Torn map

Castigo Cay: Part Three

Seen through my NOD, the breaking Atlantic waves were bright explosions. On the other side of the sandy point, the lagoon was undulating green Jell-O. I saw a creature zoom by like a glowing torpedo, surrounded by and trailing green sparkles: a shark or a porpoise entering the lagoon through the pass we had just waded. The combination of starlight, glowing water and a night vision device created a show that made me want to stop and stare in awe.

My plan was to patrol northward along the ocean side, just above the surf zone. Then we'd climb the dune hill that formed the spine of Castigo Cay and get into a position where we could conduct surveillance on Topaz. The yacht would occupy most of the dredged basin at the north end of the half-mile-long cay. When I judged the time was right, I'd leave Nick in a good location a few hundred yards from the yacht, proned out beneath cover with my Savage .308 rifle. At that range, using that rifle with its ten-power scope, Nick would be able to provide me with effective covering sniper fire. Three hundred yards was point-blank for that rifle. No holdover. We had a pair of walkie-talkie radios for comms between us, using ear buds.

A lot depended on the lighting on Topaz, and around the little harbor. The sniper rifle's optical scope had an illuminated reticle, but I couldn't attach my PVS-14 to the rifle for true night vision. It just wasn't set up for it, and besides I needed the NOD for my own part of the mission. To be effective on overwatch, Nick would need some light around his potential targets. There would be no moonlight at all tonight. If Topaz was completely unlit, I would have to wait until first light for the final attack, in order to benefit from Nick's long reach and suppressive fire.

The plan was simple. The geography was plain in my mind after studying the Raven UAV video. I would sneak down to the single construction trailer near the dredged basin, check it for occupants, and either restrain or kill anybody I found sleeping inside. I wouldn't know which way that would go until I was there, but I couldn't afford to leave a potential reaction force behind me. If the trailer was empty, that would be best, because I didn't want to hurt any uninvolved parties. But I was going to find Cori and we were both going to get away. That was my bottom line.

When I reached the edge of the little harbor, I'd put on my fins and slowly swim across to Topaz on my back, with just my nose and eyeballs above the water. I would be camouflaged with a palm frond over my face to look like drifting flotsam, in case anyone was looking, which was unlikely after midnight on such a dark night. Then I'd climb up the stern of Topaz, enter the yacht through the open boat garage built into its transom, search the vessel and kill or incapacitate anybody who stood between Cori and me. I'd use the AK-47, the Glock 17 or my Ka-bar knife, depending on what I found as I crept through the yacht. If nobody woke up or got in my way, great. But I was going to get Cori, and I wasn't going to debate with anybody about the finer points of her custodial arrangement.

Nick would be up on the hill with the scoped rifle, my guardian angel in case anybody needed shooting that I couldn't reach with my AK or my Glock. If Topaz was unlit, I would wait until first light to enter the yacht and begin my search. I'd find Cori and release her, and we'd swim across the basin and rejoin Nick. I wanted him to be able to see well enough to distinguish his targets in case we had pursuers, or if anybody was firing at us from Topaz or from near the trailer. I didn't want him shooting Cori or me because he couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys in the dark.

We began to patrol up the eastern side of Castigo Cay, less than a half mile from our target. Nick was a natural at stealthy night movement. I could tell that he had not forgotten what he'd learned in Ranger training and in Afghanistan. We moved from cover to cover taking turns in little bounds. The terrain was sandy and sloping uphill to our left, partly covered in thick boxwood and myrtle. These were almost impossible to patrol through, but would be great for hiding under. Nettles and brambles ripped at our pants. We had to be careful not to fall as we sneaked along the broken boulders and small cliffs just above the surf zone. A broken leg or arm would not help us to accomplish our mission. Any sound that we made was more than covered by the steadily pounding waves.

After a quarter mile I found one of our key reference points gleaned from the Raven's aerial video: a V-shaped pair of palm trees leaning landward, pointing away from a small, rocky peninsula jutting out into the ocean. The wind made their husky fronds clatter as I huddled with Nick and communicated with him using standard military hand and arm signals. Though the surf masked any sound that we might have made, we were professionals and maintained our silence anyway. He signed back his understanding and I turned upslope, weaving a path between the heavy clumps of brush, climbing the loose sand. It brought back a hundred memories of doing the same thing in California, North Carolina and various other locations in the Caribbean and the Middle East. I'd never been on Castigo Cay in my life, but it was already familiar terrain after studying it through the Raven's eye.

