Pot Luck, a 31-foot wooden Willis Beal lobster boat, slipped through the fog at a slow and steady pace doing close to three knots. She headed straight for the shore without deviating or slowing and ran up on the rocks beneath the shrouded spruce trees and a lone maple, its leaves glowing a dull red, on the northwestern tip of Seven Hundred Acre Island. Nobody was aboard.
With her momentum, she rode up smartly on the slippery seaweed. Her bow rose and her planks splintered. She came to rest listing severely to starboard.
The jolt caused all the fishing gear to slide forward. The bait trays crashed into the engine box and tipped over, spilling chopped herring onto the deck. The lobster tank ripped loose and dumped its contents into the herring slurry.
The propeller remained free and continued to turn. Her engine ran steady at a thousand revolutions per minute. The wet exhaust no longer muffled the noise. Her only through-hull fitting, which normally brought cooling saltwater to the engine, was now sucking air. The 275-horsepower Chrysler gasoline engine began to overheat. Within fifteen minutes, the engine shuddered, seized, and went silent.
The tide continued to recede. Small waves lapped at the shore. A gentle breeze blew through the evergreen trees. The only thing moving, besides the squirming lobsters, was the sweep of the radar in the display over the helm. It went around and around until the battery went dead four hours later.
It was noon. The tide had turned, and the fog lifted. Shelly called the Marine Patrol to report Donny overdue and missing. At the same time, Wally was just leaving the mainland docks in Lincolnville for a run at his own traps. He looked across the now-clearing three miles of Penobscot Bay and saw Pot Luckon the shore. He headed straightaway toward the island, running flat out.
Here is a man fallen into the underworld, frightened by his capacities for evil who then attempts to turn towards the light. Here is a bit from the first chapter.
Commuter flight 1632 was going to cost him his life. The whimpering woman several rows to the rear seemed to agree.
The Beech 99, a twin engine prop job out of Boston to Rockland had taken off late afternoon into blowing snow and low clouds. A late March low pressure system was disrupting the entire eastern seaboard, bringing reduced visibility and turbulence. Airports below minimums were closing like dominos.
The plane hit an air pocket and lost several hundred feet. A man in the back screamed and then started to pray. Jesse closed his eyes and listened to the surging sound of the engines and the groans from his fellow passengers.
He opened his eyes and focused on the pilots. The plane had an informal configuration and there was no barrier between the pilots and passengers. Jesse sat alone in the first row where he could watch the work of his fellow pilots. There was not much to admire on this flight. The crew was tired and sloppy and nervous. Even with the terrible weather, there was no excuse to be so far off headings and altitude. They were one step behind the airplane at a time that called for ultimate anticipation. The co-pilot tried twice to clip the instrument approach plate in front of his pilot before finally succeeding. They regained some of the lost altitude. The windshield was an ominous gray screen.
Jesse could feel the tension of all the souls on board. The pilots struggled to bring the flight to a safe conclusion but were probably wishing for the game to end. Jesse pushed fatalistic thoughts to the side and tried to convince himself that all would end well. A drop of cold sweat dribbled down his side.
The plane continued to descend through the rough air. It yawed violently to starboard. Something fell to the floor with a thud. The engine sounds slewed asymmetrically. Everything bounced.
Jesse was familiar with the approach procedure. Rockland was a small airport with adequate but non-precision instrument approaches. He’d done it countless times, even in bad weather, but never under these conditions. The pilots should be in radio contact with Brunswick Control, who would be instructing them to descend to 1300 feet and maintain a heading that would intercept the final approach course. The winds were blowing hard from the north which meant a landing on runway 3.
Once established on the final course, they would maintain 1300 feet until crossing the Sprucehead NDB. The needle would swing from front to back. They would descend to the minimum altitude of 440 feet. If all went well, God willing, the pilots would keep the localizer needle centered, they would break out of the overcast before reaching 440 feet, see the runway, and land uneventfully.
The rules for an instrument approach to minimums are based on honesty and self preservation. Once established on the final approach course and aligned with the runway, you need to keep the needle centered. If you get too far afield, the time you have for correction is limited, and you are all the time coming closer and closer to unforgiving ground. And you never ever bust the minimum descent altitude.
Rockland’s elevation above sea level is 55 feet. On the approach, you’re allowed to go as low as 440 feet. That leaves you flying at 100 miles an hour in the clouds and blustery north winds with only 385 feet between you and granite. To the right and left are trees and other obstructions.
The pilot brought the throttles back and spoke into his microphone. He initiated a shallow turn to the left. The plane descended out of 2000 feet. Jesse placed them south of Rockland out over the ocean.
The pilot concentrated on the artificial horizon instrument which is driven by gyros and not subject to the thrashing of turbulence. His hand on the control wheel countered the effects of the wind and was in constant motion.
