Gone (Hannah Smith Series #1)by Randy Wayne White
New York Times bestselling author Randy Wayne White introduces Hannah Smitha lady with the heart and courage to take on the world
Hannah Smith is a tall, strong, formidable Florida woman, the descendant of generations of strong Florida women. She makes her living as a fishing guide, but her friends, neighbors, and clients also know her/b>/i>… See more details below
New York Times bestselling author Randy Wayne White introduces Hannah Smitha lady with the heart and courage to take on the world
Hannah Smith is a tall, strong, formidable Florida woman, the descendant of generations of strong Florida women. She makes her living as a fishing guide, but her friends, neighbors, and clients also know her as an uncommonly resourceful woman with a keen sense of justice, as someone who can’t be bulliedand they have taken to coming to her with their problems.
Her methods can be unorthodox, though, and those on the receiving end of them often wind up very unhappyand sometimes very violent. When a girl goes missing, and Hannah is asked to find her, that is exactly what happens
"In his Doc Ford novels, Randy Wayne White plumbs the shallows of the Gulf waters and the depths of the human heart. But in his newest thriller, Gone, he gives us Hannah Smith, a gutsy new heroine to root for, and a plot that crackles with the electricity of a Florida thunderstorm. Gone won't be long forgotten."-P. J. Parrish, author of the New York Timesbestselling Louis Kincaid thrillers
"A heroine who's just as stubborn and capable and even more appealing than White's Doc Ford."-Kirkus
Read an Excerpt
WHEN LIGHTNING ZAPPED THE WATER A MILE FROM THE boat, my fishing client, Lawrence Seasons, looked at me surprised as a child, and the fly rod went sailing from his hands.
“I felt that, Hannah!” he said, meaning the shock. His line had been in the water, connected to a six-foot tarpon that had just jumped, scales bright as ice against purple clouds that held rain.
I told the man, “I bet you did,” and lunged after the rod skittering across the deck. Just before it flew overboard, I caught the reel, locked my fingers over the spool, and pulled until the barbless hook I was using set the fish free, which the tarpon confirmed with another greyhound jump. The breeze blowing off the water was suddenly chilly, I noticed, sweet with ozone and electricity.
“We’ve got to go, folks!” I said for the second time in the last few minutes. “Grab your seats, try to stay low.” I was taking fishing rods from their vertical holders, storing them flat on the deck.
“My first tarpon,” Mr. Seasons said, sounding dazed and a little sad. He was flexing his fingers to see if they still worked, or maybe to remind me that dropping expensive gear wasn’t an everyday occurrence for him.
I told him, “You did a fine job, sir,” which seemed to cover all the bases, and then hustled behind the wheel to start the engine. For more than an hour, I’d been watching thermals build over the Florida mainland, which is normal on a June afternoon. But when the breeze suddenly wilted, air dense as lacquer, I knew it was time to move. Trouble was, only minutes before, Mr. Seasons had finally hooked a big tarpon on a fly rod, after years of trying, so I’d waited longer than I should’ve to make the decision. Now if things didn’t go smoothly, my clients and I might get soaked—or worse. From what I could see, hear, and smell, the odds weren’t in our favor. The storm was moving fast, towing a mountain of black clouds, and my small boat is as open and flat as an upside-down iron. A “flats skiff,” as the design is known by saltwater anglers.
I called, “Hang on!” and pushed the throttle forward, then touched the trim switches, accelerating, and soon we were riding, flat and dry, the storm right on our tail.
For the next several minutes, no one spoke, while I slalomed through a snarl of oyster bars, electricity sizzling behind us. Then I opened the throttle wider as the wind chased us toward the Gulf of Mexico, where, I could now see, a second squall was angling to intercept us.
Mr. Seasons spotted the squall, too. I could tell by the worried look on his face. Having a client who has fished the Gulf Coast for many years is usually a good thing, but there are disadvantages. I tried to reassure him by raising my voice over the noise of the wind. “We’ll cut north in a minute or two. That’ll put us in the clear.”
“On a low tide?” he replied. “I don’t know of any channels within a mile—”
“I do,” I interrupted, but not in a sharp way. I wanted the man to stay calm, and not upset the woman he’d brought as his guest, Ms. Calder-Shaun, a New York attorney. She was an attractive woman, even beautiful, although starched and plainspoken, but not used to small boats and big water, which I’d realized right away. She sat to my right, Mr. Seasons to my left, both of them gripping their seats as if on a toboggan that had hit a patch of ice.
“But, Captain,” the man said, being formal to show his concern, “risk running aground in a storm? We don’t mind getting wet. If it’s safer to stay in deep water, why not—”
At that instant, there was a metallic buzz, then KA-BOOM!, an explosion so close it seemed to lift the hull off the water and suck the air from around us.
“Christ A’mighty!” the woman yelled, “Shut up, Larry, and let Hannah drive the damn boat!”
