It started in the galley of my wobbly old house during a lightning storm that fried a nearby transformer. A sizzling boom rattled the windows. Combusted ozone drifted bayward and sweetened the air while rain hammered the tin roof.
The lights went out.
"Perfect," my boat bum pal, Tomlinson, said. "Natural disaster is humanity's last hope. The internet has butt-ravaged us all and looted our privacy. I say bring on the pale rider. Might as well have another beer, huh?"
It was late but didn't feel late. In July on Florida's west coast, the sun doesn't set until almost 9. I waited in darkness for several seconds expecting my generator to kick on. It did not.
"If I don't get the darn thing started, my fish will be belly-up in an hour," I said. "And keeping fish alive has been tough enough lately. There's a kerosene lamp in the cupboard. Help yourself."
I'm a flashlight snob. Spend enough time in Third World countries, the dark becomes a foe. I have a phobia about being without a solid little LED handy, so they're in every room-including one on the bookcase, which I found before going to the door.
"Try not to burn the place down," I said.
"You're coming back, aren't you? I was just getting to the weirdest part of the story." Tomlinson had a little plastic lighter out. The way he stumbled around in the gloom, arms outstretched, reminded me of a scarecrow Frankenstein.
"It gets weirder? Good god," I said. "Shouldn't you be talking to a priest or something?"
"I am a priest," my Zen Buddhist buddy reminded me. "We're not into the whole confession thing-too risky, the way some monks are wired. Besides, donating to a sperm bank can't be considered a sin. Not two decades ago anyway . . . can it?"
I replied, "Forty-some donations in less than a month? If it's not a sin, it should be a felony." Going out the door, I added, "There's a six-pack in the fridge-but leave at least one for me."
I switched on the flashlight and crossed the breezeway to an adjoining structure, all built under the same tin roof. I call it my lab because I'm a marine biologist, and that's how the room is used. Inside was a row of tanks containing fish and other creatures that I collect and sell to schools and research facilities. I was careful with the flashlight. Deer are not the only animals that can be stunned by a bright beam. I'd read a recent study on retinal bleaching in benthic fish. Dazzling submersibles with video cameras are new to their ocular DNA.
I panned the light to a workstation where there were test tubes in racks, a microscope, other lab tools, and a desktop computer. A sign on the far wall read Sanibel Biological Supply-the name of my business.
For no rational reason, I confirmed that aquarium pumps and aerators do not work without electricity. The word methodical is preferable to the newer label, which is OCD. I unplugged the computer, went outside to the breezeway, and stood at the top of the stairs. The clouds throbbed with light. A storm cell freshened and battered the tin eave above my head. It was like standing behind a waterfall.
Through the screen door, I watched Tomlinson light a kerosene lamp. His long, stringy hair became a hood-a medieval monk, gaunt-faced, who carried the lamp to the fridge and rummaged for a modern version of beer.
"Want me to put a pot of coffee on?" he called.
"I'm not going to bother with rain gear," I replied. "I'll get soaked no matter what. Looks like the marina got knocked out, too."
Down the mangrove shoreline, Dinkin's Bay Marina was a community of shadows. A yellow mercury light flickered in its death throes. It showed a wedge of rooftop that was the marina office. Along A dock, a couple of the larger yachts had switched to battery power. Their windows cast blue oil-painting swirls on the bay and just enough light for me to notice an oddity. Someone was wading the mangrove rim headed my way-a beanpole person sheathed in glittering plastic as translucent as dragonfly wings. That was the impression anyway.
Internal alarm bells sounded. I checked my watch. Who in their right mind would be out in a storm two hours before midnight?
There was no benign explanation. Mack, the marina owner, always locks the gate by 10 on weekdays. Today was a Monday in July, the steamy off-season for tourism on Sanibel Island. And the dozen or so marina residents were savvy enough to stay safe and snug, buttoned up aboard their floating homes.
I am wary of strangers. More so on this rainy night because, three days ago, I had returned from a jungle rendezvous in Guyana, South America. It was unlikely, but a cadre of traffickers might be seeking revenge for the business I had completed there.
