Cuba Strait: A Novelby Carsten Stroud
As a cop, Rick Broca had seen enough human misery to last a lifetime. Which is why he's now living the good life -- playing consultant to a Hollywood producer. Taking care of his employer's boat in the Florida Keys, Rick figures he's finally got it made. That changes when he rescues a mysterious pilot from a downed seaplane, and is intercepted by a fishing boat that… See more details below
As a cop, Rick Broca had seen enough human misery to last a lifetime. Which is why he's now living the good life -- playing consultant to a Hollywood producer. Taking care of his employer's boat in the Florida Keys, Rick figures he's finally got it made. That changes when he rescues a mysterious pilot from a downed seaplane, and is intercepted by a fishing boat that happens to be packing heavy artillery. Rick knows enough to shoot first and, if you're still alive, ask questions later -- and finds himself caught in a tropical maelstrom of international power and politics between the U.S. and Cuba. To reach safe waters, he'll have to navigate a violent course of intrigue and betrayal between his code of honor and his well-worn sense of self-preservation....
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.38(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.22(d)
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MOTOR CRUISER CAGANCHO CAY SAL BANK, STRAITS OF FLORIDA
9:00 P.M. EDT, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20 When the emergency weather fax came in, Rick Broca missed it completely. He was out on the stern more than slightly distracted by a fourteen-foot tiger shark. Hours ago, he had anchored in a shallow bay a hundred yards east of the Double Shot Keys, in a lagoon so limpid and clear the forty-four-foot cruiser seemed to be hovering in the air above the coral. The sun was setting, a disk of orange fire gliding down into Mexico through an opalescent sky streaked with margarita green and flamingo pink. To the southeast, a storm front was rising up out of Cuba, an ominous gray-green stain spreading out along the horizon. Rick was on the swim platform, shirtless, in jeans and Top-Siders, the sunlight strong on his chest and shoulders, a camera in his right hand, Cisco beside him, the cat's eyes wide, his ears flat, a hard vibrating growl deep in his chest, both of them watching the yellow-and-black tiger shark circling a few feet off the fantail, its gills flaring, one slate eye tracking them as she made a turn through the coral, the sand stirring into eddies as she passed. A man could spend his whole life in the Keys and never see one of these. But she was here, a huge female, two thousand pounds at the least. Sunlight rippled along her broad scarred back, glinted off her ragged dorsal fin. Her jaws were half-open, showing razor-edged yellow teeth set into pulpy tissue as blood-red as an open wound. What was on her mind? She was...interested.
Back at Garrison Bight, around the Key West Marina, the charter boat captains had talked about this big female tiger they hadnamed Maybelline -- presumably after someone's ex-wife -- rumored to cruise the fishing grounds off the Cay Sal Bank. She had been hunted by sportfishers all up and down the Santaren Channel, spotted by sailors as far south as Cuba; maybe fifty years old, never took a hook, supposed to have a series of prop scars on her big white belly, gotten when she came all the way up a swim ladder after a hooked swordfish, which she sliced off clean behind the gills and swallowed whole.
When she turned in the coral, Rick had seen enough of her pale white underbelly to make her out as female, but couldn't think of any way to get a closer look that didn't involve being eaten alive. Well, there might be one way. He had a loaded bolt-action .308 Remington in an oiled sheepskin case beside the bed in the forward stateroom. Three above the eye would probably kill her.
Killing something as rare and full of power as this tiger shark for no good reason other than to be able to tow her bloody carcass home for the amusement of a gaggle of Key West grifters on the dock at Garrison Bight struck Rick as unworthy, a kind of crime. But she had to be the legendary Maybelline. How many of these huge tiger sharks could live in the same waters? And this one, blindly compelled by her primeval code, would have eaten most of the competition a long, long time ago. She was visibly ancient, battle-scarred, hundreds of gouges and badly healed wounds all along her flanks, small chunks bitten out of her dorsal, an ugly puckered furrow carved into her snout.
The shark showed no sign of emotion, no sign of leaving. Her interest in them was strictly business. She was trying to figure out how to reach them, working out the odds. The mass of the boat's stern behind Rick was confusing her. She knew they were there. She could smell and hear them. She knew they were meat. But the shape of the boat, the mass of it, was making her uneasy. She was obviously processing the problem. When she made a decision, Rick figured they'd be the first to know. Nineteen more minutes passed in this suspended zone, Rick almost hypnotized by the shark, his breathing shallow, his mind blank, before he finally registered the faint chime coming from the helm station. The weather-fax alarm.
