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The Patriot Trap
By Raymond Duncan
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorchester Publishing
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA steady whine of twin outboard engines screamed in Bernardo Alguero's ears as he guided his thundering 60-foot speedboat through the shoals of the Great Bahamas Bank. Key West lay far behind by now, beyond the moonlit wake that trailed out from the stern of his boat, La Mujer. Leading a "V" formation of four other "go fast" speedboats skimming over the dark water, he could see their high arcing rooster tails close by. Bernardo had made this run many times with these men. That is, with all but one, Sanchez, Miguel's new man whom Bernardo neither liked nor trusted. Bernardo kept a worried eye on him off to the port side. His grip tightened on the wheel, matching the tension at the back of his neck. He could make no mistakes today. He was the man, el hombre, in charge of this operation.
With Sanchez on his mind, he focused on the dicey job at hand-reaching Cuba's north shore about twenty miles ahead, undetected by the U.S. Coast Guard. Not that the Coast Guard could do anything if they found them now. Nothing to hide in their boats, but it would tip them off about the return trip and that spelled trouble. Musing over the Coast Guard, his eyes flitted between black water ahead and green-lit radar screen in front of him.
Bernardo's heart jumped when dots-indicating small low-lying islands called cays-suddenly popped up on the radar. Stretched out like a string of pearls, it was here that U.S. Coast Guard cutters had been hiding when they seized two speedboats like Bernardo's last week. But the cutters were only half the problem, he thought anxiously. The other half was the Coast Guard helicopters now on the prowl. They were fast. Damn fast, he thought. Well armed, too. Everyone knew that Washington was hell-bent to bring down Fidel Castro, especially since 9/11's terrorist attacks on America. It was no secret that Washington believed Castro had terrorism on his mind. So in today's stormy U.S.-Cuba climate, Bernardo and his friends were flirting with the devil, and they knew it. Jesus, he mused, these trips were getting to him.
Bernardo inhaled deeply and tried to relax. God, how he wanted to tell Miguel about his worries, but knew it was out of the question. Miguel would think he had lost his nerve, had no cajones, and for that Miguel would drop him on the spot-at a time when Bernardo badly needed the money. Playing at weddings and banquets had not provided steady income at the level he had hoped for when he left Medellin, Colombia, for Miami, leaving his wife and four kids behind. An illegal alien, he was painfully aware how much he had to rely on word of mouth referrals for his gigs. Lots of hustling. Lots of dead ends. Still, it sure as hell beat his former grinding life of working cocaine crops in Colombia with his parents. A million times better than shining shoes in Bogota like his brothers.
He glanced at the other speedboats skipping along to his port side, confident that everyone out here knew what to do. This run was all about cocaine. A.k.a. Charge, Charlie, Chaz, Coke, Draw, Snow and Toot. Bernardo visualized the little white packages, each weighing a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of pure cocaine pressed into a "kilo-brick" worth around $20,000 wholesale in the U.S. Today's drop, 500 kilograms, would be worth around $10 million in the U.S. It would arrive at his pick-up point by a private twin-engine plane flying in from Colombia. The drugs began the trip from deep inside Colombia's southern rain forest as shiny green leaves from waist-high coca shrubs. Great crop for dirt-poor peasants, he thought, but a high risk game here at the receiving end of the line. His anxiety at times was nearly unbearable, a constant reminder that death hung like a curse over every one of these runs.
That he might be losing his confidence nagged him constantly, like the bill collector he was trying to dodge. Easy for Miguel to demand more runs, he thought. Miguel was sitting tight in Miami. It's my ass on the line out here on the open sea. His heart jumped again when he thought he saw the telltale blip of a Coast Guard ship on the radar. The blip faded, his eyes playing tricks on him. He leaned forward into the wind and tried to relax his fingers on the steering wheel, the hull vibrating rhythmically under his feet.
The trip from Key West passed swiftly. When he caught sight of the sweeping beam of the lighthouse on Cayo Paredon Grande, homing landmark inside Cuba's closely guarded territorial waters, he reached for his VHF radio microphone and selected the prearranged channel.
"La Mujer to Cuba Coast Guard," he said, a hint of nervousness in his voice.
The Spanish-speaker's firm response came instantly, and Bernardo breathed more easily. He throttled back and signaled the others to a holding pattern. Thirty minutes later he caught sight on the horizon the Cuban gunboat motoring steadily toward them in the early light of dawn.
