Read an Excerpt
Blood & Wine
By Robert Tine
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Blood and Wine Productions, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A young man on a surfboard was paddling out to sea, the land at his back. The late-day sun burned on his bowed back, his spine as strong as sprung steel.
His strong brown hands scooped away palms full of the warm green water, driving the board through the golden light of the dusk. He cast a shadow on the sea. He knelt on the board, crouching down tight, like a runner in starting blocks, his weight powering the strokes, his arms working with the rhythm of machines, as if he meant to cross the ocean on his flimsy board.
He was tall and strong, bands of muscles tensing under his tanned skin, the kind of sinew and strength that come from work, the hard work of laborers, not developed by hours in a gym. The skin stretched across the rock-solid muscle of the young man's right bicep was gouged and stippled with old scars, jagged cross-hatchings of stitches and skin raggedly torn a long time ago.
Clutched between his teeth was a strand of wire line, the long heavy cord trailing away behind him for hundreds of yards, all the way back, through the line of breakers on the shoreline and up on to the beach.
At his end of the fishing line was a large hook and an even larger, very bloody hunk of meat, gore staining the surfboard and dripping into the sea.
When he had judged that he had gone far enough out to sea, the young man stopped paddling and straightened, the surfboard rocking on the swells.
He was a very small speck on a very large ocean, and it would have been easy to have become unnerved, scared, and panicky by his distance from the shore, the depth of the water beneath him, by the strength and power of the currents working around him. But he gave it no thought; the clear, warm waters of the Florida coast were almost his natural habitat. He dropped the bloody bait into the water and watched as it sank into the depths. Once it had disappeared, the young man turned the surfboard expertly, effortlessly and began the long journey to shore. For the first time, he took his eyes from the water and looked to the darkening sky. He could see that it was going to be a clear night.
Scattered campfires burned along the beach, pools of platinum light in the darkness. As he neared the sands the breeze carried sounds to his ears. On the edge of the wind he could hear laughter, a shriek, sounds of horseplay, a snatch of music, a single word of conversation, meaningless out of context. Some of the fires were built by boisterous college kids or by tourists happy to have exchanged the cold north for a warm Florida night. Some of the fires, like his own, were built by fishermen.
He slipped off the board in the shallows, shouldered it, and sloshed through the foam, walking up onto the beach, the sand still warm. There was a pickup truck parked next to the fire pit, and thrust into the sand was a fishing rod — an eighty-pound IGA as thick as a telephone pole, loaded with a 9/0 Penn reel coiled with a thick skein of one hundred twenty-pound test line leading out to sea and the carefully planted bait.
"Hey, Jason," said the young black man sitting on the gate of the truck. "You were so far out ... man, I thought you were headed for Grand Bahama or something, Green Turtle maybe ..."
Jason smiled. "You have to go where the fish are, Henry. You know that."
Henry laughed and said something, but his words were carried away by the wind. He was tall, his body thin and sinewy. Next to Jason he looked slight, underfed, and the victim of years of hard living, but Henry did not look weak. Rather, he had that round-shouldered, slightly sullen mien, the kind of armor that the rootless develop, protection against those who would take advantage, do good, or harm him. He had drifted from one end of the country to another, he and his problems rolling to a halt against Jason and his. This odd friendship with Jason was the only thing that kept him from moving on.
The two young men shared similar, south Florida dreams. They envisioned lives of ease built around those Floridian grails — the ownership of simpatico waterfront bars, profitable charter boat companies, diving franchises in the Keys, treasure hunting in silent waters. A long pleasant life in the sun, a life without neckties, starched shirts, hard shoes, or hard choices. There was scarcely a young man (or young woman) on the beach that night who did not share in similar reveries.
Getting there was a little more difficult. Casual, under the table, off-the-books work paid barely enough to live, never mind being sufficient to build up the capital for even the most ramshackle bar or boat. Despite the fact that Henry was less at home in Florida, it was he, oddly enough, who had advanced further on that dream. He had taken over a boat — floating hulk, more like it — from a previous, fed-up owner, and he and Jason were forever tinkering with it, awaiting the day the big score came in and they could really go to town on it.
They browsed for hours in the ship chandlers on the other side of the causeway, and if one of them read at all it was likely to be an outfitter's catalogue filled with enticing photographs of expensive electronics: loran units, fish finders, weather computers, radar units as complex as those on the bridge of a brand-new cruiser.
For the time being, they were content when they could coax enough power out of the engine to be able to fish off the boat — deep sea was a lot easier than surf, and you could catch more too — but the engine had died, the gaskets and the fuel pump going at the same time. Until those problems were taken care of there was nothing they could do but fish off the beach. Neither man liked it.
Jason pulled a worn canvas duffel bag and a pair of army blankets from the cab of the pickup and walked back to the fire.
