In the new novel from New York Times bestselling author Randy Wayne White, Doc Ford is the only hope for an island of hostages.
On one of Florida’s private islands, a notorious Russian black marketer is hosting a reception. Doc Ford only wanted to get an underwater look at the billionaire’s yacht. But when he surfaces, he gets a look at something he’d rather not see.
A group of violent, armed men have taken control of the island, their true identity unknown. Whatever the motive, they threaten to kill the hostages one by one unless their demands are met—after which they might kill everyone anyway.
Communications from the island have been cut off, and Ford knows he has to act. Luckily, the militants do not know Ford’s capabilities, or that he is still on the loose. But that situation won’t last for long…and the clock is ticking.
I was beneath fifteen feet of water, at night, observing a dinosaurian fish, when something exploded and knocked out the island’s underwater lights.
The fish, a Gulf sturgeon, was armor plated, three feet long, hunkered close to the bottom as it fed. Its close relative, the beluga sturgeon, is the gold standard of caviar lovers, and a sacred cow to the global, billion-dollar caviar trade.
My interest in sturgeon, and the often corrupt caviar industry, was a secondary reason for spending this new moon evening, in June, on one of Florida’s exclusive private islands—Vanderbilt Island on the Gulf of Mexico.The retreat is forty acres of palms, sand and Old Florida architecture, north of Vanderbilt Beach, east of Lovers Key and south of Sanibel Island, a small enclave concealed by swamp and shallow water in a remote corner of Estero Bay.
A handful of the caviar trade’s elite was on the island for a weekend get-together, hosted by a Russian black market millionaire. Officially, he was rallying interest in a new U.S. import company.
Privately, he claimed to have found a legal way around the international ban on beluga products. It had something to do with altering the Gulf sturgeon’s DNA to produce larger eggs like its Caspian Sea cousin.
“Eggs firm and finely skinned so they burst between the teeth with hints of butter, almonds and fresh ocean air—each pearl black as a Caspian midnight,” according to literature in my gift bag when I checked in.
Gulf sturgeon were common in Florida until the 1930s, when they were netted almost into nonexistence between Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys. The idea of a genetically altered hybrid was fanciful, considering the legalities involved, but it had merit—on paper, anyway.
But I was dubious. Sufficiently so to make some unofficial inquiries, and then try to finagle invitations for myself and my pal Tomlinson. As I soon discovered, though, the Russian wasn’t handing out invitations to just anyone.
“Impossible,” a woman with a Russian accent had told me,” unless you are wholesaler. Restaurateur, maybe, but established restaurants. And willing to pay fee—in advance—to reserve spot.”
The price was so steep it had strengthened my impression that the black marketeer didn’t want outsiders at his caviar party. After a bit more research, and after discovering a couple of impressive names on the guest list, I had become doubly determined to go. There had to be a way.
There was. Tomlinson is founder of two thriving gourmet rum bars, and I was an investor. That made us both “established restaurateurs.” Sort of. The woman then told me I had to send documentation before she would accept my credit card.
“It worth the money,” the woman had added.” First night, guests treated to night of gambling and caviar at famous resort across bay.
They have dolphin show and Jet Skis.”
Flipper and Jet Skis—I could hardly wait.
She was referring to the Bare Key Regency Resort and Off shore Casino Boat, a particularly noxious tourist trap, four miles by water from Vanderbilt Island. But I had sent the papers, anyway, and finally closed the deal.
I wanted Tomlinson along for more than just his restaurant connections. The man may look like the Scarecrow in a New Age Wizard of Oz, but he has rock star qualities that make him a favorite of poor boat bums and yachtsmen alike. To almost everyone, Tomlinson is Everyman, his aggressive edges worn smooth by demons, hallucinogenics and his daily use of cannabis. As an author, he is revered by spiritualist types. As an ordained Zen Buddhist monk, he has a devoted cult following—even though the man is anything but monk-like in his appetites and behaviors.
My pal is, frankly, a pain in the ass more than occasionally. But he is also one of the smartest people I know. It was one of the reasons I wanted Tomlinson along. But not the main reason. The Russian host would check my background and be understandably suspicious. The same with three other men I’d found on the guest list. They were the Russian’s caviar competitors from Iran and Turkmenia, and also a Chinese mega-millionaire by the name of Lien Hai Bohai.
Their suspicions about me would be well founded. I’m a marine biologist who is sometimes contracted by the same governmental agencies, state and federal, that are mandated to protect endangered species such as the beluga sturgeon. I hoped my association with Tomlinson—an unrepentant hipster who reeked of patchouli oil and enlightenment—would veil my true intentions.
