By Christine Kling
Random House Christine Kling
All right reserved. ISBN: 0345479033
The sun wasn't up yet when I rounded the bend in the river and came upon the fifty-foot Hatteras Mykonos, the yacht that belonged to the ex-husband of my ex--best friend, idling in front of the Andrews Avenue Bridge. The sky was a pale, washed-out blue, cloudless, promising a warmer day once the sun rose. But at that hour the morning was cold enough that wisps of steam rose off the surface of the dark river. Nikolas Pontus, the ex-husband himself, was up on the motor yacht's flybridge. He was alone, which surprised me, because now that he was a gazillionaire, I didn't think he ever did anything for or by himself. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up over my ponytail to drive off the chill that suddenly danced along the back of my neck.
Up on the Andrews Bridge, the bells were ringing and the bridge tender had started lowering the traffic gates. I shifted into neutral, not wanting to get too close to Nick or his boat and hoping the bridge would open soon so the Mykonos could disappear upriver, out of my way and out of my life. Nick was the reason my friendship with Molly had come to an end, and a thing like that you can't ever forgive.
It was quiet on the avenue for a Monday morning, especially compared to what it would be like an hour from now when the worker bees started filing over the bridge on their way to the courthouse. On the south bank of the river, the Downtowner, my favorite Fort Lauderdale restaurant and bar, stood silent and shuttered. Several white plastic beer glasses littered the tables out front, leftovers from those who had partied past closing last night.
An old woman pushing a baby stroller full of clothing and plastic trash bags emerged from the courtyard next to the restaurant and, after studying my boat for several seconds, turned away from me, passing under the bridge. I often saw her bent body walking the streets downtown, especially along the riverfront, her bones showing through the thin cotton of the plain white blouse she always wore, her white hair neatly pinned up off her neck. This morning, she hugged the ends of a bright red shawl wrapped tight round her shoulders. Beneath her skirt, her bare ankles looked frail above her dirty sneakers, and I wondered where she'd slept during the night.
I was traveling up the river onboard my forty-foot salvage tug, Gorda, bound for Summerfield Boatworks, where I had a 7:00 a.m. appointment to pick up a jittery new boat owner and his recently purchased fifty-seven-foot ketch. The job was a referral from George Rice, a broker friend of mine, who had called and pleaded with me, saying, "Seychelle darling, this is such a goddamn beautiful boat, and this buyer has never even driven a dinghy. The owner says he feels like he's turning his sixteen-year-old daughter over to a Hell's Angel, for God's sake, and he's refusing to sign unless this newbie gets help getting down the river." I'd quoted them a ridiculous price, and when they'd said okay, I couldn't turn it down.
Up ahead, the bridge span began its slow climb. The Mykonos had drifted side-on to the bridge, and Nick began trying to horse her around with alternating heavy-handed squirts to the big twin diesels. He was a lousy boat handler and, to my mind, an even worse human being. I wondered how such a creep could have made it so big in so short a time. When he'd married seventeen-year-old Molly and taken her out of our lives, he'd owned a greasy Greek sub and gyro take-out place on the boardwalk on Hollywood Beach. Now, he was the owner of a chain of high-end restaurants as well as a fleet of casino gambling boats. I watched as he finally got his yacht lined up with the bridge opening, then gave her too much throttle and flew through the gap on the rising tide. Money hasn't changed much, I thought. He's still a jerk.
The Mykonos had just cleared the far side of the bridge and I was just starting my approach when I heard a loud crack that echoed off the tall high-rises on either side of the river. That was followed by another crack; then from up on the Andrews Bridge came the sound of squealing tires. I caught a quick glimpse of the top of a black car headed north, down off the bridge, and it wasn't until later that I realized it must have made a U-turn up by the gates. My attention had been drawn to the sight of Nick Pontus slumped forward over the controls.
Nick wasn't moving, but his boat sure was. My God, I thought, he must have pushed the throttles forward when he fell. The big white sport fisherman's stern was starting to squat, and her wake frothed as she churned upriver past the shops and restaurants of the Riverfront development, where early-morning employees had stopped what they were doing to stare as the big yacht steamed past the docks, headed for the narrow opening at the railroad bridge.
