Wreckers' Key: A Novel of Suspense

Wreckers' Key: A Novel of Suspense

by Christine Kling
     
 

In her Seychelle Sullivan novels, Christine Kling has brilliantly rendered the world of South Florida, as seen from the teeming waters around it. From harbors of Key West to the wilds of Biscayne Bay to the night lights of Miami, Kling’s tough-minded heroine has carved out a life that is uniquely her own. Now, this fiercely independent woman is at a turning… See more details below

Overview

In her Seychelle Sullivan novels, Christine Kling has brilliantly rendered the world of South Florida, as seen from the teeming waters around it. From harbors of Key West to the wilds of Biscayne Bay to the night lights of Miami, Kling’s tough-minded heroine has carved out a life that is uniquely her own. Now, this fiercely independent woman is at a turning point . . . and in a dangerous duel with an unseen enemy.

In the 1800s, Key West was built by wrecking skippers who in feats of derring-do raced to shipping disasters to save valuable cargos from the ocean depths. Today, as too many boats chase too few wrecks, salvage has turned into a cutthroat corporate enterprise. Seychelle Sullivan, who pilots a tug her father built by hand, is unable and unwilling to compete. She is overwhelmed by issues of love, trust, motherhood, career, and family. But when a friend is killed, Seychelle begins to suspect a chilling scenario: that modern-day wreckers are causing yachts to crash onto the reefs–and killing off whoever gets in the way.

Nestor Frias was piloting a billionaire’s luxury power yacht on its maiden voyage when it ran aground. A few days later, Frias was dead. His eight-months-pregnant widow is distraught, and a host of questions surround both Frias’s death and the ship’s accident. When another man dies while asking questions, Seychelle navigates the dangerous shoals and channels of the case and her life, unaware that a greater danger is looming: a murderous human storm designed perfectly for her.

With its vivid, colorful characters and rich sense of sea and land, Wreckers’ Key is a brilliant addition to Christine Kling's fascinating, entertaining, and thrilling Florida mystery series.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Christine Kling

Bitter End

“Christine Kling’s novels just keep getting better and better. . . . She takes her readers on fast-paced tours of areas into which few writers have ventured.”
–Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, author of Luck of the Draw

“John D. McDonald would get a kick out of Christine Kling’s suspense novels.”
–Chicago Tribune

Cross Current

“A taut, fast-paced thriller . . . Kling’s prose is strong and authoritative.”
–The Miami Herald

“Exciting . . . Kling is an author who bears watching. She clearly knows how to add texture and color to her narrative. . . . Cross Current is a keeper.”
–The Tampa Tribune

Surface Tension

“An exceptionally rare first novel . . . moving and full of suspense.”
–James W. Hall, author of Off the Chart

“Seychelle Sullivan fights off a very real array of land-based predators with a grit and determination that John D. himself would have cheered.”
–Les Standiford, author of Bone Key

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780345479068
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/26/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
4.13(w) x 6.84(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

I

“We hit the reef so hard, i’m surprised no one was killed,” Nestor said. “I keep dreaming about it, you know? Hearing the sound of the hull crunching across the coral and then Kent’s screams when his arm broke.” He rubbed his hand across his eyes like he was trying to wipe away the vision. “This situation scares me, Seychelle. My whole career’s on the line here.”

I couldn’t disagree. When you put a multimillion-dollar yacht on the reef on her maiden voyage, your reputation as a captain is toast. I was there to help with the salvage of the boat, but I wasn’t sure what I could do to salvage Nestor’s career.

Catalina Frias reached across the table, took her husband’s hand, and focused her large brown eyes on his face. She didn’t say anything for several seconds, but there was a sense of intimacy in that moment that was stronger than if she’d grabbed him and planted a wet one on him. “Hey, we are going to get through this, mi amor, okay?” Her soft voice was accented, but her English was perfect. She squeezed his hand, her other arm resting across the top of the belly that bulged beneath her pretty print maternity top.

I was sitting with the two of them at an outdoor table at the Two Friends Patio Restaurant on Front Street. I’d arrived in Key West late the afternoon before on my forty-six-foot aluminum tug Gorda, and when I called Nestor on the VHF, I told him I was too tired to come ashore after a four-day trip down from Lauderdale with only my dog as crew. I just wanted to drop the hook and collapse in my bunk, so we’d agreed to meet in the morning for Sunday brunch. Now here I was, sitting under a lush trellis of bougainvillea pushing scrambled eggs and sausage around my plate, my appetite gone.

