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By RYAN LOCKWOOD
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Ryan Lockwood
All rights reserved.
The water was deep.
Miguel couldn't see the ocean around him in the moonless night. But he knew it was very deep underneath the boat. The lights of shore had vanished behind them many hours ago.
The long, narrow panga rode over the dark swells faster than a man could sprint. Seeing anything in the water would be impossible, even in the daylight. Yet Miguel again peered over the side of the boat. He was certain that beneath the frothy chop dancing on the dark surface were thousands of feet of nothingness.
He turned away to avoid the cold spray that rhythmically slapped the hull and slid back down out of the wind. Huddled against his brother in the bottom of the weathered panga, he tried to make out the faces of the fifteen or so other men in the darkness. All were older than him. He could only see their silhouettes, crammed together and rocking with the swells as the boat rose and fell. Like him, these men headed to an uncertain future wearing cheap T-shirts, Windbreakers, faded jeans. Like him, they carried all their money inside plastic bags zipped into pockets or stuffed into small daypacks containing the few other prized possessions they owned. Almost everyone wore a crucifix around his neck.
Each of them also carried one other item: a small, waterproof flashlight. Miguel felt in his pocket to make sure his was still there.
A man jumped up and hurried past Miguel, kicking his bent legs as he passed before vomiting over the stern. Miguel looked away and tried unsuccessfully to make out the expressions of the other passengers on the far side of the crowded boat. He hoped they couldn't see his face, either—the young, smooth face of a frightened boy. He wondered if these men were like the dark water around them, if even in the daylight he would be unable to see what was going on beneath their expressions. Miguel was grateful for the darkness. He was scared, and knew his own eyes would show it.
His older brother leaned against him, wrapping a strong arm around his shoulders. It was cold being on the water, especially with the constant headwind as the boat pushed northward. But Miguel knew his brother wasn't trying to warm him. Elías simply wanted to comfort his teenage brother, even though he must be worried, too. That was how Elías was. He was a good older brother.
Miguel wasn't sure how they had paid the coyote who now stood at the helm. They had almost run out of money since leaving Honduras a week ago. Then this morning they had met the young, skinny smuggler in the crowded streets of Ensenada.
The coyote's gaunt face suddenly appeared in the darkness above Miguel, discernible in the faint light cast by a cell phone. He looked anxious as he briefly toyed with the phone; then his face disappeared in the darkness. Miguel remembered that the man was wearing a black cap with an American football logo. He wanted to turn on his flashlight so he could see better, but this coyote had warned them all to leave their lights off. He had assured the brothers he had done this before many times, that they needed to relax. Miguel didn't trust him.
The loud drone of the engine dropped off as the coyote eased down on the accelerator, causing the bow to dip as the boat slowed rapidly. A minute later, the sound dropped again, to an idle, and the boat leveled off as its own wake caught up to it and nudged it forward. The coyote cut the engine, and suddenly it was as quiet as it was dark. All Miguel could hear now were the small waves smacking against the metal hull of the boat.
He grabbed the curved side and rose, looking out over the night water. There was only darkness. No, wait. There was one small, distant light on the water. Off the bow, he noticed what appeared to be another boat. Was it the one they were looking for? He watched it, wondering if it was headed in their direction yet. He looked at the driver and saw that he, too, was aware of the boat.
The distant light went black, then reappeared again. It blinked on and off repeatedly in a one-two-three pattern, then disappeared. Miguel realized it was probably some sort of signal. The other boat must have been sending it blindly for some time, since the unlit panga Miguel rode in had to be invisible. The coyote reached under the helm and retrieved a small spotlight, which he directed at the other boat. He turned the beam on and off several times. Then, stowing the light, he turned away from the helm in the darkness and spoke in an urgent, hushed voice to the men in the boat.
"Oye. Este es el lugar." A few men stood, but most just looked at the coyote. Miguel knew then he was not the only one who was afraid. It was one of the older men who spoke first.
"Señor, are you sure we will be okay? We are far from shore. How do we know the other boat will find us?" "Your lights, viejo. Remember to leave them off until the boat is almost to you, though."
The old man nodded, but looked uncertain as the coyote continued.
"You will probably feel cold after being in the water for a while. Don't worry. The other boat will be here quickly, before you become numb. The water is very warm tonight. You can all swim, verdad?"
Everybody was silent. Miguel realized he was nodding in the darkness.
"Bueno. It will be less than a half hour before you are picked up. Pay the other man the rest that you owe. And remember, everyone must hold on to the others. The currents can separate you if you let go of each other. Nobody will come looking for you if you leave the group."
