Authors: Ted Bell
An Alex Hawke Novella
HE BRIGHT BLUE
waters of Penobscot Bay beckoned, and Cam Hooker paused to throw open his dressing room window. Glorious morning, all right. Sunlight sparkled out on the bay, flashing white seabirds wheeled and dove above. He took a deep breath of pine-scented Maine air and assessed the morning’s weather. Sunny now, but threatening skies. Fresh breeze out of the east, and a moderate chop, fifteen knots sustained, maybe gusting to thirty. Barometer falling, increased cloudiness, possible thunderheads moving in from the west by mid-morning. Chance of rain showers later on, oh, sixty to seventy per cent, give or take.
Certainly nothing an old salt like Cameron Hooker couldn’t handle.
It was Sunday, praise the Lord, his favorite day of the week. The day he got to take himself, his
New York Times,
his Marlboros, and whatever tattered paperback spy novel he was currently headlong into reading for the third time (an old Alistair MacLean) out on his boat for a few tranquil hours of peace and quiet and bliss.
Hooker had sailed her, his black ketch
every single Sunday morning of his life, for nigh on forty years now, rain or shine, sleet, hail, or snow.
Man Alone. A singleton. Solitary.
It was high summer again, and summer meant grandchildren by the dozen. Toddlers, rugrats, and various ragamuffins running roughshod throughout his rambling old seaside cottage on North Haven Island. Haven? Hah! Up and down the back stairs they rumbled, storming through his cherished rose gardens, dashing inside and out, marching through his vegetable patches like jackbooted thugs and even invading the sanctuary of his library, all the while shouting at peak decibels some mysterious new battle cry, “Huzzah! Huzzah!” picked up God knew where.
It was the Revolutionary War victory cheer accorded to General George Washington, he knew that, but this intellectually impoverished gizmo generation had not a clue who George Washington was! Of that much, at least, he was certain.
You knew you were down in the deep severe when not a single young soul in your entire clan had the remotest clue who the hell the Father of Our Country was!
Back in Hook’s day, portraits of the great man beamed benevolence down at you from every wall of every classroom. He was our Father, the Father of our country. Your country! Why, if you had told young Cam back then that in just one or two generations, the General himself would have been scrubbed clean from the history—why, he would have—
“What are you thinking about, dear?” his wife said, interrupting his dark reverie at the breakfast table later that morning. Gillian was perusing what he’d always referred to as the “Women’s Sports Section.” Sometimes known as the bridal pages in the Sunday edition of the
New York Times.
Apparently, it was the definitive weekly “Who’s Who” of who’d married whom last week. For all those out there who, like his wife of sixty years, were still keeping score, he supposed.
“You’re frowning, dear,” she said.
He scratched his grizzled chin and sighed, gazing out at the forests of green trees reaching down to the busy harbor. On the surface, all was serene. But even now a mud-caked munchkin wielding a blue Frisbee bat advanced stealthily up the hill, stalking one of his old chocolate Labs sleeping in the foreground.
“Will you look at that?” he mused.
Gillian put the paper down and peered at him over the toaster.
“What is it, dear?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s July, you know,” he said, rapping sharply on the window to alert his dog of the impending munchkin attack.
“July? What about it?”
“July is the cruelest month,” he said, not looking up from the Book Review, “Not April. July. That’s all.”
“Oh, good heavens,” she said, and snatched away her paper.
“Precisely,” he said but got no reply.
Dismissed, he stood and leaned across the table to kiss his wife’s proffered cheek.
“It’s your own damn fault, Cam Hooker,” she said, stroking his own freshly shaved cheek. “If you’d relent for once in your life, if you’d only let them have a television, just one! That old RCA black and white portable up in the attic would do nicely. Or even one of those handheld computer thingies, whatever they’re called. Silence would reign supreme in this house once more. But no. Not you.”
“A television? In
house?” he said. “Oh, no. Not in this house. Never!”
Grabbing his smokes, his newspapers and his canvas sail bag and swinging out into the backyard, slamming the screen door behind him, he headed down the sloping green lawn to his dock. The old Hooker property, some fifteen acres of it, was right at the tip of Crabtree Point, with magnificent views of the Fox Islands Thorofare inlet and the Camden Hills to the west. He was the fifth generation of Hookers to summer on this island, not that anyone cared a whit about such things anymore. His ancestor, Captain Osgood Hooker, had first come here from Boston to “recuperate from the deleterious effects of the confinements of city life,” as he’d put it in a letter Cam had found in a highboy in the dining room. Traditions, history, common sense and common courtesy, things like that, all gone to hell or by the wayside. Hell, they were trying to get rid of Christmas! Some goddamn school district in Ohio had banned the singing of “Silent Night.” “Silent Night”!