“Nestor, this is the first time I’ve taken Gorda this far from home. I wouldn’t do this for just anybody, you know.”

When he smiled that boyish smile so full of gratitude, my heart ached for him. He was in a hell of a spot.

“Gracias, amiga. I can’t lose this job,” he said, the backs of his fingers caressing his wife’s belly. “Not now, with the baby coming in just a few weeks.”

I’d known Nestor much longer than his wife had, and I loved him like a brother. There was a time when maybe that love could have gone another way, but the attraction that might have been had turned into an abiding friendship. He really was one of the good guys. He’d showed up on the docks just before Red died, and afterward, when I started running Gorda on my own and several of the captains were bad-mouthing the only female captain in the towing business, he always stood up for me. I’d watched him work his way up the waterfront, going from being a captain on the Water Taxi to running the charter fishing boat My Way, until now, finally, he’d gotten his big break about four months ago, as the captain of a luxury power yacht. The Power Play was a newly commissioned Sunseeker 94 owned by a local resident millionaire, Ted Berger. Berger had made his money in dot-com-related businesses, and when he’d sold out, he’d bought several South Florida TV stations and sports teams.

“Do you think Berger’s going to can you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. He hasn’t said anything yet. Seychelle, this was the first passage I’d made as captain. Other than a couple of sea trials to work on the engines, we hadn’t really taken her out yet. He told me when he hired me to commission the yacht that he wanted her down here in Key West for Race Week, but then he decided to install new flat-screen TVs in all the staterooms, then a new sound system, and we were late getting out of the yard. The festivities down here had already started, and the boss was itching to come down and party. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been going so fast in a squall.”

“You hit that reef going almost twenty knots in a rain squall?”

“I know it sounds bad, Seychelle. Especially to someone like you. But let’s face it—you haven’t exactly embraced the electronics age. Do you even have a GPS on that tugboat of yours?”

“Nestor, what I do is not the point here.”

“Sey, you don’t even own a cell phone.”

“Okay, already.”

“See, the Power Play is loaded with every bit of electronic equipment imaginable. Berger spared no expense. The man is really into toys, and there are backups for the backups. So what we were doing is running on instruments, the same way commercial pilots do with planes full of hundreds of passengers. The autopilot is tied in to one of three separate GPS systems. We were in Hawk’s Channel, and everything had been working great up to that point. I was on the bridge myself because I knew we were nearing the entrance to Key West Harbor. All the instruments showed us more than half a mile from any obstructions when bam! We ran right up onto these rocks off West Washerwoman Shoal. The impact knocked Kent off his feet, and when he tried to break his fall, the bone just snapped—came right out through his skin.” Nestor shuddered at the memory. He’d already told me it had been a nasty compound fracture.

Nobody said anything for several long seconds while we all saw it happen in our minds, saw the big ninety-four-footer come to a grinding halt on the rocks, the men on the bridge thrown off their feet, the screams and the blood. Nestor grasped the Saint Christopher’s medal he wore around his neck and kissed the face of the saint.

“So, Nestor,” I said, “what do you think happened?”

My friend looked at his wife for a moment, as though unsure if he should say what he was thinking. It was amazing to watch how the two of them communicated, saying so much in a glance or a touch.

“Seychelle,” Nestor started, after a quick look around the dining patio to see if anyone was listening to our conversation. Satisfied, he leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Ted Berger these past weeks, and I wouldn’t put anything past him. He calls himself the Other Ted, as though he’s in the same league as Turner. But he’d do anything to get there. Ruthless is the word that comes to mind.” Nestor lifted his shoulders and bobbed his head once, like a bow. “Okay, maybe you have to be that way to get the kind of money he has, but lately, with the start-up of this girls’ hockey league and buying this boat, I think he’s overextended himself. He wants out of this boat deal and now he seems more pissed over the fact that he’s getting hit with a big salvage claim than over the business of wrecking her in the first place.”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying you think Berger tried to wreck his own boat?” I tried hard to keep the disbelief out of my voice.

“Jesus,” he said, swiveling his head to look around the empty patio. “Not so loud, Sey. I don’t have any proof—yet. But it just doesn’t make sense otherwise. The only way this could have happened is if the equipment malfunctioned somehow. And I’m just saying that Ted Berger would have been better off with the insurance company cashing him out of an investment that had got out of hand.”

“Nestor, I’m finding this kind of hard to believe.”