The altimeter wound down to 1300 feet. The plane leveled off and turned left to a heading of 079 degrees.
Jesse leaned forward, straining on his seat belt. His life was in the hands of these two tired pilots who now looked too young to be pilots.
Jesse surveyed the panel, confirming that everything was proper for the approach. The beacon frequency was correct. Their speed was good. The communication channel was set for Rockland Unicom. But then Jesse noticed a glaring error. The main navigational instrument still had the Brunswick frequency and had not been reset to reflect their present approach. The plane lurched right.
The pilot was not scanning the panel but was frozen on the artificial horizon. The copilot reached out and set the Rockland approach frequency into the number one navigational instrument. He must have felt Jesse’s gaze because he turned to see if anyone had noticed their error. Jesse saw fear in his eyes. The plane jerked left and the copilot returned his attention to the approach.
Jesse unclenched his fists and took a deep breath. His face was a sheen of sweat. He wondered if the copilot’s expression was a reflection of his own unblemished fright.
The plane was at 1200 feet but not yet established on course. The pilot pulled up abruptly and gained altitude. His heading was off by 20 degrees.
The localizer needle came alive and the pilot slowly came left to 030 degrees. He anticipated the strong left headwind and compensated, but too soon. The needle was not centering. He came right ten degrees and waited for the instrument to react. The NDB needle swung aft and went unnoticed.
As the localizer finally started to react, the pilot noticed the NDB. He brought back the throttles and called for the copilot to lower the flaps and gear. The localizer needle swung through center and headed left. The grinding sounds of the flaps and the clunk of the gear were all but lost in the wild confusion. The plane slowed and started to descend too rapidly. The pilot was chasing the airplane.
They descended through 500 feet. The copilot looked out the windshield, searching for the airport. The window was full of cloud. The altimeter spun through 440 feet. They were right of course and below their minimum descent altitude.
The copilot noticed the breach and reached out with a bouncing arm and tapped the instrument. The pilot nodded and slowed the descent but still went lower.
Jesse knew the approach was irretrievable. His premonitions were coming true.
A MAXIMUM MISTAKE
When it comes to assassinations, I’ve been lucky. They say you make your own luck.
My name is Enrique Breceda. I am the 50 year old, overly educated police chief of Cuenca, Ecuador. I hold undergraduate degrees in sociology and psychology and a Masters in Criminal Justice from the University of Azuay. I was born and raised and educated and married in this city.
It is a dangerous and expensive job. It has cost me my family, but not yet my life. My wife, with my two small children, left me when I could not give up this fight. They have a good argument. The danger is encapsulated by the saying, “Take the silver or the lead.” Accept the payoffs or end up dead.
An early morning ice cream seller smiles and nods to his blue cooler. I dig into my pocket for 30 cents and buy a coconut ice on a wooden stick. I savor the treat and admire the heart of my city – Parque Calderon.
The park is a green space, a full city block of crisscrossing walkways that cut through landscaped shrubs, flowering trees and towering pines. Four square side streets border the park, with counterclockwise traffic. Lights at every corner to control the pace. The Old Cathedral sits on the southeast corner and the New Cathedral anchors the western side. Time is relative, but slower here than in the rest of the world.
The many benches are for relaxation and reflection. It is quiet and peaceful. Retired gentlemen gather in groups and swap stories and laughter. The morning sun sneaks between the buildings on the east side and graces swaths of warmth on the cobblestone streets and tiled paths.
This park is not prepared for violence. People come to absorb the atmosphere and admire the architecture. A tourist raises an iPad to photograph the massive entrance arch of the New Cathedral. The mountain air is crisp. Flowering bushes add dashes of color to the vibrant canvas of life in this Andean city, so full of history and culture and good will.
Even at this early hour, lawyers bustle with briefcases to their offices, girls in skirted uniforms giggle in clusters and walk to school. Indigenous barefoot women, velvet-skirted, top-hatted, carry their wares in bundles on their backs, destined for another hard and meager day selling at the markets. The photographers arrange their stage horses and pat the living Saint Bernard. Under the graceful arches of the colonial buildings that ring the Parque, shoe shiners open their rolling contraptions. Elevated seats for the customer, shoe rests and a morning paper on the cushion.
Luis has claimed his spot in front of the ice cream shop. I am his first shoe shine customer. I take the paper from the seat and settle into this simple pleasure. It has been too long since I’ve been touched by another human being. We Latins crave touch. From a lover. Or an arm around my shoulders from a friend. But the love of my life has moved to Florida. There will be no substitutes, no momentary diversions, for the sake of my sanity. Colleagues keep their distance for fear of contagious targeting.
Luis’s touch on my boots puts delightful pressure on my feet and gives me chills and goosebumps. This early morning I feel off-kilter because of last night’s rum. It fills the void in my life. I drink myself to sleep and still wake up lonely.
