I followed him aft, walking along the starboard side deck. He handled his ten-foot inflatable with expertise, and nimbly hopped from the rubber boat onto Rebel's full-width slatted teak swim platform. The platform allowed for easy boarding from a dinghy, since it was only a foot over the waterline. Above the swim platform, Rebel's vertical transom was a black wall a dozen feet wide and six high. There were two oval bronze portholes near the top, kept polished to look like golden eyes. Her name was hand-painted in gold script below the portholes, with an exclamation point: Rebel Yell! Beneath her name, her hailing port was listed as Panama City. Florida or Panama, the country of origin wasn't specified. Like many of the boats in this Bahamian harbor, Rebel Yell flew no national flag from her stern.
My visitor tied his dinghy's bow line to a deck cleat and climbed the steps up the transom into the cockpit. I led him forward, around Rebel's pilothouse. The top of the pilothouse was not quite as high as our shoulders, just low enough to see over when steering from the cockpit. Noticing that I was having a stranger aboard for some kind of parley, Victor had discreetly disappeared down the forward companionway, just in front of the foremast. He occupied the bow crew quarters, in the forecastle forward of the cargo hold.
Rebel Yell had two sixty-foot masts, one just in front of the pilothouse and the other in front of the cargo hold. Twenty feet of white-painted deck lay between the masts when the cargo hatch was shut. With Rebel's eighteen-foot beam, this open area seemed as big as a tennis court compared to the deck space on most sailboats. The trade winds kept the table area beneath the black-and-white-striped awning a cool and breezy oasis. This was our open-air living room in port during good weather. The four-foot-by-seven-foot varnished mahogany table had been hand-carved in Honduras, with removable legs for stowage in the hold. I gestured to a wood-and-canvas director's chair, and my guest sat down. He had brought a xeroxed copy of a small chart, folded inside a plastic bag to protect it from splash on the way over in his dinghy.
"You want a beer?" I asked. The odds were great that his nondescript sloop had no working refrigeration. A cold alcoholic beverage might also put him at ease and loosen his tongue. I slipped back around the pilothouse and down inside, then down the ladder to the galley. Tran was chopping onions and ginger root, and a pan was sizzling with thick steaks from the fat grouper I'd speared early that morning. I grabbed two frosty bottles of Bahamian Kalik beer, slipped them into foam insulators, and returned topside. There wasn't much beer left aboard Rebel, less than a case.
My guest eagerly accepted the ice-cold brew. He took a sip, smiling, and then raised the bottle in salute. "Thanks for inviting me aboard your aircraft carrier." He had a trace of Southern accent. Georgia or the Carolinas, I guessed.
"No problem," I replied, suppressing a smile. Aircraft carrier. That was a good one.
"What is she, sixty-something feet?"
"Well, it depends on if I'm talking to a marina manager or to a potential girlfriend. If I'm talking business with a marina that charges by the foot, then I don't count the bowsprit and I call her sixty feet even. If I'm talking to a pretty girl, I call her sixty-eight. Or I just round it up to seventy, if we've had a few drinks and she's good-looking. Twenty meters, if the girl is from Europe or South America."
"It's an impressive boat. For somebody, you know, our age." I was in my early thirties and he might have been a few years younger. It was hard to tell, with his wild hair, sunburn, and whiskers.
"Thanks," I replied. "It wasn't easy. I put two years of my life into her."
"You built it?"
"Not quite. But I rebuilt her."
"I'll bet it wasn't easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is." He sighed, and then plowed ahead. "My name's Nick Galloway, my boat's called At Ease." He pointed out into the wider harbor, a little past the cove. "It's that Hunter 33 with the red sail cover."
I looked, and found his boat on the twilight water.
There were a few flat stones on the table, to act as paperweights. Anything paper that was not anchored down would sail away instantly. He put his xeroxed chart under a stone, then reached across the table and shook my hand. His grip was strong, his brown eyes clear and his gaze direct. A few small tattoos slid out from under his right T-shirt sleeve when he reached over, names neatly printed across his bicep in blue ink, one above the other. His dead battle buddies. Old platoon friends who didn't come back from the sandbox alive to enjoy a cold beer on a sailboat in the islands. Angels, we'd called them. Gone, but not forgotten.
"Nick, I'm Dan Kilmer. 'At Ease,' huh? So, you're ex-military?" I pointed toward the names on the outside of his bicep. SGT Carlos Sandoval. PFC Earl Cameron. More above those two, still beneath his sleeve. Here's to you, Carlos and Earl, and all the rest. I raised my bottle and sipped my beer in silent toast. Those in-memoriam tats had become popular, but the names inside my head were enough for me. Besides, my tanned hide was already sufficiently scarred up without adding tattoos to it.
"Yeah, I was Army. Army Rangers. Third Ranger Battalion, out of Fort Benning." He stared back at me. "You?" This was the standard sizing-up between American men our age. Many of us had served, but more had not, and it placed us in a special group. Out here, out of CONUS, out of the Continental United States as our orders had once read, we were a new breed of wild geese. We'd come home, but found it wasn't really home anymore, and we'd flown the coop. We were freedom-seeking expats of the new world disorder.
