When a discriminating director of the Florida Division of Historical Resources and his young assistant go missing, Doc Ford navigates a high-stakes mission to fight a murder charge against his amateur archaeologist friend. By the award-winning author of Mangrove Lightning.
Randy Wayne White is the author of the Doc Ford novels, the Hannah Smith novels, and four collections of nonfiction. He lives on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he was a light-tackle fishing guide for many years, and spends much of his free time windsurfing, playing baseball, and hanging out at Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille.
When Doc Ford, White's marine biologist and black-ops contractor, leaves the friendly confines of Dinkins Bay Marina on Sanibel Island to venture into the Caribbean, he's either off on one of his blacker ops, or, as is the case here, he finds himself cavorting about in a kind of Shakespearean romp, albeit with more bloodshed. Cuba Straits (2015) was A Midsummer Night's Dream recast as a slasher movie with baseball players. This time it's The Tempest with Ford as Prospero, directing traffic while various treasure hunters-some bumbling but good-hearted, others addlepated but lethal-search for Spanish gold. Naturally, Tomlinson, Ford's New Agey pal, is in tow, taking the role of Ariel and, as always, finding magic where Ford detects menace. Among the treasure hunters are a couple of seemingly mismatched lovers-a bald archaeologist in the midst of a major-league midlife crisis and a much-younger woman made up of equal parts larceny and decency. All the players land on a mysterious, off-the-charts island whose residents practice a Caribbean, magic-infused version of freemasonry. Hats off to White for combining suspense and madcap adventure with such dexterity. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Being an under-the-radar kind of guy, Doc Ford is likely not too happy at the way his adventures keep turning up on best-seller lists, but he'd better deal with it; the trend isn't about to change. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Looks like Dr. Marion Ford's latest research project in marine biology will have to wait for yet another tangle, his 25th, with members of a lower species. Doc Ford (Mangrove Lightning, 2017, etc.) tells everyone who'll listen that he's come to the Bahamas to continue his study of sharks' responses to the sound of boat engines. Even though he has official documents to support his story, it's not the whole story; he's really looking for archaeologist Leonard Nickelby, a former professor who ended his partnership with aging treasure hunter Carl Fitzpatrick by running off with three antique coins and a logbook recording all the best places Fitzpatrick had to search for booty. It turns out that Nickelby and his former student Lydia Johnson, who's injecting him with the testosterone she's scored from her stint in a veterinary practice, are after bigger, more recent booty: the $400 million Lydia's former boss, con man Jimmy Jones, had skimmed from Benthic Exploration and managed to hide somewhere before Nickelby's testimony helped send him to prison, where he was killed a few weeks ago. As Ford's search for the searchers leads him first to dive-shack owner Tamarinda Constance then to Hubert "Sandman" Purcell, the trawler captain she spurned, his old pal Seagard Tomlinson learns that Ford's not the only one looking for the people who are looking for the treasure. From this point on, felonies pop up faster than barnacles on a boat's hull. So many characters are hiding so many secrets that so many other characters learn something about that it's no surprise to find ad hoc alliances sprouting and dissolving hours later. The extravagant criminal tally includes impersonation, abduction, assault and battery, the reckless operation of seagoing vessels, and enough homicide to seriously thin the cast of treasure hunters and the people hunting them. Despite the reflective tone of the tale, the plot is driven by so many boats moving at such top speeds that you ha v e to hope there are no sharks in the neighborhood. If there are, poor them. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Marion Ford spent Friday battling traffic, romantic issues, and writing automated replies to thwart future intrusions, and by Tuesday was in the Bahamas distanced by a turquoise sea.
Isolation. He craved it at junctures, the skin-on-bone reality of a tent, zero electronics, miles of beach to run, the indifference of saltwater, tide, wind. Two books, minimal supplies, a fire starter for abundant driftwood. The process, not time, was spatial. Whatever was enough to quell his own sense of drifting, the weakness granted to sloth, pointless emotion, guilt. Love, too-if "love" existed beyond the chemical bond that, in his experience, clouded reasonable behavior.
