Tran pushed up the galley's deck hatch and passed out the dinner in large serving bowls, along with plates and the rest. Then he brought out two more beers and rum drinks for Victor and himself (rum was cheap and abundant, beer was not) and joined us to dine at the table. A brilliant pink and silver sunset painted Elizabeth Harbour while we enjoyed Tran's magnificent meal, and Tran savored our enjoyment.
Nick had a great appetite and complimented Tran profusely. He finished the last scraps of fish and put away a mountain of Tran's special dirty rice. We chitchatted about this and that as we ate: past and future hurricanes and the safest harbors; stolen elections and new constitutions; retroactive "wealth taxes" that applied to humble sailors like us; and just what in hell had happened to America over the past decade? After we'd finished eating, table candles in glass windbreaks were lit and shot glasses and tequila made an appearance. Stars and masthead anchor lights winked on. George Town's lights became a glittering necklace shimmering across the water.
Nick must have felt that it would be time for him to leave soon, so he steered us back onto the subject of Topaz and the Castigo Cays. Not in a way that suggested he was seeking payment for information. Not directly, anyway. He leaned on his forearms across the table, closing the distance to me.
"Dan," he said quietly, "before I go, I need to tell you something. Everything I own is tied up in my boat. I left the States without getting clearance from Homeland Security or the IRS. I didn't pay for the exit visa, or for the security bond on the boat, or my last two years? national medical. I put every penny I had into buying At Ease and getting her ready, and then I left Miami for a 'day sail' and never went back. And I still don?t want to go back--I'll lose my boat. I might even go to jail since I can't possibly pay what I owe."
I could sure relate to that. Probably half of the boats at anchor in Elizabeth Harbour were in a similar situation. We were all escaping from something.
"But now I've got some busted rigging and some other problems, and I can't fix them. I can't fix them, and I can't just go back to Florida, work, and buy what I need. Things are more than a little tight for me right now. Financially, and politically. I'm in a tight corner. I'm all out of moves."
I just nodded, reluctant to get pulled into his personal problems. I had plenty of my own.
"And, well," he continued, "please don't think I'm prying into your business, but I've noticed how high you're floating on your waterline. Pardon me for being blunt, but it looks to me like you're way low on fuel and fresh water, and you've got no cargo. I saw your open cargo hatch yesterday when you were careened over. I was walking up the beach and I saw it. That's what got me interested in your boat in the first place--your cargo hatch. Well, that and your girlfriend. Hey, I couldn't help it--I've been sailing solo for a year."
He gave a nervous smile and plunged ahead, probably sensing that his time aboard was coming to an end. He looked to Victor and to Tran, then back to me. "Fellows, let me lay my cards on the table. I?m flat broke and eating my last cans of beans. I can't even afford to fix my busted rigging. All I can do is make half-ass jury-rigs. So I'm stuck. And Dan, I'm not thinking that you're the kind of man who's going to just forget about his girlfriend, not after what I told you." He stared across the table at me, studying my face by candlelight. "So, if you do decide to go after her, to go out to the Castigos--well, besides finding your girlfriend, we might do ourselves some other good. Financially, I mean."
"I'm not a thief or a pirate," I snapped in overreaction. His suggestion that we might profit from an attack on Topaz hit a little too close to home.
"Whoa, chief, I'm not saying you are. But something strange is going on out there. That's no 'wildlife sanctuary.' Something wrong is happening out there. I know it, and I think you do, too. Something wrong, and something that involves a lot of money. So anyway, if you're planning to sail over there and check it out, consider counting me in. I'll take my chances on what we find. I just have a feeling, a hunch about that place."
I considered his unusual pitch while sipping my tequila. "If we did go out there, I couldn't pay you. You're right about one thing: we're almost broke ourselves. That's why we're hanging out here in George Town. We've been waiting for a salvage job, and it's starting to look like it's never going to happen. Now it's coming up to hurricane time. Pretty soon we'll have to leave, one way or the other."
"Well," he said, "something is happening out at the Castigos, and it's happening on a big budget. Don't you think it's worth checking out? I know I wouldn't leave my ex-girl-friend on a boat like Topaz. Not after what I saw happening on Castigo Cay."
