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By RANDY WAYNE WHITE
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS Copyright © 2004 Randy Wayne White
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE morning that Pilar Santana Fuentes arrived at Dinkin's Bay and told me that our son had been kidnapped, I was in waist-deep water, a couple hundred yards down the mangrove shore from my rickety stilt house, wrestling with a sixty-pound tarpon.
I heard a woman's voice calling in Spanish, "Marion? Marion! I thought you were expecting me."
She sounded irritated. Demanding. Which didn't fit with my image of who Pilar is, or was in terms of her normal behavior, but I let it go.
She'd telephoned from Central America. So, yes, I'd been expecting her. Even so, I was unprepared for the thumping heart and twittering, nervous jolt I got when I saw her. Nervous, because I believed her to be my long-lost love.
I like interesting-looking women, and women who are interesting. I have zero interest in the Hollywood concept of beauty unless humor, character, and intellect are added to the mix. Those are the sexiest of qualities. I try to maintain those standards, all the while understanding that I am not the most attractive of men at first glance. Maybe not even at third or fourth glance.
I like women as people. That is a grounding common denominator.
Pilar undoubtedly has all the feminine qualities that attract males of our species. Her body is so achingly, obviously female that the first time I saw her, I felt an actual sensation of physical pain. At the time, she was married. I suspect I felt pain because I believed that I had no chance of winning her as a lover.
Later, after we became lovers, I felt the same radiating ache at the thought of losing her. I thought I never would.
Now, seeing her for the first time in years, my reaction was familiar though unexpected, and so was the powerful lancet of pain.
I had my right hand clamped on the tarpon's lower jaw, the fish's body cradled in my left arm. Tomlinson was in the water with me. Tomlinson, my storklike friend with his blond and gray hippie hair braided into samurai shocks. He was shirtless and had one of his old sarongs tied Gandhi-style between his legs, like baggy shorts or diapers.
Wearing his hair like a samurai was his new thing. He'd taken to wearing samurai robes on his boat, too, and around my house when he visited. Something to do with his decision to re-enter this life as "a spiritual warrior."
Whatever that meant.
That was the kind of question I asked only when I had a lot of time-and a lot of his favorite rum on stock, which is El Dorado, a superb but little-known rum from Guyana. Tomlinson had found El Dorado on a recent South American "rum quest" and was never without the stuff.
He was holding a clear plastic water-gun. In the squirt gun, I'd diluted several milligrams of metomidate. Metomidate is a potent, effective tranquilizer. Tomlinson's job was to squirt the mixture through the tarpon's mouth very, very slowly irrigating its gills until the fish began to show signs of light sedation.
After that, I would steer the tarpon back to my lab and into the big galvanized holding tank I'd stationed there just for this project.
Working with biologists from the University of Florida, we were trying to be the first to spawn and hatch tarpon in captivity. Interesting work.
To get an idea of what a tarpon looks like, imagine a giant, prehistoric herring. With its chromium scales and massive tail, it's one of the world's great game fish. For Florida, the tarpon is a swimming, breathing precious metals industry-pure silver. Same with much of the Caribbean.
Sportsmen travel from around the world just for the chance of a hook-up. The fish brings millions of tourism dollars annually into the state.
Yet, few seem to appreciate the animal's economic worth.
Over the last few decades, loss of habitat and deteriorating water quality have impacted the tarpon population. Fishing guides from the islands, Key West to Cedar Key, have been saying for years what we biologists have been slow to prove: Each year, there are fewer fish.
So this was a worthwhile project, entirely the idea of the first-rate scientists at the U-of-F, and I was delighted to play a small role.
When Pilar called to us, Tomlinson looked up briefly, then looked again. He whistled softly, and said to me in a low voice, "Wowie-zowie, she hasn't changed, amigo. She's still easy on the eyes. Even from this distance, I can tell."
He'd met Pilar years ago in Central America. It was not long after the lady had ended our love affair, and before I knew that she was pregnant with our child. I'd been badly wounded when Tomlinson and I were there; nearly killed. The two of them had spent some time together in a makeshift hospital, nursing me.
Or so I heard later-I was delirious most of the time.
Tomlinson took another quick glance. "That sort of woman, you don't often see. It's almost like her body puts off an odor. Pure sex mixed with ... something, man, something. She's different from most people you meet."
