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En route to a job offshore, towboat captain Seychelle Sullivan discovers a frightened Haitian child adrift in a half-sunk boat -- the only other passenger is a woman with her skull crushed. As threats against the child mount from immigration officials to an invisible Voodoo wraith, Seychelle sets out to salvage a life as well as a boat.
“A taut, fast-paced thriller . . . Kling’s prose is strong and authoritative.”
–The Miami Herald
“Exciting . . . Kling is an author who bears watching. She clearly knows how to add texture and color to her narrative. . . . Cross Current is a keeper.”
–The Tampa Tribune
Looking down at the old wooden Bahamian cruiser Miss Agnes, resting on her side on the white sand bottom, it was hard to imagine that people had died here. Every detail, from the peeling, eggshell-colored paint to the frayed wire at the base of the radio antenna, was so sharp, it was as if I were peering through a camera lens in crisp focus. It didn’t look as if it were underwater. The cruiser and the water above were so still and clear that as I leaned over the bow of my boat, I felt like I was floating in air.
“I just can’t picture a vessel that size carrying over fifty panicked people.” I turned and saw B.J. standing outside the tugboat’s wheelhouse door, dripping seawater, his wet suit unzipped to the waist, his long black hair slicked straight back. He joined me at the rail and stared down into the crystal water. “You know, Seychelle, it was like three generations— old people, young, even kids—all jammed in there like cocktail wienies in the can. Hell of a way to go.”
“Cocktail wienies, B.J.?” I turned around and squinted at him, my elbows propped on the aluminum bulwark behind me. We both had to shout to be heard over the rumble of the generator on the barge. “I didn’t think a guy like you even knew such things existed.”
B.J. was my sometime deckhand and mechanic, a sort of New Age natural foods surfer; the only one I’d ever known who didn’t make all that seem kind of fake and wacky. He certainly was not your typical blond surfer dude, since he had at least two college degrees compared to my zero—and an ancestry that was mostly Samoan but included a dash of every other ethnic group that had passed through the Pacific in the last hundred years. Though he’d never been to his islands, you could see in his smooth brown skin and almond- shaped eyes that he carried part of his homeland in him. “Natural” was not a fad to B.J., it was how he lived his life.
“You’re right, I’d never eat such a thing, but I do like to observe the habits of the people around me. Take those guys, for example.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the men working the crane on the barge to which Gorda, my forty-foot tugboat, was moored. We were anchored a couple of thousand yards off the Hillsboro Inlet lighthouse. “Between them, they have three completely different ideas as to where I should put the straps under the hull so that when we lift this wreck to the surface, we won’t break the back of the old derelict. Not a one of them is willing to compromise.”
I looked at the characters he was referring to, and I suspected that not a one of them was hangover-free or had used a razor within the last three days. They looked like a labor pool collected from the Downtowner Saloon at closing. “I gather we’re going to be here awhile?”
B.J. nodded, then moved into the shade, sitting on the deck box at the front of the wheelhouse. He began to scratch Abaco’s ears. She was the black Lab I’d inherited along with Gorda and the Sullivan Towing and Salvage Company when my father, Red Sullivan, died not quite three years ago.
“I got tired of swimming around while they try to make up their minds,” B.J. said, “so I came out here to bug you.” He peeled the wet suit off his broad, brown shoulders. “It’s too early to be this hot.”
I turned away from the view of his chest. Today I had to concentrate on business. After working with B.J. for years, and swearing to myself I would never allow the relationship to change into something different, something romantic, it had changed. The how and why were a long story, but shortly after finding his toothbrush and coconut soap in my bathroom, I’d asked for a hiatus. I wasn’t sure yet I was willing to give up my precious solitude.
The business at hand was a much-needed insurance job. Working for the corporate world beat working for the little guy—you gave them the bill and they paid it. They didn’t cry and complain and try to wheedle you out of every nickel. Gorda and I were here to take the Bahamian cruiser under tow once these guys from Gilman Marine brought her to the surface and got her pumped out. Gilman’s tugs were all huge monsters designed for moving ships, so while they had the barge crane to get the Miss Agnes off the bottom, they had subbed this towing job out to me. My father had designed Gorda and had her built specifically for the small boat and yacht trade back in the early seventies.
I had deck loaded two big thirty-gallon-per-minute gasoline pumps, and as long as she wasn’t holed, we should be able to keep Miss Agnes pumped out and get her down the coast, into Port Everglades, and up to a boatyard. Old planked wooden boats like her would usually leak through their caulked seams, but my pumps should be able to stay ahead of the flow.
I leaned out over the water again to examine the wreck resting on the bottom. The sand beneath her looked as though it had been raked into neat furrows, the product of the swift current that flowed through the inlet. The illusion of flying was harder to maintain now as I spotted a school of smallmouth grunts darting in and out of the open pilothouse windows and a foot-long barracuda hanging motionless over the wreck. “Are you sure they said fifty people, B.J.?”
Neither of us said anything for a while. That was one thing about B.J.—he never felt the need to fill the silences with unnecessary talk. When he spoke, finally, his voice was quiet, and I had to lean in closer to hear him. “See the jetty back there, off the north side of the inlet?”
I looked to where he pointed. The Hillsboro Inlet lighthouse stood back from the broad beach tucked in among the scraggly pines and low sea grape trees. The nearly one- hundred-year-old skeletal frame had been painted recently, white on the bottom half, black up top. A small rock jetty jutted out into the Atlantic along the sandy point at the base of the lighthouse.
