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AN EXCERPT FROM CUBA STRAITS
ALSO BY RANDY WAYNE WHITE
Batfishing in the Rainforest
FICTION AS RANDY STRIKER
Key West Connection
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
White, Randy Wayne.
1. Ford, Doc (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Marine biologists—Fiction.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands, and the area near Venus, Florida, are real places, faithfully described but used fictitiously in this novel. The same is true of certain businesses, marinas, bars and other places frequented by Doc Ford, Tomlinson and pals.
In all other respects, however, this novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is unintentional and coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
This book is for my pals Mark Marinello and Coach Marty Harrity,
One of the joys of writing is doing research. Details regarding Florida geology and cave diving required and received particular attention. I would like to give special thanks to Florida geologist Jason Sheasley, and also William and Cameron Barton, for reading an early draft of the manuscript and offering their insights. Lee Florea of the Karst Research Group, Department of Geology, University of South Florida, and Dr. Bruce Flareau, M.D., provided valuable information on air bells and karst topography. Bob Alexander of NAVSYS Inc. was of great assistance in helping me select a first-rate underwater night vision system, which I used often as reference while writing this book. For assistance in research regarding Florida exotics, monitor lizards, neurological pain, cerebral diseases, the effects of blood-thinning poison on stroke victims and the luminosity of various dive watches, I want to thank the following people, in no particular order: Oklahoma authority Henry Baker; Ken Warren, public affairs officer, South Florida Ecological Services office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Jenny Edgar of the Mermaid Restaurant; Dr. Brian Hummel; Captain William Gutek; Dr. Donald Slevin; Captain Russ Mattson, Marvin Metheny; Nitrox diver Audrey Fischer; Dr. Chance Wunderlich; chronograph experts Eric Loth, David Camba and Alexandra Castro; maestro O. J. Whatley; and marine biologist/ watch entrepreneur Dr. John Peterson. If there are factual errors in the narrative, they are wholly the fault of the author.
The early chapters of this book were written in Cartagena, Colombia, and Havana, Cuba, and I am indebted to friends who helped me secure good places to live and write. My thanks go to Giorgio and Carolina Arajuo for their help in Cartagena, as well as Evelyn, Eliana and Elisa for their kind attentions, and also to my pals Ron Iossi, Marlin, Javier and José of the Hotel Centro. In Cuba, my Freemason brothers Ernesto Batista and Sergio Rodriguez were particularly helpful, as were Roberto and Ela Giraudy, Rául and Myra Corrales, Alex Vicente and Mack Wiggins. Through the generosity of the Robert Rauschenberg estate, much of this book was written on Captiva Island, in a fish house, thanks to Mark Pace, Darryl Pottorf and Matt Hall.
Most of this novel, though, was written at a corner table, before and after hours, at Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar and Grille on Sanibel Island, Florida, where staff were tolerant beyond the call of duty.
Thanks to my friends and partners Brenda Harrity, Heidi Marinello, master chef Greg Nelson, Dan Howes, Brian Cunningham, my baseball pal Chad Cook; Reynauld Bentley, Andrea Guerrero, Dawn Oliveri, Mojito Greg, Liz Harris, Captain Bryce Randall Harris, Milita Kennedy, Kevin Filliowich, Kevin Boyce, Eric Breland, Sam Khusan Ismatul, Olga Guryanova, Rachel Songalewski of Michigan, Jean Crenshaw, Lindsay Kuleza, Greg Barker, Roberto Cruz, Amanda Rodriguez, Juan Gomex, Mary McBeath, Kim McGonnell, Allyson Parzero, Cindy Porter, Sean Scott, Big Matt Powell, Laurie and Yak’yo Yukobov, Bette Roberts, as well as the wonderful staff at Doc Ford’s, Fort Myers Beach. At Timber’s Sanibel Grille, my pals Matt Asen, Mary Jo, Audrey, Becky, Debbie, Favi, Bart and Bobby were, once again, stalwarts.
I would especially like to thank dear Iris Tanner, my helper and appointed angel, for clearing the decks, gradually over the last few years, so that writing, finally, has become my primary focus.
Last, I would like to thank my two sons, Rogan and Lee White, for helping me finish, yet again, another book.
—Randy Wayne White Casa de Chico’s Sanibel Island, Florida
“He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”
TUESDAY MORNING, KING WAS WATCHING THE SKY, relieved there were no search helicopters plowing the horizon, like the day before, and he thought, Good.
Maybe Florida cops had arrested someone else for the murders.
King was about to tell Perry, “Let’s get the bikes and head south,” meaning Homestead or Key West. Anywhere but here, where they’d been hiding for two days, sleeping with ants and mosquitoes, near a teardrop-shaped lake, black water and cypress trees, in the boonies of central Florida, sixty miles south of Orlando.
Perry had shushed him, though, flapping his hands, saying, “Listen. You hear that? Someone’s coming.” A moment later, Perry had crouched lower, hissing, “Listen!”
Perry, a man with small hands and a small brain but good ears.
Shit. He was right.
Twenty minutes later, King and Perry were in the trees, south of the lake, watching four men with machetes hacking a path for a diesel pickup, a truck that made a whining sound when it accelerated. Three men plus a teenage boy, actually. Indian-looking kid in jeans, a red wind band around his head, black hair long, like an Apache in a TV western.
Miles from the nearest dirt road, but here they were. Perry’s expression read Can you believe this crap?
The truck crept forward . . . stopped . . . bounced over palmetto stumps, then stopped again, while a crabby old redneck sitting behind the wheel yelled orders.
“Fifty more yards, Doc, we got her licked!”
Doc? King studied the men. Unlikely that it was the hippie-looking dude, skinny with ribs showing, or the Apache teenager, which left the man who was doing most of the work. He was a nerdy-looking guy with glasses tied around his neck, but he had a set of shoulders on him. Forearms, too. A doctor, maybe, but the teacher variety, not a real doctor, because, sometimes, when they spoke to the guy, they called him Ford.
Perry whispered, “You think they’re cops? They don’t look like cops.”
No. Cops wouldn’t be driving a truck loaded with scuba diving gear, a generator and a bunch of other stuff that Perry and King watched the men unload, half an hour later, interested now instead of worried.
Nice-looking Dodge with oversized tires, the tow-rig package. Easy to steal, once the men put on those wet suits and went into the lake, which it appeared they were going to do—as long as they left the keys in the damn truck.
It should have put Perry in a better mood. Instead, when King said, “Looks like the King was right. Our luck’s changing,” Perry stared at him, then spit in the direction of King’s feet, before saying, “You haven’t been right since we left Indiana.”
Not something King would have admitted, but it was true.
