As mentioned in the previous blog, Chapters 3 and 4 of my new novel, Dangerous Parallel, appear below. You will be able to read the entire book early in 2021, when it will appear on this site as a free download (PDF) file.
The article “Their Only Christmas” is my tribute to the season. It is the new version of a previously-published personal experience I had while living on the Gulf coast.
Recently, I was invited to post on the Reader Views newsletter. The editor requested I cover an issue of importance to writers faced with writing in a new, or unfamiliar category. The article “The Big Switch – Writing Outside Your Genre,” touches on some of my experiences in writing Low on Gas – High on Sky. It is at
The Big Switch – Writing Outside Your Genre - Reader Views
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It might have become my final Christmas Eve, but that possibility did not occur to me. Now, nearly thirty years later, I remember my reply to Captain David’s phone call that blustery Christmas Eve afternoon in Port Aransas, Texas. “Sure,” I said, “I’m glad to help. I’ll meet you at the dock.”
By the time I and the other mate joined David on board the workboat, the cargo had already been loaded. Boxes, bags, sacks and crates were jammed between seat rows in the cabin. “This stuff’s fairly fragile,” David warned, meaning we should try to prevent them from becoming loose and crashing or spilling their contents. What remained to be done was topping off the twelve-hundred-gallon tank with diesel fuel.
At the fueling dock, I noticed the skipper was studying the dark underbellies of the roiling clouds above us.
On our way out of the harbor, the three of us gathered in the confines of the pilot house. David sat in the padded captain’s chair with the helm wheel at his knees, viewing the failing light through the three-unit windshield. The two of us sat behind.
David thrust the throttle levers forward, one in each hand. The two 480-horsepower motors behind us roared. The hull leaped to topwater. The ship channel was sloppy, but the 65-foot-long hull sliced the chop at fifteen knots, spray flying.
“Daylight will be gone in less than an hour,” the mate said. Was he glum at not spending the evening with his girlfriend? Neither I nor the skipper commented, preferring to monitor the scratchy voice of weather radio.
Where the jetty ends at the mouth of the channel, we confronted for the first time the unhindered water of the Gulf. Strong on-shore winds powered its foam-topped waves. David kept the power steady, his hands spinning the wheel right and left, then back, aiming the boat’s bow into steep waves arriving from ever-changing directions. The three wiper blades swept rivers from the windshields on each stroke. We mates maintained our seats only by gripping interior structures with both hands.
At fifteen miles out, the tunnel of darkness permitted no hint of our surroundings. The skipper was now on VHF, radioing our destination vessel, but no reply came.
Finally, at about twenty miles, a voice blurred by static said, “We trail a seismic array,” meaning the mate’s vessel towed behind it several miles of scientific apparatus in its search for oil beneath the sea bottom. The mate ended with a warning, “You must keep to our portside.”
David uttered a rant: “These damned science ships take half an ocean—and the dispatcher didn’t bother to tell me what we were dealing with.”
It was some minutes before we saw the ship’s lights. Our radar showed it plowing at right angles to our path at about twelve knots—about the same as our speed.
David cocked his head sideways trying to ascertain the direction of wind and current. As we slowed within sight of the ship’s hulk, he shook his head and muttered a gruff curse. Over the VHF he said, “Let me speak to your Captain.”
When the captain came on, David said, “We can’t do that, Captain. We’d be to windward. We’d be smashed. Smashed into your side.”
Silence followed. Finally, the ship’s captain spoke. “Captain, we are on track and cannot change our heading.”
David said, “I’m sorry. We can’t deliver your cargo without a lee.”
The captain said, “I need you to deliver your cargo. It’s going to be the only Christmas my crew will have.”
David said, “I understand, Captain. But I can’t risk my crew. Or my boat. We need a lee.”
The back-and-forth continued, the captain pleading, our skipper refusing.
We turned to the same heading as the ship. A blast of wind hit our port side.
His voice full of resignation, David finally relented. “Okay. We’ll give it a try.”
To us he announced, “This will be hairy. Deploy to starboard every fender you can locate.” These would provide maximum cushioning for our all-aluminum boat.
