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Authors: Benjamin Wallace

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BOOK: Tortugas Rising
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The guard’s heavy foot, combined with the power of the Camaro, caused the larger car to drift and crash into the walls of the boutiques that lined the path.

Paul stayed in the shopping center and worked his way in and around the square as he crossed and backtracked in the narrow confines. And, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the Camaro did its best to follow.

So far the guards had destroyed the Ralph Lauren, Coach and Sak’s storefronts. Alarms rang out through the square as the cars raced around it.

A storefront window shattered as the Camaro’s rear end swung wide and jumped the curb. It took out a support post, and the roof began to sag. The driver floored the Camaro to get clear of the falling debris, the wheels spun uselessly as white smoke poured from the tires. The roof collapsed and pinned the car beneath it.

Paul turned out of the square and headed north. The path narrowed again and they found themselves on the test track. He turned east and gunned the engine.

Brittany loosened her grip on the dash. Her fingers hurt from the tension and she found it painful to open them. She found the gun on the floor and handed it back to Paul.

“Hopefully, were done with this.” He placed the gun between the seat and the console. “There’s no way they’re getting that Camaro out of there.”

The silver Corvette traded paint with the yellow Bug as it slammed against them. The driver was alone and grit his teeth as he pulled away for another strike.

Paul cursed the Bug again and jerked the wheel to counter the Corvette’s strike.

“Seriously? We got like the only crappy car they brought?”

The smell of burning rubber wafted past his nose, and the pull of the car momentarily decreased. The Corvette had rubbed the front wheel, slowing his progress.

The Corvette pulled away. Paul grabbed between the seats for the gun, but it was caught under the seatbelt latch. He was wrestling with the pistol as the Corvette collided with them again.

A fifth hit helped shake the pistol free; Paul aimed across his door and opened fire.

The Corvette’s brakes chirped as the antilock brake system activated. The Beetle pulled ahead on the race track.

The Corvette rammed them from behind, trying to force the Beetle to turn toward the center of the track.

The first turn of the track was upon them. It banked steeply to allow maximum speed through the turn. Paul checked quickly to make sure Brittany was still buckled in. Out of sheer habit he had latched his own belt when he first got in the car.

They entered the turn.

“Just try and go limp.”

Paul veered right. The Corvette went left. The little yellow convertible shot up the embankment and into the air as it cleared the lip of the track. The Corvette slammed on its brakes.

Brittany screamed. Paul squealed. The Beetle flew for only a moment before crashing into the beach. A wall of sand rose up around them as the car’s body dug into the shoreline. The airbags deployed. The engine continued to purr.

Paul began breathing again and wrestled to get the car under control. It ran straight – no matter how much he turned the wheel, it ran straight. The impact with the surf was almost as rough as the landing. The car stopped instantly.

With the airbags already used up, Paul found nothing to stop his face from striking the steering wheel. His chin bled profusely and he found no desire to talk. Crashing waves beat against his head. The surf sounded muffled.

Brittany had struck the dash and was dazed.

Paul undid his seatbelt and stood to see over the back of the car. He swayed uneasily. His footing was uncertain.

The Corvette had made its way off the track and was still coming for them. He couldn’t find his gun.

The silver ’vette slid to a stop in the sand. The driver stepped out and leveled a submachine gun at Paul.

“Get out of the car!” Paul heard him yell this just before a red stitching of bullet holes appeared across his chest. Paul spun to see a man beside him holding an assault rifle; smoke rising from the barrel. Dazed, Paul turned back to the car. Another man was helping Brittany from the car.

Paul fell back into his seat and peered through the windshield at the black launch from the Rainbow Connection. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked into the face of a thick and burly man.

The hand on his shoulder was huge. The forearms were like knotted rope. Hairy, knotted rope. “Mr. Nelson.”

The words swam in his head, fighting to get upstream as everything poured from his consciousness.

“We got your distress call, Mr. Nelson. We’re the cavalry.”

Paul passed out.

 

 

TWENTY-SEVEN

 

The large black craft crashed into the side of the jet-boat. Fiberglass cracked and the smaller craft capsized. Steve hit the water; he didn’t see where Katherine went.

For a moment he could not get his bearings – what was up, what was down. There was no light in the water until the shadow of the black craft passed overhead.

