Hector Guzman piloted his submarine through the darkness, running on the surface but ready to dive if he heard the telltale sound of an airplane engine or another ship.
“This is my last trip.” He told himself. “With the money I get for this delivery I can take my sister and move somewhere safe, far away from the drugs and gangs of Nicaragua.”
He was piloting a drug smuggling submarine, having just finished a delivery on a secluded beach in the McFadden Wildlife Refuge. Growing up poor in Puerto Cabezas, Hector had been unable to avoid the gang which ran the city. He had been too wise to partake of the drugs himself, and he had thought to go to college and escape the gang until his sister came to the notice of El Guapo, the head of the gang in Puerto Cabezas. When the enforcers came to recruit her as one of El Guapo’s “girlfriends,” Hector had been there with her. He had made a bargain—he would help pilot the gang’s boats if El Guapo would leave his sister alone. Hector had grown up fishing with his father and he knew the Lamlaya and all the hidden coves and streams along the coast. Hector and Ismelda both knew what happened to El Guapo’s girlfriends. It started nice, with dresses and jewelry and fine meals, but then Guapo would see someone else and the hitting would start. Soon the makeup would be needed to cover the bruises, and the meals would be taken in the house. And eventually, she would just disappear.
So Hector and his sister played a waiting game. Hector drove the boats, at first just for local jobs, but once the gang got the sub, for long-range deliveries to their American customers. He pretended to be happy with the results, buying a nicer house for them to live in and spending money at the bars. But he did only the minimum to maintain the façade while he stashed away as much money as possible. His sister played the game as well, accepting the gifts from El Guapo while resisting his invitations to visit the hacienda. They both knew that they could only play the game for so long before the gang boss grew tired and forced the issue. With what he would earn for this trip Hector figured he would finally have enough for the bribes and the passports and the plane tickets to leave Puerto Cabezas and travel to somewhere safe. Once there he hoped to escape the gang’s influence and build a life for himself and his sister.
Hector sped quickly south through the Gulf of Mexico, riding high and empty. He turned on the scanner, listening for Coast Guard chatter to make sure he passed far away from any other boats. That was when he picked up the emergency beacon. A strong signal coming from almost directly ahead. He started to turn away, but then he thought “It might be a pleasure boat. What if there are children aboard?” He had to at least go see what was going on. He could always dive if there were other rescue boats nearby. He almost missed it in the darkness. He was looking for the shape of a ship, perhaps capsized, above the water. But the long low shape that appeared to his port side was another submarine! He crept slowly forward, looking for the cause of the distress signal. Two men were in the water beside the submarine, which still seemed to be functional. No other rescue craft seemed to be in sight. Hector moved alongside and motioned to the men.
“Cual es la problema?” He asked.
“Help us, please.” Said the larger man. “Our sub had a fire and my friend is hurt.”
Hector spoke no English, so he didn’t understand the words, but he could see that the smaller man seemed to be hurt. Not sure how he would handle the situation, Hector waved at the man to come and reached his arm out to help. The larger man untied the smaller one from the sub and swam the few feet between the two submarines, then grabbed Hector’s hand and lifted his friend up. Hector caught the unconscious man and pulled him up onto the top of his sub, then lowered him down inside. When he came back out, the larger man was back, pulling along a plastic case of some kind. Hector helped the man climb into the sub. There was barely room for the three of them in Hector’s vehicle, but he helped the larger man tend to his friend. He could see that the smaller man’s legs were badly burned, with large blisters forming all along their length. The older man jabbered in English with great urgency, pointing generally north. Hector nodded his head and smiled, but he had no intention of heading north. He wasn’t willing to let these men die, but he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life in an American prison either. He left the older man to tend to his friend and turned up the throttle on his submarine, heading southeast.
Phil looked closely at Allen’s legs. They were badly burned and needed treatment. There were some first aid supplies in the emergency kit, so he opened it up to see what he could find. The kit wasn’t designed for major injuries, but he did find a jar of healgel and some long gauze bandages. Phil carefully spread the healgel on Allen’s burns, trying to cover the worst parts thickly, with a thin layer on the other parts. When he started to unwrap the gauze, he could tell that it wasn’t going to be long enough to wrap both legs. He tried talking to their rescuer.
“Excuse me. Could you help? I need more gauze. Do you have a first aid kit in here?”
The man turned and listened, but obviously couldn’t understand. “No entiendo.” He said, shrugging.
Phil held up the gauze and pointed at it. “Do you have any more of this?” The man just shook his head. So Phil did the best he could. Rather than wrap each leg individually, he wrapped the gauze around both legs together, trying to space it very carefully so that he didn’t overlap yet still covered all of the burns. Once Allen was treated as well as possible, Phil looked around to evaluate their situation. Obviously, this was a drug smuggling sub. Phil had heard about them being used. He was surprised at how well-built the sub looked, despite the obvious bare-bones design. The whole interior of the sub had been left as a single compartment, with the engine exposed at the back and several plastic containers of supplies strapped to the floor along the sides. Unlike the wide panoramic windows in Orca’s subs, this one had a small rectangular window in the front. While it was on the surface, the pilot could stand up in the conning tower and look directly ahead at his path. There was a simple periscope for surface viewing while the sub was submerged. Several cans of gasoline were stored in the back near the engine, and a covered bucket apparently served as the latrine. Phil needed to convince this guy to keep helping them.
