Today's Reading

Spence slowed when they were still twenty yards from the Magdalena, allowing the skiff to settle and wallow on the waves, momentum and the currents shoving her forward. The pilot's or "shell" door through which they would have to enter the cargo ship was fifteen feet up the side of the pitching vessel. A swell thrust the ship upward at the same time the skiff surfed into a trough, putting the pilot's door almost thirty feet above them. A moment later, when the swells and troughs switched places, the angles reversed as well, making it look as if they could jump straight across the water and into the opening. A simple misstep, faulty lines, or a rogue swell might drop any one of them between the two vessels—grinding them to paste.

There was a reason Marshals Service policy forbade deputies to board ships on the open ocean. Theoretically, the mooring buoy would be safer—but the sea didn't appear to realize that.

Cutter looked up at the pitching ship and then back to a grinning Lola Teariki. She wanted assignments that were new and interesting—and she was about to get her wish.


There was something undeniably sinister about the Russian ship—somber faces of the two crewmen peering down from the pilot's door, lines of rust weeping from beneath flaking hull paint, and something else that Cutter couldn't put his finger on. A flutter in his gut.

Despite his sophomoric flirting with Lola, Spence turned out to be a steady boat driver and brought the little launch expertly alongside the mooring buoy. McElroy tied off the bow, and both the ship and skiff began to rise and drop in time with the swells. The danger of getting crushed if any of them fell between the two vessels was lessened slightly, but was far from nonexistent.

A rope ladder with iffy-looking sun-bleached wooden rungs banged against the hull, held away only slightly from the sloping metal by a weathered piece of lumber that rested on large stopper knots in the ropes at the base of the door. Regulations stated a ship's pilot—the local person who guided the way in to each port—had to be able to board via a ladder that was no more than nine meters from the water's surface. The skipper of the Magdalena Murmansk apparently fretted over that regulation as much as he did about transporting stolen cars. It was impossible to be sure from his angle in the skiff, but Cutter estimated the climb was well above thirty feet if the swells weren't timed just right.

Cutter caught the ladder at the bottom of its dive, riding it upward as a swell lifted the larger ship. Rain and sea spray slicked the rungs, and he tested each treacherous step as he climbed, alternating hands and feet to retain his balance on the swaying ropes. His two sidearms—his grandfather's Colt Python revolver and the regulation Glock that kept him in Marshals Service policy, were hidden beneath the thick orange Mustang suit—which meant they were also difficult to access. The sailors who helped him aboard, both young men bundled in wool hats and foul-weather slickers, welcomed him with disinterested grunts, assuming he was part of the team come to untangle the propeller. Their Turkic features brightened when Lola Teariki peeked over the rail and grabbed their offered hands. The Magdalena Murmansk probably had few female visitors. The taller of the two removed his wool watch cap and wrung it in both fists, attempting small talk in halting, broken English.

With the sailors' attention on Lola, McElroy hauled himself aboard, using the upright posts at the top of the rope ladder.

"Your captain?" McElroy said, interrupting, if not breaking, the spell Teariki had over the men.

"Da," the tall sailor said, stretching the hat back over his buzzed head. He had a small and crudely drawn tattoo of a dolphin under his left eye. He glanced aft, toward the raised whitewashed wheelhouse that loomed two stories above the main deck, then back at McElroy as if he wasn't too keen about going to see his boss.

* * *

Captain Dimitri Koslov stood with his knuckly hands clasped behind his back, large beak of a nose to the window peering down at the newcomers. His angular face dripped with the disdain of a pirate toward the lesser folk who allowed themselves to be constrained by the petty laws of man. Koslov kept the thermostat in the wheelhouse cranked up high, allowing him to wear his preferred T-shirt and cargo shorts no matter what kind of gales blew out on deck. It was good for his crew to see the scars—the bite of a tiger shark that had taken much of his left calf muscle, the obscenely white flesh left behind on forearms from molten metal during a deck fire when he'd been a much younger man. Lines from a broken vodka bottle webbed the bald flesh over his right temple and down the side of his ruddy check, visible even when he wore a hat. All were constant and helpful reminders to the crew that their captain was a man accustomed to great pain. At six feet two with hardly an ounce of fat, Dimitri Koslov seemed a knotty rope of bone and joint and sinew. His men often described him as "a bag of hammers," and he liked that very much.

Vasiliev, a blond man with an equally angular face who served as first officer, informed him the American underwater welder wanted an audience before he got to work on the cable.

Still facing the window, Koslov gave an almost imperceptible nod.

Koslov needed the Americans to cut the fouled propeller free of cable, but he wanted them off his ship as soon as possible. There was far too much at stake to have strangers nosing around.

This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Under Lock & Skeleton Key by Gigi Pandian.

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