Cuba's coastal waters meant danger for those without proper papers, and many foreign sailors wound up as Cuba's long-term "guests" when they strayed this close to the coast. As the gunboat drew near, Bernardo could see the ship's chief officer braced against the railing on the port side of the rolling fore deck, a six-foot-five, lanky man with short black hair. In addition to the captain, Bernardo counted five security types on deck-members of Cuba's Intelligence Service, the DGI, he assumed.
"Hola! Capitan," Bernardo shouted, reaching out to catch the thick wet nylon line cast to him. They rafted La Mujer to the larger Cuban gunboat, and Bernardo climbed up the rope ladder onto the lightly rolling deck above, where he shook hands with the captain and accompanied him to the bridge. Bernardo knew the captain well, liked him, and had been through this drill many times before. He looked forward to this part of the operation. The captain treated him as a special guest of the Cuban government. At least that segment of the Cuban government behind the drug business, Bernardo thought, as he stepped into the bridge. He often wondered how high up it went in Havana, but of course never asked. Instead he enjoyed the rum and coca-cola Cuba Libres and rich fat cigar offered by the captain
About an hour later the Cuban first officer came into the bridge and informed the captain that they'd picked up the incoming aircraft. Draining glasses and putting on their hats, the captain and Bernardo stepped outside into the cool early morning air, heads cocked to the sound of the distant plane ghosting toward them. It flew directly over restricted Cuban air space, where SAM surface-to-air missile sites and airfields were located. The foreign twin-engine aircraft came in low, in full view of Cuba's military defense units, its distant droning engines growing louder as red wing lights blinked more visibly against the sun-streaked early morning horizon. As Bernardo turned to climb back down the rope ladder, the captain handed Bernardo a box of fine Cuban cigars, gave him a broad smile and added, "buena suerte, mi amigo ... may you have a safe trip back."
Back on La Mujer, Bernardo gazed at the incoming plane as it passed over the flotilla, lifted the radio microphone from its holder and checked in with each member of his group. They knew the drill. The Cuban gunboat meanwhile motored slowly from one speedboat to the next, dropping off a DGI official in each vessel. With the plane closing in for a second pass, Bernardo frowned as he checked Sanchez again to make sure his boat was in the right place.
Sanchez. That sonofabitch is capable of anything, Bernardo thought anxiously, as he gazed up at the plane, understanding bitterly that a man like Sanchez would appeal to Miguel as a boat driver on these dangerous runs to Cuba.
On the aircraft's second pass, they watched the first white bale, about the size of a bale of hay; tumble out the aircraft's open door into the lightening sky, rapidly followed by others. Like large dice rolled by a giant hand, the plastic wrapped bales fell end-over-end and plunged into the sea like some huge seabird diving for fish. They did not use parachutes. They took too long for the drop.
The moment a bale hit the sea, men in boats went to work. They snagged the bobbing bales with grapples, pulled them to the side of the gentling rolling vessel, reaching over the gunnel and hauled them aboard. As Bernardo worked, he kept Sanchez ever present in his peripheral view. Wrestling dripping bales, DGI officials cut them open, verified numbers of the small white packets inside, entered information in spiral notebooks. It was all going smoothly, another well-rehearsed pick-up.
The drug pick-up was right on schedule, well into a most welcomed completed job as far as Bernardo was concerned. Just a few floating bales left to be retrieved from the sea. Bernardo hummed to himself, wiped sweat from his eyes with a bed bandana and hefted another dripping bale over the gunnel. Miguel will be pleased, he thought-a good thing, given his brooding temper. Miguel had been in and out of prison and had beaten more than one man so badly they were disfigured for life. He quivered for a second, thinking of Miguel's dark sunken eyes and unsmiling mouth, as he hauled another bale aboard, letting it thump confidently on the deck floor. He stopped to rest for a moment and was about to say something to the DGI official standing beside him.
Then it happened. Out of the blue. A roar of twin outboard engines exploded to life off the starboard bow of Bernardo's boat. The noise so startled him that he stood there for a moment, staring in stunned disbelief at the giant rooster tail behind Sanchez's speedboat, bow raised as it shot forward at high speed. He could see the DGI official from Sanchez's boat treading water in the roiling oily wake, waving his arms and shouting for help.
