The Katrina Contract

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Part 2: To the Rescue: Chapter 1

U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Vessel Bonnie Jane bounced over the calm ocean, its engines rumbling at full throttle. Sunlight pierced through spotty cloud cover, scattering tiny sunbursts on a sea unbroken by land in all directions.

The Bonnie Jane’s crew had just completed tethering her helicopter to its landing platform on the aft deck of the ship. Captain Edgar Dunn was examining the chopper’s metal skin with the pilot.

“I stayed as long as I could, sir,” the young pilot said, his voice warbling slightly. “But with that many guys shooting, I knew it was only a matter of time before we went down. I did get some pictures, though. Only three. I think.”

Captain Dunn poked his finger in one of the several still-warm bullet holes.

The pilot shivered. “They sprang up on me, Captain. I thought I was dead. I don’t think it’s in a terrorist’s nature to fire warning shots. Thank God their aim was terrible.”

Dunn turned to the much younger man, clasped his shoulder and looked into his watering eyes. The pilot’s lips quivered.

“Son,” the captain said, “I’ve been a sailor long enough to know you don’t think about good luck for too long, you just accept it. You got us some visuals, and you got back safe. That’s what counts.”

The pilot cleared his throat. “Thank you, sir. She’s still air-worthy if we need her. Rotors weren’t hit. Neither was-”

“We’ll talk about that later. Let the mechanics look her over. For now, get some rest. Know you did well.”

“I did? Thanks. I mean, thanks, sir. I mean, aye, sir. Aye. Captain.”

The young man’s face was regaining color. He saluted crisply. Dunn clapped the pilot on his back and turned away, heading toward the fore deck.

Dunn removed his baseball cap and scratched his bald head vigorously. He replaced the hat tightly and sighed as he watched the man standing at the bow leaning forward into the wind.

Nelson Goodkin removed his wire-framed glasses with both hands, wiping water drops off the lenses with the sweatshirt he was wearing under his windbreaker. His slicker hung low and long for his skinny frame. He snapped his left hand to the railing as the ship hit a swell. With his free hand, he slid his glasses onto his nose just in time to be hit in the face with spray.

“Damn it,” Goodkin said.

Captain Dunn noticed the Sunset Mist cruise ship was coming into view on the hazy horizon. From this distance, the ship was the size of a rice kernel but growing fast.

Dunn yelled over the roaring wind as he approached Goodkin.

“Doing all right, Mister Goodkin?”

“I’m fine,” Goodkin yelled back, leaning forward to keep his balance. “Did your pilot secure any imagery?”

“He’s a little shaken, but he’s a tough kid.”

“What about the photos? Did he get them?”

“He said he got three.”

“Only three?”

“You didn’t say how many you needed.”

“It should be obvious I’ll need as many as I can get. The high ground in this engagement belongs to whoever has the superior quality information.”

“I ordered him to fall back if he started taking fire. The bird was hit several times. We’re not trained or equipped for combat. We’re a rescue vessel. You ask me, the boy performed bravely.”

“But only three photos?” Goodkin said, looking sideways at Dunn.

Dunn didn’t respond. He kept his eyes on the horizon and the growing Sunset Mist cruise ship.

“Three will have to do, then,” Goodkin said. He followed Dunn’s gaze. “What data can you provide me about this cruise liner?”

“She’s not one of those behemoth ships,” Dunn said, “one of those floating resort types that hold more people than some of the island villages they dock at. She’s much smaller. They call her a cherub-class. The passenger manifest indicates they left port with only around 200 people. Most cruisers carry at least ten times that.”

“How big would you say it is, compared to your ship?”

Dunn turned around and pointed to the cabin roof of the Bonnie Jane. Goodkin turned awkwardly, still clutching the railing.

“See the top of my girl here? That’s thirty feet from the water line. She’s also around fifty feet long. I’d say the Sunset Mist is about a hundred feet tall, and maybe three hundred feet from bow to aft.”

“So roughly three times as tall, six times as long.”

“Sounds about right,” Dunn said.

They both turned to face the Sunset Mist cruiser again. Goodkin squinted up at the sun. “This had to happen on a beautiful day, didn’t it?”

“Every day is a beautiful day out on the ocean.”

“It’s cold, it’s wet and it smells like a swamp. And there’s nothing to see. What’s so great about it?”

Dunn leaned forward, resting his forearms on the railing. “It never stops moving. It’s invigorating. Keeps me awake and keeps me young. Even the rough days have a charm. There’s nothing like it.”

“You can have it. I’m going inside to do some research.”

“You remember where my office is? Through the lounge area and in the back. I’m going to make my rounds and I’ll meet you there.”

“Grab the pilot’s photos too,” Goodkin said. “All three of them,” he added, shaking his head.

“Will do,” the captain said.

Goodkin retreated from the fore, pulling himself along the railing hand over hand. He entered the main cabin, letting the door slam shut behind him. Inside, two crew members were playing cards on a small table. In the corner, a television’s static-laced picture showed a basketball game. The two sailors looked up at Goodkin and then back to their cards.

Goodkin ignored them as he pulled a tablet PC from an inner pocket of his windbreaker. He pressed a wireless earplug into his ear, and positioned the attached microphone bulb against his jaw. He balanced the tablet on his left hand, sliding his fingers under a small holding strap on the PC’s back, while using his right hand to tap, slide and pinch the screen on the other side. He walked toward Captain Dunn’s office, bent over the computer.

“Hey,” one of the card-playing sailors said. “That’s the captain’s quarters. No one else allowed.”

Goodkin didn’t look up. “I’ve got special permission.”

“I don’t care what you have,” the sailor said, standing. “No one goes in there. Captain’s orders.”

Goodkin remained hunched over his tablet, tapping and stroking as he spoke.

“Really?” he said, “And when was the last time you had breakfast with the president?”

“Huh?”

“Precisely,” Goodkin said. He kept walking and still didn’t look up.

“Let him go,” the other sailor said. “Captain said he’s a V.I.P. so he’s probably got the okay. Besides, you’re just trying to see my cards.”

“I’m not. That guy’s a jerk.”

“Yeah, and so’s your mom. Come on.”

Goodkin entered the captain’s quarters.

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