Fifty Miles South of Key West
Damon Alexander sat behind an L-shaped table in the cabin of a forty-foot Viking trawler. A five-day growth of beard covered his face and the front of his neck down to the thick, black chest hair sprouting from the top of his grease-stained shirt. He smelled of liquor, raw fish, and body odor so strong it masked the odor from the stopped-up head. In his right hand, he held five cards in his callused fingers: a queen of hearts, a jack of clubs, a pair of fives, and a deuce. Across from him sat a scrappy young Latino.
Damon poured himself another shot of Jose Cuervo and squinted at the sunlight seeping between the cracks along the cockpit door behind his crewmate.
“Draw or pass?” the young Latino asked. The gaze from his beady eyes shifted from his cards to Damon and back.
Damon coughed. Not a dry, harsh cough, but a wet, raspy cough, producing phlegm. The pneumonia was back again, a result of spending days at sea exposed to wind and rain, and lack of sleep. “I’ll draw.” He swapped three cards from his hand for three new ones from the deck. He sipped his shot of tequila, contemplating his strategy based on the cards he selected.
A third crewmember, older and wiser than both Damon and the young Latino, entered the salon from the pilothouse. Clad in overalls and rubber boots, he took the bottle of tequila and screwed the cap on, leaving his own cards face down on the table. The most experienced of the men aboard, he’d logged more years at sea than Jacques Cousteau—and displayed the haggard features to prove it.
“Your hand,” said the young Latino.
The old man ignored him. “The storm is coming. We should raise the nets.”
“One minute,” Damon offered. He pinched the edge of his thick mustache as he thought about his strategy. He knew the old man was right, but there was good money riding on the outcome of the game. “It’s still your hand.”
The old man slammed the bottle on the table, bouncing the ashtray and spilling tequila from Damon’s shot glass. “I fold.”
“You can’t do that,” the young Latino shouted. “This game just started.”
“This game is over.”
Damon got up from his seat. Arguing with the old man was pointless. “He’s right. We should raise the nets.”
“This is bullshit,” the young Latino mumbled.
Damon watched the old man escort the hot-headed sailor back on deck. Twenty years ago he would have sided with the young Latino. Now Damon followed orders like a good soldier, keeping his opinions to himself. He ran his hand over the circular balding pattern on the back of his head. He’d lost twenty pounds since the summer, putting him closer to two hundred and thirty. He scratched his chest through the front of his sweat-stained shirt. A purple birthmark on his neck left a blemish the size of a silver dollar. A gunshot wound to the knee forced him to walk with a limp. A souvenir from a brawl with authorities in Puerto Rico, the bullet had severed his tibial artery and nearly cost him his lower leg.
He could feel the boat list to starboard when he climbed the steps to the pilothouse. Above him, cumulonimbus clouds hovered vertically like towers of dirty cotton, reinforcing the old man’s weather prediction.
Damon put his hands on the wheel and checked the compass. To his right, a gooseneck lamp extended over a chart plotter. He studied the coordinates and noticed movement along the aft deck below, where a crane and pulley station swayed under load. He unhooked the microphone from its cradle on the VHF and switched to channel twenty-two. “The time is now,” he said over the airwaves. A short response from the other party told him what he needed to know.
* * * *
The old man stood his ground near the back of the main cabin entrance where an orange life ring hung from a hook-shaped stanchion. He checked the split winches and the rusted net roller before activating the crane and pulley system while the boat operated under autopilot, drawing a purse seine net. A lever mounted inside a metal box controlled the electric winch. Once engaged, the system would wind the cable around an iron bar until it pulled on the twisted steel cord extending the length of the twelve-foot crane. “Them look like keepers,” the old man told his crew as they shuffled about the deck.
When the net came aboard full of blackfin tuna, the old man opened the hatch to the livewell storage bin. Confined in the dark, wet compartment, hundreds of pounds of fresh fish flopped beside one another. He watched Damon and the young Latino unload the last catch until he noticed the yacht approaching from the north beneath fast-moving clouds. The gentle breeze had elevated to a gusty wind, rocking the forty-foot trawler about its axis. What was once an easy task of standing in the same place without moving, now proved more treacherous than before.
Thunder followed a flash of lightning and instilled a sense of urgency for the three-man crew. Brewing for more than an hour, the storm had waited patiently as the gulf stream currents carried it up from the south. What had started as a modest accumulation of clouds had proceeded on its own terms, prepared to vent its wrath without regard to life or property.
