Paradise masked a deadly secret.
“It’s like I said, mon. Nothing to see.”
St. Lucia’s harbor clerk wore the standard island uniform of shorts, loose shirt, and sandals, but the carefree island attitude was missing. Finn didn’t care. There wasn’t room for sympathy in his budget, and with the kind of money at stake here, he’d make as many enemies as needed.
But the uncooperative clerk had a point. Piracy troubled the islands, and stolen yachts rarely left a trail. In a span of minutes, lines were cut, security systems disabled, and easy money sailed away.
Bad odds for recovery, but impossible never had stopped him before. Clues always hid in the details, and he needed a timetable. “When did the Emerald Fire first appear in the harbor?”
“Four days ago,” the clerk answered. “Pretty boat. Sleek and tricked out. She berthed in Trou Garnier, that upper cove past Pointe Seraphine.” He pointed across the harbor to a deep inlet.
A stiff breeze snapped a harbor flag above them and stirred the mustiness of wet wood from the city’s industrial pier. Finn breathed deep the familiar calming scent and did the math. The Fire arrived in St. Lucia on Tuesday, was last seen late Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon Boston Marine Insurance received word she’d gone missing. He’d jumped a plane that night and arrived at the Harbor Master’s office Friday morning. That meant thieves had roughly a day and a half head start.
Discouraging news. The Caribbean was chock full of small islands, hidden inlets, and desperately poor residents more than willing to turn a blind eye. The Fire could be anywhere by now.
Still, he had a trick or two yet to play. “You questioned all the captains in the harbor?”
The clerk’s eyes shifted away, giving Finn his answer. His jaw hardened in anger. Not only were local authorities uncooperative, they displayed a total lack of concern for proper procedure. Any missing ship, especially a ten-million dollar luxury yacht like the Emerald Fire, required thorough investigation.
“Any clues?” he persisted. “Descriptions?”
“We talked to most of them,” the guy hedged. “Nobody saw, mon.”
Finn snorted. “You’re lying.”
He got a drop-dead glare for an answer.
“Know what I think?” Finn couldn’t keep the disgust from his voice. “You ignore protocol and allow piracy to occur unchecked. You might as well hand thieves an open invitation. Boaters out there deserve to be warned.”
This time the clerk didn’t hide his exasperation. “Know what happens if I start talking stolen vessels?” He waved his hand with a snap of his fingers. “Tourist dollars go bye-bye.”
Finn made a fist, fighting the urge to hit something. That was exactly the kind of attitude crime adored and a good portion of the problem in trying to stop it. But that wasn’t his battle. Right now he needed information. “I’ll have a look at your piracy reports now.”
Based on a resentful go-to-hell expression, his watchdog wanted to argue. But he couldn’t deny an insurance investigator access, not one who could make trouble in paradise.
“Nothing to see in those books, mon.”
“Maybe not, but I want to look anyway.”
Clearly annoyed, the guy pivoted on his heel and marched away from the pier.
Finn followed, unconcerned. Making people mad went with the territory. Call it an occupational hazard. Say the words ‘insurance adjuster’ and cooperation fizzled. Not that he cared. He kept it in perspective. It was a job, one he was good at and paid well.
They silently marched across the crowded cargo yard toward an unremarkable wood slat building painted a nondescript harbor gray. It squatted inside the curve of a city street, nearly invisible on the industrial edge of town.
Once past the front door, however, all that changed. It became a 1950 Panama Jack movie set, complete with bamboo palm ceiling fans, WWII military-issue metal desks, and shuttered windows open to catch island breezes. Finn half expected a khaki-clad bloke with a fedora and dangling a cigarette to ask the immortal question, “What’s up, Joe?”
Instead, his belligerent clerk rounded the counter, grabbed a thick logbook, and plopped it on the long stretch of Formica between them.
“St. Lucia waters are safe, mon. No pirates live here.”
Maybe not, but Finn bet they hung out nearby. Facts didn’t lie. Thousands of ships disappeared each year, marine insurance rates soared, and Caribbean waters were certainly not immune. But he wasn’t here to argue statistics. He let the comment pass, flipped open the log of missing vessels, and began to scan the most recent.
An argument began filtering in from another room. A feminine voice, smooth and cultured, clashed with a sharp male baritone. Frustration sounded on both sides. Finn ignored it and kept at the piracy reports. Until he heard two words that guaranteed his involvement.
He glanced up at the clerk. “What’s going on?”
The guy shrugged indifferently. “Don’t know.”
Finn bit back a retort and made a show of studying the reports again, but in reality he strained to hear more. He only caught snatches of conversation.
“Unimportant…missing boat…log reports…sent alerts.” The man’s voice, clearly exasperated.
She sounded softer, harder to hear, but definitely arguing the point. Half a minute later, they stood in the doorway of a connected office.