Beside me, Mr. Seasons sat back, a resigned look on his face, and I knew if I didn’t take his advice and got us stuck in shallow water, he would never charter me again. I didn’t blame him. Wealthy fishing clients aren’t easy to come by, so the temptation was to play safe and do what he’d suggested. But then I reminded myself that playing it safe wasn’t safe because the storm behind us was crackling with high voltage, and the storm angling from the southeast was a wall of gray smoke, more lightning and rain.
“Up ahead,” I said as if being conversational, “there’s a little cut mullet fishermen call ‘Hole-in-the-Wall.’ Since you’ve got a boat of your own, I’ve been wanting to show you—and I can’t think of a better time.”
I’d been sitting because of the lightning, but now I stood to get a better view and to concentrate on what I was doing. My boat is small, but it’s fast. I’d bought it used off a local marine biologist who’d rigged the thing with lights, electronics, and an oversized engine you wouldn’t expect from a man who is bookish in his ways. The biologist had hinted that the boat would do sixty miles an hour in calf-deep water—power I thought I’d never need unless I was stupid enough to get caught by a storm. Now it had happened.
“Hang tight,” I said again, and punched the throttle, which caused my head to jolt back in an unexpected way. Soon my eyes were tearing, vision fluttering because of speed and washboard waves. It took some effort to check engine gauges that confirmed oil and water pressure were just fine, with plenty of throttle left if needed.
Doing forty-plus, we dodged hedges of mangroves where pelicans roosted on leeward branches, then crossed a channel into water so shallow that white herons flushed ahead of us, a flock of spoonbills, too, feathers pink as rose petals in the storm-bruised light. Normally, I would have turned southwest, toward the main channel. But the storm was already there, picking up speed, dragging tentacles of rain across Sanibel Island. So I turned north toward what looked like a shard of mainland, it was so tightly joined by swamp and trees. From Mr. Seasons’s expression, I could tell he was spooked and confused.
“Hole-in-the-Wall,” I said, pointing. “You won’t see it until we’re on it.” Twice, I had to repeat myself because thunder boomed behind us, a series of trip-mine explosions.
“That’s all oysters and sandbars,” my client argued, sounding more nervous when he finally understood. “You mean, where those birds are standing?”
It was true, there were hundreds of gulls and terns hunkered together in an inch of water, creating a line that fringed the island.
“No, sir,” I replied. “The spot where you don’t see birds—that’s where we’re headed.”
The man muttered something and got a fresh grip on his seat. To my right, Ms. Calder-Shaun sat with eyes closed, then surprised me by wrapping her arm around my leg. Something like that had never happened to me on a fishing charter, but I didn’t mind. She was scared, we were the only women on the boat, and I was a little scared myself.
When we were fifty yards from what looked like a wall of mangrove trees, I prepared them for what happened next. “You might feel us bump bottom,” I hollered, pleased by how steady my voice sounded. “The engine’s gonna scream, but don’t let it worry you. We’ll make it.”
We did make it, skating over two sandbars, my engine geysering water into a cloud of yapping birds before I got the boat trimmed, then steered us through an opening in the trees not much wider than my skiff.
What a change those few seconds made! We exited the storm into a river of glassy water, branches creating a tunnel of silence and shadows that rocked in our wake as we boiled past. I followed the tunnel to the left . . . to the right . . . carving a series of S turns as if on a country road. Then we broke free of the trees, after jumping one last bar, and the sun cleared the towering clouds at the same instant, so it was like the storm had never existed. I knew better, of course. We couldn’t dally because the clouds were still chasing us, fast as a freight train. But the tricky part was over.
Beside me, I heard Ms. Calder-Shaun say, “How exciting!” to cover her embarrassment and give her an excuse to remove her arm from my leg. Mr. Seasons was staring at me in the way wealthy people sometimes do when appraising an employee, his eyes penetrating and as unemotional as a calculator. Now was not the time to say anything boastful, I decided, but it was tempting.
Instead, I pointed to a ridge of oysters exposed by the low tide. Marking the bar were six plastic milk bottles tied to stakes. “That’s the old Mail Boat Channel,” I said. “Used to be, there weren’t roads or bridges to the islands, so one of the captains delivered mail twice a week. Not many folks use this cut anymore.”
“Who maintains it?” the man asked, but I got the impression he was more interested in me than the answer.
“I never figured that one out. Mullet fishermen don’t need the markers, so it must be part-timers. Something nice is, every Christmas someone sticks a casuarina pine on that bar and decorates it with seashells and stuff. To me, it doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve stopped and hung a shell on that tree.”
Mr. Seasons said to Ms. Calder-Shaun, talking over my lap, “Hannah comes from an old fishing family. Her Uncle Jake guided me for years, before he died—plus that other work I told you about.”
I wasn’t going to ask what that meant, although I had some ideas. More interesting to me was that Mr. Seasons wasn’t gripping his chair quite as tight, which gave me a good feeling. We were soon running parallel the oyster bar, following milk jugs, water on both sides not deep enough to cover my ankles. A few minutes later, we were north of Chino Island. Behind us, the storms had joined forces, and rain was gaining on us so fast, a sudden blast of cold air told me we weren’t out of danger yet. I had planned on cutting west toward Captiva Island, where Mr. Seasons lives on a five-acre estate, but the odds were against us once again.
