Authors: Charles Martin
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For Moises and Pauline Rick
throttled down through Stiltsville, the reflection of the moon shimmering off Biscayne Bay. I loved this time of night. Behind me, a dark unlit boat slipped into my wake. I'd been watching her on radar. Been expecting them.
The key to having four supercharged Mercury Verado 350 enginesâproviding 1,400 horsepower and speeds reaching almost one hundred miles per hourâis knowing when and when not to use them. She hit her lights. Four spotlights up top lit up the center of my forty-four-foot Center Console Intrepid like noonday. The spinning blue lights above showered us. Agent Russ Spangler was exâSpecial Forces and lived on full moon adrenaline nights like this. He was currently employing his shock-and-awe tactic of blinding me with a million-power handheld spotlight. We'd played this game before. His partner, Special Agent Melanie Beckwith, had a Napoleon complex and made up for what she lacked with anabolic steroids and muscles a good bit bigger than mine.
While I could outrun them, I could not outrun the Coast Guard, also on my radar, or the planes they could summon. I might make it back to the island, but it'd be the last run I ever made and I had no real intention of retiring just yet. If ever a person had a prime, I was in it. The engines behind me were a last ditch. To use them meant it would be the last time I'd ever run this boat, and at almost $500,000, I'd like to use it more than once. But that's the thing about owning a boat like this: If you're going to own it and stay in this business, you can't get too attached. That's pretty much true for anything. And anyone. No attachments. You've got to be willing to shove what you love off a cliff at the first sign of agents like Spangler and Beckwith.
In almost a decade of this business, I've learned much but one lesson guides me: I hold everything loosely. And that includes people. My life and those I value dangle on a knife's edge, a precipice whereâif circumstances arise that are contrary to my freedomâone gentle nudge will send them cascading down. Gone. Over the falls at Niagara. This mind-set also governs what I enjoy and what I hope to enjoy. Even what I dream. As a safeguard, I live with limited expectation. I tread cautiously. One foot on the bank. Cards close to my chest. I constantly calculate risk and reward because at any second, I may have to run, fold, or dive beneath the surface.
I own nothing and let nothing own me.
I checked my watch. A Marathon dive watch given to me by Shelly. She claimed I'd be late to my own funeral, so she'd set it five minutes fast. The hands were lit by tritium, which glowed brightly in the night air. I had time. I cut the engines and turned into the lights. Agents Spangler and Beckwith slid up alongside me, made all the easier in the glass-like conditions. Spangler's voice echoed across the water. “Hello, Charlie Finn. Imagine my shock at finding you out here this time of night.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets and smiled at Agent Beckwith. Giving her my best Humphrey Bogart. “Of all the gin jointsâ¦”
She jumped onto my boat, tying off my bow to her stern. She smiled and said nothing. I nodded. “Looks like that weight lifting program is really paying off.”
She pointed. “Stand there and be quiet.”
The Drug Enforcement Agency and Coast Guard and Game and Fish Commissions possess expanded search authorities so they're a little more liberal in their violation of my constitutional rights. They also knew I wasn't about to take them to court or call my attorney. So theyâand their German shepherd, Mollyâspent the next thirty minutes tearing my boat apart. Sniffing for anything resembling residue. I folded my arms and watched with curiosity. I was really impressed when Agent Spangler slid into his diving gear and inspected my hull. About forty minutes in, the two agents disassembled my center console, leaving Molly sitting faithfully at my feet. I scratched her head and let her lick my hand. She put one paw on my thigh and leaned into me. When they weren't looking, I fed her dog boneâshaped treats. After almost two hours of grunting and sweating and finding nothing, they reported to someone in some office on the other end of their cell phones and then cast off my bowline and departed without a word.
Somebody had tipped them off that I was running tonight, and they were rightâI was, but that same someone had also tipped me off that they'd tipped them off. It pays to pay more and Colinâmy business partnerâpays more. Spangler and Beckwith had been dogging me for the better part of five years. As had the team of Miller and Marks before them. And while I'd run enough to fill up this boat twenty to thirty or even fifty times, I'd never been caught. And I wasn't about to get caught tonight.
