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Monday, November 2, 2015

The Medevac Flight

The Medevac Flight

He hadn’t imagined going home this way. The cargo plane had two rows of bunks to accommodate the wounded, stacked side by side down its center and bolted to the floor. Racks of double bunks also lined the port and starboard bulkheads. Every bunk had a wounded soldier, or sailor or airman strapped into it on takeoff.
Nurses and corpsmen dressed in BDU’s moved from bunk to bunk administering medication, passing out bottles of water and sandwiches and offering words of encouragement. “You’ll be home soon.”
It was a long, long flight to Washington, DC. The plane would stop only once for refueling in Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska on the journey. Many bed pans and colostomy bags would need empting.
He was a twenty-two year old second lieutenant and among the lucky ones assigned to the upper bunks because they could climb up and down on their own. Some in upper bunks lacked an arm or hand. He was among the especially lucky who were still whole.
With barely more than a month in country, an explosion had ended his tour. He hadn’t been wearing body armor, none of them had. My fault. I was in charge. It was so damn hot. Even so, I should have insisted.
No one else blamed him. They gave him a frigging medal, a purple heart, his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time medal. Guilt was a constant companion.
Sufficiently far from the blast to survive, he sustained wounds from many pieces of shrapnel. Two punctured his left lung, two tore meat from his right shoulder, another tore meat from his left, another collapsed veins in his groin, smaller pieces peppered his body. His wounds had to be minor compared to those of his men who were closer.
He wondered what had happened to Swartz and Mendoza. It had been over a month and a half and no one had been able to tell him what had happened. Maybe they don’t want me to know. He felt guilty that he did not know, that he was going home without knowing, that he was going home at all. His body still needed rehabilitation, but he wasn’t like these others, truly disabled.
The novel propped on his chest was a gift from a helicopter pilot who had left on an earlier flight. The pilot had lost a hand and was worried how the loss would affect his wife, and how he would provide for his family, now that flying helicopters was out of the question. The pilot wasn’t whole and he still was. It was a simple as that. So why did he feel guilty even being grateful that he was whole? Did his gratitude suggest that the pilot, and all these men who had lost limbs, were something less? He really didn’t want to see it that way.
The nurse in his section of the plane was a first lieutenant, which meant she was probably older than he. She cropped her wavy blond hair above shoulder length, and wore no makeup. Baggy BDU’s cloaked what looked to be a great figure. The way she moved, her strength and grace and balance, suggested it was. He wanted it to be. Her mane framed a high forehead, wide cheekbones and bright blue eyes. A too-wide mouth, square jaw and a scattering of freckles made her more girl-next-door than model-beautiful, but more attractive for it.
Moving from bunk to bunk in his line of sight, the nurse distracted him from reading. With a touch here and word there, she gave solace to men who hadn’t seen a woman like her in quite some time. He hadn’t seen a woman like her in a long time. Those who were well enough hung on her words and basked in her smiles. Those who were not demanded most of her time.
When she passed, sometimes she would smile and ask how he was. Her name tag read M. Sommerville. He kept the exchanges short, even though he desperately wanted her attention too. The others needed her much more. M might stand for Mary. His mother’s name was Mary.
Walter Reed Army Hospital waited for him. He was healthy enough that he would probably complete his rehab as an outpatient. That meant time with his family, and a chance to connect with old friends before going back on duty. Will the wounds affect my next assignment? At least I can count on having a next assignment. The ceaseless drone of the engines lulled him to sleep.
He woke needing to pee. Climbing down from the bunk made his chest ache where the doctor had done emergency surgery under a local anesthetic to slip a vacuum tube between his ribs, drain the blood and reinflate his lung. He walked along the steel floor to join a line waiting to use the head. Bags of urine hanging off the sides of bunks of catheterized troops made him doubly grateful to be ambulatory. On the way back, he met her.
“I see you are up. How are you feeling?” she said.
“Good.” He lowered his voice. “Next to the rest of these guys, I’m doing great. You’re wonderful with them.”
Her smile lit the dark interior of the plane like a ray of sunshine. “Where are you from?” she asked.
Is she flirting with me?
“I’m from Alexandia, Virginia. When we hit the ground, I’m almost home. Where are you from?”
She’s even prettier when she smiles.
“I grew up an army brat, but right now, I’m from San Diego.”
“I’m an army brat too.”
Just then, one of the more seriously wounded men down the aisle moaned and asked for more medication. “I’ve got to go,” she said.
He went back to his bunk, climbed in and finally got into the novel the pilot had given him. When she would pass, she smiled and sometimes pause to chat.
We had a moment there. Didn't we?
He let his mind drift over the events of the past year. Graduation leave, Officer’s Basic School at Ft. Sill, Jump School, Ranger School. Ft. Sill hadn’t been all studies. There had been wild parties, weekend football games in Dallas and U of O, dances at the O’ Club and beautiful women. Time at Ft. Benning managed to produce its own series of escapades. Life had been a blur. He had lit the candle at both ends and didn’t care. He lived like there might not be a tomorrow. As it turned out, there damn near hadn’t been.
He watched the nurse, ministering to the troops, smiling and sharing words as she passed. He soaked in the essence of the woman. Generous. Giving.
There’s no chance, but I’m losing a piece of my heart here.
Dragging a notepad from his duffel, he scribbled down what he was feeling.
On the ground, after the plane had taxied to the terminal, while preparing to disembark, he had a chance to speak with her one last time. “What does M stand for?”
She looked confused. “M?”
“Your name tag says your first initial is M. I wondered what M stood for?”
“Oh. It’s not my name tag. My uniforms weren’t clean and I borrowed this from a friend. My name is Nancy.”
He quickly scribbled something on the notepad, tore out a page and gave it to her. “I’d like you to have this.”
He shouldered his duffel and moved down the corridor towards the exit. He glanced back and waved. She held the paper in one hand and waved goodbye with her other, and turned to read.

Old School - A Jake Driver Adventure and Sequel to Old Scores (a work in progress)

