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Discover The First Chapter of Island Chaptal and The Ancient Aliens’ Treasure (Spotless #5)

Island Chaptal and the Ancient Aliens' Treasure, a novel by Camilla Monk

Discover the first chapter of Island Chaptal and The Ancient Aliens’ Treasure by Camilla Monk. 🙂


Spotless

Opening Monologue

When they met, it was murder!

Opening monologue to Hart to Hart, seasons 2 to 5. ABC, 1979–198

Okay, so it starts kind of like Hart to Hart: he’s March November, a self-made millionaire and former legendary hitman who now runs Struthio Security, a wholly legitimate business catering to high-end clients in serious trouble—think being in the crosshairs of a Nigerian warlord or wanting to escape the United Arab Emirates by sea. At night. With your wife, your two kids, and their pet gerbil.

Mr. November works with Mrs. Novemb—I mean with Island Chaptal, his girlfriend and partner, who has a classy gap tooth and fluffy auburn curls like Jennifer Hart. She used to be a computer engineer, but a lot of stuff happened, so now she’s his CTO and hacks poorly protected devices and fiber-optic cables for him, which kind of sounds like she slept her way to the top. He swears, though, that her technical skills are second to none, that he would have hired her even if they weren’t living together, and it has nothing to do with being able to keep an eye on her 24/7 now that she has an office two doors from his. Love is threaded with little white lies, I guess.

Anyway, they don’t have a cool butler named Max, but Struthio has an awesome COO named Phyllis—yeah, everyone got to be chief of something when we reprinted the business cards, except Gerald, March’s crabby orange tree, who did nothing to deserve a promotion and just keeps popping greenish and misshapen oranges all over the place.

Together, Island Chaptal and Mr. November fight crime.

Okay, so it starts kind of like Hart to Hart: he’s March November, a self-made millionaire and former legendary hitman who now runs Struthio Security, a wholly legitimate business catering to high-end clients in serious trouble—think being in the crosshairs of a Nigerian warlord or wanting to escape the United Arab Emirates by sea. At night. With your wife, your two kids, and their pet gerbil.

Mr. November works with Mrs. Novemb—I mean with Island Chaptal, his girlfriend and partner, who has a classy gap tooth and fluffy auburn curls like Jennifer Hart. She used to be a computer engineer, but a lot of stuff happened, so now she’s his CTO and hacks poorly protected devices and fiber-optic cables for him, which kind of sounds like she slept her way to the top. He swears, though, that her technical skills are second to none, that he would have hired her even if they weren’t living together, and it has nothing to do with being able to keep an eye on her 24/7 now that she has an office two doors from his. Love is threaded with little white lies, I guess.

Anyway, they don’t have a cool butler named Max, but Struthio has an awesome COO named Phyllis—yeah, everyone got to be chief of something when we reprinted the business cards, except Gerald, March’s crabby orange tree, who did nothing to deserve a promotion and just keeps popping greenish and misshapen oranges all over the place.

Together, Island Chaptal and Mr. November fight crime.

With crime.

Spotless

1 – The Crepe Party

Rica ran to the airport, tears streaming down the perfect oval of her face. Ricardo had betrayed her, shattered their love like a piñata.

—Kerry-Lee Storm, The Cost of Rica #5: Blaze of the Phoenix

Coordinate points are somewhere in the middle of the Gulf of Oman. It is one minute past midnight, Friday, September 20, and therefore officially my twenty-seventh birthday. There’s no cake though, not even a candle: just me, wearing black coveralls and pacing in the empty belly of a soviet-era Ekranoplan. Other spoiled little girls might inherit real estate and paintings from their rich biological dad. Mine was a flamboyant supervillain and the former leader of a secret brotherhood of assassins. I did inherit properties all over the globe after his death—including a tacky chalet in Gstaad with a spinning bed I am never, ever having sex in—but I also became the proud owner of a Russian military hydroplane dating back to the eighties. And tonight, it is coming in handy, or so I pray.

