We hauled Archy along in the surf zone until we reached the inlet between Castigo Cay and the mangrove island. The tide was low and the pass was shallower than before. Archy, of course, had no idea of what was happening to him as he stumbled along through the water. My goal was to get him into the mangroves before his partner or partners missed him and came looking. We made it into our creek and found the Avon in short order. When we passed our waiting inflatable, I unslung my rifles and slipped them into the boat. I didn't need them for what was coming next. They would just get in my way and be coated with muck. I dragged Archy farther up the creek. It was fully daylight by now, but still very dim and gloomy beneath the thick canopy of mangrove branches and leaves.
There were a few feet of water between the mud and the mangrove trunks, but the tidal currents made weird channels and in many places the black mud was higher than the salt water. In these elevated areas were hundreds of baseball-size holes in the mud, randomly spaced just inches apart from each other. As we approached, crabs scuttled into their burrows, then re-emerged clicking and dripping after we passed. These ugly lopsided crabs had one tiny claw and one nearly the size of a Maine lobster's. Land crabs are voracious carrion eaters, prone to cannibalism if nothing else floats in on the tide.
Around a bend in the creek I found what I was looking for, a perfect corral for our prisoner. It was a mangrove tree a little apart from the others, with seven or eight roots joining into a single trunk about a foot above the salt water. The gently curved roots were the diameter of broomsticks, or perhaps a little thicker. I grabbed Archy by his thick red hair and shoved him underwater, forcing him down between two of the outward-arching roots. He came up gasping, sputtering and choking for breath, directly beneath the mangrove tree.
In a pouch on my combat vest I kept a fifty-foot wad of green parachute cord smaller than a plum. It had a hundred uses in the field, especially in jungle settings like this. I cut off a few feet with my knife, made a slipknot noose, dropped it over my prisoner's head, and secured it around his neck. Then I took the other end of the nylon cord and tied it around the mangrove trunk over his head and above the waterline. Roots extended out and down into the salt water in all directions around him, like cell bars. He would have to go underwater again to find a place where the roots were spread far enough apart for him to escape, but now that he was tied with the parachute cord, he couldn't lower himself enough to get out of his living prison.
Once he was secured, I pulled the wet green bandana blindfold off his face and let his surroundings sink in. It might have been more frightening to him if it had been nighttime, perhaps with a few candles placed on mangrove roots for effect. But at night he would not have been able to see the hundreds of land crabs, clicking and dripping and studying him very carefully with their beady black eyeballs on little stalks.
He was still paralyzed and incoherent with fear, so I needed to loosen him up a little.
I grinned at him and said, "Good morning, Archy. And how's your day been so far?"
"W-who are you p-people?" he said with an English accent. Or maybe it was Scottish, or even Irish; I'm not too good at guessing British accents. Especially not when the talker is blubbering in sheer terror while sitting in water up to his chin, looking out through a lattice of mangrove roots, with a paracord noose tied around his neck.
"We're friends of Cori Vargas. So, Archy--how is Cori?"
His eyes rolled, staring up at my camo-painted face, and then he looked past me to Nick, who still held onto his pump-action shotgun. Archy was trying to find some point of reference, something familiar and comforting to hold onto. There was nothing. For the first time, I was able to study him closely. He was older than me, maybe forty, and had close-set blue eyes paler than mine, a bent nose, acne scars, and crook-ed yellow teeth.
At last he found his voice and stammered, "This can't... you can't... no, no, there's no way?"
"Come on, Archy, wake up and smell the coffee." Actually, it stunk like rotten eggs in the mangrove swamp. "We are, and we can, because we're United States federal agents." Of course that was a lie, but real federal agents lied all the time too. "We can do anything we want. But that's not important. What's important is the level of your nose, and the level of the tide. Do you see that scum line on all the man-grove trunks? That's where the waterline is going to be. Which means you'll need a snorkel pretty soon--but Archy, I don't see any snorkels. So today's program is 'Make the men with the green faces very happy, so they will want to keep me alive, so that I can testify in federal court in Miami.' That's the program today. Do you understand?"
