The illegal animal trade can be a lucrative business, attracting all sorts of unscrupulous people. Capturing rare animals for monetary gain is an unconscionable act, resulting in appalling ecological losses. Sometimes, it can even lead to human tragedy.
When a team of underwater videographers charter Alex Nolen’s yacht, the SeaStar, to film a documentary about alligator gars, their journey takes them from the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico to Florida’s long and winding Escambia River. The area, often referred to as the Emerald Coast, is a showcase of natural wonder, offering the research expedition an ideal location for their documentary. A chance encounter with poachers, however, changes everything.
Alex Nolen’s peaceful, nomadic life is about to come crashing down around him. The poachers, driven by greed in their hunt for an exceedingly rare turtle, will let nothing stand in their way. This includes Alex, his friends, and the beautiful marine researcher he has just met.
Poachers, however, may not be the only danger. Something lurks beneath the murky waters of the river that could pose an even greater threat. Could this be Alex Nolen’s last dive?
Endangered Species is the first book in the Southern Waters Adventure Series, a fun adventure/suspense series that all readers in the family can enjoy. Each book in the Southern Waters series may be read in order of publication date or as a stand-alone novel. Download a copy and start your adventure today!
Release date: September 10, 2021
Publisher: Southern Waters Publishing
Print pages: 359
Content advisory: Threatening situations
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
March 1976, Monday morning, Somewhere along the Escambia River, Florida
AT TWENTY-TWO YEARS of age, Rex Fisher was living his dream. Married to his high school sweetheart at twenty and becoming the proud co-owner of the newest scuba shop on the Gulf Coast a year later, Rex Fisher was doing exactly what he wanted. Thanks to the intelligent business sense of his young wife, Rose, and his unwavering focus on pursuing his dream, R & R Divers was now one of the most successful scuba operations in the area. So successful that he could now take an occasional day off to go fishing with his brother, Raymond. The cooler months meant a lighter workload at the dive shop, and Rex was looking forward to a day of leisure.
“Hey Fish,” Raymond said, “take a look at this.” Though they shared the same surname, Rex’s nickname of Fish was so well established that even his brother used it. Raymond was at the helm of their 1941 Chris-Craft enclosed dinette cruiser. As teenagers, the brothers restored the vintage boat together as a shared project. While they typically took turns using it, once in a while, they could work it into their schedules to enjoy it together. Today, they scheduled their fishing trip on the Escambia River.
Rex peered over his brother’s shoulder at the river ahead. This section of the river narrowed, and the trees grew thick and close. Raymond pointed ahead to an opening in the trees where the river branched out into a small, almost unnoticed tributary northeast of the main body of water.
“I’ve been up this river dozens of times.” Ray said, “I don’t remember seeing this. Want to check it out?”
“Sure,” Rex said. “The fishing can’t be any worse than out here. Maybe something in there will actually bite.”
Raymond Fisher steered the twenty-six-foot mahogany hull through the narrow break. Branches laden with vines and Spanish moss hung so low that they almost obscured the opening. Moss and leaves parted on either side of the bow as the boat slid through what seemed to the brothers like a tunnel of tree branches. The boat plunged into shadow; the overhead covering was so thick it almost obscured the sunlight. A moist chill clung within the canopy of trees. “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers came through the speaker of a transistor radio hanging in the cabin, providing an atmosphere of mood music that Rex found appropriate.
After a few minutes of gliding through the tunnel, Rex was about to suggest to his brother that he attempt to back out of the narrow corridor when they broke out of the trees and into a spacious clearing. The large, lake-like area was perhaps five hundred feet or more in diameter, ringed by a thick, overgrown mass of greenery. Thin wisps of fog hung just above the cool, still water.
Raymond idled the motor, and the brothers gazed around at the clearing. Unobstructed now, the sun reflected off the still, dark waters of the lake. An osprey, startled by the sudden appearance of the boat, lifted from its perch on the branch of an oak that hung out over the water, flying southward with graceful sweeps of its wings.
“Would you look at this?” Ray slapped his brother on the back.
“It’s like our own personal fishing spot,” Rex smiled. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the only ones who’ve been out here in a long, long time.”
They wasted no time in breaking out their gear and dropping their lines into the water. Each of the brothers sat on a stool in the stern, Rex on the port side and Raymond on starboard. This was the time both of them had most enjoyed since childhood, sitting together in companionable silence, each with his own meditations. Like most siblings, they had occasional disagreements and sometimes outright arguments, but never to the point of disrupting the peacefulness of fishing. A cooler sat between them, filled with cans of Mountain Dew and, for later in the day, beer. Rose had made ham sandwiches for them both. The two brothers settled in for a comfortable morning.
Before long, as he played out his line, Rex noticed a ripple in the water, widening out and moving toward the boat. As he watched, the ripple became a small wave, picking up speed. It passed the spot where his fishing line entered the water and continued on toward the cruiser.
“There’s definitely something in here,” Rex said to his brother, keeping his eyes on the wave as it approached. He stood, peering over the side of the boat. The water was dark and tannic, but he was certain that he saw a long, cylindrical gray body glide underneath the boat.
“Uh-huh,” Raymond responded, his eyes half-closed. He tugged his Miami Dolphins ball cap lower and stretched his legs out in front of him. “Bet I hook it before you do.”
As if in response, Raymond’s line went taut, almost pulling the rod out of his hands. Eyes widening in surprise, he bolted upright, gripping the rod with both hands.
