Starring Gunner Shake Davis USMC (Ret.)
USA Today bestselling author Jon Land (Caitlin Strong series, Blaine McCracken series) calls Contra File by Dale Dye “An explosively on-point and exquisitely rendered thriller.” (Sunday’s Providence Journal. )
Gulf of Honduras
In a shower of saltwater and a shimmering display of iridescent scales, the swordfish powered up out of his element and tail-danced trying to shake the hook. Desperate gyrations of his muscular body didn’t help. Slashing viciously at the humid air he pointed his long sharp bill at the blue water and dove, heading for the dark deeps and escape.
“Ease up on the drag and let him run!” Mike Stokey rushed from the beer cooler toward the stern of the chartered fishing boat and watched line strip off his friend’s reel in a fine mist. “I got this…” Shake Davis thumbed the drag button on his deep- sea rig and reached for the cold beer tucked into the arm of his chair. He hit the beer, smiled, and waved for their charter captain to slow down. “Tomelo con calma…” Shake caught himself and switched to English. “Take it easy, Juan. Just keep a little way on it while I play this bad boy.” Nearly everyone in Belize spoke English of one variety or another, but he was having a hard time remembering that and always seemed to be slipping into Spanish phrases he’d learned working in other Central American countries.
“I’d guess a hundred pounds — maybe a little more.” Stokey reached out to touch the taut line and felt the fish straining in the deep below the keel. He showed a thumbs-up to the grinning, mahogany-tanned skipper on the flying bridge above and behind them. “Morty P had it right about this guy. He knows how to find the big fish.”
“He had it right about a lot of stuff.” Shake pulled back on the rod and reeled in some line, letting the big fish on the other end tire himself speeding back and forth near the reefs off the southern Belize coastline. “This little family vacation was just what we needed — all of us.” The fishing trip was a highlight and they were having a good time off on their own, but Shake would have been just as happy ashore soaking up Central American sun on the white sand that fronted the little resort cabins near Punta Gorda. That’s where Chan and Mike’s wife Linda were, mixing margaritas and re-hashing last year’s adventure in Lebanon. He’d promised Chan a lot of time and attention on this trip, but both women insisted the guys take advantage of the free fishing charter that had been arranged for them by parties as yet unknown.
It had to be the general, Shake thought as he reeled in more line and set the drag a bit heavier. Someone with serious pull in Central America was ensuring they got whatever they wanted when they wanted it — with either no charge or just a nominal hit on the credit card. It had to be his old friend the general. Shake couldn’t think of anyone else in his list of pals or acquaintances with that kind of influence. Neither could Mike Stokey, Linda, or Chan who all urged him to stop looking a gift-horse in the mouth, go with the flow, or just shut up and enjoy it, depending on who was talking at the time.
The swordfish was clearly tiring as he broached a second time much closer to the boat. A deckhand gave Shake a congratulatory slap on the shoulder as he maneuvered toward the transom with a gaff in hand. “You got this one, man. Nice fish.” Shake reeled in more line and muscled the rod, trying to bring the big fish into range of the gaff. Stokey leaned over the rail to stare at the dark shape darting back and forth from one side of the boat to the other. “He’s a beauty, Shake! That’s enough swordfish to feed us for a week.”
“He won’t last long if we’re gonna do that beach party thing.” Shake felt the boat tremble as the fish bumped hard against the transom, trying to avoid the gaff. “There’s the four of us plus the locals the girls invited. Tracey is due in tomorrow and Morty P said he’s coming out of the field. He’ll bring along some of his Marines and Mr. Swordfish will be bare bones in a heartbeat.”
Stokey struggled with the deckhand to lift the fish over the transom and then danced away as it slashed at everything in sight with a long, sharp snout. “That’s a hundred pounds easy, Shake. You do the cleaning and I’ll do the cooking. All anybody else has to do is eat.”
When the deckhand had the fish suspended by its tail on a deck hoist, they posed for pictures and then helped wrestle it into the saltwater tank beside a couple of mackerel they’d caught earlier. Shake eyed the catch with satisfaction and then squinted up at the hot sun just passing zenith. It was the hottest part of a Central American day and the dark water looked inviting. “We’re gonna need more seafood, Mike, and the brochure says there’s lobsters around the reef. We’ve got the gear aboard. Let’s get wet and cool off.”
Stokey eyed the SCUBA gear stacked in the shade of the deckhouse and ran fingers through the unruly crop of red hair he’d been cultivating since the CIA Clandestine Service uncere- moniously placed him onto the retired list. “Two things,” he said. “One, it’s been a long time since we earned our Combat Diver bubbles, and Two, the brochure says there are bull sharks around the reef.”
