North Bay Road (Part 2)
The second story in a climatic trilogy about the drowning of Miami.
Part 1: Finnegan’s Wake
Part 3: Border Wars
There were rumors that salt water crocodiles had returned to Miami, rumors the crocs were big as his kayak. Probably just rumors.
Favio Bayliss crouched on the landing of the grand staircase, watching the dark water below. He held the speargun loosely in his hands. He had made the gun himself, the stock from a mahogany handrail salvaged from Saint Patrick’s, surgical tubing from Mt. Sinai Hospital, monofilament line from a Weed Wacker salvaged from the flooded inventory of South Beach Hardgoods, and a trigger made from the alligator clamp of a truck’s jumper cables. The gun was heavy and awkward and lethal as sin.
He was waiting for the flash of the yellow fin of a Crevalle jack he had seen feeding in the foyer earlier. The vertical bands on the side of the fish indicated a juvenile. Too hungry and inexperienced to keep to open water, the young Crevalle was hunting for anything digestible in the ruined mansion. Favio knew the feeling. His gut rumbled with hunger. He hadn’t eaten since the day before. His last meal was a Hostess Twinkie he kept for emergency rations.
There was a swirl of water the color of rot, and, rising to the bait, the blunt head of the Crevalle broke the surface. He fired instinctively, his aim guided by the long practice of necessity. The surgical tubing, freed from the jaws of the alligator clamp, launched the metal spear. The line hissed as it unreeled. The spear caught the Crevalle just below the dorsal fin and flipped it on its side, skittering across the surface of the water. He dropped the gun on the marble landing and quickly hauled the line, hand over hand, before some passing barracuda took notice of the convulsing fish. Or something worse. There were rumors that salt water crocodiles had returned to Miami, rumors the crocs were big as his kayak. Probably just rumors.
He slapped the head of the fish against the marble staircase to kill it quickly, then gutted it and threw the offal out a broken window. There was a splash. Whatever was attracted to blood and guts best stay outside.
He made a fire on the landing from the wood of what might have been a Chippendale side chair—or a cheap knock-off. Hard to say with these Miami millionaires. Sometimes appearance was the only value. It all burned the same.
He roasted the Crevalle over the fire and burned his fingers trying to eat it before it cooled. He was ravenous. There wasn’t enough of the Crevalle to fill his belly but it dulled the edge of his hunger enough for him to think.
The house on North Bay Road was the third he had salvaged on the block. Normally he wouldn’t return more than twice to the same site—recognizable patterns were dangerous—but this block on North Bay had been productive after a long, lean time. It was getting harder to find anything of value and harder to keep what you found. He couldn’t afford to waste the opportunity but he had to be smart about the risk.
He had searched the rooms above high water. There was no evidence anyone had been there for years. Shattered windows, overturned furniture, pictures torn from walls and scattered like playing cards by the wind. Rat tracks scratched in the muck and dust. Rorschach blots of mold on the wall.
The heavy lifters had missed this place. They would have stripped everything above high water—the sideboards and cadenzas and especially the big four-poster in the master bedroom—and hauled if off in barges. Rot and mold and time had whittled the wood like termites. What was left was only good for firewood.
The furniture only made it more melancholy. It filled the house with ghosts, the faint resonance of life in the midst of death. He kept looking over his shoulder. An empty house made no pretense of being anything other than empty.
He had tested the mattress of the four-poster, still good despite the smell of mold. He wouldn’t have to sleep on the hardwood floor that night. Another day and he’d be gone.
He was safe, safe as a man could be in a town where murder was more common than rape and revenge cheaper than justice.
He doused his cooking fire with a hatful of salt water, then checked the solar collector he had mounted in a broken window. The Sunflower cost him what he might make in a good month of salvaging. It was worth it. The collector was heliophilic. It tracked the sun across the sky. It was efficient even in cloud cover, enough to power the drone and his tablet but small enough to mostly pass unnoticed. Mostly. It was now pointed above the ruined towers of Edgewater across the bay. Another hour and it would be dark.
