Part One: A SWING OF TIDES
THE NEXT DAY: February 13, 1991
Neumans Cay, Southern Exumas, Bahamas
RICO SALAZAR CHECKED HIS WATCH, then scanned the horizon. Nothing. Quarter to ten and still not even a glimpse of the long-awaited powerboat. His crew had to arrive soon. They should have called an hour ago. Discretion had always been crucial, now even more so, especially if they were followed.
With only the warmth of the sun and the whispering sea for company, he scrutinized the quiet lagoon and the mile-long stretch of beach. He didn’t see a single soul. Only he and several crabs moved in the stillness.
Standing on a knoll, flanked by palm trees, Rico gazed at Exuma Bank’s clear waters. The squeal of an osprey, plunge-diving feet first into the surf, startled him. He marveled at the raptor’s fluid motion, as it skewered a bluefish then flapped its wings and resumed flight, soaring over him. Rico squinted at the fish that dangled midair, face forward, still squirming.
An instant later, a single drop—the bright color of blood—dripped from the sky. He told himself the splatter on his shirt was a bad omen and Rico remembered his crew hadn’t called. He glanced down at the blood. Maybe, they couldn’t.
His island, Neumans Cay, was a part of the Exuma Cays, a chain of three hundred sixty islands in the Central Bahamas. The virgin beachfront suggested the cay was a blank canvas, bound for obscurity. He knew otherwise. Just two miles inland lay the epicenter of his island-based import/export company, miles from any traveler's radar. He meant to keep it that way.
RICO had literally stumbled upon the island. Like an over-ripe mango ready for plucking, the islet offered golden opportunities. Oozing out like nectar from rotten fruit, the temptations began here too.
He thought back to his discovery of eleven years ago. Searching for investment property, he'd cruised into a mild thunderstorm, along the western border of the Great Bahama Bank. Within minutes, a seventy-knot squall howled, as staccato bolts of lightning split the sky.
Visibility became a problem and he was disoriented. Flashes of light, shadows of trees and foaming seas jumped around him, flickering like a flawed movie, making the picture oddly disturbing. Chaotic seas stirred giant waves, coming at him from all directions. He edged to the stern, struggling to stand upright, as the boat rocked.
Naldo, his right hand man, shouted for Rico's attention. “The storm's fouled the communication system!” The dying wind finally swept past them.
“My God, look at this place,” Rico bellowed. “We're in the middle of nowhere. Where the hell are we?”
“According to my calculations, we’re about a hundred and twenty miles off course,” Naldo responded.
As Rico studied his surroundings, he could barely conceal his enthusiasm. He spied the southern anchorage and his gut told him this was it. He could easily move through these waters.
“What a place for my operation. It's a hell of a find,” he said to Naldo. He pointed to its two entrances and natural deep water. “Ocean access.”
RICO had bought one hundred and eighty acres on Neumans Cay, which included a handsome house, a small marina that accommodated large ships and a resort, to house business associates and guests. He constructed warehouses, barracks and a dock, with wide slips. Inside his concrete “Berlin Wall,” he built an airstrip and erected a mast-type radio, high on the island's southwest tip.
To assure his privacy, he fired a barrage of bullets into the cottages on the northern shoreline. Fifteen owners slammed their windows shut, locked their doors and dove to the floor. The natives, traumatized by their trigger-happy neighbor, hunkered down in their bungalows, like shell-shocked soldiers. From that point on, they stayed out of his way. None of them realized he'd built a 4500-foot runway, protected by radar, bodyguards and Doberman attack dogs.
HE smiled at the memory. He’d moved onto the island and now owned and controlled half of the island's six square miles. Bribes to the Bahamian Prime Minister assured large cargo planes, shuttling product from Colombia to the island base, and small planes, ferrying contraband into the U.S., operated with no interference. A few other well-placed bribes meant business boomed and officials did nothing to stop his irregular and profitable activities. His business continued to grow, as did his fortune.
Hundreds of cocaine deliveries were shipped into Neumans Cay from the Exuma Sound's northeastern cut, his own channel to the Atlantic. While other dealers relied on human mules on commercial flights, the Salazar Cartel used submarines, go-fast boats and small aircraft. He revolutionized the trade, by transporting drugs to the U.S. in the keels of tankers. For the past ten years, Neumans Cay had flourished as a multinational smuggling and refueling hub.
Rico scratched the scar on his chin, studying the varied shades of azure between water and sky. He had lived too hard, worked too hard and come too far to lose everything. He'd paid his dues.
Despite the pale aquas and deeper teals of the banks, and the midnight blue of the ocean floor, his mind suddenly sank back into the mire of his childhood. No matter how hard he tried to forget, the nights and the stench slithered back anyway. His mind went back to Cali, Colombia, when he was nine. He doubted the memory would ever fade.
THE steamy night smelled like cooked garbage and raw sewage. In the dark alley, sweat from ninety-two degree heat rolled down his face as he groped inside a rusty icebox, until his fingers landed on two hunks, which he slowly withdrew.
He glanced at the green mold on the cheese and the black spores on the bread then shoved the morsels into his mouth. Nothing he had eaten in a week tasted so good. If he’d had found these bits of food earlier, he wouldn’t have eaten the cockroaches.
Rico had never known who his father was. His mother was an alcoholic prostitute, who made no attempt to hide her profession from her son. Rico hated her. Hated seeing men on top of her. Hated the fact she spent any money she earned on booze. Hated rummaging through garbage cans for food. Hating the beatings he endured, when he came home empty-handed from his forays for food. He'd felt no grief, when she failed to return to their filthy shanty one night and he learned she'd been killed by a vicious customer. He wasn’t surprised. A crow had crashed into his bedroom window the previous morning. That always meant bad news coming.
