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matthew fitzsimmons
Debris Line

Debris Line


Chapter One

João Luna steered the Alexandria south and west into open waters. At his back, the towns of the Algarve that lit the horizon dimmed and faded from view as the trawler churned its way out into the Atlantic. The Alexandria had been in his family for thirty years. A modest boat she wouldn't win any beauty contests but solidly built and reliable. Twelve meters from bow to stern with a crew of five. João had grown up on board, fishing the sardines that swam in immense schools along the coast of Portugal. At night, the sardines rose to the surface to feed on plankton, and ordinarily, the crew would have already begun to prepare the nets. But not tonight. Tonight, the crew of the Alexandria had another job ahead of them.

The ocean was unusually calm. Hard to imagine a storm was on the way. But the maritime forecast promised gale-force winds and heavy rains in a few hours. It wasn't the season for such weather, but the seasons no longer meant what they once had. João knew better than to flout the forecast. He meant to be done and on the way home before the worst of it hit. In stories, the sea often mirrored the emotions of sailors. João knew that was only the poetic license of writers who had never worked a day on the water. The ocean didn't give a good goddamn for the concerns of men like him.

The accursed device beeped. The black box with its sleek modern contours looked out of place on the old wooden console. João glared at it but adjusted course, keeping the blinking red dot in the screen's crosshairs. The device filled him with an unfamiliar dread. He would have thrown it into the ocean had he dared. Had his father not explained why that was impossible.

The device beeped again. They had to be close now.

João had dreamed of captaining the Alexandria since he was a young boy. Since that first night when his father took him out with the crew. He couldn't have been more than seven. His father stood him on a crate so João could take the wheel. Feeling the hum of the engine, the comradery among the crew, all other ambitions had died in him that night. School became a meaningless torture. None of its lessons applied to fishing, not even the vocational training that his father insisted upon. All that had ever made sense to João was the ocean, and all the education he would ever need came from his father and the men who crewed the Alexandria.

The way he'd imagined his life unfolding, he would work beside his father on the Alexandria. Perhaps meet a woman, court her as best he knew how, and marry. A small home. A son or daughter to follow in his footsteps. Years from now, his father would retire, and João would carry on in his place. It would have been a good life. The diagnosis had changed all that.

It was still hard to accept because his father looked as healthy as ever. The doctor warned, however, that cold nights on the deck of a fishing trawler would accelerate his decline. Always a decisive man who kept his own counsel, João's father had retired suddenly and without fanfare. João had learned the news over a glass of port. He'd never cared for the taste but, sensing the importance of the moment, drank it seriously.

I'm finished, his father had said simply. You are captain now.

I'm not ready.

Perhaps not, but life is ready for you.

And like that, at nineteen, João found himself the captain of the Alexandria. His life's ambition realized, and he didn't want it. Not under these circumstances. But he'd done as his father asked and become captain. That had been six weeks ago. There had never been any question of the crew following him. João had worked on the Alexandria for more than a decade and knew every inch of her. Things had gone on as they always had. He had simply done what his father had always done. Until yesterday morning.

His father had met him unannounced on the docks at Olhão, where the Alexandria berthed. It had given João a bad feeling. He'd feared that his father's health had taken a turn for the worse. They had walked to their favored cafe at the old fish market. That was where his father had told him about the debt.

Seven years earlier, the family had almost lost everything. Poor hauls, lower market prices, and unforeseen expenses had pushed his father to the brink of bankruptcy. Then the engine of the Alexandria had failed. João remembered it well. His father had been as withdrawn and somber as João had ever seen him. What João didn't know was that Baltasar Alves had come to his father with a proposition: he would finance the overhaul of the Alexandria and replace the engine. The trawler would remain in João's family, but four nights a year she would belong to Baltasar Alves, their new patron. The Alexandria and its captain.

