(Here's a link to google maps,centered on the areas in the chapter, which can be zoomed and moved around, because I know some of you are like me and love to follow along and see the areas on the story.) However, please note that the google maps portrayal of the boundaries of the US Base is NOT accurate, so here's a link to a base map.
It was little more than a smudge on the horizon, a few grayish-green peaks of distant mountains, but it was a welcome respite from the unbroken circle of sea and sky. “Land in sight!” Shane hollered, pointing to starboard.
“I didn’t think we’d see it from this distance,” Trevor replied, looking at the distant Ascensión Island. “We’re halfway, or close enough.”
“So, when do we have to start worrying about hurricanes?” Shane asked.
“Soon,” Trevor replied, checking the navigation screen. “We’re still eight degrees south of the equator, and hurricanes rarely go further south than ten degrees north. Once we cross the equator, we’ll have to keep a very close watch on the long-range forecasts. This time of year, Cape Verde hurricanes are common; they get their name due to forming near the Cape Verde Islands and going west towards the Caribbean.”
“Same course we’ll be on. Good thing Atlantis is fast so we can get out of the way,”
“I’m more worried about the intertropical convergence zone, which we’re already in. That’s why I’m running the weather radar full-time; to spot any thunderstorms. We’re also going to lose our wind sometime today, if the forecast holds,” Trevor said. Atlantis was currently lolling along at three knots.
“Are the doldrums really as bad as I heard? Boats stuck for weeks with no wind?” Shane asked. ‘The doldrums’ is another name for the intertropical convergence zone.
“Yeah, they can be. We’ll switch to engines if the wind drops any more. If we go slow, say six knots, we won’t use up too much fuel. We can motor until the wind picks up, no problem, even if that means motoring until we’re in the northeast trades. We’re tight in time if we’re going to make the wedding, so we can’t wait for the wind if it dies out.”
Shane glanced at the island again. “We’re going the whole way without a port call?”
Trevor shrugged. “I don’t know. Officer Gonzalez wants us to, but I think that’s due to the risk, plus the arrival time. If we keep making good time, we could make a fast stop if you want to. It should be safe; nobody knows where we’d be stopping – not even us. If it’s somewhere where customs aren’t a big deal, we could put on one of the nameplates Ned made. Pick a place, your choice.”
Shane pulled up their course on the navigation screen. “You know the area, I don’t. Okay, you’ve got us going in north of the Virgin Islands, then north of Puerto Rico, and passing north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti before entering the Windward Passage. What I’m after is somewhere to restock the galley; we’re out of fresh foods. We’ve got enough food, but it’s all canned and dried stuff. We’re also running low on turmeric and cumin seed. We need a supermarket.”
Trevor glanced towards Ascensión Island. “I’m sure there’s a supermarket there. We could stop; the main town is on this side of the island. What worries me is it’s a very obvious stop for us after the Falklands.”
Shane glanced at the island. “Yeah. Good point. Okay, at worst, we’re looking at having to put up with some unappetizing food sometimes. Let’s keep going.”
“Good. I can complain about your cooking,” Trevor replied, with a smirk.
“Cruel and abusive bastard!” Shane bellowed, launching a tickle attack on Trevor.
They kept to their course, though they were forced to motor most of the way through the doldrums. They filled their copious free time with maintenance tasks and working on their book.
Four hundred miles west of the Cape Verde Islands, Atlantis turned west, running before the trade winds, gennaker flying, making slightly better time than expected.
In Florida, Lisa and Joel were immersed in their wedding and honeymoon plans, the days counting down, from their perspective, with glacial slowness.
“All we know is that Trev and Shane said they’ll probably be here. We don’t know when. What if they don’t get here in time for the rehearsal?” Lisa asked, while fiddling with the schedule. “I think we’d better move the rehearsal to the morning of the wedding. Trev’s best man, so he’s got to be rehearsed at least once – doesn’t he?” Lisa asked.
Joel shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to a wedding. Our rehearsal is just us reciting our vows, not a full one. We can ask the minister, but I think all the best man does is stand there and hold the rings, but I’m not totally sure.”
