For those who would like to follow the action on a map, here's a link to google maps, centered on Geraldton, which can also be moved and zoomed to show other areas mentioned.
Bridget studied the GPS for a few moments more, and made her decision. She took a deep breath. “We know that Basingstoke has told them a great deal, however he could not tell them what he does not know; the names we are traveling under. He knows there are two of us, so we shall fly out separately and meet in Santiago. I trust you did not mention our air route here to him?”
Billy shook his head vigorously. “No, I didn’t tell him anything.” Billy hoped that the fact he’d referred to her as ‘Mrs. B’ to Basingstoke didn’t matter now – he knew they were looking for her by her full name, courtesy of Rachel.
“Then we ought to have little trouble, though it would be best that we ensure that Basingstoke does not succumb to the temptation to talk too much, assuming that he is in custody – something that we need to confirm,” Bridget said, raising her hand to caress her shaven head. She was dressed in some of Billy’s clothes and felt confident that she looked like a cancer patient. “For appearances’ sake we shall need to fly economy class, but life is not without its trials,” she said, with an air of disdain. “This mission has been quite a disaster, has it not?” she asked rhetorically, with a merry smile on her face. Her mood darkened again as she studied the GPS, and added, “Our situation is rather dire. The authorities will surely be closely watching the airport in Perth, and we must assume that Mr. Basingstoke disclosed our train journey, so that option may be under observation as well. Unfortunately, there are only two paved roads out of Western Australia, and surely the authorities are watching them. We have several options, but most are precluded by time: I cannot tarry, for I have a meeting I must attend. It is therefore time to enter the lion’s den: we shall fly from Perth.”
Half an hour later, Bridget spotted a convenient payphone, and had Billy pull in beside it. She found it broken, so they had to continue on their way for another fifteen minutes, to a gas station. There, Bridget found a working payphone, and went to use it while Billy filled their car.
In his usual Melbourne bar, a bouncer answered the special phone Gray had him carry. It was a line used for some of Gray’s illicit business; a deniable means of contact.
When the bouncer answered, he heard a soft, formal, American voice on the line say, “Hello, I should like to speak to Gray, please. I was told to say Echidna.”
The bouncer acknowledged the recognition word – one of several Gray used – with a grunt. “Hold,” he said tersely.
He glanced across the smoky barroom at Gray, who was seated in his usual booth. He walked up and said quietly, “American on the line, used a recognition word.”
Gray gave the phone a suspicious glance, and then took it. “What do you want with Gray?” he asked.
Bridget, reacting to the new voice on the line, said, “A mutual acquaintance, Bassy, asked me to give you a call in case of an emergency. He said to tell you that I am one of the goons he was working with. He said he’d owe you a beer – a Mountain Goat Surefoot Stout. He asked me to tell you to contact his lawyer. I’m afraid there are signs that he’s been arrested.”
Gray had a strong hunch as to who the woman on the other end of the line was; Basingstoke had mentioned her in his final call to him, including her dignified, formal manner. Gray had been keeping an eye on the news, and was thus well aware of the blasts in Geraldton – for which he’d unwittingly provided the electronics. The bombings had made Gray both furious and afraid; Basingstoke had told him that the bombs were for boats. Blowing up a police station however had generated a level of official response far greater, as well as leaving behind more evidence due to being on land instead of in the water, thereby putting Gray in grave danger. He was also aware that Basingstoke’s lawyer – a man who specialized in their sort of potential problems – had been contacted by the authorities to relay that Basingstoke was in custody and requesting him. What bothered Gray the most was that whoever it was on the other end of the line seemed to know a great deal about him. He was aware that it could be a trap by the authorities, so he hedged. “I can pass on that information if I see the person you asked for, but I’m not inclined to get involved with anything illegal.”
“I ask nothing of the sort, though you can verify me via Mr. Basingstoke’s associates – he was contacted by my superiors on their reference. I am currently the subject of the manhunt in Western Australia.”
Gray was becoming angry: Basingstoke had given his contact information out without his approval, and he knew who the fugitive was: her name was all over the news. Now, she had his contact information, which placed him in peril. “I suppose you’re seeking help getting away. I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong number.”
“Not at all, for I am already in India,” she lied, just to be safe. “I merely call for two things. One is to warn you that some things previously known only to Basingstoke and myself are now known by the authorities. The other is that I need to confirm that Basingstoke has been taken into custody – though I cannot imagine how else they might know some of what they do. Can you at least confirm that he has been arrested, should you happen to know?”
Gray ground his teeth for a moment. “I’ve heard that he has, though that’s all I’ll say on the matter.”
“Thank you. When he sold me your contact information, I had hoped that it should never be needed, though now I am most grateful that he made the offer. He mentioned that you and he are in the same line of work, and he does seem to talk a great deal. If you could, should the opportunity arise, persuade him to hold his tongue, I would be most appreciative. Oh, and on an entirely separate matter, I have not yet paid him for your contact information, nor am I likely to see him again. Perhaps, if you would be so kind, I could send you the fifty thousand American dollars, so that you can see that he gets what is due to him? I can send it via the cartel’s contact in Melbourne, should that be agreeable to you… assuming, of course, that Bassy’s future situation does not preclude it.”
Gray could read between the lines, and realized that he’d just been made an offer, one that no one could ever prove. It was a large sum, and for something he’d already decided to do anyway. “Very agreeable; I’ll pass that on,” he replied.
“Have a nice day,” Bridget said, and then hung up.
“Bloody hell,” Gray mumbled, setting the phone down. He sighed, and then phoned the lawyer, catching him en route to Melbourne Airport.
