Below is the first chapter of my new book, Fallen King. It's the 5th book in the Jesse McDermitt series, 6th if you count the prequel, Fallen Out. I started on this project in early October, immediately after publishing Fallen Mangrove and am currently about 75% finished with the writing. I expect to release this book in early February, with 2/8 as the target date. That's the birthday of my late brother, Eric. Anyway, here's chapter one. Feel free to comment, opine, or offer any suggestions.
I woke to the gentle sound of a soft rain falling on my tin roof. It’s not all that unusual for winter in the Florida Keys, though it is considered the dry season. We really only have three seasons here. Dry from September to June and wet the rest of the time. Somewhere in there there’s supposed to be a tourist season, but since they’re here more or less all year round, I’ve never been real clear on just when that is.
Sometimes a storm will come up in late afternoon during the dry months. Something about a warm air mass colliding with cold air. I try not to watch the TV weather guy unless there’s a hurricane. Where I live, you can see a storm coming from a long way off and watch it as it either bears down on you, or passes you by. Unless you’re out on the blue it doesn’t matter much. The storm will pour down big fat raindrops for thirty minutes then the sun will come back out and transform it into humidity.
This wasn’t that kind of rain, though. I’d caught the NOAA radio broadcast yesterday and knew this was a cold front that had been slowly pushing its way south. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs continuous weather updates all along the coast. The front was rolling down the whole Florida peninsula to the long island chain at the southern tip simply called The Keys. It was a light, quiet rain, gently drumming a laid back rhythm on the tin roof of my little stilt house. The kind of front that might take hours, or even days, to slowly pass on through or dissipate.
I live in the Content Keys, a few miles north of Big Pine. I’d built my little stilt house several years ago, mostly out of scrap wood I’d salvaged in several of Miami’s smaller, but very busy, ship yards. I have a few friends up there and they used to let me know whenever there was enough of the good stuff that needed to be carted away. Cargo out of South America was usually loaded on pallets made of, what is to them, local hardwoods. While some of the wood they use is considered exotic here in the States, they’re plentiful south of the equator, which is why they’re used for pallets.
The floor boards and beams are made from lignum vitae, or palo santo, as it’s called around the Caribbean basin where it grows. It’s one of the densest woods on the planet. A board cut from this tree will sink in water, even salt water. The bigger beams were cut from a huge lignum vitae that was blown down in a friend’s yard in Islamorada. I had to hire a crane and two tractor trailer rigs to haul it up to a mill in Homestead. Then two more to return with the finished beams, it was that heavy. The siding is mahogany, another dense hardwood. Both virtually impervious to the ravages of weather and insects. Really rough on saw blades and drill bits, too. I must have gone through dozens of each in building my home.
Rising from the big king sized bed in my tiny bedroom, I put on a pair of khaki cargo pants and a faded Gaspar’s Revenge Charter Services tee-shirt and padded barefoot to the head to relieve the pressure in my bladder before going into the combination living room, dining room, and galley.
Gaspar’s Revenge is my charter boat. It’s actually the second one to carry the name. The first one was a six year older, but nearly identical, forty-five foot Rampage convertible. It was destroyed in an explosion a few months ago that was meant to kill me. After several days of online searches, I found the new one in Galveston, Texas. Aside from its dark blue hull, it’s alike in nearly every way. Like the first, it had twin 1015 horsepower engines, but the previous owner of this one had added superchargers, which bumped the power and top speed up just a bit. She could do fifty knots, wide open, in calm seas.
My house is small, only fifty feet by twenty feet, with the bedroom and head taking up the eastern third of it. The front room has a small, little used, dining table and chairs in front of a smaller window in the northwest corner. The galley is in the southwest corner with another small window over the sink. Between them is the hatch going outside to the wrap around deck. Small, simple, and functional.
The rest of the main room was sparsely furnished. A pair of recliners with a table and lamp between them sat against the south bulkhead in front of a large window that provided a great view of the flats to the south. A small work bench took up the opposite bulkhead with another large window above it looking out over the interior of the island. A small fly tying bench and an old potbellied wood stove filled the bulkhead space between the bedroom hatch and the one to the head. Various parts of outboard motors, storage boxes and other fishing, diving, and boating detritus filled much of the empty space in the room.
