The Iron Fin
The Iron Fin
A vampiric octopus hunting selkies.
A torrid love affair.
Traitors who prey on those closest to them in a bid for power.
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Isa McQuiston is caught between two worlds. Strange creatures are attacking her people, their injuries beyond her medical expertise. More than one fisherman has been tossed ashore by the waves, drained of blood, a severed tentacle piercing his flesh. To find answers, she must forge a cautious alliance with the outsider making inquiries… even if he does present an almost irresistible temptation.
Dr. Alec McCullough, an injured naval officer, is restless and bored. Until his brother—an agent for the Crown—offers him an assignment: investigate a recent rash of unexplained octopus attacks. On the wet and windy Hebridean Isles, his every effort is met with resistance. Coaxing an attractive young widow—the local healer—to allow him to examine the latest victim only leads to further complications.
A fusion of living and mechanical components, the creatures follow instinct, but also command. Together, they uncover layers of deceit, revealing traitorous tentacles that entangle both their lives. As those behind their creation callously sacrifice innocent lives in pursuit of their goals, Isa and Alec struggle to forge a future together while attempting to prevent a disaster of international proportions.
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111K words | 520 pages | April 10, 2018
- Selkie Heroine
- Military Hero
- Forced Proximity
- Mysterious Deaths
- Mad Science
Chapter One Look Inside
Chapter One Look Inside
Alec McCullough bit back a slew of curse words. Not a damn thing was wrong, but he couldn't shake a feeling of impending doom. He ran a complete systems check for the third time, but couldn't find any reason to scrub the mission.
Everything inside the escape hatch was in perfect working order. Every last dial, gauge and meter indicated that all systems functioned within normal limits. Outside the submersible, saltwater density held constant. Speed was at a minimum, and they drifted silently at neutral buoyancy, holding at periscope depth.
“Something wrong?” Moray’s voice—tense and clipped—echoed in the metal tube. He too hoped for a reason to abort.
Davis, the only teammate enthused about this assignment, gave Alec a sharp glance and tapped the face of the countdown timer. “Five minutes until exit. Time to call it, Mac.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he answered, his neck tight. Any and all objections had been dutifully noted yesterday—and dismissed. He pulled his dive goggles into place. “We’re a go.”
Cleared for a stealthy exit into the frigid, Scottish sea loch. Ready to rise upward through the dark waters to board an unsuspecting vessel where—sources indicated—Icelandic spies floated, posing as fishermen.
Barring the unlikely appearance of an irate loch kraken, nothing should go awry.
The team’s mission was sneak and peek. Find out what information the men on the boat were after. Avoid confrontation and discovery. Employing a submersible turned a simple, low-priority operation into an elaborate, risky maneuver. Why not slip quietly into the loch from the shore? Why employ such a high-risk technique that would stress the limits of their aquaspira breathers?
This was only the first of two red flags.
He glanced again at Davis. Yesterday, his teammate had stumbled. Over nothing. If Alec hadn’t been looking in his direction, he would never have caught the awkward sidestep. Minor, yes, but the BURR—Benthic Underwater Reconnaissance and Rescue—team required each man to be in perfect form. A slight imbalance on shore might translate underwater into complete vestibular disorientation.
Irrational orders and a man with a balance disorder. That was what had Alec on pins and needles. Despite their reputation in the Navy, BURR men were not indestructible.
As head of his team, he’d expressed such misgivings to his CO. Though Fernsby dismissed his concerns about Davis, his jaw had tightened in unhappy agreement with Alec’s objection to the planned submersible depth. But someone high above both their pay grades wanted this exit technique tested. Yesterday.
The operation proceeded as planned. Three fully-outfitted BURR men crammed in a narrow steel tube—some twenty-five feet below the wind-whipped waves of Loch Broom—were about to attempt the first covert exit of a fully submerged O-class submersible. Fifteen feet below established safety standards.
Thirty seconds left. At the surface, Shaw and Rowen would be in position, staging an exercise on the water’s surface designed to draw the attention of the so-called fishermen, while Alec and his men emerged from beneath, undetected.