In Fremantle, the Australian authorities pored over the latest report from the satellite phone company; the phone they were tracking was somewhere north of Mount Magnet, within a hundred miles of town. This fit with their current data; the target was assumed to be northbound on the Great Northern Highway.
The reports were infrequent; the phone could not be tracked in real time – not by satellite. However, there was another way; the Customs and Border Patrol Service had ordered the Bombardier to Perth, where they had put a signal tracker aboard. The Bombardier would soon take to the skies, and once within line of sight of the target, would give them a precise real time bearing to it, allowing for a very precise fix via triangulation.
Fowler, already heading north in Atlantis with five officers, followed the updates with apprehension.
The authorities considered the Onslow rendezvous to be their best lead, though they were not naive; they did not focus on it to the exclusion of all else. They had investigated car rentals in Geraldton: they already knew that the car bomb at the police station had been a local rental. They also had the make, model, color, and license plate of a second vehicle, rented by a similar-appearing youngish male. A check of the Canadian driver’s license information taken by the rental company had come back negative; it was not a valid license. Unfortunately, the picture on the photocopy was little more than a silhouette, and thus useless for their purposes.
They had cast their net wide, pouring in considerable manpower. They were watching the two paved roads out of the state, as well as airports and air charter agencies – they even contacted boat rental agencies with Bridget’s description.
For Trevor and Shane, safe in Fleet Base West, it was a time of stressful waiting. The tension was palpable, made worse with every call Trevor made to the Geraldton hospital and to Fowler aboard Atlantis.
For Trevor, it was as if he’d been once again reduced to a bystander in his own life; unable to do anything, only wait, and hope. A gnawing dread that the ordeal was not over hung heavy, and they both wanted to head for Geraldton to see Rachel, who was recovering, though still in guarded condition.
A steady stream of investigators had come and gone. The authorities had the laptop, along with one of the spear guns and the Makarov pistol they’d taken. Trevor fretted about that. Snuggled next to Shane in bed, he said, “They won’t give us a timeframe for getting the computer back – or the spear gun. What if they won’t give it back?”
Shane shrugged. “The spear gun or the computer? We can easily get another spear gun, and we do have a spare powerhead, which would bring us back up to two.”
“Don’t tell the police that – they might decide to confiscate them,” Trevor said, in a dark tone. He then sighed, and added, “What about the novel? All the files were on the computer. We have to get that back.”
Shane chuckled. “When I was making the CD of the hit man’s recording, I saw I had room so I copied the story files too. Can’t do much until we get the computer back or a new one, but we’ve got the files.”
Trevor gave Shane a warm hug, holding his naked body next to his own. “I didn’t think of that until way too late. I’m glad you did.”
“You were too busy hiding that second pistol,” Shane replied, chuckling. “So long as the killer doesn’t get talkative, I doubt they’ll know he had two with him.”
“Maybe the second one tragically went overboard during the struggle,” Trevor suggested dryly, and then added a chuckle of his own, before his mood darkened. “No way in hell I’m willingly giving them that one! We need it. That killer getting aboard proves it, as if there was any doubt; we’re a lot better off if we can look after ourselves if we have to. If it wasn’t for the powerheads and spear guns, we’d be dead. I’m still pissed that Uncle Greg had to confiscate my revolver. I know he had no choice – that’s his job – but it put us at risk.” Trevor grew silent for a moment, and added in a whisper, “I’d probably be dead if I’d been alone.”
Shane pulled Trevor to him, hugging him, hands roaming. “We’re in this together, Trev,” he said, as the caress became more.
After four hours of driving, via many back roads, Bridget and Billy arrived in the small town of Toodyay, forty miles northeast of Perth. There, they found a quiet residential street just a few blocks from the train station, and parked. Bridget left behind only one thing; her final stick of dynamite, attached to the last of Gray’s cell phone triggers, carefully locked in the trunk.
They took separate trains; Billy on the first, Bridget on the second, after arranging to meet at Perth International’s domestic terminal. Along the way, Bridget changed the SIM chip in her satellite phone and disposed of the old one. Just to be safe, she left the battery out.
Upon arrival at Perth’s train station, Bridget took advantage of a handy trashcan to dispose of a bag containing a cell phone, and then chose another to dispose of several phony identity documents, retaining only her working Cayman Islands passport, driver’s license, credit card, satellite phone, one cell phone, and one extra driver’s license.
Bridget availed herself of a restroom where she tended to her makeup, applying dark shadows under her eyes. She then carefully applied a large bandage to her throat. Then, with her bald head covered by a baseball cap, and wearing a pair of Billy’s shorts and a T-shirt, and using a cheap canvas shopping bag instead of a purse, she made her way to the taxi rank. The pain of her cracked rib slowed her, but she let it; it fit with her assumed guise.
Tired and haggard, Bridget arrived at Perth’s busy domestic terminal. There, Bridget checked in for her flight, which had been booked under the name on the extra driver’s license – she was saving the Caymans identity for her international leg.
After check-in, Bridget met with Billy and gave him her satellite phone along with his marching orders. “You shall go first. They do not know your description or the name under which you will be traveling. Do you speak any languages other than English?”
Billy shrugged. “I took Spanish in high school and I still remember a bit, but I couldn’t pass for a native speaker.”
Bridget smiled. “You can here, and you are on a Cayman Islands passport, and the Caymans have quite a polyglot population. Speak in Spanish, and have a safe journey.”
Billy, with a nagging suspicion that he was being sent as a test, boarded a flight to Sydney – where he would board a separately-reserved flight to Auckland – with no trouble. Bridget watched him board from a discreet distance, and then slowly walked towards her own flight; a direct flight to Brisbane.