He kicked violently as he tore off the tuxedo jacket. It was pulling him down. His shoes were working against him, as well; the heavy Sketcher oxfords felt like lead on his feet.

He broke the surface and spun, looking for the girl. The engine of the black boat roared in his ear, first to one side, then from behind. He turned and found himself face-to-face with the hull of the craft, looking up into the barrels of two shotguns. The bores were dark and deep. The eyes of the guards were hardened and cold.

“Drop the gun Bennett.”

The gun? He had already dropped it. It was on the bottom of the channel, somewhere near the tux jacket. He raised his hands slowly out of the water. One guard shouldered his weapon, and reached for Steve’s hands.

Steve ran through his options. He could try to pull the guard in, letting the weight of his shoes drag them both to the bottom. He might be able to get away. But he realized that it wasn’t just his shoes dragging him down. It was his legs. It was his body telling him to quit. He had nothing left, and a desperate attempt at escape would certainly get both him and Katherine killed. Where was she?

“Over there, I think she’s unconscious,” a voice from the boat said. A splash followed.

Steve held his hands higher and grasped those of the guard. They pulled him into the boat. Two guards kept their weapons on him. But he was done.

A few moments later they sat Katherine beside him. She was awake and sputtering. A trickle of blood ran down her face and collected on her wet evening gown.

“The old man wants to see you.”

Steve sat back in the bench and put his arm around Katherine.

 

# # #

 

Savage was waiting for them back on the dock. His grin was menacing.

“I told you we just wanted to talk. But you had to keep shooting at me. Baxter wants you alive. So you’ll be alive.”

The blow came out of nowhere. Savage hit like an ogre. Steve felt his head try to spin off his neck. He did not feel his body hit the dock.

Katherine screamed and lunged at Savage. A guard held her back. Savage approached her.

“And you, Ms. Bernelli. Baxter wants to see you too. And unless your prince here makes the right call…it’s not going to end well for you. I hope he was worth it.”

He cracked Katherine with the same strike that took out Steve. She saw it coming and rolled with the punch. There was just enough time before the second swing, to spit blood into the face of Rick Savage.

 

 

TWENTY-EIGHT

 

Paul’s mouth tasted like rust. He rubbed his jaw and winced at the pain caused by the contact.

He remembered trying to bite off a piece of the Beetle’s steering wheel, but little else. He didn’t know where he was, who had brought him here, or what he was wearing, but it itched.

He looked down at his chest. A multi-colored hemp shirt draped from his shoulders and continued down past his crotch. He wasn’t sure what the pants were made of, but they weren’t pretty either.

Across the room was an open door. Whoever had him, trusted him. He sat up in the bed and leaned forward to peer around the door’s opening. Before he could move toward it, a man walked in.

“Good,” he noted Paul’s upright and conscious position. “How’s the face?”

Paul tried to mutter “Gorgeous,” but spit out a mouthful of gauze instead.

“You busted yourself up pretty bad on that steering wheel. Air bags don’t work well if you try to use the same one twice.”

He hadn’t even felt the gauze. He probed his teeth with his tongue looking for gaps. There were none.

“You kept them all. Though there are a couple you’ll want to have looked at when you get back to the mainland.’

“Where am I?” Paul spoke carefully for fear of losing a tooth.

“You’re on a ship called the Rainbow Connection.”

“The hippie’s ship?” He stumbled over the “s’s”.

“Yeah, sure.” The man chuckled.

“Who are you?”

“We’re the good guys, Mr. Nelson.” A large figure filled the doorway.

“Friends of the environment. I get it.”

David Jefferson entered the room. He was dressed in a black outfit. The sleeves were rolled up to reveal the massive arms that had pulled Paul from the car.

“No, we’re not protectors of the planet; just the country. I’m Special Agent Jefferson – Homeland Security.”

Paul lifted his arms to study the hemp shirt. “Whatever you say.”

“Sorry about the clothes. The undercover wear was all we had.”

“Where’s the girl? Where’s Steve?”

“Ms. Daniels is resting. We don’t know where your friend is.”

“We have to go get him.” Paul rose to his feet. He marveled at what good the rest had done him. Jefferson pushed him back onto the bed.

“Relax, Paul. May I call you Paul?”

“May I call you Susie?”

