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The Never Game Excerpt

Level Three: The Sinking Ship

Sunday, June 9

 

Sprinting toward the sea, Colter Shaw eyed the craft closely.

The 40-foot derelict fishing vessel, decades old, was going down by the stern, already three-fourths submerged.

Shaw saw no doors into the cabin; there would be only one and it was now underwater. In the forward part of the superstructure, still above sea level, was a window facing onto the bow. The opening was large enough to climb through but it appeared sealed. He’d dive for the door.

But he paused, reflecting: Did he need to?

Shaw looked for the rope mooring the boat to the pier; maybe he could take up slack and keep the ship from going under.

But there was no rope; the boat was anchored, which meant it was free to descend thirty feet to the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

And, if the woman was inside, take her with it to a cold, murky grave.

As he ran onto the slippery dock, avoiding the most rotten pieces, he stripped off his blood-stained shirt, then his shoes and socks.

A powerful swell struck the ship and it shuddered and sank a few more inches into the gray, indifferent water.

He shouted, “Elizabeth?”

No response.

Shaw assessed: there was a sixty percent chance she was on board. Fifty percent she was alive after hours in the water-logged cabin.

But whatever the percentages, there was no debate about what came next. He stuck an arm beneath the surface and judged the temperature to be about forty degrees. He’d have thirty minutes until he passed out from hypothermia.

Let’s start the clock, he thought.

And dove in.

# # #

An ocean isn’t liquid. It’s flowing stone. Crushing.

Sly too.

Shaw’s intention was to wrestle open the forward door to the cabin, then swim out with Elizabeth Chabelle. But the water had a different idea. The minute he surfaced for breath he was tossed toward one of the oak pilings, from which danced lacy flora, delicate thin green hairs. He held up a hand to brace himself as he was flung toward the wood. His palm slid off the slimy surface and his head struck the post. A burst of yellow light filled his vision.

Another wave lifted and flung him toward the pier once more. This time he was just able to avoid a rusty spike. Rather than fighting the current to return to the boat—about eight feet away—he waited for the outflow that would carry him to the vessel. An upward swell took him and this time he gigged his shoulder on the spike. It stung sharply. There’d be blood.

Sharks here?

Never borrow trouble…

The water receded. He kicked into the flow, raised his head, filled his lungs and dove, swimming hard for door. The salty water burned his eyes but he kept them wide; the sun was low and it was dark here. He spotted what he sought, gripped the metal handle and twisted. The handle moved back and forth but the door wouldn’t open.

To the surface, more air. Back under again, holding himself underwater with the latch in his left hand, and feeling for other locks or securing fixtures with his right.

The shock and pain of the initial plunge had worn off but he was shivering hard.

Ashton Shaw had taught his children how to prepare for cold-water survival—dry suit, number one. Wet suit, second choice. Two caps—heat loss is greatest through the skull, even with hair as thick as Shaw’s. Ignore extremities; you don’t lose heat through fingers or toes. But without protective clothing, the only solution is to get the hell out as fast as you can before hypothermia confuses, numbs and kills.

Twenty-five minutes left.

Another attempt to wrench open the door to the cabin. Another failure.

He thought of the windshield overlooking the bow deck. The only way to get her out.

Shaw stroked toward the shore and dove, seizing a rock big enough to shatter glass but not so heavy it would pull him down.

Kicking hard, rhythmically, timing his efforts to the waves, he returned to the boat, whose name he noticed was Seas the Day.

Shaw managed to climb the forty-five-degree incline to the bow and perch on the upward tilting front of the cabin, resting against the murky four-by-three-foot window.

He peered inside but spotted no sign of the thirty-two-year-old brunette. He noted that the forward part of the cabin was empty, but there was a bulkhead halfway toward the stern, door in the middle of it, with a window about head-height, the glass missing. If she were here, she’d be on the other side—the one now largely filled with water.

He lifted the rock, sharp end forward, and swung it against the glass, again and again.

