12th Man For Death
“She’s flying,” Catherine Voss screamed into her headset. “Twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five knots, Mike, thirty-eight incredible and wonderful knots. She’s flying!”
“I see you, incredible,” Mike Stroud yelled back into his microphone as he stood on the bridge of the chase boat, binoculars up and alert. “Watch the wind shift off the beach, watch it.”
“I’m watching, the hard wing looks good, real good, but she’s a beast in this wind.”
The thirty-six foot trimaran rode high on its thin hydrofoils mounted under each of the outboard hulls; these blades angled in like knives as they cut the heart from the waves. With each burst of wind, the boat’s speed increased; she rose higher and higher on the blades until she seemed to skate on nothing but the thin runners constructed of hard carbon fibers. Catherine, snug in the boat’s cockpit, flicked the control stick. Every servomotor on the sailboat responded. Lines came in taut in milliseconds, tightening the sail’s grasp of the wind. Other lines eased out. Every second, a hundred adjustments were made to the sails, the rudder and the angle of the hydroplane’s runners. She toggled the stick to the left, the boat corrected for the offshore wind’s kick, she eased it right, it corrected again. The Cheetah responded like the wild cat the trimaran was named for.
“The program is just right, magnifique, superb. God damn it, Mike, I’m flying. You can sail this boat single-handed.”
The hydrofoil raced across the San Francisco waterfront, tourists on the piers pointed at the strange craft, hundreds took snapshots. The setting was perfect with Alcatraz floating in the background. Catherine shaped her course into a large arc that would bring her near the Golden Gate Bridge. Even from two miles away, Catherine could see the fog boiling over the deck of the bridge. She increased her speed.
“Forty-one knots, Mike. Forty-one,” Catherine said calmly as she stroked the glass smooth hull of her pet. “She’s wonderful, Mike. Wonderful.”
“Watch the fog, it’s starting to lower!” Mike answered.
“I’m watching, damn,” Voss said as she carved a broad arcing U-turn across the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, “It’s dropping fast.”
Catherine Voss had practiced well that late afternoon. Running a thirty-six foot trimaran is not easy on the best of days, they usually had a crew of at least five, but single-handed sailing tested her on everything she had learned during her fifteen years on the water. The boat performed well; she had designed it. She knew it would. Her prototype, unique and innovative, cost two hundred thousand euros, but it was hers and she knew it would make millions when produced in quantity. She designed it to be sailed by one person, one very insane pilot with an unquenchable passion for speed. The boat might perform better with three people as backup and to help balance the weight. But today she drove the Cheetah alone, it was her baby.
She knew the growing mania for the next America’s Cup, taking place on these same San Francisco Bay waters, would create hundreds, if not thousands, of buyers. The new boats designs for the upcoming America’s Cup were different; they were catamarans with two gigantic hulls built for speed and agility. They could also explode into the most spectacular slow motion disasters imaginable, one pontoon would slowly rise out of the ocean, tip over on itself like it was flipped by Poseidon himself, throwing crew and rigging into the sea like a dog shakes fleas. Catherine’s boat was half the length of the contending AC-72s, yet still held thirty-six feet of sinewy muscle, speed, technology, servomotors, and cold wave slicing terror.
The radical finish on its carbon fiber hull sloughed off the cold San Francisco Bay water better than the warmer water of the Mediterranean. She was amazed by what a few degrees colder made to the trimaran’s ability to pull speed from its hulls. The bay’s 56-degree water was perfect for her pet.
For three hard hours she had practiced, ignoring the warnings from her support crew about the fog. Cell phones, telemetry, phone, GPS and a dozen other dials and lights told her and her crew everything they needed to know. Mike said there was more data flying back and forth than the first moon landing. The new lithium batteries still held reserve power. Catherine wanted to test everything without the incessant blinking of lights and metrics; she let him know it. Mike said, “No! Not on your life.”
She wanted to feel the boat through her ass and her hands. Now her ass was sore and her callused hands, raw. The exhilaration was indescribable. But the fog was winning; the soup became incredibly thick; she suddenly lost sight of the trimaran’s bow not thirty feet away. It appeared and then disappeared. The last time she had looked north, Angel Island stretched across the deck of the Bay, its flanks hidden in the fog. Now she saw nothing.
“I’m about a quarter mile west of Alcatraz,” she said to Stroud, her crew chief and lead tech, the cell signal was surprisingly strong.
“Roger that, we lost you about twenty minutes ago. Jesus, when that stuff drops, everything is gone. You okay?” he asked.
“I’m good Mike, she performs great. I shut her down to wait for you. And that finish does make her faster, not sure why yet but this cold water makes a difference.”
“Thought it would,” Mike answered. “You stay put and the tow boat will find you.”
“Where the hell do you think I’m going?”
“Just sit tight, eat something. We’ll be right there.”
