Richard Percoco. One of my favorite people ever! He was simply a no-nonsense type who got in and got the job done, no matter what.
Of course, he didn’t make quite the same impression on Cass the first time they met. In fact, I think their relationship started off on a very rocky note.
Not that it wasn’t funny, later. It was. And it sort of set the tone for their entire relationship!
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CusslerNautics CEO Jillian Marie was annoyed. When she got annoyed, people lost their jobs, but this time she wasn’t going to be able to do that. Normally, she’d be back in her office, and the target of her ire would be some hapless assistant, or maybe a VP, who came in with the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This wasn’t normal, though, and instead of being in her office at the company headquarters, she was in a rented property in Mobile, Alabama, in the damn New Confederacy.
Of course, that was because she’d been told by the owners of the company that she would be taking the next contract, no question, no discussion. It helped that it was the single largest contract that CusslerNautics had ever received, let alone bid on, and would allow her to retire comfortably if she wanted.
With the headaches the job was bringing, she might.
The latest headache came down this morning.
“What do you mean, the seals are bad?”
Standing before her, looking unhappy but determined, was Richard ‘Dogfish’ Percoco, the lead underwater technician. Dogfish was in his late forties, strongly muscled, with close-cropped greying hair and a permanent case of five o’clock shadow. He’d been working wrecks since he was seventeen, and knew that he’d be walking out of the meeting with a job, one way or another. If Marie was stupid enough to fire him, he’d have a dozen offers before he hit shore.
“The seals between the wrecks and the surface pipes aren’t holding the pressure. When we try to force the SurFoam into the hulls, it just spews out the joint and floats topside.”
After a fulminating moment, Jillian said, “Dammit. Nobody noticed problems before we started pumping?”
Dogfish shook his head. “Nope. Visibility down there sucks.” He didn’t say anything else; years of dealing with the CEO had taught him not to volunteer anything.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” snapped Jillian.
“I’m going down to the site in a half hour to oversee the operation. We need to detach the pipes so we can check them out. I’ll let you know what we find.” With that, and without waiting for Jillian’s consent, he turned and walked away.
Behind him, Jillian stared at the empty spot with impotent anger.
Mobile Bay wasn’t particularly deep, even by the standards of moderate-sized lakes, and almost all of the work was being done with minimal equipment – wet suits and tanks filled with Nitrox. A swarm of ROVs hovered, working areas deemed too hazardous for divers. Flitting around were a number of submersibles, usually under the direction of supervisors, and guiding teams of divers. There were even a few hard suits connected to the surface ships with long air tubes for extended duration operations.
The Bay’s lack of depth had disadvantages, as well. Turbulence on the surface was easily transmitted below, and the accumulated silt was fine and easily disturbed. Given that they had just come through hurricane season, and were now into the winter, turbulence was constant, which meant that visibility was just about zero. Low visibility meant more accidents, and so far thirteen divers had been hurt badly enough to need hospitalization.
Dogfish had made his way to the lead salvage vessel, the MV Neily Campbell, and was checking in with his crew.
“How are we doing?” Dogfish asked the diver who had just been recovered. Nadine “Not Me” You paused in removing her suit to answer.
“It’s a bitch. Current’s kicked up the silt something awful. Gilligan –” Gillian Thomas, Nadine’s usual dive buddy – “Nearly twisted her arm on the coupling. She grabbed the wrong side because she couldn’t see what she was doing.”
“Can we keep working today? The boss really has her panties in a twist about this.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s just Gilligan being Gilligan.” Nadine walked off to finish dealing with her gear as the recovery continued.
“Menace!” Dogfish called up to the bridge of the vessel.
Mercedes ‘Menace’ Johnson poked her head out. She was the topside manager for the dive; she used to have Dogfish’s position before suffering a serious case of the bends, which kept her on the surface. “What’s up, Dog?”
“How many divers do we have down working on this hull?”
“Two pairs – Double T and Art, and Hard Luck and Salty.” Tarek Tharwat and Artemis Isakson had been working together at one outfit or another for the past fifteen years; if there was a situation or circumstance underwater that they hadn’t dealt with, it hadn’t happened. Ever. Morgan Kelley and Salpi Vartivarian, on the other hand, were as green as could be, having just qualified during the forced down time of hurricane season. Dogfish nodded his approval; Double T and Art would keep the youngsters out of trouble. Before he could pursue the line of thought any further, the overhead PA went off.
