This is the third instalment of the Hell for Pastime series that I have commissioned from Nene Adams. Nene is such a great writer despite my lame ideas and I really enjoy what she has done with the characters and situations thus I hope to have her write several more stories in this series.
Disclaimers: This story contains female/female sexual relationships. If this is illegal where you live and/or you are under 18, do not read this story!
Some bad language and violence ahead.
HELL FOR PASTIME III: AND A STAR TO STEER HER BY
by Nene Adams ©2005 (on behalf of Rohan the Thunder Chick)
What though the sea be calm? trust to the shore,
Ships have been drown'd, where late they danc'd before.
12° 30" N, 69° 58" W
Aruba, the city of Barcedara
"Oooh, shiny!" Rohan Tarnach cried as she pressed her nose against the shop window.
Trudie van Geer – Rohan's partner and a member of the Dutch intelligence community - gave the plump woman a fond smile. "Yes, very shiny, liefje! Almost pure gold, I think." Her green eyes narrowed, and the corners of her mouth turned down. "How odd."
Rohan shot a glance at the strawberry blonde whose fresh good looks belied her covert operative's training. She had learned that when Trudie got that look on her face, trouble was not far behind. "What's wrong, hon?" Rohan asked, sotto voce in case anyone was listening, or happened to overhear. "Is it… you know… the drugs?" The last word was hissed out on a breath, so softly she was not even sure that it had been heard.
"No, not the problem that Marieke Verhagen sent us to investigate," Trudie said, naming her superior in the Buitenlandse Inlichtingen Dienst, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Dutch government. She had been sent to lend assistance to the Aruba authorities, as the island was a trans-shipment point for an influx of new opium-derived drugs from South America, headed to the United States and Europe.
Because she was a civilian, Rohan had no official presence on Aruba, but having inherited a tidy sum from her grandmother, she could afford to accompany her lover and take a vacation. It may have sounded like a paradisiacal solution, but it was also a bit unfair. While Rohan was enjoying white sands, palms, sunshine and warm tradewinds – not to mention tall cold fruit-adorned glasses of some blue concoction that was far more lethal than its sweet taste suggested – poor Trudie was escorting suspects to the hospital, witnessing stomach pumping and surgeries, and collecting evidence-filled condom 'bullets.' Fortunately, Trudie was not on duty all the time, and she was more than willing to share Rohan's indulgences… such as shopping for souvenirs and gifts in out-of-the-way places.
"Not drugs. This is a different matter," Trudie continued, setting her jaw and entering the shop. A bell tinkled as the door swung open. Rohan entered on her lover's heels, her gaze flashing here and there in appreciation. The shelves were littered with an assortment of antique coral necklaces and earrings, carved rose gold bracelets, strings of cultivated pearls, African artifacts, blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain, snuffboxes, silver, diamonds in old-fashioned settings, vintage Cartier watches, and old coins.
Trudie made a bee-line towards the shopkeeper, who was watching them from behind a waist-high display case. He said something incomprehensible in Papamiento, the local dialect, then switched to English. "May I help you, ladies?"
Rohan was not surprised when Trudie let out a flood of Dutch instead of following the shopkeeper's lead. Aruba was an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands; most people on the island understood the 'mother tongue,' Spanish and English. Rohan had picked up a few words of Dutch here and there, but the language was difficult to learn, the grammar strangely twisted to one who was used to English, and some of the sounds were well-nigh impossible to pronounce. She could not understand Trudie's interrogation, or the shopkeeper's replies. Her partner's body language was another matter.
Trudie was sturdily built, a fact which was not at all hidden beneath a Starsky and Hutch T-shirt, over which she wore a lightweight, hip-length denim jacket despite the island's heat and humidity. Only Rohan knew that the jacket concealed a shoulder holster and a Sig Sauer P-226. The gun may have been covered, but its existence, and the authority of possessing it, as well as a license from Her Majesty's government to use it, was written in the lines of Trudie's body. From the way she leaned into the shopkeeper's personal space - a parody of intimacy that was belied by the beads of sweat on the man's brow - to the curl of her lip, showing a glint of teeth, Trudie was unmistakably in charge of the situation.
Rohan found 'TakeCharge!Trudie' incredibly sexy.
Unbidden, her mind drifted into a pleasant fantasy involving a big fluffy feather, a jar of Valrhona chocolate sauce, and enough Bailey's Irish Cream to float a good-sized cetacean. Rohan had just gotten to a good part in the scenario – a very, very good part - when Trudie's voice called her crashing back to earth.
"Huh? Oh!" Embarrassment flamed hot on Rohan's cheeks. "Would you mind repeating that, hon?"
Instead, Trudie took her by the arm. "C'mon," she said shortly, then turned her head to shoot an aggrieved glance at the shopkeeper, who turned a sickly shade of gray.
Once they were on the pavement, Trudie heaved a great sigh and continued, "Let's go back to the hotel."
"What's going on?"
"I'll tell you later."
Rohan balked, digging in her heels. "I'd prefer to know now," she said, curiosity winning over the tingling of lust. There was something serious going on, and Trudie was not getting off the hook until she knew what it was. "Whatever it is, you can tell me. We don't have secrets from each other."
Trudie sighed again, but she stopped pulling, and let go of Rohan's arm. "Really, liefje, it's better we wait until we're at the hotel." She leaned closer and whispered, "There are ears everywhere. I want to tell you, but only in a clean room."
A clean room meant one that had been swept for listening and recording devices, which was something that Trudie did in their hotel room every day, and each time they returned after going out. Rohan's eyes narrowed when suspicion bloomed. Was this connected to the drug investigation after all? Was the shop a front for dealers of the new designer drug called undertow?
As if in answer to her unspoken questions, Trudie opened the hand she had kept clenched into a fist, revealing a flash of gold in her palm.
"It's about shiny things," Trudie said, and gave Rohan an unexpected grin.
Rohan opened her mouth, thought the better of replying, and simply started walking in the direction of their hotel. The quicker she learned why Trudie placed such importance on an irregularly shaped, battered old gold coin, the faster she could start searching for Valrhona chocolate sauce… and possibly a big fluffy feather.
The Bailey's Irish Cream would have to wait until she could hit the duty-free shops.
Once back at the Beachcomber Hotel, Rohan waited with barely constrained impatience while Trudie checked to ensure that no one had broken into their room and planted electronic bugs in their absence. While Rohan perched on the edge of the bed, nibbling cookies from the mini-bar, Trudie took an RF-frequency receiver, a spectrum analyzer, a direction finder and a GPIB interface with a plotter from her suitcase, and swept the room looking for wiretaps, micro-miniature cameras and radio transmitters.
Finally satisfied that no one was eavesdropping, Trudie put the equipment away, sat down on the bed, snitched the remaining cookies from Rohan's hand, and said, "That isn't an ordinary coin. It belongs to the Estrella."
Rohan raised her eyebrows, and snitched one cookie back.
"Okay, I'll explain, but it's going to take a few minutes." Trudie ate a cookie while visibly contemplating, putting her thoughts in order. At last, she said, "The Estrella – that's Spanish for 'star' – was part a Spanish treasure flota, a fleet called the Tierra Firme that sailed from Cadiz, down the coast of Africa to the Cape Verde islands, and then to the Caribbean in the early 17th century. The ships of the Tierra Firme fleet visited South American ports - Cartagena, Nombe de Dios, and Porto Bello – before meeting with other ships for the journey home.
"In 1622, a hurricane destroyed a good part of the fleet, scattering wrecks around the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas off Florida. Estrella was one of those lost ships, going down with a cargo worthy of a king's ransom." Trudie picked up the coin, holding it between thumb and forefinger. A shaft of sunlight struck the gold, turning it brazen. Rohan found herself mesmerized. Struck by the liquid gleam– so warm, it lit a slow fire in her veins - she could understand why, throughout the centuries, people had killed to obtain gold, had died to keep it, and wondered why the ore itself was not stained red with blood.
"Do you know about the plundering of the Incan Empire by the Spanish conquistadors?" Trudie asked, interrupting Rohan's momentary introspection.
Rohan nodded. "In a general way," she said. "Extremely general, in fact. You'd better assume that I need to know Inca vs. Conquistadors 101."
"Well, the Incans made many beautiful artifacts from gold and silver." Trudie paused until Rohan nodded, then went on, "The Spanish had no love of these things; they considered them as nothing more than heathen idols, useful only for the precious metals and jewels they contained. Artifacts were melted down, and coins were struck at the mints in Potosi and Lima, among other places." She indicated the coin she was holding up. "This is a eight-escudo piece, commonly known as a Spanish doubloon, and it's nearly 28 grams of 22-karat gold.
"In 1622, a new mint opened in Santa Fe de Bogotá, where this particular coin was struck. The Estrella went down in September, 1622 with 230,000 gold doubloons in her hold, freshly minted at Santa Fe de Bogotá using a special die that added a tiny star to the shield side of the coin, and a second to the cross side, to honor the Virgin Mary as the Star of the Sea – Stella Maris."
Rohan squinted, and could just make out a badly blurred image of a star, hardly bigger than a wheat grain, stamped into the surface of the coin. The miniscule star was almost lost among the other images – the pillars of Hercules, a crown and banner, the royal coat-of-arms with its castle and lion, and a cross on the reverse. The coin was irregular and crude, not nicely rounded and milled as the coinage she was used to seeing.
Trudie continued, "A normal gold escudo is worth perhaps $7,000-$10,000 to a collector because of its relative rarity; the Spanish government melted down the crudely minted coins and turned them into milled coinage, so only shipwrecks and former pirate booty have yielded doubloons in the past. This is even more rare. Only the Estrella was given the honor of transporting the new Star of the Sea coins to Spain. The rest of the treasure flota carried the usual escudos. Do you know what this means?"
Ten thousand dollars?
Rohan felt as though her eyeballs were standing out on stalks. 230,000 coins times $10,000 apiece equaled… her brain shut down at the amount of zeroes that danced across her inner vision. Her mouth went dry, and she let out an undignified squeak.
Trudie nodded, her eyes dancing with amusement. "A lot of money, liefje." Her merriment ended abruptly, and she frowned. "The trouble is, Estrella hasn't been found. Not officially. Such a salvage operation would have gotten big press."
"So where did the coin come from?" Rohan asked, still staring at it and imagining zeroes.
"The shopkeeper told me that he bought it from Luis Ojeda." Trudie's frown deepened. "Ojeda is a minor player in a big drug smuggling gang run by Stefan Caruana in Columbia. Caruana is the reason I'm here on Aruba; our operation is centered around gathering enough evidence to get him convicted," she said thoughtfully. "Ojeda doesn't have anything to do with shipwreck salvage. What is he doing with a coin like this… wait. Ojeda's older brother, Alejandro, is captaining the Cacafuego in the Trans-Island Hop. Maybe there's a connection?"
Rohan blinked. She had heard of the 10th Annual Trans-Island Hop now taking place throughout the Caribbean. Tall sailing ships – either authentic, preserved museum pieces that were sea-worthy, or working replicas like the Cacafuego – from many countries sailed a set course around the islands, stopping at various harbors to attend dress costume parties. It was an opportunity to generate good public relations for the nations involved, especially since the parties were fund-raisers for various global charities.
"What does the Hop have to do with undertow? And the Estrella?" Rohan asked.
"I'm not sure," Trudie said, "but I am going to find out. These things are connected, liefje. I know it!"
Rohan leaned over and kissed Trudie between her eyebrows, right on the 'V' that the frown had creased into the skin above her nose. "Hon, you're one of the brightest girls in the world. If anybody can figure it out, you will. How do you know all this stuff, anyway?"
Trudie smiled; the tense line of her shoulders relaxed a trifle. "I loved sea stories when I was a child," she said. "Still do, sometimes. A Buccaneer's Atlas, The Brethren of the Coast, The Book of Buried Treasure… not to mention Treasure Island. Reading about salvagers like Mel Fisher, who worked wrecks of the sunken fleet of 1715, made me want to learn more about the history of the great Spanish flotas." Her cheeks turned pink. "And besides, I've always had a passion for pirates." The last sentence came out in an embarrassed rush.
Rohan decided to forego the chocolate sauce, and invest in an eyepatch, a wooden leg and a stuffed parrot immediately, if not sooner. She went to the mini-bar, found two bottles of mineral water, and gave one to Trudie. The hotel was air-conditioned, but it was still hotter than Hell outside, and she did not want to suffer heat exhaustion. Replacing fluids was important. She handed one bottle to Trudie, tipping her a wink as well, and cracked open the seal on her own bottle. It was not until she had gulped half the contents when an odd, metallic taste in her mouth suddenly registered.
She turned her head, and the bottle fell from her nerveless hands as vertigo spun the room around her. "Trudie?" Rohan whimpered.
"D-d-drugged," Trudie coughed. She fell sideways, retching, her fingers scrabbling at the tropical print bedspread.
Rohan's vision was a smear of wetness tinged with black around the edges. All the strength ran out of her body, leaving her numb except for a scorched throat, and a tingling behind her eyes. Bitter saliva ran out of the corners of her mouth. She, too, fell backwards. Her own breath sounded abnormally loud in her ears. Trudie! Rohan screamed silently. Trudie! Inside her mind, she clawed and kicked, but to no avail. A pool of darkness rushed up towards her, engulfing her in warm oblivion, and she knew no more.
When she woke up several hours later, the escudo was gone.
And so was Trudie.
Approximately 19° 58" N, 71° 02" W
Off the coast of the Dominican Republic
"Clear that reef tackle!" Anne Bonney shouted in a clear voice pitched to carry across the replica frigate U.S.S. Hambleton from bow to stern, and to be audible even in the top-mast yards. "The wind's aloft… bear those backstays abreast the top-brim!"
Standing next to her was Amelia Peabody Emerson – not the Victorian sleuth of literary fame, but a retired CIA agent. Like Bonney, Emerson wore a well-tailored blue broadcloth uniform patterned after early 19th century Navy uniforms. Over a white satin waistcoat, she wore a brass-buttoned, gold braided jacket that came down to her hips, white knee breeches, white stockings, and low-heeled black shoes with polished buckles. Emerson had adamantly refused to wear an officer's hat, but she had tied her glossy black hair back into a queue. Bonney wore a similar uniform, but her blonde hair was covered by a cocked or 'fore-and-aft' hat worn athwartships, with the points over her shoulders, which Emerson said made her look like Napoleon Bonaparte, only taller and less French.
Commanding the Hambleton in the Trans-Island Hop was quite an honor. Bonney had not expected to be chosen, although she had been submitting her name into the pool of eligible captains for several years. Having a genuine sailing vessel under her command was very different than commanding a nuclear-powered submarine, but Bonney's mother had inherited a replica of the brigantine U.S.S. Caledonia, a wooden ship that had served in the War of 1812. The replica ship had been commissioned by Bonney's great-grandfather, a sailing buff and historian; every summer, Bonney and her cousins had practically lived on the Caledonia, sailing from Newport, Rhode Island, to the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico.
Her collection of Patrick O'Brian first editions had nothing to do with her love of sail.
Nothing at all.
When she first received the news that Hambleton's command was hers, Bonney wondered whose strings had been pulled, and who had done the pulling. Her Aunt Matilda may have been the SECNAV, and she may have had a lot of Naval brass hats in her family, but God Himself could not have awarded Hambleton to any old deck-ape, political juju or no. This was a cream-pie commission that put her on the fast track for promotion to Admiral. Gray-bearded senior captains with impeccable records fought tooth-and-nail to cap their careers with a plum assignment like this.
"Haul in the weather main-brace!"
When Bonney had questioned Emerson – the ex-Agency wet-work specialist had contacts on the Hill that put even rabid tabloid journalistas to shame – she had been told the commission was a 'reward' for exposing Senator Marian Donner as a Nazi sympathizer, in league with Erik Gottschalk, a former S.S. officer and head of a neo-Nazi terrorist group called der Blitzschalg. The resulting diplomatic and legal nightmare over U-boat U-3555, its cargo of art treasures and gold bars, and Hitler's secret Swiss bank accounts was still being sorted out among various factions, governments and individuals.
Bonney knew exactly what had happened. The U.S.S.Hambleton was really meant as a punishment, not reward. Admirals commanded desks, not ships. The Navy was going to take Saber away from her, because she had embarrassed the United States government by publicly proving that a respected, elected senator was actually a Nazi-loving maniac with a murderous streak. It may not have been fair, but that was the way of things.
As a hero whose picture had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, she could not be assigned to a leaky, rust-raddled, on-the-verge-of-decommission tub doing sub tender duty in the south China seas. As the niece of the SECNAV, Bonney could not be demoted as a show of her superiors' displeasure. Instead, she was being promoted, and in such a way that no one, not even Aunt Matilda, could take offense.
Emerson had explained it thusly, one night when they were lying together in the bedroom of their St. Augustine bungalow – "Ex-senator Donner had a lot of juice in Washington, a lot of influence because she was the head of the Arms and Appropriations Committee. There were deals made when she assumed control of the committee; backroom agreements with lobbyists, corporations trying to get government contracts, Senators and Congressmen and other interested parties wanting preferential treatment for the people and companies they had made deals with of their own. Oh, what a tangled web!
"So all these people are pissed, 'cause Donner gone means Senator Japheth Kent riding herd, and the old coot's practically pickled in righteousness," Emerson went on. "They call him the 'Incorruptible' with good reason. Now there's wasted bribes, wasted time, egg on important faces, and somebody's got to pay. Shit rolls downhill, sweetheart, and you got picked to take the crap deluxe blue plate special, with extra turds on the side."