We’ve gone entirely dark to escape detection, and there are no windows in the main cabin. The only source of light in this nearly three-hundred-feet-long steel grotto is my laptop screen, casting a faint glow on cargo nets hanging from the walls and two rows of spartan seats along the hull. I bite my nails, eyes glued to a map of the gulf onscreen. Still no signal, and my earpiece remains obstinately silent. Earlier today, March managed to extract our client and his family—pet gerbil included—from Abu Dhabi to Sur, a port city on the eastern coast of the Sultanate of Oman. Now all that’s left for us is to transport them safely to the only democracy in a thousand-mile radius: India.

Theirs is a classic tale of Emirati sponsorship gone wrong: German robotics tycoon comes to the United Arab Emirates with several million in his pockets, hoping to turn them into billions. Local sheik welcomes him with open arms, and, together, they set up a joint venture to build the next generation of fully automated crepe stands operated by cute robots. Crepes prove disappointing despite extensive R&D investments. Business relationship turns sour. Angry sheik—legally—confiscates the entire family’s passports and holds everyone hostage in Abu Dhabi until robot is able to cook a halfway decent banana-Nutella-chantilly (double sprinkles). Engineer ultimately hires a man of the shadows to escape this batter-soaked hell before it is too late.

If everything went according to plan, March sabotaged the fuel tanks of the Omani coastguards’ patrol boats after sunset, before he picked up our sorry lot of expatriates in a stealth speedboat. He should have contacted me by now. Scratch that: he should be here by now. I shoot yet another anxious glance at the Ekranoplan’s rear hatch, which remains shut. I trust him more than anyone else, but that does little to ease the nausea roiling in my stomach.

If March gets caught . . . I don’t even want to think about it. Everything we’re doing tonight is worth, at the very least, a thousand lashes and life without parole. My stare is threatening to burn a hole into my laptop screen, and I have no nails left to bite when a row of lights starts to blink red on the ceiling. Around me, the Ekranoplan comes alive. Metal creaks and shudders under my feet before a low vibration announces that the eight engines sitting on the wings of the Caspian Sea Monster have been turned up. That will not do.

I race to the front of the cabin, where a door leads up a flight of grating stairs to the cockpit. There, an old Lion and his bulldog await in the dark, drooling. I mean the dog, not the man.

“What are you doing?” I hiss. “We can’t leave now!”

From the copilot’s seat, seventy-pound Andrea dismisses me with a gruff bark, proudly flaunting his brown and white folds in a custom-made leather flight jacket designed to match his master’s—soccer patches and all. In the pilot’s seat, Jan scratches at the ponytail he never seems to comb, looking away from the dashboard’s innumerable buttons, gauges, and switches. His lips are a thin line in his craggy blond beard; the blue in his eyes has turned to a steely gray. “It’s past midnight,” he reminds me, each syllable made harsher by his faint Flemish accent.

“We wait,” I insist.

His carbon prosthetic right hand remains on the yoke, while the blunt and callused fingers of his left one resume flipping up a series of switches. “I have my orders, princess.”

“From whom? That’s my Ekranoplan.”

All I get in return is a cool, empty smile. Jan is my friend, and he was my father’s friend before that, but I fear I’m wasting my time. March told him to leave at midnight, and Jan will do just that, because they once belonged to the same brotherhood, as did Dries, the father I knew all too briefly. They were—and to some extent remain—Lions, a twenty-five-century-old secret society of assassins and mercenaries which has thrived in darkness from the birth of the Roman republic to modern-day South Africa. Theirs is a bond forged in blood, and there’s too much respect between them to leave room for any pity.

“Give him ten more minutes,” I plead, my voice thick with rising panic. “If you try to leave, I’ll have to fight you and Andrea, and I really don’t wanna have to do that.” Especially since I won’t last a second against Jan’s ham-sized fists.

