Higher Cause, Installment #1

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Installments will be posted on Wednesdays.

For a full list of chapters, see the table of contents.

Prologue

The Pacific, 1791

The small boat was as tired and beaten as the lone man who struggled to control her. On the verge of foundering, the craft had taken water to a level far above what any sailor would consider the bilge. The man’s knees and all below were immersed. Yet his feet felt no more damp than the remainder of his body. The tropical sea that leaked through the seams in the hull was warm, quite unlike the hammering rain that soaked through his clothes. This warmth decreased his drive to continue bailing the water that had been invading the sanctity of the little boat for the last two days. How easy it would be to slip over the side into the soothing and protecting waters of the ocean. The pain in his ears would end; the constant noise, the whipping and torture of the slicing rain would immediately cease. He would be surrounded in peace and comfort.

But he was not yet willing to die. He was still a young man, although his appearance belied it. And whereas guilt had once pushed aside every noble feeling, the crime that had led him here had been atoned for repeatedly, and the self-condemnation was finally fading. Many would not consider it a crime at all, had they known the full truth, but rather an act of heroism. The man himself did not consider it to be either. It was just what he had done. A long time ago.

He pulled on the oars again and again, keeping the bow into the wind. If he let the boat turn broadside to the waves, he would certainly be capsized. A wave crashed over him, its mass hurtling into his back and forcibly knocking him off the thwart. His head smashed against the flat, hard wooden board, and, briefly, blackness overshadowed his senses. It was but a momentary reprieve from his pain, for consciousness soon returned completely, and with it full awareness of the anguish of his battered body.

He clambered back onto the hard seat and grasped the oars. The oars had been his consistent friends for these several days, never breaking the faith, always staying with the ailing craft despite being released from his grasp on so many occasions. He looked at them through the painful slits of exhausted eyes. They were made of British pine, hand carved by an unnamed craftsman. They were heavy and rough, having suffered years of exposure to the elements, resting inside the small hulls of any number of wooden dories. They had traveled around the world, perhaps several times.

On this voyage alone, these oars had traversed the Atlantic Ocean from the British Isles, across the South Atlantic through the storms of the Horn, then back across the ocean to South Africa and through the tropical waters near New South Wales to the island called Otaheite and beyond. All this distance, they lay lashed abreast the gunwales of the starboard cutter, hoisted high above the water by the wooden slings of the His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty.

The voyage of the Bounty was certainly one of the most extraordinary imaginable. The ship’s captain had been a competent man — dedicated to his ship and his mission. And also dedicated to his country. But perhaps most of all he was dedicated to his ambitions. The captain had been Lieutenant William Bligh.

William had been his mentor and friend. A good friend. And as a friend, William had been a good man: generous, conscientious, concerned, supportive. Very particular, yes, but he could even be described as fun loving and jovial. And he cared for his men. He was calm and controlled. That self-control had been manipulated away from him.

The rain continued its assault on the thin and weathered body of the man struggling at the oars. His tortured mind drifted over the events that had led him here. It had been a brief but remarkable period — a moment in time that had defined his life for him, and certainly to the Admiralty as well. By the Admiralty he had been branded a mutineer. Mutiny: that crime considered to be worthy of only one punishment — hanging.

He, too, thought of himself as a mutineer. It nauseated him to think what he had done. But what choice had he? Had he not given William — Lieutenant Bligh — every opportunity to avoid the events of that miserable day? He had reasoned with him, begged him, pleaded, demanded, and even threatened him. But William, damn him, had stood fast.

Partly in an effort to block out his current water-soaked misery, Fletcher Christian imagined himself standing on the dry deck of the Bounty. At least the weather then had been perfect. The clear memory of Bligh’s gruff voice came to him unhindered by the time that had passed.

“One could not find a more pristine day, would you not say, Mr. Christian?”

“Aye. God has his hand near us, for certain.” Fletcher Christian looked out over a blue sea with only an occasional cloud in the sky. Those that were there were high and full, white carved with deep grey caves and canyons — white and grey like new sails. His eyes moved over and gazed up the masts to the courses, topsails, topgallants and royals. These sails were neither new, nor white, but every one was flying and full, propelling the Bounty through the water at better than eight knots.

Unfortunately, they were moving at eight knots in the wrong direction — toward home, yes, but away from their mission. It was time once again to enter the debate with William. This would be the last time. After this, the reserve plans that he so carefully, conscientiously, and guiltily had put into motion over the previous weeks would by necessity have to be employed. He prayed briefly. One more time.

Christian looked around the ship. At ninety feet, she was a small vessel, and after the long voyage she felt so much the more diminutive. Her three masts were solid and true, linked to the ship and to each other with iron rings and thick rope stays. Thick webs and individual lines of hemp were precisely and thoughtfully placed for the crew to be able to manage the extensive sails. The decks were bare and rough. Her guns had been fired only thrice on this voyage, never in offense. Only two of the original three ship’s boats were still present: the launch, and the partially rotted cutter. A brass lamp was near his feet, left behind from the night’s watch. Barely four years old, the Bounty appeared more worn than one should expect. Likewise the men who sailed her. Two of those men were in the rigging always looking out, several aft working lines, and a man on the helm. The rest were below decks. Here up near the foc’s’le, he was out of earshot from any of them.

He moved abreast of Bligh. “William, I would ask you to reconsider your position.”

“Your language is civil today. Am I to take it that we are friends again, Fletcher? I thought that by now you truly hated me.” Bligh scratched at his shaven and prominent chin as he said this, and looked steadily into his master’s mate’s eyes.

Christian, a taller man by far, could not hold the gaze, and so he let his dark eyes wander out over the sea. The men stood side by side, looking over the water.

“I have never been anything but your friend, William. You are wrong to think otherwise of me.”

“What am I supposed to think when you openly defy me in front of the crew, eh? Even worse, situations have arisen on a frequent basis that could have been prevented by a few words from you, but instead come to a head and require severe and immediate response from me. My God, man, if discipline has to be doled out from the level of the captain, then it will be doled out the way this captain sees fit!” Bligh paused, then turned toward Christian again. “I am, no doubt, thought of by some of the men as harsh and unjust. This, I blame on you.”

If Bligh only knew just how true that was, he would immediately restrict him to his quarters, or more wisely, throw him in the brig. Actually, it was not some of the men, but rather all the men that considered Bligh to have become a brutal man. And it was Christian who had orchestrated many things to make him appear so. As a captain he was rigid, it was true. But he was not heavy-handed with his discipline. He despised applying the lash. Lieutenant Bligh would not usually discipline indiscriminately. Nor unjustly. However, during these last two weeks, Christian’s plan was centered on that exactly: making the captain appear unjust, unpredictable, and out of control. And, although he was not proud of it in the least, Christian had been very successful at the task.

He pictured the able-bodied seaman who had been lashed for defying a direct order. And the midwatch, who nine days later were still eating only dry bread and water for failing to stay on course while the captain rested. Then the young midshipman who had been loudly berated by the captain, in front of the men no less, for requesting that a command be repeated. The whole ship’s complement was on half water rations, despite the heat, so that the plants in the hold could be watered. And then there were the three deserters who were chained together in the bilge with the rats, sweating and suffocating in that kiln, far below where the captain and Christian now stood. Christian, surreptitiously, had been an initiating party to each one of these offenses, as well as many more, seeking ways to provoke the captain’s wrath. He was becoming too efficient. He had manipulated Bligh into defying his natural gentle demeanor, and had made him hated and untrusted.

Christian did not want this conversation to deteriorate into a personal battle. He said, quietly, “I am surely to blame for some of the crew’s ire, William. I am sure we both are, to some extent.”

Accepting some responsibility seemed to defuse Bligh’s anger for a moment, and he said merely, “Hmmm.”

“William, again, I ask you to reconsider. We must turn back to Otaheite.”

Bligh closed his eyes. He was a stout man, but with solid features that served to affirm his stronger-willed nature and that suggested his physique should not be interpreted as weakness. Christian tried to ascertain whether or not he was angry, but could not yet tell.

Bligh sighed, as if resigned to having to undergo another useless argument with his ship’s master’s mate. He responded slowly, “We are now fully three weeks out of Otaheite. The breadfruit that we carry in our hold will not stay hardy long, so we find ourselves under some pressure of time. You have been arguing your point for each of the last twenty days. Why should you think you might be more successful on this occasion, Fletcher?”

“This will be the last time I ask, William, I promise you. That is, as long as you let me present all the issues one final time.” Christian hoped beyond reason that his friend would see it his way — or else the consequences would be dire.

“Your word on it? The last time?”

“I so promised it.”

Whispering, the captain spit, “Get on with it then.”

It was Christian’s turn to close his eyes. He had been up for hours the previous night, strategizing his argument. He planned to choose his words well. He could not allow emotions to overtake him, as had so often happened before. For if William refused to hear him out this time, he knew he would be granted no further chances.

“William, what is the purpose of this voyage?”

Bligh responded, curtly, “I will play along with you only briefly.”

“I thank you, sir. I ask again, what is the purpose of this voyage?”

