Spy by Night, by Boyer DePaul
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter shadowed the target speeding across the glassy Pacific Ocean. From his perch on the bridge, Captain Taylor peered through night-vision binoculars at a thirty-foot speedboat bearing north, parallel to the shoreline, the same vessel that he’d tracked via radar since it crossed the international border near San Diego. He radioed below, “Ready the chopper. Stand by for orders.”
The helicopter crew boarded the HH-65C SAR (Search and Rescue) helicopter and within seconds, the high-pitched whine of the turbine engine began to swirl the air into a frenzy.
The tall, dapper Captain Taylor stood next to CIA Special Agent Lewis, an elderly man with shoulder-length gray hair, a walrus mustache, dressed in blue jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. He had been inserted on board the cutter earlier that evening as part of a classified operation.
“Target confirmed,” said the CIA agent, staring at the moving dot on the radar screen.
“Roger that,” said Captain Taylor. “Target is confirmed.” Then he spoke into the radio handpiece directing the chopper pilot to shadow the target.
The turbine engine’s whine rose to a higher octave and lifted the airship with only a tail light illuminated.
Next, Taylor radioed Lieutenant Garza, his second in command positioned two miles ahead in a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB). “Alpha Dog, this is Wolfpack Leader. Do you copy?”
After a moment of silence, Garza replied. “This is Alpha Dog, over.”
“Target is closing at thirty knots. Ready pincer op.”
Captain Taylor gathered his thoughts. “We’ll pin him against the shore right here,” he said, his finger resting on a map of California, “at San Salina.”
Agent Lewis nodded. “Authorizing lethal force.”
Taylor repeated the order. “Lethal force . . . confirmed.” Then he radioed the orders to the helicopter pilot.
“Roger that,” replied the helicopter pilot. Seconds later the helicopter vanished into the night.
Captain Taylor faced his subordinate, Chief Petty Officer Reynolds. “Launch the surveillance drone,” he ordered.
Reynolds activated a flat-screen display on the instrument panel and typed in a few commands. The video feeds from four different night-vision cameras displayed a drone moving vertically skyward, the outline of the ship becoming smaller and smaller as it rose above. Then the drone hovered for a moment before it bolted across the moonlit sky with only the faint hum of wind passing over its four rotors.
Minutes later, the video captured Lieutenant Garza and his 400-horsepower, twin-turbo RHIB. A video feed from the helicopter’s infra-red camera zoomed on the suspects and their civilian speedboat. In a few short minutes, the two boats would cross paths.
Taylor watched the video feed of the RHIB closing in on the suspects. In the background he noticed the few lights illuminating the sparsely populated community of San Salina and its tiny marina. It was 3:00 a.m. and if all goes as planned, he thought, the residents won’t even know anything happened. Then, he realized the flaw in his plan—civilians.
He had no time for second-guessing. The stealthy drone had closed within ten meters of the smuggler’s boat and offered a view of the occupants and their deadly cargo, contained in brown plastic-wrapped boxes stacked on the rear deck, covered by a fishnet.
“There, zoom in,” said Special Agent Lewis. “Eyes on the prize,” he said, pointing at the boxes.
From the drone’s video feed, Taylor watched Garza pull alongside the suspects’ speedboat at breakneck speed and come face to face with the smugglers. He saw Garza raise his bullhorn.
Before Garza could announce his demands, the suspect driving the speedboat jerked the wheel, bashing against the side of the Coast Guard RHIB. Garza’s driver veered sharply, thrown off course from the glancing blow, then recovered and closed the gap by pushing the limits of the RHIB’s twin turbos.
Captain Taylor radioed the chopper pilot, “On my mark, take out the engine.” He checked the monitor to see if the RHIB was clear from the line of fire, then gave the order, “Fire!”
The video showed multiple rounds of hot lead peppering the engine compartment of the smuggler’s speedboat. Smoke billowed from the rear, but the speedboat pressed onward.
Again, Taylor radioed the chopper pilot. “Engage the enemy, lethal force. Copy?”
“Copy that, Captain.”
