Rising Warrior: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
After returning home to the Florida Keys, Jesse moves on to Fort Myers, his hometown on the Southwest Florida coast. There is much work to be done and Jesse is no stranger to hard work.
On a kayaking adventure with friends, Jesse's daughter finds and rescues a baby manatee suffering from respiratory problems. The red tide has returned and fish are dying by the thousands, along with dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and sea birds.
The algal bloom is a naturally occurring phenomenon, but this time it's much worse. Theories abound; it's something left over from the previous spring's coronavirus outbreak, it's caused by pollution, someone is intentionally creating a super-algae.
But there's something far more sinister going on among the Ten Thousand Islands, and it's up to Jesse to find out where the bodies are buried.
Release date: August 31, 2020
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 362
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Rising Warrior: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
Collier County, Florida
The two-lane road was dark and ran straight as an arrow through the swamp. The headlights from a lone pickup pierced the darkness, showing two elongated, yellow pools of light on the broken pavement.
The truck slowed, and the headlights splashed across a trailer on the corner as the truck turned off the main road and pointed toward the end of the abandoned trailer park.
No lights burned in any of the trailers’ windows. The deteriorating hulks were mere shadows in the moonlight, some not sitting quite level, as the elements continued to take their toll on them.
The previous two summers had been dry, and farming had suffered greatly. Each was followed by the normal dry season—the winter months up north—and water levels dropped further. Most of the water had been diverted to the big sugar plantations to the east.
Many of the residents had simply given up, not having enough food or water to survive the harsh climate. The trailer park was a failed development, built to house migrant workers. It now lay abandoned in the swamp.
Finally, the summer storms did come, but by the spring of 1968, few people remained in the area. Hurricane Abby had made landfall just ninety miles to the north in early June, bringing much-needed rain to the parched southern half of the state. But the soil had been so dry for so long, and the storm had moved so quickly inland, that very little of the precious rainwater had seeped into the aquifer. It simply ran off, causing flash floods in many areas.
The sun had blazed for two weeks after Abby, turning Southwest Florida into a sauna, and baking the soil to a dry crust once again.
Abby had been a tease.
Then Tropical Storm Brenda landed just twenty miles to the south of Chokoloskee, bringing more rain to the arid soil, now rutted with dried-up runoff creeks that in no way resembled the regimented furrows of the small farms on the mainland.
And that was it.
A total of nearly twenty inches of rain fell in two short periods during early June, and nearly all of it had just run down to the Gulf.
For the rest of June, July, and on into August, the sun had beaten down without mercy, scorching the coast of Southwest Florida beyond endurance.
Wells dried up and more people left, until only the hardiest remained.
What nobody knew was that some of that rainwater hadn’t run off. It had pooled around anything that stuck up out of the earth and then leached down alongside it, softening the soil. All through the summer, whenever the wind blew, if you looked closely at the base of a power pole, you might have seen that it was moving.
But nobody looked. Most had left, given up, beaten, and defeated.
It wasn’t just the power poles, either. The water had seeped around concrete bridge abutments, fence posts, water towers, buildings, cracks in the roads, and anything else that was built into or on the ground.
Water was the great equalizer, and Southwest Florida was rife for disaster.
And then disaster came.
Not in the form of a massive hurricane, nor even a named storm, but in the guise of a very slow-moving tropical depression that arrived in late August. The storm had formed in the Gulf of Mexico and moved northeast toward the coast far to the north. It was broad, and rain bands reached the small communities to the south days before the storm made landfall.
When it had first reached the coast near Clearwater, it suddenly turned south and reemerged into the Gulf. Tropical systems rarely moved southward and this one moved very slowly, not developing in strength. But its counterclockwise rotation brought heavy rain, wind gusts, and pounding surf to the south of its loosely organized center. The storm—later called Tropical Depression Eleven—made two more landfalls; one in Holmes Beach and another near Venice, before turning to the north and setting its sights on Jacksonville.
The eight-day heavy rain, dumping fifteen inches in some places, had been all that was needed. Water filled the now widened cracks again, and the wind gusts used the force of the water like a hydraulic ram, pushing out more soil from around the bases of everything man-made.
The combination of wind and rain brought down the power grid, but that was just the beginning. The storm surge and wind-driven waves as high as ten feet flooded out bridges and undermined roads, as well as water towers and other structures, which toppled in comedic slow motion. Many buildings were left damaged to the extent they might as well have been destroyed, as foundations settled, and walls cracked.
Many homes became uninhabitable, because the pilings they were built on sank at different rates, fracturing floors, walls, and ceilings.
So, the trailer park was empty.