Bonney had not rolled over and punched the wall, but she came awfully damned close.
She could not refuse Hambleton; that would destroy her career, or what was left of it. No one complained about getting prestige and a promotion. Instead, Bonney did the only thing that could be done under the circumstances – she boarded the wooden frigate, brought Emerson with her, and decided that if this was her last command before being relegated to an office and the Hell of Perpetual Paperwork, she was going to enjoy every minute of it, even if it killed her.
Therefore, Bonney had accepted the tiny captain's cabin, the unaccustomed costume that she was forced to wear, the dull diet (including ship's biscuits, thankfully without the maggots that would have plagued its historic counterpart), the lack of privacy and sanitation (but at least the captain had her own private toilet, although that consisted of a board with a hole in it crammed into a narrow cupboard), and the combination of hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer gut-wrenching excitement that was life aboard a tall ship.
Her mind had wandered, but now returned to the present, to what seemed like acres of blazing white canvas spread like wings aloft, belled taut with the warm tropical wind, almost blotting out the turquoise sky and the hot copper disk that was the sun.
"Great Ghu!" Emerson said, and paused to spit out a lock of hair that had been blown into her mouth. "Please tell me we're going to make Luperon Harbor in time for dinner. If I have to eat boiled salt beef again today, I swear I'm going to run amok That stuff's worse than the 'mystery meat' they serve in the Saber's galley. At least on the sub, the cooks give you applesauce or cranberry sauce to cover up the taste."
Bonney grimaced in empathy. The ship's stores were also as authentic as could be managed in the modern age, and still comply with health regulations – the rock-like biscuits called hardtack, salted beef that had to be boiled in the big copper before it could be pronounced marginally edible, rum and lime juice, slabs of salt cod, and very little else. There had been a rather weather-beaten hen meant to provide the captain with a daily egg, but the ship's cat had proven more adept at killing fowl than snaring the inevitable rats that were impossible to eradicate, even in the 21st century.
"We ought to make the hurricane hole within the next couple of hours," Bonney replied. "It's on the north side of the island."
"I'm going to burn incense to every god in the pantheon as soon as my feet hit dry land," Emerson vowed. She stuck a finger in the folds of the cravat that swaddled her throat, and wrenched it back and forth. "I don't know why we have to wear these stupid things, Annie!"
"For the experience, Amelia."
"Yeah, well, I'd be happier in a T-shirt and cut-offs." Emerson's pale blue eyes glittered like shards of ice. "This is worse than the damned poop-suit you made me wear on the submarine."
Bonney smiled. A 'poop suit' was the nickname of the generic dark blue coveralls typically worn on board a sub. "The color suits you," she replied. "And you've got really good calves. Believe me, nobody looks good in breeches if they have toothpicks for legs."
"Are you saying these knee britches make me look fat?"
"Hmmm." Emerson bumped Bonney with her shoulder. There was a wicked tilt to her dark brows. "Hey… it's been a few days. Is there a paint locker on this boat?"
"Ship," Bonney corrected automatically, "and no, there isn't. The officers have to set an example… you there!" Her voice rose, and her brilliant green gaze targeted a sailor in the waist. "Secure that line before somebody loses an eye!" She turned back to Emerson, confident that her order would be obeyed. The crew were old hands, many of them recruited from the Coast Guard's U.S.S. Eagle, the iron-hulled sailing barque used as a sea-going classroom for training cadets. Mingled with the Hambleton's crew were volunteer enthusiasts from other military services, including a crusty Marine master gunnery sergeant who had probably served under Noah on the Ark.
"How about tonight?" Emerson persisted. "We could rent a room at a hotel."
Bonney had to admit that an evening of down-time with the woman she loved sounded like heavenly bliss. Just like a submarine captain, the person in charge of a sailing vessel was on duty twenty-four hours a day. While she had a competent First Mate and Executive Officer in the person of Commander Agamemnon 'Egg' Shackleton, who knew the Hambleton as intimately as a lover, it was nevertheless Bonney's responsibility to ensure the safety of all souls aboard the ship.
She had learned that Hambleton's crewmen were less leery of disturbing her rest than Saber's; it seemed almost a game to the seasoned sailors, waking her at all hours, testing her resolve, trying to push her to her limits. Bonney had an excellent reputation as a submarine commander, but as the captain of a wooden ship, she was still earning the crew's trust. At a certain point, Bonney had already decided, the time for testing would be over, and she would make that perfectly clear. For now, she endured what had to be endured for the sake of morale, but Christ! She would give her left arm for a full night's sleep.
"A hotel room sounds perfect," Bonney said to Emerson. "Mr. Shackleton!"
"Aye-aye, ma'am!" replied the XO, who, unlike more junior officers, was privileged to walk the quarterdeck with the captain. He, too, wore the uniform costume of breeches, waistcoat and jacket; his cocked hat was worn fore-and-aft on his cleanly shaven head. His beard was neatly trimmed. Most of the men aboard Hambleton had elected to grow facial hair rather than attempt wielding a cut-throat razor (electrics, safeties and depilatory creams were verboten as anachronistic) on such uncertain, shifting ground as the ocean. No one, however, knew how Shackleton kept his scalp so scrupulously free of hair, and no one wanted to ask.
"Signal Illustrious, Mr. Shackleton, and request a hotel room reserved in my name," Bonney said.
Illustrious was a vintage 97' motor yacht, built in 1915 for a Scottish industrialist; it was made of Honduran mahogany with a copper bottom, and the rebuilt engine had a cruising speed of eight knots. The Trans-Island Hop used Illustrious as an observation and emergency aid vessel; support staff working on the motor yacht also coordinated mail service, fulfilled requests from the captains, and ensured that all the ships conformed to regulations.
"Signaling Illustrious, aye," Shackleton said. His brown eyes, set deep in wrinkled pouches, scanned the lower deck. "Meyer!" A junior officer, her queue of braided hair hanging in a straight line down the back of her uniform jacket, stiffened at his summons. "To your signal flags, Meyer. I'll be along presently."
"Aye, sir!" Midshipman Janice Meyer called, and made for the poop deck where the signal flags were stored.
"Any other message, ma'am?" Shackleton asked.
"That is all," Bonney said.
As Shackleton left the quarterdeck, Emerson sighed. "I never knew all this sailor talk could make me hot."
Startled, Bonney bit her lower lip hard enough to make it bleed. "What?"
"You know… that batten down the hatches, splice the mainbrace, yadda yadda." Emerson waved a hand and purred, "It's very sexy. You're very sexy, ma'am."
Bonney wiped a thumb across her bleeding lip; the wound was minor, even if it stung. "We are not having this conversation on the quarterdeck," she said. "Honestly, Amelia!"
"Sorry, sorry, I just couldn't help it."
"I'll bet." Bonney shook her head. "Tonight, I promise, we'll be alone and we'll spend the whole evening together."
Emerson's smile turned beatific. "Room service," she moaned, looking like an acolyte who was about to meet her god for a private tête-à-tête. "Complimentary soaps. Fluffy towels. A bed that isn't moving all the goddamned time…"
Bonney shaded her eyes with a hand and pointed. Illustrious, which was cruising off the Hambleton's starboard side, had erupted into frenzied activity. Signal flags were snapping, and she read the message with a sinking heart. "Oh, God."
"What's the matter?" Emerson repeated herself a couple of times, then finally grabbed Bonney's elbow. "Damn it, Annie! What's wrong?"
"It's Rohan Tarnach. Something's wrong. Something… really bad."
Emerson frowned. "What's the most annoying woman in the world gone and done now?"
"We're going to find out, because we have to… Mr. Shackleton! Belay that message to Illustrious! Hove to and drop the sea anchor!" Bonney shouted around the weight of dread that threatened to choke her. She genuinely liked Rohan, and knew that Emerson did, too, no matter how the dark-haired woman might grumble.
Emerson's hand was warm on the back of her neck. "It'll be okay, Annie. Whatever it is, we'll deal with it."
Bonney nodded, although she remained unconvinced. Before she had a chance to voice her unease, the sound of a sea plane's engine – an angry hornet's buzz – sliced through the calm air. She noticed Cacafuego, a replica of a Spanish galleon, crowding on sail and thought idly that the captain must be in a hurry to reach the harbor.
"Looks like we're about to find out," Bonney said, watching the plane come skidding in to a landing on the crystal blue waters. "Mr. Webb!" she called to the boatswain, who acted as Chief of the Boat. "We've a passenger to pick up."
"Aye-aye, ma'am!" Webb began directing some of the crewmen to launching a jolly-boat over the side, while the coxswain McLaughlin and his hand-picked men stood by to man the oars.
Bonney waited with hands clasped behind her back, her face serene, but inwardly, she was being eaten alive by apprehension.
"Trudie's been kidnapped!" Rohan said breathlessly as soon as her feet touched Hambleton's deck. Eschewing the bo'sun's chair that had been hastily rigged for her, she had swarmed out of the jolly-boat and up the accommodation ladder to the entry port as if she performed such athletics every day. Emerson was impressed, but raised her brows at Rohan's fierce declaration.
Trudie van Geer was a Dutch intelligence agent; if she had unaccountably disappeared, why was Rohan alone? Surely Trudie's supervisors would have been alerted if their agent vanished, and assistance would have been scrambled at once. Emerson said as much, and suffered Rohan's scorn.
"Verhagen said that she had no resources to spare," Rohan spat. Her big black eyes flashed with fury, and she closed one hand into a fist in order to shake it in the general direction of what Emerson guessed was supposed to be the Netherlands. "No resources! Trudie's missing! I think I know who took her, too, but nobody on Aruba would help me."
"So what's with the sea plane?" Emerson could not help but ask. The look she got in return from both Rohan and Bonney sizzled along her nerve endings. Yeow!
"I rented it," Rohan informed her frostily, "using Trudie's government credit card. Verhagen told me that you," she turned to Bonney, "were commanding a wooden ship in the Trans-Island Hop, and I came here as quick as I could. Is there someplace we can talk?"
"Of course. Mr. Shackleton, we'll be in my cabin." Bonney led the way to the captain's cabin under the poop deck. It was something of a squeeze, since the space was hardly larger than a broom closet, but the three of them managed to huddle around a map table without too much awkwardness of elbows and knees.
Emerson found herself envying Rohan's 'Disco is Dead' T-shirt and faded jeans; the outfit looked much cooler and more comfortable than her own naval monkey suit. The plump woman's dark hair was screwed back from her face in a messy ponytail; she looked worn out, jazzed on nerves and too much coffee, faintly vibrating with worry. No, she did not envy Rohan at all, come to think of it, and did not even grudge her the comfort of cotton. Emerson patted Rohan on the back. "Hey, I'm sorry about Trudie. I'm sure she's alright."
"I don't share your confidence," Rohan ground out, gnawing her bottom lip.
"When was the last time you slept," Bonney asked, "or had a decent meal?"
Rohan shook her head. "That doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does, more than you think. If you collapse…"
"God damn it!" Rohan slapped her hand on the table top. The sound was shockingly loud in the confines of the cabin. She hesitated, then her shoulders sagged. "Just let me get this out, okay?" she continued more softly. "Let me tell you what I think is going on."
"Fine." Bonney smoothed a stray tendril of hair out of Rohan's eyes. "Go ahead. We're listening."
Emerson shifted her weight from foot to foot while Rohan told a tale about drug smugglers, a shipwrecked Spanish galleon, gold coins worth millions, and a possible connection with the Trans-Island Hop. Bonney's eyes narrowed as the recitation came to an end. Emerson knew that calculating look, and welcomed it.
"Cacafuego," Bonney said, "has deviated from her course. I saw her crowding sail when the sea plane arrived."
The implication struck Emerson immediately. "So this captain, Alejandro Ojeda, is involved? Makes sense," she mused. "How better to smuggle your product from port to port than during a charity event? The authorities aren't searching the boats…"
"Ships," Bonney corrected.
"Whatever. The point it," Emerson continued, "that if Stefan Caruana is moving product, I'll bet that oversized galleon will hold a heck of a lot of it."
"What's the connection to Estrella?" Bonney asked, shifting around Rohan to reach the bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon that she kept in a drawer under the narrow bunk. She poured a generous splash into a mug, and pressed it into Rohan's hands.
"Don't know, but all that gold's got to come in handy when you're a drug lord."
"And you believe that this Caruana had Trudie kidnapped?" Bonney asked Rohan, who had gulped the bourbon and held out her mug for more.
"Who else could it be? Someone must have seen her in the shop, or maybe the shopkeeper made a call after we left. He didn't seem like a happy camper. The whole island is crawling with Caruana's people. It would be easy have the water bottles drugged before we got back to the hotel. Then it would be a question of waiting." Rohan drained the mug a second time, and wiped her lips with the back of her hand, shuddering. "I kept expecting the police to tell me that they'd found her body."
"Great Ghu's gahoolies!" Emerson exclaimed, and slung an arm around Rohan's shoulders. "Look, I'm going to be straight with you, okay? If Caruana kidnapped Trudie instead of just giving her a Columbian necktie, that means he has a use for her. Every minute she stays alive is another minute we have to find her. And we will find her… because I don't think I could stand having the most annoying woman in the world dogging my steps for the rest of my life. Got it?"
"Got it." Rohan squinted up at her. "What's a Columbian necktie, dare I ask?"
"Oh! Um… you don't want to know."
Bonney snorted. "The victim's throat is cut, and the tongue pulled down through the slit. Very popular execution style in Miami, I've heard."
Rohan went white.
Emerson caught her when she slumped and went down in a faint, and gently laid the woman on the deck. She stood up, rubbing her wrenched back muscle, and glowered at Bonney. "Did you have to say it? Did you have to say it? You knew what was going to happen! That's damned cruel, Annie."
"At least Rohan's going to be unconscious for a while without me calling to sick-bay for a sedative," Bonney answered coolly. "And she would've found out eventually, anyway. Can you shift her to the bunk? I need to issue orders for the pursuit."
"We're going after Cacafuego?"
"Yes." Bonney's eyes held a familiar glint. "We have to start looking for answers somewhere, and that's as good a place as any."
"And the Hop?" Emerson already knew the answer to the question, but she wanted to hear it from her lover's lips.
"Screw the Hop," Bonney growled. "This is more important."
Emerson felt a tingling of excitement whizzing down her spine. When Bonney got that take-no-prisoners, keelhaul-'em-all tone in her voice, the bets were off. What had been a relatively pleasant island cruise had turned into an adventure, and Emerson could hardly wait to jump in with boots on, fangs out and hair on fire.
And best of all, she could finally ditch this throat-strangling stupid uniform.
Drug smugglers, ruthless crime kingpins, lost treasure… the possibility of being shot at, blown up, knifed or otherwise… Emerson smiled and sighed happily. She had missed this.
Now the future looked so bright, she was going to have to wear shades.
Rohan woke up slowly, and lay in the bunk for a while, staring up at the seamed wooden ceiling. Every muscle in her body ached, and she felt about ninety years old. There seemed to be a gritty film across her eyeballs; her mouth tasted as if the Russian Army had camped in it. For a second upon waking, her hand had automatically sought the warm body that ought to be lying next to her, and failed to find it. The shock had drop-kicked her heart into her hair, and then she had remembered. Trudie was gone.
The wrenching pain of loss made a lump in her throat, a stone in her chest, a freezing block of ice in her guts. Oh, how she missed Trudie! It had only been a couple of days, but every moment that she was awake, Rohan's imagination supplied horrifying scenario after scenario about what tortures the drug lord's minions were making her beloved Trudie suffer. The waking nightmare never ended. Dread permeated every aspect of her being. During the time it had taken for her to make contact with Verhagen, and later formulate her plan and rent the sea plane, she had felt terror running beneath her skin. Only the realization that she had to remain strong for Trudie's sake had kept her from falling apart.
She had sought out Anne Bonney (and, by extension, the vile Amelia Peabody Emerson, may the fleas of a thousand camels nest in her armpits!) because the captain was a friend, and someone who could be counted upon to lend every assistance in time of need. Bonney was an officer and a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. Emerson was… well, the best that Rohan could say was that the ex-CIA agent – codenamed Widowmaker – was efficient and knew her business. If anyone could find Trudie, Rohan thought they would.
After laying there and feeling sorry for herself, Rohan decided that she had better get up and face the day, or the night, or whatever the time was in this part of the world.
There was a stainless steel pot full of lukewarm water in a sort of stand next to the bed. Rohan washed her face, wished she could also wash the grit of bone-deep tiredness off her eyeballs, and swished some more water around her mouth in lieu of brushing her teeth. Fortunately, opening the door led straight onto the deck. Unfortunately, Rohan was not used to the controlled chaos of a working sailing vessel.
About the fourth time that she narrowly avoided falling over a line, or tripping on a coil of rope, or was bumped into a busy sailor, a man's voice drawled from behind her, "Dry foot, what the hell are you doin' on my deck?"
Rohan whirled around and nearly fell. An iron-hard hand on her forearm steadied her until she found her feet again.
The owner of the drawl was a late middle-aged man, his skin gone the texture and color of leather as a result of apparent decades under a tropical sun. Deep wrinkles and lines were slashed into his forehead, cheeks and throat. He stood with rawboned confidence, peering down at her with slightly bloodshot hazel eyes; sunlight shone on his head, where a great deal of dark pink scalp showed through his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair.
"I'm sorry," Rohan said. "I was looking for Captain Bonney."
"She's on the quarterdeck, behind you," he said.
Rohan turned, and saw Bonney standing on a raised portion of the deck that was to the aft of the ship. "Thank you, Mr…?"
"Master Gunnery Sergeant Hiram Smalls," he said, and took a firmer hold on her arm. "Come along, ma'am. I'll escort you to the captain."