As the chopper moved into position, Taylor watched the RHIB close quickly on the suspects who were fleeing in a zigzagging motion, attempting to dodge incoming bullets.
The camera on Lieutenant Garza showed that he had regained his course and closed within a few yards of the smugglers’ vessel.
As the chopper moved into position, Taylor glanced at the approaching dark outline cast by Madera Point, a stretch of land that jutted out into the sea. It was only a quarter mile ahead, blocking the speedboat’s path, forcing the suspects into the small, civilian marina. He clenched his teeth, knowing that civilians sometimes lived on their boats. “Alpha Dog, this is Wolfpack Leader. Take out the engine. ASAP!”
Garza aimed his M16 at the engine compartment in a last-ditch effort to disable the speedboat. He pulled the trigger until he emptied his cartridge.
The video showed the smuggler’s speedboat slowing to a halt under the glow of the helicopter’s spotlight. Captain Taylor released a breath. Thank God, no civilian casualties.
Lieutenant Garza and his crew pulled alongside the suspects’ boat and instructed they lie down with hands and feet apart. Two Guardsmen rappelled from the helicopter and handcuffed the suspects, then transferred them to Garza’s RHIB.
Garza radioed his commanding officer, “No identification, Captain, and no sign of the cargo.”
A clenched fist landed hard on the bridge, “Rats!” shouted Special Agent Lewis. “They dumped the boxes. Review the tape. Find where they dumped the cargo.”
Captain Taylor nodded. The technician rewound the video. They watched it over and over, trying to pinpoint the drop location, but the high-speed chase had covered miles of ocean, and there were many blind moments when the suspects evaded the cameras. After a thorough search, the video could only narrow the possible drop area.
Minutes later the cutter arrived on the scene, anchoring outside the mouth of the marina. Captain Taylor launched two Zodiacs with searchlights to scan the area for the missing boxes.
After hours of searching the ocean surface, Special Agent Lewis declared the dangerous cargo sunk in the depths of the Pacific Ocean a half-mile off the coast of San Salina.
Dalton Frazer hopped onto his skateboard and pushed hard against the asphalt surface. To Dalton, summertime was “getaway from school time,” and it always ended too soon. He pushed once more, gaining speed, the wheels shuttering beneath him with every turn. Without a single vehicle in sight, he glided toward the marina of San Salina, where he spent most of his summer vacation days fishing with his grandfather.
Dalton crouched low just before rounding the final corner, his lean thirteen-year-old frame clinging to the board as he sped across the sloping street. Alfred, his pet black Lab, galloped a few paces behind. “Come on, Al,” he called, “we don’t want to miss the boat!”
Dalton veered left and screeched to a halt in front of Mr. Chen’s General Store. He glanced at the dock where his grandfather moored his boat. His grandfather stood facing him with his hands resting on his hips and a slight tilt to his head. Dalton held up one finger, “Be there in one minute.”
Dalton scurried inside the General Store where he saw Mr. Chen, the store’s owner, busy arranging potato chips on the shelves next to the register.
“Hello, Mr. Chen.”
“Good morning, Dalton. You want your usual ice cream cone?”
“Umm, I think I might try something different today. Let me see what you have.”
“I have the same flavors as always.”
Dalton took a minute to scan the options, even though he’d seen them many times. He considered Mint Chip, then English Toffee. “Hmm, I’ll have the Rocky Road.”
“Okay, Dalton, one scoop of your usual. That’ll be one dollar.”
Dalton reached into his pocket and handed a dollar bill to Mr. Chen. “Thanks, Mr. Chen. See you later.” He walked outside and took a large bite out of the ice cream. Then he lowered the cone so Alfred could have his turn. Alfred’s long pink tongue wrapped around the cool confection like a wet blanket. “Save some for me, Al.”
Dalton mounted his skateboard and rode down the final slope. Within seconds, he reached the marina entrance and, without slowing, hopped the curb and pushed the skateboard along the floating dock surface toward the slip that was home to his grandfather’s boat. He stepped on the tail of his board until it touched the ground and skidded to a halt. With his foot, he flipped his skateboard into the air and caught it with one hand and hopped onto his waiting ride. Alfred followed close behind, landing nimbly on all fours, then settled in his usual spot on the rear seat.
