Chapter 68 of Silent Vector

Chapter 68, in which the good guys take and give a beat down

CHAPTER 68

TWO BY SEA

“You should have at least tried to sleep.”

Nick continues to scan the bay as he responds.

“And miss three hours alone with you anchored off a tropical island? It was that or a couple of hours of tossing and turning in a stuffy cabin with Cristobal snoring away. Easy choice.”

Cristobal comes up from the companionway and joins Nick and Dalila on the aft deck.

“I stopped snoring and made some coffee.”

Nick laughs, lets the binoculars hang from his neck, and pats his friend on the back.

“You weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“You and my wife should compare notes.”

“I’ll pass.”

“Even my kids give me a hard time about snoring.”

“How many kids?”

“Two girls. Third one’s on the way. My wife wants a boy, but I like daughters. Either way, we’ve agreed three’s enough.”

“What’s your wife’s name?” Dalila asks.

“Edelma. Mugs are hanging in the galley.”

“That’s a beautiful name. Thank you, Cristobal. Nick, would you like a cup?”

“Absolutely.”

“How do you take it?”

“Black.”

Dalila heads for the galley.

“Any action?”

“Nothing all night.”

Nick checks his watch.

“Kyle should be coming up on the radio in five minutes. We’ll get back to work as soon as we hear from him.”

A flash of reflective light from the tree line just past the bay’s white sand beach catches Cristobal’s eye.

“Give me the glasses.”

Nick takes the binoculars off his neck and hands them to Cristobal.

“What’d you see?”

“A flash, like something reflecting the sun. About 20 meters in from the beach, towards the east end of the bay. There it is again. Same spot.”

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Hartmut Schnelling finishes opening the three small windows on the north side of his living quarters. Each opens up and out from the bottom to let some of the cooler morning air in. When he finishes opening the third, he notices the silhouette of the boat against the northern sky. It has not moved since last night. He picks up his binoculars. The early morning sun provides enough light to make out some details from his position. He sees two men standing along the boat’s aft starboard rail looking directly at his location through their binoculars. He sees one of the men, the younger of the two, point in the lab’s direction. The older man, the meddlesome American he has been trying to eliminate for months, seems to give the younger man some instructions. The younger man takes two steps away from rail and towards the wheelhouse on the port side. He picks up the mic of a radio and begins to talk into it. They both point as he talks. There is no doubt in Schnelling’s mind; his position is compromised! Where is the boat from St. Barts?

Four full, pressurized canisters stand ready for immediate crating and shipment. Two more will be ready within 24 hours. The boat from Gustavia is his only chance. But where is it?

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Raoul sits in the passenger seat of the Rambler. Kyle Richardson drives, and Pete Hall shares the backseat with the team’s radio. Raoul focuses on the map in his lap as they bounce along St. Thomas’s primitive roads.

“Okay, we’ll check out the visual Nick and Cristobal picked up. We can get within about 150 meters of Santa Maria Bay on this switchback trail off of Fortuna Road. We’ll take it east and west and look for spurs north to the water. Kyle, bear left at the fork onto Fortuna. We should be at the bay in less than 15 minutes. Take the fork to the left at West End Road.”

Raoul turns to Pete in the back seat.

“Pete, let’s break out the hardware. Small bag.”

Pete Hall hands the small canvas bag on the seat next to him to Raoul.

“Just sidearms should do it. You ever fire one of these?” Raoul asks Pete as he pulls one of the three .45 caliber M1911s out of the bag.

“I used to hunt for frogs on my grandfather’s farm with a .22, a rifle, but that’s about it.”

“Frogs? With a rifle? This is easier. And the prey is bigger, easier to hit.”

After explaining the weapon’s grip safety, Raoul proceeds to show Pete how to insert a seven-round magazine, load the first round into the chamber, operate the thumb safety, and eject the magazine once it’s empty.

“Once the first round is in the chamber and the safety’s off, just point and shoot. Nice and simple. Hopefully, it won’t come to that, but Nick said he doesn’t want anyone running around in the bush unarmed, and that includes you. Here. Safety’s on.”

He hands the loaded semi-automatic pistol to Pete.

“Like you said, I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Cristobal spots the boat just as he’s weighing and securing the anchor. A small, fast boat, heading straight for them from the east. If it maintains its course and speed, it’ll be within small arms range in less than two minutes.

“Looks like the cavalry’s here!” he shouts as he scrambles aft.

The approaching boat is faster and more maneuverable than the Chris-Craft. Nick knows there’s no sense in running, but sitting still would be suicide. Cristobal reaches the aft deck and looks to Nick at the helm for instructions.

“Get on the horn to Raoul. We need some onshore fireworks ASAP,” Nick commands as he opens the throttle on both engines and cuts the wheel hard to port. “I’ll run north by northwest to increase their closing time.”

Cristobal races to the radio, picks up the mic, dials the morning’s frequency, and begins to transmit.