Fact is, after my unofficial inquiries, a government agency had instructed me to attend the party. Which is why I had paid the heavy fee. The agency’s interest in the Russian—Viktor Kazlov—and his guests, was classified for reasons that had less to do with caviar than with their business dealings in the Middle East.
Kazlov and his Eastern European associates were my primary reasons for being on the island. Because China is now the world’s leading producer of aquaculture products—and the most expert at stealing aquaculture technology—Lien Bohai was of interest, too.
I had grown tired of the formal reception, though, that was still going strong in the island’s main lodge. The bar and dining room were tiny, and I’m uncomfortable in crowded spaces. Then Tomlinson had introduced me to one of the most abrasive women I’d ever met, an environmentalist named Winifred Densler. “Eco-elitist” would be a more accurate way to describe her, because it includes iconoclasts from both political wings, right and left.
Densler, it turned out, had crashed the party, along with four male associates. Worse, as I discovered later, Tomlinson had “possibly but unknowingly” helped the trespassers by posting key information about the caviar meeting on their web page after donating money to the group six months earlier.
Something else I noticed while at the reception: Kazlov’s bodyguard was watching me a little too closely.
I wanted out. I had things to do. I was particularly curious about what the Russian’s luxury yacht looked like from beneath the surface. It was a twenty-some-meter Dragos Voyager, black hull, white upper deck, built in Turkey. One glance at its bright red waterline told me it was a false line, and the craft was carrying something heavy.
So I had given Kazlov’s security guy the slip, and left Tomlinson to deal with the poisonous Ms. Densler and her techy-looking associates, all members of a controversial organization, Third Planet Peace Force—3P2, as it was commonly abbreviated.
Alone at last, beneath a starry June sky, I had donned scuba gear and slipped into the water. I wanted to spend some time observing the Gulf sturgeon penned there as an exhibit, and enjoy the solitude of depth and darkness, before getting serious about inspecting Kazlov’s yacht.
Not total darkness, of course. The docks were illuminated by rows of underwater lights, which provided both visibility and entertainment. Underwater lights attract baitfish. Baitfish attract bigger fish. Big fish attract the true oceangoing predators. There was no telling what was swimming around out there in the gloom.
The night sea is relentless theater, one small drama after another, alive with sounds. With my scuba exhaust bubbles as a metronome, catfish bawled, distant dolphins pinged, pistol shrimp crackled among pilings where spadefish and sheepshead grazed.
Mostly, though, my attention was fixed on the Gulf sturgeon. At a yard long, and fifty pounds, the animal was probably around ten years old—less than a third of its probable life span. As it moved along the bottom, suction-feeding sandworms and isopods, it reacted to my presence with the guarded indifference of a species that has survived for two hundred million years.
If Batman had a boat, it might resemble the Gothic symmetry that defines the twenty-some species in the family Acipenseridae. The Gulf sturgeon I was watching was a tri-edged submarine, shaped like a spear from the Bronze Age. Its armored scutes were suggestive of helmets worn by jousting knights, its lateral lines were effective, timeless shields. Had the Civil War ironclads enjoyed the same protection, their battles might have survived the harbor.
The sturgeon is among the few bony fishes to have flourished through ice ages, meteorite assaults and volcanic upheavals that dinosaurs and a million other long-gone species could not endure. Only in the last hundred years has the animal’s genetic virtuosity been tested. Loss of habitat and pollution play roles. But it is the global love of caviar that has put the fish on the endangered species list.
Female sturgeon, of all species, are slow to mature—ten to twenty-five years before they can produce the eggs for which they are caught and killed by poachers and black marketeers. Even then, the timing must be exactly right. The eggs must be harvested before the fish ovulates. After ovulation, the shell of the egg—the chorion— is riddled with tiny holes to accept sperm. Salt, and sometimes borax, which are added as preservatives to caviar, convert ovulated eggs into mush. They are uneatable, not marketable. Which is why even farm-raised female sturgeon must be sacrificed, and why there are ever-fewer mature sturgeon swimming wild in our global waters.
This fish, only yards away, was a prime example of a healthy Gulf sturgeon—and why I didn’t want to miss this rare opportunity to observe it feeding at night.
So I was enjoying myself.
Until the explosion.
I had been underwater for about twenty minutes when it happened. I heard a percussive thud that jarred the soft tissue of my inner ears, and left me blinking in the sudden darkness. Then I felt a delayed, radiating pressure that caused me to grab for a dock piling as a mild shock wave rolled past, my swim fins fluttering, but not much.
I didn’t know, of course, but the explosion also took out every light on the island, along with the island’s emergency redundancy systems—backup lighting, generators, computers and the land-based communication systems.
Also unknown to me, a military-grade GSM mobile blocking device had been simultaneously activated to jam cell phones, wireless Internet and VHF radios.
