The remains of the chief investigator, Edwin Weintraub, had been found and brought to the ship’s infirmary. His body was badly charred and blast-burned. The initial identification was made by his wedding ring. It had been a long and somber night. With security as tight as an angry fist, Jack had been refused admission to the Gibraltar until this morning.


But even with the lead ship locked down, rumors had spread to the support vessels, including the Deep Fathom. A bomb. Hidden in the Chinese jade bust. Shards had speared everywhere, piercing the tent’s tarpaulin, even embedding into the bones of Weintraub’s skull and limbs. Additionally, the explosion had ignited a nearby tank of cleaning oil, creating the brilliant fireball that had blasted forth from the shaft of a cargo elevator.

Jack shivered. He had handled the jade bust himself. If the stories were true, what if it exploded while he’d been on the ocean bottom? He pushed away that stray thought.

Around him, in the room, the silence remained tense. Everyone looked bone-tired and thunderstruck. Not even whispers were shared.

At last the door to the conference room swung open. Admiral Houston stalked into the room, flanked by his aides and trailed by David Spangler. The admiral remained standing, while the other three men took seats. Jack made eye contact with Houston, but the admiral did not acknowledge him. His face was ashen, his eyes as hard as agates.

-- Advertisement --

“Gentlemen,” Houston began, “first let me thank you all for your industrious efforts this past week. The tragedy last night will not minimize your significant contribution.” The admiral bowed his head. “But I must now sadly announce that the remains found last night were positively identified as those of Dr. Edwin Weintraub.”

A murmur spread through the crowd of NTSB personnel.

“I know all who met Dr. Weintraub held him in the highest esteem. He will be missed.” The admiral’s tone grew harder. “But his death was not in vain. Amidst the debris, his murderers left evidence of their cowardice. Experts—both here and in San Diego—have confirmed the origin of the electronic timer and detonator. Both were of Chinese manufacture.”

A few of the NTSB men raised angry voices. The Navy and Marine personnel remained stoic, except for a lieutenant sitting near Jack who moaned a quick, “Oh, God.”

The admiral lifted a hand. “It is now believed that Dr. Weintraub accidentally triggered the hidden bomb during the course of his investigation. It is conjectured that similar devices were probably planted throughout the original ten-foot-high sculpture. Such an explosion in the cargo hold is believed to have downed Air Force One.”

A hush settled over the crowd.

“Back home, these findings will break with this evening’s news. It cannot be kept from the American people. But once word spreads, worldwide tensions will escalate quickly, especially so soon after the Pacific tragedy. As such, I have just received word that the USS Gibraltar has been ordered to the Philippine Sea. En route, we will be offloading both the NTSB personnel and the wreckage of Air Force One on the island of Guam.”

New murmurs ran through the crowd.

The admiral waited for his audience to quiet down before continuing. “The Navy’s salvage and research ship, the Maggie Chouest, along with the Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit, will continue recovering the last pieces of Air Force One from the ocean floor. Once collected, they’ll also be shipped to Guam. This revised mission will be overseen by the current head of security, Commander Spangler.”

The admiral remained standing, silent, stone-faced, then spoke slowly. “President Nafe has promised that these terrorists will not go unpunished. Washington has already demanded that the Chinese turn over all persons involved to international authorities.” Houston clenched a fist. “And let me add my personal promise. Justice will be served—whether the Chinese government cooperates or not. America will answer terrorism upon her people with swift and terrible fury.”

Jack had never seen Admiral Houston so incensed. The cords of his neck stuck out, his lips were bled of color.

“That is all. If there are any further questions of detail, I refer you to my protocol officer. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Jack raised a hand, unsure if his own crew would continue to play a role here. “Sir, if I might ask about the salvage op—”

The admiral cut him off angrily. “Mr. Kirkland, any such questions should be directed to Commander Spangler.” Without another word, Houston swung through the door and was gone.

Jack’s gaze twitched to David. A small, spiteful smirk flickered on Spangler’s face before he stood. “In answer to your question, Mr. Kirkland, we thank you for your service. As this matter is now one of national security, your additional presence is no longer needed.”


“This is now a military operation. No civilians will be allowed. A two-mile cordon will be set up around the crash site. You will be expected out of the zone by 1800 hours.”

Jack glowered at David, knowing this banishment was of a personal nature.

“If you are not out of the region or if you attempt to reenter, you and your crew will be arrested and your ship impounded.”