From the bus station, downtown Bloomington, an Arctic low had followed the two men south like bad luck, blowing snow across parking lots from Nashville to Atlanta, then Macon, too, which caused Perry to finally say, “Maybe Florida’s not such a hot idea. I feel like we’re being chased into a corner.”
To which King had replied, “What? You’re blaming me for the shitty weather now?”
A little later, thinking about it, King added, “A corner has walls. That was a stupid thing to say about Florida.”
Perry said, “What do you call an ocean? The damn state’s surrounded on three sides.”
It took King a moment. Surrounded by water, Perry meant.
King said, “You ever seen a wall that could take you to Mexico? Costa Rica, maybe. I hear that’s sweet. Stick with the plan, Jock-a-mo. With enough money, a man can live like a king in those places. Personally, the King’s ready for a change. Or maybe you’re getting homesick for Joliet?”
It had irritated Perry, at first, the way the man spoke of himself, the King this or the King that, like he was speaking of a third person, but Perry was used to it now, and said, “How much, you think?”
Money, Perry meant.
King knew what Perry wanted to hear, so he went over it again, saying, “We each put a couple hundred grand in some Mexican bank, the word will get out. That’s millions, when you convert dollars into pesos. How you think that would feel, to be a millionaire?
“Cops will protect us, for a change. No questions, no trouble. We do this right, you’ll have yourself maids, a cook, hell, a driver, if you want. Be pretty nice, wouldn’t it, wake up and have a pretty little Mexican maid standing there, ready to give you the big finish before your day even starts.”
King smiled, his expression asking, Is the King right?
Perry liked that, no matter how many times he heard the story, but then he had to go and spoil it by looking around the truck stop, beyond the eighteen-wheelers parked in rows, and saying, “Snow’s sticking on the damn palm trees! You believe this shit? The leaves are silver, like ice.”
King told him, “Dude, that’s not snow. It’s neon light that does that, the way the wind hits the trees. An optical illusion.”
King, the know-it-all, an expert on everything.
Perry had lit a cigarette, his expression saying, What-ever, as he shifted from foot to foot, the two of them standing near gas pumps, waiting for the Greyhound to load. Two a.m. Damn, it was cold.
“When you talked Florida, you never mentioned snow. I’m starting to wonder if you’ve really been here before.”
King, who had never been south of St. Louis in his life, said, “Believe what you want. Backstage at a Buffett concert, maybe Jimmy will help me convince you. Besides, Macon’s not Florida. Orlando, that’s Florida.”
Perry was twenty-three, King, thirty-one or thirty-two, he wasn’t sure. Both men skinny with Adam’s apples showing, combs in their pockets, King carrying his belongings in a Army duffel, Perry with his in a backpack stolen from a playground. The men had been cell mates at Statesville Correctional, near Joliet, which worked out okay because neither of them was into the butt-buddy thing. At Statesville, sleeping on your belly could be interpreted as an invitation, so having a cell mate who dug only girls was worth a hell of a lot more than friendship. They had both worn their pants low, kept their mouths shut, and done their time kicking around ways to get rich when they finally made parole.
It was at Statesville that they met Julie, a black dude, who told them about a man he’d worked for in Winter Haven, which was near Orlando, doing lawn maintenance, picking oranges—an old man, he said, who had a coin collection worth a fortune and paid his help in cash, usually twenty-dollar bills. Older bills, Julie told them, the picture of Jackson small on the front, which suggested to King, the thinker, that the old man didn’t use banks.
“How’d he make his money?” King had asked.
“Family owned a thousand acres of citrus,” Julie had told them. “Then Disney came along. The old man still owns a hundred acres—six years ago, he still owned it, anyway. You’d need a calculator to count that much money.”
Julie was doing life but wasn’t a typical con, because the man he’d killed was a one-time thing, and he had it coming, from the way Julie told it.
“I wasn’t drunk, never used a damn drug in my life, but when I heard what the son-bitch did to my wife, I sort of went nuts. I used a shotgun, four rounds of bird shot. It took a while. I wanted to give the son-bitch time to review the rules.”
When King had asked, “Why didn’t you go for the old man’s money while you were at it?,” the look of contempt on Julie’s face said more than any parole board would ever know.
“I worked for that man. The man paid me on time and he treated my family fair. What kinda punk-ass question is that?”
After that, Julie wouldn’t give King or Perry the time of day, but they’d learned enough by then. They knew the old man’s name, and that what was left of the citrus farm was set back off Green Pond Road and Route 27 on property north of Winter Haven, most of it probably golf courses and trailer parks by now, but the big white house still there, Julie guessed, hidden by trees.
It took a few weeks thinking about it before King really latched on to the idea of Florida, heading south, scoring big, then buying their way out of the United States and into foreign lives. It wasn’t until then that King mentioned he’d once lived in Florida. He claimed he’d worked as a lifeguard in Palm Beach, hustling rich old women, wearing custom-sewn jackets—he’d even done some scuba diving, he said, when he wasn’t sitting on the beach, eating mangoes and drinking orange juice, every morning.
Six months they’d been cell mates, and it was all news to Perry.
“You ever had fresh squeezed? Not the crap that comes out of a can, the real thing. Sun’s hot, tan all year round, but with a nice cool breeze off the ocean—try to picture it. And the girls, they’ve got no reason to wear clothes. Before you even say hello, Jock-a-mo, you’re halfway home.”
King, a tropical expert all of a sudden, particularly on Florida. He’d been reading about Mexico and Central America, too.
Perry suspected King was full of shit, but the man had ideas, he was ten years older, always thinking, so maybe it was okay. Perry wasn’t a thinker. Perry was a doer.
King processed out three months before Perry, but he was there in the visitors’ parking lot, waiting, carrying a magazine, Florida Travel & Life, that was folded open to an article entitled “Winter Haven’s Stubborn Son.”
It was a story about the old man, whose name was Hostetler, refusing to sell the last fifty acres of his property, even though the county was pissed off because they were losing taxes that Disney or Comfort Suites were eager to pay. The picture showed a sour-looking old man with bitter, superior eyes, sitting next to a dog, some kind of pointer that looked more crippled up than the old man.
Damn, the guy was real. Just like Julie had said.
King had flipped to a page that showed another photo, the man inside his house, pointing at a painting. The magazine said it was the old man’s grandfather, the property’s original owner. There was something else, in the background, that was of more interest to King, who’d brought along a magnifying glass.
“A mint set of American gold eagles,” he had told Perry, an authority on coins now, too.
“How you know they’re mint? The picture’s blurry.”
Patiently, King had explained, “Because they’re framed, for chrissake. The photographer was focusing on the painting of the dude in the old Army uniform, not the coins. A set like this is worth twenty grand, easy. How many more you guess he’s got stashed away in that big old house?”
