Rising Storm: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
Miles from the laid-back lifestyle of No Name Key, and just shy of the raucous nightlife of Miami and South Beach, lies Coconut Grove, a tropical oasis with a distinct Bohemian flair. Lately, a seedy underside has emerged along the Grove’s waterfront, preying on adventurous young women. Somewhere amid all the glitz and glamour, hides a thief who stole a fortune in Aztec emeralds. Or did he? Jesse McDermitt must first determine if the victim herself is a thief. The trail of clues leads him to evidence that the thief may be involved in a string of more heinous crimes. Jesse and Chyrel enlist the help of the recently returned Charity, and the trio go “undercover” at a floating swinger’s party headed for the Bahamas, which may well be a front for torture and murder. When a sudden violent storm strikes Stiltsville, Jesse finds himself alone on the ocean, trying to recover the treasure and put a murderer behind bars—but first he must win the battle with Mother Nature.
Release date: August 22, 2017
Publisher: Down Island Press, LLC
Print pages: 322
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Rising Storm: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
The sun was hot, even though it was a fairly cool day. All around me, glaring white sand bars punctuated the shallow, gin-clear water, and the cobalt sky hung above it. The yellow sand lay just inches below the water’s surface, and the bleached white sand rose only inches above it; together they created a swirl of yellow and white, like some sort of salty Rorschach image.
Things had quieted to a level befitting the latitude in the last few weeks, as things here tend to do. Excitement levels are kinda like the weather. If you don’t like it, just wait a little while and it’ll change. Normally we see long periods of calm before the next storm.
Same with the weather.
The closer you get to the equator—what we call the little latitudes—the more laid-back the lifestyle. We don’t worry about heavy coats, galoshes, gloves, snow tires, furnaces, or the like. I guess that leaves us with more time to ponder the important intricacies of life.
Bad things happen anywhere and everywhere; no place is immune anymore, not even paradise. But bad things seldom happen to most people, and between those sorry events there are days, weeks, and months of relative boredom.
I’ve never been one to get bored. As a kid, if I said I was bored, Dad—or more likely Mom—would quickly find something for me to do to alleviate the boredom.
What many call boredom, I call tranquility.
Friends have asked me on occasion how I can sit for hours contemplating nothing more than the scudding clouds over the shallow flats before a squall. Or just watch the setting sun transform the day to night, for the sheer pleasure of the colors it creates in the sky.
I often find myself mesmerized by the day-to-day life in the shallows of the back-country. These are the things I live for. I’ve seen enough violence and mayhem to last a few lifetimes.
Sometimes, I let my mind drift—just let it wander around the Glades, Shark River, or Ten Thousand Islands, the area where I grew up. Then I’ll let it drift back in time and meander south, down to the Keys. I can see this area the way it must have looked hundreds of years ago, before it was discovered—drained, divided, and destroyed. Back to a time when the only humans to see this part of the world were the tribes of people that lived along the southwest coast of Florida, before the Spanish arrived.
The typical tidal pool explorer doesn’t often witness any momentous life-changing events—at least not in his own tidal pool. Watching a couple of hermit crabs duking it out over a vacant conch shell, I thought it might be possible that the outcome could mean life or death for one of the little crustaceans. But it doesn’t usually end up that way. The loser can find a new shell most of the time.
As for how the hermit battle outcome might affect other lives on the shallow waters that surround my island? It pretty much goes unnoticed.
Except by me, standing in knee-deep water in a small pool half a mile from my house. At high tide, it’s a deep spot in the shallows and the fish come in to feed. Once the tide retreats, the pool becomes landlocked, surrounded by blinding white sand and safe from marauding predators. It’s at low tide that the little crabs come out.
Such is the struggle of day-to-day life in a Florida Keys tidal pool.
Leaving the hermit crabs to figure it out on their own, I continued northeast, walking across the sand bar then wading into the shallows once more. Walking in shallow water means doing the stingray shuffle to avoid hidden dangers.
Finn followed behind me. He’d been barbed by a small ray just a couple of weeks before. Fortunately, the ray had been a juvenile, and the sharp barb barely broke the skin of Finn’s lower left shoulder. I’d been trying to teach him, cautioning him to walk behind me. He seemed to understand why now. Tough lessons are the best learned.
We soon reached a cut that encircles an island about three-quarters of a mile from my house. Walking to it at low tide requires a circuitous route, though, and the walk is over a mile. We had to angle northeast to avoid the deeper water along the edge of Harbor Channel. I swim to the island and back three times a week, following the deeper water at the edge of the drop-off. But today I needed to walk out here.