Casually, I cranked the engines and watched in muted amazement as Spangler and Beckwith disappeared north. Humming quietly to myself, “Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey, hey, heyâ¦,” I slid silently into the maze of canals that fed into the bay. I slithered through the darkness past the hundred-foot yachts and $20 million mansions where the who's who of Miami parked their lives on display. I'd made drops at many of these homes, but one of the things that made me successful and still at it was the fact that what started with me stayed with me. I knew how to keep a secret, and I knew what to risk and how.
I serpentined through the maze, knowing that Beckwith had planted more than one hidden GPS receiver on this boat. They'd installed the first months ago, and we'd been playing this game of cat and mouse ever since. The show tonight was to plant a second as the first must have been giving conflicting signals due to salt corrosion. Of course, that muriatic acid I poured on it might also have had something to do with it. Never could really tell.
Miller and Marks had started this. That time I found it a few days later, so I sold the boat to a guy making a pass through the Panama Canal and up the other side. They thought I was making a pickup in Mexico. They sent boats and helicopters and planes, and that failed sting operation cost them a pretty penny. They were not happy. The guy who bought the boat said they were more than a little surprised to find him marlin fishing off the coast of Mexico and that Agents Miller and Marks had started throwing blows when they discovered it wasn't me. They were even more surprised a few hours later when, upon their return, they found me on my porch in Bimini, swaying in my hammock, staring out across the horizon with a cup of coffee in my hand and a devilish smile pasted on my face. “Coffee?”
Now I stared out across the water, the rumble of the engines beneath me. While I didn't own this boat, I did possess a rather strong affinity for her so Colin had allowed me to name her. I called her the
. Tomorrow I'd turn forty, and if anything has been true about my life, it's been storied.
I tied off, checked the radar, and knew Spangler and Beckwith hadn't gone very far. They weren't the only ones with a GPS transponder. Two could play that game. We ran a tight ship, but our model was a little different. We ran a boutique firm, operated on the honor systemâas much as there was honor among thievesâand worked to reduce the variables. We sold only to clients we vetted. We accepted payment only via wire transfer to offshore accounts. And we determined the drop point. And we never, ever, absolutely ever dropped it when they wanted it or where they wanted it, and we didn't tell them where it was until after we'd dropped it. If they had to have it right then and right there, we were not their supplier. This model had kept us in the business, and it had kept Beckwith and Spangler sniffing at our heels and always three steps behind.
I shut the engines and turned on the coffeepot. I knew they'd work up quite an appetite tearing up my boat, so I pulled a box of doughnuts from my bag and left it in a false floor in one of the forward hatches beneath a pile of greasy life jackets. Wouldn't take them long to find it. I sketched a smiley face on a yellow sticky note and wrote, “Help yourself.” On the rear deck near the engine, located in another false floor beneath one of the live wells, I left a bowl of food for Molly. Her favoriteâvenison and lamb.
I pulled up the float indicating the crab trap and unrolled my wet suit. The water wasn't too cold, but the flat black color didn't show up as well under water as my pale skin. I slid into it, pulled the regulator over my mouth, slipped into the water, pulled on my fins, and began the half-mile swim. I took my time. My tanks had been retrofitted with dual Pegasus Thrusters. These were underwater propulsion devices that pushed me along at 170 feet per minute. Up top that equates to about two knots. I also held on to an H-160 thruster, which was similar to holding on to a torpedo. The combination of these sped me along underwater silently and unseen and kept my legs fresh in the event that I needed them.
I snaked my way through the canals, spotted the flashing beacon above me, dropped my gear, and squirreled out of my wet suitâletting it fall forty feet to the ocean floor beneath meâand surfaced next to the Pathfinder, which I'd packed and docked three days prior. I untied the bowline, shoved off. Thirty minutes later, I was staring at the dock where the basketball team, the rapper with his entourage, the pop artist with her management team, the hedge fund owner with all the girls he could buy, and one-quarter of Miami's elite were partying. If they wanted to suck their money up their noses, that was their right, their privilege, and their problem. I simply provided an overnight delivery service. If I didn't, someone else would. Supply and demand.