Twenty grand was more money than Perry had ever had in his life, but it was a figure he could get his mind around. Two hundred grand, or two million, those numbers came into his brain as blank pages. But if King said it was possible, maybe it was . . .
Perry, the doer, had said to King, “The dog looks too old to cause trouble. But we can’t just bust in there and expect Hostetler to fill a bag.”
King had already thought of that, too. “I got my hands on a little Hi-Point three-eighty,” he said.
When Perry asked, “You ever shoot a gun?,” King snapped, “I was in the Army for a year, wasn’t I?,” but he wasn’t convincing.
The men had taken a bus back to where King was rooming because Perry, who read gun magazines, wanted to see the little palm-sized pistol—black on silver; five rounds in the clip, one in the chamber—for himself.
The gun was a cheapie, it couldn’t be very accurate, but it would do the job. Same with the two plastic-handled switchblade knives, all in a box.
“One old man, one old dog,” King had said. “House-sitting out there all alone, full of gold coins and twenty-dollar bills. Hell, like the article said, we’d be doing Florida’s taxpayers a favor to free up that shitty excuse for a farm. It’s such an easy setup, I’m surprised someone hasn’t tried it before.”
On the thirteen-hundred-mile trip, Bloomington to Orlando, Perry wondered about that. Three times they switched buses—Evansville, Nashville and Atlanta—and, at each stop, because there was still an opportunity to buy a ticket home, he’d brought up the subject with King, saying “Why you think that is?”
Why hadn’t anyone tried to rob the man? Perry meant.
King and Perry arrived at the Orlando Greyhound terminal, North Magruder Avenue, an hour before midnight on Saturday, only a few hours ahead of the Arctic low. They stepped off the bus into a balmy, orange-scented night that caused Perry to say, “Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.”
By Sunday morning, though, at first light, the Arctic wind was silver in the palms. By midnight, it was so cold Perry could see King’s breath pluming as he used a screwdriver to lever a window open, then stepped back so Perry could be the first to climb into the old man’s house.
It wasn’t as easy as they imagined because Perry was even drunker than King, plus he’d scored a bottle of Adderall behind the Greyhound station—20-milligram tablets, pure pharmaceutical speed.
Inside the house, when Perry finally found his balance, and his eyes had adjusted, he had his question answered—“Why’d no one ever try to rob the guy before?”
Alfred Hostetler was standing there, shouldering a shotgun, squinting with his bitter, superior eyes, ready to pull the trigger. Cowering behind him was what looked like a Mexican family, a woman and a couple of kids—no, three kids, two snot-nosed boys and a pretty little girl who was maybe thirteen.
It took Perry a moment to arrange it in his mind. He had climbed into the mother’s bedroom, he realized, probably the maid.
“You better be carryin’ more than a damn screwdriver, you expect to rob a man like me and walk out alive,” the old man said to him, sounding pissed off, with no hint of fear, like he had more important things to do.
Even so, that struck Perry as an odd thing to say because it was King who had the screwdriver. Perry was carrying the gun. One of the switch-blades, too.
Clack . . . clack-clack. It was the sound the shotgun made, both barrels misfiring on 12-gauge shells that might have been as old as old man Hostetler. Perry had thrown both arms over his head, terrified, but recovered fast enough to shoot Hostetler twice, in the stomach, as the Mexican maid and her brats screamed, then ran for their lives into the darkness of the big wooden house.
Perry sprinted after them, but shoved the gun into his pocket in favor of the switchblade he was carrying.
A knife would be quieter, he decided. More hands-on and personal, too.
That little pistol was loud.
Two hours later, riding in what was probably the maid’s car—a beat-up old Subaru that smelled of diapers and Taco Bell—Perry was now getting pissed off himself because King, who was driving, kept saying to him, “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe this is happening!”
Because of the Adderall, the man’s voice was abrasive in Perry’s brain, as penetrating as the orange caution lights flashing down MLK Drive at three a.m. on this morning, with a black wind scattering trash across the asphalt.
Perry said, “It happened, so get over it. What was I supposed to do? The guy was pointing a gun at me! The shithead tried to shoot me, goddamn it. I could be dead right now!” He had been scrubbing at his hands and jeans with a towel. Now he cranked down the window, let the wind take the towel, and couldn’t help grinning as he yelled, “That was wild, man! Talk about a fuckin’ high! I was that close to dying, dude!”
Perry had never experienced what he was feeling. It was an overwhelming rush, a screw-it-all freedom that was like soaring, a complete letting go. His brain was flashing postcard images of what he’d done: colors bright, dripping like fresh paint, startled faces, screaming wide eyes, five people, the old man, the woman, then the kids, finding them hidden in closets, under a bed, one by one, the girl last—settling into it then, taking some time to enjoy how her muscles responded to the point of the switchblade—but he hadn’t touched the dog.
In fact, Perry had said that as he left, walking out the front door, using the towel so they wouldn’t leave prints.
“Nice dog. Good doggy . . .Yes you are!”
King had repeated what he’d said about not believing this was happening, then made a show of calming himself, before saying, “Okay, okay, here’s what we do. You sober enough to at least listen?”
Perry was crashing from the speed, his nerves sparking, but he was sober enough.
What they did was park the Subaru near a pool hall, keys on the dash, and walked fast down MLK to where it became Lake Silver Drive, the wind pushing them along like leaves beneath streetlights. They kept right on walking, even when a cop slowed, cruising past, but the cop never stopped, so they did seven or eight miles before first light, finally buying coffee and doughnuts at the Perkins on Cypress Gardens Drive, both men spending some intense time in the washroom first.
Three miles later, they saw a dozen bicycles racked outside Candlelight Christian Academy off Highway 17. It was early Sunday—probably a soccer team or something doing an overnight, King decided, before saying, “Make sure you take a helmet, too.”
Christ, a bike helmet? After murdering five people?
Perry responded, “Whatever,” keeping watch as King chose a nice Trek, then grabbed a bike for himself.
The two men pedaled south, not too fast—“Like we’re sightseeing,” King kept reminding Perry—riding until noon, which was when they noticed two helicopters flying search patterns to the north, and King said, “We gotta find trees to hide under. A place to camp, maybe, for a few days, where there’s cover—and water. I want to wash this shit off me.”
King’s slacks and shirtsleeves were stained, too. He was the one who had pulled the girl from beneath the bed, then held her so Perry could use the knife, but not before saying first, “Give the King about five minutes alone with this pretty little thing. Okay?”
Perry did it—but only because one of her brat brothers was making a wheezy, crying sound, still breathing.
It took Perry a while, maybe five full minutes, down on his hands and knees, crawling with the bloody knife in his hand, searching until he found the kid under a blanket.