Sandy looked so beautiful, so peaceful Jake couldn’t bear to wake her. It was six o’clock and time for Sandy’s watch. He had climbed down from the cockpit and peeked into the aft cabin. Sandy’s hair spilled across the pillow like a lioness’ tawny mane. The soft predawn light made her skin glow. He studied the rise and fall of her breathing and felt so happy his heart ached.
They had settled into a routine. He took the nine o’clock to midnight watch. Sandy took midnight to three o’clock. He relieved her for the three o’clock to six watch. Then he would wake her and they would cuddle in the cockpit together, drink coffee and watch the sunrise. Daytime naps made up for some sleep lost each night. They were three and a half days out of Georgetown in the Exuma Islands of the Bahamas sailing to Bermuda.
He had nothing to compare with, but the last two and a half months had to be best honeymoon ever. Except, we aren’t married. Maybe I should do something about that. I don’t want to screw up this time, and I don’t want to lose her again.
His first sight of Sandy walking on Palm Beach, long tanned legs striding, shoulder length blond hair dancing in the breeze, and cornflower blue eyes set wide in a strong boned yet feminine face, made his heart skip a beat. If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was more than fascination. He had been a commitment phobic serial womanizer, but soon decided he had found the love of his life. Sandy was a recent widow searching for the independent person she used to be.
For three months, they were inseparable. He followed her from Palm Beach to her beach house on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. Then he lost her, or thought he had. She had issues with his activities as a federal agent that had often required him to perform dangerous and bloody missions. She feared commitment as well. When she finally decided she wanted him back, he was already embroiled in the investigation of a friend’s murder and infatuated with another woman. What followed would have made a great plot for one of his romance novels.
After the horror of being shot, saving the other woman from kidnappers, and settling old scores with the leader of the Houston branch of the drug gang MS-13, he and Sandy reconciled. They sailed from Hilton Head, South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida and spent a week motoring down the Intracoastal to West Palm Beach. Walking the beach where they first met, hand in hand, as they had six months before, was an emotional homecoming.
With stops on Grand Bahama, two anchorages in the Berry’s, Nassau, Warderick Wells, Big Major and Farmer’s Cay, they sailed to Georgetown in the Exumas and anchored a half mile south of Volleyball Beach and the St. Francis Yacht Club off Stocking Island. He chose the spot for a balance of proximity and privacy. They were still only a short dinghy ride away from all the socializing and fun the cruising community cooked up daily, yet far enough away not to be bothered when they wanted to be alone. His old friends Bill and Janice Townsend kidded them about disappearing from the social scene for days on end.
Now they were on their way to the Chesapeake via Bermuda, planning to arrive in plenty of time to attend Samantha and Bobby’s wedding in Alexandria, Virginia. Samantha Barker and Bobby Gulakowski were the DEA and ICE agents who helped him bust the gang distributing cocaine between Savannah and Charleston. It still amazed him that somehow, amid the murders and gun battles, Samantha and Bobby managed to fall madly in love.
He smiled as he studied Sandy’s sleeping face. I am so frigging lucky. Quietly, he slipped back up the companionway to the cockpit.

ONDAY, MAY 3, 2010
As was his habit, Captain Carlos Guttierez ate his lunch alone under the big canopy of Café Corazón. He considered his good fortune. His last assignment was in the garrison at Matamoros across the Texas border from the city of Brownsville. It was a horrible place to spend the first two years of married life. He had been a platoon leader and it was dangerous work. Over the course his assignment, his platoon had saved two kidnapping victims and gotten credit for several spectacular drug busts. Despite living in constant fear of reprisals from the drug cartels, he had kept his nose clean and he and his wife survived. Finally, a year before, his good work paid off. He received a promotion to captain and a plum assignment as an army liaison to Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México.
I love this city. I love its energy. Living here quieted his wife’s fears. She finally felt secure and the birth of little Carlos soon followed. His world now revolved around his wife and son. It also helped that his captain’s pay eased the impossible financial difficulty of supporting a family on paltry lieutenant’s pay. His job at the University let him rub elbows with powerful men in the Army too. He was a man on the way up, someone destined for bigger things.
The traffic on La Avenida de la Universidad, the bustle of people passing on the broad sidewalk, the hum of conversation and admiring glances from fellow diners, all energized him.

ONDAY, MAY 3, 2010
32° 9´ N - 64° 54´ E
The gurgle of the sea rushing past the hull and the sun’s rays flickering through a portlight across her face stirred Sandy Carlisle to wakefulness. She reached for the teak grab-handle mounted on the ceiling and levered herself out of the big aft berth. She paused in the head to brush her teeth. In the galley, she opened the gas valve, lit the stove and put on a pot of water. She shouted up the companionway, “Coffee?”
“Please,” Jake said from the cockpit.
Jake likes his black. She put three scoops of instant into a mug inscribed “Captain” and two scoops of instant, a half teaspoon of sugar and three ounces of cream into one with “Admiral” on it. When the pot started to whistle she poured in the steaming water and gave each mug a quick swirl with a spoon. She slipped on the life preserver she had left hanging on its hook four hours before and cautiously climbed the companionway with both cups in her left hand.
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,” Jake said as she emerged into the cockpit and put his captain’s mug into the cup holder by the helm.
She laughed and kissed him. She snuggled into his arms. Jake ran his hands under her sweatshirt and dug his fingers deep into the muscles of her back and up and down her spine. Playfully his hands crept around her sides to cup her breasts. “Umm,” she purred raising her arms, arching her back and stretching to his touch. “You let me oversleep. It’s almost seven. I missed the sunrise.”
Nele sailed along under a single-reefed main and full genny, guided only by the windvane they had nicknamed “Georgette” on a course of roughly fifty-five degrees.
Jake said, “Georgette handled all the steering for me, and you looked so peaceful I couldn’t wake you. I have a present for you, though. Look off the port bow.”
She broke their embrace, leaned out of the cockpit and squinted into the rising sun. She spied a gathering of low clouds with a hazy dark line beneath them in the distance. “Land! That’s Bermuda.”
“Either that or Mr. Garmin has us terribly lost.”
“How much longer until we get into port?”
“We’re still six to seven miles from the southwest corner of the island. We have to sail the full fifteen-mile length of the island, then into St. Georges Harbor. We have a little more than four hours to go at this speed,” Jake said.
 “I was just getting into the rhythm of living at sea,” she said, “getting used to the midnight to three o’clock watch and napping and reading during the day.” It has been almost four days since we left Stocking Island. The wind filled in from the southeast for a wonderful beam reach like our weather guy Herb Hilgenberg said it would. The time has flown. Except for that one squall, it’s been fun
“Hey, we can keep going. It’s only another ten or twelve days to the Azores,” Jake said tongue-in-cheek. “We have enough canned goods and water to make it.”
She punched him in the shoulder and he feigned hurt. “Alex and Sarah are flying in to meet us next week, and we promised Bobby and Samantha we would make their wedding in Alexandria next month. You’re screwed, buddy boy.”
“Well now, since you brought it up, why don’t we let Georgette handle the steering a while longer and …”
She punched him in the shoulder again. This time she did it hard and Jake didn’t have to feign hurt. Then she smiled in the mischievous way she knew Jake would recognize and scampered down the companionway laughing. She could hear him following as she climbed back into the big aft berth.

ONDAY, MAY 3, 2010
We have your wife and child. In horror, Captain Guttierez read the note the waiter had delivered then clenched it in his fist. Shaken to his core, he scanned the café for its source. Nothing. Nothing appeared unusual, yet everything had changed. Other diner’s glances now held menace. The bustle of the city seemed hostile, each person brushing by on the broad sidewalk was a threat. He pushed and held the number one on his cell phone. A raspy, smoke-damaged masculine voice answered, “Now you know it is true. Tell no one if you want to see your wife and child alive again. No police. No army. Wait for our call.”
“I want to speak with my wife,” he demanded.
“You want to hear your wife?” the raspy voice said angrily. The raspy voice uttered something in a malevolent tone and he heard his wife’s voice shout, “No.” Then he heard her scream. The raspy voice said, “Go home. Wait for our call.” The connection broke.

