Diamond Bay (Chapter One)

The clean golden sun still burned its heat into his flesh, all along his bare chest and long legs, even though it was near sundown. The lengthening rays threw dancing sparkles onto the tips of the waves, mesmerizing him as he stared at them. No, it wasn't the glittering water that mesmerized him, it was the fact that he had nothing more important to do than simply stare at it. He'd forgotten how peace sounded, how it felt. For a long, wonderful month of pure solitude he could relax and be only a man. He would fish when he felt like it, or cruise the warm, hypnotic waters of the Gulf if he felt restless. The water drew him on endlessly. Here it was midnight blue; there it was brilliant turquoise; over there it was a pale, shimmering green. He had money for fuel and provisions, and only two people in the world knew where he was or how to reach him. At the end of the month's vacation he would return to the gray world he'd chosen and lose himself in the shadows, but for now he could lie in the sun, and that was all he wanted. Kell Sabin was tired, tired of the endless struggle, the secrecy and maneuvering, the danger and deception of his job. It was a vitally important job, but for this month he would let someone else do it. This month was his; he could almost understand what had lured Grant Sullivan, his old friend and the best agent he'd ever had, to the quiet mystery of the Tennessee mountains. Sabin had been a top agent himself, a legend prowling the Golden Triangle and, later, the Middle East and South America, all the hot spots of the world. Now he was a department chief, the shadowy figure behind a group of crack agents who followed his directions and his training. Little was known about him; the security surrounding him was almost absolute. Sabin preferred it that way; he was a loner, a dark man who faced the hard realities of life with both cynicism and acceptance. He knew the drawbacks and dangers of his chosen career, he knew it could be dirty and vicious, but he was a realist and he had accepted all that when he took the job.

Still, it got to him sometimes, and he had to get away from it, live for a little while like a normal citizen. His private escape valve was his custom-made cabin cruiser. His vacations, like everything else about him, were highly guarded secrets, but the days and nights at sea were what kept him human, the only times when he could relax and think, when he could lie naked in the sun and reestablish his link with his own humanity, or watch the stars at night and regain his perspective.

A white gull soared overhead, giving its plaintive cry. Idly he watched it, free and graceful, framed against the cloudless blue bowl of the sky. The sea breeze brushed lightly over his naked skin, and pleasure brought a rare smile to his dark eyes. There was a streak of untamed savage in him that he had to keep under tight control, but out here, with only the sun and the wind and the water, he could let that part of himself surface. The restrictions of clothing seemed almost sacrilegious out here, and he resented having to dress whenever he went into a port for fuel, or whenever another boat pulled up beside him for a chat, as people were wont to do down here.

The sun had moved lower, dipping its golden edge into the water, when he heard the sound of another motor. He turned his head to watch the cabin cruiser, a little larger than his own, cut leisurely through the waves. That was the only way to get around out here: leisurely. The warmer the clime, the slower the time. Sabin kept his gaze on the boat, admiring the graceful lines and the smooth, powerful sound of the motor. He liked boats, and he liked the sea. His own boat was a prized possession, and a closely guarded secret. No one knew it belonged to him; it was registered to an insurance salesman in New Orleans who had no knowledge at all of Kell Sabin. Even the name of the boat, Wanda, had no meaning. Sabin knew no one named Wanda; it was simply a name that he'd chosen. But Wanda was completely his, with secrets and surprises of her own. Anyone who really knew him wouldn't have expected anything else, but only one man in the world had ever known the man behind the mask, and Grant Sullivan gave away no secrets.

The sound of the other boat's motor changed as it slowed and turned in his direction. Sabin swore irritably, looking around for the faded denim cutoffs he usually kept on deck for such situations. A voice drifted to him over the water, and he looked at the other boat again. A woman was standing at the forward rail, waving her arm back and forth over her head in a manner that held no urgency, so he guessed they were just looking for a chat and weren't having any sort of trouble. The afternoon sunlight glinted on her red hair, turning it into fire, and for a moment Sabin stared at it, his attention caught by that unusual, glowing shade of red.

A frown put furrows in his brow as he quickly stepped into his cutoffs and zipped them. The boat was still too far away for him to see her face, but that red hair had aggravated some hidden little memory that was trying to surface. He stared at her as the other boat idled toward him, his black eyes glittering with intensity. There was something about that hair….

