Salvaged by J.S. Marlo

Salvaged by J.S. Marlo

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Salvaged by J.S. Marlo

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As past crimes create new ones, he must decide if he wants to protect Star or protect his heart. More info →
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Chapter One

Upset over the senseless accident that had cost him a diver, Hauk Ludvikson paced the office of Dylan Carr, a master scuba diving instructor at the Ballard Institute.

“Forget it. I’m not hiring some green kid.”

Behind his desk, the instructor leaned back in his chair. “I said young, Hauk, not green.”

Semantics. As he neared the window, Hauk inadvertently kicked a pair of silver fins lying on the floor. They landed with a thud against an open cardboard box filled with technical manuals, nautical charts, and dive logs.

“Dylan, the Model T has been underwater since Ford mass-produced them. It’s too brittle to move, but I still have to gather evidence from it. I need an experienced diver, not some amateur who’ll breathe bubbles on my wreck.”

“Fisher’s a pro.” The intensity of Dylan’s stare contrasted with the casual tone of his voice. “She’s been diving around wrecks for longer than any of your current crewmembers.”

She?” Water would turn to blood before Hauk hired a female diver again.

Looking as smug as a pirate on looting day, Dylan clasped his hands behind his neck. “Yes, and she is the best I can recommend.”

Hauk stopped pacing in front of Dylan’s desk, placed his hands on the dark cherry wood surface, and glared at the instructor. “Who’s your second-best?”

“You know, Hauk, for an intelligent man, you can be unreasonably obstinate.”

In desperate need of a new diver, Hauk ignored the insult–and the smile tugging at Dylan’s lips. “Women have caused me enough grief. I just want a good diver.”

“And Fisher is the best. She’s a topnotch diver, a mechanic, and an investigator.”

To Hauk’s annoyance, the description of Fisher fit his needs. “That’s your only recommendation?”

“Yes. So do yourself a favor and go meet her down in the basement before she leaves. You’ll thank me later.”

* * *

With every muscle in her body aching from the winning fight against the strong current, Star Fisher held her pencil tight to stop her hand from shaking as she logged her last dive entry in her journal.

Trapped in the training tank, she’d escaped the imaginary waterfall looming beyond the wall and resurfaced within the safety parameters. She allowed a satisfied smile to reach her lips. Only two divers in her group of eight had accomplished the feat.

Journal set aside, her gaze skimmed the pool area. At the sight of the burly diver ogling her, her hands clenched into fists. The obnoxious man had been harassing her since her arrival at the Institute, alternating between sexual innuendos and disdainful remarks about the scar on her cheek, which she refused to conceal to please others.

The man reminded her of Ned, her high school prom date. Upon her refusal to follow him into an empty classroom to compensate him for ‘suffering her ugly face’, Ned had abandoned her on the dance floor and left with a flawless brunette. Years later, his words still stung.

“Great job, everyone.” Their instructor picked up an oxygen tank. “Your recertification papers will be mailed to you. Make sure we have your current address on file.”

As Star gathered her gear, the despicable diver walked by her. “You missed your chance, Fisher. You’ll never get a better deal than me.”

A better deal? Being alone is a better deal. Being swarmed by jellyfish is a better deal.

Star swallowed her retort. The jerk wasn’t worth the trouble.

* * *

While stalking the familiar corridors of the Institute, Hauk made a few calls about Fisher. At twenty-two, she’d built a solid reputation in her field and came highly recommended. Intrigued despite himself, he went down to the basement.

A petite woman with wavy blonde hair shoved the contents of a locker into a red duffel bag.

She paused and lifted dark brown eyes at him. “Yes?”

A large scar closely resembling a star marred her otherwise lovely features. He found it refreshing that unlike the women he’d befriended in the past–and made the mistake of dating–she chose not to cover up the imperfection.

She tightened her jaw, and her brows knit together over the ridge of a cute nose. “In case you don’t know, this is a restricted area.”

“Star Fisher?”

“And you are?”

Taken aback by the sharp reply, he leaned one shoulder against the wall and studied the feisty woman.

“Hauk Ludvikson. I talked to Dylan. He told me you investigate wrecks for a living.”