Davis looked at him through the thick glass of his diving goggles and spoke around his mouthpiece, “Ready?”
Alec glanced again at the indicator lights. Still green. Time to move. He nodded and spoke the required command. “Open the seawater valve.” There would be no more verbal communication until they reached the surface.
Moray took point, cranking it open.
Water streamed around the outer pressure door and flooded the chamber—ankles, knees, waist. He clamped his lips around the mouthpiece of his aquaspira breather. The loch’s water was cold. Though BURR members were used to cold and wet, hypothermia made for a deadly enemy. Hence the black, vulcanized rubber dry suits they wore. They were heavy, awkward, and required constant maintenance. Still, no one complained. The insulation was essential for the long hours they spent submerged in temperatures often below fifty degrees. As the water pressure increased, the dry suit squeezed tightly against his body, and the swirling currents slowed. Time to leave.
Lifting a large, metal wrench from the hatch floor, he banged out a message for those still inside, announcing their imminent departure. Moray twisted the hatch’s exit wheel, pushed it outward, and began to kick, finning upward and outward.
Davis followed, then Alec. But halfway through the circular opening, Alec slammed into him. The red light from his phosphorescent headlamp illuminated a man, suspended motionless in the dark waters.
Bloody hell. Aquaspira scrubber failure. Hypoxic blackout. Exactly what he’d feared. Returning to the submersible was impossible. Davis had minutes to live, and the water would not drain from the tube fast enough. His only chance was to reach the surface.
Alec punched the sounder beacon attached to Davis’s dive belt, then slapped the UP bag. Millions of methanogenic bacteria entered a rapid growth phase releasing an ever-increasing amount of gas that shot his teammate to the surface. So much for a slow and safe ascent.
Mission failure. There’d be no covert observation or boarding of any ship today. They’d be lucky not to lose a man.
Alec activated his own beacon and began to kick his way free of the submersible door when there was a horrible metallic groan and a loud bang. The rim of the hatch smashed into his right knee, scraping along the side of his calf, catching his ankle, dragging him downward.
An excursion. Freshwater from the hills and rivers feeding into the loch had amassed and run smack up against a mass of salt water from the ocean, forming a kind of wall. One they had unexpectedly crossed. The sudden decrease in water density sent the vessel into an abrupt dive, not unlike a raft going over an unanticipated waterfall.
Excruciating pain radiated through his leg as the hatch door ripped the flipper from his foot and frigid water trickled into his dry suit. A tear. Alec punched his own UP bag and began to kick furiously as ice-cold water crept upward, reaching his waist. He glanced at his depth gauge. Fuck.
Despite his efforts, he’d been dragged downward a good ten feet, maybe more. The rip in his dry suit had compromised his ascent. No matter how hard he kicked, he wasn’t rising any closer to the surface. Not even the UP bag could compensate.
Negative buoyancy—the point at which he would sink instead of float—threatened. White and black spots flashed before his eyes in warning as he ripped the weighted belt from his waist. He kicked. A pause in his strokes. A glance at the gauge. He’d only managed to maintain position. Water slipped over his chest to his armpits, inching its way toward his neck.
What would kill him first as he sank to the bottom of the loch? The increasing water pressure or hypothermia?
Shit. This was the end. A watery grave because some politician didn’t care if he pushed BURR to their technical limits. His family would be notified that he’d succumbed to an “unfortunate accident” during a mission. Mother would be distraught. His sister would be left wondering. At least his brothers would know what happened.
Small comfort that.
Alec fought to keep his breathing from growing shallow, fought to keep his arms and legs moving and redoubled his efforts even though it felt as if he was swimming through honey. Muscle contraction generated heat. He would quit when he was dead and not a moment before.
Something slammed into his shoulder, a claw of some sort gripped his dry suit and tugged him upward. Though the lights in his eyes continued to dance, a new color joined them. Red. The same eerie phosphorescent glow his own headlamp emitted.
