When word gets out about a massive drug and human trafficking cartel moving tons of illegal drugs, along with hundreds of slave laborers, out of Venezuela, Jesse is tasked with finding them at all cost.
But how can one man find the traffickers amid the thousands of ships coming and going from Venezuela's ports, moving hundreds of thousands of containers every year?
Can Jesse close on and engage the traffickers in time to save dozens of innocent lives?
Release date: August 16, 2021
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 261
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Steady As She Goes
Steady As She Goes
Friday, August 6, 2021
Osmin Mejia stood in the open doorway of his home. Behind him, on the other side of the dirt road, the Essequibo River flowed lazily past, oblivious to all but its steady march to the sea.
He and his oldest son had just returned from a night of fishing, having caught several hundred kilograms of shrimp—one of their best nights in months.
They’d met with a ship at dawn to deliver their catch. They did this to avoid the heavy taxes that were levied if the catch were brought to shore and sold at the docks in Parika or nearby Georgetown.
His house wasn’t much; just three rooms and a roof, but Osmin had built it himself on land that had been left to him by his father. Land that would one day belong to his sons.
The door to the small house was hanging on one hinge. The room inside was in complete disarray. What little furniture there was had been overturned or pushed around in an obvious struggle.
His wife, two daughters, and youngest son weren’t there to greet him.
“Dis is bad bad,” muttered Augusto behind him.
In Guyana Creole, or Guyanese, as the locals would call it, there is no word for “very,” and adjectives and adverbs are often repeated for emphasis.
Guyana was a poor poor country made infamous in 1978 by Jim Jones and his cult, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, when they all committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.
Osmin dropped to his knees in the doorway and began to sob.
His son pushed past him, looking around. He picked up a toy that belonged to his little brother—a handmade stuffed sheep, which little Franco slept with every night.
There was a sound outside and Augusto turned, dropping the toy to the bare wood floor.
A neighbor stood beyond the porch, the dark river behind him. He looked at the father and son with deep, sorrow-filled eyes. His name was David Clarke and he walked with the aid of a crude crutch. As a boy, he’d had his left leg mangled by a huge black caiman while netting fish in the Essequibo.
Osmin turned and saw David, who cast his eyes down at the ground beneath his feet. “Raiders came to de village,” was all the crippled man could say.
Augusto helped his father to his feet, and they stepped down off the porch together.
“Raiders?” Augusto asked the man.
“They came in the middle of the night,” David said. “They took my Mariam.”
Fire flashed in young Augusto’s eyes. Mariam was a year younger than him—the same age as the oldest of his two sisters.
“Who were they?” Osmin asked, his voice cracking.
“From across de border,” David replied. “They came by boat.”
Augusto took a step toward the man who was supposed to be his father-in-law one day. “How do you know they were Venezuelan?”
“They knocked me down, Augusto. As if I were just a nuisance to them. They spoke the Spanish.”
“How long ago?”
David shook his head. “Late last night. They took a dozen others, including your brother, sisters, and mother. They are long gone and the authorities have yet to arrive.”
“We must go after them,” Augusto implored his father. “Our boat is the fastest on the Essequibo.”
“Their boat is much faster,” David said. “A big, open boat, with three motors on the back.”
Augusto looked over at David. “Did nobody try to stop them?”
“Andres tried,” David said. “The raiders had guns. Andres is dead.”
“We must gather the people,” Augusto declared. “Did anyone see or hear anything else?”
Though young—only seventeen—Augusto was a natural leader. All his peers looked up to him and his father was on the village council, so that gave the young Guyanese some say in the overall community. The older men admired his calm confidence and inner strength.
And he’d been abroad, working as a deckhand on a cargo ship for all of his sixteenth year. He’d traveled and seen much of the coast of South America and even up to the northern islands of the Caribbean—Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and St. Thomas—islands owned by the United States.
