The phone buzzed, shaking him out of the nightmare.
“Nemo, or is it Oscar? The hotel didn’t have a record of her checking out. They sent someone up with a key. It looks like her place was ransacked. Some of her luggage was still there, but her papers, her computer, and her camera are all gone.”
“She wouldn’t have left her camera.”
“I’d agree with you there. I’ll get the local police on it. I don’t know what else to do right now.”
He remembered Grand Cayman. A fancy place. I won’t fit in there. But I have to go.
He rubbed his beard. Maybe he needed a trim.
She called the pilot ‘Joe’. The airport at Antigua might have information on him. It’s worth a shot.
The dark haired boy saw a snorkeler coming ashore and raced across the sand, conch shell in hand to try to get him to buy it.
But Leon’s run faltered when the swimmer shifted his load. It was a huge shell, nearly four times the size of his conch. Still, he might want to buy something else.
“Hey mister. Where did you get that shell?”
He looked scruffy and his beard looked like it had been roughly cut.
“Out in the water–deeper than usual.” He nodded to the conch. “Do you sell shells to the tourists?”
“I’ll sell anything. Beads, shells, coconuts. I can get you a map of the shipwrecks or a taxi.”
He shifted his load as he hooked his snorkel, mask and fins to his belt. “I’m short on money. Take me to someone who’ll buy my shell for a good price, and I’ll give you a percentage.”
Leon hesitated as he balanced the idea of trying to buy it himself, versus taking the percentage.
“I’ll take it for twenty, American.”
He chuckled. “I can get much better than that. What do you say, twenty percent?”
Now he was talking real money. Faces flickered through his head. Who would pay the most?
“Come with me. I know a man.”
“I thought you might.”
The shopkeeper looked more like an island version of Abraham Lincoln, tall and angular, than one of the seedy types in a Humphrey Bogart movie, but it was the latter image that came to Nemo’s mind as the merchant examined the shell.
“Where did you get this?”
He waved his hand in a general direction. “Oh a few miles that way. It wasn’t the largest shell in the bed, but I hesitated to take one that was still growing.”
He was a little giddy from moving around among all these people. It took practice to ignore all the individual movements, and he very much lacked it. He fought the urge to turn and watch people pass by on the street.
Experienced hands scratched at worm holes that testified to his story.
“I would pay 2000.”
Nemo was watching Leon’s face. “Is that US or East Caribbean?”
“Um. Perhaps 700 US.”
He frowned. “I really need more than that.”
“Don’t we all?” the merchant smiled. “Do you have anything else to sell?”
“Oh, lots. I just grabbed the first thing handy.”
“What kinds of things?”
“More shells, of course. Mollusks and sea turtle.”
The man frowned. “You do know that any trade in sea turtle products is forbidden.”
“Except in the Caymans.”
“Well, yes, of course.” That government had rejected the sea turtle ban and instead had aggressively farmed them, allowing turtle products internally as a way to make the turtles pay their way out of endangered status. As a result, the turtles they released to the wild had boosted the overall population.
But any export of sea turtle products from the Caymans was strictly forbidden.
Nemo shrugged, dismissing the idea. “I’ve always had the idea that when the critter no longer needed its shell, there’s nothing wrong with making something of it.”
The merchant sighed. “Yes, I know. I have seen turtle-shell items and they are quite exquisite. But to be caught making such a transaction is not worth it to me.”
Nemo nodded. “Then how about these things.” He pulled a couple of manganese nodules from his bag. “You know what they are?”
Eager hands fingered them and hefted them to test their weight. “Whose water’s?”
“A n’ B.” There had been a lot of interest in the metal balls that grew on the ocean bottom, mainly for the nickel in them. But what with the cost of deep sea mining, and the payoffs to the international community for harvesting in international waters, the big mining operations bailed out. “The bed is in pretty shallow waters, too.
“Tell you what. I’ll throw in these, you pay me 1000 US for the shell, and maybe we can do more business in the future.”
As they walked away, Nemo counted Leon’s share of the cash. “I cut your in for a bigger deal. You point me to a barber shop and a place where I can buy some decent clothes.”
“No, Saul. I told you not to do that!”
King slapped the big man’s hands away from her and examined Brenda’s face. The bruise ran down the left side of her face from a cut near her eye down to her jaw. She glared at him.
“Someone called in the police. We’ll either have to get rid of her or move her.”
“She called me stupid.”
“Well, so do I! Now we can’t sell her until her face heals up. I had a buyer, now I’ll have to cancel.”
He locked eyes with his captive. “You know, you’re not helping yourself by taunting Saul. It’s all your own fault for sticking your nose into other people’s business.”
He could tell that she was thinking up something particular clever to say, but he didn’t have the time.
“Saul, get Woody on the line. I think we’d better use Miss Girl Reporter here to feed the turtles.”
Bathed, beard trimmed to a shorter length, and in a white suit with a matching hat, Nemo walked onto the grounds of VC Bird airport. From Karl’s report, this was where Joe the pilot refueled before taking Brenda to the Caymans. It was a long shot, but if he could find out anything about Brenda’s plans, it would be some light in a very dark tunnel.
He had the urge to race to rescue her, but without some knowledge it would all be a waste of effort.
The little charter companies had ticket offices and he located the one she took easily.
“Hello, sir.” The attendant in her uniform and tilted cap was cheerful and pleasant. Not that she distracted him from Brenda in any way, but today had been a revelation. There were so many pretty girls in the world.
“Hello, I was told a friend of mine was chartered between here and the Caymans by a pilot named Joe.”
“That must be Joe Tomlinson. He runs banking charters and ferry runs to many of the smaller islands that don’t support long landing strips.”
“Oh, yes. Some of our clients are Americans who fly here and to the Caymans to take advantage of our favorable tax laws.”
After a long chat, he came away with the impression that Joe was a favorite of a number of businessmen who liked to move cash off shore without necessarily filing all the paperwork that would be required taking a regular commercial airline out of Miami International.
He’d seen the seaplane. It would he handy to pick up a ‘businessman’ with a suitcase full of undeclared cash and ferry him to a place where a suitcase full of cash was business as usual. He had no solid proof the man was crooked, just a feeling.
A second stop by the shell vendor’s shop led to a mention of a couple of names that just might be interested in good quality sea turtle shells. There was a bigger market for the stuff than he had originally been led to believe.
“Leon, can you take me on a little boat ride?”
“Yes, sir. How far?”
He changed back into his shorts and packed his new clothes in tightly sealed, collapsed plastic bags and met Leon at the beach.
As they motored out into Fort Bay, Leon looked puzzled as Nemo strapped on his swim fins and prepared his snorkel. “Are you taking your new clothes under water?”
“Right over there. See the buoy flag?”
The boat slowed to a stop. “Sir, how long will you be down?”
“Oh, I’m leaving. Thanks for your assistance. He handed Leon a few bills and then went over the side. From nowhere, he pulled a net out of the water and Leon helped him stuff the clothes bag into the net, and then he and his purchases went out of sight into the water.
Just a moment later, Leon jerked when the buoy slipped below the water as well.
“What is going on?”
He hurriedly dug into the gear that came with the rented boat and strapped on goggles. Leaning far over the edge, he dunked his head, just in time to see a giant devilfish sail silently away.