Suddenly every instinct in Sabin shrilled an alarm and he hit the deck, not questioning that spine-tingling uneasiness; it had saved his life too many times for him to hesitate. He spread his fingers on the warm wood of the deck, acknowledging that he could be making a fool of himself, but he'd rather be a live fool than a dead wise man. The sound of the other motor dropped off, as if it had slowed even more, and Sabin made another decision. Still on his stomach, with the scent of polish in his nostrils and the scrape of wood on his bare flesh, he snaked his way over to a storage compartment.

He never went anywhere without some means of self-defense. The rifle that he pulled out of the storage compartment was powerful and accurate, though he knew it would be a temporary deterrent at best. If his instincts were wrong, then he would have no use for it at all; if his instincts were right, they would have far more firepower than this rifle, because they would have prepared for this.

Swearing under his breath, Sabin checked that the rifle was on full automatic fire and crawled back over to the rail. Coolly choosing his cover, he let the barrel of the rifle be seen, and he eased his head around just enough to let him see the other boat. It was still closing on him, less than a hundred yards away.

"That's close enough!" he yelled, not knowing if his voice would carry clearly enough to be understood over the noise of the motor. But that didn't matter, as long as they could tell he was yelling something.

The boat slowed, barely moving through the water now, seventy-five yards away. Suddenly it seemed to be swarming with people, and none of them looked like the ordinary Gulf fishermen or leisure boaters, because every one of them was armed, even the red-haired woman. Sabin scanned them quickly, his extraordinary eyesight picking up details of shape and size. He was able to identify the types of weapons without having to think about it, he was so familiar with them. It was the people he watched, and his eyes darted back to one man. Even at that distance, and even though he stood a little behind everyone else, there was something familiar about him, just as there was something familiar about the woman.

There was no doubt now, and icy, deadly calm settled over him, just as it always did in combat situations. He didn't waste time worrying about how badly outnumbered he was; instead he began weighing and discarding options, each decision made in the flash of a second.

A flat CRACK! split the twilightthe sound of rifle fire over open water. He caught the faint, warm percussion of the bullet as it split the air over his head and splintered the wood of the cabin behind him. With a motion as smooth as oiled silk Sabin took aim and fired, then pulled his head down, all in one continuous flow. He didn't need the involuntary sharp cry that pierced the air to tell him that he hadn't missed; Sabin would have been both surprised and furious if he had.

"Sabin!" The amplified voice echoed tinnily across the water. "You know you don't have a chance! Make it easy on yourself."

The accent was very good, but it wasn't quite American. The offer was only what he'd expected. His best chance was to outrun them; Wanda's speed was just one of her unusual features. But to outrun them, he had to get to the controls up top, which meant exposing himself to their fire during the climb up the ladder.

Sabin weighed the situation and accepted that he had perhaps a fifty-fifty chance of reaching the top, maybe less, depending on how surprised they were by his move. On the other hand, he had no chance at all if he simply sat there and tried to hold them off with one rifle. He had a lot of ammunition, but they would have more. Moving was a risk he had to take, so he didn't waste time worrying about his diminishing chances. He took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled slowly, coiling his steely body in preparation. He needed to get as high up the ladder with the first jump as he could. Gripping the rifle firmly, he took another breath and leaped. His finger pressed the trigger as he moved, the automatic fire making the weapon buck in his hand and forcing everyone on the other boat to take cover. His outstretched right hand caught the top rung of the ladder, and his bare feet barely touched before launching him higher. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the white bursts even as he swung himself over the top and two red-hot sledgehammers slammed into his body. Only sheer momentum and determination carried him onto the deck, and kept him from falling to the lower one. Black mist almost obscured his vision, and the sound of his own breathing was loud in his ears.

He'd dropped the rifle. "Goddammit." He'd dropped the rifle! he thought furiously. He took a deep breath, forcing the black mist away, and summoned the strength to turn his head. The rifle still lay there, clutched in his left hand, but he couldn't feel it. The left side of his body was washed with his own blood, almost black in the dwindling light. His chest heaving with his rapid breathing, Sabin reached across with his right hand and got the rifle. The feel of it in his hand made things a little better, but not much. Sweat broke out and ran off him in rivers, mixing with his blood. He had to do something, or they'd be on him.

