KARL CHARGED up the rise to the clifftop and pulled in a deep breath. It was the kind of day he lived for. Huge clouds drifted over the sea, and the line of sun reflected on the water punched straight through the immense horizon and into the sky. The light danced on the surface, off the whitecaps and heaves. Crisp, briny spray was carried on the wind and coated his face, its aroma so familiar—elemental, part of him.
He closed his eyes and took in a third deep breath that matched the rhythm of the surf churning on the rocks below. The sound echoed on a low murmur, returned to him from the snow-peaked mountains at his back.
The sun and the exertion of running made him warmer than the temperature in the low forties, and it soon caught up with him. Wind whipped through his clothes, and he shivered.
He lifted a go-on arm without looking.
“C’mon, man. We got a bird coming in.”
At that, he turned to get a look. A small helicopter approached—just a mosquito, he thought—barely audible above the surf and wind. It flew low and followed the looping highway that matched the shoreline. He said a silent goodbye to the sea and started down the hill to that road, and Marcum nodded and fell into step next to him.
Six years ago, Marcum had reported for duty a scrawny kid from the Bronx, sure he would put in a stint and then go home to patrol the harbor. His dark eyes, skin, and hair hadn’t changed, but everything else had. He’d gained inches in height, and his accent softened as his appreciation for mountains and too much fresh air sharpened. Alaska was take it or leave it, and Marcum had no plans to go. Neither did Karl.
“I thought that’s what we were already doing?” Karl lifted an eyebrow and maybe took a bit too much satisfaction from the steadiness of his breath. “Which is why I stopped. Give you some time to catch up.”
“Yeah, whatever. This time I mean it.” Marcum did a funny little crow-hop, shoved Karl into the tall grass, and sped away.
“Dammit, you little….” Karl growled the rest and dug in his heels. The grass slipped under his feet, and he tipped forward. His hands skimmed the hard sides of the road, and he kicked up gravel as he gave chase.
Marcum stayed ahead of him nearly the whole run down to a jut of land surrounded by a jagged, double-lobed cove. The station came into view as Karl rounded the last bend. It was stark and utilitarian, with metal siding and small windows, but he gladly called it home. The wind socks and flags strained against the wind, and the hardware clanked a fast rhythm. Rescue boats seesawed at the jetty, and the equipment sheds were closed up.
He watched the helicopter land but couldn’t make out who’d gotten out, other than an impression of bulk—tall, broad, ducking low to avoid the rotors. In the distance dark clouds were moving in, fast. The storm system predicted for overnight seemed to be in an awful hurry to get there.
Someone arriving with the bad weather. He tried not to see it as an omen, but the superstitions his grandfather had rooted in him years before told him he should.
Karl let Marcum get to the asphalt, and he waited. He knew Marcum would take a glance back to gloat, and when he predictably did, Karl pretended to stumble. It was enough for Marcum’s pace to falter, and Karl surged forward in a burst of speed. He got to the main entrance doors first and managed to start his stretches before Marcum joined him.
“Not bad, old man.” Marcum panted into slower breaths and high-stepped a few times. “I mean, you needed trickery and deceit to do it, but not bad.”
Karl raised an eyebrow. “I’m not old.”
“Sure, sure. It’s just because I’m so young and in comparison, well, you know. Don’t pay attention to me.”
“So, status quo, then.”
Marcum shrugged and stretched his arms once overhead for show. “Well, I’m all good. See ya inside.”
Karl frowned and turned his back on Marcum’s grin. He caught his foot in his hand, brought his heel to his butt, and held it for several seconds, until it didn’t hurt. His muscles were hot and tired from the sprint. He wasn’t old, but he was definitely no longer young.
Lightning popped closer than he expected and tingled the hair on the back of his neck. Thunder rattled the station doors. Karl reached to stop one from swinging open, but it pushed back with more force than the wind should have, and Jameson leaned out.
“Radin? Curtis wants to see you.” Jameson opened the door wider and held it. He never appeared ruffled—trim build, calm brown eyes under wire-rimmed glasses, just-so in place, mustache always neat—so he gave nothing away.
Karl slid inside with a nod. “Something up?” He pulled a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the incoming weather.
“Dunno. He just yelled at me to come get you rather than do it himself.” Jameson peered out the door at the darkening sky. “But the yell wasn’t any grumpier than usual.”
“Good enough. Thanks, Jamesy.”
Jameson lifted two fingers and disappeared back into the central command center.
“Hey, Bennett.” Karl raised his hand, palm open. “Little help?”
Bennett’s light green eyes sparkled, and his ruddy complexion under white-blond hair got redder with amusement as he reached under the duty desk and tossed a towel over. He held up another, a tiny scrap in his large square hand, but Karl didn’t need it.