"Oh, that's not necessary," Rohan began, and was cut off by the gunnery sergeant's scowl.
"I'd prefer not to do a 'Man Overboard' drill today," he said, the softness of his Southern drawl in no way detracting from his aura of authority. "Right this way, please. Be careful where you step. Seaman Chow, do you have nothing better to do than gawk? There's brass that needs polishin', so snap to it!"
"Brass polishing, aye-aye, Gunny!" a petite Chinese girl said, leaping out of their way with the agility of the young and motivated.
News of Smalls' progress swept ahead of them, causing crewmen to at least appear busy to avoid the gunnery sergeant's baleful eye. Sailcloth snapped and cracked overhead; the ship's beams moaned as Hambleton cut through the sea. Rohan felt the vibration under her feet, a rhythm that was like a heartbeat, the hypnotic pulse of water and wave. The air was full of salt, so crisp it scoured her lungs. She took a deep breath. For the first time since finding Trudie gone, Rohan began to hope.
Smalls delivered her to Bonney, saluted, then stepped off the quarterdeck and returned to the waist in order, Rohan presumed, to further terrorize the cadets acting as able seamen.
"Good afternoon, Rohan," Bonney said. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
A woman came onto the quarterdeck; she wore a uniform similar to Bonney and Emerson's. Her skin was very dark, dark as shoe polish; dark enough to have plummy highlights on the high arches of her cheekbones, and across the bridge of her nose. Her age was unapparent, except in the faint fan of lines at the corners of her eyes. "Captain, we ought to lessen sail. There's a storm on the way, according to White's knee."
"White's famous knee, hm?" Bonney pursed her lips, then lifted her gaze to study the spars and sails above. Rohan followed the captain's line-of-sight. While she was a submarine enthusiast, she had never really studied sailing ships, so Hambleton's intricacies were lost on her. Rohan wondered how fast they were going, and was it fast enough to catch up to Cacafuego. Of course, she realized the assumption they had made about Cacafuego's involvement in Trudie's kidnapping might prove false, but it was the best lead they had. Once they found Ojeda and his ship, Rohan prayed he would give them answers.
"How do you know what course Ojeda took?" Rohan asked, curious.
Bonney shrugged. "I don't know exactly, but he was running before the south southwest wind. Cacafuego is a galleon – impressive, but big and heavy, not as maneuverable as Hambleton. Ojeda can't achieve the same rate of speed, not without risking ripping his masts out of the deck. I've done some calculations. If we haven't caught up with him by nightfall, we'll break off pursuit and start combing the islands in this area."
Rohan ran a hand over her face. "What's that about White's knee?"
"Ah, the ship's cook, Joseph White." Bonney's green eyes twinkled. "He was assigned to an aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Diligence. Before he transferred off, White slipped in the galley during a storm and broke his kneecap. Ever since, he's been able to predict the weather."
Despite herself, Rohan's curiosity remained piqued. "Oh?"
"When he starts taking aspirin every four hours for the ache, we reduce sail. When he starts limping, we batten the hatches. When White falls down and starts hollering, we look for safe harbor in a hurry. From what Lt. Uxolo says," Bonney nodded at the waiting dark-skinned woman, "I think we can expect a mild storm, not a ship-killer."
"Aye, ma'am," Uxolo said, her teeth flashing white as she smiled. "Doc White's been nursing the aspirin bottle since four bells."
"Very good, lieutenant. Mr. Shackleton!"
"Captain!" replied the XO, who was standing in the waist. The freshening wind ruffled the ostrich feathers that decorated his cocked hat.
"There's a storm ahead, but I'm betting we'll outrace it. Hambleton can stand the strain for an hour or so, and there's time to make up. Send a look-out aloft to watch for Cacafuego. If we come upon her, I want the weather gage."
"Consider it done, ma'am. Shall I have some crewmen standing by with axes?"
Shackleton's question shocked Rohan, but Bonney laughed. "No, Mr. Shackleton, I think we'll have plenty of warning to reduce sail before the masts go."
Oddly, the first question Rohan thought to ask was, "Why do you call the cook 'Doc'?"
Uxolo looked amused. "Because he has all the knives. It's tradition." She patted Rohan's shoulder. "Don't worry, Ms. Tarnach. The captain knows what she's doing." The woman paused and continued kindly, "Maybe you should head down to the galley, get something to eat, have a cup of coffee. Captain Bonney is going to be busy for a while."
Rohan saw that Bonney was now paying attention to a report given to her by another officer, and nodded. Waiting was inevitable, but soon – God, let it be soon! – she would confront Ojeda and hopefully learn Trudie's fate.
In the meantime, collapsing from hunger and thirst would do no one any good, least of all her… even if she had no appetite at all.
Bonney laid a hand on the mizzen topmast backstay. It was as unyielding as iron, taut with strain. Eight thousand square feet of canvas were borne aloft on the masts; the sails were so full and hard, they seemed to be carved from marble. Hambleton was making a brisk eleven knots, according to the log-line; the ship was driven through the short chop by a storm wind, the bow rising and falling in rooster-tails' of spray that glittered like broken glass under an increasingly leaden sky. She glanced past the starboard leech of the mainsail.
"Fall off a point," Bonney said to the helmsman, a lieutenant named Finch.
Finch replied, "Falling off a point, aye," and eased the wheel two spokes to port.
Bonney recalled a poem:
A wet sheet and a flowing sea,
A wind that follows fast
And fills the white and rustling sails,
And bends the gallant mast!
It was not raining yet, but Bonney could smell the possibility in the air, catch the crisp scent of ozone from distant lightning. She gripped the backstay tighter, and peered further past the edge of the mainsail. There was a shadow on the horizon. Was that…?
Just as she was about to shout an inquiry, the look-out in the crow's nest – that swaying platform located more than a hundred feet above the deck – yelled in a carrying voice, "Ship ahoy! Off the starboard bow!"
At once, Bonney went to the rail. Anticipating her needs, Shackleton joined Bonney at the rail, and handed her an old-fashioned, brass-bound telescope. She put it to her eye and scanned the newly sighted ship. It was a galleon, all right, and the escutcheon had the name Cacafuego picked out in gold.
She snapped the telescope closed.
Shackleton let out an evil chuckle. "We should be crossing her stern within three hours, if the wind remains steady and the storm doesn't break hell loose on our heads."
Bonney nodded, her expression grim. "Tell the Gunny that I want gun crews standing by… with real powder and shot."
"Not a drill, eh?" The bald XO seemed thoughtful. "How do you know Cacafuego will play fair?"
"I don't." For all she knew, Ojeda's crew had automatic weapons and grenade launchers. "Maybe it won't come to that, but I like to be prepared."
"So do I."
Bonney waited while Shackleton issued the necessary orders. 'Gunny' Smalls was designated the Hambleton's gunnery officer, although he preferred to be known as the 'chief of the cannons.' Smalls had practiced his gun crews every day since the Trans-Island Hop began; she had no doubt that if it came to a fight, Hambleton could hold her own.
Emerson's arrival with a heavy black case proved a distraction from normal ship's business.
"What's that?" Bonney asked, afraid she already knew the answer.
"An equalizer," Emerson answered shortly. She pressed her thumb against the lock, and the catches snapped open, revealing blackened metal components packed into protective foam. It took Bonney a few seconds to realize that she was looking at a rifle. Emerson started pulling pieces out and slotting them together, not a movement wasted; her face was a mask of professional focus, even if her clothing screamed casual.
She had ditched the uniform, and scrounged together an outfit consisting of a sleeveless T-shirt with 'Bitch Goddess' emblazoned on the front in pink glitter paint, and a pair of tight black bicycle shorts that hugged her smooth, muscular thighs and ass. Her bare feet were as tanned as the rest of her body.
Bonney's mouth watered. She sucked it back and managed to say in a very normal tone of voice, "Sniper rifles aren't allowed."
"Rules, shmools," Emerson said, screwing a telescopic scope onto the rifle barrel. "This is a bolt-action, match grade Accuracy International Super Magnum, designed to survive the harshest environments and remain reliable. It has a detachable box magazine holding five rounds of .338 Lapua, and a muzzle break to reduce recoil, and requires very little maintenance at all. This rifle with this ammunition is accurate beyond 1500 yards."
Her hands stopped moving, and she looked at Bonney, her eyes like chips of ice. "I don't give a crap that having a rifle is against the Hop rules. We quit playing dumb-ass pretend games the minute you decided to chase Cacafuego, which could be stuffed full of drug runners with nasty tempers and Ghu-knows-what in the name of weapons." She slapped in an ammunition magazine. "In the event of an engagement, I am going to protect you, Annie. Period. No debate."
Bonney was touched. There was something enormously endearing about Emerson in full-blown, lioness-protecting-mate mode. "I won't argue with you," she said, brushing her fingertips against the taller woman's cheek. "You'll want to be someplace high… the main topmast, probably, but there'll be a lot of sway if the wind stays up."
Emerson blanched, as Bonney had known she would. Sailors often went into the shrouds via the ratlines, but the safer route was through the lubber's hole – a straight path, easy to navigate from the deck to the top. The Hambleton's top-men made it a point of honor to eschew the lubber's hole in favor of crawling like flies up the futtock shrouds, hanging backwards twenty-five degrees to the vertical until they reached the rim of the top, and thence to the crosstrees.
Upon learning this when first boarding the ship, Emerson had sneered at the notion of the lubber's hole, and decided to follow Bonney into the ratlines. She had frozen half-way, after looking down and seeing nothing but an insubstantial ladder of ropes between herself and the rolling deck. Bonney smiled at the memory, although at the time it had not been funny. Hambleton had heeled to leeward a couple of strakes, and the combination of centrifugal force, gravity and panic had caused Emerson to cling to the lines and refuse to move. Poised below her, Bonney had crazily wondered if opening a can might coax Emerson down from her perch, as if the woman was a treed cat. Eventually, she had guided her lover down, but the cross-hatched pattern of the shrouds and crossing ratlines was imprinted into Emerson's flesh for several hours afterwards, a testament to her terrorized grip.
"Um, okay, I don't want to end up like Busted Bertha when I fall and get squished on the deck," Emerson said, breaking into Bonney's reminiscences with mention of a Garbage Pail Kid. She was a great collector of the cards, which were printed with grotesque characters that looked like Cabbage Patch Kids gone horribly wrong.
"Actually, the chances are good that you'd bounce off a sail and land in the water if you fell," Bonney pointed out. "Of course, you might still break an arm or leg."
"What a cheerful thought." Emerson shrugged the rifle sling over her shoulder. "I'm going to the cabin to drink what's left of the bourbon. Holler if anything happens." She stomped away, giving the captain an excellent view of the back of her bicycle shorts.
Even if there was a paint locker on Hambleton, it was no time for canoodling.
Smalls cleared his throat noisily behind her. "The gun crews are ready, ma'am."
"Gunny, where's the best place for a marksman with a high powered rifle to be if we engage with Cacafuego?"
Smalls did not exactly smile, but he looked a bit less grim than usual. "The lubber's hole," he said. "Ms. Emerson will have a clear field of fire, and there's less chance of her falling off the platform if the ship heels over, since there's futtocks to hold her there."
"Assign an able seaman to guide Ms. Emerson to the lubber's hole if there's action," Bonney said, and added prudently, "and be sure to have a rescue crew standing by, just in case."
"Aye, ma'am. Just in case."
Bonney ignored the amused twinkle in his eyes, and used her telescope to peer at the other ship. The Cacafuego – or 'Shitfire' when loosely translated into English - was an artfully rendered copy of the original Manila treasure galleon that had been captured by Sir Francis Drake in 1579. She was transom built, with a number of overhanging decks rising to the poop deck on the sterncastle's highest point, a hull that bulged outwards around the keel like an onion bulb, and she was square-rigged with four masts, including a bonaventure hung with a small lateen sail. If Cacafuego's builders had followed the galleon's plans, she ought to have two gundecks. Bonney was not sure if the South American crew was well-drilled in the use of cannons; if they were unskilled, that would be to Hambleton's advantage.
On the deck, the crew were mustering for battle, summoned by the beating of a drum – rat-a-tat-tat! rat-a-tat-tat! rat-a-tat-tat! Each six-person gun team was at their stations, the crews' shirts stripped off and colorful kerchiefs tied around their heads, preparing the foc's'le and waist cannons; the women on the teams retained their brassieres for the sake of modesty, but were just as quick and fierce as the men. Bonney knew that down below, on the gun deck, the ports were clattering opened, and Gunny Smalls' second, another Marine named Dillon, would be supervising those crewmen while Smalls prowled the upper deck for slackers.
Apparently drawn by the noise of preparation, Rohan came to the quarterdeck. "What's going on?"
"We'll be engaging Cacafuego soon," Bonney replied.
Rohan eyed the cannons. "They seem awfully small," she said doubtfully.
"Four-pound cannons like these may not be able to shoot through two feet of oak at a half-mile like a thirty-two pounder, but each one of these guns will cast a three-inch solid iron ball at a thousand feet per second. On the upper deck, we have seven guns port and starboard, and the same below." Bonney turned away from Rohan and called down to Smalls, "Load chain shot, Gunny; I want to disable Cacafuego, not obliterate her crew."
"Chain shot, aye!" Smalls called back. He briskly issued some orders, and several of the crew darted aft.
"We're only carrying twenty barrels of powder – nineteen large grain, one fine-grain for priming," Bonney said. "Of necessity, this is going to be a short engagement. Either Ojeda surrenders, or we have to try and disable his ship by taking out his masts and rigging. We can't afford a wasted shot, so Hambleton will come in as close as possible. If we get a chance, I'll lead a boarding party."
Fear dawned in Rohan's dark eyes. "What if Trudie's aboard? Will she get hurt?"
"I'll do everything within my power to avoid that possibility, but it is there." Bonney reached out and touched Rohan, knowing that if Emerson was the one being held prisoner on the galleon, she would be out of her mind with worry. "Just stay strong for Trudie's sake."
"I'm not going to dissolve into hysterics," Rohan said. "I did that already, back on Aruba." She paused and rubbed her upper lip. "What do you want me to do?"
"Unless you know how to fire a cannon, you'd better stay below."
Rohan shook her head, a stubborn set to her jaw. "I'd rather be here."
Bonney thought a moment, and decided that no matter the risk, she would have to allow Rohan to do as she pleased. "Very well, but I won't have time to look after you, and neither will Emerson. Promise me that you won't do anything foolish."
The mulish expression faded ever-so-slightly. "All right, I promise."
One of the cook's assistants arrived on the quarterdeck, bearing sandwiches and coffee. Bonney shared both with Rohan, who made a face at the taste of boiled salt beef, sliced thin, with mustard on stale rolls, but choked the rations down anyway.
When Cacafuego was in range, Bonney ordered signal flags to send a message, telling Ojeda to heave to and prepare to be boarded.
The response was the flat crack and the thin whine of a bullet that narrowly missed taking Bonney through the forehead. Instead, the cocked hat was knocked off her head, and tumbled to the deck. Bonney picked it up and stuck her finger through the bullet hole. It was not the first time she had been close to death in her many years of Naval service, but somehow, this felt too personal, an insult that needed to be redressed.
Silence fell over the decks. The wind was two points abaft the beam, and blowing steadily. Unattended, one of the sails buzzed harshly until a crewman broke his trance and hastened to trim it before it tore under the strain. Bonney thought:
And as to catch the gale
Round veered the flapping sail,
Death I was the helmsman's hail,
Death without quarter!
Mid-ships with iron keel
Struck we her ribs of steel
Down her black hulk did reel
Through the black water!
"Mr. Smalls! Put a warning shot across her forefoot!" Bonney said at last, her voice as loud in the quiet as a sudden explosion. Several sailors flinched, but held their ground.
"A warning shot, aye, ma'am! Number four crew!" Smalls roared, the back of his neck turning an alarming shade of red. "Cast loose your gun!"
The cannon was in its normal 'stowed away' position – bowsed up tight against the port and lashed there. At the gunnery sergeant's order, the gun crew loosed the tackle that held the cannon hard against the side.
"Level your gun!"
The sponger – a comely young lady with fiery hair and a face that was peppered with freckles from brow to chin – thrust her handspike under the cannon's breech, and levered it up with a grunt and a heave that was impressive for her petite size. The gun captain, as the leader of each team was called, wasted no time shoving a wooden wedge half-way underneath the cannon, to bring the muzzle to the horizontal point-blank position.
The hands let the gun run in fast, and the breeching checked its inward course when the muzzle was about a foot inboard. Someone whipped out the wooden tompion that plugged the gun's mouth, and when Smalls roared, "Run out your gun!" the crew clapped onto the side-tackles and hauled the gun up to the side hand-over-hand. The falling end of the rope was skillfully guided into a neat flat coil on the deck, which was called a Flemish fake.
"Prime your gun!"
The gun captain took the priming iron, shoved it into the touch-hole, and pierced the cartridge inside the gun. Fine powder from a horn was poured into the now opened vent, and onto the pan. The sponger put her freckled hand over the top to ensure the wind did not blow the powder away before the pan was filled.
Instead of ordering the crew to point the gun as was customary, Smalls bent and peered through the sight himself, muttering instructions about elevation for range, while the gun captain oversaw the raising and lowering of the breech, and the adjustment of the wedge. As he did this, two of the crew were hanging onto the side-tackles to steady the gun in case the ship heeled. The sponger knelt at the cannon's side with her face averted, blowing gently on the slow-match she had taken from the tub on deck. The powder-boy (a fifty year old Navy captain) stood by with the next cartridge and another canister of shot. After Smalls had ordered the necessary adjustments, the gun captain sheltered the priming, took the slow-match from the sponger, and awaited the next command.