He straightened, raised the Nikon and ran off sixteen frames. The shark, reacting to the sound of the camera's motor drive, arched, lashed her tail, and dove under the boat's stern, leaving a large whirlpool roiling on the still surface of the lagoon.
Rick stepped through the stern gate and stopped, looking down at the big tabby-striped cat. Cisco stayed right where he was, completely focused on the idea of this shark, sensing that it was still very close, his growl rising a few notes, his muscles tightening visibly. Rick reached over the stern board, scooped him up, held him high in the air. Cisco looked down at him, his tattered ears flat, eyes wide, body rigid, twenty-some pounds of muscle and bone, clearly not pleased.
"You thinking of going in there, you mook?"
Cisco's yellow eyes were crazy, battle bright. He twisted in Rick's grip, terribly strong, got his paws onto the thickly corded muscle along Rick's forearm, and flexed his claws, raking the skin. Rick, cursing with the pain, plucked him loose, dropped him onto a bench under the canopy at the pilot station, pulled the fax from the machine, spread it out on top of the control panel. The news was not good.
There was a major tropical storm coming in out of the south-southeast. The incoming front showed as a dense helix of isobars on a graphic overlay of the Florida Straits, a vortex of wind shear and atmospheric collisions. The density of the lines meant that it was a sizable storm, and moving fast. Rick had been in the Keys for three months, long enough to know what he was looking at, what it meant for a boat trapped on a bank of coral shoals ninety-eight miles out of Key West. He'd once made the mistake of thinking that a well-set anchor and room to swing a full 360 degrees in a shallow sand-bottom lagoon like this was a good way to ride out a storm. Although Rick had made a multitude of mistakes in his short but colorful career, mainly with women, he made very few of them twice.
He looked off to the southeast, over the white-water ridge where the Anguilla Cays and the change from pale green to dark blue marked the edge of the Santaren Channel. There it was, away in the southern sky over Cuba, a blue-black tower, pale gray wings, capped by a thunderhead, dark green and smoky gray, with flashes of lightning visible inside the belly of the storm. This one was a real contender, drawing energy from the cooling of the day, picking up speed and force over the warm ocean water, coming in fast.
He glanced at the radar screen. In the display the luminous sweep of the radar beam showed bright green against a black background that covered a circle thirty miles wide. The incoming front registered as a glowing green mass, solid as a wall. And there was something else. Inside the green mass, at its trailing edge, a small but very distinct red blip. An airplane. Something big, judging by the size of the radar return, and low. Just a couple of thousand feet off the water. Maybe a DC-9 storm-chaser from the weather watch or a patrolling Hercules from the Coast Guard.
A gust of wind swept across the lagoon, ruffling the surface, scattering the dying light across the bay like shattered amber glass. The cruiser stirred at her mooring, tugging at the Danforth buried in the sand. The anchor cable came up out of the water, pulling tight, droplets falling off the line. The stern came around slowly, the boat pointed her bow into the freshening breeze. Rick looked at the barometer. Dropping fast. Cagancho had a big monitor on the control panel, on the left of the radar display, called a Navigation Plotter, which was really a shipboard computer loaded with marine charts, running a navigation program that was linked to the boat's GPS -- the Global Positioning System. If he wanted to know where he was anywhere on the screen, all he had to do was hit the LOCATOR tab and the monitor would show him his current position against a detailed background exactly like a full-color marine chart.
Cagancho was indicated by a green arrowhead, her position 84 degrees, 55 minutes west, 24 degrees, 5 minutes north, the northern range of the Cay Sal Bank. Due north of his position, the chart showed the westward arc of the Lower Keys, Big Pine, Ramrod, Sugar Loaf, an extended archipelago of limestone and coral that ended in the flat limestone slab of Key West. On the eastern range of the chart there was the big island of Andros and far to the south the saw-toothed northern coast of Cuba. Just to starboard there was a shoal of jagged coral called the Dog Rocks and the reef off his port bow was called Muertos Cay. Death Key? Take it as a hint, Rick. Now that he knew exactly where he was, it was time to be somewhere else.
He switched the twin Yanmar 420s on, listened to their deep burbling rumble through the decking, left the shift in neutral, went forward to bring in the anchor. Cisco followed him, padding across the long white sweep of the bow. The wind was rising sharply, ruffling Cisco's fur.