Climbing that hill in low-slow gear, crouching and slithering up through the dense vegetation, I almost felt sorry for Richard Prechter and anybody else on this island who was not named Cori Elena Ferratti-Vargas. They just had no idea of what was creeping up over the berm toward them.

Before reaching the saddle-shaped ridgeline, I went down onto my belly, with both long guns slung across my back to keep them out of the sand. I wanted to crawl beneath the boxwood to take my first look at the yacht basin and eliminate even the smallest chance of skylining myself. I snaked under some low brush until the slope leveled out and I could see over to the western side of Castigo Cay.

I looked down at the newly dredged yacht basin.

Topaz wasn't there. I scanned the lagoon between the cays. Nothing! Topaz wasn't anywhere to be seen. Four hundred yards away the basin was empty, and Topaz was gone. And so, I presumed, was Cori. "Oh, shit!" I muttered aloud over the surf noise, and Nick low-crawled up beside me.

"What's the matter?" he whispered, knowing the situation had to be bad for me to blurt out loud so close to our target.

"The goddamn boat's gone, that's what the matter is! We're too late! Topaz is gone!" I hissed.

Lying prone beside me, Nick whispered, "What now?"

Leaning on my elbows, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Several deep breaths. "Well, we're here. We'll wait. Who knows, maybe they left Cori on the island. Maybe she's in that trailer down there, with some of the crew guarding her." Or maybe, I thought, she's just aboard Topaz, drinking champagne and screwing Richard Prechter's brains out on the way back to Miami. Or maybe she's already dead and she's been thrown to the sharks. A million fragmentary thoughts blasted around inside my cranium.

Nick spoke, and I refocused. "Are you going to go down anyway, after midnight like we planned?"

I thought about it. "No. Let's wait for dawn, unless we see some activity. If anybody is on the island, they'll be out-side moving around after daylight. If I go down there now and take anybody out, and Cori's not on the island--then that's just going to make it worse for finding her. Prechter will find out that somebody attacked his island, and he'll be on guard. That'll just make it harder to find her. Maybe impossible. We can't tip our hand."

So we waited, proned out on our bellies below the shrubs. We ate cold rations, sipped water, and waited. At least the steady ocean breeze flowing over the top of the sand ridge kept the mosquitoes and biting gnats away. My Savage bolt-action was set up beside me in position, with a round chambered and four more beneath it in the internal magazine and the bipod's legs extended beneath the barrel. My AK-47 was propped at a low angle against a branch of the boxwood, within easy reach but out of the sand. Both rifles were camouflaged with little pieces of brown netting and green rags to break up their distinctive outlines while we waited.

Nick managed to catch some Z's, but I couldn?t. I made periodic scans of the basin and the surrounding area with my NOD, but nothing changed as the minutes and hours crawled by. In the early pre-dawn Thursday morning, I took off my hockey helmet and put the night tube away in its case. In place of the plastic helmet I put on my floppy boonie hat, matching the one Nick was wearing. Looking around our position in the natural light, I could see that we were in one of the few boxwood thickets that curled up over the sand ridge, most of which was bare to the north and south of us. These hilltop shrubs were the reason we had chosen this spot for our observation post as we'd studied the Raven video.

About ten feet away to the left inside our little stand of boxwood, I spotted something peculiar: a straight-sided length of wood stuck into the ground. It was a yard or so long, like a piece of pallet wood or part of a packing crate. A human hand had placed it there. Sticking into the top end of the wood was a small nail. I crawled over to examine it more closely. The little plank was gray and smooth, like driftwood. Somebody had found it down by the beach, brought it up here, and stuck it into the sand in our little thicket of dry bushes. I pulled it out and crawled back to my position by the sniper rifle.

As it grew lighter, I was able to study the board in more detail. I turned it and detected a pattern on one side of the smooth wood. Suddenly it made sense. The 'pattern' was a few words, words that had been scratched into the wood with the rusty nail. The nail must have been pulled out of the board, to be used as a crude pen. I strained to read the scratchings in the growing light, turning it this way and that.

Letter by letter I deciphered the entire message:

HELP! / Bev. Clifton / kidnpd Nassau

Numbers were scratched after those words; I thought they read Mar 11 or 17, of that year. Nick was lying on his back with his hands folded across his chest and his gear for a pillow, but now he was awake with his eyes open. I showed him the plank. He sat up, read it, and then shook his head slowly. It was a triple confirmation, after his seeing the girl waving her dress and our seeing Cori being dragged inside Topaz yesterday. My final nagging shreds of doubt evaporated. Bev Clifton had probably climbed to this very spot for the same reasons that we had chosen it. It provided both concealment from observation and a good view of the surrounding island in most directions.

