Voodoo Magic by Robert Buettner
When Cass Gooding’s flight landed, local time and temperature were ten a.m. and eighty-six humid degrees Fahrenheit, so sweat already dampened her forehead. She cleared Cayman Islands immigration and customs then, passport in hand, hoisted the backpack she had checked and spun toward the exit.
A cocoa-skinned man blocked her. He wore a sport coat despite the heat, showed his ID, and said, “Detective Constable Mechem. Royal Cayman Islands Police Service. May I ask you a few questions, miss?”
Cass glanced around. Other exiting passengers streamed past her. Hair rose on her neck. “Why?”
He pointed to an empty conference room. “We can talk in there.”
Cass didn’t budge. “My connecting flight leaves from another building. I have to run.”
He shrugged. “The sooner we talk, the sooner you may be able to run.”
In the small room, he pointed at Cass’s passport. “May I?”
She handed it across and he read aloud, “Cassidy Gooding.” He flicked his eyes from her face to her photo then back. “Where have your neck tattoo and eyebrow ring gone?”
“The way of my misspent youth.”
“Ah.” He turned to her passport’s personal data page and read, “Chantilly?”
“Virginia. Outside Washington D.C. It’s my business address.”
“And what is your business?”
“I curate airplanes at the U.S. National Air and Space Museum Annex in Chantilly. The Smithsonian.”
He lifted her pack from the floor beside her and laid it on the conference table. “Would you be offended if I asked you to open this?”
“I’m already offended. There’s nothing in it but my perfectly legal private property.” She eyed her watch, sighed, then unzipped her pack. “I need to make my flight. But touch my panties and I’ll slug you.”
Atop her pack’s contents rested a three inch thick business envelope. The envelope’s ends drooped over the detective’s upturned palm as he hefted it.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do you acknowledge this packet was placed here by yourself and is your property?”
“Yes, it’s mine. It’s not drugs, you dick.”
He smiled. “Agreed. But it is an extraordinary volume of paper.”
“It’s not drug money either. Open it.”
He tugged out the monograph’s unbound pages, then cocked his head as he read their top sheet. “Voodoo Magic by Dr. Cassidy Gooding.”
“Copy edited manuscript. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press sent it for corrections. I’m a doctor of aeronautical history. The F-101 Voodoo was a Cold War U.S. airplane.”
The detective replaced the envelope and zipped Cass’s pack shut. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
Cass said, “What?
He waved her to follow him. “Dr. Gooding, I have indeed been a dick. To make amends allow me to drive you to your connecting flight.”
In his sedan parked at the curb the detective asked, “Where to?”
“Island Air FBO. Should be close.”
“Quite close.” He looked over his shoulder then merged into traffic. “But Island Air only serves private planes and charters. What is your airline?”
“Chance Airlines. It operates one flight a week from Georgetown to Last Chance Key.”
Again the detective laughed. “An imitation airline to an imitation island.”
“Chance Airlines is one small plane chartered once each week to one destination. Last Chance Key’s official name is ‘Last Rock.’”
“Last Rock first appeared on charts in 1670 as an uninhabited navigation hazard. It’s three miles long, one mile wide, as low and flat as all the Caymans, and forty miles northeast of Cayman Brac, our easternmost island.”
“Cayman rainfall supports only our islands’ natural ecosystems. Human habitation requires supplemental desalinated well water. During the 1960s, a well and desalination plant were completed on Last Rock. Today perhaps two hundred people live there. They call it Last Chance Key.”
“Key means island of course. 'Last' because going east from the Caymans it’s the final dab of land until Cuba or Jamaica. Chance because the gentleman who built the desalination plant takes in unfortunates who are down to their last chance.”
“It’s part of the Caymans?”
The detective shrugged. “Geographically, perhaps. But if our politicians claimed those unfortunates they would assume responsibility for their health care and such. Souls who are down to their last chance can’t pay much tax to cover the bill.” He stopped his car in front of Island Air’s building, thirty minutes before Cass’s scheduled departure.
Cass tugged her backpack from his car’s trunk and said, “Thanks for the lift. But why did you pull me over in the first place?”
“Caymanians love it. We say one day a lady sneezed here in Georgetown. Thirty minutes later the story that reached Bodden Town was that she had the plague. RCIPS received an anonymous phone tip an hour before your flight landed, to beware of an American girl with short red hair arriving from Miami.”
The detective shrugged again. “Unspecified. Usually such tips involve drug or currency couriers.” He grinned. “You are our first-ever sorceress.”
“I don’t understand the joke.”
“Belief systems like Voodoo remain unlawful in the Caymans. At least those parts are unlawful that involve extortion by pretending to cast spells, or involve poisoning.”
“Not seriously to you or to me. But to Caymanians of my parents’ generation, most seriously. Obviously someone who takes Voodoo seriously glimpsed your title page while you were working en route. The story grew until you became a witch doctor. Our normal procedure would have caused you to miss your flight.”
The detective left as Cass wrinkled her forehead. No superstitious departure lounge tipster had fingered her, because her manuscript hadn’t left her pack since she had left her apartment. But someone had tried to delay, but not prevent, her arrival at Last Chance Key. Frowning, she jogged toward the Turboprop DeHavilland Twin Otter waiting on the tarmac.
“Welcome aboard, Dr. Gooding.” The shirt-sleeved pilot sweated in bright sun alongside the Otter’s open cabin door. He took Cass’s backpack to stow in the nose luggage compartment and smiled. “Choose any row you want today. As long as it’s number one. Also—”
Cass smiled back. “I know Otters. Everybody gets a window seat, everybody gets an aisle seat.”
She climbed up and through the door, then paused, head down beneath the stifling cabin’s low ceiling. Through the open forward bulkhead door she saw the copilot seated. The cabin smelled of bananas, and of something else that suggested prior passengers had included livestock.
The pilot climbed in behind her, closed and latched the door, then squeezed past her and walked forward.
Twin Otters were Short Takeoff and Landing wonders. They could land on a dime and take off from a nickel while carrying nineteen passengers with luggage, or cargo from jet skis to goats, or any combination in between. Today this cabin’s rear seats had been removed and the space crammed with ratchet-tied cargo.
Cass picked her way forward through crated bananas, camping equipment, and plastic fifty-five gallon drums until she reached the two spartan passenger seats immediately aft of the forward bulkhead.
She buckled herself into the right seat while the pilot knelt in the aisle that separated her from the other passenger, who was already buckled into the left seat. He signed, then returned to the pilot, a cargo manifest on a clipboard.
Fifteen minutes later, the Otter had climbed out from Grand Cayman Island and droned toward Last Chance Key, one hundred thirty miles northeast.
Cass’s view, unobstructed by the Otter’s high wing, was of empty sea. The Caymans were flat specks that barely peeked above the central Caribbean’s azure surface, and were the only land for seven-hundred-forty-miles north from the Panama Canal and for nearly five hundred miles east from the Yucatan Peninsula’s tip. The Caymans also lay two-hundred-forty-miles northwest of Jamaica. Even the closest land, Cabo de Cruz, the barbed tip of the elongate fishhook that was Cuba, lay a hundred miles northeast of Last Chance Key.
