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Chapter 1

The Vengeance of Ben-BallaA steady north-by-northeast wind lifted the Christmas bows bordering the “Under New Management” sign stretched over one end of the dockmaster’s trailer. It was one week before Christmas Eve but there was no hustle and bustle at Hoagie’s. The Windswept Corporation had recently purchased the old fish camp out of foreclosure and there was just one boat moored at the run-down marina.

Dockmaster Vern Leverick sat on a rotted dock piling tutoring his underling, Wayne Manuel, in the fine art of applying protective coatings to marine surfaces. The boat’s owner, Captain Ernesto Muniz, eavesdropped in quiet amusement.

Vern’s lesson ended at the sound of a vehicle speeding down the potholed road leading to the marina. A white Chevy crew cab with tinted windows skidded to a halt at the near end of the lot. Australian pines partially obscured the vehicle, but Ernesto recognized it and an audible sigh passed through his chapped lips. As three men exited the vehicle, he looked toward the dockmaster and his helper.

“You’d better leave, Vern, and take Wayne with you.”

“I was thinking that it was time to take a coffee break,” Vern said. “Come on, boy; let’s head to Sandy’s for lunch. Give me a hand getting up. My hip is aching today. Must be the cold weather.”

As Wayne assisted the dockmaster to his feet, the three men from the crew cab stormed past, causing the dock to creak in testament of its feeble construction. The trio boarded Ernesto’s sailboat without asking permission. One sported a shock of white hair, pale skin and thin, taut lips; his expensive sunglasses failed to hide his sunken eyes.

The other two appeared much younger, mid- to late twenties. One stood about five-feet-seven, thin and wiry, with deep pockmarks on his face. His companion towered over him and wore tight-fitting clothing that silhouetted a dedicated ritual of resistance training. As the latter boarded the sailboat, he turned and shouted to the retreating dockworkers, “We weren’t here, boys.”

At the sound of the big man’s voice, Vern began a hobbled run to his truck. Wayne, sensing the urgency of their departure, ran to the passenger’s side.

The bodybuilder’s ice-blue eyes fell on the gleaming, stainless steel winch handle in the portside winch. He stepped into the cockpit and grabbed the winch handle, then turned to watch Vern and Wayne tear out of the parking lot. He stepped to the port gunwale and focused on Ernesto, who had back-stepped to the bow.

The big man moved forward as his two companions advanced on the starboard side. Ernesto continued his retreat until he bumped against the bow pulpit.

“Is it wise for you to be here, Philippe?” Ernesto said to the white-haired man.

“We need to talk, Captain. You are quite a talker are you not, Captain?” Philippe said, then turned to the smaller of his two companions. “Remove the front of the sail cover, Abdul.”

The little man sprang into action.

“Yes, yes, sir, Philippe,” Ernesto said. “I have the gift of gab. My mother was Irish, you know.”

He tried to mask his fear with a chuckle as his eyes diverted to the muscleman, whom he knew as Arnan. Arnan picked his way up the port side, stepping over tools and parts that littered the deck.

“And your father was a burro in a Tijuana sex show,” said Abdul.

Philippe, not taking his eyes off Ernesto, smiled and said, “Wrap the main halyard around the boom and sail, Abdul.”

“Hey!” Ernesto shouted, swiveling his eyes from one to the other. “You people need me. Treat me with some respect.”

“Did you bring your pliers, Abdul?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then remove the cotter pin.”

When Abdul pulled a cotter pin from the mechanism where the boom fastened to the mast, a larger pin dropped to the deck and rolled to the starboard toe rail.

Arnan grinned as he moved closer to Ernesto.

Philippe’s face was as expressionless as a marble statue until he spoke. “You were at a drinking establishment called Bert’s last night.”

“He is in a different bar every night,” said Abdul.

“You joked about doing landscape work on Gasparilla,” Philippe said, his tone calm and reserved.

“Hey, is that all you’re upset about?” Ernesto replied. He feigned relief, but his voice began to tremble. “It was just a joke. The locals will never get it. No one suspects anything. Look, we’re all set to go. With all the money you have invested in the boat, and all my hard work getting her ready, we have the perfect platform for your project. When I’m done rebedding these stanchions, there will be no leaks. The cabin will stay nice and dry for our trip.”