Lifting a small, water-proof container up to my chest, I waded across the cut. The water deepened for a few steps. Twice a day the tide rises and floods the back-country. Water rushing around the little islands sometimes carves a narrow moat around many of these natural barriers. Then, twice a day, the tide falls, draining the back-country and doing the same thing in reverse, scouring a shallow trench around the islands.
Finn swam across the narrow cut, splashed ashore, and went running off along the narrow beach. He stopped to sniff at something in the mangrove roots. Then, deeming it worthy, he hiked his leg and peed on whatever he’d smelled there.
I followed him as he trotted along the beach, stopping occasionally to sniff or to listen to something. On the far side of this little island is a tiny cove, not big enough to hold even a kayak. It’s generous to call it such, but for lack of a better word, it’s a cove.
I used this island, just twenty or thirty yards from Harbor Channel, for my swims because it was a good distance. A mile-and-a-half swim at a fast pace is by far a better full-body exercise than running twice that distance—and it’s much easier on the knees, an important consideration when one is in one’s mid-forties. At high tide, the trench around the island is deep enough for swimming, which breaks the monotony of simply turning around and returning. At low tide, like now, I’d turn around in deeper water out by the channel.
We waded along the edge of the little puddle. Like the earlier tidal pool, it was almost completely landlocked by the receding tide, but here little wavelets spilled over the sand and dissipated in the slightly deeper water of the cove.
A fallen palm lay on the far side of the cove. Its trunk extended toward the island’s interior and the palm fronds, brown and slowly rotting, lay in the water. On shore, the big root ball was lifted from a depression, cantilevered, and held above its hole by another dead tree trunk. The newer one on top was from a sudden thunderstorm that had blown up the week before, causing a micro-burst of wind like a mini-tornado. The older trunk it was resting on had probably been there for decades.
Standing beside the depression where the root ball had once been, I looked around the rest of the island’s interior. There wasn’t much. A small stand of mangroves partially blocked the view of the water on the other side. The island was only about fifty feet across, and the spot where this palm had stood seemed to be the highest ground.
Placing the box next to the depression, I stooped and used my hands to start digging a little sand out of the bottom, deepening and widening the hole. Finn, curious about what I was doing, stood across from me with his head cocked at an angle, staring down into the hole.
“No clams in here, buddy,” I told him.
He whined in response, but nosed through the sand I’d dug out anyway.
After dropping the box into the hole, I covered it with sand and laid a loose palm frond over it. Even if the tide reached the box, what was inside would stay dry.
“That takes care of that,” I told Finn. “You wanna walk back, or swim?”
He barked once by way of reply and jumped toward the water in halting lunges, looking back to see if I was following.
“You know the way home,” I said, following him into deeper water.
In waist-deep water, Finn was already swimming effortlessly in circles. He was a mix-breed yellow lab and perfectly at home in the water. Labs have a thick undercoat of very fine hair that traps air and repels water, making them virtually waterproof and buoyant. They have a webbing of skin between their toes that enables them to swim very efficiently, and their thick, otter-like tails act as both a rudder and paddle, holding the tail one way to turn and wagging it back and forth to help swim straight. These are all great qualities for an island dog that spends a lot of time in the water.
I dove under, swam a few yards, and surfaced next to him. His yellow-white hair was matted down like a seal’s. Together, we turned and followed the edge of the channel back toward my house.
I live in a stilt house on one of the smaller islands on the south side of the Content Keys. From my island it’s five miles, as the gull flies, to the nearest paved road on northern Big Pine Key. It’s a good six miles by boat, weaving through the shallow cuts and passes, around dozens of islands and sand bars. The Contents are a small group of uninhabited islands on the edge of the Gulf. My house is about twenty miles west-northwest of Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, where I once lived aboard my boat, Gaspar’s Revenge. Now she’s docked under my house.
Aside from the Gulf of Mexico to the north, this small cluster of islands is surrounded by shallow water, where only locals dare to navigate. Unless you’re in a kayak, or know your way around the maze of unmarked channels, the only way to get to my island is to come down Harbor Channel. It’s a natural waterway that opens into the Gulf and runs nearly straight for about three miles to my island, where it turns south and disappears into a network of cuts and passes in the shallows of the back-country. I always know when I have visitors, long before they can even see my house.
Finn’s a strong swimmer with great stamina, and I don’t have to hold back very much. Over a long swim, like I do every other day to stay in shape, he would need to stop to rest at least once. He’s also easily distracted, being at that age where labs are still puppies at heart, but physically full grown. So, on my exercise swims, he stays home.