“Addressing your concerns in the order posed,” Shake began to examine a selection of masks, fins, and buoyancy-compensator vests. “One: We are both old recon bubbas who will immediately remember everything we need to once we get in the water. And Two: Juan, who knows these waters intimately, will take us to a place that has very few bull sharks and a shit-load of Caribbean spiny lobsters.”
Charter Captain Juan did, indeed, know such a place very near his homeport and would be happy to take his passengers there on the condition that the passengers share with him a portion of their swordfish which brings top Belize dollar at the local fish market. While Mike measured the fish in the tank and hag- gled over fair apportionment, Shake took a closer look at the div- ing gear. It was well-used, a couple of open-circuit U.S. Diver rigs, not much different from what they used in the military course at Key West that had been part of his Force Reconnaissance quali- fication. The gear looked serviceable, the BCs inflated as required, and the tanks were full. The key would be to find a dive site that did not involve descent below one atmosphere or about 33 feet. A Chicom grenade that detonated way too close to Shake’s head in Vietnam left him with a shattered eardrum and a great deal of painful difficulty in clearing his ears at depth.
As the charter boat chugged toward the captain’s favorite lobster spot near the mouth of the Monkey River, Shake and Mike tested the gear and adjusted it for a shallow dive they hoped would yield a bunch of spiny lobsters for the beach party they had planned for Master Sergeant Morty Potashnick, a former Marine Security Guard from Beirut who played a significant role in res- cuing Shake from the Hezbollah on a mission that nearly cost him his life.
When Gunnery Sergeant Potashnick finished his tour in the Middle East, he was transferred to a special operations unit of the U.S. Southern Command and notified of his promotion. He sent Shake a special invitation to the ceremony and over a few cele- bratory drinks required to wet-down his new chevrons, Morty P announced he was heading up a Marine team destined for Cen- tral America. Marines from SOUTHCOM were working in Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize as Security Cooperation Teams to help the local militaries deal with drug and human trafficking that was rampant in the area. Shake swapped a few stories about his time in Central America in the mid-1980s on loan to the CIA, training anti-Sandinista forces in Honduras and Costa Rica that were aiming to overthrow Daniel Ortega’s pro-communist regime in Nicaragua. At that time, the British were running an excellent jungle warfare school in Belize, but Shake had never had the opportunity to attend. Morty P said the school was still up and running — mostly manned by Gurkha troops these days — and he might be able to arrange a visit if Shake was still interested.
Shake wasn’t much interested in another jungle warfare ordeal, but he did start thinking about a trip to Belize. He’d always been a sucker for sandy beaches and waving palms. Chan had a long leave coming from the DIA and she was under pressure to take time off after the ordeal in Lebanon. Mike Stokey and his new bride were always up for an adventure, and Mike had a pilot buddy who flew into the Yucatan Peninsula regularly. It was all rattling around in Shake’s mind as he toured the SOUTHCOM headquarters near Miami looking for old friends. One of those old friends was the commanding general, a three-star Marine that once led a rifle company in Beirut during the time Shake served there. The general was an avid sport fisherman and raved about the opportunities when Shake mentioned Belize. He knew some people who knew some people and let him make a couple of calls.
As Shake was boarding a flight in Miami for the return trip to Virginia, his phone lit up with a text message from a number he didn’t recognize. The text-chatty person sending was confirming an open-ended stay for Gunner Shake Davis (USMC, Retired) and party at a beach resort in Punta Gorda, Belize. No charge, please confirm estimated date of arrival and number in the Davis party…have a nice day. He forwarded the text to Chan and asked her to call and check it out if she wanted to spend a couple of weeks down in Central America. That kick-started what was turning out to be one of the best R&R jaunts of Shake’s eventful ex- perience — and a nice tick-off on his bucket list.
Charter Captain Juan hauled his boat around into a hard star- board turn and then throttled back to drop anchor on the inside of the reef that guarded the outlet where the Monkey River spilled into the Gulf of Honduras. The water was crystal clear and they could easily see the rocky bottom as Mike and Shake sat on the boat transom and pulled on their swim-fins. The captain’s deck-hand provided each of them with a stick that they could use to poke at holes in the rock formations around the coral where spiny lobsters sheltered. They were instructed to use the sticks because some of those likely lobster hides could contain moray eels.
“I can deal with morays.” Mike took the mask being offered by a grinning deckhand and began to fiddle with the straps. “Tell me about sharks.” Shake grinned around his regulator mouthpiece and executed a back-flip into the water. Stokey was one of the most fearless men he’d ever known, but Mike did have a little thing about sharks — and spiders. “Mebbe one or two little ones…” The deck hand grinned as Stokey donned his mask and slid cautiously into the clear water. “You don’t bother Mister Shark, he don’t bother you.”