A thousand creases carve a wince into the bronze leather of his face. “Island . . .”

“I seriously will.”

Jan knows I’m not lying. I’ve been to space and back with March—literally so. I’d do anything for that man. Anything. I’m not leaving until he’s safely back here with our client and his freaking gerbil.

“Ten minutes tops,” Jan concedes in a grunt. “But I shouldn’t listen to you.”

“He told you to leave with me, no matter what,” I guess softly, even as my heart swells and hammers at the confines of my ribcage. Of course, March would plot something like that behind my back. Protective, pathologically controlling: he can be a tender tyrant, sometimes.

Jan’s big frame deflates with a sigh, and he’s about to reply when Andrea jerks in his seat, as if stung by a bee. Nature never ceases to amaze: that dog realized my phone was buzzing before I even did. Jan and Andrea study me with unabashed curiosity as I plunge a feverish hand in my front pocket. My fingertips meet cool glass framed in aluminum. It makes no sense that March would call me when my earpiece is connected to an ultra-secure radio frequency, but let it be him, please . . .

My pulse peaks and crashes back just as fast when the caller ID is revealed. It’s Joy, my ex-roommate, part-time wife, and, incidentally, the other love of my life. She knows I’m supposed to be in the UAE on “business”; she wouldn’t call if it weren’t important. But I just can’t pick up right now, when the clock is ticking and I’m sick with worry for March. My cheeks flush with scathing guilt as I swipe to deny the call.

“It’s not him,” I inform Jan.

He gives a slow nod and turns back to the dashboard. The final ring and the silence that follows bring me no relief, only another wave of insidious shame as I think of all the lies I’ve told Joy over the past two years. And yet, she’s been patient; she’s given me space and pretended to buy my bullshit even when the lawyer in her could see right through me.

It’s times like these when I wish she knew everything. I could tell her I’m scared and lost at sea far from home, and she’d tell me not to worry because March can assemble an Ikea bookcase and fire eight shots in under a second. He’s the best. But life is a little more complicated than that. There’s a knot in my throat that simply won’t go away as I pocket my phone. It vibrates again. It’s a text this time. I should ignore it and focus, but I can’t help it. I take a guilty peek.

I’m at JFK✈️, taking off soon. DEFCON 1 W/ Vince.  

Oh God, I’m gonna need sweat pads at this rate. Not this. Not now! DEFCON 1 is imminent total nuclear war, a BFF code reserved for exceptional and catastrophic situations. March dumping me like a rag in Tokyo two years ago because he wasn’t ready for a relationship was a messy, tear-soaked DEFCON 2. David-the-clown-dick-accountant catching the bouquet and proposing out of the blue at Joy’s cousin’s wedding a close brush with DEFCON 1—especially when Joy said no in front of two hundred guests, and he sobbed back that she was the only woman he ever wanted children with.

Bits of data flit around and quickly rearrange themselves in my brain. Joy is at the airport, and to the best of my knowledge, current boyfriend and future ex Vince is in Cancún until Monday, where he’s doing a promo shoot for SciFi Unlimited. A tactical airstrike targeting him can mean only one thing. My gaze flits back and forth between Jan, Andrea, and the cockpit’s door. “I need a second. Yell or bark if there’s anything on the radar.”

Jan gives me a thumbs-up with his carbon-fiber hand. “Got it.”

Darkness swallows me as I slip out of the cockpit and tap a quick reply.

What’s the situation? Can’t pick up rn. Calling u back ASAP!

I wait for her answer, but what I get is a picture instead, and well, I guess the proper terminology for what is now gracing my screen is a nude. This tan, anonymous body, however, lacks Joy’s lush curves, and the pic is cropped right below a landing strip I can categorically say does not belong to her either—Joy’s a blonde.

What—or rather, who—am I looking at? The answer to that comes with Joy’s second text.