Lisa chuckled, shaking her head. “If all Trev has to do is stand there and hold something, maybe he can get by without a rehearsal.”
Joel wasn’t too worried about that, though the fact he still didn’t know the location of their honeymoon was nagging at him. “I wonder if we could get clues about where the resort is if we asked what kind of stuff we need to take?”
“I doubt it… it’s a resort in the Caribbean, so tropical clothes, sunscreen, swimsuits, and that’s about it. We’ll only be there a week. Did Trev have much to say about where we’re going after they pick us up?”
“No, he didn’t; he said he couldn’t over the phone. All he said was they were taking us to a really great, well-known place, that’s totally safe. So now we don’t know where we’re going for either the first or second half of our honeymoon,” Joel replied, with a pout.
“We’ll find out soon enough. They have to tell us at the wedding, right?”
For Officer Gonzalez, the days were proving ever more fruitless on the Bellevue case. He had many other responsibilities now that he was the head of the state’s corruption task force, but Bridget remaining at large and in power was a constant cloud over Gonzalez’s head. However, try as he might, he was making no headway; as far as he knew, Bridget hadn’t set foot outside of the Bahamas in months.
Jim and Dirk were being kept informed by both Gonzalez, and to an even greater degree, their attorney, Frank Tittle. They could only wait and hope, though with each day, they became ever more aware of the lack of progress on the case.
Atlantis kept on her westbound course and, with plenty of time, Trevor and Shane busied themselves with a new task; gaining access to one of Atlantis’s hull foam flotation cells. To do so, they used a plumbing conduit that ran through one, removed the pipes, and then the conduit itself, leaving them with a tunnel through the foam. With great care, they reached in and dug down into the foam, excavating a narrow tunnel. When they judged it deep enough, they retrieved the block of gold that they’d previously disguised as part of an anchor. It took a few adjustments to their hole, but eventually they were able to force the gold block inside. Trevor squirted some canned expanding epoxy foam in behind it, and then they replaced the conduit and pipes, taking great care to erase any trace of their activity. “Getting that out will be a pain in the ass, but nobody will find it unless they put Atlantis through a shredder,” Shane declared, proud of the idea they’d come up with together.
“I kept worrying that somebody would try to use it as an anchor,” Trevor replied, carefully inspecting their handiwork. “This way, it’s safe from customs, thieves, or anybody else.
Trevor kept Atlantis out of sight of land, though once they passed north of the Lesser Antilles, they saw many yachts and ships.
As they neared the northwest tip of Haiti to enter the Windward Passage, they at last came within sight of land, though only distantly, as a fiery sunset lit the sky.
Shane glanced at the navigation display. “How close will we get to Cuba?” he asked.
“We’ll cut south for a bit. Cuba has a twelve-mile limit, but they can be pretty damn touchy; they’ve seized yachts at or even a bit past the limit. So, we’ll stay at least twenty miles out, following the south coast until we’re due south of Gitmo, phone the base for permission to enter, then run in due north.”
Shane nodded, turning away from the dishes he was washing in the sink to ask, “Gonzalez is sure it’s okay for me to be there too, right? You’re a U.S. citizen; I’m not.”
Trevor had indeed made certain of that, though now, he gave Shane a shrug. “Yeah, he said it won’t be a problem at all. You’ll just need to grow a beard and you’ll fit right in – they’ll even give you a nice orange jumpsuit.”
Shane froze for a moment, blinked, and bellowed, “Cruel and abusive bastard!” as he turned the sink’s spray hose on Trevor, launching a riotous water fight.
In the minds of many, the name ‘Guantanamo Bay’ brings to mind a prison, though in reality, it largely isn’t; the prison occupies only a very small part of the base.
The U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay occupies the southern half of the bay – the seaward half. The U.S. controlled area is roughly rectangular, nine and a half miles wide, and six miles north to south, with the southern boundary the sea, and the northwest corner of the rectangle cut off. This rectangle straddles the bay mouth. The northern half of the bay is in Cuban territory, and ships have the right of free passage through the channel to reach the Cuban port. There is no bridge across the channel in the U.S. territory, so the only way to get from one side to the other is by boat. The main U.S. base itself, including base housing, is on the eastern side, while the naval air station is on the west. Also on the eastern side, at the far southwestern corner, is Camp Delta: the terrorist detention center.
