Crossing the Red
Eastern Coast of Nicaragua, June 25, 11 a.m.
Ramiro Jenkins looked around the smoking rubble, hands on his hips, smiling confidently. The morning light slanted through heavy smoke hanging over the shattered debris of two small buildings. Earlier, in the pre-dawn darkness, they had launched their initial demonstration from the Angelina C moving at ten knots toward the mouth of the river. But, General Al Shakir had been skeptical and wanted further proof of the weapon’s accuracy, range, and power. Standing in the shade surveying the second demonstration, Ramiro squinted below the brim of his straw Panama. His eyes glistened behind narrow slits, as brightly as the sun glittering off the blue Caribbean at his back. Monkeys and birds chattered from the mangroves at the mouth of the river which snaked quietly out of the Nicaraguan jungle. It was perfect remoteness for their testing since September 2001 when the Americans and allies had increased their surveillance.
“Well then, General. Two buildings. Two rounds. Two direct hits.”
General Al Shakir carefully stepped around the debris, kicking over smoking boards. He leaned over and swiped at a shattered concrete block with a clean handkerchief. He lifted it to his nose, sniffed, and raised his eyebrows at Ramiro.
“I see enough.”
The general stepped away from the debris and turned to a narrow trail that led 50 yards through the jungle to the Land Rover. His aide, Captain Barzani, followed. His unsmiling personal bodyguard, Fahad, trailed dutifully. Ramiro and his assistant, Alan Guerrero, hesitated.
“Alan, this locks up the deal. Final proof of the 120’s accuracy. So what gives? What the hell more does he want?” Ramiro silently motioned Jorge Montoya and Jesus Rivera, two of his key operators, back to the Land Rover.
Alan removed his straw hat and wiped sweat from his forehead with an already damp red kerchief. He waited for the Iraqis to move further down the trail.
“He’s a hard sell. They all are,” he muttered.
“He’s an asshole.” Ramiro waved both arms in exasperation. “I’m tired of playing his games. Other groups are ready. Iraqis, Russians, Chinese. What does it matter which one, anyway?” He started up the trail, but Alan caught him by the arm and pulled him back.
He shook his longtime friend’s arm with a strong grip and fierce eye contact. “Because we have five years, $5 million and gallons of our blood invested. For once, control that impetuous ego. Do not let it destroy our investment, amigo. Think. We have enough resources and M120s to launch the first phase. The Iraqi money will pour in from the general and friends. Trust it.”
Ramiro pulled away forcefully and headed down the trail. Alan shook his head and followed his comrade. Ramiro had always been this way; abrasively abusive. Thing was, he was usually right, even if his manner and sense of timing were like a defective detonator.
Ramiro started the engine and the welcome air conditioning. Al Shakir turned to him.
“A powerful testimony to range and accuracy, Mr. Jenkins. To launch from unstable platform, your boat, from 10 kilometers. Quite good.”
“But you have other issues, General?” Ramiro slowed the vehicle for a deep rut.
“There is one other thing, yes. And until you tie up loose end, no $10 million.”
“What loose end? Nothing has been left to chance. You are short of money?”
Al Shakir shifted in his seat and looked away. “No. We have ample funds in off-shore account in Grand Caymans. Like Swiss accounts in the old days, accessible to no one else, including international auditors. No, it is not money.”
“Then what?” Ramiro again slowed the Range Rover.
Al Shakir looked Ramiro in the eye. “Same loose end we talk about months ago. Your neighbors. These Kotahs and O’Neils. I do not trust. They want your land. You say they are family. But the two brothers already caused you trouble. They suspect.”
“General, we’ve talked about this before. LuAnn O’Neil inherited the land. She controls the O’Neil ranch and my lease. She thinks we’re going to be married.” Ramiro laughed and unconsciously stroked his narrow mustache, and continued. “But sir, she absolutely hates the Comanche. Hates them. They show her no respect. Come and go as they please with the daughter of John O’Neil. Without Hunter the Kotahs represent no threat to my secrecy. Or our facility. Or our plans.”
“Oh no?” Al Shakir sneered, “Mr. Jim Kotah could cause plenty problem. I know this.”
“He’s not involved in this.”
“Ha. In Iraq and Afghanistan our people do some checking. Mr. Kotah has reputation. Is called ‘Night Bear’ in Al Anbar. He is hated still in Tikrit for the strike that killed so many of the Al Kata family.”
“History. Besides, Tikrit ruined his career. He had to retire.”