"Fire!" Smalls yelled.
The slow-match was whipped across, and the captain stubbed it hard down onto the priming powder. There was a hiss, a sparkling flash, and a bang as more than a pound of premium, high-grade, hard-rammed gunpowder exploded in the confined space of the cannon's muzzle. Came a stab of crimson flame and a loud belch of black smoke, and the chain shot – two small iron balls linked by a short section of chain – flew out, accompanied by bits of wadding that floated through the air like confetti. At the same time, recoil made the gun shoot backwards eight feet, the breeching twanging as it absorbed the force and prevented the cannon from leaping across to the other side of the deck. The gun crew, well practiced after Smalls' drills, made sure that none of their limbs were crushed by the carriage wheels.
Smoke raced to leeward. Bonney watched the progress of the shot, a hand raised to shade her eyes from the sun. The linked balls whizzed perilously close to Cacafuego's bow, clipping off a few splinters of wood in passing, then skipped several times over the surface and finally splashed into the sea, sending up a plume of foamy water as it struck and sank. Hambleton's crewmen whooped and waved, one bold soul so forgetting himself that he dropped his trousers and mooned the galleon from the foc's'le.
Shackleton's wrath was awesome to behold.
Another bullet's mosquito whine hummed near her ear, and an elaborately carved piece of the taffrail round the poop deck blew to splinters. Bonney summoned a junior officer – Janice Meyer, who was looking a little wild-eyed – with a crook of her finger. "My compliments to Ms. Emerson, and will she please join me on the quarterdeck," she said.
Meyer nodded and scampered off, her motion hampered slightly by the instinctive half-crouch she had assumed in the hope of avoiding being shot.
It was a hope that everyone aboard shared, Bonney thought, and wished she did not have to set an example by standing here and being a big, blue broadcloth target.
An explosion of flame and smoke from the Cacafuego caught her eye.
Ojeda's crew knew how to use their cannons after all.
Emerson felt gypped.
She had seen the old swashbuckler movies, of course: Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Black Swan, Against All Flags, Fire Over England, Captain Kidd, Master of Ballantrae, Queen of the Pirates, Raiders of the Seven Seas – a cavalcade of thud-and-blunder starring lean-hipped men who oozed sexuality and violence as they stalked across the screen, rapier in hand, commanding coarser comrades to victory and glory on a Tinsel Town back-lot. Those films had fueled a goodly number of adolescent fantasies. Emerson could remember a childhood spent racing up and down the staircase at home, play fighting with her cousin, with a dish towel pinned around her neck as a cape, and a willow switch for a sword.
In those films, the opposing ships – huge, wallowing behemoths of the sea - had always come together for the big sea battle with volley after crashing broadside volley. It had been nail-biting excitement right up until the moment when the bad guy was run through, and writhed in his death throes while the hero took the heroine's lips in a chaste kiss.
When she had been ten years old, buck-toothed and scabby kneed, Emerson had wanted nothing more than to be a pirate, to sail the Spanish Main with Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. She had yearned for a sea battle like in the days of yore… and now she was learning the bitter lesson that Hollywood lied.
In real life, Emerson found out… you have to chase the bad guy's ship for hours and hours, until you're so freakin' tired of having nothing better to do than watch the long, straight wake unspooling behind the Hambleton's stern that you could keel-haul yourself. Then, when you finally get within shouting distance, you exchange a few shots with said bad guy that does nowhere near the amount of damage you've come to expect from decades of watching MGM and RKO's finest. Sea battle is boring!
Emerson sighed. What the hell are they using for cannonballs, Nerf footballs? She knew better than the ask the question aloud, though.
No broadsides, Bonney told her. The Hambleton's guns were aiming for Cacafuego's sails and rigging, in an attempt to cause the least amount of damage to possibly innocent crewmen. Emerson felt it necessary to point out that Ojeda was unlikely to be as considerate, especially since he had already put a hole in her lover's hat with a goddamned bullet, and wasn't that a near miss guaranteed to raise Emerson's blood pressure? Her hands itched to wrap around Ojeda's throat and throttle him for daring to try and blow Bonney's head off. Instead, she was stuck rotting here on this stupid, stupid boat – ship, boat, whatever! – when decisive, shockingly violent action was clearly needed.
"Get me over there," Emerson growled to Bonney, pointing a finger at the galleon, "and I'll end this in five minutes."
"How about you go up there instead?" Bonney countered, indicating the mast, and traveling upward until Emerson's gaze was drawn to a platform high above the deck. The lubber's hole, as it was called. She felt the color drain from her cheeks.
Emerson did not have a fear of heights per se. She had had MT-1-X parachute training with Navy Seals, and done a HALO drop into Kosovo once, exiting a commercial 727 jet liner at 35,000 feet, freefalling to an insane 2,000 feet before opening her 'chute - a 'high altitude, low opening' drop done to avoid detection by hostile radar on the ground. That night, the wind had been northeast, gusting to thirty knots; lighting had forked around the sky, brilliant serpentine flashes in the heavy rain that poured down like God's own wrath. Swinging under the opened parachute, a target for anybody who might see her and take a pot shot, Emerson had felt genuine fear at her own helplessness, the kind that made her lose bladder control when an ear-shattering crack left her partially deafened and blinking stars from her eyes. It had taken her a few moments to realize that the warm wetness was not blood, but urine, and that she had not been shot but nearly struck by lightning. The loud crack had been the thunder of the bolt's passage as it sizzled a path through the air.
Never had she felt such terror before or since, until arrogance had led her to sneer at the safe path into the cross-trees, and follow Bonney into the ratlines and futtock shrouds.
Looking down at the blue, blue water from such a dizzying height, while the ship dipped and swayed – the motion exaggerated by her lofty position – had dried the spit in Emerson's mouth. She had frozen in place, still as a statue, her mind gone flying away into some weird fugue state that insisted on counting every single one of the fibers in a bight of rope near her left eye, or something terrible would happen. Reality and sanity had kicked in again once her feet were on the solid deck, and she had conquered the urge to fall to her knees and plant a 'church tongue' kiss on the wooden boards.
Emerson did not like appearing weak. In her former line of business, that was a deadly mistake. People feared her; the threat of a visit from the Widowmaker was enough to cause hardened enemy agents to cry for their big fat mommas and give up their secrets. Resolution swelled. Her hand gripped the stock of her sniper rifle until it creaked under the strain.
No candy-ass mast was going to defeat the Widowmaker, scourge of the CIA!
She snorted at her own melodramatic tendencies. The platform was the best place for a marksman, and therefore, she would conquer the lubber's hole if it killed her.
"Okay," Emerson said to Bonney, "I'll just mosey on up to the Treehouse from Hell. If you can get me within 1,500 yards of Ojeda, I guarantee a clean kill."
"I'd prefer to take him alive," Bonney replied calmly. "We don't know if Trudie is aboard Cacafuego or not. Ojeda may have knowledge that we need."
"Right. Don't worry, babe. I got your back." Emerson turned and nearly bumped into Lt. Uxolo, whose first name she did not know.
"Take Florence with you," Bonney said, waving a hand at the dark-skinned woman, who grinned, and toed off her shoes.
The cannon fire from Cacafuego had reduced to nothing; only one of their shots had actually hit Hambleton, and that had done minimal damage. Their sharpshooter, however, was good enough to keep the ship out of range, lest one of the crew take a high velocity bullet. Out of rifle range was also out of cannon range, at least for Hambleton's four-pound guns. When Emerson was installed on the platform, they would draw closer to their target.
"Set the lower stuns'ls," Bonney called behind her, speaking the sailor's jargon to some poor SOB high up in the yards. Emerson was glad that she had watched the entire Horatio Hornblower series on DVD before they joined Hambleton for the Trans-Island Hop. The episodes had given her a vague idea of what life on a tall ship was like, albeit prettied up and somewhat airbrushed… and besides, she had quite enjoyed the subtext.
Archie Kennedy was so Horatio's bitch, Emerson thought to distract herself as she approached the mast, rubbing her sweaty palms on the back of her shorts.
The frigate was arcing swiftly through the water, the prow throwing back twinned crests of white-tipped waves. Butterscotch yellow sunlight broke through a bank of swollen dark clouds and dazzled the eye. Emerson looked up, focusing on the platform high above her head. The wood of the mast was warm under her hands, and smelled like pitch. The earthy odor caught in the back of her throat, almost obliterating the tang of salt.
She hitched the rifle sling to a more comfortable position on her shoulder, and pulled herself up as Uxolo murmured, "Keep your eyes on the sky, and be careful of your feet. Do you want me to rig a belay line for you?"
Emerson grunted a negative, and kept climbing.
The vertical ascent was actually relaxing, she decided. Of course, the heat of a tropical sun had melted some of the protective pitch that coated the mast, and it was getting everywhere including (somehow) in a piece of her hair that was now stuck to her cheek. Uxolo was right behind her; she felt the woman's breath on her ankles.
"Going through the lubber's hole means we'll avoid the Devil's elbow, thank God," Uxolo said casually, as if conversation while climbing a hundred feet and more up a chunk of wood complicated with ropes and spars and so forth was an everyday occurrence. "That's a twelve-foot overhang that has to be negotiated if you go in the shrouds. My first time negotiating the elbow, I froze eighty feet up, clinging like a kitten to a branch. The instructor had to come and fetch me down." She chuckled, and Emerson sensed her smile. "I can do it for the sake of saving face with the crew, but I'd rather miss the Devil's elbow if I can. That first traverse is a doozy!"
Emerson believed that Uxolo was not merely attempting to lull the panic-prone greenhorn into forgetting they were perched a good hundred feet above the deck. She eased herself through the hole in the center of the platform that was pierced by the remainder of the mast, and sat down cross-legged to check her rifle. Uxolo followed, and for the first time, Emerson noticed a pair of very sophisticated – and very anachronistic – binoculars hung around the woman's neck. No, not binoculars, Emerson realized; it was a spotter's scope. Uxolo's cocked hat had been thrown off or knocked off at some point; light sparkled on the black wool of her hair, and gleamed on the sweat at her hairline.
"My daddy was a Marine Corps master sniper," Uxolo said insistently, as though she had foreknowledge of Emerson's protest, and intended to nip it in the bud unuttered. "One shot, one kill. I know the drill."
"How are you at estimating range?"
"What, no laser sight?" Uxolo's grin was no less wide than Emerson's. "Is that an Unertl mil dot sniper scope with a ballistic drop compensator? Professional stuff. Have you been to Scout School at Camp Pendleton?"
Emerson stroked a finger on the ten-inch long scope mounted on the rifle's barrel. "My trainer was a retired USMC instructor for the school. Do they still have that plaque on the wall? 'Kill one man, terrorize a thousand.'"
"Far as I know." Uxolo's bright brown eyes assessed Emerson – flick! flick! flick! – with more genuine respect than she had previously shown. "Booyah, ma'am."
There was just enough room for Emerson to lay stretched out on her belly, if she ignored the way her feet dangled off the edge. She deliberately schooled herself to forget the long drop beneath her. Putting her eye to the scope, she focused on Cacafuego's quarterdeck, quickly picking out Alejandro Ojeda. Emerson thought the cloth-of-gold doublet was a dead giveaway, although the emerald buttons were a bit much. The scope's crosshairs were centered on the man's shoulder, yet Emerson knew that a disabling shot might not be possible. She could only hope to be as accurate as possible. Ojeda might be innocent of wrongdoing, but she thought that was as likely as monkeys flying out of her ass.
She compared point of aim to point of impact as she had been taught, aware that Uxolo had settled slightly behind her and to the side, and had set her spotter's scope so that it was as close to a straight sight down the barrel of Emerson's rifle as possible.
"Estimated range to target – 1,000 yards," Emerson murmured. About ten football fields; not an extremely difficult shot for the equipment she had, but there were complicating factors. The MOA – minute of angle – meant that for every 100 yards the bullet had to travel, she could expect approximately one inch of inaccuracy. Wind and gravity were the two major variables that affected a bullet's performance, as well as heat and humidity.
Her finger was curled around the trigger.
Emerson let out a breath – gently, ever so gently – and applied a few pounds of pressure to the delicate trigger of the Super Magnum. Beyond six hundred yards, the drag created by wind resistance on the bullet would slow its speed to sub-sonic levels, and there would be no distinctive 'crack' of the tiny sonic boom that would normally be created.
It was possible, Emerson thought, with a silent feral snarl, that Ojeda would never hear the shot that took him out.
When Ojeda collapsed, so did his crew's resistance. Hambleton came alongside, and a boarding crew rowed over to Cacafuego, to collect firearms, render the galleon's cannons inoperable, and take prisoners as practical and necessary. The ship's doctor went with them, and soon reported on Ojeda's condition to Bonney.
"Mr. Ojeda sustained a through-and through bullet wound in the left shoulder," Chowdhury said, as soon as he had returned to Hambleton. "It's clean, no bone involved. I've cleaned him up, bandaged him up, and given antibiotics, Ringer's for fluid replacement, and a dose of Percocet for the pain. It could have been a lot worse. He's a lucky man, and Ms. Emerson's one hell of a shot."
"Thank you, doctor," Bonney replied.
Rohan had been relegated to staying below during the worst of the fight As soon as battle was ended, and 'cease fire' declared, she popped back onto the quarterdeck regardless of propriety, and attached herself to Bonney like a determined leech. She was not going to be shifted until she learned Trudie's fate. Burly security types who looked like King Kong's second cousin would have to drag her away, kicking and screaming, and put her in irons. Furthermore, she was prepared to torture Ojeda to get answers, although the notion made her squeamish and kind of sick feeling. Still, it was Trudie, and she would do what it took.
"When are we going to question Ojeda?" Rohan asked.
"After my XO has supervised a thorough search of Cacafuego," Bonney answered, giving Rohan's wrist a comforting squeeze. "I know you're anxious. So am I. Remember, we don't really have any legal standing. Ojeda fired first – and self-defense will be my excuse if I have to justify myself – but we're in international waters, as far as I know without consulting a chart, and we don't have a radio."
"Which means exactly what?"
"Precedence is murky. I can't call for help or advice. I'm just going to have to muddle through and hope for the best." Bonney shrugged. "If Cacafuego's hold is stuffed full of drugs, or gold, or anything else for that matter, I'll escort the ship to the nearest port and turn them over to the authorities. Then it'll be their problem." Her shark-like grin told Rohan how well Bonney thought of the military solution to most difficulties – kick it upstairs and let the brass deal with it; that's why the big hat boys get the big bucks.
"You know what?" Rohan turned her head and squinted at the looming bulk of the galleon. "I don't care. I just don't care!" She stamped a foot against the deck; the solid thud and subsequent pain in her heel were almost comforting. "I want Trudie!" Rohan was aware that she was behaving childishly, but did not care about that, either.
At that moment, the bo'sun Webb interrupted. "Excuse me," he said to Rohan, then fixed his attention on the captain. "Mr. Stapleton's compliments, and he's found no drugs in Cacafuego's hold. Miss van Geer isn't aboard either. Here's the preliminary report, ma'am."
Bonney took the clipboard and scanned it. "Gold coins?"
"A chest full of them." Webb's lips quirked in a smile. "Like something out of an old pirate movie."
"Where was the chest found?"
"In the captain's cabin." Webb handed Bonney a coin. Rohan snatched it away before either of them could react. Ignoring the gasps and frowns, she examined the crudely stamped escudo. A tiny star winked up at her from both shield and cross sides.
"It's from the Estrella," Rohan said, curling her hand into a fist. The soft gold edges were not hard enough to cut into her flesh. She opened her hand, and let Bonney take the undamaged doubloon. "Ojeda knows something." Resolve hardened. "Give me five minutes alone with him, Anne. Just me, him, and a well-sharpened pencil. And maybe a paperclip."
Bonney's nose wrinkled, but Rohan gave her credit – the woman did not laugh. "I can't do that," she said. "But I will get Emerson to politely ask Ojeda if he knows anything about the origin of the coins, and find out what he knows about Trudie's kidnapping."
Polite? Rohan would have preferred to go charging in with a ball-peen hammer, but deep down, she knew that she was not really the bloodthirsty type. An Indian rope-burn was more her speed. However, she had no real moral objections to somebody else doing the dirty work. Rohan was about to suggest that Emerson put her CIA interrogation training to work – hey, she had seen Marathon Man, even if she had closed her eyes when Hoffman was strapped to the dentist's chair – when Emerson herself paced up to the quarterdeck.
"I'm off for Cacafuego, babe," the tall, dark and inhumanly graceful woman said, bending a bit to brush her cheek against Bonney's. "If Ojeda knows anything, he'll talk."
"No permanent damage, Amelia," Bonney cautioned. "No marks. Remember that we need plausible deniability."
Bonney thrust a finger into Rohan's face. "You heard nothing."
Rohan struggled to keep from smiling. It was not right to be happy about the prospect of another human being's torture, but still… "Not a word."
"Good." Bonney withdrew the finger and kissed Emerson briefly. "Now go forth and do that voodoo that you do so well."
"Cha-cha-cha!" Emerson replied with a sunny smile, then she shimmied her hips, and went to the accommodation ladder. Rohan thought the view from behind resembled two oversized eggs in a tight spandex sack.
When she was out of sight, Rohan asked, "You know, she could always kill Ojeda when she was finished with him. The sea would make the evidence disappear."
"True, but as long as it isn't said out loud, I can ignore the possibility. If Ojeda 'accidentally' falls overboard, or breaks his neck on a slippery deck… ships are dangerous places. What I don't know, I can't testify about." Bonney scratched her eyebrow with a thumbnail. "Let me buy you a cup of coffee."
