CHAPTER 1—Dead Reckoning
July 1978, Card Sound, Florida
Malice wafted off the water.
Bradan hadn’t lived 1,500 years without developing an instinct for hazard. However, tonight there were no signs of unwanted attention. He’d done this a dozen times. He switched pickup locations, always scouted them beforehand. Of course, the weak link wasn’t setting, it was people.
The mosquitoes were insane.
Everyone was high.
He knew he’d adjusted to Miami summers too well when a breezy eighty degrees felt cold. He stood on a rutted little lane that disappeared into Card Sound a few feet away. Black olive trees, strangler figs, and copperwood overgrew the muddy track, reassuringly hiding him and his crew despite their proximity to urbanity. Confederate jasmine with small white blossoms twined around the trees. Bradan had seen nightshade further up the lane where it was drier. The flora smelled fecund and rotten. Turkey Point nuclear plant’s twin chimneys hovered above everything, visible through the dense overstory.
The team’s box truck, engine on to power the scanner and a radio, was parked up the lane as close to the water as they dared without getting stuck in the muck, everything very discreet in the twilight. And convenient. No sense lugging fifty-pound bales further than needed by hand from the Sound’s edge. The trawler should be making its drop soon.
“Where’s the accent from, Brad?” Bill asked.
“South Florida,” Bradan said. He worked to blend in with appropriate slang and accent for his locale, mastering the vulgate and staying true to whatever era and circumstance he found himself in. However, Celtic overtones had colored his voice through the centuries, a bloodstain on white cotton that faded but never disappeared.
“Lived in Everglades City all my life,” Bill said. “You ain’t Florida.”
“I’ve been all over.”
He inhaled deeply and passed a joint to Bill.
“Why the questions?” Bradan asked.
“This business, I like to know who I’m workin’ with.”
“Wise policy, darlin’, but I’m no mystery. On my crew, we deal weight and we don’t piss folks off. We only handle weed, no coke. We’re just a medium-sized cog in a big machine.”
“Earl says you ain’t been busted so far,” Bill said. “So the plan must be workin’ for your Brady Bunch here.”
“We’re not ambitious enough to be truly criminal.”
Bradan realized he’d been way more voluble than he’d intended. His policy was to tell his crew of Palm Beach ganja smugglers what they needed to know to do a given job and no more.
None of them actually came from Palm Beach. They were mostly suntanned, long-haired white guys from hardscrabble rural communities around South Florida supplemented with blacks from Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. Nobody tended to reflect abstractly on their situation. Just get the job at hand done and collect their pay—and Bradan paid them well. However, the new guy, Bill, Earl’s cousin, was inquisitive. Bradan had worked with him on two drops last year. Then he’d seemed a steady sort, no drama, before he’d fallen off the globe for six months only to reappear two weeks ago—vouched for by Earl—wanting work over the summer. Despite the reassurance of past experience with Bill, Bradan would have declined out of instinctive caution, but one of his regular bale jockeys had left Miami suddenly for parts unknown after a July 4 convenience store armed robbery in Florida City. More strong backs meant a quicker pickup and less exposure to officious eyes, so he’d rehired Bill planning to watch him closely. Tonight the man seemed coked up and weed wasn’t taking the edge off.
“No guns,” Earl said. He took a drag as the joint came his way.
“No need,” Bradan said. “We aren’t cowboys.”
“Except the Remington pump in the truck,” Bill said. “Noticed that when we come over, behind the driver’s seat.”
“Just decoration,” Bradan said. “Never used it.” He took another puff. The reefer blazed, washing his face with orange in the dark.
“Your dog scares me more than that 12-gauge,” Bill said.
“He should,” Cabe said. Bradan could tell he was working to frame his thoughts through a haze of dope. “Saw Tintagel go after some dude who was spying on us last time we was down here. Bradan had to call him off or there wouldn’t have been even bloody pieces left.”
“Surveillance?” Bill asked.
“I’m pretty sure,” Bradan said. “I think we’re too small-time for the DEA to care about, but I always assume that someone’s looking over our shoulder, Dade County law, or sometimes Dave will send someone to check that all the bales are accounted for.”
“Paranoid,” Earl said.
“Prudent,” Bradan said. “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.”
“The fuck you talkin’ about, Bradley?” Cabe said.
Earl, Bill, Cabe, and Big Reg stared at him.
“Sorry,” Bradan said. “It’s the dope talking. To this business, then, I got a radio contact from Eduardo a few minutes back. They’ll be off Old Rhodes Key in about thirty minutes, in their usual rust bucket fishing trawler. Can’t believe it crossed the Caribbean. The water is super shallow around here. Their captain must be freaking.”
