Tag Archives: climatic fiction

The Disappeared

Tuesday, March 22

Rathskill found his motorcycle where he had left it five days before, parked illegally under a stairway landing behind the college cafeteria. It was an Indian Chief, a massive V-twin flathead assembled from spare parts after the Indian factory went into receivership. The 1955 Chiefs were considered a myth by many motorcycle experts. Rathskill’s myth required two men to set it upright if it fell over.

He turned the ignition key and the Indian roared to life, startling a gull that was scavenging French fries on the sidewalk.

He drove Highway 101 to the narrow Juan de Fuca Highway, over the Elwha River Bridge and through the countryside scattered with homesteads and pastures carved from the forest. Beyond the patches of cultivated land, the mountains rose steeply, a looming presence shadowed by forest.

He turned off Crescent Beach Road onto a dirt track with the unofficial name of Witts End. A dozen mailboxes marked the intersection. The house on Salt Creek was a rough cottage with sprung boards and peeling paint but a magnificent view of Crescent Bay. Salt Creek meandered across a floodplain in front of the cottage, then broadened into an estuary. He had few neighbors and no guests.

Two turkey vultures sat on the telephone pole in front of his house. They watched him with professional disinterest as he parked the Indian. It was early in the year for vultures but a forecast of things to come.

Rathskill had bought the house for its solitude and the landscape, unaware of the annual drama staged in his front yard. Each spring vultures gathered on their migration north across the Strait to Vancouver Island. They roosted on fence posts or shouldered one another for space on split rails, in dead trees, on ruined barns and water towers and bare rock and the roof of his house, waiting for the sun to warm the earth and the earth to warm the air enough to carry them 2,400 feet aloft.

It was simple geometry. The shortest passage across the Strait was 12 miles from Salt Creek to Beachy Head on Vancouver Island, 12 miles of cold water and sinking air. A turkey vulture lost two feet of altitude for every second of glide. They had evolved to soar, to sail on the wind, but their wings were too weak to beat that distance.

They had to start their glide at 2,400 feet. If they fell short of the far shore, they drowned.

Two vultures were harmless enough but soon there would be dozens, then hundreds, then bird watchers with their cameras and telephoto lenses and life lists. They would soon be so thick you could throw a stone blindfolded and hit a buzzard or a birder.

While they waited for the rising thermals the vultures splattered the landscape with wet shit, Rathskill’s house, his second-hand patio furniture, his plastic flamingos and plaster garden gnome. He’d have to cover the Indian with a tarp. Then, with a few days of warm weather, they would all be gone until the fall.

One of the vultures on the telephone pole squirted a stream of feces that covered its legs like a whitewash. The stomach acid of a vulture could peel the chrome off a bumper. They used it like disinfectant to kill bacteria accumulated while walking on rotting corpses. It also provided evaporative cooling, a self-contained swamp cooler. It was an elegant evolutionary solution to multiple problems but smelled like digested death.

“Nice,” Rathskill said to the vulture. “Your mother teach you that?”

Nelson appeared from the brush behind the house. He covered the ground between them with a rolling gait like a sailor on shore leave. He licked Rathskill’s hand.

“Heh, old dog,” Rathskill said. “With all the neurons in your head dedicated to the sense of smell, one stink is still no worse than another, eh? Give me a few minutes to clean up and I’ll have something on the table for both of us.”

Nelson was a mutt that looked mostly like an embattled Australian cattle dog. His right foreleg and left eye were missing. He wasn’t Rathskill’s dog. He wasn’t anyone’s dog. He wasn’t even named Nelson.

They found each other on the beach. Nelson followed him home at a safe distance. Rathskill left a pork chop on the porch. That defined their relationship. Nelson kept him company on long walks and he fed Nelson leftovers. A week after their introduction he named the dog after the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, another battered hero.

After dinner, they walked on the beach. The sand stretched from the state park at Tongue Point almost to Port Crescent, a ghost town that once had pretensions of becoming a lumber port. The beach was privately owned, a campground at one end and a resort at the other with nothing between but forest pressing against the shore and a thread of white sand so fine it sifted through his fingers like flour. Rathskill had an arrangement with the owner of the campground that allowed him to freely pass the signs warning against trespassing.

A half mile down the utterly empty beach he sat on a berm at the high-water mark with his toes in the sand. The day was clear, the air crisp as a Washington apple. The clouds in the west were ignited by the setting sun. The long twilight of the northern latitudes settled on the Strait. Only the peaks of Vancouver Island still reflected the sun. Nelson busied himself with a dead gull wrapped in bull kelp.

Nelson lifted his head and looked toward the forest, his mouth full of feathers. His ears pricked and pivoted forward.

“What is it?” Rathskill asked and turned. The old man in the cape stood on the far side of the road in the shadow of the forest, the same old man who had mooned him in class.

“So, I’m not the only one who can see him,” Rathskill said, somewhat reassured until he realized he might be hallucinating the dog’s reaction as well. Once you questioned the reality of one perception, he warned himself, there was no bottom to the rabbit hole.

“Time to go,” he told Nelson, “If we want to get back before dark.”

Nelson bounded ahead or lagged, following his nose, but kept a wary eye on the old shaman.

“What’s your point?” Rathskill finally shouted at the shaman, exasperated. “I know you’re just a projection of my unconscious, some unresolved conflict, but what’s the point if you don’t help me resolve it?”

The irony of a conversation shouted with himself occurred to him. The shaman remained mute.

He lowered his voice. “Of course, I might just be batshit crazy, like Vanoy said. How can a crazy man know he’s crazy? Does the act of questioning your sanity prove you’re sane? Or is it just another layer of madness?” The twisted solipsism made his head hurt.

It didn’t really matter whether he was crazy or sane, he thought, whether the world was real or imagined. You followed your own path because there wasn’t any other. It didn’t matter what other people thought if they were all batshit crazy too but hadn’t realized it yet.

At that moment he recognized his decision was made already. He would follow the trail of Tad Marc’s murder wherever it led, whatever Detective Vanoy or Chief Johnson or Dean Haskell said. Something about the boy’s fate compelled him.

He turned to shout at the old shaman but he wasn’t there.


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Lili Marlene

Sunday,March 20

Dietrich Hoffer was a thin man wearing antique Pince-nez glasses, precisely trimmed Van Dyke, and hand tailored gloves. He looked like an aristocrat from fin-de-siècle Vienna. He was reading documents in a leather-bound binder which he closed with a precise and measured movement when Harry sat down.

“Harry Wry.”

Hoffer declined the offered hand. “You’ll excuse me. A debilitating nerve condition.”

“I’m told you’re in the import business and you’re looking for someone to haul cargo,” Harry said.

“Who told you that, Mr. Wry?” Hoffer removed his glasses and cleaned them meticulously with a linen handkerchief. It was a surprisingly intimidating gesture.

“I’m not sure, exactly. I was drinking. Your number appeared in my notebook.” He passed his notebook to Hoffer. “That is your number, isn’t it?”

Hoffer replaced his glasses before accepting the notebook from Harry. “It was my number. It’s no longer in service.”

“Yeah, I know. So, you hiring?”

“One moment, Mr. Wry.” Hoffer stood, brushed the wrinkles from of his pressed pants, walked to the old Wurlitzer in the corner of the bar and made a selection. By the time he returned to the booth Marlene Dietrich was singing the German lyrics to “Lili Marlene” in a throaty voice.

“What have you to offer, Mr. Wry?”

“I’ve got a schooner at anchor in the bay with a hold big enough to carry a substantial cargo and I’m desperate enough to carry it no questions asked. Almost no questions.”

“What questions do you have, Mr. Wry?”

“What, when, and how much.”

“And why should I do business with you, Mr. Wry? I know nothing about you.”

“You can ask Lidmann. He knows everything about me you need to know.”

“I will make inquiries, Mr. Wry. Do you have a phone number?”

“No. I live onboard.”

“You don’t have a cell phone?”

“No. Electricity is scarce,” Harry said.

Hoffer looked at him sharply.

“And they’re too easy to tap,” Harry added.

“A wise precaution, Mr. Wry. Very well. Return this evening. I’ll inform Lidmann if I’m interested further.” Hoffer opened his leather binder and waited for Harry to remove himself.

“Pleasure talking to you,” Harry said. It wasn’t.

Afterward, Harry couldn’t remember exactly what Dietrich Hoffer looked like besides the black leather gloves and the antique glasses. Almost immediately the man seemed to fade in his memory like an old photo.

He waved to Lidmann on his way out the door, blinked in the bright sunlight, and abruptly ran into a Stetson hat. Beneath the Stetson was a denim shirt, Levi’s and cowboy boots that might have been alligator hide. “Harry Wry?”

Harry lied reflexively. “Name’s Rehnquist, William Rehnquist.”

The man snorted. “A dead Supreme Court judge? Nice touch. Harry Wry, you’ve been served.”

The cowboy hat tucked a folded sheet of paper in Harry’s shirt pocket and pivoted on his cowboy heels.

Gray Marine Engine Works had filed suit for lack of payment. Harry had 30 days to pay the bill or surrender Spike Africa for impoundment.

Before returning to the schooner, Harry made a call from another pay phone in front of the Asian Soho Bistro. Bulldog Purvis answered. Bulldog had crewed for Harry carrying tourists on day trips from different ports around the Salish Sea.

“I may have some work for you if you’re not squeamish,” Harry said.

“It can’t be worse than pumping septic tanks,” Bulldog said.

“That’s what you’ve been doing?”

“It pays the bills. Most months. Like they say, it might be shit to you but it’s my bread and butter.”

“They don’t say that,” Harry said. “If it happens, it will mostly be night work but it pays better than pumping septic tanks. We’ll need a deckhand as well.”

“I’ve got a friend. He knows bow from stern and I trust him.”

“I’ll call you when I know more. There may not be much notice. And Bulldog, don’t tell anyone else about this. Not even your mother or you might not have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. The state will provide it.”

When Harry returned to the Spike Africa, he deliberately rowed around her. She had a year’s worth of marine growth on her bottom. It would take a knot off her best speed but there wasn’t time or money to haul and scrape her. The old girl’s fate wouldn’t depend upon speed, anyway. On a beam reach with a stiff breeze she might make eight, maybe nine knots, not enough to outrun anything chasing her. Her only hope was slipping between ports unnoticed.

On deck, she looked like a horse that had been ridden hard and put away wet. The white paint on her deckhouse was peeling, her teak decks were grey with dirt, and the brass ventilator cowls that passed fresh air below were green with verdigris. The varnish on her spars had bubbled and flaked, exposing bare wood to the weather. The wheel was unmounted from the steering gear and leaned against the deckhouse. Her running rigging was spliced a dozen times over but it would do. It would have to.

Harry sat in the cockpit and admired the graceful sheer of the schooner’s deck. He stroked the teak cockpit coaming. “I don’t see any other way out of this,” he said to the schooner. “We’ve got our backs against the wall and they’re loading the guns.”

That evening he returned to Fiddler’s Green. Lidmann was polishing a pickle jar full of cloudy liquid. He claimed it was the same pickle jar that Gallus Meg once kept the ears she bit off boisterous sailors in her bar on the New York waterfront during the boisterous Age of Sail.



“Any word from our mutual friend?” Harry jerked his thumb in the direction of Dietrich Hoffer’s booth.

Lidmann sat the pickle jar on the bar. “It’s a dangerous game, Harry. Think twice about making deals with the devil.”

“I don’t have much choice. I got served with papers. The old girls will be arrested if I don’t pay. Once the marshals have her, I’ll never get her back.”

“He wants to talk to you,” Lidmann said. “But Harry, watch your back. The man is a pit viper.”

“Even vipers predictably serve their own interests,” Harry said and hoped it was true.

Harry stood beside Hoffer’s booth waiting for the man to look up from his journal.

“Mr. Wry.” Hoffer was still wearing the black gloves. They looked supple enough to have been made from the skin of young goats—kid gloves. He gestured for Harry to sit.

“Do we have business to conduct?” Harry asked.

“One moment.” Hoffer walked to the Wurlitzer, selected “Lili Marlene,” and returned to the table. “Indeed, we do.”

“My references were acceptable?”

