Rising Tide: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
The boy provides more questions than answers. He's believed to be a Cuban refugee, yet when he regains consciousness, he speaks perfect English, but can't even remember his name.
Clues point to the boy coming from Fort Myers, Jesse's hometown. After going to war with drug smugglers there, Jesse has no desire to go back. But something is pulling at his wife's heart strings.
With only a week before he has to leave for bigger, broader horizons, will Jesse be able to solve the mystery of the “lost boy” in time. Will the clues he finds along the way lead him deeper into the world of gang warfare than he wants to go?
Things are about to get hot in the Florida Keys, and it's not just the spring weather.
Release date: April 19, 2021
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 420
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Rising Tide: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
April 13, 2021
The aging Ford Taurus drove slowly south on US 41 toward Pine Manor, an older neighborhood in the southern part of Fort Myers. The driver scanned the shadows, as if looking for someone.
Most of the homes in the half-square-mile neighborhood—known locally as Crime Manor—were small, one- and two-story apartment dwellings built in the late 1960s and early ’70s, though a few dated back to the early 1940s. A fourth of the residences were vacant; some abandoned and used as crack houses. The majority of the people who resided in Pine Manor were renters.
The businesses fronting the highway reflected the downward trend of the neighborhood. The old Ford rolled past a Mexican restaurant, a check-cashing place with bars on the windows and door, a used car lot full of older model cars, a florist, a pawn shop, and a convenience store, all with security bars. The car slowed at one of the few up-scale businesses, a furniture store that offered rent-to-own pricing.
The Taurus had been blue at one time, but the driver’s door and left front fender were white, having been replaced after a wreck. The rest of the car’s paint was faded and peeling. The hood, roof, and trunk were coated with surface rust, making the car look anything but blue under the orange glow of the streetlight on the corner.
“I’m hungry,” a small boy said from the backseat of the car.
“Me too, Alberto,” his mother replied, turning right at the furniture store. “We’ll eat in the morning. I just need to make some money first.”
The woman looked around nervously, but not because of the high crime in the neighborhood. She knew it well and was known by people in the area.
Her twitching and scratching were the result of heavy drug use.
The street she turned on was dark. Shattered streetlight housings gave blind testament to what happened below them. Lee County Electric Co-Op had given up repairing the lights a long time ago. The residents of this street preferred the darkness, and the lights were shot out as soon as they were replaced.
Carmel Marco pulled into a vacant spot at a one-story row of studio and one-bedroom apartments. She could feel eyes on her as she shut off the engine and turned to the boy in the backseat.
“You stay in the car,” she said. “And don’t open the door for anyone.”
Alberto Marco slumped in the seat, casting his eyes down to the floorboard. “Yes, Mama.”
Carmel got out and locked the doors. She looked back at the boy for a moment, then turned and followed the sidewalk along the left side of the water-stained, concrete block building. She’d only be a few minutes; then she’d drop Alberto off at a friend’s so she could work the streets.
At the door to apartment six, she knocked twice, then twice more. There was a faint blue light coming from a gap in the heavy curtains, which was quickly extinguished. She heard movement inside.
Finally, she heard the sound of the locks clicking and the rattle of the security chain. Then the door opened slightly, revealing a lean Hispanic man, shirtless, with gang tattoos from the neck down.
“What choo want?”
“The usual,” Carmel replied. “Just enough to get me through the night.”
The man, known on the streets as Razor, grinned lasciviously at her, revealing a gold-capped front tooth. He stepped back and waved her in.
“You know I don’t like doing small sales, Car.”
“I need it, Enrique,” she replied, stepping into the darkened room. “I didn’t see Bones out on the street.”
Razor was a member of the ruthless MS-13 gang, which had chapters all over the globe. He sold drugs, and Bones was his street dealer. He and Carmel had known one another a long time and he didn’t mind her using his given name when they were alone.
The television came back on, but no other light emanated from anywhere in the apartment.
“How much cash you got?”
“You don’t got no varos?” Razor said, flopping down into a worn out recliner. “This ain’t no charity I’m runnin’ here.”
“I’ll get money, man,” Carmel pleaded. “But I gotta pay the sitter so I can.”
“We did this a few times before,” Razor said. “And I had to hunt you down to get my money more’n once.”
“She won’t let me leave Alberto unless I pay her up front,” Carmel said, eyeing the crack pipe on the table with a hunger that bordered on lust. “You know I’m good for it.”