The crippled man nodded. “They were from Caracas. This was overheard as they took our people away.”
Augusto thought for a moment. Caracas was a long way—almost a week in his father’s boat. A fast boat like David had described couldn’t possibly make the journey without many stops for petrol, and that was a rare commodity on the desolate coast. Plus, carrying a dozen captives in an open boat would draw suspicion wherever they stopped.
Augusto turned to his father. “The boat took them to a ship offshore.”
Osmin looked up at his son. “But which one? Only last night, we saw four ships go by as we worked the nets. There must be many more out there every day.”
“I must get to a telephone,” Augusto said, already planning what to do and say.
“You know there are none in the village, my son. And who would you call?”
“When I was in Puerto Rico,” Augusto began, “I met an American. He used to be a soldier, but he lost a leg.”
Osmin looked back at their home. “What good is a one-legged cripple?”
“He told me that he worked for a man who fixes things when the government cannot.”
“What man is this?” David asked, stepping closer.
“He said he worked for a man named Jack Armstrong.”
Monday, August 16, 2021
Over the past few months, I’d gotten a feel for her—a deep connection and greater understanding of how she behaved in all kinds of situations. When you’re together twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it’d be surprising not to. But the relationship was constantly changing, evolving, as we got to know one another more intimately.
During the first few weeks we were together, I studied every detail of her; how she moved and reacted, the sounds she made, the subtle nuances she would divulge to me alone.
Nils Hansen had explained what I should expect from her and what her limitations were. And more importantly, he showed me what she would demand from me at all times.
“She can be very insistent at times,” he’d told me. “And you will become the only man she will completely trust and rely on.”
It was a complicated relationship, exacerbated by the fact that I could never completely understand everything about her. She would always keep something hidden from me, something in reserve. Nils had talked about her soul and how she felt right about doing what she was asked to do. He told me I needed to connect with her in an almost spiritual way.
For the past three months, ever since Nils had left, I’d set aside time for her, just the two of us. Early each morning before dawn. Not for deep meditation or lengthy dialogue, but a few minutes each morning, just for the two of us. Alone, we explored new facets of each other’s innermost beings, and what each of us wanted and expected from the other.
I talked to her about my feelings, my expectations, even my fears. I told her about my wife and son, still asleep on the upper deck. Slowly, she opened up and showed herself to me and made her desires known.
Ambrosia was a complicated lady, of that there was no doubt.
On this particular morning, I was in the mechanical room. I’d asked one of the crewmen, a young Portuguese engineer by the name of Heitor Silva, to show me the water maker and all its parts and accessories.
Heitor was from Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, on the Iberian Peninsula, a seafaring town that dated back to before the Phoenicians’ arrival more than three thousand years ago. When we first met, he was quick to point out that though his name was pronounced similarly to Hector, it was spelled Heitor, and pronounced with a very subtle C sound.
He’d left Portugal at the age of eighteen, attended MIT, earned a master’s in marine engineering, then worked for ten years at a shipyard in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on Buzzards Bay. He’d married and had a son, but his wife and child were killed by a mugger who was never caught. Soon after that, he got a visit from Jack Armstrong.
Heitor told me that Ambrosia was capable of producing enough drinking water every day to sustain a small village. And with both her generators and main engines running, she could not only provide electricity for the entire ship, but also for a small hospital on shore.
During bad times, like a hurricane or earthquake, Ambrosia would be a fine lady to have around. A comfort to those in need. But humanitarian missions weren’t what she’d been redesigned for.
Ambrosia was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
With her twin turbines spooled up, she was capable of sixty-five knots. She’d only reached that incredible speed once in her ten years of operation, and that was during her final sea trials in calm waters.
After being signed over to the Saudi prince who’d had her built, the prince had been less than enthused that she wasn’t able to duplicate that speed in the open ocean. In even moderate seas, she was limited to no more than fifty-five knots. The prince quickly sold her to Jack Armstrong.