Philippe’s expression remained constant as he said, “Leaks sink ships, do they not, Captain?”

“No, sir, not little leaks like this. Why, this boat is in great shape: solid hull, dry bilge. The rigging and sails are in great shape. She may be an older model but as good as new. Better than any you could buy new! Just like you and me, only we don’t paint over our gray hairs, eh?” He giggled at his own joke.

“Ernesto, it is not leaks in the boat that cause us distress.”

“And the engine just purrs. Let me start it up and show you how well everything has turned out. It’s an omen, Philippe, an omen! Soon you will reap a great reward.”

Philippe held up his hand, silencing the captain. “It is your leaks that upset us.” He nodded to Arnan.

Ernesto began to sob. “But you need me! You need my expertise, my local knowledge. Please, Philippe, be reasonable!” Arnan swung the winch handle overhand at Ernesto’s head, but Ernesto’s reflexes were good enough to spare him a deathblow as the winch handle hit him above his left eye. His knees buckled and he collapsed, his blood staining the foredeck. Abdul ran to the cockpit and tightened the main halyard, cleated it off, then rejoined Philippe.

Arnan grabbed Captain Ernesto Muniz by his salt-and-pepper ponytail and tattered Guy Harvey shirt, then, lifting him like a rag doll, dragged him toward the mast. Philippe and Abdul positioned themselves on either side of the boom and pulled it aft. Arnan pressed the captain’s head to the gooseneck. Ernesto’s unintelligible whimpering became a moan. Philippe and Abdul propelled the boom forward like a medieval battering ram, breaking Arnan’s grip and sending Ernesto’s body rolling into the canal as it left a trail of blood on the polished deck.

Philippe sighed. “Do not step in the blood, Arnan. Abdul, we must be sure.”

“But these are new shoes.”

“Take them off, we must be sure.”

Abdul sighed as he sat down and unlaced his shoes. “This water stinks and it’s cold.”

“Ernesto isn’t complaining about the canal water,” said Arnan.

Abdul lowered himself into the water as Philippe gathered the little man’s shoes and jacket from the deck.

“Arnan, throw the winch handle as far up the canal as you can,” Philippe ordered.

Captain Ernesto was floating face down when Abdul reached him. He forced the victim’s head under and gripped his belt to steady himself in the fetid water. Arnan heaved the winch handle, then looked at his watch to time a two-minute dunking. When the time had expired, he threw a dock line to Abdul and hauled him in.

“It’s cold,” said Abdul.

“It was only two minutes,” answered Arnan.

“I will start the truck and wait there. Hurry!” Philippe said as he turned and walked to the parking lot. The incident represented a significant change in his plans, necessary, but unforeseen.

From the window of a cabin at the end of the canal, two brown eyes peered through a chicken-wire covering and a whimper slipped past quivering lips.

Five minutes later, the three men pulled out of the marina. Abdul, his teeth chattering, said, “I’m freezing.”

“We must always be sure, Abdul. Our mission depends on it,” Philippe replied, his voice calm, like that of a father talking to a young son.

“With all due respect, sir,” Arnan said, trying to use his most military voice, “what are we going to use for a boat now?”

“Let’s get a go-fast boat this time,” Abdul said, his lips quivering.

In his teaching voice, Philippe answered, “No, a sailboat is what the plan calls for. It arouses less suspicion, and it’s non-threatening.”

“Like you, Abdul,” said Arnan.

Philippe looked at Arnan and shook his head. “You see, Abdul, a sailboat represents serenity, a calm, quiet family, or friends on holiday enjoying the Florida sun, fishing, collecting shells, et cetera.”

“Then why don’t we steal our boat back from the marina?” asked Arnan. “The dockmaster could get it ready to go.”

Abdul giggled. “I’ll bet he’d work cheap now.”

“No, my sons, there was a tragic accident aboard the Star-Crossed. When the dockmaster returns, he will call the authorities and law enforcement will be involved. If the Star-Crossed disappears too soon, it will awaken the guard dogs and our entire enterprise will be in jeopardy.”

“So what will we do for a boat?” asked Arnan.

“Allah will provide, my friends. Allah will provide.”

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