Higher Cause, Installment #11

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Installments will be posted on Wednesdays.

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

In recent installments…

The Mexican government has not realized that it will soon be overthrown. The OTEC has been delivered to the Paradise Islands under the watchful protection of Jeff Baddori and the US Navy’s antisubmarine warfare planes (P-3 Orions). However, the two Iraqi saboteurs have planted a bomb that Petur has found at the very bottom of the giant machine. He is climbing up toward Jeff, who is awaiting him at the top of the shaft. Jeff is worried that something else is very wrong.

Chapter 25. A Righting

Jeff was not sure, afterwards, of the sequence of events. Either he had just considered the possibility of another bomb, which then exploded, or the explosion occurred first, and prompted him to consider its existence. In any event, the small canister of blue liquid taped behind an ammonia-condensing pipe on the condenser level by Akheem Azid twenty minutes earlier exploded in a violent burst of light, steam, and shrapnel.

The explosion threw Jeff forcibly against the condenser level’s bulkhead, over three meters from where he had been standing. His back and left shoulder absorbed most of the impact. This would have been more tolerable had he not just been shot in that shoulder. Pain coursed through his arm and up his neck. His eyes stung, his ears rang, and his nose filled with a painful acrid smell like chemical floor cleaner.

He rubbed his eyes with the fingers of his right hand, doing his best to remove the tears brought on by the intense stinging under his eyelids. He felt like he had been maced. It took another moment before he even attempted to take his first breath, and it did not come easily. It felt as if a steel I-beam was sitting on his chest. His throat burned as he inhaled. The air was strange and tasted bitter.

Gradually, he caught up with the flow of tears and he looked out at the blurry chaos in front of him. He knew that Heinrich Poll’s generator was still working, for the place was still lit, albeit dimly. He looked in his immediate vicinity, and noted that everything looked fairly intact, although shards of metal and insulation material lay scattered about haphazardly. He could not see the far side of the condenser level, for a thick spray of liquid spewed from the far wall as if from a fire hose. Much of the liquid poured into the deep shaft. Some turned rapidly into a dense yellow fog — which turned the place into a morbid gas chamber. Jeff knew with certainty that the liquid was ammonia. He also knew that he could not survive here for more than a few more moments.

He struggled to his feet with difficulty, and, shielding his eyes as well as he could, searched for his flashlight. Amazingly, it was directly by his side. A flick of his finger assured him that it was still operational. Jeff moved as rapidly as he could to the circular hole in the floor.

He did not know what he would find when he shined the light down the shaft. He was not sure of the source of the blast. If it was the bomb Petur had carried on his hip, Petur would now be dead, his body liquefied and splattered throughout the OTEC. But Jeff did not think that it was that bomb. The blast had come from another bomb — planted by the second Arab — on this level.

“Petur! Petur!” Jeff cried down the deep shaft. The thick yellow mist, which his stinging eyes could not penetrate, filled the shaft.

Jeff heard no response. The ringing in his ears was gradually replaced by the hiss of ammonia turning to steam, and the crash of the still-liquid portion, which hammered the wall of the shaft. It hit the wall somewhere immediately below the top of Petur’s ladder, where Jeff now stood.

Jeff knew that the deluge of ammonia below must be drowning Petur. He searched desperately around the room for a rope, a wire — anything that might help him rescue Petur. But his vision was terribly obscured by the mucous and tears that now completely filled his eyes, causing his lids to swell and turn red. He could discern nothing to assist him.

In desperation, Jeff threw himself over the railing, and began to work his way down the ladder. His left arm could bear no weight at all now, and hung limply by his side. He moved down several rungs until the stream of ammonia lashed against his lower legs. It took only a few more rungs to learn that he would not be able to climb further down.

The ammonia seared his lungs now, and with every breath, Jeff knew that it was injuring his airways and burning his mucous membranes. He coughed constantly. The ammonia gas forced the oxygen from the air, and suffocated him. He began to feel lightheaded. In complete despair, trying to resign himself to the loss of his friend, he reached for the rung above and began the painful, albeit short climb back to the top. Each rung he climbed was a new danger, as he climbed with only one functional arm. Twice he lost his precarious balance, flailed with his hand, and grasped the next rung up just in time to avert the long fall down the shaft.

Finally, Jeff made it to the top rung and reached upward to the safety rail. In only a few more breaths his lungs and his mind would succumb to the toxic, swirling, yellow fumes. With great effort, he rolled under the rail and onto the grated metal floor of the condenser level.

Climbing to his feet, he turned to look down the shaft with one last ounce of hope. But he saw nothing but the powerful rush of ammonia streaming against the wall below, and the yellow mist rising upward. Jeff shook his head in dismay, and ran out into the corridor and then out of the OTEC into the dark night.

The fresh air affected him as a glass of cold water affects a man lost in the desert for a week. The burning in his mouth and nose began to ease and his eyes teared less. The oxygen slowly started reaching his brain. He felt a hand pounding him reassuringly on the back.

“Mr. Baddori, breath deeply.” It was Poll’s voice. “We thought you had been trapped. Thank God you are alright!”

Jeff still could not think straight, but the shadowy fog in his mind began to lift gradually and he remembered that one bomb, now likely attached to Petur’s broken body, was still submerged in ammonia at the bottom of the OTEC. He had to cough, but the pain in his lungs increased sharply when he did.

He turned toward the German, and rasped through his swollen vocal cords, “Everybody needs to get off this thing now!” Talking caused a fit of coughing. “There’s another bomb at the bottom of the shaft, and it is going to be triggered any second!” Then, staring far down to the black sea below, he turned away again and leaned against the rail. He rubbed the mucous and stinging tears from his eyes again. Quietly, embarrassed, and saddened, he added, “Petur fell down the shaft. There is no way he could have survived.”

Jeff heard an unusual thing, then. Behind him stood Poll, laughing in a hearty German manner.

Join the Club

Petur had just been moving his hand to the next rung up the shaft, while commenting to Jeff far above that this was no walk in the park, when, suddenly, the light that Jeff was holding was extinguished and a blast shook the shaft. Petur grasped the rungs of the ladder tightly. The roar of the explosion was deafening, and for a moment, Petur thought that the bomb tied to his waist had exploded. But he felt no pain, and could still feel the canisters, intact, hanging against his thigh.

