"Nick," I asked him, "if you could see people on the hill, then for sure they could see your boat at anchor. If they were doing something wrong, why wouldn't they come out and run you off, or at least check you out? If Topaz was there, they had their big white inflatable. Why wouldn't they come out and hassle you?"
"I don't know. The sun was low behind me, maybe I was lost in the glare off the water. Or maybe if they came out to check me, it would just confirm that something wrong was happening. I mean, Topaz wasn't supposed to be there either, right? I suppose if they'd really wanted to, they could have killed me and sunk my boat, and nobody would ever know. Probably they're just keeping a low profile. Or maybe the crew was too busy chasing the girl? Maybe she took off as soon as the boat docked, thinking that help might be right over the next hill. How would she know that she was on an uninhabited island out in the middle of nowhere? I hauled anchor and left pretty fast after that, and I sailed here. It still bothers me, though, what I saw. It bothers me that I left, without knowing what happened to that woman."
What, indeed? I thought about Cori, now aboard Topaz.
I had seen a few of the private islands developed by millionaires. Instead of the usual third-world Bahamian poverty, they resembled slices of Boca Raton or Palm Beach, transplanted into the islands. The super-rich preferred smaller islands where they could live in peace, unmolested by the presence of the poor Bahamians they would be forced to cohabit with on the larger islands. You could visit twenty small islands, and fifteen were probably uninhabited. On four of them, a few black Bahamians scratched out a meager living, but on the twentieth, it was as if you had anchored off Malibu or Martha's Vineyard. They had paved roads, docks, airstrips, and power plants. Old surplus military landing craft brought in cement, bulldozers, diesel fuel ...
Diesel fuel. They all ran on diesel fuel, those private islands. A few had big wind generators and solar arrays, but in every case there was also a diesel generator. They built mansions and air-conditioned them like walk-in refrigerators, and all that first-world luxury ran on generators fueled by diesel. Fuel that I needed in Rebel Yell's tanks?
But what kind of millionaire would have the chutzpah to cut a channel for a hundred-foot motor yacht right into a wildlife sanctuary? Cutting a channel and then dredging an anchorage big enough for Topaz would sure as hell damage the ecology of that supposedly pristine environment. And if there was a channel like that into the Castigo Cays, it would be well known. It would be in all of the guidebooks.
And what about the girl on the hill, who, according to Nick, had been waving her red dress like a distress flag? If Castigo Cay was Topaz's destination, then what was Cori getting herself into? Yes, she had made her decision and had left Rebel Yell of her own free will. But what if Topaz's owner wasn't taking her to Miami but had some other destination, some other purpose in mind for her? A purpose that would make a girl flee up a sandy hill, waving her dress over her head.
It hurt that Cori had rejected me and jumped ship, but regardless of my personal feelings, I still felt responsible for her. I'd looked her father in the eye, shaken his hand, and promised that I'd keep his tesoro, his treasure, safe. It was a promise that could not be brushed aside just because Cori had grown impatient to get to Miami.
And I found myself still caring deeply about her, despite my hurt. For six months we had been friends and lovers searching for happiness outside the borders of our broken homelands. We had had other bitter fights before the day she finally left. Maybe her immaturity and hot temper were to blame for most of them, but I knew that many had been my fault. This time a final quarrel had caused her to leave, and now she might be in danger. The circumstances of her departure could not erase the responsibility I still felt to protect her from harm.
It was time to break out the charts and the guidebooks. And maybe I could learn more about Castigo Cay at the internet cafe in George Town without overtly signaling my interest. That was always the danger with this type of search. Any inquiries into a millionaire's private property could cause alert messages to be sent, warning his security forces of approaching danger. But Castigo Cay wasn't a private island, it was a wildlife refuge. Or was it?
Nick finished his beer, stretched his arms, and made some motions as if he was ready to go. By then I was convinced that he was telling the truth about seeing Topaz at Castigo Cay. But what about seeing the girl? Might he have added that embellishment, knowing that it would send my curiosity into overdrive on the day that Cori had left Rebel Yell? But to what purpose? Could he have been bought off by Topaz's crew or owner, in some Byzantine plan to lure me out to the Castigos?