I’d witnessed Ambrosia going nearly full speed only once. It was when I was aboard my fishing boat, Gaspar’s Revenge, along with several friends. We were on our way to meet Jack Armstrong for the first time. Ambrosia had passed us while the Revenge was making forty knots in open water. Witnessing a 199-foot yacht at that speed had left me, and everyone aboard the Revenge, slack-jawed and speechless.
As Ambrosia’s captain for the past three months, the fastest I’d run her was forty knots, and that was only at fifty percent power from the turbines. The crew and I had done it twice during regularly scheduled run-up and maintenance checks. But it was very comforting to know more speed was there if we ever needed it. With just her diesel engines, she was able to reach twenty knots, which was still incredibly fast for a boat her size.
Once Heitor left me alone in the mechanical room, I did as I usually did, and found a seat where I could see most of the equipment. I allowed my eyes to roam over the hoses, gauges, and valves, sometimes talking out loud as I traced each or figured out what it did.
Nils had given me a basic outline of everything aboard and Heitor had provided a more in-depth tour of the mechanical suite, which took up most of the lowest part of the ship. But I liked to be hands-on and figure things out on my own.
“Ah,” I whispered quietly, while studying a specific set of valves and hoses. “Backflush valves.”
Heitor had told me that he’d personally installed a system whereby he could reverse the water flow, moving clean, potable water from the storage tanks back through the filters and strainers to the through-hull fitting, clearing it of any debris that might get picked up. He’d said that since installing it, he’d reversed the pumps for three minutes every Monday, and they hadn’t had to send a diver down since.
There was a static crackle from a speaker mounted over the hatch. I knew what it was before it came.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said, running my hand along the sides of four upright cylindrical filters.
“Captain McDermitt to the bridge,” my first mate’s voice said over the speaker.
I was already on my way. I’d left word with Matt to call me when everything was ready.
A spiral ladderwell led from the crew deck, just above the engine room, all the way up to the command bridge and tactical communications and operations center. It took me less than a minute to ascend three decks.
“Captain on the bridge,” the yeoman announced, then turned to pour me a coffee.
Val McLarin was an ambitious young woman who took her job aboard Ambrosia very seriously. As yeoman, she was sort of a personal assistant to the captain. She knew the duties and abilities of every member of the ship’s crew and if she didn’t have a ready answer for any question, she knew who to ask to get it.
“Thanks, Val,” I said, accepting the fat-bottomed mug from her as I went to the helm.
My first mate, Matt Brand, stood behind the helm, slowly turning as he scanned the mouth of the gulf with a pair of large, powerful binoculars.
I sipped at my Hacienda la Minita coffee and waited. Jack had contacted the little Costa Rican farm after trying it once and placed a standing order of fresh-roasted beans, replacing Ambrosia’s usual stores.
“Myttin da, Cap’n,” Matt said, without taking his eyes from the binos.
I’d had trouble understanding some of his Cornish dialect early on but learned the greeting he used each morning.
“Good morning,” I said back. “Anything to report?”
Matt put the binos down and picked up his own mug, lifting it in salute. “Nothin’ at ull, Cap’n. It’s been real quiet. Almost too quiet, mind.” His Cornish accent was heavy on the vowels.
“Are we ready to depart?”
“Oye, Cap’n,” he replied. “The fo’ard crew is standin’ by and Mr. Silva is sittin’ on top’o the engines.”
“Thanks, Matt,” I said, sipping my coffee as I studied the most recent weather fax.
If you accused him of being an Englishman, Matt would correct you and explain that although Cornwall County was a part of the country, once you’d crossed the River Tamar, you were no longer in England. He claimed to be Cornovii and could trace his ancestry on the Lizard Peninsula to the beginning of the Middle Ages, long before the creation of modern borders and maps, when Celtic and Germanic tribes threw off Roman rule, and the peninsula was too remote for the Romans to deem it necessary to control.