The Hinckley 44 slid forward as the anchor cable churned into the winch, a tiny bow wave foaming under the cutwater. As Rick crouched there, looking down into the lagoon, the tiger shark sliced across his bow, rocking the hull, flashing away in the direction of the Dog Rocks, her scarred dorsal leaving a spreading V of white water, two thousand pounds moving so frighteningly fast she was almost a blur. Rick made a mental note to stay out of the water for the rest of his life. Cisco watched it go from his place in the bow pulpit, gave Rick an over-the-shoulder look full of weary accusation, padded back to the cabin with his tail straight up, hooked at the tip.
The Danforth broke the surface, smelling of slime and saltwater. Rick clamped it home in its storage locker, closed the hatch cover, locked it, went back to the controls, shoved Cisco off the captain's chair. The boat drifted broadside to the wind. He let her bow come all the way around to the north, running his left hand through his short black hair, his right hand resting on the throttles, his sunburned face hardening up, thinking about tactics.
He was ninety-eight nautical miles southeast of Key West. The anchorage at Garrison Bight -- Cagancho's home port -- was on the northern shore of the key, the sheltered lee shore, like most of the marinas in the Lower Keys. It had a narrow harbor entrance that he'd have to negotiate under heavy seas and a bad head wind. There were easier reaches due north; some of the smaller Keys along the Florida coast were no more than forty nautical miles away. Cagancho would do thirty-two knots per in a dead calm, less in heavy weather, but he might have to outrun a following sea all the way in, or deal with ten-foot waves breaking over her stern boards and a cutting rain sheeting straight into the back of his head. And all the time he'd be closing in on a lee shore full of shoals and hidden rocks. No, Key West was out. And the nearer Keys as well. By the fax here, it wasn't a very deep front, more of a passing squall. A damn BIG passing squall, but not yet a major storm. Maybe it would be better to go right at the thing, take it three-quarters on the bow and let it pass over him.
This idea, only mildly insane, appealed strongly to his inner psychotic. But it did make a kind of lunatic sense. When you got off the Cay Sal Bank and into the channel, you had 350 fathoms -- over 2,000 feet -- of blue water under the keel and a straight run into the storm with no saw-toothed reefs to worry about and a world of sea room to maneuver. Both fuel tanks were topped. The boat was low and broad-beamed -- no showy and irrelevant flying bridge to make her top-heavy and lunging -- she was rock steady in big seas.
He'd have to mind the limestone shoals that made such a hazard of the Great Bahama Bank on his port side, but the Hinckley -- driven by two high-pressure water jets -- had no propellers and drew only twenty-seven inches at her deepest point; she could glide like a gull over shallows that would crack another boat's hull like a Christmas walnut. It was a wild thing to consider, but it could, with luck and close attention, be done.
Here, at the decision point, he found a quiet moment to punish himself, and being a good little dago mick from Queens, he didn't pass it up. Damn the shark and damn the cat and damn the God-damn weather fax. Damn himself most of all. If he'd been up at the controls like a grown-up, paying attention to business, he might have had time enough to make a flat-out run for the nearest key. There was an old oyster bar right on the docks at Matecumbe Key with a bartender named Caroline whose looks could melt a plastic Jesus -- he could have been safe indoors and halfway through a frosted margarita and a bucket of chilled oysters by the time this storm hit the breakwater. He heard a low cry. Cisco was sitting on the deck a few feet away, staring up at him, looking, for Christ's sake, as if the cheeky little fur ball was fretting about his dinner.
"Hey, give me no grief, you psycho. Where the hell were you when the fax came in? What kind of a ship's cat are you, anyway?"
Cisco blinked at him, narrowed his eyes, blinked again, and chose the moment to lick his privates.
"Nice. Attractive. When you're through, you can do mine."
He cranked the wheel to starboard, heading for the passage between the Dog Rocks and Damas Cay. Cagancho's bow surged, rose up, white water curving away from the slicing bow. She was doing fifteen knots in a few seconds. Rick adjusted the trim tabs, she came down onto plane with the storm a few points off her starboard quarter. On the radar, the red blip -- well inside the storm itself -- was closer, coming in at 1,500 feet off the water. He decided it was definitely a Coast Guard plane. They were all totally nuts in the Coast Guard, especially the pilots.