She aimlessly drifted. The hard sail, with its fixed radical wing shaped design, dumped the light breeze that carried the fog. There was no need to make it harder for her boys to find her and no reason to crash into the rocks of Alcatraz Island. The boat had so little steel in its construction that its radar return was minimal, lost in the clutter of the bounce from the islands and the mainland. The deep gut-turning foghorn on the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge gave her intermittent comfort and helped her find her bearing. Drifting on the incoming tide, between the blasts from the Gate, she listened for the soft scratching sound of waves on the rocks of Alcatraz.
Catherine Voss chewed on an energy bar. She had been becalmed before. The first time, in a dense fog like this, she was twelve. Alone, off the huge jetty of her home in Marseille, she had cried from fear, the fear of never seeing her family again, especially her twin brother. But an old man and his fishing boat found her and towed her in; her brother was the first to grab her and hold onto her tight. They both cried. Catherine still went sailing the next morning. She loved the sea as much as her twin, Jean-François. The foghorn snapped her out her thoughts; she heard an engine.
“Finally,” she said out loud to the sound of the approaching launch. She ran down the evening’s schedule: a brief interview with that reporter from LA, dinner at Boulevards with the crew, then a long and luscious evening with Bobo. The black launch eased itself up to the port hull, scraping the gunnel of the sailboat.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” she yelled as two lines were silently thrown from the launch. Their loops expertly snagged cleats and secured the hydrofoil to the side of the launch.
Stunned, Voss just watched, not believing what was happening. Without warning, two men, dressed in black wetsuits, expertly pitched themselves over the launch’s railing and landed on the port pontoon of the Cheetah. Each carried a machine pistol and both were pointed at her head.
The next morning the fog still hung low over the Bay, so low that the waves tickled the fog’s belly. The upper structures of the old federal island prison, Alcatraz, now a tourist trap, were visible and floated like an ethereal, yet surreal, castle atop the thick grey goop pushed through the Golden Gate. Fog is a death shroud that, for ten thousand years, has given sailors the willies. Was that surf they heard, or the waves on rocks, or the wave carving bow of a container ship? In thick fog, everyone believes in God.
The thirty-six-foot trimaran no longer drifted in the soup; its rigging clanged schizophrenically against the carbon fiber mast, beating out a weird rhythm. Its main red hull and one pontoon were caught on the coarse chunk of reef that extended westward from Alcatraz. It was called Little Alcatraz; but to every San Francisco Bay sailor it was a chunk of rock that would gut your hull as soon as show its face at low tide. The trimaran was now a prisoner of the ‘Rock’. The receding tide left it anchored among the sharp barnacle-covered boulders that were gnawing through the brilliant red finish of its starboard hull. A night’s work of chewing had left a gaping hole and now water sloshed in its forward compartment, the port pontoon had settled into the cold water of the Bay about three feet, wedging itself and the boat tighter in the reef’s grip.
A tourist from Detroit, on a two-week RV trip, had just arrived on the first Alcatraz tour boat with his wife; he was the first to see the boat on the rocks. He waved at the park ranger, signaling her to look where he pointed.
“It was there, officer, there, thought I saw something.”
“A boat or something; it’s stuck on the rocks.”
“Fog’s too thick, you sure?”
“Pretty sure, it was there,” he said again, pointing.
“Harold, please leave the officer alone, she has other things to do,” Mrs. Harold RV said.
The fog opened and even Mrs. RV could see the trimaran hung on the rocks.
“My lord, it is a boat,” Mrs. RV said.
The park ranger was already talking into her microphone when the hole in the fog closed.
The Coast Guard cutter rounded the island in less than twenty minutes; they had been out most of the night in the thick fog looking for Catherine Voss. The cutter launched a Zodiac; the two Coast Guardsmen slowly approached the catamaran.
“Nothing sir, we see no one on board.”
“Anyone on the rocks, Ensign?”
“No sir, nothing there either.”
“Let me try to get a line on her before she’s busted up worse than she already is; that’s a good looking boat. Strange hull configuration, never seen anything like it, looks more like a plane than a boat.”
“Hold a moment sir, I see something,” Ensign Grant said.
Grant grabbed a line secured to the hull that disappeared into the Bay water and slowly drew the hawser to him. On the third pull it stuck, he gave a hard jerk and Catherine Voss exploded from the cold waters of the Bay. Ensign Grant and Seaman Hines screamed like little girls. Catherine Voss missed the press interview, never had dinner with her crew, didn’t do the nasty with Bobo and now she had foiled the San Francisco Bay crabs of their dinner.
“I hate sailboats,” Sharon O’Mara said, looking out to San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge from the deck of the La Mar restaurant on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. She turned to her friend, Claudette Leclair, “Out there it’s cold, wet and my hair is a mess for a week, then there’s the added bonus of all that salt and sun.”
“But sailboats are so romantic,” Claudette answered.