“Whatever it is, he must like what you’re using for bait,” Rex said. “He ignored mine and went right after yours.”
The line stretched for just a moment, then gave a hard tug and went slack. Raymond looked back at his brother in confusion. The line reeled in with no resistance. There was nothing at the end.
“He bit it clear through. Got the hook and all. What do you think it was?”
“I don’t know. I only caught a glimpse, but it was big. And long.”
“Gator, you think?”
“No, I’m pretty sure it was a fish. The back had some odd-looking scales on it.”
Rex settled again on the stool, turning his attention back to his own fishing rod. He moved the line back and forth, trying to entice the large fish to bite once again. His brother stood and went over to his tackle box, bending to select another hook to tie to the line. A sudden splash on the starboard side of the boat followed a solid bump on the hull. The two brothers looked at each other, startled, as another, more forceful thud rocked the Chris-Craft in the water. Raymond lost his balance, falling backward. The fishing rod left his hands, and he grabbed for something to stop his fall. He watched as it sailed over the starboard gunwale and down into the dark waters of the lake.
“No!” Raymond said, struggling to his feet and staring at the spot where the rod had disappeared. Rex reeled in his line and joined his brother. “You’ve got to go get it, man.” Raymond looked at his brother with pleading eyes.
“What? With that monster down there?”
“It’s just a fish,” Raymond said. “It’s not like it’s going to eat you.”
Raymond, like the rest of the Fisher family, did not dive. Rex had been the only one bitten by the scuba bug. He was the only one in the family who rushed to sit in front of the television set when The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was scheduled to air. The first thing that Rex had purchased with his first paycheck from his first summer job was his own snorkel gear. After that, he began saving for scuba lessons and equipment. To the rest of the family, it was a phase they were certain he would grow out of. He never did.
“Come on, Fish,” Raymond asked again. “That was my good Penn Levelmatic reel. I don’t want to lose it.”
“Okay, okay. But I can’t make any promises. The water is pretty murky, and I don’t know how deep it is.” Rex had to admit that whatever the large fish was, it intrigued him and he wanted a closer look. Walking into the cabin, he began assembling his scuba gear. Though he had not planned diving as part of their itinerary, he always came prepared when on the water. He pulled on his black two-piece neoprene wetsuit, pants part first, followed by the jacket with an R and R Divers logo on the front, before zipping up the front zipper. He added a wide nylon belt with lead weights. Next, he selected a steel eighty cubic foot air cylinder, setting it into his tank harness. He always kept two tanks aboard the cruiser. He attached a J-type valve to the cylinder, which allowed for a safety reserve of 300 psi of air to remain in the tank and finished by adding a two-stage, single hose regulator. Taking a test breath to verify everything was in working order, he brought the gear out of the cabin, along with a handheld underwater lantern.
Standing in the stern, he placed his right foot on the transom, preparing to strap his sheathed dive knife to his calf. It was a new SEATEC K-100 model with a hard resin handle and stainless steel blade. Rose had just bought it for him as a gift for the one-year anniversary of their dive shop. She had engraved the blade with a small, flowery script; For my Fish, from your Mermaid - Rose.
Another sturdy thump on the side of the boat signaled the return of the mystery fish. Did it somehow see the cruiser as a rival to its hunting grounds? Rex hesitated a moment, waiting for another strike. When it was not forthcoming, he bent and again wrapped the strap of the sheath around his leg.
The second thump came just as if the beast had timed it. Rex lost his grip on the knife, watching as it tumbled out of his hands, turning end over end to sink into the water behind the boat. Rex watched it plop into the water with stunned amazement. His expression mirrored that of his brother just moments before.
“I can’t believe this,” he said. “That stupid fish must be some kind of kleptomaniac. Rose gave me that knife. She had it engraved.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Raymond said. He wasn’t the kind to gloat over his brother’s disappointment. “I know how it feels.”
“That does it. Help me on with my tank. I’m going to go get our stuff back and see what this thing is.”
He donned a pair of black Dacor Turbo fins, and Raymond lifted the tank and harness for his brother. Rex backed into the arm straps, tightening the buckle around his waist. He put the mouthpiece of the regulator between his teeth, secured the flat oval mask to his face, and rolled backward off the port gunwale of the boat.
Once in the water, Rex descended below the submerged hull of the boat. Water seeped into his wetsuit, chilling him before his body temperature began heating it, creating a thin layer of warmth underneath the fabric. Rays of sunlight filtered down from above, scattering several feet below the surface amid the organic matter hanging suspended in the water. Rex finned around in a circle, looking out into the murk. He could see no sign of movement.
After a moment, he switched on his dive light and angled himself downward, dropping deeper into the lake below the boat. The light created a small oval of illumination in an otherwise tea-like brown gloom. He moved the light around, searching for the bottom. The lake was much deeper than he thought. He knew his dive knife would have gone straight down. His brother’s rod and reel may have drifted, but it would still be near the line of where it entered the water. He glanced upward to be sure he was still underneath the boat. He could just make out the silhouette above.
Rex descended further, sweeping the light back and forth. He saw a tangled mass of decaying tree limbs and leaf waste littering the bottom of the lake. As he peered down, the beam of light illuminated a thick, round, scaled form that slid underneath him just a few feet away. Rex jerked in surprise, lifting his fins out of the way as the enormous form swam through the small shaft of light. His first thought was that it may be some enormous snake, but he knew the dimensions were wrong. The body was much too thick.