He engaged the auto-helm, chased Cisco down the stairs into the main cabin -- ignoring the cat's scalded hiss -- grabbed himself a yellow squall jacket, a Beck's beer, his blue ball cap with the New York State Police crest, shut and sealed the hatchway door. Then he got back into the captain's chair, popped the cap on the Beck's, shut off the auto-helm, took a long pull from the bottle, got a grip on the polished wooden wheel, and shoved the throttles forward.
Cagancho roared up, boomed out sharply, cutting a white-water arc over the lime-green seas. The boat was very fast, the seaway wide open. He looked at the front again, assessing it. The belly of the storm was filled with flickering white fire, the base deep gray and blurred with driving rain all along the squall line. The setting sun was shining on the face of it and broken light flickered along the line of jagged whitecaps being driven before it. It looked nasty, mean, and dangerous. Cagancho cleared the Dog Rocks in three minutes and shot out into the Santaren Channel, Rick cutting the wheel to starboard until his compass reading showed 135 degrees, a bearing that would take him southeast down the Santaren toward the Old Bahama Channel. Out of the chop and into much heavier seas, Cagancho wallowed and slowed -- Rick throttled back, adjusted her trim and then accelerated again -- the bow came back up, leveled out. Cagancho was cutting into nine-foot waves. Each time the keel smacked into the blue-glass wall of the wave, the boat would shudder, and two white wings of spray would burst out from under the bow.
In his three months cruising the Keys, Rick had learned to ride heavy seas standing up, hands on the wheel, taking each wave as it came, knees slightly flexed, belly muscles tight, working, his shoulders and arms braced. He could feel the true ocean under his keel, the mountainous groundswell that was always rolling far beneath the surface waves, the slower and deeper surge, the open sea coated with yellow foam, streaked with running lines of lighter green. It looked slick and slightly greasy and long ribbons of sea grass churned in his wake. The air got even colder.
Ten minutes of this, at twenty knots, the boat taking the seas at a slight angle, slicing into them and then riding up and over the waves, the front getting bigger and bigger, then the boat hit the leading edge of the squall line, the sunlight cut off like a thrown switch and he was inside the storm. Visibility dropped to a hundred feet, even less. The wind rose to a piercing howl all around him, drowning out the engine noise. Black-and-green clouds raced overhead, shredded and flying. He could see the base of the system above him, solid as a freeway overpass, dense, gray-black with sun-bright flashes of lightning deep inside. The swells increased, their crests white with foam, the gusting winds stripping off the whitecaps. A sheeting rain came straight in at the windscreen, drumming against the glass, bringing the sharp scent of deep ocean, salty, rotten, carrying with it an unwelcome intimation of his own mortality. Fighting a sudden wave of what felt uncomfortably like fear, he turned up the volume on the marine radio, checked that he was on channel sixteen, braced himself against the pilot chair, his eye on the compass. This was going to be rough, rougher than he had anticipated. He could feel the force of the wind slamming into the cabin ports and the boat began to vibrate with the force of the storm. He backed the throttles off to fifteen knots, put the wheel more to port, trying to increase the angle and take the rollers at three-quarters on. This made it easier to ride the crests up and slip down the troughs, but it was also narrowing the space between his port side and the distant reefs of the Great Bahama Bank. The world shrank to a small circle of ocean pelted with stinging rain, streaked with flying cloud, the boat rising up one glassy green wall, cresting the peak, sliding down into the trough and rocking, the next green roller coming at her starboard bow, the sickening roller-coaster lift up that one and at each crest, in that single fleeting instant of balance, all he could see beyond this wave was the next one and the one after that, rank after rank, column on column, until they disappeared under a billowing curtain of cold rain and white water.
He found himself listening to the tone of the engines with a painful intensity, watching the seas as they came at him out of the sheeting rain, glancing briefly at the compass bearing and the sonar screen -- the three-dimensional display showed him the ocean floor three hundred fathoms forward and down in a holographic display of thin green lines that twisted and reformed as he passed over the valleys and peaks of the seabed -- then a quick look at the radar screen beside it -- Cagancho was at the dead center of this storm, around it a whirling green mass -- and that red blip. God, it was damn close.