“Romantic? If your idea of romantic means hanging over the side with wave after wave of cold water slamming into your face, soaking you to the bone and getting seasick, go for it. My idea of romantic is sitting in a deck chair in the stern of a motor launch, a scotch in one hand, a guy in the other and the sun setting over the marina. Now that’s romantic.”
“Well, I suggest you keep your thoughts to yourself. JF makes his livelihood from sailboats. He’s had his hands full since the death of his sister. She was the face of their business and, for him, the creative brain as well. Now, he’s trying to make sense out of all the chaos; that’s why I want you to meet him. He needs your help.”
“What kind of help?”
“He didn’t say, just that there’s trouble and he needs answers. He asked me if I knew someone who could make inquiries and dig deeper than the Coast Guard or the police. He’s sure that his sister’s death wasn’t an accident.”
“That’s not what the papers said.”
“I know, but he’s certain there’s more to it. That’s why I suggested you to him.”
“Me? What do I know about sailboats, especially catamarans?”
“Hear him out, please. And it’s a hydrofoil trimaran, very high tech, not a catamaran.”
“For me, lunching here is special, I’ll listen all afternoon. But I promise nothing. Damn sailboats, I don’t care whether they have one, two, or three hulls,” Sharon said as they headed to their table.
They ordered a crisp chardonnay from Chile and watched the Marin ferry M/V Mendocino pull out of the terminal. She revved up her waterjet engines, threw a foamy broth from the stern of her twin hulls and jumped toward Marin County.
“Goddamn catamarans,” Sharon mumbled.
“That ferry is a twin-hulled catamaran and it’s about the only one I would board. It has a bar.”
“Be patient, JF sounded depressed,” Claudette said as the server poured the wine.
“Who wouldn’t be? I understand that Catherine was the driving force behind their company; it must be worth millions. Without her it’s worth a lot less.”
“I can tell you it’s not money that’s the problem; they have a lot of it, old family money. The twins inherited it all when their parents were killed. They made a lot more since then. But she drove the company as fast as she drove her boats and crew. I watched her race out of Marseille; she was good; she was very good. But she burned money faster than JF could make it. They used my software to run their company’s business; I customized it for them. And this new boat runs with a lot of software, stuff way beyond me; I gave them contacts. They have been my friends for a long time. That’s why I’m here, to attend Catherine’s memorial service and see Alain; he’s not doing well,” Claudette said, changing the subject in mid-sentence.
“He’s tough. I saw him last week; I think he’s just about finished reorganizing his companies and putting things right with his life. Since the return of the paintings, he seems more relaxed and settled.”
“Oui, I think he sees the end. He told me he’s ready but doesn’t want to rush anything.”
“Who does when it comes to dying?” Sharon raised her glass to Claudette.
Claudette raised hers and nodded.
Alain Dumont was Claudette’s grandfather. A billionaire high-tech investor, Alain needed Sharon’s services to return four valuable Impressionist paintings confiscated by the Nazis. Alain had stolen them at the end of the war. Sixty-five years later he found their rightful owners and gave them back. Sharon only had to deal with Twenty-first century Nazis’ to make sure they were returned safely.
Sharon watched a Navy guided missile cruiser, on a one week visit, slowly head toward the Golden Gate, the brilliant noon sun flashed off its rigging as it crossed the churned wake of the ferry.
“Now that’s a ship,” Sharon said as the USS Cape St. George slowly turned toward the Golden Gate, the number 71 painted boldly on its bow. “That cruiser has enough fire power to waste a small country. She’s beautiful.”
“And expensive,” Claudette said.
“That’s a small price to pay for freedom on the seas.”
The death of Catherine Voss occupied one week of newspaper columns, then faded at the same time as her memorial service ended. The most common question was: How could an experienced sailor such as Voss drown in the rigging of her own boat? There were no satisfactory answers forthcoming. The Coast Guard and the police chalked it up as an unfortunate accident. Maybe the boat pitched in the fog from a ship’s wake, maybe she fell, there was a bruise on her forehead and one on her shoulder, maybe she grabbed the line and then passed out. There was water in her lungs; the autopsy said she drowned. Maybe she did.
After the Coast Guard retrieved her body, they helped the crew of her towboat pull the sailboat off the rocks and tow it to the America’s Cup pier at San Francisco’s waterfront near Pier 80, the temporary headquarters for the upcoming America’s Cup races. A cursory check of the trimaran found nothing looked suspicious. It was finalized as a profound sad accident that claimed the life of one of the world’s premier catamaran skippers. Her team members from the small, yet convenient, yacht club in Bora Bora were stunned by the loss. The mining billionaire and the Bora Bora yacht club commodore, Ellis Turner, led the eulogy at the small chapel in the Presidio. Turner’s racing team was hoping to challenge for the America’s Cup, assuming they could win in the smaller AC45s that were competing in the America’s Cup World Series. It was there, among the dozen or so international contenders, that the final challenger to the Americans would be selected. Ellis Turner’s reputation as a tough negotiator and her take-no-prisoners attitude within the coal and iron ore industry preceded her; even the international commodities huge all-consuming maw that was China paid attention to her. Her boats raced hard within the tight and narrow harbors in which they competed.