The coffee maker had finished doing its magic and I poured myself a cup of the Costa Rican brew. A longtime friend of mine in Marathon by the name of Rusty Thurman, found this Costa Rican coffee farm called La Minita and we’d both become hooked on the smell and flavor of their coffee.
Looking through the south window, it was just beginning to turn gray with what little light was able to pierce the low clouds. Light rain was falling on the water out over the flats. Just another day in paradise, I thought and stepped through the hatch and out into the rain. It was cool, but not cold. If the front pushed on through, the dryer air behind it would be cold, maybe into the low fifties. While people in Montana might think that ridiculous, down here where even the Walmart doesn’t stock jackets, that’s cold weather.
I walked over to the north side of the deck by the two thousand gallon rain cistern that provided our drinking water and looked out over my little island community as the shoulders of my tee-shirt slowly dampened from the mist. Rain’s never been a problem for me. I’d learned as a kid growing up in Fort Myers that the human body is pretty much waterproof and you could always dry off in the sun later. Later, as a young Marine I had a Platoon Sergeant who drilled into us the phrase, “If it ain’t rainin’, you ain’t trainin’.” He later became a close friend, but was killed a little over a year ago. His killer met justice in a very hard way.
My island is also really small. At high tide, it covers slightly more than two acres. I bought it seven years ago, right after I was retired from the Marine Corps after twenty years of service. At the time, it was a scrub and mangrove covered thicket, on a long dead coral reef and limestone outcropping covered with sand. It took me the better part of two years to clear it by hand and build my little house on stilts. Since then, I added two small bunkhouses on the north end of the island to comply with the County zoning that the island be maintained as a fish camp. Then I helped a friend build a tiny home for him, his wife, and their two small kids on the west side. All four structures combined were about the size of an average home up on the mainland.
“Morning, Carl,” I called down to my friend and caretaker, who was tending to some winter vegetables in our aquaculture garden. I’d had a crazy idea when I bought the island of growing my own food, but the soil proved to be too sandy and salty. When I met Carl and Charlie Trent, he was up to his neck in smug drugglers down in Key Weird, where he ran a shrimp trawler. I helped him out of a bad situation by hiding him and his family here and taking on the drug kingpin with the help of a friend who works for the federal government. Carl liked it here so much, he put his trawler up for sale and came to work for me.
That’s when he told me about growing vegetables in raised beds, supplying them with nutrient rich water from a fish tank. Or in our case, a crayfish tank. I like Cajun food, so we built it and it worked. We now have two large raised beds and two tanks. The original crayfish tank has supplied several local restaurants with the Cajun delicacy and a new fish tank would have freshwater catfish ready to harvest in another few weeks.
Carl looked up, as I started down the steps to the clearing. “Hey, Jesse. I thought I heard you stirring around up there. I was just checking the nutrient level in the water. You ready to get to work?”
I nodded and together we walked across the clearing to a shed we’d built just a couple of months ago next to the battery shack. The island isn’t powered from the mainland. We use a series of wind generators and solar panels with a generator backup to charge a bank of thirty deep cycle marine batteries. These provide the power for the pumps on the aquaculture system and what little other electricity we use.
“This weather hasn’t been very good for curing,” he said as we walked into the shed. “But, everything’s ready, I checked it out before checking the garden. We can turn her over today.”
A small amount of light filtered through the clear acrylic roof panels. It reflected off the newly finished wood hull before us, which shined with a deep chocolate hue, as if it were wet. Last fall, Carl and I had gotten drunk and talked about designing and building a boat, something we’d both always dreamed of doing. We worked on the plans together, deciding on an antique looking twenty-four footer.
My grandfather was an architect and I must have picked up his genes, or my sub-conscious retained enough of what he tried to teach me. My parents died when I was a kid and I was raised by Mam and Pap. They were my Dad’s parents.