The U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay has been there for over a hundred years – it is America’s oldest overseas base, and has many uses, including as a Coast Guard station, a fleet support base, a refugee center, and a communications relay. The U.S. holds a perpetual lease, granted by treaty by Cuba in 1903 and reaffirmed in 1934, which is why the base remains in Cuba in spite of the objections of the Castro dictatorship. The base, like many U.S. bases around the world, is also home to many of the families of military personnel, other government employees, and contractors.
In the early afternoon of August 7th, Atlantis approached the mouth of Gauntanamo Bay. Shane posted himself atop the salon roof for a better view, binoculars in hand. “Looks pretty nice, sorta like around Cairns; mountains and a rugged shore. Not as green though.”
Trevor found the entrance challenging, in part because it was not in the navigation system’s port database. However, the channel markers proved more than adequate, allowing Trevor to negotiate the serpentine entrance and then head east within the bay, past the base hospital, and into a small side arm just east of the hospital. There, Trevor maneuvered Atlantis to dock at the small pleasure boat dock, where a lone tall, thin naval officer waited in the blazing sun.
The officer helped Trevor and Shane tie up, and then stuck out his hand. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Schwartz, base relations officer, and I’ll be your liaison during your stay. Welcome to Gitmo, and it’s good to finally meet the two of you in person.” He’d spoken by phone to Trevor and Shane a few times over the preceding weeks. “I need to confirm that you’ve come non-stop from the Falklands?”
Trevor smiled and nodded. “No stops at all.”
Schwartz smiled, nodding toward Atlantis. “Any fresh produce aboard?”
Shane shook his head. “No sir, nothing. We used it all up quite a while ago.”
“No plants or animals?”
“Nothing,” Shane confirmed, though he’d seriously considered listing Trevor as the latter.
“I’ll need to see your passports,” Schwartz said. Trevor and Shane handed them over, and Schwartz briefly thumbed through them before handing them back. “Okay, that’s the formalities taken care of. I’m what passes for a customs officer in this case, so you’re cleared. Now we need to discuss what you can and can’t do on the base. First,” he glanced across the inlet, and pointed to a small dock, “In Gitmo, everything west of the bay is called leeward, and everything east of it, windward. Those are the terms the locals use, and the way I remember them is that the airstrip is on the leeward side. The only way to cross the bay is the local ferry, which we call the Gitmo Queen. There are some good beaches on the leeward side, including Chapman Beach. On this side we have the main facilities, including the town center, which is just a short walk to the south. We have hiking trails, kayaking, and if the swell is from the south, some good waves at Windmill Beach – I noticed your boards. However, do not go east of the end of the sand at Windmill; it’s right next to the restricted area of Camp Delta, the terrorist detention center. You’re not to approach it, or any other restricted area, of which there are quite a few. Many are denoted only by signs, but they are clearly posted. Some areas are posted as no photography. Also, stay at least one hundred yards away from the base perimeter fence. Now, about firearms – I’m well aware of the attacks you’ve suffered. However, I’m afraid that makes no difference regarding guns; they are to stay aboard your boat in internal areas. You cannot carry them ashore, either open or concealed. Only military personnel are allowed to carry on base, and even that is mission-specific. If you need to bring the guns ashore for any reason, you’ll need to ask permission each time. We do have a shooting range that’s open to civilians at certain hours. Just ask the officer in charge, and he’ll clear you to carry your guns ashore while going to and from the range – though they must be unloaded.”
Trevor, who hadn’t had a chance to practice in many months, grinned. “We’d like to use the range, but we’re low on ammo. Does the range sell it?”
Schwartz shook his head. “No, but the PX does. You’ll find it very much like a Wal-Mart, including the guns and ammo section. Good prices, too. You’re over eighteen but young enough that you might need your driver’s license to prove it, but other than that, no problem, no different from what you’re used to in Florida.”
“Can we buy beer at the PX?” Shane asked, with a hopeful smile.