Something bumped into his left side and slid around his back, just below his air cylinder. It seemed to coil around him, moving up his right side. He could feel his wetsuit, both the jacket and the pants, pulling along with the movement. He shifted the beam of his dive light just in time to see a long, paddle-like snout as long as his arm, filled with two rows of sharp, white teeth. A round, golden eye with a small black pupil stared at him as it went by, followed by a body thicker around than his own torso. Scales that looked like medieval armor covered the body. Recognition dawned on Rex, and a new chill swept over him. He played his light out into the water where the fish had disappeared, but saw nothing.
Rex Fisher was an experienced diver, not given to panic. When others might feel fear, he often felt curiosity. Yet, he also had a healthy respect for the water and the creatures that lived there. He felt that respect now, and it far outweighed his curiosity. Without hesitation, he pumped his legs, driving himself back toward the surface. Though he had only been down a few minutes, he forced himself to hang in the water at fifteen feet, allowing any build-up of nitrogen in his body to dissipate. He looked all around him during the safety stop, but saw no further sign of the large fish.
Once back aboard the cruiser, Rex pulled his face mask down below his chin and struggled out of the tank harness. “Sorry, man,” he told his brother. “I’ll have to buy you a new rod and reel.”
Raymond just stood, pointing to his brother’s wetsuit. “What happened? Looks like someone took a cheese grater to you.”
Rex looked down to see lacerations in several places on the black neoprene material on both sides of his wetsuit jacket. He felt along the back of his legs and buttocks, verifying that the pants too were in the same condition.
“It’s a gar, man,” Rex said.
“Yeah, an alligator gar. Biggest one I’ve ever seen. That thing must be longer than I am tall. I knew they could get big, but this one is humongous. It scraped up against me.” Rex realized that, if not for the wetsuit, his bare skin would have taken the scraping from the serrated, armor-like scales.
“I didn’t think gar were aggressive,” Raymond said.
“I don’t know if it was being aggressive or just trying to make friends, but with an animal that size, the result is about the same. Sorry bro, but I don’t think I’ll be making another dive down there.”
“That’s alright. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
Rex looked out over the morning sunlight glinting off of the dark, still waters of the lake. The now warming air was burning off the patches of fog. “I guess this fishing spot’s taken,” he said. “We better move on. Sorry about your pole.”
“I’ll get over it,” Raymond said, starting the engine on the Chris-Craft and guiding the boat back toward the tunnel of tree limbs. “Sorry about your knife.”
“Yeah,” Rex said. “I know Rose is going to be disappointed, but I’m sure she’ll understand.”
August 1998, Dusk, Somewhere along the Perdido River, on the Alabama side
HOYT JACKSON EXTENDED a hand, parting the branches of the dense foliage growing along the bank of the Perdido River. He could feel his friend Kevin Hernandez bumping into him from behind as they both tried to peer through the small opening in the bushes. Hoyt elbowed Kevin in the chest.
“Dude,” he whispered. “Get back some.”
“I want to see too,” Kevin said, leaning back slightly as he set the two large plastic coolers he was carrying down on the ground. “Is anybody around the place?”
Beyond them, set back from the river several yards, was a large warehouse inside the perimeter of a tall, rusting chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Peering through the leaves, Hoyt could see they were near the rear corner of the fence. On the opposite side, in front of the building and just outside the fence, he could make out a gravel parking lot. As the sun gradually lowered over the surrounding treetops, sodium lights began flickering on around the building and in the parking lot, creating small pools of yellowy light amid a sea of overlapping shadows. A small guard shack was visible, set into the fence about midway between the parking lot and where they stood. Next to the guard shack was a gate large enough to drive a vehicle through. The gravel path leading from the parking lot circled around the outside perimeter of the fence, leading through the gate to an overhead door on the side of the warehouse. A smaller walk-in door was just to the right of the overhead door.
“I don’t see anyone around,” Hoyt said. “But there’s a light in the guard shack by the gate. We’re going to have to get closer.”
Kevin eyed the overgrowth leading away from the river with apprehension. They were hoping there would be a trail, but none was visible from where they had pulled their small boat quietly up onto the riverbank. Now, in the growing twilight, the heavily wooded lowland looked foreboding. At eighteen and just out of high school, Kevin Hernandez had an active imagination, fueled by his growing collection of comic books. Hoyt Jackson, a year older than Kevin, and the bolder of the two friends, usually took the lead in their frequent after-dark activities. In most cases, Kevin was happy to follow Hoyt’s lead, but now he was feeling apprehensive.
“I don’t know,” Kevin said. “Maybe we should just forget about it.”
“What?” Hoyt turned to look at him. “No way, man. This is going to be profitable. Besides, we went to a lot of trouble to get here. Billy Freeman said that his old man was hired to do some work for these guys, and that the guard makes his rounds every two hours. All we got to do is see where the guard is and wait.”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “I guess.” He rolled his eyes at the mention of Billy Freeman and his old man. Billy’s dad was a deadbeat. He would do just about anything for someone willing to pay him enough to buy a bottle of liquor. Kevin didn’t think Billy was going to turn out much differently.
The two picked up their plastic coolers, two each, and slowly made their way through the pine trees and palmettos, trying to move as quietly as possible. A thick carpet of pine needles helped cushion their footsteps. Thorns and sharp branches scratched at their arms and pulled at their clothing. Kevin visibly shuddered, imagining an assortment of spiders and ticks falling down his shirt and crawling up his pants. Mosquitoes took advantage of the opportunity for a free snack, swarming around the bare skin of their arms and heads.