ONDAY, MAY 3, 2010
DEA Agent Samantha Barker studied surveillance photographs, DEA field reports and police reports spread across the kitchen table in her two-story, redbrick townhome in downtown Alexandria. She knew she could obsess about her work to the exclusion of all else. She felt a rush of warmth when she heard her lover, ICE Agent Bobby Gulakowski come home. Bobby was what had been missing from her life for a long time. A big, solid bear of a man, Bobby made her feel complete. “In here,” she shouted. Bobby came into the kitchen, placed his keys and briefcase on the counter, took two wine glasses out of the pantry and started to pour chilled chardonnay. “No wine for me tonight,” she said. “I still have work to do.”
“Spoilsport.” Bobby walked behind her, reached over her shoulder, put down his wine down on the table and bent to kiss the nape of her neck. Then he stood behind her and massaged her shoulders. “You need to leave this stuff at the office more often.”
She tilted her head forward enjoying Bobby’s touch. “Baltimore has a fresh rash of OD’s, some new, nearly pure cocaine hitting the market and an escalating drug war. Higher wants me to get to the bottom of it right away and they assign me two, a total of two, rookie agents. I’m swamped.”
“Welcome to management. At ICE when I ask for more resources they usually remind me that I’m supposed to use local and state agencies as a force multiplier.” Bobby moved his massage up the back of her neck. “Something has to really hit the fan before we throw a lot of bodies at it.”
She tilted her head left and right as Bobby kneaded one side of her neck then the other. “I’m getting all the state and local police reports in paper and electronic form, but that’s different than directing the action. Getting anybody who doesn’t work directly for you to do what you want them to do is impossible. I know MS-13 is moving into Baltimore and that’s what is driving the drug war. I know they have a fresh source of supply. I don’t have the resources to discover who the players are, much less how they are bringing it in. If I don’t get a lucky break soon, I don’t know how I can take leave for our honeymoon.”
“Whoa babe.” Bobby stopped massaging her neck. “You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. The world isn’t going to end because we take off for a week.”
“I know that,” she said. She turned in her chair to hug Bobby around the waist with her head on his stomach. “I keep seeing the faces of all the kids who have OD’d. I know the faster I shut this down the fewer there will be.”
“My wife, the Elliot Ness of the Mara Salvatrucha drug wars,” Bobby said, “I kinda like that.”
“I like that too.”
“Being compared with Elliot Ness?”
“No, silly,” she stood and reached up to wrap her arms around the big man’s neck. “I like being called your wife.”

ONDAY, MAY 3, 2010
In the basement of his Wyman Park townhome Muhammad Al-Muntazar,  the sixth and youngest son of Palestinian immigrants, and a direct descendant of Mohammed the prophet, brushed his lips to the floor before him as he completed a raka'ah of his evening Salah, the ritual prayers he performed five times each day. Muhammad was a tall thin man with intense hawk-like eyes. He carried himself regally and, after his direct connection to the prophet, he was most proud of his keen intellect. He held a BS in applied physics from University of Michigan and an MS and PHD from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. He was an assistant professor of Applied Nuclear Physics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
After his Salah, Mohammad planned to do some engineering on a more practical level. He owned a complete Shopsmith system modified to perform metalworking tasks to precise tolerances. He had grown up around such equipment in his Dearborn, Michigan home. His father was responsible for several worldwide patents and had been a highly placed engineer in Palestine before the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel. After the war, his whole family immigrated to the U. S. and settled into the large Muslim community in Dearborn. Limited English skills kept his father from finding a job that used his education. At the suggestion of a cousin, his father joined the United Automobile Workers Union and settled for a job as a machinist in a Ford Motor Company automobile assembly plant. Making things from metal became his father’s vocation and avocation, and as he grew up his father’s skills became his own.
This night’s metal working task was simple. He had cast three rings from lead. Each was nine inches in diameter and one and a half inches thick. He needed to drill a hole precisely three inches in diameter in the center of each ring such that they could slide easily over a metal tube. He had threaded that tube to accept a part from a medical imaging device called a neutron generator. The lead rings were simply dummy rings. He would only use them to test the mechanical functionality of the device he was building.

ONDAY, MAY 3, 2010
Captain Silvio Cordoba sat alone on the bridge of his containership, El Aguilar de Mexico. It was dark and he could see nothing of the transfer taking place on the docks beneath him. The lights of Mexico’s oldest and most beautiful port city stretched before him.
He preferred to be on the bridge when these transfers took place. Somehow, he felt cleaner for not being involved in the actual transfer. All eighteen seaman aboard knew that they carried contraband. That the ship often made a rendezvous with cigarette boats and off-loaded a small cargo when they came into American waters made that much clear, and all hands received a cut of the pay. Silvio’s cut was by far the largest. Exactly what and how much contraband they carried, only the four ship’s officers knew.
He shook his head in mournful penitence. Bless me Father for I have sinned. He knew what he was doing was wrong and could cost him his job and his life. I don’t really have a choice. These Salvadorian animals make us choose between taking their money and having our families killed. He was making a lot of money, but his wife and family managed to spend it almost as fast as he made it. Another year, maybe two and I will be able to retire and take my family somewhere safe. Maybe the United States. I have a sister in San Antonio. He recognized that he had told himself the same thing two years before, and the year before that.

UESDAY, MAY 4, 2010
Captain Guttierez staggered to the bathroom of his small two-bedroom apartment, knelt on the floor and vomited into the toilet. He rose and looked at himself in the mirror. He had dark circles under both eyes and a pasty, pale cast to his skin. He had not slept. No one has called. The numbers of kidnappings in Mexico were increasing. It was a primary reason he and his wife were happy with his assignment to Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. Most drug dealing and lawlessness took place along the states bordering the USA. Places like Matamoros. La Ciudad de Mexico was supposed to be relatively safe. I am not a rich man. What can they want with me? Maria must be terrified.
His empty stomach gnawed at him. He went into the kitchen to get something to eat. He took a leftover boiled egg and some orange juice from the refrigerator. He got down the egg, but the first sip of orange juice brought it right back up. He rushed to the sink and emptied his stomach again. Why am I doing this? I’m not going to help Maria in this condition. His cell phone rang. He fumbled drawing it from his pocket and dropped it on the floor. He bent to pick it up, lost his balance and sat hard on the floor. Finally, sitting there, he opened his phone. “Captain Guttierez,” he said. “Yes, I know where that is. On the side facing the volcano. Yes, I understand, no police, no army. 11 AM. Yes, I will be there.” They didn’t mention money. Madre de Dios, I hope this is not a reprisal for my successes in Matamoros. What is it they want?

