Fallen Palm: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
The first two books in this series are discounted! Jesse McDermitt lives alone on an isolated island in the Florida Keys where he runs a charter fishing business. Retired from the Marine Corps for six years, he wants nothing more than to relax, fish, dive and enjoy the laid back lifestyle of the islands. Russ, his former Platoon Sergeant and old friend, dies unexpectedly in a mysterious scuba diving accident and Jesse becomes suspicious. When his friend's son comes to south Florida to ask Jesse if he would take him to a remote reef to spread his father's ashes, the two men discover that Russ was murdered and agree to hunt down the psychotic killer together, unaware that their manhunt will lead them to a Caribbean terrorist cell. Meanwhile, a beautiful woman has returned to the Keys on a manhunt of her own, distracting Jesse with the idea that he could finally leave his warrior past behind. The prospect of finding lost Confederate gold, several high speed boat chases, and dodging demented killers, won't stop Jesse from revenge. Surviving a powerful hurricane puts everything on hold as a top secret government agency tries to recruit him into their fold. When the sun comes back out, will Jesse be ready?
Release date: February 8, 2019
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 390
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Fallen Palm: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
One Month Later
The banging continued incessantly. At first, I thought I was just dreaming. Hangover dreams were always strange. Gradually, as the fog in my brain started to lift, I realized it wasn’t a dream. Was someone pounding on the door?
“Go away,” I mumbled irritably.
Opening one eye took some effort. But little by little my right eye slowly transitioned from the inky blackness of unconsciousness to dark red, then to pink, finally cracking open just enough so I could see the floor, slightly fuzzy, through my eyelashes.
It sounded like the noise was coming from below the floor—a floor that looked very familiar. The wood was dark and burled, the planks of varying lengths and widths. Even through my alcohol-induced haze, I realized that it was what’s called palo santo, or “holy wood,” in South America. Here in the Florida Keys, we called it lignum vitae—a gnarled type of brushy tree that sometimes grew to 30 feet.
I know that board, I thought. That’s my floor.
Apparently, I was in my own house, lying face-down across my own bed. The dark burled floor plank looked familiar because I’d cut it myself from dozens of gnarly pieces and several large trunks a friend had brought out to me. I’d shaped it, sanded it, and installed it myself, along with every other board in my little stilt house.
Well, if this is my house, I thought with a groan, that can’t be someone knocking on the door.
I lived alone on an otherwise uninhabited island, in a group of uninhabited islands.
Then a second pounding started, and I knew exactly where this one was coming from. Inside my skull. It competed with the banging that came up through the floor, until I felt I was literally surrounded by a cacophony of noise.
“Yeah,” I moaned, rolling over onto my back, “you got one hell of a hangover, McDermitt.”
Slowly, I sat up, the pounding in my temples growing louder. What the hell was I thinking, going toe-to-toe, or was it shot glass-to-shot glass, with a bunch of sailors almost half my age?”
Slowly, the memory of the night before began taking shape. After a long day on the water putting up with four loud-mouthed fat-asses from Ohio who’d chartered my boat, Gaspar’s Revenge, for a day of dolphin fishing, I’d finally put them off at Dockside, a bar in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida. After cleaning up the barf, beer cans, and blood, I’d turned over the job of hosing down the rest of the boat to my part-time first mate, Jimmy Saunders. I’d told him to catch up with me at the Rusty Anchor to collect his pay when he’d finished cleaning the fish for the Ohioans.
Jimmy was a decent guy, though he tended to smoke too much pot. I hated that he’d had to put up with those guys. But in his typical laid-back Conch fashion, he’d not only taken good care that they stayed baited, with cold beers in hand, but kept them out of my hair. I don’t get along well with most people, and definitely not with fat-ass northern bubbas. They couldn’t fish for shit, and had it not been for Jimmy’s help, they’d never have boated a single fish.
My favorite little hole-in-the-water bar, the Rusty Anchor Bar and Grill, owned by my old friend Rusty Thurman, was a short distance from Dockside. The Anchor wasn’t a tourist place. There were no hyped-up billboards proclaiming paradise. In fact, Rusty didn’t have an ad in the phone book. Not even a listing with the Marathon Chamber of Commerce, for that matter. It was a locals-only kind of beer joint and restaurant and that’s just the way Rusty liked it. Unless you lived in the Middle Keys, you’d never heard of it.