That one stung. "Nick, this is a lot for me to digest all at once. Tell you what--let me borrow your chart. I'll make a copy and give this one back to you tomorrow. And tomorrow I'll tell you what I've decided about the Castigos. Okay?"
"Fair enough, skipper. Fair enough." He rose and shook my hand again across the table. He said, "Thanks for the dinner. Tran, you?re a fantastic cook. I've never had grouper or wahoo like that. Best meal I've had in forever. And nice meeting you, Victor."
I accompanied him aft past the pilothouse and cockpit to Rebel's transom, where he climbed down to the swim platform and then into his dinghy. His motor cranked on the first pull, and I untied his bow line from the deck cleat. Before I tossed the line down into his boat, I said, "Thanks for coming out and sharing what you know. You?re right; I'm not the kind to forget a girlfriend, or any friend. Not if they're in trouble."
"I'm the same way," he agreed.
"Hey, what size wire is it, the one with the broken strands?"
"Quarter-inch stainless. One-by-nineteen."
"Let me see what I can scrounge up. I'll see you in the morning with an answer, one way or the other." I flipped the line down into his boat. He gave a casual semi-salute, drifted back on the current, then snapped the motor into forward and slid off across the dark water toward his own sailboat's white masthead anchor light.
Tran had cleared the table and disappeared below. I continued discussing the situation with Victor. I asked him, "Why would a millionaire like Richard Prechter be interested enough in a wildlife sanctuary to dig a channel for a hundred-foot yacht?"
"Actually, Topaz is thirty-six meters--about a hundred twenty feet. It's an Azara, made in Italy only three years ago. I learned this from Richard Prechter when we were having our luncheon. But as to your question: it's not so complex, if you think about it. A millionaire with political connections, a man like Prechter, he could buy a small island in the Exumas or the Jumentos easily enough, that's true. Someplace like Little Whale Cay in the Berries, already developed. But then he'd have to deal with boats anchoring right off his beaches. Boats cruise up and down those chains as if they were stepping-stones. There wouldn't be enough privacy."
I thought about the infamous history of Normans Cay in the Exumas during the cocaine era. The Nassau government had been bribed to look the other way, but the island's criminal activity could not be kept a secret from the outside world. The cartels had drug planes flying in and out on an almost daily basis, and the island's armed guards frequently had to chase away island-hopping tourists on sailboats. Those encounters brought the island too much notoriety and media attention in the United States, and eventually the law came down on the narcos. We'd visited Normans just a month before, on our way down the Exumas. There was still a ditched cargo plane in the lagoon, sunk in ten feet of water. Cori and I had snorkeled through its corroded aluminum fuselage.
"No, for real privacy," said Victor, "a man like Prechter wouldn't buy an island in a chain with strangers anchoring nearby. For real privacy he would want his own Far Out Island. And if it's a wildlife sanctuary with no harbors or anchorages, surrounded by reefs and notorious for shipwrecks, far out to windward on the open sea where nobody will visit? well, then, what could be better than that? I think if you were a privacy fanatic, it would be perfect."
"But it's still a sanctuary, a national wildlife trust."
Victor smiled. "Think again, Daniel. Everything is for sale in the Bahamas. Everything and everybody, right up to the prime minister. It's always been that way; why should it be different now? All you would have to do is pay enough money to the right people. And maybe give yourself some cover, to protect the people taking the bribes. To give them plausible deniability. Maybe create some kind of environmental foundation to provide legitimacy, in case anybody looked into what you're doing out there."
"Like the Global Ocean Research Partnership," I replied.
"Exactly," he said. "I noticed that cap on the red-haired man as well. The Castigos are more than twenty miles from any other islands. Do you want to use dynamite to create channels the fast way? Just check the horizon for ships or planes, and you could blast channels and boat harbors all day long. Who would know? Nobody would see any channels unless they were right over them, but nobody dares come close enough to see. Even if you flew over in an airplane, you would have to know what the island looked like before the channels were created. Anyway, who cares? There are thousands of islands like that one in the Bahamas. Richard Prechter is very well connected politically. In the USA, in the Bahamas, in the UK, and at the UN. I'm quite sure that he has the prime minister in his pocket, to be blasting channels in a sanctuary."
"And he has Cori on his boat," I added.