I wasn’t worried, though. Half a mile away, I could see a tin-roofed cabin built on stilts, standing lonely as a stork in shallow water, a mile from the nearest land. A married man had willed the place to my late aunt—out of guilt, I’d heard—so our family owned it, but how and why, I wasn’t exactly sure. The cabin—a “stilthouse,” locals called it—was built with thick walls for storing fish back before there was refrigeration, so it was a good safe spot to be, if we could beat the rain.
We did, but only by a minute or two. Throttle backing, I stood with one hand on the wheel, the other holding an anchor, as we approached what would soon be the leeward side of the shack. Not until we were a few boat lengths away did I reduce speed, then dropped the anchor, playing out line, after punching us into idle so we continued toward the dock.
“Nicely done,” Mr. Seasons said, but he was watching the squall charging us, only a hundred yards away. Rain was loud as a mountain river and getting louder.
“Stay put until we’re tied!” I replied. I had snubbed the anchor to a stern cleat, hoping I’d guessed right about how much scope to use. Sure enough, just before my skiff’s nose bumped the dock, I felt the anchor line stiffen and stretch, which is when I stepped up onto the dock and threw a quick clove hitch around a piling.
“Ladies first,” I called, offering Ms. Calder-Shaun my hand, then helped her onto the dock. The woman looked a little woozy but was smiling, and gave my fingers a squeeze that meant something, I wasn’t sure what.
Soon, both clients were sitting beneath a waterfall that blurred the world around us, but they were snug and dry inside the stilthouse, where I was lighting a Coleman stove to make coffee. When the coffee was ready, I poured them each a mug, then stood outside beneath the breezeway so they could have their privacy. Some fishing guides try to be entertainers, too, telling jokes and stories during boring times, but that’s not my way.
After a while, when the rain had slacked, I returned to check on the two. Mr. Seasons was looking at Ms. Calder-Shaun, who was staring at me, both with odd expressions on their faces as if they’d just made a surprising discovery.
“I’m right about this, Larry,” the woman said, her eyes still studying me. “After today? Goddamn right, I’m convinced—if the agency is still licensed.”
The first thing that came into my mind was the private investigation agency my uncle had run—obviously the “other work” Mr. Seasons had mentioned before—and where I’d helped out at every once in a while. But I thought it was better to keep my mouth shut, so I pretended to want more coffee.
The man was nodding as I stepped toward the stove, then caught me off guard by including me in the conversation. “Would you be willing to meet for lunch tomorrow, Hannah? Just me, Martha has to fly home for the day. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
“Fishing?” I said, turning.
The man exchanged looks with Martha, his New York attorney. “Around two would be good,” he said. “I’ll explain everything then.”
“Noon’s better,” I replied, because it irks me when people dodge simple questions, and also because it was embarrassing to admit I had an open date tomorrow, at the height of tarpon season, when most guides were busy. “Even on days I don’t fish, I’ve got a lot to do,” I added, which was mostly true.
“Noon it is,” Mr. Seasons replied, then said nothing more about it. Soon enough, though, I would discover that outrunning that storm had meant more to my clients than I ever could’ve guessed. How I’d handled myself had convinced them a woman fishing guide was a good choice to go in search of a missing girl—although it took some doing on their part to convince me, the woman fishing guide.
Considering all that happened afterward, good and bad, I have no reason to regret beating that storm. But it has made me fretful about how one small event—something as common as lightning and heavy rain—can change a person’s life in ways so big, there is no hope of returning. Only hope for what comes next.
MY MOTHER SAYS I REOPENED UNCLE JAKE’S PRIVATE INVESTIGATION agency because I’m always losing men, so it’s natural for me to search for things that are missing. This would offend some women my age, but she had a stroke two years back and now her damaged brain relies on honesty instead of good manners, so I’ve got no choice but to take it in stride. One thing I’ve learned is, don’t argue with the truth on those scarce occasions when you’re lucky enough to know what the truth is.
Mother was heavy on my mind the next morning. It’s because of something that had happened the night before, after the storm. Loretta—that’s Mamma’s name—got into Uncle Jake’s paint shed, then sprayed swearwords all over the walls of a house being built next door. Not a house, really. It’s more of a concrete box the size of a Walmart, and just about as tasteful—which is only one of the reasons Loretta hates the building so. Some of the words she wrote were so foul, they had never even passed my lips—not louder than a whisper, anyway—let alone would I use Day-Glo orange to write them in cursive, exclamation points dotted, t’s neatly crossed, for all the world to see.
Well . . . as much of the world that ventures down the road to York Island and our little fishing village, which is on the Gulf Coast of Florida, just across the bay from Sanibel Island.
Thank goodness, it was only an hour after sunrise when I discovered what that addled woman had done. I was on the dock, making sure my skiff had enough fuel for the trip to Mr. Seasons’s place, when Arlis Futch whistled and waved to me from the throttle of his mullet boat.
I waited for the man to kill his engine and drift closer before calling, “How you, Arlis?”
