I looked again at the megayacht, which still appeared deserted. Then I saw movement on the aft deck, a lemon-colored dot. It hit me like an electric shock--Cori often wore a floppy yellow hat, a wide-brimmed sun hat that could be rolled up for easy packing. It couldn't be a coincidence. She had gone aboard Topaz the day before, and now someone aboard was wearing a big yellow hat. I felt a jolt of recognition, combined with joy at seeing her alive, some fear for her safety, and more than a little jealousy.
Despite my worst fears, Cori wasn't chained up in a brig or being whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails. Far from it. She was walking about, free and easy, on a millionaire's yacht. Well, good for her. I supposed that Richard Prechter had made a side trip to check the status of the projects he was overseeing on "his" island, prior to returning to Miami. He was probably one of the men on the other side of the bluff.
There didn't appear to be anything problematic happening on Castigo Cay, except for some questionable dredging and construction in a marine wildlife sanctuary. But so what? If Richard Prechter had government permission to do it, what business was it of mine? I typed a new command and directed the Raven to descend to only 1,400 feet. This was a little riskier. The drone could be seen, under certain circumstances, but I wanted a better look at the person I believed to be Cori. As the UAV descended in a slow corkscrew spiral, the view of Topaz slowly rotated, showing her from different sides. Cori was wearing her red bikini, the same one she'd worn while I scraped barnacles the day before. This time she was wearing the bikini's high-cut bottom, without the pareo knotted around her hips. She was standing near the end of the aft deck, facing east toward the bluffs. I idly wondered if she was going to take a dip in the jacuzzi while the other crew-members were ashore.
Or perhaps Cori and Prechter were alone on the yacht, and he would shortly be joining her in the hot tub while I watched them from above like a high-flying voyeur. Maybe he had sent his men ashore on some menial task so that he and Cori could have some quality private time together. I hoped not, and my jealous anger spiked again. I tried to reconcile the placid scene unfolding below me with Nick's story of seeing a girl running along the top of the bluff waving her dress over her head. I wondered what Victor and Nick were thinking as they leaned in to stare at the screen on my lap. I was sure that Victor recognized the yellow dot that was Cori's sun hat, but he said nothing.
Then two other men appeared from beneath the overhanging roof at the forward end of the aft deck. The men split apart and approached Cori from both sides. She backed away and was soon in a corner against the fantail's railing. One man lunged for her and she slid away, but by then the other one was behind her. He seized her around her waist and lifted her up, thrashing and kicking. In the melee, her yellow hat flew away and landed in the water behind the boat.
The second man worked in close, avoiding her kicks, and suddenly grabbed her legs around the knees, clamping them together. Then she was lifted up and carried forward along Topaz's aft deck until she disappeared inside, beneath the super deck. The images on the screen were miniscule and I couldn't see her face, but after living with her for six months, her probable facial expressions were clear in my mind. In my imagination, I could even hear her screams of fear and outrage. Cori had just been assaulted, grabbed, tackled, and bodily dragged away by two men! My emotions switched from jealousy to complete fury in seconds.
Cori must not have had permission to wander around the exterior decks by herself. Perhaps this strict policy was the result of an escape attempt by the girl that Nick had seen two weeks earlier? Perhaps Nick's girl slipped over the side and swam the short distance to shore before making a run for it? Perhaps Cori had been locked in a room inside the yacht but had managed to escape temporarily. Or perhaps she had simply violated a warning not to go outside on deck. I had no way to know exactly why what happened had happened, but I had seen her forcibly dragged back inside the yacht by two men. Of that I had no doubt.
The Raven had twelve minutes more battery time, but I saw no reason to continue the surveillance. I had confirmed that Cori was aboard Topaz and under physical duress. That was all I needed to know. I punched in the return-to-base command and redirected the drone to fly to our new position, now west of the Castigos. Tran and Victor hauled the recovery net up between the two masts, above the inflatable and the foresail boom.