Jefferson stiffened. “All right, Mr. Nelson.”

“I want to see a badge or an arm patch or whatever you guys use.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“You shot at us. You chased us down in a big black boat and shot another boat out from underneath us.”

David was stern, “My men never fired on you.”

“They fired on Steve and his date.”

David saw the conviction in Paul’s expression. “Do you think, Mr. Nelson, that there is a chance that in the great blue sea, there may be more than one black boat? They were Baxter’s men. But I guess we did shoot the boat out from under you. Sorry. It was defensive fire.”

“What the hell is Homeland Security doing here anyway?”

“We’re looking for a bomb.”

Paul felt the answer came a little too easy.

“What?”

“We think Baxter has it. And we think you and your friend can help us. Tell us what you know.”

“You first.” Paul scratched at the shirt.

David’s eyes narrowed. Paul met his stare with a look of complete contempt. Jefferson relaxed his gaze.

“Like I said, we’re looking for a bomb.”

“What kind of bomb?”

“A Mark-15 bomb.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s an old bomb.”

“Okay, how old is it?”

“More than fifty years old.”

“Why do you think Baxter has it?”

“Baxter is dirty; he has been for a long time. We can’t prove this, but his ties go deep into organized crime, the cartels and terror groups. He’s kept himself clean by hiding behind an army of lawyers and false fronts.

“We suspect that he uses this island chain as his own little duty-free store for smuggling contraband in and out of the country. An item on the shelf is a hydrogen bomb.”

“Nuclear bomb?”

“Hydrogen. An old hydrogen bomb that has been missing from the U.S. nuclear arsenal for decades.”

“If you guys lost a bomb, there would have been a movie about it.”

“In 1958 a B-47 from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida was on a practice run. During the flight it collided with a fighter. Certain of a crash, the pilot jettisoned his cargo – a Mark-15 hydrogen bomb. The plane crashed in Wassaw Sound off Tybee island in Georgia. The bomb was never found.

“Baxter is topping his islands with sand from the sound. We think he was looking for the bomb. We think he found it and is going to sell it to whichever angry man has the deepest pockets.

“We’ve searched almost every island in this ImagiNation of his and still haven’t found it.”

“Didn’t you hear? It has a new name now.”

Paul told Special Agent Jefferson about the party and Baxter’s impassioned speech about the Liberated States of America.

“He’s not selling anything but time shares, G-man. A paradise destination all his own, run how he sees fit. With his little laws and his own immigration standards.”

David digested the information. Had his men spent a year sneaking about the archipelago looking for something that wasn’t there to be found? Was the dredging in Wassaw a coincidence?

They had hauled the Geiger counter over every island and it had never registered above ambient radiation. Had it all been for nothing?

There had always been the frightening possibility someone had gotten to the bomb years ago. A search in 2004 had turned up nothing.

“Don’t look so glum. You’ve got him on treason,” said Paul. “If you’ve got a yardarm on this thing you can hang him from it.”

David stood and headed for the door.

“What about Steve? We can’t just leave him.”

“Wait here, Mr. Nelson.” Jefferson and the medic left the room. They left the door open. Paul wandered through it into the ship.

 

# # #

 

The dredge approached island 38 and began to rainbow its load from the ship’s massive nozzles. The fountain of mud soiled the water around the uncompleted island and drifted with the current. No soil struck the island. Island 38 did not need another round of fill, only a coating of sea sand that would be provided by the Pacific dredge later in the week.

The dredge’s hopper needed to be emptied, though, and if they spread the earth on the island they might have buried Savage’s men who now worked the earth-moving machines to uncover a chamber in the center of the island.

 

# # #

 

Warren Baxter’s office had changed since Katherine had seen it last. Her eye had always been drawn to the French doors that overlooked the paradise that he had built; now she could not help but look at the massive “Liberated States of America” map that dominated the wall.

Baxter had had it created in an old-world style. Written in script, as if Ponce de Leon had discovered the water park and five-star resorts on his explorations. In truth, it had been illustrated and art directed by the same undergraduate student that was responsible for most of the park maps. Many of the locations were out of place. It didn’t seem to bother Baxter.

He drew on his cigar and surveyed his land as Katherine and Steve were brought in. Steve stood on unstable legs, and, after only a moment, drifted across the room to a couch. No one moved to stop him. He collapsed on the elegant sofa and bled on the upholstery.