Her gaze narrowed down to two glittering slits as she returned the scrutiny. “I mostly investigate vehicles that are dumped in lakes and rivers for insurance scams.”

Sweeping his right hand through the air, he urged her to elaborate.

“That’s it.” She turned away from him and resumed her packing in silence.

Low-cut jeans hugged her hips, and a black midriff shirt exposed a slender waist. His imagination ran away from him, and he pictured a pirate flag with a skull and crossbones tattooed on her lower back.

With the wild image in mind, he approached and gripped the open locker door. “Not fond of details, are you?”

Her muscular shoulders rose and fell in a shrug of indifference.

“Do you extract the vehicle, or do you inspect it under water?” he prodded.

Blonde waves danced around her neck as she shook her head. “Why the interest?”

From the top shelf, she pulled out a dive hood that she shoved in the side pocket of her bag.

“I run a salvage operation, and I’m looking to hire a new diver.”

She zipped the pocket then turned to meet his gaze.

“Ludvickson…” Her nose twitched as she seemed to ponder a reply. “In most cases, the water is too deep or the vehicle too far from the shore to justify the cost of retrieval, so I inspect it underwater.” A lock of hair dangled in front of her eyes, and she tucked it behind her ear. “Once in a blue moon, the damages match the story given by the owner, but usually the accident is staged.”

Faced with an empty locker, he let go of the door. “Doesn’t the owner dispute your findings?”

A smile curved her lips. “They can argue or bribe as much as they want. It won’t change the facts.”

Spirited and confident–qualities he sought in a diver. “I have a job for you.”

“I already have a job.” A muscle contracted above her scar when she slung the bag over her shoulder. “Good day, Ludvikson.”

She’d dismissed him as quickly as he’d earlier dismissed the idea of employing a woman. The poetic justice left a sour taste in his mouth.

“Give it some consideration, Fisher,” he called after her. “I’ll be in the back parking lot if you change your mind.”

* * *

After gathering her personal effects from the room she’d occupied at the Institute during her certification, and stopping by Dylan’s office, Star exited the building by the back entrance.

In the parking lot adjacent to the loading zone, Ludvikson sat on the hood of a gray Jeep Patriot, his gaze focused in her direction. The sun accentuated the reddish highlights in his tousled blond hair while the shadow of a beard underlined his roguish appearance.

Foolish butterflies fluttered in the pit of her stomach as she steadily approached him.

“Fisher.” He slid down the hood and dug his hands into his jeans pockets. “Have you reconsidered my offer?”

“No, but I talked to Dylan.” The master instructor had fed her an interesting underwater tale, unleashing her curiosity. “He told me it was safer to accept a ride from you than to take a cab.”

Sparkles shimmered in his steel-blue eyes, softening his prominent Scandinavian features. He appeared younger than he’d looked in the confines of the Institute. Late twenties or early thirties, though her ability to correctly guess people’s ages left something to be desired.

“Is that so?” He unlocked the cargo hatch of the Jeep and loaded her duffel bag and diving gear. “And where am I supposed to drop you off?”

“Bus station.”

She climbed onto the passenger seat while Ludvikson eased behind the wheel.

“Fell free to fill me in about the job. I’m intrigued.”

“Really?” A smile embedded a cute dimple in his left cheek. “I should charge you a fare.”

“I promise to leave you a tip–if I get to the bus station alive.”

The man intrigued her almost as much as his proposition. As he backed out of the parking lot, chuckling, he turned the steering wheel and grazed her arm with his elbow. Shivers coursed under her skin, stirring a yearning she usually managed to ignore.

“I’ll bite, Fisher. What else did Dylan say?”

Amusement spiked his words, and to her relief, he seemed impervious to the foolish reaction he’d triggered.

“He mentioned a Tin Lizzy.” She’d never had the chance to see a Model T under water. No doubt it’d surpass the oldest wreckage she’d ever investigated. A 1972 Beetle.

“A month ago, a geological team surveying Henstridge Lake discovered a Model T rusting at the bottom, a mile from the closest shoreline.” He smoothly merged into the traffic. “I need to figure out how and why it ended up there.”

“Have you considered a winter joyride gone awry? It wouldn’t be the first time a car falls through the ice of a frozen lake.” Throughout her career, she’d investigated many similar claims.