“You’d understand if you could have heard him while we were in the boatyard. He was constantly complaining about how much things cost. He had no idea what he was getting into when he bought a yacht that size.”

“I suppose it makes sense in a way. If he’d just put the boat up for sale, it would have signaled to people that he was in financial trouble.”

“Exactly. And he has the background—he made his money in electronics. I’m going to have a buddy of mine check out the equipment on the boat and see if he can find evidence it’s been tampered with. Get him to come down before we take off to head back up north. I don’t intend to take the fall for Ted Berger’s financial problems.”

At that moment Nestor’s eyes flicked to the right and focused on something outside the restaurant. The skin across his cheeks grew taut and his eyes narrowed for only a second before his face broke into a huge, forced grin. He lifted his hand and waved.

I twisted in my seat, glanced over my shoulder. A white-haired man wearing a loud red-and-blue Hawaiian shirt was standing on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. He waved, and then went in the front door, clearly headed for us out on the patio. An instant later he appeared in the side door, and his voice boomed, “Good morning,” causing the other diners’ heads to turn. When he reached our table, he placed both his hands on Catalina’s shoulders then bent and kissed her on the cheek. He said, “Our mommy-to-be looks more glowingly beautiful every time I see her.”

Catalina’s body had gone still at his touch, her only movement turning her face away as he kissed her, so his mouth wound up kissing her hair.

Nestor stood and shook hands with the man. Either he hadn’t noticed or he was choosing to ignore his wife’s discomfort. “Good morning,” he said as he pumped the man’s hand. Then he turned to me. “Seychelle, I’d like to introduce you to Ted Berger.”

I started to stand, but Berger waved me back down. “So you’re the tugboat captain,” he said as he seated himself in the fourth chair at the table and waggled a coffee mug at the waitress. “I kind of expected a hag with a corncob pipe.” He cocked his head to one side and looked at me from head to as much as he could see above the table. “You’re definitely not a hag.”

The Tugboat Annie jokes had grown old about the second month after I inherited Sullivan Towing and Salvage from my father. That was more than three years ago.

“I’m just here to do the job you hired me for, Mr. Berger.”

He threw his hands in the air in mock surrender. “Oh my, I’ve offended her. Very businesslike of you, Miss Sullivan. Or should I call you Captain?”

“Seychelle is fine,” I said. Up close, I realized that the man’s white hair was deceptive. He wasn’t as old as I’d originally thought. His face and neck looked like they belonged to a man not yet out of his forties. He was a couple of inches shorter than me, maybe five foot eight, and his forced joviality and loud clothes made him appear to be overcompensating for something.

“Okay. Seychelle, then. Interesting name.”

I got ready to go into the usual explanation, but he beat me to it. “Named after the islands in the Indian Ocean, I assume.”

“Pretty good. Not many people recognize the name.”

“Trust me, Ted, Sey’s a lot better off than her brothers,” Nestor said.

“Oh?” Berger asked, his eyebrows lifting into the lock of white hair that had fallen on his forehead.

I nodded. “Madagascar and Pitcairn.”

“Oh dear,” he said, laughing. “Parents can be cruel. So, Seychelle, Nestor tells me he’d rather have you tow the boat up to Lauderdale than any of that scum over at Ocean Towing.”

“Ted, I may have exchanged a few harsh words with those guys, but I didn’t call them scum,” Nestor said.

“Well, I’ll call them that!” He turned to me. “Do you know what they’re trying to charge me for getting the Power Play off that reef and into Robbie’s Marina on Stock Island?”

“I can imagine. Nestor told me it took them almost twelve hours to get her free.”

“They’re goddamn pirates!”

“No, sir, actually, they probably saved the boat and saved the insurance company a bundle. They’d rather pay the yard bill and salvage than suffer a total loss.”

He rolled his eyes and turned away from me.

Out in the street, a tall man with stringy shoulder-length hair, wearing nothing but swim trunks, was trying to untangle the leash of his mangy German shepherd from around his legs and the pedals of his beach bike. He was mumbling to himself. Our table was situated so close to the street, we couldn’t help but overhear the string of obscenities and incomprehensible answers he was giving to the voices he apparently heard in his head.

When Berger spoke again, he continued staring out at the man on the street. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or to us. “I like things that are new and shiny. No matter what, now the Power Play is going to be a repaired vessel.” He turned and focused his eyes on mine. “And I don’t like patched-up shit.”

