Read The Heat Islands: A Doc Ford Novel Online

Authors: Randy Wayne White

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The Heat Islands: A Doc Ford Novel

BOOK: The Heat Islands: A Doc Ford Novel
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The Heat Islands

 

Randy Wayne White

 

SMP

ST. MARTIN S PAPERBACKS

Sanibel Island. Florida, exists, though it—and all other places in this book—has been used fictitiously. In all other respects, this novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, incidents, and politicians are cither the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

THE HEAT ISLANDS

Copyright © 1992 by Randy Wayne White.

Cover illustration by Nancy Stahl. Design by Craig De Camps.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue. New York. N.Y. 10010.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 91-40458

ISBN: 0-312-92977-3

Printed in the United States of America

St. Martin's Press hardcover edition/February 1992 St. Martin's Paperbacks edition/February 1993

 

For dear dear Deb

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fait apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

—William Butler Yeats

 

 

The savage in man is never quite eradicated.

—Henry David Thoreau

 

 

 

1

On the morning that the most disliked man on the barrier islands was found floating, dead, Ford was aboard his skiff, balanced on the poling platform and looking for sea anemones.

He had switched on the portable VHF radio beneath the console, channel 18, so he could listen to the fishing guides talk. Ford liked the guides and enjoyed listening to the interchange of fishing data, sexual hyperbole and life lore; a daily soap opera in which the actors returned each evening. fish-slimed, sun-battered, and big as life, to the island marinas.

Tarpon season was a good time to listen because the guides got caught up in the action, and emotion overruled their sense of professional decorum—which is to say. they acted like themselves.

Unless the weather was bad.

If the weather was bad. or the fish weren't hitting, a few of the guides were prone to monologue, and that was boring. They talked too much and bragged shamelessly, as if past successes could somehow absolve them of current failures.

Which is how Ford knew that, on this morning, the tarpon weren't hitting. Too much conversation on the radio. There had been a bad storm, and he wasn't surprised, but he was getting tired of listening to the constant talk talk talk. He was about to swing down from the platform to switch the radio off when something the guides said caught his attention.

Not so much what they said, really, but the tone of their voices.

Captain Dalbert: "Hey, boys, I see something weird over here—you see that?
Really
weird."

Captain Javier:
"Si... ee
s right, ees right—Nels. what ees that
theeng
there floating?"

Captain Nels: "Uh-oh ... hold the phone. ..

Captain Dalbert: " 'Bout the size of a Immokalee orange crate. Floatin' there, chubby as a pig—"

Captain Javier: "I see it now! Something that looks

... bad...."

Captain Nels: "Well, shit the bed. boys. I think we got ourselves a floater...

The radio went silent and Ford knew all of the guides were listening. Then, a little out of breath. Captain Nels said, "Somebody call the Coast Guard! Man, my anglers don't need to be seeing this. I thought it was like a oil drum or something. Yeew, this guy's got crabs on him—crawling outta his damn
ears
."

Over the radio, from farther away, another guide. Captain Felix, cut in. "Beers? If you're taking orders, better count me in. A beer is what I could use right now. Crabs and beer...

Captain Nels said, "This dead guy, you coconut head. That's what I'm talking about. Ears, not beers.
Jeezus
."

As he listened. Ford poled his flats skiff along the sandbar bordering the mangrove bank that created Dinkin's Bay. The bar broadened to the northwest, forming the bay side of Sanibel Island, a curving barrier island of palms and expensive houses that separated the Gulf of Mexico from mainland Southwest Florida.

Ford lived at the end of Tarpon Bay Road, next to Dinkin's Marina, in a house built over the water. He ran a small company there. Sanibel Biological Supply. From that house he caught and sold marine specimens to schools and labs around the country. He had recently received an order from Bowling Green State University for twenty-five live sea anemones, which is why he happened to be on his flats skiff.

Normally, he would have spent the morning on his trawl boat, seining for tarpon larvae. In three weeks of continuous dragging, he had found no tarpon larvae—hadn't really expected to find larvae. But it was part of his work and he wanted to continue seining for at least another week, for he was doing tarpon research now.

Then he got the order from Bowling Green University, which is why he wanted to get out and collect anemones early on the dawn low tide.

But there had been a morning rain squall.

Then his friend Tomlinson stopped to see if he wanted to drive to the mainland to hear a lecture on the three pillars of Zen and maybe hit at the Line Drive batting cages in Cape Coral.

Then Dewey Nye stopped, saying she wanted to talk about her tennis game, but ended up talking about romantie problems instead.

All this before 10 a.m., with rain still dripping from the tin roof of his stilt house. Which is why Ford got a late start and was now trying to collect anemones on a June flood tide just one day before the full moon.

Elevated on the poling platform—a fiberglass stand above the motor—Ford pushed the boat along, using the long pole he held in both hands. He was thinking:
The guides aren't getting much time to fish today, what with squalls and dead bodies.

And they weren't. Finding a corpse would probably put them off their pace, but no more so than the storm that morning.