Belowdecks, the officer's mess had room enough for a long table and benches; a number of horn lanterns hung on hooks attached to the ceiling beams. Bonney straddled a bench, gesturing for Rohan to do the same. A crewman wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt, canvas duck trousers cut off at the knee, and a kerchief tied jauntily around his neck, brought them pewter mugs of coffee without being asked. There was no milk or sugar. The brew was harsh to Rohan's palate, but she sipped it without complaint, grateful for the warmth.
The crewman left them alone.
"You know, Rohan, if something has happened to Trudie," Bonney began, and broke off, sighing. Her tone was very gentle, similar to that used by adults to frightened children. "I want you to know, that Amelia and I will support you in whatever way we can."
The offer was touching, and, Rohan knew, well meant. "Thank you, Anne," she replied sincerely. A lingering touch of bitterness made her add, "Although I prefer to think that Trudie is okay. That she hasn't been lost, just… misplaced for a while."
Bonney nodded, taking a sip of coffee. Over the rim of the mug, her eyes caught Rohan's. "I don't want you to stop hoping. That wouldn't be right. I'm concerned, that's all. If it was Emerson…"
"You'd move Heaven and Earth to find her," Rohan supplied.
"Yes, that's true. I would also be forced to acknowledge that people in Emerson's profession – the same profession as Trudie – tend not to die in bed of old age."
Rohan put down the mug. The surface of the table was slightly sticky, and her fingertips clung to the wood grain as though reluctant to be released. "It isn't something that we've talked about, but… I know. After that business with the U-boat and Senator Donner, though, I have to say that I don't think I'm going to die of old age, either."
"Maybe so." Bonney hitched a shoulder, and kept looking at her, so damned serious that Rohan wondered if the other woman's face was carved from granite. "Prepare yourself for the worst, and hope for the best."
"Aye-aye, captain," Rohan replied. She realized the she was angry with the whole situation – angry with Trudie for getting kidnapped, furious with the kidnappers themselves, even pissed off a little at Bonney and Emerson, for being so lucky as to have each other, when her Trudie was gone. It was easy to be resentful, but not so easy to resist wallowing in it. Rohan swallowed the hard lump that had risen in her throat, and almost defiantly finished the coffee. The bitter aftertaste lingered in her mouth, and she thought she might be sick.
They sat in silence for several endless minutes, until Emerson returned.
"Well?" Rohan asked, while Emerson was negotiating her long legs under the table.
"Trudie is alive," Emerson said.
Rohan could not help herself; she leaped to her feet and cheered. Or at least, that is what she would have done if she had not almost brained herself on a beam. By the time the splinters had been dug out of her scalp, the bleeding stopped, and three butterfly bandages applied to the half-inch cut in Rohan's hairline, her enthusiasm was slightly curbed.
"Tell me everything!" Rohan commanded breathlessly, scooting over so that she was almost but not quite sitting in Emerson's lap.
Emerson fended her off using a martial arts movement that could have sent her rocketing into the bulkhead, but was so gently applied that Rohan ended sitting at the end of the bench an arm's length away, with no idea how it had happened.
"Now stay!" Emerson said with mock ferocity. "As I was saying… according to Ojeda, Trudie is alive. Her kidnapping was unplanned, an off-the-cuff maneuver when his brother, Luis, found out that she knew about Estrella. You won't believe these idiots!"
"Try me," Bonney said.
Emerson raked her fingers through the spill of dark hair that fell over her tanned shoulders. "Turns out Stefan Caruana is using Cacafuego to move gold salvaged from the Spanish shipwreck, which Alejandro Ojeda discovered a few months ago, in the waters between Boca Grande Key and the Marquesas. Now get this – Caruana ordered the Ojeda brothers to salvage as many escudos as possible, and deliver the cargo to Caracas. This was supposed to be very hush-hush, as Caruana intends to use the gold to finance a political coup d'état, but Luis stupidly took some of the coins, sold them, and used the proceeds to buy nose candy, liquor and girls in Aruba. It must have been a hell of a debauch.
"Anyway, the shopkeeper is part of Caruana's ring. Antiques, I'm told, make a good blind for laundering drug money. He called Alejandro Ojeda when Trudie questioned him, and big brother had to act fast to pull Luis' nuts out of the fire, which is where Caruana would have cooked them if he'd found out about the screwing of the pooch. Some of the hotel staff are also on Caruana's payroll. He had one of the maids slip a mickey into the water bottles; somebody else kept tabs on the room, and let him know when you and Trudie were unconscious. After that, it was a simple matter for him to have Trudie taken out of the room and loaded into a car downstairs. He told the concierge that she had taken ill."
"The bastard," Rohan gritted. She was clenching her jaw so tightly, it was surprising that her teeth were not in shattered ruins. Oh, poor Trudie!
"It gets better. Luis isn't the brains of the outfit, but Alejandro isn't a rocket scientist, either," Emerson continued. "Neither of the Brothers Ojeda wants to bring down more heat on Caruana, which is exactly what'll happen if Trudie is killed and her body is found. On the other hand, they can't let word get back to Caruana about Luis' and his penchant for partying on the company dime. The upshot of this is that Trudie was cast adrift in a boat about twenty-four hours ago. She was alive then, but without water or provisions…" Emerson spread her hands apart. "I'm sorry. No amount of interrogation is going to tell us where she is."
Instantly, before Rohan could react to the horror that was clawing its way up her throat, Bonney stood and shoved the bench backwards. "My cabin, now," she said, and strode from the mess room.
Rohan gulped back hysteria and followed, scurrying around the deck as quickly as she could. When she passed Gunny Smalls, the man's leathery face creased into a sympathetic grimace, and she had to blink back tears.
When she and Emerson reached Bonney's cabin, the captain was muttering over a number of maps spread out on the table.
"Amelia, what took you so long?" she asked, ignoring Emerson's snort. "Now, did Alejandro Ojeda give you approximate coordinates of where he cast Trudie adrift?"
"Lemme see…" Emerson studied the map. Beside her, it was all Rohan could do not to bounce up and down; her patience was sorely strained. At last, Emerson stabbed at a spot. "About here."
"Okay, that's the Gulfstream, which is good. On the other hand, if we don't find her, and if Trudie doesn't manage to navigate to an island, then she'll be on her way to England and possibly Norway." Bonney's mouth compressed into a tight line. "Amelia, was there any survival gear in the boat? Flares, compass, that sort of thing."
"I can find out."
Rohan forced herself to stop wringing her hands like a Gothic heroine while awaiting Emerson's return. In the meantime, Bonney made her drink a few swallows of bourbon. Any more angst, Rohan thought, and I'll have a liver the size of Kentucky.
Emerson came back in a relatively short amount of time. Bonney quirked an eyebrow in mute inquiry, and Emerson said, "Meyer diddled those flag thingys on the poop deck, and somebody over on Cacafuego diddled back, and Meyer translated. There may have been an emergency supplies box on the dinghy with Trudie, but Ojeda wasn't sure."
Bonney sniffed. "Then he wasn't a very good captain, was he? Ojeda ought to know every square inch of his ship, every coil of rope, every side of salt beef. He should be able to tell you how many poker games are ongoing in the siesta shack in the fo'c'sle." She nibbled her lower lip. "That's neither here nor there. Alright, having modern safety equipment in all boats and life-rafts is a necessity, and the Hop officials did inspections before we left Miami, so I assume that Ojeda's dinghy does, indeed, carry standard emergency equipment. There should be a rigging knife on a lanyard, a whistle, first aid kit, flare gun and flares, a strobe light, marine radio transceiver, compass, lead line… with any luck, she'll also have navigation maps, a sextant and a nautical almanac. Rohan, does Trudie know anything about sailing?"
"Not that I'm aware."
"So we'll rule out Trudie trying to rig a sail and navigate for one of the isles," Bonney said. "With this storm, the wind is south southwest…" She grabbed a pencil and began scribbling figures on a plotting sheet, grumbling beneath her breath all the while.
Rohan waited until Bonney was finished before asking, "Is there a realistic chance?"
"Maybe." Bonney pointed the pencil eraser at her. "Finding a dinghy in the middle of the ocean is like looking for a needle in a haystack bigger than the United States. But we know approximately where she was, and we have a fairly good idea of wind speed and direction. We'll alter course at once. Amelia, there's an emergency radio in the captain's gig. Alert the Coast Guard. They may have ships in the area that can aid in the search."
"I'll do you one better… I'll also contact Illustrious. If the Trans-Island organizers will allow volunteer ships to deviate from their course to assist…" Emerson waved an eloquent hand. "Why am I wasting time talking to you? One radio, coming up." She practically ran out of the cabin.
"What can I do?" Rohan asked. When it seemed as if Bonney would refuse, she almost broke down. "Please, I'm begging you… I need something to do, or I'll go crazy."
"Go and stand next to the helmsman," Bonney said. "In a little while, I'll show you how to work the wheel."
It sounded like make-work, but Rohan did not refuse. "Thank you," she said.
Bonney's hand landed briefly on the back of her neck, and then the captain was gone.
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio, Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea's lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell's
Bonney was not necessarily a religious woman, but no one who spent a lifetime on the sea was unaffected by the tireless, rolling proof of a Creator both benevolent and wicked. Therefore, she sent up a little prayer for Trudie's sake, hoping that God – wherever She was – would hear and grant a little much-needed mercy.
Hambleton's top-men were in the yards and crosstrees, their bright regards scouring the surface from horizon to horizon for any trace of a small dinghy, or flotsam, or any evidence that Trudie still existed above the waves at all. She had told Rohan the truth. The odds of finding the lost Dutch woman in the midst of the Caribbean ocean were vastly against them, yet she had to try. To give up so soon was anathema. As long as there was a change – even a ghost of a chance – Bonney would continue on her set course.
She took a piece of hardtack out of her coat pocket – unlike Emerson, Bonney retained her imitation Navy uniform – and took careful bites while watching the men and women working the sails and rigging to Egg Shackleton's barked instructions. A shower of crumbs was whisked away by the wind. Bonney went to check the weather glass. The liquid in the barometer was rising. Thunderheads were piling up from the south, black-bellied and ominous. Lightning flickered. Worse still, from the galley came a shouted curse and a crash as White's trick knee gave out.
Bonney whipped her head around. The hairs on her arms prickled. There was a solid gray curtain moving towards them from the south and west. She flung the remains of the hardtack over the side and shouted to Shackleton, "Rig for storm!"
There was a mad scramble as the XO bellowed orders to the top-men, who began furling in the canvas and tying the sails down with gaskets in preparation for the storm's arrival. In about a half an hour, what seemed like a solid wall of wind struck the ship with the force of a juggernaut, a screaming gale that whipped the water to stinging froth. Bonney sent for her foul weather gear, even though she knew that she would not be dry for a good long while. She went to stand near the helmsman after helping to rig safety lines across the decks; in a blow like this, the ship would answer sluggishly, and he might need help with the wheel.
Thank God Emerson and Rohan were below-decks!
Waist-high waves crashed over the side, and several crewmen lost their footing, sliding over the deck and banging into the bulwarks. Bonney tensed, but no harm was done. The wind rose to a new screeching crescendo. Hambleton shuddered as she rolled on waves that were fifty feet high. Her bowsprit stabbed at a sky like boiling lead, then leveled as she crested and paused, only to plunge down the back of the wave into the trough, a long and stomach-clenching, sideways slipping slide that ended with the lower yardarms dipping into the roiling wetness, almost capsizing the ship until the keel and rudder bit into the sea and brought Hambleton head-on to meet the next monstrous wave.
Shackleton cried something indistinguishable. Bonney followed his gaze into the mizzentop, where several men were struggling with a sail. They lost control of a line, and the sail filled with a boom like a cannon shot, then recoiled into the yardarm. One of the crewmen was knocked from his lofty perch but instead of falling to his death, he hung suspended, his leg entangled in the rigging. Shackleton's voice rose in a carrying shout.
"Cant that yardarm to spill the wind!"
Bonney began stripping off her coat, prepared to climb the slippery mizzenmast to rescue the trapped sailor. She understood what Shackleton was doing; the safety of the ship as a whole took precedence over one person. The flapping sail was out of control, and the rest of the top-men in danger of meeting the same fate as the poor bastard hanging upside down, swaying back and forth like a peculiar piñata.
Frothing white water spilled over the deck in sheets, and Bonney struggled to keep her balance. Salt water was bitter in her mouth, and she coughed her lungs clear of spray. She grabbed a backstay, the rope cutting into the heel of her hand, and looked up. Raindrops fell into her eyes, blinding her. Bonney blinked, cursed, and started the arduous climb up the slippery rigging. Rain pounded on her head, hard enough to make her ears ring. She clenched her jaw and doggedly refused to stop climbing, focusing on placing her hands and feet just so.
Some of the crewmen had managed to haul the trapped sailor closer to the mizzen, making it easier for her to loose one hand, grab the man's shirt and pull him even closer. Bonney hooked her knee around his elbow to hold him in place until he was able to clutch the mizzenmast on his own, his knuckles turning white. He was conscious; even upside down, she could read the fear on his face. "Hang on!" she ordered.
Someone from above passed her a bight of rope; she lashed it around the sailor's waist, securing him to the mast. Flicking open the knife she wore on a lanyard around her neck, Bonney sawed through the line that was wrapped around his leg. Strobe-flashes of lightning forked through the air, followed by crash after crash of thunder that rattled her teeth and made her head ache. Black and crimson spots swarmed in her vision. Another midshipman – a woman with skin the color of café au lait, and hennaed hair stuffed under a cap – climbed up the mizzen to help her get the crewman upright (a muscle-burning task) and down the mast to the deck, where he was whisked away to sick-bay.
Bonney felt like a blown horse, her limbs as useful as noodles. She sucked in water-laden air, choked, and stood bent over, her hands cupping her knees. Rain drizzled past her cheeks and pattered on the deck. Her heart thumped against her ribcage with what seemed like enough force to break her bones.
There was scant time for her to rest, however. The storm was still howling around them; the windward sails were practically splitting with tension, while the leeward sails sagged, empty and useless. "Goose-wing the tops'ls, damn your eyes!" screamed Shackleton, while Gunny Smalls lurched forward to ensure the cannons were snubbed fast. The last thing they needed, Bonney thought, was a loose gun careening about on deck, crushing feet and legs and heads with equal disregard.
A bolt rope was yanked from its clew with a gunfire crack, and men scrambled into the rigging to deal with this new threat. Bonney realized that she was shivering; they may have been in the Caribbean, but cold seemed to have leeched into the very core of her being. She wiped her running nose on her soaked shirt sleeve, and wondered if her career was really as important as she had believed.
It was, of course, but Bonney missed her submarine. She missed the odd mix of smells that was part of the sub's atmosphere – ozone from the high-voltage systems, amines from environmental control, lubricants, cooking oil, diesel exhaust and diesel fuel (bizarre on a nuclear powered vessel but nevertheless present, like a phantom of the past). She missed the lint-free polyester poop suit that was always ever-so-slightly damp. She missed running laps through 'Sherwood Forest,' a nickname for the compartments that the missile tubes passed through. Bonney sighed. What cannot be avoided must be endured.
Finding Trudie van Geer in this mess was impossible. Bonney could only hope that the storm had not swamped the dinghy. Trudie's chances of survival were nil in a tropical tempest if she had lost even the dubious shelter of a small boat. She shook her head, sending water drizzling in all directions, and squinted at the sky. The rain was lessening, no longer driving down with such force; the wind was slackening, leveling off to a degree that Shackleton could be heard ordering more sails aloft.
She went to the quarterdeck to check the Hambleton's course and issue instructions to the helmsman. Peering over the side, Bonney saw the sea was still agitated, but the monster waves had been reduced to jittery peaks. The worst of the storm appeared to be over. As if to confirm her supposition, a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds, and a faint rainbow arced over the horizon. A flying fish leaped into the air off the port side, and glided in pace with the ship for about thirty feet before splashing back into the water.
Bonney left the quarterdeck and walked over to the foc's'le, to stand in the ship's prow. A large bow-wave of white foam streamed backwards as Hambleton made headway; old sailors would have said that the ship had a 'bone in her teeth' on account of her storm-quickened sailing speed. The captain turned and surveyed the decks; there was not much damage save a few snapped lines, and a flying jib that had been sheared in the gusts.
Things could have been much worse. Egg Shackleton had told her about a white squall encountered a few years ago when a barque replica he seconded was undergoing passage to Uruguay, carrying the Uruguayan ambassador and his wife on a tiger cruise; the wind and thunderous waves had swept the entire galley – pots, pans, kettles, stove, stores, doors, windows and the Cook himself – into the lee scuppers.
Bonney rapped a knuckle on the wooden rail. She may have been in charge of a nuclear powered submarine, but sailors were sailors, and no one wanted to bring Jonas' ill-luck by uttering the words, it could be worse, or even thinking on such matters too long.
Hambleton was now fairly bounding from billow to billow, driven by a steady wind; thwarted by the sea, she struck with her bows, sending up a thousand glistening shards of rainbow-tinged spray that shone around her like a nimbus sent from Heaven itself. Bonney caught her breath. As much as she missed commanding the Saber, she would not have missed this beauty for the world.
A voice broke into her thoughts.
"Boat! Boat in the water!" the look-out cried. "Two points abaft the beam on the starboard side!"
