Authors: Randy Wayne White
“Stick to the subject. How well did you know Shepherd?”
“She wouldn't mind if I woke herâ”
“Tell me, damn it.”
, but I barely knew the guy. Let's seeÂ .Â .Â . We dropped mescaline together a couple times and rode Harleys from north L.A. to Berkeley. This was years ago at a big peace rally in San Francisco. NoâWinslow had this tricked-out Triumph, not a Harley. We were speakers at one of the venues. OtherwiseÂ .Â .Â . well, just one of those people you meet but don't get to know very well.”
“Sounds more like you were runner-up for best man at his wedding.”
“It was a tribal thing,” Tomlinson explained. “Imagine thirty thousand intellectuals and hipsters all with the same goals. Freedom, equality, and Keynesian economics. Pure, you know? A family oneness, and, of course, the right to smoke weed. We weren't into the individuality thing, so there was no need to connect on a one-on-one basis.”
Ford's turn to shake his head, meaning
Why am I not surprised?
He motioned to the computer. “There's a reason I need information on Shepherd and his son. Did you ever meet Julian?”
“I might have seen him. There were a lot of naked kids running around in those days. Later, I read he changed his name to Julian-something-Solo. Julian Caesar Solo? I don't know, my imagination might have added that. AnywayÂ .Â .Â . there was an article in the
or I would've never made the connection. This was a year or so back after he hacked the big boys and narced out the CIAâa couple of other agencies, tooâfor spying on private citizens.”
Ford was interested. “What did you think about that? What Julian did, I mean.”
“Right on, is what I thought. Who wouldn't? Our basic damn rights to privacy were being shit all over. The other famous hackerâwas it Snowden? No, he was more of a whistle-blower.Â .Â . Anyway, Snowden was an
I'll do anything to be a rock star
dweeb. But Julian, manâJulian was raised with the same pure ideals that represent the very best of our movement.”
Ford smiled to signal tolerance, but the smile faded. “Did Shepherd mention he sent a mail bomb that killed three high school kids? Or maybe that was after your joyride.”
Tomlinson knew about it but only shook his head.
“I'll bring you a beer when I come back,” Ford said and left the room.
When he returned, the marina's cat, Crunch & Des, followed at his heels, and on the screen was a mosaic of photosâall bruises similar to those on his shoulder and thigh.
“Sonic weapons caused these, man. It's the only thing I can find that explains that weird design. Ultrasonic or ELF sonic, according to this. It explodes the corpuscles; liquid in cellular tissue, the cells go
Sound so far off the scale, only dogs can hear it.”
Tomlinson turned to the screen. “Or maybe they can't. Speaking of which, I had aÂ .Â .Â . well, a recent consultation with the vet from Sarasota. Your guy checked out fine, but Ava does have a couple of questions. Why not let her look at your leg?”
“The vet. She's asleep on my boat. I thought I mentioned that. Sonic wounds can be serious, dude. That shit can explode your eyeballs. You don't even want to know what happens to your brain.” Tomlinson's gaze moved to his pal's swollen ear and he gulped.
“OrÂ .Â .Â . it couldn't hurt to call nine-one-one. How you feeling, ol' buddy?”
Ford stood there in jeans and a tank top, holding two bottles of beer. He handed one over. “Like I haven't slept in two days, but it's actually closer to three. I can't believe you've already got her in bed.” He drank, removed his glasses, and squinted at the screen. “Sonic weaponry, huh? Whales and dolphins use the same thing. Prehistoric whales could hit their prey with a squeal that was more like a depth charge. Tunas, even sealsâtheir lungs would explode. Air sacs, in the case of fish.”
Tomlinson waited, but that's all the biologist said. “So that's why you beat the shit out of a midget airplane?”
“Something like that.”
“Did it have, like, guns? Or was it the flying saucer that nailed youâthe one showed up before sunset?”
Ford shrugged and scratched the cat's ears after it vaulted onto the dissection table.