He knew then with certainty that another bomb had been planted above at a higher level in the OTEC. He hoped Jeff was okay up there, and he looked back up to the faint glow at the top of the shaft. But the glow, like the flashlight before, was extinguished, and Petur could see nothing at all.

He listened intently and heard the sound that he ardently hoped he would not hear. Rushing down toward him was a flood of fluid. Petur knew that it was not water coming down toward him in a tumult, but toxic ammonia. In a moment, it would crash against him, rip him from the ladder and cause him to hurtle to the bottom of the shaft where he would be smashed like a rag doll.

He curled his head under his arm in an attempt to shield his eyes. Then the ammonia did smash into him, but it did not tear him from the ladder. The pressure was great, but the volume of ammonia was not overwhelming, and Petur found it surprisingly easy to hold on to the ladder. Most of the flood was slightly to his side, but nonetheless, he was drenched in the chemical, and his clothes became heavy and wet. His eyes stung from the poisonous attack. His lungs complained from the heaviness as he took a breath.

Reaching around wildly, he sought the next rung up. His only hope was to fight through the blast of ammonia and get to the top. Another breath entered his lungs, and this time he felt its searing effects as the ammonia ate at the tissue lining his air passages. His hands became as slippery as grease from the ammonia acting on the fat in his skin cells — as the chemical reaction created what was essentially soap. It caused him to lose his grip on the rung above, and his body swung around freely, as the river of ammonia forcibly pivoted him until his back was against the shaft wall. His right hand and foot still held their grip on the rungs, as he hung, spread-eagled. His forearm muscles screamed in complaint as he strained to tighten his slippery fingers to keep his grip.

He now had no opportunity to breathe, for his face was fully submerged in the heaviest portion of the tumult. Petur struggled to pull himself toward the ladder, but the increasingly powerful rush of ammonia was holding him in place. As his anxiety rose, he searched the shaft wall with his left hand. As he expected, the wall was nothing but smooth metal.

With a sudden change in its flow, the liquid propelled his right foot off its rung, and Petur found himself hanging by one hand. The explosive canisters still dangled from his waist, and now were weighing him down like an anchor. He wished he could free them and let them fall, but he knew he could not.

The flood of ammonia continued aggressively, but his face was clear now, and Petur was able to take another, searing, breath. It filled his lungs with pain. His eyes were squeezed tightly closed against the onslaught, and his ears were filling with the noxious liquid. Still, somehow, his brain was working. He used his left hand to search around again, now that it was hanging in a new position. The wall was no longer smooth here. A metal protuberance surrounded by a shallow relief in the metal beckoned to his hand, which grasped it eagerly. It was a lever, and it moved in Petur’s grip.

Hope returned, and Petur released his other hand from the ladder’s rung. He fell rapidly downward, but his handhold on the lever stopped his fall. The sudden weight on the end of the lever caused it to turn until it was aiming almost straight down. Now Petur held it in a death grip. The soapy layer on his hands caused him to slide to the lever’s end, and he was within a finger’s breadth of falling when suddenly the lever turned one more degree. This motion released a latch on a hinged watertight door, which then, freed from its lock, opened outward widely, pulling Petur with it.

Through tightly closed eyelids, Petur could sense the red glow of the bright spotlights shining from the Elijah Lewis. He blinked repeatedly and shallowly, which afforded him an opportunity to see some details for brief moments, through his barely open stinging eyes. He was on the spiral staircase, outside the OTEC, looking down on the platform that they had climbed onto from the Zodiac earlier. No one stood there now.

With great difficulty, he worked at the knot around his waist. He wanted that explosive as far away from himself and his OTEC as he could get it. The ammonia had somehow caused the knot in the fishing line to fuse. His sore fingers and shaking hands could not work the tangle. His lack of clear vision did not help him either. Wrapping some of the line partway around each hand, he pulled with all his remaining strength, but it would not break. The tightness of the line around his midsection prevented it from sliding either up over his head, or down off his legs.

Petur struggled to his feet and looked back in through the open hatch to the inside of the shaft. The ammonia continued to pour down in heavy volume, some splashing out and escaping into the outside air. He turned and began an arduous climb back up the spiral stairs. He had to get to the top to check on Jeff. Then Jeff could use his knife to cut this thing off.

He took one stride at a time, his eyes closed tightly. Only occasionally did he open them to check his bearings and his progress. It seemed like it took hours to make the climb, but in actuality it was less than three minutes before he glanced upward and found Heinrich Poll running down toward him.

“Heinrich, thank God!”

“You do not look well,” replied the German. He examined Petur quickly with his eyes. “We have got to get you cleaned off rapidly. You are covered in ammonia.”

Petur replied in a hoarse voice interrupted by nearly constant coughing, “This is uncomfortable. But we will be even more uncomfortable if this stuff here explodes.”

Poll looked down at Petur’s waist, noticing for the first time the two cylinders of blue and yellow liquid. He knew in a glance that the line was too heavy to break, and a quick examination of the knots assured him that they would be nearly impossible to undo.

“My toolbox is at the top of the stairs. Stay put; I will be right back.” Poll bolted up the stairs. In a moment, he was back, and sawing through the line with a blade. It was severed in an instant.

“Say bye-bye!” Poll said to the contraption, as he prepared to throw it into the ocean.

“No!” cried Petur. “If those things break, they’ll blow. We have to get them down near the bottom first.

Just then, Petur saw a figure fly out the door to the hallway a few steps above him. Poll gently placed the canisters down and leaped up the stairs to the man who was hanging on the rail. Petur knew it had to be Jeff, although through his stinging eyes, he could not tell what condition he was in. But he was alive.

Petur closed his eyes. He could hear Poll laughing loudly now and wondered what on Earth could be so amusing to him. With his ears still clogged with ammonia, he could not hear Jeff tell Poll that he was dead at the bottom of the shaft.

In a moment, Jeff and Heinrich stood beside him on the stairs. Jeff was examining the bomb’s design.