“As you well know, we have been ordered to obtain breadfruit saplings from Otaheite, as we have done, and transport the young trees alive to the West Indies. There they will be planted, nurtured, and harvested by the king’s plantationers, and the product so obtained used to inexpensively, yet adequately, feed the slaves and indentured servants.”

Impatiently, Christian responded, “Yes, William, yes, and you have done that well so far. However, that is not the true purpose.”

But Bligh interrupted, ignoring Christian’s last words. “So far, we have done it poorly, indeed! We spent four months on that pagan island of Otaheite, dawdling around and fornicating with the natives. You, I might add, were one of the chief culprits in becoming so completely involved in their immoral customs. With your tattoos and your skin as tanned as a bull, you even now look like a Maori native! No, we should have been there for two weeks, not four months.”

“But our hold is now full of freshly potted young saplings. Full to the brim.”

“Yes, despite your efforts at delaying the departure further so you could stay with your bare-chested woman, we did indeed fill the hold.”

Christian’s nostrils flared. “You know full well why I tried to delay you, Captain! I was so close! They had fully accepted me. The high chief’s daughter was my woman. I supped with the elders almost nightly. They planned to take me to the volcano. They were going to let me watch the ceremony! I would have seen the device. I could have proved its existence. I know it!” Christian tried to restrain his animation and his passion, but was unable.

Captain Bligh shook his head slowly, impatiently, “It doesn’t exist, Fletcher. The damned thing doesn’t exist! It never did. It was just Banks’s fantasy. That’s all it ever was.”

Christian breathed deeply. Almost a minute passed in silence. “Captain… William… in this whole vast ocean, only you and I know the true purpose of this voyage. You and I. And perhaps only ten people in all of England, including Banks. That makes a dozen people in the entire world. But it is you and I, William, who are here, and who have been assigned to accomplish it, to acquire that amazing artifact that has such power. God, man, we cannot just forget the real reason why we came! The success of this mission rests on our shoulders.”

“Yes, Fletcher, it rests on our shoulders. Let me remind you of what the first part of that ‘real’ mission was. We were to determine whether there was any reliable basis to John Carver’s log entry and attestation to the Admiralty. We have, to my satisfaction, determined that there was no basis whatsoever. And that the young man, whom I knew, mind you, and you did not, was under the influence of grog and smoke and the potions of love when he wrote his journal entry. It was not a true report. And that is that. Thus, our ‘real’ mission as you call it, has been fulfilled.

“No, William. It is not so simple. You know full well that the Admiralty was convinced of the truth of his report. They had Captain Cook’s logbook!”

“That is your hypothesis, Fletcher. I never saw that logbook.”

“And the suspicions of Sir Joseph Banks, whom you well knew was on that island long before you. He bedded the Maori queen!”

“Again, Fletcher, rumor. And had he bedded her, why do you think he never got to the ceremony?”

“But why else would the Admiralty give any credence to the rambling writings of a young midshipmen, who admittedly had been drinking to excess that evening? Indeed, the Admiralty took his statements so seriously that they financed this voyage, under the guise of obtaining breadfruit, solely so we could follow up what Captain Cook failed to do and bring this amazing device of which Carver speaks to British soil. Would the Admiralty have done this if there were no firm corroborations in Cook’s log?”

“The breadfruit was an adequate mission in its own right. I was to be sent after the breadfruit in any event.”

“No, William, you cannot believe that! I know that getting these breadfruit was the idea of Sir Joseph, the same man who was in a position to have some first hand knowledge of what Carver wrote. Sir Joseph is the most prominent scientist in Britain, and undeniably influential at the Admiralty. It was he who arranged this whole mission, under the guise of obtaining breadfruit. You know this as well as I. The breadfruit was just a silly ploy, nearly useless.”

Bligh was angered now, “That is not true, Mr. Christian! Not true. You misspeak!”

Christian cut him off. “No, William. It is you who do not remember. You yourself laughed when you told me about these breadfruit. What an outrageous notion it was! You must accept, now, that the Admiralty would never have sent us after breadfruit alone. No, as you must remember as it was little more than a year ago, they used this nicely devised grocer’s errand as a convenient guise to conceal our true mission.”

Bligh was quiet now, seemingly reflecting.

“And we have not accomplished it, William. I am certain that what Carver spoke of is real. And it will change everything we know. Think about it. It will without doubt make England the most powerful nation in the world for all eternity. But if another nation recovers it, then England will sooner or later be destroyed. It is that plain. Now William, do you not see that we must go back to Otaheite? Even if there is only a tiny chance? Please, turn the ship around.”

Bligh closed his eyes again, and whispered, “If we do, the breadfruit saplings will die.”

Christian scoffed, “To hell with the breadfruit! Throw the wretched shrubberies overboard, and let the men have more water instead of conserving it for those blasted plants. We have not accomplished what we came to do! By heading back now, we are defying our orders. We are ignoring the directives of the Admiralty, and even the king. We are returning as failures!”

That last struck a painful chord, and was too much for William Bligh. Too much when he was so tired. Too much when he had no reserve left. Too much when he was so completely on edge. He had failed in his earlier effort to circumnavigate the globe, beaten back at the Horn. He had failed at obtaining any evidence of this strange Maorian object about which the midshipman had written ten years earlier. He had failed to keep the morale of the crew high, and failed to arrive at the West Indies in time for the summer harvest. The whole mission had been a failure — except for one thing. He did have the breadfruit saplings — late perhaps, but he had them, and they would be delivered whatever the cost. No! He would not return a complete failure!

In a most severe tone, Bligh chastised the man. “Mr. Christian, that is enough! This mission, and you and I, sir, are not failures! No, sir. We will successfully perform the only mission we have, the only mission that is written in any official document of the king’s navy. We will bring these breadfruit saplings back, or we will die trying. We will neither throw them over the side, nor risk their desiccation by returning to Otaheite in a futile quest for a nonexistent magical pagan article. I will not tolerate any further words on the subject.”

Christian stood quietly by his captain’s side. He had his own orders from the Admiralty, orders that were as clear and complete as any. What he had hoped to avoid had now become inevitable, and his throat choked at the notion of the acts he was about to perpetrate. For this moment, this last moment, he stood by his captain’s side — his friend’s side. He did not want to leave it.

“Good day, Mr. Christian!” Bligh said, with a tone indicating irrefutable dismissal.

Fletcher Christian rubbed his face solemnly and turned away. “Damn you,” he said under his breath as he walked aft, leaving the side of his captain forever. “And damn me.”

The ship’s bell, hanging in its place just forward of the mizzenmast, rang twice.

The two days that followed were interminably long. Christian was frozen in indecision. He knew what must be done. He had been preparing for this for more than three weeks, but now that he had to do it, he was having great difficulty. He would be destroying, perhaps killing his friend. He would be destroying himself and dozens of other men as well. And none except he and Bligh would ever know the true reason for the mutiny that was about to occur.

Christian had to keep complete secrecy — of that he was sure. The undercurrent of discontent that he had nurtured, not without the unwitting accommodation of Bligh, was what would secure the success of his effort to take command of the ship. The sailors on the vessel had been through hell when attempting to round the Horn, and then were placed in the lap of luxury, bathed in warmth and surrounded by the beautiful women of Otaheite. The women, bare chested and smiling, were fit and friendly and always willing to entertain the British sailors. The four months spent on Otaheite were the best months of the crew’s lives. But now they were at sea again, under the auspices of a tyrannical captain, living under harsh conditions with their water rations cut in half and grog almost nonexistent. It had not been hard to create a few situations that were very public, demeaning for the crew, and demoralizing. Enough of the crew, and several of the officers, and even the botanist who had been tending the breadfruit plants would all support him when he took control of the ship. This was so, even though they would be named mutineers and never, ever be able to see England again — unless it was a view while dangling from a hangman’s noose.

Christian considered that again, as he had done several times in the last days: hanging by the neck from a rope off the starboard yardarm of some nameless man-o’-war in Portsmouth Harbour. Of course, if they were caught, he should escape that fate if the Admiralty were willing to admit to what they had been so careful to keep secret. But they weren’t likely to admit to it. Instead they would let him swing. The other men would have no defense, for they, in their crime, did not and could not share in Christian’s higher purpose. They would mutiny for the pleasures of women, and to avoid the harshness of the captain. The poor souls would not think so far ahead as to see the harshness that the British maritime court would pour forth upon them if they were ever caught and returned to England.

It was time. There would be no more waiting. Christian slapped his hands on his knees and then arose from his position near the main mast. He was officer of the watch this morning; no youthful midshipmen or other officers were above decks. It was almost four bells, and the sun would be rising on the horizon within a few minutes. The sea was calm and the wind light. The ship slid slowly through the water, with little noise. Even the lapping of the waves on the hull was particularly gentle this day. He would have to be quiet.

He moved below decks and down the passageway to where the master-at-arms was sleeping. Tapping him gently on the shoulder, Christian was able to awaken him with ease.

“Churchill, the time has come. This is your last chance to avoid this. If you change your mind later, it will not matter. You will still swing.”

Rubbing his eyes clear, Churchill responded, “Let there be no further warnings, sir. ‘Tis the right thing to do.”