Heart in her mouth, Bonney fumbled the telescope that she pulled out of her belt, and focused it on the spot. She could not really see anything, but had no reason to doubt. "Helm, come about!" she barked, and paused until she heard Shackleton repeating the order for the helmsman's benefit. He added, "Lay the main tops'l to the mast, and stand-by to range beside the survivor."
Having sorted out navigation for the moment, Bonney made for the mainmast. There was strength in desperation. She skinned up the futtock shrouds as if she had gotten in touch with her inner primate, and managed to avoid hurting herself except for a fingernail which broke off to the quick. The jagged pain was ignored, although the small hurt throbbed in the most annoying fashion. Most of the sailors in the shrouds had clustered to starboard, eager to catch a glimpse of the boat.
"Make a hole!" Bonney snapped, and found a place to wedge herself while she opened the telescope once more and scanned the sea's surface.
There! As the look-out had said, and she spared a thought to make a silent note that the man should be rewarded for his rivaling-the-eagles vision. If she had not known it was there, Bonney would probably have overlooked that apparently featureless dot that was bobbing up and down on the waves. Focusing her telescope, the image resolved into a small boat with peeling blue paint, nearly wallowing from the amount of water that had filled it. The oarlocks were empty. A shock of tangled blonde hair and an arm hanging over the side were all she could make out of Trudie. At this distance, it was impossible to tell if the woman was still alive. If she had survived her ordeal, it would be a miracle.
Bonney snapped the telescope closed, and slid down a ratline.
"Sick-bay to stand by," she said to Shackleton.
She did not wait, but went below at once to inform Rohan and Emerson of the news.
Trudie was alive, but dehydrated and badly sunburned. Her face and arms were lobster red and blistered; the skin of her nose was already peeling. She was taken straight to sick-bay, and given fluids via IV and ointment for her burns. Rohan refused to leave Trudie's side except to allow the doctor to treat his patient. As soon as she could, she was back holding the unconscious woman's hand, soothing her with cold compresses, and giving everyone – including Bonney and Emerson – the stink-eye if they came too close.
It was several hours before Trudie was conscious and ready to talk, or rather, until Rohan was ready to allow Trudie to speak to anyone.
"Don't tire her out," Rohan warned, shoving a finger under Emerson's nose to emphasize her point.
Emerson did not follow her first inclination, which was to grab hold of that offensive digit and wrench it off at the root. She was rather proud of her restraint. The most annoying woman in the world was back at full strength. Emerson did not know whether to be relieved or just plain irritated. She settled for bumping Rohan with her shoulder as she passed. A sudden flush of heat on the back of her neck spoke of Bonney's quelling glare in her direction. Emerson heaved a put-upon sigh and asked, "So, van Geer… what happened?"
Trudie took a sip of a violently green electrolyte solution and smiled, but not without wincing as her sunburned skin was stretched. "When I woke up, I was on board Cacafuego. Luis Ojeda wasn't there, but his brother Alejandro was, and Alejandro wasn't very pleased."
"We gathered that when Amelia interrogated Captain Ojeda," Bonney said.
Emerson snorted. Some interrogation! Alejandro had rolled over and been her bitch the minute she had shown him a knitting needle borrowed from Gunny Smalls. Okay, so she had also told him – in chilling graphic detail – exactly what she intended to do with said knitting needle, but she had not even gotten to her favorite part when Alejandro had vomited and begged her to let him confess everything. Sometimes, being the good guy was no fun at all. "He was a push-over," Emerson said, and did not quite polish her fingernails on her T-shirt because that would be too, too cheesy for words.
It was Rohan's turn to snort, but she did not make any further comment.
Trudie squeezed her lover's hand, and went on with the story. "Stefan Caruana is melting the coins down into ingots, and selling them through his Potosi contacts. But Luis was greedy; he took some of the gold escudos and sold them for cash, not realizing that their uniqueness would draw attention. Alejandro did not want to kill me, or at least, he did not want my body found because that would trigger an investigation – again, additional attention that Caruana's drug operation could not support – but he had to save his stupid baby brother. The idea was to abandon me to the sea, and I would suffer a natural death. I think they would have just dumped me overboard, except for the problem of how I got from my hotel room in Aruba to the middle of the Caribbean ocean."
"Bastards," Rohan whispered fiercely.
"But listen!" Trudie's grip on Rohan's hand tightened; her green eyes shone with excitement. "Those two idioten talked in front of me a lot. I know where Estrella is!"
Emerson found this news to be only mildly interesting, but Rohan and Bonney reacted much more strongly. If they had sucked in more air with their twinned gasps, everyone in the sick-bay would have perished from oxygen deprivation. She had the feeling that one or both or possibly all three of the other women would have made a dash for the maps, bless their greedy little hearts, if Trudie hadn't been bed-bound, and Rohan incapable of letting go of the Dutch woman's hand.
"Coordinates?" Bonney asked.
Trudie nodded. "The ship lies on a reef off Cayo Marquez." She rattled off a set of map coordinates that meant nothing to Emerson, but made Bonney grin. Her next words, however, turned the grin to a frown. "Estrella lies about fifty-five feet below."
Bonney's smile turned sour as reality hit. "We don't have the necessary gear to salvage the wreck, and Hambleton isn't as easy to hide as Saber. We can't just cruise around the island and wait for Caruana to show."
"And besides, he's going to ride here on a modern yacht with mucho horsepower engines, toting big guns and picking his teeth with an ICBM ," Emerson said. "I can only do so much with one rifle. We can't expect a guy like Caruana to just sit there while we blast him with our cannons."
"And we're short-handed," Bonney added. At Trudie's questioning look, she explained, "I had to put some of my own crew aboard Cacafuego, to supervise her sail to Aruba. She'll get a police escort when she's in island waters."
"I heard Gunny Smalls telling Mr. Shackleton that we're out of powder," Rohan said.
"Great. Just peachy keen, girls!" Exasperated, Emerson threw her hands up into the air. "I don't suppose we could just let the proper authorities handle Stefan Caruana?"
Bonney and Rohan looked at her as if she had grown a second head, or perhaps turned into her favorite Garbage Pail Kid, Fartin' Martin.
"Okay, okay, I withdraw the question," Emerson said. Her mind began racing, examining and discarding possibilities. After a moment, she snapped her fingers. "Hey, wait a second. Caruana doesn't know Alejandro and Luis got themselves caught. Does he really have a reason to want a second shipment of gold so soon?"
"We don't know his schedule. I'd rather not leave the shipwreck unattended in the hope that a South American drug lord won't decide to make a clean sweep. Also," Bonney said, "we don't know for sure that Caruana hasn't already heard about Cacafuego. He might have people on the inside with the island authorities, or be monitoring radio frequencies."
"Well, we need to alert the Coast Guard, the DEA, the feds, local big wigs and whoever else might want a piece of Caruana and/or his henchmen," Emerson said, wiping a handkerchief over the back of her sweaty neck. "Our radio still working?"
Bonney replied, "Yes, it is, but if Caruana is monitoring…"
"Ghu on a pogo stick!" Emerson swore.
There was silence as they contemplated the dilemma.
"Leaving Estrella's treasure to be exploited by Caruana is out," Rohan said, slanting a look at Bonney that raised Emerson's small hairs. "But what if we waylaid him?"
Emerson stared. Perhaps she had a build-up of wax in her ears. Perhaps she had gone insane, and was actually lashed into a straight-jacket, sitting in a rubber room, hallucinating the whole thing. Or perhaps she had taken the blue pill, and the story had ended…
Bonney and Rohan, with occasional interjections from Trudie, concocted a plan, while Emerson bit her tongue and tried not to point how many ways this idiocy was going to get them killed. The smart thing to do would be to haul ass to Aruba, or the nearest island to wherever-the-Hell they were, and let the local government handle Caruana to the limit of their taxpayer-and-tourist dollar funded authority. However, she could see from the light in the other womens' eyes – must be the sun shining through the big ol' hole in the back of their itty-bitty heads – that any suggestion which did not involve hideous personal danger and a certain amount of derring-do would be scorned.
When Rohan finished outlining her simple if cockamamie scheme, it was not surprising when Bonney and Trudie thought the sun shone out of the most annoying woman in the world's ass. Emerson idly speculated on the nature of accidents at sea (slippery steps, a dark moonless night, oopsie! and a broken neck, boo hoo hoo), and decided that if anything actually happened to Rohan, and Bonney got wind that maybe Emerson had a hand in it, then she could forget about nookie until she was seventy and toothless.
Toothless but ruthless, Emerson thought, and smiled at the vision of herself in granny glasses, white hair scraped back into a bun, beating the hell out of some young punk whipper-snapper with her walker. The way the extra flesh on her upper arms jiggled and swayed as she whaled on the cringing boy turned her smile into a definite grin.
"Are you on board, Amelia?" Bonney's crisply voiced question brought Emerson back to the here and now.
"Yep, on board, that's me," Emerson replied, having no idea what she was agreeing to, but not really caring, either. Life with Anne Bonney was a hair-raising, blood curdling adventure, and although the outcome was uncertain… who wants to live forever, anyway?
Emerson dismissed any reservations she had and decided to embrace the insanity. "So, girls," she said, wishing the bicycle shorts had pockets so she could stuff her hands inside and play Miss Nonchalance, "what's the 411?"
On his private yacht Amante, Stefan Caruana was beyond furious; he was seriously pissed.
"Tell me," he drawled, his dark eyes in their folds of fat glittering dangerously. "Tell me again how it is that my gold will never arrive in Potosi?"
"Cacafuego was intercepted; our sources say she has been possessed by the American Drug Enforcement Agency," said Ricardo Alvarez with admirable coolness considering the fact that his temperamental boss was skewering him with a glare that ought to have drawn blood. "The first shipment of salvage from Estrella was aboard."
"But how did it happen?" Caruana's meaty fist struck the top of his desk, knocking over a vase of expensive Dendrobium orchids. Everyone ignored the shattering glass, the water soaking into the carpet, the ruins of the yellow blossoms.
"It was that idiot, Luis Ojeda." A woman swept into the cabin; she was exotically beautiful, her blood-red hair contrasting with the olive tone of her skin, and the sparkling hazel of her eyes. She sat down, crossing her long tanned legs, and lit a cigarette.
Caruana's scowl turned to a half-smile of delight. "Ah, Mercedes! Come and kiss me, querida!"
"Not now, Stefan." Mercedes León allowed Alvarez to give her a glass of rum and lime juice. "I just finished speaking to Marcus on Aruba. He says Luis Ojeda sold some escudos from Estrella to a local shop. A Dutch intelligence agent saw one of the coins," she continued, daintily sipping her drink, "and Alejandro Ojeda arranged for her to be drugged and kidnapped to keep his brother out of trouble with the big boss."
"I'll give him trouble!" Caruana shouted, thumping the desk again, his mercurial mood changing. "Mal parido! I'll kill them both."
"The brothers are in U.S. custody."
"I'll pay to have them killed."
Mercedes shrugged, and heedlessly flicked cigarette ashes onto the carpet. "At this point, Stefan, it doesn't matter. No doubt they've gotten rid of the agent by now, and at least that cannot come back to you. What does matter is how much the Ojeda brothers might have told the policía about the ship, and about the drugs." She held out her empty glass to Alvarez. He took it, his acne-scarred cheeks bearing a pink tinge, and refilled the glass from a jug.
"Do you think Alejandro or Luis will betray us?" Alvarez asked.
"Both of them will turn Judas to save their own skins," Caruana said. The oily gleam in his eyes became calculating. "Ricardo, tell the captain to change course to Cayo Marquez."
Mercedes sat up straight, stubbing out her cigarette in a thousand-dollar Swarovski crystal bowl. Rum slopped over the rim of the glass she held, wetting her perfectly manicured, scarlet polished fingernails, making them look as if she had dipped her fingers in blood. "Do you mean to finish the salvage operation now?"
"Do you think I'll let the Americans take what is mine?" Caruana snorted. "We have the necessary diving and salvage equipment on board." His smile resembled a shark's grin, humorless and soulless, but full of appetite. "Even if Luis and Alejandro tell the Americans everything, it will still take time for the DEA to coordinate with the Coast Guard, the ATF, the FBI, the Miami police… and there are interagency rivalries to consider as well. We can use that time to strip Estrella clean, to pick her bones clean of gold, and return home to Cartagena. Aruba has grown too hot to use as a smuggling point. We'll have to concentrate elsewhere, but that's a matter for another day."
Caruana rose ponderously, and reached a hand towards Mercedes. "Join me for lunch, querida. We'll plan that trip to Milan."
Mercedes laid aside her half finished drink, then stood and smoothed her hands down the front of her lime green Suka halter top. Without a word, she accompanied Caruana out of the cabin, a red-haired remora to his big bellied shark.
Alvarez collapsed into a chair, wiping sweat from his brow with the hem of his white guayabera shirt. Caruana had been known to kill the bearers of bad news; it was luck that had brought Mercedes into the cabin at the right time, deflecting the man's wrath by her sheer presence. Recalled anxiety made his muscles clench around the hollow space where his stomach used to dwell. He mopped his face a last time, the sweat stinging his eyes, and picked up the heavy black receiver of the internal communication system.
"Captain Acosta… this is Alvarez. Alter your course to Cayo Marquez," he said. "Yes, Señor Caruana wishes to continue the salvage of the wreck as soon as possible."
He hung up, not bothering to listen to the captain's tinny voice as the man acknowledged his orders. It was enough to sit and listen the throb of the yacht's engines, and feel the shift in his body as Acosta began turning Amante towards the new heading. That spoke to him with subtle eloquence of the captain's obedience.
In the dining room, Caruana and Mercedes would be eating shrimp, freshly caught flying fish, black beans, papaya, mangoes and whatever other Caribbean delicacies were concocted by the chef that Caruana had lured from a three-star restaurant. Neither would notice the movement of waves beneath the keel, or the anything other than their appetites and each other. Nevertheless, Alvarez would go to the bridge later, to double-check navigation logs and track their progress. His boss would blame him, not Captain Acosta, if they did not reach Cayo Marquez in what he considered good time.
When a man was in Stefan Caruana's employ, it paid to be cautious.
Any other attitude would lead directly to the grave.
Rohan was not the happiest of campers.
She was crammed cheek-to-jowl with the rest of the crewmen down in the foc's'le, a cramped space below-decks at the front of the ship that normally served as ordinary seamen's quarters. This close proximity reminded her that bathing aboard Hambleton was limited to buckets of salt water and a bar of hard lye soap, and laundry facilities were nonexistent. The place frankly stank, and the stifling heat was not helping. Rohan prayed to every deity she could think of that no one would vomit.
Of course, this had been her plan, and therefore she really had no right to complain, but still… had there been a Customer Complaint card, Rohan would have rated the experience as less-than-satisfactory.
She shifted to ease a cramp in her foot. Warm bodies pressed in on her from every side. It was a good thing she was not claustrophobic, because otherwise, she would have surely run amok. As it was, Rohan tried to breathe shallowly through her mouth, until she remembered that scent was actually tiny molecules of the substance itself, and decided that she did not want to have essence of stinky sweaty guy on her tongue.
"How you holdin' up, Miz Tarnach?" Gunny Smalls asked in her ear.
Rohan jerked in surprise, nearly hitting the man in the sternum with her elbow. "I'm super, thanks for asking," she hissed back at him. A trickle of sweat meandered between her shoulder blades, tickling like a trail of ants on her skin. She resisted the impulse to squirm.
He did not reply to her sarcasm, but handed her a bottle of lukewarm water, a ship's biscuit and a mealy apple. All of it tasted far better than it should have, and under the circumstances, Rohan was grateful for the distraction.
Smalls patted her back, and squeezed his way to the next suffering soul.
It seemed like forever, standing packed against those others like sardines in a wooden can, and Rohan was suddenly seized by the desire to scream at the top of her lungs, tear at her hair, push and claw her way out, out, OUT! She panted and bit her lip, struggling to maintain her focus, and not give in to threatening hysterics.
Three sharp raps on the bulkhead reverberated through the foc's'le.
Rohan came close to moaning in relief. The flight/fight urge receded.
It was time for action, time to revenge Trudie, time for the matter to end.
Her hand curled tightly into a fist, and her smile was a snarl in disguise.
Bonney lay flat on her belly in the crow's next, hidden beneath a crumpled piece of sailcloth. The edge was pulled up enough so that she could use the binoculars given to her by Shackleton. As it had turned out, almost everyone on Hambleton had some 'illegal' bit of modern equipment stashed away in odd hiding places, from Emerson's sniper rifle and Egg Shackleton's military grade Zeiss binoculars, to the latest hand-held Nintendo 3D portable games system. Not many weapons, though, just Lt. Uxolo's .45 Kimber Pro Carry 1911, and Gunny Smalls' 9mm Russian Army pistol, a Yarygin with a 17-shot magazine. It would have to be enough. If everything went according to plan, not a shot needed to be fired, anyway.
Of course, when did you ever know a plan that didn't have a pooch screwed in it somewhere, she thought, and carefully rubbed her watering eyes with a knuckle. The sun was too bright, reflecting off the waters with diamond shimmers that sliced through her head like knives. It took her a moment to realize that some of the glare was generated by the white hull of a large yacht cruising in the Hambleton's direction. No surprise, since the ship was anchored about a hundred yards from the underwater wreck site.
Bonney knew what Caruana – and/or his minions – were seeing. An apparently deserted wooden ship, a frigate with masts that were hung with drooping half-set sails, and empty decks, listing to leeward. It would be an eerie sight, this modern Mary Celeste; a silent ghost ship showing no evidence of life, and no obvious reason for abandonment. She took a chance and let three wooden balls drop over the edge of the platform, to alert the crew hiding below-decks that their prey was about to arrive.