“This is very high tech,” he was saying to Poll. And I am not particularly good with bombs. How about you?”

Poll responded. “I sleep with them under my pillow. No, Mr. Baddori. I have no idea.”

Petur chimed in. “Let’s just get the damn thing away from us.”

Jeff agreed. “We probably have a couple more minutes. The guys who put these things here swam away underwater. They wouldn’t set it off until they are out, for the underwater concussion if this thing blew at the bottom of the OTEC would surely crush them.”

He wasn’t standing still as he said this, for he was off, running down the stairs. Poll held Petur under his arms and helped him down also. They were one spiral above Jeff as he neared water level. Petur looked over the stairs at him as he heaved the canisters with a mighty grunt more than forty meters from the side of the OTEC into the dark waters.

The canisters did not break as they hit the water. They clung together as a single unit and floated for a moment. The combined density of the device being only slightly greater than water, it slowly began settling lower, until it was completely submerged. Then, unobserved by the men above, the bomb began gently spiraling downward into the abyss.

Join the Club

Azid hauled himself into the rented boat, which had drifted from where they had temporarily abandoned her earlier. The night was completely black, with no moon and no stars shining through the thick clouds far above. It had taken several minutes of searching the area before they even knew which way to swim. But the boat was waiting for them, apparently undisturbed.

Each movement caused the bullet wound in his side to complain. He put his hand over the side and grasped his friend’s wrist. Khamil kicked one of his flippers vigorously, and with the help from above was soon halfway over the side. A shove with his one working and well-muscled arm put him all the way on board. Khamil lay panting and bleeding on the bottom of the boat.

Azid painfully pulled his own flippers off and tossed them into the sea. They sank downward to join the air tanks and other equipment that they had dropped before climbing into the boat. Reaching for his waist, he dug into a nylon bag and removed a waterproof black box with several rubber-covered switches and a button.

The device had worked perfectly ten minutes earlier. When still far from the boat, Azid decided that he had to blow the first bomb before it was discovered. He knew the men on the OTEC would be looking for it. Turning in the water to look toward the giant cylinder, he had flipped the switch on the left and pressed the button. Instantly, the two men in scuba gear had been rewarded with a resounding explosion emanating from high in the machine. There had been little visible effect outside the machine — just a dimming of the lights coming through the ring of portholes at the top — but Azid knew that the bomb would wreak havoc on much of the inner working of the device, and the ammonia would rapidly kill anyone inside.

Both men had also felt the impact of the explosion in the water. Despite this first bomb being much smaller than the second, and despite it being detonated high above water level, the transmitted power was enough to rattle their teeth. This further reinforced Azid’s certainty that they would have to wait until they were safely out of the water before triggering the next device. And so he had to wait, another ten full minutes, before toggling the next switch from the safety of the boat.

Azid helped Khamil to his feet, and, looking toward the OTEC, pressed the button.

The two men heard nothing. Azid pressed the button again. And again. A full minute passed. Azid swore. Then, from far below the water’s surface a terrible vibration emanated. The water around the OTEC suddenly erupted in a colossal broiling cauldron of foam and steam. Azid was knocked off his feet and fell face first on the deck as his boat was tossed about on the boiling water that swelled below them.

He struggled to his knees and peered over the beam of the rolling vessel. The air was a mass of steam and spray — shrouding the OTEC and the Elijah Lewis in a dense man-made fog. A salty rain poured forth from the sky in sheets, pelting the two Iraqis, but the two men stared silently through the night to see what they had wrought.

Gradually the steam cleared and the waves subsided, but darkness reigned supreme. No longer did bright beams pierce the night from the great spotlights on the deck of the ocean-going tug. No longer were the dimly lit portholes on the OTEC visible. Other than the widely scattered green and red navigation lights of the nearby pleasure craft — inadequate to brighten even a small room — nothing but empty blackness was visible on the gradually settling sea.

Join the Club

The radio signal from the triggering transmitter could not reach the explosive device through the water. But the pressure of the ocean, in itself, was sufficient to crack the canisters nearly concurrently, allowing the evil fluids to mix and react with hateful fury. The OTEC shuddered and cried with the force of the explosion. In seconds, the OTEC keeled over sharply, and the three men standing on the metal platform near the top of the cylinder found themselves hanging onto the safety rail with limbs and torsos dangling freely over the sea. The sky was filled with water — spraying them from below, and raining down on them from above.

“Damn, that’s a big bomb!” Jeff shouted through the melee.

Petur looked down over the frothing waters below and begged and then ordered his OTEC to not tip further over. It did not comply.

The three men instinctively began scrambling up the stairs, heading for the high side, perhaps in the illogical hope of counterbalancing the capsizing machine. If that was their hope, their efforts were of course futile, as the heeling of the massive OTEC progressed. All three managed to work their way around to the far side of the cylinder before the lights from the Elijah Lewis flickered and died. They were now in complete blackness, unable to see even each other.

Petur was standing straight, his head up high and legs spread apart, with one foot on the broad bulwark of the cylinder and one on the metal grating of the stairs. The OTEC was now at a forty-five-degree angle, and Petur had just about given up hope that it could right itself. He was about to lose another of the expensive machines, and for a moment he even considered letting himself go down with his ship. But then he realized that his ship was the Island Project, not the OTEC, and he called to Jeff to work on a plan of escape.

“Jeff, you got a plan?”

Jeff replied from the darkness a few steps away. “Yeah. We’re going to swim like hell to prevent the suction from dragging us down too.” He paused for a minute. “I’m sorry, Petur. It was my job to prevent this.”

But Petur missed the apology, for he stopped listening. Instead, he concentrated on his balance. His foot slipped and he fell to his knees, painfully.

It was neither by foresight nor planning that the OTEC was saved from its precarious position. In fact the saboteurs, unknowingly, had created the conditions whereby their target could survive. With the OTEC moments from completing its capsize, the ammonia, which had previously laden the higher levels, finished draining downward into the cylinder far below water level. There, it served as ballast, and began pulling the giant machine vertical once again.

“I think it’s starting to right itself!”

“I believe you are right, Mr. Bjarnasson!” chimed in Poll, eagerly. “He’s coming back upright.” Poll had quickly picked up the masculine-gender usage from the crew of the tugboat.