Karl peeled off his sweatshirt and dropped it in a planter without a plant next to the door. He wiped sweat from his neck and arms and scrubbed his hair as he skirted the edge of the bull pen lobby.
“Cap?” He leaned into Curtis’s corner office with a knock. “Wanted to see me?”
“Take a seat.” Curtis flicked a glance up to him and then indicated the plastic lawn chair shoved against the wall. “That front’s coming through faster than expected.”
Curtis was so textbook Guard he could appear in the recruitment literature. He was tall and whipcord, with piercing steel-gray eyes in a handsome, honorable visage, and a broad chest that appeared broader with his starched bearing.
“Oh, just a mite.” Karl hooked the chair with a foot and dragged it closer to Curtis’s desk. “Any fun from it yet?” He craned around to look at the radar monitors on the wall. Big storm, but nothing unusual.
“No. All clear.” Curtis swiveled, dug in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, and threw a bag of mini candy bars on his desk.
Karl snagged three—caramel and toffee—and sat back in the chair. A smile tugged his face as he chewed, but he didn’t let it show. Curtis didn’t like chocolate, but he knew Karl did. It was an informal ritual between them, never acknowledged beyond the exchange.
“And how about you?”
“Just fine, sir.” At Curtis’s pointed look, he added, “I’m doing okay. According to Marcum I’m old, but otherwise okay.”
Curtis’s look got sharper.
“Really. Five-by-five. All of us.” Karl nabbed another chocolate. “Run was good. Head is good. All good.”
“Marcum doesn’t even shave yet. And good. I count on that, but I like hearing it.” Curtis seemed distant for a moment as he gazed at the colorful bands of the storm on radar, and then he handed over a thick folder.
Karl’s eyes widened, but he took it without comment. Clear and direct hazel eyes—like the sea in a warm latitude, greens and sparkling brown with blue at the edges—looked out at Karl from the ID photo stapled to the file paperwork. Daniel Farnsworth. Nothing familiar about the name. Humor danced in the almost-opal depths, and the guy’s loose smile looked on the verge of a mischievous grin. Top of his class, elite swimmer, only taller than Karl by an inch but a lot heavier, clearly brawny where Karl was wiry.
He flashed to the figure getting off the helicopter. Ah-ha.
“Well. What do you think?”
“Specifically?” Karl scanned another several pages and tossed the folder back at Curtis. He wasn’t going to say what hit him hardest—how attractive Farnsworth was.
“That’s our newbie.”
“Thought he wasn’t inbound for another few days?”
Curtis squared the folder to the corner of his desk calendar. “He hitched a ride with a mail-and-supply willing to wing down here. No reason not to, and saved us the trip. So?”
“Kid’s got no cold-water experience, does he?” A safe, accurate observation—far better than stuttering over the momentary prickle of awareness and interest he stuffed in a dark place marked “Yeah don’t even think about it.”
“You’ve never done a rescue in a hurricane, but I wouldn’t hesitate to okay a transfer to Florida.”
“Shit—is that an official reprimand?” Karl looked past Curtis’s shoulder, through the window and its cropped view of the mountains and the road along the coast. He shuddered at the thought of swampland Florida, but grinned slyly. “An off-the-record threat?”
“Perspective.” Curtis thumbed the corners of the paperwork in the folder and then closed it. “He’s sound and came with excellent references. Farnsworth will be anxious to prove himself, meaning—”
“Meaning he’ll pull risky stunts, and I’ll be responsible for reeling his butt back in.”
“Meaning,” Curtis repeated with a frown, “we have to work together to ease his transition here and let him know he’s part of the team.”
Karl crossed his arms. “Same thing. I mean, essentially. It’s just you get to stay dry and with way less hazard pay while doing so.”
“If you want to put it that way.” Curtis tapped the folder with the same precise motions as he did everything else. “But don’t push it. He’s good, and this backass remote station is lucky to snag someone coming out of the academy with a performance like his.”
“Then what’d he do to get sent here instead of somewhere sexy like Miami or Honolulu?” Karl wasn’t being smart. He wanted to know. “Not to be the cynic here, but if he’s really stacked up as all that, his top pick sure as hell wasn’t back-of-beyond Alaska.”
“According to his file, it was. He wants a challenge and to learn skills he couldn’t get in duty stations similar to where he grew up, trained, or worked his first stint. That’s admirable. Don’t you agree?” Curtis didn’t blink or look away until Karl gave a grudging nod. “Top of his class, willing to learn—and you’re going to make him even better.”
Karl grunted noncommittally. He didn’t want to give away how pleased that confidence made him, but he also didn’t want that much responsibility. He’d do his job and do it exceptionally, but he wasn’t there to mentor any hotheaded showboats.
“Dial it back, Radin. You haven’t even met him yet.”