"Here," he said, tossing one of the blankets to Henry. "It'll get cold later."
"How long we gonna be out here?" Henry said, draping the blanket around his narrow shoulders.
"Long as it takes," Jason replied. He dumped the duffel bag and the pillow on the sand and walked over to the fishing rod and touched the line that ran out into the darkness and into the sea beyond. Jason fingered the filament like a blind man reading Braille. The cord was taut and seemed to hum under his fingers. It dipped and bowed infinitesimally as the currents out there in the blackness worried the bait, rolling it from side to side.
"Anything?" Henry asked.
Jason shook his head. "Too early." He thought of the big fish gathering out there, still swimming in the deep water, waiting for the darkness that would turn the sea black from surface to bottom. Then they would come into the warm shallows looking for the mullet and snapper blues, the cusk and the snook feeding there.
He let go of the wire and sat down, settling cross-legged on the sand, rummaging in the duffel bag.
"Now what you doing?"
"Just want to be ready." Jason took two heavy metal shafts from the back and screwed them together, then inserted a shotgun shell into the dowel end of the five-foot pole. He thrust it into the sand like a spear.
"What you call that?"
"Bang stick," said Jason.
"Bang stick," Henry repeated, as if memorizing it. "Handy thing to have."
A bang stick was nothing more than a gaff with a very bad attitude. When thrust into a shark, the pin in the dowel nicked the cap of the shotgun shell, which exploded. It ended the danger of snapping jaws and murderous teeth fast.
Jason looked out to sea and thought of the dark fish in the dark water.
"You just going to sit there all night?" Henry asked. "I thought you said the water settled you down."
Jason laughed slightly. "Only when I'm out there ... Only when I'm out on it ..."
"When you're out there on the board? Or when you're out there on a boat?"
Jason shrugged. "Either."
"I'll take the boat, if you ask me." He stretched out on the sand and sighed heavily. "You were on the board when you almost became fish food, man."
"I wasn't on this board. He ate that." Jason fingered the scars on his arm.
"Almost ate you." It had been many years since Jason was attacked by a mako shark, midday, in eight feet of water — exactly where shark attacks aren't supposed to happen — and it had happened long before Henry had arrived on the scene. But if Jason hadn't said much about it, the men on the fishing piers and in the waterfront bars knew all the details and didn't mind sharing them.
One bite and the board was gone. A slice of the Fiberglas was still visible as the mako's jaws closed over Jason's right arm. If the chunk of board hadn't been there, propping open the jaws just enough, then Jason wouldn't be here at all — or at the very least, he'd be missing an arm.
* * *
There were two things about that day, that moment, he would never forget. The memory of the pain was long gone, and the terror had faded too. But he would never forget the smell when that shark emerged from the shallows, its terrible mouth wide-open as he was hit with a gust of cold wind that stank of fish and blood, a rank, sour smell that came from deep down in the gut.
The other thing he would not forget was the look in that eye. Jason had only seen it for a second — and chances are the shark had not seen him at all — but the blankness, the lack of animus, the absolute absence of spirit, still haunted him. Despite what people had read, there was nothing personal in the attack, the shark did not hate. It felt nothing except hunger, pain ... it was just a thing that needed to eat something and on that June Monday that thing happened to be a fifteen-year-old boy on a boogie board.
The teeth had slashed through Jason's skin, severing sinew and muscle, but the upper rows had not met the lower. An electrical impulse in a one-cylinder brain had told the shark that this could not be eaten so he pulled away with a mouthful of Fiberglas and the tasty tang of human blood mixed with seawater.
Jason had come stumbling out of the shallows, clutching his arm and shoulder, scaring the tourists and causing one of the lifeguards to vomit extravagantly ...
* * *
The night had cooled, the stars were high, and the moon had set. The beach was deserted, and all the fires had burned down to embers. Jason and Henry slept.
The rod shivered slightly, the merest shudder. A little line played out, just enough to ratchet the reel a click or two. Jason's eyes opened immediately, and he threw off the blanket.
"Uh?" He stirred under his blankets. "What?"
"Let's go —"
As he spoke, the line jerked and began to scream as yards and yards of the heavy cord played out. Something had grabbed the bait, swallowed it, and had the hook deep in its belly. Panicked, the fish was bolting, shooting out to the protection of the deep water.
Jason grabbed the rod out of the sand and pulled back once, just to get the feel of the creature. It was a big one.
He clambered up onto the bed of the pickup, sat on the big cooler, and braced his bare feet against the tailgate and reeled the line back in a foot or so, just to seat the hook deeper in the gut.
"Hit it, Henry!"
Henry had hauled himself into the cab of the pickup. He fired up the engine and put the truck into gear and eased forward, the bald tires spinning in the sand.