“You qualify as a desperate man, Mr. Wry. When can you sail?”

“The sooner the better. Tonight, if need be.”

“I will let you know in a few days. I’ll leave word with Lidmann. You know Whiffin Spit on Sooke Inlet?” Harry nodded. Sooke Inlet was on Vancouver Island, almost directly across the Strait from Port Angeles. “How long will it take you to cross the Strait?”

“Four, five hours, depending on the breeze and the current.”

“I’ll make the arrangements. I’ll require you to load and depart the same night. Return by a more circuitous route and unload the next night.”

“Where do we offload?” Harry asked.

“Freshwater Bay, near Observatory Point.”

Harry bit his lip.

“Is that a problem, Mr. Wry?”

“Freshwater Bay is an open roadstead. If there’s any sea running it will be difficult to land a loaded boat. It’s also an old log dump. There are a lot of snags close inshore.”

“Do you have an alternative?”

“I do. We could land on the beach at Tse-whit-zen.”

“The site of the graving dock?”

Harry thought Hoffer coughed. Later he recognized it was Hoffer’s dry, humorless laughter.

“Why not? It’s not visible from the street. No one goes there after dark. I know the night watchman. We could land your cargo safely and unobserved.”

“Amusing,” Hoffer said. He removed his Pince-nez glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. ”At the doorstep of the U.S. Coast Guard. Agreed then. I’ll accept delivery at Tse-whit-zen.”

“How much does the job pay? I have my crew to consider, and whatever Sully needs to look the other way, and…”

Hoffer wrote a figure on a napkin and slid it across the table. Harry turned it over. “Damn. Who knew smuggling was so profitable? I guess everybody but me. What is it we’re carrying?”

“I pay you not to ask questions, Mr. Wry. You will deliver my cargo without looking in the crates. If you accept my money, you accept my terms. The consequences for violating those terms are, shall we say, prohibitive. You’ll receive one third now and the balance on delivery. Are we agreed?”

“Agreed.” Harry didn’t hesitate. Later, he wondered why he hadn’t.


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Fiddler’s Green

Saturday, March 19

Two days before he met Sully Marlybone at the Eagle Café, Harry Wry was startled by the sound of a gunshot. He sat upright like a released spring, struck his head on the bunk above and pitched onto the deck, stunned. He remained on hands and knees as the drunken stupor cleared from his brain and the pain flooded his head like a spring tide.

Pistol shrimp. Damned pistol shrimp. Little shrimp with a cartoon claw. They banged their over-sized claw closed so hard it created a jet of water traveling 100 kilometers per hour. Little water cannons that stunned or killed their prey. A low-pressure bubble formed in the wake of the jet. The bubble collapsed with a sound like a pistol shot. The sound passed effortlessly through water and the wooden hull beside Harry’s bunk.

His detailed knowledge of the natural history of pistol shrimp was one of the benefits of a degree in marine biology. That and three bucks could buy him an espresso.

Harry was kneeling in an inch of standing water. Saltwater. The seams of the wooden schooner wept like an old lady. There was no money to haul the boat and caulk her. Until there was he simply pumped the bilge more often. Except when he was hungover and forgot.

The pistol shrimp were banging away in the shallow water of Slee’s Bay. It sounded like a pitched battle. “Dear God, make it stop,” he whispered. It was a rhetorical prayer. Harry didn’t believe in a God who intervened with pistol shrimp but wasn’t above pleading with a fictional deity when he hurt this bad.

He was as unsteady on his feet as if the old schooner was pitching in a seaway but found his way on deck, moving one handhold to the next, and fitted the long handle to the manual bilge pump. Each stroke was like a blow to his head. He grit his teeth and kept pumping until the bilge was dry and an oily sheen surrounded the boat. He kept a bottle of dishwashing liquid beside the pump. With a backhand gesture, he broadcast drops of soap across the water. Each drop devoured the oil in an expanding circle like a petroleum-eating Pacman. It wasn’t ethical, it wasn’t even legal, but avoided a fine Harry couldn’t afford to pay.

It wasn’t the only thing he couldn’t afford. Spike Africa’s sails were so often patched they looked like quilts from the Women’s Missionary Society. She needed new standing rigging and her engine was hardly better than ballast. Everything he had was sunk into the old schooner and she was about to sink beneath him.

In the galley, he pumped pressure into the kerosene stove and boiled water for coffee. He washed down a handful of aspirin with water that smelled of rotting eggs. He pulled a notepad from his pocket and made a note to add more bleach to the water tank. The previous note was a phone number Lidmann gave him the night before. Some guy interested in importing from Canada without the hassle of customs. Lidmann didn’t say what he wanted imported.

He drank his coffee in the cockpit. The breeze had already risen on the Strait. Whitecaps were forming where the ebb ran strongly against the prevailing westerly. He heard the surf beating against the outside of Ediz Hook. Clouds of gulls followed a fishing boat returning to harbor. The gulls were squabbling over the bycatch the fishermen threw overboard.

Despite his abject poverty and punishing headache, he couldn’t imagine a better way to live. He didn’t want it to end.

Lidmann had mentioned the importer after Harry’s fourth or fifth glass of rum. He was drinking the cheaper stuff that tasted like molasses and wood alcohol.

“If I don’t find some way to make money,” Harry complained to Lidmann, “the old girl is going to sink or be arrested by Federal marshals.”

“How much do you owe?” Lidmann asked.

“More than I can pay.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Ten thousand to Haven Boatworks. And another five to Hasse’s sail loft. I can’t see a way out. Hauling tourists was a bust. It cost more money than I earned.”

“Do you have qualms about how you make your money?”


Lidmann had a subtle accent. The accent sounded vaguely European; no one could place it. He was a man of indeterminate age and indefinite history. He owned Fiddler’s Green, a waterfront bar on the wharf near Slee’s Bay. The bar was favored by locals. The few tourists who strayed far enough from safety and basic hygiene to reach the front door were dissuaded by the smell of stale beer and despair. Despite the regular customers, there was no sense of community. Men drank alone in dark corners and shaded booths, solitary men silently staring into their whiskey and beer or arguing violently with their memories. It was Harry’s kind of bar.

“It’s a perfectly good word,” Lidmann said. “And the question remains.”

“No, I can’t afford any qualms. Or reservations or inhibitions or morals. If they take my boat I’ll end up serving burgers at McDonald’s.” He rubbed the gray stubble on his head with his knuckles. It was the same gray stubble on his chin. “Can you imagine me wearing a hair net?”

Lidmann gave him the number. “Write it down. You’ll forget your mother’s name in the morning.”

It was true. In the morning he couldn’t remember if he ever had a mother. He finished his coffee and added the cup to the sink of dirty dishes. He decided to call Lidmann’s contact but needed a phone. In a cellular age, pay phones were rare. The nearest one was at the Eagle Café.

Harry hauled the long boat alongside and managed to get in without falling overboard. Coordinating two oars was difficult when he thought about it so he didn’t think. His body remembered the rhythm of the oars—stroke, feather, and return. He tied up to a float attached to the wharf and climbed the ladder. It was low tide and a long climb. The lower rungs were slick with marine growth. He missed his footing and almost fell, hanging from the ladder by one hand like a baboon, cursing.

The Eagle Café served a big breakfast for a reasonable price. The booths were crowded with men with scarred hands and women whose voices were rough from cigarettes. Hattie Malept served him a cup of black coffee.

Harry left his coffee on the counter and called the number Lidmann had given him. The phone rang twice before a woman’s recorded voice said, “The number you dialed has been disconnected. There is no new number.” His quarter fell into the change return slot. He tried again with the same result.

He waited until the afternoon to revisit Fiddler’s Green. The bar seemed always open but he needed time to recover from the partial blindness that struck him leaving the Eagle. He spent 30 minutes rowing around the anchorage looking for the Spike Africa. It was embarrassing to misplace a 70-foot schooner in an anchorage as small as Slee’s Bay. “I’m getting too old for this kind of shit,” he said when he finally found her.

“You look like a dog’s breakfast,” Lidmann said when Harry settled onto the bar stool.

Lidmann made Harry his hangover cure, raw egg in tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper, and Tabasco.

“I called the number you gave me last night. It was disconnected.”

“What number?”

“For the importer.”

“I didn’t give you any number, Harry.”

“Hoffer, Dietrich Hoffer. You said he was looking for someone to haul cargo from Canada, no questions asked.”

“Harry, I never talked to you about Dietrich Hoffer, last night or any night.”

“You didn’t give me this number?” Harry showed him the entry in this notebook. Lidmann shook his head. “Damn. That was my last wild-ass hope.”

“He’s here if you want to talk to him.”


“Dietrich Hoffer.”

“Here? Now? I thought you said you didn’t know him.”

“I said I didn’t give you his number. He uses this place like his office,” Lidmann tipped his head toward the booth in the most remote corner of the bar, “but he pays his tab on time.”

“So, you don’t know anything about his business?”

“I know more than I should about his business. I just didn’t discuss it with you.”

“Is he a smuggler?”

Lidmann shrugged. “Ask him yourself but be careful. He’s a dangerous man.”


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Scout’s Honor

Monday, March 21

Monday morning Sully woke with a migraine. His mouth tasted like bilge water. His sight was clouded by blood in his eyes. He made a note to avoid returning to the Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha, then forgot where he put the note.

He walked to the pay phone at the Eagle Café to call his boss at Port Angeles Parks and Recreation. He felt like a Sherpa humping a pack up the Himalayas, gasping for air. He listened to a five-minute lecture before learning he still had a job. Apparently, guarding a centuries-old graveyard where the dead were piled like cordwood didn’t appeal to many people even in the depressed economy of Port Angeles.

Hattie Malept served him his usual breakfast of poached eggs and dry toast.

“You look rough today,” she said.

“I feel like roadkill.”

“Too much fun on the weekend?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t describe it as fun,” Sully said. “More like perdition.” He opened the newspaper he had bought from the vending machine on the wharf.

Harry Wry sat down opposite Sully.

“Coffee?” Hattie asked.

Harry nodded and rubbed the gray stubble on his chin with his knuckles. “Looking for a job?” he asked Sully.

Sully nodded, swallowing.

“Don’t,” Harry said. He waited until Hattie was beyond earshot. “I got a job hauling cargo from Canada, no customs and no questions asked. I need a place to land it. Someplace quiet with no one looking late at night. Someplace like Tse-whit-zen,” he said, pronouncing each syllable like a separate word, drumming the Formica tabletop with a scarred forefinger. Tse. Whit. Zen.

Harry owned an aging schooner at anchor in the bay. He spent most of his time trying to keep her afloat. He was also Sully’s only friend.

Harry stole a piece of toast from Sully’s plate, took a bite, grimaced, and returned it to the plate. “I don’t know how you can eat burnt bread without butter. Tastes like a roof shingle.”

Sully took his fork and pushed the piece of toast off his plate and onto the table. He leaned forward and spoke in a hushed voice. “I’ve seen things. Things that couldn’t possibly be. At Tse-whit-zen. And something like a black hole. It knew my name, Harry.” He shook his head. “I’ve got to find another gig.”

He didn’t mention his ayahuasca vision. It would only mislead Harry into suspecting his experience at Tse-whit-zen was drug induced. Harry went there anyway.

“I’ve seen plenty of things like that, kid,” Harry said. “You just need to dry out for a while.”

“I wasn’t drinking. Not until after I saw it. I don’t think I can keep working there. Damn place is haunted.”

“Well, yeah, it’s a graveyard,” Harry said. “Every graveyard is haunted. Comes with the territory. Makes no difference. Ghosts can’t hurt you. Rattle a few chains, moan in the night. Child’s play.”

Harry had no appreciation for the more arcane aspects of existence.

“I didn’t think your boat would float, much less haul cargo,” Sully said. “What kind of cargo needs to be landed in the middle of the night?”

“The kind that pays well with no questions asked,” Harry said.

“How well?”

Harry wrote something on a paper napkin, turned it over, and slid it across the table to Sully.

“A bit dramatic,” Sully said before he read the napkin. “Holy shit!”

“Keep your voice down. We don’t want to draw attention.”