Razor looked her up and down. They’d known each other since high school. Back then, she was buenota, a hard body, but now, at twenty-five, she looked twice her age, weary and worn out. Having a kid at sixteen would do that. Dropping out, living on the streets, and getting strung out on crack cocaine before eighteen would accelerate it and make a girl do things she never thought she’d do.
Razor took a small rock from his little sample bag and put it in the pipe. Then he handed the pipe to Carmel along with a lighter. “A little cloud to get your night started.”
She took it greedily and fired the end of the pipe with his miniature torch. The clouds swirled in the glass tube and she inhaled deeply.
The change was instantaneous. Her nerves settled and the light and low sound coming from the TV seemed different, as if she could see and hear it better. Even Enrique’s grin seemed inviting.
“Just leave the boy here,” he told her. “Then you can buy more.”
Carmel, her mind now swimming from the huge release of dopamine in her brain, thought that was an excellent idea. Alberto wouldn’t be in the way; he’d just curl up somewhere and go to sleep. She could come back two or three times throughout the night to check on him.
Later that night, after Carmel had turned a couple of quick tricks, she felt as if things were looking up. She’d gone back to check on Alberto around midnight. And to buy more crack.
Carmel knew that eventually the sun would come up and she’d crash. Then the miserable feeling would return, the desperate despair. But if she could keep it at bay long enough, if she rationed the crack wisely, she’d have enough money by morning to feed her son for another day.
She stood in the shadow of a telephone pole, waiting. Occasionally a cop would pass by. Carmel was always careful to keep the thick, wooden pole between her and their prying eyes.
Other cars whisked past, drivers intent on getting home from work, or to a bar to meet a friend. She didn’t hide from them, knowing they had other things on their minds. She stayed in the open. They might remember later.
Then a car came slowly down Cleveland Avenue. The driver was obviously looking for something. Or someone. It was an older model Chevrolet, nothing like what the unmarked cop cars usually looked like.
Carmel stepped out of the shadow.
The car slowed and came to a stop.
“Wanna party?” a young black man asked, smiling at her.
“I’m working,” she replied back.
“Twenty bucks says your mouth can do more than talk, chica.”
Carmel stepped over to the open window and looked inside, checking the backseat. “Are you a cop?”
“What the fuck you mean am I a cop?” the man said. “I’m a horny muthafucka is what I am. You getting’ in or what?”
She opened the door and got in the car.
“Name’s Tavarius,” he said, taking a hit from a joint and offering it to her. “Tavarius Carter.”
She took the joint and pulled on it, inhaling deeply. She didn’t like weed, but it was sort of a custom on the streets. By sharing it, they both knew that the other wasn’t a cop. Besides, he was offering twice what she usually charged for a blowjob and unlike the last two, this guy wasn’t fat or ugly.
“There’s a parking lot just around the corner,” she said. “Lots of cars there. You can park there and nobody will see.”
“I meant what I said about partying,” he offered, as he started to drive away. “I got a few dawgs comin’ over, ’bout six or seven. Could be twenty a pop for a hot little mamacita like you. And all the rock candy you can smoke.”
Over a hundred dollars, she thought.
Carmel slid closer and rubbed his crotch. “I like parties.”
Tavarius, known among his Lake Boyz brothers as “Bumpy,” smiled at how easy it’d been. Other gang members were busy picking up more hookers who worked the MS-13 controlled part of south Fort Myers.
He drove north, headed back to Lake Boyz turf. He took his time, letting her work magic on him with her mouth, knowing that once they got to the clubhouse, she and the others who were being rounded up would be used as sex toys and eventually killed.
MS-13 was new to Fort Myers, and though they had a reputation in bigger cities, they were still small-time on the southwest coast. Lake Boyz had been around for as long as Bumpy could remember.
It was time to put MS-13 in its place in Fort Misery and that started with eliminating one of their sources of income.
The rhythmic sound of my running feet on the pavement had lulled me into an alternative state after the first mile—the runner’s high. The first mile is always easy and quickly brings on an almost euphoric state.
It was the second mile that always made me think, why not just go for a swim? As a means of keeping fit, swimming was by far a better total body work out. And it was a lot easier on the joints.
It’s not that I couldn’t run—I just chose not to. At six-three, my long legs could eat up miles effortlessly.
My elongated shadow stretched thirty feet in front of me and the morning sun was warm on my back. Each step was in harmony with the cadence I always heard in my head when I ran.
I used to run a lot. Back when I was an active-duty Marine, our morning PT always consisted of at least a three-mile run, usually more. Rain or shine, hot or cold, that’s how we started our day in the infantry. And it usually wasn’t on nice, flat concrete with running shoes. We ran the same way we trained to fight; in boots and utes, running through the woods or on a sandy beach.