I jammed the throttle forward on Gorda without thinking. Shit! On smooth water like this, that boat would pick up speed like a Porsche. There was no way my little tug could catch a Hatteras with her cruising speed of over thirty knots, but my years as a beach lifeguard and as a salvage operator had left me with certain reflex reactions to the sight of a person or boat in peril--even if that person was Nick Pontus.
The unmanned railroad bridge always remained in an upright position until a train was approaching. Then a buzzer went off, and a large digital clock told boaters they had five minutes to get clear before the bridge would automatically lower. Fortunately, the bridge was up, and there were no numbers on the clock, but the opening still looked mighty narrow for that Hatteras's sixteen-foot beam. From my angle, she looked to be lined up pretty square with the opening, but the slightest gust of wind, the smallest wave, or even a shifting of the weight onboard the boat would turn her aside and slam her into either side of that bridge trestle.
None of that happened. Breath exploded from my mouth. Nick still hadn't moved, and the boat slipped between the arms of the tracks, plowing on toward the huge oaks and quaint historical buildings of Riverwalk. While the boat had not hit either side of the railroad bridge, she was now headed dead-on for the boulders that made up the riprap that rimmed the park in front of the Old River Inn. The converted hundred-year-old pioneer home was Nick's flagship restaurant, his baby, the last place on earth Nick Pontus would want to crash and burn.
I leaned forward over Gorda's controls, urging more speed out of the little tug. I had no idea if Nick was still alive, but I just kept thinking of all the fuel that boat must have in her tanks as she drove on, seeming to split the river with her wake.
Again, the boat's course never wavered. I gritted my teeth and felt every muscle tighten as I anticipated the impact. The Mykonos must have been traveling at better than fifteen knots when she hit the rocks.
I expected an explosion like something out of the movies. Instead, the big white yacht reared up out of the water like a humpback whale breaching in the deep waters far offshore. The thunder shattered the city's quiet as the fiberglass slid up onto the rocks and the diesels screamed out of control. I thought she was going to drive right across the twenty feet of lawn and into the Old River Inn's bar. The sight of that boat climbing skyward, her long bow and red bottom paint canted at a surreal angle, was something I had trouble wrapping my mind around. She looked like she was trying to fly. With half her hull clear of the water, the noise of the engines sounded louder than the night freights that crossed the bridge past midnight. Then, her screws must have hit stone, and she found the apex of her climb. Both engines stopped abruptly, and she began a slow, screeching, scraping slide back into the river.
The first thing I saw when I pulled alongside the yacht's port side was the blood splatter on the inside of the clear plastic enclosure surrounding the flybridge. Then I saw Nick's face. He'd slumped forward in the helmsman's chair, his head resting on its side on the steering wheel. His eyes were fixed open, dull as glass eyes from the taxidermist, and there was a gaping hole where his forehead should have been.
I closed my eyes and turned away, hand over my mouth, throat fighting to hold down the bile. Not even Nick deserved that. I blinked, felt the dampness on my lashes, and struggled for control.
Sirens. I probably should have called someone on the VHF, but the cops would make it here before the Coast Guard. The bridge tender must have called 911 as soon as he realized Nick had been shot. I heard them making their way across the quiet morning city. Police, ambulances, paramedics. Too late for Nick. The Mykonos, his million-dollar play toy, had become a crime scene.
The yacht's waterline was already several inches underwater, her blue boot stripe completely submerged. She'd come loose from where she'd lodged on the rocks and was starting to drift back out into the river. I could hear the whine of her working pumps, but the water was going in faster than it was going out. I didn't know how badly she was holed, but one thing was clear: the Mykonos was soon going to be on the bottom of the New River.
I guess you could say that's how I justified it. Taking her under tow, I mean. The cops wouldn't get it. Once they got here, they'd just string up their yellow tape and watch her go down. It also occurred to me that the insurance company would be more than a little pleased if I could get this damaged vessel to the boatyard before she sank.