Carl and I soon had a really sharp looking runabout on paper, complete with cross sections and rib details. Over the last few months, the drawings slowly materialized in front of us in its physical form.
Yesterday we’d hung wide rollers to the ceiling beams in six places, with strap loops threaded through them to create three slings, which we hung up out of the way. Today, we planned to lift the boat hull enough to get the slings under it then remove the saw horses that it sat on and flip it upright.
A sweaty, grunt filled, hour later, we had the hull swinging free in the slings and slowly pulled on one side, rotating the hull until it was upright. Then we heaved it again to remove the slings and lower her onto new form fitted supports. She was actually starting to look like a boat now. She had long, narrow lines, with two rows of seating further forward than more modern designs. The forward sloping transom was gently rounded, with gunwales flaring inboard just aft of the rear seats and a long rear deck covering the engine compartment. Of course, none of that was there yet, but I could see it in my mind’s eye.
“She’s gonna be a beaut,” Carl said, once we had her nestled in the four cradles. “What we gonna use for power again?”
We’d hashed over this question for weeks and never could agree. I thought it ought to have a small Perkins diesel, with a three to one transmission. Carl thought it should be a big, throaty gas powered V-8 and a direct drive transmission. We’d been over it so many times we both knew we’d never agree. Before we could rehash the same argument, Doc walked into the shed.
“Hey, Doc,” I said. “Didn’t even hear you come up. How you been?”
Doc used to be First Mate for my charter diving and fishing business. He’d served in the Navy as a Corpsman attached to First Battalion, Ninth Marines, not long after I retired. His real name is Bob Talbot, but in the Corps all Corpsmen are called Doc. Before working for me, he was Carl’s First Mate on his shrimp trawler, Miss Charlie, named after Carl’s wife. Doc’s a tall, lanky, easy going guy, with sandy colored hair, nearly to his shoulders and sharp green eyes. He had the typical deep tan of people who make their living from the sea, except around his eyes where he nearly always wore wraparound shades.
Working for me got dangerous at times and when he learned a few months ago that his wife Nikki was pregnant, he approached Carl about hanging on to his old trawler and letting him skipper it. Carl not only made him the Captain, he helped Doc upgrade his license from Mate to Captain. Doc’s wife is the cook on board and de facto First Mate.
“Came in early this week,” Doc said. “Maxed out the hold in four days.” Carl grinned as Doc handed him a wad of hundred dollar bills. “Got a good price for ‘em, too.”
“How’s Nikki?” Carl asked, stuffing the roll, uncounted, into the pocket of his trousers. That’s how business is done here.
“Really starting to show now. She said to say hi,” he replied as he walked along the side of the hull, gently caressing the gunwale. “This looks really nice. What are you gonna use for power?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Carl wants a big block Chevy engine and I say we should go with diesel.”
“Mind if I make a suggestion?” We both nodded. “How about twin engines?”
I looked at Carl and we both scoffed at the idea. “It’s barely beamy enough for a single big block or diesel.” Carl replied.
“Yeah,” Doc said running a hand along the gunwale again, “but it’s plenty wide enough for a couple of Harley engines.”
“Motorcycle engines?” I asked. Doc rode an Indian Chief and was always going on about how powerful the engine was.
“Think about it,” he went on. “My bike’s got an eighty-eight cubic inch air cooled engine. It produces seventy-five horses and only weighs a hundred and fifty pounds. A company called S&S builds a one-hundred and twenty-four cube engine that’ll give you a hundred and sixty horses.”
“Yeah, but all those chains and sprockets,” Carl said. “Plus those motors can’t be cheap.”
“Belt drive,” Doc said. “Connected to a pair of two to one marine transmissions. Just think, no water intake strainer to clog, no rusty manifold coolers and over three-hundred horses, with a throaty rumble at half the weight.”
“That much power on a motorcycle?” I asked. “I had no idea. You just might be onto something. We could put an air intake right behind the rear seats with an electric fan below it to suck in cool air.”
Carl and I both looked down into the empty engine bay, visualizing it in our minds. It was definitely feasible, motorcycle engines were plenty narrow enough and we hadn’t cut the through hulls for the prop shaft yet. An air cooled engine would eliminate a lot of the problems usually associated with inboards.