The Caymans’ isolation blessed them with gin-clear water that lured divers from around the world. The Caymans’ discreet banks lured a different clientele, from money-laundering drug lords to deadbeat dads. But Last Chance Key lured Cass Gooding for neither of those reasons.
She stretched tall in her seat to glimpse the Caymans’ eastern islands out the Otter’s left side window, but the other passenger blocked her view. He looked to be Cass’s age, which her mother defined as north of stupid and barely south of unmarriageable.
Cass tapped his muscled shoulder. “Can you see Cayman Brac out there yet?”
He stared straight forward at the bulkhead, back stiff. His big hands clenched his seat’s spindly arms so tight that his own forearms’ muscles bulged, and their veins stood out.
Cass said, “Don’t like flying?”
He shook his head, then muttered through clenched teeth, “Like flying. Don’t like crashing.”
Cass said, “If it helps, I feel as safe in a Twin Otter like this as probably any fixed wing aircraft I know. And I know lots of them.”
He turned his head slightly toward her. “You’re a pilot?”
“Not these. I have my rotorcraft license.”
“Especially don’t like helicopters crashing. You ever crash one?”
Cass paused, then said, “No.” She blinked.
He exhaled then stared at her. His eyes were Caribbean blue.
He said, “You’re lying.” Then he smiled. “But I appreciate the sympathetic gesture.”
He turned his torso toward her as stiffly as if he were wearing a neck brace and mini-waved his hand four inches off the seat arm. “Steve Hunter.”
“Cass Gooding. I wasn’t lying about the Otter. It’s a simple aircraft. Safe as houses. That’s the opinion of a Ph.D. in aeronautical history.”
“Me too what?”
“Ph.D. in a field with the earning potential of dry rot.”
“You’re an invertebrate paleontologist.”
His jaw dropped. “How . . .?”
Cass pointed at his chest, “Your T-shirt reads ‘I dig blastoids.’”
He raised his eyebrows. “Wow. Most people guess death rays or colon polyps. Did you come to the Caymans for the diving?”
Again she hesitated then blinked. “Yes.”
“That’s your second lie. At three I shut down conversations. So. Did you come to launder money, for a vacation, or for something else you don’t want to talk about?”
“I didn’t come to launder money or for a vacation.”
He smiled. “Smart answer.”
“Smart question. My turn.” Cass flicked her eyes to the jagged scar that ran from his left elbow to wrist, then rethought.
She jerked her thumb at the cargo behind them. “You vacation with drums of concentrated hydrochloric acid, a pickaxe, and a life raft?”
“Business trip, not vacation. It’s an inflatable boat, not a life raft. They say down here catching dinner is cheaper than groceries. Acid can dissolve some invertebrate fossils like seashells out of limestone, which is what the Caymans are made of. You may have seen paperweights or jewelry made that way.”
“You manufacture trinkets?”
“No. My business is the same as every other untenured paleo nerd’s business. Find cheap groceries. As a joke I started a go-fund-me page about it. I got back a snail mail letter proposing a pilot program. Apparently Last Chance Key’s a sharing economy and the only natural resources its residents have to share are fish and fossiliferous limestone. There was a plane ticket and a check in the envelope.”
The copilot stuck his head back through the cockpit door. “We’re starting our descent into Last Chance Key. Touchdown in ten minutes.”
The Otter banked as its nose dipped.
Dr. Steve Hunter, untenured paleo nerd, cottage industry entrepreneur, and severe aerophobe, again froze solid.
The loaded Otter stopped four hundred feet after touchdown with easily a thousand feet of runway left. Cass and Hunter jumped down onto the runway as a rust perforated pickup that had once been red stopped alongside the plane.
The airstrip, barely above sea level, was crushed white limestone bordered by knee-high green scrub. Beyond, similar scrub punctuated by stunted trees alternated with white rock and sand patches. There was no terminal, just a fuel trailer with one flat tire and a flapping windsock.
The pickup’s driver, whose biceps and shoulders bulged like dark, tattooed grapefruit, laid Cass’s pack and Hunter’s in the pickup’s bed, loaded the crated bananas, then motioned the two of them to squeeze beside him in the front seat.
As the pilots unloaded the rest of the cargo the driver accelerated then said, “Dr. Hunter, Miss Gooding, I’m Cedric. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I drive you anyplace you need to go as long as you’re here. Dr. Hunter, I come back for the rest of your cargo and deliver it to the campsite where you asked for. I cleared the brush there this morning.”
Hunter pointed at the greenery. “Does this brush ever grow taller than it is now?”
Cedric shrugged. “Cayman brush is the same as me. Before I came here I was a prizefighter in Jamaica. Standup Cedric they called me. When I got knocked down I always stood up again. Brush here stands up too. It covers everything nice and green. But before it stands up for too long hurricanes always come and knock it down. Then the rock is bald as my grandfather’s head. But soon the brush stands up again.”
Cass said, “Cedric, why would a prizefighter live here?”
He shrugged his big shoulders again as he drove. “One fight I got knocked down. I was supposed to stay down.”
Cass said, “To cheat?”
Standup Cedric nodded. “But I never cheat, miss. I stood up. So the cheaters who lost money came looking for me. To put me down for the long count. But Billy found me first. He got me out of Jamaica and offered me one last chance to come here and disappear. I took it.”
“Billy?” Cass said, “The room I reserved is at a place called ‘Billy’s.’ I hope you know it because I don’t have an address.”
The driver grinned. “Neither does Billy’s, miss.”
A half mile later Cedric dropped Cass, Hunter, their packs, and the banana crates in front of a free-standing wood plank porch that measured perhaps forty feet by forty feet. Railings surrounded the porch, and timber pilings elevated it two feet above the ground, then continued upward and supported a woven grass roof that shaded the porch. On the porch a half dozen tables were arranged along the rail so they overlooked the sea, fifty yards away.
Hunter carried both their packs onto the porch, past a hand painted wooden sign hung from the porch’s front rail:
BILLY’S LAST RESORT
Order what you want. Eat what you get.
Ten feet behind the porch stood two tiny limestone block cottages. Smoke drifted from the nearer cottage’s chimney.
A gray haired, heavy white woman wearing a long cotton dress carried a metal coffee pot from the cottage to the porch, set it on a sideboard, then smiled at them. “Ah. The Yanks. Welcome.”
Cass stood alongside Hunter and said to the woman, “I’m Cassidy Gooding. I reserved a room here. Are you Billy?”
The old woman shook her head. “I’m Millicent. This place is named for Billy because he started it. Billy started everything here.”
Cass said to the old woman, “So it’s a memorial?”
“Memorial? Hardly. Billy’s quite alive.” She paused, peered out to sea, then leaned forward and raised her wire rimmed glasses onto her forehead. “What the devil?”
She turned to the sideboard, snatched up binoculars, then stared while she focused them.
Cass and Hunter turned and also stared as a ship, painted gold from stem to stern, moved toward the island.
The old woman frowned. “Cruise ships don’t stop here.”
Cass groaned. “It’s no cruise ship.”
Hunter pointed seaward as he turned to Cass. “You know this ship?”
Cass sighed, “Yep. And this explains a lot. The Kraken is the world’s ninth biggest private yacht. Also the world’s second most sophisticated underwater exploration and recovery vessel. And its owner is the world’s first biggest asshole.”