Could it be? No. He’d sunk too far. He was hallucinating. There was no way Moray could have reached him, not at this depth.
Except his depth gauge told him otherwise. He blinked. Twenty-five feet and rising. His heart gave a thud of hope. Perhaps today was not his last.
They stopped for decompression. Alec stared through the hazy glow of two combined underwater headlamps. It was Moray. The best swimmer on the crew. But how the hell had he managed to follow him when the submersible took a dive? Or drop to almost forty feet, recover Alec, and head for the surface—all while fighting the negative pull of gravity?
Moray hauled him upward again. Alec kicked, but a fiery pain burst through his right knee. The injury screamed an objection that not even the icy water could quell. He struggled to keep his breathing steady, but the dancing lights returned followed by oblivion.
* * *
Pain erupted, and Alec drew in a ragged breath. Atmospheric air. His eyes registered a blur of white clouds overhead. A face swam into focus above his. Shaw, close friend and teammate, bent over him as he slapped two sticks on either side of his damaged leg.
“Hell of a way to land yourself on desk duty.” Shaw’s voice was cheerful. That alone was suspicious. Combined with a blank face, it meant everything had gone pear-shaped. “Better you than me, though. The way that Icelandic fishing vessel rocketed out of here?” He shook his head. “Paperwork on this disaster is going to be endless.”
Beneath him, the floor rocked. The deck of a ship. “Davis?” His speech was slurred, and he focused on the clouds overhead as if willpower alone could stop him from passing out again.
Shaw wound a length of canvas about the brace so tightly that Alec nearly bit off his tongue trying not to howl. “Rowan caught him on his way up.”
“Alive?” Alec gritted through his teeth.
“Hold tight.” Shaw sidestepped the question. “I’m going to give you something for the pain.”
A needle jabbed into his thigh. Blessed numbness began to spread down his leg. But it also crept upward to his hip. Soon the drug would pull him under, and he needed to know if Davis had made it.
“Tell me,” Alec demanded. How much damage had some politician’s grand plan done?
“Mostly. Rowan dragged him from the water and put him on an oxygen mask.”
“Aquaspira failure?” They malfunctioned with alarming regularity, despite efforts to fix problems with the CO2 scrubber. Add to that the technicians’ decree to not use the breathers below the established limit of ten feet, and it was a likely statistical probability. A fact the higher-ups always attempted to overlook, much to their irritation.
“Our first assumption,” Shaw said. “But he presented with acute pulmonary edema and symptoms pointing to an acute cerebrovascular event. It doesn’t look good, but we’re doing all we can. Dirigible transport already has him in the air.”
A stroke? A sick feeling compressed Alec’s gut. Had he witnessed a warning sign yesterday when Davis stumbled?
“You’re next. Hear that whirring? That’s ancillary transport coming for you. Next stop, Glaister Institute, section five. We’ll find the prettiest nurse we can for your sponge bath.”
Airlifting him to the hospital. Never a good sign. A kind of numbness fogged his brain as the painkiller worked its way through his veins. Soon he would drop into a drugged sleep. “My knee?”
Shaw sat back on his heels and gave him a twisted grin. “Nothing that threatens your ability to contribute to the next generation.”
Alec barked a laugh. “Well thank aether for that. A reason to live.” He should welcome the banter, let it distract him. But he just couldn’t leave it alone. “Tell me. The truth, not some fairy tale.”
“Truth?” Shaw whistled through his teeth and shook his head. “Your knee’s pretty messed up. It crunched when I moved it. I’m not sure the Queen’s men can put it together again.”
Shit. Worse than he’d thought. Cold sweat broke out across his body and he shivered. If they took his leg, they took his freedom. Life behind a desk, at a laboratory bench, or—worse—attending patients would be intolerable.
He grabbed Shaw’s wrist. “Fly with me. Don’t let them take my leg.”
“I’m coming. But, McCullough, it’s bad.” Pain floated in his eyes.
“I want to wiggle the toes I was born with when I wake up.” He tightened his grip on Shaw’s arm. “Find Dr. Morgan. Promise.”