Rick squinted out through the rain-streaked windshield. If he was reading the radar correctly -- he couldn't be -- this plane was dangerously -- at that moment something massive burst through the bottom of the cloud base -- less than nine hundred feet off the waves -- it seemed to be coming right at Rick's head -- four shimmering silver prop circles as big as the boat -- wings out a hundred feet -- he could even see the windscreen on the plane -- the wipers flicking -- in the small part of his brain that wasn't involved with regretting his imminent death, Rick heard his own voice -- Hercules -- it's a C-130 Hercules -- he got a fleeting glimpse of white letters painted on the army-green fuselage -- USMC -- then the transport plane went over his head no more than seven hundred feet off the radio mast -- four engines roaring like volcanoes -- the sound deafening -- the force of the prop wave flattened the sea underneath it, stopped the boat in her tracks, shoved her sideways -- the deck tilted as Rick lost control -- and then the Hercules was gone -- swallowed up by the squalls, leaving a swirling whirlpool of shredded cloud and the reek of burning kerosene. Rick, cursing, fought the wheel -- she had canted wildly to starboard as the Hercules had gone over and the seas were pounding hard on the port side -- he throttled up and cranked the wheel to port -- was reaching for the marine radio to report a Hercules in distress -- it was the only explanation -- when a second plane -- this time much smaller -- a twin-engine floatplane -- came hurtling out of the cloud base and flashed in at him no more than 150 feet off the water -- so close Rick could see the white blur of the pilot's face -- black holes for eyes -- another face beside him -- it went over him with a snarling yowl as the twin props feathered -- he heard the plane's engines sputtering -- they were so close to the ocean that wind spray was choking the intakes -- he saw the plane yaw and tilt -- recover -- the wings flexing -- then it was gone too -- almost into the same hole in the storm that the Hercules had cut out of the cloud bank.
Rick looked at the radar screen. There were two red blips, almost merging into one as he watched, one very large, the Hercules -- it was gaining altitude -- and another, very faint -- both blips bearing 315, moving away fast -- the seas were still pounding the boat and Rick had to contend with the wheel, which was fighting him as the ocean tried to turn the craft sideways and roll it over -- she was answering, though, he could feel her coming back into the wind -- the next time he had a moment to check the radar -- two full and memorable minutes later -- there was only one blip on the screen. The larger one. The Hercules.
The military transport was still gaining altitude, almost at the northwestern edge of the storm -- as he watched the red blip break out of the green mass -- her bearing was 310 -- a course that led right to Key West -- it had to be the Gitmo shuttle -- the regular supply flight that he had seen every Tuesday and Friday -- the Marine Corps Hercules that flew from Guantánamo base on the southeast coast of Cuba to the Key West Naval Air Station. No other blip. Nothing else in the entire sweep of the radar. He watched the green line as it circled the screen; there was no doubt at all. One huge red blip; the Hercules, heading away. The other plane, the twin-engine floatplane, was nowhere on the radar screen. Was it so close to the other blip that the return was lost in the backscatter? Or was it gone? Was it down in the water? Rick plucked the handset off the VHF, thumbed the call tab.
"Securité! Securité! Securité! This is the motor cruiser Cagancho."
He throttled back, let the boat come around to port a couple of degrees. The force of the storm seemed to be lessening, but it was still very strong and the wave height was rising, as they usually did in the trailing edge of a big squall. He listened to the radio. Nothing.
"Securité! Securité! Securité! This is the motor cruiser Cagancho."
"Cagancho, this is Royal Navy vessel Blackjack. Switch to channel twenty-two."
A British accent, male, young, calm, very naval.
Rick hit the selector, clicked over to channel 22.
"Blackjack, this is Cagancho. Do you have a light plane down, vicinity eastern edge of the Cay Sal Bank?"
"What's your position, Cagancho?"
Rick looked at his GPS.
"Eighty degrees, thirty minutes west. Twenty-three degrees, forty-two minutes north. Nine miles northeast of the light at Anguilla Cay. I was buzzed by a C-130 at nine hundred feet. Right behind it, underneath it, there was a float plane, a twin-engine Kodiak, I think. Engines failing. Two people aboard, at least. It's off my radar now."
"Cagancho, our base has the American Hercules on radar. They reported catastrophic command and control malfunctions in their onboard computer system. U.S. Coast Guard has scrambled a C-130. They advise us there is no other flight plan filed for this sector. Repeat, they advise no other flight plan filed by any aircraft. They have observed no second radar return. We observe no second return. Repeat. There is no other return. Are you sure of the second plane?"
Rick took a full fifteen seconds to think about his answer.
"Blackjack, I am positive. I had two blips on my radar as they went over. I lost the small one. And I had a visual confirmation. Small twin-engine float. Dark blue fuselage, light-blue undercarriage. No markings. Possibly a Kodiak. Couldn't have gone more than a few miles northwest bearing three-one-zero."