I remembered climbing into my rusted-out hulk of a ’73 International Travelall 4x4 and starting the perilous one-mile drive. An old girlfriend had christened my ride The Beast a couple of years back and it was just that. A short, one-mile trip in The Beast could easily turn into a harrowing adventure. A couple of minutes later, I’d pulled off the Overseas Highway behind the Lower Keys bus, affectionately called the Magic Bus. A couple of local fishermen were about to board it and had stopped me to ask if I wanted to go with them to Key West—or, more to the point, to drive them there to save the five-dollar bus fare.
“Thanks for the invite, guys,” I’d told them, “but Key Weird’s not for me. Too many tourists.”
They waved as they boarded the Magic Bus, and it coughed and chugged as it pulled back onto the highway, barely missing an RV with Indiana tags that was headed south. I’d driven on down the crushed-shell driveway, through the arched tangle of gumbo limbo and mangrove trees, into what passed for a parking lot at the Anchor.
The driveway was sandwiched between two residential roads, and it looked pretty much like any other residential driveway in the Middle Keys. There were no signs saying otherwise, so it was very rare that anyone not known to me ever came in.
As I rose and went to the head to relieve my swollen bladder, the memory of the night before became clearer. I’d recognized all the pickups in the Anchor’s lot as belonging to local fishermen, but one grey Ford sedan had looked out of place.
Obviously, it had been a rental car. How they’d found the place was anybody’s guess. I’d only planned to have a couple of beers at the bar and get caught up on the Coconut Telegraph with Julie while I waited for Jimmy.
Julie was the bartender at the Anchor as well as the accountant, the busser, the chief bottle washer, and Rusty’s one and only child. After visiting with Julie, I’d planned to drive back to Dockside, jump in my skiff and head home.
“Well, look what washed up with the tide,” Julie’d said, smiling as I’d walked in and taken a stool at the bar. “Thought you’d run off to Miami or somewhere else way up north. Hey, Jesse.”
Julie, like her parents and their parents before them, going back at least 100 years, was a true Conch. Born at Fisherman’s Hospital in Marathon, she’d only been north of Key Largo a few times in her 23 years. She was a pretty girl, with wavy auburn hair usually tied in a loose ponytail at the base of her neck. Always ready with a smile for a friend, she was all business behind the bar.
Her dad, Rusty, on the other hand, was a man of the world. He and I had first met on the bus to Parris Island, a little island off the coast of South Carolina, near Beaufort. It’s a place where boys were first turned into men and then into Marines. Rusty and I were in the same platoon in boot camp, and since we were the only two from Florida, we quickly became good friends. Later, we’d served together in a few far-flung places around the world. We’d stayed in touch by mail when we weren’t in the same unit.
Rusty had left the Corps after four years, but I shipped over and made a career of it, finally retiring at the age of 37; a gunnery sergeant with no skills and two failed marriages. It was often joked that if the Corps wanted you to have a wife, you’d have been issued one.
Rusty had married his high school sweetheart when he went home on leave a year after boot camp. I’d taken leave at the same time and served as his best man. But just before his first tour ended, Rusty’s wife had died giving birth to Julie at home. The baby had stayed with her paternal grandparents until Rusty left the Corps on terminal leave, and then he’d raised her the only way he knew how. She was tougher than the limestone rock that most of Florida was made of.
“Hiya, Jules,” I’d said. “You oughta know better than to curse your elders like that. Miami? Hell, if I thought The Beast could make it that far, I’d go ahead and pay the toll to take the Sawgrass around that hellhole and just keep on going.”
I remembered looking around at everyone in the bar, as I always did. I’d nodded to a couple of shrimpers I recognized sitting at the bar, who’d nodded back. Then I’d glanced back at a table where three very serious-looking young guys with crew cuts sat huddled over their beers, talking animatedly.
When Julie had placed a dripping cold Red Stripe in front of me, I’d asked, “Where’d the sailors come from?”
On an island, even though you hadn’t seen someone in weeks or months, you could pick up a conversation as if you’d last seen them at breakfast. No need for pleasantries or greetings. I guess it’s because even though you might not see someone, they knew pretty much everything you’d been doing since they last saw you.
“Best guess? Key West NAS,” she’d replied. “They’ve been here a couple of hours. Said they were waiting for you. The big blond dude says he knows you.”
I’d slowly turned on my stool and given them a closer look as I swallowed half of my cold Jamaican beer with one long pull. The big kid had looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him. So, I’d just walked over, spun the only empty chair at the table around backwards and straddled it.