He eased the boat closer to the big vessel’s port side. We finished tying off the fenders to starboard as he worked to match our speed to the ship’s.
When we were a few yards from the ship, a line hurtled down from the ship’s deck high above. Amid the wind’s wail and the crashing of waves, we secured the tether to our bow. I glanced up in time to next see a cargo net plunging to our deck.
“Open the hatch,” David commanded. “Get the stuff up there,” He maneuvered the boat to within a few feet of the ship’s steel hull. The mate and I lugged boxes, bags, and crates from the cabin, up the three steps to the deck outside, where clouds of salt spray made it hard to see. Struggling to gain a footing on the deck’s skim of water, we heaped boxes of hams and turkey roasts onto the net. On the next trip we brought bags of citrus, crates of melons, and boxes of buns.
Without warning the side of our boat smashed into the hull of the ship with explosive force. It resounded with a thunderous clang. Everything, including the three of us, was flung sideways, hurled to starboard by the collision. In an instant, water cascaded over the side as the boat plunged into a deep chasm behind the wave.
We signaled and the ship’s crew hoisted the net from our deck to their deck.
I glanced inside the pilot house. There, David battled to control the boat as it rose, for an instant hung suspended, then smashed again into the steel. It seemed a losing skirmish as waves from the ship, waves driven by wind, and the wind itself combined to produce chaotic motions beyond his control.
With the net on deck for a second time, we stumbled with more cargo to the deck. But the boat’s random movements and terrifying collisions tossed us into bulkheads and sometimes to the deck. On one trip forward, sacks of fresh vegetables went skittering and I fell against a metal brace, slashing my leg. Soaked and clumsy, we dumped string bags of potatoes on battered cardboards of pastries while packs of pineapples went flying.
“Hurry!” David shouted. “I can’t hold this much longer!”
I was able to slide a crate onto the net when I almost went over the side. On my knees and clawing with both hands for something to grasp, I saw its label—a crate of eggs. But that was not the only surprise: included among the foodstuffs, wrapped casually in cardboard, was a three-foot long Christmas tree.
Finally we signaled, and the net swept upward and away from our deck. We hollered, “Done!”
David shouted, “Loose the tether!” and the mate tossed it.
Our boat separated.
The skipper throttled up, and with our bow now angled, we darted into the wind.
Although the unrelenting hammering of the boat against the steel hull could have produced enough damage to sink us, we were too involved to consider it. Now we were finally free, free to deal one-on-one with the heavy weather.
Hours later and safely in port, we received a call from the dispatcher. “The captain of the seismic vessel sends the following message: ‘Give the captain of the workboat my thanks for delivering the cargo. On behalf of my crew, thanks for the Christmas they will celebrate tomorrow. I wish you and your crew a Merry Christmas, too.’”
Zack outlined his story. “A go-fast catches us fifteen miles out. This Cigarette boat cuts us off and forces us to stop. A burly guy boards us, says he’s rescuing Christine.”
“From Vincent. See, it’s a love triangle. He grabs her, says, ‘Come on with me, you’re my love, you don’t belong with that S.O.B.’ But Vincent says, ‘Oh no you don’t,’ and pulls a gun. But before Vincent can aim, the burly guy—”
“Wait. Slow down. Where’s the Cigarette boat while this is happening?
“Alongside our boat. A friend of his is driving. Let me finish!”
“The burly guy rushes Vincent and stabs him. The burly guy and Christine hop onto the Cigarette and zoom off—for who knows where?”
“That’s it? That’s the story the Coast Guard and Flannigan are going to believe?”
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s about as hard to believe as the hijacking. First place, we just stop and welcome the burly guy on board Reel Time? Second, Christine isn’t exactly a knockout. She’s curvy as a brick, and her face cries for a lift. Does the burly guy have a vision problem?
Zack thought. “Yeah, Christine’s not exactly a dish.”
“And what if Sheriff Flannigan questions us separately? If we both say what really happened, the stories should be the same.”