His left arm and leg wouldn't obey the commands of his brain, so he ignored them, dragging himself over to the side using only his right arm and leg. Bracing the rifle against his right shoulder, he fired at the other boat again, letting them know he was still alive and dangerous so they wouldn't come rushing in.

Glancing down, he took stock of his injuries. A bullet had gone through the outside muscle of his left thigh, another through his left shoulder; each was serious enough on its own. After the first burning impact his shoulder and arm had gone numb, useless, and his leg wouldn't support his weight, but he knew from experience that the numbness would soon begin to fade, and with the pain he would regain some use of his wounded muscles, if he could afford to wait that long.

He risked another look and saw that the other boat was circling behind him. The upper deck was open at the rear, and they would have a clear shot at him.

"Sabin! We know you're hurt! Don't make us kill you!"

No, they would much rather have him alive, for "questioning," but he knew they wouldn't take any chances. They would kill him if they had to, rather than let him escape.

Grinding his teeth, Sabin dragged himself over to the controls and reached up to turn the key in the ignition. The powerful engine coughed into life. He couldn't see where he was going, but that didn't matter, even if he rammed the other cruiser. Panting, he slumped back to the deck, trying to gather his strength; he had to reach the throttle, and he had only a few moments left. Hot pain was spreading over his entire left side, but his arm and leg were beginning to respond now, so he figured that was a fair trade. He ignored the growing pain and levered himself up on his right arm, forcing his left arm to move, to reach, until his bloody fingers touched the throttle and shoved it into forward gear. The cruiser began sliding through the water with slowly increasing speed, and he heard the shouts from the other boat.

"That's it, girl," he panted, encouraging the boat. "Let's go, let's go." He stretched again, every muscle in his body shaking from the effort, and managed to reach far enough to push the throttle wide open. The boat leaped beneath him, responding to the surge of power with a deep-throated roar.

At full speed he had to see where he was going. He was taking another chance, but those chances were getting better with every foot of distance he put between himself and the other boat. A grunt of pain exploded from his throat as he hauled himself to his feet, and salty sweat stung his eyes; he had to keep most of his weight on his right leg, but the left one didn't buckle beneath him, which was all he asked. He glanced over his shoulder at the other cruiser. He was rapidly pulling away from them, even though they were giving chase.

There was a figure on the top deck of the other boat, and he was settling a bulky pipe onto his shoulder.

Sabin didn't even have to think to know what it was; he'd seen rocket launchers too many times not to recognize them on sight. Only a second before the flash, and barely two seconds before the rocket exploded his boat, Sabin went over the right side, into the turquoise water of the Gulf.

He went deep, as deep as he could, but he had very little time, and the percussion rolled him through the water like a child's toy. Pain seared his wounded muscles and everything went black again; it was for only a second or two, but it was enough to completely disorient him. He was choking, and he didn't know where the surface was. The water wasn't turquoise now, it was black, and it was pressing down on him.

The years of training saved him. Sabin had never panicked, and now wasn't the time to start. He stopped fighting the water and forced himself to relax, and his natural buoyancy began carrying him to the surface. Once he could tell which direction was up, he began swimming as well as he could, though he could barely move his left arm and leg. His lungs were burning when he finally bobbed to the surface and gulped the warm, salt-scented air.

Wanda was burning, sending black smoke billowing into a pearlescent sky that held only the last few moments of light. Darkness had already spread over the earth and sea, and he seized it as his only available cover. The other boat was circling the Wanda, playing its spotlight over the burning wreckage and the surrounding ocean; he could feel the water vibrating with the power of the engines. Unless they found his body or as much of it as they could realistically expect to remain they would search for him; they'd have to. They couldn't afford to do anything else. His priority remained the same: he had to put as much distance as he could between himself and them.