Family was different. Those bonds were inviolable. The same was true of friendship-a select few.
After a week, he packed his seaplane, a Maule four-seater, and returned to Andros Town not refreshed but newly focused. Luck is an illusion embraced by those who are unprepared. Ford seldom was. Two days later, he struck the trail of the man he wanted to find but had no reason to hurt, let alone kill.
Someone on the island, he discovered, possibly did.
The man, a professor turned bureaucrat, was too caught up in Lydia, his former student, to give a damn about being followed, or anything connected with the past. To hell with the past. To hell with bills, his job, his unhappy wife, and the new boss, too, a supercilious business grad-not a qualified maritime archaeologist-who wore Polos to show off his tattoos, for Christ's sake, and was ten years younger.
"There's nothing wrong with a tat or two," Lydia, no longer a student, had counseled, "or smoking weed, for that matter. You can't smell it on his clothes? I did when I came to your office yesterday to apologize. The real problem is, he's just another ambitious shark. They scare people like us. Admit it."
This was eight months ago after he'd almost had her arrested for using a metal detector in Ocala National Forest. And he would've done it, called a ranger, if she hadn't . . .
Well, there were a couple ways to explain why he had fallen under her spell. He remembered her from Advanced Anthropology, a night course for working students. Lydia, bland-faced, thin, always on time, always in the back row, off by herself. They were alike in that way-outsiders, solid, responsible, both subdued by what the mirror had failed to promise every morning since puberty.
He was five-eight and bald. Lydia, an introvert, averted her eyes while speaking. A slow, voltaic awareness evolved.
The girl often lingered long enough in the parking lot to call, "Good night, Professor Nickelby." And twice had waited with him for Triple A to jump-start his pathetic old Volvo. Their clumsy small talk was memorable only because she hadn't brought up Indiana Jones. Lambasting Hollywood was how the socialite types denounced a fantasy that had, in fact, flooded archaeology with their kind.
Not Lydia. The notebook she'd turned in was fastidious. Legible cursive with footnotes in fine block print. No copy-and-paste plagiarism, the new academic norm. And not a single goddamn emoji or doodled happy face.
One exchange was memorable. The Triple A guy had been busy with paperwork when, out of the blue, she'd asked Nickel by, "Do you ever wonder if things might be fixable? Like your timing's totally off and it's up to you to change, to . . . I don't know, do the unexpected. Something totally . . . risky."
"I can't afford payments, so I'm stuck," he'd replied. "The timing belt was serviced at seventy thousand, just like the manual says, and, safety-wise, I did the research. Volvos are the least risky when it comes to . . ." He'd rambled on in lecture mode even after realizing he had totally missed her meaning.
The silence that followed lasted seven years. He married. He changed jobs, although remained an adjunct professor because the State of Florida didn't pay crap. More than once, alone in the stucco confines of a home he couldn't afford, he had replayed that conversation in his head.
Do you ever wonder if the way things are might be fixable?
Jesus Christ, he'd been an idiot. The Volvo's timing belt had nothing to do with it. The girl had wanted to explore bigger issues. Archaeology as a profession, possibly. Or she was talking about life. Her life, his life. All screwed-up lives.
It's up to us to change. To do something . . . risky.
This was a tantalizing fragment. Had she been addressing their age difference? Him close to tenure, her not yet twenty years old. If so, my god, it was the way a shy student might attempt to seduce an older man without compromising his career.
That brief voltaic awareness took root as his marriage crumbled. Humiliations he suffered in the bedroom sought refuge in fantasy. The girl, rather cute, not bland at all, came alive in his mind. She had glistening brown hair, a thin body, but not so thin her clothes-jeans and tank tops often-didn't reveal taut hips and small stiletto breasts. Sloped valleys, too, one night in the parking lot when she'd knelt to retrieve a book, then stood as if to prove he was taller.
The fantasy motivated him to finally do the legwork.