Claudette’s call surprised Sharon. She’d had many conversations with Claudette in San Francisco and Paris. Since the shooting at Alain Dumont’s Broadway mansion that ended the possibility of a return of the “New Reich,” their conversations had been brief, mostly about Claudette’s grandfather and the disposition of the gold treasure key stashed in Claudette’s Paris safety deposit box. The key now sat in the luxurious panic room of Alain Dumont’s mansion. Dumont gave Sharon a smaller replica, also in solid gold, as a memento. It sat in her own safety deposit box, a photo of the original sat on the mantle of the fireplace in her cottage, next to the photos of the Toulouse-Lautrec painting and other Impressionist’s art she had saved; the art had once, for a brief early morning, graced her small parlor; both the cottage and the safety deposit box were in Walnut Creek, just twenty-six miles east of San Francisco.
Sharon and Kevin Bryan, her closest male friend, confidant, ‘last second’ rescuer and dog sitter detective, who worked with the Lafayette, California police department, spent a week in Paris, recovering. During that week, they retrieved the gold plate with its secret numbers locating the largest gold hoard of the Nazi SS, a treasure that was never officially found. That week in Paris was everything they could ask for: food, wine, galleries, and the City of Light. Even a curmudgeon like Bryan agreed that the vacation was worth the effort. Claudette entertained them with two dinners in her apartment overlooking the Pont Neuf Bridge. Its narrow terrace, with its western view of the Eiffel Tower, wrapped the upper floors of the apartment building. They returned, rested, on Alain Dumont’s private jet, a Gulfstream G-4.
Now Alain Dumont was dying and Claudette’s friend, Catherine Voss, had drowned. She was stressed; Sharon could see that; she knew she would try to help her as much as she could.
But Claudette Leclair neglected to say how extremely good-looking the French industrialist, raconteur, and sailor, Jean-François Voss, was.
Sharon turned to Claudette, “Is that him?”
“Oui, c’est Jean-François Voss, votre nouveau client. Magnifique, n’est pas?”
“If you just said: ‘That’s my new client and he’s magnificent,’ all I can say is thank you very much,” Sharon said, as she stood to greet her new client.
“To his friend’s, he’s JF; his name gets a bit garbled by you Americans.”
“My guess, it’s his looks that do the garbling,” Sharon said, staring.
The six-foot-four Frenchman walked toward Claudette’s table, his black hair ended in a wave that dropped over his right eyebrow, a Roman nose centered his deep tanned face and his ice-blue eyes glistened. His smile (ignited when he saw Claudette) knocked three girls off their stools at the bar. One would need medical attention.
The diminutive Claudette disappeared in his arms when he hugged her. As he bent down to kiss both her cheeks, another girl at the bar fainted. Sharon could feel her own tongue begin to tie in a knot with envy.
“Jean-François, this is Sharon O’Mara, a close friend, the woman I told you about,” Claudette said, never taking her eyes off the man.
“Enchanté, you are even prettier than Claudette said you were.” JF took Sharon’s trembling hands and kissed her on both cheeks as well. Sharon’s cheeks colored almost as red as her hair.
“Sit, please sit, I need a drink,” JF said, turning to look for their server, who, after seeing JF, collapsed and was now being helped by one of the male servers, he was handing her a damp towel to cool her cheek; even he was stunned by the man. The young girl recovered and hurried to the table.
“A double Macallan 12 on the rocks, s’il vous plaît, I’m parched, young lady, parched.”
The server, stunned by the order, nodded and retreated to the bar, passing the three girls frantically waving their menus across their collective faces.
Sharon smiled at the man, pointing her finger at JF, “Damn, I knew I would like you.”
Jean-François, dressed in elegant grey gabardine slacks and a soft coral shirt, open at the neck, sat down with his back to the Bay.
“Sit here, the view is better,” Claudette said as she moved her napkin.
“The view is better from here,” JF said. “And the sunlight highlights your two faces; besides, I see too much of the sea.”
Sharon caught herself staring and quickly looked past the Frenchman toward a lone seagull standing on the rail being teased by a young boy. The scene made her smile.
“You have a beautiful smile, Sharon. May I call you Sharon? Ms. O’Mara is far too formal.”
His English was accented with an educated French lilt. “God damn he’s charming,” she thought.
“Yes, Sharon is fine, and thank you for asking,” she answered.
Claudette had never seen Sharon in such a state. She tapped the top of Sharon’s hand. It snapped her back from her reverie and some very embarrassing thoughts that were bouncing around in her head. She looked at Claudette.
“A beautiful day, isn’t it?” Sharon said.
Claudette looked a Sharon, then JF. “Stop it you two, it’s indecent.”