This response drew murmurs from the audience.

“I have already arranged for two men to escort you from the Gibraltar.” David lifted a hand. Two of his men stood up.

Jack’s face warmed. He ground his teeth in frustration. He did not know what to say. He knew he couldn’t go to the admiral, since Houston was clearly overburdened and did not need to be bothered by a petty squabble. Jack scowled at David Spangler. He had risked his life here, and was now being unceremoniously dumped out on his ear. “I have no need for an escort,” he said coldly.

David signaled his men with a flip of a hand. “Make sure Mr. Kirkland leaves immediately.”

Jack did not resist as he was led away. What was the use? If the government didn’t want his help, so be it.

Within minutes, he found himself seated aboard a Navy launch. The pilot, a Navy seaman, revved the engine and aimed for the Deep Fathom, bouncing through the mild chop. With the storm front blown past, the day remained breezy but clear.

Behind Jack, Spangler’s two men were seated. He had not spoken a single word to the pair of gray-uniformed men, nor did he intend to.

Jack leaned back into his seat. From the security team’s lack of racial diversity, it seemed Spangler had not changed. David’s sister had once confided to him that her father had been a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan and often dragged David to meetings when he was a boy, beating him if he refused. Jack eyed the twin blond escorts. It seemed these childhood teachings had taken root in fertile ground.

With a bump, the seamen slid the boat near the launch platform at the stern of the Fathom. “All clear,” the pilot called out.

Jack stood and crossed over the boat’s starboard edge. Before he could clamber onto his own ship, one of David’s men grabbed his elbow. “Mr. Kirkland, Commander Spangler asked us to give you this once you boarded.”

The blond man held out a small square box, the size of a jeweler’s ring box. It was sealed with a small ribbon. Jack frowned at it.

“A parting gift,” the man said. “With Commander Spangler’s thanks.”

Jack accepted the gift, and the man nodded and stepped back. Jack hopped to his own boat’s platform and grabbed the ship’s ladder with one hand. As he turned, the Navy boat swung away with a throaty whine of its motor. Its wake splashed over the ribbed platform, soaking Jack’s boots.

Robert appeared on the main deck overhead, leaning over the stern rail. “How did it go?” he called down. “Learn anything more?”

“Yeah, gather everyone together.”

Robert gave him a thumbs-up and vanished.

Jack looked down at the small black gift box. He was sure it was not a thank-you gift for his service. More likely, it was one of David’s little jabs, a final insult to send him on his way. Jack had a sudden urge to fling it into the sea, but curiosity got the better of him. He fingered the ribbon, then shook his head. His day had been bad enough already—why add to it? He’d open the damned thing later. Pocketing the box in his jacket, he turned to the ladder.

Climbing up, Jack glanced over his shoulder at the Gibraltar. He forced down a twinge of regret. It was as if he’d been discharged all over again, cut free from a past that had been his whole life.

Surprisingly melancholy, Jack pulled himself onto the deck. Elvis came loping over to greet him. Jack knelt and gave the dog a vigorous pet, and its tail thumped in contentment. Some things never changed.

“You’d never shove me overboard, would you, boy?” he said, giving voice to his disappointment with the Navy.

7:15 P.M., Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C.

Alone for the moment, Lawrence Nafe shifted in his chair, assessing the latest developments. His plan to implicate the Chinese had been proceeding like clockwork. Nicolas Ruzickov had proven a loyal friend and a skilled manipulator of the media. Earlier, Nafe had glanced over the letter his Secretary of State drafted to the Chinese Premier. It was fierce. Nafe recognized Ruzickov’s fingerprints all over the letter: no compromise…immediate reprisals…stiff sanctions…

It was just short of a declaration of war. Nafe had been only too happy to sign it. As far as he was concerned, it was about time the Chinese government felt the full weight of American diplomacy…a diplomacy backed by the might of the world’s greatest fighting force. The brief letter signaled an abrupt end to the pandering policies of Bishop’s administration. A shot across the bow, so to speak.

Nafe leaned back in his chair, surveying the spread of the Oval Office. This was now his administration, he mused, enjoying his new status. But his short moment to himself was interrupted by a knock at his door. “Come in,” he snapped.

The door was opened by his personal aide, a thin twenty-something boy whose name Nafe could not remember. “What is it?”

The youth half bowed, nervous. “Sir, the CIA director and the head of the OES are here to see you.”

-- Advertisement --