With a laugh and a shake of his head, Schwartz replied, “Sure – if you wait three years: you’re both eighteen and the drinking age is twenty-one. However, you’ll find a great selection of food for restocking your boat, and we also have a good selection of restaurants. Okay, moving on, I’ve been told that there’s a video tape that urgently needs copying. If you’ll give it to me, I’ll get that taken care of and return it tomorrow.”
Trevor hesitated, hating the idea of letting the tape out of his sight. “Any chance we could come with you? That tape might be the only way out of the mess we’re in.”
Schwartz shook his head. “Sorry, the base communications center is restricted, but I guarantee you’ll have it back tomorrow, along with a few very good copies; we have superb gear.”
Trevor shared a glance with Shane, and though neither was happy with the idea, Shane went inside to retrieve the tape.
While Shane was gone, Schwartz said, “I won’t let it out of my sight, you have my word. Officer Gonzalez told me to make certain nothing happens to it.”
Shane returned with Arnold Bellevue’s tape and, after receiving a nod from Trevor, handed it over.
“Thanks. Okay, I’ll get this and some copies back to you tomorrow. I’ll also be picking you up to take you to the naval air station for your flight the day after tomorrow, but in the meantime, feel free to relax and enjoy the base. Ah, one more thing; if you’re both agreeable, we’d like you both to talk about your experiences at sea tomorrow night at the base presentation room. It will be limited to naval personnel for security reasons, though some of them are also members of the local yacht club.”
Pleased that Shane had been included, Trevor readily agreed, and then broached another issue that was concerning him. “We used about a third of our diesel getting through the doldrums. Is there anywhere we can buy some? I get worried when we’re down that much, especially with the problems we face.”
Schwartz scratched at his chin. “That’s a sentiment the Navy can certainly understand. Most commanding officers at sea start to become concerned whenever any ship’s stores or fuel drop below ninety percent. Okay, most of the civilian boats here use gasoline, not diesel, and those that don’t are small enough to fill with hand cans. I’m pretty sure you need more than that.”
“About a hundred gallons,” Trevor confirmed.
“Seeing as how you’re going to do a talk for the troops, I’ll arrange for a fuel truck to stop by in the morning. It’ll be the Navy’s gift.”
Trevor glanced around, and in a slightly awkward tone, said, “We really appreciate the Navy letting us come here. It’s great to be in a safe place.”
Schwartz gave Trevor and Shane an understanding look. “I’ve been fully briefed in on your situation and the Bellevue case. One of our missions here is drug interdiction, so we share a common enemy. There’s also no doubt that the two of you are in need of a safe haven. The request to shelter you and your boat was approved pretty high up – your friend Officer Gonzalez knew the right people to ask. You can stay as long as you like, or until the threat to you is over. You should find this a pleasant place to stay – many of the civilians here, including my wife and son, are very fond of it. We also often host visiting family members of base personnel, some of whom make this their annual vacation.”
Trevor began to fidget. “There’s one other thing… we sort of talked about it by phone in a roundabout way, but is it still okay for us to bring Lisa and Joel here after we pick them up for their honeymoon?”
Now it was Schwartz’s turn to look uncomfortable. “Yes and no. I have clearance for the two of you – and just the two of you – to be transported to and from Florida via military airlift flights, once in each direction. I’m also supposed to keep you here in port, though I don’t have the power to insist. As for bringing any guests to the base, if, and I do mean if, Officer Gonzalez officially confirms that they are material witnesses to the case – I recognize their names from the briefing and from talking to him, but I need official confirmation – then… yes, my orders cover them coming here as your guests. For the trip home to Florida by air, they’ll have to go on an availability basis – if seats are open, they could have them. At worst, they’d be here a week or two longer then they’d planned.”
Trevor grinned. “Thanks!”
Schwartz began to grin. “Do they know yet? About coming here for their honeymoon, I mean?”
Trevor shook his head adamantly. “No, we haven’t told them – we haven’t told anyone about coming here. We were told to keep it a secret, so we will until after we pick them up. It’s probably better that way,” he said, trying and failing to look sincere.
Schwartz’s sides began to heave, but he managed to hold in his laughter. “So, which one of you gets to tell the happy couple where they’re going?” he gasped.