Dalton’s grandfather—Gramps, he liked to call him—was tending to his pride and joy, the Narco, a 34-foot Cobalt Cruiser.
“Sorry I’m late,” said Dalton.
“Glad you could make it,” said Gramps in his croaky voice, muffled by his gnawed, unlit cigar. “You had me wondering if I was going solo today.”
“My bad. I was crushing zombies a little late last night.”
Gramps shook his head. “I still don’t understand why you stay up to all hours playing video games,” he grumbled. “You’ll be in eighth grade in a few weeks. Education’s important these days. You’re gonna need your sleep.”
“Gramps, I don’t even want to think about school right now. It’s summer vacation.”
Minutes later the boat crawled from its slip, heading for the open sea. When they passed the buoy that marked the five miles-per-hour zone, Dalton braced himself as Gramps yanked the throttle handle, launching 300 horsepower into service. The engine roared with the ferocity of a tornado. Within seconds, the boat gained speed, skimming the ocean surface, slicing through the crests of the rolling swells.
Dalton loved the wind rustling through his stringy blonde hair and the sting of salt spray that pelted his face. The boat seemed to fly across the green, glassy surface, racing further from the safety of land with every passing second, shrinking the town’s hillside cottages to mere dots on the horizon. Dalton thought of his home in Los Angeles and how millions of people live in dense neighborhoods. But not here in San Salina where plenty of open space separated the cottages, and trees spotted the hillside behind the town.
A flock of seagulls diving into the water caught Dalton’s eye. “There’s our spot, Gramps.”
“Roger that, little buddy.” Gramps tossed his gnawed cigar into the ocean. Then he throttled back and coasted into a position where they would cast their lines in hopes of landing a prize fish. Dalton took the final bite of ice cream cone, then reached into his pocket and retrieved a sandwich bag of orange cheese cubes and carefully baited his hook. He was first to cast his line. Gramps knotted a lure to his line and cast in the opposite direction. As always, the friendly competition awarded the winner bragging rights.
“So, little buddy, I saw your girlfriend, Maddy, yesterday,” said Gramps.
“She’s not my girlfriend. She only hangs out with me because there’s nothing else to do.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Girls are funny sometimes. Hard to read. You just need to find out what makes ’em tick.”
“All I know is that she pretends she doesn’t know me at school. Like she’s embarrassed to know me. She hangs out with all the baseball jocks. Most of my friends are nerds.”
“Well, don’t give up on her. Things change.”
Gramps reeled in a clump of seaweed and began telling one of his glorious stories of his days working for the Los Angeles Police Department. Then Dalton’s hook snagged. The rod arched as he reeled the line in. There was no indication of a fight, just a passive load, dead weight.
“What the . . . ” said Gramps. Dalton peered over the side. A box about the size of a toaster oven, wrapped entirely in brown plastic tape, surfaced. The hook had lodged in the corner.
Gramps said, “Dalton, hand me the net.” With the net in hand, he leaned over the rail and scooped the package from the water, then dumped it on the deck. Gramps shook it a couple of times. “Hmm,” he said, “somebody gift-wrapped your catch.”
“What the heck is in there?” asked Dalton.
Gramps gawked oddly at the box. “I don’t like the looks of this,” he said. “Musta got tossed overboard for a reason.”
“Let’s open it,” suggested Dalton.
“Couldn’t be anything good in here.” Gramps shook the box again, but it made no sound. “We’d better hold off opening this for now.”
“I don’t get it, Gramps, what’s the big deal?”
“There might be something illegal in there. We don’t want to tamper with evidence. It’s the right thing to do,” said Gramps.
Dalton didn’t argue the point. Instead, he baited his hook and cast his pole in the same direction as before.
Gramps finished stashing the box in a storage chest, then sat next to Dalton. “Do you plan to play any sports this year? You were a pretty good baseball player in Little League.”
“Gramps, I’m too short. Everybody’s bigger than me.”
