Nick Galloway was already sitting in the cockpit of his thirty-three-foot Hunter, and grabbed my bow line. I tied alongside his boat amidships, with fore and aft lines. He was shirtless, and I saw the rest of the military tattoos on his arm. I was happy to see a Ranger tab and Army jump wings tattooed above the names of the dead troops from his old unit. Death from Above, I thought automatically, but that Army paratroop slogan wasn't written on his visible skin.
Though he didn't have an especially muscular physique, Nick didn't look like a weakling either. The sailing life kept most people fairly strong. We talked first about the damaged cap stay wire. As I expected, we determined that we could hacksaw his wire just above the broken strands and attach one of my Norseman terminal fittings as a replacement.
While we worked on his wire rigging, we discussed his participation in the possible reconnaissance of Castigo Cay.
"Nick, how long have you been out of the military?"
"You look like you"re still in pretty good shape."
"Yeah, well, I don't want to turn into a slug like a lot of guys do when they get out." He'd probably seen me doing my calisthenics on Rebel Yell's deck. It was a lot easier to do them on a sixty-footer than on a thirty-three-footer with almost zero open deck space.
We sat on his narrow side deck, on either side of the bad cap stay wire. While we passed crescent wrenches, pliers and other tools, I asked him, "You do any shooting lately? Any tactical training?"
He shrugged. "Not really. I've got a .357 for a boat gun, and a .22 rifle. I shoot some, out on the ocean."
"Are you a good shot?"
"Oh hell yeah, I am," he said without hesitation. He extended his right arm out toward the monument on the top of Stocking Island, with his index finger pointed. His arm was rock steady despite the movement of his boat, and then he curled his finger back as if pulling a trigger.
"How good a shot?"
"How good?" He turned back and looked at me. "Well, there's about a dozen Taliban you could ask, but they're all dead. That was back when they let us shoot the Taliban. And I shot Expert every time I qualified, from boot camp on. You want to see my DD-214? If you want to see my medals, they're back in the States at my mom's house."
"I'm just asking?" So he'd seen the elephant. I was satisfied with that much.
"Yeah, I understand. You don't want to take some rear-echelon motherfucker with you. Clerks and jerks and fobbits. I wouldn't either."
I slowly nodded in agreement. "You any good with a scoped rifle?"
"You mean, was I ever a sniper? Not officially, but for a while I had a four-power Trijicon on my rifle. That's how I nailed most of those Taliban. One was at six hundred yards, I shit you not. And I hunted deer with a scoped rifle ever since I was a kid in North Carolina. Got my first buck with a .243 Winchester when I was thirteen. Does that count?"
I grinned and nodded yes. "Hell yeah, that counts." I'd learned to shoot scoped rifles as a boy back in Virginia, also hunting deer. And like Nick, I had from time to time used a Trijicon sight on an M-16 to nail some bad guys. Nick would do just fine.
He had his own questions for me. "So, Dan, do you have some guns on board? Real guns, I mean. More than what I have, just a revolver and a .22 rifle. They're not much, but I heard they wouldn't get me hassled too much in foreign countries."
"Oh yeah, I've got some real guns on board."
I paused and decided to tell him just the basics, enough for him to take my armaments seriously. "For long range I've got a .308 bolt gun. That's why I asked you if you ever shot scoped rifles much. For up close I have a pump shotgun. And I have a Glock 17. Nothing too expensive: you never know when you might have to chuck your guns overboard. It's happened to me before."
"No shit. It was either that or prison in Nicaragua. We were boarded and searched. I threw a two-thousand-dollar SR-25 and a couple other expensive guns over the side, about five minutes before the patrol boat came alongside. After that, I decided not to spend too much money on boat guns. No gun is worth losing your boat and spending twenty years in a third-world jail, and it's a lot easier to throw cheap ones overboard. So now I just stick to what works that doesn't cost a fortune. Stuff I can replace."
"So if we go ashore on Castigo Cay?"
"I plan on taking what we need. Does that bother you any?"