I went back into the house, telling Tomlinson, "Changed my mind. I'm going to grab my foul-weather jacket."
"A night as warm as this," he said, "you're better off going au naturel. Good for the hair, and it cuts down on laundry bills. Take it from an old sailor."
I went past him, threw a curtain aside, and entered the cubbyhole that is my bedroom. "Are you expecting visitors?"
"Tonight? What time is it?"
I told him.
"Nope, but I haven't given up hope. It's still early. How about we pop over to the rum bar and grab a pint? I can finish my story."
"I'm not sure I want to hear it," I said. "Hold on a sec."
My pal kept talking. "Geezus, Doc, twenty-some years ago if sperm banks had posted warnings about DNA testing down the road, I would've dated the damn nurse and gone back to drugs instead of whacking off in a jar. She-this nurse-was very strict about no drug use. Not even weed. I needed the money. Plus, my god, the woman had the face of a saint and the hands of a dairymaid. These days-or so I've read-they actually have a machine that-"
I interrupted. "I've got to use the head. Do you mind?" and pulled the curtain closed.
That shut him up.
I zipped on a foul-weather jacket, commercial-grade, made by GrundŽns. After confirming that Tomlinson had returned to the table, I knelt and unlocked my private hidey-hole. It is the equivalent of a fireproof safe built into the floor. There, among false passports, a few treasured artifacts, and a newly rendered stack of one-ounce gold bars, were several weapons. Three were conventional firearms, two were not. As backup, I chose a Sig Sauer P365-a pistol small enough to carry unnoticed three hundred and sixty-five days a year yet packs enough firepower to keep the owner alive for years to come.
Its clip-on holster slipped easily over my belt.
A less conventional choice was a military-grade laser. The gadget resembled a flashlight. It was silent, defensive in design, and not lethal. But it was also illegal. Either way, I had to be selective regarding usage. Hopefully, the person I'd seen was a drunken friend. Or a friendly drunk who'd lost his way.
I flushed the toilet and stepped through the curtain.
"Hey," Tomlinson asked, "where's Pete? It just crossed my mind he might be out there swimming around in this storm."
My dog, Pete, a retriever of murky lineage, had been staying with Luke O. Jones, a kid who works for me when I am away. I explained this with an edge that did not invite more questions.
"Another one of your mysterious trips," my friend responded. "Let me guess: Hannah got mad and dumped you again? Don't worry, bro. If she did, she'll come around."
Hannah Smith was Luke's aunt, a first-rate fishing guide and my sometimes lover-when she wasn't miffed at me about something. And usually for good reason. Twice I had asked the woman to marry me. Twice, she had declined, which, on one level, was a relief. I'd made the offer. Me, the noble bachelor, had tried to do the right thing. But, on a deeper, more private level, I still nursed the hope she would come around.
I ignored Tomlinson, so he followed me across the room. "Hey, face it, she's a new mother. And you were doing a pretty good job as father, too-until you disappeared for two weeks. Women have a thing about foolish consistency. Want me to give her a call and try to smooth things over?"
Relationship advice from a guy who'd sought romance at a sperm bank? No thanks.
I said, "Save it for the mothers of kids you've never met," which was cruel, and I knew it. I stopped at the door. "Sorry, pal. That was unfair."
Tomlinson sighed in a way that communicated remorse. "No, you're right. The sperm bank business, truly a dumbass thing to do. But I didn't know, man, how could I? Screw the obvious fiscal responsibilities-I've got plenty set aside-but the emotional scars for those kids . . . Wow! You're the least emotional guy I know, so I could use a fresh eye." My friend paused. He noted the time I'd spent alone in my room, then consulted the nearest darkness of a window. "Hey, dude-who's out there?"
In response to my silence, he added, "Just because I can't see a gun doesn't mean I don't know you're packing heat."
"Packing heat?" I chuckled. It broke the tension. On a shelf near the door was a handheld VHF radio in its charger. There was mosquito repellent and other boating necessities including a small night vision monocular in a canvas military case. I unzipped the case, saying, "If Al Capone arrives, tell him to stay away from the windows until I get back. You, too, okay?"