"Marines," I replied. "I was an 85-41. What the Army calls a Bravo-Four."
"You were a sniper?"
"Yeah. Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon, if you want to be PC about it."
"I generally don't do PC too much," he said. "Had about enough of that in the Army to last me for a while."
"Well if you don't yell hoo-ah, I'll spare you the oo-rah." These were the Army's and the Marines' all-purpose motivational cries, as in "Hoo-ah, Sergeant Major! I'll jump on that grenade!"
"Sounds fair to me," he replied. "I lost just about all my tolerance for that gung-ho Mickey Mouse bullshit."
There was a long pause while both of us waited to see if the other would play the "Where were you and what did you do?" game. Or even worse, the whose-rank-was-higher game. Neither of us did.
"So," he finally asked, "is she your girlfriend? The one who left today."
I sighed. What the hell. What was I keeping a secret, my bruised pride? "Yeah, well, at least she was. She wanted to go to Miami, and I didn't. We had a parting of the ways. You were going to tell me something about Topaz, right?"
"Right. Did you notice it leaving today? Not long after your girlfriend went out to her. I know you were busy, working on your boat's bottom?"
"Yeah, I saw Topaz leaving."
"You just said it was going to Miami. Did you notice which way it went out? It went out the east entrance."
"Well, if they were going to Miami, they'd have used the western entrance, wouldn't they?"
"If they were going to Miami they would, but Topaz could be going any ..."
I stopped myself. Topaz wasn't supposed to be going just anywhere. And if they were going to Miami, Nick was exactly correct. The big yacht would certainly have left through the western harbor approach. It was twelve miles between the two entrances to Elizabeth Harbour. A boat using the east entrance was going east, or south. Down island, to the Turks and Caicos, or beyond to the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Not northwest to Miami. Now he had my full attention. I didn't know why I had failed to make the same deduction when I saw Topaz gliding out of Elizabeth Harbour toward the southeast.
"I think I know where Topaz is going," my visitor said. "At least I have a pretty good idea."
"Oh, really? Where?" I tried to show a nonchalance I didn't feel.
He paused before answering. "Have you ever heard of the Castigo Cays?"
I had to ponder that name in order to remember where they were located. If Great Exuma was one of the Out Islands, then the Castigos were part of the "Far Out Islands," between San Salvador and the Caicos Islands. "No way, that's impossible," I said. "There's no anchorage for a hundred-footer, and besides, it's a wildlife refuge. There's no anchoring, no going ashore, and no fishing. There's no nothing. Just coral reefs and shipwrecks."
Castigo Cay and the other small islands around it comprising the Castigos group were far out to windward on the open Atlantic. Vessels passed at a respectful distance in deep water, but never visited. Besides being a graveyard for unwary ships, the Castigos were strictly off-limits as a nature preserve and wildlife sanctuary, part of the Bahamas National Trust, the equivalent of our National Parks. Several endangered species lived on the Castigos, above and below the water.
The Royal Bahamas Defence Force was all business when it came to game laws, fishing, and wildlife sanctuaries. Your vessel could be detained at a government dock for months while your case was processed. You could be levied heavy fines, you could lose your boat, and you could go to jail. I shook my head at this foolish notion and said, "No, no way could that big son of a bitch be going to Castigo Cay."
"That's what I would have thought too. But I saw Topaz there--I saw her for sure. I'm one hundred percent positive. And I saw some other things there you ought to know about."
I sipped my beer and studied him. He didn't appear to be a bullshitter. "So, what were you doing there?"
He smiled slightly, probably because of my less skeptical response, and continued his story. "I was sailing from Rum Cay to Mayaguana, on the outside. After Mayaguana, I was going to the Turks and Caicos, and then down island."
"That's a hard beat to windward."
"You're telling me. I timed the weather wrong leaving Rum Cay, and I got hammered. Well, with all that pounding, At Ease took some damage. Down below, and in the rigging. I wanted to get into the lee of the Castigos to get out of the big swells and check things over. There's a long stretch of beach on the west side. I felt my way in close with the depth sounder, and I anchored in fifteen feet over sand. It wasn't too bad for a day anchorage, as long as the wind held east. Plenty of rocks and coral heads too, but the light was good and you could see them.
"Anyway, I wasn't planning to stay. The guidebooks all just say to stay the hell away from the Castigo Cays, but there I was. I figured I'd check my damage, fix what I could--and maybe try to catch a lobster or two for dinner. I wanted to be sure nobody was around, the Bahamas Defence Force or whoever, so I got out my binoculars to study the place. It was late afternoon, the sun was behind me. The Castigos have a long, sandy island on the west side, but it's low. Not much more than a sandbar, really. It mostly disappears at high tide. I was on the west side of it. Castigo Cay is east of the sand-bar, and it's much higher. It has a sand dune maybe fifty feet high on the windward side."
