Authors: James Grippando
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
a King's Ransom (2001)
A King's Ransom
Some called it a crown jewel. Others said it was a diamond in the rough, with the emphasis on rough. It was a matter of perspective, whether Cartagena stood apart from the violence that besieged Colombia or was shrinking in its shadow.
It was one of the Caribbean's most striking port cities, a special blend of colonial heritage, natural beauty, and salsa into the wee hours. The top attraction was the old town, a city within the city, surrounded by nearly six miles of impressive fortress walls that were built under four centuries of Spanish reign. There were smaller marvels too, like cazuela de mariscos, a local seafood soup with chunks of cassava instead of potatoes - deliciosa! The crowded beaches on the Bocagrande peninsula weren't spectacular, but white sand and turquoise seas were close enough at Playa Blanca or, even better, Islas del Rosario. Throughout the city, colonial mansions painted in pastels and electric blue stood as reminders that the overall feeling here was decidedly tropical, in no small part Afro-Caribbean. Glorified by countless artists and writers over the centuries, Cartagena continued to evoke romantic sentiments as a unique place that, despite the influx of luxury condos, managed to retain the feel of Old San Juan and Havana in its heyday. It was, after all, the official sister city to beautiful Coral Gables, Florida.
Yet behind the exotic intrigue, beyond the hopeful hype of tourist agents, lurked an element of danger that was a fact of life in modern-day Colombia. Especially for an American.
Matthew Rey had visited Colombia before and was aware of the tragic headlines. Eleven sport fishermen kidnapped on their boat off Barranquilla. Busloads of children commandeered on their way to school in OcaA+-a, north of BogotA. More than a hundred churchgoers taken at gunpoint in the middle of a Catholic mass in Cali. As a businessman, Matthew didn't deny the risks of a country besieged by four decades of civil war. As a fisherman, he savored the natural beauty, albeit from a half mile offshore.
Matthew was in the commercial fishing business, which was big business indeed. He'd started his company in Miami with a rusted but trusted old lobster boat and a mountain of debt. Twenty years later he was part owner of Rey's Seafood Company with forty boats and two processing plants in Nicaragua. With the United States importing more than eighteen million pounds of edible fish weekly from Central and South America, he was always looking for new equipment, opportunities for expansion.
It was that kind of thinking that had brought him to Colombia.
Hector! he shouted.
He got no reply. He tried again, louder. Hector!
Hector DAaz was one of six Nicaraguan crewmen that Matthew had brought to Cartagena to overhaul three old shrimp boats and bring them back to the Mosquito Coast. They were the NiA+-a, the Pinta, and the Coco Loco. It was just a hunch, but something told Matthew they weren't originally a set. All three were anchored side by side in the bay like a pontoon bridge, close enough together for the workers to step from one to the next. A noisy generator on the Pinta, the middle boat, powered the working lights and welding tools for all three, making it impossible for Matthew to be heard from one boat to the next.
He switched off the generator. The lights went out, the noise stopped. It was just past sunset, but the afterglow afforded just enough natural light for the men to see each other.
You done fixing the head yet? asked Matthew.
Hector had been working on the plumbing all afternoon. All but the marble tile and Kohler bidet, boss.
He was a habitual wisecracker but worth the trouble, as he and his son LivAn could be trusted to sail just about anything from Punto A to Punto B, even three old shrimp boats. Hector was half Miskito Indian, and in Matthew's book the Miskitos were the greatest fishermen on earth. For centuries their tribe had fished the Caribbean along Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Tall and lean, the Miskitos were natural divers, and in his prime Hector had been a top lobster diver. His skills were legendary, like the story of the time he and Matthew got lost in a blinding storm at sea. Hector promptly jumped off the boat and dived down thirty-five feet for a good look around the reef. In a matter of minutes he popped back up and told Matthew to turn the boat around and hold the course steady for about three hours. They sailed into port two hours and forty-five minutes later. Only then did Matthew fully appreciate the way the Miskitos knew their ocean - top and bottom - like their own backyard.
Matthew smiled and shouted back, joking, You're worthless, you know that?
That's why I work for you, boss.