"Yes, he does. He has taken our Cori." Victor paused and took a sip of his rum. "So, Daniel--what are we going to do about it?"
"We're going to visit the Castigo Cays--just to take a look. Then we'll decide what to do about it."
I didn't tell Victor, but there were a few things I had already decided I was going to do about it. First, I was going to pound that smirk off Jolly Boy Trevor's face when next I met him. Then I was going to break off that middle finger and feed it to him. And that was just for starters.
Tuesday before dawn, I awakened alone for the first time since before Venezuela and Cori, more than six months earlier. My aft-cabin double bed seemed absurdly large and empty by half, and I quickly rolled out of the rack and hit the deck in my black gym shorts. Tran was already up in the pilothouse, sitting in one of the padded pedestal chairs and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He kept a little tin of strong tobacco and used a device made from a split piece of bamboo to roll his own. The three forward windows hinged out and upward, and with the pilothouse door open in the back there was a little breeze moving through. The pilothouse was Rebel Yell's only interior "designated smoking area." There was no smoking down below, ever.
Tran's gray hair was thin on top, and combed straight back. He wore a yellow T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Much of his visible skin was crosshatched with old scar tissue. We didn't exchange many words, but communicated more with looks and nods.
"Everything is cool, Chu-tau," his dark eyes said. "Your woman is gone, but life goes on. Cori will be fine, and so will you." Tran spoke several Asian dialects besides his native Vietnamese, but mastery of English eluded him. It's not that he wasn't smart: he usually beat me at chess, and he won against Victor as often as he lost. I think that at his age he just wasn't interested in studying another language, beyond what he needed for the galley and for sailing.
I did my regular physical training routine on deck before sunrise, my pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups and the rest. I skipped my usual swim to Stocking Island and my run over the dunes and along the ocean beach. There was not enough time for that today. While the fresh oxygen pumped through my brain, I planned, schemed, and finally made a command decision.
It was time to break out my untapped emergency fund, thirty ounces of gold Krugerrands, Eagles, and Maple Leaves. This well-hidden stash didn't figure into my routine budgetary calculations; I would take a straight job ashore somewhere before going to this fund. This compact cache of gold was to be used only to save my life or to save Rebel Yell from immediate and ruinous disaster. The plastic tubes containing the gold coins would go with me into the life raft if my schooner was going down. I would also dip into the gold to save the life of Victor or Tran. Otherwise, it was strictly off-limits. It was my calamity fund, and the only insurance policy that I carried.
Cori presented a different situation. What if there was a chance that she was in real danger? I recalled again how I had shaken Senor Eduardo Vargas's hand and, man to man, promised to keep his daughter safe. I'd made the same solemn promise to her mother. So, despite my bruised ego, despite the fact that Cori had left Rebel Yell of her own free will, that promise settled it. A promise like that is a point of honor. You keep them, or you don't call yourself a man. There is no third option I know of.
Passing through the pilothouse, I told Tran to make our home ready for sea. I went down the ladder, through the galley into the cargo hold, and scrounged around in the rigging locker. I didn't have a fifty-foot length of quarter-inch wire, but I did have a couple of Norseman terminals for that size wire. These terminals were thumb-size stainless steel devices that clamped onto the wire end. I collected some rigging tools and other things I thought I might use and dropped them into an empty white five-gallon plastic bucket.
My gray inflatable was riding against Rebel's hull just below deck level, suspended from its four-point bridle. I put in the bucket full of rigging parts, used the block and tackle to lower the boat into the water, and climbed down. The seventy-horsepower Evinrude had an electric start on the console, and it kicked over after a few coughs and stutters. It was an old two-stroke engine that smoked and sounded ragged when it was cold, but once it was running it would go like hell all day, as long as it was fed relatively clean gasoline mixed with oil.
I disconnected the four snap hooks of the lifting bridle, freeing the inflatable from its mother ship, and shifted the motor into forward gear while standing behind the plywood center console. The original knob atop the throttle lever was long gone. The Avon's previous owner had replaced it with a plum-sized silver skull with glinting ruby eyes. The grinning skull faced forward, a piratical totem. I drove at idle speed through the calm water, both to allow my engine to warm up and to keep from making unnecessary noise so early in the morning.