Remembering how the talking had stopped instantly and I’d almost heard the click as three sets of eyes locked onto and bored into mine, I should have known they were a special part of America’s military.
I’d glanced at each of them and paused on the bigger man, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian-looking guy. Even sitting, I could tell he was close to my own height of six-three, but probably a few pounds shy of my 230.
“I hear you’re looking for me,” I’d said and took another long pull of my beer, then motioned Julie for a round.
“If your name is Jesse McDermitt, I am,” the big Swede had replied. “My dad was Russell Livingston.”
Like a switch being turned on, the synapses in my brain had made the connection. The kid had looked so familiar because I’d known him when he was little, probably eight or nine, the last time I remembered seeing him. He looked closer to thirty now, but it was definitely Russ’s son.
I’d served under Russ Livingston in Okinawa and Lebanon some years ago. Even though he was my platoon sergeant, we’d become fast friends, mostly because of our love of the ocean. We’d taken leave together several times and come down here to scuba dive, fish, and raise hell with Rusty. The kid looked just like Russ had back in the day. A little taller, maybe, but the eyes and chin came directly from his dad. I recalled him saying once that his son had become a naval officer and joined the SEALs.
“Was your father?” I asked.
“Dad died last month,” he replied. “The Coroner said he drowned. I’m Russell Junior, but everyone just calls me Deuce.”
We’d shaken hands then, and I’d expressed my condolences. I hadn’t seen Russ in a few years, and asked Deuce why he was looking for me.
“Dad’s last wish was to have his ashes scattered on some reef down here,” Deuce had replied, the news of Russ’s death flooding back into my memory. “In his will,” Deuce had continued, “he said you’d be the only one who knew where it was. We’ve been here two days and asked around, but I haven’t found anyone who knows anything at all about it. Have you ever heard of Conrad Reef?”
He’d said that Russ had drowned, which just didn’t fit into the character of the man I remembered. I’d told Deuce about how Russ and I had come to call the spot Conrad Reef. “Yeah, I know Conrad. Russ and I called it that, back in the day. We’d just come back from Lebanon, right after the bombing, and we came down here on a 96-hour pass. We were taking turns dragging one another behind my old skiff, looking for lobster, and we found it about three miles offshore. We anchored up and free dived on it the rest of the day and into the night. The batteries in his dive light finally gave out and he put a dead battery on his shoulder and dared me to knock it off. So, we called it Conrad Reef from then on.”
Deuce gave me a puzzled look and I said, “Never mind, way before your time. Sure, I’d be honored to take you and your dad’s ashes out there. He was a good man.”
I looked at the other two and added, “But, nobody else.” I didn’t know these guys, and a good lobster honey hole was something you kept secret.
The other two at the table started to protest, but one glance from Deuce shut them down. He introduced me to a wiry black guy named Tony Jacobs and a short, muscular white guy named Art Newman just as Julie arrived with a tray of beers.
“Hey, Jules, is your old man around?” I’d asked her.
“He’s out back,” she’d replied. “Been tinkering all day with an old Evinrude he picked up at a yard sale. I’ll get him for you. Everything all right here?”
Julie was like a den mother to all the regulars. Never mind that nearly every shrimper, diver, fisherman, and boat bum who came into the place was at least a decade older than her. The younger guys, after striking out with her, kept to the more upbeat places like Dockside or the Hurricane. She was much older than her years, had grown up around boats, boaters, and boat bars and looked after her patrons and friends.
“Yeah, we’re fine. Yell at Rufus in the kitchen and if he has any fresh hogfish, I could use a sandwich.” Turning back to the table, I’d asked, “You guys eat yet?”
The black guy, Tony, had asked, “What’s a hogfish?”
“Make it four plates, Jules,” I’d told her with a grin. “It’s a local fish, Tony. Tastes just like bacon.”
Julie had rolled her dark brown eyes at the old joke and turned to go back to the kitchen, which wasn’t really a kitchen because it only had one wall—the back wall of the bar. It was just a deck out the back door where Rufus, who was older than anyone on the island, performed magic with little more than a large deep fryer and a couple of gas grills. Mostly, though, he sat in the shade of an umbrella and read old paperbacks, as the Rusty Anchor was more beer joint than restaurant, and few people ordered anything more than a fish sandwich or cheeseburger. Rusty let him live in a little cabin on the back of the property in exchange for the occasional meal order.