Matthew snarled, but it was just a game they played. In truth, he envied Hector. Fishing had been a long tradition in the DAaz family, passed on from father to son for generations of Miskitos. Matthew had a son too, but not the same bond that Hector and LivAn shared.
The sun was gone, the orange and purple afterglow fading. All along the rim of the bay, city lights emerged as twilight turned to darkness. Cartagena was coming to life. The parties would soon begin in earnest. The first time Matthew had visited the city, he'd ended up playing the accordion in some bar that boasted authentic vallenato music of the local costeA+-o people. He couldn't vouch for the music, but the one-fifty rum had delivered as promised. That was twenty years ago. Cartagena had changed much since then. He'd changed, too. Coke instead of beer and rum, and his bladder wasn't what it used to be. Just one stinking soda and already he had to break the proverbial pee seal.
He started belowdecks, then stopped, startled by the shouting up top.
AManos arriba! Hands up!
It had come from the NiA+-a, two boats away. Matthew climbed two rungs of the bridge ladder, just high enough to see over the clutter on the deck of the middle boat. Hector and LivAn were face-to-face with five men with guns.
On impulse, Matthew dived for cover behind a huge pile of shrimp nets. From there he could see three of his crew members on the Pinta standing on deck with their hands over their heads. The fourth was crouched down in the bridge, hiding, as yet unspotted by the guerrillas. He caught Matthew's eye and silently mouthed the word, Guerrilleros!
Matthew's heart pounded. For all his travels, he'd never actually laid eyes on armed guerrillas before. All wore ski masks, high leather army boots, and black leather gloves. Their green combat fatigues and bright red armbands were typical uniforms. One wore a cowboy hat that was flipped up on one side, Australian-style, and a grenade attached to his belt. Matthew had heard that these bands of rebels were brazen enough to dress as the guerrillas that they were, never blending into the crowd with disguises, thriving on the publicity their group garnered from their very public crimes. They'd probably been watching the boats for hours, waiting for darkness so that they could pull up in silence and take the busy crew by surprise. That was the problem with noisy generators after sunset. If the crew was focused on work, an aircraft carrier could pull alongside them and no one would notice.
From his hiding spot, and with the generator off, Matthew was close enough to hear Hector arguing with the men in Spanish two boats away.
Where's the American?
No American here, said Hector.
We know he's here.
You must have the wrong boats.
Matthew peered out from behind the nets. The guy doing the talking, the one wearing the hat, had focused on LivAn.
Julio Iglesias, said Hector.
You think this is a joke?
You don't want the boy. He's Nicaraguan, not American.
I said, who is he?
The guerrilla delivered a quick blow with the butt of his rifle. LivAn's head jerked back, and then he stumbled backward and fell to the deck, his face bloodied.
Hector rushed to him. LivAn!
The guerrilla stood over them, his tone louder and more threatening. Once more, where is the American?
You broke his nose!
And with the next shot I kill him. Where's the American?
Matthew had to do something, but what? Five men with automatic weapons, and he was unarmed. Just then he caught sight of one of his workers on the Pinta, the one the guerrillas had not yet accounted for. He was crawling toward the rail, armed with a shotgun that was kept aboard for emergencies. Quietly, he took aim.
Matthew sensed disaster. If the shotgun discharged, they'd all be killed. He had only one choice: reveal himself. He was sure they'd take the American alive and spare the others.
It's me you want! he shouted in English, but it was too late. The shotgun blasted. One of the guerrillas was hit, his chest exploding in red. His body dropped through the open hatch and into the hull. The other four immediately returned fire with fully automatic assault rifles. A barrage of bullets rained down on the Pinta, bits and pieces of the wood trim splintering into the air, the windows shattering. Paint cans exploded, ruptured cans of mineral spirits spilled onto the deck. One of the workers was bleeding from the head, his body motionless on the deck. The others leaped off the boat and into the harbor.
It was all happening at once, but in Matthew's mind the sequence seemed to unfold separately, as if in slow motion. His panicked workers diving off the Pinta into the bay. The guerrillas scattering and firing wildly. And finally, in one cruel and senseless act, the tough guy in the Australian hat spraying the deck of the NiA+-a with a shower of bullets. Dozens of crimson welts exploded across the bodies of Hector and LivAn.