Night came to Miami without lingering. The sun fell like a stone. He didn’t want to be mucking about after dark in an empty house with a flashlight. The pinpoint of light in so much darkness drew attention. The kind of people who were looking weren’t the kind he wanted to meet.
He hauled his Army-issued duffel bag from the kayak up the stairs to the bedroom. It was the only thing that remained of his Army enlistment besides a strong aversion to arbitrary discipline and foreign wars. He stowed the duffel beside the door where he could find it quickly in the dark.
He stripped what remained of the sheets from the four-poster and bounced on the mattress. Dust rose in a choking cloud. When he stopped sneezing he lay in bed listening to everyday sounds—water lapping, gulls raucously squabbling, distant surf—and the enveloping silence. Somewhere to the south, maybe Hialeah, there was an explosion, too distant to be threatening. He was safe, safe as a man could be in a town where murder was more common than rape and revenge cheaper than justice. He sprawled across the bed and fell asleep.
He woke in darkness, instantly alert and wet with sweat. The humid heat pressed against him like a blanket. He lay motionless. Something scratched and skittered beneath the bed. He waited but heard nothing more alarming—no footsteps, creaking hinges or heavy breathing.
He got out of bed and shined the flashlight beneath the four-poster. Beady red eyes shined back in the light and something else, something white and unexpected. It took a moment to recognize what he saw, the head of an enormous snake. He gasped involuntarily and his heart raced, pumping adrenalin through his body. His muscles tensed, ready to flee, before he realized it was only the skeleton of an enormous snake. The rats had made a job of it long ago. Only the bones were left.
What was a snake the size of a Fiat doing under the bed? He shook his head. It was a question he’d never answer. There were far more questions than answers in the ruined city. Mysteries were as common as rubble. Miami Beach had died more suddenly than anyone expected, anyone but the most dire climatologists who sounded like crackpots on street corners preaching the end of the world. Sometimes the crackpots were right.
He returned to bed but slept fitfully, dreaming of dragons that slithered through the sky like snakes leaving a trail of slimy fire. He woke just before dawn when the songbirds began to sing. There was nothing to eat. He would have to return to the mainland, sell the junk he had salvaged, and refit. It was his last day on North Bay Road.
The houses rich people built had become replacement habitat for the hardbottom reef their consumptive culture had largely destroyed. Payback’s a bitch.
On the stairway landing he assembled his gear, removed the battery from the charging bay wired to the Sunflower and inserted it into Bloat, his underwater drone. Bloat was wired to his tablet. It had limited range and the umbilical cord was always getting fouled on one thing or another but Favio didn’t do deep water salvage, nothing he couldn’t pick free-diving, and Bloat was all he could afford. In the hierarchy of the wetlands, a bone picker was only slightly higher than a rag picker; rag pickers didn’t actually pick rags.
He steered Bloat through what might have been a formal dining room, overturned chairs and a table encrusted with sea anemones and gorgonians. Even with shafts of sunlight streaming through broken windows and the drone’s own headlights, the camera could penetrate only a few feet through water dark as a Louisiana swamp. He largely groped his way using Bloat’s sonar.
Bloat had no arms, no hands or opposable fingers. It was only good at finding something of potential value. Retrieving it required holding his breath. He was good at holding his breath—he thought of it as his superpower—but free diving in a drowned house was dangerous. If something went wrong there was no easy way out, no rocketing ascent toward the surface.
Most of the time he found only junk. The bones of Miami Beach were largely picked clean. Sometimes he found junk people would pay for.
A Gulf toadfish swam into Bloat’s light, looked speculatively at the drone, then turned and leisurely swam in another direction. Ironic. The houses rich people built had become replacement habitat for the hardbottom reef their consumptive culture had largely destroyed. Payback’s a bitch.