As they approached the guard shack, they could see light from the window streaming through the trees. A small air conditioner occupied the lower half of the window, blocking their view of the interior. It was running and the noise, they knew, would probably cover the sound of their footsteps. They stopped at the tree line, crouching low.
“I don’t see the guard,” Kevin whispered. “It’s hard to tell with the air conditioner in the window.”
“Go look and make sure,” Hoyt ordered.
“Me?” Kevin looked over at his friend. “Why me?”
“Cause I said so,” Hoyt responded, his eyes fixed on the window.
Kevin thought about protesting, but knew it was useless. He moved forward slowly, still crouching. Easing up beside the building, he cautiously peered into the window, straining to see around the metal case of the air conditioner. A blast of warm air from the exhaust hit him full force, causing him to sweat even more than he was already. He shifted, looking around the interior of the small room. Several seconds later, he made his way back to Hoyt.
“No one home,” he whispered. “There’s a desk and chair, a phone, a coffeemaker, some books and magazines. That’s about it. There’s two doors in the shack, one on each side of the fence. The gate’s padlocked.”
Hoyt thought for a moment. “Okay,” he said, “the guard must be inside the warehouse doing his rounds. Here’s what we’ll do; you pick the lock on the guard shack door, we get inside and out the other door, around to the corner of the warehouse. When the guard goes back into the shack, we sneak over to the warehouse door and get inside. If he does his rounds every two hours, we’ll have plenty of time. When we’re done, we go out the same way. We wait outside at the corner of the warehouse. When he starts his rounds again, we’ll head out. Easy-peasy. Got it?”
“I still think we should just leave.”
“Not without what we came for,” Hoyt said, lifting one cooler in his hand. “Now go on before he comes back and we have to wait longer.”
Kevin sulked for a moment, eyeing his friend. He knew there was no going back once Hoyt had put one of his schemes into action.
“Fine,” he said, once again heading for the guard shack.
Kevin Hernandez had no clue what he wanted to do with his life. He hated school and had barely graduated. He was rotten at sports. None of the jobs available to him held any actual interest. Girls didn’t seem to find him particularly appealing. He was really only good at two things; reading comic books and picking locks. He discovered his talent at lock picking when his mother began locking him in his room to keep him from his late-night wanderings with Hoyt. She had long since given up trying to keep him under control, but Kevin found that his talent could come in very handy.
Once back in front of the shack, Kevin shot a quick glance at the window to be certain the room was still empty. Satisfied, he set his two coolers on the ground and reached his hand out for the heavy wooden door set into the wall of the small building. On a whim, he twisted the knob, surprised when it turned easily and the door swung open.
“Ha,” he said, almost aloud. He looked back into the trees, motioning for Hoyt to follow, before gathering his coolers and entering the shack. Once through the shack and out the opposite door, the two friends quickly made their way to the front of the warehouse. Looking around the corner to the parking lot, they saw no one. There was only one car in the lot, a red Ford Mustang, presumably belonging to the guard. The warehouse was at the end of a long gravel and dirt road that stretched northwest, away from the river. The front of the warehouse was bare, except for a large painted sign that read A.K. Acquisitions and Distributions. By appointment only.
“Go around to the other side of the warehouse,” Hoyt said. “See if there’s another door.” Kevin did so, returning a few minutes later.
“Nope. No door. And no other gate in the fence. The warehouse doesn’t seem to have any windows, either.”
“Okay,” Hoyt said. “Now we wait.
The two swatted at mosquitoes and sweated as the last sliver of sunlight finally faded in the west, rays of light filtering through the trees and disappearing. In the stillness, the sound of crickets became almost deafening. From the banks of the river, they could hear frogs beginning their nightly croaking. One of the sodium lights at the corner of the fence angled downward, creating a small pool of light they both tried to avoid as they peered around the corner.
Just when the aching in their muscles seemed unbearable, they heard the creak of a rusted door hinge cut through the still night air. The walk-in door on the side of the warehouse opened. A man stepped out, glancing around. They were expecting to see the stereotypical security guard; an aging, overweight grandpa type with thick glasses and a wrinkled uniform. Instead, the man was probably in his early thirties, muscular, dressed in jeans and a loud, floral pattern Hawaiian-style shirt. A holstered pistol was around his waist. He moved in an easy, graceful manner.
“Oh, man,” moaned Kevin under his breath as they ducked their heads back into the shadows. “I told you we should have just left.”
“Shut up,” Hoyt hissed. “You want him to hear you?”
The man closed the door with a loud slam and walked the several yards to the guard shack. He made no effort at stealth.
“This doesn’t change anything,” Hoyt said. “The guy has no idea we’re here. Just stick to the plan. Everything will be fine. In a couple of hours, we’ll be out of here. By tomorrow, we’ll be richer by a couple of hundred dollars each.”
“I don’t know, man.”
“Relax. The guy I talked to yesterday said he’d pay us three dollars and fifty cents for each egg we get. We just fill the coolers with as many as we can. It’s going to be easy money, and these people won’t miss the eggs at all. We just have to follow the plan, that’s all. Pretty soon you’ll be able to afford all the comics you want.”
“Ha!” Kevin said, his voice squeaked higher despite his fear. “Shows what you know. The ones I want are pretty expensive.”
“Come on.” Hoyt started toward the door. Kevin hesitated a moment, then followed.
As they neared the guard shack, they could see through the window that the guard was sitting at the small wooden desk, feet splayed out in front of him, reading a paperback. Unlike the window on the opposite side of the fence, this one was unobstructed by an air conditioner. All the guard had to do was to step to the window, and there would be no way to miss the sight of two young men with wide eyes creeping along the side of the warehouse.
