Due out in mid-December.
Two men sat across from one another at a table outside a Cuban Restaurant. It was on Calle Ocho, at the end of SW 16th Avenue, in the Little Havana part of Miami. The older man was about average height and weight, neither tanned, nor pale. His dark hair was graying a little at the temples. He wore a light blue guayabera shirt, white slacks and expensive looking dress shoes. He looked at home in his surroundings, which is what he strived to do. The younger man was taller and heavier, but without an ounce of fat. He had fair hair, cut short and tanned skin, with piercing blue eyes. He wore faded jeans, black tee-shirt, a fisherman’s hat, and topsider shoes. Unlike the older man, he stood out in the Cuban exile community, which is what he strived for, also. As people walked by the little sidewalk cafe and looked over, they noticed the younger man, but the older man was nearly invisible.
“Do you think he’s ready?” asked the younger man, in a serious tone.
The older man thought about the question, taking a sip of Cuban espresso from a tiny porcelain cup. “I hope so, we need him. It's been four months. The man can't sit around on that little island, forever. You intimated that the message he gave me for you, meant that he was ready.”
“Yeah, but that was just a week after his wife died. Most likely, he was still in shock.”
The older man took another sip of the strong drink and looked at the people moving up and down the sidewalk. It was sunny, but cooler, near sixty degrees. A warm day in DC, where the older man had flown down from, just hours earlier. But here in Miami, that's nearly freezing and the people on the sidewalk were dressed accordingly. “Go down and visit him, Deuce. Tell him what's coming up. Use your own judgment, as to whether or not he's ready. I'm sure you'd like to see your young lady again, too.”
“Yes sir, Mister Smith,” Deuce said. “He's a tough old salt, so maybe he'll bounce back quicker than most.”
“Let's hope so,” Smith said. “Because this mission is tailor made for his unique skill set.”
“How long do we have?” Deuce asked.
“Your team needs to be mission ready in two weeks, no later.”
Deuce stood up and walked east on Calle Ocho for eleven blocks, to a parking garage where he'd left his car. He never parked near where he was going to meet someone. He’d been trained that a tail is easier to spot if you’re on foot. Besides, he liked to walk. He had an office about twelve miles away at the United States Southern Command headquarters, in Doral, just north-west of the city. However, he and his men stayed and trained at Homestead Air Force Base.
As he walked along Calle Ocho, he thought about the events of four months ago. He'd gone down to Marathon to find his dad's old Marine buddy, to help him spread his dad's ashes on a reef that only the two of them had known about. Together, they'd survived a hurricane and then either caught or killed the men who were responsible for his dad's death. Those same men happened to be the target of a terrorist investigation his newly formed team were conducting. During the course of the investigation, he’d tried to recruit his dad’s friend, but only succeeded in getting the man’s wife kidnapped on their wedding day, by the subject of the investigation. She'd been brutally raped and murdered. That's a lot for a guy to get over in just four months, he thought. Even a warrior who was reputed to be one of the best Marine Recon snipers in the Corps.
While in Marathon, he’d met a woman that he enjoyed being with, that much was true. He still had his doubts if they could make it work, though. He was Team Leader for a Caribbean terrorist interdiction team, with the Department of Homeland Security. Being a former SEAL he was used to sudden deployments, but would she be able to handle it? Not many women could.
Lieutenant Commander Russell “Deuce” Livingston, Junior drove to Homestead, instead of returning to his office. When he got there, he went straight to the barracks where his team stayed. He met Tony Jacobs and Art Newman, two of his former SEAL team operatives, just as he was parking his sedan.
“How’d it go with the Director?” Tony asked.
“He’s insistent on McDermitt being part of the mission,” Deuce replied. “Says it’s ‘tailor made for his unique skill set’. I’m flying down there to meet with him.”
“Don’t suppose you’ll have time to visit a certain waitress while you’re there, will ya?” Art asked.
Deuce rolled his eyes at the jab. “I might, but it’s doubtful. Need to get back here ASAP.”
“Well, tell Jesse we said hi,” Tony said and the two men walked on toward the training building, next to the barracks.
Deuce walked the opposite direction, toward a small hanger, where a white helicopter with US Customs and Border Protection markings on the side, was warming up. He’d called the pilot on the drive down and told him to be ready. He boarded the chopper and handed a slip of paper to the pilot, who punched the numbers on it into the aircraft’s GPS.
