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Randy Wayne White has long been known for suspenseful plots, complex characters, and an extraordinary sense of place. His new series has them all—and then some.
Hannah Smith: a tall, strong, formidable Florida woman, the descendant of generations of strong Florida women. She makes her living as a fishing guide, but her friends, neighbors, and clients also know her as an uncommonly resourceful woman with a keen sense of justice—someone who can’t be bullied—and they have taken to coming to her with their problems.
Her methods can be unorthodox, though, and those on the receiving end of them often wind up very unhappy—and sometimes very violent. And when a girl goes missing, and Hannah is asked to find her, that is exactly what happens. . . .
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RANDY WAYNE WHITE is the author of nineteen Doc Ford novels and four collections of nonfiction. He lives on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he was a light-tackle fishing guide for many years.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
WHEN LIGHTNING ZAPPED THE WATER A MILE FROM THE boat, my fishing client, Lawrence Seasons, looked at me surprised as a child, and the fly rod went sailing from his hands.
“I felt that, Hannah!” he said, meaning the shock. His line had been in the water, connected to a six-foot tarpon that had just jumped, scales bright as ice against purple clouds that held rain.
I told the man, “I bet you did,” and lunged after the rod skittering across the deck. Just before it flew overboard, I caught the reel, locked my fingers over the spool, and pulled until the barbless hook I was using set the fish free, which the tarpon confirmed with another greyhound jump. The breeze blowing off the water was suddenly chilly, I noticed, sweet with ozone and electricity.
“We’ve got to go, folks!” I said for the second time in the last few minutes. “Grab your seats, try to stay low.” I was taking fishing rods from their vertical holders, storing them flat on the deck.
“My first tarpon,” Mr. Seasons said, sounding dazed and a little sad. He was flexing his fingers to see if they still worked, or maybe to remind me that dropping expensive gear wasn’t an everyday occurrence for him.
I told him, “You did a fine job, sir,” which seemed to cover all the bases, and then hustled behind the wheel to start the engine. For more than an hour, I’d been watching thermals build over the Florida mainland, which is normal on a June afternoon. But when the breeze suddenly wilted, air dense as lacquer, I knew it was time to move. Trouble was, only minutes before, Mr. Seasons had finally hooked a big tarpon on a fly rod, after years of trying, so I’d waited longer than I should’ve to make the decision. Now if things didn’t go smoothly, my clients and I might get soaked—or worse. From what I could see, hear, and smell, the odds weren’t in our favor. The storm was moving fast, towing a mountain of black clouds, and my small boat is as open and flat as an upside-down iron. A “flats skiff,” as the design is known by saltwater anglers.
I called, “Hang on!” and pushed the throttle forward, then touched the trim switches, accelerating, and soon we were riding, flat and dry, the storm right on our tail.
For the next several minutes, no one spoke, while I slalomed through a snarl of oyster bars, electricity sizzling behind us. Then I opened the throttle wider as the wind chased us toward the Gulf of Mexico, where, I could now see, a second squall was angling to intercept us.
Mr. Seasons spotted the squall, too. I could tell by the worried look on his face. Having a client who has fished the Gulf Coast for many years is usually a good thing, but there are disadvantages. I tried to reassure him by raising my voice over the noise of the wind. “We’ll cut north in a minute or two. That’ll put us in the clear.”
“On a low tide?” he replied. “I don’t know of any channels within a mile—”
“I do,” I interrupted, but not in a sharp way. I wanted the man to stay calm, and not upset the woman he’d brought as his guest, Ms. Calder-Shaun, a New York attorney. She was an attractive woman, even beautiful, although starched and plainspoken, but not used to small boats and big water, which I’d realized right away. She sat to my right, Mr. Seasons to my left, both of them gripping their seats as if on a toboggan that had hit a patch of ice.
“But, Captain,” the man said, being formal to show his concern, “risk running aground in a storm? We don’t mind getting wet. If it’s safer to stay in deep water, why not—”
At that instant, there was a metallic buzz, then KA-BOOM!, an explosion so close it seemed to lift the hull off the water and suck the air from around us.
“Christ A’mighty!” the woman yelled, “Shut up, Larry, and let Hannah drive the damn boat!”
Beside me, Mr. Seasons sat back, a resigned look on his face, and I knew if I didn’t take his advice and got us stuck in shallow water, he would never charter me again. I didn’t blame him. Wealthy fishing clients aren’t easy to come by, so the temptation was to play safe and do what he’d suggested. But then I reminded myself that playing it safe wasn’t safe because the storm behind us was crackling with high voltage, and the storm angling from the southeast was a wall of gray smoke, more lightning and rain.