“I'm trying to picture what sonic guns look like. The blimp, it's mostly solar panels and electronics. Were there more than two?”
“Hey”âTomlinson was getting frustratedâ“is there something I'm missing here? Assholes send million-dollar drones to buzz-bomb a respected biologist with sonic warfare shit. That's not typical holiday fare. I think your neighbors have a right to ask for a few details. What if more of those bastards come back and their aiming system, or whatever, goes tits-up? They might start blasting boats out of the water. I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but maybe we should notify the cops.”
“I'd have to answer questions,” Ford said. “Did you bother doing a search on Shepherd and his son?”
“Forgive me for worrying about a friend with bruises that look like Key West tattoos done by a meth freak. Jesusâfross, man.” He sighed. “I found a more recent article in
on those two, then sort of went down a bunny hole.”
Tomlinson combed his hair back. “Why not just tell me what's going on? My guess is, there's nothing I'll find with a quick computer search you don't already know.”
“Let's just say that one or both of them might have a reason to keep an eye on me,” Ford said. “You didn't find anything?”
Tomlinson swung around in the chair, and the computer screen changed. “Julian's a multimillionaire nowâa billionaire, in factâfrom software he created, which led to him owning Internet businesses worldwide. The kid's a genius. He caught the perfect wave, technologically speaking.”
“What about his dad?”
“I'm not done. Julian funneled a lot of his money into righteous causes up until two years ago. That's when the U.S. and a couple of European nations decided he was doing too much good in the world and tried to arrest him. So he went underground. Trust me, people raised in the movement
how the underground works.
“The bad news,” Tomlinson continued, “is that he and his dad had a falling-out. Something about Winslow trying to take credit for what the kid did. Ego, man. I do remember that Winslow could be an egotistical ass. What I don't understand is”âTomlinson spun back, eyes seriousâ“what this has to do with you hammering the
crap out of a million-dollar blimp. Dude, I know you. There's a connection. At least, you believe there's a connection. In your mind, being frivolous means wearing your cap at a jaunty angle.”
Ford put his glasses on and straightened them before meeting his pal's gaze. “We're about to cross a dangerous line here, if you really want to know.”
it.” Tomlinson got up and began to pace. “Less than an hour ago, I was just sayingÂ .Â .Â .” He let that drop. “I'm not sure what you're asking me to do.”
“Potentially? Turn traitor against whatever cause you and Shepherd have in common. Or, possibly, just ShepherdÂ .Â .Â . or him and his son. Or both. I'm really not sure about any of this, but certain elements are falling into line. I need to know where those two are. You know the guy. Is there someone you can call?”
“That was twenty years ago
another lifetime. He could be dead, for all I know.”
“He's not. Shepherd's in a hospital somewhereâmaybe Mexico or South America. I don't know his condition, but he's definitely not dead.”
Tomlinson stopped and stared at Ford. “Jesus Christ. I just flashed on something so darkÂ .Â .Â . my god. You weren't in Orlando.
that's where you disappeared to. DocÂ .Â .Â . please tell me I'm wrong about this.”
Like he hadn't heard a word, that was Ford's reaction. “I've got to hide that drone somehowÂ .Â .Â . and find the one still out there. They've got telemetry systems that can't be killed, from what I saw. You were right, they'll be back. Or they'll send someone. You mentioned a cement cistern on the property you bought.”
“What about it?”
“That's not obvious?”
“Yeahâscary obvious. It's a beautiful little pool built for irrigation a hundred years ago, not hiding contraband. Twenty by twenty, and five feet deep. You know that old coquina-type concrete they used? But electromagnetic waves can pierce concrete, if that's what you're thinking.”
Ford conceded with a nod. “Then maybe we'll carry it offshore when we dive the Captiva Blue Hole. No one knows how deep that hole is, and it's covered with a limestone lip. Or we'll sink it somewhere else and mark the location with the GPS.” After a pause, he added, “I want to be fair about this, so no more questions about your friend Shepherd, okay? Not tonight or when we dive.”