Perry guessed the brat thought he would be safe there. But he wasn’t.
For a couple of hours, the men hiked inland, ducking branches, until they found a lake so far from the road that there was no sound of cars, only wind blowing through the high trees where a hawk screeched, but not another living thing around.
Near the lake was a hunters’ storage shed, padlocked, about the size of a Porta Potti. Inside were cans of food in Tupperware tubs, and military Meals Ready to Eat, dense as cheese blocks in their rubberized brown bags.
“No one will bother us here. You think?” King said to Perry, as he collapsed, cross-legged, in the shade.
Perry was walking toward the lake, where trees threw shadows along the southern perimeter. The water was black and clear in a way that reminded him of looking through smoked glass, like a black marble he’d had as a kid.
Perry answered, “I ain’t going back to the joint.” Meaning no one had better try to come after them. He had lost the switchblade during all the excitement, but he still had the pistol.
King had held on to his knife. He used it now to slit open an MRE, took a few bites of a fig bar, then decided to recount the gold coins that had come spinning onto the floor when the fancy frame busted.
Eleven gold eagles, and seven hundred dollars, cash, in twenty-dollar bills, that’s all they’d found worth a damn—but it wasn’t like they’d spent much time searching the place after doing what they’d done.
Perry was staring at the lake—it was teardrop shaped, sharp edged, like a bowl—seeing fish nosing among roots that protruded, knee-high, from the water.
“Weird-looking trees,” Perry said. “Sort of like in comic books, the fantasy ones, you know—girls with big boobs, carrying spears.” He lit a cigarette, crumpled the pack, then watched the wind sail it across the lake.
“They’re cypress trees,” King told him, looking at the sky, before adding, “This cold front’s moving south. By tonight, it’ll get warmer here, but cold as hell in Miami. Probably the Sarasota area, too.” An authority on the weather now.
Perry was still staring at the lake, his eyes suddenly wider, as he whispered, “What the hell was that . . . ?”
He had seen something so unexpected that it startled him. A huge fish or something from beneath the surface, something dark with a tail, had stirred a refrigerator-sized swirl beneath the Marlboro pack. Like it had swum up through the black water intending to eat the glittering wrapper but had changed its mind.
Goddamn, it was big. Seven or eight feet long, at least.
Perry almost said something to King, but decided no, there was a chance he had imagined it. Could be. He had swallowed two more tabs of Adderall and could feel his edges sharpening, the chemical sparkling through his brain, brightening dark threads and creating halos around trees where wind was blowing the waxy light.
There was another matter Perry had been waiting to address. The topic was creating pressure inside his skull and needed to get out. Perry was still fuming about the way King had almost bolted, back there at the old man’s house, instead of joining in and doing what had to be done. There was something else, too.
“The next time we steal bicycles,” Perry said over his shoulder to King, “I take first pick. I wanted that Trek, but you took it. Didn’t even ask.”
He gave the man a hard look, adding, “Bikes or anything else. The King don’t get first pick anymore. Understand?”
King swallowed without making eye contact, afraid of his cell mate for the first time since Statesville.
“Sure,” he said, “whatever.” He was chewing the fig bar, letting his attitude say, No big deal, settling himself by turning his attention to practical matters. Thinking was his job; Perry was a two-time loser, nothing but a punk.
King took some time to review. How safe was this place?
The hunters’ shed was a quarter mile away, no path cut to the lake—like the hunters didn’t know the lake existed. There was a swamp, remnants of a barbed-wire fence cutting through—private property. Maybe that was the reason.
Today was . . . Monday?
Yes, Monday. He and Perry had food, and they could find a place to sleep beneath the cypress trees. Tomorrow, regular people would be working, no hunters to worry about. With any luck, a couple of Perry-dumb punks had spotted the Subaru on MLK, keys on the dash, and would give the cops something to do besides search the area again with helicopters.
King could picture it, the cops spotting the stolen car—Smart—and he let himself relax a little. Couple of days sleeping near the lake, then back on the bicycles and head south. Key West, just like regular tourists.
Safe. Yeah . . . And it got even better the next morning, Tuesday, when the men with the scuba gear and pickup truck appeared out of nowhere.
Perry and King watched the men from the distance. Watched the skinny hippie, with his ribs showing and ponytail, and the Apache-looking teenager and the nerdy-looking guy with glasses and shoulders take their sweet damn time before suiting up in their scuba gear, wearing short-sleeved wet suits, then walking their fins into waist-deep water before submerging, one by one.
That left the old redneck man, the one who’d been driving the truck, alone onshore.
Perry looked at King, but King took his time acknowledging Perry—back in charge now, and he wanted the punk to know it.
“Dude,” Perry whispered, “I wouldn’t go in that water. No fucking way, dude. What you think they’re after?” He still hadn’t told King what he had seen yesterday afternoon, the large dark shadow swirling beneath the surface.
King didn’t answer. An executive silence, that was the way to handle punks on speed.
“Maybe fishing, huh?” Perry said. “Or looking for something. How long you think they’ll be down?”
King held his hand out until Perry finally figured out what it was he wanted.
“Long enough,” King said, as Perry handed him the pistol. “You know what’s funny? They’re down there having fun, thinking nothing in the world can go wrong. But here we are.”
King was smiling, picturing the divers’ faces when they surfaced, finding their truck gone, and the old redneck dude shot or cut up—probably dead, knowing Perry.
ON A WINTER AFTERNOON, DIVING AN INLAND LAKE, south of Orlando, every small thing was going right, far better than I had anticipated, but then it all went suddenly wrong in ways I could not have imagined.
That’s the way it happens, when it happens. People like me, the obsessive planners, the compulsive guardians, always say later—if they survive—“It’s the one thing I didn’t think about.”
On the water, though, it’s seldom just one thing that goes awry. A single miscalculation can catalyze a disastrous momentum that no amount of planning can interrupt. Much of life is random. It’s as simple as that, although my spiritually devout friends wouldn’t agree. Some people find the illusion of order comforting.
I don’t. I prefer unencumbered facts even in an arbitrary universe. When plans unravel and the sky begins to fall, I’m all too aware that the tiniest bit of random luck can mean the difference between life and death.
On this winter afternoon, for example.
I was fifteen feet beneath the water’s surface, in what should have been one of the safest little dive spots in Florida, when I heard a clatter of falling rock and looked up just in time to kick free as a ledge collapsed, burying my two dive partners beneath a ton of archaic limestone.
Fossilized bone atop living bone. Water is a relentless and dispassionate reorganizer.
