Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to bring you the opening chapter from Wayne Hammer’s sci-fi thriller Shifts. The novel weaves elements of genetics and espionage into a story about a man, Michael Duchesne, and the potentially world-changing implications of a DNA mutation secret he’s keeping.
* * *
An elderly couple walked within a few feet of the boat slip. The woman slightly rotated her frail body and hunched her shoulders to keep the chilled morning air from leaking in over the collar of her oversized windbreaker. She paused for a moment and then left her husband’s side to stroll toward the edge of the dock. When she got to the railing, she leaned over to get a better look at the sixty-five-foot ketch gently rocking in its berth.
Dr. Herman Walenz stood beside his wife of fifty years, his breathing calm and even for the first time in months. He’d been looking forward to a much-needed break from his work. Since the publicity surrounding his groundbreaking research, tensions had grown. The scientific community was in uproar. Jealous colleagues had clawed at his reputation and torn his controversial theory to shreds.
Sofie Walenz suggested that a vacation to Maui might be a worthwhile diversion. Herman agreed. Sofie suffered from chronic motion sickness, so when a tour company suggested a sailing excursion while on holiday, she insisted that her husband go on the adventure without her.
The couple looked the sailboat over a second time and then walked back toward the slip’s ramp. They stopped about ten feet from the sign-in station where a tall woman with muscular arms shuffled papers. She wore a white sun visor with a large bill; when she came out from behind the counter to extend a greeting, her tightly bound ponytail bounced with the movement of her head.
“Hello, are you joining us this morning?” she asked.
The white-haired man fiddled in his jacket pocket for a folded paper. “Walenz is the name, Herman Walenz. You should have my reservation.”
The woman in her early thirties responded without checking her documents. “Of course, you’re all ready to go. By the way, I’m Sheila.” She reached for her clipboard and handed him a pen. “If you don’t mind, I just need you to sign this form.”
While he looked over the paperwork, Sofie asked, “Are there other people going?”
“Your husband will have the boat almost to himself. We have only one other passenger.” Sheila pointed to a man sitting on the bench alongside the walkway, a large canvas bag at his feet.
Herman finished with the paperwork and stepped back. He placed his hand on Sofie’s arm, but before he could say anything, Sheila called for the passengers to board. He acknowledged the announcement with a raised hand and walked out onto the bridge. The old man glanced back and saw Sofie wave, only to turn and walk away before he could return the gesture.
When Herman neared the far side of the ramp, he looked up and saw a clean-shaven man with pressed shorts and a tight-fitting sport shirt.
The crewman extended his arm and grabbed the anxious traveler’s hand to steady his balance. “Nice to have you with us. I’m your skipper, Andrew. Sheila, who you met at the desk, will be our first mate. Welcome aboard.”
Herman grabbed the deck rail and carefully stepped down. The other passenger followed, slipping past him to take a seat near the helm. Sheila was last to board. She removed the clasps securing the bridge and hopped on deck.
“Andrew and I will be busy for a few minutes getting us out of harbor. Make yourselves comfortable.” And then, acknowledging her forgetfulness, “I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced you two, have I?
“Herman,” Sheila said with a hand pointed in his direction, “I’d like you to meet Frank.”
The man gave a slight nod of acknowledgement and remained seated.
Herman returned the anemic greeting with a smile and then said, “Nice to meet you.”
Sheila looked down at the oversized duffel bag blocking the walkway. “Not much room around here. Why don’t I stow that for you?” she asked Frank, reaching down to pick it up.
“That’s okay,” he replied.
Before Sheila could get the bag more than a few inches off the deck, the man snatched it from her and placed it on the seat next to him.
“Are you sure?” Sheila waited for a response while the man fiddled with the straps. “There’s quite a bit of weight in there. Lemme guess, snorkel gear?”
Herman watched the verbal exchange with interest. The man doesn’t appear to be very friendly. Maybe he’s just a quiet man, like me.
Sheila tossed the small sack she held by the drawstring down to the galley, then went to work. When she had unfastened the last tie-down, Andrew cranked the diesel engine and executed the necessary steering and throttling maneuvers to back the boat out of its mooring. Once he had cleared the buoys lining the harbor speed zone, Sheila tiptoed around the cabin sideboards to secure the boom and inspect the sail rigging.