The gold ship slowed, turned broadside, and Millicent sniffed. “Two miles out. That ship draws too much water to cross the reef. That’s as close as your asshole can get, Dear.”
Cass shook her head. “Never underestimate an asshole.”
A gold painted helicopter lifted off the pad near the ship’s stern and sped toward them.
Millicent whispered, “Bugger! Will you look at that?”
Cass closed her eyes. “I don’t need to. It’s an Airbus H155 with lizard skin seats and a minibar.”
A minute later the helo settled in the middle of the road and sat while both engines whistled down to silence. Its pilot hopped out his door, then opened the passenger compartment door.
Parkman Silver stepped down, visored one hand above his eyes, then strode toward the trio who stood in the grass roof’s shadow. The breeze ruffled his tight-curled graying hair, his untucked shirt, and his linen slacks. Already lime dust kicked up by his helo settled on his hand-sewn deck slip-ons.
He called, “I’m looking for Billy.”
The old woman called back. “He’s expected shortly.”
Silver shouted, “When’s shortly?”
Silver paused when he got close enough to read the restaurant’s sign. Then he cocked his head, jerked his aviators up, and stared at Cass. “Gooding?”
Cass smiled. “It’s refreshing when you look shocked and actually are.”
Silver stepped into the shade, then looked her up and down from her ball cap to her trainers.
He nodded. “I prefer this new look. The tattoos and face hardware were too crack whore.”
Cass clenched her fists behind her back while she stretched a smile. “Nobody compliments a woman quite like you do Silver.”
“No hard feelings about the Desert One business, then?”
“I’ll leave those to the crew’s families.”
“Gooding, the artifacts were tastefully displayed.”
“Between the nickel slots and the tittie bar.”
“The Las Vegas Municipal Court ruled for me.”
“Funny how in Las Vegas the house always wins.”
“That’s the American way, Gooding.”
“Not my America.”
Silver sighed. “Give it up, Gooding.” He pointed out at his yacht. “Join me for dinner tonight. You tell me what you’re here after. I’ll tell you why you should just give it up to me without a struggle. My chef is doing a bisque with locally harvested conch.”
“I’ll pair it with my last 1841 Veuve Cliquot.”
“You know conch is an aphrodisiac.”
“Silver, there is not enough conch in the ocean.”
Silver sighed. “Game on then.” He spun his finger to his pilot, the helo’s engines whined and its rotor spun. As Silver reboarded, he shouted back to Cass, “Remember, Gooding, the house always wins.”
Cass stared, arms crossed and eyes narrowed, as the golden helicopter hovered five hundred feet above them.
She whispered, “At this moment I would sell my soul for one lousy RPG.”
Hunter stared at Cass, mouth agape. “Who the hell is that? More importantly, who the hell are you?”
Cass sat at a shaded table looking out across the azure sea then nodded to Hunter to join her. She said to the old woman, “Millicent, if we order, what will we get?”
“Conch chowder this evening.”
“What can we get in the meantime?”
“Hot coffee. Cool water. Green bananas that flew in with you.”
Hunter said to Millicent, “Any chance of a couple beers?”
“On Billy’s island there is no beer. Also no rum, no drugs, no guns, no bombs, no temptation, and no one looking down on you for what you did before. All we have is two lorries, thirty goats, two boats, all of which we share, and one last chance to share a simple life with others like us.”
Millicent set their coffees and waters in front of them then said to Cass, “I used to have a lovely thin body just your size. Also a good man, a beautiful daughter, and I captained the finest dive boat on The Brac.”
She turned up one forearm and pointed at heroin tracks. “I threw Paradise away for this shit. Until I thought this,” she pointed at scars on her wrists, “was my only way out. But Billy found me in an alley, bandaged me up, and gave me one last chance.” She breathed deep as she stared out across the sea at the big gold ship. “I must see to the chowder. Coffee’s in the pot, bananas are in the crate. Stay as long as you please.”
Cass swallowed a lump in her throat. “Makes my issues with Silver look insignificant.”
Hunter wiped his eyes. “Makes this Billy look damn significant. I had no idea. Before I came I could find zero about this place on the Internet. It doesn’t even have Internet service. Or cell service. I expected some sketchy fishing camp.”
“Me too.” She stared out at the Kraken. “Silver I didn’t expect.”
“Which brings me back to my question. Who is Silver and what’s your mutual beef?”
“Parkman Silver inherited ten billion dollars. To date, he has mismanaged that down to four billion. On which, as you see, he still squeaks by. He uses the Kraken to find historic wreckage, mostly ships, sometimes aircraft, even rare wine recovered from shipwrecks. He uses his loot in his only successful businesses, which are touring circuses masquerading as cultural exhibitions, and casinos.”
Hunter’s eyes widened. “Long John Silver’s Las Vegas? With the restored Spanish galleon in the pool and the world-renowned Pirate Wenches?”
“How are you crossways with him?”
Cass pointed out over the water at a large black bird that drifted in the sky parallel to the shoreline. As they watched the big bird dove on a smaller one inbound from the sea, from whose beak a limp object dangled. The small one dove and twisted, but eventually the bigger bird snatched the object away.
Cass said, “That small bird’s called a booby. The big one’s a frigate bird.”
Hunter said, “Historian, international woman of mystery, and . . . bird watcher?”
Cass smiled. “Sort of. The history of flight began with humans watching birds and wondering what if. The point is boobys fly out to sea, dive for squid all day, then bring home their catch to feed their chicks. Frigate birds are opportunistic jerks. They watch the boobys do the work then steal their squid.”
“Silver stole your squid? How?”
“He’s stolen several. But most recently? Do you know what Silver meant by ‘Desert One’?”
“Probably. In 1980 the U.S. tried to fly into Iran and rescue hostages. At a ground refueling point in the Iranian desert, code named Desert One, two aircraft collided in a sandstorm. The mission failed. It was Jimmy Carter’s Waterloo.”
Cass nodded. “Yep. Eight U.S. service personnel died in that collision. Iran repatriated their remains, but kept the wreckage and collateral objects left behind. They still display some of the wreckage as trophies from their ‘great military victory.’ Even though the Iranians had no idea the rescuers were even in their country, and the Iranians had fuck-all to do with the collision.”
“The objects were your squid?”
“The objects were never for me. I was compiling the subsequent histories of the aircraft that survived Desert One. I came across a German magazine ad claiming to offer for sale personal effects smuggled out of Iran by a Pakistani. I passed the lead on to the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The Agency’s mission is remains recovery, but some decedents’ family members funded an on-site attempt to negotiate for repatriation of the effects. I accompanied the negotiators to Dubai, on my own dime, to authenticate the stuff.”
“So you really are an international woman of mystery.”
“Hardly. The seller met us at the Dubai airport McDonalds. He told us he had sold the stuff a half hour earlier, then stuck us with the check for his Chicken McArabia to go.”
“It sounds funny. But the successful buyer was Silver. So it’s my fault that I had to tell a dead service man’s daughter that if she wanted to see her father’s wedding ring, watch, and wallet photos of her and her mother she would find them displayed alongside a photo of the wreck he burned to death in. All behind glass in a topless bar masquerading as a museum.”
“How is that your fault?”