"Cagancho, what are you?"
"I'm a Hinckley, a Talaria forty-four footer, jet boat, twin diesels. American flag. I'm in heavy seas here. I'm singlehanded. I am not in distress. My name is Broca. Rick Broca. I'm a civilian."
Oddly, he found that very hard to say. But it was true. He was a civilian, nothing more. Those days were gone. With the dead.
"Cagancho, do you wish to respond?"
"Blackjack, I don't own this boat. Besides, I'm miles out."
"Cagancho, we are currently deployed on a rescue mission. We have a sailboat in shoals on the Andros bank, under a lee shore. Rudder gone. You are the nearest vessel. We will advise the U.S. Coast Guard base at Key West and follow up as soon as we have this craft secured. Will you respond? There's no one else. Cagancho? Will you respond?"
Rick looked out across the bow. The green waves were marching in, the tops shredded by gale, the clouds streaming over his head. But at the edge of his southern horizon line, he could see clear sky and a twilight glow. He was almost out from under it. And what had he seen? And how did he know the plane was down? Maybe it was still out there, but flying so low it was under his radar horizon. And why was it any business of his? He'd informed the Royal Navy. That was all he had to do. It was up to them, and the U.S. authorities.
The problem? This wasn't his boat. It belonged to Jake Seigel, his million-dollar boat and particular pride. If anything fatal happened to Cagancho, he'd gouge the replacement cost out of Rick's heart with an ice-cream scoop. Rick had been in business with Jake Seigel for eight months, long enough for him to see the lizard beneath the Santa Barbara tan and the Armani wardrobe. He throttled up and Cagancho butted through a rogue roller that had to be fifteen feet at the crest, slipped down the broad green back of the wave in a dizzying rush. The light in the southeast was changing into a deep purple. He looked back over the stern boards. The storm was bigger and blacker than ever, gaining power every second. It was on its way to being a tropical storm; perhaps, with a little persuasion, even a hurricane. And night was coming on. Damn. God damn.
"Blackjack, this is Cagancho. I'll respond."
"Very good, Cagancho. Look for a debris field. We can detect no EPIRB or ELT signals from that vicinity. Can you monitor one-two-one point five megahertz?"
They were talking about the safety devices known as Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon -- EPIRBs -- water-activated radio transmitters that were mandatory gear for planes and larger watercraft in the Caribbean. Cagancho had one on board, in a red metal case right next to the pilot wheel. In these waters, EPIRBs broadcast their distress signal at 121.5 megahertz.
"Blackjack, I can monitor one-two-one point five, but I'll come back to your channel twenty-two every fifteen minutes. Time check?"
"Cagancho, the time is twenty-one hundred hours, fifty-eight minutes. We acknowledge your intention to come back to channel twenty-two every fifteen minutes. Good luck to you, Captain Broca."
Captain Broca. Rick caught the meaning. The man was saying, you might be a civilian in a borrowed boat, but, in this storm, you're a sailor, and this is the sea, and you have your duty right in front of you. Rick bristled. He didn't need stiffening, especially from some pencil-neck Limey gearbox with a tea-and-crumpets accent. He kept his temper, managed a civil good-bye.
"Thank you, Blackjack. Switching."
He punched 121.5 into his radio, let out a long breath and brought the wheel around quickly, throttling up hard as he did so, the stern swinging around quickly, carving a foaming white swath into the face of the following wave. He felt the boat's forward rushing rise as the big roller came up under her from the stern boards. The bow was pointing down, right into the glassy green wall of the wave in front of them. He pushed the throttles to the bar; a huge explosion of white spray from the twin water jets that propelled the boat -- the long navy-blue hull came up slowly -- blue-green water foamed across the pulpit and sprayed across the bow almost to the windscreen -- Cagancho rode up the wave, the force of the following sea weakening as she gained speed. He pointed her northwest on compass bearing 310 -- right back into the storm.