JF laughed. “Thank you for coming to lunch. Since Catherine’s death, it has been crazy, I’m beside myself. I’m still jet-lagged; with the memorial service and everything else I find myself very tired. The two of you have energized me.”
The server brought the scotch and with a shaking hand, she set the tumbler on the table.
“Thank you, another one please,” he said and took a long sip from the glass. It was half-full when he set it back down on the table. The server quickly left, she had lingered for two seconds more than normal.
“Much better, now.” He raised the glass and saluted the girls. They raised their wine glasses to him and smiled again. Sharon, almost giddy, could feel the muscles in her cheeks; it had been a long time since she had felt this way.
“Okay, down to work,” Claudette said. “This is a business meeting, not a blind date.”
“Absolutment, yes, a meeting,” JF said. “Now, Claudette says you may be able to help, can you?”
Sharon took another sip of her chardonnay and looked into JF’s blue eyes, “You think there is something more to your sister’s death. Why?”
“My sister was an excellent sailor and she could swim for miles. She also has a habit, I mean, Jesus I still can’t believe she’s gone, had a bad habit of pissing people off. But I never thought that someone would kill her. I am certain that she was murdered. I know it deep in my soul. I need to find out who did this and why. And when I find them, I intend to kill them.”
“I’ll consider that last remark the emotional outburst of a brother who has tragically just lost his twin sister,” Sharon said.
“As you wish, but I meant it.”
“I’m sure you did, but I’m not in the business of arranging revenge killings. Do we understand each other?”
JF smiled and raised his glass to her, “Je comprends.”
“Excellent. Claudette gave me copies of the police reports,” Sharon said continuing. She saw seriousness, deadly seriousness in his face. “She said that you gave them to her. The authorities don’t give these up easily, how did you get them?”
“Simple, actually, I met with a delightful Coast Guard lieutenant, quite pretty in fact, after a brief conversation she gave me a copy. I usually, just like my sister, get what I want.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Sharon said. “But from now on, stop it. Simply put, they said she hit her head and fell into the Bay, possibly caught a line as she fell, tried to wrap the line around herself and then may have passed out, then drowned. Fairly believable.”
“Anything is believable if composed properly. As I see it, her death was too simple, too convenient. That’s why you’re here, to make it inconvenient. Something happened out there,” JF pointed over his shoulder toward Alcatraz. “I need you to find out what that was.”
“May I see her boat? Maybe I will spot something that the Coast Guard missed,” Sharon said.
“It’s on a trailer at the pier we’re using as a temporary base. The final America’s Cup competitors’ docks aren’t ready, won’t be for a few months. We can go there after lunch.”
The server returned with the second drink, she took away the first glass.
“Mike Stroud,” JF continued, “is Catherine’s team manager. He has secured the boat from prying eyes and cameras. I told him we would be over to take a look.”
“You knew I would take the job?”
“Claudette said you were good, that’s all I needed to know. But let’s make it official: Will you continue the investigation?”
JF’s blue eyes caught Sharon’s green eyes. She felt as if a spell were being cast upon her, she blinked.
“Yes, I’ll take the job. I get five hundred dollars a day plus expenses, not negotiable. I will need full cooperation from her crew and you.” She waited for a negative reaction, seeing none, she added, “If there is criminal activity and the perps are arrested, I get a $5,000 success bonus. If prosecuted and convicted, I get another $5,000.”
JF looked at Claudette across the table, “She talks like an attorney, only cheaper. But,” JF turned and looked at Sharon, “a lot prettier - done.”
“I hate attorneys,” Sharon added.
“And so do I,” JF said, adding his comment about the second oldest profession.
“She also hates sailboats,” Claudette said.
“So do I, now,” Jean-François answered. “Now, let’s eat, I haven’t had a bite since last night. Je suis affamé.”
Lunch, composed of various small plates of Peruvian specialties, filled the spaces of their conversation. A second bottle of Chilean wine appeared. JF explained the structure of their company, a simple partnership that developed exciting new designs in the thirty-six foot class of racing catamarans and now this trimaran. That was what she was testing; a boat that could be sailed single-handed or with a small crew. It was a new, technologically brilliant, design for a market that they knew would explode as the new boats raced in the America’s Cup. Their goal was to develop a trimaran that an experienced sailor could pilot and still afford. What they were also exploring was a new finish that shed water better than the usual paint. With the new design and its high tech finish, their boats would dominate for at least a season or two; the others would catch up eventually.
“It’s like anything high tech,” JF added. “You may take the lead for a while but then the competition will build a better design. We know we will have to keep improving or die. I didn’t realize how personal our competitors would make it.”
“Claudette also told me your sister was the skipper of Ellis Turner’s America’s Cup challenger,” Sharon said.
“She is, damn, I mean, she was. She could out-sail almost everyone, even the Americans. Turner hired her a year ago; she had been racing Turner’s 45 in Europe and New Zealand. Catherine was here trying to do both, the testing for her own boat and training Turner’s crew. I never knew her to be happier. But Turner is a ball-buster; she never accepts second place. Turner often told the story of Queen Victoria when she asked, a hundred years ago when the English lost yet another race, ‘Who was second?’ ‘There is no second,’ was the response. That’s how Turner and Catherine race. There is no second.”