Tonight was one of those nights, and his father had come to the docks that morning to pass the responsibility on to his son. And to entrust him with the black box that was charting the Alexandria's course. At first, João had been angry at his father for getting them involved with a man like Baltasar Alves, angry that his father had concealed the truth all these years. But then João saw shame in his father's face and fell silent. His father was an honorable man; João saw he had only done what had to be done to take care of his family. How could João do any less? He took the device and asked what needed to be done.

On the console, the device began beeping incessantly. João cut the engines and scanned the ocean. To starboard, a blue light strobed in the darkness. He brought the Alexandria alongside, and the crew used hooked poles to bring the mysterious packages onboard. Each was perhaps two meters wide, two meters tall, four meters long, and bound in heavy plastic impossible to tell what might be inside. João was curious to open one and find out, but his father had warned him above all else never to tamper with Baltasar Alves's cargo.

Instead, João ordered the crew to stow the packages in the hold. He wondered how many other boat captains were working for Alves this night. He hoped not many. If the stories were true, then once a man was in Baltasar Alves's debt, he never left it. João pushed the thought aside and went to help the crew. It would raise suspicions with the maritime police if they returned to Olhão entirely empty-handed.


CHAPTER TWO

The streets were all but deserted at this hour. Like the pale, peaceful face of an old drunk sleeping off a night of poor choices. After the night's last tourists had staggered home from the nightclubs but before the morning's first tourists stumbled out of bed to stake claim to a rectangle of sand. Before the sun climbed to its perch in the cloudless Mediterranean sky. When the street cleaners emerged to sweep up the broken glass and wash away the blood and the vomit and the urine. A dull reset before the good times rolled again.

Gibson Vaughn's favorite time of day.

The morning before the morning. Alone with his thoughts.

Mercifully, he never remembered his dreams hard memories of home but he felt them in his body when he woke. Sore muscles and knots in his back like cigar burns. By six a.m., when he could no longer pretend that he might doze off again, he took a long run down to the beach. When he'd first arrived in Portugal, Jenn Charles would join him. They'd run side by side, talking and shooting the shit. That had tapered off after a few weeks, and they hadn't run together in months. He missed her company.

For the last six months, home had been a small house on the outskirts of Albufeira, a beach-resort town in the Algarve region of Portugal. Jenn had the bedroom at the top of the stairs. The smallest of the three. Gibson went by it quietly, carrying his shoes. There was no need. Her door was open, bed unslept in. Probably out with her boyfriend, or whatever it was they called each other. She wasn't saying, and Gibson wasn't about to ask.

Dan Hendricks's bedroom door was closed, but Gibson didn't bother to knock. Hendricks had settled into a comfortable routine and wouldn't be up before noon. Just in time for his afternoon siesta. Besides, Hendricks took a dim view of running unless he was being shot at.

The house was owned by an old associate of George Abe's named Baltasar Alves the criminal boss who ran things in the Algarve. He owed George a debt. The exact nature of the debt, Gibson didn't know, but whatever it was had been enough for Alves to grant them all sanctuary. No small thing, given they'd fled the United States under a cloud. Gibson and Jenn were both wanted by the FBI in connection with the events at Dulles International Airport. And as far as they knew, Titus Eskridge, the head of the private military contractor Cold Harbor, was still out there with a score to settle. So far there hadn't been any strings attached to Alves's hospitality, but Gibson was wary of the benevolence of criminals. However, the problem with not having any options was that it didn't give you an option.

Out on the front steps, Gibson laced up his shoes by the light of a streetlamp. Setting off at an easy jog, he picked up his pace quickly. He couldn't help himself. It had taken months to rebuild his stamina, and it felt good to be able to push himself and for his body to respond. The CIA had held him for eighteen months in a windowless cell. It had taken its toll on his mind as well as his body, and he was only now beginning to feel like his old self.