“Don’t you worry ’bout that, Dalton. I was the same way. Smallest guy in school until I was about your age. Then I got my growth spurt. Next thing ya know I’m taller than half the kids at school. Everybody’s different, but I reckon you’ll follow the same path as me.”
Dalton forced a smile, then nodded. “I sure hope so.” He felt Gramps’ hand gently pat his back. He loved hanging out with Gramps in San Salina. Gramps is so cool, he thought. And he enjoyed taking a break from the constant grind of homework and his nagging parents, who were constantly yelling at him about something that he did or didn’t do.
Dalton placed his pole against the seat and reached into the ice chest for a can of soda pop. But before he could open it, his unattended pole jerked violently. He lunged just in time to catch it before it tumbled into the sea. “It’s a big one!” said Dalton.
“Just give it a little slack,” said Gramps. “Let it run a bit, and then set the hook.”
Dalton allowed the fish a few seconds of autonomy, then yanked on the pole. “I got him!” He reeled in the catch little by little. The fish tugged and pulled, zigzagging its way to the surface. “This sucker’s huge! I bet it’s a shark!” After a few minutes, a meaty sea bass came into view.
“Nice catch, little buddy. That’ll make a fine dinner,” said Gramps.
“Oh, yeah. I knew the cheese would do the trick! Now, it’s your turn.” Dalton held out his bag of cheese. “Here, use my bait.”
“Thanks, but I’m not feeling all that well. Let’s head back.”
“But we just got here,” pleaded Dalton.
“Sorry, little buddy. There’s always tomorrow.” Gramps put this pole away and started the boat.
A short time later they idled into the marina, past the five miles-per-hour buoy, then into the slip. Dalton jumped onto the dock and tied the bow line off while Gramps secured the stern. “We’ll go again tomorrow,” said Gramps.
“For sure!” replied Dalton. “What are you going to do with that box? Can we open it now?”
“No, better not. I’ll call an LAPD buddy of mine, see what he thinks. You go ahead. I’ll stay and clean up.” Dalton watched his grandfather dial his cell phone, then he hopped onto his skateboard and rode back to the cottage. Alfred galloped by his side, barking at the dangling sea bass along the way.
* * *
Late that afternoon, Dalton greeted Gramps at the door and noticed a weary look about him. “What took so long?” asked Dalton.
“Met my buddy from the LAPD, gave him the box. Just like I thought, it was full of illegal contraband. They’re running tests on it. Not sure how it got this far north of the ports.” Then Gramps walked toward the bathroom. “I’ll need to shower before dinner. Tell your Grams, okay?”
“Sure, Gramps, no problem.”
When Gramps emerged, dinner was waiting. They sat down together. Dalton had devoured his hamburger and fries before Gramps took his third bite. “Would you like another hamburger?” asked Grandma. Dalton nodded, his mouth full of fries.
“You’re eating like a horse, boy. Where you put all that? A hollow leg?” said Gramps. “Must be gearing up for a growth spurt.”
I hope so, thought Dalton.
Grandpa didn’t finish his meal. Instead, he announced, “I’m turning in early.” Dalton didn’t give it another thought and went back to his room to play more video games.
Later that night, Grandma poked her head into his room. “Dalton, it’s after midnight. Don’t you think you should get some sleep?”
“Okay, Grandma. Just one more game.”
* * *
The next morning, Dalton woke to the scent of bacon. With the bulk of his summer wardrobe littering the carpet, he fumbled for a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. Alfred waited patiently next to the bed while he dressed. Then Dalton followed the scent into the kitchen. “Hi, Grandma,” he said, plopping onto a chair at the kitchen table.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said. “Your Grandfather left early, again.”
Dalton smiled, knowing his Gramps was an early riser. “Crack-o-dawn,” said Dalton, imitating his grandfather’s croaky voice. “That’s when da fish are biting.”
Dalton gulped down his milk and let out an earthy belch. Alfred jumped to his feet at the sound. “Excuse me,” he said, suppressing a grin. “I have to get going now, Grandma. Seems I’m always late.” Dalton stuffed another slice of bacon into his mouth, then gave a slice to Alfred. He bolted through the front door with Alfred by his side and grabbed his skateboard and fishing pole off the porch.