“We’ve got incoming!” reported Jolann ‘Eyesight’ Marzan from the radar shack. “Coming straight for us!”
“Goddammit,” cursed Dogfish, heading for the shack. “This area’s supposed to be off-limits!” It was only a few steps and he dove through the hatchway.
“How soon? What is it?”
“At their speed? Two minutes.” Eyesight peered at the screens around him. “Whatever it is, it just dropped into range, already way inside our perimeter.”
“What do you mean, dropped in?”
“I mean dropped in. Like from orbit – whoa!”
“Whatever it is, it just decelerated hard! Whatever it is, it ain’t natural!”
Dogfish had already grabbed the microphone. “All ships prepare for impact! We have an unknown inbound, ETA sixty seconds! Anyone who’s in the water, keep ‘em there, everyone else, get under cover!”
The next minute was a mad scramble as half-suited divers flopped toward shelter and supervisors frantically tried to communicate with divers.
“Where is it?”
“Closing – one kilometer!”
“Coming from the northeast!”
Dogfish grabbed a pair of binoculars and searched. There!
The whatever-it-was was coming straight towards the Campbell. All he could see was a slightly rounded gleaming trapezoid, with stubby wings extended to either side, skimming along only a few meters above the water. The wake from its passage kicked water high into the air.
“I see that!” It was close enough now that it filled the binoculars’ field of vision, so he put them aside. Yes, it was definitely slowing, the spray diminishing and dropping back into the Bay. It seemed to be heading slightly to port, so he headed forward to keep it in view. As he came around the superstructure, he began to see the shape more clearly.
It reflected brilliantly in the January sunlight. He could see the shape more clearly now; the front was plainly rounded, with a large window wrapping around the top third. The body spread slightly into the trapezoidal shape he had seen as his eyes made their way along. There was little to give him a sense of scale, until he spotted a hatch in the side, then the entire thing snapped into perspective. It was probably thirty meters long and five high. Delta wings protruded about twenty meters back.
As if it noticed him, the craft veered slightly towards the Campbell.
“Dogfish, they’re asking to come alongside!” called Menace.
“They couldn’t let us know they were coming first?” he muttered. Louder, he said, “Let ‘em come! And tell everyone to stand down.”
The craft slowed further as it approached. For all the flash of the initial approach, he could admire the skill with which the pilot maneuvered closer to the Campbell. When it was about five meters away, the hatchway opened, and a figure appeared, waving.
“They want us to throw them a line,” Menace said.
Dogfish looked around and found a dockline, which he lifted, twirled about his head, and tossed at the hatchway. The figure caught it easily and seemed to tie it off within the craft, so Dogfish started hauling in slack. Once the line grew taut the craft drew in surprisingly easily until it was only a meter or so from the rails, the nose of the craft pointed to the tail of the Campbell, and the wing just about nestling the bow.
“Permission to board?” Dogfish could see that it was a woman in a simple blouse and slacks, with long red hair, in the entry.
“What the hell,” he said, extending a hand.
“Thanks, I’ve got this,” she said, and jumped lightly to the deck. “I’m aboard,” she said, seemingly to herself. “Release the line, then head for shore. I’ll let you know when to come back.”
The line dropped out of the hatch. Another figure, in a blue outfit, gave a quick wave before the door closed and the craft backed away. When it was clear, it lifted vertically and then sped swiftly away.
The redhead looked around. “I’m looking for the salvage lead.”
“You found him. Who the hell are you?”
“You’re Richard Percoco?”
“Answer my question first.”
“Okay, that’s a name, but you really didn’t answer my question.”
“An answer for an answer.”
Dogfish rolled his eyes before responding. “Yes, I’m Richard Percoco. Okay, Ms. Cassidy, who are you and why shouldn’t I just throw you into the Bay?”
“That’s two questions.” She waited just long enough to see him start to react, then said, “But I’ll answer them both. I’m the owner of CusslerNautics, and I’ve come to see if I can help you with your little seal problem. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get to work.”