Archy just stared at me openmouthed, so I splashed some salt water right in that wide-eyed, gaping face. "Do. You. Understand," I repeated.
He nodded his head rapidly. "I-I un-und-understand."
"Good. Think of this as an informal preliminary deposition. Here's what we?ll do. I'll think of questions to ask you, and you'll think of the best answers. The answers that will make me happy are the truthful answers. Okay? And remember, we don't have all day. Or at least... you don't."
"O-okay," he stuttered, still looking all around him but seeing nothing but two green-faced monsters and a maze of mangrove roots in every direction.
And hundreds of crabs.
I squatted down in the muck with salt water up to my shoulders, so that we could see each other face-to-face. "Good. Now, tell me all about Cori Vargas, the girl you picked up at George Town Monday. How is she? And don't even think about lying. Not even for one second."
"Well, she...she's okay, I suppose. That's, that's not my... my...department."
"Has anybody hurt her?"
He hesitated before answering. "No, no, I wouldn't think so."
I switched gears, to keep him off balance. "Why are you on the island today, instead of on Topaz with the rest of the crew?"
"Why what? Oh, well, I'm staying here until the LCU comes. The big landing craft, with some workers and more equipment. I'm really a construction foreman."
"When is the LCU coming?"
"Should be next Tuesday.
"How many are on the island right now?"
"Just two of us. Me and Eddie. Eddie Medina."
"How do you communicate with Topaz?"
"Satcom and single sideband."
Switch gears. "What about the girls?"
"Girls? That's not my department."
"You said that already. So whose department is it, then? Trevor's?"
"Y-you know Trevor Ridley?" Archy seemed shocked to hear Trevor's first name, and offered his last name without even being asked.
"Sure, we know him. So, are the girls his department?"
"Yeah, that's right. Trevor, and Mr. Prechter. Not me!"
"So, Archy, where is Topaz right now?"
"Yes, right now. Is the water getting in your ears?" The tide was coming in fast, flowing through the mangrove roots. The top of Archy's head was pressed up against the bottom of the trunk. The water level was at his chin.
"Topaz is going back to Miami. Mr. Prechter has a mansion there, on Hibiscus Isle. He has his own private dock."
"Good answer. Now we're getting somewhere. How long does it take Topaz to get to Miami?"
"How long? Oh, twelve hours with good water, not too rough. That's at top speed, thirty knots. They left at eight last night," he offered without being asked.
"How many crew are on Topaz, besides Prechter?"
"Trevor Ridley runs the boat. He's the captain. Then there's the engineer, Milan Vuko...Vukojebina. He's Serbian. Andre is the chef, he's Belgian."
"I never heard it."
"That's the whole crew?"
"Right, that's the lot. I do whatever they ask me to when I'm on board, but I'm not really part of the crew. I'm not."
A full-time crew of three was typical for a modern yacht the size of Topaz. Time to change gears again, or rather, to toss a monkey wrench into the gears of Archy's mind. "So, what happened to Bev Clifton? The blond girl, last March."
His blue eyes opened big as saucers and his mouth hung open, so I splashed him again and left him sputtering.
"Bev Clifton!" I repeated. "What happened to her?"
"Y-you know about B-Beverly Clifton? How in bloody hell do you know about her?"
"We know everything, Archy. We just want to know what you know. To see if you're telling us the truth. To see if you're worth arresting, to bring to federal court in Miami to testify against your boss. Next question: What does Richard Prechter do with the girls? Tell me the truth, or we'll leave you here for the crabs. What about the girls, Archy?"
"Mr. Prechter is crazy; he's mad, mad! Crazy!"
"So, what does he do with the girls? Tell me everything!"
"He messes with their heads, he does! It's his hobby...well, one of them, anyway. Mr. Prechter has lots of hobbies."
"I'm not interested in his other hobbies, Archy, only the girls. What does he do with the girls?"