His tone had an unusual quality. Did he want me to pursue the subject?
But then he returned his attention to the fish, saying, "We don't want this guy to go through any more trauma than we have to. Can Pilar give us a few minutes? She's in a hurry, I can tell. Ask her if she can wait until we have him in the pen."
I smiled, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Tomlinson, the unrepentant hipster, was telling me-me, the supposedly competent biologist-the proper way to deal with this fish. Another reason was because I find my various frailties and stupidities just so damn funny.
Which means I have no shortage of things to smile about.
Here I was, a grown man, reacting with all the emotional and intellectual maturity of some love-besotted adolescent. My heart was pounding, my thighs actually felt watery-that's how nervous I was at the prospect of seeing Pilar again face to face.
I didn't want to worry about the tarpon. What I wanted was to dump the fish, run to shore, and take the lady into my arms. I wanted to sit her down and listen to her voice. I wanted to hear why she'd traveled from Masagua to Sanibel Island, Florida, to meet privately with me. What was so important? Why all the secrecy on the phone?
I have been madly, passionately, irresponsibly in love with only one woman in my life. Now here she was.
So that's why I was wearing the wry, silly smile. It was because I knew that I was reacting like a simple, silly-ass teenager. Even when I was a teenager, I wasn't the emotional teenage type. Which is why, on a deeper level of awareness, the way I was feeling also tickled at my intellectual gag reflex.
Knock it off, Ford. She's keying a chemical response in the lower region of the brain. Never confuse love with the effects of serotonin.
In a rational world, emotion is an indulgence. Usually, it is an untidy one.
So, as I walked with the tarpon, I tried to establish a different kind of grounding by stepping back and reminding myself what had happened, and how it had happened.
WHEN we'd had our affair, Pilar was married to a political aristocrat and egomaniacal thug named Balserio. I'd been in Masagua working as a biologist under the auspices of the American embassy. Actually, I was doing deep-cover intelligence assignments, working with an Aussie SAS partner. He was a crazed surfer/oceanographer named Thackery.
Thackery had infiltrated some ultra-left-wing environmental group that was helping to finance the rebels. It was through him that I met Pilar in a remote Pacific village, where she was setting up a trade school for teens.
The physical attraction I felt caused me physically to shake when I was near her. The emotional attraction was just as strong. I'd never felt anything like it before or since.
For a time, I think she may have felt the same. At least, she behaved as if she did.
It was an impossible situation that became untenable when Pilar became pregnant with our son.
Not that I knew. She never told me until long after I'd fled the country, escaping from her bedroom via some long-forgotten tunnel that ran from a Masaguan convent into a park. I left with a bounty on my head.
Her husband swore he'd have me killed-or do the job himself. That's all she told me.
Several months later, when I read that he'd been assassinated, I was one of many who did not mourn. Anyone who did mourn for Jorge Balserio wasted his tears.
But Balserio resurfaced, alive and well, a year later. He'd staged his own death to give himself an opportunity to escape his many enemies.
Pilar contacted me the moment she heard. "You can never come back here," she told me. "He still despises you."
His soon-to-be ex-wife had given birth to a chubby baby boy. A blond, blue-eyed baby boy.
Aside from Thackery, the crazy surfer, I was the only gringo around. And I was the one who'd had an affair with Pilar.
Which is all the Latin general needed to know.
SQUIRTING a stream of fluid into the fish's mouth, Tomlinson asked, "What are you watching for? How can you tell the drug's kicking in?"
I still had the tarpon cradled in my arms, feeling the slickness of it, smelling the good, sweet tarpon odor that is unique to the fish.
I answered, "I'm watching its gills. The color. But more than that, too. In the first stages of sedation, there's a slight loss of reactivity to external stimuli. And a decrease in the opercula rate."
Tomlinson touched his finger to the side of the fish's head. "The operculum is the gill covering, right?"
"Yep. That's what I'm doing now, counting how many times the gills are beating per minute. In deep sedation, there's a total loss of reactivity, even equilibrium-which we want to avoid. We want something in between."
Tomlinson said, "Real-l-l-ly. That sounds very interesting, though, man. Very heavy. A complete loss of reactivity. What's it called, metomidate? I may try a few hits of this stuff myself. Take a couple of squirts down the ol' hatch."