He followed an exterior wall to a door that entered the kitchen. The door was torn from its hinges and lay beneath an inch of silt. The prop wash from the drone’s impellers stirred the silt into a cloud. He steered blindly through the cloud, the sonar signal diffracted by the silt, until Bloat emerged into slightly less turbid water and promptly ran into a cupboard made of glass. Despite successive storms and the rising sea, the glass had survived, smeared with grime but intact. Behind the glass he glimpsed delicate bowls and plates. Where there were China place settings there was likely silver flatware and silver still had value.
He parked the drone in front of the China cabinet, put on his mask and fins and entered the dark water carrying a mesh bag. The warm water encompassed him like an amniotic sac. He followed Bloat’s umbilical cord, hand over hand, until the vaulted ceiling of the dining room ended at the kitchen wall. He hyperventilated, took a last breath, and dove.
There was an inescapable eeriness swimming through dark rooms where people once lived, bumping into things that emerged suddenly from the gloom. Pickers from the early years told stories about corpses drifting through flooded rooms like ghosts, eyeless, the soft parts eaten first, strips of flesh hanging like rags from exposed bones. They were the same guys who told stories about big bull sharks swimming down 17th Street. Favio had never seen a drowned body. The dead had all become food before he began picking but he couldn’t entirely escape the irrational fear that whispered in the back of his head. There were enough ordinary things to fear, he reminded himself, like losing his way until his lungs burned and he had to breathe water to douse the fire. Or getting jacked by a gang of neighborhood kids armed with zip guns and paddle boards. Or getting ganked by rifters while crossing open water. There were a lot of ways to die in the failed state of Florida but they all left you just as dead.
Someone was watching. Someone was always watching. Eventually it would be the wrong someone.
It took three breaths to find the flatware. The drawers were swollen and stubborn. He had to brace his fins against the cabinet for leverage. It was awkward and consumed air. An elver—an immature Moray eel—swam out of one of them and into his dive light. His startled exclamation rose in bubbles through the fetid water.
When he found what he was looking for, the silverware was no longer silver but black from contact with salt water. It took another six breaths to bag the flatware, a blackened serving tray, a soup tureen and a chaffing dish. He spent the next hour polishing his loot with baking soda and an old rag. It didn’t look good but good enough to convince a buyer it was actually silver.
It wasn’t much; it had to be enough. He needed food and fresh water that didn’t taste like warm piss. He needed to leave North Bay Road. Someone was watching. Someone was always watching. Eventually it would be the wrong someone.
He stowed his gear and loot in the fishing kayak and lashed it in place with clothesline cord. It was still hours before sunset. It would be safer to travel at night but his stomach was cramping with hunger. He needed food despite the risk.
He skirted the edge of the submerged shoreline, what had once been Sunset Lake but was now indistinguishable from the rest of Biscayne Bay. The sun beat down like a hammer on an anvil. Clouds roiled offshore, promising rain later in the day. Rain would be welcomed, washing the salt off his body. The tips of his fingers were peeling and his crotch itched.
It would be hours before he could fence his loot, find something to eat at the floating market, and paddle home to his sleeping platform in Parking Lot #33 on First Street. The parking garages, open to the sea breeze, had proved the only buildings habitable in the city without electricity.
He turned west at the Icon Condo tower where the foot of the MacArthur Causeway once came ashore. The only part of the Causeway still above water was the ship channel. It had become a bridge between bodies of water, stained with guano, a nesting place for royal terns, ring-billed gulls, and brown pelicans. An old woman once lived there in a shack made from scrap. She used to stand on the crest of the bridge and scream obscenities at him when he paddled past. Not just him. She was crazy as a loon but long since gone.
The open water of Biscayne Bay made him edgy. There were still a few rifters on the bay, hoodlums riding jet skis looking for a quick kill, fewer now that gas was as rare as fresh water. It only took a few. He kept watch in every direction. The sun was a physical weight that pressed down on his head and shoulders. It polished the surface of the water like the chrome on a ’51 Buick. Ruined towers ringed the bay like monuments of a dead civilization, elaborate structures built at enormous cost for some purpose now lost to the past like the statues of Easter Island or the temples of Teotihuacan. He kept paddling.