But since this was Saturday, this was just a fun swim; we stopped several times along the way to explore. Finn has a passion for play. Splash water at him and he tries to catch the biggest drops in his mouth. Another passion is clams. He enjoys diving down to dig them up in the shallows. There aren’t a lot of clams in the Keys, but the Contents are more a part of the Gulf of Mexico than the archipelago.
He soon found some, though I had no idea how, so I stopped and waded to the sandbar to survey our surroundings. Sitting on the sand, I could see the deep, blue-gray water of the channel clearly. It stood out in sharp contrast to the sandy yellow bottom of the flats and the blinding white sand bars exposed by the low tide. To the southeast, where the channel turned and disappeared, I could barely make out the low pier that jutted out from my island. On the highest tides, it was only a few inches above the water and nearly invisible at a distance. My house was shielded from view by the taller mangroves and buttonwoods, mostly impenetrable, that surrounded it on three sides.
Finn was laying on the sand, opening and consuming his collection of tasty snacks. He stopped, lifted his head, and stared off to the south, ears and head cocked quizzically.
I’d learned to trust his hearing better than my own, and looked out over the flats in the same direction. “You hear something down that way?”
Whining softly, Finn left his last clam uneaten on the sand bar and trotted to where I sat. Standing, I could hear it too. An outboard engine was moving slowly up through the confusion of narrow channels, working toward us. Higher than idle speed, so it was either someone who knew their way or someone about to run aground.
“We’d best get back to the house,” I said to Finn, as I started walking toward the water.
He followed and we began swimming again, angling toward the nearer south pier instead of the floating pier on the north side of the island. Soon we swam across the small channel I’d dredged to the house, and I waited by the ladder at the end of the pier. Finn hadn’t quite figured out the ladder—he needed a little help with it still—but there was a small ramp on the north pier that he used to come and go with ease.
The approaching boat was getting closer, but still hadn’t reached the deeper water of Harbor Channel, this side of Howe Key. We didn’t get many visitors on the island, and I knew the engine sound of those that came out regularly. This wasn’t one of them.
Hearing footsteps, I turned around and saw Carl coming down the steps from my deck. Carl Trent and his wife Charlie, along with their two kids, lived on the island and took care of things. Charlie had taken the kids and gone shopping for the day—and besides, even she didn’t come up through the shallows at low tide.
Carl joined me and Finn at the end of the dock. “Didn’t know we had visitors coming.”
“None that I know of.” I turned back toward the sound of the approaching boat. It wasn’t going dead slow, but it wasn’t trying to barrel through, either. Whoever was driving at least knew enough to go slow.
“Small outboard,” Carl said. “Real small.”
The boat came into view as it passed the tip of Howe Key into deeper water.
“That’s Montrose’s boat,” Carl said. “Who got it when he died?”
“His granddaughter,” I replied, recognizing a woman’s blond hair under a ball cap. “Denise Montrose.”
A few minutes later, the girl turned into my channel and idled toward us. She expertly turned toward the pier, and when the boat responded she shifted to reverse and brought it to a stop right next to us.
“Hey, Mister McDermitt,” she said, as I put a hand on the high bow to steady the boat. “I’m sorry to come out here unannounced.”
“Good to see you, Miss Montrose,” I replied. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine.” She stood up in the little homemade boat. “I wonder if I could talk to you about something?”
I offered a hand and she took it, stepping up onto the pier, where I helped her tie off the little boat. “This is my friend, Carl,” I said, once the boat was fast. “He knew your grandfather, too.”
They shook hands and Carl said he had some work to do in the garden, then disappeared up the steps.
“Come up to the deck,” I said. “We can get out of the sun.”
I asked if she wanted something to drink, but she declined, so I excused myself and went inside to put on a shirt. When I returned, we sat in a pair of rockers in the shade of a gumbo-limbo tree.
“I thought you said you didn’t know your way around out here,” I said, trying to break the ice.
Just a few weeks ago, I’d held her grandfather as he died, the victim of a crazed serial killer. Just last week, my daughter and I had taken the young woman out to the back-country to spread his ashes. She and Kim were a year apart at the University of Florida.
“Kim mentioned that you lived on Harbor Channel,” she said. “I guess I remember more than I thought. Gramps used to bring me up here fishing. I just followed my instincts and … well, here I am.”
I looked at her and didn’t speak. I’ve learned over the years that when someone has something to say, it’s best to give them time to organize in their mind what they want to convey.
“I have a friend who needs help,” she finally blurted out.
“Help with what?”
Denise fiddled with her watch. “She sorta had something stolen.”
“Did she go to the police?”
“She can’t. It’s kind of a weird story.”