All the former residents were gone, and the developer had been left with cracked roads, damaged trailers that were sinking into the mud, no electricity or water, and no means to make repairs or pull the trailers out to sell elsewhere. The wooden bridge to the island the trailer park was built on was barely passable, and impossible to cross while pulling a heavy trailer. After the storm, the developer had just pulled up stakes and left, leaving the trailers to the elements.
The same had happened to scores of other would-be settlers throughout Florida’s history. The beautiful beaches and waterways were enticing, but the climate was too severe for all but the heartiest.
The truck moved slowly along the road. It was a Power Wagon built in the 1950s. It came to a stop, its brakes squeaking. The headlights went off and the engine stopped, then the single working brake light also flicked off. The driver opened the door and got out, looking all around as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
He’d been to this little island many times in the past, but back then, he’d used his small bateau to cross over from the mainland. Or simply walked through the swamps and tidal creeks.
The storm that had destroyed the electrical grid and finally ruined the lives of so many in the area had only happened two weeks before, but it was doubtful much of the area would ever recover.
The man standing by the truck had visited this trailer park twice since the storm to confirm that it was abandoned, both times on a Monday, just like tonight. The trailer park was north of Goodland on the main road to Marco Island and just a little past the swing bridge.
Nobody was around and it was deathly quiet.
He was a slight man, gaunt, with a raw, bony face that was showing signs of a man half again his thirty-eight years. He and his kin were some of the hardier ones—people at one with the swamp. Once he was certain he was alone, he walked to the back of the truck and unhooked the chains, dropping the tailgate.
He was glad the island was once more abandoned. The man considered it his own and knew every inch of it. Or he had, before the trailers were brought over the bridge that connected the island to the main road.
There was a squeal from the bed of the Dodge.
“Well, hey there, Miss Twenty-four,” the man said, as he moved some cinder blocks off a tarp. He threw the canvas to the front of the bed and looked down at his prize.
A girl lay tied hand and foot, moving a little against her bonds.
The man smacked her on the ass. “Girl, you’d best move a bit more’n that onced I git yo’ purty little ass inside.”
He grabbed the knots that bound her feet and dragged her roughly to the end of the truck’s bed, causing the hem of her dress to ride up. Then he paused and pulled a silver flask from the back pocket of his dirty overalls. His eyes filled with lust just looking at her thighs.
The girl squirmed and looked up at him, panic in her eyes.
“Hang on there, Twenty-four. Imma need a snort before I tote’cha up them steps.”
He took a long pull from the flask, then his lips pulled back as he closed his eyes tightly and grimaced. “Hoo wee, that’s some good mash.”
The girl tried to scream, but only a muffled sound came from the dirty rag that was tied securely in her mouth.
“Ya know,” he said, as he put the flask away and leaned closer to her face, “it was a good bit of luck, I come up on ya when I did. We probly never woulda met, if’n you had’na had that flat tire on yo car.”
Twenty-three girls before her had come out of whatever store or bar they’d been in, only to find their car had a flat. And twenty-three times, the wiry little man had “come up” on them. The last two times, he’d brought them to this same trailer, which had nothing but swamp for a backyard. With the gators so close at hand, he hadn’t had to dig a hole.
He grabbed the girl by the rope at her wrists and pulled her closer to the end of the bed, then took her hair in one hand and forced her to her feet.
His eyes roamed up and down Twenty-four’s body. Her dress was dirty from bouncing around in the back of the truck. One of the shoulder straps was torn, exposing her bra strap, and there was a ripped seam at the side of her waist from his rough handling. She’d realized her mistake minutes after she’d accepted his offer of a ride and gotten into the truck with him.
She was as tall as him, but at five foot six, that wasn’t saying a whole lot. His wife, Bertha was taller. And after six kids in ten years of wedded bliss, she was nearly as big around.
“Ain’t you a purty thang,” he said, as he bent and lifted the woman easily to one shoulder. She was tall, but no heavier than a dressed-out doe carcass.
He carried her to the trailer and mounted the steps. He knew the door wouldn’t be locked. He doubted anyone had been there since he’d brought Twenty-three way out to the trailer park a week ago. Crossing the creaky bridge was scary enough. Balancing the girl, he pulled open the door and stepped inside.
The man’s need came more often of late. Other things had occupied his time and his mind when he was younger. It’d taken ten years for the first ten girls and only five years since then.
When he’d brought Twenty-three to the trailer park, he’d pulled a stained mattress from one of the back rooms and put it on the living room floor, pushing the rest of the tattered furniture out of the way.
He dropped Twenty-four on the mattress and stared down at her. The pretty summer dress she’d worn when she’d come out of the bar in Coral Gables, now torn and stained, had ridden up, exposing her right hip.