"He seduces them if he can, and then he hurts 'em and humiliates 'em. It's all a bloody game to him. He calls them his 'lovely lab rats.' He cuts off their hair, and sometimes he brands them with a hot iron. Sometimes he lets them go on the island and he chases them, if he thinks they'll make good runners. He's a bleedin' marathoner, he is. He lets them escape--at least, that's what they think. Then he chases them down, and the longer it takes to catch 'em, the better he likes it. Richard Prechter is a great one for sport, oh yes he is!"
"Sport? That?s what you call it?"
"No, not me, that's what he calls it. I call it bloody mad!"
"But you didn't leave, did you, Archy? And you didn't report it. So he pays you well, doesn't he?"
"Too right he does, but it's more than that. We can't leave because he has something on all of us. It's blackmail!" Archy was trying to push himself up, to jam his nose and mouth between the highest root junctions as the water swirled in around him.
"What does Prechter do with the girls, when he's finished chasing them?"
"He likes to 'tame' them, his word--that's his favorite hobby. He likes the girls with lots of spirit, lots of fight. After he catches them, he likes to tame them and gentle them down. Take all the fight out of 'em."
"And after he 'tames' them, what does he do with them?"
"That's the thing. After he tames 'em, he has no more use for 'em." Archy had to struggle to lift his lips and nose above the rising water. It was horrible to watch him fight for breath, but not as horrible as the story he was telling.
"So, Archy, what does he do with them after he tames them?" The water subsided slightly.
"He gives them to us, once they're tamed! He lets us have a go with them, any way we like. Mr. Prechter, he likes to see that they'll do anything with anybody, like a trained donkey. Do anything with anybody, on his say-so! And that's how he blackmailed us--they took bloody movies!"
I wanted to choke him with my hands, but he was already choking as the salt water rolled back over his face. Archy was a participant, not an innocent party. "What happens to the girls after that? What happens?"
He had to wait for a long surge of water to drop. "After? After, I don't know for sure. I think Trevor takes them out in the tender and gives them the deep blue goodbye."
"Alive or dead?"
"I dunno. I never went along when he took them out."
I was already beyond disgusted, moving into a rage, but I pressed on. "So, where do you think Cori Vargas is right now? If they're going into Miami, what about customs and immigration? How will Prechter deal with it?"
"Oh, that's no problem, believe you me. First, nobody mucks about with Richard Bloody Prechter. He has your Yank politicians in his pocket. And second, he has a clever little place under his main stateroom floor where he keeps his girls. All soundproofed, so customs and immigration would never know about them anyway, even if they came aboard to inspect--which they never do."
"And just how would you know that, if the girls aren't your department?"
"Because I built it my own bleedin' self, that's how I know! By myself, with no help, and all in secret. I had to build it, on Mr. Prechter's orders. I was black ..."
"Blackmailed. I know." I sighed. I felt as if I knew too much already, but I wanted to wring him out completely.
His face was now pushed all the way up against the bottom of the mangrove trunk, his lips and nose searching for the highest gap between the roots. A hundred acres of mangroves dampened the ocean waves but didn't completely eliminate the surge. The water was going up and down several inches, but the crests were getting progressively higher. "I told you every bleedin' thing, Cap'n! Every bleedin' thing!" The sea rolled in again, and he had to hold his breath until it subsided. "Please, for the love of God, cut this rope and pull me out!"
"Just one more thing. Where will Richard Prechter take Topaz next? Will he stay in Miami, or come back here?"
"I don't know, Cap'n! Maybe he'll come back here with the girl, if she's a good strong runner with lots of fight in her. Maybe not. But... I did hear something. He went to Miami because he's givin' a speech tomorrow. At a convention in Miami Beach. After that, I don't know. Maybe back here, maybe somewhere else. He don't inform me!" Some water went down his windpipe, and after he coughed and choked he said, "For the love of God, please ..."
Another big surge washed over his face, and he held his breath again. The salt water above the mud was clear, and I could see his pinched face while he waited for the air to return.