Cocking his head, he glanced at her. “Sensible explanation but impossible in July.”

Baffled by the assumption that the car had sunk during the summer, she stared at his profile. “What makes you think it was dumped in July?”

“In July 1912, the car–and the wife–of a rich banker disappeared near Henstridge Lake, and neither were ever found.”

Many cars could have ended up in the lake over the course of a century. Skeptical over his theory, she kept a blank expression. “And you think the Tin Lizzy is that missing car?”

“At the time, the banker was one of a handful of people in the area who owned a Model T. I can’t dismiss the possibility.”

A dubious smile snuck past her guard. “Have fun solving that mystery.”

“My offer still stands, Fisher. I lost one of my divers and Dylan told me you were the best one on the market.”

“I’m flattered, but unfortunately I can’t squeeze in a case of that magnitude.” The tempting offer conflicted with her current work schedule. “I’m too swamped right now.”

“But according to your secretary, you’re between cases.”

What secretary? Money was too tight to hire a secretary.

“I’m not sure who you talked to, but you were given the wrong information. June is one of my busiest months of the year.”

She had loose ends to tie up, lots of paperwork to finish, and since she’d left for her three-day recertification course at the Ballard Institute, four new cases had landed on her desk.

“I talked to someone named…” Hauk lifted one hand from the steering wheel to scratch his head. “Jimmy Fisher. Your uncle, I believe. He said you could afford a change of scenery.”

“Uncle Jimmy?”

That should have been the first name to pop into her mind. Jimmy was her mentor, her friend, and the only family she’d ever had. Together, they’d been running investigations since she was twelve years old. Everything she’d learned, she’d learned from him, and as much as she hated to admit it, setting her up was something Jimmy would do.

“You won’t mind if I call Jimmy, will you?”

“Of course not.” His overconfidence irked her.

Once she retrieved the phone tucked into the back pocket of her jeans, she dialed home. On the second ring, Jimmy answered.

“Hello, Jimmy.”

“Hello, squirt.” No one but Jimmy got away with calling her squirt. “Did you get an offer from Captain Ludvikson by any chance?”

News travels fast. “I haven’t accepted the captain’s offer yet.” Titles had never impressed her much.

“Why not?” His voice rose, a sign that he was either excited or annoyed. In this case, she guessed both. “Listen to your old man, squirt. You can’t let the chance of examining a century old relic slip by. Such an opportunity may never arise again.”

“What about those four new cases we just landed?”

Since his accident, Jimmy had been unable to dive. Without her, he wouldn’t be able to make the initial assessments, let alone start the investigations.

“I reviewed the claims. We may have to turn one down, but the other three can wait until your return.”

The money she’d make accepting Ludvikson’s offer would undoubtedly compensate for the case they might have to drop. “It may take weeks, Jimmy. Are you sure you’ll be fine without me?”

Deep laughter reverberated through her handset. “Yes, I’m sure. You enjoy the experience and try not to give your new captain too much trouble.”

Trouble? Me? Jimmy knew her too well. “I’ll try. Love you.”

“Love you too, squirt.”

She hung up. “You got yourself a new diver, Ludvikson.”

* * *

As Hauk drove through a forest on a winding dirt road, hitting bumps and collecting dust, the scenery reminded Star of home. On her side of the road, a yellow sign indicated a sharp curve ahead. He slowed before negotiating the next bend, and then the forest released the Jeep from its grip.

She sucked in a breath.

A basin of shimmering, blue water nestled between gentle hills opened in front of her. And on the opposite shore, colorful cottages and boathouses blended with the landscape. He parked the Jeep near the public boat launch on a patch of gravel between a green SUV and a battered red sedan.

A white research trawler was anchored in the middle of the peaceful lake. She ogled it with envy. “Yours?”

“Yep.” There was no mistaking the pride in his voice or the joy on his face.

The trawler beat the rusty, raggedy boat she’d boarded last. That the old tin can managed to float had defied the laws of physic. “Nice boat, Ludvikson.”

“No argument here.” He transferred her belongings into a Zodiac tied to a log at the edge of the forest. “Hop in.”

