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Clarence Strait, Russian Amerika, July 1987

Etolin Island lay to starboard and Prince of Wales Island stood fine on the horizon to port. All thirty meters of Pravda tossed like a cork in a pond. The graying seas broke into spraying foam at two meters and the wind shrilled warning.

Charter Captain Grigoriy Grigorievich couldn't drop anchor here, nor could he just abandon the wheel and go below to mediate what was sure to turn into rape, at the very least. Both passengers were below in the main cabin. He popped open the hidden compartment on the console and poked the tiny phone into his ear so quickly he hurt himself.

"No!" Valari said.

"You will do this with me for two reasons," Karpov said, sounding like a schoolteacher. "First, it will give us both comfort in this storm. Secondly, if you don't do it willingly, I will beat you and take you by force. This is inevitable; besides, you used to enjoy me."

"I was lying, you swine!" she shrieked. An oddly familiar thonk came over the phone, and Grisha realized that someone had just been hit with a bottle. A large mass fell on the deck.

He smiled and put the earphone away. Valari was beginning to appeal to him. She raged up the steps, clutching the vodka bottle by its neck. Throwing it over the side, she grabbed the railing, braced herself on the heaving deck, and shouted at him.

"I wish to make a formal protest to be entered in the log!"

He gestured with his chin as he clutched the wheel with both hands. "It's right up there," he yelled over the building wind. "Make the entry yourself."

"But you're the captain."

"Do you want to take over?"

Hanging on to the railing with both hands she finally took in the sea around them. Huge swells of slate-colored water veined with submerged foam like fat in a rich man's steak roiled up around them, rising and dropping with unimaginable hydraulic force. Wind ripped loose foam off wave tops and hurled it at the boat where it smacked the hull and topsides like thrown sand.

Pravda rolled heavily from side to side and pitched up and down as she struggled from one wave to the next. Prince of Wales Island now lay behind a seamless wall of driving water and impenetrable cloud.

"By the saints, no," she said, nearly inaudible, swaying with the dance of the boat. She raised her voice. "Are we going to get out of this?" Water sluiced across the deck and gurgled into the scuppers as the boat labored through the shrieking elements.

"Of course!" He forced himself to smile and licked salt spray from his lips.

"You don't lie very well. Tell me the truth."

"We're not far from Fort Dionysus. If the storm doesn't get any worse we will make it easily."

"And if the storm gets worse?"

He shrugged. "Figure it out for yourself: we won't make it."

"Shit! This was such a stupid idea! Now we're all going to die. If I get out of this I'm going to get a new job."

"Why are you here?" Grisha shouted to be heard over the storm.

She gave him a level look and smiled. "Don't worry your pretty little head about it. The less you know the better off you'll be."

Grisha repressed the flare of anger.

Suddenly Karpov, blood streaming down the side of his head, erupted out of the companionway, slid across the soaking deck on his knees, and tackled Valari. She screamed and pounded his head with her fists.

"What are you doing, you ass?" she screamed at him. "Have you lost your mind?"

Still on his knees, the beefy man gripped her shirt with one hand, slapped her face with the other. Blood arced from her cut lip. The small sound from deep in her throat jerked open Grisha's gut anger.

Holding the wheel with one hand, he turned and snap-kicked Karpov as hard as he could in the side of the head. Still clutching Valari, Karpov flew backward and his head smashed into the fishing-gear compartment. The door to the locker swung open as he flopped on the deck, spasming as he tried to retain consciousness.

Valari squirmed out from under Karpov's twitching mass. "Thank you, Captain Grisha. I think he would have really hurt me this time." She staggered across the shifting deck and hugged him fiercely. He put one arm around her. "I owe you for that one," she said.

With a gasp she was wrenched out of his grasp and flung across the bridge deck by a seething Karpov. The large man didn't even look back at the woman. He stood glaring at Grisha, rain and blood running down his face as bruises and lumps purpled and thickened.

"I relieve you of command!" he said with a growl, and swung his massive fist at Grisha's face.

Grisha released the wheel, ducked under the swing and put all of his weight behind a two-fisted uppercut to Karpov's solar plexus. Air whoofed out of the larger man and he staggered back three steps. Grisha kicked him in the crotch as hard as he could. Karpov doubled over with a moan and fell heavily.

Grisha grabbed the spinning wheel and gave his attention to straightening the boat, which had immediately turned broadside to the wind. Pravda lurched sideways off a wave top and slid to the bottom of the trough with a crash. He felt thankful the boat hadn't rolled down the liquid incline.

Seawater crashed into the open bridge, soaking it and everyone on it. Gear spilled out of the fishing locker and slid around the deck. On the other side of the bridge, Valari pulled herself to her feet and clung to the railing, shivering.

Karpov shook his head and swung from the deck to bury his fist in Grisha's stomach, smashing him against the bulkhead and knocking him breathless. Grisha slid down on the deck, gasping. The boat again put beam to the wind and rolled heavily to starboard, hanging for an impossibly long time before rolling back to port.