UESDAY, MAY 4, 2010
Iman Mukara al Hasim looked up from a stack of paperwork on his desk to see Muhammad Al-Muntazar standing in his doorway. Mohammed bowed to him and entered the cubicle. The Imam scowled at his young protégé. “I told you that we should not meet again my son, especially not here. This place is watched.”
“I am just another worshipper come to perform my Salah in the mosque, father. We are alone,” Muhammed said.
The Imam let the scowl fall from his face. He knew the young genius worshipped him as a son and wanted nothing to break that tie. However, he kept a stern tone in his voice when he said, “Do not do this again my son. You must have no connection to me, or this place. You are the chosen one. The other things we do here are as nothing to your purpose.
“I came only to tell you that the device is ready,” Muhammad murmured with downcast eyes, hurt by his mentor’s disapproval. “All that remains is to replace the inert material with …”
“Shhh,” he commanded, and Mohammad ceased speaking. “We must not speak of this, especially here. The walls have ears.”
“Here? Here in the mosque? The infidels dare to invade the mosque?” Righteous anger flared in Mohammad’s hawk-like gaze.
“Shhh,” he commanded again. “We have found devices and we sweep daily, but we must be circumspect. I understand. The first part of your task is finished. Now, I must complete my part.” He rose, held his protégé by both arms and kissed each of his cheeks. “You have done well, but you must go now. Become one with the infidels again. Do not let them see the fire I see in your eyes. You are the sword, and your time is coming soon. I will call you when all is ready. Do not return.”
He watched the heat leave Mohammad’s face as Mohammad regained control. Mohammad bowed and kissed the back of his hand and turned to leave. “I will see you again Father, if only in paradise. Allahu Akbar.”
“Go with God, my son. Allahu Akbar.”
He walked with Mohammad as far as the curtain that separated the office sections of the Islamic Center of Alexandria from the areas of worship. To think when I found him in Dearborn he was just an angry, lonely boy of thirteen. Now he is a preeminent scholar of the scriptures and the instrument that will strike at the heart of the Great Satan. He waved as Mohammad left and walked back to his cubicle to resume the administration of the Alexandria Chapter of Worldwide Islamic Charities, a federally chartered 501(c)(3) U. S. nonprofit. He looked at the bank balances on the papers in front of him and smiled in satisfaction. I collect millions, tax-free, right beneath the noses of the infidels for the very enemies they seek to destroy. He laughed aloud. Even the faithful do not know the purposes I find for their money. Stupid Christian foundations, anxious to show they have no prejudice, add millions more.
His assistant, Imam Abu Hamari al-Maziri, joined him to plot a delivery of cash to the compound called Islamtown in upper New York where a band of several hundred disaffected African Americans, recruited from the graduates of America’s toughest penal institutions, lived, trained with weapons and studied scripture. Our black brothers prepare for the day when they too can strike a blow for Islam in America.
Muhammad passed from the dim light of the interior of the mosque to the bright sunshine of the street. He raised his hand to shield his eyes and saw a flash of light from the window of a parked car fifty yards down the street. A reflection off binoculars? He gazed toward a blue Ford Crown Victoria. Two men are in that car. The Imam is right. I should not have come. He quickly turned his face away and hurried around the street corner to his car.
“Did you get that guy, Jim? Damn, as soon as he made us, did he look guilty of something or what?” The man in the driver’s seat of the Crown Victoria lowered his binoculars.
“I think I got him.” The man called Jim, turned in the passenger seat, and thumbed back through a series of digital pictures he had taken with an expensive 20X-optical-zoom digital camera. “Blurry, blurry, blurry, okay. Gotcha, you son-of-a-bitch.” Jim held the camera over for his partner to see that he had gotten at least one clear, well-focused, high-resolution shot of the guy’s face. “One exciting moment in an otherwise totally boring shift. I wonder who the guy is, or if we’ll ever find out.”
“We also serve who only sit and wait,” the man in the driver’s seat said.

UESDAY, MAY 4, 2010
Randall Burbridge stood at what he thought of as parade rest in front of the desk of the chief of staff of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Jimmy DeWitt was a pudgy-faced political appointee in his early forties and the number-two man in the Homeland Department’s chain of command. Burbridge was the TSA’s Assistant Administrator in Charge of Law-Enforcement and the Federal Air marshal Program. A powerful man in his own right, he didn’t appreciate being on the defensive. However, congressional investigations into his $200M per year budget had caused that to happen several times in the past months. A former marine and Vietnam veteran with a purple heart, he had been a beat cop and retired after a long career as a member of the Treasury Department’s Secret Service. Even though it had been decades since he carried a gun, he still thought of himself first, as a law enforcement officer. I came back to help my country after 9/11. I don’t need this shit. He tuned out most of the senseless tirade coming from his superior.
“Are you listening to me Burbridge?” DeWitt shouted.
Without otherwise responding, he raised his eyebrows to indicate he was.
“Do you realize there were eleven men killed in this fracas down in South Carolina? Do you realize that your man Driver was responsible for killing eight of them? Why didn’t you warn me about this? This is just the kind of embarrassment some GOP Congressman would like to shove up my ass!”
“Apparently Mr. Driver was actively assisting an investigation by DEA and ICE during the incidents in question, sir,” he said. “He was not acting as an air marshal. If he had been, I would have briefed you, sir.”
“One of your guys is in the biggest gun battle in which an air marshal has ever taken part and you think some GOP Congressman is going to care that he wasn’t on an airplane at the time? Tell me, who the hell is this Driver guy anyway?” Dewitt demanded. “And why is he listed on administrative leave?”
“Some years ago we got a joint request from NSA and DIA to carry him on our rolls, sir.”
“You mean there is some kind of NSA spy hiding out in your department.” Dewitt’s tone communicated how nearly close to ballistic he was.
“Sir, Driver is a qualified air marshal. We put him through all our schools. From time to time we even pay him for his services when he flies internationally.”
“This old coot passed all your physical and weapons training requirements?”
He let it pass that the chief of staff was talking about a man precisely his age. “That old coot was number one in his class in both, sir.”
Dewitt flipped a couple of pages in a personnel file on his desk, nodded and grunted, “Harumpf. I want this guy standing tall in front of my desk tomorrow morning to give me a blow by blow of what went down. It’s bad enough that I have to defend your department in Congress against reports of Marshalls with felonies and the accusation that the air marshal service costs us a hundred million dollars per arrest. I’m not going to get blindsided by one of your guys going cowboy, and shooting up illegal aliens.”
“Two things sir, please note both the DEA and the Beaufort County Sherriff’s Office issued letters of commendation for Mr. Driver and …”
“And what, Burbridge?” DeWitt interrupted.
“And we can’t find Mr. Driver, sir. Apparently, he is somewhere at sea.”
“At sea? Why the fuck am I not surprised. Get him in here as soon as he hits American soil. Got that?”
“Got it, sir.” Without waiting for more abuse, he did a snappy about face and fled back to his office on the next lower floor. He called in his deputy. “Find Jake Driver and get him in here ASAP. The chief went ballistic on me when he got wind of Driver’s run in with MS-13.” I was afraid burying those after action reports would blow up in my face. Driver is what we need on the front lines, old school, like me. I could do my damn job for one-third the budget if I could turn guys like Driver loose, or, better yet, copy Mossad and El Al’s procedures. Trouble is, they’re either illegal or not PC.