He learned that whoever had made the vessel had fortified the forward window against wind and wave and hail. The stone didn’t even chip the surface.

And Colter Shaw learned something else too.

Elizabeth Chabelle was, in fact, alive.

She’d heard the banging and her pale, pretty face, ringed with stringy brown hair, appeared in the window of the doorway separating the two portions of the cabin.

Chabelle screamed, “Help me!” so loudly that Shaw could hear her clearly though the thick glass separating them.

“Elizabeth!” he shouted. “There’s help coming. Stay out of the water.”

He knew the help he promised couldn’t possibly arrive until after the ship was on the bottom, but there was no way of saying that just now.

It might be possible for anyone else to fit through the broken window inside and climb into the forward, and drier, half of the cabin.

But not Elizabeth Chabelle.

Her kidnapper had, by design or accident, chosen to abduct a woman who was seven and a half months’ pregnant; she couldn’t possibly fit through the frame.

Chabelle disappeared to find a perch somewhere out of the freezing water and Colter Shaw lifted the rock to begin pounding on the windshield once more.

 

Level One: The Abandoned Factory

Friday, June 7, Two Days Earlier

 

1.

 

He asked the woman to repeat herself.

“That thing they throw,” she said. “With the burning rag in it?”

“They throw?”

“Like at riots? A bottle. You see ’em on TV.”

Colter Shaw said, “A Molotov cocktail.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Carole was saying. “I think he had one.”

Was it burning? The rag part?”

“No. But, you know.”

Carole’s voice was raspy, though she wasn’t presently a smoker that Shaw had seen or smelled. She was draped with a green dress of limp cloth. Her natural expression seemed to be one of concern but this morning it was more troubled than usual. “He was over there.” She pointed.

The Oak View RV park, one of the scruffier that Shaw had stayed at, was ringed with trees, mostly scrub oak and pine, some dead, all dry. And thick. Hard to see “over there.”

“You called the police?”

A pause. “No, if it wasn’t a—what again?”

“Molotov cocktail.”

“If he didn’t have one, it’d be embarrassing. And I call the cops enough, for stuff here.”

Shaw knew dozens of RV park owners around the country. Mostly couples, as it’s a good gig for middle-aged marrieds. But if there’s a single manager, like Carole, it was usually a she, and she was usually a widow. They tend to dial 911 for camp disputes more than their late husbands, men who often went about armed.

“On the other hand,” she continued, “fire. Here. You know.”

California was a tinderbox, as anybody who watched the news knew. You think of state parks and suburbs and agricultural fields but cities weren’t immune to nature’s conflagrations. Shaw believed that one of the worst brush fires in the history of the state had been in Oakland, very near where they were now standing.

“Sometimes, I kick somebody out, they say they’ll come back and get even.” She added with astonishment, “Even when I caught them stealing forty amps when they paid for twenty. Some people. Really.”

He asked, “And you want me to . . . ?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Shaw. Just take a look. Could you take a look? Please?”

Shaw squinted through the flora and saw, maybe, motion that wasn’t from the breeze. A person walking slowly? And if so did the pace mean that he was moving tactically—that is, with some mischief in mind?

Carole’s eyes were on Shaw, regarding him in a particular way. This happened with some frequency. He was a civilian, never said he was anything else. But he had cop fiber.

Shaw circled to the front of the park and walked on the cracked and uneven sidewalk, then on the grassy shoulder of the unbusy road in this unbusy corner of the city.

Yes, there was a man, in dark jacket, blue jeans and black stocking cap, some twenty yards ahead. He wore boots that could be helpful on a hike through brush and equally helpful to stomp an opponent. And, yes, either he was armed with a gas bomb or he was holding a Corona and a napkin in the same hand. Early for a beer some places; not in this part of Oakland.

Shaw slipped off the shoulder into the foliage to his right and walked more quickly, though with care to stay silent. The needles that had pitched from branch to ground in droves over the several past seasons made stealth easy.