Rusty had come through the side door, and you’d think the whole place tilted just a little as he carried his portly, 300-pound frame across the room, stopping to grab a cold Bud longneck from the ice chest. Rusty was a short guy and had been the brunt of everyone’s jokes in the Corps. But he’d been solidly-built back then, and more than one Marine had underestimated both his strength and his tenacity. With a head full of bright red hair, he was christened “Rusty” in boot camp and the name had stuck ever since. These days, he was nearly as big around the middle as he was tall, with a shiny head and a thick red beard that was going gray.
“Jesse, you old barracuda!” he’d roared. “You need to get off that damned swamp you call an island a bit more than once in a blue moon and drag your sorry ass down here. How the hell ya been?”
As he’d approached the table, I’d asked my old friend if he thought Deuce looked familiar. Deuce had stood and shaken hands with Rusty, who’d studied the younger man’s face for a moment. If there’d been a hunk of charcoal between their palms, they would have turned it into a diamond. Rusty was twice the weight he’d been in the Corps, but he was still stronger than a Missouri mule and three times as stubborn.
Finally, Rusty’s face had lit up and he’d said, “Sumbitch, if he ain’t the image of old Russ. You remember him, Jess. He was our platoon sergeant over to Oki, back in the 80’s.”
I’d introduced Deuce and the other two men and Rusty had grabbed Deuce in a big bear hug, nearly lifting the taller man off the ground.
“How’s your old man doing these days?” Rusty had asked, after releasing the surprised younger man.
Deuce went on to tell the story of his dad’s passing and last wishes again.
“Real sorry to hear about that,” Rusty’d said. “Russ saved my ass quite a few times when I got falling down drunk at Whisper Alley on Oki. Anything I can do for you, son, you just name it.”
Rusty had then looked around, studying all three men the way only someone who’d once been one of them could, and said, “You boys got hair too short for civilians, but too long to be Marines. Stationed down at Key West?”
“No, sir,” the white guy, Art Newman had replied. “Dam Neck, Virginia.” He’d offered nothing further. But nothing more was needed.
Rusty and I had eyed one another, then both nodded as Rusty said, “Nuff said about that, then.”
Dam Neck was home to some of the Navy’s finest warriors, SEAL Team Six, now known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU for short. They were a very tight-knit bunch who’d seldom socialized outside their team and rarely spoke of their jobs.
Rusty had snagged a bottle of Pusser’s Navy Rum from behind the bar and returned to the table with the bottle and five glasses. We’d toasted Russ and other lost warriors, and then the sea stories had started. After Rusty and I had told the three men a little about our own backgrounds in Marine Force Recon, the three SEALS had relaxed somewhat.
By midnight, Jimmy had come and gone, and there were two empty bottles on the table and five fairly drunk special operators sitting around it. I’d learned that Deuce was a lieutenant commander and Tony and Art were both petty officers, first class. Equal in rank to a Marine major and staff sergeants.
Sometime after midnight, Rusty had blurted, “You know, Jesse here earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart when he and your dad was in Lebanon.”
I remembered rolling my eyes at my old friend, but there’d been no stopping him. “Jesse’d just been promoted to sergeant and transferred back to One-Eight, up to Lejeune, and they got deployed to Lebanon. Took a bullet in the shoulder but kept his men in the fight all the way to the barracks.”
“Dad talked about that a few times,” Deuce had said. “He always said it was one of the most terrifying times he had while he was in the Corps.”
The sea stories went on and on, until Julie had finally called it a night for us at 0300. By then, the bar had emptied out. Somehow, I’d managed to find my way back to Dockside, where I kept my new flats skiff. I kept it there when I came down to take out a charter or cavort with the locals.
Miraculously, I’d made it home. The trip was either fifteen miles across skinny water, or nearly twenty miles if I’d followed the main channel without becoming a permanent part of the Seven Mile Bridge or Harbor Key Light. At least, this was what I thought must have happened. I didn’t remember much after leaving the Anchor, but I’d somehow made it back.
After washing up, I returned to my bedroom to change for the coming day but couldn’t help plopping down across the bunk again. The pounding outside would have to wait until the floor stopped moving.
My house was little more than a shack on stilts, just over 1000 square feet, with a large combination living room, dining room and kitchen in front and a bedroom and head in back. But it was solid, and it kept the summer rain and winter wind out. As far as solitude, it was better than sleeping on the boat, though not nearly as luxurious. I’d built this place by hand on an island in the Content Keys, northwest of Big Pine Key. This group of islands was mostly uninhabited scrub-and-mangrove-covered marshes and sandbars. My nearest neighbor was an older guy who was a bridge builder by the name of Woodson. He lived about three miles away.