“Up ahead,” I said as if being conversational, “there’s a little cut mullet fishermen call ‘Hole-in-the-Wall.’ Since you’ve got a boat of your own, I’ve been wanting to show you—and I can’t think of a better time.”
I’d been sitting because of the lightning, but now I stood to get a better view and to concentrate on what I was doing. My boat is small, but it’s fast. I’d bought it used off a local marine biologist who’d rigged the thing with lights, electronics, and an oversized engine you wouldn’t expect from a man who is bookish in his ways. The biologist had hinted that the boat would do sixty miles an hour in calf-deep water—power I thought I’d never need unless I was stupid enough to get caught by a storm. Now it had happened.
“Hang tight,” I said again, and punched the throttle, which caused my head to jolt back in an unexpected way. Soon my eyes were tearing, vision fluttering because of speed and washboard waves. It took some effort to check engine gauges that confirmed oil and water pressure were just fine, with plenty of throttle left if needed.
Doing forty-plus, we dodged hedges of mangroves where pelicans roosted on leeward branches, then crossed a channel into water so shallow that white herons flushed ahead of us, a flock of spoonbills, too, feathers pink as rose petals in the storm-bruised light. Normally, I would have turned southwest, toward the main channel. But the storm was already there, picking up speed, dragging tentacles of rain across Sanibel Island. So I turned north toward what looked like a shard of mainland, it was so tightly joined by swamp and trees. From Mr. Seasons’s expression, I could tell he was spooked and confused.
“Hole-in-the-Wall,” I said, pointing. “You won’t see it until we’re on it.” Twice, I had to repeat myself because thunder boomed behind us, a series of trip-mine explosions.
“That’s all oysters and sandbars,” my client argued, sounding more nervous when he finally understood. “You mean, where those birds are standing?”
It was true, there were hundreds of gulls and terns hunkered together in an inch of water, creating a line that fringed the island.
“No, sir,” I replied. “The spot where you don’t see birds—that’s where we’re headed.”
The man muttered something and got a fresh grip on his seat. To my right, Ms. Calder-Shaun sat with eyes closed, then surprised me by wrapping her arm around my leg. Something like that had never happened to me on a fishing charter, but I didn’t mind. She was scared, we were the only women on the boat, and I was a little scared myself.
When we were fifty yards from what looked like a wall of mangrove trees, I prepared them for what happened next. “You might feel us bump bottom,” I hollered, pleased by how steady my voice sounded. “The engine’s gonna scream, but don’t let it worry you. We’ll make it.”
We did make it, skating over two sandbars, my engine geysering water into a cloud of yapping birds before I got the boat trimmed, then steered us through an opening in the trees not much wider than my skiff.
What a change those few seconds made! We exited the storm into a river of glassy water, branches creating a tunnel of silence and shadows that rocked in our wake as we boiled past. I followed the tunnel to the left . . . to the right . . . carving a series of S turns as if on a country road. Then we broke free of the trees, after jumping one last bar, and the sun cleared the towering clouds at the same instant, so it was like the storm had never existed. I knew better, of course. We couldn’t dally because the clouds were still chasing us, fast as a freight train. But the tricky part was over.
Beside me, I heard Ms. Calder-Shaun say, “How exciting!” to cover her embarrassment and give her an excuse to remove her arm from my leg. Mr. Seasons was staring at me in the way wealthy people sometimes do when appraising an employee, his eyes penetrating and as unemotional as a calculator. Now was not the time to say anything boastful, I decided, but it was tempting.
Instead, I pointed to a ridge of oysters exposed by the low tide. Marking the bar were six plastic milk bottles tied to stakes. “That’s the old Mail Boat Channel,” I said. “Used to be, there weren’t roads or bridges to the islands, so one of the captains delivered mail twice a week. Not many folks use this cut anymore.”
“Who maintains it?” the man asked, but I got the impression he was more interested in me than the answer.
“I never figured that one out. Mullet fishermen don’t need the markers, so it must be part-timers. Something nice is, every Christmas someone sticks a casuarina pine on that bar and decorates it with seashells and stuff. To me, it doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve stopped and hung a shell on that tree.”
Mr. Seasons said to Ms. Calder-Shaun, talking over my lap, “Hannah comes from an old fishing family. Her Uncle Jake guided me for years, before he died—plus that other work I told you about.”
I wasn’t going to ask what that meant, although I had some ideas. More interesting to me was that Mr. Seasons wasn’t gripping his chair quite as tight, which gave me a good feeling. We were soon running parallel the oyster bar, following milk jugs, water on both sides not deep enough to cover my ankles. A few minutes later, we were north of Chino Island. Behind us, the storms had joined forces, and rain was gaining on us so fast, a sudden blast of cold air told me we weren’t out of danger yet. I had planned on cutting west toward Captiva Island, where Mr. Seasons lives on a five-acre estate, but the odds were against us once again.