“Yeah. I see what you mean. We’re kinda stuck.” Zack’s head shook in lazy arcs. “Stuck with the craziest story since George Bayler hooked a boat on his backcast.”
“You think Christine was Vincent’s wife?”
“Nah.” He reset the radar’s range. “The whole nasty wipe-out was a setup.”
“The trawler. Headed for Cuba?”
“A stinking, rusty tub—without hull numbers. Had to be from the far side of the twenty-fourth parallel.”
Zack was referring to the line of constant latitude that separates Cuba from the U.S. “Why would Christine—or whoever she is—want to go to Cuba?”
“Beats me. But they welcomed her aboard. Maybe she’s...” Zack chuckled. “Maybe she’s one of the Comrade’s hot mamas.”
“I bet Vincent was paid to set up the hijacking. Once she got to the rendezvous, he was just excess baggage.”
Zack pursed his lips and checked our compass heading. I figured I better tell him. “He paid Arnie yesterday.”
“Vincent. He paid Arnie the balance of the charter.”
“Arnie got my money?”
“Yeah. Vincent said he paid Arnie.”
Zack groaned. A few long seconds later he smiled. “God bless Vincent.”
“Maybe we lost the charter money, but he left a hell of a tip.”
“What d’you mean, but?”
“That’s a lot of cash. All in hundreds.”
“Sure. Maybe the quarter-million was Vincent’s pay. For the hijacking.”
“Way too much. You and I both know guys who’d hijack the Key West Ferry for half that.”
Zack was silent.
“I’m betting it’s hot money.”
Zack shrugged. “So what?”
“If it wasn’t Vincent’s money...”
Zack’s face got all pinched. “So what?”
“Once news breaks that he’s dead, somebody will be on the lookout for all that dough.”
Zack pointed into the distance, where the outer buoy at Seguro Key became visible. “What do we care?”
“That person might be a big-time drugger or the Mafia. Or the Comrade’s enforcer...”
“You go spending a wad of hundreds, it might be like advertising you’ve got the bundle.”
“Ah.” Zack shoved the idea aside with the palm of his hand.
We cruised on. At the head of the jetty, Zack shut down the autopilot and slowed. As he turned to parallel the jetty, he said, “All right. We split the money, park it in a bank for a couple weeks.”
“You think the Mafia or the enforcer would give up looking after two weeks?”
“Well, maybe. That person—whoever it is—doesn’t know what happened on our boat. Maybe Christine was supposed to take it with her.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think she knew. Once she stuck that shiv in him, all she wanted to do was board that trawler. She looked easy as we pulled away.”
“Okay, smart ass.” Zack faced me. “What do you think we should do?”
“Leave the money in the bag. Don’t touch it.”
“And turn a quarter-million in to the cops? No way, Billy. Nothing doing.”
“Okay. But we better leave some of the money in the blue bag. It’ll make the TV news that Vincent left a wad of money behind—it might keep suspicion off us.”
“Great. I vote to leave ten bucks.”
I chuckled. “Sure you would. And the cops are going to bother reporting Vincent’s pocket change?”
“Okay. How about a few thousand?”
“Fifty thousand. That leaves a hundred-thousand for you, a hundred-thousand for me.”
Zack gave me a look like what was wrong with me, what was I thinking. We approached the harbor. I got busy deploying fenders and arranging dock lines.
It was still dark, not yet five a.m., when Zack backed the boat in and I tied up. The docks were deserted. Zack climbed down from the fly bridge. “Okay, I guess.” His face had a strained look, like he felt a slight pain. “Fifty it is.” He headed for the boatmen’s shack while I collected the money and Vincent’s keys and rushed to the parking lot.
After stowing the money in my truck, I put on work gloves. There was but one strange car in the parking lot, an older blue Toyota sedan. It had to be the car Vincent and Christine arrived in. Did Vincent plan to drive it when he returned? Maybe. Maybe we were supposed to be dead by then. Yikes!