"Hell no. Why would it? I'll tell you the truth, Dan. I've been pumped up thinking about this thing all night. Hoping the mission would be a Go. And I'll be honest--I wouldn't mind some trigger time. The four years before I escaped from America, after I got out of the Army, I was basically a human punching bag. Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir. Get in line. Stand there and shut up. Fill out the form and don?t skip any blocks. Pay your health tax or go to jail. I even spent a year in the Conservation Corps planting pine seedlings in Colorado, and it wasn't by choice. No, to be perfectly honest, to be perfectly frank, I wouldn't mind dealing out a little pain for a change. I mean, not if they're doing bad things to women out there on Castigo Cay."
"Good. That's about how I feel too. So, Nick, once we finish your rigging, do you want to spend a few days on Rebel Yell? Do a little armed tourism and see the sights on Castigo Cay? And maybe find something worth bringing home? Besides my girlfriend, I mean."
He grinned and put out his hand. "Hell yeah, Skipper, I'm up for that."
We shook on it, bumped fists, and it was a done deal. I asked him, "How are you set for anchors? To leave your boat unattended, I mean." There was always the chance of an early hurricane in June, though it was a small one.
"Good. Real good. I can stick At Ease back inside the inner basin and leave it for a week, no problem. I've got somebody who can keep an eye on her. So, what's the plan?"
"We'll take Rebel Yell north around Long Island, and then we'll tack over toward the Castigos and take a look."
"You mean looking with binoculars, or going ashore?"
I laughed. "Neither. I've got my own air-ops department. An old Raven UAV."
"You do? No shit! How did you manage that?"
"I bought it from a guy in the States."
"Come on, Nick, you were in the military, you know how it works. Those things crashed all the time. And they're modular anyway; they just snap parts together to make a complete unit. So the UAV operators would scrounge up the supposedly broken or worn-out parts and rebuild new ones off the books. And sometimes they'd just lose Ravens on a flight. It wouldn't respond, or it'd fly past its radio range or run out of battery juice, and it'd crash God knows where. Once higher got used to losing them that way, some UAV operators did it on purpose."
"Only they weren't lost at all."
"Sure, why not? The military bought thousands of them. They were practically an expendable commodity, like beans or bullets. Rebuilt Ravens are available, if you know where to look. And there are civilian versions too, so it's no problem having one on board a civilian boat. I bought it for a treasure-finding job. Nothing's better when you're searching for something in clear, shallow water than having an eye in the sky. We'll launch it when we're a few miles off the Castigos. We won't even have to change course."
I didn?t have to explain all this to Nick. Soldiers knew that you could not see or hear drones when they were at their working altitude, whether they were big Predators way up high or little ones like Ravens closer to the earth.
"Nick, this operation is really going to happen. I want to know for sure that you're ready for it. Ready for anything." I looked straight into his eyes. "Anything."
"Hell yeah, I'm ready. I've just barely been treading water. This is the most alive I've felt in a couple of years. Know what I mean? It's got my blood pumping again."
"I know what you mean. I've been sitting on my ass in Chicken Harbor for way too long." This was the sailors? derisive nickname for George Town and Elizabeth Harbour. It was the furthest point that many American sailors made it down island before deciding that the Big Blue Ocean beyond was just too challenging for them. "While you're moving your boat and getting it ready, I have to go ashore and talk to a pilot, and then we?ll be getting under way."
"An airplane pilot?"
"Yeah, an airplane pilot. He's kind of a buddy, and he has a Cessna 180 he charters. I've flown with him before. He lives here, and I want him on standby, just in case."
"Does he charge for that? To be on standby?"
"Hell yeah, he charges! He's not that good a buddy."
We raised anchor and got Rebel Yell under way soon after I returned from making my arrangements with the pilot. It cost me some of my dwindling Bahamian dollars for a taxi ride a couple of miles from George Town to the airport and back, but I had to make this trip in person because I needed to pay him up front. He didn't have any charters, but to keep him in George Town for the rest of the week it cost me a half-ounce gold Maple Leaf, non-refundable but applicable toward any flying we might do.
Tuesday night we motor-sailed over the top of Long Island. The wind was just a bit south of east, too close to our bow to make good progress under sail alone, so we had to expend some diesel. Nick went into the watch rotation, and he was a good sailor. Sure feet beneath him, and quick hands on a line or a winch. He wasn't as big as I was, but he was agile and had sharp eyes for keeping watch, and that's what counted most of all.