The bottom was at about 20 feet and the water was relatively warm and still, with only a mild current running from shore toward a stretch of colorful reef that fairly glowed in the sunlight beaming down from above. Shake and Mike worked slowly down a line dropped from the surface to keep them oriented to the boat. Shake’s ear bothered him as usual but they kept the descent slow enough for him to blow and clear against the increasing pressure. He signaled OK as they hit the bottom and both divers began a slow-kick sweep around the rock formations.
It was a beautiful little spot, alive with colorful reef fish and the occasional big grouper that eyed them curiously as they began to scour the bottom for lobsters. They had two lobsters apiece and only one close encounter with an angry moray when Mike rolled over on his back, nudged Shake and pointed upward where a six-foot bull shark was weaving in and out of the shadow cast by the boat’s hull. Shake took a look, shrugged, and went back to looking for lobsters. They had six each in the net bags attacked to their weight belts when Mike nudged Shake again and pointed toward the surface.
Shake rolled over to look and nearly bit through his regulator mouthpiece. If the dark shape that was passing through shafts of sunlight just beneath the surface was a shark, it was the biggest and ugliest one he’d ever seen. Shifting to get a better look and keep his back to the reef, Shake saw a four-bladed propeller spinning at one end of the shape. As the surface light glinted on metallic skin, he could see it was a man-made vessel, clearly a submersible that reminded him of a Japanese mini-submarine he’d seen in some military museum. It was neither sleek nor sophisticated but it was a sub of some sort. He touched Stokey’s elbow and shrugged. Mike just shrugged back. Whatever it was, Stokey had never seen the like either. Shake checked his compass to determine the submersible was heading north and watched it motor on, holding a steady depth and speed. When it was out of sight, he gave Mike the surface signal and they finned up toward the boat.
When they broke the surface and spit out their mouthpieces, Shake and Mike tossed their lobsters to the deckhand and clambered up onto the dive-step. Shake twisted to look at the charter captain who was leaning over the flying bridge rail calmly smoking a cigarette. “Juan, did you see that thing in the water?”
“Big bull shark…” He tossed his smoke and cranked the engine. “No problem. We will head into Punta Gorda now.”
“That was no goddamn shark, Juan!” Stokey shrugged out of his gear and stepped onto the deck. “There was a shark but then there was another thing — some kind of submarine. Didn’t you see that?”
“In these waters, is sometimes things better not to see.” Juan climbed down to help his deckhand retrieve the anchor.
“Tracey called.” Chan Dwyer Davis brought Shake a frosty margarita and plopped down on the beach chair next to him. “She’s on schedule, due into Belize City tomorrow at 2:15. I rented a car so we can drive up and get her.”
“Thanks.” Shake stared at the sun setting on the western horizon. It was ringed in a dark aura and cast blood red reflections on the water of the gulf. “She’s gonna love this place.”
“She’s gonna love anyplace that gets her away from Woods Hole for a while. I’d like to meet that former boyfriend of hers — and kick him directly in the nuts.”
“I thought you said she was over that.”
“Believe me when I tell you,” Chan reached over casually and took Shake’s hand, “a woman does not easily get over finding her boyfriend in the sack with another woman — especially if it’s her sack in her apartment.”
“Yeah, that dude needs a kick in the nuts. Maybe I’ll head up to Woods Hole one of these days and give it to him.”
“Waste of time and effort, Shake.” Chan stretched, adjusted the bra straps on the new bikini she was modeling for him and smiled at his approving glance. “A week or two down here with us and she’ll be as over it as she will ever be. Just don’t get into it with her. Let her relax and play a little.”
“That’s what we invited her for. If she wants to talk about lost loves, I’ll turn her over to you and Linda.” Shake’s cell phone vibrated on the armrest of his chair, but before he could pick it up, Chan spotted the caller ID and snatched it like a live grenade. He reached for it but she turned her back staring at a text message on the screen.
“Shit!” Chan looked like she was about to toss the phone into the water. “You talk about somebody that needs a kick in the nuts.”
“Just ignore it.” Shake drained his margarita and headed for the house and a refill. Chan fell in beside him and showed the message: “Just sending fondest wishes for a relaxing time on the Mosquito Coast.” The sender was the man who calls himself Bayer, a friend-cum-nemesis who was recently dragged out of the darkest reaches of the counter-terror bureaucracy and into a senior position with ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs En- forcement Agency.