They had already drawn Hattie’s attention. She came with a coffee pot. “You sound excited,” she said to Sully. “Find a job?”

“What do I have to do?” Sully asked Harry when Hattie returned to her other customers.

“Something you’re very good at,” Harry said. “Nothing. Just look the other way. You can do it in your sleep. Mostly what you do anyway.”

Sully looked again at the underside of the napkin. “If you’re paying this much, it can’t be legal. What happens if we get caught?”

“What do you think? We go to jail. Look, we make a few runs, make a boatload of money, then sail away before anyone’s the wiser. We refit the old girl and sail someplace where we can live like kings the rest of our lives. I know places that aren’t even on the charts.”

“Hard time,” Sully said, frowning. “The big house. Plastic sporks. Institutional rape. It’s a big risk.”

“What do you have to lose?” Harry said, eyeing Sully’s eggs. “You live in a chicken coop floating in a cesspool. You spend your nights guarding a bunch of bones. And you’ve got the social life of a leper.”

“My freedom?” Sully said.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“Don’t you dare break into song,” Sully threatened the back of Harry’s hand with his fork. “I swear, I’ll gig you like a toad.”

“Take a breath, man. Like I said, we do a few jobs, then get out. What could go wrong?”

“This is the part in cheap horror movies where the ditzy blond opens the door to the basement and the soundtrack turns ominous and everyone in the audience thinks ‘Don’t do it,’” Sully said.

“The blond always goes into the basement,” Harry said.

“Yeah. It’s in the script.”

“So you’re in?” Harry said.

“Sure,” Sully said.

“A few jobs and we’re gone,” Harry said. “Scout’s honor.”

Sully doubted Harry Wry was ever a Boy Scout.

On the way home, Sully saw Sprout ushering people into Riddlepit. It seemed an unlikely amount of activity for Shantytown before noon. He investigated.

“You having a wake?” he asked Sprout.

“A war council,” Sprout said. “The city council is making a move.”

“They’ve made moves before and nothing ever comes of it,” Sully said.

“It’s different this time,” Sprout said.

“Different? How?” Sully said.

“Rezoning,” Sprout said.

“Rezoning? What the hell does that have to do with anything? I thought we were outside the city’s jurisdiction. Harbor of refuge and all that.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Sprout said. “Something to do with our connection to the shore. From what I’ve heard, they claim anything that floats but can’t move on its own power is landfill, and landfill is under the city council’s jurisdiction.”

“Floating landfill?” Sully said. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

“They don’t elect city council members for their language skills,” Sprout said. “Or their reasoning.”

Sully changed the subject. “What happened with Dr. Rathskill?”

Sprout shook his head. “The usual. HP read his cards, then rolled her eyes. I didn’t understand a word of it. I drove him home and a bunch of dead birds fell on my car.”


“Purple Martins. That’s what Rathskill said. I don’t know birds from tree toads.”

“They just fell out of the sky? Dead?”

“Dead as doornails,” Sprout said. “Bounced when they hit the ground. And they crunched when I drove over them.”

There was a rumbling sound in the distance. The sound registered subconsciously on Sully. He cocked his head without knowing he was trying to triangulate a sound he wasn’t even aware of. The sound grew in volume as the distance diminished. It rose above his horizon of consciousness.

A truck. It sounded like a truck. It took several more microseconds to recognize the incongruity of a truck in Shantytown.

Qwackers rumbled into view, a boatload of tourists with duck bodies. Sandy Crab was broadcasting on the PA system. “…a lumbermill.” His voice drifted away and returned. “…lucky you came in time…all be gone soon. Oh, look. It’s the dwarf I told you about.”

Sprout raised a single finger salute.

“Randy little bugger,” Sandy broadcast.

“I’ll show you randy,” Sprout muttered. He turned his back on the tourists, dropped his trousers, and bent over.

There were several audible gasps from the tourists and a few expletives. Sully saw one mother cover the eyes of her child.

Sandy Crab’s voice boomed across the water. “Howdy Doody, folks. You don’t see that every day.”


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

In mythology, the hero descends into the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends?

Whistlepig, a serialized fiction.

Blood dappling the dust, old bones dancing in the dark.

Chapter 1: Whakapohne
A hallucination audits an introductory class in Cultural Anthropology.

Chapter 2: The Skeleton Forest
Necromancy in the forest of the Makah.

Chapter 3: Schrödinger’s Rat
Quantum rat hunting is inherently paradoxical. 

Chapter 4: Darkness Rising
Shamans don’t advertise in the Peninsula Daily News.

Chapter 5: The Vine of Souls
Ayahuasca is also called the vine of the dead but that sounds unnecessarily ominous.

Chapter 6: Resurrection
A door answered by a dwarf in a kimono.

Chapter 7: The Hanged Man
Purple Martins rain from the sky.

Chapter 8: Nevermore
Rathskill had no compunction about lying to authority.

Chapter 9: Signs and Portents
Behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is

Chapter 10: Scout’s Honor
The blond always goes into the basement. It’s in the script.

Chapter 11: Fiddler’s Green
Pistol shrimp with a cartoon claw.

Chapter 12: Lili Marlene
A sufficiently desperate man.

Chapter 13: The Disappeared
Does the act of questioning your sanity prove you’re sane?

Chapter 14: Hallelujah Bill
Those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives…

Chapter 15: The Green Man
Sometimes myths becomes real.

Chapter 16: Weebles Wobble
The mountain speaks but what does it say?

Chapter 17: Smuggler’s Blues
You don’t mess with the dead without consequences.

Chapter 18: RAT
Kill them all. Let God sort them out.

Chapter 19: Street Fighting Man
You must be the dangerous dwarf.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Chapter 20: Sturm und Drang
Photos—$5, autographs—$3, punch your lights out—free with release form.


Sunday-Monday, March 20-21

Sprout left him at the college. Rathskill was too tired to go home. He cleared the books from a space on his office floor large enough to sleep and rested his head on a copy of Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande by E.E. Evans-Pritchard.

In the morning he woke with a crick in his neck and a fading dream of a cypress swamp. The knees of cypress trees rose from the water like claws. Rafts of water lilies and duckweed floated on the surface. Spanish moss draped from tree limbs and hung in the air like mist. He could taste the humidity and the rot. The air clung to his skin like sweat.

He saw an arm rising from the murky water. Slowly, gracefully, it sank beneath the surface. Compelled, Rathskill stepped closer. His feet sunk in the wet muck. Each step made a sucking sound. At the water’s edge he looked down.

There was a boy beneath the surface. His face, framed by water plants, blanched by death, was still flecked with freckles. It was the boy buried above the Sail River. His expression looked restful, as if asleep.Then his eyes opened and Rathskill woke, gasping.

He showered in the school gym and cleaned his clothes best he could but the stains and the stink remained. In his office he sat staring at the computer. Email had accumulated since Thursday. There was an administrative notice that Parking Lot B would be repaved next month, questions from students, a book review requested by a publisher, newsletters from professional organizations, correspondence from colleagues, and six email from Dean Haskell, each more strident than the last.

Rathskill’s office at Peninsula Community College had once been a broom closet. It had been a generous space for a broom closet, less so for an office. Books were piled on the floor. There was only one other chair in the room, one he bought at a flea market and cut one leg shorter than the others. The chair tottered alarmingly. Students attending his office hours didn’t remain long.

The skeleton of a glaucous gull hung from the ceiling. He named it Nevermore. The bones were artfully strung together. It looked like the skeleton was in flight. The bird’s wings spanned the width of the office wall to wall. He claimed it was his memento mori, a reminder of life’s transience, but he secretly enjoyed the fact that Dean Haskell had to stoop when he entered the office. As a result, Dean Haskell rarely entered.

His office door opened without a knock. Dean Haskell entered and smacked his forehead against the gull’s beak. “Doctor Rathskill, I have asked you before to get rid of that dreadful thing. It is a safety hazard. It could put someone’s eye out.”

Dean Haskell was a precise man. He spoke precisely, dressed precisely, and avoided contractions. He expected events to follow a precise Newtonian trajectory—a predictable effect for every cause.

“Of course, Dean.I’ll see to it.” Rathskill had no compunction about lying to authority.

Dean Haskell removed the books and sat in the only other chair beside Rathskill’s. He leaned back. The chair wobbled precipitously. He gripped the arms of the chair with both hands. “And this chair…” he began but left the sentence incomplete.

“I came to talk about your cavalier attitude to your class schedule. We have a responsibility to our students, a sacred responsibility, to provide them with the best education possible. We can hardly educate them if we do not show up for class. Your continued absence…” He paused and wrinkled his nose. “What is that awful smell?”

“That would be me.” Rathskill looked down at his stained pants. “I haven’t been home yet to change.” He didn’t say how long he hadn’t been home.

Dean Haskell removed a pocket handkerchief and held it to his nose. “Yes. I received your voicemail. About the matter of your consult with the police. Your extra-curricular activities cannot interfere with the orderly conduct of your classes. It is intolerable. You are expected to teach class on time and, frankly, not smelling like a vagrant. You are skating on thin ice, Dr. Rathskill. Another such grievous violation of our academic code of conduct and you will be dismissed despite your reputation. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

 It was obvious the Dean didn’t expect an answer. Any answer would only superfluous, an additional irritant. “I get your drift,” Rathskill said.

The Dean stood and edged toward the door, his body stooped to avoid the gull’s beak, his voice muffled by the handkerchief. “One last thing. We have an alumni event in two weeks. Your attendance is mandatory. It is being billed as a hootenanny. Dress appropriately. And Doctor Rathskill, I expect your best behavior.”

He wondered how good his best behavior might be in two weeks.

The meds helped make his behavior more socially acceptable. They also made him less himself. He had stopped taking them sometime earlier. He couldn’t remember when exactly.

Dean Haskell slammed the door behind him. The glaucous gull swayed with the remembrance of flight. Rathskill picked up the phone.

His experience with Blavatsky had been interesting but unhelpful. He still didn’t know what had happened to him those three days. His only other option was as distasteful as card reading. He called the number on Detective Vanoy’s business card.

There was no answer. He was shunted to voicemail. “This is Rathskill. Call me. It’s urgent.”

A few minutes later his phone rang. Vanoy didn’t wait for Rathskill to speak. “What the hell happened to you?” It sounded like he was covering the phone with his hand to avoid being overheard. “I waited for you Friday morning. I even had the owner unlock your room. You were nowhere. Pissed me off. I waited two hours before coming home. If you got lucky with some chick you could’ve let me know. Common courtesy.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Rathskill said. “I don’t really know what it was like. The last thing I remember was laying on the bed still wearing my clothes. The next thing I was wandering down a dirt road on the reservation three days later.”

“You go on a bender, Doc?”

“How is that even possible? Like Chief Johnson said, the reservation is dry.”

“What’s left? A psychotic break?”

Rathskill said nothing. Vanoy couldn’t see him shrug. It had happened before.

 “What do you want me to do about it?” Vanoy said.

“Maybe you could ask a few discreet questions. See if anyoneon the reservation saw me this weekend.”

“And have Chief Johnson learn the expert I recommended is batshit crazy? I don’t think that would improve our credibility, Doc.”

“About Chief Johnson. You really think he’ll investigate the boy’s murder?”

“What are you talking about? Of course he will.”

“And possibly expose the tribe to the charge of necromancy? The press will crucify them. The public won’t forgive them. Maybe only one man’s guilty but the whole tribe will stand accused.”

“I’ve known Chief Johnson for years. He’s a good man. He’ll do what’s right.”

“Right for whom? The boy? The Makah?”

“Let it go, Doc. We’re no longer part of the investigation. It’s out of our hands now.”

“I can’t let it go. I still see that boy’s face when I close my eyes. I dreamed about him. Who was he, Detective? Where did he come from? What was his name?”

“His name was Tad Marc. He was abducted from Forks a week ago. Chief Johnson expects your full report by Wednesday. I suggest you focus on that.”

“Something happened to me on the reservation, Detective, something I can’t remember, but I know it was connected with the boy’s murder.” Rathskill hesitated, for the first time giving a name to the dead boy’s face. “Tad Marc’s murder. I can’t let it go.”

“You need professional help, Doc,” Vanoy said. “Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

It was probably too late already.


