What’s True, What’s Not
The Demon Crown Prologue
About the Author
About the Publisher
January 21, 9:07 a.m.
Now you don’t see that every day . . .
From the vantage of his horse’s saddle, Commander Gray Pierce watched the twelve-foot saltwater crocodile amble across the beach. A moment ago, it had appeared out of the rainforest and aimed for the neighboring sea, completely ignoring the trio of horses standing nearby.
Amused and awed, Gray studied its passage. Yellow fangs glinted in the morning sun; a thick-armored tail balanced its swaying bulk. Its presence was a reminder that the prehistoric past of this remote stretch of northern Australia was still very much alive. Even the rainforest behind them was the last vestige of a jungle that once stretched across the continent, a fragment dating back some 140 million years, all but untouched by the passage of time.
As the crocodile finally slipped into the waves and vanished, Seichan frowned at Gray from atop her own horse. “And you still want to go diving in those waters?”
The final member of their group—who was acting as their guide—dismissed her concern with a wave of a darkly tanned hand. “No worries. That particular salty bloke is a mere ankle biter. Quite small.”
“Small?” Seichan lifted an eyebrow skeptically.
The Aussie grinned. “Some of the males can grow to be seven meters or more, topping off at over a thousand kilos.” He nudged his horse and led them across the beach. “But like I said, not much to fret about. Salties generally only kill two people a year.”
Seichan cast a withering look at Gray, her emerald eyes flashing in the sunlight. She plainly did not want to fill that particular quota today. She tossed the length of her black ponytail over a shoulder in obvious irritation as she set off after their guide.
Gray watched her depart for a breath, appreciating the grace of her movements. The sight of her almond skin glistening in the sweltering heat drew him after her.
As he joined her, she glanced to the rainforest. “We could still turn back. Spend the day in the lodge’s spa, like we’d planned.”
Gray smiled at her. “What? After we came all this way?”
He wasn’t just referring to the trail ride to reach this isolated stretch of beach.
For the past half year, the two of them had been slowly circumnavigating the globe, part of a sabbatical from their work with Sigma Force. They had been moving place to place with no itinerary in mind. After leaving D.C., they had spent a month in a medieval village in France, then flew on to Kenya, where they drifted from tent camp to tent camp, moving with the timeless flow of animal life found there. Eventually, they found themselves amid the teeming sprawl of Mumbai, India, enjoying humanity at its most riotous. Then over the past three weeks, they had driven across the breadth of Australia, starting in Perth to the east, traversing the dusty roads through the Outback, until finally reaching Port Douglas on Australia’s tropical northeast coast.
Seichan nodded to their guide. “Who knows where this guy is really taking us?”
“I think we can trust him.”
Though the two of them had been traveling the globe under false papers, Gray had never doubted that Sigma was covertly keeping track of their whereabouts. This became self-evident last night, when upon returning from a day hike into the Daintree Rainforest, they had stumbled upon a familiar figure holed up in their hotel’s lounge, belting down a whiskey, trying to act inconspicuous.
Gray eyed the broad back of their rugged Aussie guide. The man’s name was Benjamin Brust. The fifty-year-old Australian happened to be the stepfather of Sigma’s young intelligence analyst, Jason Carter. The Aussie had also helped Sigma resolve a situation a year or so ago in Antarctica.
So to find the man seated in their hotel bar . . .
Ben had tried to dismiss the chance encounter as mere coincidence, quoting Casablanca at the time. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . .”
Gray hadn’t bought it.
Ben had recognized this and simply shrugged it off, as if to say, Okay, you caught me.
From Ben’s presence, Gray realized that Sigma’s director must have leaned on former colleagues and associates to keep an eye on the pair during their half-year sojourn.
Accepting this reality, Gray hadn’t pressed Ben on his subterfuge. Exposed and apparently apologetic for agreeing to spy on them, the man had offered to take them on a guided tour to a few of the region’s highlights, spots known only to the locals.
Judging by the scuba gear they carried with them, Gray expected they were likely headed to some remote dive spot. Ben had refused to offer any further details, but from the mischievous gleam in his blue eyes, he had some surprise in store for them.
“We can tie the horses in the shade over there.” Ben pointed an arm toward a tumble of rocks amid a copse of palm trees.
Gray leaned toward Seichan. “See, we’re already here.”
She grumbled under her breath, while maintaining a wary watch on the beach and forest. He recognized the tension in her back. Even after months on the road, she refused to let her guard down. He had come to accept it. Trained from a young age to be an assassin, she’d had paranoia and suspicion incorporated into her DNA.
In fact, Gray shared some of that same genetic code, courtesy of his stint with the Army Rangers and his years with Sigma Force, which operated under the auspices of DARPA, the Defense Department’s research-and-development agency. Members of Sigma Force acted as covert field agents for DARPA, protecting the globe against various burgeoning threats.
In such a line of work, paranoia was a survival skill.
Still . . .
“Let’s just try to enjoy this adventure,” Gray said.