UESDAY, MAY 4, 2010
Captain Guttierez sped like a madman down the Mexico-Puebla highway. He had called in sick, and truly, he felt sick. He was faint and his hands quivered on the wheel of his little Volkswagen. His destination was Cholula, a suburb of the larger city Puebla some 170 KM to the southeast of Mexico City toward Veracruz. In Cholula, right on top of the most important Nahuatl Indian spiritual center, the Spanish conquistadors built the Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church. He had visited the site several times before. Sometimes called the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the huge man-made hill was both the largest pyramid and largest monument in the world. The kidnappers had told him to meet them there next to the church on the side facing of the 17,802 foot volcano, Popocatépetl. 
He wound up through the hills overtaking and passing other cars with abandon. Only the tightest of hairpin turns kept him from passing. His fear that he would not arrive in time was unjustified. He arrived at the church with fifteen minutes to spare and rushed on foot to its east side. With fearful eyes, he scanned the visitors oblivious to the grand view of the volcano.
“Do not turn around, Captain.” He froze. The voice was not the raspy voice of the man who spoke to him on the phone but a different, oddly accented one.
“What do you want? Where is my wife? Where is my child?” he said.
“Your wife and child are alive and well. They are not here, but if you want to see them alive again you will do exactly as I say.” He started to turn around and the voice brought him to a quick halt. “Do not do that, Captain! If you turn around, they will die.”
“What is it you want? I do not have much money.”
The voice chuckled. “We do not want your money, Captain. We want one small thing from the University. On Saturday at 8AM, when no one else is there, you will meet us on the steps, go to your office, and get what we want. Then you may have your wife and child.”
“How do I know they are alive?”
“Take this.”
A hand snaked around his side and thrust a picture at him. He took it. It was a picture of his wife holding that day’s El Universal so the front page was visible. She is alive.
“Go back to work, Captain. Act as if nothing has happened. Meet us Saturday morning at eight o’clock on the steps and your wife and child will live.”
“But Saturday is four days from now …” Something had changed. A shadow on the ground was gone. Reflections of noise were different. Somehow, he knew there was no longer anyone there to hear him. Nevertheless, he waited minutes before turning around to see. How will I get through the next four days? What is it they want?

UESDAY, MAY 4, 2010
Samantha Barker knocked on the door of the Security Director for the Port of Baltimore. She had never been into the Port of Baltimore before and was impressed that her DEA identification had been insufficient to gain her access. She had an appointment with the Security Director. Despite this, she had to get a special visitor’s smart-chipped identification card issued. A guard checked her identification again before she could enter the Dumar Building on the south side of the Dundalk Marine Terminal. The sprawling Dundalk Terminal was only one of six that comprised the portions of the port supervised by the Maryland Port Authority. “Come,” shouted a gruff voice from inside the office.
She opened the door to one of the messiest offices she had ever seen. Stacks of paper of varying heights seemed to occupy every available horizontal surface. She said, “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice, Director.” This guy needs an executive assistant.
“Call me Slim.” The gruff voiced man came around his desk to shake her hand. “My parents called me Slim and it stuck.” The Director gestured for her to take a seat.
The man was one of the skinniest men she had ever met. Self-fulfilling prophesy. His necktie was down and collar undone revealing a pencil thin neck several inches too small for his shirt. “Slim it is then,” she said, taking his hand. She sat in the leather armchair in front of the desk and crossed her legs. She had researched his biography. He had retired after twenty-five years of service from a senior position with the U. S. Customs Service, and had a reputation as a good organizer. You wouldn’t know it by this office though.
Oh-oh, he’s looking at my legs. She was a twenty-year veteran at DEA and worked hard to be seen as Agent Barker, not a pretty face and body. She ran and worked with weights three times a week and practiced with her service weapon as often as she could. The coach of the DEA’s competitive marksmanship team had invited her to compete. She wore her hair short, no makeup and usually wore dark pantsuits to project an image that was all business. This was a hot day so she opted for a skirt. Maybe it won’t be a problem.
The Director continued to look her up and down lasciviously, then turned and pushed aside a stack of papers so he could rest one hip on the front of his desk. “What can I do for you today, little lady?”
Maybe it is going to be a problem. Twenty years before, she would have ignored his glances and patronizing tone. However, she had long since lost her patience with such crap at the DEA and her response was automatic. With honey in her voice, she said, “I prefer Agent Barker, if you don’t mind, Slim.” I’m not likely to get the help I need with this as a start.
“Don’t get your pantyhose in a bunch, Agent Barker,” the Director said. “And don’t read too much into this good ol’ boy thing I do. I just want to know what I can do for you today.”
“No offense taken, Slim. I’d like you to look at this.” She pulled a specially prepared report out of her briefcase and passed it to him. The report included a physical and psychological profile of the unsubs, a listing of fatal drug overdoses, reported sightings of MS-13 members and tagging, a catalogue of deaths and injuries caused by the current drug war in Baltimore and estimates of the increase in cocaine flowing into Baltimore in the past months.
The Director glanced at the first two pages. “I heard something about this from my guys in the Maryland Transportation Authority Police,” he said, referring to the elite police force that protects Maryland’s bridges, tunnels, airports, operates the harbor patrol and performs the patrol and law-enforcement functions at the port. What can I do about it?”
“A new supply of cocaine is hitting the Baltimore area. The intelligence we have indicates it is coming in by sea. I have a stack of these reports and I would appreciate it if you would disseminate them among your security details, both static and patrolling. I’m trying to heighten everyone’s awareness of the unsub profile. I have my team’s contact info on the back page of each. You could ask them to report anything suspicious directly to us.”
The Director scowled and said, “Keeping contraband from coming in to the U. S. is the only thing we do. We have hundreds of security people here 24/7 and it’s not to protect what’s here from being stolen. We process eight million tons of cargo here each year. 16,700 people work here, that’s a $3.7 billion-dollar payroll. We vet every one before they get one of those smart credentials you are wearing. What we put them through is a pain in the ass for personnel. It includes a background investigation almost like getting a federal secret security clearance. We can unload or load your average containership in a matter of three hours and do six ships at a time. We x-ray as many as 64,000 containers a month and check them for radiation and drugs too. What more can we do?”
“If you will hand out the reports …”
The Director interrupted. “We just got an outstanding security assessment by Coast Guard Sector Baltimore. Procedures and checklists determine everything we do here.”
“You must have regular security meetings with the Securitas people and the Transportation Authority Police. Please, hand out these reports in those meetings. It may raise awareness of this specific threat enough to get us some leads.”
“Okay, Agent Barker, I’ll do it. But consider this, the Chesapeake isn’t like the most of the rest of the coast of America. It’s more like the bayous of Louisiana when it comes to places to come ashore. Contraband could be delivered to any one of hundreds of landings along the Chesapeake much more easily than it can get through this port.”
“That’s a valid point, and we at DEA are afraid you might be right. However, we appreciate the cooperation distributing the reports. We can’t leave any stone unturned. On a different subject, Securitas is a Swedish company. How do you feel about having them man all your static security stations?”
“They’re a worldwide company with more than 280,000 employees. 98% of people working here on the ground are U. S. citizens and 100% have been vetted. I’m completely happy with our contracts with Securitas.”
“That’s good to know. I won’t take up any more of your time.” She rose and shook his hand again. As she left, out of the corner of her eye, she caught him ogling her butt, and saw him drop her stack of reports on top of an already tall stack of papers on the corner of his desk. That didn’t go the way I’d hoped. Why do I have no faith he will distribute those reports?