Herman watched the activity with fascination, but found the man seated nearby a distraction. To relieve his unease, he smiled and tried to engage with the stranger. “Where are you from?”
“I live in Canada. Here on vacation,” Frank answered over the drone of the engine.
Herman felt a sudden jarring motion and the boat lurched forward. A shower of sea spray shot over the top of the hull.
Andrew responded to the yawing and gave the wheel an aggressive spin. In seconds, the movement settled and the boat skirted the outer edge of the jetty.
“As soon as we’ve cleared this area we’ll set sail and be on our way.” Andrew reached over to push on the throttle. “It’s about twenty-five minutes to Olowalu reef and then another ninety-minute sail to Molokini.”
When Herman turned back to continue his conversation with Frank, he saw that the odd man had looked away. Herman shrugged and redirected his attention to the crew’s activities.
“Have either of you sailed before?” Andrew asked from his place at the wheel.
“No, first time,” Herman called out.
Frank nodded. “Once or twice.”
“Well, you’re in for quite an experience.” When Sheila came up the stairs from the cabin’s galley, Andrew bellowed, “Let’s get sailing.”
With that directive, Sheila raced up front, broke the mainsail free from its sleeve, and then activated the automatic winch to raise the halyard. Once the mainsail was fully extended, she hoisted the jib, hand over hand, to the top of the mast. While she adjusted the tension on the front rigging, Andrew raised the sail on the mizzenmast in back.
Herman rose up and peered over the cabin to observe the first mate at work. After a few reverse cranks on the winch, the boom broke loose and the mainsail caught the wind like an air ball in a catcher’s mitt. A stiff breeze blew in from the north, and when the skipper shifted the boom’s position, the mainsail fully inflated.
As the old man followed the action, his cap blew off and landed at Frank’s feet. He reached down to retrieve it and noticed Frank’s gaze out on the open water. There, on the horizon, was another boat with a blue and white spinnaker under sail.
Herman leaned over in his seat so he could feel the cool breeze on his face. He heard the soft whistle of wind pass his ears, the slushy sound of the swells pushed aside by the slick hull, and the occasional slap of the sea.
The bright sunshine was directly in his eyes. He tilted his head down and took a deep breath—hadn’t felt this free in months—no serious thoughts to plague him, no deadlines to meet, no bad press to read. For now, his world consisted of the ocean, the wind, and the feeling of immense power as the schooner cut a generous swath through the waves.
Across from Herman, Frank sat hunched over with his elbows on his knees. As if triggered by an unconscious reminder, he rose up to look over his shoulder. The tilt of his head concealed a sly smile as he tracked the boat with its blue and white spinnaker off their stern.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the Lily Maru approached its first stop at Olowalu. The reef was a popular snorkeling and diving spot, a good place to observe sea turtles. The water was crystal clear with an abundance of coral formations visible in every direction.
From the cockpit, Andrew carefully surveyed the sea bottom, looking for a sandy patch. It took him a few minutes to find the right spot and maneuver the boat into position. Sheila then released the boom, and when she did, the mainsail deflated, bringing the boat to a near stop.
Herman watched intently as Sheila methodically relieved the rigging’s tension on the other sails.
Meanwhile, Andrew had moved to the bow to drop anchor. The clanking of the thick, rusted chain broke the silence; the plow-shaped casting penetrated the blue waters on its freefall to the seabed.
Frank stood and twisted his body from side to side. “Nice ride, huh?”
He’s talking to me? “Yes. Quite invigorating,” Herman responded.
When Sheila came stern and stepped down off the sideboard, she saw that Frank had a tight grip on his bag. “Okay, I already know you want to snorkel.” Then she turned to Herman. “We’ll either look for wildlife or have a sailing lesson.”
“I’d like that, either one.”
“I assume you’ve done this before?” she asked Frank, gesturing out to sea.
“You’ll be the only one in, so stay close, within thirty yards.”
“Not a problem.”
“I’ll drop the ladder in a minute.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Sheila heard Frank say as she turned to retrieve her sunglasses from behind the windshield. When Sheila looked up, Frank had moved portside, his shirt unbuttoned.