One of the keys from Vincent’s bag fit the Toyota’s door. In the light from the interior lamp, I checked all around, including the glove box. I found a car registration, a couple napkins with orange food residue, a warranty for tires, nothing that explained anything. Underneath the driver’s seat was one of those small flyers printed cheaply on newsprint. I rolled it up and stuffed it in my hip pocket.
I popped the trunk. Spare tire, a jack, pair of cheap pliers. I closed and locked everything, then returned to the boat and returned the keys to the blue bag.
When I got to the boatmen’s shack, Zack was on the phone. “...I know it sounds weird, but that’s what happened. Yeah, he’s dead—he’s been dead two, maybe three hours. We—” He looked blankly at me while listening to the other end. “Yeah, I know. But we had no way—bastard threw our cell phones and mikes overboard.” He listened for a short time, staring down, tapping with his boat shoe on the floor timbers. “Okay. We’ll be here waiting.” He hung the handset up. He turned to me, nodded his head toward the phone. “Deputy Devlin. He said he’s gonna roust Flannigan.”
“Yeah. Got the feeling he didn’t want to get him out of bed. I called the Coast Guard. And Arnie. We’ll shortly have enough people here for eight-handed poker.”
“They drove a Toyota two-door. Florida plates. About five years old, with a bunch of dents.”
“A cheap car they could leave behind.”
“I searched it.” I yanked the rolled-up paper out of my hip pocket. In the light I saw it was yellow newsprint with a masthead “Boats & Ships,” dated four days ago. “This is all I found—the car was clean.”
Zack glanced at it. “Boat news. That doesn’t tell us anything.”
“Car doesn’t match the quarter-million cash. Like the money wasn’t his.” I flipped pages to the classified section. An ad circled with blue ink attracted me. Under “Boats for Sale” it ran:
73 x 19 STEEL SHRIMP TRAWLER, 892 Detroit Eng., 40,000 lbs capacity. Long range fuel & water. Call for price.
It ended with a telephone number.
Zack read over my shoulder. “Maybe Vincent decided to give up being a hijacker, buy a shrimper and join the ranks of noble, hard-working fishermen.”
Red and blue flashing lights in the parking lot interrupted. Sheriff Flannigan and Deputy Devlin climbed from the Deputy’s van and strode toward the dock. We joined them on the dock where Reel Time was moored.
“You Captain Montrose?” Flannigan said.
“Yeah. This here is Billy Farris, my deck hand.”
“It’s Arnie Maddick’s. I run the charters.”
Zack pulled his wallet from his shorts, handed a plastic to the Sheriff.
Flannigan glanced at the Coast Guard ticket, handed it back. “Let’s see the body.”
Zack stepped into the boat, lifted the corner of the tarp we’d thrown over Vincent. There was a lot more blood under it than before.
Flannigan glanced at it and turned to Devlin. “Get an ambulance out here.”
Deputy Devlin stepped away from us keying his radio.
Flannigan turned to Zack. “You said the man carried a blue bag?”
Zack nodded, went into the cabin and returned with the bag. Flannigan pulled on a pair of latex gloves he had in his pocket. Zack handed him the bag. He opened it.
Deputy Devlin approached, stowing his radio to its holder. “Ambulance on its way.”
Flannigan nodded, removed items from the bag, one by one. Deputy Devlin wrote the contents in his notebook:
3 keys on ring
5 mm hand gun, Ser. 1864758
1 man’s shirt, white with blue stripes, size 36
1 man’s light gray jacket, size 40
Approx. 500 hundred-dollar bills, amt. to be verified
Flannigan handed the bag to Deputy Devlin. To us he said, “You two follow me.”
On the way to the Sheriff’s van, Flannigan wiped sleep from his eyes and suppressed a yawn. He opened the passenger’s door and snatched the mike from its holder. “We’re here at the Seguro Key dock with the crew of Reel Time, a sport fish.” An affirmative reply crackled in a woman’s voice. Flannigan replaced the mike and turned to Zack. “I’ll need to get statements from both you and Mr. Farris. Devlin?”
Deputy Devlin climbed into the driver’s seat, stowed the blue bag next to him, and started the motor. Flannigan opened the sliding door. Zack and I climbed in.