Once the inbound UAV was in visual range, I handed Victor the ground unit and he took over manual flight control. He flew the drone downwind of us to our starboard side, executed a racetrack turn while dropping its altitude, and brought it straight in to us. The Raven flew thirty feet above our heads between the two masts like a field goal splitting the uprights. It became entangled in the loose netting, the propeller and the motor stopped, and we lowered it to the deck.
I had seen Cori aboard Topaz, under physical coercion by two male crewmembers. I had seen four other men ashore. The temptation was strong to turn Rebel Yell toward the Castigos, launch my Avon, and go in with guns blazing.
But I didn't. The geography of the Castigos would not permit a daylight attack without our being seen. It wouldn't work, I thought, so I stuck to my evolving plan. We kept on course and sailed past the cays, just another sailboat on an inter-island trip.
In the pilothouse, my passive Collision Avoidance Radar Detector system was chirping away, so I knew that their surface search radar was turning and burning. As long as our radar blip was progressing on a straight line between San Salvador and Mayaguana Island, now sixty miles to our southeast, any Topaz crewmember keeping radar watch would not pay us any heed.
We sailed onward, and when we were miles over the horizon from Castigo Cay and beyond their radar range, we turned slightly to starboard. This course adjustment took us toward our assault anchorage twenty miles past the Castigos, on the northeast corner of Acklins Island. My crew, plus Nick Galloway, sat in the pilothouse and studied the video after transferring it to my laptop. With each viewing we noticed more details, and we gradually formulated a flexible mission plan with several contingency options.
I wanted to go in after dark, with the element of surprise. Nick and I would go in tactically, heavily armed and on my terms, while Prechter and the Topaz crewmen were sleeping. It would be stupid to go blundering in half-cocked in broad daylight. We would return at night.
We made visual landfall of the northeast corner of Acklins Island just after five p.m. When we were about a mile out, we cranked up the diesel, headed into the wind, and doused all four sails. I'd visited Atwood Harbour before, and I had already loaded my old waypoints into Rebel Yell's GPS chart plotter. This allowed me to find the pass in the outer reef, with waves breaking over submerged coral only twenty yards off each side of our bow.
I steered by hand back in the cockpit, while Tran stood on the bow reading the water depths by eye and watching for coral heads. I made small steering adjustments based on his arm signals. Once past the reef, we motored into calm water and set the hook in twelve feet of clear water over sand.
Atwood Harbour had room for a dozen or more boats inside the sweep of its curving beach, but Rebel Yell had it to all to herself. No Bahamians lived in this isolated corner of Acklins Island. We were alone. The anchorage had storm protection from every direction except the northwest, but "Northers" were a wintertime phenomenon. In the prevailing summer trades from the southeast, Atwood Harbour was as calm as a pond. Normally this would be a time for relaxing after a good overnight offshore sail, but not tonight. Tonight we were going operational. Tran had already prepared a fish and rice stew, and we ate in the cockpit and the pilothouse, with bowls on our laps.
After dinner we watched the UAV video several more times on my laptop and laid our paper charts out on the pilot-house table. Victor hand-copied a larger chart of the Castigos, updating it with what we had seen from overhead.
As a former Army Ranger, Nick Galloway was accustomed to using surveillance video taken from drones in mission planning. Maps, charts, aerial imagery, radios and rifles: I could see that he was comfortable in this world. So far, I had no reason to regret inviting him aboard for the operation.
The seas between the Castigos and Acklins Island had not been bad, just long swells and almost no whitecaps. The radio forecast called for the easy summer trade winds to continue for a few more days at least. I decided to take my sixteen-foot Avon directly from Atwood Harbour across the twenty open-ocean miles to the Castigos. In the prevailing conditions, the rigid-hulled inflatable could make the trip in an hour or a little more. GPS made navigation simple, and the inflatable would be invisible to the surface radar turning atop Topaz. With Rebel Yell safely at anchor instead of directly participating in the mission, a major worry was removed from my mind. The Castigos had a deservedly bad reputation for snaring vessels on her reefs. And when I engage in risky business, I prefer my floating home to be safely out of the line of fire.
