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Mean High Tide (Thorn Series Book 3)

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Mean High Tide (Thorn Series Book 3)


  James W. Hall

  Copyright © 1994 by James W. Hall

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Author, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

  This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental.

  Table of Contents




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  For Evelyn with all my love

  Thanks to Mike Picchietti for his generous help with information about tilapia and fish farming, and to Dr. Jeffrey Rosen for his very useful medical insights, and to Dennis Lehane for starting me out in the right direction.

  Let the waters bring forth abundantly.

  — Genesis

  When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

  Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

  Nor set down aught in malice: then, must you speak

  Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;

  Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,

  Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,

  Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

  Richer than all his tribe.

  — Othello


  It was a clear hot August morning, spacious and easy, the kind of day when absolutely nothing bad could happen. The Atlantic as calm and tepid as day-old bathwater. All that stillness caused by a high-pressure ridge, Darcy said, perched over the Florida Keys, keeping the lid tight on the bell jar. Not a trickle of breeze, just the same air that was here last week and the week before. Getting a little muggy, maybe, but Thorn considered it good air. Damn good summertime air. Air with substance, heft.

  The sky with a fresh coat of flawless enamel. A plush blue, the color of blood in the veins. Out on the eastern horizon, the gulls and herons, the frigate birds, even the distant tankers gliding along the shipping lanes were each in exquisite focus. Only a few stringy clouds hung motionless in the west like ripples in marble.

  Saturday, six miles offshore of Key Largo, Thorn and Darcy anchored over a patch of sand a few boat-lengths east of Broken Conch Reef, just minutes south of the boundary of Pennekamp State Park. It wasn't quite noon, but already they'd put three good-size lobsters in the cooler. Twice Darcy had glimpsed a gigantic one, but she couldn't get close enough for a swipe at it. Now they were taking a break, finding their breath. Thorn stood at the console and watched Darcy clean her mask.

  "You ready for lunch?"

  "No," she said. "But don't let that stop you."

  She smiled at him and went back to work on her mask. Thorn cocked a hip against the console, leaned his weight against it, and watched her rub the glass with the corner of a towel.

  In the last couple of years, he'd spent a hell of a lot of time watching Darcy Richards. Watching her do little things, or nothing at all. Sleep or read, hang out laundry, brush her hair. He'd watched her mince the tough meat of countless conchs, then drop the breaded balls into simmering oil. He'd seen her cast her fishing line a thousand times, and watched her waiting while her bait sank, that expectant look in her eyes, and almost every day he watched her soap herself in the outdoor shower, watched her towel off then wrap the towel around herself and sit down on one of the Adirondack chairs and throw her damp hair forward over her head, presenting it to the sun. In the two years they'd lived together, he'd watched her do a few thousand things, and she'd never failed to fascinate him.

  Lately she'd begun to cut her hair the way she had in high school. All the perm had grown out from her days as a Miami TV weather forecaster, and now her hair hung simple and straight to her shoulders, with her bangs just brushing her eyebrows. The dust of the city almost all blown away by the island breezes.

  Her hair was the shade of honey with a ruby blush, one of the rare sunset colors. Her eyes were a rich avocado-green, but sometimes when Thorn moved close they seemed to play tricks with the light, run up and down some personal color spectrum. Suddenly a vaporous gray, or maybe an aquamarine.

  "How'd you know about this place, anyway?" he said. "That there'd be so many lobsters left?"

  She looked up at him a moment, then went back to her mask.

  She said, "You know I can't reveal my sources, Thorn."

  "Yeah," he said. "It's one of the six hundred things I like about you. Integrity. Confidentiality."

  "Only six hundred?" she said. "That's it?"

  "Six hundred to the tenth power," he said. "Multiplied thereafter by a repeating factor of four."

  "What the hell's a repeating factor of four?"

  Thorn shrugged.

  "I heard it somewhere. I'm not sure. Maybe I made it up."

  "All right then," she said, her pout fading, becoming a smile. "That's better than six hundred."

  He bent down and dug through the cooler till he found what surely was the coldest Budweiser south of Anchorage. Thorn in his cutoff jeans, a T-shirt advertising a local tackle shop, his polarized sunglasses. His bare feet and the rest of his exposed flesh a dark chestnut. His hair these days was straggling past his collar from the last time Darcy had cut it a couple of months back. Summer blond, dry and brittle as hay.

  "You ever consider," he said, "the crawfish population keeps thinning out at the rate it has, today might just turn out to be the last time we find any at all. Next summer the only ones left could be the deep-water critters, down a few hundred feet. You ever think like that?"

  "I try not to."

  Her voice was flat, and she didn't look at him, just exhaled on the glass of her mask and rubbed at another blur.

  Thorn looked at her for a moment more, and when she didn't look up, he sighed, stretched his shoulders, then stared down into the clear water.