I studied the girl’s face. She was pretty, but not beautiful. Average height and build, with shoulder-length, dark blond hair, and a wholesome-looking, if unspectacular face. Her blue eyes were bright and intelligent. Just motoring up here alone meant she was either a lunatic or self-assured. I decided it was the latter.
“I’m not sure how I could help,” I said, offering my most disarming grin. “I’m just a fishing guide with a big boat.”
She seemed to think on it for a moment. “I was thirteen when I first heard about you, Mister McDermitt. Gramps said that if you did what they said you did, then good riddance, and he hoped you were smart enough not to get caught.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” I said, though I knew exactly what she was talking about.
“There have been other things,” she said. “Word gets around. Everyone in the Middle Keys knows who you are and talks about what you’ve done and what you can do.”
This was news to me. I thought I kept a pretty low profile. I didn’t go down into town often, and when I did it was usually to a little bar that a friend owns.
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a small island. And people in small towns tend to exaggerate a lot.”
“Exaggeration usually has a basis in fact.” Denise nodded over the rail, to where Carl was working in the aquaponics garden. “It’s pretty common knowledge how you helped Angela’s dad.”
Angela was Carl’s daughter from a first marriage. An energetic and heartfelt young woman, she was always trying to help some lost cause. She and Jimmy, my part-time first mate, lived together on a houseboat in Boot Key Harbor.
Steering the conversation away from me, I said, “Your friend was robbed?”
“Sort of,” Denise replied. “Not in the usual sense. She’s a few years older than me and was married to a soldier. He was killed overseas, and she’s going to have a baby soon.”
“Iraq?” I asked.
“No, he was in Ecuador when he was killed.”
“So, why is it you think I can help your friend if she can’t go to the police?”
Her eyes studied mine again, in that wide-eyed way young people see the world. “I’m not sure you can,” she said. “Or if anyone can. Like I said, it’s kind of a weird treasure story. It’d probably be best if you met with her and let her lay it out.”
I’d come to the Keys, after retiring from the Marine Corps nine years ago, because I’d always loved it here and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the island lifestyle. I hadn’t come here to be responsible for solving other people’s problems. But the story—and the mention of treasure—got my curiosity up a bit.
Like most in the Keys, I’ve done a bit of treasure hunting. During the Age of Exploration, the wealth of a whole race of people was taken aboard ships and sent back to Europe—and not all the ships made it. Unlike today, with weather satellites, computer forecast models, and ships that can outrun storms, early mariners were often surprised by the powerful storms that spawn in the tropics, and billions of dollars’ worth of gold, silver, and precious gems had ended up strewn across the sea floor, waiting for someone to find them.
Though most of my treasure hunts had been profitable ventures—unusual in the treasure salvage business—it was also something I just enjoyed doing. Learning the historical aspect of the hunt was just as pleasing to me as the treasure.
“Does your friend live here in the Keys?” I asked.
“Her name’s Amy. Amy Huggins. They were building a house on No Name Key before her husband Dan was killed. She’s still trying to work on it, but she’s nearly out of money. She stays in a little trailer on the property.”
“What was stolen?”
“She’s not really certain,” Denise said. “She’s not even a hundred percent sure there was anything to be stolen in the first place.”
“Wait,” I said. “She’s not sure if anything was stolen, but wants help in finding it? What is it she thinks might have been stolen?”
“She told me she found something—something hidden in a place that should have held a lot more.”
Intrigued, but a bit impatient, I asked, “A lot more what, Denise?”
“She found an emerald.”
“What was that all about?” Carl asked, after Denise’s little boat puttered south, away from the island.
I gave him a summary of what Denise had told me, leaving out some of the details, and asked if he’d ever met Amy’s husband.
“Never knew the kid, personally,” Carl said as we sat at the table on the backside of the deck, overlooking the interior of the island. “Comes from up-island trailer trash, but managed to get into college and make something of himself. He was killed a few months back.”
“I’m going down to No Name this evening, to meet with the widow. I doubt there’s anything I can do, though.”
“You gonna stay in town?” Carl asked. “No moon tonight.”
“Probably,” I replied. “Devon has the day off tomorrow.”
“Remember, we’re leaving in the morning,” Carl reminded me, for about the tenth time in a week. He and Charlie were taking the kids to his hometown in Louisiana for a week, to visit his family.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “The island will be just fine when you get back.”
A low buzzing noise grew steadily louder, and we both looked out over the island to the north. Seeing just one person in a single day this far out in the backcountry is rare; two is a very busy day.
My deck was more than sixteen feet above high water and we could easily see across the low mangroves on the north side of the island.
“There,” Carl said, pointing.