The planning complete, it was time to break out the gear. This was going to be a recon mission and then a rescue. We were not going to take body armor, but we were taking almost everything else. I wondered about the wisdom of leaving body armor out of the inventory. I didn't want the weight and bulk of armor for what was essentially a maritime operation. Drowning would kill you as dead as a bullet.
Anyway, I was never much for going places where full battle rattle was the uniform of the day. There tended to be too much metal in the air to be healthy. Stealth and concealment were more my style. Hit 'em where they ain't expecting it. In and out. Insertion and extraction. Go light and go fast.
Most of Castigo Cay was open sand, or sand beneath scrubby bushes and palms, so we both wore sets of my old USMC desert digital camouflage uniforms, with the eagle, globe and anchor of the Marine Corps embossed on the left pocket. I laughed about the Army Ranger becoming an honorary jarhead, and Nick laughed too. Nervous laughter, but what the hell.
We left after sunset. The handheld GPS fit into a bracket on the Avon's plywood console. Our weapons and other gear were stowed in whitewater rafting bags and lashed to rings on the sides and front of the Avon?s center console. We ran without any lights showing on the inflatable.
My single-tube PVS-14 NOD gave me night vision in my left eye. I had put a flip-up mount for it on a hockey helmet that I had painted a flat brown. The modified hockey helmet was much lighter than a military K-pot, and added flotation in water instead of dead weight. The NOD had no magnification, for the widest field of view. I turned the gain down to give me just enough light to see the ocean. This way I retained some binocular vision with my night-adapted right eye.
Once offshore, I found the best speed for the waves: about fifteen knots, almost twenty miles an hour. Nick and I both stood behind the center console, using our knees to absorb the pounding. We wore cheap green rain slickers to ward off some of the spray, but we expected to get soaking wet and we did, despite the short Plexiglas windscreen at the front of the console. I stood on the right side to steer and control the throttle; Nick was to my left, hanging onto the grab bar. The compass and VHF radio were on his side of the console.
You couldn't sit when occasionally flying off waves and slamming back down. Twenty miles an hour doesn't sound like much--unless you are in a sixteen-foot inflatable on the ocean crossing a moderate swell. At night, with only starlight for illumination, and night vision in only one eye. It was harder for Nick, who couldn't see the waves and couldn't predict the next jolt.
We could see the electronic outline of the Castigos on the GPS's screen. I slowed down when we were a mile south of the small mangrove island that was our initial destination. The NOD allowed me to find the channel between the mangrove island and the long sand bar to its west. I pushed the console's toggle switch and raised the outboard motor until the prop was barely submerged, but we still churned up some sand.
We proceeded up the side of the overhanging mangrove jungle, feeling our way along and looking for an opening into the trees. The seventy-horse Evinrude was just idling; it was quieter than the sounds of the surf and the trade wind blowing through the mangroves. After a few minutes and more bumps and scrapes, I killed the motor and raised the prop all the way out of the water. I used a pole I kept on the boat to move us along in the shallows while I studied the jungle close by our right side.
We were almost at the top of the island when I found a creek opening. Beneath the mangrove branches was an unbroken wall of blackness to the unaided human eye, but it was a world of subtle shadows in my green left eye. The creek was about ten feet wide at its mouth, with branches merging overhead to almost block out the stars. These hidden creeks are one of the reasons I love mangroves. You can take an inflatable inside of mangroves and it will disappear completely from any possible observation.
The other thing I appreciate about mangrove swamps is that practically everybody else absolutely loathes and fears them, particularly at night. They are a snake- and insect-filled hell, with tightly spaced trees over a labyrinth of roots extending in all directions in an intertwined lattice. These thousands of root arches support the trees in the tidal zone. Walking through a mangrove forest--or swamp, if you prefer--is nearly impossible. You have to place your feet on thin, slippery roots that are either in the air or in the water, depending on the height of the tide. If it is extremely difficult going for a former Marine like me, it's virtually impossible for just about anybody else. The hidden creeks really make the only passable inroads through them.