Rico had learned the trade early on. He sold his body to the young and old alike, male or female. He was a survivor. He darted from filthy streets to cavernous spaces, near dismal underpasses, where the homeless huddled in abandoned, overgrown parking lots and homesteaded soiled cardboard boxes. The streets were the only home he had. While he was good looking, he got by primarily on his charm.
That changed, when a rich old woman, with rheumy eyes and yellow craters for cheekbones, took pity and welcomed him into her home. She became his abuela, his foster grandmother, and spoiled him shamelessly. Despite his own manipulation, he never completely understood why the seventy-six year old woman took him in, but he loved her, because she taught him how to live.
Gradually, the sheen wore off his image of the old woman. It was nothing she did, nothing she said. Still, he sensed things were changing in some way.
Things shifted, the afternoon a crow hit the window in the living room, with a loud thud. He remembered the other crow at the window, the morning before his mother died. Dead birds meant death.
That evening, his abuela hobbled across the room to kiss him goodnight. She flashed a hideous grin, showing teeth that looked like cracked nutshells. When her silhouette crossed his bed and her hand touched his shoulder, the hair on his neck bristled.
A curious shadow lowered over his bed. Her misshapen limbs blotted out the lights from the antiquated homes outside his window. For an instant, he saw his mother's features superimposed on abuela's face. His foster grandmother became a dead ringer for his mother.
From that point on, he hated loving her. Depending on a woman was a nightmare. The obsession consumed his days and nights. He felt like a monster, hiding behind a perfect mask. Whenever he saw her crooked grin, the rotten teeth, the webs of wrinkles, the parchment skin draped over her sparse frame in loose folds, his blood chilled. Rico thought such frailty meant death was near.
He was wrong. The old woman didn't die.
He endured the situation for eight long years. One afternoon, he knew he could stand it no longer. She 'd looked at him with her brown-toothed smirk, drool dribbling from the corner of her mouth, and the decision was made. He followed her across the room, his rubber soles making no sound on the hardwood floor. With almost no effort, his strong hands heaved her toward the ledge.
Her eyes flickered to his, filled with confusion. She started to shriek.
Afraid of losing his resolve, he quickly shoved her again and listened to her scream, as she tumbled off the ledge, plunging four stories to the ground. He took several deep, calming breaths, then smiled, imagining his mother falling to her death.
The old woman had no children or grandchildren. She'd had no one to love, but Rico. He inherited the house and all her money. How grateful he'd been. Her wealth transformed him into a wealthy college student.
IN addition to his education in business and finance, Rico quickly learned what products did well in the market place and those that would always be in demand. After graduation, he instinctively cultivated the same plant his Andean Indian ancestors had, before the Spanish occupation. He'd carved a special niche for himself and, in ten years, had jockeyed his way into the major leagues. He was proud of his global connections and the financial empire he'd built, with production facilities in Colombia, Chile, Peru and Boliva.
He sometimes wondered what would have happened, if he'd taken another road, if he and Jeanette had made a life together. He'd probably be living in the States, bored stiff. Instead, now that his island had become a major transfer point, his world had more curves and excitement than a roller coaster. He'd found the gateway to an oasis, comprising more than seven hundred uninhabited islands and cays. And he'd be damned if anyone was going to interfere with it. He'd do whatever he had to do to protect his empire.
RICO’S thoughts were pulled back to the present by the sound of quick footsteps on the sand behind him.
Finally. Naldo Perez, his second in command, tugged on his shoulder. Relief lasted a fleeting second. Rico shifted his sights back to the waterfront, his breathing labored. Think, don’t panic. He couldn’t run. He’d find a way. Only cowards gave up, and he’d never been a coward.
“Boss, what’s a matter?”
“Got things on my mind, that’s all. Don’t keep me guessing. How’d the new recruit do last night?”
“He doesn’t have the guts for our kinda work.”
“You know what to do.”
“Seguro que sì. Done.”
Rico shrugged at his lieutenant's comment. His concerns were far more important than one individual who couldn't work with the team he'd assembled. His entire business was threatened. His instincts warned him he had to be extremely careful. While he might not be able to stop progress, he intended to do everything possible to redirect it and save his empire.
“Something wrong, Boss?"
Rico turned and studied Naldo, from his cowboy boots up to his worried face. “Yeah.” He again scanned the water, then turned back to Naldo. “You know the new hydrofoil that's supposed to link the islands?”
“Sure. What's that got to do with us?”
“Their Exuma trip touches a bit of the ocean, overnights in Georgetown and returns the next day.”
“They'll make unscheduled stops near our remote outposts.”
“Caramba!” Naldo immediately grasped the dangers. "What should we do?”
“That's what I'm trying to figure out. Not a word to anyone, Naldo. I'll find a solution. Okay?”
Naldo nodded and turned back to the compound.
Rico continued to stare across the water. If passengers were shuttled to the Southern Exumas, throngs might descend. Who wouldn't want a day beyond the reach of cars, a day without the clang and clatter of civilization? Who wouldn't want a piece of paradise?
No, a route through the Exumas was way too close. Rico wouldn’t accept such a threat to his world. He couldn't do that. He'd find a way to protect himself and all he'd built up over the past eleven years.
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Genre – Thriller / Suspense
Rating – R