We had been clustered near the ledge when it fell. One of my partners had found a handhold in a rock vent as we peered through masks, studying a yard-long chunk of ivory that was tannin-stained the color of obsidian. It was the tusk of a prehistoric animal, a mammoth. For one million years, the animal had rested here—its calcified scaffolding, anyway. A couple of rib bones lay nearby; possibly a splinter of femur, too.
Then the three of us came along. We disturbed the delicate balance of limestone, causing a million years of history to come tumbling down with inverse irony: the very, very old burying the new.
My partners included my boat-bum hipster pal, Tomlinson, and a troubled teenage Indian kid from Oklahoma via the juvenile court system, William J. Chaser. Will, for short, to the people he’d met around the marina, except for Tomlinson, who called him Will-Joseph—Joseph being the kid’s middle name.
From the beginning, I’d argued against the boy coming along. I’d finally consented, though, as a favor to a high-powered woman—Will’s temporary guardian—and also because Tomlinson had fronted a convincing argument. The boy was a novice diver, true, but he was also an athlete, a high school rodeo star, tough, and as quick as a cat—when he wasn’t stealing horses, selling pot or running away from one detention center after another.
We had been underwater for half an hour. The kid was doing okay—impressive, in fact. He was as confident wearing fins as he was sitting a rodeo saddle. Tomlinson was having fun, and so was I. Old man Arlis Futch—a commercial fisherman and a friend—was miffed because he wasn’t in the water with us, but that was the way it had to be. Someone had to stay topside and watch the truck, right?
We were doing everything by the book—a book I had personally modified to add additional layers of safety net. Then the sky fell. Literally.
Tomlinson had found the spiral of fossilized ivory, and he had waved us over to look. The tusk was, indeed, an ancient and articulate relic to gaze upon. That’s when Will Chaser made a rookie mistake. I compounded the mistake by allowing him to do it. The kid was having trouble neutralizing his buoyancy. To steady himself, he thrust his hand into a rock crater and pulled. The lake’s basin was honeycombed rock, a delicate latticework of limestone. Will’s not a big kid, but he’s all muscle and sinew, and the pressure he put on the latticework was enough.
I didn’t see it coming, nor did Tomlinson. The man is relaxed and at ease in any situation—with the possible exception of an encounter with police—and he has great instincts. But he was in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. A microsecond before I reacted, my pal’s Buddha eyes narrowed, aware and thoughtful, then widened, alerted by sound and the changing water pressure from above. But too late.
In the slow explosion of silt, I was thinking, This can’t be happening, as I kicked free of the landslide.
For a panicked few seconds, I raced away from the murk, staying just ahead in clear water, as if I might suffocate if the silt engulfed me. The reaction was not befitting a marine biologist who has logged hundreds of dive hours.
Me, the so-called expert diver—but that’s exactly what I did. It’s the way our brains work. When darkness triggers the flight mechanism, we bolt for light because light means safety. It means freedom . . . and air.
Air, suddenly, was something that was in limited supply.
We had been exploring the lake’s shallow perimeter for thirty-seven minutes. Because I’m obsessive when it comes to safety, and because I was the most experienced diver, I’d insisted that we not go deeper than thirty-three feet, which is the minimally more dangerous demarcation between two and three atmospheres.
The lake was a geological oddity—a teardrop-shaped pool, central Florida, northwest of a crossroad village named Venus, three miles from the nearest dirt road. We’d had to bushwhack across plains of palmetto scrub and pasture, cutting a track for Arlis Futch’s big-tired truck. It had taken all morning and part of the afternoon.
The lake sat between two ridges, a natural basin with cypress trees on the southern perimeter, then a pocket of cattails to the north where the lake narrowed. Beyond lay a marshy expanse of saw grass and cypress trees, a variety of Florida swamp where reptiles of every variety thrive, and so most people avoid such areas for a reason.
The lake consisted of an acre of water, which is about the size of a football field. It was manageable, I thought.
The water was clear and shallow in all but one dark area. There, the bottom funneled downward, vanishing into depths that were linked to the surface by pillars of silver light.
A “bottomless lake” is the colloquial term but inaccurate. A “cenote” is what similar sinkholes are called in Central America. A thousand years ago, Mayan priests dropped gold offerings into their depths—they gifted the heads of their enemies. Such places were considered holy. Ojos de Dios. The Eyes of God.
This lake was, in fact, the uppermost promontory of a water column that connected with the Floridan Aquifer. “Underground river”—another colloquial term. It was the safest of places to swim and dive, if you didn’t stray too deep . . . and if there weren’t man-sized gators in residence.
There were no gators. We’d made sure of that.
Alligators are, of course, a concern when diving the lakes and rivers of Florida. Because Arlis, a state-licensed hunter, had heard rumors that an oversized gator sometimes inhabited the lake, we took special precautions. I had done the research to confirm what I remembered and what Arlis swore was true: Alligators have a bottom time of two hours, max, usually much less. So we had watched, and waited, circling the lake several times. The precaution put us in the water later than we expected, with only an hour of good light left.
So what? It was the prudent thing to do.
I went in the water first. I did a lap across the lake and back, wearing a mask so I could have a look at the bottom. Tomlinson joined me on a quick bounce dive. Then we checked out Will’s scuba skills before continuing. It was only the boy’s second open-water dive, but he demonstrated more confidence than most hobbyists and more poise than at least a few so-called pros.
Even so, all the beginner protocols were in effect, plus the standard protocols employed when diving a remote inland area. We had brought the requisite emergency gear, in case we had bad luck, along with some basic salvage equipment—in case we had very good luck.
There was a reason we had brought salvage gear.
All divers enter the water in hope of finding something, anything, unexpected. Our hopes were more specific. We knew exactly what we were after—just as we knew how unlikely it was that we would find what we hoped to find.
We each carried a waterproof flashlight, as well as dive slates for communicating, miniature emergency air canisters holstered to our tanks and one inflatable marker buoy per diver. Will and I also carried knives. But Tomlinson, being Tomlinson, did not.
Once we were beneath the surface, we moved in a pack of three, no swimming off alone. I had modified the old rule of thirds to be doubly safe. When a pressure gauge indicated a tank was half empty, no matter whose tank, we would surface as a unit. That was our plan.
As an additional safeguard, Arlis remained topside, equipped with a cell phone and a handheld VHF radio, ready if needed. He had bristled at my decision that he couldn’t join us on the dive.
“Marion Ford,” he had complained, “I’ve spent more time on the water, and underwater, than you three boys put together. Diving this sinkhole was my idea. Now you’re tellin’ me I let you have all the fun? Ain’t no safer diving in the world than a puddle like this! And who the hell’s gonna mess with my truck way out here?”
Valid points—or so it had seemed at the time. What could possibly go wrong on a calm, winter afternoon, diving a parking lot-sized sinkhole in the remote pasturelands of central Florida?