We tied the Avon between trees and suited up in our combat gear. I broke a single green chem-lite; otherwise, Nick would not have been able to see even the hands in front of his face. I left the chem-lite on the boat, in case my night vision device malfunctioned later. It would help us find the boat in the blackness if we had to return later tonight using only our unassisted eyes instead of my NOD.
One final touch was applying streaks of green and tan camouflage greasepaint to our faces and hands, squeezing it from the tubes and smearing it on by feel. I hadn't wanted to make the open ocean run from Acklins Island to Castigo Cay in camo face paint. If we needed to abort the mission, or if another vessel approached and put a spotlight on us, I wanted us to look as innocuous as possible. Nobody in camo face paint was up to any good, that was a given.
I carried my scoped bolt-action rifle slung over my back and the AK-47 on another sling hanging in front so that it was at the ready. Nick took the folding-stock pump shotgun, also with a sling to carry its weight and keep his hands free. I had my full-size Glock in a leg holster, and Nick had his .357 in another. Both of us carried plenty of ammo. We wore combat vests with ammo magazines and pouches, and lightweight boots to protect our feet. Under the tactical vests were green military inflatable vests, in case we fell into a deep hole while wading through the shallows. If we needed to swim, we had dive fins that would fit over our boots, with extra-long straps to secure them behind our ankles. For now, the fins were attached to our vests in the back, within reach.
When we were ready, we slipped from the Avon into the warm, hip-deep water of the mangrove creek, with me in front taking point. If Nick was going to have a problem, this would be the time. But he didn't; he stuck to me like a shadow, his fingertips brushing my shoulder. The chem-lite behind us provided enough illumination for my NOD as we waded through the water and muck. Looking out from the creek's mouth, I could see the water of the lagoon glowing in my NOD, the reflected light of individual stars making a pattern of bright green points on its surface.
After leaving the hidden creek, I stayed near the mangroves, keeping the lagoon to our left. It was slow going at first, with the muck trying to suck my boots off. At least it wasn't pluff mud, like back in South Carolina around Parris Island. If it had been that kind of quicksand muck, we'd have had to swim over it in the yard of salt water on top. You could sink up to your hips in that oozy stuff, effectively trapping you. Fortunately, this bottom felt more like wet cement. Our boots sank in only a few inches, and we were able to churn through it.
At the north end of the mangrove island we paused while I studied the narrow ocean cut separating us from the southern tip of Castigo Cay. This pass was a twenty-foot-wide inlet, with a strong tide running into the lagoon between the two isles. In the bright green world of my PVS-14, the flowing salt water, full of living bioluminescence, looked like something from a sci-fi movie. Like the star points reflecting off the glowing translucent water of the calm lagoon, it was a scene that probably not one in a million humans had ever viewed or even imagined. In a strange and perhaps misplaced way, I felt fortunate to be there, just to experience the other-worldly uniqueness of it.
We had studied the aerial video from the Raven UAV carefully, and I surmised that the inlet was scoured sand on the bottom and no more than a few feet deep. I stared at Nick with my bright left eye. I could see him clearly, but I knew that with only starlight for illumination, I was just a dark shadow to him. As we had planned, he hooked his left fingers into the back of my vest and we started across.
The current was very strong, maybe three or four knots racing against our legs to the left, and difficult to walk against. If I stepped into a deep hole, we'd go over and be swept into the lagoon. This didn't worry me much, because everything on us was waterproof and we had our inflatable vests and fins just in case. It would be an inconvenience, nothing more--unless Nick panicked. But we kept our feet under us, forded the race, climbed the sandy bank on the opposite side, and we were on Castigo Cay.