Covering Perth airport in the search for the fugitives was a daunting task; Perth’s domestic terminal alone handled, on average, over sixteen thousand passengers a day. The authorities could not be everywhere, but Perth airport was one of the places they’d chosen to concentrate upon. They were covering almost every check-in counter and gate at both the international and domestic terminals, and had officers roving the terminals as well.
Bridget had booked her ticket under the name on the driver’s license she had retained - passports were not required on Australian domestic flights, and she preferred to keep her Caymans identity unused until it was time to board an international flight. Her check-in went smoothly, and she spared a nod and a wan smile for the customs officer keeping watch before proceeding to her gate, where she waited for the flight to be called.
A customs officer at Bridget’s departure gate eyed each passenger, comparing them to his memorized description of Bridget. The authorities had assumed that she would travel under a false name, and might try to change her appearance, but her distinctive voice and accent were part of her profile, as was the reported broken or injured leg. The officer also had a copy of Bridget’s Florida driver’s license photo. He made it a point to interact with every passenger, male or female, in Bridget’s approximate age range, listening for an American accent.
Bridget spotted him well in advance, and stood in line to hand in her boarding pass. Once she’d handed it in, she approached him directly and, with a pained look on her face, held her bandaged throat and, in a hoarse, broken whisper, said, “G’day sir. Is there a wheelchair about?”
The officer looked at the haggard, wheezing, apparently ill woman before him, who looked nothing like the photo. Her shorts revealed her legs, and he’d seen her walk up, obvious proof that she did not have a broken leg. There were many other passengers for him to check, so he glanced at her partially covered bald head, and gave her a sympathetic smile. “Just one moment, ma’am,” he said, and then motioned for the attention of one of the gate clerks. “Wheelchair assistance please,” he ordered.
The next day, in Santiago, Chile, a very anxious Billy paced in a hotel suite, fretting about what to do if Bridget did not arrive.
The ringing of the hotel phone made Billy jump. Palms sweating, he answered it.
“The gentlemen at the desk will not tell me the suite number, though they were kind enough to make the call for me,” Bridget said, her voice weary, and pretending to be in the hotel’s lobby; she did this for safety, in case Billy was not there, or part of a trap.
Billy gave her the floor and suite number, and then raced to open the door and wait.
What he saw when Bridget arrived stunned him. When he had last seen her, she’d had a mostly bald head and was dressed in his boardshorts and t-shirt, her head partially covered by a tatty baseball cap. Now, she strolled in, head held high, in an expensive business suit, her mid-length hair immaculately styled, her neck again sporting gold. “I’m sure glad to see you, and you look like a million bucks,” Billy exclaimed.
Bridget smiled, reaching up to fuss with her hair. “I could bear it no longer, hence I went directly to a salon when I landed. The hair is regrettably a wig, though it shall suffice until my own grows back. For what we must do now, appearances are everything, mine in particular. Billy, your hair could use a stylist’s touch; I have made you an appointment, for one hour from now. Take a taxi, and do not neglect to tip. As for myself, I must sleep. We fly out tomorrow. The next few days may prove quite demanding.”
Bridget reclaimed her satellite phone and diamond rings. She gave Billy the salon’s business card, where she’d left detailed instructions – along with a hefty tip – with a stylist.
Eleven miles east of Fleet Base West, Basingstoke lay in a hospital bed. He was in the infirmary of Casuarina Prison, Western Australia’s maximum-security facility. He was being treated for his shoulder wound; some minor reconstructive surgery had been scheduled, though the immediate concern was infection; he was already experiencing swelling, and a culture taken from the wound had come back positive for bacteria, which were still being typed. The blast from the powerhead had driven fragments of skin and wetsuit deep into the wound and, upon admission, they had flushed the wound with saline solution; a procedure that had made Basingstoke cry out in pain.
Now, he was on an IV drip, which was administering oxacillin sodium, an antibiotic, while they waited for more test results to come back.
Basingstoke, feeling slightly feverish, remembered being brought to the prison and shuddered; he knew that unless he was both clever and lucky, he would be spending the rest of his life in such a place as this.
His lawyer was allowed in to see him and, as soon as they were alone, Basingstoke asked, “What are my chances?” He didn’t mean his medical situation.
“Hello, Bassy. Without seeing all the evidence, I can’t yet say.”
Basingstoke winced. “I just want out of here. Please, get me out of here!”
“I’ve just landed, so let me spend a day or two digging into the details.” The lawyer leaned close, and whispered, “According to the authorities, you’ve given at least a partial confession. I need to know what happened and how, so as I’m not blindsided.”
Basingstoke groaned, and then, with a look of anguish on his face, explained about his confession to Trevor and Shane and the circumstances. He concluded by adding, “I kept my mouth shut with the authorities. They are trying to trick that American woman into showing up at Onslow, but I wouldn’t make the call. Tell them I will if it’ll get me out of here. I didn’t plant the bombs, she did. Tell ‘em… tell ‘em I’ll do whatever they want, if they’ll make a good deal.”
The lawyer’s palms began to sweat. He leaned close and whispered, “Do not discuss your case with anyone but me. Based on what you say and what I’ve heard, they’ve made a major error, one that should invalidate all of the evidence against you. I think I can have you out in a few weeks – a couple of months at most – but you must let me do all the talking, understood?”
Basingstoke nodded, and then smiled, feeling as if an enormous weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Thank you.”
“I’ll see you in a day or two, Bassy,” the lawyer replied, before hurrying away. He now knew all that he needed to know.
On his way out, his eyes met those of a waiting prisoner – the prison infirmary used inmates for service staff and, in this case, that particular prisoner’s job was changing bedpans. The lawyer met his eyes and gave him a subtle nod, and then, led by his escorting guard, the lawyer was taken out of the prison.