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Border Wars

North Bay Road (Part 3)

Third in a climatic trilogy about the drowning of Miami.
Part 1: Finnegan’s Wake
Part 2: Urban Salvage

They sat on the fan deck drinking mimosas. It was only an hour after sunrise. The sun was still low but heat danced on the surface of the water like a mirage, water above and water below.

“Beautiful,” Jalen said.

The yacht Tatooine lay at anchor in what had been Biscayne Bay. The bay was unrecognizable except for the black towers rising from the sea. Storms and sea salt had pitted exposed concrete and steel and broken the glass from windows. Black mold covered the surfaces above high water, barnacles and sea stars and scuttling crabs below.

The sun burned in a cloudless sky. The flat water reflected the sun like polished glass. Humidity added weight to any movement, even breathing.

“It would be more beautiful it wasn’t so oppressively hot,” Rifkin said. He laid the champagne flute, beaded with condensation, against his forehead. “Why can’t we admire it with air conditioning?”

“If you’re going to complain,” Jalen said, “go inside. I’m enjoying myself.”

“I’m not complaining. I’m just stating a fact. It’s damned hot.”

“Of course it’s hot. It’s hot everywhere.”

“Couldn’t we have come at a more seasonable time of year? Maybe winter. Or fall.”

She bristled, then took a deep breath. “There is no other time of the year. There’s only a narrow window between storm seasons. We discussed this. If we want to dive the ruins, it has to be now.”

“And why do we want to dive the ruins again?”

“Now you’re just being petulant. Besides, I thought you wanted to create a performance piece. Some nonsense about the kraken rising from the sunken ruins of civilization.” She knew she was being cruel. She didn’t care.

“It’s not nonsense, it’s just impractical. To be credible, it would be too big to fit any museum space. And besides, it’s too hot to think of art,” he said.

The sloth lumbered around the performance space criticizing, in a heavy Spanish accent, the species responsible for its extinction.

“I’ve wanted to visit my great-grandfather’s house since I was a child,” she said.

Jalen Páez came from old South American money, one branch rooted in Venezuela, the other in Brazil. Both had profited from years of inequity and withdrawn with their wealth to the U.S. when their own countries became too heated.

She finished her mimosa and set it on the mahogany table. An autobot promptly removed the empty glass, wiped the sweat stain from the wood, and purposefully set a full flute on a coaster. She ignored the implied criticism. “I never knew much about my father’s family. They were almost wiped out during the Venezuelan rebellion.”

“My dear, you’ll need to be more specific,” Rifkin said. “Rebellions, revolutions, coups—they’re endemic to South America.”

“Don’t be an ass. You’ve heard this story before.”

“And I never tire of it. It’s like a child’s fairy tale. You know how it ends but you want to hear it over again. And again. And again.”

“You didn’t have to come.”

“No, I didn’t. But the alternative was to remain in Manhattan. People were being so pissy about the scene at the MOMA.”

Rifkin Po was an artist working at the intersection of performance art and artificial intelligence. His last installation at the Museum of Modern Art had been a giant sloth extinct for 10,000 years. The sloth lumbered around the performance space criticizing, in a heavy Spanish accent, the species responsible for its extinction.

Over the brief period of the installation’s exhibition, the sloth—named Megatheria—became increasingly irate. Its criticism escalated to invective. There was no separation between art and observer at the museum. Megatheria wandered freely through the crowds. A bitter sloth the size of a rhinoceros alarmed the staff. When Megatheria began making fake dung from found objects and throwing it at visitors, they tried to contain the exhibit behind velvet ropes. Megatheria used the rope to hang itself from the rafters. It was never really alive so it couldn’t really die but neither could it speak with the velvet rope crushing its larynx. It hung for several days, slowly turning at the end of the rope, glaring balefully and croaking at museum patrons. The art critics were unkind.

It had been Rifkin’s first very public failure. He hadn’t taken it well. She could have consoled him. She didn’t. “The captain believes they may have located the block on North Bay Road where my grandfather lived. We’re going to dive the site this afternoon. You can go or stay, whichever, just quit being so depressing.”

The glass door slid open automatically and one of the camera crew walked onto the fan deck. “I hope I’m not intruding.” Jalen couldn’t remember whether it was Blick, Snick or Whick. Rifkin had named them after the dwarves in the silent film version of Snow White published in 1916. They were making a documentary on Rifkin’s life. He had agreed to take them along before the spectacular failure of his giant sloth. “Is this still a good time to film?” he said.

“Can we do it inside?” Rifkin said.

Whick, she thought. Blick was the cameraman, Snick the soundman, and Whick the mouthpiece.

“Sure,” Whick said.

“Then it’s the perfect time.”

As the world became more heated and the deserts marched north and drought led to famine and famine sparked wars, neither of them felt much of the world’s pain.

A few minutes later, after she had finished her mimosa, Jalen followed them out of curiosity. Snick was fussing with something that looked like a wooly caterpillar, a cozy that fit over his microphone. Blick was taking notes on a tablet. Whick was spread out on the couch like it was his own living room.

“Something I don’t understand,” he said casually to Rifkin. “So much of your work is an indictment of western civilization, its avarice and greed, but you live in Manhattan, an island of privilege guarded with deadly force. How do you reconcile the contradiction?”

Jalen looked closely at the man. He seemed so casual and nonchalant but his question was sharply pointed.

“I’m an artist,” Rifkin said, “not a bleeding heart. You think my art would be more authentic if I was starving in a garret or a cold water flat?”

Rifkin’s life had always been privileged like her own. As the world became more heated and the deserts marched north and drought led to famine and famine sparked wars, neither of them felt much of the world’s pain, protected by the walls around Manhattan, living in an armored high-rise, defended from the rising sea and the riots and the storms.

Rifkin took the bait. He didn’t see the cameraman—Blick, no, Snick—put down the tablet and pick up his camera. The other one—Blick? What did it matter?—subtly extended the boom mic in Rifkin’s direction.

“I didn’t make the world we live in,” Rifkin said. “I do what I can but, let’s face it, I’m not going to change the world, either. There’s only so much food and clean water and power left. It’s not enough for everybody. Some have more, some less. I’m not going to surrender my share to satisfy someone else’s sense of fair play.”

“Isn’t that the attitude that got us here in the first place?” Whick’s eyes were half closed as if thinking about something else. Jalen suspected he was much more attentive than he appeared. He was baiting Rifkin.

“What got us here was a genetic flaw,” Rifkin said, rising to the bait, “a lack of self-discipline. We shit in our own bed. We bred like field mice, ate everything, and now we’re starving. Simple, brutal math.”

“So, you’re saying all this was inevitable?” Whick waved his hand in an encompassing gesture.

“All this? You mean the Tatooine with all its firepower and sophistication? Or the ruins beneath us?”

“Yes. Both.”

“Inevitable as a Greek tragedy. It was never going to be a happy ending. Our insatiable curiosity and casual violence helped us survive the African savannah but it doesn’t scale. We’re still the same vicious apes that first descended from the trees. We’re still using automated drones and nuclear bombs like stone clubs. Art isn’t going to change who we are. It just makes who we are more obvious.”

“Then what’s the point of it?” Whick sat up on the couch and leaned forward. He wasn’t pretending indifference anymore.

Rifkin leaned back, self-satisfied. He didn’t even know he’d been trapped. She loved him, she thought, but sometimes he was such a bumpkin. “Something to do,” he said. “Another way to keep score.” He thought he had won. He turned as Snick removed the camera from his shoulder. “What, you were filming? I didn’t approve that.”

“Just some b-roll footage,” Whick said. “Filler.”

Jalen didn’t know much about film making but she knew you didn’t record sound for b-roll.

Worldcenter was a presumptuous name even for Miami. It was constructed as the convulsive gesture of a dying city.

She left her empty flute on a glass table and went in search of Captain Fairchild. She found him on the bridge looking at a display of weather systems cartwheeling across the Caribbean.

“I hope the weather isn’t going to spoil my vacation, Captain.”

“Not likely, Ms. Páez.” Fairchild wore a uniform jacket of Navy blue with gold stripes on the sleeves, starched shirt and black tie. She had never seen him outside in the heat. His white hair was precisely cut. He was the manicured impression of authority. “The window is still open, at least for several days,” he said.

“Excellent.” She paused. “Something Rifkin said piqued my curiosity. I didn’t pay much attention to the yacht’s charter, Rifkin did all of that, so I’ve never reviewed your security arrangements. Do we have time for a tour?”

“Of course.” The captain seemed to inflate like a frigate bird in mating display. “I’d be delighted.”

He led her down several narrow ladders somewhere deep in the 80-meter yacht and opened a metal door. “This is the CIC—the Combat Information Center. It’s the beating heart of our defensive systems. And this is Mulvaney, our weapons specialist.”

Mulvaney was rising from a swivel chair in the center of circular banks of screens rising in several tiers. The monitors were thin and translucent. The images seemed to float in the air.

“Please, keep your seat,” she said.

“Every inch of the water surrounding Tatooine can be observed from here,” Fairchild said, “and every inch defended with deadly force. Mulvaney is jacked into the weapons network, two miniguns mounted above the flying bridge. Wherever he looks, the guns track. One man can pretty much defend the entire boat, stem to stern.” He was obviously proud of his deadly toy, like a child with a pet scorpion.

“It’s called the Basilisk,” Mulvaney said. “The miniguns on either side can put a round every square inch out to 1,000 yards. Beyond that it’s less accurate but still messy.”

“What happens if you’re looking here,” Jalen nodded toward the screen showing the yacht’s bow, “and the threat comes from there,” she pointed toward the screen showing the stern.

“When the system goes to full engagement, the guns become semi-autonomous,” Mulvaney said.

“Semi-autonomous? You mean, they choose who to kill?”

“Within limits, yeah,” Mulvaney said. “Even if I was taken out, the Tatooine could defend herself.”

“And how do the guns determine who is a risk?” she said.

“Facial recognition,” the captain said, taking back control of the conversation. “Behavioral patterns, detection of lethal weapons or explosive signatures, proximity. The system goes to its highest defensive posture when it registers damage to the vessel or crew.”

Jalen raised an eyebrow. “The crew, but not the passengers?”

“From the Basilisk’s perspective, everyone is crew. Everyone authorized to be onboard. Everyone else is a potential threat.”

“I hadn’t realized the Tatooine was so…” she hesitated, choosing her words cautiously, “self-contained.” It seemed a better word than militarized.

“Ms. Páez, we specialize in adventure tourism. You pay us to take you places where other people don’t go…for a reason. You also pay us to bring you back safely. We take your security seriously. All my crew are combat veterans. So is the Tatooine.”

“You mean this boat has been attacked?”

“We’re a brightly polished target,” Fairchild said. “The people living on the fringes have never seen such wealth and probably never will again. So yes, we’ve been attacked but never taken.”

“I’m sorry, captain. I didn’t mean to sound critical.”

“Ma’am, you’ve paid for the privilege.” He didn’t smile.

She didn’t know whether she was reassured or alarmed. “Thank you, Mr. Mulvaney. Captain, are we still on for the dive this afternoon?”

“We are but if you’re up for a dive this morning, I thought we might take advantage of the weather. There’s something you might like to see. A drift dive through the Worldcenter.”

Jalen caught her breath involuntarily. She was not often surprised. “I thought that was too dangerous.”

“Normally I would agree. The currents are usually treacherous and the Worldcenter itself is unstable but this is an unusual opportunity. We have slack water in an hour turning to ebb. The current is unusually weak. The weather is holding and visibility is excellent. We can drop you and your guides up-current, track your drift with GPS, and pick you up on the far side. We’ll be in communication at all times. Anything gets hinky and we can retrieve you immediately.”

“Yes,” Jalen said, I’d love to.” She hoped she didn’t sound as smitten as a school girl. “When can we go?”

“I’ll have a boat put in the water. Whenever you’re ready.”

Millions of people once lived here, walked these flooded streets, laughed and loved and argued bitterly in these empty rooms. How could so much be lost so quickly?