There wasn’t much world trade left in Miami unless you tortured the definition to include piracy.
The World Trade Center rose like an island fortress. It was all that was left of Dodge Island still above water. The cruise ship docks had all drowned or been broken up by storms. A few Haitian freighters and a Panamanian container ship lay at anchor in the bay surrounding the island. Smoke blackened the Panamanian ship’s superstructure. Probably a fire on the bridge. Favio doubted she had entered Puntland willingly.
Tekel-Sprinker still kept their offices in the Trade Center, one of the few places on the waterfront with electricity. It was their private electricity powered by their private generators. Bone pickers like Favio didn’t get to enjoy the air conditioning. That was reserved for upper floor management.
There wasn’t much world trade left in Miami unless you tortured the definition to include piracy. Shipping in the Florida Straits funneled between Cuba and Florida like grain through a goose. There was no economical alternative for ships steaming between the northern United States and the Gulf of Mexico. Fewer ships now made the passage but those few still passed perilously close to Miami. The pirates were so audacious that Miami became known as Puntland after the famous pirates of the Somali coast.
Tekel-Sprinker had their fingerprints on everything shipped in or out of the city, legal or not.
The landing for the Trade Center was the roof of the old McRoberts Maritime Security building. Several intimidating men with bulging biceps and automatic weapons sat on folding beach chairs in six inches of water. They searched Favio and his kayak before he loaded his silverware into a shopping cart and pushed it into Tekel-Sprinker’s loading bay, once the third floor of the Trade Center. The cart’s front wheel, almost immobile with rust, screeched like a skinned cat. The cart kept bolting from side to side.
Spates was in his cage. He called it an office but it was really only a metal cage with a potted palm.
Spates was Tekel-Sprinker’s junk man. People with found objects to sell dealt exclusively with him. Liver spots discolored his skin.
“Mr. Bayliss,” he said when Favio forced his rebellious cart to Spate’s cage. “Your hygiene hasn’t improved since our last meeting. As a personal favor, would you mind standing downwind?”
There was no wind. The heat was immobile. Spates bargained with insults as a technique. Favio ignored it.
Junior waved the gun like a stage prop. “You mistake me. This is not an offer you can refuse.”
“What cheap knockoffs have you brought this time?”
“No fakes,” Favio said. “The real thing, far as I can tell.”
“The real thing?” Spates’ tone was caustic. “Perhaps you’ll let me be the judge of that.” He picked up a thin metal bar from a bench in the cage, lifted the soup tureen from the cart, and struck it lightly. The tureen chimed briefly.
“I told you,” Favio said.
“Poor quality,” Spates said. “It may have some value, less than what you imagine.”
“How much less?”
“Let’s not hasty, Mr. Bayliss. First we apply science.”
Spates turned the tureen upside down on his bench. He wiped clean a spot on the bottom of the tureen, then held a small plastic bottle directly above it. A single drop fell. There was a corrosive smell and the drop bubbled on the surface of the dish. The acid turned reddish-brown. Spates quickly wiped it off with a rag.
“Like I said, the real thing,” Favio said.
“Well, it’s not entirely…” The sound of gun fire interrupted him. Favio recognized automatic weapons, a shot-gun, at least one hand gun, probably .45 caliber. He remembered the sounds of war. They were coming closer.
“What the hell,” Spates said. Favio was already looking for some place to hide. The gun fire ended abruptly. The acrid smell of gun powder hung in the humid air. Someone cried out in pain. Their pain ended with a single shot.
A big black man with a stainless steel .45 and tribal tattoos walked into the bay followed by a motley gang of black, white and brown thugs, all heavily armed.
Spates turned toward the black man. “Who the hell are you?”
“I am Junior Joseph,” the man said with an enormous grin. He sounded vaguely Haitian. He had a gold front tooth. His arm moved with the grace and speed of a sidewinder’s strike. The sound of the gun thundered in the enclosed space. A hole appeared in Spates’ forehead. Spates mostly looked surprised and then fell like a tree, slowly at first then all at once, scattering bits of metal and overturning the potted palm. “I am the new proprietor of Tekel-Sprinker. Thank you for your service.”