Basingstoke dozed off, unaware that he would be leaving the prison even sooner than his lawyer had promised.
Late that night, Basingstoke’s IV bag was changed, per the doctor’s schedule. The first bag had contained a solution of oxacillin sodium, an antibiotic, as prescribed by the attending physician. The new bag, while appearing identical, contained thirty percent oxacillin sodium, with the remainder consisting of 100cc of atropine solution.
The reach of organized crime in Australia’s prisons was a convenient fact, one that had figured prominently in the long-since-abandoned plan to get Trevor, Lisa, and Joel arrested and then killed. It was now proving convenient indeed for Gray.
Basingstoke’s IV drip was delivering atropine at a rate of five milligrams per minute.
Several minutes later, Basingstoke’s dreams became vivid, his respiration surging, and then slowing, though his heart rate was accelerating.
A sudden wave of fear gripped his dreams, his eyes fluttering open, the room swimming blurrily around him, awash in a panoply of impossible colors, his eyes hurting from the light. His mouth was dry, and he felt as though he was roasting alive, though he wasn’t sweating.
A thousand emotions hammered at his fevered mind, pure terror winning out in the end. In anguish and abject fear Basingstoke, dimly aware of where he was, fumbled for the call button, but his movements were spastic. Fighting for breath, he tried to scream, though only a ragged gasp emerged from his ravaged throat.
With his heart pounding in his chest, his silent screams unheeded, he convulsed in delirious terror and began to feel an intense craving for air. He had already received many times the lethal dose of atropine.
Basingstoke’s body reached its limit, awash in agony, terror, confusion, nausea and hallucinations, his mind slipping into madness in the last wretched moments before the final void consumed him.
The nature of his wound had not required that he be placed on a monitor, so his death was not noticed for another fifteen minutes, by a nurse making her evening rounds. She found him, his eyes wide open, pupils fully dilated, with a look of purest fear frozen upon his lifeless face.
Basingstoke’s death provoked instant suspicion, though the atropine would not be detected until his autopsy. The bag had been preserved, though it bore only a nurse’s fingerprints. The orderly who had added the atropine was one of several with access, and try though they might, the investigating authorities were never able to discern the identity of the killer.
A few days later, Basingstoke would leave the prison after his autopsy, destined for a pauper’s grave. The lawyer had not been lying when he’d told Basingstoke that he would not long remain behind bars.
Gray, in his Melbourne bar, took the TV news report of Basingstoke’s demise with equanimity. “Sorry, Bassy, but you should have kept your damn mouth shut,” he muttered, lifting a bottle of his favorite beer in remembrance of his longtime acquaintance.
Gray’s move had been a simple matter of timing, opportunity, and luck. The prison had provided a field of opportunity, and Gray had used Basingstoke’s lawyer – a man deeply connected to the underworld of which Gray was a part – to make a few arrangements, including for payment: the orderly who had done the deed would, inside of a year, be represented by the lawyer and a top-flight legal team in his appeal. Gray would also make sure that word of Basingstoke’s demise was spread – via the lawyer, who implied loudly and often, with feigned outrage, that the authorities were somehow responsible – to the press.
Gray breathed a sigh of relief, freed of the immediate threat Basingstoke had posed and thankful that, against his initial expectations, the deed had been done in a very timely manner. He now owed his contacts a considerable sum of money, along with a few favors, for taking care of Basingstoke, though it was less than Bridget had promised him. Now came the hard part – waiting, and worrying that Basingstoke’s carelessness and loose lips might yet lead back to him.
In Santiago, Billy availed himself of a deluxe room-service breakfast, and was surprised that Bridget, who usually ate a light breakfast, joined him with an order every bit as large as his own.
While they ate, Billy succumbed to his concerns and asked, “Where are we flying today?”
“Back to Cali. I have a meeting scheduled. You may have the day to yourself, like before. Just use caution; it is not a safe city.”
Billy nodded in agreement. “Yeah, last time I thought I was going to get jumped. I’ll probably just hang around the hotel, especially if it’s got a pool.”
“That would probably be for the best,” Bridget said. She then phoned the front desk to inquire about a print shop, and was informed that there was a large one, just four blocks away, which would make for a convenient stop on the way to the airport.
In the hotel lobby, just before checking out, Bridget availed herself of a hotel computer, to check the news. A quick scan of an Australian news site gave her two bits of welcome news; the first was that there was, as yet, no mention of Trevor by name. The other was the report of Basingstoke’s demise. Impressed by the unexpected speed of the hit, she made a mental note that Gray was someone who could be counted on to get things done. She kept her word and initiated a bank transfer, via a circuitous route, to send Gray the money she’d promised.
As the plane climbed out from Santiago, Bridget had time to plan, and also to worry. She knew that she was taking the greatest risk of her life, and that many things could go wrong. She mused that the operation in Australia had come dangerously close to success, which would have complicated her gambit; she would have had to find the tape itself instead of merely destroying the boat.
As their plane made its final approach to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport, which serves Cali, Colombia, and is located near Cali’s northeastern suburbs, Bridget whispered to Billy, “Some men will be meeting us at the airport. I will be going with them, though some may accompany you to our hotel. Do not converse with them; say nothing other than that the plan in Australia was a disastrous failure, and we were most fortunate to escape. I shall be seeing you within a few hours.”
Billy glanced at Bridget in concern; he had a guess as to who she might be meeting. “Will you be okay?” he asked.
Bridget smiled. “It is time to face the music, though it remains to be seen who is calling the tune,” she said, as the plane’s wheels squeaked onto the runway.
The men appeared, as if from nowhere, at the airport’s main entrance. There were, by Bridget’s count, at least ten of them. She recognized one of them, who had been one of the two who had accompanied her to her meeting during her prior visit to Cali, while en route to Australia. “Good to see you again,” Bridget said, with a stiff and formal air.