“You sure about this destination, sir?” the pilot asked. “It’s just a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. No place to set down.”
“There’ll be an LZ there,” he answered. The pilot nodded, being used to some of the places he was assigned to fly to for these DHS spooks. Most weren’t even on a map.
The flight took less than forty-five minutes in the Eurocopter AS350 ‘Squirrel’. They flew south-west out of Homestead and climbed to five-hundred feet. Within seconds of takeoff, they were enveloped in a primordial world of water and grass, with the occasional cypress stand and palm tree. There were no landmarks for the first several minutes, then they flew over the small fishing village of Flamingo, then Cape Sable and out over the sparkling turquoise water of the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty minutes later they neared the island marked on the GPS and the pilot came in low from the north-east. He saw two flags flying above a small house, one an American flag and the other, the unmistakable red Marine Corps flag. Noting the wind direction, he flew over the island, turned and approached from the west. From this angle he could see two smaller buildings on the north side of the large clearing, in the middle of the island. He brought the chopper down in the center of the clearing, expecting someone to come out of one of the buildings.
“Shut her down,” Deuce said. “I’ll be here a while.”
Deuce got out of the chopper and looked around. The two buildings to the north were new, he didn’t recall seeing them when he was here four months ago. He walked toward the house, which sat high above the ground on stilts. He also noticed that the underside of the house, which had been open, with boat dockage underneath, was now fully enclosed. McDermitt’s been busy, he thought. He walked up the steps to the rear deck and called out, “Jesse! It’s me, Deuce.”
The only sound he heard back was the ticking of the chopper’s engine, as it cooled. He tried the door and it was locked. From the vantage point of the elevated deck, he looked all around and aside from some pelicans diving on bait fish in the channel, he saw no movement. He walked back down the steps and crossed the clearing toward the new buildings. Both were low structures, built of wood, no more than thirty feet by twenty feet. Approaching the first one, he looked in through a window. Nothing inside, except two rows of bunk beds along the back. He walked over to the second building and looked inside. It was a mirror image of the first. Both had two doors, one in front, facing each other and one in the back, between the rows of bunks. Barracks, was his first thought. In front of the buildings was a huge stone grill, with a large pile of driftwood next to it. Walking between the buildings took him through a new cut in the surrounding brush and trees to a long floating dock extending over two hundred feet to deep water.
He walked back over to the chopper and the pilot asked, “Nobody home?”
“Doesn’t appear to be. Take me to Marathon Airport.”
Minutes later, they were airborne again. The pilot called the airport to request permission to land and in ten minutes, they set down on the tarmac by the General Aviation terminal. Deuce told the pilot to go inside and get lunch, he might be a few hours and that he’d call when he was ready to leave. This was another thing the pilot was used to.
Deuce walked into the terminal and flashed his credentials at the TSA agent at the arrival desk, then walked on through the building and out to the taxi stand, outside. There was only one taxi waiting there and the long haired, old man stood up from the bench he was sitting on and opened the front door, for him.
“You know the Rusty Anchor?” Deuce asked the driver.
“Sure, man,” the driver replied. “Five dollars.”
Deuce handed the man a ten and asked for his card. The old man handed him one and they drove off. Five minutes later, they turned down the familiar, crushed shell driveway and through the overhanging casuarinas and gumbo limbo trees. He got out and walked into the bar.
“Russell!” the auburn haired woman behind the bar exclaimed. “Why didn’t you call to say you were coming?”
“Hi Julie,” he said. “Didn’t know I was coming, until a few minutes ago.” She ran out from behind the bar and hugged him tightly. Then looked up and kissed him deeply, right in front of all two customers. Neither of them even noticed.
“How long can you stay?” she asked.
Deuce looked down into her hypnotic brown eyes. She was a sight to behold. She took his hand and led him over to the bar. “Beer?” she asked.
“Tea would be nice,” he replied. Her eyes lost a bit of the sparkle when he said that, the significance meaning that he couldn’t stay long. She’d grown used to his arriving unannounced and his sudden departures, over the last four months they’d been seeing each other.
“Sorry,” he said. “I flew down to meet with Jesse, but he wasn’t at his house. Any idea where he might be?”
“I don’t suppose you can tell me anything about it,” she said and he shook his head. “He hasn’t been here since the week after..... what happened.”