I am security conscious. I vary my routine and take precautions. I am aware of what is happening around me. I sit in the arch and face the traffic coming around the square, slow small cars stopping for the lights, yellow taxis, an occasional motorbike. Stop, wait, go. Stop, wait and go.
I’m not really sure why I’m so driven to fight the cartels. I know the danger. I’ve paid many of the prices. I cannot just turn away when evil spreads itself upon my home. I can run through the clichés and quote the quotes: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Am I noble, principled and honest? It could be the fight, playing a game for keeps. I’m an adrenalin junkie. I crave the action. I am addicted to the danger, which makes me much like Pablo Montecielo.
This is all well-reasoned, but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just habit.
But it leaves no room for my family and it’s better now that they are away in the United States.
Times change. It wasn’t like this when I started in the force. The drug scene was passing us by. We in Ecuador are sandwiched between Peru to the south and Colombia to the north. We were just a pass-through country. But four years ago we got a new transplant, an extranjero from hell. Pablo Montecielo came for the climate, the safety and the beauty. He brought darkness and death. He threw money at anyone with power and influence. He bought his way into the country. So now he sits behind ornate walls in the company of body guards. Money can buy anything, almost. He is who I fight.
I control 1,400 city policemen and women, renowned earlier in the decade for their ineffectiveness and corruption. Control is not the right word. But I am the chief. I did not make many friends when I cleaned out the exploitation and the graft. The death threats died down over time.
The force is large. I only know the upper echelon personnel. But each of my officers knows me. I smile to a couple of policewomen patrolling the square, unarmed and noticeable in their fluorescent vests. I have mobile units in cars. And on motorbikes, lightly powered and very maneuverable.
One such bike came around the corner, driver and rider, uniformed and helmeted. It stopped adjacent to me, in the natural flow of stop and go. I nodded. They nodded. I enjoyed Luis’s touch. The bike continued on. I noticed the headlines in the paper. I glanced over the paper at the oncoming cars. There was another police motorcycle behind a yellow Hyundai taxi.
Two riders, proper black uniforms, insignias, patches, badges, belts with mace and radios, thigh holsters and hand guns. Full coverage helmets. We have some of these larger bikes in the motor pool, but they are not assigned to city duty. The light behind my back must have turned green. The traffic moved. The motorcycle inched forward, but with less conviction than the rest of the cars.
I launched off my seat and shoved Luis behind the marble pillar. I ended up on top of him, which was later spun by the press as a heroic act which furthered the myth of the selfless lawman.
The pedestrian traffic reacted to the bizarre antics of the shoeshine scene and that reduced collateral damage. Bullets spit and stitched up the marble arch, clipping, chipping chunks of stone, ricocheting into the facade of the ice cream restaurant and shattering the plate glass windows. The weapon sounded like the loud purr of a sewing machine. People screamed. I covered my head with my arms. I felt a jolt of pain in my right thigh and then a thump to the side of my head. Then all was quiet. I looked around the pillar.
I rested my hand on my pistol, but there was too much risk to return fire. The assassins were leaving. The gun was empty and they weren’t taking the time to seat another magazine. The driver popped the clutch, the rear tire spun then took the traction, the bike lurched forward, slalomed through the traffic, ran the red light and disappeared down the cobble stoned street. The ensuing silence gave way to mayhem of screams and approaching sirens.
I passed out.
I woke up in a hospital bed with a ringing headache and a dry mouth. Javier Salazar, my second in command and one of the few men I trusted absolutely, said, “They took a .45 slug from your thigh and picked marble slivers from your scalp. The killers got away clean. Three others were wounded in the attack, one in critical condition down the hall. I’ve posted two good men outside your door. You will live to fight another day, Jefe. Welcome back.”
Javier poured water from a plastic pitcher into a paper cup with a bent straw and handed it over.
“I don’t do medication, but I can get the doctor.”
“Luis, the shoe shiner?”
“Came through unscathed, thanks to you, the hero.”
The side-table phone rang.
Javier said, “Probably your wife. I called her. She knows what happened.”
I twisted and winced with the shooting pain in my thigh. I picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Close call.” Maria said. “Again.” She paused. “You’d think someday a bullet would find a vital organ.”
“A close call, as you say.”
“Time to give it up?”
I kept the conversation silent. Then, “We can’t go there.”
“It is what it is?”
“Something like that.”
“Tell me when you change your mind. I’ll come back to you.”
“I know you will. I love you.”
As far as assassinations went, he’d been lucky. Certainly at first, when Carlos was just starting out. Kindergarten for killers. Plucked from the barrios of Guatemala City, given food, a bed, and a family, the first time he’d ever belonged. He didn’t know his parents. He didn’t know his birthday. He thought he was 13 years old. Then came loose instructions. Run this package to that corner. Deliver this satchel to that address. Kill this piece of shit. Here is his picture. Get it done by Sunday night. Matter of fact.
