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Authors: Steven Becker

Wood's Reach

BOOK: Wood's Reach
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While tarpon fishing in the backcountry of the Florida Keys, Mac Travis discovers a plot to drill for oil in the pristine waters.

After his life is threatened he teams up with his long time friend and mentor, Wood, to uncover a plot that leads to the top echelons of power in Washington DC. An action packed short story featuring underwater and boating scenes

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Chapter One

The scream of line pouring off the reel startled Mac awake. Swinging his feet down from the console, he jumped from the seat at the helm of the twenty-foot center-console, stumbling before he found his feet. The fish on the line was a surprise. He had hoped to get off the island and rest for a while before resuming his work. It was just in his nature to throw a bait out when he was on the water, so before getting comfortable, he had put a small lobster head on a lightweight trolling rig.

Line continued to disappear and he saw an indistinct shape jump on the horizon, its splash confirming it was a large fish. Wide awake now, he gently lifted the rod from the holder mounted on the gunwale and took a deep breath. With the rod tip high, he slowly tightened the drag. His calmness hid the adrenaline that was rushing through him, his years of experience warning him this was a critical time in the fight. With a large fish, it was all about the relationship between the hook and the fish’s mouth. Tighten the drag too much and the hook would pull; too loose and the contact would break.

With the first run over, Mac tried to guess what was on the other end of the line. It was behaving oddly for a backcountry fish. Aside from the tarpon, which were seldom found in open water, the jumpers were typically on the Atlantic side, past the reef in the deep waters of the Gulf Stream, but that didn’t preclude big fish from the Gulf side. Taking his first turn of the reel to get a sense of the drag, he was rewarded by a few inches of line coming in. But the fish must have sensed the pressure and taken off again. Not expecting anything this large, he wasn’t equipped for the battle, and the small reel was running low. He had to consider his options. The sportsman in him wouldn’t allow him to cut the line, and the conservationist was not willing to allow hundreds of yards of monofilament to be lost to the sea.

It was either tighten the drag and fight, which would increase the risk of losing it, or pull the anchor and run towards it. He looked around, observing the shallows surrounding him, and decided he had to fight. The center-console had three feet of draft. Adequate for most areas, but the backcountry of the Keys was famous for its flats and shoals, many covered by only inches of water. Being pulled onto the mudflats was not appealing, especially as it was high tide and would only get worse as the waters receded.

With the rod braced just below his groin and his left hand on the reinforcement above the reel, he gently tightened the star-shaped wheel that controlled the drag. The fish pulled again, but after two long runs, Mac sensed it was running out of gas. Gently he turned the wheel until he could feel the tension increase, and in one motion he brought the rod tip high in the air and pulled the fish toward him. Quickly dropping the tip, he reeled as fast as he could. He repeated the process until a long grey shadow appeared in the water.

His heart dropped when he saw the distinct shape of the shark. It looked to be over six feet and probably weighed two hundred pounds. Without a large freezer, though, the meat would spoil, and the only way to make the tough bull shark meat palatable was with a deep fryer—neither of which he had. Still cautious of his adversary, he continued to reel the exhausted fish to the transom, and when the swivel attaching the leader to the line hit the rod tip, he reached into his pocket, removed a knife, and cut the line. The hook would rust out of the fish’s mouth, and losing the short piece of heavy leader material was better than risking his hand to the shark. Mac stood there and watched the shark swim away before he motored back to the island.

Rising several feet from the high tide line, the half-acre island was mostly scrub and mangroves, similar to many of the surrounding keys, but if you looked carefully, you could see evidence of man’s presence—both the good and bad. Wood, Mac’s mentor, had originally built a small house and workshop on the island in the early ’90s after accepting the property from the Navy in exchange for some off-the-books work. He had retired and lived here for almost twenty years before getting killed in the process of saving a presidential candidate and maybe the country. Mac still felt guilty about getting him mixed up in that affair.

It was now on him to rebuild the house after it had been virtually destroyed by a fire set by a rogue CIA agent out for vengeance. The only thing that had saved it was the two five-hundred-gallon water tanks on its roof. He had spent the last few months rebuilding and repairing the structure, both to rid himself of the guilt that it was his fault, and to try and lure Wood’s daughter, Mel, back to the Keys. He shook his head as the blowback from his bad decisions and adventures replayed in his mind.

Trying to shake off the melancholy, he went forward to pull the anchor but found it bound in the sandy bottom. Back at the helm, he started the single 250-hp engine and bumped the boat forward enough to take the slack out of the anchor line. He ran to the helm before the current could reverse the momentum and pulled the slack from the rode. Finally, after a tug-of-war, the hook released and he was able to haul it in. Before bringing the anchor aboard, he dunked it several times in the water to free the sand and mud before hauling it on board and lashing it down.