It was time, but nobody moved to leave the safety of the boat. Miguel glanced at his brother, who now looked worried.
"Okay. Vámonos! In the water, now. Everyone, into the water!"
Hunger drove them.
Despite their considerable size, they glided in close unison through the deep, unlit water. As a school of small fish or flock of blackbirds moves together, they behaved not as a collection of individuals, but as one large organism. A shoal.
There were more than a thousand of them.
Their collective movements were always executed with grace and fluidity. Their actions were quick but unhurried, their forms powerful, but not bulky. Millions of years of evolution had perfected their form and honed their function. The effortless beauty of their movements concealed their primary purpose, their reason for being.
They were predators.
Beneath their smooth exteriors were hidden the sharp, dangerous tools of the hunter. Tools that seized, tore, maimed, and killed.
The open water around them had remained seemingly the same as they moved in darkness with the cool currents. They were accustomed to this cold, dark, featureless world. To endless expanses of open ocean. Yet these were unfamiliar waters.
The shoal had been migrating for weeks now, always in the same general direction. It was not the first shoal to make this migration, but few had gone before it, and none of this size. The shoal was not aware that others like it had ventured to these waters before, would continue to come this way after they were gone. Its members merely followed the impulses that guided them.
Their world was perpetually dark. Would always be dark.
They cooperated perfectly, operated in coordinated unity. More efficient than any army, they relied upon instinct instead of training to guide their graceful movements and deadly actions. Yet they shared no camaraderie, no loyalty. They were indifferent to one another, with no feelings or concern for the others that moved with them. They needed each other, and simply used each other for survival.
They needed each other now. For days, they had continued in the same direction, encountering no resistance but finding less and less sustenance. The prey they were accustomed to eating had dwindled in these waters, and their hunger had grown.
Following their daily rhythm, they had risen hours ago. The ocean had yielded little to slake their ceaseless hunger.
Now they desperately needed to feed.
The boat was gone. The group waited helplessly on the dark ocean, bobbing on the surface in the dim starlight.
Miguel noticed that several of the men had already turned on their flashlights underwater. Feet and legs, treading the water slowly, were faintly visible now. A few of the men, most of whom weren't much older than his brother, were murmuring to one another. The rest were silent.
The ocean had felt very cold at first when it flooded through Miguel's clothing as he had entered the water. Even in July, the waters off Southern California were cool. By the time the last person had entered the water, and the coyote had started up the panga and sped off to the south, the water felt warmer against his skin. The boat had vanished quickly into the darkness, its drone fading into the lapping sounds of the ocean.
Staying afloat was fairly easy, since the ocean was so saline and Miguel was comfortable in the water. But he was scared of the dark, the cold, the uncertainty. He knew the water would soon feel much colder, if the other boat didn't arrive on time. And something else had been bothering him since they had plunged from the boat into the dark ocean.
"Mano, what happens next?" Miguel looked at his brother. "Who is picking us up? Where are we going?"
"Está bien, manito. Soon we will be safe in America. Everything will be okay." Elías reached over and squeezed his arm, white teeth flashing in the faint light. But the smile disappeared, and his brother looked away.
Miguel floated next to Elías, each grasping the other's shoulders. He looked around and realized that none of the other men were holding on to one another as they had been instructed to do. Self-conscious, he let go of his brother and treaded water several feet away from him. It was a calm sea. There was no need to hold on to anyone.
He looked down into the water at the flashlight in his hand. Why should he leave his light off? Besides, nobody would be able to see it underwater. He turned it on and directed it downward. In the bright beam, he could see his legs and feet clearly, but the dark ocean was hungry for the light and quickly absorbed it.
"Turn it off, manito. You don't want to get caught, do you? Besides, you're wasting the batteries."
"In a minute." Miguel knew his brother was right, but he was anxious.
Below the beam of the flashlight, in the depths beneath him, he saw nothing but immeasurable blackness. He looked at the undersides of the other men's faces, illuminated eerily by the artificial light refracted through the waves. His gaze returned to his own feet again, and the blackness below them. He watched thousands of minute particles, white in the bright light, floating around his legs above the black, bottomless void.
He wondered what was down there.
The shoal abruptly slowed, in unison. There had been a new stimulus.
Not the familiar, expansive light from above, but small, moving lights. Possibly the lights of prey. Many large, black eyes near the front of the shoal sensed this. The lights had disappeared, but the stimulated individuals propelled themselves more rapidly upward, toward where the lights had been, followed closely by the rest of the immense gathering.