That was absurd. The owner of Topaz, Richard Prechter, could buy boats like Rebel Yell out of the loose change in his pockets. I was less than nothing to him, merely the already-forgotten previous boyfriend of Cori Vargas. A nobody. Just another boat bum with an empty wallet.
I looked again at the tattoos peeking below Nick Galloway's sleeve. An ex-soldier who had marked himself for life with the names of his dead buddies wasn't the kind of man who would play duplicitous, backstabbing games. Then and there, I decided to trust him.
Tran must have been on a similar wavelength, because at that moment he appeared from behind the pilothouse with two more beers and a wooden tray holding chilled slivers of wahoo and his own spicy wasabi sauce in a wooden bowl, with toothpicks for dipping. Wahoosabi, a Rebel Yell specialty in those waters. We might have been broke in the wallet, but the Exumas were rich in world-class game fish.
I knew Tran could hear our conversation through the open deck hatch above his galley sink, even if he couldn't make out the words. He handed me a beer, set the other on the table within Nick's reach, and said, "Dinner soon, Chu-tau. He stay to eat?" Chu-tau was Vietnamese for boat captain.
I looked across to Nick and he replied, "If the skipper's inviting me, sure. You bet."
So I nodded yes to Tran, and he departed. Tran Hung was no servant, and his bringing out the beers and the sashimi was not his standard operating procedure. Normally, he would have passed a tray up through the galley hatch and placed it on deck just behind the table, within my reach. But this close to suppertime the number of guests he would be feeding would be on his mind, and he probably just wanted to get a first look at our visitor.
Tran was more than just my cook and boat guard. He was part of the team. I'd been talking to this stranger for quite a while, so it might involve a business proposition. He knew as well as Victor about the reduced state of our cruising budget. After all, I was the one who gave him the cash for provisioning, and the wad of bills was growing steadily slimmer by the week.
From time to time, such as that night, Tran would make an effort at maximum civility in the furtherance of our mutual endeavors. God forbid he would ever just bring me out a fresh beer while he was making dinner if I didn't have a guest or two on board to impress. And if I called out to him for a beer as if he were my servant, I'd more likely receive curses back in three or four Asian languages, all meaning Get it yourself--I'm not your slave, you blue-eyed devil! But if I asked him nicely, speaking to him through the deck hatch over his galley sink, he would happily hand one up to me.
Tran cooked because he loved to cook, and as our cook he was lord and master of the galley, pantry, and dining area. His realm extended sixteen feet from port to starboard, and from the front of the engine room bulkhead beneath the pilothouse to the cargo hold bulkhead, eight feet forward. The galley, with a top-opening fridge, gimballed propane stove and double sink, was to port. The dinette table, with seating for six, was to starboard.
The teak ladder up to the pilothouse was fixed to the engine room bulkhead, between the galley and the dinette. The engine room occupied the space directly below the pilothouse. Tran slept in a narrow bunk in the passageway on the starboard side, aft of the dinette table and outboard of the engine room. Anybody coming down from the pilothouse to the door of the captain's cabin had to get past Tran Hung first. I slept better knowing that he was there.
It had taken Cori a while to figure out that Tran wasn't actually a servant, despite my telling her just that. She had grown up in a household with a criada, a maid, before her family fell on hard times. For the first several weeks she had actually believed that Tran was a deaf-mute, or mentally retarded, or at least that he didn't speak any English or Spanish. He had simply ignored her requests, usually with his back to her. Once she finally figured out that he really was a part of my little seafaring family and treated him accordingly, he warmed to her.
Nick picked up his beer, and we clinked bottles. "That's Tran," I said.
"Geez, where'd you find him?" he asked as he stabbed a big chunk of wahoo with a toothpick, dunked it in the wasabi sauce, and popped it into his mouth.
"That's a long story," I sidestepped, and then took my own bite of cold fish.
"What's chu-tau mean? Captain?"
"Good guess. Boat captain. Ship captain is something else, and Army captain is something else again."
"What is he, Korean? Japanese?"
"No, he's mostly Chinese and Vietnamese. Kind of an Asian mutt. He's been a boat person like us all his life. No roots on the land." At least that was the first story Tran had told me, when we'd met in Panama. I'd since learned that it was nowhere near true, but I understood his reasons for offering it, and it was a good enough story for my guest. The truth was much too complicated to lay on this stranger.