Rick never did manage to put together a coherent memory of the next hour, only a few vivid images; a terrible wave that broke over the stern boards leaving a lake of dark water that bubbled and boiled back down the scuppers at the stern, the weight of the water pushing the stern down, lifting the bow, the sickening feeling as he waited for the boat to power out from under it, a sizzling crack of lightning that arced from one side of the sky to the other -- lit up the seas like the midnight sun -- Rick saw his shadow in flickering violet on the side curtain -- a reverberating peal of thunder so loud it hit the front of his chest like a flat-handed blow -- much later, a freak moment of silence during which he could hear Cisco complaining through the sealed cabin hatch, switching back to 22 to report nothing at all to Blackjack -- very good Cagancho carry on -- you pompous dork; I'm not in the Royal Navy yet -- not a peep on 121.5 -- then the growing awareness that the intensity of the wind was dropping to a bearable howl -- the waves less punishing -- the sea rolling but no longer like a bucking horse -- the light changing -- Andromeda was overhead and low in the north he could see the Great Bear and part of Draco over the shoulder of a cloud bank, a pale half-moon riding the edge of the cloud inside a halo of mist -- he was almost out from under, with the Dog Rocks a couple of miles southwest of his position.
In a few more minutes, it was over. He was in a gently rolling current with streamers of thin cloud overhead. In the north-northeast, he could make out the receding bulk of the storm, sheet lightning like pale-blue fire inside it, around it the stainless-steel stars piercing the mist, the veil-like sweep of the Milky Way running sidelong up the night sky, a broad river of luminous pink dust. A cool wind, the sea rolling gently, his own breathing, Cisco bitching with real conviction.
He throttled down to a slow cruise and the quiet rushed in from everywhere, the roar of the diesels settling to a dull throbbing beat. He put on the auto-helm, walked back to the stern and stepped out onto the port catwalk, then went forward to the broad white bow, feeling a cool salty wind on his face, the boat rising and falling on a gentle rocking swell. He drew in a long breath, let it hiss out between dry lips, stretching his arms and flexing away the stiffness in his back.
Although a man could rot faster in the Keys than anywhere else in the world, Rick was still hard, well muscled: he had managed to stay in shape by spending a few hours every week fighting pickup matches at a boxing gym in Key West. At this point, he felt like a man who'd gone fifteen rounds with a bark chipper. He badly needed a shower. And some hot coffee. He walked back to the controls, cut the engines, listened very hard.
He was alone out here. He could feel it.
Aside from the soft hissing of the wind and the lapping of water along the keel, there was silence. In all of the wide rolling sea around him, from the faint white curl off his port beam, where the Gulf Stream was racing northeast around the Dog Rocks, all the way into the northeastern horizon, where a soft yellow glow against the night sky marked the lights of the Florida coastline, there was nothing to be seen. No flashing emergency strobe light. No debris. No distant air horn sounding a distress call. No signal from any EPIRB. No radar return. All the way up the channel, he'd kept an eye on the sonar and he had seen nothing unusual on the ocean floor. Certainly no debris from a light plane, although there was plenty of litter and junk down there and a few ancient wrecks. Even some unexploded bombs in two hundred feet of water, about two miles northeast of his position, according to the chart, dumped there in 1967. But nothing new.
No wreckage. No flotsam. Nothing at all. He stood there for a while longer, listening carefully, but all he could hear was Cisco working himself up to a stroke down in the main cabin. He picked up the handset.
"Blackjack, this is Cagancho."
"Cagancho, this is Blackjack. What's your position?"
"Blackjack, I have the Dog Rocks two miles off my port side. I'm in even seas, under a clear sky. I've run off thirty-two miles on a general bearing of three-one-zero. I've had my sonar on, and the radar, and I've monitored one-two-one-point-five for any locator signal. I have detected zero. Nor have I received any distress calls on sixteen or twenty-two."
"Roger, Cagancho. Any debris in the channel?"
"Nothing, Blackjack. Have you received any distress calls?"
"Negative, Captain Broca. You're still certain of your sighting? The floatplane following the transport?"
"I stand by it, Blackjack."
"Right, then. We'll log this at twenty-two hundred hours, fifty-five minutes this date and send in a formal report. My name is Bonden. I'm the captain. You're a brave man, sir, and our whole crew would be honored to buy you a drink anytime and anyplace you choose. Are you all right? Any damage?"
"No damage, Blackjack. I need fuel."
"Do you have enough to make port?"
"Affirmative. By the way, did that Hercules get home?"
"Yes, it did. Arrived safely Fleming Key. Apparently they managed to bypass the damaged computers and fly by brute force. Took both the pilot and the copilot to hold her on course. Very near thing. We'll break off, then. We have a ship under tow and are making for Port Simon. We'll file a commendation."
"Roger, Blackjack. Thank you. Cagancho out."
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