Doc Ford has been involved in many strange cases. This may be one of the strangest.A legendary charter captain and guide named Tootsie Barlow has come to him, muttering about a curse. The members of his extended family have suffered a bizarre series of attacks, and Barlow's convinced it has something to do with a multiple murder in 1925, in which his family had a shameful part.Ford doesn't believe in curses, but as he and his friend Tomlinson begin to investigate, following the trail of the attacks from Key Largo to Tallahassee, they, too, suffer a series of near-fatal mishaps. Is it really a curse? Or just a crime spree? The answer lies in solving a near-hundred-year-old murder...and probing the mind of a madman.
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On the phone, Tomlinson said to Ford, "When the deputy's wife and kids disappeared, moonshiners might've dumped their bodies in the lake-it was during Prohibition. It wouldn't be the first time karma has waited decades to boot justice in the ass."
"Tootsie Barlow told you that story?" Ford, a marine biologist, was referring to a famous fishing guide who ranked with Jimmie Albright, Jack Brothers, Ted Williams, and a few others as fly-casting pioneers in the Florida Keys.
"His family was involved somehow-the Barlows go way, way back in the area. I don't know how yet, but I will. He's in bad shape, so I need to take it slow, but you're the one who told me about the lake-Chino Hole. That's the connection. The access road cuts through Tootsie's property."
"I had no idea. He moved to the Everglades?"
"Smack-dab in the middle. One of those little crossroads villages like Copeland or Carnestown. The property's been in his family for years. I'm driving down this afternoon. Since he quit guiding, it's probably easier for him to wake up and see sawgrass instead of the Gulf Stream. The endgame, dude, for watermen like us, it can be pretty damn sad."
"I've heard the rumor," Ford said. "As far as your story goes, I'm still lost."
"So's Tootsie. How many fishing guides put away money for retirement? He's broke, which is bad enough, but now he's afraid that God has singled out his family for punishment. Like a conspiracy, you know? Not because of something he did, more likely something his father or a relative did. The cops won't listen, his preacher doesn't believe him, so who else is he gonna call but the Right Reverend, yours truly."
Tomlinson, an ordained Rinzai Buddhist priest, seldom employed the honorific "Right Reverend." The title had been bestowed by a Las Vegas divinity mill after cashing his check for fifty bucks.
"Tootsie wants you to put in a good word with God, I get it. I still don't see what this has to do with us . . ."
"He wants someone to convince the cops he's not crazy. And there's another connection. The deputy who disappeared was J. H. Cox. That ring a bell? It should."
"When was this?"
"Nineteen twenty-five. A few years earlier, a woman was murdered by a man named Cox. Same area; near Marco Island. I don't know if it was the same man, but your Hannah Smith is a direct descendant of the woman he killed."
Mentioning the biologist's ex-lover, Hannah, was a calculated risk to catalyze Ford's interest. In the background over the phone, Tomlinson could hear a steel drum band. "Hey, seriously, where are you?"
Ford, who was in the lobby of the Schooner Hotel, Nassau, Bahamas, said, "I'm in Lauderdale. At a convention for aquarium hobbyists. I'll get back to the lab late tomorrow. Hopefully."
"Bahia Mar, Lauderdale?"
"Close enough. Look . . . I've got a talk to give and I'm still working on my notes." As he spoke, the child-porn dealer he'd been tailing stepped to the registration desk. Ford covered the phone and moved as if getting into line.
When he rejoined the conversation, his boat bum hipster pal Tomlinson was saying, ". . . Tootsie's story is historical fact. I've got the old newspaper stories to prove it. In August 1925, Deputy Cox, his wife, and two kids all disappeared the night before a bunch of bootleggers went on trial. Marco Island or somewhere at the edge of the Everglades-get it?-all within a few miles of Chino Hole."
"Moonshiners would need fresh water," Ford reasoned while he watched the clerk encode the porn dealer's room key.
"That's who the newspapers blamed, but there was other nasty crap going on at the time, which I'm just starting to research. You ever hear of the Marco Island war?"
"Come on, you're making this up."
"It happened, man. Same time period. A bunch of heavy hitters had their fingers in the regional pie-Al Capone, probably Joe Kennedy, too, but they weren't the worst. The elite rich were stealing homesteads, and smuggling in Chinese illegals to boot." Tomlinson sniffed, and added, "Lauderdale, huh? Dude, the satellite must'a stopped over Nassau, 'cause I swear can I smell jerked chicken."