I have a friend, a specialist in tactical optics, whose company recently moved from Phoenix to El Paso. When their engineers come up with a new gadget, he sends me a prototype to field test. NVD is the acronym for all varieties of night vision devices. The palm-sized scope in my hand was a hybrid mix of thermal imaging and forward-looking infrared-FLIR.
I returned to the breezeway steps. Rain had slowed and shaded the black mangrove shoreline. The person I had seen was no longer there. I tilted my glasses and put the scope to my eye. Shadows were illuminated as if by a bright jade lens. I scanned the area between the marina and the rickety boardwalk that is the only access to my house. If someone had mounted the boardwalk, trip wire beams would have sounded an alarm. But it was possible the person had waded into deeper water and was now hidden beneath the platform on which my house sits.
Or was it?
With the click of a button, I switched to thermal imaging. Green daylight became a Kodalith of contrasting blacks and grays. Spaced along the shore were glowing splotches of red. Mud had retained the heat from my visitor's feet. The footprints veered away from the water into the mangroves. Limbs there were adorned with occasional thermal handprints, smudges of color like luminous paint.
The person was heading for the road where I park my truck.
I went down the steps in the rain to a lower platform that also serves as a dock. My boat, moored beside the lab, strained at its lines in darkness. I studied trees that bracketed the boardwalk. A web of lightning confirmed no one was waiting in ambush. Thunder accompanied me across the boardwalk to a path through the mangroves. When my truck came into view, I stopped and used the trees for cover.
No sign of my visitor, but the hood of my truck was open.
What the hell?
There is a protocol, a color code of awareness. I transitioned from stage yellow to orange-a potential threat had been identified. But what was the threat? A fisherman who wanted to steal a battery for his broken-down boat? Or some goon sent by Guyanese traffickers?
Odds were against the latter. The aliases I had used in South America had been randomly generated by professionals in the field. I had been provided documents to match-none of which, theoretically, could be traced to me.
Tomlinson's lament about cyber-assaults on our privacy was a reminder that, in these noisy, intrusive times, the Theory of Anonymity-a statistical model created by clandestine experts-would soon be an anachronism, if it wasn't already.
Rain fauceted off the mangroves. Fat drops pelted the hood of my slicker. I pushed the hood back and took out the tactical laser. It's a complex bit of machinery but simple to use. The arming switch is shielded by a cover. When a blinking red LED confirmed the unit was ready, I toggled down to five-meter range-the lowest power-and approached my truck.
A quick search suggested that my visitor was up to no good but had been interrupted. Thermal imaging revealed a few footprints that were fading fast because of the rain. I followed them around the gate, through mangroves, into the marina parking lot, where they disappeared.
Odd. Why would a thief, or possibly a killer, choose to be boxed in? I could think of only one reason-my visitor had come by boat.
I would have to hurry to get a glimpse.
Dinkin's Bay Marina is among the last of what were once called fish camps, which is to say it is a small area and the buildings are not giant galvanized barns. Mack is the owner. His house lay in sleepy silence beyond a ficus tree that separated it from the Red Pelican Gift Shop. No one was out in this heavy summer drizzle. But windows in the apartment above the marina's office glowed with the stark glare of a Coleman lantern.
Good. Jeth Nicholes, one of the fishing guides, was awake if help was needed.
Jogging, I used the building for cover, then peeked around for a view of the docks. The bay was leaden. Clouds flickered with thunderous regularity. I crossed to the shelter of a roofed area where bait tanks were bracketed by a pair of picnic tables.
I should have checked behind me. I didn't. From the shadows, an unexpected voice said, "We're both trespassing, but I'll call nine-one-one if I have to. Find someplace else to steal a car or, I swear to god, I will."
A woman's voice-tough, aggressive, not scared. I was so startled I jumped and spun around. It was the beanpole person I'd seen earlier sheathed in a translucent rain jacket. She was sitting, a vague gray shape, legs crossed.