Then he added quickly, "But strictly as an experiment, of course. Nothing recreational, because I know you wouldn't be cool with that. I am a social scientist, don't forget."
Looking from the fish to Pilar, who was still standing on the shoreline, I said, "Don't even joke about it. Metomidate-if it's anything like a sedative we use called quinaldine-can cause corneal damage in fish and people. Which is why we need to get this right. So no more screwing around, O.K.?"
After another minute or two, I could feel the fish begin to go limp in my arms, its big, truncated tail now fanning the water like a slow, slow metronome.
"He's ready," I said. "Let's walk him to the tank and see how he reacts."
"It's what you expected so far? The reaction?"
I told him so far, yes. But reminded him that this was just a trial run. Which is why I was using a male tarpon instead of a female. I didn't want to risk attempting to anesthetize a female until I knew for certain how much of the drug was needed, and how a sedated tarpon would react if confined in a holding tank for an hour or more. A sexually mature female can produce more than twelve million eggs in a single spawning season. If I screwed up and killed a fish, I didn't want it to be a member of the brood stock.
A valid point Darwin didn't make but could have made: In most dimorphic species, males are interchangeable, and so expendable. Perhaps that's why only primate males seem to inherit the war gene.
As I waded toward the marina, steering the tarpon along, I called to Pilar, "I'll meet you at the house. The boardwalk's to your left through the mangroves. Doors are open, there's mosquito spray on the railing, and there're drinks in the fridge. So make yourself at home."
Because I spoke to her in English, she replied in English. It was lightly accented, her tone more formal because the language was less familiar. "I've always been interested to see how a man like you fives, Marion. It's been a long time."
Emotional indulgence or not, silly or not, that made my heart pound even harder.
NOT all fish have scales, but all fish produce slime-a glyco-protein called mucin, actually-and the mucin produced by tarpon has all the adhesive charm of super glue mixed with axle grease.
I'd been wrestling with the fish. Tomlinson had not. So, while he played host inside, I stood outside, showering, sluicing off the slime and mud and salt. The southwest coast of Florida had been having some spectacular lighming squalls during our tropical-bright afternoons. So the rainwater pouring out of the cistern was fresh and warm.
Florida has two seasons-the winter dry and the summer wet. It was a Tuesday, the sixth of May, the very front edge of the rainy. So I lathered and rinsed over and over, using all the water I wanted. It was an extravagance not to be enjoyed come fall.
As I washed, my brain bounced back and forth from topic to topic. I seldom have trouble concentrating. Just the opposite. Friends accuse me of tunnel vision. Of being hermitlike in my work habits to the point of excluding the realities-and the conveniences-of a modern world.
Things they see as conveniences, anyway. Such as television, and VCRs. Add to the list: cellular phones, shopping memberships, Palm Pilots, DVDs, internet dating services, all varieties of cable and satellite interconnectings, and magic pills that cure ancient ills.
I was having trouble focusing now, though. My attention kept shifting from the sedated tarpon to Pilar. The tarpon was in its tank on the bottom deck of my house, which is built on stilts in the shallow water of Dinkin's Bay. Before my shower, midway through it, and while I was still drying off, I jogged down the steps, towel around hips, to reconfirm that the fish was still holding itself upright, gills working slowly but steadily in its metomidate-laced pen.
More than once, I also paused to listen to the bell tones of Pilar's voice and occasional laughter coming from inside. An individual's voice is as distinctive as a pheromone signature. It caused me to think of the way it had been with her. The emotional and physical intimacy. The way it had been when we were alone, clothed or naked, our bodies and our minds coupled.
In her e-mail, and then on the phone, she hadn't told me what she wanted to discuss. Just that it was personal and important.
Because she'd assured me it had nothing to do with our son, I didn't feel any great anxiety. Anticipation-that better describes it.
As I showered, I tried not to admit to myself what it was that I secretly hoped, because, once again, it was silly and out of character. Still, the feelings were there. Truth was, I hoped that she'd come to tell me that she wanted to give us a try.
Excerpted from TAMPA BURN by RANDY WAYNE WHITE Copyright © 2004 by Randy Wayne White. Excerpted by permission.
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