While the eager man drew Sheila’s attention, Herman focused on the skipper, talking on the marine phone. Andrew’s eyes became thin slits, his lips tightly pursed. What appeared to be a look of concern swept over him.
Herman wondered: Might there be a problem?
To relieve his concern, Herman looked out over the railing and cast his sights on the shimmering water’s fusion with the blue sky. He inhaled the moisture-laden air; his eyes spanned the horizon. Once again, he spotted the boat with the blue and white spinnaker. How odd it was, he thought, that the sailboat hadn’t closed the distance while they anchored.
Herman pressed his cap down and turned his head to avoid a direct hit from a gust of wind. From his vantage point, he could see Andrew casting frantic looks in all directions.
It was only when Frank appeared on the galley stairs stripped down to his swim shorts that Andrew’s vigilance eased. He watched the passenger with the hardened body of an athlete roll his shaved head in loose circles, then flex each group of well-defined muscles on his medium-size frame.
After Frank finished his warm-ups, he hoisted a large camera from his canvas bag. Sheila had hooked the ladder to the side of the boat for his convenience, but with his equipment in hand and no swim fins on his feet, Frank backflipped over the side.
Herman’s eyes swept the surface of the water to see where the man had gone. In the process, he spotted a green sea turtle off the bow. He watched as the slow-moving creature made a full circle, kicking with his hind legs and using his fins to make large, sweeping motions. In an instant, like the strange passenger, the turtle disappeared beneath the waves.
Andrew stood at the port railing and watched Frank make several dives with his bare feet and one arm to thrust him downward. It took several minutes for the agile man to finish his underwater maneuvers. Powered by his strong legs, he then propelled himself around the boat, breathing through his snorkel.
As the late-morning wind picked up, Andrew left his post to check the anchor while Sheila and Herman went aft to look for more turtles. When Frank saw that everyone was clear of the ladder, he came onboard.
From the cockpit, Andrew made a quick circular motion with his finger. Sheila picked up on the signal and went to crank the anchor off the ocean floor. After locking it in place, she hoisted the mainsail and then the jib while Andrew raised the mizzen. The equipment adjustments out of the way, they set sail for Molokini, the remnant of an ancient volcanic crater off the coast of Maui.
* * *
Herman turned away from the turbulent breeze and sea spray to make his way to the marine head. He observed Andrew at the wheel and Frank, fully clothed, seated on a side bench. Herman paused when he reached the stairs to the cabin. Off starboard he noticed the same sailboat, still traveling in sync with the Lily Maru and drawing closer.
After Herman mastered the operation of the marine toilet, he emerged from the galley and went aft to retake a comfortable position at the rail. The boat rocked. Herman shifted his feet and moved sideways.
Unaware that Frank had come up beside him, Herman bumped into his fellow passenger and almost lost his footing. Frank stiffened from the sudden contact and planted himself, his bag at his feet.
“Sa . . . sorry,” Herman stammered. “Didn’t know you were there.”
Frank didn’t respond, his reaction to the accidental contact unnerving and cold. Herman moved to separate himself from the unfriendly man while Frank glanced over his shoulder and scanned the deck with his watchful eyes.
Herman refocused on the pleasant sensations he had experienced before: the gentle flapping of the sails, the splash of the waves, and the scent of the salt air. While Herman regained his emotional equilibrium, Frank knelt down and unzipped one of his bag’s compartments. He took another look back to see where Andrew and Sheila were and shifted the position of his body to screen Herman from view. Then he reached into the bag’s open pocket.
As the sea grew choppier, the boat’s rocking intensified. Herman gripped the rail more tightly and concentrated on the steady horizon, unaware that Frank had closed the distance between them.
Frank worked quickly and quietly, his hand concealed by the loose- fitting windbreaker. He primed the needle and brought the syringe to within a few inches of the doctor’s neck.
From his position behind the wheel, Andrew caught a glimpse of Frank, hovering over Herman with his arm raised. The skipper sprang from the cockpit, released the stay on the rope clutch, and threw his body at the boom, smacking his head into the mast.