Moonlight streamed through a busted-out back window, falling across her legs and waist. “Yessiree,” he said, as he looked down at her, “me and you gonna have us a fine time tonight.”
The girl rolled onto her side and looked up at him with tears streaming from her eyes.
“Cryin’ ain’t gonna do ya no good,” the man said, dropping to his knees. “But you jest go ahead and boo-hoo. I like it.”
He reached for the neckline of the girl’s dress, intending to rip it right down the middle seam. “Now, let’s have a look at them goodies.”
Suddenly, he heard the sound of a car turning the corner, its tires protesting on the rough road.
Rising quickly, he pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his pocket and went to the door. He looked out, ready to make a run for it if he had to.
The truck was stolen, and nothing in it belonged to him. If it was the cops, he’d simply disappear into the swamp and be gone.
The man’s family had lived in the area since his great-granddaddy had fought in the Civil War. They’d reproduced faster than most families, blurring the lines between kin and outsiders when it came to taking a mate. There just weren’t that many people around in those days for a man to be choosy. He had four brothers and three sisters in the area, along with dozens of cousins, nieces, and nephews. All were a hard- scrabble bunch of cutthroats, thieves, and rumrunners. Before he’d taken her for his bride, Bertha had been his second cousin, once removed.
“Dammit,” the man cursed under his breath. “What the hell’s that fool woman doing out here?”
He shoved the pistol into his pocket and went outside.
The door to the 1964 Ford Galaxie opened and the springs creaked as his wife climbed out.
“C. Roy!” she yelled across the yard at him. “I know what you’re up to in there.”
“Bertie, what in the Sam Hill are you doing out here?”
She stomped toward him. “I come to snatch you bald-headed, C. Roy Blanc. That’s what I’m a doin’.”
“It ain’t what yer thinkin’, Bertie,” C. Roy began, holding up both hands as his mind raced to come up with something. Anything. “Jest give me a minute to explain.”
“You’re a cheatin’, lyin’ son-of-a-bitch, C. Roy.” Bertha stopped right in front of him. “I know you got another woman holed up in here.”
She pushed past him and swung the door wide open. The girl on the mattress looked up at her, a newfound expression of hope on her face.
“It ain’t what it looks like, Bertie! Honest to God.”
Bertha Blanc turned to her husband, a fat finger pointing down at the girl. “What the hell is that?”
- Roy’s face fell and his shoulders slumped. There was no way he could talk his way out of this one. Bertie was way too smart, and he’d always known it. She’d finished junior high before the summer when C. Roy had knocked her up. She was supposed to be his third victim, but she’d kicked him in the balls and taken his knife. Then she’d forced him at knife point to have sex with her, which he found a lot less appealing than sex with him holding the knife.
Bertha Blanc had been a big girl all her life. And she’d had an attitude to match. She’d been fourteen when C. Roy had pulled that knife, but already a grown woman and a regular at several bars of ill repute. The fact that they shared the same last name didn’t mean anything to her. Half the county did.
“You tole me you was done with all this ten years ago!” she yelled at C. Roy. “Once we started having babies, you promised no more.”
Bertha stomped across the room and back, pacing and flapping her arms as she cursed him and his whole lineage.
“I read the papers, C. Roy. I know the “flat tire killer” has still been at it all these years. And he ain’t never been caught. Now I know.”
“It ain’t cheatin’!” he yelled back, unable to come up with anything else.
“Just what in the fuck was you plannin’ to do to that?” she roared, spittle flying from her mouth as she again pointed a finger at the young woman on the mattress.
- Roy had never seen her so angry. “I wasn’t—”
“Don’t you bullshit me, mister,” Bertha yelled. “Take her out back.”
“So’s you can finish what you brung her here for, ya simple-minded fool.”
With that, Bertha bent and grabbed one of the woman’s arms and pulled her to her feet, holding her upright with a firm hand on the woman’s elbow.
“Go,” she said, pointing to the back door.
- Roy moved that way and pushed the door open, stepping out onto the small, raised back porch.
There was a scurrying sound and then a splash as a small gator or croc was startled. He couldn’t tell which in the dark.
When he reached the bottom of the steps he turned around. Just as he was about to say something, Bertha pushed the woman off the steps.
With her ankles tied, the young brunette couldn’t control her fall and she toppled into C. Roy, knocking him to the ground and landing on top of him.
The sudden closeness of all that firm flesh excited him.
“Untie her feet,” Bertha ordered, as C. Roy struggled to get out from under the bound woman.
He did as he was told, then stood up, leaving the woman on the ground, hands still tied behind her back.