Christian knew it was indeed the right thing to do, but not at all for the same reasons that the master-at-arms used to justify such a horrendous act as they were about to commit. Certainly the man had suffered under Bligh’s command, but he had earned such treatment by committing true offenses. “Get the keys to the arms locker. And wake the men who will be with us. Let the others be awakened later by the uproar. I will meet you outside the captain’s quarters in a moment.”

As Christian walked aft along the passageway, he heard Churchill whispering repeatedly, “Wake up, wake up! Mr. Christian is taking the ship.”

Mr. Christian was indeed taking the ship. Within minutes, pistol in hand and with seven men at his back, he marched into the captain’s cabin. Captain Bligh lay peacefully asleep on his berth, and he did not stir as they entered.

“William,” muttered Christian to himself in deep depression. “Forgive me.”

He walked over to the berth, and holding the pistol to his friend’s head — his captain’s head — he said loudly for all to hear, “Lieutenant Bligh. Arise! Wake up, man! This is Fletcher Christian. I am taking charge of the ship.”

The captain quickly came to full consciousness. “What is this? What are you doing? Get out of my cabin! Get out, all of you!”

Christian pulled the captain to his feet. Then the men behind him took over, half carrying, half dragging Bligh out of his cabin and up to the deck.

Word spread rapidly through the ship, and within four minutes all hands had gathered on deck. Almost a dozen of the crew were armed, with most pointing their weapons at Bligh, whom they had come to despise during the recent weeks.

With the sails hanging limply from the masts and the ship glowing red with the beams of the rising sun, the long shadows of the men made for a surrealistic pallor. The scene before Christian was more horrific than he had imagined. His friend and captain stood before him, in nightclothes only, bound by hand and foot to the mizzenmast. The men leered at him, insulted him and spit upon him. Christian was not in control. Events were moving forth on their own now.

“Let I be the one to kill him!” cried one of the younger able-bodied seaman.

“No! I deserve to. It was I he had stay atop the mast all night!” another replied.

“Neither of ye have a right that bests mine!” the gunner’s mate protested.

Christian cut in, yelling at the top of his lungs and pushing all the men back. “There will be no killing! Do you hear me? There will be no killing! Mills, get the captain his clothes. Hurry man! It is not right for him to be forced up on deck without clothes.” Turning to the left, he pointed to some of the men with guns, and spoke in the rough language of seamen. This language he had learned before the mast, as a gentlemen volunteering to be a seaman, on a different ship, at a different time, when Bligh had first become his mentor. “You men, do ye really think that seven guns need to be aimed at the captain? He is bound secure. Do ye think he is going to break free? If so, then ye had best relearn your knots!” The guns lowered marginally. “Move along then.”

Then Christian turned toward the throng. He raised his voice so as to be heard above the commotion. “I have taken over the ship. I am relieving Lieutenant Bligh of command. Those of you who are with me, move this way now; those who aren’t, stay where you are.”

Bligh hollered out to the men, “Be careful what you do, men! This is mutiny, pure and simple. You side with Mr. Christian, and you will most certainly hang!”

Over the next moments the crew nearly evenly divided themselves into two groups.

Christian wanted no misunderstandings. “Do think carefully of what you do now. The captain is correct. This is a mutiny, however justified. This is mutiny on the high seas. Those who side with me can never go home, never return to England. If you try, you will be caught and hanged. Do you understand?”

“Yes, be sure you understand exactly what you are doing!” Bligh called out. “This will not end here. Not at all. England will send ships looking for the Bounty. They will find her; they will find you men. Think of this. Now release me immediately, and get back about the business of going home!”

There was chatter, and two men slid back to the captain’s side. One said, “I would like to go with you Mr. Christian, but I’s got kids — a family you know.”

“Right. As you see fit.” He turned and looked at the men who had sided with him against Bligh. The most discontented of the crew were of course there — true rabble who would as soon kill you as obey you. But there were good men among them too, men who had grown tired of Bligh’s perceived injustice. “You men, take guns and guard these here.” He pointed to the gathered group who refused to partake in the mutiny.

Bligh called over. “Mr. Christian. Come here, man.”

Christian obliged.

Bligh was fully aware of the mortal danger he was in. Quietly, he spoke. “Mr. Christian, Fletcher. Stop this thing now, before it goes too far.”

Christian cried loudly in response, “Dammit, William. It has already gone too far! You have made me a mutineer. A mutineer! God help me!” Impassioned tears flowed down his swarthy face, but there was an unquestionable and intense anger in his black eyes.

“I will forget it ever happened. Yes, forget it happened. We will go back to Otaheite, if you wish. Whatever you wish. I am a reasonable man.”

“It is too late for reason. It is too late for you. And it is too late for me.”

Bligh struggled to stand straight and raised his voice. “Well then, Mr. Christian. There is no turning back then. God damn you! I say Damn you! I spit on you. You are a mutineer. And I promise that I will not rest until I see you and your rabble all hanged. I will not rest!”

The crew had moved over again. Guns were aimed back at the captain.

“Let me kill ‘im, Mr. Christian. If any man deserve to die, it be he!”

“No!” Christian pushed them away again. “No.”

“What will we do with them all then?” asked Churchill.

Christian pointed to the portside longboat. This launch was in better shape than the worm-eaten cutter. “We set them adrift. Yes, we set them all adrift.”

Bligh spoke crisply now. “Might as well just shoot us now, Mr. Christian. What you speak of is just as certain a death sentence.”

“You will have food and water. You can find islands to resupply.”

“These islands are all filled with cannibals. We will get killed if we set foot on any of them.”

“Well, dammit, good luck to you then!” Christian turned to two seaman. “McCoy, Millward, float the launch! And stock it with food and cheese and whatever else you think we can spare. Then get those men on it and get them off my ship.” The sooner the captain was off the Bounty, the better. Christian could in no way guarantee his safety as long as he remained aboard now. These men were a desperate bunch.

Yet the crew went about their tasks methodically, as if this were just a routine day. Over the next hour the longboat had been filled to capacity with men and supplies. Bligh had been allowed to dress, and he stood at the stern of the little boat with his foot on the gunwale.

“I need my charts, Mr. Christian,” he demanded.

The reply was curt. “You are the best navigator I have ever known. You will have a sextant and a compass. As to the charts, you will not get them, sir. I have need of them as well. Now go, sir. Go!”

Bligh sneered defiantly. The nineteen men who had barely fit aboard the tiny boat looked up at their former shipmates.

As two of the mutineers used the oars from the cutter to push the launch away from the beam of the Bounty, Bligh gazed upward and spoke to Christian for the last time. “It is not the end of this, Mr. Christian. You will be hunted down. I will see you hanged!” And with that, Bligh turned away, toward the bow of the cramped little boat.

Christian never saw his friend’s face again.

That had been two years ago. Now, with his hands grasping those same oars that had once pushed Bligh’s pathetic craft away, Fletcher Christian sat on a rotting thwart — a board that was beaten by time and weather and distance. He looked at his boat. This was roughly the same sized craft upon which he had set adrift all those men. Nineteen good men he had sent to their certain doom, including one of the best men he had ever known. Christian, soaked and miserable in the pounding and ceaseless torrent, had never again been out of the Pacific, and had no way of knowing that Bligh had brought that little open boat and all but one of the men through a three-month, 3,600-mile voyage to the French island of Timor, from where they were returned to England. He had no way of knowing that Bligh, over the years, would be given several more commands, including serving as the governor of New South Wales. And he had no foreknowledge of the events that would someday occur in New South Wales under that governor. For, fifteen years later, there would be another mutiny against Bligh.

But Christian could never even have considered the possibility. In his tortured mind, William Bligh — and all those other men — had died at his hand. He and the other surviving mutineers were forever barred from seeing their homes, and were branded as traitors to England for all eternity. And what had it all been for? What had it all been for?

He pulled at the oars, again and again. He hoped beyond hope that he could reach the tiny island that he knew must lie somewhere out there ahead of him, across the dark and malicious ocean.


Chapter 1. Impending Doom

Year 2012. Alexandria, Virginia

Traveling south on the George Washington Parkway on the Arlington side of the Potomac at rush hour can be a downright frustrating experience even when one is not in a hurry. But this particular afternoon, Petur Bjarnasson was very much in a hurry. For months he had not had a single positive response to his proposal, and now, in one day, he had two unsolicited potential financiers. The first, Joseph Onbacher, apparently had access to a large family fortune. The second, Thomas Standall, was a venture capitalist who had struck it rich developing medical instruments.

A decrepit red pickup was tucked over on the right side of the parkway, slowing traffic to a crawl. Passing drivers were scrutinizing the scene because of the payload in the back — a pair of familiar golden arches that the news stations reported had been abducted from a District of Columbia fast-food restaurant two days earlier. Petur was unaware of their significance, for he had just flown in from San Diego an hour ago. With the limited flights into Reagan National, he ended up flying into BWI, forty-five minutes north of the District at the best of times. His first contact was in Alexandria, Virginia, right next to Reagan National, which was unfortunately where most of the traffic happened to be today.