“How in the hell does he know where we are?” Chan dumped the message and slipped the phone back in her husband’s pocket. “Does he have some kind of tracker on your phone?”
“Not that I know of…” Shake pulled out the phone and examined it. “The guy’s got more shit than a Christmas turkey. Maybe he’s got a drone circling overhead. Who the hell knows?” He punched the power button to kill the phone and put it back in his pocket. “Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’ve got to clean some fish and get them on ice. You’ve got some lobsters to boil.”
A balmy breeze stirred the flame under a small pot of butter resting on a wrought-iron table set up on the beach just above the high-water mark where gently lapping waves washed over their bare feet. Freshly boiled lobsters were steaming next to the butter pot, and there was a growing pile of shells near each place as Shake, Mike, Chan, and Linda wrestled with claws and fenced for access to the melted butter. It was one of those great seafood meals where utensils were both superfluous and pretentious. The main eating tool, available to all, was Shake’s old K-Bar fighting knife which served to both crack lobster claws and dig out tender morsels of meat.
“There’s just something about fresh from the sea,” Linda swiped at her mouth with a wad of well-used paper napkin and reached for another of the boiled bugs. “You don’t get this kind of flavor with lobsters from Albertson’s or Ralph’s.”
“I don’t know what the big deal is about Maine lobster.” Her husband watched as Bear, Shake’s big Golden Pyrenees, assumed a heart-rending pose, begging for a bit of the feast. Stokey tossed him a morsel and grinned. “You can’t beat this for good chow. Just ask Bear.”
“That dog will eat anything, Mike.” Linda reached to scratch behind Bear’s floppy ears. “Yesterday he gobbled up a tamale, hot sauce and all.”
“Where the hell were we last time we had Maine lobster?” Shake leaned back and pried at the lid on a box of fat Cuban cigars he’d picked up at the local market.
“Old Orchard Beach,” Stokey reached for the butter bowl with a gob of lobster tail in hand. “We ran into Ken Semple from 2nd Force living up there and he invited us for a New England boiled supper. Lobster was good but the clam chowder gave me the shits.”
“That wasn’t the chowder, pal, it was the vodka. Remember Semple had that ice-carving of a mermaid and we were drinking the booze running off her boobs?”
“I don’t remember much — except it was hell riding that boomer out of Bangor the next day. A case of the Hershey-squirts is not a good thing to have aboard a submarine.”
“It was a wasted damn trip too. Remember Bayer wanted us to…”
“Cease and desist!” Chan grabbed the K-Bar off the table and waved it menacingly between Shake and Mike. “Remember the deal, you two. Tell all the war stories you want but we will not mention that name! Go take a walk on the beach…smoke ci- gars…finish that story elsewhere.”
Stokey declined the cigar. Since his marriage to Linda he’d become a reformed smoker and was content just to walk downwind of Shake, sampling second-hand the rich aroma of the panatela that his buddy was enjoying. “Safe to say Chan’s got a very big hard-on for our boy Bayer.”
“Safe to say and accurate,” Shake puffed on his cigar and flopped down on a patch of sand still warm from the day’s barrage of hot sunlight. “She’ll get over it eventually, but it’s probably best to keep him out of casual conversation for a while.”
“Funny you brought him up tonight.” Stokey sat cross-legged and began to toss seashell fragments into the surf line. “I got a text message from him earlier this afternoon.”
“No shit? How does he know you’re down here?”
“How does Bayer know any of the stuff he knows, Shake? He’s wired into the spook world tighter than a tick. Maybe he’s got me under some kind or surveillance to be sure I don’t trip off the gun-line. Who the hell knows?”
“What did he have to say?”
“Nothing much. Just congratulations on the marriage and he hopes we’re were having a good time down here on the Mosquito Coast.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Shake dug his phone out of a pocket, punched up the text screen and showed it to Stokey. “That came in earlier this afternoon. Chan nearly shit a brick. She’s convinced he’s got us bugged or something.”
“Maybe he does.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You ever wonder about who’s really footing the bill for this little stay in paradise, Shake?”
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it and it’s gotta be Gordo Fowler, right? I mean he’s not putting it directly on his plastic or anything but he’s a three-star running SOUTHCOM and that includes Be- lize, so he probably knows a lot of people down here. I figure he pulled a few levers and got us comp’ed for the whole deal.”