Some storm. It had come from the Gulf, a black canyon of clouds churning like smoke and pushing a thirty-knot wind. He had sat on his porch and followed its progress across Dinkin's Bay: watched the clear sky yellow, then turn a throbbing, tumid green, amplifying sound, freshening odors until the first gust of cool wind. Then there was no sun, just sizzling lightning blasts through a hazy, ecliptie light, like sitting in a cave, looking through a waterfall.

But the storm had passed now. It rumbled over the mainland, casting great columns of sunlight through the moving clouds, illuminating the docks at St. James City and the dripping mangroves on Woodring Point, leaving Pine Island Sound washed and slick as raw glass.

On the radio, one of the guides said, "Perfect day for spotting bodies. Never seen one better, the water's so flat. Sight-cast corpses, take 'em on light tackle—how's that for an advertisement?"

The water
was
flat. Clear, too, in the shallows. Ford could see his own shadow on the sandbar as he pushed the boat along. In a patch of turtle grass, a cowfish nosed a scallop shell. Then a stingray spooked, making a brief explosion in the sand. There was a big whelk shell, its operculum thrown back, feeding on a dead mullet—one of several dead fish that had washed up on the bar. Attached to the whelk were the buds of a tulip snail egg case. Beyond that were the spiraling egg cases of whelks, like prehistoric snakes, and the sand collars of moon snails.

Ahead, Ford could see the tracks of horseshoe crabs furrowing the sand ... then the animals themselves, tan shells as if stamped from plastic: three smaller males attached to a big female, locked in a slow fight to copulate.

A foot beneath the surface, the bottom was alive, one continuous interconnecting cycle, everything going on simultaneously and without pause: egg, sperm, death and decay; all obliquely keyed by tides and heat and a million years of having survived. Yet each random event, anchored in the moment of its viewing, implied small dramas that, to Ford, were as interesting as the source of his own breath.

Why were there so many dead fish today?

Ford wondered if there might be an outbreak of red tide—something he could check later by taking water samples.

A pair of tube-dwelling anemones lay ahead, their tentacles thrown open, leaning in the current like wildflowers. But Ford pressed on until he was sure the anemones were part of a larger colony before he drove his pole into the sand, tied his boat, and got out.

From the radio, he heard Captain Dalbert say: "The Coast Guard's standing by twenty-two alpha. They want one of us to stay with the body. I told them it was a man. That's right, isn't it? A man?"

Captain Nels: "He's floating facedown, but, yeah, a guy. Short hair. Looks like a guy...

Captain Billy: "That was a heck of a storm. Maybe he got washed over."

Captain Dalbert: "Naw, he's been in the water
awhile.
..."

Captain Javier: "Maybe was last night. Rain last night, too;
una pula.
Lightning it was so bad, I could not sleep. Big storm, going boom boom."

Wading barefoot by the boat, Ford took a small trowel and carefully dug beneath one of the anemones. At his touch, the animal's tentacles retracted, imploding into a leathery tube the size of a shotgun shell. As he transferred the anemone into a bucket of seawater, he heard Captain Felix ask, "Hey, Nels, you say they're a bunch of crabs around? Pass crabs, huh?"

Captain Nels said, "Yeah, crabs ... uh-huh."

Captain Ramsey broke in, saying, "First that jerk Rios screws up his own tarpon tournament by not showing up for the start. Then the rain; now this. And we've all got anglers after the big money. Who has time to stand by?"

Ford was counting the anemones in the colony. There were more than two dozen, and he decided he could harvest five from here without doing harm. As he reached to lake another, he heard Captain Felix say, "We're going to need bait if we have to fish tarpon in the pass. Any of you guys have crabs? Anybody think we'd be this desperate, we'd have to fish the pass?"

Captain Ramsey said, "We could all damn sure use some crabs, that's true. What with the rain. They dollar-size crabs, Nels?"

There was the garble of two people trying to talk at once on the same channel, then Captain Nels's voice broke through, saying, "You think I'm picking bait crabs off a corpse, you can kiss my butt on the county square," not at all amused. He said, "What we got to figure out is who's going to miss the tarpon tournament and a day's pay standing by this body. If my anglers have to stay. I think everybody ought to stay—"

Listening to the guides on the radio. Ford put four more anemones into the bucket, then transferred them from the bucket into the bait well. He waded back and. in a plastic collecting bag, placed a dead mullet and a dead trout— each about a foot long and already starting to stink.

From the wide pocket of his khaki shorts, he took a disposable Pyrex culture tube, filled it with a water sample, and stoppered it.

Back aboard his boat, he found a towel, wiped the sweat off his face, cleaned his glasses, then took a liter bottle of water from the ice and drank.

Clouds had scattered; tendrils of mist drifted off the water like steam in the harsh sunlight. It was hot now, and the odor of heating mangroves touched the air, mildly acidic.

Looking northwest, toward the power lines that crossed to Bowman's Beach, Ford could see the guide boats, a half dozen gray husks shimmering in the heat.

The boats were in an area of deep water known as the Mud Hole, just off Hardworking Bayou, where tarpon sometimes congregated. Several of the guides had anchored there, preferring to sit out the storm with baits in the water rather than retreat to a marina.