“He and his team operate at night. Many of our people dead. He leave business card on bodies. It say, ‘Look me up.’ He is hated. We put price on head and he goes away. That why he leave, not his mistakes in Tikrit. Now he leave Army, but he is not gone. He is contractor. Trains Iraqis to do same. He is threat to our jihad. My friends in Syria wish him dead.
Ramiro relented, “Okay, he is easily dealt with. I too wish him dead, but for other reasons.”
“You talk so sure. You are Kotah yourself. You defend him? Now you must eliminate and this O’Neil woman. We can take no risk with this man or his family. You will eliminate them. Do it sometime during the attack, or we have no more deal.”
“Of course, General. You are correct. I’ve discussed it with my assistant. We’ll take care of the Kotahs. Rest assured. Nothing will threaten M120.”
“I was sure you agree. I will expect this information during our post battle debrief.”
They reached the end of the road above the river and Ramiro slammed the Land Rover to a stop. Alejandro and Victor, carrying AK-47s and Land Mobile Radios, approached smiling to help them into the boat. Ramiro shoved past them. He did not wait for Al Shakir and the rest of the party. He stepped into the boat and to the stern. When everyone else was seated, he turned to Alejandro, his coastal guard. “Check with the spotters and the other boat. Make sure it’s okay to leave the river.”
Alejandro keyed his radio and spoke. He listened, then turned to Ramiro, handing him the radio. “Is problem.”
Ramiro seized the radio. “What now?”
It was Dr. Roland, the technical brains Ramiro recruited from the U.S. defense industry.
“Mr. R, we’re watching a fishing boat, looks like about a 45-footer. Just pulled in and anchored right off the mouth of the river. Four men and a woman.”
“Dammit, Doctor, what the hell are they doing?”
“Just sitting, sir. Looks like vacationers. Innocent looking. They can’t see us, but looks like they’re here to stay a while. Sort of interrupts our own fishing.”
“I don’t like this.” Ramiro looked around the jungle. “We’re at least a quarter mile from the mouth of the river, well under cover. I don’t like staying here any longer with the smoking rubble at the lumber mill.”
Al Shakir spoke up. “Original plan was to move north 50 miles after demonstration. Tuck boat into safe bay where you will conduct final briefing and discussions in total privacy. We must not delay.”
Ramiro waved Al Shakir away and keyed the radio. “Okay, Doc. We’re going to lay by and look for fresh air at Point 145. Say again, Point 145.”
“Okay, sir. What you want us to do?”
“Continue fishing out there. Use the broken mackerel bait. The fish should be hitting that this morning.”
He waited for Dr. Roland’s reply. Looking around the boat, he noticed all eyes were on him. Al Shakir was wrenching his hands. Barzani and Fahad stood by nervously.
Dr. Roland came back on the radio. “Roger that. Point one four five. Spotters are up. We’re switching to broken mackerel. Base Out.”
“Unit One, clear.” Ramiro tossed the radio back to Alejandro and turned to Pancho who was in the bow with an AK-47 at the ready.
“Pancho. Take the Land Rover up to the point. Keep it under cover. Victor, point one four five. Cautionamente, por favor.”
Al Shakir stood up, “By Allah, what goes on, Mr. Jenkins? I demand you tell me.”
“Plans have changed, sir. Visitors right off the mouth of the river. Looks like they plan to set up camp. Could be innocent but we can’t take any chances of being spotted together, not to mention the Angelina-C with that evidence back in the jungle.”
Al Shakir said, “So, what’s the plan?”
“We’ll take this boat back to a little landing just below a point from which to observe. Point 145. From there we can glass the ocean and our visitors.”
He motioned to Victor who eased the boat away from their mooring and swung it down river toward the point.
But Al Shakir refused to move. “So what is business about fishing and dead mackerel? Mr. Jenkins we’re not here to fish.”
Ramiro put a hand on Al Shakir’s shoulder and roughly pushed him back in his seat. Fahad glared, but Ramiro ignored him.
“Sir. Sit down and stay down. This is no exercise. If our fireworks were heard or seen this morning, that boat could have been sent to investigate. We could also expect aerial surveillance. So keep your damned heads down.”
The general sat down and said nothing else until they neared the landing at Point 145. Pancho was waiting and helped tie up while everyone leaped to the landing and followed an overgrown footpath up the bank and into the mangrove jungle. When they had departed, Victor moved the boat 50 yards up river beneath the cover of overhanging mangroves.