When I retired, I’d used up nearly all the savings I’d scraped together for over twenty years while in the Corps, supplemented by an inheritance from my grandfather about six years ago, to buy Gaspar’s Revenge and this tiny island. It was no more than two acres in size at low tide and had a very small beach on the west side. The water around it was so shallow you could walk to most of the neighboring islands and not get your shorts wet.
It took me a whole winter and spring to hand-dig a little ditch in the shallows from Harbor Channel, just deep enough for my little skiff to get to the island. There I’d carved out a part of it and spent that whole summer building my stilt house above the little ditch. I’d planned to make the channel wide enough and deep enough to get Gaspar’s Revenge through it, but it proved to be too much work to do by hand. One day I would rent a dredge and do it, but for now I’d keep running back and forth in the skiff.
I’d gone up to the commercial docks in Miami during that summer and scrounged through the discarded piles of pallets. There were lots from South America and I managed to find a lot of mahogany and oak planks, along with other hardwoods rare in the States, but plentiful down there. Rusty had located quite a few discarded lignum vitae posts, which became floor beams and planks, wearing out a number of table saw blades. The exterior siding of my house was weathered mahogany. The roof was corrugated steel I’d scrounged from the naval air station in Key West when they’d torn down some of the old Quonset huts that had been there since before World War II. The floor was fourteen feet above the narrow channel at high spring tide, just enough room for the Revenge. The floors, studs and beams were solid lignum vitae and it was through these heavy boards that I could still hear the constant banging noise. My little house could withstand anything Mother Nature could conjure up, but something down below was trying its best to knock it down.
Finally, I gave up trying to ignore the noise and the pounding in my temples. I slowly got up from the bed. It was hot.
Too hot to be morning, I thought.
I walked out onto the deck and saw that I was right. The sun was directly overhead, and though it was looking like another hot October day in south Florida, there was a strong wind blowing out of the southeast, churning up white caps out on the flats as far as I could see. The shallow waters north of Big Pine Key were normally flat in late summer and fall. Usually there wasn’t even enough wind to make a ripple, unless a squall blew in from the Gulf. I figured there must be a storm brewing, and the pounding I’d been hearing must be my skiff banging against the dock below.
When I went down the steps to the dock area, I found that the skiff looked like it had been tied up by some rookie sailor, and it was indeed banging against the pilings. My boat was an eighteen-foot Maverick Mirage, with a 150-horsepower Yamaha engine under the poling platform. It was a fast little boat and could handle the skinny water around the back country and Florida Bay with ease.
“Jesse,” I addressed myself again, “you really outdid yourself this time. Lucky that old skiff ain’t halfway to Cape Sable by now.”
I tightened the mooring lines, then went back up to the house to get some water, aspirin, and food for my growling stomach. The pounding in my head finally subsided a little as I wondered how I’d gotten home. It wasn’t like me not to remember a fifteen- to twenty-mile boat ride. But I must have made it as there was nobody else on the island. After three bottles of water, four aspirin, and a ham sandwich, I felt nearly human again and thought back to the events of the previous evening.
Russ Livingston had drowned? It was a stretch to think that’d be how Russ would leave this world. The man had practically lived in the water. He was an accomplished diver, as was I. We’d once swum completely around the island that Hammocks Beach State Park, near Camp Lejeune, was situated on—a distance of some six miles, half of it in open ocean—just on a dare.
In the fall of ‘82, Russ and I took leave together and had been diving for lobster off Fort Pierce when we found something far more interesting. The whole area of ocean from Saint Lucie Inlet to Sebastian Inlet was where the 1715 “Plate Fleet,” twelve treasure-laden ships, had sunk in a hurricane. While trying to get at a really big and exceptionally stubborn lobster, I’d pulled out a big black rock from under a ledge. Once the lobster was in the bag, I turned and found Russ examining the rock I’d pulled out. It was nearly two feet long and about a foot square, black and heavily-encrusted with barnacles and tube worms. Even underwater, it was very heavy. I’d almost dislocated my shoulder dislodging it to get at that lobster.