True to a seaman's insatiably curious nature, the captain of the yacht hove to, and after about fifteen minutes, launched a rubber Zodiac boat that had four crewmen in it. Bonney peered through the binocular lenses, careful to shield the glass from glinting in the sun. Two of the men were carrying Heckler & Kotch MP5 compact submachine guns, used by U.S. Navy Seals in close combat situations; the other two were armed with Tec-22 semi-automatic 9mm pistols. It was serious firepower, and for a moment, Bonney wondered if it was not too late to abandon the plan and flee.
No, because you'll never get Hambleton away now, so you might as well suck it up, sailor, Bonney thought, watching the Zodiac bump sidelong into the frigate, and the four men clamber up the accommodation ladder that had deliberately been left to dangle over the side in mute invitation. Bonney did not move from her position; unless one of them climbed the mast, she was safe on her lofty platform, and trying to come down would garner unwanted attention. It would be up to the rest of the crew to implement the plan.
The four men from the yacht split up, two of them going below-decks, and the others headed for the captain's cabin. An achy, tender feeling lodged close to her heart when Bonney contemplated the awful surprise waiting inside the cabin in the form of Amelia Peabody Emerson, and her unique form of martial arts, a blend of tae kwan do, jeet kun do, akido, Shaolin, Indonesian silek, Russian Army systema, Samoan pi'inga wrestling, Maori rongomamau empty-hand techniques, and native lua from the Hawaiian isles.
Emerson had no idea how wild she looked when she made those graceful moves, her body moving through space with the deadly purpose of a hunting cat, not a motion wasted. Whenever she was ashore, Bonney would watch her partner practicing katas and doing exercises in the early morning, a lean, black-clad figure silhouetted against the rising sun. At those moments, she felt nothing but pride and (she had to admit) an ever-swelling affection and lusty desire for the deadly ex-CIA agent that she loved.
Not a sound came from the cabin. After several moments, the door cracked open; seeing the coast was clear – the other two crewmen were still below-decks – Emerson emerged dragging the now unconscious men. Lt. Uxolo, who had changed from her formal uniform into a pair of jeans and a midriff T-shirt, came padding out of her hiding place to lend a hand, and together, they wrestled the unconscious bodies down the hatch. In a very short amount of time, Bonney knew, all four of the men from the yacht would be tucked away snugly on the orlop – the lowest and aftmost deck in the ship. Those of her crew who were already below-decks would see to the other two intruders.
To the perception of Caruana and his captain, it would seem as if their people had just vanished into thin air.
Bonney was reminded of an angler fish; it had a long spine of its dorsal fin tipped with a luminescent scrap of flesh that resembled a 'worm' – a bit of fleshy bait that was used to lure prey into the trap of its toothy mouth. Hambleton was both bait and trap. She wondered how long it would be before Caruana sent more men over to investigate the disappearances. As this thought crossed her mind, Bonney saw Emerson slipping over the side; there were knives strapped to her arms and legs, and a gun – probably Smalls' 9mm – in the small of her back. She had no doubt that the woman also had a homemade garrote looped somewhere about her person, as well any other makeshift weapons she had been able to contrive.
Emerson dove beneath the shadow of the frigate's bulk, and was gone.
A second Zodiac was sent out from the yacht, this time bearing six well-armed men. Bonney momentarily wished that Emerson had stayed on Hambleton, but reminded herself that while she may not have another ex-CIA agent on board, there were other crewmen who were able to kill-or-be-killed. Apart from a few midshipmen, the rest of the sailors on the frigate were experienced military personnel.
The six men from the yacht prowled around the upper decks, then went below. Bonney waited, holding her breath until sparkles danced in her vision, but not by sound or otherwise was their scheme revealed. She checked the yacht through her binoculars. There was a big swarthy man standing on deck, his stout frame covered by a Hong Kong made Armani knock-off; at his side was a flame-haired woman whose designer outfit was genuine. This was, according to Trudie's description, Stafan Caruana and his mistress, Mercedes León. Caruana was brandishing a machine pistol and screaming at a balding man, who looked either very distressed or incredibly constipated. His identity was unknown to Bonney; she supposed her was some flunky. She could not imagine the captain of a boat going pale like that.
There was considerable debate between Caruana, Mercedes and the unknown man, which suited Bonney's purpose; the longer they delayed, the more time there was for her people below-decks to prepare for another batch of visitors. At long last, the trio went into the bridge area of the yacht, and were no longer in view.
Bonney waited and watched. Her vigilance did not go unrewarded. A hatch in the side of the yacht opened, and a number of jet skis were launched. Bonney hoped that Trudie had not been wrong in her assessment of Caruana, that his greed, his appetite for gold was greater than his destructive impulses. She dropped another wooden ball (wincing in sympathy for the deck) to signal that the man himself was on the way. Lt. Uxolo, carefully inching her way along and staying on the blind side of the approaching jet skis, deposited a handful of gold escudos where they would be seen by anyone who boarded.
It had been Bonney herself who had free-dived to scoop the coins from the ocean floor near the wreck site of the Estrella. Fortunately, she had exceptional good lung capacity – a fact which Emerson had verified with lascivious glee and much innuendo, waggling her brows like a lecherous villain in a silent film. Had the woman possessed waxed mustaches, she would no doubt have been twirling the ends.
Bonney smiled at the memory, and a realization struck her with the force of a hammer blow – she did not really care about her Naval career as much as she cared about the well-being and happiness of one Amelia Peabody Emerson – the second most annoying (inspiring, delightful, maddening, delicious, wonderful) woman in the world.
Bonney's smile transformed into a grin of sheer delight.
Whatever the future held – whether it was a promotion, or a continuation of her career as captain of the nuclear submarine Saber, or retirement, or some other unknown fate – she knew that life would be never be dull as long as Amelia was around to liven things up.
I would live in your love as the sea-grasses live in the sea,
Borne up by each wave as it passes,
drawn down by each wave that recedes;
I would empty my soul of the dreams that have gathered in me,
I would beat with your heart as it beats,
I would follow your soul as it leads.
Her attention turned back to Caruana. The man seemed more of an inconvenience than a danger at the moment. He would never know what hit him if she had anything to do about it, and when it was over and done, Bonney intended to sail Hambleton to the nearest port, get a room in the finest hotel available, order a gluttonous feast, lay her lover down on a king-sized mattress, and make love until they were both exhausted and sore.
And after that, Bonney thought, I'm going to call Aunt Matilda the SEC-NAV – collect! - and find out exactly where the brass hats intend to stow me away. Then Emerson and I can decide whether to I ought to retire, or accept the promotion, if its offered. I will fight to keep Saber, but I could also request a transfer to one of the teaching subs. That's an option I hadn't considered.
Bonney checked the jet skis' progress. There were eight, straddled by Carurana, Mercedes and the balding man, plus five additional crewmen. Everyone, including Mercedes, was armed. She sent up a silent prayer, that no one would be hurt, that they would all survive to fight another day. Bonney asked for special attention to be paid to Emerson, who probably needed it more than anyone else.
In the distance, she saw a dripping wet Emerson going through the open hatch and boarding the yacht.
She loved it when a plan came together.
Rohan had no formal defense training. If someone had handed her anything more sophisticated than a bludgeon, she would not have known what to do with it. Nevertheless, here she was, crouched in the gloom of sick-bay next to Trudie's hammock; one hand splayed over the other woman's belly, and the other clutching a belaying pin. She was sick with excitement and dread, a combination guaranteed to send her stomach into a flip-flopping performance worthy of an Olympic gymnast's floor exercise. Sweat ran into her eyes, stinging. Rohan blinked and swiped at her wet forehead with the back of her wrist, careful not to bash herself in the head with the long, solid wood pin that looked like a truncheon.
Beside her, Trudie whispered, "It will be all right, liefje."
"Damned straight," Rohan whispered back, gripping the belaying pin hard enough to hurt her palm. If any bad guy so much as poked an eyeball into sick-bay, she was going to open a can of whup-ass that would make Quentin Tarentino turn pea-green with envy.
She could not see Trudie's smile, but she felt it – a ray of pseudo-sunshine that helped to heal the fears and anxieties that had troubled her since the Dutch woman's kidnapping.
Come on, come on, Rohan urged the villains and the heroes alike. She wanted this to be over, so she could take Trudie home.
That word had never sounded so beautiful. Rohan sighed, shifted on her heels, and was about to ask a question when the door to sick-bay eased open, and a strange man entered.
A strange man with a very large, very intimidating gun.
Rohan reacted before her conscious mind had a chance to swing the vote. Reflexes she had not known she possessed brought her to her feet, arm swinging back and punching forward to catch the man in the solar plexus with the blunt nose of the belaying pin. His pained grunt sounded over-loud in the confines of sick-bay, but with a temporarily paralyzed diaphragm, it was the only sound he could make. Rohan followed up with a blow to his head that rolled the man's eyes back to show the white. He collapsed, and only then did she remember about the gun. The very large, very intimidating gun. Panic seized her. Rohan bent and snatched at the weapon, tearing it from his grasp and flinging it into a corner of the small cabin.
Belatedly, she thought that this might not have been a good idea.
Rohan cringed, waiting for the gun to go off. Thank God they were not on a submarine, with its harsh metal surfaces that were perfect for ricocheting bullets. Surrounded by wood, hopefully the bullet would come to rest in a bulkhead and not in their flesh.
After a moment, she cautiously peeked, and realized that her luck had held, and the gun remained silent.
She glanced over at Trudie, and grinned, only prevented from doing an end-zone funky chicken by the fact that there was not enough room for the correct elbow flapping.
Trudie's expression was grim. Forbidding. Terrible.
There was a decided glint in her eyes.
Rohan's heart sank.
One moment, cock of the walk, so to speak… the next, a feather duster.
"Um… sorry?" Rohan squeaked.
At her feet, the semi-conscious man groaned, and she wished she could join him. However, Rohan thought that faking a faint would probably get her into even more trouble. Trudie reached for her and she did not resist, but allowed herself to be drawn towards her fate. She could not help scrunching her face into a grimace of anticipation, which relaxed into a surprised smile when Trudie kissed her cheek with a soft smacking sound.
"Well done," Trudie said. "Although you're still a roekeloze trut."*
"And I love you, too," Rohan said.
The man's groans were getting too loud. Trudie sat up, drew back her foot, and kicked the wakening man in the temple. The sounds cut off at once, and the sick-bay was once again disturbed only by the noise of his stentorian breathing.
"My heroine," Rohan whispered, and turned her head so that Trudie could kiss her properly.
Emerson went through the hatch, and once inside the yacht, gave a little shake to dispel the worst of the water droplets that coated her skin. She gathered her dark hair at the nape of her neck, and twisted the mass to channel more water down her back. Back on Hambleton, she had traded her T-shirt for a Lycra sports bra, and retained the bicycle shorts; it was the closest thing to a swimsuit she could find. It appeared that the military mindset preferred smuggling weapons to bikinis. A pity one could not swim in a full set of Kevlar body armor, but Emerson did not waste time wishing for the impossible.
She slid a knife from the jury-rigged scabbard tied snug around her upper arm, and stalked around the interior of the yacht in search of the bridge. The décor was contemporary nouveau riche, what the decorators liked to call 'light, bright and airy;' all mirrors, abstract art, white upholstery, glass and orchids, and about as much soul as an upscale Holiday Inn. Her wet feet left smudged impressions on the well-waxed teak floors. She smirked. For all his money, Caruana still had bad taste.
Then Emerson spotted something on the wall, and she stopped in her tracks, mouth dropping open as she gaped in awe.
Screwed to the wall in an unbreakable plexiglass box was one of the rarest of the Garbage Pail Kids collectibles – a rough drawing by Jay Lynch for the 9th series, No. 343a/B, originally titled Jailhouse Rick. Emerson stared, mesmerized. The only other item that rated higher in her estimation was a mint condition, uncut sheet of the first U.S. series.
She was so taken with the drawing (and trying to figure out where she might find a Phillips screwdriver so she could take the box apart) that Emerson completely failed to notice the three muscular crewmen that were headed in her direction.
Of course, it was a mistake to sneak up on a fully trained CIA field agent, even a retired one.
Emerson's trained reflexes may have been a hair slower than in her salad days, but she was not decrepit by any stretch of the imagination, and the corridor was too narrow for them to come at her more than one at a time. None of the three was actually armed, for which she was grateful. Bonney would kill her if she was shot.
The first man tried a crude rush, his arms spread out to widen further an impressive bulk. She dropped the knife; Emerson's split-second reading of his kinetics told her that he had no real fight training, and had likely relied on his size to win one-on-one.
Big mistake, bubba!
She had recently taken to reading translations of Chinese wuxia, martial arts novels that were just as much fun as Hong Kong actions flicks. Emerson did not quite 'see' in her mind's eye what the authors may have meant by giving the stances such names as 'Thousands of Myriads of Purple and Red' or 'Whisking Orchid Hands,' but the fanciful titles had caught her imagination. Now Emerson had taken to playing with her own version of martial arts, a conglomeration of various disciplines.
"Divine Sword of the Heart-Splitting Eight Strikes!" she called, and mule-kicked the attacking man, driving her heel into his nose. There was a satisfying crunch, spurting blood, and he reeled away, wet crimson masking the lower half of his face. She pursued for two steps, delivering another strong kick – this one to his inner thigh, a blow that would leave him unable to support his weight on that leg. She did not wait to see him collapse.
The second man, his white-and-blue striped shirt stained with what she hoped was tomato sauce, was a little more skilled, or perhaps a little smarter. He hefted a length of pipe, and Emerson had no intention of allowing him to come close enough to use it. She bent, snatched at a potted banana plant, and hurled it at him, following the missile a heartbeat behind. Her eyes closed against the explosion of dirt and shards of pottery, she swung an Everlasting Springtime Fist at him, her knuckles catching his throat. The man went down gagging, blinded by the barrage of peat-free soil, banana leaves and terra cotta. That left one, and Emerson spun to face him.
He was already close enough to catch under the eye with her elbow, which hurt them both, and the twang traveled all the way to her wrist. Emerson realized that the fight had taken her to the junction of two corridors, leaving her a little more room to maneuver – both a blessing and a curse. It would be easier for her to employ more sophisticated fighting techniques, but the increased space also left her vulnerable for an attack from other directions by more combatants. Nevertheless, Emerson was here to do a job, and the middle of a skirmish was no time to be distracted.
She continued her spin, driving her foot up to smash the ball of her foot against his knee. As he fell, she punched him in the temple, trying to judge the amount of force required to render him unconscious but not dead. The man flopped on the floor like a gaffed fish. Emerson kicked him in the jaw, then whipped around to see that the first man had gotten to his feet. Although he was tinged blue around the lips and his eyes were watering, the expression on his face was pure murder. The sound of footsteps echoed from the deck above. He sucked in a breath, his intent obvious. Emerson did not hesitate. She could not risk any of them raising the alarm. Taking two strides back, she laced one arm over his throat, the other around the back of his neck, and simultaneously squeezed and twisted, using the combination of strength and leverage to snap his neck.
Emerson let his body drop and checked the other two men, who were unconscious. She retrieved her knife and stared at the ceiling, her ice-blue eyes slitted in annoyance.
Whoever was up top was clomping around like an elephant wearing lead shoes.
Another crewman – this one clad in a polo shirt and jeans that did not make him look like a uniformed minion – came around the corner, and stopped in his tracks, his eyes and mouth comically wide 'O's' of astonishment as he took in the scene: three of his buddies down for the count, one utterly destroyed banana plant, and a tall, lean, predatory woman in Lycra and spandex, dripping wet and holding a knife, standing in the midst of the carnage.
He let out a sound suspiciously like an 'eep' and made as if to flee, his feet skidding uselessly on the well-waxed floor. The hilt of Emerson's knife – she had taken a moment to flip the weapon to a less deadly aspect – took him in the back of the head with a meaty thunk.
He collapsed, a limp ragdoll discarded on the shiny teak boards.
Emerson took a deep breath, retrieved her knife for the second time, and walked cautiously towards the front of the yacht, assuming that the bridge would be found in the area. She passed a number of rooms, including a fairly big space that she assumed was the crew's R&R room, considering the pool table, pinball machines, and a rack of X-Box, Playstation and Nintendo game systems, together with a flat-screen TV that took up most of one wall. The rest of the walls sported posters of impossibly big breasted, long legged, huge eyed anime chicks wearing glossy scraps of costume that barely hid their assets.
She snorted and curled her lip at poster of Dead or Alive: Extreme Volleyball, featuring cartoon babes in sexy bikinis looking provocative. In her opinion, the game was not bad once you got past the flopping, bouncing, jiggling titties in every frame, but Bonney had threatened to deep-six her beloved Playstation if she continued to play DoA, so Emerson had stuck to Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Fortunate Son, and Full Metal Jacket: Psycho-Therapy. Apparently, in Anne Bonney's world, it was far better to blow shit up than ogle anime boobies. More evidence of the military mind-set that sometimes boggled Emerson's imagination, although she would never reveal her bafflement, not even under torture.
There were no helpful signs to point her on her way, so Emerson continued to creep along the corridors, always moving forward. At last, she found a ladder that led to the next level. By that time, she was more or less dry; her hair crackled with static. She was careful not to touch anything metal; for someone who had withstood the best interrogation techniques of the Chechnyan, Chinese and Independent Hawaii intelligence agencies, Emerson hated the minor discomfort of being zapped.
When she found the bridge, it was empty of personnel, and full of equipment. Surrounded by large glass windows, Emerson felt as if she was on display in a fishbowl, but there was no help for that. She crouched beneath a console, found a dead space under it that had not been immediately apparent, and wedged herself inside.