Arnie’s white Ford wheeled into the lot and screeched to a halt. Arnie hopped out of the driver’s side without turning out the headlights. After jogging to the van breathless, he stopped at the open rear window and addressed Zack. “What the hell is this all about?”
“Like I told you on the phone,” Zack said, “we got hijacked. One of the hijackers got killed.”
“If you’ll excuse me, sir...” Flannigan said.
“Oh,” Zack said, “this here is Arnie Maddick. He owns Reel Time—the boat.”
“Where’s the dead guy?” Arnie said.
“In the boat,” Zack said.
“Holy shit...” Arnie turned and strode toward the dock. Flannigan nodded to Deputy Devlin, who followed and caught up with Arnie. “Sir, you’ll need to stay here.” He held his hand up ahead of Arnie. “The boat is a crime scene.”
Arnie stopped. “My ass.” With his arms cocked, and fists on his hips, he stood as if he was ten feet tall. “That’s my boat.”
Devlin said, “This is an official investigation. You’ll have access later, but right now...”
Flannigan, after alighting from the van, approached the two. He motioned for Zack to join. Zack got out and I followed. “Mister Maddick, I’m Sheriff Flannigan, Monroe County. We’re asking you to stay right here for now. Your Captain will explain.” He turned to Zack.
Zack said, “The hijacker got killed, Arnie. He’s...the body’s on the boat, like I said.”
“You didn’t say the...on the boat.” Arnie turned, and ambled toward the dock. Deputy Devlin crowded him. “Now, Mr. Maddick, I’m going to have to intervene. You can’t...”
The Sheriff, Zack and I followed behind.
When Arnie reached the boat, he halted, glanced down at the lumpy pile of tarp next to the transom, and sighted the pool of blood. Deputy Devlin moved in front of Arnie to block him from stepping into the boat.
Arnie said, “Damn. Of all the...” Pink bluster drained from his face. He looked puzzled.
Zack eyed Arnie and turned to Flannigan. “Oh-oh. I think he’s gonna—”
Arnie turned toward the finger pier, stepped onto it, turned toward the water, arched over, and vomited violently. Deputy Devlin stepped to the finger pier and grasped Arnie’s shoulders from the rear. “Better sit, Sir. Don’t want you falling in.”
The smell was awful. I stepped forward, lifted the lid of our dock box, and grabbed a roll of paper towels. I handed them to Deputy Devlin. He tore off a bunch, wadded it and gave the wad to Arnie. Arnie was now bent low, almost kneeling. He coughed, and wiped his mouth and face.
“All right now,” Flannigan said, “let’s get some order here. County investigators will be here shortly. Deputy, get the keys to the boat from Mr. Maddick—or Captain Montrose. Then explain to everyone that the boat is off-limits. It’s impounded until the investigation is complete. The investigators will take care of the rest.”
A siren sounded up the road.
Deputy Devlin looped his arm under Arnie’s arm, helped him to stand. “You okay now?”
Arnie stood, a little wobbly. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, glaring at Zack.
Zack ignored Arnie’s look and handed the boat keys to Flannigan. Devlin helped Arnie sit down on our dock box. Flannigan led Zack and I toward the parking lot.
An ambulance turned into the parking lot, red and blue lights flashing, its siren silenced. Following behind was a white van and a police cruiser. The three vehicles parked in a row and men got out and began talking in the glare of the vehicles’ headlights.
“I’ll handle this,” said Flannigan to Deputy Devlin, who’d now caught up with us. “You take the boat crew and get their statements.” He handed Devlin the boat keys and headed to the group of men gathered near the three vehicles.
“Let’s try this, one more time,” said Deputy Devlin, opening the door of the Sheriff’s van. As we climbed in, I saw Arnie Maddick, facing the glare of headlights, shuffling toward his car. He cradled the wad of paper towels in his hands in front of his chest. I nudged Zack, but he didn’t follow my gaze.