Back then he was the leader of his small pack, the oldest at 13, or at least the tallest. His life had no questions. He did as he was told and he had money for sneakers, for cigarettes, for beer and rum. He had no limits, yet he also had no freedoms. He did as he was told. No second thoughts. No first thoughts.
He’d taken the pistol, a heavy .357 magnum stainless steel revolver that dwarfed his hand and pulled on his shoulder muscles. Kill the guy, what did he know? Just what he’d seen in the movies. Pretty simple. Find the restaurant, approach the outdoor table, pull the gun, aim at the face, yank the trigger, walk away. So that is what he did, on a Saturday afternoon, his first kill.
Luck. The target’s body guard was in the bathroom. There was a police cruiser down the block, but going the other way. The kick of the gun was so abrupt that he’d dropped the weapon on the cobble stone patio, just full of fingerprints. But he was 13. He was clean. And now he was a sicario.
In the ten years and multiple deaths since, he had refined his work into an art form, delicate, precise, a symphony of harmonic motion, nothing wasted and everything over before anyone knew the danger they’d rubbed against. He now had his own rules and rigid standards, and nothing was left to luck. Luck was for fools and fools died early in this business.
He was proud of his standards. First, no collateral damage. It didn’t matter to his handlers or their bosses, and the attendant chaos was good for the perception that terror reigned, but it was bad for his business and took the focus from the guilty, the troublesome, the meddling, the corrupt, the annoying – the competition.
And well planned, nothing left to chance. No spur of the moment gratuitous killing. And respectful. Low profile, little fanfare. Killing, or worse, was a private affair and there was no need to involve children or wives. They only became part of the drama when leverage was needed and the target was uncooperative. But that was rare.
He sat at the open air tables with his back to the brick wall, shielded from the traffic coming down Calle Larga. Sharp this morning, like yesterday morning. A change from a year ago. Instinctively he looked at his watch. An hour until the meeting. He would never tell the others “his story.” He made up the details but the theme was universal. He was still seeking a sponsor. He was stumped by the 4th step – taking a fearless moral inventory.
He sipped his black coffee and read the article in El Mercurio about the botched assassination attempt on the Chief of Police. Idiocy. Eye witness accounts, from the sound of it, suggested a MAC-10 machine pistol as the weapon, a stupid gun for sidewalk work. It was accurate only inside a phone booth, or maybe a parked car. The rate of fire and the recoil from the .45 caliber bullets made it virtually uncontrollable. Obviously there’d be innocent victims. Sheer foolishness. The whole episode was such a colossal failure that it could only have been on purpose, meant to communicate a message – back off, look the other way, take the money and we will all live another day.
Carlos had lived his life without questions, without rebuttals. And his rules had never been countermanded by his superiors because the end results were always the same – successful.
Do not invite undue scrutiny. Be subtle and smooth and quiet and final. Then fade away.
The waiter asked if he’d like more coffee. Yes, please.
The waiter returned with a fresh cup and a sealed envelope. “Senor, two gentlemen wanted me to give this to you. They are gone now, through the back door.”
“Gracias.” Carlos flipped his pocket knife and sliced the flap open and removed a typed note. “Kill the Chief. One week.”
Carlos folded the paper. He took the lighter off the top of the pack of Marlboro cigarettes, stood and walked to the men’s room. He lit the corner of the note and watched the flame consume the white paper. He dropped it in the toilet. The envelope went next.
This was against protocol. It was high profile, sure to bring down heavy consequences. An invitation for reprisal. Unacceptably visible, provocative, counterproductive and doomed in the long run.
But who was he to question? Refusal was only an invitation to become a target himself. In the shark tank you were predator one day and prey the next. But this was so foolhardy that in itself there must be logic. His bosses were prone to excess, but this was beyond their previous scope. Perhaps reason could prevail.
This is the what and how of narcotrafficing and the war on drugs, and the coincidental effects on the gentle and vulnerable fabric of Latin American culture.
You have met Enrique Breceda and Carlos Malo. In subsequent chapters you will meet Pablo Montecielo, el Duque de la Oscuridad; Gabriela Sanchez, a love addicted, courageous newsprint reporter covering the cartel’s march into Ecuador; Dulce Espinosa, an innocent teenager sold into sexual slavery to save her family from the ravages of poverty; and Mark Karkus, a bent DEA agent.
These intertwining stories explore the enchantment of power and greed, the power of addiction and the grace of repentance.
This is a tale of crime, courage and collateral damage.
Look for A Maximum Mistake at Amazon and all your other favorite booksellers this coming summer.