Jason's right arm was a blur as he worked the handle of the reel, first taking up a couple of hundred yards of wet line, then meeting more resistance as he connected with the fish. He slammed in the lock, freezing the reel, and held on to the pole as tight as he could, leaning back until he was almost flat on the floor of the truck bed.
"More gas!" he yelled. "More gas!"
The truck roared and edged forward a few feet. The line bucked and twisted as the fish raced from side to side, desperate not to be pulled into the shallows.
"Okay, Henry!" Jason yelled. "Let it out! Back it up"
Henry jammed the truck into reverse and gave back the ground he had just gained. The line went limp for a moment and Jason used the brief interval of calm to take up the slack until he felt the creature again.
"Henry! Do it again!"
The truck roared forward again, Henry half out of the cab looking back. Something was thrashing in the shallow water just beyond the surf line, roiling it white as if the sea was boiling.
"Looks like a really big mother," he yelled over the bellow of the engine.
"Bull shark," Jason said through his gritted teeth. "Gun it, Henry. Come on!"
Henry pushed the pedal to the floor and the truck bucked forward a few feet then stopped, the wheels spinning furiously, gouging twin trenches in the sand, the furrows spinning through the dry top then down into the wet. The wells around the tires filled with salt water, but the wheels turned so fast that the brine boiled off, the smell of salt mixing with the acrid clouds of diesel exhaust.
"Bull shark?" Henry yelled from the cab.
"No way." Jason yanked back on the pole, the line went slack for a split second as the fish jumped, breaking through the surface of the water, propelling itself into the air. "Bull sharks swim like shit. And they don't jump."
"Then what is it?" Henry shouted.
"Mackerel," Jason answered matter-of-factly. Inexperienced shark fishermen preferred to call the beast by its more glamorous name, mako shark. But from Florida to North Carolina, men who made their living catching them called them mackerel sharks, as if to belittle the prey.
"Great," mumbled Henry, gunning the engine one more time. "That's great."
Jason — with a lot of help from Henry and the pickup truck — worked the shark on to the beach in less than half an hour. The enraged fish twisted and bucked on the sand, the symmetrical tail lashing left and right like a bull-whip, his jaws opening and shutting, teeth clashing against teeth, smashing shut like the two halves of a bear trap.
Henry pushed the truck as far up the beach as he could, then shut down the engine, Jason nailing the line into the sand with cleats to prevent the shark from making a break for the safety of the water.
The fish was a good nine feet long at least, on the high side of average for this kind of shark. Jason guessed it was four or five hundred pounds of muscle, flesh, and teeth. The fins would bring good money. The meat would go for about a dollar a pound. The teeth he could lay off to tourist souvenir shops, and he could sell the cartilage under the counter to a health food shop he knew in Lauderdale. Overall, a decent profit, a good night's work.
All he had to do now was get the fish in and get it dead.
Jason ran toward the twisting, bucking shark, the bang stick in his hands. Gasping for breath, the gills flailing open, the big fish pushed himself sideways in a vain attempt to find the sea. He lurched toward Henry who sprang back a few feet. The jaws clacked and chattered.
"Watch the mouth!" Jason yelled.
"I'm not the one with the marks, man!"
Jason raised the bang stick over his head and waited for his moment to strike, the muscles in his arms flexing, the old scars standing out livid on his skin. It was best to get the shell right inside the mouth and let it blow straight up into the brain.
The jaws opened and Jason pounced, jamming the business end of the pole into the mouth and detonating it before the shark had time to close its mouth around it. The bang stick shaft was steel, but a mako that size could cut it clean in half.
There was a sharp explosion, and the shark abruptly stopped moving. A haze of blood burst from the top of the fish's skull. The night sky was suddenly full of day birds, their sleep rudely cut short by the unexpected explosion. The gulls wheeled and screeched in barely controlled panic. Blood from the dead shark pulsed onto the sand.
Henry took a deep breath and grinned. "Peaceful out here," he said. "Dontcha think?"CHAPTER 2
The poker game went all night and into the dawn and would have gone on longer except that Alex Gates was already down four thousand and change. He had the change — the problem was the four thousand.
The game had been played along Gates' rules and on Gates' turf, in the wine-tasting room beneath his wine shop — but somehow Alex had never managed to get a handle on this high-stakes game. Every time he held a decent hand someone bid him up, bluffed him out, or just held a better hand. The liquor he had been serving all night did not seem to have had any effect on any of the players. Every man had held his cards steadily. Three of the five players bet modestly, going up a few dollars, then down and dropping out altogether when the pot got too rich and the stakes climbed. To them it was a social game, a friendly game. To Alex Gates, though, friendship had nothing to do with it. He wanted the money. But he lost — hand after hand.
Excerpted from Blood & Wine by Robert Tine. Copyright © 1997 Blood and Wine Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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