Although it was only 6:40 a.m., Julia Cotter pulled her Honda into my dirt driveway at a fast clip, her dark hair fluttering out the lowered driver’s window. She alighted, pounded on my door and announced, “All right, Billy. Up, up, up. It’s your bookmobile girl. Get your best-seller, adult, young adult, and children's, compact discs, DVDs, magazines, or books-on-CD.”
Unshaven, I’d just poured my first cup of coffee. I was dressed in my shorts and ratty robe. I swung the door open. She stood there tall, with a wide lipsticked grin, in cut-off shorts, flip-flops and a way-too-big long-sleeve shirt that hid all major attractions.
“Don’t you look lovely,” she said. “Too bad I left my camera in the car.”
“To what do I owe the honor of a visit by the bookmobile at this hour?” I retreated to my chair and gestured toward the coffeepot. She nodded and sank into the other chair. I got a cup from the cupboard, filled it and set it before her at the table. I sat down and she explained.
“The Marathon library’s closed for painting, so I have the day off. It got me thinking about the bookmobile that used to serve the Keys. But I couldn’t wait to hear about—”
“Well—yes. The whole thing. It made this morning’s TV news. Are you okay? I mean...”
“After all the questions by every agency of government, my brain is fried. Other than that, I’m more or less okay.”
“But you witnessed a murder. That’s more devastating than a simple scare.” Oscar Cotter’s daughter Julia retains the unaffected manner of her father. Hidden under that diffidence, though, is a crackerjack mind and unlimited curiosity. Contrary to Oscar’s dedication to his client’s finances as a C.P.A., Julia chose to serve the public’s literary and intellectual needs as a librarian. It doesn’t hurt that her mother Gladys’s warm congeniality seems to have softened the edges that might otherwise intimidate people like me. “The news said an ‘altercation took place’. What really happened?”
“I’ve got to shave, and...”
“Go ahead. But I’ve got a thousand questions.”
As the shaver buzzed my chin, I knew I’d have to edit my story. Julia was too honest to deal with what Zack and I were now calling “the bundle.” I’d stuffed the twenty packs of hundred-dollar bills into a trash bag and thrown it into the cab of the truck before the fuzz arrived. Now the bundle was behind my golf bag in the bedroom closet. I could only hope Julia wouldn’t be as concerned about the money as she was about the blizzard of action, the two hijackers, the trawler, but most obviously, the stabbing. Why didn’t I realize Vincent had been stabbed until after we’d escaped from the trawler? Why did Christine stab Vincent? And why didn’t that seaman with the AK-47 shoot at us?
My answers weren’t very good because, although I’d been over those details what seemed like a dozen times with the County, the State and the Feds, I didn’t fully comprehend the actions. That three-or- four-minute blur of surprise, panic and fear that ended with our escape into the darkness left me feeling it was not real—it hadn’t really happened.
When I shut the razor off, Julia had finished her coffee and now had a rough idea of the hijack story. She stood up, glancing at her watch. “I’ve got to go,” she said. “Got to clean up, do my hair and get ready for the burial.”
“You didn’t know? Ma Hutchins, the lady who ran the bait stand on Long Point Key.”
I knew of Ma. She was up in years, lived on our Key in an ancient midget trailer. She might have been a shrewd operator, but I always thought she was slightly daffy, probably because she’d stuck the outside of her trailer with what seemed like dozens of children’s plastic dolls.
Julia went to the door, paused. “She passed in her sleep, last week. I thought you knew.”
“They burying her here? In ‘Palm Haven’?”
“Yup. You going?”
“Not this morning. I promised I’d meet Zack. With the boat impounded, we need to figure out how to jigger the charters, see what we can save. And how to weather Arnie’s bile.”
“Good luck with that last one,” she said, waving and hurrying to the Honda.
Zack’s trailer is on a lot he could afford. It’s a spit, surrounded on three sides by mangroves. It floods whenever there’s serious rain. He says they’re red mangroves, I say black. Not that it matters—Julia says there are more than eighty species of mangroves.
“How come you never greeted me like a long-lost brother before?” I said, stepping over his pair of boondocking boots inside the door. I placed the black plastic bag on his settee.
“Huh.” Zack opened the bag and grinned. “It was that obvious, eh?”