Ford replied, "Call you back," and hung up as the clerk addressed the porn dealer by name for the third time-standard, in the hospitality business-then handed over a key in a sleeve with the number 803 written on it and circled.
"I'll be checking out in about an hour," Ford told the clerk when it was his turn.
There were ceiling fans in the lobby and panoramic windows, beyond which sunbaked tourists lounged by the pool. A brunette in a red handkerchief two-piece was sufficiently lush and languid to spark a yearning in the biologist-an abdominal pang he recognized as discontent.
Focus, he told himself, and returned to his encrypted notes. It became easier when the brunette stood and buttoned up her beach wrap. Every set of poolside eyes followed her to the door.
An hour later, the porn dealer reappeared in the lobby, wearing shorts and flip-flops, and exited toward the tiki bar.
Ford shouldered his computer bag, and crossed the lobby to the elevators.
From the eighth floor, Montagu Bay was a turquoise basin encrusted with slums and ox cart traffic on the eastern fringe. Spaced along the waterfront were resort compounds; postcard enclaves that were separated from Nassau's realities by armed guards and tastefully disguised concertina wire.
The biologist no longer wondered why tourists came to places like this. People seldom traveled. Not really. Travel was too damn unpredictable. Instead, they contrived daydreams. They chose template fictions that matched, or came close enough to, the vacation they wanted to describe to their friends back home.
Near the elevator was a house phone. He dialed housekeeping, and told the woman, "I'm a dope. Can you please send someone up with a key to eight-oh-three? I locked myself out."
"Your name, sir?"
"James Lutz." That was the name the porn dealer was using.
"When security arrives," the woman added, "show them your passport, Mr. Lutz."
"Have him bring a bucket of ice, too," the biologist replied.
He was palming a twenty-euro bill when a kid wearing a name badge appeared, used a passkey, and bowed him into the room. "Hang on, I've got something for you." Inside the closet, as anticipated, was a wall safe, which he fiddled with before giving up. "Damn . . . must have punched in the number wrong. What's the default code? I need my wallet."
The kid opened the safe, and stepped back in deference to this solid-looking American who exuded confidence, but in a friendly way that suggested he was also generous.
"Thank you, Mr. Lutz," the kid said, accepting the twenty. No eye contact; he backed out of the room.
"You're supposed to see this." The fake passport earned only a dutiful glance.
He has no future in the security trade, Ford rationalized when the kid was gone. I did him a favor.
On the other hand, probably not. Child pornography was a billion-dollar international industry. Nassau was the ancillary stronghold for a Russian network that branched into Haiti, Indonesia, and the Middle East, particularly Muslim regions where daughters were treated as chattel. Children provided a steady income to jihadists who enjoyed beheading infidels. When word got out that a low-level dealer had lost incriminating files while drinking at the pool bar, Jimmy Lutz, or whatever his name was, would beg first for his life, then a painless bullet.
If he lived that long.
Wearing gloves and a jeweler's eyepiece, Ford secured an adhesive keystroke transmitter to Lutz's laptop. The translucent tape was two inches long and thinner than a human hair. Once mounted on the screen's black border, it became invisible, which Ford confirmed, before returning the laptop to its case.
Next, the safe. He photographed the contents: a wallet, two passports, a bundle of cash, and half a dozen ultra-secure biometric thumb drives. Three platinum thumb drives, three stealth black. Ford's employer, a Swiss agency, had anticipated this, but had provided him with only four stealth versions. He switched out the three black thumb drives, and repositioned each exactly as he'd found it before closing the safe.
Ford had also anticipated that Jimmy Lutz was in Nassau on a working vacation. On the bed, a Dacor dive bag lay next to a leather suitcase and a valet parking ticket. He unzipped the bag and removed a buoyancy compensator vest attached to a four-hose regulator.
The gear looked new.
Using a multi-tool, he popped a pin, removed the regulator's cover; next, a lubricating seal and the main diaphragm. A stainless valve seat and plunger were cupped within. With a drop of water-soluble glue, he seated an object that would clog the system when it broke free but would dissolve without a trace within twenty minutes. He did the same to the backup regulator, then returned everything to the bag.
There was no such thing as a zero signature robbery unless the victim wasn't alive to report the crime. No guarantees when or if it would happen, but a nice touch if the man had booked an afternoon dive.
When Ford was done, he consulted photos of the room to be sure it was exactly as he'd found it, then cracked the door and eyeballed the hallway.
