Torn map

Ten minutes later, I heard a big outboard motor in the cove. It sounded as if it was coming toward the beach, and I turned around to look. It wasn't the usual five- to fifteen-horsepower eggbeater on a small dinghy typical of the sailboat crowd. Not even close. The boat was a gleaming white rigid-hulled inflatable, a twenty-footer at least. An Italian-made Novurania, top of the line and worth a small fortune.

I recognized it from the George Town dinghy docks, and from its one previous visit to Rebel Yell while we were at anchor. This was the tender belonging to Topaz, the solitary megayacht currently lying out in Elizabeth Harbour.

At planing speed, the inflatable threw out a significant wake, causing the masts of the smaller sailboats to whip back and forth as the boats rolled. This was typical behavior for the Topaz crew. Topaz also carried a pair of matching turquoise waverunners. When they were in the water, their operators raced between the anchored boats like maniacs, terrorizing swimmers and snorkelers.

The big inflatable dropped off plane and slowed as it approached the open beach twenty yards behind our stern. The beach was deserted for hundreds of yards, except for Rebel Yell. Two Topaz crewmembers were on the launch, both of them wearing khaki shorts and matching green polo shirts. I had seen these guys ashore in George Town, on the other side of mile-wide Elizabeth Harbour. These two were not your typical skinny Italian or Brazilian paid hands; they were American or English, by the look of them. The boat driver was a muscle-bound lout, with a red, peeling nose and armloads of tattoos. Not military tats either, but loud, violent, Technicolor nightmares.

The other one hopped off the bow as the inflatable nosed up onto the sand. He had scraggly red hair sticking out beneath his green ball cap, which had "GORP" written across the front in square gold letters. I'd vaguely heard of it. GORP stood for the Global Ocean Research Partnership, or maybe Project. It was some kind of environmental outfit, or maybe a non-governmental organization. The redhead gave a friendly wave, but not to me.

I wasn't completely surprised to see Cori walking across the beach toward their boat. She must have called them on our VHF radio after she'd stormed off. Her long hair was brushed out and pulled back behind a turquoise band, and her face was carefully made up, her lips extra glossy. She was wearing her skintight capri jeans, low hip-huggers that extended to just below her knees, and a short turquoise top that showed off her flat stomach. The clingy top was the same color as the gleaming paint on the sides of Topaz. I was sure that her choice of top and hair band was deliberate. It struck me that she had changed uniform colors, and it hurt like a stab. She was jumping ship and switching teams.

Just like that.

We had seen the Topaz crew at the regular Friday evening patio party at the Peace and Plenty Hotel, on the George Town side of Elizabeth Harbour overlooking the water. Topaz's owner, an Englishman in his forties, had quietly become the life of the party by buying round after round for his ever-increasing circle of new friends. The crew's matching green polo shirts bore embroidered silhouettes of his luxury motor yacht and its name, stitched in gold thread over the breast pockets. The shirts established their relationship to their boss, who was wearing a white oxford shirt, open at the neck, and pressed designer jeans. The shirt's long sleeves were casually rolled halfway up his forearms, revealing a gold watch on one wrist and a heavy gold bracelet on the other.

You might expect a man that wealthy to be old and maybe fat, but he was neither. He had a runner's lean body, thick black hair combed back, and penetrating green eyes. He glanced our way a few times, but this was expected when I was out with Cori. Rich or poor, men always stared at her. Cori had subtly pulled me over toward the Topaz group, permanently stationed in front of the open-air bar near the live reggae band. I had stayed between her and the Topaz crew, though, and didn't give them the opportunity to co-opt us by buying our drinks.

That's when the frankly stunning Miss Vargas must have first come to their notice. Wearing a formfitting black strapless minidress and black pumps, she was impossible for anyone to miss. With those extra four inches, Cori was just over six feet tall, almost eye-to-eye with me.

On Saturday afternoon following the Friday night hotel patio party, Cori had gone out to Topaz with Doctor Aleman to treat an injured crewman. For the right patients, Victor made house calls, or in this case, yacht calls. It was well known around the anchorage that Rebel Yell had a genuine, certified medical doctor aboard. It was also known that the doctor was usually accompanied by a very pretty assistant. Topaz had sent the white inflatable to pick up Victor and Cori after calling us on the VHF to report an accidental laceration.

Cori had been pre-med at the university before she'd been forced to drop out. The chance to learn practical medicine at the side of an actual orthopedic surgeon had helped to convince her skeptical parents that sailing off on a gringo's schooner wasn't complete madness. With their country in chronic economic collapse and her family newly poor, Cori argued that this was a way to continue her medical education on the way to Miami.