This made me more confident about going ashore with him in the Castigos. In the military, you ordinarily trained with guys for weeks or months before you left the wire. But not always. Sometimes you were thrown together with troops you had never met or only barely knew. Sometimes they weren't even Americans.
Then sure as hell you'd find yourself up to your ass in IEDs and RPGs, and you did the best you could with your pickup team. You relied on the training and experience you hoped they had to get you through the shit. Nick Galloway had been an Army Ranger tested in Afghanistan, and that was good enough for me. The Ranger tab and airborne wings tattooed on his shoulder above his dead buddies' names were all the documentation I needed.
I pulled the nine-to-twelve watch so that after midnight I could catch a little shut-eye on a steady and predictable leg of the trip. At midnight I was in the cockpit with Nick, doing the turnover. Everything would be situation normal, with Rebel Yell carrying on under autopilot for the next three hours. I slept all the way aft, so it took only a rap on the deck along-side the cockpit for a watch stander to get my attention.
It was a fine starry night, no moon. Just that upside-down black velvet bowl pricked by a billion stars. A few of the constellations were old friends, up for a seasonal visit. At sea, with no light pollution or particulate smog within hundreds of miles, the constellations weren?t just a few of their brightest stars prying their way down through the urban haze and murk. They were Rembrandts and Vermeers in their full glory. "The sky all hung with jewels," in the words of an English master.
Cockpit speakers were turned low, to not disturb the others who were sleeping below. An old CD from the box that I'd found on Rebel Yell was playing on repeat mode, its second or third time around. Cool, smooth jazz was my preferred night music. Sade sang, "Hang on to your love."
It was warm enough to be on deck barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt. Comfortable offshore sailing weather. Cori always melted against me in the cockpit on warm nights like that, during easy sailing. God knows you spent enough time in foul weather gear with icy salt spray coming over the foredeck. So it was a good night. Some moon would have been welcome. It was too dark to see the waves, but there was nothing out there that Rebel Yell couldn't shoulder aside with ease. Sixty feet of steel with a long keel isn't much for speed, but it gives you a Cadillac ride offshore.
It was my first nighttime watch change with Nick, so after talking about the beauty of the sky and our phosphorescent wake, we went over a few issues related to his upcoming three hours on deck. We were sitting sprawled out on opposite seats in the cockpit, mostly looking past each other up at the sky. Rebel Yell's cockpit had two parallel bench seats, each long enough to stretch out on if that's what you wanted to do. The seats and seat backs had padded cushions that stay outside in nice weather, making the cockpit a comfortable lounging and generally hanging out place.
The pilothouse is in front. The big stainless steel steering wheel is between the benches, at the back of the cockpit. The compass binnacle is on top of the post where the wheel is attached, but instead of a magnetic compass, which is a problem on a steel boat, I had mounted a GPS there. It had a circular screen that was tilted back for easy viewing by the helmsman or other watch stander. You could make it look like a digital version of the old magnetic compass if you wanted, but I preferred the glowing arrow that pointed straight ahead when the boat was on course.
The leather-covered wheel made slow quarter turns back and forth as if driven by a ghost. Actually, the ghost was the electric-hydraulic autopilot down below deck driving the rudder and, by extension, the wheel. A soft glow emanated from the GPS in front of the wheel and from the other instruments mounted on the back of the pilothouse. They provided enough illumination on dark nights so that you could accomplish small chores in the cockpit without resorting to flashlights.
Nick knew what to do. Check the radar and the big GPS chart screen in the pilothouse now and then. Keep an eye on our course, using the smaller GPS in front of the wheel. Be alert to shifts in wind direction. Keep an eye out for shipping traffic or approaching squalls. The routine stuff an offshore sailor like Nick already knew, but I did want to regularize a few protocols in order to avoid surprises.
I stood behind the wheel and took a last look around the horizon for the red or green lights of passing ships. There were none. I was just about to head below to get my rack time when Nick reached out and touched the ring of paracord encircling my right wrist. The illumination cast by the GPS shone on my hands while my fingers tapped the wheel in time to the music.
"What's the deal with that?" He knew it obviously had some significance to me; otherwise, why would I wear it?