It didn't take more than a couple of minutes to lash Gorda alongside the big yacht's aft quarter so I could climb aboard. I grabbed a couple of thick hawsers I'd already set out on deck for towing the ketch, and I tossed them into the yacht's cockpit. While aboard, I worked swiftly, dragging the lines forward and tying them to the windlass and cleats on the bow. I avoided looking up at the flybridge.
I leaped over the gunwales back into Gorda's cockpit and threw off the lines that bound the two vessels amidships. Back in the wheelhouse, I backed off, then eased ahead slow, so that the towlines wouldn't drop off my decks until the lines grew tight. I glanced downriver toward the Allied Marine Yard. They had a big seventy-five footer in the slings already. I'd do better heading upriver for boatyard row. Increasing the power slowly, I straightened out the two boats and got us on course for the Seventh Avenue Bridge. I was determined not to slow or stop, so I reached for the mike and called the bridge tender.
"Securite, securite, this is the tug Gorda calling the Seventh Avenue Bridge, requesting an emergency opening."
Onshore I saw flashing blue lights in front of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and a couple of cops trotted across the lawn toward the river, waving their arms at me, stunned looks on their faces as I pulled away from their location. I called the bridge again as I nudged the throttles forward. "Securite, securite, tug Gorda calling the Seventh Avenue Bridge, requesting an emergency opening. My tow is sinking."
The bridge was about twelve hundred yards off, and I didn't hear any bells or see any movement in the bridge tender's tower. I reached for the tug's horn and blew five short blasts, waited about five seconds, and blew another five.
Gorda had plenty of clearance without a bridge opening, but the Hatteras stood tall. I looked back at her and reckoned that, at worst, she'd lose the hard top over the flybridge, and that was an acceptable loss. If we stopped now, I thought, as I checked Gorda's gauges, we'd lose the whole vessel.
At last, bells started ringing, the traffic gates went down, and the bridge had just started to open when Gorda slid under. By the time the Hatteras slipped through, she cleared by mere inches. I doubt she would have made it if she hadn't already been a foot down on her lines.
As we plowed our way up the New River, past Sailboat Bend, under the Davie Bridge, and through the Citrus Isles canals, we were throwing up an atrocious wake. Waterlogged as that fifty-footer was, I was still pulling her at better than six knots, though I had to slow her down some as we rounded the hairpin bend at Little Florida. Masts danced and lines groaned as the boats tied up in front of the luxury homes bucked and rolled. One fellow ran out across his pool deck, coffee mug in hand, shaking his fist at me and screaming curses. I knew I'd be responsible for any damage I caused, but I also knew that the Hatteras was sinking fast, and I had only minutes to get her to the slip.
I switched channels and tried to hail River Bend Marine, hoping like hell that someone was in the office at this early hour and had turned on the radio. No luck. After calling three times, I switched to channel 16, the emergency and hailing frequency, and began calling any vessel in River Bend Marine. I finally got an answer from a cruiser, an older fellow who told me after we'd switched frequencies that he'd round up some yard guys and they'd be waiting with the Travel Lift when I got there. I thanked him, and as we ended our conversation, the Fort Lauderdale Marine Patrol broke in, calling Gorda. I glanced back at my tow as she swung to starboard, and I tried to correct. The radio crackled again, the officer's irritation growing more apparent. I didn't have time to deal with them. I switched off the VHF and got back to the business of trying to keep my tug and waterlogged tow under control as we steamed upriver at a speed that made control purely an illusion.
As I swung round the bend and headed into boatyard row, it looked like an entire fleet of small vessels was there to greet me. Every yachtie in the area who had been listening in on channel 16 had jumped into his dinghy and come out to assist in getting the sinking yacht into the slipway. Charlie, the boatyard foreman, was in the yard launch, and he pulled alongside the aft port quarter of the wallowing sport fisherman to help slow her down. In the basin off the slipway, out of the current, I shortened up my towlines, got Gorda back off the starboard quarter, and, together, we eased Mykonos into the slings that dangled deep in the slip.
Excerpted from Bitter End by Christine Kling
Excerpted by permission.
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