Clumsily he rolled to his back and began a one-sided backstroke, not stopping until he was well away from the glare of the burning boat. His chances weren't good; he was at least two miles from shore, probably closer to three. He was weak from loss of blood, and he could barely move his left arm and leg. Added to that were the chances that the predators of the sea would be drawn to him by his wounds before he got anywhere close to land. He gave a low, cynical laugh, and choked as a wave hit him in the face. He was caught between the human sharks and the sharks of the sea, and damned if it really made any difference which one got him, but they would both have to work for it. He didn't intend to make it easy for them. He took a deep breath and floated while he struggled out of his shorts, but his twisting efforts made him sink, and he had to fight his way back to the surface. He held the garment in his teeth while he considered the best tactics to use. The denim was old, thin, almost threadbare; he should be able to tear it. The problem was in staying afloat while he did it. He would have to use his left arm and leg, or he'd never be able to manage it.

He had no choice; he had to do what was necessary, despite the pain.

He thought he might pass out again when he began treading water, but the moment passed, though the pain didn't lessen. Grimly he chewed on the edge of the shorts, trying to get a tear started in the fabric. He forced the pain out of his mind as his teeth shredded the threads, and he hastily tore the garment up to the waistband, where the reinforced fabric and double-stitching stopped his progress. He began tearing again, until he had four loose strips of cloth attached to the waistband; then he began chewing along the waistband. The first strip came loose, and he held it in his fist while he freed the second strip.

He rolled to his back and floated, groaning as his wounded leg relaxed. Quickly he knotted the two strips together to get enough length to wrap around his leg. Then he tied the makeshift tourniquet around his thigh, making certain that the cloth covered both the entrance and exit wounds. He pulled it as tightly as he could without cutting off circulation, but he had to put pressure on the wounds to stop them from bleeding.

His shoulder was going to be more difficult. He bit and pulled until he tore the other two strips from the waistband, then knotted them together. How was he going to position this makeshift bandage? He didn't even know if he had an exit wound in his back, or if the bullet was still in his shoulder. Slowly, awkwardly, he moved his right hand and felt his back, but his water-puckered fingers could find only smooth skin, which meant that the bullet was still in him. The wound was high on his shoulder, and bandaging it would be almost impossible with the materials he had. Even tied together, the two strips weren't enough. He began chewing again, tore off two more strips, then tied them to the other two. The best he could manage was to sling the strip over his back, bring it around under his armpit and tie it in a tight loop over his shoulder. Then he folded the remnant of his cutoffs into a pad and slipped it under the loop, positioning it over the wound. It was a clumsy bandage at best, but his head was swimming, and deadly lethargy was creeping into his limbs. Grimly Sabin pushed both sensations away, staring fixedly at the stars in an effort to orient himself. He wasn't going to give up; he could float, and he could manage to swim for short periods of time. It might take a while, but unless a shark got him, he was damned well going to make it to shore. He rolled onto his back and rested for a few minutes before he began the slow, agonizing process of swimming to shore.

It was a hot night, even for mid-July in central Florida. Rachel Jones had automatically adjusted her habits to the weather, taking it easy, either doing her chores early in the morning or putting them off until late afternoon. She had been up at sunrise, hoeing the weeds out of her small vegetable garden, feeding the geese, washing her car. When the temperature soared into the nineties she moved inside and put a load of clothes in the washer, then settled down for a few hours of research and planning for the journalism course she had agreed to teach at night in Gainesville when the fall quarter began. With the ceiling fan whirring serenely overhead, her dark hair pinned on top of her head, and wearing only a tank top and an old pair of shorts, Rachel was comfortable despite the heat. A glass of iced tea sat constantly beside her elbow, and she sipped at it as she read.

The geese honked peacefully as they waddled from one section of grass to the other, herded by Ebenezer Duck, the cantankerous old leader. Once there was an uproar when Ebenezer and Joe, the dog, got into a dispute over which one had the right to the patch of cool green grass beneath the oleander shrub. Rachel went to the screen door and shouted at her rambunctious pets to be quiet, and that was the most exciting event of the day. That was the way most of her days went during the summer. Things picked up during the fall, when the tourist season began and her two souvenir shops in Treasure Island and Tarpon Springs began doing a lively trade. With the journalism course her days would be even busier than usual, but the summers were a time for relaxing. She worked intermittently on her third book, feeling no great pressure to finish it, since her deadline wasn't until Christmas and she was well ahead of schedule. Rachel's energy was deceptive, because she managed to accomplish so much without ever seeming to hurry.