Nick studied the plank closely, turning it and examining the nail in particular. "Did you see these hairs? Long blond hairs. After she wrote her message, she must have stuck the nail in the end and twisted the thing around her hair to yank them out."

I saw the hairs and sighed. "That poor girl. She must have known she was doomed. The hair roots were for DNA, maybe. She probably figured she couldn't get away, not once she was up here and she could see how small the island was. She knew she couldn't get away, so all she could do was try to leave a sign, a marker."

Nick said, "You know, I really hate these guys now."

"I'll pack the board; we?ll take it out with us. At least we can let the Cliftons know what happened to their Bev."

A half hour after first light, we saw movement below. A door opened on the end of the trailer toward us, and a bushy-haired man came out wearing only striped boxer shorts. The trailer was less than three hundred yards from our position, so with the ten-power rifle scope I could see that it was the redhead from the beach on Great Exuma, the one who had carried Cori's bags to their white inflatable. He walked a short distance from the trailer, took a piss on the sand, then walked past pallets of construction materials and switched on a diesel generator. Then he went back inside the trailer. A few minutes after that a dark-haired man came out and headed for a blue porta-potty latrine, where he stayed for a few minutes before returning to their housing unit. Unfortunately, he wasn't Jolly Boy Trevor. He was nobody I recognized. Dark hair, long pants, a white jersey with blue sleeves.

The sun finally broke the horizon, but it was still obscured behind a ledge of clouds. A few minutes later came the second sunrise, when the sun emerged fiery orange into the sky. With the sun low behind us, there would be no revealing shine off our lenses. But even with a kill-flash on the end of my scope, I never took the chance. Hidden beneath the boxwood, we were invisible to the men below us, even if they looked directly at our position. Before us, the entire western side of the island was still in deep shadow.

At seven a.m., the ginger reappeared from the trailer, dressed in walking sandals, tan shorts, a green shirt and a ball cap. I studied him through my rifle's ten-power scope. He had a black MP-5 submachine gun on a sling hanging across his chest, and a wide web belt with a canteen on one side and a radio on the other. He walked counterclockwise around the shoreline of the yacht basin, all the way to where the new channel exited into the lagoon separating the four cays. After he chunked a few rocks into the cut, he began hiking clockwise around the top of Castigo Cay, staying close to the water.

The Dawn Patrol. He had probably drawn the short straw, or possibly he just enjoyed beachcombing before the heat grew oppressive. I could have dropped him anytime as I followed him with my crosshair. When he was at the very north end of the island, I lost him from sight behind the ridgeline. The entire island was only a half mile long, so a round trip might take him as little as twenty minutes if he knew the best paths. I whispered a new plan, and Nick smiled in agreement. In a few minutes we saw him again, walking down the beach toward us on the Atlantic side.

We slid back down the slope and found an ambush location along the shore just seaward of our observation post. There was a fifty-yard hollow crescent of beach between rocky outcroppings, with a rugged ten-foot cliff to landward. In some places the gray rocks were almost impassible on foot, and in others small boulders formed convenient steps down to the sand. I guessed that to patrol the shoreline, Red would alternate between hiking along the lip of the cliff, in places where the waves smashed directly against the rocks, and climbing down onto the sand where there was dry beach.

The tide was out, and the surf on this little stretch heaved over and rolled back, leaving a twenty-yard strip of pink coral sand. We crept along the cliff's edge until we reached the north end of the beach. I stationed Nick behind a rock out-cropping shrouded by brush. Then I dropped down onto the sand at the base of the cliff and found a hiding spot in a vertical slot in the rock face. Whether Red stayed above on the rocks or climbed down to the beach, we'd have him either way. I placed both of my rifles and Bev Clifton's wooden stake in a small nook in the rocks beside me. The next phase was going to be better handled unencumbered.

I had a little time to wait, to look around and to remember. In the islands, these micro-beaches are as common as seashells. You could sail in the Bahamas for a thousand years and not see a fraction of them, and every one is as breathtakingly beautiful as any postcard, calendar photo or computer screensaver. Cori and I had walked and swum on dozens of isolated beaches like this one. She was in superb physical condition, from months of swimming, skin diving and windsurfing. Sometimes we found these little beaches while out snorkeling reefs. We would run the Avon up on the sand and have the beach to ourselves for as long as we wanted. We never saw another human footprint on these picnic forays. Cori went topless and sometimes bottomless as well on these secluded beaches, and along with collecting shells and drift-wood, spear fishing and exploring ruins and caves, love-making al fresco would usually be on our itinerary.

