By Charlie Hudson
Chris used her safety stop during the dive as she always did when there was little current. She hovered close to the line, able to keep her depth between twenty and fifteen feet, slowly rotating for the last view of the wreck below them. Vertical visibility was still adequate to watch the small school of Atlantic spadefish make their way around the barge deployed almost thirty years before as an artificial reef. With decades underwater, the abundance of marine life in general would have been enjoyable even without the sight of the turtle munching on a sponge. The large green moray partially extended near the bow of the sunken vessel may not have been deliberating posing for the couple with their SeaLife cameras, but he didn’t seem disturbed by their presence. They both had excellent buoyancy control and didn’t jostle each other in trying to get the shots they wanted.
They would be ascending only a few minutes after Chris and as she glanced upward, she saw the barracuda. It was around three feet long, using the boat shadow as a shield — a common behavior for the predator at the top of the food chain when sharks weren’t around.
Chris knew Maury Westfall, owner of Captain M Diving, from her short time working on a liveaboard. When she explained she had only one day available for leisure diving, he’d invited her for the afternoon. He’d replaced the engine on the smallest of his three charter boats with a new Detroit Diesel and this was the test run. He wanted to get out of the shop for a while and inviting longtime clients Stan and Laurie, the photographers, made for a pleasant foursome for the trip. They all spent the run back to the dock discussing different dive destinations. Unlike Chris who had no desire for ice diving, the couple had done one of the Antarctic liveaboard trips which meant between them, they’d been diving on every continent. She exchanged business cards before they left and hung her gear in the guest storage where it could dry until she picked it up the next morning.
She waved in affirmation when Maury told her he’d meet her for drinks in an hour. There was no need to ask where. She booked into the same nearby hotel where she always stayed when a room was available. The aging building one street from the marina had few of the amenities commonly expected by travelers nor was it the waterfront property most tourists sought out. It was, however, comfortable, only a few-minutes walk from the dive shop and next door to The Drunken Seadog.
Chris showered and changed into a pair of cobalt blue twill shorts and a navy-blue tank top underneath an unbuttoned short sleeve parrot-festooned cotton shirt. Her copper-toned, curly hair took less than five minutes of blow drying to be as set as she was going to bother with, and moisturizer was the extent of her make-up as usual. She packed little jewelry when she traveled — the silver turtle pendant and a pair of silver starfish earrings were standard for her. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe watch had been a present to herself for her thirty-fourth birthday.
She knew she wasn’t far ahead of Maury and saw the long bar of “The Dog” was nearly full when she entered. The word “ramshackle” for the infrequently painted building belied sturdy construction and was in keeping with why it was a locals’ place, built in a manner to set the tone for the clientele they encouraged. The exterior heavy wooden ship’s door was a replica although the porthole had been salvaged from a World War II wreck by two brothers, the original owners. Wide planking, also salvaged from different places, lined the nearly windowless walls. A profusion of reproduction nautical lanterns provided enough light to avoid the description of dim. Numerous authentic ones were for decoration except when called into use during power outages. When both owners died in a speed boat accident, the estranged wife of the oldest brother sold the place within days of the funeral. Rumor had it the retired Merchant Marine who bought it did so because it was essentially his second home anyway. The limited menu items were meant to help absorb large quantities of alcohol, but didn’t stint on flavor or serving size. A sensitive nose was not required to recognize a grill and deep fat fryer were the primary means of cooking.
Chris took one of the rough-hewn tables by the wall underneath a framed picture of the original owners posing with a marlin that probably weighed around 400 pounds from the look of it. Esmie, the Jamaican waitress who could quell an escalating argument with either a piercing glare or a jovial aside depending on who was involved, went by with a bucket of Red Stripe on ice. “Captain M coming?”
Chris nodded to signal their usual order of a bucket with a local craft brew and a basket of conch fritters. Rock, the bartender who aptly earned the nickname in his high school wrestling days, would pick a red or brown ale for them based on what they had in the rotation. Although they carried the usual Millers and Budweiser for tradition’s sake, most of the twelve taps had been given over to brands not likely to be seen advertised on television.
“I thought I’d timed this correctly,” Maury said, two steps behind Esmie as she delivered the food and beer. She flashed a smile in greeting before moving toward a table where one of four older men lifted a glass to indicate they were ready for another round. Maury lowered his lean length of just over six feet into the wooden chair and used the shark-shaped bottle opener tied to the bucket to pop the top from a red ale and hand it to Chris. They knew the fritters would need to cool.
“Thanks,” Chris said. “Really enjoyed meeting Stan and Laurie.”
He lightly tapped his bottle against hers. “They were impressed with you, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if they book a week of treasure hunting. They haven’t done that yet.”
“Be glad to have them. We take mostly return clients now or in situations like this, someone we’re acquainted with.”