At first slowly, very slowly, the great machine struggled to stand tall. With increasing confidence, the OTEC accelerated its recovery until the three men clinging to its side began to feel like ammunition in a slingshot. It overran the vertical, and Petur, for a moment, thought it just might capsize in the other direction. But it slowed and recovered. In the end, it succeeded at stabilizing, and once again towered majestically above the dark seas.

Petur was breathing heavily. He stood firmly planted on the metal stairs, in the dark, proud. This was the first time that his life had ever been in significant danger, and he found that he was exhilarated.

“Well, it sure is nice to get back in the fresh air, isn’t it, Jeff?” Petur joked. He had to speak loudly into the darkness, for the sea around the OTEC was still bubbling from the superheated steam created by the explosion.

Jeff still felt the burning in his throat, the aftereffect of the ammonia’s assault. But now that he had time to think about it, the fresh sea air indeed felt therapeutic in his tired lungs.

“Petur, I like this beast, but is it okay if we all get off now?”

Petur looked over to where the Elijah Lewis had been. He could make out nothing in the darkness. He searched for even a faint light, but through the unnatural mist surrounding him, he could perceive only emptiness.

“Do you think she’s alright?” Petur asked no one in particular.

Poll spoke up. “The blast was far below us. The tug just got a little shaken around. Give them a moment. If I know anything about maritime engineers, we will be flooded in light any moment.”

And at that moment, two broad and bright beams flashed out through the mist, dancing off the tiny particles of water suspended everywhere in the air around them. The men on the OTEC were momentarily blinded by the sudden assault on their eyes. But they were able to see a spectacular display of glimmering colors from the water’s refraction of the powerful light.

Moments after the Elijah Lewis‘ spotlights were turned back on, the cheers of a dozen men on the tug, and hundreds more people on the nearby pleasure craft, filled the night with boisterous celebration. For the OTEC was floating high on the quieting seas, and the spotlights’ illumination of the fog around the top of the giant cylinder created a magnificent glowing halo that encircled it like a deity’s crown.

The OTEC surely looked heaven sent.

Chapter 26. Abuse

Things had been going better than he could have imagined. Juan Marcos, smug, was sitting in a broad wicker rocking chair, sipping at a glass of ice water while he looked out from his porch over the city of Tijuana. For twelve months, he had been working in this endeavor. Salingas’ plan, though complex, was on the clear path to success. Yet no one, anywhere, had the slightest notion that the Mexican government would soon be toppled.

He called over to his son. “So, what new plans do you have today?” His remaining son seemed to have a talent for this trade.

Enrico Marcos walked over to the front of his father and leaned back on the railing of the porch. He was dressed in a lightweight gray suit with no tie, and the top button of his shirt was open. He smiled at his father, revealing crooked teeth, already yellowing from his chronic smoking of cigarettes.

“Tijuana is ready to explode. There will soon be an overwhelming drive to change the status quo. I can ignite it at any moment.”

“Enrico, it is not yet time. The others are not yet ready. You are too efficient.”

“You know that I will always do your bidding, with all my energy.”

“Yes. I know. Remind me from time to time, however.”

Enrico frowned for a moment. His father’s confidence had never been the same since the fiasco with Cruzon. The evil manipulations of Jeff Baddori had almost destroyed Juan Marcos. Baddori was responsible for his brother’s death as well — a crime for which he would pay dearly. For now, his father needed more reassurance of loyalty. Enrico would provide those verbal reassurances whenever requested. Inside, though, the loyalty was tenuous at best.

The enormously obese man looked up at his son. “Can you keep the fires burning and delay the explosion?”

The son nodded. “I think so. It is just a matter of carefully paying heed to the general mood of the people. I can back down for a week or two, then start inciting anger once again.” He was smiling.

With the Marcos organization reactivated, Enrico found that he had an expansive network of people working for him. No longer were they growing, packaging, or transporting drugs, however. Now they were being paid to socialize. His men and women were paid to talk with people in bars. They began chants at the Jai Alai Fonton, denigrating various prominent, but less-than-perfect, government officials. They wrote messages on construction sites, and they made thousands of telephone calls. They passed out fliers, pretending to work for established political parties. The established parties’ agreement on the matters discussed, when they would usually be divided, gave credence to the positions that they were promulgating. The mission was to point out the failures of the current system of government, yet without offering any solutions. As a whole they destructively fueled the fires of general discontent.

The newspapers and television were very important assets. The written word had been easy to use, for the major paper was already owned by one of Juan Marcos’ new partners. Television had been a different story. That had required a great deal of money and power brokering. But the two local channels had recently been adding to the grassroots efforts of Marcos’s troops.

Tijuana had become a dangerous place for politicians to show their faces. Though not a stranger to presidential assassinations in the past, Tijuana was now actively avoided by national government officials. They were aware of the growing discontent there, although perhaps not aware of the degree. The president and his top people were unwilling to come anywhere near. Only the vice president felt comfortable traveling to Tijuana. In fact, for some reason, he was considered a hero in the area. Enrico smiled again as he thought of the effort he had put into making that man a hero. The rest of Mexico was not far behind Tijuana.

“Father, what have you heard from Salingas? You tell me only bits and pieces.”

The elder man pursed his lips. “I have to keep some information to myself, now, don’t I? If you knew everything, then you would have little further need for me.” The older man was serious.

Enrico swore loudly. “That is idiotic. I would never attempt to fill your shoes. You always trusted me before, and I have never betrayed that trust. Can you not trust once again?”

Juan Marcos was completely silent. His earlier happy reveries had been shattered as his son revealed his insecurities. The two stayed silent for several minutes.

After a time, Enrico asked pleadingly, “What do I need to do to prove my fidelity?”

His father shook his head and said, almost in a whisper, “Nothing. Nothing at all. It is I who is failing here, not you. I will get better as time goes by.”

“I know you will. You do well to not show this side of you to many others. It is a weakness that is best kept unobserved.”

The fat man had to silently acknowledge that his son was correct, but nonetheless could not appreciate a son speaking of a father’s failings so openly.