Seichan shrugged. “A hot stone massage would’ve been enough of an adventure for me.”
They reached the tumble of boulders and dismounted. In short order, they had their horses secured.
Ben stretched a kink from his back with a rattling sigh, then pointed to a forested promontory jutting into the blue sea. “Welcome to Cape Tribulation. Where the rainforest meets the reef.”
“It is stunning,” Seichan admitted with some clear reluctance.
“Only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites butt up against one another.” Ben pointed to the forest. “You got the Wet Tropics of Queensland over there.” He then squinted out to sea. “And the Great Barrier Reef stretching way out there.”
Seichan kicked off her sandals and wandered farther along the beach, her gaze taking in the sight of the jungle-shrouded cliffs tumbling into the crashing waves. Birdcalls echoed across the beach, while the perfume of the fragrant forest mixed with the bitter salt of the Coral Sea.
Gray stared appreciatively after her, which Ben noted.
“Quite the sight,” he said with a big grin. “You should put a ring on that finger before you lose your chance.”
Gray scowled at him and waved to the laden horses. “Let’s unpack our gear.”
As they worked, Gray nodded to the promontory. “How’d this place get the name Tribulation?” he asked. “Looks pretty damned peaceful to me.”
“Ah, you can blame that on the poor navigation skills of Captain James Cook. Back in the eighteenth century, he ran his ship aground on Endeavour Reef.” Ben pointed out to sea. “Tore out a section of the keel and almost lost his boat. Only through some desperate measures were they able to keep her afloat and manage repairs. Cook named the place Cape Tribulation, writing in his logb
ook ‘here begun all our troubles.’”
“And not just for Captain Cook,” Seichan called back to them, plainly overhearing Ben’s explanation. She pointed down the beach, drawing both men toward her.
As Gray cleared the rock pile, he spotted a mound half buried in the sand and draped in strands of seaweed. A pale, outstretched arm rested atop the beach.
They hurried over. The dead man lay on his back, his eyes open and glazed. His legs were covered by wet sand but his exposed chest was striped with blackened marks, as if he’d been lashed with a flaming whip.
Ben dropped to his knees with a sharp curse. “Simon . . .”
Gray crinkled his brow. “You know this man?”
“He’s the reason we’re all here.” Ben gazed out to sea, plainly searching the waters. “He was a biologist working for the Australian Research Council. Part of the Coral Reef Study. He was out here monitoring the spread of coral bleaching. It’s knocked out two-thirds of the reef. A bloody international disaster. One Simon was trying to prevent from spreading.”
Seichan frowned at the blackened stripes across his body. “What happened to him?”
Ben spat into the sand as he stood. “Chironex fleckeri.”
“And that would be what?” Gray pressed.
Gray studied the ravaged body, noting the rictus of pain frozen on the dead man’s face. Seichan gently picked up his outstretched hand, examining the pliability of the fingers. She glanced significantly at Gray.
At these warm temperatures, with his body baking in the sun, rigor mortis would have set in within four hours. Which meant he’d died recently.
“Makes no sense,” Ben muttered as he stepped away, rubbing the stubble across his chin and cheek.
Gray followed him, hearing the worry behind his words. “What makes no sense?”
Ben waved to their gear spread over the sand. “It’s why I hauled in full wet suits. While the seas around here might be plenty warm enough to go skinny-dipping in, you don’t go diving in these waters without covering yourself up.”
While unpacking the gear, Gray had noted the set of Ocean Reef Neptune masks, meant to cover a diver’s face and head. They even had integrated comm units to allow them to communicate with each other underwater.
“Simon would’ve known better than to go swimming in these waters without proper protection.” Ben gave another shake of his head. “Something’s bloody wrong here. Where’s his catamaran? Where are the others?”
“Others?” Gray asked.
“He was working with a small team from ANFOG.” Ben noted his confusion. “The Australian National Facility for Ocean Gliders. They’re a group of oceanographers that deploy underwater gliders, unmanned drones that patrol the reefs. The devices can continuously sample water, monitoring temperature, salinity, light levels.”
“To help study the coral bleaching,” Gray said.
“There were four scientists from the University of Western Australia aboard his boat, along with a graduate student.” Ben glanced with concern at Gray. “Simon’s daughter, Kelly.”
The others wouldn’t have abandoned the dead man, especially his daughter.
Seichan joined him, her brows pinched with suspicion. “You said the dead man was the reason we’re here. Why?”
“Simon knew I was up in the Queensland area. He wanted to see if I might help him solve a mystery. One suited to my particular skill set.”
Gray frowned. “What skill set?”
“At mapping and traversing tricky cavern systems.”
Gray knew the man’s history. He was formerly with the Australian army, specializing in infiltration and extractions. He had been recruited from a military prison to help with an operation in Antarctica two decades ago, one involving an unexplored cavern system and a missing team of scientists.
“What did Simon want with your skills here?” Gray asked.
“Three days ago, one of the group’s gliders revealed the opening to an underwater cave, likely exposed from the cyclone that swept this coast last month.”