Tomlinson sulked and drank his beer. “Were you sent to Mexico to kill Winslow? At least tell me that.”
“If I was in Mexico, whatever I did or didn't do was entirely up to me. And that's the truth.”
“GeezusÂ .Â .Â . a guy I hung out with. He was a pompous prick sometimes, I admit that, but his whole life has been dedicated to making the world better. This really sucks, man. No way he'd be involved with sending freakin' killer drones to hurt someone.”
Ford gave Tomlinson's shoulder a reassuring pat. “Think it over,” he said, then went out the screen door.
Ford lay down to rest for a few minutes and woke up four hours later, his regular time: seven a.m. That quick, back on schedule, or so he believedâa man accustomed to travel and the exigencies of juggling two lives. Immediately, he rushed out to confirm the broken UAV was where he'd left it.
There it was, under the house on his boat, lying beneath a bow hood of neoprene polymer. The material resembled Kevlar but had been developed by stealth engineers to absorb, not deflect, prying technologies such as radar and homing devices.
An additional protectant from satellites was the house's floor of yellow pine and a tin roof.
At a more leisurely pace, he went upstairs for breakfast. This morning, he chose tea, not coffee, three soft-boiled eggs, and what
was left of the snapper, which he seared in a cast-iron skillet, then shared with Crunch & Des, who was a lot friendlier now that the dog was gone.
On the fridge was a note from Tomlinson:
Friendship is the cement that binds destinies or drags our crazy asses into the deep blue sea, where fish will eat our dicks off and shit in our ears. But, what the hellâI printed all the pertinent data. (Signed) B-fucking-Arnold
Two folders there:
, another labeled
Inside was contact information for Shepherd and his son, much of it outdated, but a start.
Drones. Ford intended to do a quick review but was drawn in by video of fantasy-world machines that were, in fact, real. The U.S. Marines had pack-animal drones that resembled headless oxen, only larger. They stomped along on four steel legs, bulled through brush and trees, impervious to obstacles, and never tired. Ford imagined the enemy's reaction when these monsters appeared on a smoky battlefield.
There were hundreds of other unmanned aircraft, or UMAs. Most were powered by four or more propellers, some disguised to look like hawks and crows, some that resembled oversized mosquitoes. Intelligence agencies had come up with those. More than once, he double-checked to confirm the videos were real, not Hollywood cartoons. That's how incredible some were.
Amphibious and underwater drones were more inventive
because the sea contained a broader diversity. Robotic stingrays and shark clones that could operate deeper than any man. There were mini-subs, cannonball-style rovers, and evenÂ .Â .Â .
Ford cleaned his glasses, then zoomed in.
, of all things, with Plexiglas domes and antennas for tentacles. Cameras affixed to gyros protruded from their bellies and resembled captured prey.
The landline phone rang. He reached, without looking, and answered, “Sanibel Biological. Ford speaking.”
“Oh, good, this is Ava Lindstrom. Tomlinson gave me your number, I hope this is a good time.”
His mind was slow to match the data: she was the veterinary from Sarasota who'd spent the night on Tomlinson's boat. “Dr. Lindstrom,” he said and nearly added “you're up early” but didn't. “I intended to call you. Thanks for taking charge yesterday. How's he doing? UhhÂ .Â .Â . my dog, I mean. Not Tomlinson.”
The woman chuckled with uneasy professional restraint. “That's why I'm calling. We skipped over a lot of the paperwork because it was an emergency. Now I'm trying to catch up. Do you have a sec?”
Ford turned to the screen door, his view of the bay blocked by the breezeway, pine planking painted gray. He couldn't see Tomlinson's sailboat. “You're welcome to stop by. Or I can pick you up in my boat.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. “Unless your boat has wheels, that would be quite a feat. Where do you think I am?”
Uh-oh. He shut down the computer. “No idea, but there's usually water accessâ”
“Not on Summerlin Road, there isn't. I'm at the clinic. You
remember the clinic? Your friend Tomlinson can remind you. He just leftâor maybe you two already had a nice little chat this morning. One of those locker room gossip sessions guys apparently like.”