“Hand me that rope and bring her ’round to the side of the porch rail.”
Again, C. Roy did as his wife demanded.
“Back her up, right here,” Bertha said, grinning now.
When he did, Bertha looped the rope around her neck and tied it tightly to the rail, leaving her barely enough slack to breathe.
“Now hand me your gun,” Bertha said.
“I ain’t got no—”
“I done tole you not to lie to me, C. Roy! Now hand it over.”
Once more, he did as his wife ordered. C. Roy was under no illusion. Even if he was inclined to shoot her, she’d get hold of him before he could get a second shot off, and a woman like her would take a lot of killin’.
Bertha looked behind her and saw an old lawn chair, which she sat down in very carefully in case it collapsed under her weight.
“What now?” C. Roy asked.
Bertha’s eyes locked on his in the moonlight and she smiled. “Do her. Right now. Fuck that skinny little white trash whore while I watch you do it. Get it all outta your system. Right here and right now.”
A slow realization came to C. Roy’s alcohol-soaked brain. An instant fantasy developed in his mind. With Bertie’s help he could continue what he’d been doing since he’d left the army after Korea. Young girls would be even more inclined to accept his offer of a ride with his wife right beside him.
His offer of a ride had been turned down ten times as often as it was accepted. He’d let the air out of many a tire, only to have the woman he’d followed decline the ride and go back inside to call someone. With Bertie along, he was bound to be more successful.
He’d learned in Korea that he liked killing. He’d killed some people who weren’t soldiers and enjoyed the feeling of power it gave him. Bertha had killed a man before, he knew that. But it’d been in self-defense. Not like this.
Had she enjoyed it just the same? The idea excited him more.
He began to paw and tear at the woman’s clothes, ripping her dress open to the waist and tearing her bra and underwear loose. Finally, he unzipped his fly and moved closer to the girl. His excitement was fueled by the look of terror in her eyes.
It wasn’t gentle. He started rough and only got rougher as muffled screams escaped the gag with each thrust of his hips. He grabbed the lower rail for leverage, his face just inches in front of and slightly below hers, as Bertha urged him on, shouting at him to go faster and harder.
He did. His mouth twisted into a grotesque, lustful grin as he grunted with each thrust. His eyes burned with rage as he looked up at the girl’s tear-filled eyes, just inches above his own.
- Roy felt it building in his loins. He was just seconds from release when a loud boom split the humid night air.
Blood and parts of the woman’s brains hit him in the face, and he stumbled back, spitting, and wiping his eyes.
“You crazy bitch!” he shouted at his wife, as he wiped more goop from his eyes.
Bertie stood above Twenty-four’s corpse, the gun barrel still smoking above where the top of the pretty young woman’s head used to be. The body now dangled by the rope around its neck. Blood, brain tissue, and skull fragments now stained the shoulders of her pretty white dress. The oozing mass dripped from her breasts.
“You just remember this, next time you wanna get yo’ pecker wet.”
Bertha untied the rope holding the corpse and it collapsed to the ground.
“Roll that thing over by the water,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
After pushing the body out into the swamp, the husband and wife got into separate vehicles. C. Roy followed Bertha to a sulfur pit road, where he abandoned the truck and got in with her. The whole ride home, he wondered if she’d been as thrilled at the killing as he was.
The fact that he didn’t finish didn’t matter a whole lot. To him, it was all about the control and the actual moment he ended a life. Sometimes it was after he finished, and sometimes it was before.
But Bertie had stolen that control from him, too.
Once home, they went inside. The house wasn’t much to speak of, just five rooms under a tin roof, and set far back in the swamp. But it had been built from sturdy Dade County pine by C. Roy’s grandfather way back in 1903 and it sat on five hundred dry acres that were owned free and clear. Dry ground was hard to find.
It was late and the younger kids were in bed. But the two oldest, Jubal and Marley, were still up, watching TV. They looked up as their parents walked in.
“Where ya been, Momma?” the girl asked.
“Hadda drag Pop’s sorry ass outta the bar again,” Jubal said to his sister.
Bertha smacked the thirteen-year-old in the head. “Watch yer mouth, boy. His sorry ass weren’t in no bar.”
Jubal turned suddenly, the fire of puberty bringing defiance to his eyes. Then he saw the blood.
“What happened, Pop?”
“Y’all git to bed,” C. Roy ordered.
The two looked up at their mother, but she put a hand up. “They can stay up a bit longer,” she said, then turned toward C. Roy. “Want me to heat up some leftovers while you get cleaned up? There’s still water in the tub.”
“What’s on the stove?” C. Roy asked.
“We had spicy gator steaks.”