Shane began to laugh. “We decided to tell Joel after we sail, and have him tell Lisa.”
Schwartz’s face twisted and he doubled over, laughing. Finally, his face flushing, he said, “That’s one groom I sure don’t envy.”
As soon as Schwartz left, Trevor and Shane eagerly bounded ashore, setting out in search of something always near to their hearts; food. Their dock was just two hundred yards from the base’s main street, Sherman Avenue, so they walked to the avenue and turned right, taking in the scenery, finding it very suburban in most regards.
They saw the high school on their left, and then, after going less than a third of a mile, they found themselves standing outside of a McDonald’s. “Want to eat here, or try somewhere else?” Trevor asked.
Shane licked his lips. “Commander Schwartz said there’s a Taco Bell at the bowling alley. I’ve heard about Taco Bell, and they even had a few in Australia for a while, but I never got to go to one.”
“Taco Bell it is, but when we get to Florida, I have to introduce you to real Mexican food.” Five minutes later, they ordered enough for four people.
Shane devoured his, but at the end, he said, “That’s not what I thought it’d be like. I hope the real stuff is better.”
Their next stop was the PX, essentially a large superstore that included a supermarket. They hit the aisles, mainly food shopping but they also availed themselves of a few boxes of ammunition, some cleaning supplies, and laundry detergent.
At the register, Trevor paid by credit card, and was mildly surprised they didn’t ask for his driver’s license for the ammunition.
As they left the PX, they were hit with a blast of afternoon heat, and stripped off their shirts before walking back towards Atlantis with several shopping bags in each hand. On the way, Shane glanced around. “This place is a lot different from what I expected. It’s not like Fleet Base West; it’s more like a town here. I wouldn’t know I was on a military base unless I was paying attention.”
“Which you never do,” Trevor added, with a chuckle.
“It’s not as if I was the one who forgot to put the battery back in the satphone off Ushuaia, or make a habit of walking into trees, ya bastard!” Shane grumbled, cracking a smile. “I’m glad we’re here though. For the rest of our lives, I can tell everyone that when you decided to take me home to America, the first place you put me was Guantanamo Bay!”
Their smiles began to fade as they each faced again the gnawing question; how much longer their lives would be in such danger. It was something that they tried not to think about, but that denial was growing harder with every passing day.
It was a meeting Bridget had been both dreading and eager for. Her arrival in Cali had been her usual low-key entrance, save for the plane itself; a Gulfstream III she’d recently acquired. This was hardly unusual for members of the cartel’s ruling council.
What was unusual was that Bridget had left her small entourage – Xavier and the two pilots – at the plane. She stood alone as she greeted the seven-man escort sent by the cartel to meet her with a cheerful, “Good day, gentlemen.” She’d dressed even more gracefully than usual for the meeting, and now sported an elegant business suit, a large, diamond-encrusted watch, along with more than a few diamond rings and a tennis bracelet. She was unarmed – the first among equals did not allow weapons in the meeting room.
Bridget was expecting trouble. The last two monthly meetings had been increasingly fractious, with rising acrimony and recriminations.
With great deference, the seven men escorted Bridget to their small motorcade for the ride to the usual meeting compound, the one where Bridget had first made her bid for Sanchez’s chair.
Bridget’s suspicions of trouble were confirmed when she entered the spartan meeting room, finding all of the other capos of the cartel already seated. With a smile, she took her time taking her chair, trying to ignore the deafening silence. “Good day, gentlemen. I am surprised to find that you began without me.”
The first man to speak did so with a face flushed in anger. “We had little choice. Again you failed to destroy the tape.”
“I have failed at nothing. As I have said from the beginning, the Panama operation was our primary means of destroying the yacht and the tape. Only those of us in this room knew of that plan significantly in advance. Yet, Atlantis took the Cape Horn route, one of the most dangerous on Earth, and did so in the middle of winter. Now, the first thing we ought to ask is why,” she said softly, letting the implication hang in the air for a moment, and then added in an offhand way, “For her to change course when she must have done, it means that the warning probably came from within this room.”
Only six of the cartel’s leaders spoke English, though now even they joined into a raucous shouting match among themselves in Spanish, a language they did not know that Bridget could understand. Only the first among equals remained aloof and silent, as he often did.