I remember swimming over and tapping Russ on the shoulder, giving him the universal “what’s up?” sign with my hands out, palms up and a shrug. He replied by rubbing his thumb and first two fingers together in the universal “money” sign. When we got back up to the boat, Russ said, “Jesse, I think that might be silver.” We’d rigged a line around the rock and hoisted it into the skiff. Out of the water, it was even heavier.
Since the whole coast was still an active salvage site of the 1715 fleet, we knew we had to keep our find on the down low. Russ said he knew a guy who could help us out. Turned out, we’d found 256 silver bars, all crusted together and enveloped with barnacles. Each bar was about four inches long and one-inch square. They must have been in a chest and the wood had just rotted away over nearly 300 years, since it was wedged under that ledge. Each bar weighed about ten ounces, giving us a total of over 160 pounds.
Russ’s friend had paid us $100,000 dollars in cold, hard cash, no questions asked. Russ, being Russ, hadn’t wanted a share of it at first. “You found it, Jesse. It wouldn’t be right for me to take any money.”
“Russ,” I’d said, “I found a big black rock, trying to get at a five-dollar lobster. You’re the one who recognized it for what it was. Half of this is yours. No more argument.”
Russ had been hooked, though. He’d just been promoted to staff sergeant earlier that year and was due to reenlist again in the spring. But after that experience, he’d decided to pass and left the Corps after twelve years to devote his time to hunting treasure. And that’s just what he’d done, up until his recent, untimely death.
Well, we’re not getting any younger, I thought.
Russ must have been in his early fifties at least. But still, something kept gnawing at the back of my mind and I just couldn’t let it go.
It was early afternoon and I hadn’t accomplished much of anything since waking with a hangover at noon. While heading down to Boot Key Harbor yesterday, I’d noticed that the engine on my skiff had a bit of a sputter at three-quarter speed, when I’d crossed Bahia Honda Channel. So, I spent the afternoon rebuilding the Walbro carburetor on the Yamaha outboard.
I’d always liked working with my hands. It allowed my mind to wander as my hands worked. I took the carb up to the house, where I have a large built-in work bench. The window above it overlooks the rest of the island.
Last spring, I’d cleared a large area of sea grape, wild coffee, buttonwood, and saw palmetto in the middle of the island, with the crazy notion of growing some vegetables. After two weeks of cutting, digging, and scraping, I had a fairly round patch cleared that measured 150 feet across. I left a single coconut palm standing in the middle, it being one of only three coconut palms on the island.
Reality sank in shortly afterwards, when I borrowed a tiller from a friend on Grassy Key and found out that the sandy soil on the surface was only a few inches deep and below it was limestone and ancient coral. Then there was the problem of irrigation. Salt water doesn’t help vegetables very much. I figured that maybe if I brought in a few thousand tons of rich topsoil, I might be able to make it work. Another project put on hold.
As I sat at the table, I looked out across the clearing past the mangroves and gumbo limbo trees on the northeast side of the island into the Gulf of Mexico. My island was just thirty feet off of Harbor Channel, which ran northeast to Turtlegrass Bank, then turned north in several natural cuts, leading to the deeper waters of the Gulf. Out there, I could see several pelicans diving on bait fish, just south of Upper Harbor Key. To the west, I spotted a pair of herons wading through the shallows along Content Passage while several others sunned in the mangroves and banyans along eastern Content Key.
It was relaxing up here, away from all the distractions in the many towns and villages that made up the Keys. I didn’t really need a lot of human interaction and it seemed there were just more and more tourists down there lately.
A year ago, there was one human I enjoyed interacting with. Her name was Alex. We were only friends and occasional workout partners when I lived on my boat at Dockside. She was very striking in appearance, tall, with a swimmer’s broad shoulders, long blond hair, and a pretty face. But she’d left last year. Flown back up to Oregon to take care of a sick brother.
After finishing with the carb and finding only some gunk in the float bowl that seemed to cause the float to stick a little, I headed back down to the dock to reinstall it on the engine. I was just putting the cover back on when I heard a whining sound coming from the southeast.
I climbed back up to the deck to look out over the tree canopy and saw that a small flats skiff was heading my way across the choppy water. After grabbing my binoculars from inside, I trained them on the boat. After a few minutes, I could make out the driver’s auburn hair tied back and flying behind her and recognized the skiff as the one Rusty had bought a few months earlier.
Julie was coming to see me? Not that she’d never been out here—she had. But the last time was more than six months ago, when she’d ferried out some oak lumber for me that Rusty had found at a yard sale on Duck Key. Rusty had known I’d probably want the lumber and had sent Julie to deliver it.