RIDAY, MAY 7, 2010
Jake and his friend Alex Greene sat at a picnic table in the shade of the snack shop on the shore of Tobacco Bay at the very northeastern tip of Bermuda. They sipped concoctions of rum in a slush of fruit juices. Alex’s wife Sarah and Sandy snorkeled around the little island in the middle of the bay in the distance. Alex and Sarah had flown in the night before. Jake and Sandy had moved Nele to the quayside at Captain Smokes Marina on McCallan’s Wharf to make getting on and off the boat more convenient during the Greenes’ visit. That morning they had taken Nele’s dinghy, Lil’ Nel, on the three-mile trip out St. Georges’ inlet and around the north end of the island to enjoy the crystal-clear water of Tobacco Bay.
Alex and Sarah were his oldest and best friends. He had anchored off Pigeon Point Landing, up the road from their waterfront home in Beaufort, South Carolina at least once each year for decades. The Greenes had effectively made him one of their family. During those years, their home became the only shoreside home he knew. He sometimes spent weeks, even months living in their guest suite writing his romance novels. He and Alex were in constant contact through the Tertulia, an e-mail group that Alex moderated.
Months before, the death of a mutual friend had dragged them all into a drug war. After it had ended, it was the Greenes’ home in which he and Sandy had reconciled, opening this new chapter of his life.
St. Georges was a stop in the transatlantic voyage he had taken aboard Alex’s beloved Cheoy Lee Clipper Aeolian in 2000. When Aeolian and its crew passed through, Sarah hadn’t come to Bermuda. This visit was Alex’s chance to show her all she had missed.
“So how is it going with Sandy?” Alex said, taking a long pull on his drink.
“I pinch myself at least once a day to make sure I’m not dreaming. I’ve never been so happy. I’ve never felt the way I do about her, and as time passes it just gets better and better.”
“So all the phobias and fears of commitment are subsiding?”
“It’s a strange feeling, foreign to me, but I’d say Sandy helps me feel almost whole for the first time in my adult life. I’m even talking to myself about whether or when we should make it permanent.”
“You mean?”
“Don’t say anything. But yep, I mean marriage.”
“Oooo brrr,” Sandy exclaimed emerging from the water with her mask and snorkel propped on her forehead and flippers in hand. “The water must be six or seven degrees cooler than in the Bahamas.”
“I can see that,” he said playfully, bouncing his eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx.
Sandy followed his eyes to the front of her suit. “Oh you,” she said, hitting him with the flippers. She dropped the flippers, sat at the table, took his drink from his hand and took a gulp. “That’s good.”
“Alex, come see all the beautiful fish,” Sarah shouted from the water.
“Duty calls,” Alex said. He winked at Jake, grabbed his mask, snorkel and flippers and headed for the water.
“What was that wink about?” Sandy said.
“Just some guy talk.”