Petur’s rented Chevy crept along the parkway. By sliding his front bumper ever closer to the car in front, he tried in his mind to push the cars ahead as much as he could, of course to no avail. Although he had refrained blasting his horn because of the futility of the act, his frustration was now peaked and he jabbed his index finger into the little button on the steering wheel. From under the hood came a faint little beep, insufficient to relieve his tension, or even be noticed by the rubbernecking drivers ahead. He sighed, and let his mind wander toward the imposing task that awaited him.

There was no doubt that he was completely prepared. Every predictable pitfall had been postulated and hypothetically addressed. Nonetheless, it was an enormous gamble for anyone to take. The wealthy individuals whose support he required had to be a special and very rare breed: concerned citizens with impressive foresight, out of the box. Not self-sacrificing, but self-preserving. Desirous of creating value. It was this special breed that was so hard to come by. Others whom he had approached were hospitable and encouraging, but they were philanthropists. Peter didn’t need money given for a cause. He needed it invested, by experienced and bold individuals willing to take risks in order to avoid other risks. And these individuals needed to be wise enough to be scared, too.

He came alongside the worn-out red pickup, steam spilling out from under its hood. It was a hot summer day, upward of 39 degrees Celsius, as hot as human body temperature with a fever, and overheated vehicles were commonplace. Petur was very glad for the air conditioner in his car, which he had set for maximum. Before coming to the United States, he had never even conceived of using a car air conditioner to cool a vehicle. Automobiles in his native Iceland possessed them for the purpose of drying the moist air before it froze on the inside of the windshield, not for cooling the already chilled temperatures. Today, however, he could not imagine what this drive would be like without it.

The pace of traffic was speeding up considerably now that he had passed the breakdown, and his spirits began to lift. He drove under the access roads to Key Bridge, which led into Georgetown and continued on past the Iwo Jima monument and Memorial Bridge, with the top of the Lincoln Memorial just visible on the other side of the river to his left. He passed the reconstructed Pentagon on his right — a place to which he had been just about to turn for his needed support. Thank God he had postponed doing that. One of his hopes was to be able to keep government bodies from becoming involved. There really was no place for any government interests, and it would be a shame, and outright disingenuous, to have to fall back on them.

The access road to Reagan National Airport appeared and reminded him of his hectic and frustrating morning. He had been awakened from a sound sleep at 6:30, California time, by the unpleasant ring of the phone. He had cautiously said, “Hello,” having had a fleeting thought that this call might relay bad news.

Petur had gradually come to a full state of alertness during the excited bantering of his friend and advisor. “We got a nibble,” Isaac had said, “and this one will sign on. Actually, there are two nibbles, entirely unrelated, and they’re both gonna buy in!” He had continued without waiting for a response. “Here’s the deal though. They’re both on the East Coast. One guy is in Boston — It’s Thomas Standall, the guy who runs IntensiMed. Their stock has been flying through the roof lately. He called this morning; said he’d heard about our plan and wants to know more. Problem is, he’s leaving for Europe tomorrow A.M. — won’t be back for a month.” Isaac had paused for a breath and Petur had taken the opportunity to interrupt.

“Hold on! I’m just waking up here. You said IntensiMed? How did Standall hear about us?”

“He mentioned something about hearing it from a friend while playing racquetball. I don’t know who though. But it’s not like you haven’t been making the rounds. Word was bound to get out. You’ve talked to half the rich hot shots in the country already.”

“Yeah, but none of them called us! It sounds hopeful. What did he say?”

Isaac had laughed and said, “He said he’s got loads of money, considers it all at terrible risk, and would just as soon incinerate it for our cause than have it swallowed whole by Uncle Sam.”

“So it sounds like I’ve got to get out there.”

“Forget it. You’ll never make it. It’s already 9:30 here in Boston, and you have to go to Washington first.”

“Washington?” Petur had queried. “Oh, the second nibble. What’s this other thing you’ve lined up for me?”

“Actually it’s Alexandria, Virginia. Joseph Onbacher. He’s a friend from years ago. Got a lot of family money. I had talked to him several weeks ago, and of course the Island came up. He didn’t seem interested then. But he called this morning and wanted to know more. I guess I got him thinking. I was so excited that I told him I would have you standing on his doorstep by two o’clock this afternoon. That was before I got the call from Standall. Standall said he would see you today, but that’s not going to happen. You’ve got to do Onbacher first. You’ll have to follow Standall to wherever he’s going. I’ll check it out.”

Petur had sat up on the edge of his bed, and then headed toward the bathroom. “Isaac, can you present the case to Standall? No. Scratch that. Tell me where he’s going, and I’ll see what I can do. I’ll call you back in a little while. You’re in your office I presume?”

Isaac had responded, “Where else would I be at 9:30 on a weekday? I am a professor, you know.” And then he had hung up.

Petur’s mind returned to the present, and to the business at hand, plotting the Chevy’s course through the streets of Alexandria, Virginia. The printed copies of the MapQuest directions had filled in for when the rental car company’s dysfunctional GPS all too frequently lied to him. It was exactly 6:00 P.M. when he squeezed the little Chevy into the tiny available space on the side of the narrow brick road. It had been the only space for blocks, and the presence of the red fire hydrant, which would usually inhibit him, did not even phase him. He was four hours late for his meeting. He might even be interrupting the man’s dinner.

As he opened the car door, he fully expected a blast of oppressive hot air to assault him, as had occurred when he came out of the BWI air terminal earlier in the afternoon. He was pleasantly surprised that this did not occur. A car drove slowly past him, a dark-haired man looking at him for a moment from the passenger seat.

Walking through Alexandria on a summer evening can calm even the most anxious of people. The two-hundred-year-old red-brick houses that line the narrow streets were in impeccable condition. They breathed history. It was natural to imagine horses and carriages traveling down the rough cracked pavement of the streets. Even the noise of passing automobiles supplemented the sensation, for the rubber tires created a sound similar to wooden wagon wheels as they drove over the cobblestone sections interspersed with the more modern pavements. The lack of repair of the roadways seemed intentional and served to keep the traffic slower. In the heat of rush hour, it was quiet here, with the gentle breeze rising off the Potomac just a few blocks away evidently responsible for the relative coolness.

By the time Petur turned the corner and approached the front door of Joseph Onbacher’s house, he was actually feeling serene. He was not nervous about his impending presentation. He was thoroughly practiced now. Onbacher had seemed pleasant enough on the phone when Petur had called to inform him of his inability to arrive by 2:00, but he had not predicted being quite this late. He hoped that Onbacher was not going to feel too put out.

There was a golden, anchor-shaped knocker on the solid red wooden door of an otherwise nondescript home tucked between several similarly designed houses. Although near the main street through town, there was little evidence of it. Only faint traffic noise reached here. Petur was impressed that Onbacher, who reportedly controlled a vast financial network, would live in anything less than a grand maison on the bank of the river. There was nothing modest or cheap about any of the houses in this part of Alexandria, but they certainly did not stand out as being palaces of the wealthy.

Onbacher himself answered the knocker, with a jovial round face and infectious smile that immediately alleviated any concerns Petur had about his reception so late past his appointed time.

“Mr. Bjarnasson, I presume. Very glad to make your acquaintance. Come in, come in, come in, my boy. My apologies for our less-than-hospitable traffic patterns. I hope it was not too uncomfortable for you. I bet you could use a drink.”

Petur was guided through an impressive entrance foyer. The narrow street frontage of the house had given the appearance that the residence was small, but he could see now that that was an illusion. As they crossed a meticulous Chinese silk rug, Petur had a glimpse down a long corridor. It must have gone back half the length of a football field. They entered a parlor style room and Onbacher motioned him to sit.

“What’s your fancy, my boy?” waving his hand haphazardly toward one of the most well-appointed bars Petur had ever seen.

“A beer, if you don’t mind.”

“Ah, a man of my heart. I’ll join you in that.” He handed Petur a chilled pewter mug, popped open a recent creation of a local microbrewery and poured carefully to avoid an unnecessary head. “I’ll let you sit and enjoy, and we’ll get down to business in a few minutes. You need to wind down after fighting the miserable traffic. But then, you have a story to tell me, and I may have one to tell you.”

Petur took a long sip from the mug, the frosted pewter conveying the sensation that the beer was colder than it actually was. Some people like their dark beers warm, but not Petur. The colder the better. He looked around the well-groomed parlor, and quickly noticed a central theme. Everything was nautical. In the west corner, by the bar, was a carefully sculptured model of a wooden sailing ship with all canvases flying. It was encased in a glass and wooden display box with an engraved brass plaque, which was indecipherable from this distance. Behind the model hung a varnished wooden ship’s wheel, occupying most of the wall space. To the right of the bar was a display case full of brass appliances including ship’s lamps, polished winches, cleats, blocks, and other miscellaneous hardware. There were several other ship models on various tables in the corners, and over a dozen half models hanging high on the walls. The entire wall to his right was one bookcase, filled with leather-bound volumes stuffed in every available nook.

“That bookcase contains many of my favorite treasures,” Onbacher offered. “Those are the logs of vessels registered from just about every maritime country in the world. I have read every one, or translations of them, at least.

“How old are they?” asked Petur.