“It is best that you leave me now, Enrico. My mood is deteriorating rapidly. Come by again this evening for dinner. You will eat with me.”

Feeling dismissed, Enrico turned and strode away stiffly. Despite what he had said to his father, he knew that the man had little value now. Indeed he was a hindrance — a risk. But it was his father with whom Salingas had dealt. And therefore, only his father would be placed in a governmental position of authority after the current government was tossed out. He would have to accept his father’s foibles, for now.

Enrico walked toward the kitchen. It was a large room with a walk-in refrigerator and several ovens. With its usual kitchen staff of two augmented, the facility had the capacity to provide hors d’oeuvres and dinner for more than one hundred people. Or for two or three men the size of his father. Enrico laughed quietly to himself as he considered this.

“What is planned for dinner, Maria?” he said to the girl who was cutting vegetables at the far side of the kitchen.

The girl turned with a start. “Oh, Señor Enrico, I did not hear you come in!” She wiped her hands on a towel and straightened her white frill apron quickly. Under the apron, she wore a black short-sleeved top with a black skirt that did not come close to reaching her knees. Under the skirt were shapely legs that the young Marcos had trouble keeping his eyes off of. Her face had perfect skin, which was fairer than most Mexicans’, betraying her not-entirely-Hispanic ancestry. But that perfect skin was like icing on a cake. Her brown eyes were large, decorated with long lashes and even and precise eyebrows. She seemed sophisticated and mature. How old she was, he did not know. Somewhere in her late twenties, he presumed. But that mattered little.

“When did you come back, Maria? I haven’t seen you lately.”

“My mother has been ill. I have only just returned.”

Enrico walked closer to her. “You are cutting tomatoes. I like tomatoes. What else am I going to be eating tonight, Maria?” He made no effort to conceal his innuendo, which he made clear by leering at her.

Maria backed slightly away, indicating her discomfort as Enrico approached. But he took this as a game.

“When did you first begin working for my father? Was it two years ago?”

“No, Señor. I first worked in this house only six months ago. Your father only just that recently hired me, although I had wanted a job here for years. And I have had to spend much time away because of my mother.”

“Perhaps he should have hired you when we were both teenagers. When I was younger, the cooks were always old and fat and mean. Perhaps there are some changes for the better in the old man!” He laughed as he said it and reached past the girl with his arm, blocking her transit alongside the counter.

Maria flashed a quick and nervous grin. Enrico had made passes at her almost daily when she had been working here before, and each time he got bolder. He liked like the chase very much, and he kept on coming back even though he was always rejected.

With a quick move, the girl slid under his arm, and before he could turn around she moved to the other side of the kitchen’s central island, picked up a hefty chopping knife, and began to demolish some onions. This amused Enrico further.

“You handle the knife well, Maria. It is something we have in common. I used to work with a knife frequently, you know.”

“Were you a chef, Señor Marcos?” Maria asked innocently.

He laughed. “A butcher.” He worked his way around the island and moved in behind her. One hand reached around her belly, barely touching her, stroking gently. The other rested at the top of her hip.

“We shall have drinks together after dinner,” he stated, and then took a deep breath through his nose, inhaling the scent of her hair. “Yes, we must have drinks.”

Maria stood very still, her fist tightly gripping the handle of the large blade. She said timidly, “I will be needed to clean up after your dinner, Señor. I will not be allowed to break away.”

“Leave that to me, Maria. That old bag who is your boss will heed my command, I assure you. You will be free after dinner.”

And with that, Enrico released his gentle hold on the girl and walked out of the kitchen, never having learned what the main course would be. He strode down the hallway and out the front door past two young men with automatic rifles. They nodded deferentially. He entered the warm moist air, took a deep breath of the city’s aromas as they rose up out of the valley, and began walking down the long drive toward the street below. He looked out over the city and smiled.

Tijuana had been his home for his whole life. Enrico grew up when his father was struggling to develop a power base among small groups of poor thieves. The gringos’ demand for drugs opened up the doors for men like his father to prosper in this land where law was not dominant. As the elder’s power in the underground community enlarged, so did Enrico’s stature among the young boys who ran freely in the streets of Tijuana. He gradually became the dominant male in a gang of boys.

Marcos had used the gang to consolidate his power. As the boys turned into teenagers, and then into young men, their numbers grew and their strength, cunning, and confidence increased. They became pawns in the father’s battles, and their tactics were heartless and merciless. These boys would kill on a whim, rape without guilt, and pursue their goals until they achieved victory, regardless of the cost. By the time Enrico turned eighteen, he was clearly the leader of more than a hundred young men.

Enrico’s younger brother had worked by his side. They were friends and allies, in that they both suffered under their father’s malevolent and capricious sadism. But the sadism affected the younger brother differently than Enrico. Not unlike his father, Enrico became violent.

His brother Manuel, however, had been more calm, controlled, and quiet, for some unknown reason. He let his brother do most of the dirty work, although he was not averse to lending a hand when needed. Although usually gentle, Manuel was incredibly strong, and intimidated many because of exaggerated stories that he promulgated of how he used his strength. He was a talented street fighter as well. Enrico learned much from his younger brother, and missed him.

Enrico had been the only person alive who knew that his brother was homosexual. This knowledge caused him great consternation, initially. Having a "fag" for a brother would certainly weaken his own power amongst the great group of boys. It also made him call into question his own sexuality on several occasions; but each time, he relearned that he was completely straight. Nonetheless, the notion of a homosexual so closely related to him gnawed at his self-confidence for many years. But that passed. Fearing for his life, Manuel never told his father. Nor did he ever allow anyone to find out. Manuel had never fallen in love, but he had had many lovers. Each one was chosen carefully by the two brothers, used, and then executed. No one ever knew of Manuel’s tendencies for long.

But Jeff Baddori had somehow intimated that Manuel was homosexual. Perhaps he was bluffing. When Manuel went to kill Jeff, all that time ago on that fateful night, Enrico nodded to his brother, granting tacit approval for the assassination. He should have gone too. It was a mistake that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. He hoped that he could one day avenge his brother by terminating the life of the filthy vermin who had brought about his brother’s demise.