Suddenly, for the first time since a telephone had been installed, Vanderbilt Island was actually an island.
Instead of suspecting that a hostile group was taking the island hostage—something I should have given serious consideration—my first thought was lightning strike.
It made sense. Only a few minutes before, a rain squall, ion-charged, had strafed the coast, moving westward in darkness toward the Yucatán. I had waited until I thought the danger was past, but summer storms are tricky to predict. The night clouds had still been incandescent, rumbling spires when I had entered the water.
Lightning hit a transformer and the transformer exploded.
That’s the way my mind accounted for what had happened. It explained the power outage that, just as abruptly, changed the underwater world I now inhabited.
In the space of those few seconds, the sturgeon I was observing ascended several million years in the hierarchy of fish and primates.
I was demoted proportionally.
On the Darwinian ladder, the fish was now far more advanced than some dumbass, bat-blind marine biologist who happened to be underwater and alone, breathing air from an aluminum tank.
Me, the dumbass biologist.
A moment later, it got worse. My sense of direction was skewed, and I somehow ended up under the docks. How far, I wasn’t sure, but I banged into enough pilings to know it had happened.
Calmly, very calmly, I attempted to surface. Fifteen feet is a short distance, unless you are underwater—and unless the valve of your scuba tank snags a cable tethered to the bottom.
For a spooky moment, I strained against the cable. It stretched but wouldn’t break. Then, instead of dumping my gear and swimming to the surface, I made the stupid decision to try to free myself rather than leave so much expensive equipment behind.
More than one diver has killed himself for the sake of a few hundred dollars.
Steadying myself against a piling, I used my right hand to search for whatever it was I had snagged. Finally, I found it: a jumble of nylon rope. Even through my leather gloves, I could tell. Maybe it was the line from a crab trap that had been blown in by the squall.
Strapped to my belt was a perfectly good dive knife. A superb knife, in fact. One of the last stainless steel survival knives made personally by the late Bo Randall of Orlando.
But, once again, I put the value of my equipment ahead of my own safety. If I pulled the knife from its scabbard, I risked dropping it—probably never to be found in the silt below.
Instead, I traced the nylon line until it became taut. I got a couple of wraps around my hand, used the piling as my anchor and gave a violent yank.
Suddenly, instead of just being snagged, I was tangled in what felt like an ascending web of rope.
Another very poor decision. Me, the dumbass, indeed. So my reality was now this: I was underwater, alone, in total darkness, tangled and tethered to the bottom.
Yet . . . I still wasn’t worried. Not really. I had plenty of options, plenty of air, and I have lived an unusual life. I had been in tougher spots than this and survived. Marion D. Ford, world traveler, expert waterman, drown in a marina basin in four meters of water? Not likely.
Diving alone at night isn’t for amateurs, nor the poorly equipped. In that way, at least, I was prepared. I had a good knife. And looped to my dive vest, a brilliant little ASP LED flashlight.
I decided to have a look at what I was dealing with before going to work with my knife. Methodical action, taking small, careful steps, is my way of neutralizing panic. When I freed the flashlight, though, my hand banged what might have been a piling crosstie, which caused me to fumble and drop the thing.
Even though I spoke through my regulator, a dive buddy—had I been wise enough to have recruited one—would have understood that I was getting frustrated.
Fortunately, I’d hit the flashlight’s pressure switch before it tumbled to the bottom. It landed on its side.
Visibility was better than usual after a storm—which meant the viz was poor, only a few yards at most. Even so, the little LED speared a dazzling column of light toward a buoyed ring of netting where the sturgeon I had been watching was penned.
A second sturgeon had joined the animal, I noted through the murk. Both appeared unfazed as they hugged the bottom, silt blooming from their gills, as they suctioned crustaceans and worms from unseen holes. I was amused by the notion the fish were now observing me, but I knew better. Even in temporary captivity, wild Florida sturgeon had better things to do than watch a primate drown.
The flashlight provided enough ancillary light for me to take stock of the situation. Yes, I was tangled in a dozen yards of crab line, a weighted trap somewhere off in the darkness.
For the next ten minutes, I stayed very busy trying to recover from my error, and the snowballing series of small mistakes that no diver with my experience should have made. Underwater, the only expert divers worthy of the term have scales, or fluked tails. No matter how shallow, or close to shore, that reality doesn’t change. Primates are rank tourists whenever depth exceeds the distance between our feet and our nose.
For me, the “expert diver,” it was a much deserved kick in the butt. And a reminder that “the unexpected” only surprises amateurs, drunks and children.
It was not, however, the most compelling reminder of the night.
A stranger, pointing a semiautomatic pistol at my head, would provide that.
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