"This thing? It's a souvenir I picked up in the sandbox. It's Marian's bracelet." That's how I thought of it, even though she'd never seen it. Marian's bracelet. I wear it on my right hand opposite my watch, and have for a number of years. It's made of tan paracord, also known as five-fifty cord for its breaking strength of 550 pounds. It took a few yards of paracord hand-woven in a tight pattern to create it. It was pretty cool, but still masculine and not at all ostentatious. Low profile against my skin, like the digital triathlon watch on the other wrist.
I didn't wear a "hog's tooth" as many former Marine scout-snipers did. This was a .308 bullet--just the bullet, not the entire cartridge--worn around the neck as a pendant. The paracord bracelet was enough of a military keepsake for me. To people who understood these things, it suggested that I'd been there, but without the implied braggadocio. It was old enough to be faded and a little worn at the edges.
"Paracord is pretty damn strong. Don't you worry about it getting snagged on deck? You might end up hanging by a halyard or getting dragged overboard."
"No, that can?t happen. It looks like a continuous weave, but there's a spot where it's connected by just some thread. It'll break away if it ever gets yanked hard enough. I just sort of forget about it most of the time."
"So, who's Mary Ann?"
"Marian, one word. Marian Gemayel. A girl I knew in Baghdad for a little while." I sat down again at the front of the cockpit, leaning back against the pilothouse, legs out along the bench, arms folded. One of my favorite cockpit spots. From there I could look aft and watch the glowing wake unspooling from our stern. On this tack I was on the low side of the cockpit, so it made a comfortable little nest, out of the wind.
Nick was sitting on the other side of the wheel at the back of the cockpit, so the GPS's light reflected off his teeth and eyes and I could see he was grinning. "So, was she as hot-looking as Cori?"
I laughed. "Almost nobody is as hot-looking as Cori, but yeah, she was attractive. Not as tall. Marian's hair was a little wavier than Cori's. Her eyes were super pretty. Great smile. But I never saw her in a swimsuit or anything like that, much less naked. I mean, we never went on dates; Baghdad was still a war zone then. You know how it was over there."
"I was only in Ass-crackistan."
"That counts too. Baghdad was better than Afghanistan, but it wasn't exactly Miami Beach, either."
"So, what happened to Marian?"
I took a breath and said the words. "Oh, she's dead."
"Sort of. Yeah. The war." The longest war ever.
"Man, that's messed up."
"Tell me about it, Nick. It was a real messed-up place."
"I heard that, bro. I sure heard that. So, she made the bracelet before she ...?"
"What? No. She didn't. Marian didn't make it. A girl in Afghanistan made it, but that was later. On my last tour."
"Damn, how were you managing to hook up in that shit-hole?"
His remark made me smile. "I wasn't 'hooking up,' trust me. The girl who made it lived in a women's shelter in Khandahar. We sort of adopted the place while we were there, and kept an eye on it. The Taliban hated it. Hated the girls, for wanting to be free. They did weaving and stuff like that to support themselves. They made souvenirs from cast-off junk, or from stuff we gave them. Mostly we just wanted to help them out. I don't even know the name of the girl who made it. Some Air Force zoomie loadmaster-type donated a big spool of coyote-brown paracord to the cause, and for a while they made them like this one."
"I guess you had to be there."
"Yep. You had to be there. A time and a place."
"Some of our guys made those paracord things. That's why I asked."
"Some of our guys did too."
"So, why do you call it Marian's bracelet if you got it in Afghanistan?"
"Why? I guess because I don't really have anything else to remember her by. I had some pictures of her on my camera, but it got ripped off before I could download them."
"That sucks," he said.
"Yeah. Small stuff like cameras and ipods got stolen all the time over there. 'Gear adrift, looks like a gift.' Sometimes the band of brothers was a band of thieves. So, no pictures of Marian." At least, none that I wanted to remember.
"How did you meet her? I never met one single girl in Afghanistan. Well, you know, a girl over about ten or twelve. If we ever saw them, they were wearing those blue burqas with a face grill. You couldn't tell if they were eighteen or eighty. When we went on patrols, it wasn't a social opportunity. We were always in full battle rattle when we interacted with the local population--and that meant the men."