“Hello again, ma’am,” he replied, in heavily accented English. “Come with us.” It was not a request, though Bridget treated it as such.
“Excellent, I could do with some fresh air,” she said, handing her suitcase to the flustered killer, as if he were a servant. “Treat that gently. Now, as for my companion,” she nodded in Billy’s direction, “He shall not be accompanying us, and I have arranged a hotel for him. Please see to his transportation.”
The flustered man, Jose, was unaccustomed to such behavior, but did not wish to make a scene in a public place. With a nod, he signaled two of his men, and then told Bridget, “We have a place to take him.”
Bridget gave Billy a reassuring smile as two of the large men went to his side. “Go with them, Billy. Everything will be fine in a short while, you will not be harmed,” she said, while idly wondering if there was any truth to her words. She turned her gaze to Jose, and said, “Let us be on our way; I have crucial information, and time is wasting.”
Bridget was soon seated in the back of an aging sedan. Before they had driven a mile, she allowed the man seated next to her to blindfold her, as she had been during her prior visit.
The car sped north, away from Cali. Bridget remained silent, well aware that she might not live to see the sunset.
After half an hour, the car began making turns, negotiating the streets of a small rural town. Finally, it pulled through the gate of a run–down, colonial-style compound; a walled casa, common in the region. Bridget’s blindfold was removed, and Jose told her tersely, “This way.”
Accompanied by Jose and four men from the compound, Bridget was led to the main house, a two-story building that was attached to the compound’s surrounding adobe wall. As they entered, Bridget huffed as she was roughly patted down, though she did not object until they tried to take her purse. “I must have that!” she demanded, reaching for it. “Check it for weapons if you must, but I need the contents of the folder. It is for your bosses’ eyes alone. No one else!”
Reluctantly, Jose let Bridget take the folder, and then ordered, “Follow me, and speak only when spoken to.” Jose led her up a flight of bare, creaking wooden stairs, and then knocked twice at the door at the top. He nodded his head respectfully to the man who opened it, and said, “She is here, Jefe.” Jefe, in Spanish, means leader, or boss.
Bridget gave the man a pleasant smile and, unbidden, strolled in, ignoring Jose’s orders to say, “Good afternoon, Gentlemen. Thank you for seeing me again.”
The man who had opened the door slammed it shut, and then returned to his seat, leaving Bridget standing. Bridget paused, taking a leisurely moment to look around the room; it was plain, just whitewash over plaster, a bare and aged wooden floor, a few dusty windows and, in the center, a rough-hewn old dinner table, of large proportions. Around it were a dozen old wooden chairs, eleven of which were occupied; the men in them studying Bridget with expressions that ranged from concern to open contempt.
Head held high, the heels of her expensive Italian shoes clattering on the bare floorboards, Bridget approached the table. She knew that she had to give the performance of her life; for if it was not the best, it would surely be the last. The men before her were the capos – the bosses of the cartel. All but one was present. Bridget had met with these eleven men during her last visit, and had shared the news of a threat they had not known they faced.
A man, seated on the far side of the table, said, “What happened in Australia? Did you destroy the tape?” They had heard the news of the bombings and of the hunt for Bridget, though nothing more.
Bridget met the man’s eyes, and announced, “The mission was an abject disaster. An utter failure. My companion and I barely eluded capture.”
Bridget waited while one of the men repeated her words in Spanish, for the benefit of the five of his fellows who spoke no English.
“You might have been better to stay,” another man remarked, drumming his fingers on the table, his tone conveying grave threat.
“Preposterous!” Bridget huffed, glaring at him. “Had I not returned here, none of you would have ever known the true situation. The mission failed; the danger to you remains. The mission, however, could easily have succeeded. Gentlemen, I have something for you all,” Bridget said, opening her folder to extract a sheaf of large, glossy photographs. “I had these printed out this morning, in Santiago,” she said, plopping one down in front of the closest man, and then making her way around the table, very much as a schoolmarm might, depositing a copy in front of each of the eleven men.
One of the men stared at the picture, which was of Lisa, taken by Rob on the streets of Newark. “What is this?” he demanded.
“A photograph of Lisa Whitaker, who was for a while part of the contract I took out with the cartel, though no attempt on her life was ever made. When there was no longer a need for her to die, I lifted the contract, to allow focus on our true objective. However, I had this photo taken to prove a point; it was taken on a city street, at my command, by one of my own people. They could have just as easily been someone with a gun, and Lisa’s death would have been just one more street crime. I could have taken care of the matter, even though others, with far greater resources, evidently could not.”
“Is there a point to this?” another of the drug lords asked, with a scowl on his face.
“Indeed there is,” Bridget said, while handing out the next set of glossy photos. This photograph was one Billy had taken of Kookaburra. “This clearly shows the ease of approach to the target: the sailing yacht Ares. There need not have been any difficulty; all was for naught, the goal lost to us due to preposterous constraints.” She paused for dramatic effect and then handed over copies of a third photo while she spoke. This time she remained in place, forcing the cartel bosses to hand the photos around themselves.
Bridget waited until they had all looked at their copies, and continued her presentation, “This photo was taken next to the boat, which you can see in the background, along with someone aboard who is either Trevor or his friend. They were both there; I saw Trevor quite a few times. I had no trouble recognizing him, for I have met him before; I have kept a close eye on him for years. As you can see, I am holding a model boat, a remote-controlled toy. You can clearly see that its interior would hold several sticks of dynamite – which I had but was absurdly precluded from using – or better yet, some easily obtained high explosive. That model boat could have delivered the charge with ease, and you can see how effortlessly I was able to approach within striking distance, and then pose for pictures. Had I acted alone, I could have undoubtedly accomplished our goals – our actual goals – and destroyed that yacht; with a powerful enough blast, the evidence aboard would be destroyed. I would have preferred to do so at sea; it was I who located her, and I did so with ease, within a day of my arrival – a task others took months to accomplish, and even then only with my help.”
