Authors: Randy Wayne White
Sitting in his lab, Marion D. Ford entered a numerical password and watched a hooded man execute three hostages with a ruby-handled knife. Different victims, different locations, and months apart, but always the same knife, never pausing to sharpen the blade.
How could that be?
The video had been edited by a pro, that's how.
The knife was of interest. He zoomed in. It had a curved blade like an antique sword, with a single ruby embedded in the hilt. On the pommel was a crowned triangle of silver, the symbol of Persian assassins from the time of the Crusades.
Ford opened a second link, entered a series of codes, and this time watched raw footage of the first two executions. This video
wasn't available to networks or politicosâpossibly, not even the White House, but Ford wasn't sure about that. He concentrated on the man wielding the knife: he was tall with corded forearms, but not muscular, his technique honed by video games and religious fantasies. He was a Muslim convert via Chicago, no name provided.
Ford thought, who played to the cameras but revealed himself in scenes that would be omittedâone where he used a cleaver. Another: an adolescent yowl when he lofted his trophy, a severed head. Weird, the sound he made. A wild warble produced with a fluttering tongue. Like crows trapped in a cave.
There were two cameras from different angles, video rolling throughout.
The third video was different. The cameras had been paused several times, yet their POV remained unchanged. The scenes were choppy and sometimes blurry, which wasn't typical of raw footage. That struck Ford as odd. Digital cameras had autofocus. The hostage behaved differently, too. He was an aging Caucasian male, professorial-looking, who had to be dragged to the chopping block, unlike the others who had shown no fear.
Ford hadn't been supplied with his name either. That would come laterâor wouldn't. It wasn't his job to care. He opened a notebook, pocket-sized, and wrote, in ciphered shorthand: “Victims #1 & #2 believed they were participating in a rehearsal.”
He erased and revised: “.Â .Â .Â believed they were participating in
rehearsal,” then paused to reflect before adding, “Victim #3 might not be dead.”
He made more notes while he watched the footage again.
The link was time-sensitive. When the screen went blank, he rebooted his computerâa security precautionâbefore exiting the room, which contained rows of lighted aquariums, a microscope, shelves of beakers and chemicals, and, on the counter, a cylindrical Plexiglas tank in which a dozen sea jellies pulsed.
It was a moonless night on Sanibel Island, Florida, and breezy on this first eve in December. A good place to stand on the deck of a house built on stilts and piss over the railing into the waterâa glittering stream that connected him, briefly, with the bay ten feet below.
Back at his desk, he sent an encrypted message that read
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For the next several days,
Ford began each morning with a long sunrise swim and sprint intervals on a butt-kicking machine called a VersaClimber. Pull-ups usually came next, but he'd broken a hand and torn his rotator cuff on a recent trip to Cuba. Only a partial tear, but he couldn't do the job he'd been assigned if it got much worse.
Still no word on Wednesday, so he tended to business, which included signing documents that made him half owner of a small seaplane, a Maule M-5 with a four-cylinder turbo. The fuselage was blue on white; leather seats and Plexiglas doors. The co-owner was an old friend, and, to celebrate, they flew to Shark River in the Everglades and caught snook.
There was another good low tide on Thursday. He was wading the flats with a fly rod when he finally received an encrypted reply to his question via satellite phone.
That night, on his bed, while his dog watched, he laid out two passports, an olive drab travel kit, a bug jacket, a hammock, $15,000 in cash, and some other things, including a knife, a laser pointer, and a small pistol, a Sig Sauer P938.
He'd returned from Cuba with that, too.
There were other weapons in a safe built into the floorâesoteric items, but better to travel light.
Ford was cleaning the pistol when a knock at the door shifted his reality from the covert life he had led for many years to the realities of a small marina, on a small island, where oddities (such as the odor of Hoppe's gun solvent) became an eager topic of gossip. So he stashed the pistol kit and offered his friend Mack, who owned Dinkin's Bay Marina, a chair and a cold bottle of beer.
Mack had some gossip of his own to share: a story that, under different circumstances, might have earned Ford's full attention.
“Our mystery Santa struck again,” Mack said. He held the bottle to the light, then took a drink. “This time, he left five hundred bucks under the console of Eddie's boat. No idea who did it.”
“Our Eddie?” Ford was dubious. Eddie DeAntoni, from New Jersey, was called Fast Eddie for a reason.
“I'd think it was gambling winnings, too, or somehow illegal, if it wasn't for the money Marta's little girl found on their houseboat. Same thing: a red candy cane sort of box filled with old bills. Stacks of hundreds; all of them stiff, like they'd been soaked in water, then bleached. Nothing written on a card, just money. It's no accident, Doc. Sort of an early Christmas present, that's what Eddie thinks.”
Everyone at the marina, and all of his friends, called Marion D. Ford “Doc.”
The story about Marta EstÃ©ban and her daughters was true. Ford had helped the family escape from Cuba, which was why, two days ago, he'd been their unanimous choice to arbitrate on what ten-year-old Sabina had discovered in an anchor well and claimed as her own: $1,000 in cash. A big boost for a family in a strange country, not that their adoptive marina family wouldn't have looked after them anyway.
“He didn't make up a story just to con the IRS,” Mack added. “There's a lot of eccentric rich folks on these islands. That's why I always tell our guys, âBe nice even to the assholes, 'cause you never know who they'll mention in their will.'”
“Bleached bills left in the sun,” Ford mused. “Or hidden underwater. Someplace shallow. I figured Sabina found a stash of old drug money.”
“Bloody well possible,” Mack, who was from New Zealand, said. “It couldn't have come at a better time for Fast Eddie. The fool gave away most all his lottery winnings, and his dive business has gone to hell 'cause of Hello, Dolly! Another few weeks with no charters and a cracked power head, he'd be bugger all.”