“My Lordy, Hannah, you lookin’ more and more like your dead aunt every day—God rest her soul.”
Old Arlis loves to talk, and I had things to do, but it peeves me when men confuse lying with flirting. “Aunt Hannah’s been in the grave ten years, Arlis, so that’s not much of a compliment. Except to her, maybe, but you might be right. Hannah Three in her coffin is probably prettier than me and all the rest of us put together. Don’t you have some work to do?”
There have been four Hannah Smiths in our family, which Arlis knows better than most, so there was no need to explain. My aunt was a pretty woman, and more than a tad wild, which is common knowledge. Along with the stilthouse, which a guilty husband had left her, I had inherited Hannah Three’s name, height, and crow-black hair. Unfortunately, that was about it—until a few years ago, anyway, when my body began showing some of her other assets as well.
The old man started to apologize, saying, “Dang it, I wasn’t comparing you to a dead person—though you are lookin’ pasty since you moved across the bay. Tell the truth, now. You been eatin’ too much that damn hippie food and not enough fried mullet. Ain’t I right?”
Hippie food, I guessed, was anything that didn’t produce grease for gravy or a good old-fashioned heart attack. I was about to suggest this to Arlis by inquiring about his recent double bypass, but the man slipped the hook by staring over my shoulder, with a weird expression on his face, like an image of Jesus had just materialized in the sunrise clouds behind me.
“I wouldn’t’ve missed this for nothing,” he said to himself, chuckling, then began to laugh. “Loretta and me learned cursive from the same schoolteacher, so I recognize her hand. But her spelling used to be better. Tell your mamma the word truckers starts with a t—samet that don’t belong in the word ship.”
That’s when I turned and saw it.
“Oh dear,” I said, jumping up onto the dock. “My Lord! Maybe if I get her to apologize, they won’t call the law.” Even before her stroke, no one would have described my mother as “sweet,” but neither had she, or anyone else in our family, behaved like trailer park drunks. I didn’t want to believe what I was seeing.
Arlis was still laughing. “Tell ’em it’s modern art and send ’em an invoice. Don’t apologize. Folks who’d dig up an Indian mound to build a big-ass dog kennel might be trashy enough to believe it.”
The old man was right about what Loretta’s neighbors had done. Our village sits on a paw of waterfront that is dotted with the remains of shell temples built three thousand years ago by Florida’s first people. “Indian mounds,” some call them, but they’re more than that. When tourists think of the Sunshine State, they picture Mickey Mouse, not pyramids, but that’s what the mounds were, and a few dozen still remain between Tampa Bay and Key West.
There was one less pyramid now, which was the main reason Loretta was mad enough to combine her painting skills with her knowledge of profanity—neither top-notch, which her only daughter was now ready to confess in a court of law.
“You’re gonna need some help,” Arlis said, rubbing his bad leg before swinging his boat alongside the dock. Arlis had been bitten by an animal of some sort a while back—a giant reptile, he claimed—and never missed a chance to rub his wound to remind people he had survived.
I was still gaping at the stuff Loretta had written. The sentences were neatly spaced, I had to admit, and easy to read even from a long distance because Day-Glo orange is like a magnet to the eye.
“Some of those words, you don’t hear every day,” I remarked, keeping my voice low. “Where in the world you think she learned them?” It wasn’t that I really wanted to know, but it was important to make clear she hadn’t learned the words from me.
Arlis replied, “Hannah One chopped wood for a living, and I suppose they’d come natural to a lumberjack who also hunted wild hogs. Could be your mamma learned them in the cradle. I was jest reading something about that: parents got this computer program, recites foreign words to their sleeping babies. By the time they’re off the teat, those babies are talking whole sentences in French, Italian, you name it.”
I turned and started toward the house because the old man would have stood there jabbering all day if I’d let him.
Arlis couldn’t let it go, though. By the time I was off the dock, stepping through mangroves, he was still offering possibilities, calling, “Lock up her computer at night, that’s my advice to you. And check with the cable company—make sure Loretta ain’t watching HBO!”
TWO HOURS and a gallon of turpentine later, Arlis and I were just getting the last of the mess off the stucco when the brain-damaged artist appeared. A daughter doesn’t need eyes to know when her mother is charging up from behind. Loretta pushed a wall of tension ahead of her that had a brittleness like glass. It made my stomach knot and set off an alarm in my ears.
“Hannah! What you and Arlis think you’re doing? That paint cost your Uncle Jake four dollars a can, and I was up writing past midnight! Not that you care. Or that I hurt my ankle real bad when I slipped off that damn ladder.”
The last part, she said in a self-pitying way as if she’d broken a bone and would soon die.
“Loretta,” I replied, wiping my hands on a rag, “I’ve got an appointment with Mr. Seasons at noon, as I’ve told you more than once. That gives me less than two hours to clean up, which is not much time for a woman who smells like a pine tree and has orange fingernails—” I turned and looked at Arlis. “Is it in my hair, too? Please tell me my hair isn’t orange.”
The old man appeared nervous, and was backing away, as Loretta informed me, “I’d of used lavender, if we’d had it. Aquamarine can be nice, too—so blame your uncle for his poor taste in paint, not me.”