“Start main engine one, helm,” I ordered.
The helmsman, a young Mississippi man named Axel Troutman, turned a switch, waited a few seconds, then pushed the button to start the port diesel engine, bringing 5300 horses out of slumber.
“Engine one online, Captain.”
Through the deck, I could just feel the vibration of the powerful diesel. The low rumble of the exhaust was far astern and three decks down. It was barely discernible—a low bass sound that was felt more than heard. The sound synched with the vibration I felt through my shoes.
“Start main engine two,” I ordered, satisfied that the port engine was running smoothly.
The helmsman went through the same process, bringing the second massive V-18 Paxman engine online. The two engines alone weighed more than my forty-five-foot charter fishing boat, Gaspar’s Revenge, and produced more than four times the power.
I listened for a moment and watched the gauges, but I heard no unusual sounds, and the dull, pulsing rumble of the big engines felt normal.
“Both engines operating normally, Captain,” Axel said, confirming my thought. “I don’t see any fluctuation in number one’s oil pressure like before.”
I pushed the intercom button to the engine room. “Bridge to engineering. Good job, Heitor.”
A moment later, his voice came back over the comm. “I will keep an eye on it. But we should replace the bypass filter’s oil pump soon. We have several spares aboard.”
“How long will it take?” I asked.
“With a solid mechanic, we could do it while underway,” he replied. “With just one of the crew to hand me things, it’d take about twice as long as the repair took. Three wicked long days, for me and anyone you can spare who can follow directions. But we’re good to go for as long as needed. I will just have to nurse her along.”
Having spent almost half his life in the States, Heitor’s Portuguese accent was nearly swallowed up by the slang of Massachusetts schooling and wharf-talk.
“What’s our schedule look like for the next—”
“Right here, sir,” Val said, handing me an electronic notebook.
“Thanks, Val,” I said with a smile.
There were times when I thought the woman could read my mind, an excellent quality for a yeoman. The fact that she and Savannah got along very well was another big plus. When she was off duty, Val often spent time with Alberto, so Savannah and I could have some time to ourselves.
The notebook wasn’t a Mac or any other name brand, but a wireless handheld computer that Armstrong Research manufactured just for their own use. It was like an extension of every gauge and system on the ship, as well as being an encrypted organizer, sharing data across the entire Armstrong network. With just a few taps on the screen, I could assess the performance of any system on the ship or see where any Armstrong asset was located anywhere in the world. I could even read a short synopsis of their mission and progress.
I scrolled through Ambrosia’s datebook. We’d been on assignment just off the northern coast of South America for four weeks. Two days earlier, we’d been forced to come into the Gulf of Venezuela on one engine for repairs. We’d lost two valuable days, and time was of the essence.
Two weeks earlier, Jack Armstrong had relayed a message from one of his operatives in the northern Caribbean. From the tone of the communication, I had a good idea who it was from.
DJ Martin and Jerry Snyder worked together in that area. I was confident the message, telling of the capture of a dozen locals from a small village in Guyana, had come from DJ.
We’d been searching for a ship that was moving drugs out of South America. We knew where the drugs ended up, as did the U.S. Coast Guard, the Navy, and the DEA. But we didn’t know how the drugs were getting there. The deliveries were massive and so far, undetectable.
I figured the cartel had bought or built a submarine. They’d built them in the past, mostly low-profile boats invisible to radar, not true submarines. But there had been one or two real subs used by the cartels. Those had been small, one- or two-man subs, carrying a few hundred pounds of cargo. But a couple of years ago, I’d come across a couple of divemasters who’d claimed to have sunk a large, Russian-designed sub capable of carrying several tons.
The DEA had reported two large seizures in two different American ports. More cocaine than could be moved in half a dozen standard shipping containers was found at each location—about what a modern, full-sized nuclear attack sub could carry. Only none of the world’s navies had reported the sale, loss, or disappearance of any subs.