Junior gestured with the smoking gun to his mob, sending them toward the stairways at either end of the floor. The men dispersed at a run. He seemed to notice Favio for the first time. “And who are you? Another employee?”
Favio was still holding the shopping cart handle, his knuckles white with tension. He shook his head, afraid to trust his voice. He heard the sound of gunfire from the floors above.
“No, not an employee,” Junior said as if it were a guessing game. “A bone picker by the look of you. Do you have a name, bone picker?”
“Favio.” His voice was dry and raspy. “Favio Bayliss.”
“Favio Bayliss. Do you have some allegiance to this man?” He gestured with the pistol toward Spates lying on the concrete floor in a litter of parts and potting soil, a perplexed expression on his dead face.
Favio shook his head. “No, just business.”
“Excellent. It seems I have an opening in the ranks since Fatty Wallace just took a round in the chest. Congratulations. You’re now a member of the Zoe Pound pirate gang.”
Favio raised his hands and backed away. “No disrespect but I’m no pirate. I’ll just take my boat and be gone.”
The grin and the gold tooth returned. Junior waved the gun like a stage prop. “You mistake me. This is not an offer you can refuse.”
“I don’t know anything about pirating.”
“You’ll learn quickly. Or you won’t. Either way works for me.”
“You’re just a target, a diversion. Do a little song and dance. Distract them.”
The gunfire had ended. Several gang members returned. “Are we finished?” Junior said. A man with a scar like a lightning bolt across his face signaled thumbs up. “Excellent,” Junior said. “Meet our new crew member, Favio. Favio will be taking Fatty’s place.”
The other members of Zoe Pound looked like they would as soon disembowel Favio and read omens from his steaming intestines.
“Do you have anything to eat?” Favio asked. “I’m starving.”
Junior Joseph laughed. It sounded like distant thunder. “See! He’s already developed a pirate’s appetite.” He pulled a hand-held radio from his back pocket. “Winston, this is Junior. Winston, do you hear me?”
There was a garbled reply. Favio understood none of it.
“Yes, I said I would. The Trade Center is ours.” More garble and static. “No, not bad. We lost Fatty Wallace.” Garble, static. “Well, no, it wasn’t a great loss. I’ve already replaced him.” There was a long episode of garble. “Now? You need to send someone, then. We can’t just leave this place unguarded.” Animated garble. “Alright, we’re on our way. Just send someone.”
Junior turned toward his crew. “Gentlemen, leave the bodies. Someone else will clean up. We have another job. A fat ship full of grain. You can stay drunk for a month on the prize money and buy all the whores in Little Havana.” There were shouts from the crew. “Zipper, take our new recruit in your boat. Teach him everything he needs to know.”
Zipper was the man with the scarred face. When he opened his mouth Favio could see several blackened teeth. “Only thing he needs to know is stay in front of me.”
“Well, there you have it,” Junior said. “Training complete. Let’s make some money.”
It was a motley fleet of three open boats, a mosquito fleet on an ocean flat as a painting. They made good speed, thirty knots, Favio guessed. Less than an hour and they were probably 20 miles offshore. The eastern sky was dark with an approaching thunderstorm. Lightning writhed in the darkness and rain draped beneath the clouds like the tendrils of a Portuguese man-of-war. Storms were typical in the afternoon. The day would turn as dark as pitch, pierced by searing light as bright as the sun and rattled by thunder so loud people ducked. Then, in less than an hour, the storm would move on, the sun emerge with a vengeance and steam rise from the ground.
Favio was in an old fishing skiff made of dense fiberglass, chipped and scarred and stained in places, dark stains that might be blood, and driven by two enormous Mercury outboards.
Zipper handed him an AK-47. “You’re first onboard,” he shouted.
The weapon felt light. Favio released the banana clip. There were no rounds in the magazine.
Zipper laughed. “You thought we’d give you a loaded gun? You’re just a target, a diversion. Do a little song and dance. Distract them.”