The old man disengaged the autopilot to head for shore. A trio of windshield wipers swiped at sheets of rain while thunderous drops pinged the pilothouse roof.
He observed the GPS display, ignoring the blip on the radar screen. “Where’s the boy?” he asked Damon.
Damon looked out the starboard window and leaned against the bulkhead for support as the boat began to pitch and roll. He bumped his elbow on a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall beside him. With the horizon obscured by the raging downpour, he could barely see the yacht approaching through the sloppy weather. “He went below.”
“You did well today,” the old man confided.
Damon coughed. “I do what I can.”
Thunder tapered off, replaced by the churn of the trawler’s engines lugging beneath the lower deck. The edge of the tropical storm had passed, heading quickly for its new destination.
Damon watched the old man grip the wooden wheel with his bony hands. He admired the man for who he was. He admired the way he worked tirelessly without complaint; for the way he rose at sunrise every morning and put in sixteen hours of hard labor on a boat that reeked of sweat and dead fish. In a way, the old man reminded him of his father, who kept a sore attitude about women and whiskey. But unlike his father, Damon saw how the old man loved the sea, a natural longing to separate himself from the land-locked natives who didn’t know the difference between a shoal and a shawl.
With the rain subsiding, Damon acknowledged the flashing light coming from the bow of the approaching yacht. He read the Morse code message, then turned to find the old man standing diligently behind the wheel of his beloved trawler, mumbling to himself while he interpreted the incoming message.
“You shouldn’t read that,” said Damon.
The old man looked across the bow. “Who are you?”
Damon unfastened the metal band holding the fire extinguisher in place. Filled with CO2, the B-II unit weighed almost as much as a scuba tank and could effectively eradicate small fires, electrical disturbances, or an old man whose time had come.
“The sun is coming back,” the old man observed. He adjusted the wipers while the last few droplets of rain smacked the pilothouse windshield. The water trickled down the glass, following random paths like steel balls in a plinko machine.
Damon clutched the metal canister in both hands and swung it like a bat, drawing power from his hips as he cracked the edge of the heavy cylinder against the old man’s head. The blow knocked the man off his feet and left a moon-shaped fissure behind his ear. He slumped on the floor below the helm, his body twitching from a reflex spasm. Blood pooled from the back of his head.
Damon dropped the extinguisher and throttled back the engines. He made his way down the narrow companionway toward the galley where the young Latino rummaged through the icebox for a drink.
“Why are we stopping?” asked the young Latino.
Damon clubbed the young man’s face with bare hands until he beat the boy unconscious.
He shook the stinging sensation from his knuckles and grabbed two bottles of liquor from the galley. He emptied the tequila bottle first before dumping the contents of the Bacardi 151 around the boy’s body. Then he yanked the propane burners from their sockets. Gas hissed from the broken fixtures.
He made his exit through the aft companionway, stopping only to retrieve a metal briefcase and a flare gun from his berthing compartment. Back on deck, he climbed down to the runabout idling alongside the trawler. “What took so long?” he asked his partner.
Victor steered away from the trawler and headed for the yacht. “Bad weather.”
Damon loaded the first of three shells in the single-chamber flare gun. When the smaller boat reached a safe distance, he fired the burning projectile in a shallow arc toward the trawler’s open cockpit. When the burning missile fell short of its target, he yelled, “Hold up!”
The runabout slowed.
Damon loaded the second shell and took aim, launching the flare at a steeper trajectory. This time the fireball hit its mark and tumbled across the trawler, igniting the trail of poured alcohol.
Flames spread through the cabin space, where the young Latino awoke to find himself on fire, his arms flailing in a desperate attempt to halt the skin-melting blaze. Screaming uncontrollably, he stumbled over his own feet and fell on the floor in a heap of burning flesh. Then the propane exploded in a violent blast, hurling scraps of wood and fiberglass in all directions. Human debris fell from the sky like confetti while hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel formed a sticky, black cloud over the turquoise water.
Damon helped his partner secure the runabout on board the yacht’s aft garage and raised the hydraulic latch. He marveled at the size of the multi-million dollar vessel, capable of forty knots. “Where did you find this?”
Damon wiped the salt water spray from his face. “The Coast Guard’ll search for the boat.”
“Not this time,” Victor answered confidently.
Damon followed his partner to the yacht’s helm station. “What’s our heading?”