As soon as the surge passed, he gasped and called out, "I can't breathe, Cap'n, and I can't testify in court if I can't breathe! You're going to take me out now, like you said?"
I thought about it for a few seconds. Archy wasn't just a mere construction foreman. He had raped Richard Prechter's beaten-down discards after he'd helped to lure them aboard Topaz, the way he had done with Cori, carrying her bags with a knowing leer on his face. He'd even built a secret compartment to hide these girls. And he was trusted to carry a submachine gun while guarding Castigo Cay.
My sympathy meter read zero.
"Sure I will, Arch. Sure I will." But I was too furious to cut him loose. He'd picked a bad morning for beachcombing.
I stood up in the muck, turned my back on him, and waded down the channel to our boat, with Nick right behind me. After we climbed over the side tubes he said, "Dan, you know you're a coldhearted son of a bitch. But I'd have done the same thing. It made me sick, listening to him." Behind us we could hear Archy screaming, then gurgling and hacking, then screaming again, each scream progressively weaker. By the time we had untied the Avon and begun to drag it back out of the creek, he wasn't screaming anymore.
Hundreds of crabs would strip him to a skeleton within a few hours. With their powerful cutting claws, they would even attack his ligaments, leaving just bones to be scattered by the tide. There would be only a short piece of dangling green paracord to mark his passing from the world above the water to the world below.
I poled the Avon along the lagoon side of the mangrove island until we were in water deep enough to lower the engine, and then I fired her up. We left on a southerly heading, to mask ourselves behind the mangroves from the sight of anybody on Castigo Cay. We stripped off our combat gear and took turns with a little tube of makeup remover. We used the green bandana that had been Archy's blindfold to wipe the camo paint off our faces.
When we were a few miles from the Castigos and they were diminishing behind us on the horizon, I used the Avon's console-mounted VHF radio to call Rebel Yell, using a brevity code on channel 71. In the Bahamas, VHF radios were universally used as a free wireless phone service both at sea and ashore. I just said, "Henry, you dere, mon? De snapper be bitin' good here, mon, de snapper be bitin' real good here."
Each choice of fish species conveyed a different message. It was a long range for VHF, but Rebel Yell's whip antenna was mounted at the masthead, sixty feet up her mainmast. I hoped the radio static would take the edges off my bogus Bahamian accent. I heard Rebel Yell's confirmation reply, three evenly spaced breaks of squelch, and I pushed the throttle forward. In just a minute or two, Victor would call Harry Allan on the single sideband.
The seas were angling behind us on our return trip, and I was able to maintain better than twenty-five bone-jarring knots, half of the time airborne. I was in a big hurry to catch an airplane. Very soon, my chartered Cessna would take off from George Town for the 120-mile flight to the northeast corner of Acklins Island, where it would land on a dirt road. Then I would have a low and slow 350-mile flight over the breadth of the Bahamas to Bimini, just fifty miles across the Gulf Stream from Miami.
I didn't even have a boat lined up to get me into Florida, and it all had to happen today and tonight, in order for me to get to Miami before the end of Richard Prechter's speech tomorrow, when Topaz--and Cori--might be lost from my radar forever. I nudged the little silver skull atop the throttle ahead some more, and grabbed the wheel with both hands.
Salt spray flew back on each impact of the inflatable's fiberglass hull against the warm blue water. Nick Galloway was hanging onto the grab bar on his side of the console with his left hand, and he slapped me on the back and nodded his head at me. He was grinning like a maniac, with his wet hair plastered back and salt water streaming off his long mustache. I'm sure that I grinned like a maniac right back at him.
By now, Archy was drowned and dead, and becoming a feast for crabs. Cori, I didn't know about, but I hoped that she was still okay and would remain so until I could reach her. Richard Prechter and Trevor Ridley, they were going to pay, and pay dearly, even worse than Archy had paid. They were dead men walking, even in Miami.
And I was alive, man, I was alive!
(These three excerpts are only the first 117 out of the 537 pages in the printed version of Castigo Cay.)