The lightweight, inflatable craft bounced over the water and the wind played in her hair. Star relished both sensations equally. The short ride ended when he docked alongside his trawler near a second, smaller Zodiac. He carried her diving gear onboard. Her duffel bag slung over her shoulder, she climbed the ladder behind him.

“Listen up, everyone. This is Star Fisher. She’s replacing Macey.” Feet planted apart on deck, Hauk indicated a tall, bulky, black man seated at the helm. “This is Arnie.”

The helmsman removed his dark blue baseball cap and waved.

“Arnie also doubles as the best cook this side of the Atlantic.” Hauk took a step toward the open door of the cabin. “Scott! Come out here for a sec!”

A boyish face sprinkled with pimples and framed by a mass of unruly black hair peeked around the doorframe and looked at Hauk with slanted eyes. “Yes, boss?”

With a name like Scott, Star hadn’t expected to meet a teenager of Asian descent, though she suspected he might be older than he looked.

“Scott is our house scientist and research expert.”

A courteous nod was all she received from Scott before Hauk drew her attention to the stern of the trawler.

“And peeling off his wetsuit is Kyle.”

Cold, dark eyes scraped over her like sandpaper. “Does she know how to swim?”

Inflamed by the stocky diver’s scornful attitude, Star’s temper flared. “Why? You need lessons?”

About the same age as Hauk, Kyle walked toward her with his broad tanned chest puffed out. “This isn’t diving school, kid. I’m–”

“Kyle, did you set the underwater lights?”

Hauk’s voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Yeah, boss.” His gaze turned toward their captain. “Every four feet around the perimeter. She’s a beauty.”

“Perfect. Fisher and I will have a look.” Hauk unceremoniously dropped her gear at her feet. “Get ready.”

* * *

The artificial illumination gave the underwater site an eerie appearance, like a sleeping lighthouse on a misty morning. Happy with the setup, Hauk mentally commended Kyle’s groundwork.

Aquatic creatures, attracted by the light, cast shadows over the wreck. The Model T stood on its four wheels, sunk into the soft sand, a ghostly reminder of a past era.

That it had landed perfectly after dropping fifty-five feet was a coincidence, but it made their inspection easier. The metal was corroded and the wood rotten. Strangely, the glass of one headlight had remained intact. The leather roof was long decomposed, and its rusted frame trailed behind the car like a broken skeleton.

Hauk hovered above Fisher, studying her as much as the car. With slow and deliberate movements, she examined the hull from every direction and snapped pictures.

As she swam closer to the wreck, she prolonged the length and decreased the intensity of her flutter kick. The cautious maneuvers minimized the water and sand disturbance.

Pleased by the attention she displayed to small details, something young or inexperienced divers too often ignored, Hauk silently thanked Dylan for his choice.

From the lakebed, she picked up a handful of sand and let the grains slip between her gloved fingers. The significance of her gesture escaped him, and he wished he could read the expression behind her mask. He would await her contribution to their evening brainstorming session with anticipation.

* * *

Star hadn’t realized how closely Hauk had watched her underwater until he asked why she’d scooped sand from the bottom.

Seated across from him at the rectangular table occupying part of the main cabin, she rubbed the tips of her fingers with her thumb in recollection. “I needed to feel the texture of the grains to estimate how deep fragments could seep under the sand.”

His left eyebrow rose. “And? Your estimate?”

A thick layer of fine sand covered the lakebed. “Three to five inches.”

Hauk nodded before inviting Scott to unveil his latest findings.

“I downloaded the technical specifications of the Model T.” The research expert laid detailed pictures of what the antique car would have looked like between 1909 and 1925 on the table. “You’ll notice that Ford constantly redesigned the skeleton of its Model T. Compared to the pictures taken by Kyle and Star, I’d say we’re looking at a 1910 or 1911 Touring.”

Each of them took turns examining the evidence. And like the others, Star agreed with Scott’s assessment.

“What year was that banker’s car again?”

Hauk rubbed his bristled chin. “1911. So far, it fits.”

Tuning out the conversation the men shared about the subtle differences between the 1911 and 1912 models, Star squinted at a photo depicting the front axle. She wished for a better angle, one with her point of interest not obscured by the shadows created by the underwater lamps.

“Something wrong, Fisher?”