ATURDAY, MAY 8, 2010
Captain Guttierez waited on the steps of the university only a minute before a man approached. Dressed in a crisply pressed blue business suit and fine leather shoes, and carrying an accountant’s wide leather briefcase, the man looked prosperous. “Good morning, Captain,” the man greeted him as if he knew him. The words carried a strange accent, like the voice behind him at the Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church. However, the voice was not the one he had heard there. The man had a thin face, and was handsome in a swarthy way. It flitted though his mind that this man let him see his face.
“Where are my wife and child?” he said.
“They are safe. When we are through here I will take you to them,” the swarthy man said, smiling reassuringly.
“There are metal detectors and guards,” he said.
“I carry no metal and I am your guest. What can go wrong?” the man said.
“I need your name for the guest log.”
“Let’s call me Juan Guttierez,” the man said. “I am your cousin, and you are simply showing me around. Shall we go?”
He was frightened, frightened that something would go wrong and he would never see his wife and child again, frightened that he was helping this man steal something from the university. He walked up the steps to the revolving doorway and through the metal detector inside the anteroom. The man calmly followed in his wake.
“Good morning, Captain,” one of the security guards said.
“Good morning, Jorge.” He watched the guard give a cursory inspection to the swarthy man’s briefcase. He wondered if the guard could sense his fear and consciously tried to seem calm. The man retrieved his briefcase from the guard and joined him walking down the broad corridor toward the section of the university the military occupied.
The Army funded ongoing research projects at the university. Supervising those projects and managing the associated budgets was one of the many things he did as a military liaison. It was easy, pleasant work, next to what he had done as a platoon leader in Matamoros. The swarthy man seemed relaxed, as though he had walked these corridors before, or knew precisely what to expect.
They arrived at the military checkpoint separating the army’s offices and army-funded research from the rest of the university. Military police manned this checkpoint, not civilian security guards. Another metal detector blocked the corridor. He entered his companion’s name as Juan Guttierez on the visitor’s log. He had forgotten completely that the guard would check the man’s identification using a driver’s license or military identification. He was shocked to see that the man actually had a driver’s license in the name of Juan Guttierez. “Just showing my cousin around,” he remarked to the corporals on guard.
“Have a good day, Captain,” the guard said after pawing through the man’s briefcase. Captain Guttierez proceeded down the corridor toward his office. Now I will discover what these people want. As he walked, he glanced left and right and saw that the other offices were empty. Few people came to work on weekends, and even fewer this early on a Saturday. Thank God, I’m unlikely to run into anyone one. He turned in to his office with the man right behind him.
He turned to face the man. “Now tell me what it is that you want and let’s get this over,” he said.
The man smiled and teeth gleamed white against the man’s dark face. Maybe the smile was supposed to put him at ease, but it seemed an insincere, wicked smile and put him on edge. “Patience, Captain. First I want you to take me to see the basement,” the man said.
“The basement? Nothing down there is accessible.”
“Nevertheless, take me to see it.”
He walked from his office to the stairwell at the end of the corridor and down two flights of stairs. The dimly lit basement corridor opened before him. Halfway down the hall a brighter light illuminated the only door on the corridor. He had only been down here once before when he had assisted in the inventory of the … No. It cannot be. He cannot want this. I cannot open the door alone anyway.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the army initiated a project with the university, the Mexican National Nuclear Investigation Institute, and the former Mexican space agency to create the components required to make and deliver nuclear weapons. Researchers from the university, ININ and the Mexican Army were successful in highly-enriching uranium to weapons-grade by 1974.
The Army terminated the project before actually building nuclear weapons and a delivery system, following the Treaty of Tlatelolco in which Mexico pledged never to use nuclear weapons. However, the few kilograms of weapons-grade uranium they had produced was still stored here. A stockpile of less highly enriched nuclear fuel, used to power the Mexican National Nuclear Institute’s small research reactor, was also located here in the basement of the university. Visually there was no difference between the two stockpiles. The difference was only a matter of purity.
Just the month before, the Army reached an agreement with the United States that would transfer the weapons-grade stockpiles to the United States. After Congress approved the agreement, the transfer to the U.S. would begin. He had helped inventory the stockpiles of uranium almost a year before, and though he was one of only six army officers and a handful of scientists authorized access, he had not been into the facility since. Its existence was not something he often thought about.
“I can’t access anything here alone,” he said.
“Show me that doorway,” the man said gesturing down the hall.
The doorway had a state-of-the-art retinal scanner and keypad, and it required dual verification before it would unlock. Two people whose retinal imprints were loaded into the device must key in a six-digit number and have their retinas scanned and recognized before it would open. He explained this to the man.
“Show me how you would do your part, Captain,” the man demanded.
He entered his six-digit code and the device prompted him to position his eye before the scanner. A moment later the device displayed: “Captain Carlos Gutierrez – recognized.”
Then the man shocked him by entering another six-digit code. The device then prompted his superior, Colonel Gonzales, to position his eye before the scanner. The man removed a ziplock bag from his breast pocket, took out a human eyeball and positioned it before the scanner. The scanner passed over the eyeball and the device displayed, “Colonel Gonzales – recognized.” There was a loud clank of metal as the bolt withdrew unlocking the door. The man opened the door and pushed him inside.
“What have you done with Colonel Gonzales?” he demanded. Why am I asking this? I know he must be dead. They will kill me, and Maria, and Little Carlos too. But I am alive. While there is life, there is hope
“Let us simply say that he was not as reasonable as you, Captain,” the man said.
Suits and masks offering protection from radiation hung on pegs set into the wall of the anteroom to the storage room and reactor. The man directed him to don one of these and put on one as well. They passed through an airlock into the adjoining room. Then the man led him to the storage room. The man seemed to know exactly what he wanted and where it would be.
The storage room was bare and devoid of any decoration. Captain Guttierez knew that uranium in its natural state was not very radioactive and anyone could handle it safely. Inert U-238 comprised more than 99.3% of naturally occurring uranium and could actually absorb radiation. However, what was stored in this room was enriched uranium. In some, the percent of the fissionable U-235 to U-238 was 4% or more, for use as nuclear fuel. In others, the U-235 content was above 20%, for use in nuclear weapons. On shelves dispersed around the perimeter of the room lay enriched uranium cylinders. A tube of U-238 encased each cylinder. U-238 also lined the shelves and formed separators between storage spaces. Rubberized tongs designed to grip the cylinders from a foot away hung on hooks in one corner. Beneath lay a stack of small U-238 lined boxes with individual compartments sized to hold the cylinders. When scientists wanted to move enriched uranium from place to place, they used these boxes.
The man grabbed one of the smaller lined boxes and placed it into his briefcase. Then he took one of the tongs and carefully slid ten two-kilo cylinders from the inventory of the weapons grade uranium into the individual compartments in the box and shut it. He moved ten cylinders from the supply of reactor fuel into the spaces the weapons grade fuel used to occupy.
“You won’t be able to get that back through the metal detectors,” he said to the man.
The man just smiled in response. “Come, it is time for you to see your wife and child,” the man said.
Hope made his heart leap in his chest. After all these days, will they actually let Maria and Carlos go? He did not want to feel this way. He wanted to wish that the man would fail, but he could not. He wanted to see Maria and Carlos again, alive and safe.
He led the way back up two flights and down the corridor to his office. There the man took twenty meters of strong nylon twine out of a pocket in his briefcase and attached it to the briefcase handle. He went to the window, opened it, and lowered the briefcase to the ground in the alleyway below, tossing the twine out the window once the briefcase was down.
“In a little while you will be reunited with your wife,” the man said. “Be calm. It is time to leave.”
They reversed their entrance and none of the military or civilian guards noticed that the man did not have the briefcase he had brought. He followed the man around the corner to an older Nissan Tsuru that might have been a taxicab at some point in its life. “You drive,” the man said.
He climbed behind the wheel. “Where are we going?”
“Go back to the Mexico-Puebla Highway. I will tell you when to turn off.”
“Aren’t you going to retrieve the briefcase?”
“It is taken care of.”
He drove as he had four days before, up into the hills. After 120 kilometers, the man told him to turn off at a sign that read Krupp Metalurgica Servicos. He followed a gravel road out beyond the Krupp factory until it became a dirt road in the rich farmland beneath the volcano. Three kilometers further into farming country the man told him to stop. A cloud of dust behind the Tsuru had hidden the black SUV that followed them from the highway. It pulled to a stop nearby.
The swarthy man jumped out of the Tsuru and greeted the driver of the SUV.
He climbed out of the Tsuru as well.
“It is done?” the driver of the SUV said. He recognized the driver’s voice as the one he heard at the Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church.
“It is done,” the swarthy man replied.
Out of the back of the SUV emerged another man, dragging Maria with him. Maria had little Carlos clinging to her breast. He raced to be by her side, but stopped short when the man dragging Maria pointed a pistol at his face and said, “Stop right there.” He recognized the raspy smoke-damaged voice he had first heard on the phone. The man looked like a brigand next to his well-dressed companions. The man wore blue jeans and a T-shirt and had tattoos all over his arms, neck and face.
“All that is left is to plant this scum with the colonel.” The swarthy man said.
 He heard the swarthy man’s words and the tone of scorn and contempt he used. How could I have been so stupid? They are going to kill us anyway. In that moment, he lost all hope, and became enraged. He charged the swarthy man with his hands outstretched. He attacked the swarthy man first with his fingers clawing at the man’s face. He raked a nail from the man’s temple to his jaw, and struck him with a fist in the eye, but he lost the element of surprise in a moment.
The swarthy man pulled a razor-sharp ceramic knife from a sleeve and thrust it into his belly, yanking upward, inflicting a horrible wound. His entrails dangled and his blood poured from the wound. He fell to the ground trying to stuff his entrails back inside his body. His head felt light. Sparkles of light and dark danced in his vision. “Maria, Maria, I am so sorry,” he said as he died.
The swarthy man backhanded the tatooed man across the face. “You had your pistol on the pig. Why didn’t you shoot?” he screamed. Blood welled in the wound on his cheek, and he could feel his eyebrow swelling.
The tattooed man started to raise a pistol. He froze the tattooed man with an icy stare. The pistol wavered, and lowered. “He surprised me,” the tattooed man said.
The woman lay prostrate over the body of her dead husband. Still clutching her baby to her breast, the woman wailed disconsolately. “Take care of this vermin now,” he commanded, gesturing toward the woman.
“Must the woman and child die?” the tattooed man said.
Stung to rage, he grabbed the woman by the hair and jerked her head up and back. He slashed across her neck with his ceramic knife severing her carotid artery. Blood spurted ten feet through the air to land on the tattooed man’s boots. His slash so nearly decapitated her that in a flash he decided to finish the job. Four more saws with his razor-sharp ceramic knife completed the detachment. He held up the woman’s severed head by the hair for the shocked tattooed man to see. Then he dropped it to the ground and picked the baby out of the headless woman’s arms. He smiled benignly into the squalling face, dangled the baby by one leg, and slashed its throat as well. He dropped the baby’s nearly decapitated body onto its mother’s. “If you want your money, you’ll bury this scum with the colonel now,” he snarled at the tattooed man.
The tattooed man made the sign of the cross. “Right away.” The tattooed man dragged the captain’s body off to the side of the road.
He turned to the driver of the SUV and smiled. “These infidels are sometimes useful, but generally worthless. It won’t hurt to have them fear us.” He withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the blood on his cheek.