“Silver tracks researchers like me because he’s too lazy to figure out where the good stuff is himself. And because I’m not a spy I can’t really travel without leaving electronic footprints that Silver’s hackers follow. I thought I had my tracks covered this trip because I reserved and paid cash by snail mail for my Last Chance Air ticket.”
“So what’s this trip’s good stuff?”
Cass stared at the sea. “Probably nothing. Chasing history means leaving lots of footprints for no reward but sore feet.”
Standup Cedric returned in his formerly red pickup, stopped, and called to Hunter, “Dr. Hunter I take you out to your place now.”
Steve stood and said to Cass, “It won’t take me long to make camp. Maybe Cedric could drive you out later. I’ll show you around. Maybe cook you dinner?”
Cass smiled and shook her head. “Unfortunately I’m busy.”
His face fell. “Oh. Got it.”
“No. No, you haven’t. Not busy like I told Silver. Steve, I really have something to do that can’t wait. When I finish I’ll come see you.” She asked Cedric, “You could give me a lift then?”
As Cedric drove Hunter south he called back, “I give you a lift anytime you ask, miss.”
Cass turned to Millicent. “Where would I find boats for hire?”
“You wouldn’t, Dear. We have two boats. One is under repair.”
“Okay. Where would I find the boat for hire?”
Millicent pointed north. “Today Lucky Derek is using it. He generally cleans his catch just up the road.”
Twenty minutes’ walk brought Cass to the boat. A weathered, open outboard, twenty feet long, its bow had been pulled out of the water onto a crescent shaped beach fifteen feet wide. It would do nicely.
A barefoot black man wearing just long trunks stood alongside the boat. He lifted a single small fish from a well in the boat and chucked it into a plastic cooler on the sand. Evidently Lucky Derek’s fishing skill hadn’t earned him his nickname.
Cass recognized two scars left of his breastbone, where his heart would be. Bullet wounds. Another apparent Billy rescue, and lucky indeed.
Cass called, “Derek?”
“Yes, Miss Gooding.”
“You know my name.”
“Everybody on the island know your name. Caymanians love the gossip.”
“So I’ve heard. I’d like to hire this boat.”
Derek grinned. “Today everybody like to hire this boat.”
Cass closed her eyes. “Don’t tell me.”
She opened them as Derek tugged the boat further onto the beach.
“Derek, somebody from the big gold ship beat me to it, didn’t they?”
“You said not to tell you, miss.”
“Derek, I really need this boat. They need your boat like this island needs more limestone.”
“But I have already accepted the payment.”
“I’ll double it. Derek, I’m the good guy here.”
Lucky Derek shook his head. “Miss, last time I backed out of a deal to help a good guy the bad guys shot me. This fella today came in a small boat. I bet on the big ship they have plenty more small boats. Maybe you could hire one of theirs.”
“Sure. That’ll work.”
Cass had walked halfway back to Billy’s when she saw a golden motor launch inching along the shore while a crewman in its bow peered at every square meter of land through field glasses. Silver not only had plenty of boats. He had plenty of everything he needed to find and exploit what Cass was looking for before she could, from boats she could see to drones she couldn’t see, to heavy lift equipment. It wasn’t just game on. It was almost game over already.
She ran the rest of the way back to Billy’s while she thought.
At sunset Cass sat in her room, which turned out to be the one room limestone block cottage beside Millicent’s. Cass’s on-time arrival had probably foiled Silver’s minions, but she still scoured the place for bugs and cameras before she studied her satellite photos.
A half hour later Cass carried one photo to Billy’s porch.
Cedric and three other locals sat at candlelit tables, while Millicent placed and lit candles on the unoccupied ones.
Cass laid out the photo on the table furthest from a customer, then asked Millicent, “Do you recognize this?”
Millicent nodded and pointed. “Here is where we stand now. Here is the airstrip.”
“Yep.” Cass pointed on the photo to a tiny, three hundred feet by three hundred feet islet just off Last Chance Key’s northeast shore. “This channel here, that separates this islet from this island. Could I wade across it?”
Millicent stuck out her lower lip. “No. It’s fifteen feet deep even at low tide. But don’t bother. No one visits that miserable little bump.”
“But if I wanted to, I could swim?”
“You don’t understand. I swim open water in triathlons twice a year. This channel’s only eight hundred yards wide. I swim longer distance than that in a pool twice a week.”
Millicent sighed. “That’s not the problem. The densest bloom of Portuguese man ‘o war I’ve ever seen is adrift in that channel now.”
“For how long?”
Millicent shrugged. “Until a storm blows them out. At least ten days.”
Cass scowled. “I can’t wait two days.”
Millicent shrugged. “I’m afraid you’ll have to, Dear. Have some chowder. You’ll feel better.”
Cass shook her head. “I’m sure it’s great, but I’m vegan. I’ll just take a couple bananas back to my room.”
Millicent sighed again. “When I was your age I was keen to stay thin, too.”
The sun rose behind the islet off Last Chance Key’s north eastern shore and Cass pulled her ball cap’s bill down so it shaded her eyes. She tugged the old neoprene wetsuit pants, that she had cajoled from Millicent, over her bikini as she sat in the sand. The narrow beach bordered the eight hundred yard wide channel that she had to swim to reach her objective.
By the time Cass had added the suit’s jacket, hood, booties, and gloves the sun lit the channel’s surface.
She squinted into the reflected glare and whispered, “Crap.”
The floats of Portuguese man o’ wars glistened on the still blue water like a vast fleet of inflated violet sandwich bags crimped at their crests. Cass stopped counting at one hundred. The bloom easily numbered thousands.
The organisms’ stinger studded tentacles dangled and drifted beneath and around them, as thin and invisible as fishing line. In deep water a man o’ war’s tentacles dangled a hundred feet or longer below the float. But this channel’s shallow bottom would already have scraped off and set adrift thousands of long, but still potent, tentacle fragments that turned the water she had to cross into stinging noodle soup.
Cass belted the waterproof equipment bag around her waist, snugged the full face snorkel mask over the neoprene hood’s edges, then picked her way across the beach. She avoided the floats already stranded there, and their tentacles hidden in the sand, lest they stick to her boots’ outer surface, and sting her when she removed the suit.
Heart pounding, she waded out waist deep, then swam.
Eleven minutes later, Cass emerged, elated and unstung, in the shallows on the channel’s far shore.
She did her best to rinse the suit’s outer skin clean of tentacles, tucked the hood, gloves and mask beneath a bush, oriented herself using the satellite photo from the bag, then struck out through the knee-high brush. Branches caught and tugged the neoprene, and within fifty yards the sun so baked her that she stripped off the jacket, carried it, and pressed ahead in her bikini top, the wet suit pants, and booties.
Moments later a rapidly worsening burn seared her right forearm. She realized that the spreading red welt radiated from a tentacle fragment, barely longer than her little finger, that must have transferred from the wetsuit jacket’s outer skin to her forearm when she had removed the jacket.
With a twig she plucked off the fragment and discarded it, but her forearm felt as though a half dozen wasps had lined up on it and stung her simultaneously.
But she had to be close now. Like a lioness scenting prey she shrugged off her pain and crept ahead.