It crushed Matthew's spirit, as he knew instantly that his friends were dead. The guerrillas turned their guns toward Matthew, two boats away, but they didn't shoot. The three surviving crew members who'd abandoned ship were swimming away in the darkness, but the guerrillas didn't pursue them. They obviously wanted only Matthew - alive. The guy in the hat shouted; then the others shouted, too. All five took aim and commanded him to surrender.
No way, thought Matthew. Not to these murderers.
Two guerrillas started toward him, cautiously crossing the middle boat on their way to Coco Loco. It was decision time. He could resist and surely end up dead. That wouldn't bring back Hector and his son. He saw only one way to avenge the murder of his friends - live to fight another day.
AManos arriba! their leader shouted.
Matthew took a long look, memorizing those cold black eyes behind the mask. He raised his hands to feign cooperation, then took one slow step back and suddenly tumbled over the rail. He splashed headfirst into the warm, black waters below, holding his breath as long as he possibly could, fighting to stay down without air, swimming deeper and farther than ever before, knifing his way beneath the surface with long strokes and powerful kicks.
He was diving like a Miskito, the way his good friend Hector had taught him, thinking only of escape.
I was seated at the long, polished mahogany table in the main conference room on the thirty-first floor, ostensibly assisting my supervising partner in a morning settlement conference, in reality staring out the window at the cruise ships in the Port of Miami while thinking about Jenna. More precisely, thinking about the last time I'd seen Jenna.
It was a month ago today. We were engaged at the time. She'd invited me to take a long walk on the beach, said she'd meet me there. Any dolt could have seen what was coming, but I was so wrapped up in my own world and oblivious to our relationship that I'd actually shown up with a Frisbee, a radio, and a bottle of wine. This was going to be one of those talks that wasn't really a talk, more of a speech with a few permissible interruptions. It was so overrehearsed that Jenna had lost all sense that it would hit me like a five-iron between the eyes. The way she looked on that day would never leave my memory, the sad smile, her sandy-blond hair blowing in the gentle breeze, those big eyes that sparkled even in the most dismal of circumstances. I was speechless, the way I was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on her, only this time for far less enchanting reasons. The silence was insufferable once she'd finished, both of us waiting for me to move my lips and say something. Nothing came, and then it started to rain. At least I'd thought it was raining. I felt a drop on my head, and Jenna promptly lost it right before my eyes. She was embarrassed to be laughing, laughing not at me but at the absurdity of the situation, yet laughing nonetheless. It was then that I heard the shrill screech above me, saw the winged culprit swoop down from the sky in one last mocking pass. A seagull had shit squarely on my head.
This, of course, we took as an omen. I got my diamond ring back and hadn't seen her since. It wasn't a bitter breakup, but I surely would have understood a few hard feelings. We'd met five years ago as students at the University of Florida and had been virtually inseparable. She was from Tampa, hated Miami, and agreed to move here for me. I moved here for Coolidge, Harding and Cash. With me working sixty and seventy hours a week in the Miami office of a Wall Street law firm, it was inevitable that someone with whom I was supposed to share the rest of my life would eventually ask, What life?
Can we try a different approach? Duncan Fitz suggested.
Duncan was my supervising attorney. I was at his side, as usual. Seated to his left was our client, a regional vice president from Med-Fam Pharmaceuticals. On the other side of the table was Teesha Williams, the plaintiff's counsel, along with her client, Gilbert Jones, an overweight former police officer who was now on permanent disability. Two years ago he'd been told to drop thirty pounds or retire from the force. He'd turned to a drug manufactured by Med-Fam. He lost the weight and, in the process, shaved about thirty years off his life. The drug had so damaged his heart that he needed a transplant that would never come, not with the inherent surgical complications presented by his weakened condition and obesity. His remaining time on this earth could be measured in months, perhaps weeks. He wheezed with each breath, walked only with the aid of a cane, and kept a portable tank of oxygen at his side for intermittent moments of extreme difficulty. It was hard not to feel sorry him - something I didn't dare admit to Duncan.