I climbed back down to the docks and was waiting for her when she slowly made her way through the mangrove-covered channel to my house. “Dammit, Jesse, you need to answer your phone. Dad’s been calling all morning and finally sent me way out here to check on you.”
“Sorry to waste your time, Jules. No idea where my phone is, probably here in the skiff.” I stepped over onto my own skiff and grabbed the line she tossed, tying it off to a cleat on my boat. Then I looked in the console and sure enough, there was my phone—right where it’d been for the last three days. I powered it up and saw that I had six missed calls, all but one from Rusty. The other was a Virginia area code, probably Deuce.
“Maybe you should invest in a radio, too,” she said sarcastically. “There’s a big storm coming. Guess you hadn’t heard about that?”
I took her hand and helped her step over onto my skiff, then onto the dock. She had a strong, firm, dry grip, as always. Most self-assured women did.
“I have a radio. Was just listening to a jazz station out of Miami while I rebuilt my carburetor. I already guessed a storm was coming, just by looking at the water. How bad is it?”
“Remember that Cat-5 storm that hit the Yucatan a few days ago? Well, it’s a Cat-3 now and headed this way.”
I looked through the tunnel created by the trees hanging over the channel. The water had churned up since earlier in the day, and the flag on my pole was beginning to snap in the stiff breeze. The winds were out of the southeast and gusting to maybe fifteen knots.
Why hadn’t I recognized it?
All the signs were there and yes, I had heard about the storm hitting the Yucatan while I was out on the water with the Ohioans just the day before. I’d assumed it would cross the Yucatan and head into the Gulf of Mexico, maybe threaten Texas or the other Gulf Coast states.
“Hurricane Wilma?” I asked. “I thought for sure it’d continue straight into the Gulf. Where’s it located now?”
“It’s 50 miles northeast of the Yucatan and headed northeast. They downgraded it to a Cat-2 when it crossed the Yucatan, but it’s gathering strength and headed our way. The Weather Channel says it will most likely pass north of here and make landfall again on the west coast of the state. Jesse, they’ve issued an evacuation.”
“Evacuation?” My mind was already moving toward preparations. “What’re Rusty’s plans? Never mind-- he’s gonna ride it out, right? Those three sailors we were drinking with—have you seen them around any today?”
“Yeah, they’re still around,” she said. “The bigger one came by and asked for you a couple of times. I just told him you were out here. Who were those guys? Every time I came by the table last night, y’all either stopped talking or started talking about something else.”
“Jules, I don’t know how much of our past your dad has ever shared with you, so let’s just say that those three guys picked up where he and I left off, okay? The less you know, the better.” I started toward a storage closet and to change the subject, I asked, “Do you have time to help me out here? We can go back to Marathon together. I just need to secure the house.”
“Sure. What do you want me to do?” she asked. I opened the storage closet and showed her the corrugated steel covers for the windows.
“Each of these panels fits over a certain window,” I said as I grabbed one. “The first one here goes over the little window below the cistern. The others go over the other windows, working around the house counter-clockwise. Each panel has four holes in it—see here? Each window has corresponding bolts threaded into the wall studs, with nuts and washers on them. Just remove the nuts and washers, put the panel in place and put the nuts and washers back on. Shouldn’t take us more than a half hour.”
I was close—it only took twenty minutes. Julie was a fast learner and an even faster worker. She hung four of the panels to my three. Once we were done, we went down to the dock and I showed her the lift system I had installed. After I untied her skiff and tied it off to the other dock, I lowered the cables at the stern of my skiff. The cables were connected to a three-inch nylon strap. Then I went forward and lowered the other lift in the same way.
Julie looked up at the floor of the house and smiled. I took the starboard side and she went around to the other dock on the port side. Together, we worked the straps under my skiff until they were in the right place. I showed her how the forward crank assembly worked, and I headed to the aft assembly. Usually, I’d do this myself, raising the bow about eight inches, then the stern, alternating back and forth.
But working together, we were able to raise the skiff quickly, until the wind screen nearly touched the floor boards. My Maverick was now completely inside a box made of the very oak planks she’d brought out two years earlier.
The last chore involved a long piece of piece of corrugated steel that needed to go under the skiff and be bolted into place. I had two planks that fit across the railing of the two docks. These allowed me to walk the piece of tin out to the middle and lift it in place while Julie snugged the bolts, both of us standing on twelve-inch wide boards seven feet above the water.