“Your eyeballs are nothing but bulging bankrolls.”
“You gotta admit, those portraits of Benjamin Franklin are beautiful.” He dug into the plastic bag and began stacking the packets of money on the coffee table. “...Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. There are twenty—what a gorgeous pile!”
I grabbed a pack and began counting how many hundreds. It was easy. Each pack contained a hundred bills.
Zack wrote down my totals on a pad of paper. “Wow,” he said after I’d finished, “It’s a nice round two-hundred thousand bucks! A hundred-thousand for you and a hundred-thousand for me!”
“All in used bills.”
“Used spends as easy as new.”
“It’s all too neat and tidy, a hundred bills in each pack, twenty five packs in Vincent’s blue bag. I bet it wasn’t Vincent’s.”
Zack paused with a pack in his hand. He looked at me. “What’s your point?”
“Whoever it belongs to will be looking for it.”
“If we spend hundred-dollar bills around the village, it could be like advertising. That we’ve come into large bread.”
Zack tilted his head. “No problem. We’ll spend it in Key West, Miami, or...”
I shook my head. “I thought it over this morning. Taking this money was a dumb idea.”
“There you go again. Did anybody, even the Feds, act suspicious yesterday—I mean about the money?”
“They’ve got plenty of time.”
“Okay, forget about it for now. We’ve got to contact the next couple of charterers, tell them Reel Time is temporarily out of service. Jeez, I sure hope the fuzz hasn’t draped ‘crime scene’ tape all over the boat.”
Later, near sunset, I propped my feet onto the wicker footstool and punched Zack’s number into my phone.
He answered, “These new cell phones cost a bundle, but don’t talk a bit better. What’s on your alleged brain?”
“Speaking of bundle, I’ve thought it over and come up with a terrific idea. Bring your bundle—and stop by Ace and pick up a six-pack.”
“You owe me for the charter.”
“How’m I supposed to pay you when I haven’t received a cent?”
“Don’t forget the beer.”
“Don’t be cute, Zack.”
The headlights of Zack’s truck flashed through the window over the kitchen sink. I watched as he trudged to my open door with a bag in one hand, a six-pack of Coors in the other, and another six-pack of Coors under his arm. I grabbed the six-packs from him. “Nice,” I said.
“Since you claimed you had ‘a terrific idea,’ I figured I might need extra fortification.”
We sat at the kitchen table. I popped the tops of two beers, and stowed the rest in the refrigerator. “My idea is simple. If the Sheriff or Fed fuzz get bees in their bonnets and decide we’re suspicious, we can’t have any of this money around.”
“Well, suppose they come with search warrants.”
“You’re paranoid. But they might.”
“How do we explain all that bacon?”
“I see what you mean.”
“I figure the best thing is to bury it.”
“I’m not keen on trying to dig up your weedy yard.”
“Me neither.” I stood and thumbed toward Cove Road. “Let’s grab the bags, tie them up and take a walk.”
“And leave all this beer? Not a chance, Junior.” Zack took the rest of the six-pack from the fridge. We tied off both plastic bags.
After checking to see that Cove Road was empty as usual, I took my short-handled shovel from the shed, and we crossed the yard, trudging to the road.
“Damn. It’s black as fifty fathoms out here,” Zack said. “I hope you know where you’re heading.”
We clomped north on the uneven gravel in the moonless night. Lights showed from Chet’s windows—my nearest neighbor—a hundred yards on the other side of the one-lane road.
“This’ll be easy,” I said.
“Speak for yourself. I can hardly see what I’m stumbling over.”
“By the time we get there, your eyes will be dark-adapted.”
“Why the hell didn’t you bring a flashlight?”
“You mean so people would be attracted to a bright light and wonder what the hell two people are doing down this lonely road?”
Zack groaned. “All right, but if I trip and break an ankle, you’re gonna be out of work.”
“I’m out of work already.”
“I talked to Arnie about that. He said the Sheriff told him the impound would be over in about three or four days.”
“Then we can notify the next charter.”
“Maybe tomorrow.” Zack drained his beer and crushed the can.