Maury lowered his voice for a moment and blinked his brown eyes, bronzed skin around them etched with six decades of living. “Yeah, I can figure that. Was sorry to hear about McFadden. Knew him way back. You’re based out of there or still In Vero?”
Even though news of Rory McFadden’s death and that of others hadn’t been officially carried outside the islands, the maritime community of regular working people was connected through their own channels. Rory had made his way in and around the Caribbean for more than forty years and word spread.
“I have the Maybe Tomorrow on-site at whichever wreck we’re working and usually stay in a hotel when I’m at the headquarters in Eleuthera. I use it for mail and keep a local bank account. I have an arrangement at Captain Billy’s Marina in Vero Beach too where I use them if I need a U.S. mailing address.”
“Doesn’t sound as if you’re planning to settle down anytime soon.”
Chris grinned. “Can’t think of a reason to at this point.”
“I hear you,” he said and plucked a fritter from the basket. “Speaking of careers, did I tell you Zack’s been promoted to manager at the new store? Makes it extra nice as a second baby is due in a couple of months.”
Chris knew how proud he and his wife were of their son and daughter who was a teacher if she remembered correctly. “How many grandkids will that be?”
“Four, split right down the middle with two boys and two girls,” he said and opened the second beers. They finished the fritters in between exchanging stories and were on the last beer when Chris noticed a guy who seemed to be moving toward them.
She didn’t place the voice or face immediately but the faded yet visible three-inch scar just below his left ear was easy to remember. “Conrad Langston. Good Lord, what a coincidence.”
Maury was already half out of his chair, callused hand extended as Chris made the introduction. “We were in Australia together for a few months,” she finished and was surprised when Maury offered his chair.
“I’d stay for another one, but Abby’s got one of the neighbor couples coming to dinner in about an hour and she’ll give me hell if I don’t get home.”
Chris flipped her hand as he reached for his wallet. “Not a chance, not after two good dives today.”
He didn’t argue, clapped Conrad on the shoulder, and gave Chris a quick hug. “Let me know if you head back this way again.”
“Will do,” she said and saw Conrad gesture to Esmie.
“Scotty, the owner, is an old family friend and I always come in to say hi. Esmie told me he’s out of town this week though. I was going to sit at the bar and when I looked around, I was sure it was you. It’s been what? Six years? Probably more.” He glanced at the empties. “Same again?”
“Not a whole bucket,” she said.
“Just two for now then,” he said and passed the empties to Esmie. “You look great, by the way.”
Chris smiled. “Thanks. You haven’t changed a bit — you here in Florida?” Her comment was accurate. Conrad’s stocky build was still muscular with no discernible layer of fat beneath the tropical shirt and she didn’t see any gray in his short, straight brown hair. Not that he should have any at only six months older than she was. Lighter brown eyebrows and green eyes spoke to what Chris knew was his mother’s Irish ancestry. Other than the scar he told her was a reminder of wild times in his youth, he had no distinguishing marks and unlike most in the dive profession, he was devoid of visible tattoos. In the course of being instructors together, she’d seen him plenty of times clad only in swim trunks. Their relationship had never gone beyond friendly peers and there’d been no reason for either to stay in touch after Chris moved on from the dive shop in Cairns.
“Nope — my parents are still up in Jacksonville. I’m in town for a meeting. Something you’ll really get a kick out of. I only have a little over an hour, but you go first and tell me what you’ve been up to.”
Their friendship also didn’t merit divulging the dramas she’d encountered since those days. “Did several things in the dive world, then got linked in with a guy in Texas who has a marine casualty company. I do some underwater investigation for him — strictly freelance. I got a great deal on a fifty-foot Viking Motor Yacht, fixed it up to live in, and have a small share in a salvage operation out of Eleuthera.”
He cocked his head. “Salvage, huh? Heard about a major find with the Santa Teresa – that yours by any chance?”
Chris wasn’t too surprised at his question. Finding Spanish galleons was always news. “Yeah, pretty exciting stuff. We found another ship not too long ago basically by accident. Nothing to compare to the Teresa, of course. It’s a freighter — a special case situation a university is involved in.”
He tilted his bottle to her. “Congratulations. You here for business, too, then?”
“A slam dunk investigation as it turned out. Nothing complicated. I fly late tomorrow morning. You?”
“Dinner meeting tonight at the Pelican Grand, then an early morning flight back. I’ve been with Idyllic Islands a little more than a year. They have multiple locations and now this one in Turks and Caicos.”
Esmie brought the other two beers and set them on coasters. “Resorts, you mean?”
“Not exactly,” he grinned. “The entire island is segmented into different zones. It’s what they do.”
“Private islands? Like Disney’s?”