“Why didn’t you destroy her?”
Bridget had been rehearsing her words for weeks, ever since her departure from Florida. With a careful twisting of facts, she proceeded, “As I mentioned before, I was constrained by orders – though I did voice objections, which were summarily dismissed out of hand. Also, the Australian contractor was not under my orders.” Bridget took a deep breath and stood tall, her back ramrod-straight. “Gentlemen, when I set out to do something, I ensure that it is done. When I asked for the contract, I provided the plan, along with the equipment, for the bombing in the Suez. It would have succeeded, thus solving our problem as well as my own legal risks, had buffoons not bungled it, though no one seems to know quite how – at least, not that they will admit to. The second effort was the pirates off the Seychelles. I had no role in that; I would have known to demand proof that the boat had been sunk, and I would have instructed them in the means: burn her. A photo would have provided ample evidence. As it was, we were left thinking that it had succeeded. Ever since, we have been hobbled by preposterous, self-serving, gruesome constraints. Indeed, thanks to the outlandish prerequisites imposed from afar, the Australian contractor fell into the hands of the authorities. Now, all that has been accomplished is that the Geraldton bombings are Australia’s top news story, and their connection to this cartel was at grave risk of being exposed. Such publicity does us no good.”
“You do not understand our ways, and now you dare lecture us?” one of the capos demanded, pounding his fist on the table.
She knew that this was the moment. She would either succeed or fail. Bridget stalked forward to the table’s edge, slapping her palm down upon it. As the echo died, she said quietly, “It is not you that I seek to correct. What you are, gentlemen, is a business. You are the leaders, and as such you trust in others. You have no other choice. Brutality has its place, of course, when it serves the proper ends. It is a tool of the trade, nothing more. In this case however, there is risk to us all, and that risk remains for one reason alone: the requirement to procure Trevor Carlson’s head. Tell me, how does that serve the cartel’s ends, especially when weighed against the ongoing danger?”
“An example had to be made,” one of the men, who had been silent until now, replied forcefully.
“Piffle,” Bridget replied, with a disgusted snort, and then added, “What had to be done remains to be done: ending the threat to us all. All else is secondary to that goal. He would be quite dead had I done things my way. Does taking his head serve the ends of the cartel? Our goal is to end the threat. The macabre demand for his head – which was not part of the contract that I entrusted to the cartel – and serving purely local needs, has stood in the way, as I have proven. Am I wrong?”
The man’s temper flared. He was accustomed to deference and subservience, not lecturing. “We are in danger because of you,” he retorted.
“Horse feathers,” Bridget replied, with a disdainful sweep of her hand. “You were unaware of the danger until I told you, because those you trusted – whom I trusted as well, as a representative of you all – did not deign to warn you. I took the proper actions, and more, as soon as I became aware of my late husband’s perfidy and my late lover’s involvement – I killed George Alfred myself, and it was also I who killed my husband, many years ago. Had I not killed my husband when I did, he would have enacted his plan long ago – using information of which I was singularly unaware at the time. You also have no reason to fear the Australian contractor, Basingstoke: he has been silenced, permanently. I suspected that the preposterous plan might require such a cleaning up, so I made the arrangements in advance. That is simply how I conduct my business. Gentlemen, I have been in this business since some of you were babies in your mothers’ arms,” she said, her steely gaze sweeping the room. “My Florida operation has been vital to this cartel for decades, and it has been crippled because of what occurred. We need that operation, as you are well aware.”
“We paid you well for control of what is left of your operation, in spite of the situation,” one of the men reminded her, though his tone was no longer harsh.
“I have received nothing! Furthermore, I was relieved of my own funds upon arrival in the Bahamas. I will wager that assuming control of my operation has proven problematic? If so, perhaps now you understand why. I can, of course, remedy that: my people are loyal to me, for I have taken good care of them these many years.”
“What do you propose?” the oldest man at the table asked. He, alone amongst the capos, was seated at the table’s head.
“Jefe,” Bridget said, with a sweet smile and a gracious nod in his direction. The cartel had no true leader, but he was, and was known amongst his brethren as, the first amongst equals; the most powerful of the cooperating drug lords who formed the cartel’s inner circle of capos, all but one of whom were seated in the room. “What I propose is nothing less than competency in a vital role. I can easily solve the problems that we face. The demand for a head is superfluous; I will concentrate on achieving our actual goals. I will restore my Florida operation in full and in short order. I am nothing if not a careful planner; as you surely know, I am far from penniless in spite of being relieved of twenty million in cash and securities, and the failure to deliver on the ten million I was promised for my operation. I have been preparing for contingencies for decades, and as you have seen for all these years, I know how to run an operation.”
A set of troubled glances swept round the table. “We agreed to give you twenty million for your remaining operation, not ten.”
With a sad shake of her head, Bridget replied, “This is the first I have heard of that. However, I ask nothing of the sort,” she said, taking a casual step around the corner of the table. “I have ample funds, sequestered in many places in the world, for I have always prepared. I was content in my former role, and would have served the cartel’s needs for many years to come, had my simple request not been repeatedly bungled.”
“What you ask… it is not possible,” one of the younger men said. The cartel’s culture was that of rural Colombia; patriarchal, and insular. No American, nor any woman, had ever sat amongst them.
“All things are possible,” Bridget parried, with steel in her voice. “Our interests are one.”
