Marine biologist Doc Ford has been known to help his friends out of jams occasionally, but he's never faced a situation like this.
His old pal Carl Fitzpatrick has been chasing sunken wrecks most of his life, but now he's run afoul of the Florida Division of Historical Resources. Its director, Leonard Nickelby, despises amateur archaeologists, which is bad enough, but now he and his young "assistant" have disappearedalong with Fitzpatrick's impounded cache of rare Spanish coins and the list of uncharted wreck sites Fitz spent decades putting together. Some of Fitz's own explorations have been a little...dicey, so he can't go to the authorities. Doc is his only hope.
But greed makes people do terrible things: rob, cheat, even kill. With stakes this high, there's no way the thieves will go quietlyand Doc's just put himself in their crosshairs.
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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 Café." 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.