Savage’s blow had left a gash on his temple; Savage had left the gash unattended.

“Sorry about your sofa.” Steve’s voice was weak.

Baxter fumed momentarily but quickly regained his composure. He turned to Savage.

“Was this necessary?”

“He’s alive.” Savage took a seat across the room, relaxing, perhaps against his will. Steve could finally see his own wounds taking their toll on the hardened chief of security. He had come after them with such fury that Steve was pleased to see that the rough and tough mercenary was human after all.

“Steve, my boy. I’m sorry it came to this,” Baxter said, offering him a drink.

Steve huffed.

“I never intended for any of this to happen. I want you to be a part of what we are creating here. As your father would have been.”

Steve’s stomach dropped. So it was true. His father had been involved with the plot.

“Let’s leave daddy out of this, Mr. Baxter.”

Warren dropped his head and nodded. “You’re right. It must be so much for you to take in. But, think of it. Not only did you inherit one of the greatest fortunes in North America, you stand to inherit a nation. A new world.”

“I don’t want it. What makes you think that they’ll let you secede anyway?”

Warren smiled and bared his teeth. “America has overthrown its weight in the world, Steve. They’ve overstepped their bounds to the point where college students travel under the maple leaf instead of the stars and stripes. The world hates America. And, rightfully so.

“The L.S.A. offers a paradise set apart from the country the world detests. We want no part of the stigma that the States have earned. We can be a beacon of peace. As a matter of fact, in six months time we will be hosting a world summit.”

Steve smirked.

“We would bear no animosity to the U.S.A. We don’t want to be Cuba. We would be a partner.”

“You already run this by the president?”

“The president is a fool.”

“You may still need his permission.”

Baxter’s smile faded. “The president is about to be too busy to care about little old us. It’s not as if we’re a threatening regime partnered with the great red evil. We pose no threat to the U.S. We just want a chance to make it on our own without the actions of our host nation holding us back. These islands are for the world. A gift from us. A place free of society’s ills. A place where you can feel safe. There would be no chance of that if America’s enemies were ours as well.”

Steve sat upright. Baxter smiled too much; but, for the first time his smile seemed genuine. He glanced over at Savage. He was obviously weakened, but his eyes were still sharp.

“Why me?”

“I feel I owe it to your fa…”

Steve held up a hand.

“Of course. We’ll call it a sense of debt, then. And, of course, as you say, our withdrawal would not be openly accepted all across the Potomac. I have no doubt that in time, after we’ve shown them our true intentions that we would be welcomed in as a trade partner with open arms.

“But, until that time we will still need trade. Your fath… your companies hold such sway over the Canadians that you could provide our burgeoning nation with the supplies it needs.”

“You have a lot of faith in the Canadians. What makes you think they won’t feel like the U.S.?”

Baxter’s grin got larger, “Because Canadians are too nice.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know many Canadians.”

“You know Mr. Campbell. He has been a great friend to our country all along.”

Steve was silent.

“And, he’s a nice man.”

Campbell was nice. Aside from initial disbelief, Steve never had any reason not to trust the Canadian attorney.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Steve. Our intentions are nothing but the best. We only want to offer the world a paradise. And a paradise can’t exist with the threat of terrorism.”

“You think Al Qaeda is going to come for your hammocks?”

“Terrorist attacks persist to haunt the nation. It is my belief that it will only escalate. And, with those who would visit here, it would provide too tempting a target for them.”

“I always knew there was something wrong with you,” Katherine had been quiet until now.

“Ms. Bernelli, please.”

“All this time I’ve been singing the praises of ImagiNation to investors, to venture capitalists, even my own family. And behind it all was a madman’s grab for power.”

“I never meant to mislead you, my dear.”

“No! Then why wasn’t I selling stake in a new nation? Because, no one would have bit.”

“You would be surprised, my dear.”

Steve’s eyes glazed over and he thumped back on the arm of the sofa.

“Steve? I need an answer.”

There was no response. Baxter walked to the couch and placed his hand on Steve’s arm.

“Don’t you touch him!” Katherine slapped the older man’s hand away.

Savage rose and crossed the room.

Katherine ignored him, and turned her attention to Steve.

BOOK: Tortugas Rising
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