JF, Claudette and Sharon walked up the Embarcadero toward the touristy area in San Francisco known as Fisherman’s Wharf; a sad misnomer. There were fewer and fewer fisherman making a living off these docks and piers. Now these docks trolled for tourists.
Near Pier 23, an old, but treasured, bar and restaurant, they stopped.
“The new facilities for the America’s Cup will be built right here,” JF said pointing to the long wharf that jutted into the Bay. “This pier will be rebuilt to hold new shops and venues for the visitors. Some of the race crew operations will be here as well; they want visitors to see everything that’s going on. Or at least those things we want them to see.” JF turned to the girls; his smile implied more than just happiness.
“Ah yes, secrets upon secrets,” Sharon said. “I remember that this silliness has had spies and intrigue in its past.”
“Absolutely, I remember one team, a few races back, even hired divers to secretly check the hulls of the competitors trying to find out everything they could,” JF said. “Since its start in 1851, it has been very rich men building very expensive toys to compete against other equally rich men. Sadly, during the last few years, I believe they have spent more on lawyers then they have building the boats. But this wasn’t the first time there was litigation, it’s happened often.”
“Rich men, expensive toys and lawyers, sounds like an unholy triangle to me. My guess is that the attorneys are the only ones to win or at least make a profit.”
“I think you’re right but it’s not going to change anything. They do what they will do.” JF pointed at the piers that curved north and then toward the touristy end of the Embarcadero. “Until the final docks are rebuilt along here for the competition, Larry Ellison and the Golden Gate Yacht Club, the current holders of the Cup, are using Pier 80 as the temporary location for the American’s boats. All the others have found space where they could. The Bora Bora Yacht club found a small vacant warehouse halfway between the Bay Bridge and Pier 80 and that’s where Catherine’s Cheetah is trailered. It’s lost among the numerous vacant piers and wharves that line the San Francisco waterfront south of the bridge.”
At one time, up until the end of World War II, San Francisco’s waterfront was the busiest on the West Coast. But San Francisco’s politics and egos let it all go to hell. Now, Long Beach is busier, especially with the invention of the shipping container industry; even Oakland, across the Bay, has surpassed San Francisco. The historic wharves are now repair yards and small marinas stuck in between the huge, empty buildings that extend out into the Bay. Where other West Coast cities revel in their waterfronts, cities like Vancouver and San Diego, San Francisco’s waterfront is hidden behind these ghostly structures that continually remind the City, like a nagging grandmother, of its past glory. Ellison wanted to change all that and while the politicians gave lip service to his dream, they didn’t make it easier.
As usual, committees were formed, pronouncements made, demands listed, lines were drawn in the sand, or as in this case, lines were drawn along the waterfront. The America’s Cup committee still didn’t understand that there were a lot of people that didn’t want these rich people mucking about on their waterfront. Tourists were one thing; they could be fleeced and they even enjoyed it. These guys were different; they sent out vibes that they were the fleecers, not the fleecies. The residents on hills above the waterfront, with its signature Coit Tower, were some of the most critical of change.
“The Cup is the oldest championship in sports,” JF said. “It’s this big silver trophy shaped like a silver pitcher, the damn thing can’t even hold water. The bottom has been added to hold the names of the winners. But it’s not the Cup they want; teams fight over the bragging rights. Sure there’s nationalism but not much, these guys are in it for themselves. Now there’re some women competing, tough women and Ellis Turner is one of toughest.”
“How did Catherine get hooked up with Turner?” Sharon asked.
“She was racing with a crew in Auckland,” Claudette said. “She stood out, being the only woman; her looks didn’t hurt either. With her athletic body, quick mind and sharp tongue, she and Turner quickly connected.”
“Yes, she had a sharp tongue, she didn’t suffer fools,” JF added.
“Turner asked her to join her catamaran racing crew; Turner knew this would be the boat design choice for the next Cup. It was a good guess. The giant trimarans that Ellison raced in the last series morphed into smaller catamarans. The idea emerged to have a series of races, a World Series competition of forty-five foot catamarans, all identical, all racing each other in various ports around the world.”
“Expensive, very expensive,” Sharon added. “Boys and now girls, with their toys.”
“You are always the cynic,” Claudette said.
“They have raced off the coast of England, San Diego, Naples and even Venice. The winds were different in every port,” JF continued. “That’s part of the reason for the catamarans, watching normal sail boats race in the Mediterranean, with its light winds, is like watching seaweed grow. Most fans watch the start, go to lunch, take a nap, then show up for the finish. Cats are faster and more exciting. We Europeans love speed and style, no one would show up for a race between Toyota Priuses, throw in some Porches and Ferraris, millions line the race tracks.”