“If it was still back in the day when you and me were running around in soldier suits, I’d say yeah, that’s gotta be what’s happening, but things are a whole hell of a lot different now. What with all the politicians and pundits and whistle-blowers, generals can’t just call in favors — especially expensive favors that have nothing to do with military matters. You read the papers in one form or another, right? The fucking Navy has fired something like fifteen or twenty senior officers in the past year or so. The Air Force just shit-canned a couple of generals; hell, even the Commandant of the Marine Corps has got his ass in a crack over some shitty little deal that nobody would have heard about ten years ago.”
“Yeah, I’ll grant you it’s a different deal these days, Mike, but you know how it goes. Gordo probably just made a couple of discreet calls to people he knows and got an old war buddy set up down here…”
“Discreet phone calls my ass, Shake. There ain’t no such thing anymore. Gordo is a smart guy and he didn’t get where he is by ignoring the political atmosphere that comes with exalted rank. He’s not gonna risk his stars just to hook us up with a free vacation in Central America.”
“Are you saying you think Bayer’s got something to do with this?”
“I’m saying he’s probably in the mix somewhere is all. Think about it, Shake. Maybe he’s trying to quietly reward you for Lebanon and a couple of other shitty missions he’s handed you over the years.”
“Why wouldn’t he just own up to it? You know, nice job, appreciate the effort, so here’s a little payback for services ren- dered.”
“He’s used to working deep and dark, Shake. Or it could be he just wants us both in the same place at the same time.”
Shake took a final drag off the Cuban and then sent it off into the dark in a shower of sparks. “I think what we do,” he said watching moonlight shimmer on the Gulf of Honduras, “is we keep the cell phones turned off and we don’t say shit about any of this to Chan or Linda.”
“My recommendation exactly. Did you get hold of Morty P?” “Yeah. I called the number he gave us and he answered right up. Had his phone on vibrate and it scared the shit out of him. He had to whisper because he was on some kind of OP near the Hondo River. I looked it up. That’s right on the Mexican border.”
“Jesus, man — having a cell phone chat while you’re on an OP. Can you imagine that kind of shit back when we were doing recon on the Ho Chi Minh trail?”
“That’s the way they communicate these days, I guess. Probably works better than radio.”
“Did you have time to tell him about the submarine deal?”
“Oh, yeah — he was very interested in that. I gave him the best location I could figure. Too bad we didn’t have GPS.”
“Did Morty P think the same thing we thought?”
“Yep. Most likely narcotraficantes moving dope by sea. He said they’ve been getting reports about them using homemade subs to run up the coast to Chetumal Bay where they offload the stuff and start it moving north through Mexico. Apparently there’s some U.S. Navy and Coast Guard advisors working with the locals to try and interrupt the sea routes but the focus has been on fishing boats and high-speed surface craft. The subs are a new wrinkle.”
“Kind of explains Captain Juan’s reaction, doesn’t it.”
“Uh huh. Taking too much notice of drug smugglers down here is a sure way to wind up as fish-food with a bellyful of lead sinkers.”
“Is Morty P still gonna be able to make the party?”
“He said he’d be here with a couple of his Marines, including the Detachment OIC. He also said he might bring one of the brown water Navy guys to talk to us about the sub we saw.”
It was just shy of 100 miles from Punta Gorda to Belize City, so Shake and Chan got an early start on their trip to pick up Tracey Davis who was due in on a mid-afternoon Taca flight out of Dallas-Fort Worth. They’d make it in plenty of time for Chan to do some shopping at the Fort Street Flea Market before the flight arrived. She had a tourist brochure that indicated it was the hot spot for native Central American handicrafts. Chan intended to make a reconnaissance which would be followed by a full- blown spree later in the week when she went over the selection with Linda and Tracey. The trip was also a major adventure for Bear, who traveled in the backseat of their rented Toyota Land Cruiser with his head stuck out the window, ears flapping in the wind and nose quivering at the exotic, unfamiliar scents along the coast road.
“Glad we brought him along, right?” Shake chuckled and pointed at the highway sign urging him to enter the right lane for an exit to Fort Street in downtown Belize City. They had been stopped at five checkpoints — two military and three national police — along the route, delays that prompted Bear to express his displeasure with loud barking. Neither the Belizean cops nor the military seemed anxious to argue with the big dog and they breezed through with only cursory glances at their passports.
“We’re lucky there’s no quarantine down here.” Chan snapped on the dog’s leash as Shake pulled the SUV into a park- ing lot near the crowded local bazaar. “All it took was a trip to the vet to get copies of his papers — that and getting him to behave on the airplane. Mike’s pilot buddy didn’t look too happy about Bear sitting in the cabin with us once he got a look at the size of him.”
“You don’t mess with Mister Bear.” Shake laughed and looked around at the shop signs. “Why don’t you take him and explore a little bit? I’m gonna look for a liquor store and lay in the booze supply for the party. We’ll meet back here in two hours and drive on out to the airport.”