"Like half the islands in the Bahamas," I muttered. I pulled the small chart from its plastic bag and studied it in the diminishing light. Besides the named island, Castigo Cay, three other unnamed cays made up the group. The four Castigos ran roughly north to south, occupying an area nearly a mile from top to bottom, and a half mile east to west. Castigo Cay itself was about a half-mile long and shaped like an elongated comma, the fat end to the north. A low, sandy cay ran parallel to Castigo Cay off to the west, a smaller rocky island almost touched Castigo Cay to the north, and there was a mangrove island just to the south. According to the chart, there were no depths between the islands greater than four feet. For mariners, the Castigos were essentially one island, with only coral reefs, tidal rips, and sand bores between them. There was no marked anchorage at all, but wrecks were indicated on the off-lying reefs around the islands.
Nick said, "After I dropped my hook I was checking the place with my binos, and that's when I saw a big motor yacht coming through. It came in from the Atlantic side, bow-on toward me. It must have come between Castigo Cay and the island to the north."
"There's no way," I replied. "Topaz is over a hundred feet long, and she has to draw at least five feet of water. Ther's no anchorage in the Castigos for a yacht that big."
"Well, I'm telling you, there is now. I saw it there with my own two eyes. The sandbar island on the west side is low, and I could see Topaz's entire superstructure. There's no way I could mistake that turquoise paint job. I studied that boat with my binos. I know it was Topaz for sure, right in the middle of the Castigo Cays."
"Maybe she was in deep water on the Atlantic side?"
"I thought of that, but it's not possible. That ridge on the east side of Castigo Cay is fifty feet high, easy. Nothing on Topaz is more than thirty, not even the radar or the satcom antennas."
I studied the small chart. It was as he said. There was a landlocked salt pond in the north end of the island. On the east side was a sand ridge running parallel to the Atlantic. Topaz would not have been visible to him if it was on the other side of Castigo Cay. It had to have been anchored between the four cays.
Nick continued, growing more animated. "But Dan, that's not even the strangest part. That's nothing compared to what I saw next. There's a long hill running along the east side of Castigo Cay, right? About a half hour later, while I was still watching, I saw somebody skylined on top of the hill. I put my binos on him--they're ten-power. Only it wasn't a him, it was a her. Even from a mile away I could tell it was a female, because she pulled a red dress or a big red T-shirt over her head and started waving it around and acting crazy.
"All the while, she was running along this hill. It's a long sand dune like right over there on Stocking Island. She had short hair, but I knew for sure it was a girl because I could see her bikini top, even from that distance. A black bikini top or a bra, I couldn't tell for sure, but that was enough to know it was a girl. The afternoon sun was right on her. Then I saw somebody else on top of the hill, a man, and then two more men, and it was like they were chasing her. And then they went down the other side and out of sight, and that's all I saw."
He had my undivided attention. "Uh, when was this?" It was just too crazy a story to have made up. Not unless this Nick Galloway was the best actor and liar I had ever met.
"Two weeks ago, on Wednesday." He sighed, and finished his beer. "Turned out I had a bad cap stay wire on my port side, so no way was I going to keep beating to windward down to Mayaguana. If that wire goes, goodbye mast. Four of the nineteen strands were broken right where they go into the swage fitting on deck. So I decided to come back here to George Town, since it was downwind sailing and smoother once I got behind Long Island. I couldn't take a chance on that stay wire busting, not out there on the open Atlantic. So I came back, and here I am."
I looked across the table into his eyes, and he into mine. "So, Nick, what do you think you really saw? Could it have just been some kids playing games? Hide-and-seek or something?"
"Hide-and-seek? No, no way. First of all, they weren't kids. I'll tell you exactly what I thought when I saw her, that woman waving her dress--and I haven't changed my mind about it since. I thought she was trying to signal to somebody that she needed help. And I still do. Totally futile, way out there. Who would ever see her? It's over twenty miles from the Castigos to Acklins Island, and that's the closest inhabited land. If you can even call it inhabited. I mean, it's sixty miles long and only four hundred people live on it. It's probably more crowded in Wyoming than on Acklins Island. And nobody ever goes to the Castigo Cays. People go way around it because of the reefs. But Topaz was right in there, I'm a hundred percent sure. Right there in the middle of the Castigo Cays."
Nick's story seemed implausible, but the man himself sounded very believable. I said, "Then somebody must have dug a new channel. But why, if it's all a wildlife sanctuary? I know that the Bahamas are for sale, but a wildlife sanctuary?"
In the seventies, the major Bahamian industry after tourism had been facilitating pot smuggling between Colombia and Jamaica and the States. In the eighties and early nineties, the transshipment of cocaine had brought in the serious money. Now, in the new millennium, the islands themselves were on the auction block as wealthy Americans and other foreigners sought sanctuary in a tax-haven nation that promised a high level of privacy. They were too wealthy and well connected to be hassled by the American government. Too many high government officials had rich friends with property in the islands, and they enjoyed their visits to them.
With enough money, millionaires could buy their own islands. By paying off the right officials, there was no problem with dredging or blasting channels and basins to create instant boat harbors. It was done every day. Airstrips too. But in a wildlife sanctuary? Somebody had some serious influence to blast channels in the Castigo Cays, channels big enough to take a hundred-foot powerboat. That is, if this story was true and not just a figment of my visitor's imagination.