Ford touched the stem of his glasses. “Dolly who?”
“Are you kidding? They quoted you in a newspaper story about her last week. Dolly, the shark. Some are calling her Hello, Dolly! like you're in the water, look around, and there she is. What are you gonna say? It's all anybody talks about.”
“Why people need to give animals namesâ” Ford shook his head, mystified. “It's no different from some poor dog wearing a hat or scarf or sunglasses. I probably blocked the stupid name on purpose.”
Dolly was a twenty-five-hundred-pound great white shark who'd been named by the biologists at Ocean Search who had tagged her. Ocean Search had tagged dozens of great whites with satellite chips that could be tracked via the Internet. Three weeks ago, the shark had surfaced off Sanibel Island, and might still be in the area, but sightings had not been confirmed. National headlines about her presence had affected tourism, and all but put local dive operators out of business.
Normally, Ford would have been happy to spend a beery evening with Mack discussing the subject. The marina's day-to-day problemsâeven when they included a great white sharkâseemed sunny and manageable when compared to the cutthroat realities of the outside world.
He had a lot to do, though, so dropped a hint, saying, “I'm leaving for a conference in the morning or I'd offer you another beer.”
Ford's eyes landed on the marina's black cat, curled in the corner, then moved to the cylindrical Plexiglas tank. “I'm presenting a paper on sea jellies. Near Orlando at one of those big no-name hotels that have a name. If you think about it, remind Jeth to tend to my aquariums after you lock the gate tomorrow. He's been more forgetful than usual.”
“Jellyfish, that's what you'll talk about?”
“It's a misnomer. They're invertebrates, not fish.”
Mack's expression asked
Who could possibly care?
“Worldwide,” Ford explained, “there've been mega-blooms of sea jellies and no one has figured out why. They thrive in polluted
water, so that might have something to do with it. I can show you the data, if you're interested.”
Mack's eyes dulled. He got up. “A hotel full of scientists,” he said. “I've seen those female academic types. Like talking to textbooks with tits. But then, no one goes into your line of work for the excitement, do they?”
“I'll be back in a few days,” Ford said, “but don't worry if I'm not.” He got up. “Oh, and Hannah might stop to check on things. I told her she's welcome to overnight, if she wants.”
Captain Hannah Smith, a top fly-fishing guide, was Ford's on-again, off-again lover.
Mack felt an obligation to remind him, “I hear she's been dating someone. Understandable, of course. That girl's a tough one to readâbut aren't they all?”
Ford, moving toward the door, told him, “I've got to find my dog,” and went outside.
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The next afternoon,
he landed in Mexico, near Tulum on the YucatÃ¡n Peninsula, and traveled south to where a resort the size of a cruise ship was anchored to a silver beach. A Florida biologist wouldn't be noticed among the eager tourist throngs, even if he loaded camping gear into a boat and didn't return for several days.
Ford paid cash for a locally built dugoutâa
âwith an outboard. He pushed off before sunset.
South of the resort was the Bay of Ascension, a small inland sea pocked with islands and blue craters called cenotes that were
openings to underground rivers. The craters tunneled far into the earth and exitedâif they didâno one knew where.
Ford liked that. Along with sea jellies, he had been researching cenote formations in the Gulf of Mexico. Next week, he planned to dive a spot called the Captiva Blue Hole with a hipster friend of his, a boat bum mystic named Tomlinson, who was among the smartest men he knew. Also among the wealthiest, which is why some at the marina believed he was the mystery Santa.
Cenotes were a pleasant coincidence that Tomlinson would have interpreted as a karmic omen.
Good luck or bad?
Marion Ford didn't believe in either, for the same reason he had never believed in Santa Claus.
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The resort was
a five-star destination, a white concrete bluff encircled by bamboo-shack poverty where its employees livedâMexican peasants the resort depended upon to keep tourists smiling. A typical worker-to-guest ratio was three to one. A typical income-to-income ratio wasn't available, but probably obscene.
Ford made use of the inequity, and the cash he'd brought, to create a loose safety net of goodwill. A very loose net, true, but worth the effort in an area where the resort was an island unto itself. Beyond the eastern fence was a hundred miles of jungle. Forty kilometers to the south, through littoral swamp and withering poverty, was Belize, once called British Honduras. Lying between was this shallow bay, with its islands and blue holes, where he had
fashioned a remote base camp, as well as a separate spotting post, only a quarter mile from the hotel and beach.
Ford had done some exploring. He knew more about the area, he suspected, than the corporate bosses who'd built the place. But the bosses, by god, knew their clientele. The wealthy jetted in from around the world for the sun and sex and gambling, and the illusion of limitless excess, which, in the minds of some, equaled freedom. What the guests didn't realize was, despite the fixed smiles and amenities, the resort was an isolated outpost; a fragile life-support system for those who could not, would not, survive for long outside the property's gate.
Why would they bother? There was a long list of organized activities: yoga, golf, horseback riding, scuba trips to nearby atolls, billfish charters, and day trips to archaeological sites.
There were many such ruins. This was Mexico's ancient region of Quintana Roo, home of Mayan kings and gods, and temples that, amid choking vines, mocked them both, but were still worth the hundred-euro excursion fee (with a “traditional” lunch included).
Ford was more interested in solitary activities. Hopefully, the man he'd been sent to find would not be afraid to go out alone. There was unsupervised snorkeling, kayaks and paddleboards for rent, a two-mile “nature trail” that featured caged toucans and monkeys, and a lookout pavilion over a pond where caimansâa variety of alligatorâwaited patiently to be fed.