ONDAY, MAY 17, 2010
32° 5´ N - 64° 58´ E
Jake and Sandy ate a quiet meal below, out of the spitting rain. Nele was hove to, drifting a bit to the east. Only her inner jib was up and Jake had backed that to keep Nele from going too far, too fast. He wanted to park Nele right where she was. It was going to get bouncy enough on the periphery of the Gulf Stream. He was not going to proceed until the wind started blowing from the southeast again. A day of bobbing around reading books would be a lot better than sailing into the thick of it.
The Greene’s had spent a wonderful week with them in Bermuda, snorkeling, sightseeing and dining. Sandy had used her country-club connections to get them all into the Mid Oceans Country Club. They had enjoyed a wonderful round of golf and dined in an elegant setting overlooking the eighteenth fairway and the ocean. At dinner, they sat right next to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones and their well-behaved son and daughter. A bit star-struck they had tried not to stare impolitely.
After hugs and kisses, and assurances that they would see each other again at Samantha and Bobby’s wedding in June, the Greenes flew back to the U.S. on the fourteenth. Immediately a weather window opened that promised three days of relative calm on a broad reach to the west, with only a possibility of a front coming off the coast after that. Jake jumped at the chance to get to the Chesapeake.
The southeast wind, however, had been nearly nonexistent resulting in comfortable but slow sailing, and the possible front coming off the coast had materialized earlier than expected. The wind had clocked to the west, then the north, and was coming from the northeast. He had consulted his weatherman Herb Hilgenberg by SSB radio and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He had been in the Gulf Stream when the wind blew from the north. There was nothing fun about it. We’ll just rest at sea and catch up on our reading.

Captain Silvio Cordoba reduced the speed of his containership, El Aguilar de Mexico to a crawl. He hated what the next few minutes might bring. It was the most dangerous few minutes of the whole operation. The likelihood of discovery in Vera Cruz was minuscule next to what could happen here.
The moon was out and nearly full. The Bay was calm and the weather was perfect, but this was not good. It had been squally and raining on the eighth when he had made the last transfer. Despite the slightly increased possibility of dropping a cargo, he much preferred days like that. It was too easy on a night like tonight for the U.S. Coast Guard, or a random recreational boater, to see the big black cigarette come alongside to receive cargo. He also knew the U.S. Coast Guard could track his ship using its automatic identifier signal (AIS), now required for all ship’s VHF communications. Turning off the signal would draw even more attention. The longer we maintain this low speed, the more likely we are to rouse suspicion.
From his position on the bridge, he could see his first mate already had the small, midship boom loaded with a palette in a cargo net. The mate waited for the arrival of the cigarette boat. Painted a flat black and displaying no lights, the cigarette boat often came right alongside before anyone saw it. On this moonlit night, he had already caught its dark form rushing toward them in the distance, a luminescent wake trailing behind it.
Jake peered into the darkness. That’s strange. Why are we catching that container ship? It passed us less than an hour ago doing more than twice our speed. The ship’s navigation lights had dwindled in the distance, now the huge hull loomed large in front of him again as Nele overtook it. “Take the wheel for a minute. I want to check the AIS for that ship and make sure they’re aware of us. We don’t want to pass them and get run over when they crank back up,” he said to Sandy. Sandy snorted in a way that suggested his words were the understatement of the century, and scooted around the cockpit to take the wheel while he went below. They had seen only a few ships at great distances at sea and sailed in waters thousands of feet deep. Suddenly the water was less than one hundred feet deep, there was land all around them, and huge ships passed them in the darkness. It was scary.
The weather front that had kept them from crossing the Gulf Steam had passed quickly. The wind clocked around as the prevailing southeasterlies of the Bermuda High reasserted themselves. On a broad reach, they made good time crossing of the Stream. Before dusk, Jake and Sandy had gotten to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, a twenty-six mile system of bridges, man-made islands and six-mile tunnel that spanned the gap from Norfolk, Virginia to the Delmarva Peninsula on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. As night fell, they sailed past the lights of Norfolk and Hampton Roads. Off to the west they could see the dark expanse of the mouth of the York River opening wide. The moon was nearly full and the breeze light and warm. It was a luscious night, but the treacherousness of nighttime sailing in shipping lanes tempered the beauty, and the joyful feeling that usually accompanies a landfall. Jake had watched the huge container ship carefully as it passed close by.
Nele’s VHF radio could pick up the automatic identifier signals broadcast by other vessels. The radio connected to his laptop computer so the digital information embedded in the signals displayed on Nele’s navigational system. A moving icon on the electronic chart showed the container ship’s name, length, and tonnage. The ship is El Aguilar de Mexico. They ought to be able to see us too, but they might not be paying attention.
Aguilar de Mexico, Aguilar de Mexico, this is the sailing vessel Nele Von Kiel, over.” Jake attempted to contact the ship by VHF radio.
“This is Aguilar de Mexico, over,” a heavily accented Latino voice crackled back. The first two words sounded like “dees ees,” and “over” sounded like “oh-bear.” Just as English was the language of worldwide air traffic control, it was also the language of radio communications at sea. No matter what nationality, bridge officers must be proficient in English. But apparently only somewhat proficient based on this and other voices I’ve heard.
Nele Von Kiel, I am a half mile south of you on your port quarter. If I maintain course and speed, I will pass close to you soon. I want to make sure you know I am here, over.”
Aguilar de Mexico, I see you. We put more speed on in minutes. Stay to port. There danger is not, over.”
Nele Von Kiel, roger. I will stay well to your port. Nele Von Kiel, out.” He hung up the radio handset and climbed up the companionway to the cockpit.
“They can see us. Let’s steer a little more to port to give them lots of room. It’s damn strange for a big ship to drop its speed to nothing out here in the middle of the bay,” he said. Sandy steered Nele a few degrees to port on a course that would pass the container ship a quarter mile to its west.
As they approached, the containership increased its speed again, rapidly drawing away from them to the Northeast. In the darkness beyond the ship, a flash of light reflected off something low in the water and moving fast. Jake saw a line of luminescence indicating the wake of an invisible boat rapidly leaving the starboard side of the ship. Oh, oh. That boat isn’t showing any lights, and it’s moving fast. This smells like a drug transfer at sea.
“Do you see that?” he asked Sandy.
“It looks like something fast moving away from us, but I can’t see what it is.”
“That is a fast boat with no lights on.”
“Are you thinking what I am thinking?” Sandy said.
“Yep, and I’m going to call Samantha right away.”
“Jake, it’s the middle of the night.”
“No time like the present. Samantha always said if everyone would report the drug activity they see, we could win the war on drugs, but too many people turn a blind eye, as though law enforcement is only for cops and none of their business.”
He took out his cell phone, found Samantha in his directory, and called. The voice that answered sounded professional, but he detected the grogginess of sleep. “Sorry to wake you, Samantha. Yes, we’re back in U.S. waters. Sandy and I are in the Chesapeake, thirty miles south of Annapolis. I’m sorry to wake you up, but I wanted to report what might have been a drug transfer from a container ship to a fast boat with no lights. No. It’s unusual for a container ship to slow to a crawl out here in the middle of the Bay. When we saw a fast boat with no lights leaving the ship we figured something fishy was going on and we ought to report it to our favorite DEA agent right away. Aguilar de Mexico. From their AIS signal. Heading to the northeast. Now. Yeah. Is ‘cuddly bear’ there with you? Give him a hug and kiss from Sandy. We’re looking forward to seeing you both soon.”
“What was that ‘cuddly bear’ stuff?” Sandy said when he had finished the call.
“Bobby told me that Samantha said she thought he was ‘cute, like a cuddly bear’ when she first told him she liked him. I think I’m going to razz him with that one for the rest of his life.”
“I think it’s sweet.”
“I think so too, but I’m still going to razz him about it.”

To be continued …