I followed his finger and saw a plane, low on the horizon, heading in the general direction of Key West. But the pilot was either having trouble or having fun, because he kept banking left and right in nice even turns.
“That’s a flying boat,” Carl said.
The engine sound grew louder and I recognized the distinctive drone of twin turbo-prop engines. “A Grumman,” I said, watching the plane flying lazily over the Contents. “The smaller one, not a Goose or Albatross. I don’t remember.”
“It’s a Widgeon,” Carl said, as we watched the plane disappear over Raccoon Key.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the air,” I said. “Or even on the ground. Love to know who owns it.”
Carl turned away from the distraction. “So, what time are you planning to head out?”
“You need help with something?”
“The traps have been soaking for two days,” he replied. “I could probably use a little help before you take off for the day.”
For the next two hours, we pulled our lobster traps. We ran a string of ten traps along the edge of Harbor Channel. Carl had a commercial license, but we only caught what we would eat. This time of year, lobster is on the menu most days.
We removed the rotting snapper heads we used for bait, then dropped the traps back in the water, leaving them open to prevent anything from becoming trapped. Carl preferred they not be baited if he was going somewhere, because I sometimes disappeared without notice.
Afterward, I showered under the cistern on the back of the house, then dressed and went down to the dock area below. I stepped aboard the Revenge, my primary charter boat—a forty-five-foot Rampage convertible, and a beauty.
In the salon, I powered up my laptop. I’d gotten pretty good at navigating my way around the internet. I found Dan Huggins’s obituary. He’d been an Army captain, an engineer, when he was killed while surveying one of many locations for a new base in Ecuador the previous July. The obituary didn’t give many details. He was survived by his wife and an older sister, Jan Huggins, from Vero Beach, which is about halfway up the east coast of Florida.
Searching further, I found a news story about his death. He and three enlisted soldiers had been shot to death near Manta. There weren’t many details about the shooting, and the killer hadn’t been arrested. The local authorities had ruled it a random shooting, and had no leads and nothing to tie the shooting to them being American soldiers.
Not finding much of anything else, I powered the laptop down and put it away. A few minutes later, I had one of the big doors open and the engine on my little Grady-White warming up. Finn came through the open side door to the dock area and stood on the narrow walkway watching me.
“You wanna go see Rusty?” I asked him. He barked and jumped over the rail to sit on the forward casting deck, while I went back over and closed the side door.
Minutes later, I idled the short distance to Harbor Channel, used the key fob to close the big door, then turned northeast in the channel. I pushed the throttle forward and the little center-console jumped up on plane. I’d bought it up in South Carolina earlier in the year and found it to be a very solid and capable little boat.
Looping south around the shallows at the upper end of Harbor Channel, I worked my way through familiar cuts into Big Spanish Channel and accelerated. The hundred-and-forty-horse Suzuki outboard quickly had the Grady up to thirty knots.
I approached No Name Key and turned through an unmarked cut into Bogie Channel and slowed down. Near No Name Bridge, I brought the boat down off plane and turned into Old Wooden Bridge Marina, on the Big Pine side of the bridge. The old wooden bridge was gone, replaced years before by a modern concrete and steel span, but the marina and cottages at the west end of the bridge retained the name.
I tied off at the day dock, well out of the way of the fuel pumps, and went inside. I bought a bottle of water, letting the girl at the counter know that my boat would be tied up there for a couple of hours, then Finn and I started across the bridge on foot.
Denise had given me directions to Amy Huggins’s place on No Name Key. It’s not a huge island, but it does cover more than a thousand acres. The homes on the island are completely off the grid. Electricity comes from generators, or a combination of solar and wind power. Most of the homes are in the center of the north side of the island, with a smaller subdivision at the northeast corner, just north of the abandoned No Name Lodge and the old ferry station. I found the Huggins homestead easily enough, halfway down the first dirt track to the north, off the main road and isolated.
I called out the woman’s name as Finn and I walked up a long driveway toward a house under construction. A small trailer—not really a mobile home, but more like a large camper—was parked beside the house.
A noise from the house stopped both of us in our tracks. The sound of a pump shotgun loading a shell is very distinct.
“Who are you and what do you want?” a voice shouted from somewhere inside.
“My name’s Jesse,” I called back. “Jesse McDermitt. Denise Montrose sent me.”
A woman stepped out of the shadowy interior of the elevated cinder block structure. She carried the shotgun in the crook of her right arm, the barrel pointed down at the ground. It was obvious from the casual way she carried it that she was familiar with the weapon.
“Denise called me an hour ago,” she said. “I’m Amy Huggins.”
Finn and I waited where we stood, as Amy walked down the steps toward us. A woman with a shotgun is always in charge.