"What's it say on his passport?"
"Officially, he's from Trinidad and Tobago, and he's a professional chef." I let it hang right there. I didn't mention that Tran had taught me his own hybridized Asian style of knife fighting, as well as how to throw a knife pretty damn well. And I didn't mention either that Tran had done his own share of soldiering, back in the day. Or for who.
Doctor Aleman reappeared, emerging from the small companionway in front of the foremast. It was our custom to eat on deck at the mahogany table when we were in port in good weather. It was nearly seven o'clock, our summer dining hour. I nodded to Victor and waved him over. I stood as he approached, and taking the cue, so did Nick. I made the introductions.
"Victor, this is Nick Galloway. His boat is the one over there with the red canvas."
He glanced over, found the sloop, and returned his attention to our guest. "Victor Aleman," he said. Nick extended his hand across the table, and Victor shook it briefly and without enthusiasm. He wasn't much for meeting new people, especially unshaven young men in shabby clothes. They had little to offer him, he thought. He was usually right.
We all sat. "Victor," I asked, being polite, "will you have a beer with us?"
"Thank you, no. I'll wait for my usual drink with dinner." He wanted the beer, but he knew we were short.
"Nick has been telling me an interesting story, about the yacht that Cori left us for."
"The Topaz. Yes."
"Nick, go ahead and bring Victor up to speed." I wanted to hear our guest tell the story again, to see if any details changed. They didn't. Victor studied the little one-sheet xeroxed chart of the Castigo Cays while Nick repeated his tale. I then told Victor about my brief but memorable encounter with Mr. Fuckoff, just before Cori left us for Topaz. Victor had seen and heard the rest of Cori's rapid farewell, but he had not heard what transpired between Jolly Boy and me. I mentioned seeing the bandage extending above the Brit's boat shoe, and more pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
Victor said, "The big fellow with the tattoos, his name is Trevor, I don't know his surname. He said he cut his foot on coral, but I knew that was a lie. It was too clean. It was cut by a knife. The way a right-handed person would cut his own left foot. But what did I care? People lie to doctors all the time, to prevent embarrassment for the foolish ways they get hurt. Anyway, the owner paid me in cash. Two thousand U.S. dollars. I sewed the Englishman up, and that was that. Six centimeters, ten sutures. I even let Cori do one suture, with Trevor's permission. And she did it very well. After that little job, we had a very nice lunch with the owner. Cori was quite taken with the yacht. And perhaps also with the owner, Richard Prechter. I didn't mention this before, because it didn't matter then."
Not one for tact, Victor was unintentionally rubbing salt in my own wounds. It was a social blind spot that he had, and that I'd learned to live with. His pluses far outweighed his minuses.
"Why would Trevor cut himself?" I guessed the answer, but wanted to hear Victor's ideas.
"To have a reason for Cori to come out to visit the Topaz, naturally. To put the bait on the hook that she swallowed today. Why else? It is well known around George Town that Cori is my medical assistant--or was. Richard Prechter saw Cori last Friday night. He told me so aboard his yacht. I'm sure he was quite taken with her. What man would not be?"
I couldn't fault Victor's reasoning. And I'd known plenty of Marines who had intentionally cut themselves. I'd even done it myself. Years ago, when I was a new guy in Recon and didn't know any better, a gung-ho mustang lieutenant had convinced our entire platoon that we needed to learn how to put in sutures. Ourselves. After a few needle jabs with lidocaine, we all made half-inch scalpel cuts on our upper thighs, and then we stitched them up with one or two sutures. This was done under our Navy corpsman's instruction and observation. Back in my oo-rah days, when I had eagerly embraced The Suck, as we called the Corps.
Jolly Boy Trevor had a different motive to cut himself. He would volunteer to become living Cori bait in order to impress his boss with his loyalty. It would also impress his henchmen, the other crew. They would see firsthand that Trevor wasn't afraid to use his knife. Trevor wasn't afraid of a bad cut, of drawing blood. Not even his own.
The clear lesson: don?t mess with Trevor. It probably impressed Topaz's owner and the rest of the crew, but it didn't impress me. I understood that mentality all too well after my time in the Corps.