There was a mob of people milling around the Fort Street Flea Market, but Chan had no trouble parting the sea with Bear lead- ing and tugging on his leash. She window-shopped for a block or two and then hit the mother lode at an open-air kiosk where local handicrafts were on display under an expanse of colorful canvas. Bear sent two teenage shop-girls screaming through the aisles when he barked a friendly greeting. Chan made him sit, then sit-up and shake hands before they would venture any closer than arm’s length.
Chan spent about 45 minutes looking at finely-carved mahogany, polished seashells, exotic leather goods and jewelry, capturing the most interesting pieces with her phone-camera and making notes about prices for later comparative shopping. She checked her watch, decided the hard-selling shop girls deserved a reward, and bought a pendant for Tracey that featured a tarpon carved in lavender jadeite. It seemed perfect for a woman who made a career out of studying fish and the waters in which they swim. She was headed back toward the parking lot when Bear began to make the little whiny noises that told Chan it was time for him to pee. She steered him away from the crowded bazaar and caught site of a sandy open area about half a block away at the end of an intersecting street.
That street was clearly the Belize City bar district. As Chan let Bear pull her toward the trees and bushes at the other end of the block, she could smell the fetid tobacco and stale beer odors mixed with the sinus-clearing tang of disinfectant wafting from open doors. Most of those doors framed hookers in mini-skirts and way too much makeup, lounging in what they hoped were seductive poses. Realizing Chan and Bear were unlikely potential customers, the girls mostly just cut them a vacant glance or made lewd cracks about the size of the dog. Almost all of the chatter was in Spanish rather than the accented English spoken by most Belize natives. Scrub off some of the makeup, Chan thought as she nodded and smiled, and there probably isn’t one of the girls much past her teens. Most of them looked uncomfortable or distinctly bored, like broad-hipped farm girls way out of their element. She’d read a few articles about human trafficking and forced prostitution in Central America. The girls might be hooking in Belize but Chan was willing to bet that most of them were from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. Most likely Belize, with its relatively lively tourist trade, was just a working stop on their route north to Mexico or the U.S.
On the street corner near the little park was a clutch of hard-eyed, heavily tattooed men in gaudy shirts and even gaudier jewelry, smoking and joking much too loudly. The handlers — or whatever term applies to pimps in Belize City, Chan thought as she tightened Bear’s lead and ignored their lewd appraisal. They were whistling, laughing, and jiving in a crude mixture of English and Spanish when she reached the park and let Bear sniff around for something worthy of lifting his leg. When he’d done his business, she found a slat bench and sat for a breather with Bear curled up near her feet. She was scrolling through the photos on her phone when she heard a woman screaming and crying.
Chan glanced up to see one of the pimps dragging a girl down the street toward the little park with one hand wrapped painfully around her neck and the other pulling brutally on one of her ears. Bear growled and alerted as the struggling couple barreled into the sandy area, the man screaming curses and the woman begging for mercy. None of the locals seemed to pay much attention and those that were near the confrontation sidled away. Chan looked around for a cop, but there were no uniforms or patrol cars in sight. She had her phone in hand but no idea if there was such a thing as 9–1–1 in Belize.
When the pimp backed his charge up against a wind-twisted tree and began to use his fist on her bare midriff, Chan had enough and tugged Bear toward the struggle. She tried to sound like a cop or someone in authority as she shouted for the man to stop. He barely glanced at her, growled something she didn’t un- derstand, and went back to work on the girl’s belly. When she got close enough to put a shoulder into him and shove, he swiped at Chan with a vicious backhand. She ducked it and stomped as hard as she could on his sandaled foot. He hopped back holding his injured foot and screaming for the gringo bitch to mind her own business. She aimed a kick at his balls that barely missed but Bear was in the game by that time and lurched forward to plant his paws on the man’s shoulders. The weight of the dog and the proximity of some long, bared fangs sent him off on the run. Chan was trying to regain control of Bear and check on the beaten girl when two cops arrived on the scene, one male and one female, and both in the distinctly British-influenced uniforms of the Belize Tourist Police. The female cop talked to the bruised and angry hooker while the male cop began to conduct an interview with Chan from just beyond the length of Bear’s leash.
