Cole Williams seemed born to the sea, racing sailboats and crewing yachts during his time as a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, but when he reported aboard a cutter patrolling the Caribbean nothing he did seemed to please the command. His motivation to do the right thing always seemed to land him in hot water. At the end of a cruise in which he served admirably during open ocean rescues and hot pursuit of drug runners, Cole is unceremoniously kicked out of the Coast Guard for what the command deems reckless behavior and a bad attitude. That's when a dejected and disillusioned Cole decides to go rogue and make a few runs for the druggies he's spent so long chasing at sea. The twists and turns at that point are devious and dangerous as Cole shifts from modern-day pirate, to criminal fugitive to mole for his old service and the Joint Task Force charged with stemming the flow of illegal narcotics.
While seldom in the headlines, the southern border of the United States has been a battleground for decades where the men and women of the Coast Guard and dozens of federal agencies have fought many a battle to keep illegal narcotics off the streets. In his debut novel, Brian Boland shares a story born from more than a decade of experience fighting the war on drugs.
|Publisher:||Warriors Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)|
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A Novel of Vendetta
By Brian Boland
Warriors Publishing GroupCopyright © 2016 Brian Boland
All rights reserved.
IT WAS HIGH SUMMER and dawn broke early in the Florida Straits. Cole stood silent on the bridge wing, his waist against the railing, and stared east as the black sky surrendered to quiet shades of purple. With a steady hum and the rolling sound of whitewater off the bow, the Coast Guard Cutter Delaney steamed north at eight knots, plowing ahead through the lukewarm waters of the Gulf Stream. Soon the sky would come alive with vivid shades of red and orange before daylight finally took hold and brought with it another humid tropical day.
* * *
This day was, in many ways, a near repeat of every day for the past two years. Cole's alarm had gone off at three in the morning. He had rolled out of his rack and fumbled in the darkness for the mini-refrigerator by his feet. Opening a can of Red Bull, he sat on the edge of his rack by himself and chugged the sweet caffeinated concoction that started each new day. With a final slurp, he looked down and steadied himself, trying in vain to shake the weeks of fatigue from his body before the start of another day at sea.
Sometimes he sat for a minute or two, but never for much longer as it was best to get moving. He crushed the can in his fist, stood up, pulled on his heavy blue utility pants, threw a clean blue U.S. Coast Guard t-shirt over his arms, tucked it in, and cinched up the black webbed belt around his waist. Tucking his pants into steel-toed black leather boots, Cole left his stateroom and started his rounds before assuming the deck watch on the bridge.
He always started at the fantail, where from the dark air-conditioned innards of the ship he'd emerge through a watertight door and take the day's first deep breath of salty air. Each morning, Cole stood at the stern and watched the white trail of wake disappear into the blackness of the ocean and a sky devoid of light. The stern would rise and roll with the sea swell beneath and it was a favorite moment of Cole's day as he stood alone in the predawn air with the sea as his only companion. He'd sigh, kick at some rusting stanchion, then work his way forward during his rounds — but this morning was different.
As Cole stood there with his hands in his pockets, a voice called out from behind him in the darkness. "LT, I think I owe you my life."
Cole turned quickly, surprised to see the old man, with his arm in a sling and a bandage over his right eye, standing just to the right and behind him.
Cole took a long breath to catch his nerves and smiled at the sailor, saying, "No Sir, I wouldn't go that far."
The man took a step to stand beside Cole then stared out at the horizon and paused before speaking again. "That's not what some of the crew said. I heard them talking last night that you insisted on checking on my boat. They said the captain went so far as to tell you to shut up, but you persisted. And for that, I'm alive."
Cole smirked just a bit, as he knew it was true. He looked down and enjoyed the fact that the crew spoke highly of his actions the day before.
"Well, Sir, I was just doing my job."
The old man smiled too and both of them stood in silence, looking out at the sea as Delaney gently rolled over a swell. They stood for some time, both appreciating the moment. For the old man, the sea had nearly taken his life the day before. For Cole, he'd realized a lifelong dream. On watch the previous afternoon, Cole had spotted the old man's sailboat 20 miles off the coast of Cuba. Cole had sensed something was wrong when he saw the jib luffing against the stiff easterly breeze. As Delaney reached her closest point of approach, still nearly two miles away, Cole focused through his binoculars and saw no one on deck and that both jib sheets were swinging wildly from the clew.
As Cole stood and thought back to that moment, the old man broke the silence. "Not all men are cut out for the sea, LT. But I reckon you're one of the few who can take her on. You seem to understand her." He paused for another moment, then continued. "Now if you'll excuse me, I might try to close my eyes for a bit before we pull in. When do you think we'll tie up?"
Cole looked down at his watch instinctively, but knew already in his head of the day's plan. "We'll be at the sea buoy at 0800, and probably pierside by 0900."
The old man nodded and said once more to Cole, "Thank you, LT."
"Not a problem there, Skipper. It was my pleasure."