Kevin started to say something in protest, but realized his throat was too dry. He felt trapped, as their only means of escaping the enclosure of the fence was now cut off. His legs felt weak, but they kept going and soon came to the door. They could no longer see the guard through the window.
“I’ll keep watch,” Hoyt offered.
Kevin reached out and tried the doorknob. His heart sank when he found it locked. It would not be as easy to get into the warehouse as it was with the guard shack. Normally, he enjoyed the opportunity to show off his skills, especially since lock picking was something beyond Hoyt’s abilities. This time, though, he just wanted to get out of sight as quickly as possible.
Reaching into his back pocket, Kevin pulled out a cloth pouch with an assortment of short, thin metal rods and got to work on the doorknob in the glow from a nearby light. Within moments, he put the pouch away and turned the knob. Despite the fear he felt, Kevin grinned with satisfaction.
The two quickly eased the door open, trying to avoid the rusty squeak they had heard earlier. Stepping inside, they looked around the dimly lit warehouse. The first thing to hit them was the odor. A musty smell permeated the interior of the warehouse, accentuated by the sharp scent of urine. Row after row of crates, large wooden bins, cages, and aquariums filled the warehouse. Many of the cages were empty, others contained an assortment of animals. Small deer, tortoises, pelicans, owls, and foxes inhabited cages that, in most cases, seemed barely large enough to contain them. In one rectangular cage, a large cat paced back and forth the entire length of the enclosure. Hoyt and Kevin both recognized the animal as a Florida panther. It was about six feet long, with matted tan fur. The cat stopped pacing in the cage long enough to look over at Hoyt and Kevin. It let out a low growl, followed by a series of sharp chirping noises.
“Sounds almost like a bird,” Kevin said under his breath. “I didn’t know they sounded like birds.”
The aquariums, too, were a variety of sizes. Some were empty, while others held fish of all sorts. Still others, fitted with perforated metal covers, housed a menagerie of lizards and snakes.
Kevin stood, staring around the warehouse in wonder. Hoyt quickly walked over to one of the wooden bins, which were lined with plastic and filled with small, round, white objects that resembled ping-pong balls. Two similar bins stood nearby.
“Sea turtle eggs!” Hoyt exclaimed, raising his voice in his excitement. “I found the eggs.” He motioned to his friend. “Hurry up. Get as many of them as you can.” He opened one of his coolers and began scooping eggs into it with both hands.
Kevin came over, watching Hoyt for a moment before slowly imitating his friend. He reached down into the bin and drew out a handful of eggs. “They’re kind of soft,” he said. “I thought they would be hard, like a chicken egg.”
“Who cares?” Hoyt glanced over at his friend. “Fill up your coolers, man. They’re smaller than I thought they would be. We can probably get forty or more into each cooler. Come on. This is what we came for.”
The two friends went to work scooping the eggs and placing them into the plastic coolers. A few minutes went by when a sudden cough from behind made them pause.
“Well, what do we have here?” Hoyt and Kevin stiffened. Turning slowly, they saw the security guard in the Hawaiian shirt standing several feet away. The pistol was pointing directly at them. Kevin gasped, dropping the cooler in his hand and spilling sea turtle eggs all around his feet.
A slight grin came over the man’s unshaven face as he let out a low chuckle. “Looks like I interrupted your plans for the evening. Why don’t you put those eggs back where you found them? Then we can go have a pleasant chat.”
The guard led the two friends to an enclosed office in one corner of the warehouse. Flicking on the light switch, the guard seated them in two wooden chairs. They watched as he made a phone call, speaking softly into the handset. They couldn’t hear enough of the conversation to know who he was speaking to, but they were pretty sure it wasn’t the police. The man glanced at them a few times, keeping the gun pointed in their direction. After a moment, he replaced the handset.
“Now, we wait.”
Time went by slowly as the guard seated himself across the room from them, turning the wooden chair backward and leaning forward against the backrest. He remained silent, even when Hoyt screwed up enough courage to ask questions. He just stared at them, an amused expression on his face. The gun never wavered.
After waiting almost an hour, they heard footsteps approaching from within the warehouse. The door to the office opened and in stepped a small-framed, middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a pair of white linen slacks and a pale green dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The guard rose quickly as the man came into the room.
“Well?” the man asked, eyeing Hoyt and Kevin.
“I caught these two trying to steal the turtle eggs.”
“Yes, I saw the mess on the floor.”
“They brought coolers. They knew what they were looking for.”
“Yes,” the man said. “I saw those too. What I did not see, Eugene, was a reason they could have gotten past you and into the warehouse.” He turned his eyes away from Hoyt and Kevin and looked at the guard. “Care to offer an explanation?”
The guard hesitated for only a moment. “I seem to have left the door to the guard shack unlocked when I came in here to check on things. They must have slipped in. When I found out it was unlocked, I came back to look around. That’s when I found these two stuffing eggs into the coolers.”
“I know I locked the warehouse door, though, so I don’t know how they got in here.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Can you help Eugene out?” The man turned his attention back to Hoyt and Kevin. “Is it true he left the guardhouse door unlocked?”
They were silent.
He walked over to stand in front of the two young men. In the overhead glare of the office lighting, the man’s pale eyes seemed to glow behind the lenses of his glasses. The man waited, watching them. Hoyt at first tried to glare in defiance, but he soon wilted under the man’s stare.