He could see her out there at the far end of the dock when he crested the hill. Just the sight of her never failed to move him. His heart skipped a beat, literally, every time she hove into view.
was her name.
She was an old Alden-design ketch and he’d owned her for longer than time. Forty feet on the waterline, wooden hull, gleaming black Awlgrip, with a gold cove stripe running along her flank beneath the gunwales. Her decks were teak, her spars were Sitka-spruce, and she was about as yar as any damn boat currently plying the waters of coastal Maine, in his humble opinion.
Making his way down the hill to the sun-dappled water, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
She’d never looked better.
He had a young kid this summer, sophomore at Yale, living down here in the boathouse. The boy helped him keep
in proper Bristol fashion. She was a looker, all right, but she was a goer, too. He’d won the Block Island Race on her back in ’87, and then the Nantucket Opera Cup the year after that. Now, barely memories, just dusty trophies on the mantel in some people’s goddamn not-so-humble opinion.
“ ’Morning, Skipper,” the crew-cut blond kid said, popping his head up from the companionway. “Coffee’s on below, sir. You’re good to go.”
“Thanks, Ben, good on ya, mate.”
“Good day for it, sir,” the young fellow said, looking up at the big blue sky with his big white smile. He was a good kid, this Ben Sparhawk. Sixth-generation North Haven, dad and granddad were both hardworking lobstermen. Came from solid Maine stock, too. Men from another time, men who could toil at being a fisherman, a farmer, sailor, lumberman, a shipwright, and a quarryman, all rolled into one. And master of all.
Salt of the earth, formerly salt of the sea, Thoreau had called such men.
Ben was a history major at New Haven, on a full scholarship. He had a head on his shoulders, he did, and he used it. He came up from the galley below and quickly moved to the portside bow, freeing the forward, spring, and aft mooring lines before leaping easily from the deck down onto the dock.
“Prettiest boat in the harbor she is, sir,” Ben said, looking at her gleaming mahogany topsides with some pride.
“Absofuckinlutely, son,” Cam said, laughing out loud at his good fortune, another glorious day awaiting him out there on the water. He was one of the lucky ones and he knew it. A man in good health, of sound mind, and looking forward to the precious balance of his time here on earth, specifically in the great state of Maine.
Cam Hooker was semiretired from the Agency now. He’d been Director under George H.W. Bush and had had a good run. Under his watch, the CIA was a tightly run ship. No scandals, no snafus, no bullshit, just a solid record of intelligence successes around the world. He was proud of his service to his country and it pained him to see the condition it was in now. Diminished, that was the word, goddamnit. How could the bastards, all of them, let this happen to his magnificent country?
He shook off such thoughts, leaving them well ashore as he stepped aboard his boat. He went aft and climbed down into the cockpit. First thing he did, he kicked his topsiders off so he could feel the warm teak decks on the soles of his feet. He felt better already. Smell that air!
Ben Sparhawk had thoughtfully removed and stowed the sail cover from the mainsail. Cam grabbed the main halyard, took a couple of turns around the starboard winch and started grinding, the big mainsail blooming with fresh Maine air as it rose majestically up the stick.
Some days, when there was no wind to speak of, he’d crank up the old Universal diesel, a forty-two-horsepower lump of steel that had served him well over the decades. Now, with a freshening breeze, he winched the main up, loosing the sheets and letting her sails flop in the wind. The jib was roller-furling, one of his few concessions to modernity, and at his advancing age, a godsend for its ease of use. He also had a storm trysail rigged that he’d deploy when he got out beyond the harbor proper.
“Shove that bow off for me, Ben, willya?” he said, putting the helm over and sheeting in the main.
“Aye, Skipper,” the kid said, and moments later he was pointed in the right direction and moving away from the dock toward the Thorofare running between North Haven and Vinalhaven islands.
He turned to wave good-bye to the youngster, saw him smiling and waving back with both hands. He was surprised to find his old blue eyes suddenly gone all blurry with tears.
By God, he wished he’d had a son like that.
way, tacking smartly through the teeming Thorofare. It was crowded as hell, always was this time of year, especially this Fourth of July weekend. Boats and yachts of every description hove into view: the Vinalhaven ferry steaming stolidly across, knockabouts and dinghies, a lovely old Nat Herreshoff gaff-headed Bar Harbor 30; and here came one of the original Internationals built in Norway, sparring with a Luders; and even a big Palmer Johnson stink-pot anchored just off Foy Brown’s Yard, over a hundred feet long he’d guess, with New York Yacht Club burgees emblazoned on her smokestack. Pretty damn fancy for these parts, if you asked him.