At first glance, she didn’t look to be several years older, as Denise had said. Aside from the ripeness of her belly, she looked very fit and healthy, with dark tanned skin wherever it was exposed—which wasn’t much. She wore denim pants, and a long-sleeved work shirt to protect her from the sun. A faded ball cap sat slightly crooked on her head, and wild, dark-brown hair hung from the back of the cap, past her shoulders. Several loose strands of hair fell on either side, framing a very pretty face.
“You don’t look like what I expected,” she said, stopping in front of me. Finn angled himself between us, and she reached down and let him sniff her hand for a second, then casually scratched the spot behind his ear. “I somehow pictured you in a gray suit, with a hat.”
“I’m not a TV private eye,” I said. “Just a guy who fishes and owns part of a security business.”
“Denise didn’t mention that,” Amy said. “Want to go inside and get out of the heat?”
“The heat doesn’t bother me,” I said. “But it might be a good idea in your case.”
“Because I’m pregnant? I was born on a boat, Mister McDermitt. And my son will be born in this house, if I can get it finished in time.”
Finn and I followed her—not to the trailer, but toward the house.
“You’re building this yourself?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if every pregnant woman was a construction worker. “Every block laid and every nail driven was done by either myself or my late husband before he was killed. Lately, I’ve had to hire help here and there.”
She walked through the unfinished doorway into a central room with a low, vaulted ceiling. The unfinished floor felt solid, and there were no creaks—a testament to good workmanship. A table with two folding chairs stood against the far wall, blueprints and tools covering it. We sat down, and she offered me a beer.
I held up my water bottle. “I’m good, thanks.”
“So, what all did Denise tell you?”
I relayed the details of my meeting with Denise, then asked Amy directly why she couldn’t go to the police.
“I’m not even certain anything was stolen,” she replied. “And if there ever was anything, it’s possibly illegal or something like that. Tell me a little about yourself first.”
“Missus Huggins, I didn’t come here looking for a job or anything. The story Denise told me—what little there was—I found intriguing. I thought if I can help in some way, I’d like to. But if it makes you feel better, what would you like to know?”
She nodded at the tattoo on my arm. “I see you were in the military. Honorably discharged?”
“Retired,” I replied. “Nine years ago.”
“Dan—my husband—was a career soldier. He’d been in the Army for ten years and had another ten to go.”
“Ten years and he was only a captain?” I asked.
“He made sergeant during his first enlistment, while going to college at night to finish his engineering degree. Then he went to Officer Candidate School.”
“I see,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Amy placed her hands on her belly. “I still have a part of him, and always will. Were you an officer?”
“No,” I replied. “I retired as a Gunnery Sergeant, E-7.”
She asked more pointed questions about my service, trying to get a feel for my morality, I guess. Finally, she seemed to come to a decision and stood up. “Wait here a second.”
She left and walked toward the trailer, so I got up and wandered around the house, admiring the construction. The whole structure was extremely well built; many would probably say it was over-built. But knowing that Dan had been an engineer, I didn’t expect to see short-cut construction methods or materials. My grandfather raised me, and Pap was an architect, so I know good work when I see it.
Amy returned carrying something in her hand. When she sat down again, she placed a folded handkerchief on the table and unwrapped it. In the middle was a green stone the size of my thumbnail.
“It’s an emerald,” she said, sliding the handkerchief across the table.
I picked up the stone and turned it in my fingers. Light danced through the crystal, as I held it up. “Looks very valuable.”
“I found it after Wilson skipped out on me.”
“He arrived here about a month ago, several weeks after the funeral. He said he’d served with Dan and just got out. He wanted to help me finish the house. Said he owed it to Dan.”
“Then he just up and left?”
“In a hurry,” she replied. “He left his duffel bag and hadn’t collected the last week’s pay I promised him. He’d been sort of camping out here in the house, sleeping in a hammock, and working from dawn to dusk. He seemed nice, though he didn’t really accomplish a whole lot of work. Still, there were some things I needed help with.”
“After he left is when you found the emerald?”
Amy stood up. “Follow me.”
We walked through a wide opening in the back, which I assumed would be either French doors or a sliding glass door once it was finished. It opened onto a large deck, with steps down both ends and a wide set of steps down from the center. The backyard was lush with new sod, and quite large. A stand of coconut palms, trimmed neatly up to eight feet or so, took up most of one corner. A nice shady spot to watch a little boy playing in the yard.
I noticed one of the concrete pillars at the bottom of the center steps was damaged. It was shorter than its counterpart on the other side, and several broken pieces of block lay around it.