Minutes later her pain had faded a little. Her shin thunked against a hollow object overgrown by brush. She breathed faster, more from excitement than exertion, as she felt her way along the object until she was sure she had located her quarry. It rested within two yards of where she had expected to find it.
Cass tugged the bush knife from her bag and started hacking. A sweaty hour later she had exposed enough to confirm both completeness and condition. With her knife she pried loose a misshapen steel cylinder larger than a big man’s thumb, then tucked it into her bag.
Using her phone she photographed most of what she needed. The last few shots required her to lie on her back and wriggle into the shade. What she found there confirmed some of her suspicions. But it also raised startling new ones. And her work had exposed the find. Within hours at most Silver’s minions would find it too.
She ran, thrashing high-kneed through the brush, back to the channel’s shore, tugged on the jacket, hood, and mask, plunged in and swam back toward Last Chance Key proper.
She had covered one hundred yards when she felt the first sting. It lashed her left cheek, where she had failed to overlap her mask atop the neoprene hood that protected her head and neck.
After that a new sting seemed to explode somewhere on her skin with every stroke she swam. In her haste she had failed to assure the suit’s pieces overlapped at her wrists, ankles, and waist. Worse, brush and rocks had torn the suit and exposed even more flesh.
By the time she crawled, quivering and spent, through the lapping surf to the main island’s shore she swore through clenched teeth at the pain, and even more at her own impatient stupidity.
She struggled out of the wetsuit and was stung again and again, in newly exposed spots, by tentacle fragments stuck to the neoprene. She rinsed her skin as well as she dared, then finally slipped into her cutoffs and trainers and walked, breathing through clenched teeth.
Cedric waited for her, where she had asked him to the night before. His legs dangled over the truck’s lowered tailgate, and when he saw her he stood. “Miss Cass, what has happened to you?”
She didn’t think Cedric would deliberately squeal. But if he was as fond of The Gossip as Caymanians all claimed to be, she couldn’t chance it.
She spoke, and realized that a stray fragment had swollen her upper lip. “I went for a morning jog and tripped. I fell into some brush.”
Cedric frowned. “I have never seen such bad brush. You must visit Dr. Reid.”
“There’s a doctor here?”
“He treats everyone on the island for free.”
“Most everyone lives on the south side. So he ties up at the pier there.”
“He comes by boat from his clinic on The Brac.”
“Two p.m., miss.”
Cass looked reflexively at her red, swollen wrist, then tugged her smartwatch from her cutoffs’ pocket. “1:03 pm! Fantastic! Let’s go.”
“Two p.m. next Tuesday.”
“Crap.” Cass heard a muffled boat motor, looked out to sea, and watched another Kraken launch purr past.
Cedric said, “I bet they got a doctor on the big gold ship. Shall I hail that small boat?”
“They do. But don’t.” If they were still looking here, they hadn’t found it yet. She had heard that man o’ war stings didn’t kill you, they just made you wish somebody else would. Of that second part she was now certain. But for the plan shaping up in her mind, time was too short to baby herself.
Cass climbed into Cedric’s passenger seat and sat sidesaddle on her unstung cheek. “Cedric, could you just drive me to Dr. Hunter’s camp?”
“Yes, miss.” Cedric started the truck. “But I don’t think he’s that kind of doctor.”
Hunter’s campsite was thirty yards inland from the island’s south shore and consisted of a clearing that contained a pop-up tent, a pit containing what looked to be last night’s cooking fire ashes, a pair of plastic tubs as long as bathtubs but half as deep, stockpiled acid barrels, and bottled water jugs.
Closer to the water, the ground dropped away and formed a cliff so shallow that a pickaxe’s head rose above the cliff’s edge, then disappeared as it swung down and clanged against stone.
Cass called, “Hunter? Am I too late for dinner?”
“Cass? Cass! I’ll be right up.”
He clambered into view, pickaxe in one gloved hand. He wore just khaki shorts and the tan faux suede boots that soldiers wore. His lean, bare, torso glistened with sweat and he peered down at it as he brushed lime dust off his pecs.
Cass said, “That’s a good look for you, Hunter.”
“You only say that because you’re upwind. I wish I had known you were—” He looked up, saw her, dropped his pick and ran to her. “What happened?”
“I got stung by a Portuguese man o’ war.”
“A man o’ war? You look like a walking peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Did you wrestle it?”
“I went swimming. But I wore a wetsuit, a mask, and a snorkel. Hunter, they didn’t kill me.”
“They? Jesus!” Hunter peeled off his gloves and threw them. “That may be the stupidest . . .” He looked away, then said, “If you had aspirated a tentacle down your snorkel the swelling in your windpipe might have killed you.”
Crap. She hadn’t thought of that.
He said, “Okay, let’s see what we got.” He stared into her face, gently took it in his hands and turned her head. “This lesion along your upper lip hurts the worst, doesn’t it?”
“How did you know?”
“The upper lip is some of the body’s most heavily innervated skin.” He took her hands in his and slowly turned them, then knelt, peered at the welts around her ankles, and stood again. “You have welts on the backs of your hands and all around your ankles, but almost none on your fingertips and palms. That’s because fingertip and palm skin is too thick for the nematocysts’ barbs to penetrate. Does the pain radiate up the appendage from your wrists or ankles?”
“Difficulty breathing, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, dizziness? Anyone in your family ever experience anaphylactic reactions to bee or wasp stings?”
With his fingertips he pressed her neck below her ears. “Lymph nodes don’t feel swollen. Your reactions seem localized, not systemic. That’s good. Any lesions I haven’t examined?”
“None I’d care to have you examine.”
“Cass, failure to examine the entire casualty results in fatally flawed field diagnosis. Ronald Reagan almost died because doctors who were told he had a broken rib nearly missed his bullet wound.”
“Hunter, where did you learn all this shit?”
“I studied before I came. The rest I learned from the senior medic who taught me the ropes in Afghanistan.”
“The Army? I didn’t expect you liked breaking things and hurting people.”
“I don’t. That’s why I was a medic.”
“Army medics carry guns. Did you shoot anybody?”
“Only if they shot first. Especially if they shot while I was treating a casualty. Sometimes a person has to choose the lesser of two evils. Cass, quit stalling. Where else are you stung?”
“If I’m already stung why does it matter?”
“Unfired nematocysts remaining on your skin may fire when any tentacles still on the skin get rubbed the wrong way. Do you really want to see this movie again?”
“On my ass.”
Thirty minutes later Hunter used an empty water jug as a stool and sat with his back to Cass as she stepped naked into one of Hunter’s plastic tubs. He had filled the tub with bottled water he had heated over a fire fueled by brush he cut.
He said, “Can you stand the temperature?”
She knelt, then lay on her back and pulled a tarp across the tub, and beneath her chin like a blanket. “Barely.”
Hunter turned and faced her. “Perfect. The only treatments the authorities agree on are removing all visible nematocysts, then soaking the wounds in hot, fresh still water.”
“Did you enjoy the removing?”
“No. I kept my eyes closed.”
“That’s two lies in one. Why the hot bath?”
“Evolution. Marine organisms’ toxins are optimized for cold salt water. Heat breaks down the molecules into harmless compounds. The moist heat palliates the patient, too.”
“The patient needs more palliating.”