The memory of those three days was still fresh in her mind. It wasn’t something a young woman could throw off very quickly. She had been maid of honor at their friend’s wedding. The bride, Alex, had been kidnapped and brutally murdered the night of the wedding. It was the groom, Jesse McDermitt that Deuce had come to see. He’d been sort of recruited by the DHS, to ferry their teams to and from places they needed to go. He owned a big charter fishing boat that was the perfect cover. Not a good way to start a recruitment, losing your wife on your wedding day, he thought.
Just then, a short, very round man, with a bald head and thick red beard, walked through the back door, talking with an older, black man. The two of them stopped when they saw Deuce.
“Julie!” the fat man said. “What’d I tell you about letting Squids in my bar?” Then he walked up to Deuce and put him in a big bear hug.
“How ya been, Deuce?” he said. “Hope you can stay for supper. Rufus here just bought some fresh hogfish from one of the local spear fishermen.”
“Welcome bak, Mistah Livinston, sar,” said the old black man, extending his hand.
Deuce shook his hand and turned to the fat man and said, “Thanks for the invite, Rusty. But, I was looking for Jesse. Any idea where he’s at?”
“Up at his house, I’d guess,” Rusty replied.
“No, I was just up there.”
“Wah I heah,” Rufus said, “he be hepin Carl Trent wit a trouble he be havin.”
“Trent?” Rusty asked. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Jimmy was tellin mi bout it,” he replied.
“Who’s Carl Trent?” Deuce asked.
“Owns a shrimp boat down to Key Weird,” Rusty said.
“Key West, huh?” Deuce said. “Is Jimmy around?”
“He just left a few minutes before you got here,” Julie said. “Probably at Angie’s houseboat. Carl is Angie’s dad.”
“Can I steal your daughter for an hour, Rusty?” Deuce asked.
“Sure, y’all run along. Me and Rufus can mind the store for a while. Just be back here by 1600, or that hogfish will disappear. Oh, and if ya find Jesse, there’s been a lawyer fella coming around looking for him. Let him know, okay.”
“Sure will, Rusty,” Deuce said.
Julie took off her apron and took Deuce’s hand, as they walked out of the bar. They crossed the shell parking lot, then walked around the end of the small marina, toward a path through the woods.
“Rusty’s fixed up the canal,” Deuce said.
“Yeah, we have three liveaboards staying here now,” Julie said. “Plenty of room for one more,” she added, elbowing Deuce in the ribs.
“I stay on enough boats as it is, babe,” he said. “Why would you want to live on one?” They’d been talking about getting a place together, but he was leaning more toward an apartment.
“Living on a boat would be so romantic,” she said.
“Yeah, for about a week.”
They walked on through the woods and came out onto Sombrero Beach Road, which wasn’t on any beach that Deuce could tell. Another hundred yards further and they turned onto Sombrero Beach Boulevard. They walked hand in hand past Dockside Lounge and out onto the docks. They saw Jimmy and Angie on the sundeck of her houseboat and Jimmy quickly smushed out a joint they were smoking.
“Hey Deuce,” he called down. “Hey Julie. Y’all come aboard.”
They chatted for several minutes, Jimmy looking anxious, because he knew that Deuce was a federal agent.
Finally, Deuce said, “I need to find Jesse, Jimmy. Rufus said y’all might know where he is.”
“Yeah,” Angie said. “He’s down in Key West, trying to help my dad out of a jam.”
She went on to tell them how her dad had been having trouble making ends meet by pulling shrimp and had been approached by one of his deckhands on the subject of picking up pot and bringing it in for a friend of his. This made Jimmy even more nervous. She said that her dad did a few runs and then decided he wanted out and didn’t want to do it anymore. The deckhand’s so called friend turned out to be a Cuban smuggler and had threatened her dad and family. Jesse had gone down there to take over running the shrimp boat and get the smuggler out of their hair.
“Honest, man,” Jimmy said, “Carl ain’t the smuggling type. He just got in a little over his head, man.”
“Don’t worry, Jimmy,” Deuce said. “I’m not here to pop anyone for dope. I just need to see Jesse. I don’t begrudge a man doing what he has to do, to take care of his family. Shrimping’s a hard business.”
Turning to Julie he said, “Can you take me down there? I came in on a company chopper. Might blow Jesse’s cover, me arriving down there in it.”