“Last weekend,” Amy said, “I went up to Vero Beach to visit with Dan’s sister and take her a few things of his that I thought she’d like to have.” She pointed at the shorter pillar. “When I got back, I found that post destroyed and Wilson gone.”
I went down the steps to the broken pillar and looked at it. The opposite one was built two feet square and about four feet tall, with a large capstone on top. The shorter one had the capstone laying in two pieces and what looked like the top course of blocks broken away. The second course looked like it had been hollowed out; the inside parts of the four blocks that made up the course weren’t broken like the others. They had been cut away with a concrete saw, creating a hollow big enough for a basketball.
“I found the emerald inside there,” Amy said.
Finn sniffed around at the broken blocks and kept coming back to sniff the larger half of the capstone. Then he sat down in front of it.
I lifted the hunk of concrete and turned it over. On the edge was a dark brown smudge, which I recognized. “There’s blood on this piece.”
“Not surprised,” Amy said. “Wilson was accident prone.”
I placed the stone back on the ground and Finn stood and sniffed it again, wagging his tail.
“Can you remember that?” I asked him.
Finn started sniffing around, moving out into the yard and around to the side of the house away from the trailer, his nose to the ground. I tailed him and Amy came down the steps and followed me.
On the side of the house, Finn stopped about twenty feet from the wall, moving back and forth and sniffing around at the ground. Then he sat down again, his big tail brushing the sand on either side.
“What was here?” I asked Amy.
“Your dog has a good nose. That’s where Wilson parked his car. In the shade of the house.”
We went back around to the backyard and I looked down into the top of the broken pillar. I could just make out some sort of rectangular indentation in the mortar of the next course down. The two lower courses appeared to be poured solid; the indentation in the mortar looked like something had been placed inside, while the mortar was still slightly wet.
“Pretty big hiding place for a single stone.”
“Which is why I think there were a lot more,” she said. “In a box.”
“How long ago were these built?”
“Dan built them when he came home on leave from Ecuador, four months ago. I went up to Miami to visit my little brother, and when I got home there they were. They weren’t on the plans, and Dan said he just decided to add them.”
“I see,” I said, squatting beside the remnants of the post and looking at the broken blocks. It was obvious they’d been removed without finesse, smashed with a sledgehammer. Rising, I stepped over to the other post and slapped my palm on the capstone. It sounded solid. “Got a hammer?”
Amy disappeared inside and returned a moment later with a big framing hammer.
I took it and tapped lightly on the capstone, so as not to leave a mark. “This one’s poured solid.”
“Everything is,” she said. “Dan sunk two dozen well points around the perimeter before digging the footers, and pumped water out for two days before pouring. Concrete extends four feet below grade, poured on top of ancient limestone and coral. Every course was poured solid, with half-inch steel reinforcement rods all the way up to the rafters.”
“Hurricane proof,” I said, looking at the broken post again.
“Wind- and wave-proof at least.”
I nodded. “Nothing stops a tidal surge.”
“We’re higher than the record storm surge of thirty-five, and the first floor is the garage and Dan’s man-cave.”
“Obviously, your husband hid something of value inside this post. Just from what I’ve seen, he wasn’t the kind of man to cut the corners off blocks, just to save a buck. And if it were just the single stone, the cavity is overkill.”
“It was more than just the one emerald,” Amy said. “Whatever was in there, Wilson Carmichael took.”
“Was anything else missing when you returned?”
“Nothing at all,” she replied. “And like I said, he left behind everything he’d arrived here with, plus a week’s pay.”
“And you have no idea where he went?”
“If I did, Mister McDermitt, I’d have gone and got back what rightfully belongs to my boy.”
I looked up at her. She stood on the porch, feet firmly planted, hands on her hips. She was a little taller than most women, probably close to five-nine. It looked like she was nearly full term, and probably weighed over one-seventy. The extra weight of the baby didn’t seem to slow her in any way. I imagine she was every bit as tough as she sounded, and the look on her face was one of total resolve. Someone had taken something from this woman. How her husband came across it and why he hid it in the post didn’t matter to her. Right or wrong, her husband was dead and she had a son to raise.
I mounted the steps and stood in front of her on the porch, studying her face. “What did your husband do in the Army?”
She turned and went back inside the house. I followed her and we sat at the table again. I noticed a note pad with two columns of numbers scrawled across the top page. There were notes next to each number in the second column—a materials list. The other column had no notes, but the sum at the bottom was less than the sum of the materials list. An income list? If so, Amy Huggins was sinking all she had into the house and wouldn’t have enough to finish.
“Dan was an engineer,” she said. “He was in South America to survey several possible locations for a new Army base.”