Hunter walked to his tent, then returned and handed her two airline miniature rum bottles. “Anesthetic.”
“Hunter, liquor’s contraband here.”
“I didn’t know that ‘til we got here. The airline messed up my flight from the States so they opened the bar.”
Cass handed back one bottle, then unscrewed the top from hers. “I never anesthetize alone.”
Hunter unscrewed his bottle then lifted it. “Cheers.”
Cass knocked hers back, then said, “Now that you’ve gotten me drunk and naked what’s next?”
“Questions. What the hell is worth the chance you just took?”
“I found my squid.”
Hunter raised his eyebrows. “The good stuff?”
“Scary good.” Cass frowned. “Really, more scary than good. You recognized Desert One. Do you recognize October 28, 1962?”
“Uh. Cuban missile crisis ends. With global nuclear war hours away Khrushchev announces the Soviet Union will remove all its nuclear ballistic missiles from Cuba. In return, under the table, the U.S. agrees it will remove all its similar missiles from Turkey and Italy and never invade Cuba. Both sides declare victory and go home. Mankind was down to its last chance, and took it.” Hunter cocked his head. “Like the people who live on this island. Funny coincidence.”
Cass smiled. “Isn’t it?” She poked her arm out from under her tarp blanket and pointed. “Hand me my waterproof bag.”
She removed a folded page from the bag and handed it across. “This is from a monograph I’m writing.”
He eyed the photograph then whistled, “Pretty airplane.”
“Some people think the F-101 Voodoo was the prettiest fighter ever built. And wicked fast, even by today’s standards. It set a record by outrunning the sun from New York to L.A., which was a huge deal in 1957.” Cass handed over a second page. “The variant that set the record was this, the RF-101C. R for Reconnaissance. The ugly nose job housed cameras. The museum’s collections include one of those ugly nose cones, but not a whole Voodoo.”
“There are no Voodoos left?”
“There are plenty. What makes aircraft Smithsonian-worthy is their historic provenance. We didn’t just restore a B-29, we restored the B-29 that dropped the Hiroshima bomb.”
Hunter said, “But the planes that took the aerial photos that tipped the U.S. to Russian missiles in Cuba were U-2 spy planes.”
“Right. Also wrong. Beginning about October 15, U-2’s took the first photos from thirteen miles high that confirmed Russian nuclear ballistic missiles. That triggered the crisis. On October 27 the Russian shootdown of a U-2 was ordered by a Russian deputy commander on the ground in Cuba on his own initiative. That shocked both Khrushchev and Kennedy into compromising. Because either side’s subordinates down the line might accidentally start a nuclear war on their own.”
“Okay. Why am I wrong?”
“The U.S. also wanted detailed low altitude photos. So RF-101C’s and other recon aircraft ripped across Cuba too low and too fast for the missiles, and returned closeups from five hundred feet above their targets. The low-level missions took ground fire from Cuban and possibly Russian anti-aircraft gunners, but no aircraft were lost. Officially.” Cass sat up, holding the tarp against her body. “Turn around. I’m getting out.”
“First, because I feel much better.”
Hunter eyed his watch as he turned away. “You should. The worst pain subsides after three hours. The welts will stay tender and discolored for weeks.”
“Second, because I want to show you my squid.”
“I hope that’s a euphemism.”
“It is. But not for what you hope. Hand me my clothes.”
Cass slipped back into her bikini, cutoffs, and trainers. “Not alone I hope. Does your boat have a motor?”
“Hunter you’ve been wonderful. I’m impressed and grateful. But I came to ask for a different kind of help.”
“Part of writing an aircraft type’s history is tracking where each example went and what was done to it from the day the airframe’s serial number is assigned until its final crash or retirement.”
“Like ‘Show me the Carfax.’”
“Right. But last-century paper trails are less complete and accurate than contemporary computerized VIN number data. Still, my monograph describes all one hundred sixty-six RF-101C Voodoos built. It follows one hundred sixty-five of them from cradle to grave. But one aircraft’s paper trail simply stops at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina on November 2, 1962.”
Hunter cocked his head. “Four days after both sides declared victory and went home?”
Cass nodded. “Most of the Voodoo missions over Cuba originated from Shaw, overflew their Cuban surveillance targets, then returned over the sea to avoid contact. After the Soviets agreed to remove their ballistic missiles the U.S. continued low level reconnaissance flights that verified the Soviets really were shipping their ballistic missiles out. But the Cubans, who had counted on Soviet weapons to deter a U.S. invasion of Cuba, not on some sketchy U.S. promise to the Russians, were fighting mad. The gung-ho Russians in Cuba, who had already been trigger happy enough to shoot down one U.S. plane, were still there.”
Hunter nodded back. “You think somebody shot down your missing Voodoo. The Soviets and the U.S. looked the other way rather than re-escalate the crisis. Like they did with the U-2.”
Cass nodded again. “But if the Voodoo had crashed in Cuba, Castro would have hoisted the wreckage over Revolution Square in Havana, the way the Iranians display Desert One helicopter parts. So, I thought, what if ground fire hit the Voodoo? But it limped away, like earlier low level flights had?”
“But it didn’t make it home?”
Cass nodded. “The average depth of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico is six thousand feet. Their combined area is two thirds the size of the Continental U.S.”
Hunter smiled. “But what if it crashed on land other than Cuba? The closest land to Cuba is here. So you came here to look.”
Cass nodded. “But not until I had more proof.” She spread a satellite photo from her bag atop Hunter’s water jug. “In the early two thousands fine-resolution color satellite imagery became available. This image shows Last Chance Key in 2007.” She pointed. “Look at this even smaller islet just to the northeast.”
Hunter bent, squinted, then said, “I don’t see anything but white limestone. Mostly covered by green scrub. Just like here.”
“Exactly. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan hit the Caymans and scrubbed them clean. But by the time this 2007 photo was taken the vegetation had grown back.”
Cass laid a second photo atop the 2007 image. “Same shot. 2009. Just after Hurricane Paloma in 2008.”
Hunter pointed. “This darker-colored cruciform patch wasn’t there in the 2007 photo.”
Cass shook her head. “The patch was there. But in 2007 it was overgrown. It was just overgrown in 2007. The short axis of this patch measures, within the image resolution margin of error, between thirty-eight feet and forty-two feet wide. The long axis measures between sixty-five feet and sixty-nine feet long. The Voodoo’s wingspan measured thirty-nine point eight feet and it was sixty-seven point five feet long. So my historically significant missing Voodoo crashed on what was in 1962 an isolated, uninhabited island. Then its wreckage wasn’t visible for most of the next sixty years.”
Hunter said, “Nice job, Doc.” He pointed again. “So this channel, that separates this islet from this island, is where you swam and got stung. You prefer to revisit by boat?”
Cass frowned. “Partly. Steve, now that I’ve actually seen the wreckage, there’s more to this story. Much more. Now I realize that what I need from you may jeopardize your project. I just can’t ask you.”
“Will whatever you need annoy that guy who called you a crack whore?”
“Then screw my jeopardy. I’m in.”
Two hours later Cass rolled one of Hunter’s fifty-five gallon hydrochloric acid drums down to the water in which he stood knee deep. He tied two other drums to cleats on his inflatable boat’s stern, so they floated behind it.