“Yeah,” he said, puffing up a little. “I think I’d like that a lot.”
- Roy strutted toward the back of the house, full of himself once more. He got his other pair of overalls from the bedroom closet, then went into the single bathroom. He stripped down and eased himself into the tub’s nearly cold, mostly dirty water. He scrubbed the blood off as best he could, dressed, and returned to the living room.
Bertie saw him and motioned toward his Sears and Roebuck lounge chair.
She might let the damned kids get away with shit, he thought. But she knew that C. Roy Blanc was a deadly man. She knew her place. She was gonna serve him food, and later he’d serve himself up some of what he hadn’t finished. Yeah, he thought, I’ll show ya who wears the britches, bitch.
The TV was tuned to the only channel they could get from the antenna mounted high above the house, the NBC station up in Tampa.
Dean Martin and his Golddiggers.
The sound was turned way down, but it didn’t matter to C. Roy and he wasn’t interested in Dean Martin. He had to admit, the man did have the perfect life. Sit down and tell a joke or sing a song and have a dozen pretty girls hanging all over him, looking at him with puppy eyes.
He watched as the Golddiggers, all dressed in short skirts, stepped up onto the bleachers Dean was sitting on and arranged themselves all around him, being sure to show a lot of leg.
- Roy was mesmerized.
“Here,” Bertha said, handing him a plate, and interrupting his fantasy.
He sniffed it. “Smells like almonds.”
“Yeah, well, I thought you might like it with some crushed almonds sprinkled on, to stifle them hot peppers. Jubal was complainin’ it was too hot. Go on, you earned it.”
Too hot? C. Roy thought, looking over at his oldest son. The boy’s a panty-waist and ain’t never gonna ’mount to shit.
Balancing the plate on his knees, C. Roy dug in with his knife and fork, cutting out a big bite of the gator tail steak. It was a little pink in the middle, just the way he liked it, and the peppers sure gave it some fire. Bertie must have toasted the almonds or something. They tasted kind of like lye soap.
- Roy didn’t care. He swallowed and began to cut another piece. Then his knees began to tremble as he felt a twisting pain in his gut.
“Marley,” Bertha said, taking the knife and fork from C. Roy’s hands, as they, too, began to shake uncontrollably. “I want you to pay close account here. You too, Jubal.”
Both kids turned to look at C. Roy. His plate fell to the floor as his body began to spasm uncontrollably.
“Marley, don’t you ever let a man hit ya or cheat on ya. If he does, kill his ass, and find you another one. And Jubal, this sorry fucker ya see before ya? He’s you if ya ever cheat on yer woman. You two unnerstan’ what I’m a sayin’?”
Both nodded as bubbly pink foam dribbled from C. Roy’s mouth.
Bertha bent close to her husband’s face and spat on him. “You was a cheater when I met yer lazy ass, and you was a cheater all this time, but ya ain’t gonna cheat no more, C. Roy. I done poisoned yo sorry ass.”
- Roy’s body jerked twice more, then fell limp, eyes vacant, pink froth at the corner of his mouth.
Bertha looked over at her oldest son. “Go dig a hole, Jubal.”
After the rain stopped, the heat and humidity became oppressive, as it always did. But I savored it. Some prefer milder climates or to stay indoors in air-conditioned comfort when it gets hot. But that’s not how the human animal was intended to live.
We evolved from lesser creatures who figured out how to endure the elements. In many harsh environments, only the strongest survived and contributed their DNA to the gene pool. The advent of electricity and conditioned air in the home happened a mere instant ago in the evolutionary timeline of man. And in that instant, mankind had made itself vulnerable. There were now people living in South Florida who couldn’t survive outdoors for two days.
I’d grown up living with my grandparents, not five miles from where I was now. Mam and Pap didn’t have air-conditioning in their home. Not because they couldn’t afford it; they just didn’t need it. Pap was an architect and he’d designed his home to take advantage of the cooling Gulf breezes in summer.
I couldn’t remember ever being hot as a kid and later, as a Marine, we’d trained in every clime and place, just as our hymn said. At the time, it was thought that the next big land battle would be in Russia, so we’d trained a lot in cold weather.
And that was the primary reason I lived in the Florida Keys. When I retired from the Corps after twenty years, I never wanted to see ice and snow again.
There had already been a lot of rain, and thunderheads could be seen building to the south. The air was loaded with moisture. But for the time being, it was clear, hot, and humid on the upper Caloosahatchee River. The perfect day. At least in my book.
Salt air isn’t thin; it sticks to your skin and the heaviness pushes down on you like a pressure cooker, making the air feel even hotter. It was a labor just to draw the humid air into your lungs and expel it.