Bridget’s knowledge of Spanish was sufficient to let her know that several of the members were calling for her removal. She smiled, rapping on the table to interrupt. “Gentlemen, we have a problem; an apparent leak from within our midst.”
“The yacht missed its arrival in Panama by many days, yet you did nothing. Now you come to us with excuses, and tales of traitors. If you have proof, show it,” the man who had spoken first snapped.
“If you were not so ignorant, you would know that a sailing yacht is largely dependant on the wind, and thus any estimate for time of arrival was approximate.” Bridget’s eyes narrowed, and with a formal, pompous air, she announced, “Regarding any proof, I categorically refuse. I shall not reveal my methods or sources whilst this leak exists.”
“You will, if we insist,” her accuser shouted.
Bridget stood up abruptly, her chair skittering back and then falling onto the bare wooden floor. “I will not!” she yelled, and then added softly, “For all I know, the traitor is you.” She glanced at the first among equals, though he did not meet her eyes, or intervene. This was noticed by everyone in the room.
Another cartel head shouted, in Spanish, “She has put us all at risk, and comes here with lies and excuses. She is alone; we can remove her here and now.”
Bridget retook her seat while all except the first among equals engaged in a heated argument in Spanish. Primly, Bridget laid her right hand across her left wrist, her ring finger touching a button on her watch, which she pressed. She then, with an air of aloofness, listened to the conversation, taking mental note of the views of each man.
The cartel was organized by region; each head had his own area, though there was considerable overlap. The territory surrounding Cali was primarily run by the first among equals, though two of the members had their operations mainly along Colombia’s northern coast.
One of the other cartel chairs, who was among those calling for Bridget’s removal and had opposed her from the start, rapped on the table. His was one of the two with territories along the north coast. “Bruja. That is how you are known. Witch. Do you know its other meaning in Spanish? Old hag. I doubt you do – and I am sure your people get many a laugh at your expense.”
Bridget regarded him and his six apparent allies with a cold aloof glance. “It also means sorceress, and I assure you that no one laughs at me. Let me be quite clear; you can bicker like old washer women all you like, but you will not have my operation. To do so is not within your power.”
“You are here alone.”
“Indeed I am, for I am fully confident that should anything untoward befall me, I would not go unavenged. I am many things, but I am not a fool.”
“An empty threat; you would not have come alone had you feared for your life,” the man at Bridget’s immediate left said, with a sneer.
Still, the first among equals remained silent, exactly as planned. Bridget had allies at the table, including the head of the Panama area operation. Her allies remained mainly silent at her request, none speaking in her defense.
Bridget, who knew what to listen for, was the first to hear the faint, distant rumble, and timed her words with care. “You can, of course, kill me. That is obvious. What is also about to be obvious is that such an act would plunge this cartel into civil war. You were afraid to move against Sanchez due to his power and location. My power is now considerably greater.”
The man at her left shot back, “Like Sanchez, you have your Bahamas stronghold. You may be safe there, but you are here – and you have no way of threatening us away from your islands. At worst, we lose your operation. This decision is ours to make.”
Bridget began to smile, as the rumble of jet engines grew louder. “No, you would lose your lives,” she said, as the room began to shake from the roaring engines of the approaching Gulfstream, coming in at three hundred feet at full throttle. With a colossal roar, it passed directly over the building, shaking it to its foundations. “Wonderful things, jets. They can deliver all sorts of things. Did you know that the cargo hold hatch on a Gulfstream can make a positively delightful bomb chute?” Bridget asked, as the roaring engines receded. “Now, for another friendly demonstration,” she said, turning to look at an antagonist with a territory in the north. “I suggest that you phone your compound. Perhaps your wife and five children would enjoy a review of my troops? I have a hundred men at your perimeter, delivered by boat two days ago. They are very well trained – which is why you do not know they are there,” she said, her hands still primly crossed.
The man blanched for a moment. “A bluff.”
“Call them!” Bridget commanded, and then added, “Order your people to hold their fire. If my troops are shot at, they will attack. If not, they will simply form up and march on by, leaving your compound and your family in peace.”