The shoal ascended quickly. It slowed after a short time, its members sensing that they were now close to where the lights had been. Above them, a single light reappeared. They were very close now.
They approached from below. The enormous mass of predators moved silently, invisibly through the ink-black water, slowly observing the light above. They rose and banked slowly around the light, assessing. There was movement in the light. The eyes in the shoal detected large objects in the weak illumination. Unfamiliar objects. This was not the small prey that glowed, and it was too close to the surface. Yet it was similar; it was living.
It might be prey.
As the light went out, the shoal began to change color, unnoticed even by its own members' powerful eyes in the darkness. Several of them began emitting faint pulses of light from their bodies. Rapidly the shoal communicated. Many fins fluttered in the dark. The enormous mass of the shoal changed shape. Formerly packed into a huge ball, its members now slowly spread to form a massive circle around the extinguished light.
And moved toward it.
Travis Roche was thinking about the money.
He was floating far offshore in Sea Plus, his father's thirty-five-foot fishing boat. He sat in the stern, alone in the dark, and sipped a bottle of Mexican beer as the salty breeze played through his unwashed sandy-blond hair.
Tonight's gig sure paid well, and was less risky than when he had smuggled weed. Another midnight run to deliver a batch of wetbacks into SoCal. Last time, the grateful immigrants had paid him without protest, then hustled away in pairs once they had gotten to the dock, just like he had asked them to. Easy money.
That was it—all he had to do. When he reached the marina, his work ended. Hector had said the money would be even better this time, since there were supposed to be like fifteen guys. Travis didn't care. There was plenty of room in the boat.
And what did it matter anyway? So many immigrants were crossing the border nowadays that a few more wouldn't make much of a difference. But helping these ones would sure as hell pay for a sweet month in Baja this fall. Great surf and no crowds.
This far off the coast, Southern California was a different place. Slower, quieter, more relaxed. Travis sipped his beer and sent a stream through the gap in his front teeth, over the side of the boat. It was too humid to make out anything in the distance—even the lights of shore. He was thinking about how long he could surf in Baja with this cash when his cell phone began to chime on the dash.
Travis stood, walked barefoot over to check the new text message on the display. He touched a button and read the new message on the backlit screen:
15. 11S 466580 3612210.
The number of immigrants, and the UTM coordinates. A few minutes later, after he entered the GPS numbers into the boat's Garmin, he flashed his spotlight to the south. Moments later, he noticed a distant light on the ocean, responding from some distance. He watched the light as it flashed four times again in rapid succession. It was definitely Hector.
He was about to make the drop, at the north Coronados location, just as they had planned on Travis's last trip to Baja. This sort of open-ocean transfer, far from the coast and requiring immigrants to actually enter the water, was a pain in the ass. But they had to smuggle the immigrants this way so the Border Patrol wouldn't ever be able to use its new toy—an unmanned Predator drone with cameras and infrared sensors. The drone could detect the meeting of two vessels offshore, close to the Mexican border, and a bunch of warm bodies moving from one boat to the other. It couldn't detect body heat radiating through cold seawater, though, and this way would never record two vessels coming together.
With international terrorism a serious concern, the government was intensifying its security at the Mexican border, and offshore smuggling in particular. Illegal aliens were as desperate as ever to cross the border, and they were trying all kinds of methods to enter the States—tunneling into San Diego to emerge under old houses, navigating the desert on foot, stowing away in semi-trailer loads. And some tried to take boats to California. All the unimaginative boat runners moving immigrants into Southern California were getting nailed.
Not Travis and Hector. This would be their second successful operation. And as long as they didn't attempt it too often, Travis figured he had found a way to pay for some mad surf trips to Central America. Maybe even Hawaii. Besides, Travis liked Mexicans. They just wanted a better life and all, right?
Travis drained the rest of the beer and tossed the bottle overboard as he moved toward the helm. He didn't have time to screw around once the drop had been made, and knew he had to hurry. Even summer waters got cold if you spent too long out there, and currents could move a floating group far and fast. If he hurried, Travis could simply cruise over to the coordinates using the GPS and the previous visual cue from Hector. He would slow when he neared and look for flashlights, which Hector would have given to the men in the water. That was it. Piece of cake.
The operation was really quite simple, as long as the weather was good. They would have called it off otherwise.
Travis found the ignition and turned the key.
The boat didn't start.
"Shit!" He turned the key again, but there was no response from the motor.
Excerpted from BELOW by RYAN LOCKWOOD. Copyright © 2013 by Ryan Lockwood. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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