She was at home here, her roots deep in the sandy soil. The house she lived in had been her grandfather's, and the land had been in the family for a hundred and fifty years. The house had been remodeled in the fifties and no longer resembled the original frame structure. When Rachel had moved in she had renovated the inside, but the place still gave her a sense of permanency. She knew the house and the land surrounding it as well as she knew her own face in the mirror. Probably better, because Rachel wasn't given to staring at herself. She knew the tall pine thicket in front of her and the rolling grassland at her back, every hill and tree and bush. A path wound through the pines and down to the beach where the Gulf waters rolled in. The beach was undeveloped here, partly because of the unusual roughness of the shore, partly because the beachfront property was owned by people who had had it for generations and weren't inclined to see condominiums and motels rise in their faces. This was prime cattle country; Rachel's property was almost surrounded by a huge ranch, owned by John Rafferty, and Rafferty was as reluctant as she to sell any land for development.

The beach was Rachel's special haven, a place for walking and thinking and finding peace in the relentless, eternal surge of the water. It was called Diamond Bay because of the way the light splintered on the waves as they crashed over the underwater boulders that lined the mouth of the little bay. The water shimmied and glittered like thousands of diamonds as it rolled to shore. Her grandfather had taught her to swim in Diamond Bay; sometimes it seemed as if her life had begun in the turquoise water.

Certainly the bay had been the center of the golden days of her childhood, when a visit to Gramps's had been the most fun a young Rachel could imagine. Then her mother died when Rachel was twelve, and the bay became her permanent home. There was something about the ocean that had eased the sharpness of her grief and taught her acceptance. She'd had Gramps, too, and even now the thought of him brought a smile to her face. What a wonderful old man he'd been! He had never been too busy or too embarrassed to answer the sometimes awkward questions an adolescent girl could ask, and had given her the freedom to test her wings while still keeping her solidly grounded in common sense. He had died the year she'd finished college, but even death had met him on his own terms. He had been tired and ill and ready to die, and he'd done it with such humor and acceptance that Rachel had even felt a sort of peace at his going. She had grieved, yes, but the grief had been tempered by the knowledge that it was what he had wanted.

The old house had stood empty then, while Rachel pursued her career as an investigative reporter in Miami. She had met and married B. B. Jones, and life had been good. B.B. had been more than a husband, he had been a friend, and they had thought they had the world on a string. Then B.B.'s violent death had ended that dream and left Rachel a widow at the age of twenty-five. She quit her job and returned here to the bay, once again finding solace in the unending sea. She had been crippled emotionally, but time and the peaceful life had healed her. Still, she felt no urge to return to the fast-paced life she'd led before. This was home, and she was happy with what she was doing now. The two souvenir stores provided an adequate living, and she supplemented her income by writing an occasional article as well as the adventure books that had done so surprisingly well.

This summer was almost exactly like all the other summers she had ever spent at Diamond Bay, except it was hotter. The heat and humidity were almost stifling, and some days she felt like doing nothing more strenuous than lying in the hammock and fanning herself. Sundown brought some relief, but even that was relative. The night brought a light breeze from the Gulf to cool her heated skin, but it was still too hot to sleep. She had already taken a cool shower, and now she sat on the front porch swing in the dark, lazily keeping the swing moving with occasional movements of her foot. The chains squeaked in time with the chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs; Joe lay on the porch in front of the screen door, dozing and dreaming his doggy dreams. Rachel closed her eyes, enjoying the breeze on her face and thinking of what she would do the next day: pretty much what she had done today, and the day before, but she didn't mind the repetition. She had enjoyed the old days of excitement, filled with the peculiar seductive power of danger, yet now she also enjoyed the peace of her present life.

Even though she wore only panties and a man's oversize white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up and first three buttons open, she could still feel small beads of sweat forming between her breasts. The heat made her restless, and finally she got to her feet. "I'm going for a walk," she told the dog, who flicked an ear at her but didn't open his eyes.