Seichan crossed her arms. “And he wanted you to help explore it. Why?”
“Because of what he found in the sand at its entrance. A set of old manacles and a half-buried ship’s bell. They recovered the objects and found a name inscribed on the bell. The Trident.”
Ben glanced between them to see if they recognized the name.
“The Trident was a convict ship that transported prisoners from Great Britain to Australia. While docked in Melbourne in 1852, a group of prisoners teamed up with a handful of the ship’s mutinous crew. They commandeered the Trident, absconding with several crates of gold mined from the Victorian goldfields. After that, the ship vanished into history.”
“Until now,” Seichan commented drily.
Gray stared out at the promontory jutting into the sea. “Perhaps Captain Cook wasn’t the only one who had trouble navigating these waters.”
“That’s certainly true. You can find plenty of shipwrecks out there. Like the ruins of S.S. Yongala farther south. It sank during a cyclone a century ago.”
Seichan sighed. “So you brought us to the edge of a graveyard of ships.”
“I thought you might like to do a little treasure hunting with us. I never thought . . .” His words died away as he glanced at the remains of his friend.
“If this is truly foul play,” Gray said, “then someone else must have caught wind of Simon’s discovery. What else did your friend tell you?”
“Only to meet him here, and if he was delayed, to head to the coordinates of the glider’s discovery.”
Ben pointed to the promontory of Cape Tribulation. “On the far side of that ridge.”
Before he could drop his arm, a sharp chatter of gunfire echoed from that direction. A startled flock of birds took flight from the forest near there.
Knowing what this implied, Gray cursed himself for leaving his satellite phone back in D.C., but the device was Sigma property.
“With no cell signal and no radio,” Gray said, “we have no way of alerting authorities.”
“So what do we do?” Ben asked.
Gray turned his back on the sea and stalked toward their gear. “We suit up and get to work.”
As Seichan swam from the shallows to the deeper water, her body shed the dulling months of relaxation. With each stroke and kick, an icy coldness suffused her limbs. It sharpened her senses, honing her reflexes. The weeks of leisure faded into a dream, proving how illusory those months had been.
She settled into that cold center of her being. Her true nature was as coldblooded as any shark in these warm waters, predators that needed to keep moving to survive.
It was a lesson she knew all too well.
She followed behind Gray and Ben as they glided over the bright reefs. She studied Gray’s physique, the kick of muscular legs, the sweep of his arms. She remembered the glint in his eyes as he turned from the seas to prepare for this dive.
Like her, he was in his element.
After recent events back in the States, the two of them had attempted to flee, to vanish for a spell, to use the time to heal, to discover each other in new ways. And they had. But they both seemed to sense that such a sojourn could not last.
It wasn’t who they were.
She felt that even more keenly now.
Accepting this, she took in her surroundings. Life stirred all
around her, as rich as the densest jungle. The trio whisked through a school of sleek black-and-silver barracuda, scattering them like a flock of birds. Sea turtles hung motionless in the water, watching them pass with unblinking eyes, while gorgonian sea fans waved from ridges of hard coral. Elsewhere, eagle and manta rays glided out of their way with an unearthly elegance. For several yards, a googly-eyed grouper as large as a Volkswagen van paced alongside them before losing interest and lumbering away.
Across this wonderland, they slowly made their way along the promontory, intending to circle past its tip to reach the far side. Their only weapons were the element of surprise and one dive knife each. Seichan regretted their lack of firepower, especially after hearing those earlier rifle blasts.
“Slow up,” Ben radioed through their comm units.
As they bunched together, Seichan reached a gloved hand to the sandy bottom to steady herself. Before she could touch the seabed, Ben knocked her arm away.
“Watch yourself,” he warned.
The sand where she had been about to place her palm suddenly sprouted spines. A creature burst from beneath the silt—and swam away.
“Stonefish,” Ben explained. “Most venomous fish in the world. Get stung badly enough by those spines, you can die in seconds. Sometimes just from the sheer pain. Only safe place to grab them is by the tail.”
She retracted her hand to her chest.
“We’ve cleared the promontory,” Ben informed them, while checking a wrist GPS. “I’ll take the lead from here as we head back along the far side toward Simon’s coordinates.”
The coordinates of a dead man.
If that thought wasn’t ominous enough, the terrain around them quickly changed—from multicolored splendor to gray desert. They had reached a section of the bleached reef. Sea life appeared to have fled the desolation.
“My god . . .” Gray mumbled.
Ben explained as they worked back toward shore, using the distraction to temper the tension. “It’s not as hopeless as it appears. The bleached coral is still alive. It’s just been stressed by the higher temperatures to expel the symbiotic algae that give the reef its vibrant colors. If left unchecked, the coral polyps will eventually die. But if the stressors can be eliminated in time, the reefs can return to life. Unfortunately, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered back-to-back bleaching events. If this continues, by some estimates, the entire reef could vanish in the next couple decades.”