“Not at all,” Ford replied. “I thought you were vacationing here. On Sanibel,” which came off okay but could have been smoother.
“That explains it,” she said, her tone chilly. “If it's all the same to you, I'd rather do this over the phone. I'm sure we both have better things to do.”
She needed billing informationâall the usual stuffâwhich Ford supplied while she typed away at a computer, then surprised him by asking, “What's the dog's name?”
He had never bothered naming the dog. “Why do you need that?”
“Because on the form, there's an open box. That's what I'm supposed to do, fill in the little boxes and complete these forms.”
“It's okay with me if you leave it blank.”
Her sigh signaled impatience. “Mr. Ford, in five years of practice, almost twelve years of dealing with pet owners, I've never had anyone refuse to tell me their dog's name. It's a fairly simple question. It's not like I'm prying into your personal secret history. Or is it?”
Ford's eyes moved from the cat with the literary nameâCrunch & Des, asleep on the dissecting tableâto a shelf where the
Sea of Cortez
and the novel
lay in dust jackets, both dog-eared after many readings. “Peter Matthiessen,” he said.
“YesÂ .Â .Â . What about him?”
“That's his name.”
“The writer, I'm familiar with some of his work. What's he have to do withâ”
“You asked for a name. That's it. Peter, ahh, Peter
. That's what I meant to say.”
The woman asked, “We are talking about your dog? You named a dog afterâ”
“Two writers,” Ford said. “I call him Peter. WellÂ .Â .Â . Peteâor Steinbeck. It's sort of a marina tradition.”
the woman said and cleared her throat. “It's better than Lassie, I guess. Wasn't Pete the dog in the Little Rascals cartoons?”
Ford hadn't had time to think this through. “I didn't want a name he'd confuse with the basic training commands. You know, sit, stay, downâ”
“I'm familiar with the commands.” She was typing.
“Or Steinbeck. That definitely works. Two syllables. HellÂ .Â .Â . put down whatever you want.”
It was the wrong thing to say. “Yesterday, after you turned your back on that poor animalÂ .Â .Â . are you sure he's really your dog? An AKC registration number, or some proof of ownership, would make me feel a lot better about this. If there's a legal issue, the clinic would need a copy in the files.”
“How about a receipt from the previous owner?” Ford asked. “And there's an ID chip implanted under the skin of his neck. You didn't scan it?”
“This isn't my clinic,” the woman reminded him. “Do you remember the previous owner's name?”
“Why are you so concerned? I just paid my bill, that should be it. Tell me somethingâwhen, exactly, did I piss you off, Dr. Lindstrom?”
“I have no idea what you mean,” she said, but then backtracked.
“Okay, okay. LookÂ .Â .Â . I'm no prude, but I'm not easy, so I guess I'm a little defensive. Tomlinson obviously told you about last night. Why didn't you just admit it?”
“If it's any consolation, he didn't share any details, and he wouldn't have even if I'd asked. It's a long-standing rule we have here. It lets us pretend we're decent and honorable and all that stuff. Truce?”
The woman replied, “Now you're scaring me,” but laughed a little. “I actually am interested in the dog's background. In school, I did research for the Dog Genome Project. He'sÂ .Â .Â . unusual.”
Ford said, “You noticed.”
“I noticed he doesn't bark. That suggests an injury, and we did find significant scarring on the neck, but it could also be a trait that was engineered. Unlikely, butÂ .Â .Â .”
“Genome Project,” he said to nudge her along. “Haploid sets of chromosomes.”
“Look at you,” she said. “Single chromosomal sets, yes, exactly right. I'm suddenly convinced you really are a biologistâyou never know what to believe in a beach town.”
Ford had never thought of Sanibel as a beach town, but listened to the woman add, “A brain scan showed activity in the dog's frontal lobes that I've never seen before. Are you sure he was underwater more than five minutes?”
“You're going to like this,” Ford replied. “The previous owner was a geneticist. A Ph.D. from Atlanta.”