He landed facedown on the deck, but the force of his weight managed to swing the boom around and strike Frank from behind. The assassin fell against the rail with a grunt; the syringe missed Herman and flew out of Frank’s hand.
“Sheila! Get out here!” Andrew yelled, trying to recover from the jolt.
With no one at the helm, the boat’s rudder turned uncontrollably beneath the vessel. The Lily Maru was at the mercy of the crossslashing swells. By this time, Frank had recoiled from the blow that knocked him into the rail. He pivoted in a wild frenzy to face the crew.
Instinctively, Herman threw himself down on the deck and scrambled to escape his attacker. As he crawled on hands and knees, he saw the syringe slosh back and forth in the gutter.
Frank grabbed his bag, reached in, and took out a device no bigger than a cell phone. He pushed a button and stuffed the unit back in his bag. When he got to his feet he saw Andrew, still sprawled on the deck, and Herman crouched down ten feet away.
Frank reached into his waistband and pulled his handgun. As he stepped towards Herman, Sheila appeared outside the cabin with a 9mm Glock aimed at the assassin’s head.
“Andrew, get down!” she blared as he tried to get to his feet.
Just as she squeezed off a round, a large swell hit the hull broadside. The bullet whizzed past Frank’s ear. Sheila fell forward. The energy from the wave lifted the boat and pushed it sideways.
While in a freefall to the deck, Sheila saw Frank with his gun trained on Herman. In that split second, she twisted her body, pulled the trigger again, and landed on the deck with a thud. Her eyes closed; her body went limp.
The next thing she heard was the sound of Andrew’s voice calling out her name.
“You all right?” he asked, kneeling beside her, his hand on her shoulder.
She blinked and shook her head. “Walenz, is he okay?”
“Did you get him?”
A look of panic came to her eyes.
“You did,” Andrew said as he lifted her to a standing position. “It’s okay.” He pointed in the direction of the dead man.
Sheila glanced over at Frank’s lifeless body and then saw Herman sitting in the cockpit.
The old man got up and walked over.
“Dr. Walenz, I’m glad you’re okay.” He tilted his head and wrinkled his brow. “You said doctor. So you know who I am?”
“Of course, that’s why we’re here.” Sheila looked around and saw Frank, hunched over and suspended with his head caught in the intersection of several ropes. She came closer to inspect the bullet entry in the chest cavity under his arm. A large pool of blood had collected on the deck.
“That round must have torn his heart muscle,” Andrew said, joining her in the examination.
“Lucky shot,” she said.
“Not for him.”
They walked back to the benches near the cockpit and found Herman seated, still shaken from the ordeal, his eyes begging for information from Andrew and Sheila.
“What’s this all about?” he asked.
“I think you can guess, yes?” Andrew traded gazes with the shaken man and stared unblinkingly until Herman made the connection and sighed.
“Are you aware of anyone who might want to keep what you’ve been working on quiet?” Andrew asked.
“Maybe just some jealous colleagues. But this man, who is he?”
“We’ve been tracking him. He caught us off guard. More bold and committed than we thought,” Sheila said.
“Yes, but you haven’t answered me. Who is he?”
“We can’t be more specific, not yet.”
“You knew he was dangerous. Why did you let him on the boat?”
“Out here, we thought we could control the situation. On land, he’d have too many opportunities. It was a calculated risk,” Andrew explained.
Herman shook his head. “Why me?”
Sheila placed her hand on the old man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Doctor, something about your work must be worth killing for.”
“But I’m just a scientist. My work isn’t even complete yet.” He took a drink and capped the bottle.
“Is there anything different about it? You know, important?”
As if on cue, Andrew stood and turned in one swift motion to check behind the boat. The huge sail on the blue and white spinnaker dropped like a deflated balloon. He pointed and Sheila’s head snapped back around.
Bobbing in the waves, no more than twenty yards off their stern, was the vessel that had tracked them all day. Herman saw their reactions and sprang from his seat. When he saw the boat right there, he flinched and began to duck. Then, unexpectedly, he heard someone call to them.
“Andrew, do you want us to anchor?”
“No. Motor into position. Our rudder is locked down.”