Then her tone suddenly became suspicious.
“As for Lawrence Seasons, that man has been coming here to catch tarpon and snook for twenty years, but I don’t trust him. Never did. Never will.”
My mother and I had been over the subject umpteen times the previous night, and I didn’t want to cycle through it again. Her brother, Jake, had died the year before, and I’d been taking out his fishing clients for almost two years, which is when my sweet, funny uncle first got sick. Now Mr. Seasons was my fishing client, along with about twenty of Jake’s regulars. Combined, it brought in enough money for me to rent my own place, and also pay for the nurses Loretta needs—one of whom would soon be explaining why she’d let a crazy woman escape with a can of spray paint and a head full of swearwords.
Actually, fishing came up a little short in the money department. It almost always does for people who depend on saltwater for a living. It was now late June, and tarpon season was about over. Soon, we’d be in the dead months when tourists avoided the heat of hurricane season. By Thanksgiving, my savings account would be drained, and I’d have to find a part-time job, as I’d done for the last two years, to see us through until Christmas.
I turned and headed up the shell mound, toward the old tin-roofed house where’d I’d grown up. Loretta had to hustle to keep up, still fuming.
“Why’s that old snob want to see you? Is it about fishing?”
I shook my head, and reminded her, “It’s unprofessional to speak badly of clients—Jake warned you more than once. Mr. Seasons brings interesting people on the boat, he’s polite, and he tips nice. That’s all I care about.”
“Sure, sure, but why’s he want to see you if it’s not about fishing?”
I shook my head again, meaning it was none of her business. Truth was, I still didn’t know, only that I was to meet him at his estate on Captiva Island, which was a ninety-minute drive by truck but only fifteen minutes across the bay in my fast little boat.
“That man’s got as much personality as a bucket of ripe mullet,” Loretta said. “Did I mention he made a pass at your Aunt Hannah?”
“Yes, I believe you did,” I replied, staying calm. Mention it? My God, she’d told me a hundred times.
“And Hannah Three, well . . . I’ll bet the old snob got more than he bargained for if he made it past that girl’s front gates. Right to your face, Hannah would admit she liked men as much as some men like women. And she had an eye for the rich ones especially. Not that your aunt ever took money—that I know of.”
I said, “Don’t start, Mamma.”
“’Course, most men were scared of Hannah Three—but those were the ones she’d hop into bed with, once she had ’em buffaloed. There was a term she used to excuse her raw behavior”—Loretta had to think about it as she clumped up the hill—“‘Womanly hormone something,’ as if a naked man was a type of vitamin pill. She was sort of like a spider that way. You know about female black widows, don’t you?”
I was on the porch, holding the screen door open, saying, “Yes, Loretta. Now, go on inside where it’s cool, and let Mrs. Terwilliger bring you some sweet tea. I need to shower and wash this paint out of my hair. Tonight, I’ll give you a call and make sure you’re okay.”
Loretta didn’t move, though. She stood there staring up into my face. “He just wants inside your panties, I hope you realize.”
“I’ve got no interest in Mr. Seasons, so just quit.”
“Darling, that’s not what I’m saying. There hasn’t been a man in your life for years. And that one was only around for a day after you was married, so it hardly counts.”
I knew I shouldn’t bring up my friend Nathan Pace, but I did because he was all I had as a defense. “What about Nate? I have dinner with him two or three times a week, and he’s a man.”
“In the looks department, maybe!” my mother countered, a wicked grin on her face. “I used to think the same thing about Liberace. Only difference between him and that butterfly Nathan is, one of them had nice hair and played the piano.” Loretta’s eyes started to drift. “Nathan don’t play the piano, does he?”
“Violin,” I said, feeling tired. It was how Nathan and I had met—in high school band, two outsiders thrown together less by mutual interests than a mutual fear of not measuring up.
Her eyes snapped back.
“Keeping company with a muscle-bound homosexual is no way to attract a man, Hannah. Not the ones who got no interest inwearing your panties, anyway.”
I tried again, even though it was pointless, by mentioning our good-looking UPS driver, whom I enjoyed seeing in his brown uniform, particularly when he wore shorts. “Christian Rhoades is getting friendly,” I argued. “I suppose you haven’t noticed how often he stops even when he doesn’t have a package.”
“Men in uniforms!” Mamma snapped as if that meant something. “A handsome boy young as Christian, with a good-paying job to boot, he won’t let hisself get trapped by a woman your age. You’re bad as Hannah Three sometimes. I swear you are.”
I looked at my toes, which is something I’d promised myself I’d stop doing—acting ashamed when Loretta got that scolding tone in her voice.
“That Seasons man still married?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, which was not the first lie I had told this woman who had carried me in the womb but was slowly becoming a stranger.
“A wife don’t matter to rich men,” Loretta countered with a sniff. “They collect lonely spinsters like bottle caps. Especially spinsters with mileage as low as yours.” I shook my head and sighed while she added, “It’s a poor hunter who waits for the game to come to him, Hannah Smith. You did the same in high school—sat around moping instead of getting out, meeting boys. How you expect to catch fish if you don’t dangle some bait? You need to stop being so prudish!”