The sing-song cadences we used while running in formation were often colorful, to say the least. They were downright profane on other occasions—not meant for politically correct ears. But Marines are Marines. The ditties, as we called them, were used to keep the troops in step and motivated, but they served a purpose beyond that. Singing while running also helped to regulate breathing, as the platoon or squad would sing the song back to the leader.
My particular favorite, learned while I was in boot camp, told the mythical story of the Corps, as if it were one person. It could be sung in a quick-time march or a double-time run.
He was born on Parris Island,
The land that God forgot,
Where the sand was fourteen inches deep,
And the sun was blazing hot.
But that was just a one-mile cadence and I’d already chanted it twice in my head, including the sing-back.
I knew many others, and as I searched my memory for another favorite, the voice in my head—that of my boot camp senior drill instructor, Staff Sergeant O’Lowny—defaulted back to the minimalistic Lo-right-a-lo-right-a-LO-right-a-layo.
“What are you thinking about?” Savannah asked, running steadily right beside me. This morning’s seven-mile run was her idea.
“I’m trying not to think,” I replied. “It makes it hard to keep from running into people.”
She laughed. “It’s thinning out a little. I swear I got bumped a dozen times there at the start.”
We were running on the world-famous Seven Mile Bridge, currently closed to vehicular traffic on a beautiful Saturday in the middle of April.
Savannah had signed us both up for the 40th Annual Seven Mile Bridge Run. The race was held by a local running club every year. It started on Knight’s Key, at one end of the longest of forty-three bridges on the Overseas Highway, and it ended on Little Duck Key at the other end. There would be a grueling half-mile stretch before the midpoint of the race, as the bridge rose from twenty feet above the water to nearly seventy. A fifty-foot climb doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the equivalent of running up to the fifth floor of a building. Except it’s stretched over a much longer distance than five flights of stairs. The high arch over Moser Channel would reduce a lot of the runners to walkers.
There were at least a hundred people running ahead of us, and fifteen times that number behind us. We weren’t running to compete, but the leaders were in sight, running together in a line from one side of the bridge to the other, about two hundred yards ahead of us.
“I can tell you want to move up there and beat them,” Savannah said. “You’re so competitive.”
I looked over at her and smiled. “No way. Those guys are half my age and far more competitive than I ever was.”
“All the more reason to beat them,” she said, lengthening her stride just a little.
I grinned and matched her gait as we passed two much younger athletes.
Fifteen hundred runners participated every year, chosen randomly from perhaps 10,000 entrants. Most were from South Florida but there were always runners from countries all over the world competing in what was likely the longest footrace held entirely over water.
There were dozens of professional athletes in the mix. They’d mostly started at the front of the pack on Knights Key and would likely stay in the front throughout the race. I figured that somewhere around the highway’s forty-one-mile marker—about a mile from the finish line—the leaders would start lengthening their strides in a one-mile kick to pull away from the others. Starting too early would burn a runner out before the finish line. And starting too late, though you might finish at a faster run, meant the leader could already have crossed the finish line. It was all about knowing your body’s ability and durability.
Pigeon Key lay off to the right, just a little ahead of us. It was at the end of the old bridge. A section had been removed just past a ramp going down to the island. The rest of the old bridge still paralleled the new one, just off to the north, but with a section removed at both ends, the middle part was completely inaccessible and slowly deteriorating from the elements and the steady march of time.
Ahead of us about a mile, the new bridge curved to the left and the high arch over Moser Channel was visible in the distance beyond. I knew that about a mile past the arch, at the halfway point of the race, the fire department had what they call a “quint,” or quintuple combination truck staged with its ladder extending across both lanes. As the runners approached, they’d turn on the pump, sending water through misters to cool the runners. The firefighters also handed out drinking water.
The race had started at 0730, only thirty minutes after sunrise. But being the Florida Keys, even at an early hour in the spring, eighty degrees wasn’t uncommon. And it looked like this day was shaping up to be a scorcher.
“How soon will I be able to join you again?” Savannah asked.
We’d only been married for four-and-a-half months, and I was scheduled to take the helm of Ambrosia on Friday for two weeks of intense familiarization with retiring Captain Nils Hansen. I’d worked with Nils before as his acting first mate. He and I both held the same unlimited sea captain’s certification, but he had dozens of years at the helms of large ocean ships. I’d already learned a lot from the old Norseman.
“End of the month,” I replied. “But you already knew that.”
“Will you miss me?”
I glanced over at her. It wasn’t like Savannah to doubt herself.