Diego had seen the whole thing, and told Enrico everything. Diego had been an ally of the Marcos organization for more than two years now, and he was part of the inner sanctum. The elder Marcos, trusting no one now, still would occasionally confide in Diego, who had a reputation for being quite deadly. Enrico did not know where the man came from, for he never discussed it, but he trusted him. He had seen Diego kill an enemy of Juan Marcos with his bare hands.

Diego had gone with Manuel on the night of his murder. He was driving the car when Manuel and that other man pursued Baddori on foot. What was the name of that other man? Enrico could not remember now. A man with a menacing smile who talked little, his name was lost with the passage of time. Diego drove the car around to the far side of, and then into, a long alley that Baddori entered. He was to cut Baddori off from exiting if Baddori made it that far. He proceeded down the alley in time to see Baddori jump from behind a crate in a dark corner and shoot both men in the forehead. Diego chased the tall and fit man on foot, but he was no match, and Baddori got away. Diego thought that he might have winged him with one of his shots, but the wound was not severe, unfortunately — and certainly not fatal, for Baddori subsequently was identified in Moscow, using Juan Marcos’ name.

And Diego was more than just an ally of his father. He was an ally of his father’s sons. So, as far as Enrico knew, Diego never told Juan Marcos all the details of that evening — or that his son was killed because he was attempting to prevent Baddori from ever revealing his sexual preferences. Diego either had not known, or had been willing to keep it all a secret. Enrico was grateful in either case.

Baddori had to die. Someday, somehow, Enrico Marcos would kill that man. And he would take great pleasure in doing so.

Enrico was on the street now, walking toward one of the outer business districts of the city. He was in no rush, and did not need a car. In fact, for this trip today, a car would have been counterproductive. This area, not far from his father’s estate, was a recent target of Enrico’s subversive activity. More than two dozen of his men worked around here, spreading half-truths as if they were gospel, undermining the government without appearing to be traitors. They were taking advantage of the free speech laws, certainly. But they were defying any laws relating to slander or character assassination.

This afternoon, Enrico walked down the road to talk to as many of his men as he could see. He would find them working in a bar, behind a grocery counter, in the police station working as a janitor. They were all over, in various short-term jobs or as new customers to businesses. It did not matter where they appeared. They spread their misinformation surreptitiously but freely. He would find most of them today, and talk with them.

The whole of Mexico had to ignite at the same time, or else, when the angst and discontent reached a peak, the rest of the country would see Tijuana as rebellious. No, it had to be the whole country at once. Enrico knew enough of the big plan to know this.

As he entered the nearest section of town, he walked into the first small bar on his right. It was dark as he went in, but his eyes acclimated to the light. Three customers sat quietly in the corner. Nothing new and fancy here, but the glasses would be kept clean. No one stood behind the bar. Enrico walked up to the bar nonetheless, and waited. In a minute, a door from a back room swung open between two large cases of liquor and a tall thin man walked through. He smiled instantly when he saw Marcos, then, just as quickly, extinguished the grin.

“Good afternoon. What can I get you, Señor?” His voice was high-pitched — not what one would expect from such a tall man.

“I am thirsty from a long walk. Some water please. A large glass. Do you have ice?” This he said loudly enough for the others in the saloon to hear.

“No problem.” In a moment, the bartender placed a glass of ice water before him.

Quietly, but not so quietly as to arouse suspicion, Marcos said, “Things are going well. Do you think you are getting much accomplished?”

“Yes, Enrico. The political issues are always coming up in conversation now. It seems to have a life of its own. It is as if the regulars here have taken on politics as the big issue in their lives. All I have to do is stoke the fires now and again, and keep them on the right track. It’s growing fast. People will be violent. I have no doubt about that.”

“Good. Good. You have done well. I am proud of you.” Marcos took a sip from his glass, then looked closely at the bartender. “But we have gotten a bit ahead of the game, and it is time to let the losing side catch up a little. We don’t want to make this look too one-sided.

The bartender moved in closer, using a dishtowel to wipe down the surface of the bar. “What are you saying? You want me to slow it down?”

“Yes, that is exactly what we need you to do. Don’t stop, but slow down. We cannot have all Tijuana up in arms before we are ready for it, now can we? I am told that we have been so efficient that the rest of the scheme cannot keep up. We need to keep our claws in, but not squeeze so tightly just yet.”

“Well it is no problem,” the bartender replied. “I am paid here, as well as by your father. I can happily prolong this as long as you wish.” He started to smile again, but then, again, quickly smoothed his face.

“Well, I am glad you are not in a rush. But you should be. When this is all over, you are going to be a prominent government bureaucrat, making much more money than now.”

Nodding, the bartender said, “Yes, I know. But this is still not so bad. It is rather fun actually. I find I enjoy manipulating people. I see them swearing about so-and-so’s policy on this or that, and laugh, because they think it was their own idea. It’s becoming the topic of choice for these impoverished folk. People are so gullible.”

“Suggestibility is the key to this. People will believe anything when presented certain ways. Especially if there is a kernel of truth to work with.”

“And there are lots of kernels.”

“After the overthrow, we will use the same techniques to make the population think of us as gifts from the gods.”

“Even more effectively,” the bartender said with his brief grin as Enrico tossed a coin on the bar and walked out.

Enrico went about his rounds that day with great success. He was able to find all but one of his men, telling them to taper down, but not eliminate, their activities. It took the rest of the afternoon, but the walking around was relaxing and good exercise. Tomorrow, he would patrol a different area of the city. His feet were beginning to hurt a little. He would take a car tomorrow.

As the afternoon drew to a close, he began the long slow climb back up the street toward his father’s house atop the hill. Dinner would be ready soon. Then drinks with Maria. He would bed her, of that he had no doubt. But she was a challenge. Beauty combined with challenge made her all the more enticing. He thought about how he was going to accomplish this feat. He would make her feel sorry for him. He would become a real person to her, with real problems. She would come to empathize with him over the course of the evening. He would romance her with sympathy-invoking stories — some real, some loosely based on reality, others totally false. Gradually the romance would increase. She would be in his bed by midnight.