"Sanchez! Puta, carajo!" Bernardo muttered, pulling down the bill of his cap. "That bastard! Goddamn him!" he hissed, lunging for the wheel and reaching for the throttle to give chase. In urgent confusion he stumbled over a crate, knocked down the DGI official standing beside him banged his head on the instrument panel and sprawled head first onto the slippery cockpit floor. Bernardo struggled to stand up, heart pounding like a sledge hammer. He grabbed the wheel, advanced the throttle and tried to keep Sanchez in view as his boat leapt forward. The DGI man scrambled to his feet and pulled out his own pistol, but it was of little use. Bernardo looked around for his rifle as La Mujer gathered speed. He hoped he could get close enough to take a shot. The other boat drivers apprehensively watched the chase, mesmerized by Sanchez's audacity, but stuck to their work as ordered.
It was not long before Bernardo, over-heated, flushed faced, heart pounding, realized that Sanchez was out of rifle range. Shit, he thought, deeply disturbed, holy shit. What the hell do I do now? With no chance of closing the gap, painfully aware that he had to get back to keep an eye on the others, he sighed and methodically turned La Mujer around, wondering how in god's name to explain all this to Miguel. His trembling hand removed the red bandanna from his back pocket and wiped his damp forehead. The DGI official looked at him sympathetically and said, "Jesus, man, this is bad ... really bad. What are you going to do?" Bernardo stared at him bleakly, his eyebrows pinched. He had no answer to that cryptic question.
When all the bales had been fished from the sea and merchandise counted, Bernardo and the other boatmen said good-bye to the Cubans. The gunboat captain again explained to Bernardo that the reason he had not chased after Sanchez was because he had no authority in international waters. "But don't worry," he said, trying to put a note of confidence in his words, "I will report this incident to the right person when I return to port." Still, he appeared far from convinced that this would be of much help to Bernardo, who resisted the urge to beg the Cuban captain to do all he could.
Bernardo and his crew watched the gunboat disappear over the horizon, nervously discussing the brazen actions of that bastard Sanchez and how Miguel would react. A careful counting of the drop indicated that he had gotten away with four bales. It was quite a haul, depending on how and where it would be sold, worth a small fortune. A huge loss for Miguel.
They spent the rest of the day anchored not far from Cayo Paredon Grande, waiting to return to Key West at night without lights, in an effort to elude the U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The hours seemed endless as Bernardo, baseball cap pulled down low over his brow, eyes taking in the sea's light and dark shades of jade shimmering around him, played out one agonizing scenario after another on what he would say when he returned to Key West. Normally he would have been elated about the drop and upcoming pay-off, celebrating with the others, joking and shooting the breeze as they waited out the day. Not this time. The only thing on Bernardo's mind, besides the gnawing pit in his stomach, was Miguel.
Bernardo slumped forward in the gently rocking boat, listening to the light waves slap against the hull, watching three large frigate birds, with long wings and hooked beaks, pester two sea gulls high above until they dropped their tasty catch, swooping in to grab the bait in mid-air. These winged creatures, known as pirate birds because they harvested the rewards of others' hard work, reminded him of Sanchez, and it kept going through his mind that his foreboding about Sanchez had come painfully true.
Jesus, he thought, why didn't I speak up when he mentioned that Sanchez would be the new guy? What didn't I ask if we could trust him?" He remembered that he was about to say something when the thought of Miguel losing his temper, going into one of his rages, silenced his words before they crossed his lips. Bernardo knew full well that Miguel could not stand having his decisions questioned. Still, what had taken place was not his fault. But how would Miguel see it? Yeah, that was the real problem. Worse, Bernardo knew damn well he was in no position to defend himself.
As the day wore on and sun rose higher, he struggled with dark thoughts about his inevitable meeting with Miguel, rubbing the knot in the back of his neck with his hand, wishing like hell he were home in Colombia with his wife and kids. The more he agonized over his situation, the more he felt like a trapped animal. Head drooped down, eyes half closed, staring between his legs, he wondered if he should just cut out and beat it fast back to Colombia and let them find somebody else to replace him.
Then again, money was the issue. God knows he needed it. Couldn't survive without it. If he wanted to cash in on this run, he had to go back and face Miguel. Could he talk his way out of this Sanchez problem? But he knew it was more than Sanchez. This whole drug running between Cuba and the U.S. was getting more complicated by the week, especially with all the buzz about a looming U.S. invasion of Cuba.
Then there was Miguel. You never knew when he would erupt, he sighed. Bernardo felt strangely entangled in a spider web with no escape. He sat there in gloomy despair until the sun began to set, his boat rolling gently on the swells. He listened to the sea lap against the hull and racked his brain for a story Miguel might buy.
Excerpted from The Patriot Trap by Raymond Duncan Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing . Excerpted by permission.
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