Jalen breezed through the main saloon but failed to get Rifkin’s attention. He was gesturing broadly for the camera like an actor onstage. She left him recording for posterity and quickly changed. The rigid inflatable that took her to the ruined city was large enough to accommodate twice the size of their party—coxswain, a crew member armed with an assault rifle, and her two guides, one armed with a spear gun, the other a bang stick. It was surprising how simple underwater weapons remained, a piece of metal sprung like a bow and a shotgun shell detonated by contact.

Worldcenter was a presumptuous name even for Miami. It was constructed as the convulsive gesture of a dying city. The architects knew the city couldn’t be defended against the rising sea level. Even a wall around Miami like the one encircling Manhattan was useless. The city was built on porous limestone, the bones of ancient reefs. The flood tide bubbled up through the ground. But the city was financed by a Ponzi scheme. Miami depended upon real estate, resort, and business taxes for funding. The moment investor confidence in the city’s future faltered, the house of cards collapsed.

The boat traveled across the bay on a plane and then slowed as it steered through the massive towers rising on either side of what had once been 10th Street. It seemed to Jalen they had entered a place old and weighted with arcane significance like Stonehenge or a Neolithic tomb. They motored past the Paramount Hotel that seemed as tall as the Tower of Babel. It measured 700 feet when it was first built, less since the upper façade had blown off. A low ground swell surged into the open atrium and broke against interior walls with a sound like a slow drum beating inside of a mountain. The rags left of curtains still hung in some of the broken windows and fluttered in time with the drumming like a dying breath.

The divemaster looked vaguely like a young Sterling Hayden. (Jalen was a fan of Doctor Strangelove.) He shouted over the sound of the outboards. “We were here a few years ago when a heavy sea was running. There was so much pressure built by the waves inside the building that spray burst out the windows. Made your ears pop. We tried to get a look inside but the surge almost sucked us in.”

The divemaster—his name was Redford—plotted their dive with grease pencil on an old street map encased in plastic. “We’ll start the dive here,” he circled the intersection of 1st and 9th Streets, “and enter the mall here. The current is slack right now but it always accelerates between these tall buildings. Just flow with it. We’ll be right behind you and the guys in the boat will be right behind us.”

“How are they going to do that?” she said.

“There are bugs built into the gear. They can follow each of us wherever we go. And we’ll be able to talk to them and each other with the mics built into the masks. No worries.”

She had several worries despite Redford’s reassurance. Pieces of the façade were missing from the massive towers they would pass between. What if a piece of concrete fell on her? Or if she got tangled in the city’s wreckage and couldn’t free herself? Or a shark attacked?

Redford apparently saw the fear on her face. “It’s cool,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ve done this before. We got your back.”

It was presumptuous to touch her but reassuring.

The coxswain slowed the boat and the crewman tied the bow line to a piece of angle iron that broke the surface. Redford helped her with her gear. He gave the universal hand signal, thumb and forefinger enclosing a circle—Are you OK? She replied with the same, held the mask to her face and rolled backward off the side of the inflatable.

The warm water embraced her like a womb. She hung from a line trailed from the inflatable like a flag in a light breeze. Thirty feet below her the rusted remains of a city bus lay on its side, crusted with barnacles, sea anemones and ochre stars. A small jewfish swam out of a broken window, looked at her, and swam back into the bus.

The visibility was outstanding, like swimming in a sea of glass. She released her hold on the line, turn turtle, and allowed herself to sink deeper. The towers rose on either side from deep shadow into fierce sunlight. The foot of the towers looked organic, fecund, encrusted with life, but above the surface, in the relentless sunlight, they looked like broken weapons turned against the sky. She felt like she was falling, light as snow, into the underworld.

“Ma’am, you alright?” Redford’s voice was distant and mechanical. She righted herself. He was beside her.

“I’m fine. Where do we go from here?”

“This way,” he said, leading her through shoals of clown fish and angel fish. A big grouper lurked in the shadow of some concrete rubble like a cartoon character. Anemones waved their tentacles.

She felt like an archeologist among the ruins of a dead civilization. Millions of people once lived here, walked these flooded streets, laughed and loved and argued bitterly in these empty rooms. How could so much be lost so quickly?

They emerged from the shadows of the Paramount and floated above what had once been gardens that adjoined the mall. Eel grass and shoal grass grew with abandon where bermudagrass had once been trimmed with military precision.

They entered the mall. The sharp edges of terraces and store fronts were softened by marine growth. The architecture seemed in the process of transforming, morphing into something organic, abandoning its provenance, becoming something other. She was startled by a mannequin still standing behind a broken display window, clothed with sea squirts and filter feeders that wrapped around its body like a boa, fanning the water with the illusion of movement.

She let the current carry her past the remnants of expensive boutiques and specialty shops and sidewalk cafes that had eventually become bodegas and cribs and storefronts for drug dealers as the ocean advanced and the wealth retreated. It felt like she was fixed in place and the world accelerated past her. A school of angel fish darted back and forth, frightened by the shadow of a six-foot barracuda that passed overhead. The mall narrowed, constrained by two large buildings that flanked either side, and the current began to quicken.

“Hold on,” she heard Redford say. “This is an E-ticket ride. See you on the other side.”

His voice was disembodied. She turned to locate him at the same time the current became more turbulent, accelerating like water through the nozzle of a garden hose. She was caught off guard and began to tumble. She struggled to right herself and overcompensated, tumbling in the opposite direction. She was cartwheeling ass over teakettle, out of control, hardly aware of the dark shadows racing past on either side. Her breathing became ragged. Her stomach muscles constricted, her heart raced. She kicked hard and twisted. Something large flashed past her. A manta ray? A shark? She fought to get her mind and body under control. Something gripped her wrist. She jerked reflexively. It was Redford.

“Looked like you were enjoying yourself too much,” he said.

It felt like her breath was whistling in her lungs. She didn’t dare more than a single word. “Asshole.”

The current went slack as it spilled them into an open expanse that led to the edge of the sunken shore and the bay. She settled into an upright position.

“One more surprise for you,” he said, holding her by the wrist, pivoting her until the object filled her vision.

“My God, what is it?” It was a massive black monolith, an octagon. There were inscriptions on the two sides she could see. “I’ve never read anything about this in the histories,” she said.

“No idea,” he said. “It might have been placed here just before the city was submerged or just after. Either way, you gotta wonder why anyone would create a monument that nobody sees.”

“What language is that?”

“Swahili and Hindi. Least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t speak either. There’s also Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish and English on the other sides. They hedged their bet who might survive to read it.”

She swam around the edges of the black sculpture until she recognized a few words of English not covered with algae. She rubbed the stone with her gloved hand. A cloud of micro-organisms slowly dispersed.

“Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason,” she read aloud. It was number four. “Really, no one knows where this came from, who put it here?”

“Someone knows, I guess,” Redford said, “but they’re not talking.”

She cleared the face of the stone further down. “Avoid petty laws and useless officials.”

“Amen to that,” Redford said.

She read the last commandment. “Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.” She paused. “Important enough they repeated it. I’m afraid we still screwed that pooch.”

“That’s the end of the tour,” Redford said lightly. She could hear the smile in his voice. “Hoped you enjoyed yourself. Remember to tip your deckhands.”

People don’t take kindly to immigrants anymore. You shelter in place or not at all.

When she returned to their stateroom, Rifkin asked, “Did you enjoy your excursion?” He was sprawled across the bed wearing only a Speedo.

“It was marvelous,” she said, “and horrible. It’s as if the earth is erasing us.”

“Not entirely. We have our own geologic epoch. The Anthropocene. That’s some kind of immortality.”

“Why are you always so glib?”

He lifted his head. “Me? I’m a sane man well-adjusted to an insane society. And the filming went well today, thanks for asking.” His head fell back on the bed, seemingly exhausted by the effort.

“You know that documentary isn’t going to end well for you, don’t you?” she said.

“Don’t be absurd. They love me,” he said.

“You’re delusional.”

“Like I said, well-adjusted.” He stood and smoothed his clothes. “When you’re out of the shower, join me on the upper deck for a rum and tonic. Thank God they have a competent bar on this boat.”

She showered the salt water from her body and the wriggly little worms that were the larval stage of some lifeform that had found safe haven beneath her swim suit. She found Rifkin lounging in the pool. Sweat beaded on the glass in his hand and on his forehead. The autobot took her order and returned with a Mojito.

“What is that?” she said, pointing into the distance.

“My dear, are you really going to make me get out of the pool?” Rifkin said. “It’s hot.”

“It looks like a stain on the water,” she said a few minutes later, “but it’s getting closer. I think they’re boats. I’m going to ask the captain.”

“Really? Just leave it alone and it will go away.”

Captain Fairchild was on the lower bridge with a pair of binoculars aimed at the approaching boats.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“Drifters,” he said. “Migrants with no place to go.”

“Where did they come from?” she asked.

“There are tussocks of land still above water,” the captain said. “Hardly big enough to call islands. They’re regularly overtopped by storms. These people keep moving. They’re homeless. They live more on the water than the land.” He passed her the binoculars.

“They look so gaunt,” she said, “like Auschwitz survivors.”

“It’s not a good life,” Fairchild said, “but it’s the only one they’ve got. People don’t take kindly to immigrants anymore. You shelter in place or not at all.”

“Can we give them any food?” Living within the armored defenses of Manhattan, she had never seen hungry people before. On the video feeds, certainly, news footage of riots and restive natives, but that was like watching a documentary of baboons in the Drakensberg Mountains. They didn’t seem human.

“That would be unwise,” the captain said. “It would appear to them a sign of weakness, appeasement. If they think we’re vulnerable, they’ll become aggressive like sharks tasting blood in the water.”

“Really, captain. You’re being melodramatic. How harmful could these people be? They hardly have strength to raise a paddle. And they have children with them.” She saw a gaunt boy with hollow eyes sitting in an aluminum canoe between a bearded man and a woman who looked like she was fleeing the Dust Bowl.

“With respect, ma’am, these people have nothing and no hope of anything more. We have everything. The math doesn’t work in our favor.”

“What if we trade them for food? We wouldn’t seem weak.”

“They have nothing of value.”

“Don’t be dense, captain. It’s just a pretense.”

“The safety of this boat and everyone onboard is my responsibility. I don’t want these refugees inside our perimeter.”

“A few at a time,” she said. “The children first. What harm can they do? I insist.”

“I’m the captain. I’m the final authority on this…”

“True, Captain Fairchild.” she interrupted. “But I’m paying the bills. The children first.” She turned and walked away.

Rifkin stood beside Jalen as the first skiff came alongside. He was still wearing nothing but his Speedo. “Is this necessary?” he said. “It won’t make a difference. It’s an empty gesture.”

“It’s not a gesture.” she said, “They’re people. It will make a difference to them.”

“They’re not our people.”

“Really, Rifkin. You’ve been living in Manhattan too long.”

“You were living there with me, as I recall.”

There was a little girl in a wooden sailing skiff. Her skin was tanned like shoe leather. She waved at Jalen and smiled. She was missing several teeth. She was the first onboard. She was shy and hid behind her father, a man who looked anemic despite his dark tan. Kneeling, Jalen tried to coax her with an orange.

The captain’s handheld radio crackled. “Captain, we’ve got several of the buggers getting close on starboard side.” It was Mulvaney.

“Keep them at a distance,” the captain ordered.

“You want me to sink one as an example?” Mulvaney said.

“Keep it in your pants, Mulvaney. Just train your guns on them.”

The little girl wasn’t convinced. She had probably never seen an orange before. Jalen peeled it and ate a segment. She licked her lips. The little girl took a step forward.

“They’re not impressed, captain,” Mulvaney radioed. “They’ll be beneath my angle of depression in a minute.”

“Fire a few rounds above their heads. That should get their attention.”

The little girl extended a dirty hand. She touched the orange tentatively. Jalen held her hand, drawing her closer. The starboard minigun spit out a hundred rounds in less than two seconds. The little girl pulled back. Jalen held her. The little girl reacted instinctively, slashing with her free hand. Jalen dropped the orange on the deck. Blood spurted from a wound in her wrist. The little girl was holding a bone blade sharpened to a point.

“Captain, they’re on the aft deck,” someone shouted from the radio. “Bastards must have been underwater.”