On the walk up the steep drive, he became increasingly excited about what the night held for him. He was able to smell the dinners’ scents, and imagined Maria working efficiently in the kitchen. Perhaps she wore no underwear under that skirt. The notion caused him to suck in his breath, and the adrenaline continued to build up. But he would have to wait at least through dinner. That would be very difficult. He felt very alive right now. That feeling would end — he knew from experience — acutely and suddenly, after intercourse that night. Then he would feel despondent for a time. But that was then. For now, life was a thrill.

He entered the house, and then the sitting room where he knew his father would be waiting.

“Hello, father,” he said quietly.

The elder Marcos looked up from his newspaper and smiled at his son. Enrico knew immediately that his father’s mood had improved during the day. Good. Perhaps dinner would be enjoyable.

“Good evening, Enrico. Was your afternoon successful?”

“The rising of the river has been slowed, and the dikes are not going to collapse imminently.”

“Good. I am pleased to hear this. It is a shame that you are too efficient for your own good. Then it takes work to slow down those things that you have accomplished.”

“It will keep the men busy, and more importantly, keep them thinking. They are getting good at this. This is psychological warfare. Even I am having fun.”

The elder Marcos nodded his enormous head. “It is definitely a different battle we fight now. And it is not even illegal.” A pause; then, “I too am having fun. Much more so than I anticipated.”

Enrico was sitting down now and put his feet up on the low table in front of him. In a moment, Maria was beside him. He had not seen her come in.

“A drink, Señor Enrico?” she said.

He thought for a moment. “Yes. Something delicate and fresh would be nice. Juice of some kind, I suppose. I won’t need a glass.” He winked at his father. “Actually, I’ll take that as a nightcap… in my bed.”

Maria seemed confused. “Señor?”

He then said, curtly, “Just get me a beer.”

She nodded and walked out gracefully. Both men watched her carefully. Both were thinking the same thoughts.

“She missed your meaning, Enrico. How naïve.”

“I have plans for that girl. Tonight, she is mine.”

His father smiled. “Last night she was mine.”

Enrico cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “Really?”

Juan Marcos shook his great belly in laughter. “Maybe your nightcap tonight might be a little less than fresh and delicate!”

Enrico had no idea if his father was telling the truth. It would not be unlike him to play with his son in this manner. He would not find out by asking his father, for the older man would play it out to the end. No, he would ask Maria tonight. Before his nightcap.

But his father could sense his train of thought, and added matter-of-factly. “No, Enrico. The girl is mine. She is very special to me. You may find someone else if you need.”

Enrico was quickly deflated. With his father’s blunt and absolute statement, his plans for tonight could not be safely pursued.

Dinner came soon and was delightful. Resting on top of the salad was a cold gelatin creation with fresh fruit stirred in, jostling about like a young woman’s perky breasts. Indeed the most innocent items would bring sexual thoughts to Enrico’s mind tonight. Veal, dressed in apples and cinnamon, served as the main course. The portions were healthy, as Juan Marcos demanded. The younger man was satisfied much sooner than his father, who requested two additional servings. Throughout the dinner, they conversed about minor issues, and Enrico followed Maria’s every move when she was in the room. He was enraptured with this divine woman.

The dessert was apple pie and vanilla ice cream. This was a favorite of his father’s, who considered it a tribute to the gringos up north who had been such good customers for years.

“Father,” Enrico queried, “is she really yours?”

Juan Marcos looked at his son for a long moment while he chewed and swallowed a great mouthful of pie. “You are not to have her, Enrico. I am earnest in this statement. Any such attempt on your part will meet with my displeasure.”

There was nothing short of murder that Enrico could safely do in this situation. For a moment, he thought about murder. There were many advantages he would gain from the death of his father. But he shoved the thought away. He had to accept his father’s dictum.

That night, too tired after his long walk through town to go back out and find a woman, Enrico decided to stay home and take a cold shower. Despite that effort, he fell asleep thinking lasciviously of Maria.

Chapter 27. Search and Destroy

They had just received a flash message from CINCPAC regarding the OTEC. Lieutenant Epps ran the message over to Commander Grover, who was resting in the small airport lounge while reviewing some minor maintenance action on the planes, and Tommy “Gun-Gun” Thompson, who was reviewing the electronic message traffic that they had received.

“We missed it! Damn!”

“What are you talking about, Mike?” the pilot demanded.

“It looks like the OTEC has been torpedoed.” He handed the scrap of paper with the hastily penned note transcribing the classified message just received on the UHF satcomm frequency that CINCPAC had told them to monitor. Commander Grover read the message quickly. He shook his head faintly as he finished.

“This doesn’t tell us much. Could have been a bomb. Or maybe something went awry when they pulled the starter cord on that thing. Who can tell from this? Let’s get the crew back and take a look.”

It took ten minutes for Epps to gather the eleven men from around the air terminal. Two had walked down the road toward the harbor, following the sounds of music and laughter. The people were celebrating the arrival of their heralded machine. Grover sent Epps not just to find the crew but also to chastise them, in a gentle way, for being so far away when they had been told to stick very near. At this time, what little crew rest they might squeeze in was a lot more important than liberty.

“What were you men thinking? Hell, I hope Commander Grover doesn’t find out. He’ll chew you two new assholes.”

“Sorry, Lieutenant. Won’t happen again.”

“Better not. At least not tonight. Now get your asses back up the hill and into that plane!”

The airmen dumped fuel into their afterburners, high-tailed it up the hill and across the runway, and scrambled up the ladder through the main cabin door.

Epps walked rapidly back up the dimly lit road. The frequent sound of women laughing mixed with happy beach music that came from the houses near the road was enticing. He could expect nothing different from ship-deployed U.S. Navy sailors. Nor should anyone expect anything different from any self-respecting U.S. Navy airedale, the moniker that the surface and subsurface communities gave to the flyers. Lieutenant Epps himself had trouble shutting out these siren sounds to reenter their loud, and less-than-pleasantly scented, aircraft. But at least he could log some more flight hours. Besides, there was, perhaps, something out there underwater after all.

It took only minutes to finish their preflight check.

“That sure was fast. The guys are really turning to back there, aren’t they?” Grover commented to his copilot.