As was his custom, once he was in open water he had put her hard over, one mile from shore, and headed for the pretty little harbor over on the mainland at Rockport. Blowing like stink out here now. Clouding up. Front moving in for damn sure. He stood to windward at the helm, both hands on the big wheel, his feet planted wide, and sang a few bars of his favorite sailor’s ditty, sung to the tune of an old English ballad “Robin on the Moor”:
“It was a young captain on Cranberry Isles did dwell;
He took the schooner Arnold, one you all know well.
She was a tops’l schooner and hailed from Calais, Maine;
They took a load from Boston to cross the raging main—”
The words caught in his throat.
He’d seen movement down in the galley below. Not believing his eyes, he looked again. Nothing. Perhaps just a light shadow from a porthole sliding across the cabin floor as he fell off the wind a bit? Nothing at all; and yet it had spooked him there for a second, but he—
“Hello, Cam,” a strange-looking man said, suddenly making himself visible at the foot of the steps down in the galley. And then he was climbing up into the cockpit.
“What the hell?” Cam said, startled.
“Relax. I don’t bite.”
“Who the hell are you? And what the hell are you doing aboard my boat?”
Cam eased the main a bit to reduce the amount of heel and moved higher to the windward side of the helm station. He planted himself and bent his knees, ready for any false move from years of habit in the military and later as a Special Agent out in the field. The stranger made no move other than to plop himself down on a faded red cushion on the leeward side of the cockpit and cross his long legs.
“You don’t recognize me? I’m hurt. Maybe it’s the long hair and the beard. Here, I know. Look at the eyes, Cam, you can always remember the eyes.”
Was that Spider, for God’s sake?
It couldn’t be. But it was. Spider Payne, for crissakes. A guy who’d worked for him at CIA briefly the year before he retired. Good agent, a guy on the way up. He’d lost track of him long ago . . . and now? There’d been some kind of trouble but he couldn’t recall exactly what.
“Spider, sure, sure, I recognize you,” Cam said, keeping his voice as even as he could manage. “What in God’s name is going on?”
“I knew this might freak you out. You know, if I just showed up on the boat like this. Sorry. I drove all night from Boston, then came over to the island on the ferry from Rockland last night. Parked my truck at Foy Brown’s boatyard and went up to that little inn, the Nebo Lodge. Fully booked, not a bed to be had, wouldn’t you know. Forgot it was the Fourth weekend. Stupid, I guess.”
“Spider, you know this is highly goddamn unprofessional. Showing up unannounced like this. Uninvited. Are you all right? What’s this all about?”
“How I found you, you mean?”
you found me, Spider.”
“Well, I remembered you always had a picture of a sailboat in your office at Langley. An oil painting. A black boat at a dock below your summer house in Maine. I even remembered the boat’s name.
So, when I couldn’t get a room, I went downstairs to the bar there and had a few beers. Asked around about a boat called
One old guy said, ‘Ayuh. Alden ketch. She’s moored out to the Hooker place, out to the end of Crabtree Point.’ And here I am.”
“No. Not here you fucking are, you idiot. How’d you get aboard? I’ve got a kid, looks after the boat. He’d never let you aboard.”
“Cam, c’mon. It was four in the morning. Everyone was asleep. I climbed aboard and slept in the sail locker up forward. Say, it’s blowing pretty good out here! Twenty knots? Think you should put in a reef?”
“Spider, you better tell me quick why you’re here or you’re swimming back. I am dead serious.”
“I sent you a letter. A while back. You remember that? I asked for your help. I was in a little trouble with the French government. Arrested by the French for kidnapping and suspicion of murder. No body, no proof. But. Sentenced to thirty years for kidnapping a known Arab terrorist off the streets of Paris. Guy believed responsible for the Metro bombing that killed thirty Parisians in 2011. I was the number two guy in our Paris station, Cam! Operating within the law. Rendition was what we did then.”
“Come to the point. I don’t need all this history.”
“I’d had a brilliant career. Not a blemish. And, when I got in trouble, the Agency threw me under the bus.”
“The Agency, Spider, had nothing to do with it. That decision came down out of the White House. It may surprise you to learn that the President was more concerned about our relationship with one of our most powerful European allies than you. It was a delicate time. You’re a victim of bad timing.”