Bitch’s name is Cachemire.
He’s w/ her in Cancún 4 her shitty alien show. He’s soooooo fucking dead!!!!!!!! 🤬  💣 💣  

Oh, Raptor Jesus, who sits in the firmament, save us from Armageddon. I’m not entirely sure what aliens have to do with any of this, but one thing is certain: Vince has been caught red-handed again, and this time I fear he did a lot more than just look. The days are long gone when Joy used to call him Vince-The-Cutest-Photographer-in-The-World. Things have been going downhill between them lately. Kinda like Sisyphus’s rock, if said rock kept sending Insta-filtered mirror-selfies and dick pics to doe-eyed twenty-year-olds, and Sisyphus pushed the delinquent boulder back up the hill every time anyway. Not sure I’m making much sense, but Joy is basically Sisyphus, and Vince is simultaneously in a committed relationship and active on Tinder.

I throw another glance at the threatening string of emojis onscreen, my thumb poised on the call icon. March is still out there, and we might have to perform an emergency takeoff any moment. I type “Full debrief needed!” and hit send just before Andrea’s frenzied bark whips me back to the present moment. Vince’s case will have to wait. I barge back into the cockpit, my pulse bounding from zero to sixty faster than a McLaren.

“Andrea, zwijg!” Andrea, be quiet! Jan shouts, effectively silencing the dog with his own powerful roar.

Silence falls again in the cockpit, and we listen. I can feel sweat beading on my temples as I strain my ears to pick up something over Andrea’s relentless panting. Seconds tick on an old analog clock on the dashboard. Five. Ten . . . and then I hear it too. Faint crackling sounds, growing closer. Someone is firing automatic rounds, and they’re coming our way.

Jan’s head snaps up at me, a voracious grin wiping off his frown. “That’s him all right.”

I barely notice his hand reaching for the rear hatch switch. I’m already scrambling to the back of the Ekranoplan as fast as my legs will allow. There, a dim silvery thread slashes through the penumbra as the hatch whirrs open. Cool air rushes in, and the steel jaws reveal an inky, oily sea lapping at the cargo ramp under a moonless sky. I grab a pair of night binoculars from a compartment on the wall and focus them on the lights growing on the horizon. The blurry greenish smudge becomes a tall, cleaver-shaped prow before I spot an artillery gun on the bridge. This isn’t your average coast guard boat. It’s an Arialah patrol ship, complete with 30mm automatic guns and a goddamn Mark missile launcher. Apparently, our client’s Emirati sponsor is not just pissed about seeing his business partner abscond, he’s also powerful enough to summon a military-class ship over a crepe dispute.

The Arialah is now fully visible, the blinding beams of its searchlights swiping at the calm sea in vain. At this rate, it’s us that they’ll detect, and I still can’t see March’s boat. Yet the Emirati did shoot at something, and they’re headed straight our way. A dark blot appears in my binoculars, so faint it might be a wave—or a modified stealth powerboat whose draft is so low the cabin windows sit right above the waterline. Oh, God; it’s March.

The ship’s guns swivel and boom again in the night, barely missing the black arrow tearing ahead of them. Meanwhile, the low hum of the Ekranoplan’s engines amps up to a threatening rumble. We’re about to take off, and my heart is drumming all over my body, pounding under my skull all the way to the very tips of my fingers. Jan isn’t gaining speed yet. He’s giving March time to catch up with us. Another ten seconds pass, and I no longer need the binoculars. I toss them on a nearby seat as the razor-thin black hull closes the distance between us, water misting in its wake.