I said, “What?”
“Dress pretty for a change, honey—that’s all I’m saying. Something without too many buttons and straps. Lawrence Seasons is a snob, but he’d probably treat you good for a couple of months just to prove he can afford it. And he might have a workman on the payroll who’s younger and got some money. And less morals than our good-looking UPS driver!”
Finally, it was all too clear what my befuddled mother was suggesting. I stood taller and pointed to the kitchen door. “Go inside right now! I’ll be in after I’ve thanked Arlis.”
“Darling, I’m only saying it’s the rusty hinges that snap first. As wrong as your Aunt Hannah was about her morals, she was right when it comes to a woman’s hormone tensions being dangerous. At the grocery, I read in a magazine that’s why Lizzie Borden did what she did with that axe. And she was a girl in her twenties just like you!”
Actually, I’d turned thirty-one earlier that June, which I was about to point out, but then Loretta became secretive and wagged a finger for me to lean closer. “It’s not like I don’t know what you do to calm your frustrations. But using a plastic gadget can’t be healthy, child.”
My ears were suddenly warm. I said, “Pardon me?”
Loretta lowered her voice. “I found the electric candle you kept hidden in your dresser. That’s not what God had in mind when he gave us hormones, honey.”
My face feeling hot, I turned my back and was reaching for the door but could still hear my mother saying, “First time I plugged it in, the thing went shooting across the floor like a snake on a griddle. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me scream . . .”
The woman was still talking as I walked, then jogged down the Indian mound toward the dock. I still had almost two hours before my meeting. Time enough to get to my makeshift apartment, shower, change, and then make my appointment—if I hurried.
I DID HURRY, cowboying my skiff fast across the flats, running backcountry through the secret cuts and tidal riffs that I had learned as a girl, and was still learning, in truth, because currents can change shallow bottom as fast as wind can change the shape of sand and snow. I was mad at Loretta for invading my privacy with her sneaky ways and her tainted suspicions, so I drove harder than usual, eager to put some distance between the house where I’d grown up and the future that lay ahead. It’s not that I felt bitter about my past. I didn’t—not on a daily basis, anyway. I was just weary of the life I’d lived with my mother, eager to shed the past as cleanly as some creatures can shed their skins. It’s not that easy, of course, but it is doable—or so I’ve convinced myself. All I know for sure is, the only way to leave something behind is to keep moving ahead.
That was easier said than done, though, after some of the things Loretta had said to me. Especially galling was her claim that I’d done nothing in high school but sit around and mope. Had the woman lost her memory along with the best half of her mind? I had gotten good grades, played clarinet in the band, swum on the varsity team, and always had a paying job of some sort, often working for my Uncle Jake—although, as even I had to admit, my teen years weren’t the happiest of times.
I still think of high school as the three long years I spent trying to recover from the upset of acne and middle school. I was the gawky, silent girl in the back of the room who slouched because I was too tall and who used whatever I could to hide my face when someone tried to strike up a conversation. In all that time, I’d had only one date and kissed only one boy—my childhood neighbor, Delbert Fowler—whom I married six years after graduation because he joined the Army and believed he was going off to war where he might be killed by Malls-lums. From the way Delbert pronounced the word, I always suspected he pictured himself plinking away at a bunch of charging Nordstrom hoodlums wearing towels on their heads.
I was in my mid-twenties before another man gave me a second look, and almost thirty before men actually stopped and stared—even then I worried it was because of the few faint acne scars hidden by my hair. Only lately have I begun to suspect the truth. Men look at me now because they like what they see. Not that I’m sure it’s true—I’ll never feel the sort of confidence some have when it comes to being comfortable with their looks. But when I go striding by a group of men wearing jeans and a nice summer blouse, or stockings and a crisp skirt, what I see on their faces is a look of slow surprise. It’s as if they don’t expect to be interested, but then their brain gives them a kick to remind them of what their eyes are actually seeing.
I hope it’s because I’m a big woman, too big for a quick snapshot, so it takes men a while to put all the parts together. I’m beginning to believe it’s true because what I see next on their faces is usually a confused smile, like they’re boys who’ve been caught at something they enjoy but shouldn’t be doing.
Not that I spend my hours worrying about what men think. The last few years have been a happy, comfortable time for me, and I’m content enough not to rush. Some of us mature and blaze early in life. Others take longer to grow into the person they are meant to be. I bloomed very late, which, in truth, has surprised no one more than me. Maybe my brain will never fully replace the person I used to be with the woman I’ve become because, like a lot of people, I grew up feeling lonely and unattractive and that’s the person I wake up with every morning. It’s the same girl who sometimes still bawls herself to sleep at night. But when I get into one of those moods, feeling down, just a stubbed toe away from an hour-long crying jag, I go to my closet, lay out my best clothes, turn the lights down real low, and stand myself in front of the mirror.