“But you hardly touched your eggs!” shouted Grandma. “And you forgot to brush your teeth, again.”
Dalton rode his skateboard to the marina, cutting in front of a passing car and running the stop sign. Knowing he was late, he passed up the opportunity to have his favorite ice cream treat and instead headed straight for Gramps’ slip. He fixed eyes onto the spot where Gramps stored the Narco. “Where’s Gramps?” he said, glancing at his dog, then back to the vacant slip.
Dalton strolled along the dock, scanning the entire marina, then out to sea for the familiar red hull of the Cobalt Cruiser. “He wouldn’t leave without me, would he?”
With Alfred in tow, Dalton walked up the ramp to the General Store adjacent to the marina, propped his skateboard and pole next to the entrance, and walked inside. Mr. Chen, the owner, stopped arranging canned goods after Dalton asked, “Mr. Chen, have you seen Gramps?”
“Yes, Dalton, he left early this morning, right after I opened. He had some guy with him carrying scuba equipment.”
“Oh, but . . . he was supposed to . . .”
“Sorry, Dalton. Maybe he’s coming back early. Would you like an ice cream cone?”
Dalton shook his head, preoccupied with Gramps and his new fishing buddy, the scuba diver. Dalton turned to exit just as Sheriff Parker entered and nearly bumped into him. “Hey, Sheriff.”
The constable nodded, then said, “Hello,” without taking his sleepy eyes off the coffee pot next to the front door. Sheriff Parker blended in with the other residents. A man of average height and weight, he dressed in blue jeans, a checkered shirt, and a baseball cap with some fishing lures attached to it, dangling and jiggling with every movement. The only indication a stranger would have of his role in the community was his holster and handgun clipped to his belt and a star-shaped badge next to his belt buckle.
Dalton slipped by the sheriff without a word and stared at the empty slot where Gramps moored his boat. I really messed up. Gramps must have got tired of waiting. He turned to Alfred. “Change of plans, Al. It looks like we’re fishing off the dock today.”
Dalton strolled down the boat ramp to the floating marina and to his “lucky” spot at the end of the dock. He’d just finished baiting the hook when he heard a familiar sound. It was the Narco rapidly approaching. “Hey, Al, I guess we’re right on time, after all!”
Alfred growled, sending a subtle alert. Dalton observed the boat speeding in a straight line past the buoy that marked the five miles-per-hour zone, then past the entrance to the marina. Dalton tensed, his eyes locked on his grandfather behind the wheel, slumped over. He dropped his pole and waved his arms frantically. “Slow down, Gramps! Stop!”
The speeding vessel continued on a collision course with a row of moored sloops, barely missing them, then headed right at Dalton. “Go, Al. Go!” he said, sprinting from harm’s way, dragging Alfred by the collar. As the boat neared, Dalton gasped at the sight of his grandfather hunched over; his listless body propped up only by the steering wheel.
Before colliding with the dock, the wayward speedboat somehow veered sharply and headed for the nearby shoreline.
In full stride, Dalton spotted the sheriff sitting in front of the General Store sipping coffee. “Sheriff! Come quick!” Sheriff Parker turned his head to face Dalton. “It’s Gramps! He’s hurt!” screamed Dalton.
An instant later, the Narco hit the solid ground of the shoreline with a thud, followed immediately by a bloodcurdling scraping sound. Its momentum propelled the vessel in its entirety from the water. Although it had run aground, its motor still raced, the prop spinning and kicking sand and rocks into a swirling cloud. Black smoke billowed from the engine compartment. Gramps’ limp body had wilted deep into the chair.
Dalton arrived first. I have to do something! Filled with adrenaline, he vaulted over the side in one swift motion. He reacted instinctively and turned the engine key to the “Off” position, then he assessed the situation. A splotch of blood stained Gramps’ shirt from a cut that ran above his right ear. Scrapes and bruises speckled his face. He was unconscious.
Then a few seconds of silence were interrupted by the crackling sound of fire. Dalton glanced behind and shuddered at the sight of dancing flames. “Oh no!” he muttered. “Gramps, it’s me, Dalton. We got to move fast!” Dalton held Gramps’ listless head in his hands. He pushed any thought from his mind that would slow him down. “We’re going to get you some help. Just hang in there.”