The fleet was rapidly approaching an old tramp steamer. She was a break-bulk carrier with her own cranes on deck for managing in third world ports without cargo handling facilities. She was steering south, maybe for New Orleans or Galveston. Favio guessed she was the Rose of Sharon. It was difficult to read the name on her stern, weathered and obscured by rust. The entire hull was streaked with rust like wounds.
“Try to leave some of the crew alive this time, boys,” Zipper shouted. “We could use the recruits.”
Favio heard an odd popping sound above the noise of the outboards. Water began spouting near the first boat approaching the ship.
“Damn, they got a cannon,” someone said.
The crew onboard the ship were finding their range, walking the rounds toward their target. The pirate boat began jigging their course but turned right into the line of fire. Several rounds struck with a thud like a mallet hammering a side of frozen beef. The boat fell off plane and began turning in slow circles. Favio couldn’t see anyone moving onboard.
“Forget the recruits,” Zipper shouted. “Kill ‘em all.”
There was no one else when he reached the deck. No one living.
Junior Joseph’s boat was the first to come alongside amid a staccato of small arms fire. He closed at a shallow angle to get beneath the heavy gun’s arc of fire. His boat bounced off the ship’s hull and then clung to it like a limpet. Favio could see grappling hooks flung over the ship’s rail. The first man to reach the deck took the blast of a shotgun. He looked like a mule kicked him in the chest. His body sailed through the air and splashed into the sea. No one turned to look.
“Get us closer,” Zipper shouted to the helmsman. He stood in the bow, one foot braced on the bulkhead, the bowline wrapped around his wrist, and took aim with an AR-15. He fired short bursts on automatic. The ejected rounds bounced around the bottom of the boat. Even with the boat’s motion, he was deadly accurate. Favio saw blood spray from several of the ship’s defenders. Junior’s crew made it to the deck. His boat, emptied, drifted astern of the freighter. Favio realized there would be no retreat.
The sea erupted alongside. Salt water fell like rain. Zipper turned his rifle on the big gun mounted on the superstructure and shouted to the helmsman. “Board.”
More rounds plowed the water nearby. Favio tried to make himself small, curling like a pill bug. When he looked up, the hull of the freighter loomed above. Zipper laid the hot barrel of his rifle against Favio’s cheek. “Rise and climb,” the pirate grinned, “or die here.”
Favio gripped the line hanging from the grapple.
“Don’t forget your gun,” Zipper said. “Wouldn’t want you naked.” He laughed. Favio wondered whether the black teeth were intentional, part of his mystique. The smile collapsed. “You’re dead if you’re not first onboard.” Favio slung the rifle around his shoulder and began to climb.
His useless weapon kept sliding between him and the ship’s hull, entangling his legs. He lost his footing and almost fell. When he looked down Zipper was pointing his AR-15 at him. Favio kept climbing.
There was no one else when he reached the deck. No one living. There were a few bodies—he couldn’t tell whether they were pirates or the ship’s crew. The deck was slick with blood and oil. The battle had moved aft. He could hear small arms fire muted by the steel walls of the ship’s superstructure. It sounded like rocks rattling around in a tin can.
Nearby a shotgun lay on the deck in a dead man’s hand. Favio pried the gun free. It was an old Remington pump. The gripe was sticky with blood. Favio intended to shoot Zipper as his head appeared above the ship’s bulwarks. He didn’t much care what happened after that.
A man’s hand gripped the rail. Favio tucked the stock of the shotgun between his arm and ribs, ready to fire. He saw sudden movement at the edge of his vision. He turned instinctively. A man was charging across the deck with a machete raised above his head, one side of his face covered with blood.
Favio didn’t think. He fired. The shotgun blast knocked the man off his feet. The machete struck the steel deck like a chime. Even dead the man didn’t release his grip on the weapon. He looked small and dark and needlessly dead.
When Favio turned away from the body Zipper was standing behind him. Zipper’s assault rifle was casually pointed at him.