“So that’s what those heavy oak boards I brought out here were for,” she said. “Pretty cool.”
“Yep, my skiff’s completely protected now,” I replied. “I’ll be right back.”
All that was left was to lock the doors, and my little house would weather the storm with no problem. I ran back up, grabbed a bug-out bag I always kept handy packed with several changes of clothes and a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol inside a waterproof box. Also, in the box were four loaded magazines. I pulled a backpack out of the closet and stuffed it with a few other items I might need, and then ran back down the steps to the dock.
Julie already had the skiff untied and the engine idling when I stepped aboard. “If you back out to starboard, there’s a turnaround I dug last month. No need to back all the way out the channel.”
Julie piloted the little skiff like a pro and within minutes we were up on plane and heading southeast. “The wind’s out of the southwest,” I said, “so maybe we ought to stay in the lee of Howe Key and Big Pine, then shoot down Bogie Channel to the Seven Mile Bridge, instead of going straight across open water to Marathon.”
“Yeah, that’s the way I came, but it was still pretty rough that first seven miles, running alongside the bridge.
We rode in silence for a while. The wind was blowing clouds up from the southeast, which meant the storm was still well to the west and likely going to pass to our north. Still, there was a good bit of chop until we got to the lee side of Howe Key. The sun was shining, so we both just enjoyed the ride.
The Content Keys are a small group of islands on the northeastern edge of the Lower Keys, an archipelago stretching from Key West to Big Pine Key in the shape of a slice of pie. The water all around this area is very shallow, with natural and manmade channels cut through it. Very few of the more than 700 islands in the Lower Keys are inhabited. Mine has a population of just one, making it the most inhabited island for some distance around.
Passing between Cutoe Key and Howe Key, the water was only about two feet deep, so it was very calm. Cutoe Key is part of a group of islands that were once known as the Buttonwood Strips. Nobody knows exactly how it came to be called that, though. Both it and Howe Key, just to the west, are mangrove- and palm-covered islands, with no real beaches. Both are uninhabited, even though they’re much larger than my little island. Howe Key’s interior is sandy, with nothing much growing there. South of these two islands are Annette Key, also uninhabited, and Big Pine Key, home to about 5000 people and about 800 Key deer. They’re really small compared to their white-tail cousins. A full-grown buck is no bigger than a Labrador Retriever.
From there, all the way down to Spanish Harbor and the Seven Mile Bridge, it was fairly calm, so Julie opened up the big Johnson outboard. We skimmed across the flat water with nothing but the sound of the engine and the spray of the water for distraction.
“Alex is in town,” Julie said. “She stopped by this morning. That was another reason Dad was trying to reach you.”
Alex? Back in Marathon? Though we considered ourselves friends, we had dated a few times while I was still living aboard the Revenge before I built my stilt house. She was a flats fishing guide—a very good one, actually. She had a knack for putting anglers on fish when every other guide in the Middle Keys was skunked. She came from a small town near Salem, Oregon, and was an accomplished fly fisherman there. She’d come to the Keys to try her hand at bone fishing, fallen in love with the place and stayed on. She’d had her only sibling, a brother six years younger, sell her house for her.
Their parents had been killed in a car wreck when she was just 23 and she’d taken over as his guardian, getting him through high school and into college. She’d pushed him hard and he’d graduated with an MBA in just five years and opened his own accounting firm.
Three years later, just a year after she came to the Keys, her brother was diagnosed with cancer and she had to go home to care for him while he was undergoing treatment. We hadn’t been seriously involved, or so I thought, but it was heartbreaking to watch her walk out of my life. Hard to explain, since we hadn’t even spent the night together. We worked out every Tuesday and Thursday morning, either running or swimming in the ocean. She even got me to go to the local gym a few times. We talked on the phone occasionally after she left, but I was never big on phone calls, so they dwindled down to almost nothing. Things just devolved over time. But every woman I’d met in the past year, I subconsciously compared to Alex, and they all fell far short. One woman, Savannah Richmond, had been a close second. Dating wasn’t a high priority these days, so I mostly stayed at my little house, working on clearing the island of dead wood and trash.
“She say how long she was going to be in town?” I asked, trying not to show any emotion.
“She didn’t say,” Julie replied. “I was busy, and Dad talked to her while I was working. He didn’t say anything else but to let you know she was here.” We rode on in silence, between Howe Key and Annette Key, then into the lee of Big Pine Key, as my mind drifted back in time.
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