Rachel hadn't really expected him to join her; Joe wasn't a friendly dog, not even with her. He was independent and antisocial, backing away from an outstretched hand with his hackles raised and teeth showing. She thought he must have been mistreated before he'd shown up in her yard a few years before, but they had formed a truce. She fed him, and he filled the role of guard dog. He still wouldn't allow her to pet him, but he would come instantly to her side if a stranger drove up, and stand there glaring at the intruder until he either decided there was no danger, or the stranger left. If Rachel worked in her garden, Joe was usually close by. It was a partnership based on mutual respect, and both were satisfied with it.

He really had it easy, Rachel thought as she cut across the yard and took the path that wound down through the tall pines to the beach. He wasn't often called on as a guard; few people came to her house, except for the postman. She was at the dead end of an unpaved road that cut through Rafferty's property and hers was the only house. John Rafferty was her only neighbor, and he wasn't the type to drop in for a chat. Honey Mayfield, the local veterinarian, sometimes came by after a call at the Rafferty ranch, and they had developed a rather close friendship, but other than that Rachel was pretty much left alone, which was one reason she felt comfortable roaming around at night wearing only her underwear and a shirt.

The path sloped down a very gradual incline through the pine thicket. The stars were bright and heavy in the sky, and Rachel had walked the path since childhood, so she didn't bother with a flashlight. Even in the pines she could still see well enough to find her way. It was a quarter of a mile from the house to the beach, an easy walk. She liked walking the beach at night; it was her favorite time to listen to the ocean's power, when the waves were black except for their pearly foam tops. It was also low tide, and Rachel preferred the beach at low tide. It was at low tide that the ocean pulled back to reveal the treasures it had brought in to leave on the sand, like a love offering. She had collected a lot of sea treasures at low tide, and never ceased marveling at the wonders the turquoise Gulf brought to her feet.

It was a beautiful night, moonless and cloudless, and the stars were brighter than she had seen them in years, their light refracted on the waves like countless diamonds. Diamond Bay. It had been well named. The beach was narrow and uneven, with clumps of weeds growing along the edge, and the mouth of the bay was lined with jagged rocks that were especially dangerous at low tide, but for all its imperfections the bay created magic with its combination of light and water. She could stand and watch the glittering water for hours, spellbound by the power and beauty of the ocean.

The gritty sand cooled her bare feet, and she dug her toes deeper. The breeze gusted momentarily, lifting her hair away from her face, and Rachel inhaled the clean salt air. There was only herself and the ocean.

The breeze changed directions, flirting with her, blowing strands of hair across her face. She put up her hand to push her hair out of her eyes and paused in midmotion, her eyebrows drawing together fractionally as she stared at the water. She could have sworn she'd seen something. Just for a moment there had been a flash of movement, but now her straining eyes picked up nothing but the rhythmic surge of the waves. Perhaps it had been only a fish, or a large piece of driftwood. She wanted to find a really good piece for a flower arrangement, so she walked to the edge of the waves, pushing her hair back so it wouldn't obscure her vision.

There it was again, bobbing in the water! She took an eager step forward, wetting her feet in the foamy surf. Then the dark object moved again and took on a funny shape. The sheen of the silvery starlight made it look just like an arm, flailing weakly forward, like a tired swimmer struggling for coordination. A muscled arm, at that, and the dark bulk beside it could be a head.

Realization burst, and Rachel's entire body tingled with electricity. She was in the water before she realized it, surging through the waves toward the struggling man. The water impeded her progress, the waves pushing her back with increasing strength; the tide was just beginning to come back in. The man sank from view, and a hoarse cry burst from her throat. Wildly she splashed toward him, the water up to her breasts now, the waves crashing into her face. Where was he? The black water gave no hint of his location. She reached the spot where she had last seen him, but her frantically searching hands came up empty.

The waves would wash him toward the beach. She turned and staggered back toward shore and saw him again for a moment before his head disappeared beneath the water once more. She struck out, swimming strongly, and two seconds later her hand closed on thick hair. Fiercely she jerked his head above the water, but he was limp, his eyes closed. "Don't you die on me!" she ordered between clenched teeth, catching him under the shoulders and towing him in. Twice the incoming tide knocked her feet out from under her, and each time she thought she would drown before she could struggle free of the man's confining weight.

Then she was in water to her knees, and he sagged limply. She tugged until he was mostly out of the water, then fell on her hands and knees in the sand, coughing and gasping. Every muscle trembling with reaction, she crawled over to him.