Cass rested, panting, with her palms atop the last barrel. “Let me understand. You load limestone, that you chop off this little cliff, into my hot tub back at camp. You add acid. The limestone dissolves into calcium chloride, carbon dioxide, and water, and leaves behind fossils the Last Chancers can make into jewelry?”
“Yep. With this work force and no infrastructure it has to be simple and cheap. If it works. Very possibly no acid concentration will dissolve the rock but leave behind marketable fossils. And it’s because the return on investment sucks, and because this island lacks supporting infrastructure, that the process has to be cheap and simple.’
“Even so, it won’t make much money.”
“Any money should improve the self-image and welfare of a population that survives by fishing and relies on charity health care delivered by boat.”
“You’re altruistic for a soldier.”
“Most soldiers are more altruistic than the ninety-nine percent who don’t serve think. I enlisted five percent because the year I got my doctorate I didn’t get one of the English speaking world’s eight available tenure-track invertebrate paleo jobs. Ninety-five percent because I wanted to offer the blessings of liberty to the world’s less fortunate.”
Cass pointed to Hunter’s left forearm. “The scar?”
“Some of the less fortunate declined the offer. A scratch compared to what others got. Long story.”
He tied on the last barrel then waded toward her. “Why do you chase historic airplanes?”
Cass shrugged. “I started because I liked airplanes. The better I got to know jerks who chase airplanes for the wrong reasons the more I wanted to beat them.”
Hunter rolled the last barrel into the blue shallows. “So when do we start?”
“Dusk. Billionaires who have chefs and wine cellars don’t work nights.”
A full moon had risen over the calm sea by the time Cass and Hunter had circumnavigated the island’s backside, away from the Kraken.
Hunter cut the engine and let the inflatable’s momentum carry its bow until it grounded on sand. The towed barrels drifted into a cluster at the boat’s stern and thunked together in the silent night. The Voodoo’s tail rested barely fifteen feet from the inflatable’s bow.
Cass whispered, “I swear the empennage was farther ashore this morning.”
Hunter said, “Tide’s in now.” He pointed at a translucent man o’ war float. “And it brought a few stray friends of yours from the channel. Watch your step.”
He hopped out into ankle deep water and pulled the barrels in, hand over hand, while Cass clambered over the bow onto the sand.
Hunter peered up and down the crashed Voodoo’s mostly intact fuselage and wings. “This has been here sixty years? It’s upside down. It’s broken. But it looks nearly new. If my grandfather’s Oldsmobile had been in this humidity for sixty years it would be a rust pile.”
“That’s because Oldsmobiles were steel. Steel oxidizes–rusts through-fast. Aircraft aluminum oxidizes on its surface, but the oxide layer protects the rest of the metal underneath.” Cass ran her hand across the left wing’s faded bars-and-roundel U.S. Air Force insignia. “But that doesn’t mean this thing’s indestructible. Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
Hunter grasped her elbow. “Wait. What about human remains? You’re the expert, but aren’t there rules about disturbing a site like this?”
“You’re right, I’m the expert. So trust me. There are no human remains at this site.”
An hour later Cass screwed Hunter’s hose to his hand pump then carried the assembly to one of his barrels. She pointed at one of the two bungs on the barrel’s round top and called, “Which one of these do I screw the pump into?”
Hunter returned from his boat wearing gloves and safety glasses.
He said. “Neither. Concentrated hydrochloric acid isn’t high school science. You’ve been burned enough chasing this wreck already. Just tell me which good bits you want to cut out and take home before we leave Silver the carcass.”
“Bits? Just hose it down nose to tail. Turn the whole wreck into mush.”
“What? I thought you were all about preserving historic aircraft.”
Cass kicked the acid drum beside her. “I am. But sometimes a person has to choose the lesser of two evils. Like you said.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ll explain later. Trust me?”
Hunter shook his head. “My problem’s not trust, Cass. In a high school science class dilute hydrochloric acid poured into a beaker turns aluminum foil into aluminum chloride mush plus free hydrogen. Yes, in theory concentrated HCl will do that even better. So you can cut away rivets and remove some choice sheet metal before Silver gets it. I thought that was your plan.”
“No! Silver can’t get any of this aircraft. But neither can the Smithsonian.”
Hunter kept shaking his head. “No matter how bad you want to, we can’t dissolve this airplane overnight. Too few gallons of acid. Too many tons of aluminum.”
Cass grabbed a rock and began pounding the wing. “Goddamit.”
Hunter grabbed her arm. “Stop!”
Hunter stared at the Voodoo, then at the drums of acid, then said, “When the Army wanted to make our equipment disappear, so the bad guys wouldn’t get it, we just blew it up.”
As the moon set Cass lay on her stomach alongside Hunter, fifty yards from the Voodoo. The now-empty acid drums lay alongside the fuselage, and hisses and rumbles echoed throughout the old jet’s belly and wings.
Cass said, “You really think this will work?”
“How the hell do I know? Twenty tons of aluminum plus one hundred sixty-five gallons of concentrated HCL will yield lots of free hydrogen. If parts of the fuselage are tight enough to contain the gas, this thing could go up like the Hindenburg.”
He stood, holding waterproof matches and a torch fashioned from brush.
Cass grabbed for his arm. “I should go, not you.”
Hunter pulled away, then ran toward the plane. “Cass, I got this.”
Cass watched as Hunter stopped five yards from the rumbling Voodoo, struck one match, swore as it flamed out, lit another then lit his makeshift torch with it.
He lobbed the torch underhand, then dashed backward ten paces.
Cass squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her teeth.
Hunter’s voice echoed across the night. “Well . . . shit!”
Cass opened her eyes. Atop the fuselage Hunter’s improvised torch lay burning without effect.
He took two steps toward the Voodoo.
Cass shouted. “Hunter! No!”
The blast began as a yellow flash, bloomed orange as the Voodoo creaked, then seemed to swell, then exploded.
Silhouetted against the fireball Hunter tumbled feet over head through the air, surrounded by flying debris.
The explosion’s roar and heat rolled across her a heartbeat later.
Then she lay flat on her back, blinking up at the night sky. Her ears rang but still she heard muffled rattles as aluminum bits rained into the brush all around her.
She stood and screamed, “Hunter!”
She limped toward the Voodoo, but it was gone. Simply gone. Here and there, a bush burned.
“Hunter!” Again nothing.
He was simply gone too. She felt tears start.
Then she saw an object in the shallows, ran, then splashed, until she reached it.
The sea lapped around him, only six inches deep. Steve Hunter lay on his back, still and serene.
As she touched his cheek she sobbed.
He opened his eyes. “Cass? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Thank God. How bad—”
“I’m fine.” He frowned, then clenched his teeth and hissed, “Except I think I’m sitting on a man o’ war. Jeez that stings. What about the plane?”
“It’s as gone as if it sank five miles deep in the Cayman Trench sixty years ago.” She grasped his elbow as she looked toward his boat, which drifted intact ten feet from them. “Come on. We need to get back to your place fast.”
“Before Silver retaliates?”
Cass shook her head as she helped Hunter to his feet. “No. He’s a jerk, but a nonviolent jerk. We need to get back because it’s my turn to get you naked in a hot tub.”