Of late, Navy surgeons were all too eager to install the latest prosthetics rather than undertake the extensive work of surgery to repair, or simply replace, a limb. Dr. Morgan took a more conservative approach.
“You know I don’t make promises.” Shaw’s face was tight. “Not even to pretty girls. And you’re far too ugly. But I’ll find this Dr. Morgan. Make him exhaust every other option first.”
He might hate the answer, but he could trust a teammate’s word. And Dr. Morgan. Alec exhaled and let the drug take him under.
* * *
He blinked up at the blue of an overhead low-pressure mercury vapor light. Cold, hard steel met his fingertips. A rubber mask pressed to his face exhaled with a faint hiss and a hint of ether. He began to float toward the ceiling.
Above him, an oval coalesced into a familiar face, and Shaw’s voice drifted in. “Good news, Mac. The doc found a solution. Bumped you ahead of another patient. Guess he likes you.”
Alec tried to lift a hand to the mask.
“Easy now,” Shaw said. “Leave it be. We’ve got this. When you wake up, it’ll all be better.”
The lights grew brighter for a moment. Then, with a flash, darkness descended.
* * *
A swish of skirts, leather heels tapped a rhythm against linoleum, both coming to a rest beside him. A pen nib scratched across paper, and two soft fingers pressed against the pulse point of his wrist. He must be in the Fifth Ward, hidden away in the basement of Glaister Institute.
“Water.” His voice scratched.
“You’re awake,” the nurse gasped, turning for the door. “I’ll find the doctor.”
Her footfalls faded as someone at his side released a long-suffering sigh. “Scaring away the nurses already with your incessant demands.”
Alec peeled open desert-dry eyelids as the hulking form that was Rowan unfolded himself from a nearby chair. “You on guard duty?”
“Keeping an eye on things,” Rowan answered, pouring a glass of water and pressing it into his hand. “This doc of yours seems trustworthy, but the rest?” He shook his head. “You want me to leave you—drugged into unconsciousness—with bored surgeons roaming the halls? They have as many sharp blades as we do, not to mention other torture devices.”
A grin cracked Alec’s dry lips but fell away when his eyes focused on a square lump beneath the scratchy wool blankets. His heart slammed against his sternum, beating wildly. Forcing words past his lips, he asked a question he wasn’t certain he wished answered. “Is it all still there, my knee? Leg?”
“Took the doc nine hours to piece you back together, Humpty Dumpty. Said the only other options were to fuse the joint or take the leg.”
Hand trembling, Alec took a sip before setting the glass down and reaching for the blanket. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he yanked the blanket aside. Linen. Yards and yards of it wrapped about his knee. All of this surrounded by a square, metal cage from which rods extended into—and possibly through—his knee.
He looked to his toes. Still there. He wiggled them. Still functioning. He flexed his ankle and felt the starched sheet beneath his heel. But all sensation to the knee was gone.
Dr. Morgan appeared in his doorway, a wide-eyed nurse behind him. “Good to see you awake, Dr. McCullough.” He glanced at Rowen, amused. “You have a most protective group of large friends. I can’t say I’ve ever operated under such… close observation.”
“He means threats,” Rowen clarified. “Shaw promised to remove the Doc’s own leg if he mucked up the installation. He posted me here to ensure your exceptional care continues.”
“Installation?” Alec felt numb.
The doctor cleared his throat. “The cage is temporary. Do not attempt to bend your knee yet. The soft tissue I managed to save needs time to heal. Two weeks at a minimum.” The surgeon’s next words dropped a giant soul-crushing weight upon his chest. “Unfortunately, the bone and cartilage of the knee joint itself was beyond repair. I’ve replaced it with the arthroflex, an experimental artificial knee joint.”
Artificial? Experimental? Fuck. They’d never let him dive again.
Selkies! In this cold and wet story, we head north to Scotland. I love how the author blends science and fantasy and folklore and romance into an exciting adventure. And those octopuses!