“My whole fucking life is destroyed because of bad timing?”
“I’m sorry about that. But it’s got nothing to do with me. I retired prior to 9/11, remember? Frankly? I never approved of rendition in the first place. Enhanced interrogation. Abu Ghraib. All those ‘black funds’ you had at your disposal. Not the way we played the game, son. Not in my day.”
“Look. I asked you to help me. I’ve yet to get a response, Cam. So now I’m here. In person. To ask you again. Right now. Will you help me? They ruined my life! I lost everything. My job, my shitty little farm in Aix-en-Provence. My wife took the children and disappeared. Now there’s an international warrant for my arrest by the French government and my own country won’t step in, Cam. All my savings gone to lawyers on appeal. I’m broke, Cam. I’m finished. Look at me. I’m falling out the window.”
“Jesus Christ, Spider. What do you want? Money?”
“I want help.”
“You screwed up, mister. Big-time. You jumped the shark, pal. You’re not my problem.”
“Really? You don’t think I’m your problem, Cam? Are you sure about that?”
Spider stood up and took a step closer to the helm. Cam turned his cold blue eyes on him, eyes that had cowed far tougher men than this one by a factor of ten.
“Are you threatening me, son? I see it in your eyes. You think I may be getting a little long in the tooth, don’t you, pal, but I’ll rip your beating heart out, believe me.”
“That’s your response, then. You want me to beg? I come to you on bended knee, humbly, to beseech you for help. And you say you’ll rip my heart out?”
The man was weeping.
“Listen, Spider. You’re obviously upset. You need help, yes. But not from me. You need to see someone. A specialist. I can help you do that. I’ll even pay for it. Look here. I’m going to flip her around now and head back to the dock. I’ll see that you get proper care. Uncleat that mainsheet, will you, and prepare to come about. It’s really blowing out here now, so pay attention to what you’re doing.”
They locked eyes for what seemed an eternity.
“Do what I said,” Cam told him.
Cam realized too late what Spider was going to do.
In one fluid motion the rogue agent freed the mainsail sheet to allow the boom to swing free, grabbed the helm, put her hard over to leeward and gybed. The gybe is the single most violent action you can take on board a big sailboat in a blow. You put yourself in mortal danger when you turn your bow away from the wind instead of up into it. You stick your tail up into the face of the wind and she kicks your ass. Hard and fast.
The standing rigging and sails shrieked like wounded banshees as the huge mainsail and the heavy wooden boom caught the wind from behind and came whipping across the cockpit at blinding speed.
Spider knew the boom was coming, of course, and ducked in the nick of time. Cam was not so lucky.
The boom slammed into the side of the old man’s head, pulverizing the skull, spilling his brains into the sea, and carrying him out of the cockpit and up onto the deck. Only the lifelines saved him from rolling overboard.
Spider stared down at his old mentor with mixed emotions. At one point he’d worshipped this man. But rage is a powerful thing. He’d been ruined by Cam and others like him at the highest levels of the Agency. He knew he himself was going down soon, but he was determined not to go down alone. Revenge is another powerful thing.
He knelt down beside the dead man, trying to sort out his feelings. A lock of white hair had fallen across Cam’s eyes and he gently lifted it away. He tried for remorse but couldn’t find it inside himself anymore.
It looked like someone had dropped a cantaloupe on the deck from up at the masthead. A dark red stain flowed outward from Hooker’s crushed and splintered head, soaking into the teak. What more was there to say? An unfortunate accident but it happens all the time? Tough luck, Cam, he thought to himself with a thin smile.
Another victim of bad timing.
Spider grabbed the helm, sheeted in the main, and headed up dead into the wind. When the boat’s forward motion stalled, he grabbed the binoculars hanging from the mizzen and raised them to his eyes. He did a 360-degree sweep of the horizon. Nothing, no other vessels in sight, nobody on the shore. He was about a mile and a half from the shoreline. The trees encroaching down to the rocky shorebreak would provide good cover.
He looked at his watch and went below to don his wet suit for the short swim to shore. The old ketch would drift with the currents. Once back on terra firma, he could disappear into the woods, bury the wet suit, and walk to town in his bathing suit, flip-flops, and T-shirt. Just another hippie tourist day-tripper, come to celebrate America’s independence with the Yankee Pilgrims and Puritans.
The next ferry to the mainland was at noon.
He’d checked off yet another name on his list.
Maybe it was true. That the old Spider was indeed a man without a future.
But he still had plenty of time to kill.