“And what is your angle?” Sharon asked.
“Why were you and your sister building these boats, they aren’t competitors.”
“Simple, money and style. Both of us love speed and this boat of hers is a marvel, wait until you see it. Her variation of the trimaran set the speed record for a sailboat. A larger version has exceeded fifty knots, all pushed by the wind. They are more like airplanes than boats.”
“Fifty knots, now that’s speed! Even power boats have trouble going that fast with all the hull resistance,” Sharon added.
“We can be lighter and faster; our goal was to make the boat handle with a very small crew or even just one pilot. All the lines and the rudder are controlled with servomotors, sensors and technology, fly-by-wire, like the new jet planes. Everything is anticipated and controlled through a single joy stick.”
“Like the one used to play video games?”
“Yes, if you like. The software and hardware make the adjustments, small and large, all based on various sensors. The large single sail makes it easier; not having to run sails up and down reduces crew demands, just a jib and gennaker. Using a trimaran design allows for a more balanced stable boat, the pontoons provide the balance but in reality they are there to hold the hydrofoils.”
“Yes, Sharon, our boat doesn’t really sail through the water, she flies over it.”
Sharon drove her Jaguar. Claudette sadly begged off, she was going to see Alain Dumont at four then board an overnight flight back to Paris.
“Claudette says that somewhere around here you got into a gun fight with some Chinese gangs,” Jean-François said as they passed 24th Street.
“Claudette loves to tell stories. Yes, it was just over there, brings back memories I would like to forget.”
“I’m even more impressed, turn here.”
The broken asphalt and old railroad tracks led toward another empty waterfront building, it angled diagonally out over the Bay waters. Three SUVs, all shiny and dark blue, were parked in an area enclosed by an eight-foot chain link fence topped with coils of razor wire.
“Damn secure,” Sharon said.
“It came this way with the month to month lease, even the port knows we’ll be moving,” JF said. “Imposing and scary, don’t you think?”
“It’s more than that; it says something’s here. I wonder what? It might encourage trespassers.”
“Oui, there’s that too.”
She parked next to the last SUV.
They walked toward the large door cut into the shore-side wall of the building, a bull of a man stood at the entry wearing a dark blue windbreaker, a bold logo stitched on its left side.
“Mike, I want you to meet Sharon O’Mara,” JF said as they approached the man.
He extended a huge weathered hand. “Good to meet you, Ms. O’Mara, name’s Mike Stroud. JF said that you were coming.”
“A pleasure Mike, Sharon’s just fine,” she answered as she looked at JF.
“JF told me you might need to see the boat; it’s inside,” Mike said leading them into the building. “Follow me and be careful, this wreck of a building has holes everywhere, the rot’s extreme. We can’t wait to find a better home.” Sharon noticed his obvious Scottish brogue.
“Quite an international crew, JF. Mike, I assume some of the crew are from Bora Bora,” she said with a knowing grin.
“On the contrary, not one of them. We have men and women, all tough as leather,” Stroud offered. “And surprisingly most of them are from Australia, as am I. I jumped ship when I was on an old tramp steamer in Perth years ago, was tired of the cold northern oceans. She’s been my base for the last twenty years; the warm waters of the Indian Ocean suit me just fine.”
They carefully walked the length of the five hundred foot pier; Sharon saw the Bay sloshing around through some of the largest holes in the deck. A construction trailer stood to one side; new plywood decking had been laid over the old timbers providing the only safe route to the boat’s location. Dark tarps had been spread over the trimaran’s hulls, hiding the main hull and the outriggers.
“Can we pull these off?” Sharon asked.
Stroud looked at JF, the Frenchman nodded.
Five minutes later, the crisp red lines of the trimaran sparkled in the shafts of light streaming through the high broken windows.
“We dropped the single main wing, she’s over against the wall,” Stroud said pointing to the tall mast and its hard triangular sail, its top cut off at a hard angle. “She’s made of carbon fiber, Kevlar, and some other stuff. I’m a sailor, not a scientist.”
Sharon looked closely at the sail; it was a far cry from the nylon sails she was vaguely familiar with. “This isn’t your old fashion sail is it?” she asked.
“Hardly, this is a rigged sail or wing; if additional sail is needed we let out a jib or gennaker, a bit more traditional.”
After a cursory inspection, she turned to the trimaran. “Simply beautiful, hard to believe that this can do what you say it can, amazing,” she said looking at JF. “It’s like a marriage between a catamaran and a small jet plane. All the hard angles and those two blades connected to the cross bars, striking. I assume those are hydraulics for the hydrofoils?”
“Yes, they adjust the angle and depth of the hydrofoils. The damn thing can almost fly under the right hands,” Mike said. “She can do forty knots with the right wind but she will bite you in ass if you’re not careful. I don’t know how many times I’ve almost flipped her. She demands respect, if you don’t, as I said, she’ll make you pay.”
“How many times have you had her out?”