“They are doubly motivated. They might actually get to hunt and kill a sub. That’s a thrill for them. But even more, these guys want to get back to the island and find some drunken girls. They’re pretty eager, Commander. They already put ‘small-island rules’ into effect.”

“Which small island rules this time?”

“You know. What happens on the island stays on the island, and no fair laughing at another guy’s date. Things like that.’

“Yeah, I know. After we’re done with this job, maybe we’ll develop some engine trouble. I am sure it will take a couple of days to fix. These islanders will owe us some good hospitality.”

Epps smiled. “You’re a good crew leader, sir. A couple of extra days away from squadron life on deployment will go even further to cement the crews.” The two planes were fortunate to have men who worked hard and partied hard. That was the way it was supposed to be.

A short time later, the P-3 was taxiing toward the runway. The second crew would stay behind, to act as a ready backup and to stay rested to relieve Grover’s crew if they were needed for extended coverage. Grover turned the plane onto the long airstrip and instructed Chief Austin to set normal rated power and the plane immediately started to accelerate down the runway. At close to 130 knots, Epps called “Rotate” and the Orion was airborne. Even at 135,000 pounds the plane was climbing at nearly 3,000 feet per minute. Because the crew’s tasking had them working right off the coast of the island, they were soon at their operating altitude. Grover settled in to fly level.

“Sure is a helluva dark night,” commented Epps.

Grover replied, “Yeah, that’s why we’re up here. Can’t see a damn thing, and I don’t trust the charts of this area.” He pressed his ICS button, “Radar, Flight, as soon as you get your Condition 4 checks done, take some sweeps to ensure we’re clear. Nav, back him up.”

“Flight, Radar we’re clear at this altitude.”

“Roger. TACCO, please update the operation area CINCPAC assigned on our scope. I’m still not sure what our tasking will be. Whatever the guys on the surface need will dictate where we really need to be, and that’s just the way it is. And Nav, keep us away from that damn island. We don’t need to be dropping sonobuoys through the roof of some hotel.”

Lieutenant Commander Thompson now started coordinating the crew’s efforts, although their tasking had been less than precise. “Nav, make contact with the Elijah Lewis. We’ve been assigned the tactical call sign Two Lima Juliet. Once you’ve established that, I’ll talk to them.”

While Grover settled the plane into an orbit over the datum, Thompson got caught up with the surface picture. After just a moment, Grover heard, “Flight, TC, Elijah Lewis reports that two bombs exploded on the OTEC. Damaged but taking no water. The Elijah Lewis is damaged minimally but is fully capable.”

Since communication was plain voice VHF, Grover jumped on the net in time to hear his TACCO talking to what they both assumed was the surface operations officer in charge.

“Captain Stouffer, Two Lima Juliet, you’ve got both the plane commander and TACCO on freq. What can we do for you? Over.”

“Good of you to stop by again. It was a bomb, we have learned. Two, actually. No torpedoes. Sorry for the incomplete info before. Over.”

“No problem. Can we provide assistance?” Grover repeated his offer.

“Two Lima Juliet, standby.” Several minutes passed and the Orion continued in a gentle orbit. The radio crackled briefly. Then Grover heard another voice that was clearly from a weaker transmitter. “Two Lima Juliet, this is Baddori. There are two terrorists on a pleasure boat somewhere near here. My bet is that they will head out to sea to make contact with a larger vessel of some sort. Possibly that sub we were expecting. Over.”

“Two Lima Juliet, copy. Unless you see it differently, we’ll establish a surface search pattern while also planting sonobuoys. We’ve got some interesting onboard equipment that just might give us a little advantage.”

“Actually, anything you have beats what we’re geared for. We’d be in your debt if you could find them both. And if you find a sub, I would be obliged if you would sink it.”

“Roger. That’s why we were sent here. Out.”

Commander Grover pressed his ICS switch to communicate throughout the plane. “Crew, flight. We are hunting again. And it looks like something might really be out there. This is most certainly not a drill. If we find it, I promise a big party. And Commander Thompson will supply all the liquor.” A cheer arose in the plane, audible even above the loud and constant hum of the engines.

“TC, flight, I need an expanding-square search pattern on the screen, biased away from the island. We’ve got to descend a bit, so keep us well clear of the rocks.”

“Flight, TC, I’ve nearly got it and will have it to you in a bit.”

“Sensor 3, TACCO, let’s get the FLIR deployed. And I want the aft window stations manned. I know it’s dark, but any sign at all of surface activity gets called ASAP. If they’re smart, and I’m guessing they know what they’re doing, they’ll know to keep any lighting to a minimum. However, a small surface boat with two guys in it needs something to help them find their mother ship.”

“Sensors 1 and 2, TC. I’ve also got a four-by-four search pattern laid out with difar buoys. Flight, I’m also sending you that pattern. See what you can do to get that pattern dropped while flying the visual search pattern. We’ll go with active sonobuoys as soon as we get subsurface contact, so Sensors 1 and 2, get ready to be real busy.”

“In-flight tech, TACCO, let’s ensure we have those Mark 46s ready.” Due to manpower cuts, P-3s no longer flew with an integrated ordnanceman on the crew. The responsibility to ensure weapons and sonobuoys were loaded and ready usually fell to the crew’s inflight technician.

Grover was speaking out loud with the cockpit crew again. “I’m not too excited about what those terrorists will do when they find out their bombs didn’t quite do the trick. We may not have much time. If they long for an early trip to meet Allah and their seventy-two virgins, or whatever in the afterlife motivates them, staying alive is not priority number one. And if they have a sub, they have torpedoes. They could choose to fire them, ram the OTEC, or both.”

Soon thereafter, the passive sonobuoys started firing out of their external chutes. Next it would be the two acoustic operators’ turn to see what sounds in the water might tell the crew what was going on.

“I’ll be damned if that big floating penis gets sunk!” Grover said to no one in particular.

Preview

In the next installment (Chapter 28: Medic; Chapter 29: The Bounty Is Near), Dr. Standall has some work to do to fix up Jeff’s injuries. Petur needs time to heal from his ammonia exposure and learns from Joseph Onbacher that the story of the Bounty is ever more mysterious.