FORT JEFFERSON WAS VISIBLE IN THE DISTANCE, seventy miles from Key West, another outcast in the Florida straits. The Civil War fortress beckoned me, but I turned back to this morning’s surprise, a beautiful, unscheduled one-way charter customer whose replies to my inquiries were met with hundred-dollar bills but no name.
My name’s Buck Reilly, but don’t bother to Google me. You won’t find a thing. I used to go by my full name, it ended with “the third.” Going broke forces you to change things, sometimes even your identity. Skills, however, can be recycled. Being a pilot taught me to travel light, a necessary talent in my new circumstances…
As we flew over the shimmering azure waters that morning, images of the past played out in my mind. Landing on a grass strip in the Andes, flying down narrow tributaries of the Rio Negro, a rough take off from a rock field outside Katmandu. And then there was the time I flew blind in a sand storm over Egypt, taxiing over the flats near Porto Bello. I let out a long breath. I missed the adventure and excitement from my e-Antiquity days, but not much else.
Our destination appeared as a white spot on the horizon, and we closed the distance fast. We circled the boat once before landing in the light chop. A handful of men stared back from the transom, distorted by a thin mist of exhaust rising off the occasional boil from the captain’s attempts to keep the craft straight in the press of the Gulf Stream.
We taxied with the vent windows open, the sound of Betty’s twin engines loud inside the cabin.
“Show me on the map where we are?”
I slowly unfolded the chart, pointed to the fort, then dragged my finger due west to our approximate location. Her eyes lingered on the eastern side.
“What’s all that?” Numerous grid squares were cross-hatched with pencil, pen, and magic marker. “Some kind of treasure map?”
I placed it back under my leg. “The company is Last Resort Charter and Salvage. You’re a charter, that’s salvage.”
Calling Last Resort a company was a stretch. I take the occasional charter, if it interests me, but the salvage work is more diverse. Lost items to lost souls. When my first company, e-Antiquity, crashed I lost everything. Funny thing, it wasn’t the money that mattered. Wealth only fueled the lust to acquire crap: cars, houses, toys, even relationships. The false Gods of Mercedes, Palm Beach, Wall Street, Gulfstream and Stock Portfolio had been a spiritual pursuit, but when the money was gone I needed a new place of worship. None of the stuff was left, but it was the flight of friends that hurt most. Success attracts, and failure repels. Especially in relationships.
We closed the distance, and my concern for the transfer was resolved when a lone man operating a rubber inflatable boat, Zodiac, or something similar was launched. With a tug on the throttles, Betty’s propellers slowed immediately, and the green float under her port wing settled into the water.
“You have a welcoming committee,” I said.
She flashed her white teeth. Part Latin, or maybe African-American and white— whatever her heritage, I found her exotic pale almond eyes hypnotic. Only the slight tang of perspiration belied her air of confidence.
Most pilots wouldn’t accept an anonymous customer who paid in cash. It wasn’t that I lacked ethics or good sense, or that I’d knowingly do something illegal, but times were tough and work was hard to come by. Besides, risk never bothered me, especially when my survival depended on it.
The Zodiac bounced towards us without altering its course to avoid the swells. The girl’s sphinx-like smile returned as she watched the boat approach. I lifted the side hatch to a gust of thick salt air.
“This is it, Miss…”
Her eyes lit toward the hovering Zodiac. At the helm was a large black kid in a bright blue polo shirt. He gave my Grumman Widgeon flying boat a quick once-over and shook his head.
“You’re crazy, girl!”
She slid from the edge of the hatch onto the boat’s rubber bow and into the seat next to him. He looked more like he belonged on a football field than here in the gulf. Her “Thank you” blew like a kiss—my final reward.
I tucked her five hundred in my breast pocket and ducked back into the cockpit. The Zodiac retreated slowly to the mother ship, where the other men watched, unsmiling. Not the greeting you’d expect for a pretty woman. The boat was a good size, maybe fifty-five feet, with the lines of an old Bertram and a smart-looking red stripe along its side. As the girl pulled herself aboard, the name Carnival was legible above the water. She’d never said where she got my number, but now that she was safely delivered, my job was done. The bonus was that her drop point left me near the next open grid on the chart.
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