March’s boat veers left, dodging another round of fire in a graceful arc to curb its speed—lest he wants to crash into us. He’s still coming on too fast, though. The speedboat drifts to a stop and crashes against the cargo ramp, leaving a deep dent in the fiberglass hull. The moment the boat stops moving, I race down the ramp, waddling ankle-deep in seawater. The cockpit doors slide open, vomiting a panicked troupe. I spot the gray hair and rumpled safari jacket of our client, Mr. Rotwang. Huddled at his side, the dark shape of a woman cloaked in an abaya and hijab, gripping the hands of two brown-haired boys—ten and six, according to their file. All are shepherded by a brawny figure towering over them. Black fatigues. Short chestnut hair that would curl if he only let it grow more than an inch. March made it. Amid the chaos and blinding swipes of the Arialah’s searchlights haloing him, our eyes meet, and it’s enough. It’s all I need. I read his reassurance in those dark-blue depths. We’re gonna be okay. One breath in, one out, and the moment is gone already.

“Jump!” March thunders to the panicked family when gunfire booms again, ever closer.

Mr. Rotwang reacts first, pulling the older boy with him while March tosses the youngest my way like a football. I intercept the wailing bundle of limbs in a catch worthy of an NFL contract and fall back on my butt, all air knocked out of my lungs. The kid in my arms is screaming for his mama, but she won’t move. The Ekranoplan’s rear hatch is already starting to rise, but she stands paralyzed on the wrecked speedboat’s deck, blinking terror-stricken eyes at the approaching patrol ship—like the proverbial deer caught in headlights. March makes the decision for her, shoving her overboard and into her husband’s waiting arms, before sliding down the cargo ramp in the nick of time.

A residual pool of water makes my coveralls stick to my back, and there’s something small and incredibly loud fighting my hold as the hatch clanks shut. But everyone’s safe. Both the patrol ship and speedboat have now disappeared behind a steel wall several inches thick. I scan my surroundings for March. He’s kneeling a few feet away and cradling a pink pet shuttle. I grin in absurd relief; Frederick the gerbil has been successfully extracted from Abu Dhabi.

“Everyone, seat belt on!” March orders as the Ekranoplan stirs at last.

The Emirati are in for the shock of their life when this marvel takes off. I carry the youngest brother to the row of seats lined up against the wall. His big brown eyes widen in fear when he starts to feel the acceleration. The eight turbojets sitting on the craft’s short wings roar to full speed above our heads, making the entire cabin rattle. He tries to reach for his father in the seat next to his while I tighten his seat belt. “Papa, werden wir sterben?” Daddy, are we gonna die?

March, whose German was always vastly superior to mine, winks at the boy, his expression softening a fraction. “Nein. Dies ist das schnellste Schiff der Welt. In weniger als zwei Stunden sind Sie in Indien.” No. This is the fastest ship in the world. In less than two hours, you’ll be in India.

His brother holds on tight to the thick shoulder straps of his seat belt. “Aber ist das nicht ein Flugzeug?” But is it not a plane?

“Weder noch. Das hier ist das Kaspische Seeungeheuer,” his father breathes, a trembling smile carving deep lines around his mouth. Neither. This is the Caspian Sea Monster.

My lips twitch in response, and my heart goes out to this stranger, this fellow engineer who recognizes two hundred and thirty thousand pounds of thrust when he feels it. I barely have the time to jump in my own seat at March’s side before I feel my insides smash against my spine. Jan is hitting the gas hard, and I can’t begin to imagine the coast guards’ faces while their ship is being whipped and tossed around by the tons of water we’re lifting in our wake.

The initial acceleration recedes; at last, I release an exhausted breath. We’re gliding thirty feet above the water and under radar detection at over three hundred miles per hour. March lets go of Frederick’s shuttle at last and discreetly produces a tiny bottle from his pocket—hand sanitizer, because he made prolonged contact with Frederick’s cage, which is full of gerbil germs, poop, and innumerable microorganisms that March must be mentally picturing as he rubs the pads of his fingers insistently. It’s his cross to bear: March has been suffering from OCD since adolescence, and while it’s gotten better over the past few years and he tries hard to keep it in check most of the time, some triggers simply cannot be ignored—the faint smell of urine surrounding Frederick’s pet shuttle being one of those.