He charted a winding route through town. Past the traditional white homes capped by orange clay-tile roofs. Thirty years ago, Albufeira had been a sleepy Portuguese fishing town. Legend had it that Paul McCartney had written the lyrics for "Yesterday" while on vacation here in 1965. Even then, it was the perfect place to hide out when the world was looking for you. Gibson could still see the outline of that way of life beneath the garish bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that had built up like plaque on porcelain teeth. As best as Gibson could tell, Portugal and Spain now served as the Florida of Europe. Northern Europeans owned vacation homes here, and each year millions of tourists flocked south to the Algarve region to enjoy their holidays in the sun.

The crush of tourists had made hiding in plain sight that much easier. August was high season, and Albufeira was currently overrun with sunburned visitors from Germany, France, Holland, and the British Isles. The menus were printed in languages other than Portuguese, and everyone who worked in the tourist trade spoke some English. Irish pubs served a traditional breakfast while musicians strummed guitars and sang "Molly Malone." English pubs served pints of Carling and Strongbow and advertised Premiere League matches on curbside chalkboards. The perfect vacation for people who wanted to travel without experiencing all the unpleasantness of experiencing anything new.

Gibson understood the appeal of southern Portugal. He'd spent time at Pendleton and knew that San Diego liked to boast about its perfect weather. It had nothing on southern Portugal. Up until last night's storm, it had rained only once since June. There was hardly ever even a wisp of a cloud in the sky. It was a seductive way of life. After six months, they'd all gotten comfortable here. Maybe too comfortable. Gibson understood that. It had been a difficult few years for all of them. The search for Suzanne Lombard had extracted a heavy price, and for two years they'd all absorbed the repercussions.

They had deserved the rest. Needed it. They were beat up physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Still, Gibson couldn't help but fret. There was a point after which rest turned to rust. Instincts honed over years lost their edge. It was okay to pretend they were civilians for a while, so long as they knew that, in the end, they weren't. They were fugitives. How long could they afford to stick their heads in the sand? They were all but penniless and needed work. They needed a plan for the day when Baltasar Alves decided his debt was paid. But whenever Gibson raised the subject, Jenn shut him down. Somewhere along the line he'd become the nagging killjoy putting a damper on the endless party. He didn't relish the role, but sooner or later the universe would present them with the bill. They would need a way to pay.

Gibson ran on, winding his way through the narrow streets of Old Town. Past shops and stalls that sold all the same trinkets at all the same prices. The approaching dawn warmed the rooftops. Hating to miss the sunrise, he coaxed himself into a sprint. His lungs burned while the quitting part of his brain offered compelling excuses for walking the rest of the way. He did his best to tune out everything but his feet, focusing instead on picking them up and laying them down, as his drill instructor on Parris Island had commanded in the South Carolina heat.

Gibson rounded a bend onto a cobblestone side street. Built in a time before automobiles, it was no wider than an alley, and a row of cars parked tight against a tall brick wall took up nearly half the roadway. Animal masks decorated with plastic jewels and gaudy feathers littered the cobblestones. As if a Mardi Gras parade had passed this way and spontaneously decided to reveal its true face. More likely, one of the nightclubs had thrown a theme night. The street sparkled, and the masks crunched beneath Gibson's feet. He glanced down to avoid stepping on too many of them.

Maybe that was why he didn't see the car lurch out of the parking spot. Gibson heard it and looked up, expecting the car to slow, but instead it leapt forward crazily. It accelerated toward him, hugging the row of cars on one side and the closed shops on the other. With nowhere else to go, Gibson flung himself onto the hood of a parked car. He felt an impact, felt himself spin in the air, bounce off the hood of the car, clatter off the brick wall and back onto the hood. He sat up on the car in a daze. His foot throbbed. He was missing a shoe. His sock was bloody, which didn't bode well for his ankle. He'd skinned his elbow and his forehead hurt. Otherwise, he couldn't complain.

He slid off the car, testing to see if his ankle could take the weight. It hurt, but nothing seemed broken. Had the driver and passenger been wearing Mardi Gras masks too? He'd only caught a glimpse through the windshield, but he remembered an elephant and a rhinoceros, like two themed henchmen working for a zookeeper supervillain. Gibson sighed. After everything he had been through, it would be fitting somehow if he got himself killed by some raver wacked-out on ecstasy. His missing shoe wasn't anywhere in sight. He knelt to look under the parked cars.