Startled by Hauk’s question, she blinked. “Not sure. I think I see a bolt. If you have no objection, I’d like to make another dive.”

“Tonight?”

No, this morning. Unsure of her captain’s reaction, she bit off her witty remark. “Yes.”

“I could dive with her, Skipper.” Unlike Kyle and Scott, who used the term boss, Arnie favored Skipper. And the skipper didn’t object.

As she geared up alone on deck with Arnie, she learned he used to make daily dives in his younger years. In many ways, the helmsman reminded her of Uncle Jimmy.

She dove first, quickly followed by Arnie who adopted a stationary position near the lampposts.

Experience–and Uncle Jimmy’s constant reminders–had taught her not to hurry and to document every step. With a brush she pulled from her belt, she carefully swept the indentation on the front axle, exposing a corroded bolt.

Satisfaction rushed through her. She’d guessed right, and to her knowledge, the bolt served only one purpose. Her attention returned to the sandy bottom. Unless the plate had snapped when the car plunged into the lake, it shouldn’t be buried too far or too deep.

* * *

Hauk left the cabin and stepped onto the twelve-foot deck. According to his watch, Arnie and Fisher had been down less than ten minutes.

The oxygen tanks lined up against the storage bin beckoned to him. He grabbed the closest one and peered at the gauge. Seventeen hundred pounds. Enough air for a short dive. Wanting to witness what had prompted Fisher’s request, he geared up and dove in.

The wetsuit didn’t completely insulate his skin from the colder water he encountered fifty feet below. With darkness surrounding him, he trusted the guide rope to lead him to the site as he continued his descent. Minutes later, through the shadowy waters, Hauk spotted his two divers. Arnie floated above a lamppost while Fisher knelt on the lakebed in front of the wreck.

An object was in Fisher’s hand. He swam toward her to get a better view. The mysterious object disappeared into her bag and she glided away from him before he had a chance to satisfy his curiosity. A few flutter kicks behind her, Hauk stretched out his arm with the intent of tapping her shoulder.

Her hand swiftly swept across her belt, and a glint of light from the lampposts reflected off her glove. She spun around. Eyes glazed with fear, she swung her arm. Sharp reflexes allowed Hauk to deflect the blow, but that didn’t prevent her other hand from sneaking past his defenses. He inhaled sharply.

A silver blade, shining in the light, pushed against his hose, ready to sever his air supply with the flick of her wrist.

* * *

Rattled from the close encounter, Hauk climbed on board behind Star.

“Were you out of your mind?” Yelling felt good, it felt alive, and Hauk didn’t care if boaters at the other end of the lake heard him.

Star briskly turned around. The fury in her eyes scorched him. “Did you have a death wish?”

Angry with her, he brandished the air hose in his hands. The groove made by the blade glared at him. “You drew a knife!”

“You frightened me.”

“Frightened?” He frightened her? She panicked, and she nearly killed him. “Dammit, Fisher. You were down there with Arnie. What danger did you think you faced?”

A shadow he didn’t recognize crossed her face as she chewed on her lower lip.

“I’m…” Her voice quavered. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it.” Exasperated by her careless stunt, he tossed his mask onto the deck. “I should fire you.”

“I found the license plate.” She extricated a rusted plate from her bag and handed it to him. “And no need to fire me. I quit.”

Her duffel bag had remained on deck near the bench where she’d dropped it when she’d boarded. She grabbed it and stomped down the ladder onto one of the Zodiacs.

Knowing better than to argue in the heat of the moment, Hauk didn’t stop her. Later, he’d deal with her. Scott and Kyle, who stood near the cabin door, gathered around him to look at the rectangular sheet of corroded metal he held in his hand.

“Some indentations are still visible, boss. I may be able–”

“In the cabin, Scott.” Hauk preferred to discuss the restoration inside where he could place the license plate on the table.

In the cabin, images of a glistening blade flashed in Hauk’s mind as Scott displayed the instruments and tools he favored for the restoration procedure.

An hour later, Hauk emerged from the cabin. In a calmer mood, he scanned the deck. “Where is she?”

“She wasn’t aware of your presence, Skipper.” Seated at the helm where he usually spent the night, Arnie stirred in his armchair. “You didn’t give her any warning when you approached.”