“Weapons hot,” the captain shouted into his radio. “All targets.” He grabbed Jalen and pulled her away. Rifkin stood stunned, immobilized by the sudden change in roles. The girl’s father reached behind him and pulled a rusted blade from his rope belt. He plunged the blade into Rifkin’s throat. When he withdrew the blade, Rifkin’s heart pumped blood in a jet that splattered the man’s face. The man licked his lips.

The miniguns opened fire. Water erupted in jets like choreographed fountains. Wood and metal, flesh and bone were shredded by the impact. The small boats instantly decomposed into debris floating in a spreading red stain. The sound of small arms fire came from the aft deck.

The girl’s father moved quickly toward them. The captain roughly flung Jalen behind him. In the same movement, he drew a Glock from a shoulder holster beneath his uniform jacket. There was only an arm’s reach between them when he shot the man in his blood-stained face. Then he shot the little girl.

Rifkin was slumped on the deck, his back propped against the side of the cabin. He held his hands to his throat. The blood welled between his fingers and drained down his naked chest. He looked toward Jalen and tried to speak but only gurgled. His hands fell to his side. Blood trickled from the wound.

One of the boat people stepped into view from the aft deck. He was carrying an assault rifle issued to the crew. Another followed close behind. The captain fired before the man could bring his weapon to bear. The shots struck him center mass. He fell back onto the man behind who scooped up the dead man’s weapon and used his body as a shield. Captain Fairchild pulled the trigger until the hammer fell on an empty chamber. There was nowhere for them to go, nothing to hide behind. The man stood and raised the rifle. He looked as gaunt as death. Jalen braced for the pain.

The man’s head exploded in a cloud of blood and bone. He tumbled sideways. One of the camera crew appeared. It was the sound man, Blick. He was holding his rifle like a soldier. Of course, Jalen thought. Almost everyone who wasn’t rich had once been a soldier. Blick gave Fairchild a thumb’s up. The captain nodded.

“Report,” the captain barked into the radio.

There was a long pause. “Four dead, two wounded, one badly,” someone said. Jalen didn’t recognize the voice.

“Who is this?” the captain said.

“Withnal.” Withnal was the cook.

“Where’s the mate?”

“The mate’s dead. And Redford and Crookshank and the guy leading the film crew.”

“Damn. What about the boat?”

“The decks are cleared. You can see what’s left in the water. Mulvaney did a man’s job today.”

Jalen looked at the floating wreckage, pieces of boats shredded by the minigun but no bodies. No survivors, no one lifting their hand for help, no one struggling to stay afloat. They were all gone, slowly settling to the bottom of the bay. The little boy and his gaunt mother, his father, everyone except the bodies staining the teak decks with their blood. And poor Rifkin, propped against the bulkhead, a perplexed expression on this face, always the victim.

“My God,” Jalen said, still holding the wound in her wrist. “They’re all dead.”

“What did you expect,” the captain said. “They were starving. We have food.”

“I didn’t expect this.”

“You should have,” he said and turned away.



Finnegan’s Wake

North Bay Road (Part 1)

First is a trilogy of stories about the drowning of Miami.

Part 2: Urban Salvage
Part 3: Border Wars

It was a good life until the snake arrived…

Mrs. Schwartz, the widow who lived across the street, was standing in her front yard wearing a broad straw hat and white pant suit, one hand resting on her hip, the other cooling herself in the summer heat with a Japanese hand fan, the image of a plantation owner bossing the laborers re-sodding her lawn. She looked up and saw Finnegan. He touched the brim of his old Fedora, a slouching salute, and she snapped the fan closed with a flick of her wrist in acknowledgement. It sounded like a small-caliber handgun.

“Not there,” Finnegan heard her nasal voice. She sighted down the barrel of her fan. “Over there,” she barked at one of the laborers. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

He waited beside the mailbox for Henry Walpole. Walpole was the neighborhood’s mailman. He wore regulation postal shorts, blue with a dark stripe down the side, short sleeve shirt, Birkenstocks with black socks and a Pith helmet.


“Mr. Finnegan.”

Walpole delivered the mail to the locked metal box sitting on a metal pole set in concrete. Always. He wouldn’t deliver the mail directly despite the fact that Finnegan was standing beside the mailbox. Walpole opened the locked box with his universal key, looked inside to verify there were no incendiary devices, deposited the mail and locked the box.

“SOP,” Walpole once said when Finnegan asked him. “Standard operating procedure. Like chain of custody. Ensures the security of the U.S. Mail.” Walpole was a pompous prick.

Finnegan retrieved the mail, sorted through the envelopes, glanced at Walpole trudging down the street, bent beneath the weight of his mail sack, then hurried back to the house. He could feel Mrs. Schwartz’s acid gaze between his shoulder blades.

Jose Finnegan was the son of an Irish emigrant and a Nicaraguan mother. He lived alone in a small cottage in a riotous garden designed by the famous Raymond Jungles—Live Oaks and Cypress trees, Sabal palms and pachira aquatic, bromeliads and epiphytes and water gardens. The grounds keeper’s cottage was hidden from the main house by dense foliage. He kept the grounds, cleaned the pool, collected the mail, guarded the empty house, ate his meals alone—a single beer with dinner—and occasionally visited the whores of Little Havana. He never brought a woman home.

The main house was modest by the extravagant standards of North Bay Road, Miami Beach—five bedrooms and floor space just shy of 8,000 square feet, not counting garages, keeper’s cottage, and outbuildings—with a stunning view of the Sunset Isles and the city across Biscayne Bay.

The house was mostly empty. When an arrival was impending, Finnegan was informed by Franklin Durango, personal secretary to Hector Guzmán. Senor Guzmán was the Venezuelan industrialist who name the place Paraiso Fiscal. He never spoke directly to Finnegan.

When informed of an arrival, Finnegan contacted the concierge service. The maids removed the white sheets from the furniture, polished the marble and hardwoods, and washed the linens. The concierge stocked the bar and refrigerator. The great man came with his entourage and filled the night with music and laughter, angry shouts and breaking glass, then left again with empty champagne bottles drowned at the bottom of the infinite pool and spent condoms drooping from palm leaves beneath the bedroom windows.

He learned of the snake’s arrival the day of the flood. The flood didn’t fall from the sky but rose from the sewers.

He woke from an afternoon nap to the sound of dripping water, a persistent and singular drip. The room was dark, the curtains drawn,  and the sound echoed like water in a cave. He laid in bed, listening. He could think of no good reason water was dripping indoors, only bad ones. He swung his feet out of bed and stepped into a pool of water.

Water was standing several inches on the tile floor. Lukewarm water. He dipped his finger and tasted it. Salt water. It smelled like a mangrove swamp.

He reached for the light switch beside the bed but thought better of it. Electricity in a house flooded with salt water was problematic.

Instead he waded through the darkness dressed in shorts and t-shirt, from the bedroom to the kitchen where the afternoon light was also flooding in. A pair of rubber sandals bobbed beside the door.

Through the French doors he could see the back of the property, the pool, dock, and across the water to the Sunset Islands. The pool was no longer there, or the dock, and the Sunset Islands seem to ride low in the water, awash, like half-tide rocks. Small waves propagated across the yard and broke against the trunks of Sabal palms and Cypress trees.

“This morning I saw an octopus in my parking garage.”

There were no clouds, no rain, no storm. The ocean had simply risen up, he thought, or the land sunk beneath the weight of humanity. He remembered a news report on Channel 6 about abnormally high tides. King tides they called them.

“Mierda,” Finnegan said to himself.

He retrieved his floating sandals and pushed the French doors open against the resisting water. Ripples radiated among the plants. He felt for the paving stones with his feet, hidden by sluggish brown water. Something slithered against his ankle. He jerked impulsively.

“Madre de Dios.”

What might have risen with the sea to swim among the jasmine and dwarf oyster and sunshine mimosa? Salt water snakes? Were there such a thing? Certainly there were barracuda. A barracuda had leaped out of the ocean and bit a woman standing in the cockpit of a boat. Severed an artery in her groin. He read it in the Miami Times. Were barracuda swimming in the garden? He pressed his thighs together.

He grabbed a garden rake he had left leaning against the cottage wall and used the handle like a walking stick, prodding the dark water in front of him. There was a swirl of water beneath the hanging peperomia. He raised the rake like a baseball bat, waiting, but nothing leaped out of the water.

Down the driveway to the street, he felt again like a child playing in the flooded gutters of Managua. Mrs. Schwartz was standing in her front yard, surveying her drowned sod like bodies on a battlefield, her eyes red and swollen, mourning her new lawn.

For a moment he felt a common bond with his neighbor, a common sense of loss and realization that the world had become a different, more dangerous place, then her face turned hard as schist, chipped into sharp edges by rage. She raised her manicured fist at the sky and screamed “Damn you, Henry Hidalgo!” flinging spittle like diamonds in the sunlight. Mrs. Schwartz seemed to hold the mayor of Miami Beach personally responsible for the rising sea level. She looked furtively up and down the street, then turned her back on her lawn. She didn’t see him. He didn’t say anything. It was like he had seen her with her knickers around her knees.

Henry Walpole was wading down the sidewalk leaving a wake. He was wearing rubber boots, not the usual Birkenstocks. He was walking cautiously, careful not to step off the curb into deep water. It sounded like his boots were full of water. He squelched with each step.

“Neither rain nor snow nor rising tide, heh, Henry?” Finnegan called out.

“That’s not actually the motto of the U.S. Postal Service,” Walpole said. “It was a translation of Herodotus inscribed on a New York post office building. Not even an accurate translation. The original referred to the angarium. That’s the ancient Persian system of mounted postal carriers. It existed before the birth of Christ. ‘Stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.’ That’s the actual translation.”

Pompous prick.

Walpole unlocked the mail box, deposited a few pieces of mail—mostly advertising circulars, it looked to Finnegan—and then locked it again, testing the lock to make sure the mail was safe.

“Persian?” Finnegan said. “Maybe the Post Office should issue you a horse. Or a boat.”

Walpole looked at his rubber boots, then leaned against the mailbox. His façade seemed to crumble like old concrete. He shook his head. “This morning I saw an octopus in my parking garage.”

“An octopus?” Finnegan unlocked the mailbox and removed the advertising.

“It must have come up through the storm drains. They were shooting up like fountains. I swear there were clown fish hiding under an Audi. All those cars sitting in salt water above their floor boards. You know what salt does to steel?”

“Nothing good,” Finnegan suggested.

“You see the cars from New York with body rot? Looks like leprosy? That’s what.”

Finnegan had never seen a leper but he understood Walpole’s anxiety. His cell phone rang. It was Franklin Durango. “Excuse me. I have to take this.”

He turned toward the house. Henry Walpole continued to slog down North Bay Road, bent beneath his responsibilities.

“You don’t just put a giant anaconda on a leash and let it wander around the yard.”

“Finnegan,” Durango said, “I have instructions for you. From Senor Guzmán. You’re to pick up a crate at the Port of Miami.”

“A crate of what?”””

“It’s rather exotic. From the Amazon.” There was a theatric pause. “An anaconda.”

“Anaconda?” Finnegan hesitated. “A snake?”

“Yes, exactly. An anaconda. As I said, it’s rare and prohibitively expensive. Take care of it.”

“I don’t know anything about snakes,” Finnegan protested. He didn’t want to know anything, either. He had a healthy aversion to snakes. Those that didn’t poison could still bite. Or crush.

“I’m sure you’ll learn. Google it. Senior Guzmán’s interest probably won’t last long but neither will your employment if the snake isn’t in good health when he arrives.”

He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. There was no shortage of people eager to do his job. “When will he arrive?”

“The snake?”

“Senor Guzmán.”

“A few weeks. Maybe a month. The current political unrest demands a certain fluidity. Probably best to expect little warning.”

“And a snake.”

“Yes, exactly. A snake. An expensive snake. There may be more.”

“More snakes?”

“Or not.” Durango gave him the name of the shipping agent and the arrival date. It was only a week away. “You’ll need to have the habitat ready.”

“The habitat?”

“You don’t just put a giant anaconda on a leash and let it wander around the yard. It needs a habitat.”