“Yeah,” Kevin said. A thin trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face. “The guard shack was unlocked. We got in and hid.”
“I see. What about the warehouse? Was it unlocked as well?”
“No,” Kevin said, his voice quivering. He thought he might cry as the man stood over him. He’d been in trouble before, but there was something about the calm manner of this man that frightened Kevin even more than if he had been screaming at them.
“Then how did you get in?”
“I picked the lock,” Kevin admitted, his voice catching as he almost sobbed the words out.
“You?” The man arched his eyebrows. A corner of his thin lips curled upwards. “You picked the lock?”
“He’s real good at it,” Hoyt offered. His natural brashness seemed to have drained from him. The two friends had spent many hours getting into trouble with no real accountability, but they both recognized this situation was far different from any they had encountered before.
The man looked at them a moment longer before shifting his gaze back to Eugene.
“Well,” the man said, “the weakest link in any security plan is always the human element. We’ll have a talk about getting into the habit of locking doors later. If this young man is so good at lock picking, it might not have mattered.” He turned his attention back to the two friends. “In the meantime, we have another problem to work on.”
The man took another wooden chair and sat down, facing them. He crossed his legs, running a hand over one pant leg, smoothing out the wrinkles. His every action seemed calculated, slow, and deliberate. Eugene remained standing by the door, the gun back in its holster. Several seconds ticked by. The man’s pale eyes watched them as the tension in the room grew. Kevin was certain he would wet himself soon.
“Now,” the man said after a moment. “I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer them. If you choose not to, then perhaps Eugene can redeem himself for his earlier oversight. What are your names?”
“Hoyt,” Hoyt said.
“Jackson. Hoyt Jackson.”
The pale eyes turned to gaze at Kevin.
“Did you just come to get the sea turtle eggs? Did you come to steal anything else?”
“No, sir,” Kevin said, “just the eggs. We didn’t even know about the animals and fish and stuff.” He found himself with a desire to be helpful, despite their predicament.
“What were you going to do with the eggs?”
“We were going to sell them,” Hoyt said. “I talked to a guy at a pet shop who promised to pay us for as many as we could get. He said he would give us three dollars and fifty cents for each egg we could get.”
“I see. Did this man tell you where to find them?”
“No,” Hoyt said. “No, sir,” he added after a moment.
“Now, pay attention to this next question,” the man said, leaning forward in his chair. “You’ll want to be certain that you give me the answer to this question. Who was it that told you about this place? Who told you where you could find a supply of sea turtle eggs?”
The two friends looked at each other.
“Just someone,” Hoyt said. “It was just a guy we went to school with.”
“And does this guy have a name?”
Hoyt looked down at the floor and hesitated. The man waited.
“Billy,” Hoyt mumbled. “Billy Freeman.”
“Billy Freeman. He’s nobody. He was the one that told us about this place. The guard goes into the warehouse every two hours to make his rounds, he said. So we figured we could sneak in here and get some turtle eggs to sell.”
The man shifted his gaze to Kevin. “Is this true?”
“And how,” the man shifted in his chair, leaning forward, “how would a boy named Billy Freeman, who you went to school with, know where, in all the vast Gulf Coast, to find a large supply of sea turtle eggs outside their nests?”
“He said his dad did some work for you here,” Kevin said. “I guess he digs them up at night and then brings them here. Billy said he got paid pretty good to bring them in. Had enough money to go on a drinking spree for days, Billy told us.”
The man sat back, frowning. “Freeman. Freeman.” He twisted in his chair, looking back at Eugene. “Do we know a Freeman?”
“Yeah, bum who lives over in West Pensacola,” Eugene said. “Bob Freeman. We’ve had him working on and off for about a year now. He mainly just gets eggs and a few animals. Not very bright.”
“I expect not,” the man said. “He was, however, bright enough to note your security routine and almost compromise our operation.”
“Obviously, we’re going to have to increase our minimum requirements for hiring decent help. In the meantime, Eugene, please arrange to terminate Mr. Freeman’s employment.”
“While you’re at it, persuade his family that silence is in their best interest.”
“I’m on it,” Eugene said, opening the door to the office.
“Eugene,” the man said, raising a finger before the guard stepped out the door. “When you’re done, be sure and give the family a modest severance package. It’s hard on a family to lose a husband and father, even if he is a deadbeat.”
“Yes, sir.” Eugene stepped lightly out of the door, easing it shut.
The man turned back to Hoyt and Kevin. “Now, we come to the question of what to do with the two of you.”
If the two younger men had any thought of overpowering the older man, now that the guard with the pistol had left, one look at those pale eyes and the calm, almost serene expression was enough to drive the thought from their minds.
“Look mister, we’re real sorry,” Hoyt said. “We learned our lesson, and we won’t ever do anything like this again. Ain’t that right, Kevin?”
Kevin nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“I’m afraid that doesn’t help me much. Whether you do something like this again is irrelevant to me now. The fact is, you did. And now, thanks to you, and thanks to Billy Freeman and his moronic father, I am forced to relocate my operation. I doubt you realize the work and expense you’ve cost me. And all for a few hundred dollars in sea turtle eggs? You probably have no clue of the scope of this enterprise, do you?” His calm, controlled demeanor slipped for a moment and he seemed genuinely agitated.
They just looked at him, afraid to speak.
“Do you know what I do here? Do you know anything about this operation beyond the eggs?”
“We don’t know anything, honest,” Kevin said. “We didn’t see anything.”