Pancho guided the group up the slope a hundred yards to a small opening. There the jungle fell away to the ocean. He handed Ramiro binoculars, then disappeared back into the jungle.
Ramiro waved the rest of the group away from the opening and glassed the ocean with the binoculars. A 45-foot sport fisher was anchored less than 200 yards offshore.
“Aha, the Mary Ann out of Corpus Christi, Texas. So our friends wish to camp. Alan, ever see any fishing boats anchored off this point?” He handed over the binoculars.
Alan glassed the boat intently. “Not too often. They all tend to troll up and down the coast where it goes from shallow to deeper water. Looks like these Americanos are just sitting here, drinking and partying. The woman is swimming in the buff. No fishing lines out. ”
Al Shakir interrupted. “They probably get tired of fishing. Stop to rest, cool off.”
Alan turned and waved everyone down. “They’re glassing the area. Big guy with sunglasses on the starboard beam.”
Ramiro took the binoculars and confirmed Alan’s warning. “Everyone stay the hell down and behind cover.”
Al Shakir interrupted, alarm in his voice. “Where’s your other boat? What’s all this about?”
Ramiro turned and sat down on the ground cross-legged. He pulled a thin-bladed dagger from his boot, drew in the dirt and spoke lowly.
“The Angelina-C has gone south according to broken mackerel. That’s a code name for one of our contingency plans. In this case it’s a plan to respond to someone invading our area by boat and just sitting there, like this one. We have our spotters out north and south. They’ll advise Dr. Roland of any other traffic that might come into the area.”
Al Shakir frowned. “We cannot just sit here.”
“Don’t intend to. Dr. Roland and the Angelina-C are laying by about three kilos south along the coast. Before they left this area, they took GPS readings of the target boat’s position and relayed those to Dr. Roland. Alan is taking a third reading from this point.”
Al-Shakir peered over Ramiro’s shoulder to see that Alan had aligned a GPS meter on top of a small stake pounded into the ground.
Ramiro continued. “We had previously taken GPS fixes on this point. All Alan has to do is take an azimuth reading and we’ll have the boat’s position pretty well triangulated.”
“Surely you not want to fire on boat. You could put us all in Nicaragua jail."
Ramiro put a finger to his lips. Alan handed him a radio and with his own knife drew several numbers in the dirt.
Ramiro keyed the radio. “Unit one to Base.”
“Unit one, come in.” Dr. Roland replied.
“How’s the fishing? All the lines baited and out?”
“All baited. We’re just wondering where you guys think we ought to head?”
Ramiro looked back at the numbers on the ground. “You might try a heading of zero – one – seven - niner. That might put you good fish.”
Dr. Roland repeated back, “That’s zero – one – seven – niner.”
Ramiro turned to Al Shakir. “Sir, you might want to watch this.”
“You’re crazy. I hold you responsible if….” He scrambled to the opening and grabbed the binoculars from Ramiro. He focused on the boat just as a screaming whoosh broke the silence.
All watched as the 45-foot boat erupted in a huge explosion followed by a secondary explosion and ball of flame as its fuel tanks ignited.
Muffled cheers went up from Ramiro’s men, but Al Shakir recoiled in disbelief. “Crazy. This is craziness.”
Ramiro ignored Al Shakir and keyed the radio. “Unit one to Base. We just saw one hell of an explosion at the mouth of the river. Some fool blew up his boat. Better check for survivors. Unit one out.”
“Roger that. Base clear.” Ramiro smirked at Al Shakir and tossed the radio back to Alan.
“Let’s haul ass and check for survivors.” He ducked down the trail, not waiting for anyone. Al Shakir, Captain Barzani and Fahad, pushed along by Alan, scrambled down the trail.
“Mr. Jenkins. You act crazy, mad.”
Ramiro whirled into Al Shakir’s face. “General Al-Shakir. If it weren’t for your stupidity, this demonstration wouldn’t have been necessary. We could have concluded business yesterday and been gone. But no. you had to have another demonstration. Now you just witnessed. the best weapon system for the mission.”
“You are crazy. Get me out of here,” Al Shakir hissed.
“I don’t care, Al Shakir. I have other buyers. But right here and now you’re going to quit bleating like a goddamned gutless goat, or I'm going to chain your ass to a tree and leave you on for the Nicas. Comprende? ”
Ramiro watched, satisfied as the general’s eyes bulged in disbelief and his mouth opened, but there were no words. He grimaced as if to say something, silently nodded and fell back.