More seawater inundated them. The bridge deck swirled with the increasing water the scuppers couldn't handle.

"Wheel!" Grisha gasped. "Get the wheel!"

Karpov threw himself on Grisha and hit him with three hammering blows. The vessel lurched in the moaning gale and crunched into a trough. Crockery shattered in the galley and Grisha twisted his body and threw Karpov off him.

He rolled over and pushed himself up, tried to hit Karpov but couldn't find a target the few times he could put any strength behind his fist. Valari grabbed the wheel and turned it back and forth uselessly.

"Into the wind!" he screamed. "Turn into the wi—"

Karpov's fist drove the oxygen from his lungs again. Grisha crashed back on the deck. The heavy man straddled him and began choking him with both hands.

Grisha stared at the hate-filled eyes in the bloody face. He dimly realized this was the first fight he'd been in since he got married. He felt his windpipe crackle and knew he was going to die very soon.

The lack of air became more pressing than the pain. He tried to struggle. But his arms lacked strength, pinned under the Russian's massive weight. Spots swam redly before his eyes.

Karpov lurched violently, his jaw dropped open and his eyes lost focus. The terrible crushing at Grisha's throat eased as the man collapsed on him. The medicinal scent of vodka mingled with his last shuddering breath.

Karpov suddenly rolled off Grisha and flopped on the deck, arms flung wide, and slid to the back of the boat in the quarter meter of water running across the deck. Valari pulled back the foot she had used to push Karpov's corpse and stood braced against the console. Blood and rain dripped off the steel spike on the halibut club in her hands.

"Get up and drive this goddamned thing!" she screamed, waving the club.

Even though Grisha felt like lying there and going to sleep, he rolled over and dragged himself up into the captain's chair bolted to the deck. Pravda rolled heavily to starboard again, and he grasped the wheel, turning to follow the roll, praying the tiller would grab enough water to keep from completely rolling over. Seawater seeped over the starboard gunwale as the boat pushed into multiple tons of brine.

Pravda edged slowly into the keening wind, the laboring diesel barely audible, and slowly, reluctantly, creaked back to port. His head and throat ached. Every breath felt like fire. The spots dancing in front of his eyes gradually evolved into rain drops.

"This isn't good weather for fishing," he said in a croak and shook his head. He pointed the bow into the wind and increased the throttle. Pravda surged against the storm and slowly made headway.

He estimated the waves to be ten meters from trough to top.

Valari huddled against the far bulkhead, braced and sobbing. "What are we going to do?"

They were both soaked to the skin. The ocean temperature rarely warmed more than eight or ten degrees above freezing. With the squall blowing in excess of fifty knots, they both were in the depths of hypothermia.

"We're going to live!" he said roughly, wincing at the pain in his throat. "We beat him, we can beat the storm!"

"I'm so cold!" she wailed.

"Go below, first locker on your right. Coats. Bring me one, too."

The few minutes she took seemed like hours to him. She reemerged bundled in a coat too large for her and handed him a foul-weather jacket. He shrugged into the dry coat and knew he was going to be all right.

"We m-must get rid of that," she said, nodding toward Karpov's bloody body. She was all business again, the tears gone but teeth still chattering. "B-but how?"

"Why do we have to get rid of him?"

"You f-fool! We've k-killed one of the Czar's co-cossacks! The Okhana will hang us both for that."

"Find something heavy," he said. "Tie it to him. Once we're out of the weather, we'll dump him over. Tell them he fell over the side when he was drunk. They'll believe us."

She gave him a look of respect and something else—he didn't know what. Despite the heavy weather she conducted a quick search, and dragged out Karpov's heavy tackle kit.

"Will this do?" Color had returned to her face and she no longer shivered. She only held the rail with one hand and didn't watch her feet. Grisha decided she was a natural sailor.

"Open it. He brought that onboard. I want to see what's in it."

Valari grabbed the halibut club and brought it down with on the kit with a crash. The broken padlock skittered across the deck. She unsnapped the clasps and threw the lid open. Oily metal glistened from the box.

"What the hell?" Grisha said.

Valari pulled out a gleaming pistol, twisted it about while she examined it and released the rail to pull the slide open to look into the chamber. She had handled weapons before. Grisha felt his stomach drop. Other pistols rested in the box.

"Kharitikoff, nine-millimeter," she announced. "Holds a clip of seven rounds, accurate up to twenty meters. An excellent weapon."

Over the last seven years Grisha had carried many illegal items on his boat, but never this. He had two rifles locked in their rack down in the main cabin, but pistols?

"Do you know what they do to you if they catch you with an unauthorized handgun?" Grisha asked, horror in his voice. "They take your dominant hand off at the wrist!"

She looked at him for a long moment, then returned the pistol to the box and shut it. "Where's the rope?"

Grisha pointed to another locker. "In there, but for now just hang on."

The boat dropped heavily into another trough as he worked his way toward land.

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