I slid up next to the dock beneath the rocking
of a party in the house. In the dark, I unloaded and stacked several packages inside a hidden floor cavity beneath a rolling locker on the dock. I'd been here before. A good customer. Having returned all the furniture to neat and tidy and just as I'd found it, I texted delivery confirmation, jumped back in my boat, and disappeared.
An hour later, I swam beneath the mangroves en route to the
. Four other DEA boats had surrounded her. She was lit up like a runway. As if the second search would turn up what the first did not. Staring from a distance, Agents Beckwith and Spangler marched about in a spitting frenzy, flinging four-letter words and whatever wasn't tied down in my boat. Molly stood on the stern, muzzle deep in a box of doughnuts. She must have gotten to the powdered first because her normally black nose and mouth were pastry white. A half mile down the street beyond the boat, the marquee of an all-night pizza joint flashed. I routed around the boats, bought a large pizza, and returned to the boat, holding the box on my shoulder. “Hi, guys. Pizza?” They didn't like that much, either. But since they had neither drugs nor cash nor evidence that I had or had had any of the above, there wasn't much they could do other than cuss a little more and tell me to get lost.
Which I did.
I snaked my way through the canals, docked at a marina, and then made my way on foot to my Beach Cruiser. A few miles later, I let myself in Colin's back door. When they built their house, Marguerite had custom cabinets installed in the back hall. Lockers of sorts for the kids, where they threw all their school and sports stuff, including smelly shoes or jackets, when they walked in the back door. Once I became family, Colin had one added for me. And like most everything Colin Specter did, there was more than one reason for this.
I slipped my hand inside the top shelf of my cubicle, in the back corner, whereâinvisible from the frontâa small sleeve, or pocket, had been built. Just large enough for a cell phoneâor a SIM card. It was one of many such places. My fingertips found the new postage-stamp-sized card; I quickly replaced it in my phone, dropped the old card in the trash can leading into the back of the house, and slid the phone back in my pocket.
Something I'd done a hundred times before.
Maria sat on the couch. Pigtails. Ribbons. Evidence of her mother's makeup. Pink leotard fresh from ballet. Knees tucked into her chest, popcorn resting on her knees, watching our favorite movie. I sat next to her as the nuns on the screen began to sing about their problemâMaria in the convent. The real Mariaâthe one on the couch next to meâsat, foot tapping, and did not need an invitation to join the singing now filling the airwaves of the living room and kitchen. Knowing full well she had our attention and that the curtain on the stage of her life had now parted, she stood on the couch and belted out the beginnings of a beautiful singing voice. Eyebrow lifted, a sly smile spreading across her face, her mischievous voice asked the nearly half-century-old question of the self-titled song regarding how one might solve a problem like Maria.
Maria and I first watched
The Sound of Music
when she was four. In a pinch, Colin and Marguerite had asked me to babysit, and knowing next to nothing about children, especially young ones, I plugged in what I thought would help pass the time. It worked and we've watched it a hundred times since. Now, at twelve, Maria knew her lines as well as the original cast members.
Jumping from the couch to the pool table, Maria spun, pirouetted, and pliÃ©d herself across the tabletop, leaving petite, powdered footprints on the felt, quite oblivious to the effect her animated hands might have on the hanging light fixture. Her problem in gaining much reaction from “the crowd” rested in the fact that we adults had joined in so many times prior that we'd grown bored of the same and, in a desire for levity amid the monotony, begun to devolve into a confederacy of r
ed idiots. Doing so, we morphed into our own version of the now-hallowed song. From the kitchen, Colin and Marguerite sang out some sort of cheesy, offbeat rap duet while I feigned total beat ignorance, tapping and snapping badly out of time while singing with as much melodic acumen as a howling coyote.
Monkeys with pots and pans had more rhythm.
After little more than a single verse, Maria, hands on her hips and sensing that the room had descended into total musical chaos, raised an eyebrow, pursed her lips into a frown, and returned to her popcorn and the couch with a deflated exhale and a practiced look of measured disdain. Throwing a handful of popcorn into her mouth, she blew a strand of hair out of her face while texting a friend on her iPhone. Her fingers spoke one message, her mouth another. “You people are so old.”