I smiled, refusing to look away. “Well, welcome to boats, Mr. Berger. If you’re not running them, you’re working on them. As I understand it, the hull wasn’t even holed. You’ve just got damage to rudders, stabilizers, props, and the like,” I said. “You know, I wouldn’t think of it as a patched-up boat. I’d say Nestor was just breaking her in.”

He tightened one cheek in a half smile. “That’s one way of looking at it.” His tone told me it would not be his view. “So you’re going to help our boy here get the boat back to Lauderdale where they can make proper repairs?”

I didn’t like the way he called Nestor our boy. “Sure am.”

Nestor said, “The guys at Robbie’s have put a temporary epoxy patch on the deep scratches in the hull. It will have to be faired and painted later; they just didn’t like the bare glass underwater. One prop was a total loss and the other is slightly damaged, but usable. Rudders were totaled. There was some structural damage to interior bulkheads, and some issues that will need to be addressed up in Lauderdale. I just want these guys to get her in shape for the trip north. It’ll be close, but I’ll bet we could launch tomorrow.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “The sooner, the better.”

Berger pushed back his chair and stood. He looked down at Catalina. “You gonna get this guy to show you around Key West, relax a little bit? Beautiful woman like you comes down to be with her man—he should show you off. Seems he spends all his time in that boatyard.”

“I told her I was going to be busy,” Nestor said. “And I didn’t like the idea of her riding the bus in her condition, but she insisted.”

“My husband says my condition like pregnancy is an illness,” Catalina said to me. She was ignoring Berger’s comments. “Having babies is natural. Stop worrying.” She reached for his hand again. “I have been trying to talk him into doing a little windsurfing,” she said. “I would like to see him relax, have a little fun. He is very good, you know. When he was in his teens, he was the national windsurfing champion in the Dominican Republic.”

“Listen to your wife, Nestor. She’s a smart, stand-by-your-man kind of woman. Makes me wonder what she sees in a guy like you.” He punched Nestor in the arm hard enough to rock him back in his chair. “So, how soon do you two think the boat will be ready to head north?”

“We’ve got a good-weather window coming up, and I’d like to leave as soon as possible,” I said. “Nestor and I were just starting to discuss our departure plans when you arrived.”

“Really?” he said. “You looked so serious. And secretive. Like my crew here was plotting a mutiny.”

Nestor and I both must have shown our surprise. Berger laughed and punched Nestor in the arm again, harder. “Just kidding, buddy.”

II

“Do you think he overheard what we were saying about him?”

We watched his back as he disappeared up the street.

“He would’ve been hard to miss if he’d been lingering around in that shirt,” I said, but I couldn’t rule it out. I thought about the man on the street with his dog earlier, and how we’d overheard every word he uttered. “I really don’t like that guy.”

“He’s not usually such a jerk,” Nestor said rubbing his upper arm where Berger had punched him.

Catalina looked at her husband and raised her eyebrows.

“He’s not that bad,” he said, lifting his hands, palms upward as if he were a weight lifter. “Okay, you’re right. And if he did have a hand in putting that boat on the stones, then he’s a major asshole.”

Nestor put his elbows on the table and leaned his forehead against his clasped hands. He was muttering what sounded like curses in Spanish. Then he raised his head and looked at his wife. “Berger heard or he didn’t. He’ll fire me or he won’t. In the meantime, I need to get Jorge down here to look at the boat. I’ll call him tonight, see if he can come down tomorrow. Time to go on the defensive.”

He reached for her hand and they sat there for several seconds, not talking. Once again I felt like an intruder just sitting there.

Nestor had met Catalina two years earlier when he’d returned to his hometown in the Dominican Republic after his father was admitted to a hospital, near death. The young, chocolate-skinned woman of mixed race had been his father’s favorite nurse. After the funeral, Nestor returned to Fort Lauderdale and the two started an e-mail correspondence that ended with a marriage proposal six months later. They made a striking couple with matching heads of black hair, yet so different in their body types. Tall, slender Nestor had his Spanish ancestors’ olive skin and sharp features, while Catalina’s beauty came from the lushness of her African lips, carved cheekbones, and a figure that even when pregnant evoked desire in men and women—the women desiring to look half that good. Being around them made me a believer in marriage. Maybe it wasn’t something that would ever work for me, but for these two, their union made them better, stronger, wiser. I envied them that.