“From various eras. And in various languages. One of the oldest is one of Captain Cook’s logbooks of his journey during his second Pacific voyage from 1772 to 1775. Another is a binder of some of Alexander Smith’s early writings about his days on Pitcairn’s Island after the mutiny aboard the Bounty in 1789. I just got hold of those last week. Most exciting. And I have some of Nelson’s logs, some from civil war ships employed in the Union blockade, two from German U-boats, including from the boat that sank the Lusitania.”

“Pitcairn’s Island is a British colony, isn’t it?” He experienced a rising feeling of unease. That island was very close to the Paradise chain. Isaac had been talking too much.

“You know full well it is, young man,” chided Onbacher. “Don’t worry. Isaac and I are as close as brothers — he let it slip only to me. It is, in point of fact, what made me decide to meet with you.”

“How’s that?” requested Petur.

Joseph Onbacher pulled a well-worn pipe out of the breast pocket of his vest. He used his index finger and thumb to pull some tobacco out of a pouch on the table next to him and began loading the bowl. He seemed lost in thought for a time.

“Why don’t you tell me about your proposal. Isaac said I should hear it from you.”

The change in subject did not go unnoticed, but Petur accepted it and moved on. He took a long sip from his beer, and put it down on a coaster atop the table in front of him. The table was constructed from a wooden door that had clearly been an integral part of an old wooden vessel. At one end was a porthole surrounded by a wrought iron rim. There was no visible finish on it, just a grooved and beaten surface that had seen too much of the elements. He placed his soft leather briefcase on the porthole and removed his laptop computer. After a moment, Petur typed a few characters and turned the screen toward Onbacher.

“I am not sure what all you have heard from Isaac, so I would like to start from the beginning.”

“I like beginnings,” laughed the older man. “It makes me feel less behind.”

“Well, then, the beginning.” Petur pressed a button on his computer to bring up the first of the long series of charts and mathematical calculations that followed. “What I am about to show you is a sequence of events that began approximately one hundred years ago — events that, in less than a decade, will profoundly change the world as we know it. It now appears unavoidable, in fact, that much of the human population will be devastated, and that the cultural and scientific advances of the past will be obliterated. This century will see the end of the Renaissance and the modern age, and a return to Dark Ages.”

Onbacher did not interrupt. He let Petur continue a meticulous presentation. Diagrams and charts followed, each one individually presenting a troublesome issue, and the whole adding up to a powerful case in support of Petur’s initial shocking contention. Only when Petur closed the top of his laptop computer, after more than twenty-five minutes had passed, did Onbacher ask any questions.

The older man’s forehead was creased. “This is a thoroughly frightening scenario that you present. I see no flaws in your logic, and can therefore only hope that the data underlying your thinking are somehow inaccurate.” He asked, expectantly, “How confident are you that this is so inevitable a course?”

“I ask you to tell me. There are no flaws in my logic. There are no spontaneous solutions on the horizon. The momentum is unstoppably strong. The speed of the decline is the only issue uncertain. Tomorrow? Five years? Gradual decay? Sudden collapse?”

“How come this has not been made public knowledge?”

“Efforts have been made. People have been trying to raise the warnings. Whatever those forces are that maintain the momentum are too subtle, too powerful. The events I have delineated were set into motion long ago, and are inexorable. The human race, as a group, does not have the ability to recognize and accept the logical arguments that I have just presented to you, even in America, where the soil is most fertile. You see, it has already gone too far.”

Onbacher sat silently for more than a minute. “But you believe that you can stop it?”

“Perhaps. I have to try.”

“Obviously no government will help.”

“Obviously.”

Onbacher nodded. “And people spend time worrying about global warming and the ozone layer! My God, Mr. Bjarnasson, we have gone so far down the wrong path.”

Petur shook his head. “It has been creeping up on us slowly. But now, it is exponentially accelerating. There is hope, Mr. Onbacher. There is hope, because you have noticed.” Petur paused, and then added, “But, sir, I assume you noticed long ago.”

Onbacher did not acknowledge the statement, rubbed the back of his neck, in a motion that appeared pensive.

Petur continued. “There is no way to truly predict the technological advances of the future. We can optimistically assume that we will continue, for a time, to have huge advances. But how much waste of human intellect has already occurred? How much malinvestment of human resources, of lives? We got tricked. We got manipulated. As a result, we got behind. The forces of fraud have won their short-lived victory that destroys us all. The end of the scheme is inevitable. And now, with the momentum of evil that I have presented to you, there remains little hope for us.”

Petur continued into the silence, “In any event, the advances have to be made in the right places, with a view to dealing with the problems at hand. And that is not happening. Actions must be taken. Actions that require brilliance, funding, and luck.”

“And if no one acts?”

“Well, sir, what follows will be poverty, famine, wars, transient socialization attempts that will fail, rebellion, and then anarchy followed by tyranny. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, plus some spares. It will occur worldwide. The United States, strong as it is, may succumb first, or it may succumb last. But it will succumb. Institutions will falter, governments will be consumed, economies will die, cultures will be decimated. Don’t forget, it has only been six hundred years since the last dark ages. Why should we presume that they cannot return?”

Petur was not here to just pass on the warnings of others. He was here to be the someone who acted. He had a plan. It was this plan that he now carefully delineated for Joseph Onbacher. It was radical. It was enormous. It was even grandiose. But as Petur spoke, Onbacher became progressively more enthusiastic and inquisitive. He added suggestions, raised the specter of potential pitfalls, and then proposed solutions.

Petur had not received this kind of enthusiastic response in his previous contacts with potential financiers. Onbacher was engrossed as Petur continued to unfold his plan. The old fellow’s pipe had gone out long before, and there had been no effort to rekindle it — he just kept sucking on the stalk.

The gentleman’s keen interest and frequent excited interruptions infected Petur with a sense of renewal. He did not notice the time slipping away. When the old ship’s clock on the wall tolled two bells, indicating the time was 9 P.M., he suddenly awoke to the fact that he had yet to hear from Isaac about where he was supposed to go in Europe the next day.

“Sir, would you mind if I take a moment to call Isaac?”

Onbacher smiled and said, “I would very much prefer that you call me Joseph. Please say hello to that womanizer for me.”

Isaac informed him that he needed to fly to Amsterdam. He had already arranged a flight and booked a hotel for him. Isaac was a good partner.

After hanging up, Petur realized that he was hungry. It was well past time for dinner. Joseph invited Petur to join him, and Petur gratefully accepted.

They retreated to the dining room, part way down the long corridor, where a large cherry table was set with fine china and silver. Joseph’s butler served them a meal that was an enormous improvement over the frozen pizza that the bachelor Petur was accustomed to eating. Although Petur was relatively quiet throughout the meal, Joseph continued to entertain various potential permutations of the plan. In the past, Petur had considered almost all of them, but he was appreciative of the older man’s insight and enthusiasm.

It was during dessert that Onbacher finally asked the key questions, the important questions. He stretched his arms above his head, then laid his hands on the table and stared straight into Petur’s eyes. “If I choose to participate, it would seem that I would have a great deal to say about how the money will be used, is that right?”

Petur nodded. “You would have the final say, about your money, absolutely.”

“But, doesn’t that give me an inordinate amount of power? Doesn’t that mean people will be essentially working for me?”

“Yes, it gives you power. It is your money, after all. But no, people won’t be working for you. You will be investing in them.”

“The projects that will be pursued will be those projects approved by me?”

“You and the other investors, each making their own decisions with their own investment money. That’s right.”

“Why not pool the money and then have the experts, the scientists themselves, make the decisions on what projects are most worthy of pursuing.”

Petur smiled. “Because relying on experts to determine how to spend other’s money is what got America and the world into this disastrous situation. I cannot rely on experts who think they know what is best for the world.”

“But you will rely on me?” Onbacher looked slightly, just slightly incredulous.

“You aren’t an expert. You are an investor. You can choose freely what to support. What I am offering you is an opportunity to invest in a climate that rewards the creation of true value, allows failures to fail, and optimizes chances for success. I am not offering you any particular investment. Rather, I am offering you a climate that will turn your dollars into the most value possible. The financial reward for the investors is first, an opportunity to preserve your capital — it is your investment in the business of the world — which will otherwise be lost soon enough as I have described. Another return on your investment is the opportunity to participate in a great moment in history. The third return is real value creation — putting your money to work making worthwhile progress, not digging holes and filling them with dirt.”

Petur had never gotten this far, never been as optimistic as now, and he felt that if Joseph decided against it, then he could never convince anybody. He sat completely still, as the man at the other end of the table continued to stare straight through his eyes, seemingly boring through to the back of his skull. An interminable period passed, and then Joseph Onbacher closed his eyes, rolled back his head and laughed more powerfully than a drunken man at a comedy club.

“Perfect answers, my young lad.” He took a drink from his water glass, looked pensive for a moment and then continued, “I spent the day with my financial advisors after talking to Isaac. I cannot give anything near what you require, but given time, detailed study, and visible progress, I expect I will be able to provide, over multiple tranches, better than four hundred million dollars. How does that sound?”

That sounded just fine to Petur. “Mr. Onbacher, I jest not when I say that your foresight here will soon launch us into orbit.”