“You know I will,” I said. “I don’t know how I ever got along without you.”
We continued running, and another cadence came into my head.
Momma told Johnny not to go downtown,
Marine Corps recruiter was a hangin’ around,
Suzy told Johnny go serve your nation,
Take a cab down to the MEPS station,
Suzy’s in the bedroom, Jodie’s at the window,
Johnny’s got his bags and he’s ready to go,
Put Johnny on a Greyhound bus,
Then there came the bends and thrusts,
Drill Instructors trained him rough and hard,
They taught him to fight, they taught him to march,
It was short but long it seemed,
Johnny had earned the title Marine.
“What’s going on up there?” Savannah asked, pointing ahead.
Several runners, none from the front of the pack, had stopped and were standing at the left side of the bridge, some pointing down into the water.
We moved over to that side of the bridge for a better view, and as we approached the group, I could see a boat just a hundred feet or so from the bridge. It looked like a beat-up old derelict, maybe fourteen or fifteen feet in length.
“Just another boat adrift,” I said, slowing my pace a little.
After Hurricane Irma, there had been reports of abandoned boats drifting on the currents all over South Florida and the Keys. Many were still afloat three years later and occasionally one would wash up on shore or be found lodged in the mangroves or aground in shoal waters.
We’d found one on my island in the Content Keys just two weeks earlier. It’d been pushed up on shore during a squall, and we came across it the next morning, wedged solidly against the north pier. It had a trailer still strapped under it. Finding the owner turned out to be pretty easy. He came out and towed it to a boat ramp at Old Wooden Bridge Marina.
There was something odd about this boat, though. For one, it didn’t look like a typical boat you’d see around here. It was crudely built and made of wood.
“There’s someone in it,” a woman yelled.
Savannah and I moved quickly to the concrete guard rail. It was an incoming tide, and the boat was drifting toward the bridge. Just as the woman had said, I could make out a small form lying on the deck in the middle, covered by a piece of canvas. A bare brown foot stuck out from under the cloth.
I looked down. The water was maybe eight or ten feet deep and the current was moving pretty fast. The boat was coming right toward where we stood.
“Rafter!” I shouted.
Without thinking, I put one hand on the rail and vaulted over it, pulling my legs up and wrapping them with my arms.
Diving into shallow water from a height of twenty feet was suicide, and going feet first would put both my legs in casts for months. Tucked into a cannonball position, it didn’t matter how I hit the water; it was going to hurt. But a cannonball lessened the depth I’d descend and I might avoid hitting the bottom.
I smacked the water on my side. The impact against my thigh was like that of a big wooden paddle and the sting almost caused me to kick my legs out early. But I didn’t. I waited until my body stopped descending, then unfolded and pushed off the bottom.
Running shoes are good on pavement but not so much in the water. I kicked them off as I rose from the bottom.
When I broke the surface, it was just in time to see someone else smack the water ten feet ahead of me. I’d already drifted back under the bridge a little. When they surfaced, I was surprised and then angered to realize that it was Savannah.
“Come on,” she shouted. “We have to keep it from hitting the bridge pilings.”
She was right. The boat was in poor shape, and though it wasn’t moving fast, if it got sideways against one of the concrete bridge piers in the right position, the weight of the water could break it in half.
I started swimming against the current, which was probably moving at close to two knots. I knew Savannah and I could swim faster than that, but not much, and the boat was moving toward us at the speed of the current. At best, we’d reach it twenty feet from the piling.
“Get to the stern,” I shouted, as we reached the boat. “We can be its engines.”
At the back of the boat, I could see over the half-rotted transom board. The figure lying on the deck hadn’t moved.
“Pull this way,” I yelled, then started tugging the stern to the right, swimming with one hand.
Once we got it turned, we both moved to where the low gunwale met the transom on either side and started swimming hard with one hand. We managed to steer the boat safely around the big concrete pilings just in time.
As we disappeared under the bridge, I yelled up to those looking down at us. “Call 911! We’ll get it to Pigeon Key.”
“Get aboard,” I ordered my wife. “See if there’s a rope or anything.”
Savannah submerged, then pulled and kicked herself up, climbing into the little boat. She moved past the inert body to the bow.
“There’s a bow line,” she said.
“Toss it out and I’ll tow. Then get back in the water and keep the bow angled to starboard so the current helps push.”
The old bridge was only two hundred yards away. Drifting with the current, it wouldn’t take the boat more than three minutes to pass it. Then the next land would be the southwest coast of the mainland—Cape Sable—nearly thirty miles away.
