Head cashier Chad Wanamaker settled his gaze on the sunset for the last time in his life. He and Jennifer, his girlfriend, were riding the tender boat back to Majesty of the Seas along with a vessel full of sunburned vacationers. Jennifer shot him a eager smile that promised sex as soon as they got back to the cruise ship. He returned her eager grin, and then they both drank in the sun’s farewell: low in the twilight sky but still fully round, the blazing red ball cast its glow over the drifting ripples of the Caribbean Sea.
One of the best perks of Wanamaker’s job was the freedom to go on shore excursions with the passengers; he didn’t need to ask permission or tell anyone he’d be gone. He’d simply boarded the tender boat in the morning and minutes later found himself stretched out on warm white sand next to a babe in a red bikini. Now the lovers were on their way back to the lower crew decks of the massive ship, where the living conditions were vastly different from those afforded by the luxurious passenger decks.
After the tender boat captain tied up to the Majesty, Wanamaker and Jennifer stepped up onto the gangway along with everyone else, but instead heading right to climb a wide set of carpeted stairs with polished-wood hand railings, they cut left and headed down a narrow metal staircase to the four crowded crew decks.
At the sight of his tiny cabin, which he shared with two other casino employees, Wanamaker’s mood fell flat for a moment. His mood rose, however, when he remembered that his roommates would be gone for another hour, and when Jennifer wiggled out of her red bikini, he turned into an animal.
Thirty minutes later, as they parted ways, he to the casino and she to the health spa, Wanamaker wondered how many nearly-naked men she’d be rubbing down that evening and how tempting it must be for her when the clients began to lay down one crisp hundred-dollar bill after another in an attempt to obtain a happy ending. Allegedly she’d never agreed, but he wasn’t so sure.
“I’ll go with you,” Tony Park said. Two drinks—his self-imposed limit—had failed to improve his mood, but they’d burned their way down to his bladder in no time at all.
“Perfect,” Jeff Walker returned, equally grumpy. “The closest bathroom is in the casino. Knock me out if I take one step toward a slot machine.”
Two days into the week-long Caribbean cruise, the pair of San Diego Harbor Police detectives were doing their best to adjust to the constant expenditure of a double family vacation; normally they made money chasing bad guys, while the heavily-marked-up experiences, consumables, and souvenirs on the ship and at every port stop had cast a revolting shadow on their fantasy of a carefree week spent cruising through paradise.
“Be right back,” Park muttered to Carla, his wife, who broke away from her complex and chaotic interaction with Walker’s wife, Tina, and Walker’s two little girls to shoot him a smile and a finger-wiggling wave. The group was standing in line waiting for the theatre doors to open. Tina Michelle and Mia were visibly excited for the magic show to start. At least the women were happy.
The Majesty’s dimensions—one thousand feet long, one hundred feet wide, and two hundred feet high—make the vessel sound enormous, and it was, but with three thousand souls aboard, space was at a premium. Thus, as Park crossed the casino on his way to the restroom, he noted that the gaming floor was luxurious but slightly miniature, just like his stateroom and every other passenger area on the ship. Low ceilings, reduced aisle width, and clever placement of mirrors were some of the tricks he spotted. And as usual, he kept a sharp eye out for any kind of danger.
The restrooms were located close to the cashier cage, so as the off-duty lawmen made for the men’s room, they passed two large, angry men in dark suits standing at a cashier window.
“I’m not going to tell you again,” one of them growled at a trembling employee, through a small hole in the thick polycarbonate cashier shield.
“I’ll lose my job,” the cashier protested.
Park stopped, about to ask if he could be of any assistance to the distraught young man, whose name tag identified him as Chad Wanamaker, head cashier. Walker also came to a halt.
“I’ve got this,” said a thick-chested man before they had a chance to speak. Park and Walker whirled around to read this man’s badge which labeled him as Cody Marks, Casino Security Manager. “Appreciate you guys stopping, though.”
Walker gave a single nod and started for the restroom, but Park shook his head and stayed put.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” Marks asked sharply. He looked like he’d worked in law enforcement. Maybe ex-military.