So Cori had spent a few hours that Saturday afternoon aboard Topaz while Victor sutured up a crewmember's foot that had been slashed on coral. After the medical business was finished, they had stayed aboard for brunch. A beautiful girl like Cori Vargas was always welcome aboard a luxury yacht (unless the owner's wife was aboard). She had toured the hundred-foot-plus motor yacht, and had enjoyed the air conditioning and the decadent luxury aboard all such vessels. After her visit to Topaz, I gained the impression that she considered Rebel Yell beneath her station.

It was all relative. The sailors aboard the typical thirty- to forty-footers considered Rebel Yell, which even had a built-in bathtub, to be a "megayacht." People living in beach shacks thought the forty-foot sailboats anchored just offshore were fabulous, with their twelve-volt electricity and fresh running water. And somewhere lived homeless beggars who envied the cozy shacks, with their tin roofs and kerosene lanterns.

And now Cori was jumping ship for good. I jammed my trowel into the sand and dove into the deeper water again, to clean off a new coating of barnacle bits. I wouldn't chase her or plead with her to stay; Cori was twenty-two years old and capable of making her own decisions. But I wanted to hear it from her own lips.

After Cori spoke to the Topaz crewman on shore, the one with the red hair and the GORP ball cap, she returned to the landward side of Rebel Yell. Her matching blue canvas zipper bags were packed, lying on the sand along with some souvenirs and knickknacks that she was taking. She shook Doctor Aleman's hand, saying goodbye to him in private. Victor had set up a golf umbrella over a folding chair, where he could watch the boat's deck and read one of his books. He rose and said a few words to her out of my earshot, a fatherly hand on her shoulder, while she nodded back at him. I stood at the stern of Rebel Yell, respecting their privacy and wondering what to do next. Create a scene? Stand frozen and mute like a statue? Keep scraping barnacles, as if nothing of importance was happening? Go for a stroll on the beach in the other direction?

Instead, I walked through the shin-deep water over to the big white inflatable. The boat driver had stayed aboard, standing behind the shiny fiberglass center console. I forced a smile, looked him in the face and asked, "Hey, buddy, what's your name?" I wanted something more personal than Topaz and GORP to hang onto. It might not have been the slickest approach, but it's what popped into my mind. Sometimes you just have to do or say something, anything. You have to force an opening.

He smirked and replied, "Fuck off, Yank." Lower-class English accent. On his head was a canvas yachter's hat, like a sailcloth boonie hat but with a wider brim. His face was red and peeling; clearly he had good reason to protect his face from the sun. Wraparound sports sunglasses hid his eyes.

And he was a big one. With him standing higher than me on the fiberglass deck of the tender, it was hard to compare his height to my own six feet two, but he was a real brute, with a massive chest and arms swelling the short sleeves of his XXL polo shirt. The kind of muscles gained from hours a day pumping iron, or from taking steroids, or both. I stood against the boat's rubber side tube and looked him up and down. A white bandage was visible on the inside of his left foot, extending just above his tan Docksider boat shoe. So he was the one who had been cut, the one Victor had stitched up. He was keeping his two-day-old wound dry and clean by staying on the tender.

I'd dealt with bigger blokes than him, and tougher. I'd been around plenty of Brits over in the sandbox. I looked him straight in the eye, burning inside but keeping a poker face. "Well, Mr. Fuckoff, I'm going to remember you, and I'm going to hold you responsible for keeping Cori safe." I pointed to one of his lurid arm tattoos. "You personally, Jolly Boy." The Jolly Boys were probably some urban street gang back in whatever UK welfare "housing estate" slum he hailed from.

We stared each other down. I was sure that he'd remember me too. I'm a hard guy to forget, with my ocean-blue eyes and this inch-and-a-half-long scar above my right cheekbone, the result of a frag splinter. Though the Army docs had done their best, I was still left with a visible reminder of the explosion across my cheek, from below my eye aiming back toward my ear. But if I hadn't been wearing my ballistic goggles on that unlucky day, I'd have been sporting an eye patch instead of just the thin white line, so I couldn't bitch.

Girls didn't seem to mind it, which had been my initial concern, and most men steer me a wide berth in potentially violent situations. A man my size with a facial scar like this one looks like a man who doesn't give much of a damn about getting hurt, as long as he gets his own licks in. Like a man who'd square off blade to blade with a grin on his face and say, "Bring it."