“The buddy system just gives bad luck a bigger target.” Tomlinson had said that before we entered the water, rolling his eyes as I laid out the rules. It was a look I’ve come to know too well. It summarized his amusement and impatience with my linear, logical efforts to defuse destiny and to impose order on fate.
In this case, as it turned out, the man was right. He often is, although I seldom admit it.
Will’s air tank was half empty when Tomlinson found the mammoth tusk. I know because I checked the kid’s pressure gauge—1490 psi, it read—before gliding over to take a closer look. The tusk protruded from the ledge, curved and singular, as dark and dense as Chinese scrimshaw. It resembled an ivory question mark, broken at the base.
The elephant tusk was an unexpected find. It was not an uncommon find. The largest mammoth skeleton on record was recovered from the Aucilla River, to the north. At nearby Warm Mineral Springs, a lake only fifty miles to the west, archaeologist divers regularly found bones from mammoths, sloth and saber-toothed tigers. They have also found artifacts and human remains that date back twelve thousand years.
Human artifacts, found at Warm Mineral Springs, are so old, in fact, that they have challenged the theory that all Homo sapiens arrived in the Western Hemisphere via the Siberian land bridge.
Unexpected accessibility to the past—it’s one of Florida’s most compelling qualities. The state’s history lies in delicate layers. The layers ascend by decades, and then aeons, from sea level downward. The peninsula is, in fact, little more than a sand wafer, rooted to skeletons of sea creatures that lived and died long before Africa’s first primates dropped from the trees.
The geological term is “karst topography.” The landscape appears flat and monotonous, but that’s an illusion. The Florida peninsula is, in fact, an emerging plateau, honeycombed with voids and vents, caves and underground waterways. Travelers on Interstate Highway I-75 have no idea that, beneath them, are cave labyrinths still being mapped by speleologists—“cavers,” they prefer to be called. These men and women ply their passion in darkness, night or day, equipped like astronauts, using battery-powered scooters—diver-propulsion vehicles—to extend their range.
The invisible complexities of water and rock—another aspect of Florida that I find compelling. Check the Miami Herald or St. Pete Times. Several times a year, there’s a headline about a section of road, or an entire home, disappearing into a sinkhole. Without warning, the earth’s crust implodes, exposing a world of subterranean ridges and valleys. Gradually, rain and underground springs fill the hole. The geological latticework vanishes beneath the surface. History appears briefly, then disappears. A new lake is formed.
The formation of sinkholes is increasing because Florida’s aquifer is overstressed by the water demands of Orlando and Tampa. Underground passages that were once filled with water are now only partially filled, so the interstices below cannot support the weight above.
Over aeons, Florida’s sea level rises, recedes and rises. It’s true now. It was true a million years ago when the tusk that Tomlinson found had been used to forage and to fend off saber-toothed tigers. It was also true twelve thousand years ago when, possibly, a prehistoric man had squatted beside the same limestone ridge, puzzling over the same ivory artifact.
Some anthropologists believe that man’s fascination with dragons dates back to contact with survivors of the dinosaur era. Florida is a natural funnel, the historic conduit, of wandering predators. It has lured dragons of many varieties over the last twenty thousand years. Tomlinson had, indeed, stumbled upon one. Not the woolly mammoth—our dragon was the fragile limestone ledge.
After I’d gotten a good long look at the tusk, I backed away so Will could get closer. I didn’t protest when he jammed his big teenage paw into a limestone vent to steady himself. I should have motioned him away. Instead, I held up five fingers, then gestured with my thumb. To make it plainer, I scribbled on my dive slate, Surface in 5.
Will had replied with a look of irritation, but then nodded as I made room. Tomlinson was grinning beneath his mask, ponytail drifting weightless, his expression saying, Look what I found!
The circumstances were about as benign as they get. We were only fifteen feet beneath the surface. We had safe reserves of air and an hour of daylight. The lake perimeter was so shallow, we could have searched it using snorkels instead of tanks. But it was good practice for the three of us as a team, I’d told myself, in the unlikely event that we actually found what we hoped to find. The prehistoric elephant tusk was interesting, but we didn’t need three people to salvage it—if Tomlinson had chosen to disturb the thing, which would have been out of character.
That’s another sport-diving protocol: Look but don’t disturb. But we hadn’t come to this lake as sport divers. We were on a mission, of sorts, although the kid was the last to know.
It wasn’t until just before we entered that water that Arlis Futch gave us a nod, meaning it was okay to finally tell Will Chaser the truth about why we were here.
Tomlinson did the talking—not just because the man is talkative by nature, although he is. He served as our spokesman because he was one of the few adults that the teenager seemed to like and trust.
Tomlinson made it short and sweet. He told Will that we hadn’t trucked forty miles inland, carrying scuba gear, a generator and a jet pump, plus sundry supplies, to search for fish, or fossils, or to catch specimens for my lab.
No, nothing that simple.
“We’re looking for an airplane,” Tomlinson had explained, enjoying himself, “but not just any airplane. Fifty years ago, a cargo plane left Havana. The plane was overloaded. It probably got caught in a storm, and it crashed south of Tampa. No one’s ever found it. Arlis thinks it went into this lake.”
“Overloaded with what?” Will had asked, interested, but with a teenage reticence to display enthusiasm.
I watched the boy’s eyes change as Arlis fished a hand into his pocket, extended his arm and said, “Maybe these.”
The man was holding two gold coins. They were hundred-peso coins, struck in the 1920s. José Martí’s profile was on the obverse side. REPUBLICA DE CUBA was stamped on the back. Even though we were outside, standing in the middle of nowhere, Arlis had shaded the coins and kept his voice low. Treasure hunters tend to be a noisy, talkative bunch until they think they’ve actually found something. It’s only when they turn quiet that I take them seriously.
“I’ll tell you the details later—if there’s need for that,” Arlis had said to Will. “Depends what we find. A few weeks back, I bought this chunk of land. About ten acres—lake included. It cost me more money than I have, but that don’t mean lawyers and cops won’t get involved down the road. Either way, you’ll be cut in on the profit—today only, I’m talking about. And that depends on what we find, and how long you work, and how hard you work. That sound okay with you?”
I was still watching Will’s expression. He and Arlis hadn’t liked each other from the start. Arlis was quick to give orders, and the teen was slow to comply. Halfway to the lake, Will had bristled at something Arlis had said, and he had called him a “mouthy old redneck.” Will had said it to the man’s face—not something a man like Arlis Futch would normally tolerate. I had thought that was the end of the boy’s afternoon dive.