In broken English, one of the younger capos, who had not yet spoken, said, “This is a man’s business. It has no place for a woman.”
Bridget stood her ground. “I am indeed a woman. A woman who has been in this business since you were shitting your diapers! When a detective was in need of silencing in Florida, I fed him to the alligators. When I had to leave Florida, the Coast Guard and police attempted to stop me with a massive operation, but I am here. They, however, lost two helicopters at my hand. I was shot, and though badly wounded, I kept fighting. Can you say the same? I went to Australia, at great peril, to solve our problem. I would have succeeded, had I been in charge. However, thanks to ineptitude from afar, I was seen, recognized, and physically attacked. I have a broken rib, and am in considerable pain even now, yet I got us out of the country. I have had to do a very great deal,” she said, and then, very slowly, she pulled off her wig, evoking a few gasps of surprise. “I shaved my head to appear as a cancer patient. I did this while still bleeding from the assault. I also took measures to ensure the permanent silence of the contractor retained for this bungled-from-afar attempt. Sanchez may not have told you of the tape aboard Ares, but he did tell him. I had to have him killed under the very noses of the authorities, while in custody. Had I not, that tape would likely be in the authorities’ hands by now.” Bridget carefully returned her wig to her head. She glanced at the various men at the table, reading their expressions.
Her presentation had been a mix of fact and lies. She had prepared carefully, working wheels within wheels for weeks, laying the groundwork for her dynamic, adaptable plan; one that took advantage of fortuitous developments, while spinning apparent failures in her favor. A grand strategy aimed at her true target. She had staked everything on this moment.
A hurried conversation in Spanish ensued, a language Bridget did not speak. She could only judge the tone, and when she felt the time was right, she interrupted to say, “You face many challenges, as do I.” Bridget took two more purposeful steps, to the room’s sole empty chair. Standing beside it, she turned to face the men at the table. “We have serious issues to face. The bungling and theatrics in the Bahamas have gone on long enough, for they have already succeeded in putting everyone in this room in peril. Enough and no more,” Bridget said, as she settled gracefully into the plain wooden chair, reveling in its feel. She eased it forward, taking her place at the table, the movement of the chair’s legs on bare wood echoing in the shocked silence. The symbolism was obvious to them all.
“Gentlemen,” Bridget said, with a soft though predatory smile, accompanied by a nod of deference to the first amongst equals. “I can solve our problems – both of them.”
A furious conversation amongst the men, in Spanish, erupted. Bridget remained seated, in stately grandeur, exuding confidence and poise. She met each set of eyes, seeing acceptance in some, indecision in others, and opposition in the remainder.
Tiring of the bickering, the first amongst equals pounded on the table, causing a sudden silence. He turned his attention to Bridget. “You ask much, far too much. We will not act against one of our own – not yet, and not for you.”
With a slow, cunning smile, Bridget accepted the challenge. “Jefe, I do not ask that. You seek to wait for an opportune time. I however do not need to do so. I shall create the opportunity and enact the change within forty-eight hours. I do not need your help, merely that you welcome me to this table when I succeed. I will take care of the problem in the Bahamas, and I shall do it cleanly, with a minimum of fuss. I could have done this at any time, thus presenting you with a fait accompli. However, above all else, I know the value of trust and goodwill, so instead I sought your counsel. There is also the issue of the threat we face, the one you were kept from knowing until my prior visit. I will settle that matter as well, though it will take time; the bungled efforts have soiled the water. However, I accomplish what I set out to do. I will destroy that tape, along with anyone with knowledge of it who is not in this room. I will do all this, with a minimum of fuss and bother, though I shall not trifle with his head – it was that absurdity which placed us all under threat.”
Speaking for them all, though unwillingly on the part of some, the first amongst equals replied, “We reward success – that, too, is our way.” With a glance toward the door, he signaled for one of his fellows to open it. “You shall hear from me shortly, wait below,” he said. Bridget took her cue, and stood up.
When the door was opened, Jose dutifully entered, lowering his eyes in respect. The first amongst equals summoned him to his side, whispered in his ear, and then, with a flick of his hand, sent him away. Jose then quickly escorted Bridget down the stairs. When they reached the bottom, five other men were waiting. Jose turned to face Bridget, “Jefe, we have been asked to wait. May I get you a coffee?” he asked. The message was not lost on the other men who, though they could not understand all of the words, understood the meaning of the Jose’s deferential tone and manner of address.
“That would be splendid,” Bridget replied, with a delighted smile.
In the room upstairs, bedlam erupted as soon as Bridget had left the room. The youngest, still smarting from Bridget’s scathing remarks, proved the loudest, and leaned forward in his chair to demand of his fellows, “We cannot do this. She is a woman, and a foreigner! I will not sit at the same table as her!”
“It may come to that, if you insist,” the first amongst equals remarked, in a quiet, deadly tone. “If she does as she says and restores the Bahamas and Florida to smoothly running operations, she will have earned a place. We have much to gain and nothing to lose. On the other matter, we were kept blind to the threat until she informed us of it, and she has proven that, had things been done her way, it would no longer exist. Sanchez betrayed us by keeping this to himself – and he was part of the actions that put us, and our families, in danger.”
Another man, who had been silent throughout, spoke up. “Sanchez was well aware of how we might react. His reckless ambition and greed created this knife at our throats. However, he controls that region, and he deals with upstarts harshly, as do we all. Removing him would be no easy task. Even for us, it would be a bloody and disruptive struggle. Her take over his operation? She has no chance. If anyone is in a betting mood, I wager a million dollars that Sanchez has her head on a platter by the end of this week.” To the men at the table, who together controlled an operation grossing in the billions per year, a million dollar wager was no greater a risk than an average man betting a hundred. Still, the offer spoke volumes, and was an open challenge.