There was a slight stirring to the super-heated air around me. Nothing you could call a breeze, and certainly not wind. Just the feeblest attempt at movement; perhaps less than a person’s skin would feel at a slow walk in dead air.
“South Florida ain’t for sissies,” my old friend Billy Rainwater used to say. “It’s the last place a man could truly live.”
I know it made me feel alive.
It’s the nature of the beast in South Florida in late August. You either got used to it or you didn’t. Those who didn’t led a shut-in life, venturing out only to get into their SUV or minivan. They used remote start, so it would already be cooled off before they got in. Or they went back up north to what they deemed a more hospitable climate.
Personally, I’d take the near-triple digit temperature and humidity numbers, along with the sweat, over the below-freezing and windchill factors, with the accompanying shivers of a northern winter.
Any day of the week, and twice on Tuesday.
Stripped down to nothing but a pair of khaki cargo shorts—which had definitely seen better days—I continued my work. I wore a mask to keep the dust out of my eyes and nose. Not some high-tech respirator thing, but an old M1A1 gas mask, which was irritatingly uncomfortable and hot. Pulling air through its filters doubled the required effort, but those filters could stop CS or mustard gas, so paint dust was nothing.
I’d been working since dawn, stopping only to guzzle a bottle of water every fifteen minutes or so. Sweat poured from my body, my hair was matted to the back of my neck, and my Dockers were long since drenched and sagging low on my hips.
The sander was loud and the dust heavy, sticking to my sweaty body like a wetsuit. I could feel the vibration all the way into my shoulders as I moved it back and forth across the surface in long, slow sweeps.
With so much dust in the air, I worked more by the sound and feel of the rough sandpaper against the hull, rather than by sight.
Something cold touched my arm and startled me. I switched off the sander, and the loud buzzing gave way instantly to the sound of cicadas in the mangroves and my radio up in the cockpit.
An island tune by Jim Morris wafted down. He sang about sunny skies and standing knee-deep in the Gulf with a cooler full of beer floating beside him.
That sounded pretty good to me.
“I think you oughta call it a day,” Savannah said, stepping back from the dust cloud hanging around me. “You’ve been at it non-stop since sunrise.”
I’d worked on the port side all morning, and when there’d been no more shade there, I’d stopped for a quick lunch, then moved around to starboard, stripping the old anti-fouling paint from Salty Dog’s hull. The last bottom job had been more than three years ago, and she was past due.
I pulled my mask off and grinned. “Got something fun in mind?”
She laughed. “Oh, yeah, sure. You look really sexy, covered in an inch of blue dust with a red ring around your face.”
I glanced down at my chest and belly. “What? You don’t like oversized Smurfs?”
Savannah covered her mouth and laughed again. “Hefty Smurf was my favorite.”
“It’s just dust,” I said, still grinning. “It’ll wash right off.”
“With a hose pipe,” she said, pointing toward the metal boat house. “You’re not coming aboard Sea Biscuit like that. Dinner will be ready in half an hour. Flo’s cooking.”
I looked up at her as I unplugged the sander and put it in the big boat box I’d brought up from my island in the Keys.
I nodded agreement. “We need to do something to get her out of that funk.”
Our daughter, Florence, had applied for admission to University of Florida and been accepted. After two laps in their competition pool, arranged in early March by a friend of a friend, Florence had been offered a full athletic scholarship and a spot on their swim team. She’d turned down the scholarship but accepted the position.
It was the only logical thing to do. I’d already set aside money for her education years ago, in a special college tuition account, and that was the only thing the funds could be used for.
Florence had insisted that the scholarship be offered to someone else who’d been homeschooled, or boat-schooled, as we called it.
She’d met with a friend of Charity Styles last winter in the Cayman Islands, an Olympic trainer and NCAA advisor. Mick Davis thought Florence showed great promise and set up a meeting with the UF swim coach. He’d even scheduled her for an Olympic tryout in early April.
But then another deadly virus had erupted out of China, and the Tokyo games had been postponed for a year.
Florence had taken it in stride, as she did everything, with the knowledge that she’d never really competed. And it would give her a year in NCAA competition to build on before shooting for the Olympics.
I had to admire her attitude. I continue to have great hopes for the generation born at the turn of the century. America had been attacked by terrorists when these young people were infants, or not yet born. They’d grown up not knowing peace and facing an uncertain and chaotic world. They’d watched those before them go off to fight against ideological hate thousands of miles away. Some didn’t come home. Through the summer, there had been protests and riots over police brutality in black communities. Florence’s generation had taken it all in stride and constantly adapted to an ever-changing world.