And now I could understand Nestor wanting to believe that the grounding wasn’t his fault. It could, probably would, ruin his chances of ever moving up, of getting the highest-paying jobs on the megayachts. Gossip spread like the wind on the waterfront. But I knew how quickly things could change when a yacht was traveling at a speed like twenty knots. Only a few seconds of inattention could result in disaster. Obviously, Nestor wanted to believe this wasn’t his fault.

We paid the bill and rose to leave. On the sidewalk, I embraced Catalina and smiled at her. “Berger was right about one thing. You look great.”

She lowered her eyes, embarrassed by the flattery. She really had no idea how lovely she was. “I feel great.” She took my hand in hers. “Why don’t you come back with us to the yacht? There is not much else to do. We have movies, computers—many toys.” She elbowed her husband in the ribs. “And we can send him off windsurfing while we have an afternoon for the girls.”

“Thanks, but not this afternoon. I haven’t been down to Key West in a while, and I want to wander around—been cooped up on the boat too long on the trip down.”

“So tell me, why did you make this trip alone?” Catalina asked. “Where’s that wonderful man of yours?”

I winced at the possessive term. While B. J. and I were lovers, we continued to take things one day at a time. Thing is, I was the one balking at commitment. Catalina had met B. J. once, and he had made his usual impression. Women were drawn to him like iron particles to a magnet. It usually took more than a brush-off to shake them loose. I think it was something about his long, sleek black hair and part-Samoan heritage that made him seem like a tall, brown island king. We all just wanted to picture him wearing nothing but green leaves.

“B. J. was busy,” I said, not really wanting to explain at what, “and I couldn’t find a good deckhand on such short notice. Besides, the autopilot did most of the steering. I’ve had some stuff going on in my life, and I needed the time alone. I enjoyed it. The light has been spectacular. Gave me time to do some thinking, and I got some great photos of scenes I hope to paint when I get back.”

Catalina wouldn’t let it be. “He is busy at what?”

Geez, these people were Latins. Machismo and all that. I knew how they were going to react. But I needed to say it as though it didn’t bother me. “My friend Molly asked B. J. to take some classes with her. They’re studying to be midwives.”

Nestor burst out laughing and pretended to bury his face in his wife’s hair. He was standing behind her, his arms casually wrapped around her waist, and he patted her swollen belly like a tom-tom. “Sorry,” he said when he caught his breath. “I just never heard of a man wanting to be a midwife—or do you call it a midhusband?” His face was turning red as he held his breath trying not to laugh again.

“Well,” I said, “If you think about it, it fits right in with his fascination with shiatsu and aikido and all that enlightenment and Eastern religion stuff. Besides, B. J. is very secure in his masculinity. He’s really interested in this, and he—”

This time they both exploded with laughter.

“You guys, stop it. I know how it sounds. I think he’s really doing it for Molly. Geez, I don’t know what to think.”

“Have you checked to see if he’s still got cojones?” Nestor asked.

“Mi amor,” Catalina said, a playful huskiness coming into her voice, “this man—there is no question. He is beautiful. Perhaps, too beautiful.”

“You know, you’re not making this any easier on me.”

“Maybe you should call him to come down to Key West,” Nestor said. “There are lots of bars on Duval Street he might like.”

“Okay, you two, you go ahead and yuk it up.” I hitched my bag up over my shoulder. “I’ll see you both later.”

in fact, i thought, as I headed back toward Schooner Wharf to admire the charter yachts of Key West, it had been good to see Nestor laughing like that, even if it was at my expense. The young man had sounded so somber when I’d received his first phone call. He was in a pretty bad spot, and he might find himself having to look for another line of work after this.

Maybe I should join him, I thought, as I walked down Greene Street, shoving my hands deep in the pockets of my sweatshirt. I had done a job recently that was now hanging over me like a threatening storm, only I didn’t know how to prepare for this one. That’s what had made me so quick to say yes to the opportunity to leave Fort Lauderdale for a while. My career just might be in need of salvage, too.

There’s a reason why I normally don’t try to pick up distress calls on channel sixteen, I thought, as I settled onto a bench to watch the activity in Key West Bight Marina. There was once a time, back when my dad first built Gorda and he was one of only a couple of guys in the business, that he would answer every call that came up on the radio. But things had changed in recent years—changed drastically. As the yachts grew bigger and more expensive, the salvage and towing business became more lucrative, and dozens of companies had sprung up to try to cash in on the bonanza of idiots who could afford to buy boats but didn’t have the sense to get any kind of training to run them. There was Sea Tow, Offshore Marine Towing, Cape Anne Towing, Ocean Towing, Big Tuna Salvage—the list went on and on.