"Senhor?" a woman called to him. She had his shoe in one hand, a broom in the other. One of the street cleaners. She looked him up and down with a shake of her head. He crossed over to her.

"Crazy tourists," she said.

Gibson couldn't tell if she meant him or the driver.

"Obrigada," he said.

The woman smiled. He'd already spoken more Portuguese than most tourists to the Algarve bothered to learn. She seemed to appreciate the effort and handed him the shoe.

"Obrigad-o, senhor. Only the ladies say obrigada. You don't look like a lady to me."

"Obrigado," Gibson said sheepishly. He'd learned one word of Portuguese since he'd been here and had been saying it wrong all this time. That was what going soft looked like. Not bothering to learn enough of the local language to hold even a basic conversation. What if the car had hit him? What if the doctor didn't speak English? Of course, if he were taken to a regular hospital and they ran his information, he'd have bigger problems than a language barrier. It would be like shooting off a flare for anyone hunting them to see.

It reinforced how tenuous their position here was. They weren't on vacation and needed to stop acting like it. They'd gotten away with it up until now, but they were one slipup one car accident from being blown. Jenn might not want to hear it, but too bad. She was going to listen. Not thinking about the future didn't stop the future from thinking about you.

It was time.

He winced as he pulled on his shoe, then limped down the hill toward the ocean. After his morning runs, he liked to finish with push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups while the sun came up. He wasn't that hurt, he told himself again. But after a hundred yards, he downgraded his optimism. His ankle could use a day off. And if he were being honest, his shoulder felt a little hinky too. He soldiered on anyway. He could still watch the sunrise.

The small fitness park was deserted at this hour. So, for the most part, was the street that overlooked Fisherman's Beach. In the old days, before being displaced by tourists, this was where the boats had brought in the haul. Down below, Gibson saw signs of last night's storm. The debris line cut a jagged path across the beach, the high-water mark of the storm surge.

His father had spent his childhood summers on the Outer Banks and had always loved the ocean. Sometimes he would take Gibson on long walks along the beach near Pamsrest, Virginia. Duke had liked beachcombing the debris line after storms to see what had been tossed ashore. Said it helped to clear his head. Mostly all they found were shells, seaweed, and broken branches. But every so often they'd stumble across a treasure. Gibson remembered finding a Peruvian license plate half buried in the sand. He'd spent hours studying his father's atlas, imagining its improbable journey around the southern tip of South America to the ledge above his bedroom door. Duke told him that nothing was ever lost forever. That it was the nature of lost things to be found. Just not always when and not always by whom you hoped or expected.

Gibson powered on his phone and looked at the most recent photograph of Ellie. Nicole, his ex-wife, had pleaded with him to stay away. One of Gibson's enemies had burned her house to the ground to send him a message, so as much as Gibson hated it, he accepted the necessity. For now. It helped that Nicole e-mailed him pictures of their daughter now and again. Ellie had apparently given up on soccer and was now a green belt in aikido. The idea of Ellie standing still long enough to learn martial arts brought a huge smile to Gibson's face. He was working up the nerve to ask Nicole for a video. More than a little afraid to push his luck. He scrolled through her pictures from the past few months. His little girl wasn't so little anymore and looked more and more like her mother. Lucky girl.

His phone vibrated. He'd missed a call from Fernando Alves, the only son of Baltasar Alves. What could he possibly want at this hour? Gibson didn't have any interest in finding out. He wanted a quiet breakfast. But when he looked up at the row of restaurants overlooking the beach, he saw Fernando sitting alone on a bench waiting for him. Not that Fernando paid him any mind. Instead, he studied the ocean and sipped a coffee. His legs, stretched out before him, were crossed at the ankle. He sat with the languid confidence of a man aware he was wearing a tuxedo and you weren't. His shirt's top two buttons were undone and might well have begun that way. He was the kind of man who would go to the trouble of putting on a tuxedo and draping an untied bowtie around his neck simply because he liked the look. For Fernando, it was always the end of the evening.