“Unlikely. Still, it’s partly my fault for having minimal security. I trusted that a lower profile would draw less attention. If your actions tonight result in anything, it will at least be to show me where I need to make some necessary changes. Nevertheless, my question stands; do you know what I do here?” His eyes seemed to electrify the question.
“You get animals and eggs and stuff and sell them.” Kevin’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“Very good. Yes, I get animals, and eggs, and stuff, and I sell them.” The man leaned forward in his chair, speaking slowly. “I sell them for a lot of money. There are people who will pay very well for the animals, eggs, and stuff that I gather for them. Did you know that?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin shrugged. “I didn’t really think about it.”
“I did,” Hoyt said in a low voice. He seemed mesmerized by the man’s eyes. He couldn’t tell if they were light blue or gray, but in the glow of the overhead lighting, they almost appeared to be silver. “We came for the eggs, but when I saw all the animals and the fish, I wondered how much they would sell for. I mean, you wouldn’t go to the trouble of catching them if you couldn’t get much money for them, right?”
“That’s right, Hoyt.” The man set back in his chair, smiling. It was not a warm smile, but one of predatory satisfaction. He pushed his glasses higher onto his nose with a forefinger. “That’s exactly right. In fact, I think the amount of money that I could get for some of the animals in this warehouse would truly amaze you.”
They sat in silence for a moment as the man stared at them, an odd expression on his face. “We have a dilemma here, don’t we? What am I going to do with the two of you?”
“You could let us go,” Kevin said, in a tone that could have been a question as much as a statement.
“I could, if I was so inclined. But I’m not. I have a better idea.” He reached into his back pocket and took out a handkerchief. Removing his glasses, he polished both lenses before re-pocketing the handkerchief. “My name is King. Alister King,” he said, repositioning the glasses on his nose. “I think, Hoyt and Kevin, that instead of letting the two of you simply walk out of here, I will instead make you both an offer of employment. And believe me when I tell you it will be in your best interest to accept this offer.”
The two friends glanced at one other in the silence that followed. From outside the office, somewhere out in the warehouse, they could hear the caged Florida panther growling and chirping.
Present-day, June, Thursday evening, The Cozumel Channel, Cozumel, Mexico
A LONE FIGURE sat on the flybridge lounge of a Fleming 78 motor yacht anchored just to the north and west of Puerto de Abrigo, watching as the sun sank below the horizon of the Yucatan mainland. A glowing mixture of yellow, amber, and tawny orange lit the sky, deepening to red as it met the horizon. The palette of colors reflected in the waters of the Caribbean Sea. Passing boaters turned their attention briefly from the exquisite sunset to admire the elegant profile of the Fleming. Gold cursive lettering at the stern declared the name of the yacht to be SeaStar.
The man on the flybridge lounge poured a splash of extra anejo tequila into a glass, sipping the smooth liquid as he watched the sun fading from the sky, leaving the clouds edged with a silver glow. He looked to be in his thirties, casually dressed in beige cargo shorts, a dark blue polo shirt, and a pair of maroon leather sandals. A cellular phone lying on a nearby table buzzed and began playing a rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”. Reaching over, he picked up the phone, swiping his index finger across the screen to accept the call.
“Alex Nolen. How may I help you?”
The conversation was brief. After a moment, he ended the call and stood, draining the last of the tequila from his glass. He took a last, long look at the darkening sky and the lights dotting the west coast of the island of Cozumel before descending a flight of steps from the flybridge to the pilothouse. Once in the pilothouse, he turned aft, continuing down to the salon. Placing his glass and the tequila bottle on the granite countertop near the galley, he removed his cell phone again from a pocket in his cargo shorts and placed a call. He paced around the salon as he spoke.
“Mickey, this is Alex. I just got confirmation about the charter job. I’ll be leaving here in the morning and should be over by you early next week. You still in?”
Alex’s childhood friend, Mickey Tate, still lived in Pensacola, Florida, where Alex had grown up. It had been over two years since Alex had been back to the Florida panhandle, and he was looking forward to seeing his friends and his hometown once more. Growing up on the Gulf Coast, with the Gulf of Mexico as his backyard, Alex had fallen in love with the ocean at an early age. From trips to the beach with his parents, to his first swimming lessons, then on to his scuba diving certifications, and his boating license, Alex Nolen’s life had been centered around the water for as long as he could remember. His nomadic life aboard the yacht for the last two years seemed a natural progression to his existence. He doubted he could ever go back to what others might call a normal life.
As much as he anticipated his return home, he also knew that it would be a bitter-sweet experience. It would inevitably dredge up memories he had spent the last two years trying to sort through. Like packing away old souvenirs, he felt he had finally found closets in his mind where he could safely store the memories, shutting them away behind closed doors. Returning to the Florida panhandle would mean opening some of those doors again. Still, he found he was eager to see the familiar coastline, as well as the people there that he called friends. After two years, he felt it was time. This latest charter job afforded him the perfect opportunity.
“I’ll call you when I get there,” Alex said, once he and his friend had spoken for several minutes. “See you then.”
Re-pocketing his cell phone, Alex looked around the comfortable open salon and galley of the boat. He crossed to the refrigerator and peered inside. It was fully stocked, topped up like the fuel and freshwater tanks on the boat, in preparation for his departure. He had intended to dine aboard this evening so he could get an early start on his voyage in the morning, but now he was having second thoughts. It was his last night in Cozumel. After three weeks of diving and exploring the island, as well as the Yucatan mainland, he would soon be back at his business of providing excursions for paying clients aboard the yacht.