Lydia Johnson had dropped out midway through her sophomore year. She had forfeited an academic scholarship and a housing grant based on economic need. It made no sense. A straight-A student on the fast track who also had minority status-an unexpected twist. DNA results proved she was nine percent Native American. Documentation had been provided after acceptance.
This was an eye-opener. Sweet, shy Lydia was also damn savvy. In academia, minority status was the golden umbrella. So why the hell had she left all those perks behind?
He dug deeper, and it all began to unravel.
Campus police and a court hearing had been involved. No details. Her record, if any, had been expunged, and the file sealed. A theft of some type, possibly, but more likely drugs-selling, not just using. The dorms would be empty otherwise.
Fantasy could not tolerate the realities of Dr. Leonard Nickelby's respectable, stuffy world.
Seven years passed. When he thought of Lydia, which wasn't often, he winced at what might have happened that night in the parking lot. Then, a year ago, there she was in Ocala National Forest, wearing earphones, sweeping a path with a metal detector. He didn't recognize her at first. Not consciously. Then she turned and flipped him the bird in response to what he'd yelled, which was, "That's a felony, you idiot. Don't bother running, I've got you on video."
It took her a long moment, too. "Professor Nickelby?" The way her face lit up caused him to fumble his phone. Thank god, because he had park headquarters on speed dial. He wouldn't have heard her add, "You have no idea how many times I've thought about you."
He'd stammered something pompous about switching jobs, and she should consider herself damn lucky to be his former student. Five minutes of talk was all he could spare. Steaks were on, and a group of lobbyists awaited him at a nearby pavilion-a picnic intended to win the ear of government officials.
"A meat eater," she'd chuckled. "I used to wonder if anyone else saw that side of you. Congratulations. I always knew you'd be a big success."
The fantasy could not end with another question mark. After three sleepless nights, he would've phoned if she hadn't shown up at his office to "apologize," then suggested they meet the next day.
"I can't," he told her at the door.
"You will," she replied. "What worries me is, you'll never understand why."
Lydia and her cryptic remarks.
Yet she was correct. They were alone on a riverbank when she referenced his boss, a handsome shark who smoked weed. "They scare us-people who think doing exceptional work will be enough, but it never is. Admit it."
What he wanted to talk about was that night in the parking lot. Instead, he nodded wisely. "I'm certainly not frightened of him or any of my colleagues, but, for argument's sake, let's say you're right. Is that why you dropped out of school?"
No, Lydia had been asked to leave-she offered no explanation-and went to work for a treasure salvage company based in West Palm Beach. The company's founder was in jail after refusing to reveal where he'd hidden four hundred million in gold bars and coins.
"Not surprised, professor? In your new job, you must deal with treasure hunters all the time. They're not all thieves."
The job wasn't new, he'd been at it six years. He knew enough about the guy to say, "Maybe not, but they're all con men, the way they think, the way they live. You worked for Benthic Exploration? Jimmy Jones must've hired you, so you understand why he's in jail, right?"
Jimmy and her eighteen months with Benthic were not topics to be discussed. "Benthic was a good group to work for at the time, that's all I know. I learned a lot."
Lydia's stubborn deference irritated Nickelby. "What? You'd rather be a thieving pirate than sit behind a desk, I suppose, and enforce state statutes."
"It would be a lot more fun than what I do now, which is doctor cattle for a bona fide creep. Here, relax-" She produced a joint that was twisted at the ends not unlike pre-Columbian cordage.
"You work on a ranch?"
"For a vet clinic. My boss is a hormone pusher, the type cattle barons love." Lydia exhaled through her nose and passed the joint to him, a man who didn't drink or use drugs.
Nickelby felt as if he was dreaming. Stared at the joint between his fingers and worried about residue accumulating on his skin until she said, "Your beat-up old Volvo-do you remember the night we waited for Triple A? I wanted to talk about it then, how to deal with being like us. You know, smart, dependable-conformists by nature-but not other people's idea of . . ."
