would they do that? Wasn’t that the point of those so-called intel fusion centers?
So everybody knew what everybody else was doing? So they could stop stepping on each other’s toes?”
“It’s a Washington thing,” I said. “I think it’s about budget money. The agency with the biggest budget has the most power. You bare your bureaucratic soul to an outfit that competes for budget money with you, you make yourself vulnerable. We played those games back in the sheriff’s office, remember? Major Crimes versus Patrol, Patrol versus Community Relations? Same deal, bigger honeypot.”
“We’ve got a contact,” he announced, pointing down into the radarscope cone. I looked. There was a tiny green blip down in the direction of Oak Island. Tony turned on the leaders function, which put a green line on the blip. The length of the line represented the contact’s speed, and the direction of the line indicated its course. This one was coming our way.
“It could be a pilot boat,” I said.
“Then we’d expect a contact to seaward—an inbound ship.” He flipped the range scale out to twenty-five miles, but there was nothing coming from seaward. He dropped the scale back down to ten miles, and the contact continued to close us. Whoever it was, he was coming out of the estuary.
Tony made sure the VHF radio was tuned to channel 16, which was the standard channel for ship-to-ship comms in restricted waters. Trask probably wasn’t going to initiate voice communications, in case the Coast Guard had been alerted to watch for his boat. I still wondered if a Bureau team had put an RFID tracer on the boat. If they thought Trask was dead, though, why would they care about his boat? Even if they did know that Trask had been working undercover for the government, the boat’s whereabouts still shouldn’t matter.
“He’s coming right for us,” Tony said. “Or at least for that buoy.”
“Our nav lights are on, right?” I asked.
He nodded and picked up binoculars to search the night ahead of us. The flashing light from the sea buoy wasn’t helping with our night vision. The seas were confused, and I guessed that the tide had turned. When the sea began to flow
back into the estuary, it collided with the outbound river current, creating a crazy patchwork of waves and whorls in the water. Tony was having to work to keep the boat on course as the currents opposed each other over the bar.
I checked my cell phone and found coverage. I called Pardee back at the house.
“We’ve got a contact headed our way,” I said. “We’ll call again after we have our meeting, or in one hour, whichever is sooner.”
“And if you don’t?” he asked. “Where are you?”
“We’re loitering about something called the sea buoy,” I said. “Where the seaward end of the channel into the Cape Fear River begins.”
“Roger that,” he said. “One hour, and then I call the Coast Guard.”
I agreed and hung up.
“Five miles and closing,” Tony said. “We’re right in the main shipping channel. Want to go meet him?”
The water around the sea buoy was getting rougher and rougher. “Might be a little flatter inside,” I said. I wasn’t getting seasick so much as having trouble staying upright as our small boat bounced and pitched in the confused chop. I was glad I hadn’t brought the shepherds.
Tony kicked it up a few knots, and we pointed into the estuary. When the sea buoy was a half mile or so behind us, channel 16 suddenly came to life.
“Hold your position,” a voice said. No call signs, no identification numbers or names, just a voice. It sounded like Trask, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.
“Roger,” Tony replied, also leaving out any identifying information. It was totally incorrect procedure, but it worked, and anyone listening would be clueless as to who was talking or why. Tony slowed and tried to find a stable course, but the water was still pretty rough. The current seemed to be pushing us into the estuary, although it was hard to tell in the dark.
“Two miles,” Tony said, staring out into the night. He kept checking the radar to see where the other boat should be. I kept looking for lights but didn’t see any.
“Shouldn’t we be able to see his running lights?” I asked. “That’s a big boat.”
“You’d think so,” he said. “Unless he’s turned them off. That thing had radar, didn’t it?”
Tony switched the range scale down to five miles, and the blip became larger, halfway in from the edge of the screen. The electronic leader pointed right at the center of our scope, where the rising chop had created a bloom of green sea return on the display.
Tony kept looking out with the binoculars, while I switched the range scale down to two miles. The contact was still visible, but it was getting perilously close to the edge of the blob from the sea return, which now covered the inner one-third of the display. At some point, the radar would become useless. That point was just about now.
“Cam,” Tony said.
I looked up to see Tony staring ahead, no longer using his binoculars. I tried to get my eyes to work, night-blind from having been staring down into that radar screen. I was about to ask, “What?” when I saw the bows of what looked like the
dead ahead, close, very close, and pushing up a huge wave. Tony reached for the controls, but a moment later, she crashed into us and I was spinning underwater in a coil of noise, roiling seawater, shattering fiberglass, and the thrum of two large propellers pulsing the water right in front of my face.
We both popped to the surface at the same time. Our boat was gone except for what looked like the front one-third, which was upside down and bobbing around in a debris field of fiberglass bits, flotation foam, and gasoline. Tony was gagging on a mouthful of gasoline and saltwater; I wasn’t yet in the fuel slick, but the stink was strong. I paddled backward away from the smell and looked for the
, but there was no sign of her, just a muffled rumble of engines disappearing. Then a small wave broke over me from behind, and when I went under, I realized that my clothes were really
heavy. It took me several seconds to get my head above water again, and even though I was a strong swimmer, I felt a moment of panic in that black water. That cold, black water.
“You hurt, boss?” Tony called from somewhere in the darkness. I tried to spot him, but the dark out there was absolute, except for the regular pulsing of the sea buoy light.
The sea buoy.
If we could get up on that thing, we might not freeze to death quite so quickly.
“I’m okay, I think,” I shouted back. “How about you?”
“Got a cut on my arm, but I don’t think anything’s busted,” he called back.