Curtis gave Karl a lot of leeway, not just because he was a proven vet, but because he gave everything to the job and had earned some pushback. But some pushback wasn’t an open door for insubordination.
“Yes, sir.” Karl ate his last chocolate and tossed the crumpled wrappers in the trash. “Think he’ll last through the first real cold snap and squall?”
No one assigned to Alaska maintained indifference. Guardsmen arrived to serve and never wanted to leave thereafter, or the immensity and often uncaring bitterness of such a wild place of extremes drove them away.
“I think he’ll do all right. Rescue swimmers don’t become rescue swimmers running on ‘quit’ mode, if nothing else. Think he might just surprise you.” Curtis shrugged. “Either way we’re about to find out. So scram and get started on it. I have some important layers of bureaucracy to sift through.”
Karl snickered. “Pray the drink takes me to the depths on my last day, rather than creaking at a desk, checking check boxes and filling duty forms until it comes.”
“Just for that you’ll be cursed to get called to Cape May and train raw recruits.” Curtis smirked. “You’d deserve it too.”
“Ugh, isn’t May in Jersey?” Karl curled his lips in disgust. “There’s noise and hot days and smog in Jersey. People live in Jersey.”
“Consider yourself warned.” Curtis opened a massive binder and clicked around on his computer. “Oh, and Radin? Don’t detour for coffee. Start at your quarters.” He dropped the bag of chocolates in the drawer and slammed it shut.
Thus dismissed, Karl waved a loose salute and retreated.
Scobey—petite, with tawny hair in a severe bun, arm and chest tattoos almost hidden—stood in the door to the mess and grinned over her coffee at Bennett, who was still manning the duty station. “What do you say, Bennett? We follow and watch the show?”
Karl retrieved his sweatshirt and glared at her. Scobey’s grin only widened.
“Nope. No way.” Bennett raised his hands. “I’m on duty, and duty is sacred, so there’s no leaving right here.”
“Wimp.” Scobey pouted and took a slurping sip off the rim.
Lang—tall and lean, his salt-and-pepper high-and-tight hair and blue-eyed square-jaw looks basically military perfection—appeared behind her. Scobey was so short—just squeaking above regulation height—that both pilots were easily seen in the mess doorway. “Who’s a wimp?” he asked.
“Bennett. He doesn’t want to go with me to Radin’s quarters.”
“I think you mean wise.” Lang poked Scobey and walked around her. He handed Karl a coffee. “More sugar than you like, but you’ll need this. Good luck. Godspeed. Remember we’re not who assigns these things.”
Karl accepted the coffee and grimaced after his first drink. Super sweet. He made an ick face and handed it back. Lang palmed it with a shrug and drained half. When Scobey made to follow Karl, Lang dropped an arm over her shoulders to keep her in place. She pouted but didn’t argue.
Foreboding shot through Karl, and he shook his head. They all watched avidly as he crossed the lobby to the adjoining corridor and the covered walkway that connected their quarters to the station.
The figure from the helicopter—Farnsworth—was in his room, staring at the bulletin board over his desk, hands on hips, head tilted in thought.
Dan Farnsworth was tall, had a perfect taper of wide shoulders to narrow hips and the smooth glide of flat abs going down to meet them, cornsilk-colored hair unforgivingly shorn, and a full pouty mouth that looked like it wanted to break into a grin and show off its deep dimples.
Karl stopped in his own partially open doorway and cleared his throat. Farnsworth didn’t quite startle, but he turned to look, his bright hazel eyes clouded in thought. Instinctively Karl scanned the room. His bed was still neatly made, perfect corners and quarter-bouncing taut, his desk and dresser undisturbed, clothes bureau closed. Nothing was out of place, but he had the unerring sense that it should be.
“Hi there. I’m Dan—Daniel Farnsworth. And you’re flight mech Radin, right?” Dan was direct, but his ready smile seemed tight, and the dimples Karl wanted to see didn’t fully appear. “I’m the new SR so, hey, we’ll be working together a lot.”
“Chief Petty Officer Radin. That’s correct.” There was no reason to mention rank, but it came through his teeth unbidden.
Karl took Dan’s hand and tried not to notice that it was larger than his or the flutter of warmth in his belly or the heat that radiated off the kid. He glared down his nose and then let go, pulled his hand into a fist against his hip, and shouldered past into his room.
Ideas came to mind—unbidden, filthy, unwanted—and he growled. The lid on his “Yeah don’t even think about it” place rattled. Hard.
“So. Can I help you?” he asked through needless tidying of his already neat desk.
“Not unless you wanna do my sock drawer.” Dan’s smile faded, and he rubbed his thumb over his forefinger as Karl stared in confusion.
Familiarity tickled at the edges of Karl’s awareness, but he couldn’t place it. That gesture—Dan’s thumb circling his finger. Something about it niggled. Karl shook it away.