“You do not have that many armed men,” he snarled, already flipping open his phone with trembling hands. His entire family was at his compound, guarded by ten of his best men. Soon, he was talking to his head of security, who at first assured him that the area was safe, only to breathlessly begin describing the heavily-armed troops emerging from the tree line all around the compound and forming up into squads, which marched back into the trees, vanishing as if they had never been there.
Bridget turned to look at the other man from the north. “And now another demonstration, this one for you. I suggest that you call your home and alert your people that they are about to see a friendly display.”
The call was made, and again a face blanched as fifty of Bridget’s forces were described as they appeared, and then vanished.
With her point about to be made, Bridget gave them a beatific smile. “I have four teams in Colombia at the moment. I felt it would be a nice test of my ability to deploy by sea.”
“Four?” the first among equals asked, speaking for the first time.
“Four, Jefe,” Bridget replied, with a deferential nod and a smile. The threat to her enemies at the table was obvious; the two remaining teams could be at any of their doors. Her eyes then swept around the table, falling briefly in turn on those she had determined to be her enemies. “I have been building up my armed force, recruiting mainly men with military training. It has cost me millions, though it is money well spent. After all, one never knows what one might need.” She glared at the man to her left, and then addressed the table at large. “Enough of this bickering. We face a problem, and squabbling among ourselves only serves to aid our enemies. United, we are secure. Divided, we cannot stand for long. Thanks to whatever warning Atlantis received, we are in danger of the tape being revealed and sparking a war with our rivals. My increase in strength is primarily with that in mind. Our rivals must be made to understand that they could not prevail, and thus a war would harm them more than us. However, far better for all if the tape is destroyed. I have pledged to do so, and so I shall. If, on the other hand, the war begins, I will not stand by and let you, my friends at this table, take the risks alone. My forces will be at your disposal, to bolster your own in guarding your operations and your loved ones – you have only to ask, and my help shall be freely given.”
“What can we do to destroy the tape? Where is this yacht now?” asked one who had not spoken in favor of Bridget’s removal.
“Atlantis departed from Argentina just hours before my team arrived, and is now at sea. I do not yet know where she is bound, though I know precisely where she will be. I will not reveal how I know, nor where they will be, for fear of further leaks. I will share that with one person only, in private,” she said, nodding towards the first among equals. “I plan to strike with overwhelming force, more than sufficient to destroy our target, along with any help they may be able to call upon.”
“How can you be certain that they still have the tape, and that no one else has it, or a copy?” the man at Bridget’s right asked.
“That too I dare not reveal while we face the likelihood of a traitor among us, though suffice it to say, I am quite certain.” Bridget wasn’t actually sure that was the case, nor did she need to be. “Now we must ask ourselves, why would one of us – or a trusted underling – side with two young men on a boat? They would not. Therefore, the only likely motive is that they are, or seek to be in case of war, in league with our rivals. We must find out who this is.”
Not long after Bridget had planted her seeds of discord and suspicion, the meeting turned, by mutual consent, to the less-inflammatory subject of day-to-day cartel operations.
After the meeting, the first among equals and Bridget remained behind. Once they were alone, he asked, “The timing was just too perfect. Sorceress indeed. That was a nice touch. You could not have set up those displays in advance to be so matched to your words and the mood in the room. And, interestingly, my people sweep the room for listening devices and could also detect it if you had one on your person. So, how did you do it?”
Bridget smiled, holding out her left hand, presenting her watch. “A simple burst transmitter. It sends a very brief signal; your systems could not detect it. I pressed once for ‘ready’, and then a different button to signal the first display. The second was timed to take place after it. I had this made recently; the transmitter attachment is very tiny, and does not hinder its function as a watch.”
“Then you have a man hidden nearby; the airport would be out of range. Very clever,” he said, as they left the room.
Bridget waited until they again had privacy to say, “Actually, that was the primary purpose of the aircraft that flew overhead – it was orbiting close by, which placed it within line-of-sight so that it could receive my signals. I was bluffing regarding the bombs. The rest though – as you know, that was no bluff. We thought that some would seek to remove me, so it was no surprise at all that six openly proposed to do so.”