“Make a pirate out of you yet,” Zipper said. His grin was full of black teeth. “Now get aft.” He motioned with the barrel of his rifle. “There’s more where he came from.”
Several bullets ricocheted off the deck nearby. Someone was firing from the wing of the bridge. Favio ran, bent over, trying to make himself a smaller target. He hid behind a ventilation cowl. Zipper calmly walked forward, standing erect, firing short bursts every other step. Favio bolted forward, more frightened of Zipper than of the ship’s crew trying to kill him, and slid behind a cargo crane.
Zipper continued to advance mechanically like a toy soldier—step, step, fire—step, step, fire. Ejected shell casings bounced on the steel deck. Bullets ricocheted off steel bulkheads. The humid air smelled of burning insulation. The sky darkened as the storm approached from the east. Favio couldn’t tell whether the booming sound was thunder or shotguns fired inside the steel superstructure.
There was the smell of ozone in the air. The day was darkening. Gusts of wind swept the deck and the ship began to roll in the swell pushed ahead of the storm.
He kept moving aft ahead of Zipper’s advance. Finally there was nowhere to go but up the ladder that led to the bridge. He began to climb.
The adrenalin in his blood made him feel like a puppet on crack. His movements were abrupt and disjointed. His head felt wooden and his eyesight narrowed. Things on the edge of his vision receded into darkness.
A bullet punched a hole in the railing beside his hand. Metal fragments bloodied his palm. He threw himself across the landing, his back against the steel wall, and tried to see the shooter. Zipper was climbing the stairs methodically, aiming above. “Get moving, asshole, or you won’t have to worry about someone else shooting you.”
Favio bolted up the ladder to the next deck. He left a blood smear on the handrail. He pressed himself against the bulkhead, waiting for the impact of the bullet that would kill him. There was none. Zipper’s head appeared above the deck.
It happened again and again, Zipper methodically climbing the ladder, deck by deck, Favio hiding, then running like a rabbit across a field shadowed by a hawk. Eventually there was nowhere left to climb.
The starboard wing of the ship’s bridge was empty except for a body collapsed against the railing. Blood and rust stained the metal grating. The wind was stronger and the eastern sky black with the storm’s approach. He could feel the deck rise and fall beneath his feet as the ship pitched and yawed in the gathering seas.
The door to the bridge was open. “Favio Bayliss, you’ve survived.” Junior Joseph was on the bridge with another man, someone Favio hadn’t seen before. “Come in, come in,” Junior boomed, waving with his big pistol. “This is the captain. He doesn’t want to go to Puntland.”
He shot the man in the throat intentionally, Favio thought, just to watch him die slowly.
“It’s suicide to turn west,” the captain said. Probably Filipino, Favio guessed. “Can’t you see the storm? We need to gain sea room.”
“The captain thinks to terrify me with a thunderstorm,” Junior said to Favio. “As if thunderstorms weren’t as common as whores in Palmetto Bay.”
“This isn’t just another thunderstorm,” the captain said. He stuttered. “It’s…it’s…. We were expecting to be clear of the Bahamas before…” There was a wet stain on his pant’s leg. It looked like he had pissed himself. “Then you attacked us. We need to steer into it. East.”
“What do you think, Zipper?” Junior said. Zipper was standing in the door. “Is he telling the truth?”
“Bullshit,” Zipper said.
“Zipper doesn’t believe you, captain,” Junior said. “We are not children you can frighten with stories of storms. Favio, take the helm.”
“What helm?” Favio said. There was nothing that looked remotely like a wheel.
“That thing there.” Junior waved his pistol as a joystick in the middle of the bridge. “It’s like a video game.”
Favio walked across the bridge and staggered as the ship pitched into a trough. The storm was pushing waves against the ship’s side. Spray from breaking waves washed the blood from the decks.
“You fool,” the captain said. “You’ll kill us all.”