“Twelve times here in San Fran, the winds, currents and tides are tricky. We are trying to get the feel of how she performs in all kinds of conditions and weather.”
“You check her out after every sail?”
“Like a baby’s bottom. Since Catherine’s death, she’s been on this trailer. Coast Guard hasn’t officially released her to sail again; they will give the okay in a few days. She needs to be packaged up and sent back to Marseille, they tell me they are moving this model into production.” Stroud looked at Jean-François, the Frenchman nodded.
“It was Catherine’s last order as we were lowering it into the Bay, ‘Time to get this back to France, I want ten out by the end of the year; we have orders for eight,’” Stroud said.
She walked slowly around the trimaran, looking at every edge and fitting. “The hole in the starboard hull, it’s not been repaired?”
“They will do it in France; the carbon fibers are tough to repair. It will be easier at the factory. We also made some modifications that they can duplicate on the new boats. It’s not the first time, she took a knock in Marseille but it was only about 100 centimeters, this one is much worse.”
Sharon ran her hand along the starboard pontoon, then along the port side. She stopped and walked back to the starboard side, then back to the port. She looked closely at the sharp edge of the port side pontoon again.
“What color is the tow launch?”
“Did the tow launch strike this pontoon when she was towed in?”
“Don’t think so and the outboard hulls are called amas.”
“Amas, got it. There’s a crease of paint here,” she pointed at the edge. “Looks black, you sure something didn’t just touch her in the tow?”
“Positive, it would be like hitting my own child, I’m sure.” Stroud looked at the mark. “Damn, missed that. Damn sure it wasn’t there when she went out, does look black. Damn.”
“My guess is that something came alongside and just nicked her, left the paint.”
Sharon turned to JF. “Something or someone hit this boat; it wasn’t from the rocks or the launch. The Coast Guard’s boats are usually white, not black, and the Zodiacs wouldn’t leave a mark. Whoever hit her may have been the last person to see Catherine alive.”
The paint posed more questions than answers. The obvious question was: How did it get there? The second, where did it come from? Sharon mulled these and other disturbing issues over in her head as she drove back across the Bay Bridge to Walnut Creek. She had dropped JF off earlier at the Taj Compton Place Hotel; he asked her if she would like a cocktail; every fiber in her body screamed yes, her head said no.
“Later then,” he said as he leaned across the stick shift and kissed her on the cheek. “I had a great time, for a first date. Dinner, tomorrow night? My treat.”
Sharon smiled and tried to mumble a no, it came out as, “Yes.”
“Are you sure, you seemed to hesitate.”
“Very sure, just trying to get my head around all of this and you’re too damned distracting. Yes, dinner tomorrow, where?”
“Here, I’ll call you.” Jean-François Voss exited and passed in front of her car. He waved as he stepped up on the curb. Two women, shopping bags hooked in their hands, stood blocking the door of the hotel; they stepped aside and let him enter in front of them. One checked him out from behind; the other turned to look at Sharon. One look was all that Sharon needed to boost her ego, the woman’s face said it all, you lucky gal!
Basil damn near jumped in her lap when she sat down in her small living room. Basil sniffed at her slacks and harrumphed; he knew she had been with another male.
“Yes boy, mama’s been out.” She scratched behind his ears; he grudgingly began to forgive her. “What the hell am I going to do? Haven’t felt this way in years, too many years.”
She poured two fingers of Lagavulin, neat, into a crystal tumbler; its peaty aroma filled her nose as she lit a cigarette. “Basil, today’s a day to celebrate, mama’s had a chance to strut and I like it. There’s something about that man that’s comforting, too comforting, he’s a goddamn Adonis, even if he’s French.”
She sipped the 16-year-old scotch, inhaled its muskiness, in her mood it was an aphrodisiac. Every nerve tingled; she stood and looked at herself in the hall mirror. She couldn’t see what was happening inside, but she felt it. Her body hummed and vibrated. It would be a long night.
She woke early, feeling better than she thought she would. Her tossing and turning made her think of the onslaught of a rough morning. But after a light breakfast of yogurt and coffee, she went to the shooting range and scored well. Then she went to the gym for a hard workout, her phone rang while she was doing push-ups.
“You aren’t doing anything special are you?” Jean-François said.
“Sweating, trying to get you out of my system, almost made it too.”
“If you’re going to sweat, at least don’t do it alone.”
“I’m not, there’s at least fifty others here sweating with me,” she said looking around the gym.
There was a pause on JF’s end. “Got it. Called to confirm dinner here at the Compton at seven. I will meet you in the bar. I have reserved my table.”
“My table? Who has their own table at a restaurant?”
JF paused for a second. “Is that a rhetorical question?”
“I guess it was, sorry. Just in a bit of a mood. Yesterday was interesting.”
“Personally, I thought it was fun and even stimulating. Thanks, after the last week I needed that.”
“So did I, it was a pleasant surprise. Tonight at seven.”
“Seven it is.”