The cashier widened his eyes in alarm and shook his head insistently. The two angry men turned to face the security manager. They wore realistic form-fitting Halloween masks that gave them the appearance of old men.
“We were waiting for you,” said one of them.
In a smooth, practiced motion, the other masked man reached into his suit jacket, produced an HK45 Compact Tactical, took aim, and pulled the trigger. The pistol bucked and the security officer’s head snapped back, a fine red mist spraying out the rear. The pistol’s ear-splitting crack sent the roomful of gamblers scrambling for the exits as Cody Marks toppled to the carpet.
Screams sounded from within the cashier cage as the shooter lined up his sights on Park and Walker, panning the pistol from one to the other and back again.
Unarmed, Park and Walker held up their hands in apparent submission, but not wide and high; they kept their arms low and extended as they waited for the crooks to make a mistake.
The first one drew an identical firearm from his own shoulder rig, then took a knee and searched the fallen security officer. He found a key card in Marks’ pocket, which he waved over a sensor on a nearby door as the second crook trained his HK on Park and Walker. Then the two crooks stepped through the door, gaining access to the employees-only area of the casino, presumably headed for wherever the cash was kept.
Park’s teeth clamped tightly shut as the thieves shot Chad Wanamaker and every other cashier in the back office dead. He was reminded of his time as a Navy SEAL as he unclipped the Cody Marks’ radio from his belt, acting decisively amid the deafening blasts of firearms at close range. As he radioed for assistance, he caught sight of Walker, who was already sprinting across the deserted casino floor, clearly headed toward the theatre to make sure their families were safe.
“Ship security, this is Detective Tony Park of the San Diego Harbor Police, how do you read, over.”
Once Park had explained the emergency, the security officer on the other end told him to stand by. Then, after several seconds that felt like hours, he came back with: “Please report to the security office immediately.”
Park sent Walker a message by cell phone, so they met at the administrative offices. By that time, twenty members of the security staff had assembled. They looked like college kids. A groan escaped Park’s lips inadvertently, causing heads to turn his way. If appearances were any indication, only the chief security officer and his deputy had seen any real action.
“We’d like to assist,” Park said to Chief Richards. Walker offered a solemn nod of agreement.
A large man with a bit of a belly, the chief studied the detectives’ credentials for a second time before supplying them with ballistic vests and loaded Sig Sauer P220 Legion pistols. “We could use the help,” he said, then barreled away to issue orders to the rest of his team.
Park dropped out his magazine to check the load, then smacked it home. He turned a disapproving gaze onto the now-empty weapons locker from which a paltry collection of four sidearms and two rifles had just been removed and distributed. “That’s all the firepower we’ve got?” he asked the deputy security officer.
“‘Fraid so,” replied the deputy, whose name was Lindbloom, seating a thirty-round mag into his M4 carbine with a push-pull motion. Then he pulled the charging handle, chambering his first round with a metallic click-clack. Lindbloom was twice as wide as he was tall, and his thick neck made him look like a bulldog.
“On me,” growled Richards, back now with his own M4 cradled across his chest. He set his hefty body in motion, leading the way to the casino followed by Lindbloom, Park, and Walker. A couple of senior officers also armed with Sig Sauer pistols came along, with instructions to keep the casino clear, but most of the security team was sent to help the crew get all passengers into their cabins.
As Richards and company made their way across the gaming floor, the beeps, chimes, and jangly music of the slot machines gave the deserted casino an eerie feel, oddly cheery like the painted face of an evil clown. The chief waved his key card over the sensor but the door wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard he yanked on it.
Lindbloom charged forward, put his nose to the hinges, and took a long sniff. “It’s been welded shut,” he said.
“There’s a fortified room in the back a where all the cash is kept,” Richards told the group. “It’s about fifty yards ahead. They’re going to have to blast their way out.”
Walker said, “What’s above, below, and behind that room?”
Richards screwed up his face and pursed his lips as he struggled to recall, but Park beat him to the draw. “The crew cafeteria is below us, the nightclub is overhead, and there’s a souvenir shop behind the far wall of the vault.”