“A giant?” He felt the panic rising from his stomach like burning bile. “What kind of habitat does a giant anaconda need?”

“I don’t know. That’s what Google is for. Exercise initiative but make sure the snake is happy when Senor Guzmán arrives.”

Finnegan wondered how he could recognize a happy anaconda. Probably the bulge in its belly.

“The lower garden flooded. And my cottage. And the street,” he told Durango.

“Is there a storm?”

“No. High tide.”

“High tide? How high? Never mind. Was the house damaged?”

“No, but the plants…the salt water will have killed many of them.”

“Buy new plants.”

“The ocean will rise again and kill the new plants. We’ll need to plant a mangrove swamp.”

“Then keep it from rising.”

“How do you suggest I keep the ocean from rising? Hold it back with my hands?”

“Build a higher sea wall. Really, Finnegan, do I have to think of everything?”

Finnegan took a deep breath. It felt like he was explaining celestial mechanics to a child. “It doesn’t help if we build a higher wall and our neighbors don’t. It will flood our grounds just the same. And a sea wall won’t keep the water out of the street. The ocean is higher than the storm drains.”

“Tell the mayor to raise the level of the street. Senor Guzmán pays enough property taxes to pave the streets with gold. Have the city council pass an ordinance requiring a minimal height for sea walls. Really, it isn’t rocket science.”

“No, Mr. Durango, it isn’t rocket science.” There was an optimal solution in rocket science.

There was a black ribbon in the center of eyes brown as fetid swamp water. It was like looking through a crack into the heart of darkness.

He ignored the first advice he read on the web. Only expert snake wranglers should attempt a big anaconda. The second was the snake needed a dark place to hide and a pool to lounge in. Maybe a floating cozy for a fruity drink with an umbrella?

Some of his research was disconcerting. An anacondas had teeth like crampons that could hold its prey in place while slowly crushing every bone in the hapless beast’s body. The result was a bunch of broken bits, like peanut brittle, in a bag of loose skin. Easier to swallow you, my precious.

The snake could also excrete musk from its asshole—the more authoritative sites politely called it a cloaca—and fling it with disturbing accuracy according to Froglet, an active member of the snake forum at mysmelly.com.

It reminded Finnegan of the gorilla at the San Diego Zoo, an old silverback that amused itself by flinging poo at zoo visitors. It passed the day. The zoo keepers installed a clear Plexiglas barrier to protect the paying customers. The gorilla adapted. It sat casually on its concrete hill and shat casually into its cupped palm, then as casually lofted an overhand lob that landed among the crowds with the devastating accuracy of a 60 millimeter mortar. Perversely, the crowds increased.

He removed the garden tools from the tool shed, painted the windows black, and bought from Wal-Mart a plastic kiddie pool imprinted with copyrighted images from Disney’s The Littlest Mermaid. He built a scaffold that looked like a gallows without the hangman’s noose so the snake could lurk above the pool, ready to fall on Scuttle or Flotsam and Jetsam and wring the life out of them should ever become more than stencils.

The tool shed was hot and humid as a rainforest. Even his socks were wet with sweat when he finished. He wasn’t likely to need a heat lamp unless the snake lasted to winter.

When the call came from Franklin Durango, the tool shed was a serpentarium and his cottage was full of gardening tools.

At first the woman who sold him the chickens thought he was gathering eggs. By the third chicken she suspected he was Santeria.

The offices of Tekel-Sprinker Shipping Agents located on Dodge Island, an address on Antarctica Way. The irony of the street name in the sweltering summer heat didn’t amuse him. He had to wait 45 minutes in a room where the air conditioning wheezed like an old man in a hospice bed. They said they were processing his paperwork.

A fat man with a greasy sheen finally entered the waiting room. “Thank you for your patience, Mr.,” he consulted the paperwork on his clipboard, “Finnegan? Jose Finnegan? Interesting name. We had to confirm your identity with the shipper, you understand. These types of transactions require a certain propriety.” Finnegan suspected that propriety didn’t include the U.S. Customs Service. “Everything’s in order. Your shipment will be available at Loading Dock B. It’s just around the corner. Have a nice day.”

Finnegan never knew whether he was Tekel or Sprinker.

A man with a stained baseball cap with the slogan “All good things smell like fish” delivered the crate to his Jeep Wrangler with a forklift. There was barely enough room to wedge it in the cargo compartment with the back seat pushed forward.

“How am I supposed to get this out of the car?” Finnegan asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.

The stevedore shrugged. It eloquently, and insultingly, communicated: Not my problem.

“How big is this thing?” Finnegan asked, trying to see into an air hole drilled into the wooden crate. “How much does it weigh?” It was dark inside the crate and smelled foul in the heat. “Good god, is it dead? It smells like it’s dead.”

The man who loved the smell of fish handed him a bill of lading to sign, then wheeled away, the tines of his forklift barely missing Finnegan’s shins.

“Senior Guzmán knows this thing isn’t a pet? I think it could crush a Volkswagen.”

It didn’t smell any better on the MacArthur Causeway. He drove home with the windows open and the air conditioning at full volume. He couldn’t get the crate out of the Jeep however much he pushed and heaved. He tied one end of a line around it, anchored the other to a tree, and drove away. The crate dropped on the driveway with a crash. When he loaded it on a hand truck, the crate rocked, the snake obviously annoyed at the rough handling. Definitely not dead. Less the weight of the wooden crate, he guessed the snake must weigh 50, maybe 75 pounds. An angry, 75 pound snake. Was the tool shed adequate?

It took some maneuvering to get the crate through the shed door. He banged against the door jamb several times. The crate rocked as the irritated snake shifted its weight. He set the crate on the floor beside the kiddie pool, pried the nails from one side with a crowbar, and levered it open a crack. He peered cautiously through the crack, the crow bar raised like a weapon. It was too dark to see anything. He widened the crack and looked again, posed with the crowbar, ready to fight or flee. He never saw the flick of the anaconda’s tail that flung musk in his face. He staggered, gagged, almost retched. It smelled like road kill baking in the Florida heat.

The crate fell open as the snake placed its weight against it. The broad, flat head emerged and looked at him with cold-blooded disdain. There was a black ribbon in the center of eyes brown as fetid swamp water. It was like looking through a crack into the heart of darkness. The body uncoiled from the crate. It took some time. The snake was in no hurry. Its mid-section was as thick as his thigh.

“Holy Mother!” he whispered to himself, closed the shed door and braced it with a kitchen chair.

The consensus of the web’s wisdom was warm-blooded prey. Not dead. Certainly not frozen. The snake was so big mice and rats seemed hopelessly insufficient. He bought live chickens from a supplier in Hialeah. At first the woman who sold him the chickens thought he was gathering eggs. By the third chicken she suspected he was Santeria. When the chickens seemed hardly a bulge in the snake’s belly, he went further afield to find a goat at a sketchy farm in Homestead that also sold hogs. It seemed a likely disposal site for a serial killer.

The man who sold him the goat was missing front teeth and had a swastika tattooed on his wrist. When he learned Finnegan was feeding a snake—a big snake—he offered to sell him an alligator. Apparently pitting alligators against snakes was a thing in South Florida, like bear and bull-baiting in Elizabethan England. Fortunately, Senor Guzmán had expressed no interest in alligators.

He led the goat to his car with a frayed leash of orange polypropylene rope. The goat didn’t smell any better than the snake. It was a long ride home with the windows open and the air conditioning hopelessly trying to hold back the heat that flooded the car like a tide.

He tried to smuggle the goat on the property unobserved—Dade county had restrictive laws about dogs and maybe goats and certainly giant anacondas—but it was impossible to keep the goat quiet. It bleated like it was being led to its death. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the curtain in Mrs. Schwartz’s front window fall back into place. Her front lawn was neatly bisected by the high tide line: green above, brown below.

It was even worse when he stood in front of the tool shed door. The goat caught the snake’s scent, rank even outside of the shed, and bleated more desperately.

He shoved the goat into the shed and closed the door behind it. Afterwards he remembered the polypropylene leash but refused to go back for it.

The goat bleated all afternoon. He could hear it wherever he worked on the grounds. He stuffed cotton balls in his ears to deaden the sound. It helped but not much. Around dusk the bleating ended abruptly. The silence was a condemnation.

He crossed himself. “I’m going to hell for this.” The death of a goat seemed a more venial sin than a chicken.

The goat remained a bulge in the snake’s belly for a week as it lay torpid in the kiddie pool. A happy anaconda. Finnegan cleaned up balls of snake poo embedded with orange polypropylene fibers. The political unrest in Venezuela preoccupied Senor Guzmán for more than a month. It was the end of August before Finnegan received a call from Franklin Durango.

“We will arrive next week,” Durango said brusquely. “I’ve confirmed there are no unusual tides expected. The senor must not be inconvenienced.”

“The house will be ready,” Finnegan said.

“I hope the snake is in good health.”

“Senor Guzmán knows this thing isn’t a pet? I think it could crush a Volkswagen.”

“What Senor Guzmán knows…or doesn’t know…isn’t your concern. You’re paid to follow orders.”

Finnegan wondered what had crawled up Durango’s ass. He suspected things weren’t going well in the home country.

The house was ready three days before Senor Guzmán’s scheduled arrival and two days before Mirabelle. Mirabelle was a Category 2 hurricane pulling a train of hurricanes—Nigel and Ophelia—across the Caribbean. It had only brushed Puerto Rico and the islands of Hispaniola, following the Mona Passage on its way into the Atlantic, but already killed 34 people, mostly on the denuded slopes of the Dominican Republic where mudslides crushed entire villages.

Mirabelle was a thousand miles from Miami when it entered the Atlantic. The ocean that stored humanity’s waste heat for a hundred years fed the hurricane. It rapidly gained ferocity and wind speeds of 115 miles per hour—a strong Category 3. It was forecast to stay offshore, steered by a high pressure system sweeping east across the Great Plains. Mirabelle would likely have minimal impact on Miami, mostly rain, and make landfall somewhere near Boston later in the week.

Finnegan paid little attention to Mirabelle as he scrubbed the tool shed, keeping a wary eye on the snake, draped around the scaffold above the kiddie pool. He hadn’t given it a pet name—too cold blooded and predatory. Even in the conversations inside his head he referred to it as the thing in the tool shed.

The snake followed his movements with calculating eyes. He wondered what it saw with those eyes. The world filtered into simple categories, probably: food, fight, or fuck. Pretty much the same as human beings but without the histrionics of apes.

“Behave yourself until Senor Guzmán leaves and I’ll bring you another goat.” Could you cajole an anaconda? He felt culpable, complicit, like a village elder offering the Aztec overlords a child sacrifice. The snake looked at him dispassionately, licking the air with its tongue.

Senor Guzmán wasn’t dead yet but when he died, Finnegan hoped he would be condemned to a hell full of wealthy Palm Beach pricks in tennis costumes.

While Finnegan was preoccupied cleaning the snake pit, Mirabelle recurved, hung a hard left, and charged toward Miami like a violated warthog. Throughout the afternoon it gathered speed, closing the distance. Throughout the afternoon the tone of television reporters and meteorologists became more strident. The affluent residents of the city scurried frantically, emptied the store shelves of batteries and bottled water, nailed plywood over windows or abandoned their homes to join long lines of traffic that clogged the two routes out of town. The poor people hunkered down. They had nowhere to go and not much to lose and no option but to shelter in place.

When Finnegan stepped out of the tool shed, his clothes sodden with sweat, the air was still and the sky a sulphurous yellow. Bands of clouds streamed from the northwest. He could taste the metal fillings in his teeth. The air was so heavy with humidity it was hard to breath.

He walked through the kitchen of his cottage into the bedroom, his steps squelching with the sweat pooled in his shoes, stripped of his wet clothes and threw them in the corner. He turned on the television and muted it, then showered. When he returned from the bathroom, his cellphone was vibrating on the nightstand where he had left it in the morning and a man on the television in shirt sleeves and tie was gesturing wildly in front of a weather map. He turned up the sound.