"Fashion models?" he suggested when her voice faltered. "You're wrong. I've always found you quite attractive, but-" In a daze, he put the joint to his lips, inhaled, then had to deal with a coughing fit, before explaining, "I was too darn stuffy to take the chance. To do something risky. Those were your exact words."
Her eyes actually began to tear. "You remember."
"Of course I do. Almost every night for I don't know how many years." He took a more aggressive hit. "But the age difference . . . If you meant what I think you did in the parking lot, why would you . . . Why me?"
"I don't date boys," she replied, studying him in a way that meant something. "I never will."
"Oh come on. You didn't wait all these years just because-"
"I didn't say that. Waiting and not moving ahead are two different things. I've seen the future too often. Women like me, with brains, and the train wrecks they end up marrying because they're too fat or too thin, or their background isn't quite suitable. Whatever. Another caged bird, professor-that's the way I felt when I met you."
Her face, framed in smoke, was suddenly lucent in the sunlight. The sense of loss Nickelby felt was numbing. "I . . . I don't know what to say. But, at your age, you truly have no idea of the responsibilities that come with my-"
"Shut up, Leonard. I'm the only person you've ever met you can say any damn crazy thing that comes into your head, and it'll be okay-as long as it's the truth."
Her boldness, so unexpected, wasn't an epiphany. More like a kick in the butt toward a door he'd never found the courage to open. "You shouldn't speak to me that way."
"I just did. After class, all those nights I walked you out, I felt like a fool because-"
"You don't think I wanted to?" He puffed, held his breath, coughed. "Goddamn right, I wanted to. I was an idiot back then. A coward, okay? Who followed every rule because that's what I've done my entire fucking life. Risk jail and my career for an underage student? Brilliant. But that's exactly what I should've done. I just wish to heck I would've-"
"You still can," Lydia said. She took a step back, stripped off her tank top, and unsnapped her bra, then held it to her chest, watching him all the while. Several seconds passed before she did it, bared her body for him to see-ribs beneath pale skin, erect nipples-then stood nose to nose. "Do you like?" she whispered.
"Oh my god . . . Beautiful, yes."
"I'm not and I never will be. Don't ruin what's real by saying crap like that."
"You are to me."
"No more talking." Her fingers found his belt buckle, a metallic sound as it popped free. Next, his zipper as she knelt. Shaded by trees, the river flowed while Lydia made it all become real.
Eight months later, he was still married but willing to risk everything when she produced a chart of the Bahamas and said, "The next step is, we need money."
Mars Bay, South Andros, is a mangrove village born of a freshwater spring, not commerce or ease of access. Ford arrived on a Wednesday, mid-July, and started asking around.
"I don't understand why people care 'bout a loudmouthed little fella like that," the dive shack owner said. "He was nice enough, kind of fun even, but that voice of his. Sort of high-pitched, like a bird, you know? But formal in an educated way."
"I'm not the first to ask about those two?"
The owner's name was Tamarinda Constance, according to the sign. Tamara, for short, she'd told him. She was big-boned, observant, and had appeared slightly bored standing outside her tin-roofed dive shack, beachside. Ford had spent half an hour on pleasantries, discussing local dive spots, before risking a question about the runaway archaeologist who was also a thief.
"No, sir. A few days back, there was a big fella-well-dressed, he was-with an accent. Cuban, I thought at first, but he had money, so he could be from South America. Spain, maybe. He asked did a man claimed to be an archaeologist come to rent tanks and regulators. What's so important about him?"
"The guy," Ford said, "supposedly he's the quiet type. Leonard Nickelby. Are you sure we're talking about-"
"Same name on the dive card he used to rent equipment. Doctor Nickelby, is the way he said it. Bald fella who got louder and louder when him and his girlfriend, or niece-could be, she's so much younger-when they started drinking rum punches over there at the Turtle Kraals Caf." Tamara's eyes swept bayside to a thatched palapa, where there was a driftwood bar, stools upturned on tables, shaded by palms. Overhead, in the high green fronds, parrots rioted in the tradewind heat.