Which was not so far from the truth.

Jolly Boy just stared hard back at me, and then shook his head and looked down, laughing quietly, utterly dismissing me, a swatted mosquito. I was in a rage, but I knew that an "unprovoked attack" on the Brit would, in Cori's eyes, be the confirmation of all her worst conceptions of me. Instead I walked a few yards away from the tender to speak to her as she approached, to say goodbye. Even though I had known it was coming eventually, her abrupt departure hurt. She walked up to me, as if expecting a reproach I would not give her. I waited for her to speak first.

"They're going to Miami, and they said they would take me."

"You don't even know them."

"I didn't know you before I left my home."

That felt like a slap. "Oh no, no, we had some incredible weeks together before we left Venezuela. We knew each other very well before you moved onto Rebel Yell. That was completely different from now."

"Not so much. Topaz is just another boat--and it's going to Miami."

I looked away.

"No, Danny--I'm sorry for that. You don't deserve that. We had a very special time together, and I won't forget you. Not ever. But it's time for me now. It's time for me to make it on my own. In Miami. I'm so sorry, Danny. I don't ever want to hurt you."

I took a deep breath. "Don't be sorry. It was never about forever, was it?"

"Nothing ever lasts forever. Nothing. But I won't forget you, Danny. Never."

I swallowed hard and said, "And I won't forget you either, Cori. But I'm still concerned about you. What do you know about these people, other than the owner is a millionaire?"

"Oh, Richard Prechter is a wonderful man, he really is. He owns three companies, and he knows everybody important in Miami."

"Just because he's rich that doesn't make him wonderful. It's easy to be 'wonderful' when you can buy all the friends you need."

It briefly occurred to me that even barehanded, I could beat these two Topaz crewmen to a pulp, starting with Jolly Boy. Then I'd take my USMC Ka-bar combat fighting knife and slash their expensive Italian inflatable to shreds. I'd leave it on the beach as a reminder to all comers not to screw with the skipper of Rebel Yell or try to snake his girlfriend away from him. But it was just a passing thought. Cori had a right to make her own decisions. I couldn't always revert to violence as my first alternative, not even when insulted. Not anymore.

"Don't be jealous, Danny. Anyway, I made my mind." She gave me a quick, sisterly kiss on my left cheek and turned again to the inflatable. It had a new 150-horsepower Yamaha motor, way more powerful than my sixteen-foot Avon inflatable's ancient 70-horse Evinrude. The skinny red-haired crewman who had come ashore picked up Cori's two bags, gathered her loose things, and followed her back to their launch.

Jolly Boy turned on a big smile, enveloping Cori in fake Limey solicitude. He said, "There you go now, love, mind your step," as he extended a meaty hand and helped her aboard. Cori gave him a smile of recognition, no doubt remembering him well from her previous trip to Topaz. She slid her fanny and legs over the white hull-tube and primly settled down on the bench seat attached to the front of the center console, facing forward. The red-haired man leaned across the tube and placed her bags near her feet, then pushed the rubber boat off the beach and hopped aboard. When the boat was in deep enough water, its motor was lowered with an electric whine, and the boat pulled away in reverse.

Jolly Boy cut the wheel, turned the boat sideways to the beach, and gave me a little mock salute and a large wink before shoving the throttle into forward. The salute was with one finger--the middle one--so that only I could see it. Their inflatable raced off across the cove and out into the harbor toward Topaz, taking Cori Vargas out of my life. She didn't look back. Cori was heading for the golden life of millionaires, megayachts and Miami television stardom. I wished her all the best, with an ache in my heart. Buena suerte, carino mio.

"Nothing ever lasts forever," she'd told me. That was a song from one of the old music CDs I had discovered on my schooner. Cori used them for practicing her English, listening to songs until she knew them word for word. She had played "Nothing Ever Lasts Forever" over and over on repeat mode, singing along with Ian McCulloch, the front man for Echo and the Bunnymen. They were maybe the greatest English rock group that Americans, and certainly Venezuelans, had never heard of. I'd discovered them only because of the cache of CDs I'd found when Rebel Yell became mine.

I had heard her sing that song a hundred times. Nothing ever lasts forever had formed an invisible, unspoken boundary defining our relationship. Since Venezuela we had clung to one another while avoiding promises of forever. What did love really mean anyway, when we both knew that nothing ever lasts forever? Now Cori's ship had come in ...

And nothing comes to those who wait.