“…mandatory evacuations. If you haven’t evacuated from those areas—almost everyplace along the coast of Dade County—you’re probably safer staying where you are. The roads are gridlocked. Hurricane Mirabelle is approaching at over 60 miles per hour. The outer rain bands are already over Fort Lauderdale and headed south. Within the next hour we can expect the wind to increase to 30 or 40 miles per hour, and in four hours, the full strength of the hurricane. Currently Mirabelle is a strong Category 3, bordering on Category 4, with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour.”

His cellphone vibrated off the edge of the nightstand and fell to the tiled floor, angry as a sidewinder in a frying pan. There was an instant message from Dade County Emergency Management with a long list of communities under mandatory evacuation. Miami Beach was one of them.


He filled his bathtub with water and took inventory. Enough canned goods to last a week and a Coleman stove with bottled gas to cook them. He brought bottled water from the main house. By the time he taped the cottage windows with duct tape it was raining. Palms were bent by the freshening wind. Palm fronds were flying through the air like shrapnel. The rain tasted of salt from waves breaking against the sea wall. He walked the grounds one  last time, buffeted by the wind, his wet clothes luffing like a sail, then abandoned the tastefully designed landscaping to the storm.

The last thing he saw before closing the door was a string of waterspouts spinning through the yellow light above the ocean.

By five o’clock it was dark as night. He sat beside the TV, reassured by the voice of the weather forecasters, until the electricity failed. Then he listened to the portable radio until the voice of the announcer was lost in the background static. He was conservative with the batteries in his flashlight but occasionally needed reassurance that he was still surrounded by familiar things and hadn’t been spirited to hell in the darkness.

For several hours the wind increased. He heard trees fall and strike the ground like a hammer on anvil. The wind beneath the eves sounded alive, a vast creature tortured to madness. Something crashed nearby. Wood splintered.

At 2:37 a.m. the windows blew in, one quickly following another like an artillery salvo. He retreated to the bathroom and shoved towels under the door to keep the water out. Fifteen minutes later the bathroom door blew in and knocked him off his feet. Water rapidly flooded the room. Bleeding from a shallow head wound where the door had struck him, hunched to protect himself from debris, he waded from the cottage toward the main house, through the water and the darkness and the wind, the beam of his flashlight almost drowned by the rain.

The flood was rising fast. The water already reached his thigh. A strong current rushed down the driveway as the bay rushed to fill the street. It was difficult to keep his footing. A child’s tricycle, tumbling in the current, knocked him from his feet. He lost his flashlight. The storm pummeled him from every direction. He stumbled like a blind fighter. A searing flash of lighting exposed the scene with the harsh clarity of an x-ray, stripping flesh from bone. In that one moment of unforgiving light it seemed that the world had been unmade and gravity annulled. The air was full of heavy things that should properly be pinned to the earth, not flying about like witches on the summer solstice.

The current carried him down the driveway to the front of the house. He stood waist-deep in water, braced against the current that dragged him toward the street. He saw Mrs. Schwartz’ house across a field of breaking waves. He hoped she had evacuated while there was still time. There was no one who could help her now.

He reached the front door at the same time the rising water climbed the steps. The door was locked. His key was somewhere in the cottage or carried out to sea. Senor Guzmán insisted on hiding a spare key in the potted palm beside the door. In case he ever came home without his pants, Franklin Durango claimed. The palm was still there, at least the stems. The potting soil was mostly mud. He found the key after several minutes filtering the mud through his fingers.

When he turned the handle, the door opened violently, pulling him into the foyer. He slid across the marble floor like a flat stone skipped across the water.

The windows were shattered, the drapes whipping in the wind like the rags of a banshee, and broken glass underfoot. A flash of lighting revealed Senor Guzmán’s portrait still hanging in the foyer, his dark skin in dire contrast to the white sweater, white shirt, and white pants of his tennis costume. To the best of Finnegan’s knowledge, lighting wasn’t characteristic of hurricanes and Senor Guzmán didn’t play tennis. The portrait looked like the man’s ghost pinned to the wall. Senor Guzmán wasn’t dead yet but when he died, Finnegan hoped he would be condemned to a hell full of wealthy Palm Beach pricks in tennis costumes. Serve him right.

He felt his way blindly along the walls of the foyer and the formal dining room toward the kitchen and the pantry where the flashlights were stored. He walked on broken glass. In the hard light of a billion volts the glass looked like gilded splinters.

The house shook as something crashed against a windward wall with the force of artillery fire. Finnegan crossed himself. He wasn’t a religious man, despite his mother’s early insistence, but the force of the storm seemed vast, inhuman, even godly. It was easier for him to believe in hell than heaven but it wouldn’t hurt to hedge his bets.

The water was already rising to his shins by the time he found a flashlight. In the commercial kitchen cupboard doors were banging in the wind that entered one broken window and left by another. Pots and pans and Tupperware were sailing on an inland sea. He shuffled his way to the locked liquor cabinet in the library, barging through the buoyant debris of a wealthy man’s life. Without remorse he broke the glass and stole a bottle of Cragganmore Single Malt that was older than he was.

He took his stand on the second floor landing of the grand staircase. More exactly, he took his seat, the bottle of Scotch cradled between his crossed legs, his body sheltering it from flying debris. He took a deep swig and swirled the whisky in his mouth as his hair whipped in the wind. For a $500 dollar bottle of Scotch, it tasted a lot like a bottle of Johnny Walker he could buy at Sobe Liquors down the street. Except Sobe wasn’t down the street any longer. Down river or down lake, maybe. Or nowhere at all anymore.

He had no idea of the time. Maybe near dawn, maybe the middle of the night. He turned his flashlight on occasionally, checking the rise of the water up each step of the staircase. He didn’t know which was more disturbing, the sound of the house being torn apart in the darkness or its confirmation in the light. He used the light sparingly, conserving its batteries. He could have taken more from the pantry but the thought of mixing batteries and salt water in his pockets was disconcerting. Now the pantry was probably underwater.

There was a sound like 12-penny nails being pulled from hardwood by bloody fingers. Part of the roof—the southern part above the guest rooms—carried away in the storm. He took another deep swallow of Scotch, surprised the bottle was half empty. 

How remarkable. All of Senor Guzmán’s power and wealth, his authority and arrogance, dismembered one shingle at a time, turned into molding drywall, shattered glass, rusted metal, rotting cloth. Nothing the great man could build couldn’t be destroyed, slowly or all at once. There was probably not much difference between them, Finnegan thought. In Guzmán’s place, he would probably be just as arrogant, just as willfully mindless. Except that he was here, in the center of a murderous storm, and Guzmán wasn’t. He took bitter solace that the storm would eventually find Guzmán. When had he stopped calling him Senor?

He turned on the flashlight. Confused seas roiled across the ground floor, the harrowing wind wildly shifting, driving waves in every direction, colliding and crashing in gouts of white water lopped off by the wind. In that field of broken water—a storm in miniature, a tempest in a teacup—a child’s rubber duck floated defiantly, tossed and drop kicked and bitch slapped by waves, bouncing like an old pickup down a washboard road, sometimes submerged but always rising with irrepressible buoyancy. In the chaos intersected by the flashlight’s narrow beam, the rubber duck seemed less like a child’s harmless toy and more like an evil clown mocking him, a bright yellow reminder of his own mortality, a memento mori with a beak. The water was at the last step before the landing.

He took the Cragganmore and retreated to the master bedroom, dodging overturned furniture and ruined drapes flogged by the wind. The canopy above the enormous bed was shredded. The heavy bed cloths levitated. The wind outside the broken windows sounded like a tortured animal a hundred miles wide. Its agony extended beyond human hearing. He heard it with the marrow of his bones and the roots of his teeth. The sheer volume made coherent thought impossible. Each thought severed from the one preceding and the one following, like isolated victims in a storm.

He retreated to the walk-in closet and shouldered the door shut against the wind. Guzmán’s closet was almost as big as the grounds keeper’s cottage. There were racks and shelves rising to the ceiling, a chandelier, even a pair of overstuffed leather chairs. A hat tree made of mahogany shaped like a clinging vine coiled from floor to ceiling. Montecristi Panama hats hung from the tree like blossoms. He sat in one of the leather chairs, took another pull from the bottle of Scotch, then lunged for the corner and vomited on a pair of Dolce & Gabbana oxfords.

He woke disoriented, uncertain of the time, the place. The smell of something rancid hung in the humid air, his skin glued to the leather chair by his sweat. It was dark. Of course. He was in a closet. Sheltering from the storm. Had it passed? It was quiet in the closet. How long had he passed out?

He groped for the flashlight on his knees and put his hand in something pasty. The smell confirmed it was his own vomit. He cleaned his hand as best he could on the hardwood floor and eventually found the flashlight at the base of the hat tree.

He opened the closet door tentatively, leading with the flashlight as if something might leap from his dark imagination. The room was oddly still. Only a few drapes remained like shredded sails hanging from their yards. Through the empty windows he could see moonlight reflected on Biscayne Bay except it was no longer the bay of memory. It seemed to go on forever. He couldn’t see the far shore or even the near shore. The Sunset and Venetian Islands were gone. The moon polished empty water that washed against the high-rises of Edgewater on the mainland.

The air was still. Not even a whisper disturbed the moonlit night. He leaned out a window and could almost touch the still water surrounding the house. He was on an island, a rock half awash in an ocean that had risen with a vengeance. He could see a few stripped palm trunks like sticks emerging from the water and everywhere drifting debris. Some of it looked human.

The sky directly above was clear but the moon sailed above a wrack of clouds to the west. The clouds wrapped the horizon like a curtain. The eye wall. He could see lightning writhing among the clouds. There was the sound of distant thunder like an artillery battle fought beyond the horizon. He was in the eye of the hurricane. It wasn’t over. Not nearly.

He retreated into the darkness of the room. He sat heavily on the edge of the bed, rested elbows on knees and head in hands. Not over, not nearly. He doubted the house could withstand the far side of the storm. He had no chance of surviving in the water with the wreckage of houses—beams and rafters and entire roofs grinding in the flood like a logjam. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, and the liquor cabinet was 15 feet underwater.

It felt like someone struck him with a 2X4. He fell to the floor, struggled to rise, pressed down by a heavy weight. There was a sharp pain in his shoulder. He tried to wriggle free of the weight but he was held fast. He flailed about but found nothing to strike. Something thick and sinuous held him. It felt like a strong man had wrapped his arms around his chest and was crushing him. Looters, he thought. Maybe they weren’t waiting for the storm to end.

He tried to roll over and break the man’s grip. The pressure didn’t slacken. It was like the man was rolling with him, glued to him. The pressure on chest made it hard to breath. Whoever had him in a bear hug was as strong as a circus freak.

He struggled to his knees but was unable to stand. The weight of the freakish strong man held him down. He reached behind to claw the man’s face or tear off his ear but could find nothing to claw or tear. There was a bright arc of lightning to the west and an immediate clap of thunder. In the searing light he found himself staring into a pair of alien eyes above his shoulder, a familiar thread of darkness in pools of fetid water. The damned snake. It had its fangs embedded in his shoulder.

In a flash of intuition, like being kicked in the head, he realized he was caught in the coils of the anaconda. It had climbed to high ground, same as him. The highest ground for a snake was Guzmán’s four poster. It must have slithered up the bed post like the gallows in the tool shed. When he sat on the bed he was right beneath it, another goat on an orange leash. It wasn’t the storm that would kill him but a rich man’s reptile.

He tried to rip the snake’s head from his shoulder but the fangs sank deeper, grating on bone. His whole body was a cloud of pain. He could feel things popping and tearing inside.

He heard a distant sound approaching like a freight train. The storm was returning. It was getting dark again. He couldn’t tell whether the moon was obscured by clouds or his brain was starved of oxygen. In his blindness he could see he wasn’t going to survive the night. In the belly of a snake or the belly of a storm, he thought, we all end up as food.

An unlikely peace settled on him. He could no longer feel the snake’s fangs buried in his shoulder or the crushing pressure on his chest. It felt like he was floating in a dark sea, weightless, fearless, without hope or despair. He thought he should be struggling for his life, clawing toward the light, fighting for breath but it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. There was nothing more he need do, nothing else he need accomplish. For the first time in his life he was completely present, completely in the moment, the last moment. “What a relief,” he thought and then he became the darkness.

Urban Salvage

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.