Onbacher nodded, seemingly distracted. “And now, Mr. Bjarnasson, I suggested I may have a tale for you as well, but the time is late, so I think I had best defer the details until a good opportunity arises in the future. However, as you have intrigued me, I shall now attempt to intrigue you.”

The older man rose from his seat, disappeared down the hallway, and returned with a rusted black cannonball, about the size of a grapefruit. “This cannonball was found off Pitcairn’s Island, in Bounty Bay, in about twenty feet of water. It is one of many. There was an anchor there too, and some ballast, and a couple of cannons. The little bits of what is left of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty. I show you this, because I want you to know, now, that I am on another quest, a treasure hunt of sorts, that if successful will provide you with just the sort of outcome you desire in your plan.”

“What are you seeking? Gold? Treasure? I am not aware of much of that in the South Pacific.”

“There is little gold there — you are correct. Gold is wonderful, a quantifier of human labor, a medium of exchange tested throughout time. It is what money is supposed to be. You of all people know this well. Gold is a storehouse of value. And what is valuable, what defines value, are those entities that enhance our ability to pursue happiness. I pursue something of immeasurable value not much larger than this object here.” He hefted the cannonball in the air and tossed it toward Petur, who carefully caught it in two hands. “But with a very different function.”

“What do you mean?”

“At this juncture, I don’t know that you would believe me if I tell you.”

“If you believe me, I will believe you.”

“Okay then. In 1778, on his so-called ‘third voyage’ the famous British sea captain James Cook witnessed an event and came upon an artifact in the South Pacific — in Tahiti to be precise — of such power and military importance that it prompted a ten-year-long effort by the British Admiralty to acquire it in one of the most secretive missions ever, one that has been intentionally obscured, history books altered, men hanged at the gallows, to protect this secret.”

Petur grinned quickly, a bit nervously. “What does this artifact do?”

Onbacher shrugged, and then responded, “Remember, you asked. What Cook saw was a full demonstration of a device that appeared to block gravity. Completely and entirely.”

Petur was of course skeptical. Was the man in front of him completely sane? “What happened to it? Do you know?”

Onbacher was entirely sane and likely saw Petur’s skepticism immediately. But it was understandable skepticism. “I have found no evidence that it ever made it to England. But I know that it prompted one of the most influential scientific minds in British history — Sir Joseph Banks — to dedicate much of his life to obtaining it. He had been to Tahiti with Cook on the first voyage in 1768 — so that he could observe Venus transit the sun, which is a rare event that has just occurred again this year. Banks may have even been aware of the artifact at that time, for he dearly wanted to accompany Cook on his second voyage, but was prevented. Then, long after Cook’s third voyage in the Pacific, Banks arranged a whole later voyage that I believe was dedicated to obtaining for the Crown this strange device. Although the story is thin, it nonetheless has become my personal mission to find this artifact. And given that your work will be in the same part of the world that my mission will be undertaken, perhaps you will join me at some point in that endeavor. In the meantime, I would like to give you that cannonball you are holding as a gift.”

As Petur set the cannonball onto the backseat of his rented Chevy some time later, he sighed deeply. The adrenaline was flowing. His hand was shaking as he put the key into the ignition. Under the car’s tires lay the bumpy red cobblestone road of the side street in Alexandria, Virginia. Petur was on the road to his dream, which was not unlike the cobblestone road — rough and littered with obstacles.


Chapter 2. Two Brothers with Four Guns

Tijuana, Mexico

The wall was bleeding. At least it appeared to be, in the miserable interior of the dismal bar on the outskirts of the city. Rainwater seeped through meandering cracks in the cement, which years ago had been painted red but now had a color that was indiscernible in the dim light and smoke-filled air. There arose shrill screams from the middle of the large room. What sounded like two cats at each other’s throats was indeed a battle, but one between birds. The evening’s central attraction, the cockfighting, had begun.

Tijuana is the quintessential border town, a waypoint for desperate emigrants. Thousands of people wander the streets by day, attempting to sell cheap candies or trinkets to visiting Americans. At night, these same miserable folk take shelter in rotting cardboard shanties or bridge underpasses.

The precipitation had been incessant for four days, and the usually dry ground could not soak in the waters, causing floods throughout the area. Rain was not a common entity here, and it had the potential to be disastrous for the myriad of people who had nowhere to call home. Trenches that once served as informal sewerage conveyances were now boiling cauldrons of water and debris. The cardboard, effective for shelter in the usually arid climate, quickly became fragile and macerated in the moisture, affording no protection whatsoever. Carefully preserved family treasures were at constant risk during the rains. The one consolation was that the temperature remained, as always, moderate and comfortable, which drastically decreased the medical complications of exposure.

In the decrepit bar, business dealings occurred nightly that affected lives thousands of miles away. This was a hub for illicit drug trafficking. The people doing business here had little concern for the tragedies for which they were partially responsible. Many of them were once those same people who lived under the cardboard roofs, and feared the rain. Some of them still did. Each one had family and friends who were sicker, poorer, and more unjustly treated than the gringos north of the border who fell into hard times using their product. Ethics was a concept for which they had no need. Survival, respect, and comfort were their driving influences.

Jeff Baddori had thrived in this kind of environment. He could nestle in with the best of them, or the worst, gain their confidence, and then destroy their business while they remained oblivious to his involvement. He was a striking man, with jet-black hair, a dark tan, and eyes that were a fierce shade of green. Born as we was to an Irish mother and Lebanese father, he physically could blend into many cultures and societies. Over six feet tall, with a muscular but trim build, Jeff had the advantage of immediately being respected by anyone with whom he interacted. This respect was a superficial matter, based on appearance only, and would not last long if left to itself. But Jeff was also an insightful man and a quick thinker. He usually gained trust via his ability to fix major problems that seemed to be immune to the efforts of others, thereby attaining the gratitude of the organization. Only Jeff realized that these major problems did not exist before he arrived on the scene.

Tonight, however, Jeff did not feel comfortable. Something was different here. Or perhaps something was different with himself. For ten years he had been playing the game, and he did it well. He was, in a manner, proud of what he did. But despite all of his efforts, he had not made his mark on the world. Each troop of evildoers he helped shut down was replaced by another. It was rare for one of the kingpins to be caught and justice served. Hundreds of good men had lost their lives in this war, yet the drugs just kept flowing. Jeff needed something more.

There was a sudden increase in the volume of screams of the dying roosters. There was a concomitant rise in the cheers from the sadistic observers, and Jeff was pleased that this so-called sporting event was soon to reach its conclusion.

“I think it is my turn to win, finally,” a painfully skinny old man beside him said, almost as if they were friends.

Jeff looked at him and then replied in fluent Spanish with a precise Mexican accent. “I wish you the best of luck.”

In the crowd of onlookers Jeff noted a plain-appearing man, perhaps slightly short and with slightly thinning hair, who was cheering along with the throng. The man’s eyes caught his own briefly, and Jeff turned away. On the opposite side of the cockfighting ring, several young Mexicans were excitedly cheering for the larger and older bird. There was a final screech from a dying cock, and a final howl from the thrilled spectators. Money changed hands rapidly, then the people shuffled off to tables scattered around the room. The noises filling the bar were gradually dying out, and it became almost quiet. It was a relief for Jeff. The plain, slightly short man had joined the young fans of the surviving bird at a table in the darkest corner. Jeff picked himself up from his chair, swished a bit of tequila around his mouth, and headed toward the dark area. It was time.

It had been four weeks since he had last met with Juan Marcos. Their initial meeting, months earlier, had not been pleasant — Marcos had seemed less willing to trust him than most. He was reserved, suspicious. A suspicious nature could be turned to advantage though.

It had required more than his usual finesse to overcome those suspicions, but he had subsequently performed several dirty tasks for Juan Marcos, and had successfully become a trusted member of his team. One month ago, he had been given a special task. Apparently there was concern about a new well-funded joint DEA and Mexican Federales venture, and Juan Marcos had heard that his organization might be a target. It had been Jeff’s assignment to find more information.

Jeff, of course, had ascertained a great deal of information and was here to present his findings. Most of the “joint venture” of which Marcos was concerned had been a product of Jeff’s imagination but was based in truth, as are all good lies. There were indeed concerted and cooperative efforts on the parts of the Mexican police force and the United States Drug Enforcement Agency to decrease the smuggling operations. But the only aspect of a new joint venture at this time was that one trusted Mexican official knew that Jeff was working in his country.

As he approached, Jeff looked around the table. They were all Latinos, mostly Mexican, and they were laughing about something that Jeff had not been close enough to hear. Juan Marcos was on the far side of the table, smoking a cigar and drinking a beer. He was morbidly obese. His head was huge, supported by a thick neck that started at the base of his ears, spreading downward and outward towards his shoulders. Several chins propped up his lower lip. The top of his mouth was capped by a meticulously manicured thin mustache, with wax carefully keeping each hair in place. The hair on his scalp was less well-groomed and hung shoulder-length. His abdomen was straining the fabric of his business suit — the buttons on the coat having no conceivable purpose, being that far removed from their respective buttonholes. The arms were massive, and even in the dim light Jeff could see the seams at the shoulders splitting, with the white thread appearing like shark’s teeth in the gray cloth.