Alex enjoyed the opportunity to dive in almost any locale, freshwater or saltwater, ocean, lake, river, or cenote, but he had become mesmerized by the clear Caribbean waters around the beautiful little island. As part of the Mesoamerican Reef system, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the waters of Cozumel are home to a fascinating variety of coral, sponges, fish, and other marine life. Famous dive sites he had only read about came alive as Alex experienced firsthand the Santa Rosa Wall, Chankanaab reef, Palancar Gardens, and the wreck of the C-53 Felipe Xicotencatl, a Mexican Navy ship sunk in about eighty feet of water.
But he had not limited his adventures to the underwater world. Some tourists might depart a cruise ship for only a day excursion, soon boarding again to set sail for another exotic location the next day. Others may come to Cozumel for a few days before returning to their hectic, stressful lives, not allowing themselves to get to know the island and its people. While he knew it was only scratching the surface, Alex made efforts in his three-week stay to experience the rich history, culture, and biodiversity of the region. He would miss his time here, and he wasn’t quite ready to put an end to the visit.
He closed the door to the refrigerator and headed aft. Stepping out onto the swim step from the cockpit, he boarded his tender, a dark blue Willams Sportjet 435 Rigid Inflatable Boat, or RIB, that was tied to the stern. Once seated, he untied the small boat, pushing off from the yacht. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a small key fob, pressing a button to engage the security system onboard the SeaStar.
Alex guided the Sportjet RIB to the docks and enjoyed a leisurely walk into San Miguel, Cozumel’s only town. A slight ocean breeze moved the warm evening air around, but it was not quite strong enough to dispel the mosquitoes. A cruise ship docked at the terminal, across from the town, streamed light from most every deck and cabin. Tourists by the dozens strolled along Rafael E. Melgar Avenue as local merchants beckoned them inside the shops lining the waterfront to sample their wares. One young man tried to tempt Alex with a sample taste of peanut-butter-flavored tequila. Alex politely declined. As intriguing as it sounded, he preferred tequila that tasted like tequila.
Music of various styles blared from within the bars and restaurants as patrons ate, drank, and danced. Alex turned onto a side street, walking a few blocks uptown and leaving the loud, touristy scene behind him. He mused at the effort and expense people would put toward traveling thousands of miles to an exotic locale, only to do the same things they did when they were home. Of course, he realized, he could say the same for himself.
Several blocks from the waterfront, Alex came to a small restaurant that he found appealing. He had enjoyed many of the fine restaurants on Cozumel during his stay, places like Pancho’s Backyard, Paprika, Coconuts Bar and Grill, El Palomar, and Novena Ola. Tonight, though, he was looking for small and intimate, something away from crowds and noise. Walking inside, the statue of an iguana greeted him from just inside the doorway, adorned with inlaid glass beads. The restaurant featured a courtyard setting, with a light jazz ensemble playing at a volume that did not discourage conversation.
Once seated, Alex did his best to decipher the Spanish language menu. Pictures beside each item helped. He waffled between a spicy steak dish and the tequila shrimp before settling on an intriguing plantain and cheese offering that a young couple at a nearby table were clearly enjoying. Settling back in his chair, Alex sipped a bottle of Modelo Negra beer, relaxing as he listened to the music.
The young couple, a few tables away, talked easily with one another. The woman, a petite blond, laughed at something the man said and they interlaced their fingers together on the tabletop. They seemed very much in love. He wondered what occasion had brought them to Cozumel. It was possible that lived on the island, but Alex imagined they may have been on their honeymoon, or perhaps an anniversary. He pictured them sight-seeing, touring the island together, perhaps even diving, excitedly talking about what they were seeing. As enjoyable as his adventures had been over the last three weeks, he could share them with no one, except perhaps by means photographs or brief descriptions that would do little to convey the exciting firsthand experiences. The thought left him with an uneasy feeling, a void that threatened to intrude on his relaxed mood. After a moment of reflection, he forced his attention back to the music, waiting for the food to arrive.
His meal soon arrived, and the aroma and unique melding of flavors held his undivided attention. After dinner, he leaned back, listening to the soft music and trying to imagine how much could have changed since he last visited his hometown. For dessert, he chose a Mayan coffee, one of his favorites. The dark coffee drink was made with Xtabentún, a Mexican liqueur with honey from the Yucatan xtabentún flower, anise seed, and rum. The sweet and spicy drink was the perfect finish to his meal. Eventually, Alex signaled to his waitress that he was ready to leave the restaurant.
“How was your meal, señor?” the waitress asked, discreetly slipping the bill beside his plate.
“It was excellent,” Alex told her. “The food and the atmosphere are just perfect for a relaxing evening.” He pulled a neatly folded wad of cash from his pocket, peeling off several bills. “This is for the meal, and for you,” he said. Her eyebrows rose in appreciation at the sizable tip.
“Thank you, señor.”
“And this,” Alex said, peeling off several more bills, “should cover the expenses for the young couple at that table.” He nodded in the couple's direction, who, having finished their meal, had left their seats to dance together to the music.
“You are very generous,” the waitress said, her eyebrows inching up even higher in surprise. “Are they friends of yours?”
“No, not really,” he replied, rising from his seat and pushing his chair back underneath the table. “I just imagine that they’re probably enjoying a special occasion together.”
Smiling at the waitress, Alex departed the restaurant, walking through the warm Cozumel evening air, toward the SeaStar, and his planned trip back to the Emerald Coast of the United States.
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