After we’d gone about a quarter mile, I turned off the gravel onto one of two dirt paths made by automotive wheels carved into a grassy field clear of mangroves.
“Wait a minute,” Zack said. “This is...damn, this here is the cemetery.”
“Sure. Welcome to Palm Haven. All we gotta do now is—”
Barely audible, Zack said, “I don’t like this.”
“What’re you whispering for? The dead don’t hear.”
“I don’t care much for cemeteries.” He didn’t move. “Why are you going in here?”
“I’ll show you when I find it. Follow me.”
“Just a minute.” Zack flipped a can of beer from its holder, popped it and took a gulp.
“Let’s go, but be careful. Some of these little old headstones are overgrown with weeds.” I stepped carefully along the path, looking for a mound. When it appeared, I stopped.
“You know Ma Hutchins’ Bait Stand on Long Point?”
“What’re you talking about?” He took another swallow of beer.
“You probably don’t know—she died.”
“Well bless the old bat’s soul. She was a fixture down there.”
“Here,” I said, pointing at the gentle mound of dirt, “she is now.”
“Oh. This is kind of freaky.”
“She won’t mind.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like messing with the dead.”
“The dirt’s fresh. It’ll be easy to bury the bags.” I set my bag down, took Zack’s and set it beside mine. Zack handed the half-six-pack to me. I gave him the shovel, broke out a beer, popped it and took a swallow. “Ah, just the stuff for a little grave-digging.”
“If you say so.” He probed the dirt with the tip of the shovel.
“No. Down here.”
“What’s wrong with this?”
“That’s the head end. You want the foot end.”
“You’re weird. You into some kind of occult deal?”
“No. But I don’t want to risk having our stash dug up when they install Ma Hutchins’ headstone.”
“Oh, yeah.” Zack took a swig of beer, and relocated to the foot end.
We dug a hole about three feet deep, deposited the two bags and refilled the hole. I paced the distance, about eight shoe lengths north of the line of tombstones.
Zack grabbed the last of the beers from me, “Let’s get back and try some serious drinking.”
“Okay.” I took a swallow from my beer. “I think we should salute Ma. She may not realize it, but she’s standing on a small fortune.”
The next morning, my head was a little fuzzy. I phoned Zack. It rang and followed with his recorded message. I didn’t leave a message.
I made coffee and got dressed. I burned some whole-wheat, downed it with coffee and drove to the docks. First thing I saw was yellow tape hanging from Reel Time. Oh, oh, I thought, Zack and Arnie will be sore about that. On the way back, I stopped at the boatmen’s shack. Inside was Arnie, paging through the newspaper.
“You seen Zack?”
“Nope,” he said, “not this morning. Did you see that gol-damned tape all over my boat?”
“Yeah. Chickenshit. They didn’t need to do that.”
He pulled the cigar from his mouth. “Have they been hassling you?”
I shook my head no. “I mean we did the rounds with them the other day, but—”
“Sheriff Flannigan or deputies hasn’t talked to you yesterday...or today?”
Something’s up with Arnie. “No. Why?”
“Never mind. I was just curious.” He jammed the cigar back between his lips, picked up the newspaper and resumed reading.
As my motor kicked over in the lot I wondered what was going on between Arnie and the Sheriff. I left and drove to Zack’s trailer.
His truck was parked in the usual spot. As I walked up to the trailer, I said in a loud tone, “Bet your head hurts.” I followed by beating on the door with the flat of my hand. It made loud booms. “Rise and shine,” I ordered.
No sound came from inside.
Zack never walks anywhere, so it was peculiar for him to be gone with his truck at home. I jumped up to peer in the side window. The venetian blind was open, but nothing inside seemed amiss. I went back and tried the door. It was locked.
I trudged back to my pickup, thinking. I backed up, turned around, and drove back toward home.
My cell rang. I pulled off the road, stopped and punched the phone.
It was Zack. “They got me here in Key West.”
“Who? Somebody’s got you?”
“The Sheriff. They said I could call you.”
“Good. Tell me what happened.”
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