The next morning Cass sat drinking coffee with Hunter on Billy’s porch.
Out at sea Silver’s helicopter lifted from the Kraken, landed again in the road, and Silver stalked to their table. “Gooding, how did you remove that airplane?”
Cass turned her palms up. “Airplane?”
“One of my drones spotted airplane wreckage yesterday afternoon. This morning it’s gone.”
“Maybe you need better drones.” Cass looked out at Silver’s ship. “Long trip for nothing, huh, Silver? This time the house lost.”
Silver turned on his heel, reboarded his helicopter, and left.
Hunter said, “I understand you wanted to stick it to Silver. But destroying that plane destroyed history.”
“No. The history is still there. I just haven’t had a chance to tell you all of it yet.”
“I told you that in 1962 the Russians agreed to remove forty-eight ballistic missiles, and their nuclear warheads. And they did.”
“But at a Cuban Missile Crisis Conference in Havana in 1992, a Russian general revealed that the Soviets had kept a hundred shorter range tactical nuclear rockets and cruise missiles in Cuba. Those could have destroyed the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay and maybe reached targets in South Florida.
“Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the crisis, attended that conference. When he heard about the tactical nukes witnesses say he almost fainted. Because McNamara realized that if U.S. hard liners in 1962 had learned that the Soviets had misled us, and kept nuclear weapons in Cuba, it would have pushed us into war. In December 1962 the Russians decided Castro was too nuts to have nukes in his backyard so they secretly pulled out their tactical nukes. But by December 1962 the war would have already started.”
“So you think this Voodoo photographed those nukes? And if its pictures had made it back to the U.S. World War III would have started?”
Cass tugged from her pocket the misshapen steel cylinder that she had pried loose from the Voodoo and displayed it between her thumb and forefinger. “Those undisclosed nuclear warheads and launchers would have been aggressively defended by anti-aircraft guns like the one that fired this 23 mm slug. I dug it out of the Voodoo’s belly yesterday.”
“A random plane crash saved the world?”
“Saved the world? Probably. Random? No way.”
Millicent came to their table with two plates. She eyed Cass’s discolored face and arms, then snorted. “Next time someone tells you where not to swim, listen.” She set the plates on the table.
Hunter asked Millicent, “What’s this?”
As Millicent turned away she said, “Banana bread. We always celebrate election day with banana bread.”
“Election day?” Cass looked around. Billy’s was more crowded than the day before, and more island residents approached from both ends of the road.
Hunter tapped Cass’s forearm. “What do you mean the Voodoo crash wasn’t random?”
Cass said, “One particular RF-101 pilot’s records end abruptly the same day the Voodoo’s records end.”
“Obviously. The plane didn’t fly itself.”
“But he was no ordinary pilot. He shot down five MIGs in Korea and his Air Command and Staff College classmates voted him most likely to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But his thesis at the College advocated for troops in the field to exercise initiative, even if that meant disobeying lawful orders.”
Hunter frowned. “That sounds like a career bender.”
“Yep. The higher up the ladder an officer climbs the more the ultimate primacy of civilian authority and the unbreakability of the chain of command becomes. That principle separates the U.S. military from banana republics where coup d’états are routine. Disobedience to that principle is what almost escalated the Cuban Missile Crisis to nuclear war, when that Soviet field commander shot down that U-2.
“But that pilot’s maverick thesis was only the beginning. He skated along the edge of taking too much initiative until he got busted from full colonel headed for his first star to a major lucky to still be flying recon jets. Depression, alcohol, and an ugly divorce followed.”
“Cass, that doesn’t mean he deserted and crashed to hide those pictures. He wouldn’t have known what he flew over.”
“I think he knew. Most of his career was spent in air recon. Soviet shockproof nuclear warhead storage bunkers were distinctive to sophisticated observers like him. So were the launch vehicles that carried those FROG 7 and Salish nuclear-capable tactical rockets. Recognizing evidence of clandestine nukes, then deciding on his own to bury that evidence was totally his style.”
“Or . . . the plane was damaged and just crashed here.”
“On the only speck of land in the central Caribbean south of Cuba? No. When I crawled under the wreck yesterday I saw that the Voodoo’s ejection seat and canopy were gone. And the cameras had been removed from the nose.
“My hypothesis is that he realized what he had photographed, recognized the consequences of revealing what he had seen, flew to the nearest, most isolated land he could reach, then ejected. When he realized his plane hadn’t exploded, or sunk, he returned to the wreck and destroyed the cameras that held the evidence that could have started a nuclear war and end human civilization. Then, realizing he was a deserter, he vanished.”
“Sensational story. Why destroy the plane that could prove it?”
“Precisely because whether the Smithsonian or Silver wound up with the wreck the story would be too sensational to hide. Pilot goes AWOL. Risks nuclear war by hiding evidence from his superiors then vanishes. The U.S. would be forced to make an example of him.”
“Even though his misconduct probably prevented nuclear war?”
“Especially because what he did probably prevented nuclear war. That would reinforce others’ belief that they really did know better than the chain of command, better than the civilian representatives of the people who they were sworn to protect.”
“Cass, it happened sixty years ago. The statute of limitations—”
“Can be circumvented when the military wants to make an example about a crime like desertion. In 2017 the Air Force arrested a private who went AWOL in 1977. And that guy didn’t desert in the face of the enemy. He just didn’t want to be stationed in South Dakota. Even if this pilot got off, it would take years to resolve.”
“But Cass, this pilot’s not around to be made an example of.”
In the distance Cedric’s pickup approached, its horn blaring.
The truck stopped in front of Cass and Hunter as Millicent returned and refilled their coffee cups. Last Chance Key’s residents, white, black, brown, and yellow surrounded the truck chanting and waving. In the pickup’s bed an old white man sat in a kitchen chair, upholstered in purple fabric. A swatch of the fabric hung on his stooped shoulders like a robe. Smiling, he waved a toilet plunger at the crowd like a scepter.
Hunter turned to Millicent. “Election day?”
The old woman smiled. “It’s really just a party. Once a year we all assemble and thank Billy for the chances he gave all of us by unanimously reelecting him king.”
The old man climbed down from the pickup.
Hunter stared at him. “Cass, this old guy?”
Cass shrugged. “The pilot’s divorce got ugly because he was accused of hiding assets. Assets hidden in a Cayman Islands bank account for a bad reason might later be used for a good reason, when it came time to finance a desalination plant. The pilot’s name was John William Myers. But everybody called him Billy. You do the math.”
Hunter nodded. “You’re saying that someone who made a lot of mistakes, but spent the rest of his life giving others like him a last chance—”
Cass nodded. “Deserves a last chance too.”
Cassidy Gooding is also a main character in Robert Buettner’s latest novel My Enemy’s Enemy, which is out in June. Buettner has been general counsel of a unit of one of the United States’ largest private multinational companies, served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, prospected for minerals in Alaska and the Sonoran Desert, and was a National Science Foundation Fellow in paleontology. A Quill Award nominee for Best New Writer of 2005, his best-selling debut novel, Orphanage, was a Quill nominee for Best SF/Fantasy/Horror novel of 2004 and has been called a classic of modern military science fiction. He lives in Georgia with his family and more bicycles than a grownup needs.