“Seems the Coast Guard patrol boat was sitting back in there,” he said, pointing to the small cove formed by the point. “It was a moonless night. The smugglers prefer that, but the bad news for them was it meant they didn’t see the patrol boat until they were almost into the inlet. When the Coasties turned their spotlight on, the Haitians panicked— tried to push their way to the far side of the boat. The weather was real quiet that night, and the crew had left all their windows and hatches open. She just rolled over and went glug."
“I heard six people drowned,” I said. I also had read in the Miami Herald that two of them were children, little girls, ages ten and twelve, but I didn’t say it out loud. I knew that B.J. knew, just as he knew that I knew most of the details of the events that had taken place here the night before last. It was our habit, though, to talk about these salvage cases, to rehash the details when we were working. All too often when salvaging wrecked boats there were also ruined lives, and B.J. and I usually did what we could to get around that, joking and laughing and avoiding the image of how it had happened. Those images would eventually catch up with me, often in that twilight moment that comes between wakefulness and sleep, when my imagination would sneak in the vision of those girls struggling in the water, surprised at the sudden cold, screaming for their parents, gasping what they thought was air but sucking in the sea in its stead.
“Fifty people is really only an estimate,” he said. “These days, Haitians will do or pay anything to get to the States, and the way the smugglers pack the boats, it could have been more.”
“I hope they catch the bastards and charge them with murder.”
B.J. was staring at the little strip of sand inside the jetty.
“Some of them made it to the beach and managed to lose themselves into the city. Probably got into waiting cars. Immigration picked up twenty-seven. They’re either in Krome Detention Center or already back in Port-au-Prince.”
“The Land of the Free,” I said, “but only if you come from the right island.”
“Gorda, Gorda, this is Outta the Blue, over.” The transmission from the tug’s VHF radio was barely audible above the rumbling of the generator on the barge.
“Damn.” I slapped the palm of my hand against the top of the warm aluminum bulwark. “Not again.” When I turned around, B.J. was laughing. “Stop it, you,” I said. “It’s not funny.”
“Bet you he did it again.”
“No way I’m taking that bet.”
I swung around the door into the wheelhouse and grabbed the VHF radio mike hanging above the helm. “Outta the Blue, this is Gorda. You want to switch to channel six eight?”
I punched the numbers on the keypad. “Hey, Mike, this is Gorda. What’s up?”
“Hey, Seychelle, isn’t this a scorcher of a day for June? Not a breath of wind out here.”
“Yeah, yeah, Mike. I know you didn’t call to discuss the weather. What’s wrong?”
“Well, I’ve been out here fishing all night with my buddy Joe D’Angelo. Him and me, we go way back. Used to work together. We had some good times back in the eighties, boy.” I made a circling motion with my hand to B.J. when he shot me a questioning look through the wheelhouse window. Mike rambled on.
A former Fort Lauderdale police officer, Mike Beesting had walked in on a disgruntled city maintenance worker who had brought a shotgun to argue an issue with his boss. The end result was that Mike saved several lives but lost his lower right leg to a short-range shotgun blast. Rather than work a desk, he retired from the department and, thanks to a nice settlement from the city, he now lived on his Irwin-54 sailboat at a dock on the Middle River and ran sunset cocktail cruises and chartered day sails.
“Cut to the chase, Mike.”
“Well, we had one light on as we were drift fishing last night, but when we started catching fish, I turned on the spreader lights and kinda forgot and left them on. Joe was nervous about us drifting around out there, so he insisted on watching the radar all night, and then we were playing my whole collection of Buffett tunes ...”
“So you can’t start your engine. Your batteries are dead. Again.”
‘I’ll pay you, Seychelle, you know that. We’re only about six or eight miles out off Pompano. I think.”
“Mike, the last two times this happened I told you to get somebody down to the boat and rewire it so you could keep your engine-starting battery in reserve.”
“And I’m gonna do it, Sey. Next week. I promise.”
Mike was the kind of boat owner—and I’d known lots like him—who would much rather spend his money on stuff he could see, cool new toys like an electronic chart plotter or an ice maker, than something necessary but near invisible, like a replacement for a cracked chain plate or a starter battery. He had his boat so loaded down with gadgets it was more like a floating condo than a sailboat.
B.J. appeared at my side in the wheelhouse doorway. At six foot, he was only a couple of inches taller than me, and for a moment I flashed on how pleasant it would be to slide my hands around his waist and pull his body to mine. Being tall, big-boned, and having the shoulders of a swimmer, I still often felt like the gawky kid I once was, the one who had already grown to five feet eight by the fifth grade, the one other kids called the Jolly Green Giant. But with B.J., since the first time we’d made love, there had always been this sense that we just fit together so comfortably, as though my body belonged in his arms. Maybe that’s what scares me, I thought as I pretended to be interested in the goings-on aboard the barge and stepped to the far wheelhouse window.
B.J. said, “I know you. Somebody’s in trouble, and you’re itching to go out and save him. Even if it is just Mike. Look, it’s going to be at least three hours before these guys get this cruiser up, and then they’ve still got to pump her out. You’ve got the time.”
“I know, and like always, I need the money, but. . .” The fellows on the barge were still clustered in the shade of the crane, arguing. I wanted to do the right thing here. Working with Gilman Marine meant more referral business in the future. I couldn’t afford to screw it up.
Mike’s voice erupted from the radio. “Sey, Joe says he really has to get back. Says he’ll double your regular rate.”
I turned and grinned at B.J. as I punched the button on the side of the mike. “Just give me your GPS coordinates, and I’ll be on my way.”