Herman took a deep breath and released the tension coiled within his shoulders and the back of his neck.
“Don’t worry, Doctor,” Sheila said, gesturing at the spinnaker. “They’re with us. That boat was supposed to have been the assassin’s ticket out of here.”
Herman could now see two men seated on the schooner’s deck with their hands and feet bound.
“Our people intercepted the boat shortly after we set sail. They called to let me know that Frank, or whoever he was, had accomplices,” Andrew explained.
“I see,” Herman said, remembering the earlier phone call.
“Andrew, should we leave him where he is?” Sheila asked, pointing to the dead man.
“No. Let’s get a fingerprint then dump the bastard. I’ll go grab an anchor to hold him down.”
Herman watched as the man at the wheel of the other boat skillfully maneuvered the schooner into a parallel position to the Lily Maru. The swells rocked both vessels from side to side so that when they were in opposite motion, the gap separating the deck rails closed to within a few feet.
Herman wondered who these people were and why they risked their lives for him. But most of all, he couldn’t believe someone wanted him dead.
Andrew and Sheila returned a few minutes later and walked over to the corpse on the Lily Maru.
“Have you had a chance to go through his bag?” Sheila asked.
“No, it’s over there.”
She reached over and lifted it from the deck. “Geez, seems a lot lighter.”
Andrew’s head came up instantly, his eyes stretched wide and his face flushed red.
“The camera, is it in there?”
“Don’t think so.”
He thrust his hand inside the bag. “Oh, shit.” His gaze came up to meet Sheila’s. “Get Walenz and get off this boat, now!”
Andrew sprinted to portside where the other boat jostled back and forth in the turbulent seas only a few feet away. He waved his arms frantically. The movement immediately got the skipper’s attention.
“What’s wrong?” he yelled.
“We’re coming on board. Lash these boats together. Make it fast!”
Sheila ran to Herman’s side. “Doctor, we need to move to the other boat.” Her speech was slow and deliberate, but he sensed the veiled panic. Herman grabbed his backpack and when he came to his feet, he witnessed the chaos.
Andrew busily wrapped a line around the last cleat while choppy water smacked the sides of the boats, sending spray and sea foam everywhere. The two vessels groaned as the friction between the hulls intensified.
Sheila quickly went to starboard and threw the bench cushions on the deck. “Step up here,” she told Herman. “Then I want you to get on the wood rail. We’ll help you.”
“I don’t know if I can—”
“Yes you can,” she insisted.
Sheila and Andrew supported the old man on both sides as he planted his foot on the rail.
“Quick, give me your hand,” a crew member on the other boat called out.
Herman stepped down on the other side and stumbled forward. While in motion, he turned his head to check on Sheila and Andrew.
Sheila had paused momentarily on the handrail, clutching Frank’s duffel bag in her hand. “What about him?” she said with a nod aimed at the dead man.
“He stays,” Andrew answered resolutely. “He was goin’ down anyway.”
Before Herman could settle himself, Sheila and Andrew hopped on board. One of the crew on the schooner unwound the last rope from its cleat; the two hulls clapped together in the rolling surf.
“Gun those motors! We need to get out of here,” Andrew shouted.
The skipper turned the key and the starter whined—nothing. He tried again. The engines coughed, then sputtered. “It’s gotta be the fuel lines, maybe some air!”
Andrew glanced at the Lily Maru, bobbing in the waves only fifteen feet away. “Lemme go take a look.” He raced down the steps to the engine compartment with Sheila right behind him.
Herman stood on the deck of the schooner and looked over the bow rail. He locked onto the figure of the Lily Maru, now forty-five feet off their stern, slowly drifting toward Molokini. Momentarily mesmerized by the raw beauty of the abandoned boat, he wondered how this could have happened.
Suddenly, a flash of light startled Herman. His eyes widened. In that same instant, planks of wood were sent airborne and the Lily Maru’s main mast splintered. A split second later, a blast from beneath the water sent waves in his direction. The energy from the explosion knocked him off his feet and sent him sprawling to the deck.
Andrew and Sheila heard the detonation and ran up the stairs from the cabin galley. Off the stern they saw a cloud of black smoke, bits of wood, and shredded sail tossed in the wind and scattered in the water.