“The US doesn’t have any bases in Latin America, from any branch of the military.”
“Plans are in the works,” she said. “Nothing super-secret, it’s public knowledge, but you know the military. They don’t care if you find out something on your own, but they’re not gonna make a public announcement or anything.”
“I’m going to ask you something,” I said, “and I hope you won’t be upset. But is there any chance your husband had any kind of illegal dealings down there?”
Amy smiled. “I was hoping you’d ask that. You strike me as an ethical guy. You don’t want to be involved in anything nefarious?”
“I won’t be.”
“You’d have liked Dan, and I think he’d have looked up to you. God knows he didn’t have much of a male role model growing up. No, Mister McDermitt, there is absolutely zero chance that my husband stole whatever was in that post. He was a swapper.”
“This land? It’s two acres, all high ground. Higher than anything on Big Pine. And we have fresh water. This land and all the materials that went into this house, Dan bartered for.”
“From a paperclip to a new home?”
She laughed. “Something like that. He’d done it all his life, trading this toy for that, a fishing reel for a bike, an old car he fixed up for a boat. In the Army, he continued his bartering. Sometimes he’d trade for something he had absolutely no use for, but knew someone who did. It drove me nuts, before we got married. He always had his eyes open for a deal. Then I learned the method to his madness, and his ultimate goal: this house and our family.”
“You knew him a long time?”
“Since we were kids,” Amy replied, a wistful look on her face. “We grew up on Tavernier. He was a year ahead of me, from kindergarten to graduation. We started dating in junior high, and it’s been just me and Dan against the world ever since. Goofy, huh?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Sounds pretty romantic.” Then, steering the conversation back to the topic at hand, I nodded toward the open doorway. “So, whatever was in that post? He came by it through trading?”
“He once traded a really decent car for an old yacht. Then started over with one of his old fishing rods, trading up until he had something worth enough that he could sell, and use that money to fix up the yacht. Then he sold the yacht, too. That’s how he bought the land. An old car, and a fishing reel.”
I laughed. “I think I would have liked him, Amy. I know my buddy Rusty would have enjoyed bartering with him.”
“Julie’s dad? Yeah, Mister Thurman was a regular trader with Dan.”
Around here, it’s like four degrees of Rusty Thurman. He knew everyone and everything that went on, and everyone liked him.
“If I agree to find this guy for you,” I said, getting serious, “I’ll need you to trust me.”
“Trust is earned, Mister McDermitt, and I barely know you.”
“Well, let’s start with you calling me Jesse. I live just up in the Contents, so we’re nearly neighbors. There is something you can do to let me earn your trust.”
“What’s that?” Amy asked warily.
“I can find the guy; that probably won’t be much trouble. But to get back what he took, I’ll need bait. Will you let me take the emerald for a few days? I first have to find out exactly where it came from, if that’s possible.”
“I looked online,” she said. “An emerald that size is pretty rare, but it’s worth just enough to pay for finishing my house.”
“Do you know Pam Lamarre over at Keys Bank?”
“Sure, everyone knows her.”
I took my phone out of my pocket and called the bank. After a moment, I was connected to Pam. We exchanged pleasantries, then she asked what she could help me with.
“I’m with Amy Huggins, Pam. Can I put you on speaker?” She agreed, and I pushed the speaker button. “Pam, I want to borrow something from Missus Huggins, and I’d like you to send a courier to her place on No Name with a cashier’s check, for collateral. Can you do that right away?”
“Not a problem, Jesse,” Pam’s voice came through the tiny speaker. “I can be there myself in about fifteen minutes. A check in what amount?”
Looking at Amy, I asked, “What did your search say that emerald is worth?”
Her eyes were wide, and she gulped. “Over twenty thousand.”
“Make it twenty thousand, Pam.”
“Consider it done,” Pam replied. “Is there anything else?”
“No, that’s all,” I said. “Thanks.”
She said goodbye and I ended the call.
“This way,” I offered to Amy, “if I lose the emerald, you’re not out anything.”
“One thing, Mister—I mean, Jesse. How much are you going to charge me for doing this?”
“If I don’t find him, or if he doesn’t have whatever was in that post—or I don’t get it back—you owe me nothing and I return the emerald. We’ll consider the twenty thousand a long-term investment, so you can finish your house. Pay me next month, or over a twenty-year period. It doesn’t matter. I invest in good people.”
“And if you do, and he does?”
“I give you what I find along with that one emerald, you liquidate them and pay me back the twenty grand. Then you make a small donation to a college fund I set up for kids of local watermen and veterans. Oh, and you buy me a beer at the Rusty Anchor. In the meantime, use the money to finish your home for your baby.”
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