The first among equals blinked. “Some of them did so only in Spanish.”
“Why yes, they did,” Bridget replied, and then shrugged. “Muy tonto de ellos, los idiotas.” Bridget’s words meant, ‘Very foolish of them, the idiots.’
For a moment, the first among equals choked, but then he began to laugh. “Well played, my dear, well played.” He’d never suspected that Bridget spoke Spanish, in spite of her frequent visits to his home after the monthly cartel meetings.
They walked further into the compound, through a small garden and into a plush office, where a pitcher of chilled beer and two glasses waited. They sat down, and the first among equals poured their drinks.
Bridget took a few sips before saying, “I was exaggerating regarding the traitor among us, though I do believe it likely that one or two harbor such thoughts if war breaks out. My additional forces should give them pause, if it comes to that.”
“I liked your offer to send troops to protect them. That nearly made me laugh aloud,” the first among equals said, smiling at the memory. “That would put them in a very interesting position indeed. You stood them down on your own, without me by your side. I do not believe they would now dare to oppose either one of us, let alone both of us together. I think we can count on their being far more civil from now on. What gave you the idea for this plan?”
“History,” Bridget said, with an enigmatic smile. “The first among equals is, after all, an ancient title. It was used in the early days of the Roman Empire, in reference to the emperor, though there it was a façade; an appearance of equality to avoid the air of a dictatorship, a way of softening the appearance, though not the fact, of absolute power. Only later did it become what it means today; one of a group of equals who is held in greater esteem and honor, though not holding absolute power. As such, you were subject to shifting coalitions within the council, always needing to maintain a majority. No more; they have shown themselves as too weak. They will never again dare stand against either of us, and will confine their intrigues to trying to play us off against one another, as we are by far the most powerful at the table.”
“It would almost be worth it to tell them the truth about us, just to see them soil themselves,” the first among equals said, with a broad smile. His smile faded, and he asked, “Can we stop this war?”
“I believe we probably can; the stronger our cartel is, the less likely war becomes. My show of strength today was not aimed solely at our recalcitrant tablemates. They, or their people, will talk, and the other cartels will hear. I now have more men under arms than any three at the table; that’s a significant increase in our power, and my force’s mobility by sea makes it even more effective,” Bridget said, before taking another drink of the cold, rich, Colombian beer. “And we shall soon be giving a demonstration that the other cartels can’t possibly ignore.”
“My own buildup has been going well, though not so well as yours. How are you finding these ex-military soldiers?”
Bridget chuckled. “I have long had contacts in the arms trade – the same contacts that helped me equip Sea Witch with military-grade radar and jamming gear, and supply similar items to my runner boats. I worked through them, recruiting retired sergeants from a few countries in South America and the Middle East. I put some of them in charge of recruitment – though with close oversight – and made certain that they picked the best. When you pay well, people respond. I shall send you a few of my former sergeants, if you like.”
“That would be very helpful, thank you. Any idea how much time we have?”
Bridget nodded. “It could happen at any time. I still hope that we can destroy the tape; though if we cannot, I am now confident that we can survive it largely intact. As for destroying it, I do know where they will be, and I believe that may be our final chance to defang the tape…” Bridget went on to explain.
The first among equals arched an eyebrow. “How did you manage to find out all that?”
“Part of it is via the bank I control in the Caymans; I have access to some credit card use data as well as credit summaries. I have been able to see some of Trevor’s transactions. I am keeping an eye on others as well,” Bridget replied, adding a few more details, though still saving the best for last.
“Impressive. It might be best to involve some of the others at our table; if they are contributing to the operation, any failure will be shared. We may also meet major resistance from the local authorities, so hitting by surprise, hard and fast with overwhelming force is, as you say, the best option.”
Bridget smiled with genuine pleasure. “I believe that, given the appropriate stage-setting and the element of surprise, combined with our seaborne approach, we shall have little trouble, certainly nothing the firepower we will have cannot handle with ease,” Bridget said, and then added a few other details before taking a dainty sip of beer.
The first among equals began to laugh. “Oh Bridget… you’re just full of surprises today, aren’t you?”
“I do try, my dear,” she replied, as she took her lover’s hand.
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