They looked down and saw Herman trying to get to his feet. Sheila was first to reach his side. Andrew approached just as the tip of the bow and the very top of the Lily Maru’s long mast disappeared beneath the waves.
“Doctor, are you all right?” Sheila asked as she reached for his hand.
Herman blinked several times. “Wha . . . what happened?” His voice came out thick. He moved his dry, swollen tongue and swallowed hard to rid himself of the foul taste in his mouth. But as soon as he said the words, he faintly recalled his wife waving to him from the dock, the sailboat ride, the strange passenger, and—gunshots.
They slowly brought Herman to his feet. He breathed deeply, but as soon as he cleared his head, cold panic seized him. The victimized man saw what was left of the Lily Maru floating on an iridescent oil slick in the choppy water and thought, I could have died. That could have been me just now.
“You figured right,” Sheila said to Andrew.
Herman peered at the skipper-turned-agent. “You knew there was a bomb.”
“Let me see that thing again.” Andrew reached for the dead man’s bag.
Sheila lifted it off the seat and handed it to him.
He studied the insignia on the ID flap and stuck his fingers in one of the side pockets. “Shit, here it is.” He plucked out the remote device. “This button primes it—starts the timer on the bomb. See, the green light is still on.”
“I should have noticed the camera missing after he went snorkeling,” Sheila murmured.
“We both should have watched him more closely.” Andrew sat down next to Herman. “I guess you got more on this trip then you bargained for.”
“I’ll just be glad when we get back so I can see my wife.”
Sheila glanced over at Andrew. Her eyes signaled unspoken concern, knowing a return to his wife and his former life was no longer an option.
Back in the cockpit, the skipper turned the key and this time, the engine kicked on. He revved the motor in neutral, moved the throttle into the drive position, and pushed down.
“Where do you want to dock?” the man at the wheel called out as the boat lurched forward.
Andrew took a few steps closer and leaned in over the man’s shoulder. “Head for Lahaina. Maalaea’s not safe anymore.”
Sheila placed her hand on Herman’s arm and sighed, relieved to be heading back. “Doctor, when we were on the Lily Maru, I asked you whether you were working on anything important, something that others might find threatening or valuable. I believe you said, perhaps.”
“What did you mean?”
“I’ve been working with patients who share an anatomical trait the rest of us don’t have. It causes them to behave differently. That’s all.”
“That can’t be all,” Andrew said, his voice betraying a hint of impatience. “The guy who went down with the Lily Maru knew that. So do the people we work for.”
Sheila turned away from her partner and back to Herman. “We’re just looking for answers, Doctor.”
At this, Herman’s face changed suddenly from soft to stoic, his tone determined, low and even. “I’m looking for answers too. Who exactly do you work for? Who’s so interested in what I do?”
Andrew went silent.
“We’re just a department within a department,” Sheila said.
“Like the CIA?”
“More like the Department of Defense.”
Andrew glared at Sheila and pursed his lips. She looked back, her eyebrows raised as a helpless gesture.
“Sounds pretty serious,” Herman said.
“Like your work, perhaps,” Andrew followed.
“Doctor, this isn’t meant to be an interrogation,” Sheila said. “We just want to know. Is it safe?”
He responded with a blank stare.
“Your research, is it safe?”
“Oh, I think it is, now at least.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“When I was a child I escaped the Nazis. My family and I were always looking over our shoulders. I got that feeling again, like someone was following me, watching—at my home in Phoenix over the past several months. So I took some steps.”
“Yes. I left all my documentation with a friend before I went on vacation. Someone I trust.”
“Can you give us his name?”
“Of course: Michael Duchesne.”
* * *
Wayne Hammer grew up in New Jersey with a love of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A graduate of Rutgers University, he has designed and constructed award-winning buildings in Northern California and has taught engineering at California State University, Sacramento College of Continuing Education.
He is now a full-time author. He followed his first published sci-fi novel, Shifts, with the newly released thriller, Senders. Wayne lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Sandy, a software engineer and mother of his two children, Sara and Jeff. If you would like to contact Wayne for more information about upcoming projects, please fill out the form on the contact page.