To Arlis’s credit, though, he ignored the insult, but the two hadn’t spoken a word to each other until Arlis stuck out his big hand to display the coin. I could see that Will was surprised by Arlis’s offer—but no more surprised than I.
“You’re serious?” Will had said.
“About the lawyers trying to take it away from us?” Arlis replied. “Hell, yes, I’m serious.”
“No, about offering to let me help. No one said anything about a sunken plane.” Then the boy added, smiling, “But you don’t have anything to worry about. Not from me. I’m used to dealing with lawyers and cops. They don’t bother me a bit.”
Tomlinson was nodding his approval. Arlis liked it, too.
After that, there were no more surly teenage looks from Will, no more grumbling complaints and no more calling Arlis names. He believed the man. Will expected to find more gold.
Personally, I’d grown incrementally more certain there was nothing to find. I’d believed it right up until Tomlinson discovered the ancient tusk. During our half-hour dive, we’d done a random search of the perimeter, circling farther and farther from shore.
No sign of a plane.
Nor did we find the human detritus—beer bottles, old tires, fishing line—typical of such places. One exception: a crumpled Marlboro pack, suspended in silt. Otherwise, the place was pristine. It was a pleasant discovery that confirmed the lake’s inaccessibility.
It wasn’t until I backed away to give Will room to inspect the tusk that I saw something else that was man-made. Something that changed my mind about the lake . . . and the plane wreck.
I had glanced down to make certain my fins were clear of the bottom.
I didn’t want to murk the water. And there it was—proof we weren’t the first humans to breach the lake’s surface.
It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing. On the bottom, lying in the sand, was another gold coin. Our fins had fanned the silt away. The coin was as yellow as molten brass. When I got a closer look, I saw that it was similar to the two coins Arlis had already found.
Diving to retrieve the coin is what saved me. It lured me away from the ledge. Bad luck, good luck—it’s all random. Because the kid and Tomlinson were focused on the ivory artifact, they didn’t follow me.
A moment later, I heard the ball-bearing clatter of rock on rock. One million years of limestone wall came cascading down.
As I raced ahead of the murk, I was already berating myself, thinking, How stupid! How very damn stupid!
It wasn’t just because I had allowed Will to jam his hand into the delicate limestone. It was the whole situation that I regretted.
I, too, had made a basic mistake. Instead of following my instincts, I had allowed myself to fall under the influence of friends. One friend in particular: Arlis Futch.
THREE DAYS EARLIER, ON THE WARMEST, MANGROVE-SULTRY February afternoon in recent memory, Arlis had come clomping up my laboratory steps wearing boots, a coat, dressed for snow, and told me that, after years of searching, he’d finally found something very, very damn valuable. But it took us thirty minutes of verbal sparring before he finally told me what he’d found and where he had found it.
“It’s in a sinkhole,” he said. “A little bitty lake that’s shaped like a drop of water. It’s way the hell off the road, so nobody goes there. Ever, from the way it looks.”
Typical of the man.
Arlis is a talker, but, when he has something important, he measures out the information at a speed proportionate to the worthiness of his audience. The audience doesn’t have to be interested—and I wasn’t. Arlis kept talking, anyway.
The fisherman began his story obliquely, saying, “There’s a cold front coming. Feel it? If it weren’t for this norther blowin’ in tonight, we’d both be rich men by Tuesday. Friday, the latest.” He tossed it out there and let it hang.
It was a Saturday, Sanibel Island, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I replied, “Weather radio says the front arrives tomorrow, late. I was just listening.”
“They’re wrong—as usual,” Arlis had snapped. After several seconds of silence, he returned to the subject of getting rich, saying, “You can’t comprehend the amount of money I’m discussing, so I don’t expect you to thank me now.”
“Then I won’t,” I said. I was fine-tuning an aquarium, just beginning a new project. Sea horses. It wasn’t research, really. The sea horses were a tangent inquiry. Animals of a more academic interest were in two large tanks nearby: electric eels from the Amazon, via some pet-shop hobbyist who had released them into a ditch east of Naples.
Arlis told me, “It’s part of my nature to share with my friends when I come across a big chunk of luck. Most folks would expect something in return. Not me, it’s just the way I am. But down the road, a man of character would want to return the favor.”
Arlis has a knack for shading innocuous remarks with subtle criticism. We are all manipulators, sly in our methods, but the man uses guilt as weaponry—a device I find particularly irritating. I didn’t look up, and I took a measured interest in showing no interest as I peered into the aquarium, watching four freshly netted sea horses adjust to changes in salinity and the absence of tidal current.
“You act like I’m interruptin’. Like you’re too busy to listen.”
I replied, “Acting’s on a long list of things I’m not good at.”
“But you heard me. Rich, I’m telling you. Both of us. Your hippie friend, too, if he’s willin’ to work for it. We can all kick back and retire.”
My hippie friend is Tomlinson, a middle-aged oddity, part sinner, part saint, a Ph.D. brain coded with a sailor’s sensibilities, all hardwired inside a scarecrow’s body.
I asked Arlis, “Which is it? A Spanish galleon or an investment scheme? I’d guess the track, but I know how you feel about horses and gambling.”
“Only thing stupider than a horse,” Arlis replied, “is a man dumb enough to bet on something dumber than he is.”
I smiled, filing it away for later, and replied, “I’m out of guesses,” then returned my attention to the aquarium, noting the balanced mobility of sea horses as they ascended and descended, erect as chess pieces. Four weightless knights powered by a hummingbird blur of fins.
Arlis baited me, saying, “You couldn’t guess in a month of Sundays.”
I replied, “Then I won’t waste my time.”
I was fiddling with the aquarium pump, having trouble with the flow valve. Wild sea horses are more fragile than the pet-store variety. They require a tranquil environment and no surprises. The man watched me open a yellow legal pad and calculate a stress-free rate of water exchange: 50 × 4 = 200 × 1.75 = 350 gph. Then he endured several more minutes of silence as I began replacing the large pump with two smaller pumps. Finally, he lost patience.
“Dang it, pay attention. This is big! I found something most men quit looking for years ago. But I finally figured it out. You’re the first I’ve told. How you figure it’d feel to have a hundred million dollars in the bank? Maybe five hundred million, depends on gold prices. I’m talkin’ about bona fide rich.”
He pronounced it “bone-a-FI-DEE,” a man with enough swamp and saw grass in his ancestry to speak with an authentic Florida Cracker accent.
“Gold,” I said. “You think you found a Spanish wreck. I was right.”
“Nope. Not the pirate treasure variety, anyway. I ain’t no schoolboy dreamer and I ain’t senile. I’m sure about this one, Doc.”
I stood, removed the glasses that were tied around my neck on fishing line and used microscope tissue to clean the lenses.