“I thought she saw me.” Hauk recalled the wild fear in her eyes from behind her mask. “I was wrong.”

“She’s in the small Zodiac. I told her I’d take her to shore in the morning. Gonna ask her to stay?”

Good question. She belonged in college, not on his boat fighting imaginary intruders fifty feet under. The warm evening breeze brushed his bare chest but didn’t appease the tumultuous frenzy raging inside.

“I don’t know, Arnie.”

As he debated her fate, Hauk descended the ladder, but halfway down, he stopped and sat on a rung. His bare feet dangled inches from the rubber craft in which she lay with a blanket covering her lower body.

For a chilling instant, he’d been at her complete mercy, as vulnerable and powerless as a newborn child. Her survival instinct had triumphed over his sheer strength. Within the blink of an eye, his life, his entire future had rested solely in the hands of a petite and beautiful woman, and he didn’t like the feeling one iota.

“Do you also want me out of the Zodiac?”

The melodious modulation of her voice enthralled him. “Are you always that impetuous, Fisher?”

“One of my most endearing qualities.” She moved and pushed her back against the side, facing him. “Don’t worry. I’ll be off your boat before you discover the other dreadful ones.”

It irritated him to admit he was wrong and that he needed her. “I’d like you to stay.”

Her eyes widened like a petrified doe caught in the headlights of a truck. “I almost killed you. I can’t stay.”

Her voice held no rancor, only a hint of sadness. He joined her in the inflatable craft.

“I should have known better than to sneak up on you.”

“Undoubtedly not your finest moment,” she muttered under her breath.

Mere inches separated them. A small gap, but as deep as the abyss. He had to strain his ear to catch her remark.

“Why did you draw a knife? Did you panic?”

“I don’t panic, Ludvikson. I react.”

The difference eluded him. “Would you mind explaining your… reaction?”

She draped the blanket over her shoulders and stilled. A heavy silence settled between them, a silent he was afraid she might not break, until she stirred.

“Two years ago, Jimmy and I investigated a river dump. We didn’t know about the drugs stashed in the trunk until we were ambushed underwater. I didn’t react fast enough. Jimmy was stabbed and never completely recovered. I’ve been diving alone ever since, and I’ve learned to be leery of intruders. Very leery.”

No wonder his unexpected appearance had set off a defensive response. He was lucky she didn’t kill him. “How about you? Were you injured?”

Her arms hugged her knees. “Yes.”

Resisting the temptation to move closer, he waited. When she didn’t volunteer any more details, he chose not to pry.

“For what it’s worth, Fisher, you make a formidable opponent.” He appreciated her frank answer. “The license plate is a partial match to the banker’s car.”

“How partial?”

“Three numbers correspond. The other two are indistinguishable.” Glad he’d somewhat rekindled her interest, he carefully chose his words. “If we figure out how or why the banker’s car ended up here, we may find out what happened to his wife.”

“You realize his wife is long dead by now, don’t you?”

He chuckled. “Yes, but I love to solve mysteries. Every wreck has a story, and someone has to tell it.”

“You write about them?” The higher pitch in her voice conveyed her surprise.

“Yes, I do.”

She dropped her chin onto her knees. “I suppose I do the same when I investigate an insurance scam.”

Similar indeed. “We both search for the truth.”

A short nod loosened a blonde curl from behind her ear. “While I looked for the plate, I noticed a suspicious gash in the front tire.”

Her readiness to share her observations pleased him. “Does that mean you’re staying?”

Her bashful smile stirred a longing he thought he’d learned to control years ago.

“Yes, but beware, I’m an early riser. I like to make a dive before breakfast.” Wrapped in the blanket, she reverted to her previous position at the bottom of the Zodiac.

An early riser himself, he could live with that condition. “Any other special considerations?”

Her gaze washed over him. “Could you turn off the lights around the boat so I can sleep?”

Amused, he suppressed a grin. They both knew even if he wanted, he couldn’t turn off all the lights without creating a collision hazard. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable on a cot in the cabin?”

“No, not unless it’s raining. Good night, Ludvikson.”

“Good night, Star.”

Salvaged by J.S. Marlo
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