Everything was happening in slow motion. Dalton regarded the sheriff lumbering his way with his cell phone pressed against his ear, presumably contacting 911. Mr. Chen wasn’t far behind the sheriff, yelling something in Chinese. Alfred barked nonstop. The fire blazed. Flames leaped higher by the second. The heat scorched Dalton’s face, and the smoke began filling his eyes and lungs.
Dalton gripped his grandfather and somehow found the strength to wrestle him away from the pungent smoke and raging flames. Sheriff Parker arrived seconds later and snatched the boat’s fire extinguisher, pulling the pin and pressing the trigger, snuffing the flames. Dalton used his body to shield Gramps from the propellant.
“Help’s coming, Gramps, just hang in there.” Dalton clutched his grandfather’s hand and squeezed.
Gramps stirred a bit. He struggled to speak. His lips quivered. Slowly, with great effort, he muttered, “Hijacked . . . passenger . . . kidnapped.” Then he closed his eyes, unconscious once again.
When the EMTs arrived, a crowd had already gathered around the victim. Dalton remained with his grandfather, holding his hand until the emergency medical technicians asked him to stand clear. Overcome with a sense of helplessness, grief, and confusion, Dalton joined the growing crowd of onlookers who lined the sidewalk. Whispers came from the bystanders.
“Did you see the blood on his shirt?” said one.
“Is he dead?” asked another.
After the EMTs had administered first aid, they lifted Gramps onto a stretcher. A blanket covered him, with nothing but his boots showing. An elderly lady that stood near Dalton muttered, “He’s dead, oh my god, he’s dead.”
“He’s not dead!” Dalton shouted. Then he stormed away from the crowd, finding solace on the bench in front of the General Store. He sat alone, stunned, fighting back tears. He buried his face in his hands and recalled his plans to be with Gramps that morning. But he had overslept again. It’s all my fault. None of this would’ve happened if I’d been on time.
Tears turned to anger. It swelled inside him. Not only with himself but also with the people that did this to Gramps. But who were they? Did they kidnap the scuba diver? Why would anyone hurt Gramps?
He peered across the marina at Sheriff Parker, who was searching the boat. The sheriff scribbled a few words in his miniature notebook, and after a few minutes vacated the scene, apparently satisfied with his findings. He ambled up the ramp to the General Store and approached Dalton. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yes, but Gramps . . .” Alfred nudged his snout against Dalton’s arm, and the boy pulled him close.
The sheriff cleared his throat. “I called yer grandma. She’s driving to the hospital now, said you should go to Maddy’s house if she runs late getting back. You okay with that?”
Dalton nodded. Then Sheriff Parker asked him to recall the details of the event, for the record.
Dalton fought the urge to cry. His eyes welled with moisture. “Gramps said that he was ‘hijacked,’ and that his ‘passenger got kidnapped.’ ”
Sheriff Parker again scribbled on the pages of his pocket notebook. “Do ya know the fella that was with him?”
Dalton shook his head.
“Funny,” said the sheriff, “there was no trace of the passenger, no scuba gear, no spare clothing, not even a hat or sunglasses.”
“Huh?” said Dalton. “No scuba gear?”
The sheriff shook his head. “Is there anything else, anything at all that might explain what happened?” he asked.
“No, sir, nothing.”
A crowd gathered nearby. Dalton turned his head toward the group of residents. A sense of anger filled the air. All eyes seemed to focus on the sheriff. Dalton heard somebody say, “Why aren’t you going after those criminals?”
Somebody else bellowed, “Don’t just stand there, do something!”
Sheriff Parker sighed, then patted Dalton on the back and returned to his crowd-control duties. Sitting alone on the bench, Dalton knew the sheriff had found no clues, and, worse yet, nobody seemed to know the kidnapped victim, or what he was doing in San Salina. How is the scuba diver connected?