“Did you guys hear about the dynamite fishing going on up in Florida Bay?” Doc asked, peering down into the engine bay. Carl and I both looked up at him.
“Y’all need to get off this rock on occasion,” Doc said, standing up straight. “There’ve been reports of people using explosives to kill fish all up and down the Gulf side. When the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol gets there, the people are long gone and there’s dozens of tropical fish and inedible fish floating dead on the surface above big blast holes in the bottom. The last incident wasn’t far from here, on Bullard Bank.”
“Bullard Bank?” Carl asked. “That’s Charlie’s favorite grouper spot. She’s gonna be pissed.”
“Doesn’t Vince O’Hare run a trap line there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Doc replied. “He’s fuming. What I heard, he took four of his nearly destroyed traps to the Fish and Wildlife office, half full of dead and rotting lobster. Just dumped all four of ‘em in the station’s lobby and demanded that they do something.”
“There’s a guy I wouldn’t want pissed at me,” Carl said.
O’Hare was a rough and ready lobsterman whose roots in the Keys go back to the days of the early wreckers. A big and sometimes mean guy who kept pretty much to himself. He owns an acre on Grassy Key with a deep water dock on the Gulf side. He lives in a little tin shack with his lobster boat at the dock and the yard littered with lobster traps, floats, old boats and cars. Thought to be in his early eighties, you’d never know it by his demeanor. He lived alone and as far as I knew nobody ever visited his shack.
In this case, I’d go along with whatever he did. Sure, using explosives is a fast and easy way to catch food fish. Using it to pull teeth has the same effect. It gets the job done, but with a lot of unnecessary collateral damage. Explosives kill everything in the water, including the reef. Most people think of a reef as a pile of rocks, but it’s really a colony of tiny animals that filter the water for microscopic food. I’d seen firsthand the results of blasting one. Fallen, crushed and broken piles of white calcium skeleton that took centuries to grow. It ruptures the swim bladders of fish, causing them to float to the surface. Not just grouper and snapper, but thousands of brightly colored tropical fish, as well. Even invertebrates like shrimp, crab and lobster are killed by the shock of the underwater blast.
“Does Fish and Wildlife have any leads?” I asked.
“Nothing I heard about,” Doc replied. “I gotta get going, promised Nikki we’d go shopping for some baby stuff. I just wanted to drop by and let y’all know that the survey crew on Elbow Cay finished up their work. They should be cutting us a check any day now.”
Last fall, Doc and Nikki came across a clue to a lost Spanish treasure while cleaning out her parent’s attic. Rusty is a licensed salvor, so a bunch of us headed over to the northern Bahamas after solving the riddle. It took three days, but we located it along with the skeletal remains of the survivors. What we located turned out to be only a portion of the whole treasure, though. Just what the survivors of the 1566 Spanish wreck were able to recover and bury. We were due a ten percent cut of the value and had been waiting for months for the final tally.
“They give you any idea how much it’s going to be?” Carl asked.
“The total worth of the find has been calculated at sixty-four million dollars,” Doc replied with a crooked grin. “Between the twelve of us, we’ll each get about half a million.”
“Twelve of you?” Carl asked. “I thought it was just nine of you that went over there.” Then grinning at me, he added, “And ten of ya came back.”
He was referring to an undercover Florida Department of Law Enforcement Officer by the name of Linda Rosales. She’d been coming down here on the weekends lately and the two of us would sometimes run or swim. A few times we’d gone fishing, taking my daughter along as chaperone.
“Twelve of us,” Doc replied, grinning again. “Nikki and I agreed that Linda should get an equal cut. Then Charlie and Chyrel were just as big a part of finding it as any of us that went over there and they get an equal cut, too.”
“You’re kidding,” Carl said, in disbelief.
“No, he’s not,” I said. “If it hadn’t been for Charlie’s riddle solving ability, we’d still be twiddling our thumbs.”
“Well,” he said, looking down into the engine bay with a wry grin, “if she’ll let me, motorcycle engines it is, then.”