“Just like you’re sure about the cold front? VHF weather says it gets here tomorrow afternoon. You say tonight. Usually, faith and fact don’t have much in common.”
The man touched the zipper of his coat, then produced leather gloves from the pockets. “I’m right, you’ll see. You’re gonna need that new wood-burning stove of yours. By sunset, the wind will start to gust. Four hours from now, it’ll feel like Canada’s pissing on us with a cold hose. Nothing to slow that north wind but the Georgia border and a couple of parking lots at Disney World.”
I turned to the windows above the dissecting table where chemicals and test tubes were lined on shelves. The sky was Caribbean blue. The bay was silver where clear water met mangroves along the shoreline. It was eighty degrees and calm. Pelicans crashed bait near an oyster bar where—bizarrely, but not unexpectedly—my boat-bum neighbor, Tomlinson, was sloshing in the shallows, wearing baggy Thai fishing pants, no shirt, a bucket hanging from the crook of his arm. He was as animated as a kid collecting Easter eggs.
Tomlinson was harvesting oysters for dinner, I decided. I made a mental note to pick a few fresh limes when I walked to the marina and buy a couple of more quarts of beer.
“Arlis,” I said, “I’m working. If you want to tell me what you found, tell me. If not, there’s one last beer in the fridge and plenty of books to read until I’m done. But take it outside.”
“Doc, you’re always in a hurry. You ain’t changed a gnat’s nut since you was a boy. You call this work? Now, mullet fishing’s real work, not playing around with little bitty fish to be sold to some laboratory or Yankee college professor.”
He was referring to my little company, Sanibel Biological Supply—purveyor of marine specimens and consultant for hire when a worthwhile project comes along.
I turned to him and saw that he was unzipping his coat, sweat beading on his forehead, as he came closer to the aquarium. “Man, it’s warm in here,” he added. “Don’t your ceiling fans work?”
I gave him a closer look. “Are you feeling okay?”
His face was flushed, and I noticed that his hands vibrated with what may have been a neurological tremor. Arlis is seventy, but the man is fitter than most thirty-year-olds.
“I’m fine, just fine,” he replied.
I told him, “Shed a few layers of that snowsuit—if you’re willing to risk frostbite. But do it outside. Don’t make me ask again.”
In reply, I received a pointed look, his rheumy gray eyes huge behind thick glasses, a young man alive in his brain, still in command of the aging body.
“You tellin’ me to leave?”
“I’m telling you I can’t talk about getting rich until I’m done doing what I get paid to do.”
“No need to get mouthy about it. A week from now, you’ll be wondering how a man could be so generous—that is, if I don’t get pissed off and march my ass right out of here.”
I replied, “Unless you messed with the bolt, Arlis, the door’s not locked. I wouldn’t want to be the one to stand between you and happiness.”
The man glared at me for a moment. “Well, if you did, it wouldn’t be the first time, Dr. Marion D. Ford!”
I knew what the man was referring to. It was a women whom we had both known and admired—and possibly loved, in our respective fashions—but then she had died. I sighed. I shook my head. I said, “Jesus, Arlis, let it go.”
“I didn’t bring her up—you did.”
I replied by returning my attention to the sea horses, suddenly envious of a species that is blessed by the inability to speak.
Arlis is a variety of old-time fisherman seldom encountered these days, possibly because, on the Mangrove Coast, men as irritating and assertive as Arlis often died suddenly while being choked, or shot, or left behind to drown.
I like the man but in small doses. I appreciate the fact that he’s among the last of a very few people whose toughness reflects the Florida biota by virtue of having been forged by its hardships.
Arlis continued staring at me for a long moment, before saying, “I found his treasure plane. Batista’s treasure plane.”
I said, “What?”
He said it again.
Suddenly, the man had my attention.
“This isn’t the first time someone’s told me that,” I replied, trying to recover from my surprise.
“It’s the first time I ever said it,” Arlis replied. “I suppose now you’re gonna tell me that don’t make a difference. This is me talking, Doc. By God, I found it. I’m not going to beg you to listen.”
Arlis was right. It was different coming from him. He was talking about a plane commandeered by Fulgencio Batista, the man who had ruled Cuba before Castro seized power.
Arlis paused, taking his time as he gauged my interest. “You know the story. I can see it.”
I said, “I’ve heard rumors.”
“This ain’t rumor. I know people who know people.”
“Everyone does. And everyone has a treasure story. They print wreck sites on restaurant place mats. It’s what boat salesmen talk about before they reach for the contract.”
“Not men who’ve lived on this coast long as I have. I’m discussing fact, not faith.”
The old man let that sink in, before adding, “Batista was a thief—just like the Castro brothers. I’ve heard he was an even worse killer. Nastier about it, anyway. When there was a man he particularly hated, I heard he’d march them to the zoo outside Miramar and toss them in a cage at feeding time.”
Arlis was watching my face, disappointed possibly that I didn’t react. So he added, “While the prisoner was still alive, of course.”
“Waste not, want not,” I said.
“You think I’m joking?”
“No. I’m thinking about the flow rate of this pump. I think the impeller’s bad.”
“It could be true,” Arlis said.
“Yeah,” I answered, “the impeller’s usually the first thing to go.”
“No! I’m talking about ol’ Batista. He had a special fondness for that zoo. That’s what some of the marlin fishermen told me, anyway, down there in Cojimar, before the Castros took over. Batista grew up poor. Like a lot of poor kids, he liked bright, fancy things—including circuses. Some of the animals for that zoo, he picked out personally and had them flown back to Cuba. You know—when he was traveling around different parts of the world, a very important man all of a sudden after being nothing but a broke-poor cane cutter.”
As I worked, I let my expression tell him, I’ve never heard that one before.
Arlis responded, “People forget what Batista was like. They forget that a lot of folks hated him.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“He knew he’d lost control of Cuba. He knew the Castro brothers were coming and that he had to leave the island—or maybe they’d cart him down to the zoo, his own self, come feeding time. But Fulgencio Batista was as greedy as he was mean, and he wasn’t about to leave that island empty-handed.”
I knew more than Arlis realized about Cuban history, but I asked, “What did he take?”
“Before he ran, he robbed the fanciest museums in Havana. He robbed the national treasury, too. In December 1958, four cargo planes loaded with art and gold—mostly gold bars and coins—left Cuba for Tampa. Only three planes landed. The heaviest-loaded plane disappeared. That pilot’s last radio transmission is in Coast Guard records, if you know where to look. The pilot called a few Maydays, then he said, ‘We’re goin’ down. We’re goin’ down in the water’—or something close to that—and that’s the last anyone ever heard.”
Excerpted from "Deep Shadow"
Copyright © 2011 Randy Wayne White.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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