With that, the old man walked back inside the innards of Delaney and Cole was once again alone on the fantail. It was true what the man had said, but Cole wasn't the type to take such credit. Cole's instincts, and his years of racing sailboats offshore, had told him something was amiss, but when he'd reported it, OPS had wanted nothing to do with the boat. When Cole pressed the issue, Commander Walters had come to bridge, but she too had dismissed Cole's concerns. It wasn't until Wheeler, Cole's roommate, had taken Cole's side that both Walters and OPS relented and agreed to divert to the sailboat and send over a boarding team.
Wheeler led the boarding team and within minutes of pulling alongside, he had radioed back for a corpsman. The old man, sailing alone from Belize to Key West, had fallen during a squall and broken his arm the day before. His forehead, just above his right eye, was also badly cut, leaving him in shock from the blood loss. Worse still, his rudder had broken free and nearly sunk the boat. With a broken arm and bleeding head, the old man had patched the rudder post as best he could and then passed out. By the time the boarding team had brought the sailor aboard, he was badly dehydrated and in shock from his injuries. Wheeler had tried to save the boat as well, but the leaking rudder post was too far gone, and she had sunk within a few hours of Delaney's arrival.
Cole stood there on the fantail for a moment, overwhelmed with pride. His goal since he was young had been to make a difference like that. Many times on Delaney he'd been a part of the team effort, and no doubt had saved many a migrant or lost mariner from the sea. But this rescue was different. Cole knew it was his own actions and his alone that had saved the old man. Just as his emotions nearly overwhelmed him, Cole snapped himself out of it and remembered that he had rounds to finish. Now was not the time to reminisce.
Cole continued making his way forward, checking that the small boat was properly secured, hatches were closed, and that the aging cutter was ready enough for a new day. His last stop was the messdeck, where he poured himself a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats and sat alone below the dim red lights in silence. Regardless of what the cooks had served for dinner the night before, the messdeck always smelled the same — garbage thinly masked by an over-dependence on bleach. It smelled and was clean enough, but there was always the faintest trace of soggy meat or something fried that wafted through the entire space. Silently lifting each spoonful of cereal to his mouth that morning, Cole ate his breakfast and thought some more of the old man and what courage it must take to tackle the sea alone.
His next stop was three decks above in the Combat Information Center, commonly known as CIC. Inside, he'd check with the petty officers on duty for any new tasking or intelligence that had come over the radios since the previous evening. Rarely was there anything worth mentioning. The array of radar screens, communications equipment, and sensor systems looked like something out of a movie. The thought made Cole smile a bit. Most mornings he'd do little more than joke with the sleepy petty officers on duty and remind them to give him a heads up if anything out of the ordinary developed. From CIC, he'd leave through the same door, walk down a dimly lit passageway, then up three steps, through another door, and onto the bridge.
* * *
The bridge team consisted of six crewmembers: a navigator, a helmsman, two lookouts, a boatswain's mate, and the officer of the deck. Two radar consoles emitted a dim green light and Cole could just make out the tired faces as they went about their watch. Radios crackled softly as Cole plotted the ship's position on a paper chart, matched it to the radar picture, and read through Walters' orders for the night. At precisely 0800, Cole was to have Delaney one nautical mile south of the Key West sea buoy. Anything less would not be tolerated, or so said Walters, the ship's commanding officer. Cole's plot had showed that a slight increase in speed was needed, but otherwise the task at hand was a simple one. The radar picture was clear and nothing but deep tropical water stood between Delaney and the sea buoy, some 35 miles to the north. Cole walked over to Lora — the officer of the deck — and firing off his trademark half-assed salute, stated, "I offer my relief."
Lora looked at him for a moment with the nervousness she always tried to hide, and saluted back. "I stand relieved." She passed her binoculars to him and sped down below without another word. Lora kept a low profile and this morning was no different. In some ways, Cole envied her.
Cole exhaled with force and called out in the dark, "Helmsman, all ahead six."
The helmsman barked back, "All ahead six, aye," then a moment later, "Sir, my engines are all ahead six."
Cole answered, "Very well," then walked out of the bridge and onto the bridge wing. With any sort of headwind, it offered a clean breeze and some relief from the thick air. This morning, however, a light breeze blew from the south and was completely negated as Delaney steamed north. It was horribly stagnant, made worse by the exhaust that bellowed from the stacks and lingered over the entire bridge. Cole felt the sweat beading on his chest and wondered why he even bothered doing laundry.
The next hour crept by. Cole checked the radar every few minutes for shipping traffic and cross-referenced it with the paper chart, but spent the majority of his time pressed against the railing on the bridge wing, alone with his thoughts under the dark pre-dawn sky. The bridge wing jutted out almost four feet from the side of the ship and hung precariously over the water, some 40 feet below. Cole could look straight down and it almost gave the sense of flying. Occasionally, dolphins swam full speed alongside Delaney and illuminated the phosphorescence like a torpedo toward its target. Mostly the bridge wing was quiet and peaceful, two things that made it Cole's favorite spot. He enjoyed the solitude of the early morning and took great pleasure in watching the sun come up over the eastern horizon.