When Richards cast Park a quizzical expression, Walker explained. “He’s got a photographic memory.”
“I glanced at the map yesterday,” Park said.
Deputy Lindbloom eyed the brawny Asian detective with new respect, but Chief Richards, all business, did not seem impressed. “Lindbloom and Park, get down to the cafeteria,” he said. “It’s close to the gangway. Walker and I will hit the souvenir shop.”
“How do you think they got the guns and tools aboard?” Walker asked as he and Richards hustled through the labyrinthine corridors.
“They must have had inside help,” harrumphed the chief security officer as he huffed and puffed like a former linebacker who hadn’t worked out in a while.
At that instant, a massive blast shook the ship and made Walker’s ears ring. A cloud billowed out from around the corner they were approaching, filling the hallway with plaster dust. They stopped to reorient themselves.
Then, with a flick of his thumb, Detective Walker disengaged his pistol’s safety and held the gun at the low ready as he followed Richards into the haze.
Lindbloom led Park down a set of steel stairs to the first of the non-passenger decks. They hustled through a narrow, no-frills corridor until they came to the crew cafeteria on the right. When the blast shook the ship, there was no plaster dust, debris, or any other type of material fell from the ceiling.
“We’re in the wrong place,” Park told the deputy.
“Let’s hit the nightclub, then,” Lindbloom replied.
While double-timing it back up the stairs, Park slowed, then stopped. He had a better idea. “We should check out the gangway,” he said. “That’s where a boat would come to pick them up. How else are they going to get away, by helicopter?”
“Who’s in charge, you or me?” Lindbloom shot back over his shoulder as he started up the first flight of wide, carpeted passenger-deck stairs.
“See you later.” Park broke right in lieu of following the deputy up the stairs.
“Fuck!” came Lindbloom’s voice. The sound of his footsteps grew louder as he tromped back down the stairs, chasing Park to the gangway.
As Park had suspected, the doors were already open, and he had a hunch as to who might have done it. Two hundred yards out, a gaudy purple powerboat was speeding straight toward him. As the deputy’s footsteps grew louder behind him, Park did not slow his pace or turn around to face Lindbloom. He forced his big legs to carry him even faster, and when he reached the open doors, he pushed off the edge with his foot and launched himself into the sea, headfirst like a human missile just as Lindbloom’s rifle issued a piercing crack crack crack. The slugs came so close that Park felt their warmth as they snapped past his body. Before slicing into the water, he took a deep breath so he could swim to safety. Hopefully Walker would have better luck.
“After the turn, there’s a short hallway, about ten feet long, and at the end is the souvenir shop,” Chief Richards said to Walker as they entered the hazy cloud of plaster dust and came to the corner. “Let’s—”
That was as far as the heavy-set head of security got before he took one bullet in the upper leg and another in the shoulder. The pair of large masked men in dark suits came charging through the dust with pistols blazing.
Walker’s Sig immediately came level and fired four times, dropping the shooter. The second crook froze. “Drop the bag and slide your gun over to me!” Walker barked. “Good. Now face the wall and put your hands behind your back.” He used Chief Richards’ handcuffs to restrain the uninjured thief, searched both men for any other weapons, then took a knee to inspect Richards’ wounds. They weren’t bad, unlike those of the first thief, who bled to death while Walker was calling for assistance on the radio.
Walker slipped off his own shirt and tore it into two parts. “Here,” he said. “Put pressure on the leg, Chief. I’ll do the same for your shoulder.”
It wasn’t long before two members of the ship’s medical staff turned up to treat Chief Richards, so Walker left to search for Park. Reaching the same conclusion that his buddy had, namely that the thieves would need a getaway boat to come and pick them up, he headed down to the open gangway and found his massive partner in command of a gaudy purple ski boat. Two scowling men sat on the rear seats, unable to move since their hands and feet were bound with rope. Park waved and a grin spread across his features as he finished tying the ski boat to the gangway landing. Then, with the help of several security team members, he and Walker dragged the three surviving crooks to the brig.
They searched the cruise ship from bow to stern, finding no trace of Deputy Lindbloom.