“It gets better. The guy got seriously into retriever trials,
breeding and training both.
, is his son's word for it. He had one of those medium-sized RVsâa Winnebago, maybeâand he was killed in a crash on Tamiami Trail on his way to a show in Coral Gables. The dog survivedÂ .Â .Â . Well, it's a long story, but I noticed the same thing you did. He doesn't bark. And enough other behavioralâoddities, I guessâthat I had some DNA samples analyzed.”
“Oh my god.”
“Yeah. I've got a whole file, but it's way out of my field.”
“Oh my god,” she said again but slower. “You think Pete's a specially engineered hybrid.”
“Who?” Ford asked, then winced but pressed ahead. “I'll bring the results when I pick him up. Will he be ready sometime today?”
“He's with Tomlinson. I thought I mentioned they just leftÂ .Â .Â . well, about fifteen minutes ago. If you don't mind, I do have one more question. The geneticistâdo you remember his name?”
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
It was calm
this December morning, the air cool off the bay, but warmer when Ford exited the mangroves into the sunny parking lot where his truck was parked, the engine still ticking with heat.
Tomlinson had recently returned.
There were a dozen cars in the lot, and, outside the office, Mack was deep in conversation with Rhonda, while Figueroa, muscles shiny in the sun, lugged a heavy box toward the boat ramp. But no sign of his pal or the dog.
Ford did an about-face. He completed routine chores in the lab,
then went into his bedroom to change into shorts and running shoes. He awoke an hour later, glared in the mirror, and told himself,
Your lazy ass is slipping
Â .Â .Â .
A fitting punishment was a tougher workout, which he modified to do double duty. Instead of jogging to the beach for a swim, he put on a mask, no fins, and crawl-stroked a quarter mile out into the bay. Maybe he would stumble onto the missing drone.
He did not.
Half an hour and three miles later, he sprinted the final hundred yards into the parking lot, then stood, panting at leaning rest, until he was able to walk without wobbling. As he made his way through the mangroves, he tried to convince himself
That's enough for today.
No it wasn't. A few years back, he'd drilled holes in two joists under his house and mounted a wooden bar over the water. It had just enough spring to make pull-ups easier, but not enough to admit it was cheating. Because of a torn rotator cuff, he hadn't used the bar in months. Today, his lazy ass decided he would. Never mind the spectacular bruise behind his shoulder or the orthopedist's warning to let the damn shoulder rest.
You can do this,
he told himself.
No he couldn't.
Four pull-ups into an intended set of fifteen, what felt like ground glass caused him to lose his grip and sprawled him into the water. He came up spouting more personal advice, but louder, and when he was done, a man said, “I've heard all those words, but never in exactly that combination. Do you need help getting out?”
On the walkway, near the gate, stood a guy who looked too
young to be wearing a gray suit and carrying a briefcase. “Are you Dr. Ford? My name's Watts. I was told this is where you live.”
“Give me a second,” Ford said. He used the ladder, went up the steps, and came out with a towel and wearing a dry tank top. “What can I do for you?”
“Just a couple of questions. I've already spoken to a few others who live in the area. Friendly place, this island.”
“Questions about what?”
“Is there somewhere we can sit down and talk?”
“That sounds official.”
The man, smiling, shook his head and started toward the house. “More like a private discussion.”
Under the house, hidden in the boat, was the broken drone. Ford went down the steps, but not in an obvious hurry, saying, “Most people see the sign at the gate. You're supposed to ring the bell before you come throughÂ .Â .Â . Watts, you said?”
“You were putting on quite a show when I walked up,” the man replied. “I must have missed it.”
“Not a problem. For all I know, the damn sign's gone. Come on. We can talk out here.” Ford slid past the guy, where he got a whiff of shaving lotion and gauged his size: six-three, a hundred and ninety pounds, with ears and a face unscarred by wrestling or mixed martial arts. “Yep”âhe stopped and held the gate openâ“the sign's still here.”