Now properly decontaminated, his hand sneaks to graze mine between our seats—he wouldn’t indulge in anything more in front of our clients. Our fingertips seek each other in a practiced dance, sparking warmth and electricity everywhere our skin touches. My gaze lingers on his profile: the strong jaw and the aquiline nose I love to kiss, thin lips that rarely smile in public but grin when it’s just the two of us. Every line and every crow’s foot. Him.

According to my tablet, I’ve read 2,811 romance books since I open the first one at the age of eighteen—Slave to The Rich and Sexy Vampire, memorable sex scene inside a coffin, by the way. None of them prepared me for March, for a happy ending of my own, and the simple certainty that I’m not alone: somewhere on earth, there was a soulmate for me, a man who reads Wikipedia a lot too and doesn’t need big words to connect with me. How strange to think that against killer platypuses, supervillains, and every imaginable odd, we found our way to each other.

“Happy birthday, biscuit,” he murmurs with that faint British accent he inherited from his father. A better aphrodisiac than Nutella, in my humble opinion.

“What happened? You were late.” He knows there’s no bite to the question, only the lingering terror of losing him.

“I’m sorry. We ran into some trouble at the Omani border.”

I glance at Rotwang, who’s busy cooing reassurances to his shell-shocked family. “Did you have to . . . ?” I whisper.

No need to elaborate. My former hitman boyfriend knows exactly what I’m asking. He flashes me a penitent smile as we undo our seat belt and move together toward the cockpit. “No. There were a few scratches, but nothing—”

I slant him a suspicious look. “Scratches?”

He clears his throat. “Possibly a few broken bones. Someone crashed a cargo full of watermelons into a control post.” When my face starts to pinch, he quickly confesses. “And that someone planted a fragmentation grenade among the crates. I never suspected a flying cucurbit might have such tremendous stopping power.”

“Oh my God . . .”

“That’s what they all scream,” a husky voice remarks as March opens the door to the cockpit.

I glower at Jan, whose hands are barely grazing the yoke while in the copilot’s seat, Andrea is munching on what appears to be potato chips, judging by the crumbs clinging to the worn fleece cover he rests on. March’s nostrils flare in silent disapproval.

“Will they try to follow us?” I ask Jan.

He shrugs and motions at the cloudy night bleeding into the black line of the horizon ahead. “We’ll reach Gujarat long before those guys back there can call for backup. They probably don’t even know what they saw.”

“What about the Emirati air force? The Indian navy?” I counter.

March bends to me, his warm chuckle raising a trail of pleasurable goosebumps down my nape. “Valuable as he may be to his sponsor, Mr. Rotwang is no royal princess. I doubt either the UAE or India will get their F-16 off the ground tonight. Not over crepes.”

Too true. To the best of my recollection, the last time the UAE and India went through the trouble of a joint operation in international waters, the unfortunate fugitive was the daughter of the prime minister of the UAE himself. That was worth an aerial reconnaissance, two warships, and at least fifteen commandos, all of which easily caught up with the princess’s chosen means of escape—a sailing yacht that couldn’t have cruised at over seven knots. She hasn’t been allowed in public on her own since . . .

The Ekranoplan is fifty times faster than that, I remind myself—my father never did things by half. Tension fizzles away in my limbs, and I could almost believe it’s over, until a high-pitched scream bursts from the other side of the cockpit door. “Frederick! Frederick!” Jan watches over his shoulder as March and I rush back to the cabin. The two boys are huddled around the pink pet shuttle March placed on one of the seats earlier, their chubby faces struck with horror. Mrs. Rotwang kneels between her boys and exchanges a saddened glance with her husband. I sit down and hunch over the shuttle to take my first good look at our tiniest passenger. Oh, crap. I don’t think it’s supposed to lie on its back with its tail all limp and its legs sticking straight up like that . . .

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