“Are we going north?” He asked. “Norte?”
The man just shook his head.
“You’ve got to turn us around. My friend need a doctor. Please? Por Favor?”
The man kept shaking his head, and Phil kept asking for several minutes. Finally, Phil stood up. Maybe he could take the controls and show him what he wanted. But when Phil stood up the man turned around. He had a pistol in his hand. He looked almost apologetic, but he waved the pistol and pointed to one of the boxes, motioning that Phil should open it. Carefully keeping his hands in sight, Phil did as he was told. Inside the box were some boxes filled with gallon-sized baggies, a couple of rolls of duct tape, and several sets of handcuffs. Apparently this man came prepared. The man indicated that Phil should lock one of the handcuffs around his left wrist, then lock the other cuff around one of the steel supports for the engine. Once he had done so, the man stashed the pistol back under the controls in the front of the sub. Then he came back and made sure the handcuffs were secure, using a second set to cuff both of Phil’s hands together. He took another set and handcuffed Allen, wrapping the chain around a tie-down on the side of the sub. He kept saying “lo siento,” even as he worked to immobilize Phil and Allen. Phil knew that meant “I’m sorry,” but it didn’t keep the man from using the handcuffs.
After securing the two men, the man opened up the emergency kit and inspected the contents. He took the distress beacon out of the kit and turned it off, then went to the conning tower and threw it into the ocean.
Apparently getting handcuffed woke Allen up, because he moaned and opened his eyes. The man responded to the sounds by getting a water bottle out of another one of the plastic cases. He carefully let Allen drink from the bottle, even encouraging him to drink more when he turned his head away.
“Drink it all, Allen. People with burns need a lot of fluids.” Said Phil.
Allen drank the rest of the bottle. When he was done, the man handed another bottle to Phil, who drank some, saving the rest for later.
“What happened?” Asked Allen.
“You fell unconscious. This guy came by a few hours later and rescued us.”
“If he’s our rescuer, why are we handcuffed?”
“I think he’s a drug smuggler. But I think he has a little bit of a conscience, because he picked us up when he could have just passed by.”
“How bad are my legs?”
“They’re burned pretty badly. I did what I could with what little was in the emergency kit. I had to wrap them both together because there wasn’t enough gauze to do them individually. There was some healgel in the kit, and I put that on your burns. How is the pain?”
“Horrible. I’ve never felt such intense pain in all my life. It feels like my legs are still on fire.”
“I have a few pain pills in the emergency kit, but they won’t last long.”
Hector watched the two rescued men talk. He was glad the smaller one woke up. After seeing the burns he had wondered if the man would survive. He hated that he had to tie them up, but the big one had looked like he was going to try and force Hector to drive north. He couldn’t afford to do that, not now. But he couldn’t just hand them over to El Guapo either. So he had about three days to figure out what to do with them. Perhaps it was time to execute his plan.
John and Katherine were out in the sub again as soon as it got light in the morning. Katherine had already called Audra and explained the situation, and Audra said she was sure the other girls would fill in for as long as she needed to be gone. They traveled quickly to the area where they had left off the night before and began the search again. The light in the bottom of the canyon was still dim, but with the addition of the sub lights they were able to see pretty well. They began slowly making their way down the canyon, with John taking another zig-zag course to make sure they inspected the whole width of the depression. After a couple of hours, they surfaced to check the radio and heard from the coast guard.
“They’ve found something!” John reported. “Something that looks like the sub is just a couple miles south of here. They’re sending a boat, but we can get there pretty quickly. Shall we stop our search here and go look at it?”
“Can we leave a marker or something in case it’s a false alarm?”
“I’ll save our GPS coordinates and we can come back to this spot if we need to.”
“Then let’s go!”
A few minutes later they approached the coordinates given to them by the coast guard, and John immediately spotted sub 12. They pulled alongside and John tied the two subs together so they could investigate. The top hatch was open, so it was easy for him to climb down inside.
“Well, they obviously aren’t in here.” He said. Katherine leaned over from the conning tower of the other sub, trying to see what John was looking at.
“Can you tell what happened?”
“Yes, it’s pretty obvious that they had a fire. The battery pack is completely melted, and there are scorch marks and soot everywhere. The good news is that the sub is on the surface with the hatch open, and the emergency kit is missing. That means they got out before the fire got to them.”
“Then where are they?”
“That’s a very good question. There were life jackets in the emergency kit, but the life raft is still in the sub, damaged by the fire. Since the sub is still floating, you would think they would have stayed with it. There was also an emergency beacon in the kit, but we didn’t receive a signal. I’m having a hard time understanding what could have happened.”
John climbed back out of sub 12 and called the coast guard. They arrived a while later in their own boat and were just as baffled as John was. They finally concluded that either the two had been picked up by another boat or they had become separated from the sub. The coast guard boat began a search pattern in case the latter had happened, looking for two men floating in life jackets. John began to tow sub 12 back to the Orca plant so that they could figure out what went wrong. Katherine sat back down in the demo sub and sobbed.