Another hour passed. The sun was now up, the orange sky faded to a soft blue, and the deep water was dark, clear, and gently rolling. The southerly breeze barely made a ripple and had it not been for the groundswell pushing in from the west, the Florida Straits may have just as well been a lake. Delaney's bow pushed a tumbling white wave in front of her. She pitched up and over a swell before falling back down, her bow cutting deep into the trough left behind as the cycle repeated time and again with near-perfect rhythm.
Another hour passed. On the back end of his watch, Cole made one last round through the bridge, crosschecking the position and dead reckoning his advance to make damn sure he'd be at the sea buoy on time. Cdr. Walters became hysterical if her cutter was even one minute late — or early for that matter. Her leadership was that of an 18 century naval captain, minus the tenacity for warfare or requisite seamanship. She screamed and cursed at the most minor infraction, often becoming so incapacitated by sheer rage that she simply walked off the bridge in a fit. As amusing as it was at times, Cole tried to avoid it. Satisfied that his course and speed over the past few hours had compensated for the drift, he called out one last command. "Helmsman, all ahead five."
The helmsman repeated his standard replies and Delaney settled just a bit as her speed came down to around seven knots.
Cole walked back out to the bridge wing, leaned against the railing, and waited.
* * *
He had aspired to do great things in the Coast Guard. Cole had raced sailboats all through New England and the Atlantic Ocean as a cadet and reported to Delaney convinced that a life at sea was his destiny, but the life of a cutterman had proven more daunting than he imagined. Cole's penchant for seamanship had taken a backseat to his disdain for the command. Onboard Delaney, Cole knew he had come up short of their expectations for procedural discipline. It bothered him, but he never could quite figure out how to get in their good graces. Cole had a wild streak in him and he knew it.
He knew how the ship handled and could conn it well, but his sometimes-cavalier attitude had cost him dearly. Several times Walters had threatened to take away Cole's qualifications. Most often, it was because he conned the cutter too close to a suspect vessel or took his boarding team too far in the small boat chasing smugglers. Those antics usually cost him no more than an ass-chewing in front of the other junior officers, but Cole knew that with each of his little adventures he was digging himself a deeper grave. His last two Officer Evaluation Reports had not recommended him for promotion, which meant that his career was a dead end. After two years at sea, he had begun to wonder if he was cut out for the life he was living.
Lieutenant Commander Potts, the executive officer, had made his frustration with Cole quite clear. While Walters was a lunatic, Potts was the one who gave the ship some semblance of order. He was also relentless. Standing well over six feet tall with once-blond hair now going grey, his hands had a tendency to shake when speaking in front of people. Cole never could tell if it was out of anger or simply nerves. Nevertheless, Potts came unglued at the slightest hiccup. To compensate and keep his temper in check, he ruled with an iron fist, and many times that fist was directed at Cole. Cole sensed that Potts still believed in the mission of the Coast Guard, and for that he held a good deal of respect for the man. In any other environment, Cole probably could have gotten along with Potts well enough, but the confines of a 270-foot ship at sea for months at a time was too much for two opposed personalities.
* * *
As they neared Key West, Cole was again in hot water with Potts. Several weeks earlier, Cole had led a pursuit off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. They'd been tasked with tracking a drug-running boat for the better part of a day, and as sunset approached, Delaney was perfectly positioned to make an intercept just outside of Colombia's territorial seas. Cole was the lead boarding officer and after he'd geared up, Potts had stopped him on the fantail and grabbed Cole by his shoulder, saying, "Don't let this one get away, Cole."
As the boatswain's mates hurried to lower the smallboat over the side, Cole had looked at Potts and nodded, understanding that the entire crew was hungry for a win.
"I got it, Sir. We'll get them."
With that, Cole had mustered his team to the starboard side of the fantail and Cole looked around at the five guys that he would take with him. They were a tough looking bunch, each wearing dark blue overalls with black load-bearing vests over their chests. Each man had a Beretta M9 holstered on their thigh and the two of his most junior members had M4 carbines slung across their chests. Cole's assistant boarding officer, one of the new officers named Jake, stood off to the side as he fidgeted with a radio strapped to his chest and checked in with the bridge before giving Cole a thumbs up. The lead boatswain's mate, a second-class petty officer who Cole affectionately called "Boats," carried a short-barreled 12-gauge shotgun and smiled just a bit when Cole's eyes met his. After they all strapped their helmets on, adjusted their night vision goggles, and flipped them up, Cole briefed them on what he knew.
"All right, guys, it's a Go-Fast and we've got a C-130 overhead that's had eyes on it for the past six hours. Our plan is to stand off by a mile and stalk once the sun goes down. The Herc will vector us in and we'll stand by for use-of-force clearance. Everyone understand?"
Cole looked around as each man softly nodded.
Excerpted from Caribbean's Keeper by Brian Boland. Copyright © 2016 Brian Boland. Excerpted by permission of Warriors Publishing Group.
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