“Agreed,” I said, reaching my hand across the narrow stern to take his. When we shook, I winked and said, “But, Charlie doesn’t have to know.”
I walked with Doc back to the main house. The sky was a slightly paler gray and off to the north, I could just make out a blue horizon. Damn, I thought. The front’s gonna push through and it’ll be a cold night.
“What were you not telling us, Doc?” I asked, as we climbed the steps to the deck.
“They’re not using dynamite,” he replied. “Nikki said I shouldn’t even tell you.”
“Why? What are they using?”
Doc seemed to think it over, as we walked down the back steps to the pier next to my channel where he’d tied his skiff. “She’s worried you’ll try to do something about it. Says it’s probably teenagers and you could get into trouble with the law. You do have a tendency to piss badges off.”
“What are these teenagers using, Doc?”
“What I heard on the coconut telegraph was that they’re using grenades.”
The coconut telegraph is usually faster and more accurate than the local news. Living on a small chain of islands, anything worth knowing is told from one person to another very quickly.
“Sure. A bunch of kids using frags to kill fish? How do you suppose these kids got their hands on grenades, anyway?”
“See?” he said, untying his skiff and stepping aboard as he pushed it away from the dock. He hit the starter and the big Yamaha outboard sprang to life, burbling quietly with a steady stream from the piss hole. “She was right. You always get too involved in shit that ain’t your business.”
“Who said I was getting involved?” I shouted as he turned the skiff smartly inside the narrow channel.
“There’s been twenty incidents in the last month,” he shouted back. “They use chum and several grenades at each spot.”
Damn, I thought, that’s a whole lot of grenades.
I was almost to the top of the steps when the rain stopped and I heard the faint sound of not just Doc’s outboard heading south, but another one heading north. Turning on the top step, I could see a familiar, twenty foot Grady White headed this way. Charlie and Kim were coming back from dropping Carl and Charlie’s kids off at school and shopping. My dog, Pescador was standing in the bow, his shaggy head in the wind.
Kim’s been staying with me since September and we’d been getting to know one another. Her mother left me seventeen years ago, just before Christmas. Hard to blame her. She was two months pregnant with my older daughter, Eve, when we got married in May of ’83. Two weeks later, I reenlisted and two weeks after that, I was deployed for six months to Beirut, Lebanon. Her due date and our date of rotation were only a week apart. Then terrorists blew up our barracks and we rotated out early. I was in a funk for weeks after getting back home. But I was there when Eve was born. Three and a half years later, I reenlisted for my third tour and was promptly deployed again. This time on a four month West Pacific float, leaving when Sandy was six months pregnant with Kim. I missed the birth of our second child. Four months after returning from the cruise and without being able to even make a phone call to tell her the Corps was deploying us again, I was in Panama. Sandy packed the kids up and left the next day, right after the CO’s wife told her.
Kim was only five months old then. Over the years, Sandy told the girls I was a bad man and finally told them I was dead. My older daughter believed the lies. Kim somehow didn’t accept any of it. I’d sent a check every Christmas and on birthdays, but my ex intercepted them and the checks were never cashed. That is, until last July when Kim picked up the mail one day and found the card and check inside.
She confronted her mother, who insisted she’d told the girls I was dead for their own good. By then, my ex had become an extreme liberal and hated all things military. Kim had skipped her freshman year and had just graduated from high school a year early. She told her mom she wasn’t going to go to college right away, so she could be with her own age group when she did. After saving up her money for six more weeks, she found the website for my charter business and came down here to find out for herself if what my ex had said was true.
What she’d told them was only partially true. I can be a very dangerous man. To the enemies of the country I love and its people, or to anyone that threatens a friend. I was chosen early in my career in the Corps to be a Scout/Sniper. When I ended my career, I’d been a Sniper Instructor for over a year, teaching other young Warriors how to be dangerous.