Then, at the peak of their game, with commencement ceremonies planned, the virus canceled everything. In certain circles, I called it the Chicom virus. The Chinese communist government had tried to cover it up and fudged the numbers, which resulted in the shutdown of the planet and thousands of needless deaths.
No senior proms or graduations, no baseball or track, no final spring break before stepping into the big, bold, adult world. That transition happened quietly at home for many of those young people, quarantined against an unseen enemy.
Florence’s generation had learned to adapt to a fast-changing world. Still, I felt bad for all the kids who were cheated out of a moment that is for many their crowning achievement in education, with memories of it still vivid in the minds of many geriatrics.
Some may think my notions are not “politically correct,” and that the term Chicom is a hateful, racist thing. To which I say, I’m a Marine; we’re immune to that silly disease. Not the virus, but the PC affliction that seems to pervade all of society today. The term Chicom has to do with a certain country’s political system, nothing more. I have nothing against the Chinese people or their beautiful country. It’s the hardline Chinese communist regime, with its boot on the neck of the people it enslaves that I don’t like. Call me old-fashioned. I detest bullies.
But I called the Covid-19 virus by that term only in my own circle, or occasionally through a slip of a tongue, which usually got me an elbow in the ribs from Savannah.
No, I’m not politically correct, whatever that means.
“We could go down to Marco,” Savannah suggested, handing me a cold beer. “She really needs to update her wardrobe before school starts next week.”
My eyes snapped to Salty Dog, her full keel resting on blocks of wood, propped up by a dozen jack stands. No boat owner likes to see their boat on the hard for any length of time.
“You could’ve hired someone to do this, Jesse.”
I took a long pull from the stubby brown bottle. “Yeah, I know. But I enjoy the work.”
“I know you do,” she said, smiling, then nodding toward the docks. “Come on. Flo’s making spaghetti. We’re out of fish.”
“Give me a minute to hose off,” I replied. “Then a quick shower.”
“Make it snappy,” Savannah said, blowing a kiss over her shoulder as she turned toward the docks.
Out of fish? Maybe a run down to Marco Island in Savannah’s trawler wasn’t such a bad idea. Forty miles of the trip would be offshore, running eight knots for five hours each way. I could restock the freezer.
My eyes followed after Savannah. She still had the same mesmerizing stride that had first caught my attention so long ago. Just as she’d done then, she turned her head, tossing her blond hair over her shoulder and looking back at me with a smile, confident that I was watching.
We’d sailed up to Fort Myers two weeks ago from my home in the Middle Keys. We’d spent a week there, recovering from a long cruise.
Savannah had had a lot of work done on her boat while we’d cruised the Western Caribbean, from the Yucatan to Belize to the Cayman Islands and back. That adventure had started eight months ago, but our journey together had started long before that.
Salty Dog had been out of the water for ten days, also having extensive work done at the boathouse next to the marina. The owner of the boat-storage building and expansive boat yard allowed work to be done by private boat owners or contractors. He also had one of the few mobile boat lifts in the area big enough to handle Sea Biscuit.
The new bottom paint was the last step. Among other things, we’d added more solar panels, a wind generator, and had all of the manual winches replaced with electric ones that could be controlled by an onboard computer like Charity had on her boat, Wind Dancer.
I’d also had a foul weather helm installed in the upper salon, with new fly-by-wire technology. The upper salon had once been a pilothouse, but a previous owner had removed the helm, opting for a galley-up layout, and he’d converted the lower galley and dinette into a salon, or entertainment area. The two kind of flowed one into the other, so I just called them the upper and lower salons.
But now the upper salon was once more a pilothouse.
In the galley.
Or maybe the galley was in the pilothouse.
The new inside helm station wasn’t ideal—I couldn’t see over the bow at all—but in a big blow, far out at sea, it would certainly be a more comfortable watch. And with the big twelve-inch multi-display, you could see anything above or below the water on the combination radar and sonar screen.
We’d hit some storms on the return trip from the Caymans and I’d spent some rough hours at the helm in twenty-foot seas.
I kind of savored that, too.
After walking over to the boathouse, where a hose was hung on the outside wall, I opened the valve and let the hot water pour out before turning the cool water over my head and shoulders, rinsing away the day’s work. Then I went back to the boat and climbed the ladder to the Dog’s aft deck, went forward to the cockpit, then down into the salon.
Fifteen minutes later, I climbed back down the ladder, wearing clean clothes and my new deck shoes.
When I got to Sea Biscuit, I boarded from the side and was greeted by Finn and Woden. They both acted as if I’d been gone for a week, wagging their tails, or nub in Woden’s case, and nuzzling my hands for an ear scratch.