Unlike cars, boats don’t require a driver’s license for personal use. Anybody can go buy a vessel that can run at speeds up to sixty and seventy miles an hour, then just jump in and turn the key. And the waters around South Florida have been chewing up boats for centuries. While Ted Berger had just been complaining about Ocean Towing, they weren’t the only ones out there slapping boat owners with outrageous salvage claims. I’d heard from captains who’d applied for jobs with these outfits that it was company strategy to do anything they could to upgrade a job from a tow, which paid by the hour, to a salvage operation, which could result in an award of 20 to 40 percent of the value of the boat. Plus, they all needed the bucks to buy bigger and faster towboats and put up higher land-based VHF radio antennas. The end result? Gorda and I just couldn’t compete.

And then there was that afternoon just over a month ago when I answered an emergency call and the boat sank and a child almost died. And now I was being sued for $1.3 million for damages and mental anguish.

The whole situation was causing me a fair amount of mental anguish of my own, so when Nestor Frias called and requested me to assist him with getting the damaged Power Play back up to Lauderdale, I didn’t care if B. J. was off taking lessons in how to deliver babies. I grabbed at the chance to get out of town.

I stood up now, stretched, and told myself to stop whining. It was a sunny, crisp January day, I was in Key West, and I had lots of nerve to complain. There were thousands, probably millions of people all across America who hated their jobs at this very moment, and they weren’t standing outside in the warm sun gazing through a sea of rigging in Key West Harbor. The seafood restaurant to my left was broadcasting Buffett’s “Boat Drinks,” and I was admiring the fleet of schooners at the docks in the boat basin tucked behind breakwaters. Some were smaller workboats like the Wolf, some more than a hundred feet like the Western Union—industrial-strength charter head boats built to carry crowds—and others were classics like that black-hulled, immaculately varnished schooner with the name Hawkeye written in gold leaf on her bow.

Okay, so you’ve been thinking about getting out of the boat business, but listen to yourself. What else do you think you could do?

I started to stroll back toward the dinghy dock on the waterfront, thinking I might stop off at the Schooner Wharf Bar for a cold one before heading back out to the boat.

Paint. That’s what I really wanted to do. Like my mother. She had been a fairly successful watercolor artist before she died. We spent many happy hours standing in front of the easel together, her warm body pressed to my back, her hand guiding mine. Yes, that’s it. Well done. You’ve really got a talent for this, darling. Her work still graced the walls of some of the most prominent homes in Fort Lauderdale from the days when the galleries sought her work. And now I’d been invited to enter several paintings in the prestigious Las Olas Art Show, and at least one gallery was hinting at wanting to show my work. I knew the statistics, the very small number of people who actually made a living as artists, but maybe if I sold Gorda, I could use the money to take a year off just to paint. Just to see if I really had it.

“Seychelle?”

I turned my head in the direction of the distant shout. At first I didn’t see anyone. Then, far down one of the Schooner Wharf piers, I saw a man stepping off the schooner I’d been admiring just a few minutes before. He came trotting up the dock toward me with an incredulous look on his face.

“Seychelle Sullivan? Is that really you?”

III

Iwas pretty sure i would have remembered this guy if I’d ever met him before. The fabric of his white T-shirt was stretched tight across his broad chest, and where the sleeves of the shirt had been cut off, his tanned biceps bulged as he half ran toward me, waving. His slim hips were encased in cargo shorts, and his thick brown hair was streaked with strands of sun-bleached gold. All in all, I was figuring it was my lucky day that he was running toward me, whoever the hell he was.

My face must have shown my confusion. He stopped about five feet away from me and smiled. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Um, no. Are you sure we’ve met?” There was something about his eyes that was ringing bells somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain, but I couldn’t nail down the connections.

He opened his mouth wide and laughed. His teeth were whiter than a puppy’s and the look he was giving me, enthusiastically waiting to see if I would come up with his name, made me think that if he’d had a tail, it would have been wagging.

He dropped his head to his chest for a few seconds, as though giving up. Then he looked up, showing off those gorgeous teeth again, and said, “Ben. Remember? From high school? Ben Baker?”