Not on this beach, not today. I put Cori out of my mind. A few minutes later Nick made a subtle clicking sound with his tongue, and I knew that Red was on his way. I tucked myself into my little alcove beneath the overhang, waiting. No matter where Red chose to climb down onto this beach, right here or further along, I'd be behind him and I'd have him. I heard his feet crunching along on the rocks before I saw him, and I heard him singing to himself. Up above, some pebbles slipped loose and bounded past me, announcing his arrival. Sideways toward the sea and just a few feet from my hiding place I saw a sandaled foot, toe in toward the cliff, and then two bare legs as he turned to jump the last five feet down onto soft sand.

He landed on all fours, but before he could raise himself I sprang onto his back and drove him face-first into the sand. His green GORP hat came loose and I grabbed a shock of red hair with my left hand, my knees straddled on either side of his back, pinning him down. My big Ka-bar fighting knife was in my right hand, but I didn't need it. He was in too much shock to resist, quivering in mortal fear.

Nick was above me, still up on the rock lip. He called down, "Need any help?"

"Nope, I've got this one," I said. Then I told Red, "Open your eyes and look at this blade. It's sharp enough to shave with. If you move a muscle without me telling you, I'm going to use it to cut your head off. Understand?" He nodded yes, and I slid my Ka-bar back into its sheath on my hip. Then I pulled a green triangular battle-dressing bandana from a leg pocket, stretched it around his eyes, and knotted it tightly in the back. Red was completely helpless, and at my mercy.

"Relax, just go limp," I ordered him, and then I pulled his polo shirt up over his shoulders and off. That done, I zip-tied his hands together behind his back. Zip ties are one of those little things that just naturally like to live on the straps of your combat vest, taking almost no space but always ready for a prisoner. Once his hands were secured I switched my position, sitting on his back facing the other way, pulled up one of his feet and then the other and unfastened his sandals. I tossed them up to Nick.

"Here's the new plan," I told him. "He went for a swim and he didn't come back. Lay it all out so it looks like he got undressed on purpose. Find a place up there that looks like a logical spot for him to leave his stuff." At high tide the surf would be all the way up to the rocks, and his clothes might be washed away before his friends could find them. Already the waves were rolling up to within a few yards. In a little while, our marks in the sand would be erased.

"Got it," Nick replied. "Good plan." I handed up Red's nine-millimeter MP-5 submachine gun, even though I was tempted to take it with me. Next went his web belt with the radio and the canteen. The radio was an ordinary palm-size marine VHF handheld. On such an isolated island it was all they needed for communication. Set on low power it would have enough range to cover the island and not much more.

I took the wallet out of his back pocket and flipped through his ID cards. His name was Archy Mildenhall, and his address was a post office box in North Miami. I replaced the cards in his wallet, put the wallet in his GORP hat, wrapped them both in his shirt, and tossed the bundle up to Nick. Finally, I rolled him on his side, unbuckled his pants belt, unsnapped his khaki cargo shorts, and pulled them down and off his legs, leaving him wearing only his boxers.

The idea was misdirection. If Red just went missing without a trace, there would be the thought that perhaps he had been attacked. After all, he had a radio to call for help and a submachine gun to defend himself. But if everything was left behind in neat piles, it would look as if he had decided to take a swim and had had the terrible misfortune to be caught in a rip current, or meet a shark, or step on something venomous and paralyzing. Maybe the early morning beachcomber had seen something of interest floating just a little way out, and had decided to swim out and retrieve it. The waves rushing over the little beach would soon erase our footprints and any sign of this struggle.

When Nick was finished, he gave a thumbs-up and I waved him down. Once he was on the beach, I asked him to fetch my rifles from their nook. I wanted to stay close by our prisoner and minimize the footprints. When I had my weapons again, I said, "Okay, Archy, we're going for a little stroll." I jerked him up onto his feet by his red hair and dragged him through foamy salt water that was knee deep when the waves rolled all the way in. Nick grabbed a stiff brown palm frond from the beach and whisked away our footprints from the rocks down to the water. We stayed in the wash zone and left no other prints.

Despite our current mission, I couldn't help but appreciate what a spectacular view this side of Castigo Cay presented, with its cliffs and bluffs, palm trees and sand dunes, unique little beaches between rocky points, and everywhere the deep blue Atlantic and the wind-blown surf. What well-connected multi-millionaire privacy freak wouldn't want to dynamite a yacht harbor and build a vacation hideaway here?