Whoever this might be, vengeful lodger or not, he was well past Carole’s cabin. So she wasn’t at personal risk. But Shaw wasn’t giving the guy a pass just yet.

This just felt wrong.

Now the fellow was approaching the part of the RV camp where Shaw’s Winnebago was parked, among dozens of other RVs.

Shaw had more than a passing interest in Molotov cocktails. Several years ago, he’d been searching for a fugitive on the lam for an oil scam in Oklahoma, when somebody pitched a gas bomb into the windshield of his camper. The craft burned to the rims in twenty minutes, personal effects saved in the nick. Shaw still carried a distinct and unpleasant scent memory of the air surrounding the metal carcass.

The percentage likelihood that Shaw would be attacked by two Russian-inspired weapons in one lifetime, let alone within several years, had to be pretty small. Shaw put it at 5 percent. A figure made smaller yet by the fact that he had come to the Oakland/Berkeley area on personal business, not to ruin a fugitive’s life. And while Shaw had committed a transgression yesterday, the remedy for that offense would’ve been a verbal lashing, a confrontation with a beefy security guard or, at worst, the police. Not a firebomb.

Shaw was now only ten yards behind the man, who was scanning the area—looking into the trailer park as well as up and down the road and at several abandoned buildings across it.

The man was trim, white, with a clean shaven face. He was about five eight, Shaw estimated. The man’s facial skin was pocked. Under the cap, his brown hair seemed to be cut short. There was a rodent-like quality to his appearance and his movements. In the man’s posture Shaw read ex-military. Shaw himself was not, though he had friends and acquaintances who were, and he had spent a portion of his youth in quasi-military training, have been quizzed regularly on the updated U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76.

And the man was indeed holding a Molotov cocktail. The napkin was stuffed into the neck of the bottle and Shaw could smell gasoline.

Shaw was familiar with revolver, semi-automatic pistol, semi-automatic rifle, bolt-action rifle, shotgun, bow and arrow and slingshot. And he had more than a passing interest in blades. He now withdrew from his pocket the weapon he used most frequently: his mobile, presently an iPhone. He punched some keys and, when the police and fire emergency dispatcher answered, whispered his location and what he was looking at. Then he hung up. He typed a few more commands and slipped the cell into the breast pocket of his dark plaid sports coat. He thought, with chagrin, about his transgression yesterday and wondered if the call would somehow allow the authorities to identify and collar him. This seemed unlikely.

Shaw had decided to wait for the arrival of the pros. Which is when a cigarette lighter appeared in the man’s hand with no cigarette to accompany it.

That settled the matter.

Shaw stepped from the bushes and closed the distance. “Morning.”

The man turned quickly, crouching.  Shaw noted that he didn’t reach for his belt or inside pocket. This might have been because he didn’t want to drop the gas bomb—or because he wasn’t armed. Or because he was a pro and knew exactly where his gun was and how many seconds it would take to draw and aim and fire.

Narrow eyes, set in a narrow face, looked Shaw over for guns and then for less-weaponry threats. He took in the black jeans, black Ecco shoes, gray striped shirt and sport coat. Short-cut blond hair lying close to his head. Rodent would have thought “cop” but the moment for a badge to appear and an official voice to ask for ID or some such had come and gone. Rodent had concluded that Shaw was civilian. But one not to be taken lightly. Shaw was about one eighty, just shy of six feet, and broad, with strappy muscle. A small scar on cheek, a larger one on neck. He didn’t run as a hobby but he rock-climbed and had been a champion wrestler in college. He was in scrapping shape. His eyes held Rodent’s, as if tethered.

“Hey there.” A tenor voice, taut like a stretched fence wire. Midwest, maybe from Minnesota.

Shaw glanced down at the bottle.

“Maybe it’s pee, not gas, don’tcha know?” The man’s smile was as tight as the timbre of his voice. And it was a lie.

Wondering if this’d turn into a fight. Last thing Shaw wanted. He hadn’t hit anybody for a long time. Didn’t like it. Liked getting hit even less.