“Benjamin Baker?” I said, my voice rising nearly an octave on his last name. “Oh my God, Glub? Have you ever changed!” When I’d called him his old childhood nickname, he’d dropped his eyes for a moment and his dazzling smile dimmed by just a few watts. I reached out for his shoulders and held him at arm’s length. I knew I was babbling, but I couldn’t believe it. “Look at you. Oh my God. You’re gorgeous!”

As I walked around him, surveying the transformation from head to bare feet, he cocked his head sideways and watched me.

“Changed a little, huh?” he said.

“A little? Geez, I never would have recognized you.”

Benjamin Baker had been one year ahead of me—in my brother Pit’s class at Stranahan High. He was one of those nerdy boys, shaped like a pear with a wide ass and narrow shoulders. His mother always buzzed his hair short, making his head look even more pinlike in relation to his enormous butt. I used to think he would have made a good singing Country Bear in a Disney attraction.

Ben had been totally into marine science, though, and that was our connection. That and the fact that we lived in the same neighborhood, and Pit and I often had to save him from the cruel teasing of our older brother Maddy. I’d spent hours with Ben going over all the creatures he had in his slide collection and peering into the powerful microscope his mother had bought for him.

In high school, Ben had suffered from the triple curse—he’d had braces, acne, and glasses all at once. His face had been a red, bumpy field of scabs and pus, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that he had the coolest hermit crabs as pets, I don’t think I would have gone over to his house anymore.

“What happened to you?”

He laughed again in that openmouthed way that was so unlike anything he had ever done as a kid. He’d always been trying to disappear into the woodwork back then, hoping not to stand out so the other kids wouldn’t tease him or beat him up as they did regularly. If he did laugh, he’d hold his hand in front of his mouth so you wouldn’t see his braces.

“Hey, people change, you know? After high school, my dad wanted me to go to work for him at the car dealership, but you can guess how I felt about that.” He stretched his closed mouth until his lips were so thin they nearly vanished.

Yes, I knew more than I wanted to know about the relationship between Ben and his father. The older Baker never passed up an opportunity to remind his son of just how much of a disappointment he was.

“Soon as I turned eighteen, I joined the Coast Guard. Got the braces off, got contact lenses, went to boot camp, and started eating right. Got away from my mother’s cooking and discovered I liked working out. Within a couple of years, nobody from back in Lauderdale even recognized me. I passed people right on the street and they had no idea it was me.”

“You know, I can believe it. You really look great. I am so happy for you, Ben,” I said, and I meant it. But, there was something about seeing him again that made me remember moments in my childhood when I hadn’t been the person I wanted to be. I’d never teased Ben like so many of the girls had. Any teasing was always just between us, as a friend. But there had been times, many of them, when I’d seen other kids being really mean to him, and he had looked at me with those sad eyes, beseeching me to do something. I was a scared kid, too, and I hadn’t stepped forward to defend my friend. I wasn’t proud of those moments. “What are you doing here in Key West?”

“I live here,” he said. “See that black-hulled schooner back there, Hawkeye? She’s my boat. I live aboard and do sunset charters and snorkeling cruises, that sort of thing.”

“I always thought you’d become a marine scientist.”

“Yeah, well, that was what I wanted to be when I was a kid. But after I joined the Coast Guard and started spending all that time on boats, I just couldn’t face going back to school. Whenever the guard would make me go in for training, it just brought back all those memories of high school—and they weren’t particularly good memories.”

I nodded. “I can understand that.”

“I spent a year stationed on a cutter here in Key West, and I really liked it. Decided this was the place I’d return to when I got out of the service.”

“How are your folks?”

“My dad’s still the same.” He lifted his shoulders and spread his hands wide. “We don’t talk. My mom died about a year ago.”

“Oh, Ben. I’m so sorry to hear that.” Ben’s father owned Baker Ford, a large dealership on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. I was always afraid of Mr. Baker when I went to Ben’s house as a little girl, and Ben literally shook when his dad called his name. His mother was a soft-spoken woman, but she was a society type, Junior League and Garden Club and all, keeping herself busy and out of the house. When we were kids, Ben used to come over when his parents were fighting, and though I never saw his mother wearing dark glasses or anything like that, I’d known it was pretty bad. There was always an air of barely suppressed violence in that house.

“I heard about your dad,” he said. “I read the local boating magazines, and I saw a couple of articles about him when he died.” He shook his head. “I really liked Red. I wish I’d had the opportunity to sit and listen to some more of his stories. Too late now, I guess. So, you’ve taken over the business?”

From the Hardcover edition.

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