“Shoals, too,” Cabe said, looking relieved to get the conversation back to smuggling logistics. “There’s wrecks all up and down this piece of coast.”
“Radio contact?” Bill said. He tried to suppress a smirk.
“Yep,” Bradan said. “Can’t be helped. We don’t chitchat a lot on the air, and when we do, it’s with a simple voice code, sounds like we’re talking about night fishing.”
“I’m much reassured,” Bill said.
“Do they know the keys?” Big Reg asked.
“Long way from Barranquilla or whatever port they used,” Bradan said. “Though Eduardo should have someone aboard who’s been here before as a captain or a mate. Get the Zodiacs and the outboards, gents. Let’s go out, grab our shit, and go home.” He walked back to the truck to pull a dolly out of the rear bay.
The radio in the truck’s cab stuttered out static and inarticulate words.
“They callin’ us again?” Cabe said. He climbed into the cab. “Yep, it’s Eduardo. Thought he was supposed to stay the hell off the air unless it was critical.”
“Maybe it’s critical,” Bradan said. He hauled himself into the cab and grabbed the mic from Cabe.
“We can’t fish where we planned,” Eduardo said. He spoke in accented English and sounded angry and distracted. “Your meeting point is shit, way too near to shore. My captain won’t come so close.”
Bradan kept his tone low-key. “If my crew goes too far out, we may miss you completely or get lost.”
“Your problem, not mine. We dump everything where I say. You can pick it up there or not, your call.” Eduardo rattled off map coordinates. Bradan frantically wrote these down on the back of the truck’s owner’s manual.
“Please repeat,” Bradan said into the mic, but the radio contact had already been broken.
“Why’n fuck didn’t we do this business over in Everglades City?” Bill asked. He’d stood beside the cab listening to the argument. “The waterways there are a maze. No one’d see us. Other crews do drops there. And I know the area.”
“I didn’t feel like driving a truck carrying five tons of weed along Route 41 to Miami for fifty miles. People start to pay attention.”
“Worked before,” Bill said.
“Until it doesn’t,” Bradan said. “Everglades is popular for drops, way too famous. Things get done to death in this business. On my crew, we change stuff all the time.”
“Mutiny?” Bradan asked. Tintagel appeared at his side. Just like that, everyone stopped and watched.
“Thought we’d all be super mellow—what with all the dope we’ve smoked,” Bradan said.
“You’re the skipper.” Bill shrugged after a moment. “Let’s go out and get the Santa Marta Gold.”
“‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have,’” Big Reg said. “Hebrews 13:5.”
“Why’d you bring Reg?” Earl asked Bradan softly.
“We’re short-handed, and he’s the strongest bale jockey I’ve seen, goes about his business without fuss. Besides, he’s local as hell and knows the north keys.”
“I haven’t heard this much Bible stuff since Sunday school,” Earl said.
Bradan watched Reg unloading an outboard from the truck. “You’ve been to Old Rhodes Key?” he called over to the big man.
“I visited when I was a child,” Reg said. “A man as black as me once owned three hundred acres until the park service bought him out. For a time that family grew more limes than most anyone else on the East Coast.”
“Who lives there now?”
“Park rangers maybe. Doubt they’ll be around at night.”
“Hey Earl, why you still wearing shades?” Cabe said. “It’s pitch black.”
Earl pushed his sunglasses high up on his forehead. “Put AC/DC on,” he said. “There’s a cassette in the glove compartment. Sweat this job to music.”
“The sweat and dirt keep the bugs off,” Cabe said. “Otherwise I’d be a blood bank for the mosquitoes.”
They pulled four Zodiacs awkwardly out of the box truck. The boats were bulky but light. When throttled back, the fishing motors were almost too silent to hear, but had power enough for speed when they were opened up.
“When we’re done with them?” Earl asked.
“Leave them here,” Bradan said. “Cost of business. They were used. Maybe some locals can repurpose them for fishing. Maybe nobody ever finds them.”
Something splashed in the Sound among the mangroves. The crew froze. It was too dark to see beyond vague shapes of coastal flora. Even the truck was now obscure in the dusk except for dim dashboard lights. Its bulk resembled a triceratops in the falling night.
Peter Blaisdell lives in the L.A. area. He has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and conducted postdoctoral research in microbiology. On the literary side of his life, he is an author and an active reviewer of fantasy, thrillers and magical realism. The Lords of Powder is the second work in this series which includes the previously published The Lords of Oblivion. Each book can be read as a stand alone novel. He can be contacted at blaisdellliteraryenterprises.com