The lighting is important, so I take some time and get it just right. Then I feel a lonely girl’s delight as I watch a grown woman change moods as she changes and rechanges her outer skin. That woman is a whole lot different from the homely child she once was. That woman has long, long legs. Her thighs might be a tad heavy, her ankles definitely too thick—but not too thick to wear elegant stiletto heels with peep toes. Or a pair of crystal pumps that the woman found for ten bucks at a Palm Beach thrift shop. Ten bucks! The woman has decent hips, too, and a waist that appears skinny enough, but only because her shoulders are so darn wide from swimming laps. Things get better, though, as the lonely girl’s eyes move up the mirror where the woman spills out of her favorite 34D bra just enough to cause the girl to get teary-eyed and smile, because she, in her own mind, is as about as shapely as an ironing board balancing two peas.
Sometimes it takes a while to convince myself that the woman in the mirror is me. Not a fashion model, nope. That’ll never happen—unless God drops everything else to lend a hand. Or unless shower curtains become some kind of fashion craze. But my body is pretty darn good, thank you very much. And my face is strong and sometimes handsome—even pretty—when the light is right. Good high cheeks, glossy hair, and eyes that are sharp and perceptive when they aren’t focusing on those few old scars that even the little girl realizes helped create the strong woman she has become.
Just being alone on a fast boat improved my mood, feeling the sunlight and smelling the wind. By the time I’d showered and changed, I felt a lot better, even though I had only thirty minutes to get to Captiva Island for my appointment. By car, the drive would take an hour even in the light summer traffic. So I did what I often do when in a hurry: I got in my boat and flew.
MR. LAWRENCE SEASONS PLACED A NAPKIN BENEATH HIS glass, scowled at the ring on the table, then summoned the maid, before telling me, “I invited you because we have a problem and a woman’s insight might be helpful. It has to do with my niece. She hasn’t disappeared, exactly. But we don’t know where she is and she won’t return our calls. Every two weeks, though, as required by the trust, she telephones the executor’s office—that’s my office. But then hangs up before my secretary can ask any questions.”
I said, “Hmmm,” as if I understood, but, of course, I did not. “How can your secretary be sure it’s your niece calling?”
“We gave her a list of test questions that only Olivia could answer. It’s the first thing she does when Olivia checks in.”
“Olivia . . .? ”
“Olivia Tatum Seasons. My late brother’s only child.”
I asked, “Any close friends you could get to talk to her?”
“We’ve tried,” Mr. Seasons said. “Olivia doesn’t have many friends—not that she trusts, anyway.”
“What about Ms. Calder-Shaun? She seems like a nice lady. Or her mother? Sometimes a minister can talk to people when no one else can.”
He shook his head. “Her mother moved to Europe long ago. And Olivia’s stepmother is only ten years older than Olivia. She was an actress. Still is, I suppose. And, well”—Mr. Seasons swirled the ice in his glass—“she and the stepmother have never gotten along. You can see why it’s become a problem.”
“What about Olivia’s cell?” I offered. “Most phones have a GPS signal.”
The man attempted to cloak his impatience at what I realized was an obvious suggestion but was still polite enough to reply, “Yes, actually, we did think of it. She’s turned off the GPS service. Or gotten a different phone.”
To my left, outside the ballroom-sized enclosure that screened the swimming pool, a cabana, and an outdoor gas kitchen, I could see a dock through the foliage, and the shiny transom of Mr. Seasons’s expensive yacht. The vessel dwarfed my little skiff, which was tied in the shallows like a waiting pony. I was beginning to wish I was on my boat, and gone. But I tried again by asking the niece’s age and what she was like.
“As a person, I mean,” I said.
“Olivia just turned thirty—about the same age as you, I would guess. But her behavior is not as . . . solid?” The man thought about it for a moment, his silver hair catching the light. “No, that’s not the right word. Olivia has lived a privileged life, I’ll put it that way. It’s like mothers who use antibacterial soap. Their children don’t build up the necessary immunities—you know, out there wrestling in the mud, swapping germs on the playground. The same with Olivia. Her father’s wealth protected her, so now she doesn’t possess the immunities—street savvy, you might say—that a woman needs to function in the real world.” He paused when we heard the click of shoes on Mexican tile.
I had been doing my best not to gawk but the maid was marching toward us and I couldn’t help glancing beyond her into the library beyond. Through doors framed with pecky cypress, I saw a room that was a museum of artwork and antiques. A chandelier sprinkled light across a marble floor, then spilled over onto sculptures, Renaissance-looking paintings, an oriental carpet, and the largest fireplace I’d ever seen in Florida, or anywhere else.
I said to the maid, “Thank you, ma’am,” as she poured tea over ice, then returned my attention to Mr. Seasons. “I can’t imagine how I can help. But I’d be pleased to try.”
The man waited with exaggerated patience while the maid wiped the table and didn’t respond until she was out of earshot. The interruption prompted him to say, “Everything we say here is confidential—I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that.”
“Sure—of course,” I said, and tried the tea. It was unsweetened instant tea, weak as tap water. I was reminded that by boating five miles across the bay, I had entered a different world. I’d left behind what remains of Old Florida and was now in one of the wealthiest enclaves of the North’s southernmost state.