“Maybe,” Joseph said, “but I’ll certainly kill you.” The shot was deafening in the enclosed space. At that distance Junior couldn’t miss but it wasn’t a clean kill. He shot the man in the throat intentionally, Favio thought, just to watch him die slowly. The captain collapsed on the deck. His breath gurgled in his ruined thought. The captain’s eyes looked frightened and then they dimmed. His expression became rigid as his life drained on the deck.
“Great,” Zipper said. “Now who’s going to run this boat?”
Junior looked away from the captain’s body and shrugged. “If he can do it, I can. Favio, takes us to Miami.”
“With this thing?” Favio said, gingerly touching the joystick.
“Yes, with that thing. You’re not a little girl. Grab it like it’s your dick.”
Favio pushed the joystick hard over. The ship began turning, slowly at first but gathering momentum. The deck canted beneath their feet. A coffee cup slid of the chart table and broke. The ship continued to lean into the turn. Anything that wasn’t anchored came adrift. It was impossible to see any distance through the rain driving horizontally against the windows. Another of Junior’s crew appeared at the door to the bridge, his face taut and his body wet with rain. “What the hell?”
“All is under control,” Junior said, braced against a radar console. “A little less manly, Favio.”
Favio released his grip on the stick. It bounced back, erect. “Where are we going? I can’t see a thing.”
The deck slowly righted and ship steadied on course.
“Do we have someone in the gang who knows about ships?” Junior asked Zipper.
“Not anyone left alive,” Zipper said.
“Just steer east,” Junior told Favio. “This will blow over soon and we’ll see where we are.”
“Likely on the reef at Key Largo,” Favio said.
“If you want to keep your teeth, I’d advise you to shut your mouth,” Junior said.
The ship pitched and yawed in the following sea. Favio struggled to keep her on course. The compass card swung wildly beneath the glass. Deep in the hull the massive diesel engine kept rhythm like the beat of a drum and the wind howled in the rigging. Lightning snaked across the sky. One bolt struck the sea nearby and flung a plume of water into the sky like a depth charge. The hull shook with the immediate impact of thunder.
The storm strengthened. Lightning became almost continuous. The burning light revealed waves half the height of the cargo cranes rushing past, the wind blowing spume from their crests. The ship described a corkscrew course. The other member of the Zoe Pound gang on the bridge—Favio didn’t know his name—bent over and vomited in a corner.
“This doesn’t look like it’s going to blow over anytime soon,” Zipper said.
“You want to be the boss?” Junior said, waving his pistol in Zipper’s direction.
Zipper threw up his hands and shook his head.
Favio had never been far from shore and never in a storm. It was hard to keep his feet. The sound of the wind made it hard to think and the lightning burned his eyes.
The wind backed and veered briefly, long enough to hold the rain in suspension. In the searing light of a lightning strike he could see, for a moment, beyond the length of the deck. A hole had formed in the ocean ahead of the ship The ship’s bow balanced on the edge of the trough. He couldn’t see the bottom of it, only darkness.
“Jesus,” he whispered.
The Rose of Sharon pitched over the edge. The deck canted beneath their feet—5, 10, 15 degrees. The ship kept driving forward, driving down. At 20 degrees of pitch Zipper lost his footing and slid across the bridge, fetching up in a litter of broken crockery, equipment manuals, and comic books. At 30 degrees Junior slid heavily into the console beside Favio. “What’s happening?”
“The captain was right,” Favio said without looking aside. “You’ve killed us all.”
At 40 degrees the bow slammed into the bottom of the trough. The impact drove Favio’s face into the console and broke his nose. Still on his feet, gripping the useless joystick, blood rained down on the instrument panel. Above the sound of the storm he heard tortured metal and collapsing bulkheads. He could see the deck forward of the cargo cranes begin to crease and then crumple. The ship’s momentum drove it relentlessly forward. The deck collapsed like an aluminum can.
A wall of water taller than the ship’s superstructure raced down the deck. It struck the bridge with the force of a freight train. The windows exploded. It was the last thing Favio saw. Lying in the darkness, blinded and in pain, he thought—the last thing he thought—”We’ve made the world in our own image, endlessly violent.” The last thing he felt was hunger.