Shake was strolling through the Fort Street Flea Market beside a smiling bearer from the local booze emporium who was pushing a hand-cart loaded with liquor. Once he found the right spot, it didn’t take Shake long to buy six cases of local Beliken Beer and Lighthouse Lager for the beach party. The stuff was available in Punta Gorda, but a local told him it was cheaper and available in volume in Belize City. On the recommendation of the shop- keeper, he added a case of high-octane One Barrel Rum. Shake stopped on the way to the car long enough to buy a basket of fresh fruit that he’d been assured would blend well with the rum. He had his shopping done and was right on time to meet Chan at the parking lot.
Just ahead of him at a produce stand, standing out blatantly in the crowd of shoppers in shorts and t-shirts, were three soldiers in uniform. Shake called a halt, bought the sweating bearer a cold beer from a street vendor, and studied the military men haggling with a shop-keeper over prices. He recognized the British pattern summer-service uniforms and the curved kukri knives in leather sheaths hanging from their belts. Shake had seen that same uni- form and a variety of Gurkha field dress when he was serving as an exchange NCO with Britain’s Royal Marine Commandos. As proud and insular as the British Bootnecks were, they had a great deal of respect for the diminutive Nepalese troopers and their vaunted fighting ability, especially after a sterling performance by the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles during the 1982 Falklands War. One of the items that held pride of place in Shake’s eclectic collection of military souvenirs was a ceremonial kukri presented to him by a Havildar Major after a grueling train- ing exercise with some Gurkhas in horrible weather conditions on the Brecon Beacons training range in Wales.
The three Gurkhas were apparently on some sort of liberty, likely shopping for local produce to supplement their military rations. They had sacks of rice stacked at their feet and they were rapidly filling plastic shopping bags with fresh mangos and papa- yas. Insignia indicated the senior man was a Havildar or sergeant. All three of the short, solidly built soldiers wore the broad- brimmed Hat Terrai Gurkha at a rakish angle. Each hat was wrapped around the crown with a khaki puggaree hatband in six neat folds and bore the crossed kukris of Britain’s Brigade of Gur- khas. Probably students or instructors at the Jungle Warfare School in Belize, Shake decided. He pulled one of his cards from a case, scribbled the name of the resort in Punta Gorda on the reverse, and waved for the bearer to finish his beer.
Their path to the parking lot led them right past the Gurkhas, and Shake paused to catch their attention. They smiled back at him curiously as he templed his hands beneath his chin. “Namaste,” he said with a slight bow and handed his card to the Havildar as all three surprised soldiers automatically returned his Hindu greeting. “You have my greatest respect,” he said and pulled a bottle of rum out of the case. He handed over the liquor, tossed off a salute, and led his assistant down the street. If he knew Gurkhas, his card would find its way to the senior man before long and that might lead to an interesting little detour on his vacation. Multi-tour Vietnam Vet Mike Stokey had never served with Gurkha troops as far as Shake knew, and he’d get a kick out of watching them work in the jungle. There were few troops better at it in the world.
“Did they get the guy?” Shake was still questioning Chan about her encounter with the hooker and pimp as they milled around the airport arrivals area waiting for Tracey to clear customs.
“Beats me, Shake, but I doubt it. The cop didn’t seem overly upset about the whole deal. I gave him as good a description as I could recall, but when I started talking about tattoos you could see the glaze come over his eyes. I got the distinct impression that kind of thing happens all the time.”
“What kind of tattoos?”
“Looked like bog-standard gang stuff to me. He had ’em all over his arms and running up his neck. The one I could remem- ber best was kind of military. It was a skull wearing a beret and there was a big letter Z underneath it.”
“Los Zetas,” Shake shook his head and wrapped an arm around his wife tightly. He was recalling a briefing he’d been given by a CIA handler back in the mid-1980s when the Zetas be- gan as a very secretive, very vicious element of the Mexican Army Special Forces command. They were for hire to the emerging Central American drug cartels and rapidly spawned chapters in the military forces of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “They’re genuine bad-asses and most of them are ex-military of one kind or another. You’re lucky Bear put the fear of God into him. Those dudes are stone killers, and they’ve got their mitts in everything illegal north and south of the border.”
“I was more worried about the girl, Shake. She was absolutely terrified and the female cop was no help at all. I spent a little time trying to calm her down and gave her a couple of bucks before I left.”
“Shouldn’t have done that, Chan. What you gave her will wind up in that pimp’s pocket.”
“Well, I wanted to do something. She seemed so helpless and lost. I heard her tell the cop she was from Guatemala.”
“She is helpless and lost if she’s being run by Los Zetas, Chan. Those guys, plus MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha, the 18th Street gangs, they’re all over down here and up to their eyes in drugs, prostitution and anything else that turns a buck. They’ve morphed into a well-heeled bunch of domestic terrorists. They’ve got the cops either cowed or paid off so if anything effective is ever gonna be done about them, it’s up to the military. That’s one of the reasons the Marine Corps is sending people like Morty P with teams to work with and train the Central American military. It’s a way to give the good guys some effective muscle and a little tactical edge.”