“Ramblin’ Man, this is Surf Rider. Come in, over.”

“Dalila, we need some firepower on deck,” Nick shouts over his shoulder.

Dalila heads below to the stash of light weapons they brought on board in Frenchtown.

Cristobal repeats the call, releases the push-to-talk button on the mic and waits. The radio crackles with Raoul’s response.

 “Surf Rider, this is Ramblin’ Man. Over.”

“Ramblin’ Man, we’ve got a boat closing fast from the east. What’s your location?

“Approximately one hundred meters south of the beach.”

“Okay. We need some fireworks on the beach. Light it up. We’ll see if he takes the bait.”

“Roger, Surf Rider. Out.”

←↔↔↔↔↔→

“Stop here.”

Kyle immediately pulls the Rambler to the side of the trail and stops.

“Keep the engine running.”

Raoul gets out, pops open the Rambler’s trunk, and unzips a large sea bag of weapons and explosives. He retrieves an M8 40mm flare gun and four signal cartridges. He loads a cartridge through the flare gun’s open breech, closes the breech, steps into the middle of the trail, and fires the flare between the overhead trees in the direction of Santa Maria Bay. He repeats the action three more times before returning to the car’s open trunk. He grabs a small wooden box of six M26 fragmentation grenades, slams the trunk close, jumps in the car, and shuts the door behind him.

“We’ve got to get to the beach, just behind the tree line.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Kyle puts the Rambler in gear and moves east along the trail. After travelling less than 50 meters he spots an opening in the dense vegetation lining the trail. He looks at Raoul.

“It’s worth a shot,” Raoul suggests.

Kyle cuts the wheel to the left and soon the Rambler is bouncing along what is little more than a wide footpath. Another 30 seconds and they can see the beach beyond a tree line ten meters ahead.

“Here’s good. Kyle, you’ve got the sidearms and clips.”

Kyle stops the car. Pete hands Kyle the bag of M1911s and fully-loaded clips. The men jump out of the car.

Raoul rips the top off the box of grenades, pulls out two grenades, hands one each to Pete and Kyle, and grabs two for himself.

“Follow me,” he commands.

Raoul heads for the beach and stops among a group of flamboyant, bottlebrush, and palm trees just short of the open sand. They see the Chris-Craft racing for the open water. The other boat has momentarily broken off the chase and is circling slowly. A crew member near its transom is searching the sky.

“Looks like the flares got his attention,” Kyle notes.

Raoul turns to Pete who nervously clutches his grenade.

“It’s simple, Pete. Hold the grenade so the clip won’t pop when you pull the pin; slip your finger through the ring; pull hard on the pin; toss the grenade and take cover. They’re five-second fuses. Close your eyes and cover your ears. The concussion from three grenades will be brutal. We’ll do all three at once, straight out towards the water. I’ll pitch the fourth one as soon as the dust settles. That should give Nick time to decide his next move. Pick a tree for cover.”

The three men spread out.

“Ready?”

Kyle and Pete nod.

“Pull the clip on three and let it fly. One, two, three!”

The men pull the clips, throw the grenades towards the beach’s high tide mark, and take cover. Two of the grenades hit the gentle surf while the third lands just shy of the water. The tremendous blast created by the three grenades detonating nearly simultaneously sends fragments, sand, water and a few species of aquatic life flying. Before sand and smoke have cleared Raoul stands up and pulls the clip on the fourth grenade.

“Stay down!”

He tosses the grenade a little farther east on the beach than the others. Again, five seconds after the pin is pulled the effect is intense. The blast sends all manner of debris, together with the deadly fragments from the grenade shooting off into an empty kill zone.

Raoul checks on the other men.

“Everyone all right?”

He gets a thumbs-up from Pete and Kyle.

“Let’s hope that did the trick.”

The boat from Gustavia has halted its pursuit of the Chris-Craft and is idling in the shallow end of the bay, no more than 100 meters west of the three men. From their position, Raoul and the others can see a tripod-mounted, 7.62mm Soviet PK machine gun near the boat’s transom. A crew member in civilian clothes stands at the machine gun, pointing it in the general direction of Nick’s boat, ready to fire.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Hartmut Schnelling is sweating profusely as he taps the last six-penny nail into the small shipping crate containing the first of the four pressurized containers. The American boat, the boat from Gustavia, and the flares all sent him into a frenzy of activity. Just as he finishes closing the crate’s lid with one last throw of his hammer, he hears the grenades explode! Three go off at once followed closely by a fourth.

Desperate to begin the transport of the canisters, he picks up the crate and heads out of the lab towards the beach.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Dalila keeps an eye on the other boat.

“Nick, they’re anchoring almost on shore. If they’re not careful, they’ll run aground.”

“Thanks, Dalila. Cristobal, take the wheel and head us straight for them. Let’s take our best shot at them with the M14s. They’re our only chance against that PK they’ve got mounted in their stern.”

Cristobal takes the wheel.

“Hold on!”