  It was twenty feet deep here, but the water was clear enough that he could make out the wavy orange of elk horn coral, a small fluid school of damselfish down a dozen feet, a couple of sergeants major hanging near the surface. Business as usual on the reef. The come and go of thousands of iridescent minnows, pecking at the living rock of coral, clouds of purple and oxblood and crimson staining the water momentarily with their glitter. A gaudy mural that wouldn't hold still.

  Thorn squinted out at the blue-diamond water, then slowly scanned the calm sea. Hardly any boat traffic today. A single open fisherman a half mile away, idling in their direction. Looked like a Grady White.

  One boat, where just a couple of weeks ago there would've been a hundred, maybe a thousand. All of them full of tourist divers down for the fo
ur-day weekend, the annual opening of lobster season. It was a four-day horror show, a grim onslaught of thousands of strangers, cramming the narrow islands, carrying their nets and tickle sticks and cases of beer and loud radios, armadas of more tourists rolling down U.S. 1 in bright rental cars.

  In the evenings, with their sunburns glowing, and decked out in T-shirts with pictures of lobsters and funny sayings printed on them, they crowded the restaurants, overwhelmed the bars and motels, and for four days they rented all the available boats, clogged the marinas and boat ramps and dive shops, and each morning they headed out to sea in rowdy groups to comb every inch of seabed they could locate.

  Most of the local merchants loved that weekend, and advertised heavily throughout the state and the nearby states to lure more and more of them down. But for Thorn it was an agonizing time. For four days, everywhere he turned there were strangers and more strangers, all of them in a frenzy of gluttony, looting every cranny, dislodging rocks, sloshing along the shoreline through the fragile sponge beds, spearing and grabbing, overturning whatever was in their path.

  And as usual, this year the Marine Patrol caught a few of the violators. Two men from Georgia who exceeded their six-lobster-per-day limit by several thousand. Heading back to Valdosta with their U-Haul chock-full of undersize crawfish on beds of ice, and a few hundred pounds of elk horn coral they'd snapped off to sell as souvenirs.

  But that was two weeks ago. Now the waters were still again, the surviving lobsters left to the men and women who made their living trapping them in wooden cages for the restaurant trade, and to the few locals who had the patience to hunt down a last straggler or two to make a meal.

  August half over, Labor Day ahead, another small invasion of tourists would swell the island again on that weekend, then the Keys would be quiet, left to the locals for several months till the winter season began and the rich Yankees began to arrive again. That's how it was going in the Keys. One cycle of locusts, then another; swarming for days or months, they stripped whatever succulent tidbit the last wave had left behind, then at some magical signal, they all whisked away in one voracious cloud to the next fertile field that struck their fancy.

  Thorn was sick of it, getting sicker every year. Not sure exactly what to do. He was no political type. He couldn't give speeches, or organize the locals against the pillaging of what was theirs to safeguard. Lately, he had toyed with the idea of leaving the island, sailing farther out into the Caribbean, where the swarms might not be as large or ravenous.

  But like it or not, Key Largo was his home, had been for all his forty-two years. Cursed as it was by its own willingness to sell itself, spreading its legs by the hour or the week. Renting its soul. This was his home. And since he could not save this place, he did what he could to save himself. He hunkered down. And when that didn't work, he hunkered down lower.

  Thorn opened the cooler and drew out one of the tuna-and-cheddar sandwiches they'd made before sunup this morning. Heavy on the mustard with a leaf or two of lettuce and an inch-thick slab of fresh tomato. He climbed up on the observation platform above the engine, opened the wax paper, and began to eat.

  Today they'd come out to sea in the eighteen footer, his Hewes bonefish skiff with a six-inch draft, made for skimming over dew and window-panes of water, not for the big rollers of the Atlantic. Ordinarily, this far offshore, he would've used the thirty-foot Chris-Craft, the old teak-and-mahogany boat he'd inherited. But with the water so smooth, the horizon as precise as a snapped chalk line, hell, he and Darcy could've paddled a kayak out there today, kept going if they'd felt like it, across the Gulf Stream, made it to Nassau by happy hour.

  He watched that open fisherman idling closer. The person cut the engines four hundred yards away, and went forward and threw the anchor over, then a red dive flag on a white float.

  "What's the bottom like over there?" Thorn motioned toward the Grady White. "You know?"

  "Some rocky patches," she said, "nothing else."

  "Maybe that guy knows something you don't."

  "Not likely."

  Darcy stared at the boat, squinting, but didn't say anything. In a moment or two she looked down, spit into her mask, rubbed the saliva across the glass, and as she rubbed, she once again brought her eyes to that boat.

  "You ever bring anybody here before?" he asked.

  She looked over at him, put her mask aside, folded her hands in her lap, and shook her head.

  "It's my secret place," she said. "You're the very first to know about it. And you're sworn to silence."

  "Really?" he said. "Nobody? Not even that Roger, what's-his-name? Your prom date?"