“Look miss, it really doesn’t matter who called in the report. It’s not our job to investigate missing persons. Talk to the police.”
“The police sent me here to you!” Anger crackled in the air around her, and Finn blatantly stared.
“There’s nothing more I can do.” The man tossed his hands up in a move worthy of the theater. “Rest assured, if something surfaces, I’ll be the first to call you.”
Finn recognized deflection when he heard it. The lying barnacle had no intention of keeping his word.
She knew it, too, since her full lips compressed into a thin line. But she had little choice in the matter. The interview was over. Straightening to a full five-foot-five, if that, she jotted something down on a piece of paper and handed it to the guy. “My phone number, in case you change your mind and decide to be helpful. Thank you for your time.”
While she stormed across the lobby, Finn watched her every step. The pearls and buttoned-up blouse screamed proper and conservative, but the fury in those magnificent light brown eyes of hers threatened to burn the house down. She sailed right past him, huffing something about astronomical incompetence.
As soon as she cleared the front door, Finn smacked the piracy log closed and pushed it back across the counter. “I’ll be around a few more days,” he said to the clerk. “Be seeing you again.”
The guy looked less than thrilled at the news, but no matter. Right now Finn intended to brave the flames and follow the girl. She wanted information about Emerald Fire, which meant he wanted information from her.
Outside he slid his shades back on and scanned the cargo yard. Her high-octane stride had her more than halfway across the container field, aiming toward the ship’s landing dock. He watched her hit the edge of the concrete pier and stop to stare out at the crystal blue waters of Castries Bay.
For a minute, he debated a direct approach, but quickly decided against it. He needed to act fast if he’d any hope of finding the Emerald Fire, but she needed a minute to cool down. So he made his way to the parking lot where he leaned against the bumper of his rental to wait.
He’d a direct line of sight on her restless pacing and, based on her short jerky steps, white-hot anger consumed her. Still, she was pretty easy on the eyes, and he enjoyed the view, despite the fact she was clearly the type he tried to avoid. He didn’t go for culture and sophistication, wine over beer, proper and prim society girls. And this one had that look in spades. Even her steps were measured. Four steps left, stop and stare at the water, then four steps right, stop and stare. If he were a betting man, he’d pin her for one of those organized people. Everything in its place, all patterned, tucked, and perfectly pressed.
She’d never last a day in his world.
Nearby seagulls screeched, gathering on the tall pylons of a private pier as a fly-bridge fishing boat chugged up to the dock. A deckhand jumped off to rope her in place and tourists began off-loading with their catch of the day.
She noticed, too, and turned to leave, aiming his way with that supercharged stride. But her eyes were downcast, focus inward, as she rounded a tiny inlet and made for the parking lot.
In less than two minutes, she drew within earshot, and he made his move.
“You’re looking for the Emerald Fire?”
Miss Smooth and Proper froze, then slowly turned to stare at him, all wary and distrustful. “What if I am?”
“If you are, that makes two of us.”
Her eyes narrowed. He’d been wrong when he thought they were brown. That description didn’t do them justice. They were the color of topaz, warm, sultry, and strangely compelling. And they glared at him in defiance and suspicion.
He needed an olive branch, a big one to reach beyond that thorny barrier.
“I’m with Boston Marine Insurance,” he tried. “And we’re interested in finding the missing yacht.”
A finely arched brow lifted, but her expression didn’t soften. “Let me see your credentials.”
Finn opened his wallet to display his investigator ID and handed her a business card for good measure.
She studied both then glanced up at him. “Well, Mr. Finnegan Kane, you’ve arrived awfully fast,” she said. “The Fire was only reported missing yesterday afternoon.”
Her skin looked sun-kissed, like Mediterranean blood ran a generation or two back. And the woman definitely came from money. Perfect posture, velvety brown hair pinned into place, and well-rounded curves wrapped in designer digs.
“In my line of work, it pays to act fast. I hope you packed some cooler clothes,” he said as he pointed to airline tickets poking out of her shoulder bag.
“Of course I did,” she scoffed and tucked the papers deeper into her purse. “What do you want Mr. Kane?”
She was direct—he’d give her that. “How about your name for starters?”
She tapped his card against her fingers, debating, but it didn’t last long. He gave her a point for that one.
“My name is Chloe Larson,” she finally said. “Jonathan Banks is my uncle.”
Well, damn. That’s a twist he didn’t need. Emotional ties spelled interference, especially if they were strong. This had potential problem written all over it, and he stared at her in silent indecision, debating the most profitable path to take.
“You do know who Jonathan Banks is, right?” she said sarcastically when he hadn’t replied. “I mean, how good of an investigator are you if you don’t know who owns the boat you’re searching for?”
And that just proved his point. Trouble had already started.