After the ambulance had sped away, the crowd encircled the sheriff, demanding answers. The town’s sole lawman informed them that he had called the FBI and that agents were on their way to open an investigation. But this did little to soothe the mob. Many of the residents talked openly and agreed to start locking their doors and windows at night. One resident said, “I’ll keep my gun loaded, just in case.” It seemed to Dalton that San Salina was on notice, and their lives might be in jeopardy.
Eventually, the group settled down and gradually disbanded. Dalton’s friend, Maddy, whom he knew since grade school, showed up wearing her signature LA Dodgers baseball cap and jersey. They both regularly spent a few weeks of their summer vacations in San Salina visiting their grandparents, who were good friends. “What the heck happened?” Maddy asked.
Dalton replied curtly, “Let’s get out of here.” He grabbed his skateboard and marched along the beach away from the crime scene. Maddy and Alfred followed him. Along the way, Dalton told Maddy the entire story.
“Poor Gramps,” she moaned. “I sure hope he’s going to be okay.”
A short time later, they arrived at their secret hideout, a dark cave in a cluster of towering boulders stacked against a sandstone cliff. To reach the entrance, they squeezed through a crevice and wove through a maze of rocks that dead-ended at the base of the cliff. Thick, green ice plant vines concealed the entrance. The cave itself was just big enough for two kids and a dog.
Dalton stashed his skateboard and pole, parted the foliage, and entered the dusky cave. The dank air smelled of sea life—rotting sea life—but over the years, he’d gotten used to the stench. Maddy sat opposite him. Alfred sat in the middle.
“Why, Dalton? Why would anybody do this?”
“I don’t know, but it’s all my fault,” he said. “I was supposed to go fishing with Gramps this morning, but I was late again, and he left without me. Mr. Chen said he took a scuba diver with him instead. Gramps must have been totally pissed at me.”
“No way! It’s not your fault, Dalton. How were you supposed to know?”
Dalton crossed his legs and cupped his chin in his hands. “I sure hope Gramps pulls through,” he said.
Maddy shook her head. “That’s so freaky weird. We’ve been coming here for five years, and nothing ever happens—nothing like this, anyway. There’s nothing here except a few fisherman and a bunch of old retired people. Now there’s been a kidnapping!”
Dalton straightened up, and his anger gave way to curiosity. “Who hijacks a freaking motorboat? And why Gramps?”
“Maybe Gramps was mixed up in something,” said Maddy.
Dalton jerked his head. “I know Gramps better than anybody. He’s no crook!”
Maddy nodded, and they sat quietly for a few moments. Dalton’s mind swirled, searching for explanations. “The box,” he muttered.
Maddy crinkled her eyebrows. “What?”
“Something strange happened yesterday while I was fishing with Gramps. I pulled up a box. Just a plain brown box wrapped in brown plastic tape. Gramps seemed worried. Not sure why. He called his buddy from the LAPD. I guess they opened it and found something illegal. They were running tests.”
“Do you think it’s connected to the hijacking?”
Dalton buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know.”
Pent-up anxiety suddenly boiled to the surface, and Dalton became weary of his cramped space. He fled the cave. Maddy emerged a second later and followed him and Alfred through the rocky maze and back to the sandy shore.
Dalton eyed the trail that traversed the two-story-high cliff adjacent to the rocky outcropping that hid the cave. He hopped over a few rocks, moved quickly to the trailhead, and scaled the bluff. Maddy and Alfred followed.
At the crest stood a run-down, abandoned warehouse. The brown paint on the outside had blistered from years of neglect, and uncut grass sprouted around the perimeter. Dalton paused at the top. As Maddy walked past him, a small piece of paper nestled in the grass just outside the rear door caught his eye. It had a dark-red smudge on one corner. He hesitated, glanced at Maddy striding ahead, then back at the paper in the grass just a few steps away. He veered off the dirt path and retrieved the paper, careful to avoid touching the red-stained corner.
“What the heck?” he said, glancing toward Alfred. Dalton examined the red stain, then the words scribed on the paper. Flashes of Gramps’ police stories darted through his mind. “Maddy, come see this!” he called.
From the road ahead, Maddy replied, “Now? Why now?”
“I found something. I think it’s a clue!”
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