“What’s that about?” Shaw nodded at the bottle in the man’s hand.

“Who are you?”

“A tourist.”

“Tourist.” The man debated, eyes rising and falling. “I live up the street. There’s some rats in an abandoned lot next to me. I was going to burn them out.”

“California? The driest June in ten years?”

Shaw had made that up but who’d know?

Not that it mattered. There was no lot and there were no rats, though the fact that the man had brought it up suggested he might have burned rats alive in the past. This was where dislike joined caution.

Never let an animal suffer . . .

Then Shaw was looking over the man’s shoulder—toward the spot he’d been headed for.

A vacant lot, true, though it was beside an old commercial building. Not the imaginary vacant lot next to the man’s imaginary home.

The man’s eyes narrowed further, reacting to the bleat of the approaching police car.

“Really?” Rodent grimaced, meaning: You had to call it in? He muttered something else too.

Shaw said, “Set it down. Now.”

But the man didn’t. He calmly lit the gasoline-soaked rag, which churned with fire, and like a pitcher aiming for a strike, eyed Shaw keenly and flung the bomb his way.

 

2.

 

Molotov cocktails don’t blow up—there’s not enough oxygen inside a sealed bottle. The burning rag fuse ignites the spreading gas.

Which this one did, efficiently and with modest spectacle.

A silent fireball rose about four feet in the air.

Shaw dodged the risk of singe, and Carole ran, screaming, to her cabin. Shaw debated pursuit but the crescent of grass on the shoulder was burning crisply and getting slowly closer to tall shrubs. He vaulted the chain link, sprinted to his RV and retrieved one of the extinguishers. He returned, pulled the pin and blasted a whoosh of white chemical on the fire, taming it.

“Oh, my God. Are you okay, Mr. Shaw?” Carole was plodding up, carrying an extinguisher of her own, a smaller, one-hand canister. Hers wasn’t really necessary but she too pulled the grenade pin and let fly, because, of course, it’s always fun. Especially when the blaze is nearly out.

After a minute or two, Shaw bent down and, with his palm, touched every square inch of the scorch, as he’d learned years ago.

Never leave a campfire without patting the ash.

A pointless glance after Rodent. He’d vanished.

A patrol car braked to a stop. Oakland PD. A large black officer, with a glistening, shaved head, climbed out, holding a fire extinguisher of his own. Of the three, his was the smallest. He surveyed the embers and the char and replaced the red tank under his front passenger seat.

Officer L. Addison, according to the name badge, turned to Shaw. The six foot five cop might get confessions just by walking up to a suspect and leaning down.

“You were the one called?” Addison asked.

“I did.” Shaw explained that the person who’d thrown the cocktail had just run off. “That way.” He gestured down the weedy street, handfuls of trash every few yards. “He’s probably not too far away.”

The cop asked what had happened.

Shaw told him. Carole supplemented, with the somewhat-gratuitous addendum about the difficulty of being a widow running a business by herself. “People take advantage. I push back. I have to. You would. Sometimes they threaten you.” Shaw noted she’d glanced at Addison’s left hand, where no jewelry resided.

Addison cocked his head toward the Motorola mounted on his shoulder and gave Central a summary, with the description from Shaw. It had been quite detailed but he’d left out the rodentlike aspect, that being largely an opinion.

Addison’s eyes turned back to Shaw. “Could I see some ID?”

There are conflicting theories about what to do when the law asks for ID and you’re not a suspect. This was a question Shaw often confronted, since he frequently found himself at crime scenes and places where investigations were under way. You generally didn’t have to show anybody anything. But in that case, you’d have to be prepared to endure the consequences of your lack of cooperation. Time is one of the world’s most valuable commodities, and being pissy with cops guarantees you’re going to lose big chunks of it.

His hesitation at the moment, though, was not on principal but because he was worried that his motorbike’s license had been spotted at the site of yesterday’s transgression. His name might therefore be in the system.