With the boat reaching top speed, he cuts the wheel hard to starboard. The Chris-Craft executes a long 180-degree turn. Cristobal brings the wheel back around and steers a course directly for the boat now anchored just off the beach of Santa Maria Bay.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

Kyle is the first to see him.

“That’s our professor. What the hell is he carrying?”

No more than fifty meters down the beach, Schnelling carries the crate containing a canister of deadly, pressurized formula straight for the anchored boat. A crew member waits in a foot of water to retrieve the crate from Schnelling.

Kyle takes control.

“Hold your fire. If that crate is what I think it is, we can’t risk hitting it. Wait until he’s handed it over.”

Schnelling hands the crate to the crew member who wades slowly back to the anchored boat with the crate held high over his head. Schnelling turns to head back to his lab.

“That’s it. We can’t let him transfer another one of those damn things. Open fire!” Kyle shouts.

The three men pour a fusillade of small arms fire towards Schnelling. One round hits him in the upper thigh of his right leg, dropping him to the beach.

“Cease fire and take cover!” Kyle orders.

The three men run for the cover of the dense bush back from the beach. They hit the ground as the gunner on the back of the boat pins them down by spraying 7.62mm rounds in their direction. Bullets rip through the foliage directly above them, but none finds its mark. After about ten seconds, the firing stops.

The crew member carrying the crate over his head, in water up to his chest, hands the crate to the gunner and boards the boat by climbing a small rope ladder.

Kyle uses the break in the firing to low crawl back towards the beach. He stops just shy of the beach, stands up next to a palm tree, takes careful aim with his .45, and puts a bullet in the temple of the crawling, bleeding Professor Hartmut Schnelling. The response from the gunner is immediate and furious. With rounds crashing through the air all around him, Kyle drops, rolls, and then low crawls desperately through the dense undergrowth back to the position of Raoul and Pete. He reaches his companions miraculously unscathed.

With Schnelling dead on the beach and the Chris-Craft bearing down on them, the crew of the boat from Gustavia quickly weighs anchor, throws the engine into reverse, and backs away from the beach for deeper water. The gunner wheels the PK around and fires five-round bursts at the approaching Chris-Craft. Their destination is a refueling stop in the Turks and Caicos.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

“They’re pulling out! Pour it on!”

Nick and Dalila continue to fire their M14s at the enemy craft. The return fire from the mounted PK machine gun is furious.

“Open it up. Everything you’ve got, Cristobal!”

Cristobal Guzman complies, pushing the engines to their limits as Nick and Dalila fire at will.

The small, seemingly harmless sound of a round cracking the glass of the wheelhouse causes Nick to turn. He sees Cristobal grab his throat with both hands and stagger back from the wheel. Blood pours through his fingers before he collapses on the aft deck.

“Get down!” Nick shouts to Dalila. She kneels behind the gunwale but keeps firing her M14. Nick runs to the boat’s wheel, undoes his belt buckle and removes his belt in a split second. He uses his belt to secure the wheel to the throttle of the starboard engine so the boat roughly maintains its course. He turns to Cristobal who is lying face up on the deck, still clutching his profusely bleeding throat.

With rounds ripping through the superstructure of the wheelhouse, Nick grabs a first aid kit from the netting on the ceiling, rips it open, and pulls out a large compression bandage and a roll of gauze to stop Cristobal’s bleeding. Nick kneels down by his struggling comrade and pulls his hands from his throat. The size and severity of the wound are shocking. Although Nick knows Cristobal has less than 30 seconds to live, he places the compression bandage directly on the wound and secures it by quickly wrapping the gauze around the dying man’s neck. There’s nothing else to do except wait. He cradles Cristobal’s head in his lap.

“Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll get you home. We’ll see that you get home.”

Cristobal’s bloody hand searches for Nick’s. Nick grabs it a moment before all of the strength goes out of it.

Cristobal Guzman, father of two with one on the way, is dead.

Dalila turns to see Nick still cradling Cristobal’s head and holding his hand. She puts down her M14 and scrambles to the boat’s helm. She undoes Nick’s belt, reduces the RPMs of both engines to barely more than idling, and cuts the wheel to starboard.

“They’re out of range. We lost them.”

Nick looks up at her.

“Cristobal’s dead.”

Dalila, suppressing a sob, goes to Nick and kneels beside him with her hand on his back.

“We need to get him ashore, Nick.”

Nick lets go of Cristobal’s limp hand, sets his head gently on the deck, and stands up. He picks up a pair of binoculars sitting in netting slung under the gunwale, scans the beach, and sees Schnelling’s body.

“War’s been over for 17 years, and we’re still killing Nazis. Good fucking riddance.”

He continues scanning until he sees Kyle Richardson emerge from the tree line. Richardson signals for Nick to bring the Chris-Craft into the shallow end of the bay.

“Take us in, Dalila.”

Dalila goes to the helm, increases the boat’s speed, and steers a course for the beautiful and deadly bay of Santa Maria.