Juan Marcos relied on his sons to assert his power. He had two sons of whom Jeff was aware. They were always nearby, and tonight was no exception. The elder, Enrico, had his back to Jeff as he approached, the younger sibling by his side. In their mid-twenties, they had no perceivable physical resemblance to their father. These young men were physically fit, indeed solid and muscular. He had seen them both move very quickly when it was required, and had witnessed their very effective brutality toward subordinates who failed in a task appointed by their father. He had also watched each of them being soundly beaten by the patriarch, without any effort at defense on the younger men’s parts. They were completely subservient to their father, who was by all accounts a malicious, dictatorial, and mean-spirited man.

There were three other people at the table. One was Marcos’s financial man, a wiry little gentleman named Ricardo Cruzon, who managed a small bank, serving to process and clean the money obtained from illegal activities. They were never hesitant about being seen together by the police, for Marcos also had legal business interests, which were often financed by that same small bank, and served as an excuse for them to be together. The legal business loans played an important role in the money-laundering scheme that was vital to the Marcoses’ interests. In fact, much of the Marcos enterprise relied on Cruzon’s manipulations. Cruzon knew his way around the Marcos organization better than the fat man did himself. Sitting between Marcos and Cruzon was a large and muscular man who had a persistent slight smile on his face. Jeff had not met him before but was not appreciative of his presence. Sitting to Marcos’s right was the plain-looking fellow whom Jeff had seen from across the room during the cockfight. He appeared harmless, although Jeff knew very well that he was not. He was known simply as Diego.

The elder Marcos noticed Jeff just as he arrived next to the table. He smiled and motioned him to sit down. A waitress in a traditional Mexican skirt was immediately by his side with a cigar. This may be a club for dirtballs, thought Jeff, but Marcos was clearly the chief dirtball.

“Ah, Jeff, it is good to see you!” said Marcos in Spanish with a definite Tijuana accent. Jeff responded with rough, grammatically poor diction, suggesting that he would be more comfortable conversing in English.

Marcos said, “English will be fine. It gives me the opportunity to practice. You have news for me, I presume.”

“Yes, but I would rather convey it in private.”

Marcos was a little drunk. He looked around the table, shrugged, and stated, “We are all friends here. You go ahead and say what you must.”

“As you wish, Juan Marcos. You were privy to information that there was a cooperative joint undercover police operation that may have taken a particular interest in you. I am unclear by what means you came by this information, but I have ascertained it to be true. There are in existence DEA files documenting investigations of the people in your organization. I had an opportunity to look through each of them. Your two sons were the objects of much inspection.”

Jeff pointed at them with his thumb. “There is some information there that I have no interest in, nor wish to share with others at this table. Of great interest to me, however, is how this information could have been obtained, for it is indeed very personal.” The older son had an expression of bewilderment. The younger had one of concern.

He continued, “There was quite a bit of information on you, Diego.” He was looking at the man next to Marcos. “I was surprised at the extent of your involvement in a variety of concerns, legal and illegal. They think that you have much more in the way of resources than you had indicated to me. They seem to believe that you are wealthy, in fact. They don’t have much in the way of incriminating evidence against you, really nothing at all, but their suspicions are real. They have you listed as the most likely agent in the deaths of twelve people in the last five years. One of the offenses could not have been committed by you, because I remember performing that deed myself. The others — well, they have equally little real clue about, although I believe they are probably correct in their suspicions.” Marcos looked over at the man with surprise.

“Marcos, they have files on your parents, your cousins, your maids, your gardener, your stockbroker, your garbage collector, and your plumber. Most of your business associates have been investigated and contacted. They have a file on your mistress, your wife, and your ex-wife. They have extensive information about every interpersonal dealing that you have had.” Jeff paused, and took a breath. Marcos had a completely flat expression.

“They have a large and detailed personal file on you Marcos. They know your weight and your cholesterol level. They have careful documentation of your day-to-day activities, often with fairly precise schedules. They have a well-outlined case against you.” Marcos was now a cross between his two sons, appearing both concerned and bewildered. What had started as an enjoyable evening was turning into the beginning of an uncertain future. This incredible man sitting in front of him was providing information that was inconceivable — and disastrous.

Jeff was scrutinizing Marcos’s expression and read him well. The man was soon going to be needing advice. He looked into the fat man’s eyes and said, “But, worry not about the DEA, my friend.”

“How can I not worry about the DEA?” Marcos’s voice immediately rose to a shout. “That is a stupid thing to say. There are extradition treaties now that work faster than a five-dollar prostitute. What do you mean, don’t worry?”

Jeff sat quietly. He pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket, bit off the tip, and slowly reached into his pocket for a match. He looked at Marcos only after the tobacco had ignited. “The lead investigator for the Americans has retired to a private position with a large corporation, and took several of his clerical staff. The information on you was in a locked filing cabinet. Your file has not been touched in nearly three months. They have forgotten about you, Juan Marcos.”

The man on the other side of the table stared blankly, was pensive for almost a minute, then recovered his usually stoic persona, and laughed aloud. He took several puffs on his cigar, which had been ignored for the duration of the conversation, but had not quite gone out. “Tell me what you did with those files, my friend Jeff.”

“If I could have removed them from the premises, I would have. It was not possible. I filed them very carefully, mixed in with the records of one Jose Luis Intaglia, a small time flunky, deceased now these past three years. It looks as though they had done a significant investigation into his activities also, but he dropped dead before they could pursue it. You are in their dead files, Juan Marcos. Locked in the vaults of bureaucracy.”

Marcos was grinning widely now, the relief obvious. “You have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat, my American friend. You are worth every bit of the money I promised you.” Marcos pushed a leather packet toward Jeff.

Jeff put his hand down on the packet, but did not pick it up. “There is more. I really think we should talk in private.”

Marcos stopped laughing, and looked sternly at Jeff. “I meant what I said earlier. Talk now, and keep no secrets.”

Jeff tossed back a shot of tequila that had been placed in front of him by the attentive waitress. He closed his eyes as the hot liquor coursed through his esophagus. His tongue always felt like it was curling under itself when he drank tequila. He hated the stuff. “As I was saying, the DEA had files on everybody who has ever been associated with you. It was very impressive and detailed work. They seem to know things that you yourself may not know. Personal things.” He paused to let the statement sink in, while staring directly at the younger son. Jeff then turned to look straight into the eyes that were deeply set into the enormous head across the table. “They were successful in their contacts with your people. They have someone on the inside of your organization who has fed them information.”

Marcos was not a stupid man. He no longer missed the obvious implications. Now he spoke rapidly, reflexively. “Whoever it is, dies. Tonight! Tell me who, Jeff. Tell me who.”

Jeff continued, “You said to be open.” He looked at the wiry banker who in turn was looking down at the table. “It is typical of many of the bureaucracies of Washington to have a report style that is difficult to interpret. There is an entirely different vocabulary sometimes, and the DEA is certainly not immune to this. It was not like I had all the time in the world, either.” Done apologizing, he continued, “However, there were frequent references to ‘sources’ and it became clear as I reviewed the records that there were references to at least two people as ‘sources.’ I cannot confidently attest as to who these people are, but they are real, and are most certainly close to you.”

Juan Marcos had closed his eyes in his dark corner; his cigar now had indeed gone out. His eyes were narrow slits. He sighed, then cracked open his eyelids, looking toward the younger American.

“I would like to have any theories. Any information that could possibly be useful.”

“There is little I can say. But there were two items that were particularly noteworthy. One was that they seemed to have detailed information regarding hundreds of your financial transactions. Times, dates, amounts, and parties involved. The other item is more of a notable absence, rather than anything else.” He paused for effect, and again looked toward the diminutive banker. “Mr. Cruzon, there was a file on you of course. But, sir, your file was empty.”

Ricardo Cruzon had never been a man who thought quickly when under stress. Jeff had seen that in the past, and part of his plan relied on that fact. He had already been moderately successful, but Cruzon’s response now was critical. He fell right in. Cruzon looked up at the large and dangerous man for whom he had worked for years and pleaded in Spanish, “I don’t know what this means, Juan Marcos. I have never talked to the DEA, I promise.”

“You are a true businessman, aren’t you, Mr. Cruzon?” interjected Jeff, back in English. “In fact, you have been able to stash away a large supply of money, have you not? You surely do not make that from your small bank. Juan Marcos, I suggest you look into your friend’s finances, in a similar manner to the way he constantly looks into yours.”

Cruzon’s pleading eyes looked at Marcos. He stuttered, “I need to go to the bathroom,” and moved away from the table on unsteady feet.

“I will indeed look into this matter, Jeff. I hope that it is not true. Sometimes, my small friend does not think clearly, and he can easily be convinced to follow an inappropriate course. We shall see. Who is the other person involved?” It sounded like Marcos had already convicted the banker — at least there was going to be no benefit of the doubt.

“Of that, I truly have no idea. I will tell you if I hear anything, but for now, I would be suspicious of everybody. They simply had too much information.”