Then he recalled that they’d know him already; he’d called 911 from his personal phone, not a burner. So Shaw handed over the license.

Addison took a picture of it with his phone and uploaded the details somewhere.

Shaw noted that he didn’t do the same with Carole, even though it was her trailer court that had tangentially been involved. Some minor profiling there, Shaw reflected: stranger in town versus a local. This he kept to himself.

Addison looked at the results. He eyed Shaw closely.

A reckoning for yesterday’s transgression? Shaw now chose to call it what it was: theft. There’s no escape in euphemism.

But apparently the gods of justice were not a posse after him today. Addison handed the license back. “Did you recognize him?” he asked Carole.

“No, sir, but it’s hard to keep track. We get a lot of people here. Lowest rates in the area.”

“Did he throw the bottle at you, Mr. Shaw?”

“Toward. A diversion, not assault. So he could get away.”

This gave the officer a moment’s pause.

Carole blurted: “I looked it up online. Molotov secretly worked for Putin.”

Both men looked at her quizzically. Then Shaw continued to the officer: “And to burn the evidence. Prints and DNA on the glass.”

Addison remained thoughtful. He was the sort, common in police, whose lack of body language speaks volumes. He’d be processing why Shaw had thought of the forensics.

The officer said, “If he wasn’t here to cause you any problem, ma’am, what was he here about, you think?”

Before Carole answered, Shaw said, “That.” He pointed across the street to the vacant lot he’d noted earlier.

The trio walked toward it.

The trailer camp was in a scruffy commercial neighborhood, off Route 24, where tourists could stage before a trip to steep Grizzly Peak or neighboring Berkeley. This trash-filled, weedy lot was separated from the property behind it by an old wooden fence about eight feet tall. Local artists had used it as a canvas for some very talented artwork: portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and two other men Shaw didn’t recognize. As the three got closer, Shaw saw the names printed below the pictures: Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who’d been connected with the Black Panther Party. Shaw remembered cold nights in his television-free childhood home. Ashton would read history to Colter and his siblings, mostly American history. Much of it about alternative forms of governance. The Black Panthers had figured in several lectures.

“So,” Carole said, her mouth twisted in distaste. “A hate crime. Terrible.” She added, with a nod to the paintings, “I called the city told them they should preserve it somehow. They never called back.”

Addison’s radio crackled. Shaw could hear the transmission: a unit had cruised the streets nearby and seen no one fitting the description of the arsonist.

Shaw said, “I got a video.”

“You did?”

“After I called nine-one-one I put the phone in my pocket.” He touched the breast pocket, on the left side of his jacket. “It was recording the whole time.”

“Is it recording now?”

“It is.”

“Would you shut it off?” Addison asked this in a way that really meant: Shut it off. Without a question mark.

Shaw did. Then: “I’ll send you a screen shot.”

“Okay.”

Shaw clicked the shot, got Addison’s mobile number and sent the image his way. The men were four feet apart but Shaw imagined the electrons’ journey took them halfway around the world.

The officer’s phone chimed; he didn’t bother to look at the screenshot. He gave Carole his card, one to Shaw as well. Shaw had quite the collection of cops’ cards; he thought it amusing that police had business cards like advertising executives and hedge fund managers.

After Addison left, Carole said, “They’re not going to do winkety, are they?”

“No.”

“Well, thanks for looking into it, Mr. Shaw. I’d’ve felt purely horrid, you’d gotten burned.”

“Not a worry.”

Carole returned to the cabin, and Shaw to his Winnebago. He was reflecting on one aspect of the encounter he hadn’t shared with Officer Addison. After the exasperated, “Really?” in reference to the 911 call, Rodent’s comment might have been, “Why’d you do that shit?”

But it was also possible—more than 50 percent—that he’d said, “Why’d you do that, Shaw?”

Which, if that had in fact happened, meant Rodent knew him or knew about him.

And that, of course, would put a whole new spin on the affair.