I stepped into the air-conditioned salon through the starboard hatch, with Woden following behind me.
We’d learned that whenever we were in a busy marina or anchorage, one of the dogs would always stay topside.
“Hey, Dad,” Florence said from the galley, just behind the pilothouse. “How much did you get done?”
“More than half,” I replied, getting a second beer from the fridge. “A few more hours tomorrow and she’ll be ready for paint.”
My daughter looked up at me from the spaghetti strainer. “That’s a lot. Who was helping?”
“Just me,” I replied. “Where’s your mom?”
“Aft cabin. She said she needed another shower just going over to the yard to get you.”
I sniffed the air. “Smells good.”
“Thanks,” Savannah said, coming up the steps from the aft stateroom, her hair dark and wet. “She’s using my sauce recipe, which I got from my grandmother and doctored up just a tad.”
As I was about to open the beer, Savannah looked toward the minibar right behind the helm. “I made sundowners.”
I should have known better. Savannah liked to experiment with evening cocktails. I put the beer back in the refrigerator and asked what was on the drink menu.
“It’s called a sneaky tiki,” she replied as she went to the little fridge under the bar and took a pitcher out.
“It’s…blue,” I said.
She poured the pale blue, frozen concoction into a highball glass, garnished it with a slice of Key lime, and offered it to me. “There’s rum in it. And the blue comes from the Blue Curacao.”
I accepted the drink and joined her on the sofa in the salon.
“Your dad thought we should go down to Marco and do some shopping,” Savannah said to Florence’s back.
It hadn’t been my suggestion, but I knew better than to say so. By not saying no from the start, it automatically became my idea in Savannah’s mind.
“When?” she asked.
Florence was a lot like Savannah in many ways. One of those was that they both enjoyed shopping. Not so much the buying, but just the doing something together. Sometimes they’d shop all day and not buy anything, then talk for days about what they’d seen and should have bought.
“Day after tomorrow,” I said, knowing I’d been defeated. “Friday. I’m going to hire someone to do the finish sanding and paint.”
Savannah turned to me and smiled.
I was wondering why Florence’s excitement meter wasn’t pegging.
“If you’re not busy,” I said.
I wasn’t much of a shopper. When I needed something, I went to the store and bought it. Whatever was needed at the time it was needed. But I’d learned that shopping wasn’t about need.
Florence turned around, setting the strainer in the sink. “Some kids are going kayaking in the Preserve.”
By that, she meant that David Stone was going kayaking in Estero Bay Preserve State Park, just south of where the Caloosahatchee River flowed into San Carlos Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Growing up, I’d canoed every bit of it myself. Sometimes with a girl, but usually alone or with Billy.
I locked eyes with her. “You mean David, right?”
She shrugged. “Yeah, and some other kids. Can I go?”
“Classes start on Monday,” Savannah reminded her. “And you need some new clothes.”
“Come on, Mom,” Florence pleaded. “We bought clothes at every port we stopped in. It’s surprising Salty Dog got it all home.”
“Hey now,” I said, grinning, “don’t be dissin’ the Dog.”
She smiled back at us and Savannah conceded. “Okay, but next weekend, we’ll go shopping in Gainesville. Caribbean clothes won’t do in the winter.”
We ate and talked, and I drank another sneaky tiki. It was blue, but it tasted good, and in my book, form followed function.
“So, what time are y’all going?” I asked Florence as we cleaned up. “And when will you be back?”
“We’re leaving first thing in the morning,” she replied, then paused for a moment. “We’ll be back Friday afternoon.”
“Overnight?” Savannah said, alarm in her voice.
I looked over at her and shook my head slightly. “She is eighteen and starting college.”
“We’re not sleeping together,” Florence said, scrubbing a pot. “We just want to explore the preserve by kayak.”
“Bowtie Island?” I asked.
“You’ve been there?”
“Many times,” I replied, thinking back on my youth and the primitive camp sites on the island. “I wonder if it’s still the same.”
“Can I go?”
Savannah looked at me and I nodded.
“Is there cell reception?” Savannah asked.
“Through most of the park, probably,” I said. “Definitely down on Bowtie. It’s only a stone’s throw from the new tower on Big Hickory Island.”
“Okay,” Savannah said after a moment’s thought. “But you call me at regular intervals.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Florence said, hugging Savannah.
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “If it were just me, I’d keep you under my wing till you were forty.”
Florence smiled at me. “Thanks, Dad. We’ll be fine.”
“Has David read the rules for dating a Marine’s daughter?”
“He thought some of them were funny,” she replied.
“Don’t let him make that mistake,” I said, looking her straight in the eye. “They’re very serious rules.”
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