Pigeon Key lay beneath the old bridge, about a hundred yards west of where the little boat was headed. We needed to move it sideways in the current to reach the tiny island.
It doesn’t take much to hold a boat against a current if the bow’s pointing into it. The bow line was about twenty feet long. I quickly tied a bowline knot with a large enough loop to fit over my head and one shoulder, then slipped it on.
Without waiting for Savannah to signal she was ready, I started swimming against the current, angling just to the right a little. The weight of the boat hit my shoulder as the line went tight and I dug in, breathing every third stroke in a power swim.
I could tell by the feel of the boat on the line that Savannah was at the stern, pushing as she worked to keep the current on the boat’s port bow.
Swimming hard, I could feel the burn in my shoulders and legs. I kept at it for five solid minutes, knowing that it would take quite a while to drag the boat sideways as the current pushed us steadily northward toward the massive concrete piers the old bridge’s arches were built on.
Those foundation piers were twenty feet wide and rested on a bottom that was mostly less than fifteen feet deep. They were cracked and crusted with barnacles. We could easily get the boat to one of them and let the water hold it against the pier, which we could then climb out onto while waiting for some help.
But I wasn’t sure of the legalities of a bridge piling versus dry land. If the person in the boat was a Cuban rafter, and still alive, being on dry land used to mean they could stay in the country. I just wasn’t sure if a hundred-year-old concrete bridge pier counted as dry land.
Finally, I heard Savannah calling out to me. I stopped swimming and saw that we were just south of Pigeon Key and the current was taking us straight toward shore, less than a hundred feet away now. It would change before we reached shore, as the water parted to go around the island. I wanted the sweet spot right in the middle.
“Get in and check on them,” I called out as I moved back to the boat.
As she did so, I turned the boat, then started pushing it toward the rocky shoreline, where a solar panel farm provided power for the island. I hoped I’d gotten the sweet spot right and didn’t get caught in a faster current to one side or the other.
Giving up my shoes might have been a bad move on my part. I wasn’t sure how far out the rip-rap of rocks extended.
“It’s a little boy,” Savannah said. “He’s alive, but unconscious.”
A Cuban boy alone on a boat? There’d been a storm two nights before; we’d seen it from my island, lightning flashing across the sky to the south, way out on the Gulf Stream. Had this boy lost his family on the treacherous ninety-mile crossing in a rowboat?
“He’s been beaten, Jesse,” Savannah said. “At least a couple of days ago, by the looks of his injuries.”
I winced a little at the analytical sound of her voice. She shouldn’t know how to tell how long ago a person had been hurt.
There was a crowd of people moving toward shore. Vehicles weren’t permitted on the two-mile section of the old bridge connecting Pigeon Key to Knight’s Key and Marathon, but I could see an ambulance stopped on the span just before the ramp.
“Is anyone alive?” I heard a man shout.
Savannah looked up. “Yes. A boy about six, maybe. But he’s been hurt badly and looks malnourished and dehydrated.”
Once we were in shallower water, I stood and pushed the boat toward the people waiting on shore.
The man who’d spoken was wading toward us. He was a big man. I’d seen him around Marathon quite often. He worked for the foundation that ran the island-turned-museum. The whole island appeared just as it had in Flagler’s day.
“Jesse McDermitt?” he asked, recognizing me, and then helping to pull the boat ashore.
“Sorry to drop in like this, Brian,” I said, remembering his name.
“Did y’all just jump off the bridge? Were you in the race?”
“Yeah,” I said, as the boat hit a rock.
We moved to opposite sides and muscled the little skiff onto dry land. Well, dry rocks anyway.
It’d probably been fifteen or twenty minutes since we’d entered the water. I could usually swim for three times that long, with little effort, but towing the boat against the current had sapped the strength in my arms and legs.
The paramedics from the ambulance were quickly beside the boat, and Savannah got out, allowing them room to work. I could tell she wanted to stay and hold the boy’s hand, even though he was still unconscious.
One of the paramedics looked up. “Does anyone know who he is?”
“A Cuban rafter, drifting on the tide,” I replied. “Can he be moved off the boat? You could probably work better over there on the sand.”
The paramedic, a guy I only knew as Drew, looked at me. “That policy ended three years ago, Jesse. We’re just here to get him to the hospital. What happens after that is up to the courts and whether this boy has family here in the States.”
“Everybody’s got a cousin in Miami,” I said, quoting the popular Jimmy Buffett song. “Mind if my wife and I ride with you?” I jerked a thumb toward the Seven Mile Bridge. “It looks like we’re out of the race, and neither of us is wearing shoes.”
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