I wasn’t worried, though. Half a mile away, I could see a tin-roofed cabin built on stilts, standing lonely as a stork in shallow water, a mile from the nearest land. A married man had willed the place to my late aunt—out of guilt, I’d heard—so our family owned it, but how and why, I wasn’t exactly sure. The cabin—a “stilthouse,” locals called it—was built with thick walls for storing fish back before there was refrigeration, so it was a good safe spot to be, if we could beat the rain.
We did, but only by a minute or two. Throttle backing, I stood with one hand on the wheel, the other holding an anchor, as we approached what would soon be the leeward side of the shack. Not until we were a few boat lengths away did I reduce speed, then dropped the anchor, playing out line, after punching us into idle so we continued toward the dock.
“Nicely done,” Mr. Seasons said, but he was watching the squall charging us, only a hundred yards away. Rain was loud as a mountain river and getting louder.
“Stay put until we’re tied!” I replied. I had snubbed the anchor to a stern cleat, hoping I’d guessed right about how much scope to use. Sure enough, just before my skiff’s nose bumped the dock, I felt the anchor line stiffen and stretch, which is when I stepped up onto the dock and threw a quick clove hitch around a piling.
“Ladies first,” I called, offering Ms. Calder-Shaun my hand, then helped her onto the dock. The woman looked a little woozy but was smiling, and gave my fingers a squeeze that meant something, I wasn’t sure what.
Soon, both clients were sitting beneath a waterfall that blurred the world around us, but they were snug and dry inside the stilthouse, where I was lighting a Coleman stove to make coffee. When the coffee was ready, I poured them each a mug, then stood outside beneath the breezeway so they could have their privacy. Some fishing guides try to be entertainers, too, telling jokes and stories during boring times, but that’s not my way.
After a while, when the rain had slacked, I returned to check on the two. Mr. Seasons was looking at Ms. Calder-Shaun, who was staring at me, both with odd expressions on their faces as if they’d just made a surprising discovery.
“I’m right about this, Larry,” the woman said, her eyes still studying me. “After today? Goddamn right, I’m convinced—if the agency is still licensed.”
The first thing that came into my mind was the private investigation agency my uncle had run—obviously the “other work” Mr. Seasons had mentioned before—and where I’d helped out at every once in a while. But I thought it was better to keep my mouth shut, so I pretended to want more coffee.
The man was nodding as I stepped toward the stove, then caught me off guard by including me in the conversation. “Would you be willing to meet for lunch tomorrow, Hannah? Just me, Martha has to fly home for the day. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
“Fishing?” I said, turning.
The man exchanged looks with Martha, his New York attorney. “Around two would be good,” he said. “I’ll explain everything then.”
“Noon’s better,” I replied, because it irks me when people dodge simple questions, and also because it was embarrassing to admit I had an open date tomorrow, at the height of tarpon season, when most guides were busy. “Even on days I don’t fish, I’ve got a lot to do,” I added, which was mostly true.
“Noon it is,” Mr. Seasons replied, then said nothing more about it. Soon enough, though, I would discover that outrunning that storm had meant more to my clients than I ever could’ve guessed. How I’d handled myself had convinced them a woman fishing guide was a good choice to go in search of a missing girl—although it took some doing on their part to convince me, the woman fishing guide.
Considering all that happened afterward, good and bad, I have no reason to regret beating that storm. But it has made me fretful about how one small event—something as common as lightning and heavy rain—can change a person’s life in ways so big, there is no hope of returning. Only hope for what comes next.
MY MOTHER SAYS I REOPENED UNCLE JAKE’S PRIVATE INVESTIGATION agency because I’m always losing men, so it’s natural for me to search for things that are missing. This would offend some women my age, but she had a stroke two years back and now her damaged brain relies on honesty instead of good manners, so I’ve got no choice but to take it in stride. One thing I’ve learned is, don’t argue with the truth on those scarce occasions when you’re lucky enough to know what the truth is.
Mother was heavy on my mind the next morning. It’s because of something that had happened the night before, after the storm. Loretta—that’s Mamma’s name—got into Uncle Jake’s paint shed, then sprayed swearwords all over the walls of a house being built next door. Not a house, really. It’s more of a concrete box the size of a Walmart, and just about as tasteful—which is only one of the reasons Loretta hates the building so. Some of the words she wrote were so foul, they had never even passed my lips—not louder than a whisper, anyway—let alone would I use Day-Glo orange to write them in cursive, exclamation points dotted, t’s neatly crossed, for all the world to see.
Well . . . as much of the world that ventures down the road to York Island and our little...
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Book Description Penguin Audio, 2014. Audio CD. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111611762553