“I’ll take that bet,” replied the man at his left.
“Enough of this,” the first amongst equals thundered. “The real concern is that tape. While it exists, it poses danger.”
“How great a danger, Jefe? It must be at least a decade old,” another capo asked.
The first amongst equals shook his head. “And what do you suppose the American police would do with it if they obtained it? Were I in their shoes, I would use it; an arranged leak to their press is all it would take. Or merely make copies and put them in the mail. They would not pass up the opportunity to ignite a war between their enemies, and anyone who possesses that tape could use it the same way, or to blackmail us. Think of this; what would we do if something like this had been done to us, even so long ago? However, since our guest’s prior visit, I have been looking into the matter; I do not think it ended ten years ago. The conclusion is obvious, as is what we face. Some of us would survive, but at least a few of us would not, and our families would be targets as well – for death and worse. Much that we have built would be destroyed. The threat to us must end. As for our visitor, she is audacious, with a long record of competency. She may also be a fool, though that is yet to be seen. If she accomplishes what she claims, I see no harm – his chair is hers. If she fails, then we take care of Sanchez on our own terms, at a time of our choosing.” He glanced at each man, reading their eyes, and then the sound of his fist crashing to the table brought the meeting to an abrupt end.
Bridget took another sip of coffee. “A very fine brew, for which Colombia is justly famous,” she remarked.
Before Jose could reply, he heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. He leapt to his feet, turning to face the stairs, paling slightly as he realized who was coming down. “Jefe,” he said, bowing his head and stepping aside as the first amongst equals came down alone. He ignored Jose and fixed his eyes on Bridget. “Walk with me,” he ordered, leading the way through two small rooms, and then out into a side garden. “We have never given a seat to an outsider,” he said, his lip curling up in slight amusement.
Bridget smiled, angling her head, her diamond necklace glittering in the sun. “Indeed. However, doing so would have advantages for you. I am, as you say, an outsider, to a degree, though I have worked with the cartel for decades. The cartel is Colombian, and I am not. Therefore, unlike many at that table, I cannot possibly aspire to sit at its head.”
The first amongst equals chuckled. “Until today, I would have said that no outsider could ever sit at that table, even for a moment. You are an intriguing lady, Bridget Bellevue. You have also presented a convincing case – for enough of us. If you succeed in the Bahamas, the chair is yours. You must then remove the knife at our throats, all else is secondary. I understand that it will take time, a few months perhaps, but it must be done. All our lives are at risk, and your position will depend upon you putting an end to the threat – though you will have our full support and capabilities for that. That is as far as we will go.”
Bridget smiled, nodding graciously as she pulled her satellite phone from her purse. She dialed, and then as soon as the line picked up, said, “My dear Sanchez, good to hear your voice. Are you alone? If so, please switch on your encryption.”
Sanchez did so. “I hear that things did not go well. Basingstoke was captured, and now he’s dead.”
Bridget chuckled, holding the phone so that the first amongst equals could listen in. “Yes, that much is true, though the news of failure was my doing; I thought it best. I also took care of Basingstoke: he was a loose end.”
“What of the tape?” Sanchez asked.
“Destroyed. I found it, so there was no reason to destroy the yacht; I simply took care of what we needed done,” Bridget replied.
“I told you, I need that head! You have failed me,” Sanchez loudly retorted.
“Yes, I am of course aware that you need it above all else. I have the vile thing with me, packaged and documented as donated for medical research, and being treated with great care. You shall have your display to calm your fractious lieutenants. I will be arriving at Exuma International Airport tomorrow, on the flight from Haiti. Please have someone meet me to take me to you.”
“Excellent. I will meet you myself. Now, about the tape; who knows of it?” Sanchez asked.
“Only you and I,” Bridget replied.
“See that it stays that way. Never mention it again,” Sanchez ordered, and then added, in a quieter, awkward tone, “You have done well, as you always do. I look forward to seeing you.”
“Of course, my dear Sanchez. Until tomorrow then, goodbye,” Bridget replied pleasantly, and killed the connection, receiving a nod of approval from the first amongst equals. After a brief discussion, he walked her to the car, where Jose opened a door for her. This time, the blindfold stayed in the glove box.
The first amongst equals watched as the car pulled away, and then, almost as an afterthought though it was anything but, told a lieutenant, “Prepare a plane. We leave at dawn.”
An hour later, Bridget, along with Jose, arrived at a decrepit apartment in Cali, where they found Billy sitting on the floor in a corner, with the two guards sitting in chairs, reading newspapers. “UP!” Jose barked at the guards in Spanish. He then gave Bridget a deferential bow of his head. “We are at your disposal, Jefe.”
With a smile, Bridget commanded, “Take us to the airport. Our flight leaves in just under two hours.”
Billy, though greatly relieved, kept his tongue in check until the plane had lifted off. He whispered to Bridget, “I’m glad we’re out of there. Those guys with me were kinda rough, and I was thinking we’d had it. Uh, where are we going now?”
“To a retirement party, where we will be amongst friends,” Bridget said, looking out the window and smiling. Everything that she had worked for since leaving Florida was now within her grasp. Failure in Australia had been part of her plan from the start, though had she acquired the tape, she would have given an edited version to the cartel leaders as part of her presentation. It would have made for a slightly less compelling case, so Trevor and Kookaburra had not been her true target, though that was about to change. That, however, would take time – first, she had a party to attend.
A Discussion thread for this chapter is in my forum, please have a look and join in. direct link here. The forum enables conversations so in many cases it's a far easier to use it than the "leave a comment" section on this page, so I suggest having a look, but use whichever (or both) you are more comfortable with .