Shake was about to change the subject and tell her about the Gurkhas he met at the bazaar but Tracey trundled through the pneumatic door from the immigration area and waved to get their attention. She looked healthy and tan, wearing a big smile as she dropped a backpack and gave them both enthusiastic hugs. “Welcome to the Mosquito Coast, honey.” Shake shouldered her pack and stepped back to get a better look at his only child. “You look good, Tracey, really good. I’m guessing you’ve found a way to spend a little time outside the lab these days.”
“If I’m not stooped over a microscope, I’m out on the bay with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair.”
“Well, it’s worked wonders, Tracey, and you’ll get plenty of that down here with us. You should see the great little place where we’re staying — and there’s a big beach party planned for tomorrow night. Shake and your Uncle Mike went fishing and they’ve laid in fresh swordfish and lobsters.”
“Can’t wait!” Tracey grabbed Chan’s elbow and headed for the exit.
“You got any other luggage?” Shake trotted to catch up as his daughter pointed toward the backpack he was carrying.
“That’s it. I just threw some stuff in the backpack and caught a flight. If this place is anything like what you described on the phone, I won’t need much besides bikinis and board shorts.”
It took Tracey some time to fight her way out from under Bear, who apparently remembered her fondly. They were still tussling in the back seat of the Land Cruiser when Shake steered out onto the coast road and headed south out of Belize City. When he got up to highway speed, Bear lost interest in the new arrival and reclaimed his place near an open window. Chan reached back to give Tracey the gift she’d bought for her, and then tucked her feet up on the seat of the SUV. Tracey was delighted and promptly laced the necklace onto a gold chain around her neck. “I love it, Chan! It’s absolutely perfect, a jade tarpon — great game fish and you don’t find them much anymore in U.S. waters.”
“I’m told you can still catch ’em down here,” Shake commented as he pulled up at the first police checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. “We’ve found a guy with a good boat who can find the fish. Maybe we’ll try for some tarpon while you’re down here.”
“Works for me,” Tracey said as she retrieved her passport from a Belizean cop and stuffed it into her purse. “Unlike some other oceanographers and ichthyologists of my acquaintance, I like to study them and eat them.” As the vehicle accelerated on the other side of the checkpoint, Tracey fished around in the cooler on the floor. “Damn airplanes always leave me thirsty. It’ll probably take me a week to get re-hydrated.”
“Well, you take as long as you want, girl.” Chan leaned back and wrapped an arm around her knees. “We’ve got no plans beyond having a good time.” Shake glanced into the rearview and caught Tracey’s big smile as she watched the tropical terrain fly by on the other side of the window. His wife was wearing a similar smile and it made him feel terrific to see them both so happy. They’d been through a lot lately, physically and emotionally. It was time for some carefree recuperation.
“Dad, didn’t you do some work down here one time?” Tracey scooted forward and rested her elbows between the front-seat headrests.
“Not in Belize, honey. I was mostly in Costa Rica and Honduras. You were about five at the time.”
“Yeah, I can’t recall details but I remember Mom was highly pissed. You said you were gonna work for the CIA and she thought we’d be heading for Washington.”
“She had a little trouble with the distinction between an analyst and an operative.” Shake smiled and shook his head. “And our domestic situation did not improve when the whole deal blew up into the Iran-Contra Affair.”
“I’m a little sketchy on your role in that, Shake.” Chan plucked a beer out of the cooler, opened it and took a sip. She wasn’t a big beer drinker, but the tropical atmosphere seemed to call for cold beer on hot sands, and she’d taken a shine to the local Lighthouse Lager. “I know you and Ollie North are pals, but I didn’t know you were in on Iran-Contra.”
“I wasn’t precisely in on it, Chan. I was more like milling around on the perimeter. I was only involved in the Contra part of Iran-Contra although that didn’t matter much in the end. All of us subcontracting for The Company in Central America got caught by the fallout. When the shit hit the fan up on Capitol Hill, we had twenty-four hours to bail and get our asses north of the border.”
“Yet another chapter of America’s murky military history that features my dear old Dad,” Tracey laughed and rummaged around in the cooler. “It looks like there’s enough beer to keep us quiet if you want to spill some highly classified beans.”
“Not much that’s still classified about that goat-rope. And now that I think about it, what I’m starting to see down here reminds me a lot of the Contra days back in the mid-eighties.” Shake checked his watch and dialed in the cruise control.