Behind Fernando rose the Hotel Mariana, which he operated on behalf of his father. The hotel had been named for Fernando's mother, who died when he was a boy. It was also his home. He lived in an enormous suite overlooking the Atlantic. Fernando liked to joke that it was his life's ambition to live on room service. As far as Gibson could tell, Fernando had already achieved it.

"What on earth happened to you?" Fernando inquired. Baltasar had sent him away to England for school, first to Eton and then to Cambridge, and his English carried an aristocratic inflection.

"I got hit by a car."

Fernando looked him up and down. "Are you sure? You don't look like someone who was hit by a car."

Nonchalance wasn't recognized as a world religion, but if it were, Fernando would have been its messiah. He never offered any hint about whether he was serious or joking. It made for awkward pauses that Fernando seemed to relish. Gibson was glad he didn't work for him. But they'd gotten to know each other over the last six months, and Gibson could appreciate Fernando's dry sense of humor and the sly smile that played on his face when he thought no one was watching.

"My foot," Gibson said by way of explanation.

Fernando stared at Gibson's bloody sock, one eyebrow arched slightly. "Was it a very small car?"

"I don't remember, but a rhinoceros was driving."

Fernando chewed on the implications of a rhinoceros being involved in an early-morning accident. "Did it have insurance?"

"It didn't stop."

"They are very territorial animals. Perhaps you startled it." Fernando held out a bottle of water beaded with perspiration. "You look thirsty."

Gibson drank it gratefully.

"What are you doing up so early?"

"Late, not early," Fernando corrected. "My father is looking for you. You weren't at home or answering your phone. I told him I knew where to find you."

"It was off. What does he want?" Gibson asked, wary of what their Portuguese benefactor might want at this hour. He'd had an audience with Baltasar Alves when he'd first arrived, but this was the first time Alves had ever wanted to see him. Instinctively, Gibson didn't like it. He didn't like being beholden or coming when called like a dog. It felt like the penny was about to drop.

Fernando shrugged. "As if he would tell me."

While Fernando was in England, Baltasar had decided that his only son would play no part in his criminal concerns. Fernando had told Gibson the story once between dirty martinis, his words gin slurred and eyes like unpaved roads.

He could see the devil in me, Fernando had said with a wink.

The arrangement had worked for a time, but eventually Fernando graduated and returned home, a well-educated, aimless delinquent. He'd kicked around the Algarve for months, getting into trouble and making a nuisance of himself. One night, he'd found himself in a nightclub owned by his father.

A real toilet, Fernando had called it.

Over the course of his career, Baltasar had amassed an array of legitimate businesses and real estate through which to launder his money. The crime boss, however, had no interest in overseeing businesses he considered little more than fronts. As a consequence, they'd been poorly run and left to rot. Fernando had called his father from the nightclub and offered to run it for him. Out of desperation, Baltasar had agreed, hoping it would keep his son out of trouble. The next day, Fernando had fired the entire staff. Within six months, the club had turned its first profit. Now, seven years later, Fernando oversaw his father's entire real-estate portfolio. He had knitted it together into a thriving operation, completely segregated from Baltasar's other interests.

"Come, I'll drive you." Fernando stood and buttoned one button of his tuxedo jacket.

"I can call a cab."

"It's better if I take you. My car's just there."

Ordinarily Fernando would have been happy to accept Gibson's out. "Errand boy" didn't suit his disposition. That he hadn't made Gibson nervous all over again, but he played it off. "Well, you're the best-dressed cabbie in the Algarve."

"Am I?" Fernando asked, looking down at himself with interest. "How do cabbies dress?"

Excerpted from Debris Line by Matthew FitzSimmons with permission of Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2018 by Planetarium Station Inc. All rights reserved.


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