Jack told me that the relayed message from DJ wasn’t the first. He thought that the cartel responsible for moving those drugs was now branching out into human trafficking. So, DJ’s message about multiple abductions in Guyana had heightened each crew member’s determination.
The thing about a research vessel, especially one that used research as a cover to carry out more nefarious missions, was that it didn’t just sit idly for any great length of time. And its appearance, ostensibly to conduct oceanographic research, wasn’t surprising to officials.
I pushed the button on the comm again. “If we don’t find what we’re looking for soon, Heitor, you may have to nurse her along for a couple of weeks. We’re not scheduled for three days of maintenance downtime until the first of September.”
“She can make it till then, Captain,” Heitor replied, a note of confidence in his voice.
“Schedule it,” I said to both him and Val. “Order what you need and while we’re back in Bimini, the rest of the crew can go ashore or return home for a few days.”
“I’ll be turnin’ in, Cap’n,” Matt said. “Call if you need me, yeah?”
He patted Axel on the shoulder. “The cap’n has the conn, mate.”
Matt left the bridge, and I took his spot behind the helmsman. Conn was an old naval term I was familiar with from my days as part of the Marine Security Detachment aboard the USS Enterprise. Passing the conn was a verbal acknowledgment of the transfer of control of the ship from one deck officer to another, so that others on the bridge weren’t confused. Only the officer in control can give bridge orders.
“Weigh anchor, helm,” I ordered, looking through the binos at the water directly in front of us.
Axel activated the windlass and pushed the intercom button for the speaker mounted just below the Portuguese bridge. “Windlass active. Hoist anchor.”
Ambrosia had been designed as a private yacht to be operated by her owner. Originally, all the controls and instruments were within reach of the opulent helm seat. But when Jack bought her, she’d undergone a complete refit. The bridge deck was broken up into sections, with all the navigation instruments moved to starboard, relieving much of the navigation burden from the helmsman. The setup was similar to the bridge of a small warship.
But she wasn’t a warship. At least, not outwardly. She still looked like a yacht, with all the refined lines of a luxurious toy for the wealthy. But beneath the outer veneer, she was a dangerous vessel. Still, she was a documented, corporate-owned, civilian research vessel and as such, was operated a little differently than a warship.
I was familiar with how the bridge worked on Navy ships, having served on a few, and during my internship on Ambrosia, Nils taught me the differences. Many things were similar but not quite as rigid as on a warship.
The binos I was looking through were color night-vision optics, which brought the whole gulf into clear, sharp focus. But I was only concerned about the quarter mile directly ahead of the ship.
We were in almost two hundred feet of water, so we had over a thousand feet of chain anchor rode out. The chain began to rattle over the rollers as the powerful windlass hauled it up. Two crewmen on the foredeck used high-pressure water hoses to wash down the chain before it disappeared through the deck. A third man operated the remote windlass control.
When I felt the ship start to move, I ordered the helmsman to engage the starboard engine at dead idle, so the windlass didn’t have to strain as much. Pulling up the anchor and two hundred feet of heavy chain was hard enough without pulling the five-hundred-ton vessel through the water.
It took fifteen minutes but finally, Axel announced, “Anchor aweigh, Captain.”
“Starboard engine stop,” I replied.
He took the engine out of gear, and the ship drifted as the last two hundred feet of chain and the heavy anchor were lifted from the depths of the gulf.
A green light appeared on the helm console and Axel looked up at me. “Anchor’s secure, Captain.”
“Make your course zero-one-five degrees, true. Speed fifteen knots.”
“Zero-one-five degrees at fifteen knots. Aye.”
Another vibration could be felt through the deck as the big impellers were engaged, forcing thousands of gallons of water through directional water jets at the stern. Slowly, the ship gathered speed, as Axel moved the throttle controls forward incrementally to the halfway position; fifteen knots was Ambrosia’s most economical speed.