“You know, I’ve been very impressed by your competence as a fishing guide,” he continued. “I hope I didn’t offend by mentioning confidentiality. It’s not that I’m sharing some terrible family secret, it’s just—”
“First thing I learned,” I said, trying to help the man, “is my clients have a right to their privacy, whether they’re on my boat or a thousand miles away at home. What they say when I’m around leaves when they leave the dock. Fishing guides who aren’t respectful don’t last very long.”
“Exactly,” Mr. Seasons said, then sat up straighter and smiled as if a pleasing thought had just come into his mind. “I bet Captain Jake taught you that. Professionalism. He took a lot of pride in what he did.”
“My uncle knew his business,” I agreed.
“My God, I fished with Jake for almost twenty years before he got sick. All kinds of weather. I’ve always said you can learn more about a man’s character in eight hours fishing than you can in eight years at some damn office pretending to be something you’re not. That applies to women, too, of course. You are a very impressive young woman, Captain Smith.”
I smiled my appreciation, although I don’t particularly like being called captain. In my mind, a real captain stands at the wheel of a ship, not a twenty-one-foot skiff.
Mr. Seasons’s mind was still on the subject of fishing. “March and April were my favorite months because we’d hunt those big female tarpon at the mouth of the river. But we’d go holidays, too. Christmas was always fun, if the bay wasn’t too rough. I remember one afternoon—this was around Thanksgiving, I think—it was glassy calm, like summer, and Jake took me offshore looking for tripletail. Now, the tripletail is a very strange fish, isn’t it? Floats on the surface like a giant leaf. So convinced it’s invisible, you can scoop it up in a net, don’t even need bait. Some people are like that. Unaware of their vulnerability, secure in their own illusions. I’m afraid my niece, Olivia, might be one of them.”
I nodded, aware he didn’t expect an answer.
“Tell me, Hannah, have you done much fishing in the Ten Thousand Islands area?”
He was asking about a wilderness region forty miles south, a jigsaw puzzle of uninhabited islands, black water, and swamp that abutted the Everglades. I could picture the mangrove shadows and smell the brackish air as he continued, “I’ve fished there twice. Liked it, but found it a little spooky, too. For an outsider, I mean. All that unmarked water . . . all those little backcountry towns where people’re still suspicious of strangers. Everglades City, Caxambas, Goodland, Chokoloskee—do you know the waters down there at all?”
For some reason, I got the strong impression the question had more to do with his missing niece than fishing. I said, “Vacations, Jake would take me camping on Panther Key, just off the channel into Everglades. There’s a little strand of beach, and we’d fish the whole area. Refuel and sometimes eat at Chokoloskee, there’s a couple of nice places. You knew Mary, before they split up?”
“Jake’s wife, of course. A, uhh. . . a lovely lady.”
There was nothing lovely or nice about my uncle’s poisonous ex-wife, but I said, “She didn’t care much for being outdoors, so I filled in.”
Mr. Seasons liked something about the way I said it. It caused him to grin, and remember, “Jake always told me his niece was the son he’d never had. And he was the—”
The father you never had, is what the man meant to say but caught himself in time. Instead, without fumbling too badly, he finished, “—he was the best uncle he could be to his favorite niece.”
In that instant, I liked Mr. Seasons better than I had during the five or six times he’d chartered my boat. Thought it was sweet of him to worry about hurting my feelings as I watched his smile turn inward, aware he was thinking about the days he’d spent on the water with my uncle. Mr. Seasons had a nice face, tan and smooth with angles. Still handsome for a man in his fifties, which may seem strange for a woman my age to notice, but Loretta is right when she accuses me of liking older men. Particularly the strong ones, and Mr. Seasons certainly qualified. His was the sort of regal face you see at charity functions, framed neatly by a starched tuxedo collar, or at tennis clubs where people dress in white and talk about the heat.
Because of mother’s gossiping, it was a battle not to imagine this fit-looking rich man when he was fifteen years younger, trying to seduce my aunt who was wild in her ways and who loved men—something I knew for a fact because I’ve read Hannah Three’s journals many times. But then the man saved me by launching into a story about landing a hundred-pound bull shark, which required that I pretend to be interested.
Mr. Season went on for several minutes about catching that shark, which clients tend to do when they’ve enjoyed themselves. My tea was gone when he finally changed the subject, saying, “Over the years, a man’s fishing guide becomes an extended member of the family. That’s how close Jake and I were.” His eyes focused tight on my face. “He did some other work for me, too.”
What People are saying about this
“In his Doc Ford novels, Randy Wayne White plumbs the shallows of the Gulf waters and the depths of the human heart. But in his newest thriller, Gone, he gives us Hannah Smith, a gutsy new heroine to root for, and a plot that crackles with the electricity of a Florida thunderstorm. Gone won’t be long forgotten.”—P. J. Parrish, author of the New York Times-bestselling Louis Kincaid thrillers
“A heroine who’s just as stubborn and capable and even more appealing than White’s Doc Ford.”—Kirkus
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