Chapter OneSome called it a crown jewel. Others said it was a diamond in the rough, with the emphasis on rough. It was a matter of perspective, whether Cartagena stood apart from the violence that besieged Colombia or was shrinking in its shadow.It was one of the Caribbean's most striking port cities, a special blend of colonial heritage, natural beauty, and salsa into the wee hours. The top attraction was the old town, a city within the city, surrounded by nearly six miles of impressive fortress walls that were built under four centuries of Spanish reign. There were smaller marvels too, like cazuela de mariscos, a local seafood soup with chunks of cassava instead of potatoes -- deliciosa! The crowded beaches on the Bocagrande peninsula weren't spectacular, but white sand and turquoise seas were close enough at Playa Blanca or, even better, Islas del Rosario. Throughout the city, colonial mansions painted in pastels and electric blue stood as reminders that the overall feeling here was decidedly tropical, in no small part Afro-Caribbean. Glorified by countless artists and writers over the centuries, Cartagena continued to evoke romantic sentiments as a unique place that, despite the influx of luxury condos, managed to retain the feel of Old San Juan and Havana in its heyday. It was, after all, the official "sister city" to beautiful Coral Gables, Florida.Yet behind the exotic intrigue, beyond the hopeful hype of tourist agents, lurked an element of danger that was a fact of life in modern-day Colombia. Especially for an American.Matthew Rey had visited Colombia before and was aware of the tragic headlines. Eleven sport fishermen kidnapped on their boat off Barranquilla. Busloads of children commandeered on their way to school in Ocaña, north of Bogotá. More than a hundred churchgoers taken at gunpoint in the middle of a Catholic mass in Cali. As a businessman, Matthew didn't deny the risks of a country besieged by four decades of civil war. As a fisherman, he savored the natural beauty, albeit from a half mile offshore.Matthew was in the commercial fishing business, which was big business indeed. He'd started his company in Miami with a rusted but trusted old lobster boat and a mountain of debt. Twenty years later he was part owner of Rey's Seafood Company with forty boats and two processing plants in Nicaragua. With the United States importing more than eighteen million pounds of edible fish weekly from Central and South America, he was always looking for new equipment, opportunities for expansion.It was that kind of thinking that had brought him to Colombia."Hector!" he shouted.He got no reply. He tried again, louder. "Hector!"Hector Díaz was one of six Nicaraguan crewmen that Matthew had brought to Cartagena to overhaul three old shrimp boats and bring them back to the Mosquito Coast. They were the Niña, the Pinta, and the Coco Loco. It was just a hunch, but something told Matthew they weren't originally a set. All three were anchored side by side in the bay like a pontoon bridge, close enough together for the workers to step from one to the next. A noisy generator on the Pinta, the middle boat, powered the working lights and welding tools for all three, making it impossible for Matthew to be heard from one boat to the next.He switched off the generator. The lights went out, the noise stopped. It was just past sunset, but the afterglow afforded just enough natural light for the men to see each other."You done fixing the head yet?" asked Matthew.Hector had been working on the plumbing all afternoon. "All but the marble tile and Kohler bidet, boss."He was a habitual wisecracker but worth the trouble, as he and his son Liván could be trusted to sail just about anything from Punto A to Punto B, even three old shrimp boats. Hector was half Miskito Indian, and in Matthew's book the Miskitos were the greatest fishermen on earth. For centuries their tribe had fished the Caribbean along Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Tall and lean, the Miskitos were natural divers, and in his prime Hector had been a top lobster diver. His skills were legendary, like the story of the time he and Matthew got lost in a blinding storm at sea. Hector promptly jumped off the boat and dived down thirty-five feet for a good look around the reef. In a matter of minutes he popped back up and told Matthew to turn the boat around and hold the course steady for about three hours. They sailed into port two hours and forty-five minutes later. Only then did Matthew fully appreciate the way the Miskitos knew their ocean -- top and bottom -- like their own backyard.Matthew smiled and shouted back, joking, "You're worthless, you know that?""That's why I work for you, boss."Matthew snarled, but it was just a game they played. In truth, he envied Hector. Fishing had been a long tradition in the Díaz family, passed on from father to son for generations of Miskitos. Matthew had a son too, but not the same bond that Hector and Liván shared.The sun was gone, the orange and purple afterglow fading. All along the rim of the bay, city lights emerged as twilight turned to darkness. Cartagena was coming to life. The parties would soon begin in earnest. The first time Matthew had visited the city, he'd ended up playing the accordion in some bar that boasted authentic vallenato music of the local costeño people. He couldn't vouch for the music, but the one-fifty rum had delivered as promised. That was twenty years ago. Cartagena had changed much since then. He'd changed, too. Coke instead of beer and rum, and his bladder wasn't what it used to be. Just one stinking soda and already he had to break the proverbial pee seal.Excerpted from A KING'S RANSOM © Copyright 2004 by James Grippando. Reprinted with permission by Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.