I walked back down to the pier and caught the line Kim deftly tossed as they idled up. She’d really taken to life on the water and was filling in as First Mate whenever I took charters out until I could find a permanent one. She was good with people and the men didn’t seem to mind at all having a pretty teenage girl help them land their catches. I made it real clear she was my daughter and my view of the cockpit from the helm was all encompassing. Not that I had to worry, most of our clients were gentlemen. One guy got a little too drunk once and touched her inappropriately. Before I was half way down the ladder, she had the guy face down on the deck, the offending hand chicken winged behind his back, while he howled in pain. She’d calmly asked him if there were other activities he liked using the hand for. The man sobered quickly and apologized profusely. Instantly, she released him and resumed her First Mate duties as if nothing had happened. Even wiped the guy’s brow with a wet towel an hour later when he hooked a really big bull dolphin and was fighting it. He left her a very generous tip.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, stepping onto the dock and hugging me. “Was that Doc leaving?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “He and Nikki got in early, so he stopped by to give the owner take of the trawl to Carl.”
Kim and Charlie were dressed nearly identical. Lightweight khaki fishing pants and long sleeved work shirts, the standard garb of watermen all over the Keys. They managed to stay dry behind the Grady’s wrap around clear plastic screen, which surrounds the Bimini top and can be rolled all the way down to the deck, just for days like this.
As Charlie handed me the boxes of groceries and I stacked them on the deck, Pescador jumped from the cockpit, shook the water from his coat and sat next to me waiting for an ear scratch. Since school started, he rode with Charlie and the kids every day to where they caught the bus at Old Wooden Bridge Marina and again to pick them up in the afternoon.
“He also brought news from Elbow Cay,” I said to Charlie. “He told Carl that you and Chyrel would receive an equal cut for all your help in solving the riddle.”
“I hope Carl told him no,” Charlie said, taking my hand as she stepped up to the pier. Charlie’s short for Charlotte. Just a wisp of a woman, but big in heart and attitude, like most Conch women.
“Doc wouldn’t take no for an answer,” I said, as the three of us picked up boxes and headed up the steps to the deck.
Charlie’s brow furrowed, deep in thought. A quiet woman most of the time, she measured her words carefully. Finally she said, “I don’t like it.”
“Then put it in the bank,” I said. “That way, when Carl Junior and Patty get older, you won’t have to worry about college.”
After helping put away the weeks’ worth of groceries in the large pantry in the Trent’s little house, I went up to the deck to make a phone call. Cell service on the island is sketchy at best. The only place where you could get any reception at all was on the southwest corner of the deck and even there you have to hold your tongue in your cheek just right.
Linda answered on the second ring. “Hi, Jesse. I was going to call you later today. Are we still on for this weekend?”
“Yeah, I was thinking we might do a little something different, though.”
“What did you have in mind?” she asked, huskily.
“How about we catch some grunts out on Bullard Bank and do some snorkeling?” She didn’t say anything for a moment and I thought I’d lost my signal. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Who have you been talking to?” she asked, all business now.
“Come on, Jesse. You’re not a very good liar.”
“Are you part of the investigation?” I asked.
“Your position with Homeland Security notwithstanding, I really can’t talk about it,” she said. A friend of mine, Deuce Livingston, heads a counter terrorism team for DHS, based out of Homestead and I sometimes provide transportation for his operatives.
“You’re saying Bullard is off limits?”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t know how you heard, but I’m assuming you’ve learned about the illegal fishing practices.”
“That’s Fish and Wildlife. How’s FDLE involved?”
“I said I can’t talk about it,” she replied.
I thought for a moment then said, “It’s no longer just about taking fish, is it?”
“You didn’t hear that from me,” she said. “In fact, I think I better hang up now.”
“Wait,” I said. “I didn’t mean to piss you off. I really would like to see you this weekend.”
“No talk about the investigation?”
“If that’s what you want,” I said. “Maybe we can get a few people together and fly up to Cape Sable for a camp out and back country fly fishing.”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice taking on its usual cheery tone. “That sounds like it’d be a lot of fun. I really do have to go, though. See you tomorrow night?”
“Pick you up at the Anchor?”
“I’ll be there by six,” she said. “Bye now.”
I said goodbye and ended the call.