  She gave him a mildly caustic look.

  "Well, can I at least tell Sugarman?" he said.

  "Sugarman already knows about it."

  "I thought I was the first."

  "You are."

  A smile tinged her lips.

  "What is this? A riddle?"

  She said, "Sugarman brought Gaeton and me here. Though I'm sure he wouldn't remember, it was so long ago."

  She leaned back against the gunwale, reached out and dangled an arm overboard, her fingers trailing through the water.

  She said, "I was ten years old, maybe eleven. Which would've made Sugar and you and Gaeton seniors. The two of them were just playing around that day, exploring. Grouper fishing, as I recall. I don't know where you were, probably home tying flies or something. But I remember Gaeton and Sugar didn't catch anything here, so I suppose they didn't file the place away. But I snorkeled around that morning, and I never forgot it. The size of the lobsters here. I didn't tell them what I'd seen, kept my mouth shut and my poker face on, but I snuck back every year I could after that. Never told anybody. Not my brother, not Sugar, nobody."

  "Till today."

  "Yeah," she said. "Till today."

  "Why now?"

  "I thought it was time," she said. "You never know, there could be an asteroid with my name on it, a Greyhound bus flying down U.S. 1. Stuff you don't see coming. I don't want to die carrying around a lot of valuable secrets."

  She looked over at him for a long moment, while that lingered. Thorn stared back at her, waiting for her to laugh, hoping by god she would; but without any sign that she was kidding, she dropped her eyes and ran her fingers again through the water.

  She'd been saying things like that lately. In the middle of a joking conversation, lurching suddenly into an ominous tone. He'd known her all his life, had been best friends with her older brother Gaeton, and for the last two years had been sharing his house and bed with her. But in all those years, it was only in the last month Darcy Richards had been taking these swerves in her mood. Like a soprano suddenly breaking into a hoarse bass.

  Thorn thought it might be something biological, maybe the ache of childlessness resonating up from somewhere inside her, making her wistful. Or perhaps it was just her age, the winding down of her thirties, forty hovering dangerously on the horizon. One morning she gets out of bed, the calendar has dropped another page overnight, and right then some prickly dread hatches deep in her bowels and begins gnawing its way out.

  He ate his sandwich and watched her. When he was done, he climbed down from the platform, threw the wax paper into the garbage bin, and came over to her and sat down. She was staring off at the horizon.

  "So who stood you up back at the docks?"

  She brought her eyes back from the distance, and though she smiled, and held his gaze firmly, something was moving in her eyes, some shadowy form ducking away to hide behind the brightness of her smile.

  "Just somebody I wanted you to meet."

  Earlier, when they'd gassed up at Snake Creek Marina, Darcy had paced the dock looking for someone. Making Thorn hang around another ten minutes after the tank was full. Finally giving up and heading on out to the reef.

  "Tell me about it, Darcy. What's going on?"

  She lowered her eyes, studied the back of her right hand.

  "Tell you about what?"
r />   "You know what. The way you've been lately. Moody, quiet. The asteroid thing, the Greyhound bus."

  "Moody? Me?"

  "Is it something medical?"

  A reluctant smile surfaced on her lips. She looked at him, shook her head, and Thorn felt the blood that had been massing in his throat begin to seep away. At least it wasn't that. Thank god, not that.

  She took a measured breath, let it go, and said, "Oh, I don't know. It's nothing really."

  "Why can't you tell me?"

  She leaned overboard, looked down into the water, a single finger touching the surface, moving across the transparent skin as if she might be writing something there.

  She wore a yellow bikini with dabs and splashes of greens. Her hair clenched in a ponytail; her skin sheened with seawater evaporating, sweat appearing. Brine going and coming.

  He cleared his throat and spoke her name. But she kept her eyes on the message she was writing.

  "Oh, just something I stumbled onto at work," she said. "I don't know exactly what it means, so I thought I'd poke around a little on my own, see if I could figure it out."

  "What kind of thing at work?"

  "I don't want to talk about it."

  She looked away from him, watched a cormorant slant in from the east, pass low overhead, then splash into the water a few yards away. It bobbed to the top and turned itself in their direction, waiting for food scraps.

  "You know, Thorn," she said. She took a long breath and let it go, watched the cormorant swim closer. "I like how we are together. I like our rituals. All of them. I do. The fishing, the wine. No phone, no newspaper. Up at dawn, out in the boat every day. The good life. The uncomplicated life."

  She sighed, touched a strand of damp hair at her temple. She looked over Thorn's right shoulder, gazing intently as if someone were sneaking up on him. Thorn swung his head around, but nothing was there except the flat blue water.

  When he looked back, she was staring down at the deck.

  "But see, it's your life we're leading, Thorn. You lived exactly the same way before I came along. I've adjusted to your rituals, your schedule, made your preoccupations mine. And lately, I've been feeling like I want a few of my own again. That's all. Simple as that."

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