Damn it . . . Lumbering toward him was Jimmy Lutz after only twenty minutes at the tiki bar. Maybe he'd left his wallet, or needed cigars. Ford hurried past the bed, pocketed the valet ticket, then exited onto the balcony, closing the curtains and sliding doors.
"You . . . bastard . . . get your hands off me," a woman said from nearby. British accent. She sounded more startled than mad. A neighboring balcony was empty, but billowing curtains suggested the woman was in the adjoining suite. Ford's attention wavered until a slamming door told him Lutz was in the room. Lights came on within, then heavy feet flip-flopped toward him, as the woman, voice louder, threatened, "I'll call the police, by god, if you don't get out of here right now."
Lutz heard her; curtains parted. Ford hugged the wall while the man peered out, his face inches away through the glass. Satisfied the woman wasn't on his balcony, Lutz engaged the dead bolt and swept the curtains closed.
Ford was trapped. He waited, hearing a mix of sounds from the adjoining suite: a clatter of furniture; the woman gasping, "Damn you . . . that hurts," and other indecipherable noises that signaled a struggle. Or was it a kinky twosome enjoying rough love?
Inside Lutz's room, a toilet flushed. A door suctioned curtains, then banged closed.
The porn dealer was gone.
Ford grabbed his tactical bag before testing the sliding doors. Yes, they were locked. He swung a leg over the railing, ignored the dizzying distance to the beach below, and made the long step to the next balcony, which was screened by landscape foliage. A potted plant crashed to the tile when he pushed his bag through, then followed. Beyond billowing curtains, through open doors, the room went silent.
Standing, looking in, he was prepared to apologize to the couple until he accessed the scene. A fit man wearing medical whites and a name badge glared back-a massage therapist whose table had collapsed on the floor during a struggle. Askew on the table, still battling to cover her body with a sheet, was the brunette he'd seen by the pool.
"Didn't know you was there, sir," the man glowered. "She want to call the constables, fine, but what you think they'll say? She's the one requested MY services."
In Nassau, even extortion threats sounded as melodic as a woodwind flute.
"Are you hurt?" Ford asked the woman. He pushed the curtains aside and stepped in.
She was confused, and mad enough to sputter, "I want this bastard fired. If you work for the hotel, I want to file a-"
"That man don't work here," the therapist said. Until then, he'd been backing toward the door. Now, looking from Ford to the broken pottery outside, he figured out the situation. "Yeah, what the police gonna say? This guest hire me, take her clothes off, her own free accord. I already know who they gonna believe."
"You cheeky son of a bitch." The woman tried to scoot away; the sheet fell. She folded her arms to cover herself until Ford yanked the sheet free and tossed it over her. He wore a baggy white guayabera shirt, tails out to cover the waistband of his khaki slacks. Again he asked the woman if she was hurt.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "For Christ's sake, call the manager . . . or do something. This man tried to rape me."
"Naw, come on," the therapist said in a soothing way. "That ain't true. You want to know the real problem? This fella come here to rob you, that's what they'll figure out. Why else he climb over that balcony? You being such a wealthy lady, they'll know a poor boy like me wouldn't do nothing so stupid."
"Bastard," the woman said, while the man grinned.
"Ain't you the spicy one," he countered. "I'm not the type to make trouble, so tell you what. Mister, I'm willing to leave polite-like-but I want compensation for all the fun I missed, plus the coin you lost me. Sound fair?"
"Very fair," Ford said. He reached back as if for a billfold but came up with a 9mm pistol and leveled the sights at the man's nose.
"Where do you want it?" he asked.
The massage therapist, no longer smiling, said, "Shit, man. What the . . . Don't make me take that away from you, 'cause you won't like what happens next."
Staring over the sights, Ford cocked the pistol, and spoke to the woman: "Get some clothes on and call the police, if that's what you want. But not from here. There's a house phone near the elevators."
The therapist turned to her. "See there, Miz Cobourg! He plans to shoot me 'cause he don't want witnesses," while the woman asked Ford, "Is it true? The constables won't believe me?"
"Not a chance," Ford said. "You made the appointment through the concierge?"
"Of course," she said, then understood the implications. "Oh hell. Yes, it was a damn fool thing to do, I suppose." She got to her feet with the sheet around her, no longer afraid, just angry and undecided.
"It happens a lot in places like this. If you're worried about headlines, I'd pack your things now and not look back. Or just forget it."