“Uh—I’m assigned to this room.”
“This room? Mine?” Karl’s insides lurched.
Dan rummaged through a pile of papers on the empty bunk. He folded one to a certain line of text and held it out. “Unless I read this wrong?”
Karl scanned it. His room number, all right. “Nope. You’re in the right place.”
He had space and accommodation for a roommate—an extra bunk and the desk that fit under it as well as several empty cubbies—but he hadn’t been assigned one in a while. He’d lucked out with various combinations of it being a small station and his being senior enough to get a pass when someone needed a roomie.
No way could the kid stay there, sleep in there, live so close to him.
Dan stared at him tensely and waited for Karl to say more. Something about Dan upended him beyond this stupidity. He couldn’t pin it down, but repressed anxiety or even anger lurked in Dan’s gaze. It was probably just nerves, the uncertainty of starting someplace new, and the desire to please.
Desire to please repeated in his head, and he all but punched his desk.
Goddammit. Karl pinched the bridge of his nose, turned on a heel to grab a haphazard mix of things, and edged past Dan into the hall. He didn’t like complications, so Dan would just not become one. The end.
“I was just about to shower. Make yourself at home.”
He caught a glimpse of Scobey loitering at the far end of the hall and growled in her direction. Lightning strobed to warp the hallway, and the afterimage of Dan’s form blurred his vision. In a literal clap of thunder, he left Dan and took a punishing, scalding shower, body numb and thoughts running wild.
DAN CLOSED the door that Karl left open and leaned his forehead against it. He let out a long, slow breath and listened to the hammer of his rabbiting pulse.
Radin, his newly assigned roomie, the person he wanted to know the most and the last he wanted to meet. Standing in this room—all Radin’s—felt like entering established enemy territory.
Rooting through Radin’s things without having a bead on him had been a bad idea, but impatience won over better sense. At least he only got caught looking at the bulletin board. A clipped-out headline pinned to it, and it burned him, as did continued shock and the dislike he felt when Radin touched him.
A lot of dislike. He expected Radin to dislike him but not for it to affect him so much.
Dan flexed his fingers and pushed away from the door. It was a terrible decision to snoop, but he decided to take advantage of Radin’s absence and finish the job.
Three Ansel Adams posters dominated the wall on Radin’s side, stark black-and-white landscapes of mountains, ice, and running rivers. Dan liked them, and he liked Radin’s decision to keep the room relatively spartan, but that only meant they both appreciated no-frills and the great outdoors. The tall, narrow set of windows had no curtains, but the dark gray wall color wasn’t bad.
Rain lashed the metal siding and blurred the view, and the thunder was powerful enough to send tremors through the building. Dan flipped the overhead light on as the room continued to darken under the storm. What a start to already grim business.
He poked around in the dresser and then the bureau and found the expected socks, thermals, and just-so pressed uniforms. Then he squatted by the footlocker. A cloud of cedar wafted up from the line of sachets taped to the lid and the large carved wooden balls tucked in the bottom corners. Dan patted the items inside—wool blankets, a peacoat, empty rucksack—and savored the tingling, bright scent. But nothing there was of any use, so he snapped the footlocker closed and peered under the bed. Two clear plastic boxes and shoes. The boxes held notebooks and paperwork dated and filed for various incidents, but none from the day Dan wanted to see.
He grumped and clambered to stand carefully, so as not to disturb the perfectly made bed.
Field guides and a signal-flag glossary lined the bookstand on the desk. He ran his knuckle across the worn bindings and sighed. Not even a mystery or sci-fi mixed in. The desk drawers proved more interesting. Bulk-size bags of candy bars filled the bottom drawer, but Dan resisted taking one. Current files hung in the top drawer, and the center drawer was a surprising mess of pencils, pens, candy wrappers, an e-reader and its tangled cord, and a palm-sized plain black book.
Dan sat, tugged the rubber band from around the book, and flipped through the pages. Radin recorded brief notes about each day and daily weather conditions, and he included tiny illustrations, like a sun peeking from behind clouds or a lightning bolt and raindrops. There was another set of symbols that he couldn’t make out. It varied by day but repeated as the weeks went along.
He read several pages without thinking and then stopped short. It was ridiculous to feel like he was prying, given that prying was the objective, but he still shut the book, put the rubber band back on, and returned it to the drawer.
Maybe Radin kept a storage space or something, but Dan didn’t find any keys or receipts. He wouldn’t have time to run and find it today anyway.
He sighed and slid the drawer shut as he stood. The headline caught his eye again and blared in his brain like a claxon, like a whispered curse.
Rescue Swimmer Lost At Sea, Presumed Dead
Dan covered the headline with his hand, closed his eyes, and vowed again to find out why.