Now all she had to do was marshal her patience, and wait.
Ricardo Alvarez was understandably nervous.
It had been something of a shock, arriving at the wreck site and finding an old wooden ship anchored there. A ghost ship, rocking gently on the glassy green waves; the scene had reminded him of a story he had heard told by American crewman of a haunted ship called the Flying Dutchman. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He touched the talisman of Ogun, the orisha of steel and iron, protector against all enemies, that he wore around his neck on a thong. The talisman depicted the cauldron where Ogun lived, and the crossed swords that symbolized the orisha's warrior nature.
"Still believing in that superstitious nonsense?" Mercedes purred. She held out her Tec-9 machine pistol; the weapon was functional, but blunt and ugly, with no aesthetic graces at all. "This is all the protection you need."
"Querida, stop harassing Ricardo," Caruana commanded. His eyes, under their shelf of fat, flicked here and there, surveying the frigate's empty deck. He had left a skeleton crew aboard his yacht, and brought what people could be spared for this final expedition – himself, Mercedes, Alvarez, and six crewmen. Alvarez's gaze wandered to the medallion nestled in the V of Caruana's open-necked shirt. Justo Juaz, the 'Just Judge' portrayed a crucified Christ with a rooster, and was meant to ward off enemies. It was paired with a second medallion on a gold chain, this one of St. Martin Caballero of Tours, the businessman's saint.
Alvarez hoped Justo Juaz could extend his protection to them all; he believed they were going to need it, Mercedes' brave words notwithstanding.
"Now, we go in pairs," Caruana was instructing the crewmen. "Always two by two, like Noah, eh? If you find something, call. Understand?"
The men nodded, gripping their weapons. Alvarez could read the fear in their eyes, the nervousness that they tried to conceal behind thin masks of bravado and macho posturing. He did not know what had happened to the other men sent over from the yacht, and hoped they would be found - preferably safe and unharmed. He sent a prayer to his spiritual guardian -
Ogun ñakobié kobú kobú alaguere ogúo ogun yumu su ogun finamalú egueleyein andaloro ekum feyú tana guaraguru osibirikí alalúo agó…
It would have to be enough.
Rather than a Tec-9, Alvarez preferred to carry a classic 1980's .45 Colt M1911 automatic pistol, modified by specially trained U.S. Marine armorers in Quantico, Virginia to be 'combat accuratized;' it used competition grade, stainless steel ammunition magazines. The weight was comfortable in his hand, the rubber grip fitting his palm just so. Alvarez kept one round in the chamber; always a cautious man, he had become doubly so when employed by the infamous Stafan Caruana. He double-checked the two-way radio clipped to his belt, and patted his pockets to feel the extra ammunition clips he carried, along with a can of pepper spray, plastic restraints, and a knife. With a nod, he signaled his readiness.
"Mercedes, come with me," Caruana said. He was already sweating in the heat. "You too, Ricardo. The rest of you, go!"
Crewmen scattered in pairs.
Alvarez stayed ahead of his boss, and kept Mercedes' aggressively red hair in the corner of his vision. He knew the decks had names, as did every sail and bit of rope, but he was no expert. Glancing up nervously, he surveyed the limp canvases swaddled on the masts, looking like the shed skins of some monstrous creature. A loud noise sounded from above; he jumped, then recognized the shrill giggling shriek of a seagull. The tiny island of Cayo Marquez was close enough for the scavenger birds to flock around the wooden ship, hopeful of scraps. That told him the ship had been inhabited not too long ago.
He was about to observe as much to Caruana, when one of the crewmen ahead let out a surprised bleat. The man barreled over, showing a gold coin he had found on the deck. Alvarez was pleased, and made a mental note to reward him for his loyalty. Caruana took the coin, grunted, and thrust it at Alvarez. A quick examination confirmed his suspicions – the escudo was from the Estrella, which lay more than fifty feet below this ship's keel.
"So the cabron were stealing my treasure," Caruana said. An obscenely large diamond ring glinted on his littlest finger where it caught the sun. "Where's the rest of it?"
They searched the decks and found a few random coins, but nothing else.
"We should go below," Alvarez decided, glancing at Caruana for permission.
After receiving a nod, he led the small party below-decks. It was very narrow going, dark once they were away from the dubious half-light that filtered in through the hatch, and smelled of oiled wood, a trace of nastiness from the bilges, as well a mildew, salt, and the rancid odor of unwashed bodies trapped in a too-small space. Alvarez forced himself to relax before he accidentally pulled the trigger of his M1911. His neck was still prickling, but so far, nothing had happened. Of course what had happened to the other crewmen was still a mystery… and all at once, an explanation occurred to him.
He stopped and turned around to face Caruana. "Those coins… what if the other men found more?"
Caruana's lips parted to show nicotine-stained teeth. "You mean, what if they found a great many coins and ran away with my treasure? Their boat is still here, Ricardo. Did they swim to Miami? Not with so much gold. Not with so many hungry sharks."
Alvarez nodded. "Of course, señor Caruana. It was a foolish idea."
"Not so much foolish as badly considered, my friend," Caruana replied. "If the men are still alive, they are on this ship. Otherwise…" He shrugged his broad shoulders. "If they have somehow run away from their duties, they will be found. Don't worry, Ricardo. I do not hold you responsible, even though you hired them."
"Of course, señor." Alvarez began to sweat in earnest. If things went bad – or at least, if they did not go the way that Caruana preferred – he would be held responsible. The last man who disappointed the boss was fed to the sharks, one piece at a time.
Mercedes slapped him on the back, the blow hard enough to make him stagger. "Don't worry." She repeated Caruana's uncomforting injunction with a broad grin that reminded him of a toothy barracuda. "We like you, Ricardo. Come, let us find out men, find our gold, and get out of here. I keep expecting Errol Flynn to show up, or maybe Long John Silver."
The forecastle was deserted. They reversed their course and went aft, opening the doors that were not locked (and making notes to return to the locked ones later). It was not until they were half-way to their destination that Alvarez noticed someone was missing. Only five crewmen were following Caruana, Mercedes and himself.
"Where's Princk?" Alvarez asked, and received shrugs and muttered versions of the universal 'I dunno.'
The group turned back yet again, and walked all the way to the forecastle without seeing so much as a hair of the missing Princk's head. By the time Caruana lost patience and ordered Alvarez to lead them aft again, a second crewmen eerily disappeared. It was as though the man had simply stepped from one reality to another, and vanished. The situation was making Alvarez nervous, and he could only imagine how angry Caruana was becoming.
Mercedes made a spitting sound; she was fairly bristling with irritation. "This is not funny!" she growled. "You and you!," she said, pointing to two of the remaining men. "Go ahead of us." That left herself, Caruana and Alvarez in the middle, between men in front and the other two behind. This seemed like a more secure arrangement, until they were passing a hatch. The cover banged open, a loop of rope settled around the chest of one of the men in front, and he was drawn up squalling. As soon as he cleared the hatch, the cover crashed down again, leaving the rest of the shocked and appalled group in the below-decks gloom.
"Dios!" Caruana exclaimed. He shook himself like a big bellied dog. "Ricardo, stay here with us. You men, go up there."
The remaining crewmen did not leap to obey. In fact, as one, they took two steps backwards, staring up at the hatch cover with naked horror.
Caruana did not take kindly to disobedience. His sausage-like finger tightened on the trigger of his Tec-9. "You can die now, or die later," he said, his tone so perfectly reasonable that it made Alvarez shiver. No one was as deadly as Caruana when his voice went cold and silky. The crewmen knew, too, because one of them gathered his nerve, and stepped on the ladder that led to the hatch.
The man walked up slowly – Alvarez remembered his name was Pimental, born in Macao before the 442-year old Portuguese colony reverted back to Chinese possession – keeping his gun poised to fire. Alvarez watched Pimental reach out his free hand and push against the hatch cover. After a moment, he pushed harder. Frustrated, Pimental punched the cover with a doubled fist, to no avail. "It's locked or something," he reported.
Caruana tested it himself, and found the cover impossible to open. He swore and raised his Tec-9. Alvarez stopped him with an outflung hand. "Señor! No!" At Caruana's savage scowl, he went on rapidly, "We don't know what's on the other side. I don't think this is a lock you can shoot off."
"Very well, Ricardo," Caruana finally said, although his was still scowling. His flat black gaze darted over Alvarez's shoulder. "Where is…?"
In the confusion, another man had vanished.
Infuriated, Caruana roared and spun around on his heel. "Where are you?" he shouted. "Come out and face me, coward!"
Alvarez cringed, anticipating… what? A spirit manifesting with ancient evil glinting in its bottomless blind eyes? A tentacled horror? Some thing that had emerged from the depths, a hungry monster in search of human flesh and blood? Or perhaps, he thought, common sense reasserting itself, it was just some one playing tricks.
"What are you thinking, Ricardo?" Mercedes asked. She cut an incongruous sight, dressed in designer casual wear, clutching an ugly machine pistol in her manicured hands. Her scarlet lacquered fingernails tapped the side of the gun.
"That the ship isn't as deserted as…" Alvarez broke off, tilting his head. A thumping sounded from the deck above. "This way!" He started along the narrow corridor, determined to find the source of the noise, as well as an alternate way to return to the upper decks. There was another access hatch forward, he remembered seeing it, and if that, too, was locked against them, he would not stop Caruana from unleashing Hell in the form of hot lead.
He was vaguely aware that the others were behind him, but did not spare a glance, so determined was he to reach his goal. When Alvarez reached the broad wooden ladder, he stopped and turned, expecting to see Caruana, Mercedes and the remainder of the men.
There was no one there.
Gooseflesh swept over his entire body; he was chilled to the bone despite the stuffy heat. Alvarez could only stand there, his gun held loosely, and wait for the some thing or some one to come for him.
He did not have to wait for long.
When the Coast Guard arrived, accompanied by a veritable cavalcade of official vessels including the DEA, and a boat-load of Dutch operatives from Aruba who were bristling with weaponry and passive-aggressive attitude. They found the situation well in hand, or so Rohan thought, standing beside Trudie on Hambleton's poop deck and watching the other boats jockeying for position. Emerson had summoned help on the yacht's radio, forcing the captain to make the actual call in case Caruana and his men were listening. It has always been a possibility that the Hambleton's crew would be captured or held hostage, so sending Emerson to secure assistance (as well as the yacht itself) had been a good idea.
Another good idea had been picking off Caruana's people one by one. Having so many combat and stealth trained personnel on board Hambleton had made it a relatively simple exercise. The way Gunny Smalls' had lassoed that one crewman and yanked him up through the hatch had been an inspired piece of coupe de theatre.
Rohan breathed deeply, savoring the scent of salt, and not much minding the throat-biting stench of diesel coming from the boats. Bonney was leaning over the side, shouting down to a fellow in a baseball cap and Kevlar vest who was standing bow-legged in a little dinghy lashed to the frigate's side. Trudie made a noise deep in the back of her throat; Rohan's gaze shifted, and she saw Marieke Verhagen – dressed in a Versace power suit, Prada pumps and her trademark Hermès scarf – stumbling up the accommodation ladder. She squelched the urge to kick the woman back down into the dinghy.
"Miss Tarnach," Verhagen said, nodding at Rohan and ignoring her snarl, "and Miss van Geer." The chief of Dutch intelligence operations looked ever-so-slightly green around the edges. Rohan hoped she puked herself to death.
Trudie glotted and glutted her way through a speech in Dutch, and the expression on Verhagen's face put Rohan's hackles up. How dare the woman just waltz in here after the hard work was done, and pretend like it was all her idea, when she hadn't done a damned thing to help her or Trudie when it was needed? Her temper was fizzing, and she felt an explosion was imminent, when a hand wrapped around her upper arm and squeezed.
Rohan let out a squeak and looked up into Emerson's enigmatic gaze.
"I need to talk to you," Emerson said in a tone that brooked no denial.
The two word reply shaped by Rohan's mouth might have been 'vacuum' – the actual sound was blotted out by someone's indistinguishable command blaring from a bullhorn on the Coast Guard vessel – but she thought the taller woman took her meaning quite well. Emerson's eyes turned to narrow, icy slits, but she did not do anything in retaliation, such as a fatal Indian sunburn. Rohan was impressed by the woman's forbearance, until her arm was squeezed again, and subtly twisted in a way that spoke volumes about 'submission holds.'
"I said," Emerson gritted when the bullhorn's feedback squeal ended, "that I need to talk to you. Now."
Rohan did not resist anymore, but allowed Emerson to drag her to a secluded corner on the poop deck. "Well?" she asked when her arm had been released, feeling as if it had been bruised to the bone, but of course there were no obvious marks. "What do you want?"
"Look, you don't want to do this," Emerson said, raking a hand through her hair. "Listen to me… you do not want to piss off the brass, okay?"
"No, it's not okay." Rohan crossed her arms over her chest, feeling defensive and resentful. Peering past Emerson's shoulder, she saw Trudie and Verhagen deep in conversation. "I'm just…" She paused, and finally blurted, "It wasn't right!"
She had meant by that bleak phrase to indicate the whole terrifying situation – finding herself alone when Trudie was kidnapped; the suffocating fear that had pushed her to do what had to be done, no matter the consequences; the stone that had replaced her heart before they had found Trudie alive, if not well – and Emerson nodded as if she understood. Rohan realized, with a dawning sense of gratitude, that the woman did understand.
"I know what it's like to be left hung out to dry," Emerson said, her voice low but forceful. "Believe me, there's nothing worse than waiting for back-up that doesn't come. But hey, you fell into a shitty situation, and came out smelling like roses. You helped capture a very bad man in an operation that concluded with minimal loss of life, and no embarrassing screw-ups that require major 'cover your ass' mojo. Of course the brass is going to show after the fat lady sings. They're going to steal the credit, too. Don't be surprised when you read in the papers about a heroic joint effort to get Caruana. Reality has been warped to suit their needs. It's already a done deal."
Rohan opened her mouth to protest, and closed it when Emerson continued, "The situation sucks. It sucks giant smokin' Godzilla dick, if you ask me, but you're going to soldier on and keep your pie-hole shut. Because if you don't – if you make waves, and stamp your little feet, and insist that it isn't fair – then Trudie is going to take the brunt of the brass' displeasure. Savvy? Verhagen and Co. can make her life a living hell. Do you want her to be assigned to a listening post in outer bum-fuck Mongolia? It can happen like that." Emerson snapped her fingers, startling Rohan into retreating until her back touched the taffrail.
"You mean they'd… those people might…" Rohan could not bring herself to articulate the threat.
"Oh, honey lamb, of course they would! Ain't nobody more vindictive than a big kahuna in the spook business." Emerson nodded and shuffled a little closer, bending her head as if imparting secrets. "Those people are in the habit of making problems disappear, and punishing anybody who doesn't toe the party line, while ensuring that their actions don't come back to haunt them. Somebody like Verhagen's not going to roll over and let you shaft her. Whatever you do, she'll take it out on Trudie."
"What's going to happen, then?" Rohan asked, sighing heavily.
Emerson pursed her lips. "Nothing. Not a thing." She raised a finger. "Like I said before, keep your pie-hole shut. Pretend like you had support the whole time, and everything that's happened was Verhagen's idea. Bonney will back you up, and so will I. But Verhagen will know the truth, and she'll also know that you played the game according to her rules, so she'll owe you. One day, you'll get to collect."
Rohan frowned. She still was not very happy. "That's… that's just plain wrong."
"Yeah, I agree, but that's the way it works. So go over and stand next to Trudie, and smile when Verhagen tells everybody what a genius she is, and swallow what they tell you to swallow, and you'll come out okay."
Emerson sounded sincere; Rohan knew that she was not lying, or exaggerating the truth. While it would have been morally satisfying to rip Verhagen a new one, for Trudie's sake she would refrain. She would take advantage of Emerson's experience, and do as she was told. Later, in the dark, when she and Trudie were safe, Rohan intended to cry for at least ten minutes, and only half of that would be in anger at being thwarted in her desire for revenge, or at the very least, justice. The other half would be relief and gratitude for the opportunity to hold Trudie, and breathe in her scent, and feel her heartbeat close to her own.
Rohan nodded. Not trusting herself to speak, she nevertheless thanked Emerson, albeit a little tightly, and went to join Trudie, who was still speaking to Verhagen. She put her head on Trudie's shoulder, and an arm around her waist, and let the mixed feelings wash over her.
Trudie broke off her conversation and looked at her, green eyes full of love. "Are you alright, liefje?"
Love. She had found it, and would never let it go. Rohan let out another sigh – this one engendered by a sort of contentment. No matter what happened, as long as she and Trudie were together, life would be good. As good as it gets.
And Verhagen would owe her.
Rohan did not quite snicker, but she caught Emerson's sharp and cynical gaze, and deliberately winked.
Emerson threw back her head and laughed. Bonney frowned, then leaned over and touched the taller woman's shoulder, mouthing an obvious question. Whatever Emerson answered caused Bonney to break out in startled giggles.
Yes, Rohan thought, seized by a bright fierce gladness. No matter what, she was alive, Trudie was alive, they had friends, and that was... as good as it gets.
The wind whipped at Verhagen's expensive Hermès scarf, and before the woman could catch it, unraveled the length of silk and sent it flying into the air, a colorful serpent that danced briefly on the current before vanishing over the side. From the sour twist to Verhagen's mouth, she was not a happy camper, either.
Rohan carefully did not smile, but life was getting better by the minute.
*Roekeloze trut (Dutch) – Lit., 'reckless bitch' but in this case, affectionately meant.
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