With that statement, Jeff picked up the leather folder of money from the table, and turned to leave. He stopped and faced Juan Marcos. “Oh, you are in the dead file, but I would lie very low for a while. The DEA still has their computer database. If your name pops up again, your whole existence could suddenly be remembered.” He bowed slightly toward the huge but dismayed man and turned and walked out.

Strolling along the dirty, wet, and worn-out street was a breath of fresh air relative to the dinginess and disrepute of the bar. Jeff was pleased. Things could not have gone more smoothly. He always preferred to arrest and jail criminals, but consistent with popular notions, most of the people involved in the drug trade got away with it. He had spent six months working on this case, but Juan Marcos was unfortunately smart enough to avoid making the mistakes that would land him in jail, or, better yet, shut down his operation. Jeff had reverted to plan B: eliminate his effectiveness in the business, at least temporarily. This last meeting was a consummation of his goal, but it would only have worked after months of preparation. First the respect, then the trust, then the subtle comments that had gradually eaten away at Juan Marcos’s confidence and security. He was not alone in this. He had help.

He smiled as he thought of all the lies he had just told. There was some truth in just about every one. First, there was an investigation — his own, but the Mexicans did not care much about it. There were indeed files on some of Marcos’s associates and employees, but they were thin, if not empty, and certainly contained little of the juicier details. He had almost nothing on the two sons, but he had a gut feeling that the younger one might have been homosexual, and had run with it. Judging from the man’s consternation, he may have been right on the money. Alternatively, the younger son could have had something else to hide. It did not matter. If you were as ambiguous as the horoscopes in the newspaper, people would believe that anything applied to them. The patriarch would always wonder what was so “personal” in his sons’ files.

He had outright lied about Cruzon’s file. Not only was it not empty; it was the biggest one. He had needed to find something that would support Marcos’s suspicions that the little man had defied him. And it was there. Cruzon had definitely been skimming off the top. It was a slick deal utilizing variances in exchange rates. There was no doubt that it was intentional. The amounts were minimal, but Marcos’s would find it and that would be all he needed. Cruzon’s services were central to the Marcos organization. Jeff realized that early on, but he suspected that emotions would outweigh reason with the fat man in this matter. The diminutive banker was not long for the world.

He had planted the notion that there were two different individuals who were stooges for the DEA. This was based on absolutely nothing at all. The carefully developed trust, which he had orchestrated over months, was adequate to give his word the necessary credibility. Marcos would be suspicious of everyone, and this would paralyze him, and perhaps make him clumsy. Furthermore, Marcos would almost entirely shut down his operation for at least a short time, so as to avoid drawing attention to himself. When he started back up again, he would be hesitant, out of practice, and prone to mistakes. Someone would be there when he made the big mistake, and the judicial system would take over.

All in all, a successful encounter, Jeff thought. He was eager to get home to San Diego. It was time for a break. As he walked down the dimly lit street, however, he kept his usual wary eye out for the unexpected.

He had been a Drug Enforcement Agency employee, and he still was paid by them, but had been on loan to the CIA for several years. He had been provided extensive training by the spy organization — training geared primarily to teaching the agent to predict any eventuality. The Company was a very intellectual lot. Thinking, reasoning, was the tool most utilized in his field. There was no James Bond–type stuff really. There should be nothing unexpected, because there exists a plethora of behind-the-scenes workers — investigators, researchers, psychologists, historians — whose job it is to analyze information and make predictions. Jeff’s job was simply to recognize which branch of the predictions was in play at any given moment and act accordingly. All was carefully planned. All was predictable.

To the field agents, however, all was certainly not predictable. For one thing, he often only skimmed all those briefs that told him how to act if a given variable came out a certain way. There was also the ever-present specter that the data could be wrong, making the predictions invalid. Even these chances had been calculated, and appropriate responses planned. But Jeff still watched for the unexpected, because that was where he could lose.

On the street, there was generally little light. This was a poor area of a poor city in a poor country. Overhead street lamps that had burned out were not necessarily a priority for repair. But he was just entering a section of the road that, by chance alone, had most of its lighting functional. Perhaps a dozen cars had passed him in either direction as he walked along the road, past beat-up old buildings that had not been maintained for years. Another car was approaching from behind now. Jeff perked up as he heard the rpm of the car’s engine decrease slightly. It was slowing down. That was bad. Jeff darted into the shadows of a nearby building, knowing that if the individuals in the car were after him, he had already been spotted. From his vantage, he could not see the car now, but he heard it roll to a stop. The glow from the headlights reflected off the water clinging to the walls lining the left side of the alley. He heard two doors open and close.

Perhaps this was just a couple of muggers who thought that Jeff looked like an available target. Petty criminals were always unexpected, and could leave the best-laid plans lying in tatters. Maybe this was a couple of teenage lovebirds, looking for a place to neck. Fat chance. This was not where Jeff would choose to neck. No, these were men from the table at the bar. He wondered which ones. They were all dangerous. The smiling man who had said nothing still intrigued Jeff — another unexpected item to discuss with the support staff back in Langley. They were at home in bed, sleeping quietly. Jeff, on the other hand, was in deep trouble.

He pulled his 9 mm Beretta 92FS from the back of his waistband, released the safety, and pulled back the hammer. He did not need to check the clip — it was certainly both present and loaded. He had sixteen bullets — fifteen in the clip and one chambered. The fourth bullet was the exploding kind. It made a big mess, but could blow through a locked door, or a man’s brain, with ease. The rest were hollow point. Three such bullets were usually enough to stop a man. The fourth was held in reserve — just in case.

Jeff assessed his situation. There were two men after him, judging from the number of car doors operated. He was between two corrugated steel structures, each two stories tall, in a very long alleyway closed at the end by a high fence. There was little protection — a few cardboard boxes that could not even keep their shape, having been soaked by the rain. He could not remain here. It was almost completely dark at the fenced end of the alley, and he had little choice, so he headed that way.

Jeff moved stealthily along the dark wall of the building to his left, farther into the shadows. The men pursuing him would walk by that alley soon. They would probably enter it. He picked up his pace. The fence was about ten feet high, and was dressed with barbed wire. Stuffing his pistol back into his waistband, he pulled off his coat and tossed it onto the sharp barbs to protect his hands. Beyond the fence seemed to be more of the same kind of alleyway, strewn with trash and smelling of decaying vegetables. But he couldn’t see much, for the light barely penetrated this far.

He hoped to get out of this without having to kill his two pursuers, but he would do whatever was necessary. He was very good with his gun but there was always the unexpected, and that was enough to keep him wary. He looked back before beginning his climb, as two men, faces invisible, entered the alley. The men stayed close to the walls, in the shadows to the extent possible. They knew they were easy targets otherwise.

Jeff jumped as high as he could onto the fence and quickly pulled himself up to the coat hanging over the sharp barbs. The men were running now, having caught sight of his movement. Jeff threw himself over the top of the fence, landing on his feet, but ducking and rolling to make as small a target as possible. He looked back and could identify from their sizes and shapes that his pursuers were the smiling man and the younger son of Juan Marcos.

Staying low, he started moving deeper into the darkness, but stopped short when he sensed a movement ahead. He saw the glint of steel six feet in front of him and knew that a gun was aimed directly at his head. So three men had come out of the car. Not two. The unexpected.

Jeff kept his hands by his sides, to maximize access to his weapon, which he had placed farther down the back of his pants than was his custom, to prevent it from falling during the climb. He was uncertain that he could draw it fast enough. He was utterly highlighted against the backdrop of the bright opening of the alley entrance, and any hostile movement would be seen. The running men slowed to a walk as they neared the fence. The glint of the gun pointing at Jeff waved upward, and it was clear that he was expected to stand. He did, letting his hand slide closer to the hilt of his Beretta.

Directly behind, Marcos’s younger son and the smiling man were now peering through the fence, their guns aimed at the back of Jeff’s head. They could see the hilt of his gun nestled in its holster against his spine. He could make no effective move. The owner of the glistening barrel stepped out of the shadows, bringing his face into the light that had moments ago glinted off the gun. It was Diego, innocuous in appearance only. He held the gun with a completely steady hand, aiming directly at Jeff’s forehead. Jeff brought his hands up above his shoulders, stared at the shining gun and then closed his eyes. Hesitantly, he gave Diego a faint nod of resignation. He heard the click as the hammer was pulled back, and winced with the expectation of the deafening noise of the charge exploding in the chamber.

The thunderous roar came as expected. And then another. Jeff’s ears were ringing with the sound of the two percussions, and so he barely heard the subsequent faint thumps as the two men beyond the fence slumped to the ground, one new hole carefully drilled in each forehead.

Jeff, tall and handsome, opened his eyes to see the smaller and plainer man in front of him beaming gleefully.

“What would you ever do without me?” Diego said with a laugh. “Mom would never forgive me if I ever let you get killed!” Diego took three steps toward his brother, and the two men threw their arms around each other, releasing the tension of the last few minutes — and the last few months.

Preview

Next week’s installment finds Petur getting attacked in Amsterdam and finding more investors in Heidelburg. The threat to the world is revealed, while Jeff relaxes on a beach with a beautiful physicist from Iceland.

Check back every Wednesday on the Laissez Faire Blog.