“Fifteen knots, Captain,” Axel reported.
“Take us out of the gulf, Axel. Manual control.”
Though his back was to me, I knew he was smiling. No helmsman ever wanted to turn control of the ship over to the computer. The mouth of the Gulf of Venezuela was almost fifty nautical miles wide and the only thing that lay ahead was the Los Monjes Islands, a small archipelago fifteen nautical miles west of our course. The Spanish explorer, Alonso de Ojeda, had discovered the archipelago in 1499 and thought the rocks looked like the hoods monks wore.
I turned to another crewman sitting in front of the expansive electronics array. “Passive sonar, Ross. Three-sixty degrees, top to bottom.”
Ross Mosely nodded. “Passive sonar. Aye.”
Ross was a long way from his roots in central Oklahoma. But he had an ear for the very subtle differences in underwater sounds, particularly those made by ships. He’d studied under John Wilson, the man who’d trained me in operating the submersible. John had finally retired completely.
Active sonar sent out an audible “ping” that bounced back from solid objects. The time it took the echo to return and the direction it came from could pinpoint an object’s location in the water. Using passive sonar, Ross was just listening to the sounds in the water.
“Take us to where we broke off our search,” I told Axel. “Then resume course toward the southeast, just outside territorial waters.”
I turned to Val, standing behind the navigator. “You have the conn, Val. I’m going to get some breakfast.” Then I gave her a wink. “Don’t run over the monks.”
Aft the command bridge, I went through a hatch next to the operations center, noting that most of the techs were drinking coffee and going over information on their Metis tablets, dark computer screens at most of their consoles. Early morning hours were usually quiet in the op center.
The technology aboard Ambrosia rivaled that of any Fortune 500 company and most countries. All the stations in the op center were tied into the ship’s main computer system. Chyrel had schooled me on what it all did and how it worked, going on about terabyte speed and zettabytes of storage, but most of what I heard barely slowed down as it went in one ear and out the other.
I did remember the name of the system—METIS—which stood for Multi-Encrypted Technical Interface System. All the hardware and the software it ran were designed and built by Armstrong Research. All the wired and wireless devices and systems on board were connected and linked to the computers in the New York headquarters. I remembered the name because of stories I’d read about mythology.
During the Greek philosophical era, about 2500 years ago, Metis was a Titaness, an Oceanid, the daughter of Oceanis himself, and the first great spouse of Zeus. She was the mother of Athena and known as the matriarch of wisdom and deep thought. Aboard Ambrosia, the little tablets all the crew used were simply called Metis.
The inside passageway was as long as the op center. When the Saudi prince had Ambrosia built, the aft part of the large bridge deck had a bar, restaurant-style seating, a dance floor, and even a stage. The op center took up what was once the bar area and the aft half of the bridge deck had been converted to quarters for the captain and first mate. Those quarters had been joined before I’d taken command, creating a suite for me, Savannah, and Alberto.
“Good morning,” Savannah said with a smile, as I entered our quarters. “We’re underway?”
“Yeah,” I replied, kissing her, and then going to the small galley for more coffee. “We’ll be resuming the search in less than an hour.”
“Who’s on the bridge?”
“Axel’s at the helm with Ross navigating,” I replied. “Val has control.”
She looked up at me, surprised. “She’s awfully young.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “But she’s bright and the crew looks up to her. Besides, there’s nothing out there this morning. Almost no shipping traffic this early, and the weather’s going to be clear.”
“Breakfast is almost ready,” she said, turning back to the small stove. “Go get the bottomless pit up.”
When I opened the door to Alberto’s room, Finn and Woden, lying on either side of his bed, lifted their heads. Since coming aboard, the two dogs had decided on their own that they’d watch after him at all times. They’d been around boats all their lives and somehow sensed that Alberto was new to life on the water.
“Which bottomless pit did you mean?” I asked back over my shoulder.
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