Ford knew that each of their clients had paid a two-thousand-dollar entry fee for the first annual Two Parrot Bight Tarpon Tournament, grand prize eighty thousand dollars, and they wanted to fish, not sit.

Over the radio, he heard Captain Nels calling his boat— "Sanibel Biological. Sanibel Bio. You out. Doc?"—and Ford was not surprised.

Taking his portable VHF from its place beneath the console, he pressed the transmitter button and said, "I've been listening, Nels. You sure the guy's dead?"

"You heard what we found? Man, I thought it was like an oil drum or something. Or like a chunka dock after that storm."

"He's dead for sure?"

"No mouth-to-mouth for this guy, no sir. Not from me, anyway."

Ford said. "I'm only a couple of miles away. I'll come out and wait for the Coast Guard so you guys can get back to work. That what you were calling about?"

Captain Nels said, "Aw, man. Doc, yeah—great. You wait for the Coast Guard, and ... and we'll make sure you get any tarpon brought in for mounts. That sound fair? We'd sure appreciate that."

Captain Dalbert said, "You can by God count on it. Doc."

The guides or the taxidermist would have given Ford the dead tarpon anyway, but Ford said, "I'll be right there."

He nudged his boat off the bar and climbed in. the hydraulic trim whining as the oversize Mercury pivoted into the water. He started the motor, then launched the skiff onto plane, feeling the power of the motor through the trembling fiberglass and the abrupt speed surge that made his eyes tear and magnified each ripplet into a rhythmic water grid. Sitting at the wheel, only a foot above the water, he had the sensation of sailing across an ice field striated by wind; the horizon rushed toward him.

Fifty yards from the guide boats. Ford backed his skiff down, letting his own wake catch him, rolling past. Everybody was looking at him: six guides and maybe twenty fishermen, drifting in the heat and nobody fishing; nobody looking at the thing floating down tide, either. It was a dark shape, bloated like a garbage bag, facedown but with arms thrown wide, like someone falling, unable to stop. Ford idled toward the shape, then shut down his engine.

In the silence. Captain Nels said, "Felix is up by the river. With Hervey and Marshall. But we told them on the radio. Who knows where Karl is. He and his girly friend are fishing the tournament on their own. But we sat out the rain here all morning. Didn't see a fish; didn't get a hit." Avoiding the corpse in speech now. too.

Ford said. "Oh? Well ... he certainly looks dead."

In Spanish. Captain Javier said. "We would stay, but this tournament is very important. Much money is involved, and we get a share of the money if we win."

In English, Ford said, "I know."

He had drifted closer to the body and could see that it was the body of a man. The man wore tan slacks and a dark-blue knit shirt stretched tight over a back that looked to be more flab than muscle. Short dark hair, probably gray when it was dry; short legs and short fingers that were a pallid white in the green water. The corpse wore boating shoes.

Ford called over, "Any idea who it is?"

Captain Dalbert said, "Hadn't even thought of that. Probably some
turista
from a rental boat. We didn't want to get too close. Hayvee-air here says it's bad luck to touch a dead corpse." Smiling like he was talking about a child.

Javier shrugged and said in Spanish, "I did not say that. I said we should not touch the thing because of the police. There will be an investigation."

In Spanish, Ford said, "Of course, and you are exactly right," before saying to the other guides, "Well, the tide's starting to take him toward the mangroves. Better get a line around him."

He took a mooring line and looped it. then tossed it toward the man's left ankle, but missed. On the third try, with everyone watching, the rope missed the man's ankle but skipped toward his right arm.

Ford waited until the loop sank, then carefully pulled it tight. The unexpected weight of the corpse swung his skiff around, and the body rocked then bobbed like a lopsided cork, and suddenly the face and belly rolled toward the sky. eyes wide, crabs scurrying, mouth open, escaping gases making noise.

Ford heard someone say, "Jesus Christ, that's awful," and Javier say, "
¡Madre santo!"
and someone else say, "Hell, it's
him.
" for they all recognized the dead man now: Marvin Rios, owner of Two Parrot Bight Marina and the man who had organized the tarpon tournament.

Ford cleated off the line and turned toward the fishing guides, who were looking at the body, looking at each other uneasily, their faces showing the strain of a big-money tournament, and the rain, and too many days fishing during the busiest time of the year.

In the long silence. Captain Dalbert asked. "Anybody seen Jeth Nicholes today? Anybody seen him since he had that fight with Rios yesterday?"

Captain Nels snapped, "Don't even mention that; why you even bring it up?"

Captain Javier yelled, "Jeth did not do this
theeng!"

"I wasn't accusing him—"

"Just shut up, damn you!"

Captain Billy said, "Rios drowned; anybody can see that. Missed the chapter where it says don't inhale salt water. Jesus, look at that face, like he's still screaming." Captain Javier said, "We have peoples aboard! It is not a matter to discuss."

"As if you don't feel like celebrating—"

Captain Dalbert said. "Does Raggedy Ann have cotton tits?"

Captain Robert yelled. "You boys behave now! The asshole's dead. Show some respect."

BOOK: The Heat Islands: A Doc Ford Novel
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