He motored slowly toward the island, less than a half mile from the deep cut where he had anchored, thinking about the next phase in the project as he drove. A heron reminded him of the shallow rock that stood sentinel to the channel that Wood had dredged years ago, and he cut the wheel hard to starboard, rounding the rock and coasting to a stop before reaching the beach. Tossing the line over the lone pile, one of the only visible signs of life here, he tied the boat off and hopped into the knee-deep water. Wood had devised an ingenious system of hiding his boats, using skids buried in the sand and a winch hidden in a clearing concealed by brush. He would open a handwoven mangrove gate that was also virtually invisible and crank his old skiff into the clearing. Once the gate was returned, it would take a very good eye to discover his ruse.

Mac had no need or desire to go through the trouble and simply left the boat tied off. He entered the clearing through the open gate, now lying on its side in need of repair, adding that to the list of things that needed attention. Following the well-worn path, he entered another clearing, this one much larger, which held the house and workshop.

The land around the house was barren now. The palms that had shaded the two-story home and the brush that had grown around it were all now charred stumps. Wood, an engineer who had built or retrofitted many of the bridges connecting the Keys, had built the house to survive the devastating hurricanes that plowed through the chain of islands. The concrete piers, which had already survived several surges brought by the storms, were unharmed by the fire, though smoke damaged. The structure resting on them was a different matter. The roof, covered in galvanized metal sheets, was largely intact, but all that was left of the structure underneath were the heavy posts and beams. The exterior walls, whose windows were once covered by lovingly handmade Bahamas shutters, were gone. It stood open to the weather, not a good thing in this climate.

The sun was four fingers from the horizon, and Mac looked around to see what he could accomplish in the hour of remaining light. Climbing the ladder, he reached the main floor and resumed gutting the interior. Sitting on an upside-down bucket with a stack of wood studs in front, he started to pull nails from the old wood. Anything he could do to reuse the material was well worth his time, the alternative being to haul the debris and dump it at the landfill in Marathon. He would then have to buy and transport the new supplies back to the island. A few hours pulling nails would save considerably more than the cost of the wood.

He was halfway through the pile when the sound of an outboard distracted him. The high whine of the motor told him it was either a local running full speed back from a favorite flat or a tourist gambling on his chart plotter to guide him through the maze of keys and shoals the area was famous for. Hoping it was the former and he wouldn’t have to pull an arrogant tourist off a flat, he climbed the ladder to the roof.

The stairs leading to a small widow’s walk were gone, but the platform that had held the two water tanks that had saved what was left of the house still remained. The heat from the fire had melted the black plastic tanks, dumping a thousand gallons of water on the building and saving what remained of it. He stood there, shielding his eyes from the setting sun, and quickly located the boat. From the course it was taking and the profile of the boat, he guessed it was a tourist rather than a local in some kind of trouble, something far from a rarity here. The Keys, especially the backcountry between Big Pine and Key West, were famous hiding spots for pirates and smugglers. It was far too often that a local fisherman, faced with hard times and with no other way to save his boat, was forced to run contraband. He started the internal argument he always lost if they should ground. He climbed down to get the towline ready for the inevitable. 

It was a tourist for sure, he thought now. He could see the deep V of the hull and the rooster tails of the twin outboards flaring behind it as cruised close to the shallow water to the east of Harbor Channel. It was running close to full speed, its trail evident in the disturbed sand kicked up in its wake. The other boat was about a quarter mile back, and even from this distance Mac knew it wouldn’t catch its prey. The low lines of the flats boat were just breaking the plane of the water when it cut across the flat and headed on a course to intercept the larger boat. Drafting less than a foot, the flats boat screamed by close enough for Mac to see the driver. That was when he heard the first gunshot.

Jesse McDermitt was as close to a neighbor as one got out here. The retired Marine lived several miles away on another small island in the Content Keys. Mac wasted no time in descending the ladder and running to the center-console. He knew Jesse would be there for him, and if Jesse was after someone, Mac would be there to offer whatever help he could. Shots were fired from the lead boat, but the motion of the boat threw off the shooter’s aim, and he could see them splash into the calm water a hundred yards short of the flats boat. Racing to his boat, he jumped aboard, released the single line, went to the helm, and started the engine. With a quick look back at the two boats, he backed out of the narrow cut and pushed down the throttle.

What he needed was a way to contact Jesse and coordinate their efforts. Cell phone reception was sketchy at best this far from land. The only means of communication was the VHF radio. He turned on the unit and unclipped the mic, but hesitated before calling. The standard hailing frequency was channel 16, but that was monitored by the Coast Guard and local law enforcement. There were rumors that Jesse had some government ties, but the relationship wasn’t clear and he didn’t want to step on his toes.

Instead he put the mic down and steered to the east, away from the flats. He had a plan now and could only hope Jesse would figure out what he was doing.

Chapter Two

Mac exited the narrow dredged cut from the small key and entered Harbor Channel. Both boats were running northwest toward Marathon, and Mac quickly cut across the channel and entered Cutoe Banks, a dangerous and unmarked area between Harbor Channel and Spanish Key. The high tide had brought several feet of water with it, but the extra depth, although allowing more area for the lead boat to cross, also concealed the shoals, some hidden by less than six inches of water.

BOOK: Wood's Reach
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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