Conrad’s enthusiasm stopped short of being a full-blown sales pitch. “Bigger in the scope sense. A terrific resort is only part. Not surprisingly, everything is ocean-centered for us. Each island they develop has income-producing segments as well as some kind of tourism and quality of life components geared toward a specific market. In this case, every water sport imaginable is included and they’re doing some off-shore oil and minerals exploration and coral restoration.” He paused for a sip of beer. “Only a limited number of properties are for sale, half of which have been purchased and built on. The resort takes up forty percent of the island — mostly along the western shore for killer sunsets. One portion is set as interior for those who want the feel of being in a nature park. Few cars or trucks outside delivery needs, predominantly electric and nothing large. Electric golf carts, too, bicycles, scooters, lots of solar, some biofuel. The single small village has all the necessities and plenty of art, music, and so forth. We do have what we call an airport, although it really is more an expanded airfield.”
Chris tilted her head. “Sounds expensive.”
Conrad shook his head. “Not the way you’d think. In this business model the resort is comparable to most places in the islands and the properties are too, except the one enclave in the millionaire — well, multi-millionaire — category.”
“And your position is what?”
“The title is Director, North Atlantic Region. I’m essentially responsible for the entire island. The ‘Region’ part leaves room for expansion depending on how things go.”
Chris didn’t try to hide her surprise. “What? I remember you majored in business or something, but it sounds like there’s a lot of different things to manage.”
He leaned forward, his eyes bright. “It’s definitely the biggest deal I’ve ever been involved with. To answer your question though, each of the sectors has at least one expert on staff. The operations are separate enough to where no one really steps on anyone else’s toes. We have a good team and it’s been working well so far,” he said and lifted his bottle. “I’d love to explain the whole set-up if I didn’t have to go. Why don’t you come see for yourself? I’ll guarantee you’ll be impressed.”
“I am already,” she laughed. “Congratulations to you. It is an intriguing idea.”
He finished his beer and pushed the chair back. Like with Maury, Chris flicked her hand when he looked around for Esmie. “I’ve got this, you head on out. Glad you came over to say hi.”
She stood to exchange hugs and business cards. “Thanks, and I’m serious about visiting. We have a top-notch marina if you want to bring your boat or I’ll put you in a waterfront suite.”
“I will think about it,” she said and watched as he flagged Esmie down on the way out to give her a hug.
The older woman came to the table. “Been knowing that boy a long time. He had his troubles and glad to see he’s past them. You be wanting another beer or something stronger?”
Chris smiled. “Not right now. I think I’ll get packed up and maybe come over a little later.”
“We’ll be here,” she said, passed her the check and drifted to the other table to see how they were doing.
Chris tucked money and the check under the empty basket, thinking about Conrad as she strolled to her room. She’d already accepted a job in St Croix when he’d come to work at the dive shop in Cairns. She enjoyed Australia after leaving Hawaii and had decided to move to at least the same hemisphere as her parents and sister. Their friendship had been the casual type, both attracted enough to each other, but not to the point of entering into a short-term fling. Chris had sensed something in him she hadn’t been able to quite pin down. In the last month there was a night of late partying with the next day off and Conrad had been unusually pensive. A comment about the scar behind his ear had sent the conversation in direction of a darker period of his life. Wild behavior, risky situations, a rupture with his family, details he didn’t want to describe, and she didn’t press for. She surmised there’d been some level of intervention, possibly discrete rehabilitation and Australia was adequate distance from it all to make a new start. She sure as hell wasn’t one to probe into other peoples’ troubles and could empathize without revealing much of her own disastrous too young, too wrong marriage. Mistakes were recoverable and as the saying went, “Don’t be a prisoner of your past. It was just a lesson, not a life sentence.” She was glad for what sounded like a great position for Conrad. Aside from the fact he did look well, with the kind of information available about potential employees these days, if Idyllic Islands was a substantial company, they would have discovered any issues before hiring him. He wouldn’t have been brought in if he still had a record of problems.
She made her way to the room at the hotel and jiggled the key as required to open the door. No keycards was one of the quaint elements left over from the 1950s, as was the window air conditioning unit that functioned more quietly than she expected. She crossed to the large window to draw the drapes. Old-fashioned as the place might be, the drapes and matching bedspread with tropical flower motif were brightly colored and the pale green of the walls was fresh paint. The clunky television atop the rattan dresser had no more than basic cable, but in one of the few concessions to the times their Wi-fi was strong. Chris, like most people who cared to, could stream entertainment from her laptop. She changed her mind about dinner next door. She was suddenly in the mood for a thick steak. She always packed a wrinkle-free, ankle length dress and lightweight shawl, just in case, which would fit in well at Jackson’s Prime. Since she didn’t have an early start the next morning, she could have a nightcap at the Seadog. They did have a much better than average rum selection.
Copyright © 2001-2021, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.