She knew dogs and I knew boats, so we were an ideal team. On paper, at any rate. In reality, we started arguing while still loading the empty cages into the runabout.
“You’d kill two living creatures to save one human being?” the girl demanded— as though I’d suggested fricasseeing babies. “I can’t believe you really buy into that sort of speciesist bigotry.”
“Well, I do,” I answered. “That’s me in a nutshell. A speciesist bigot.”
The question she’d posed was: If we were on an overloaded vessel with two people and two dogs, who should be jettisoned first? It’s a pointless debate. When a boat risks sinking, nobody has time to quibble about ethics. But she was gorgeous, and I was trying to be a good sport, so I’d replied honestly.
“If you didn’t want to hear my answer,” I added, “Why’d you ask?”
The girl grimaced. “The moral dilemma is whether one of the dogs has to go overboard first, because she weighs less—or whether the dogs and humans should draw straws. But what you’re saying is that even if we’re certain we’ll have to cast off exactly a human’s worth of bodyweight, we should still sacrifice both dogs. Two lives instead of one. I can’t believe anyone thinks that way in the twenty-first century.”
I hoisted the last empty cage into the bow. The summer sun was peeking over the mangroves, promising a scorcher.
“I consider myself rather enlightened,” I observed. “In some places, might I remind you, dogs are a delicacy.” I unhooked the mooring line from the bollard and wrapped it around the cleats on the gunwale. “Now may I ask a question of my own?”
The girl looked up at me with distrust, her face a white sail beneath her bright orange mane. “What?”
“How exactly does a dog draw straws?” I asked. She rolled her eyes. “Fuck off,” she said.
We’d been paired together by the sheriff’s office. When the National Guard helicopters plucked folks off rooftops—the numbskulls who’d ignored days of mandatory evacuation orders—they didn’t have space for large house pets. Nothing bigger than a bicycle basket. Instead, the Guard officers marked the roofs over abandoned animals with a splash of pink chalk. Dumb idea, if you ask me: one downpour could have washed away the markings. Of course, nobody did ask me—and fortunately, we’d had two dry days behind the hurricane. But the dam was going to be out above Pelican City indefinitely, which meant Sucram’s Grove was going to remain underwater indefinitely, so they’d called in the harbor service to begin retrieving dogs.
Hager County—I’m proud to say—has the only all-volunteer harbor services in Florida. Fifteen of us, total. I’ve been patrolling the coastal inlets nine years, and I’m still more or less a newcomer. Scallop Sally has been on the job since the Kennedy Administration. She even remembers when they built the causeway out to Cormorant Key. We each work a handful of shifts a week. In my other life, I teach marine biology and field ecology at the community college.
Anyway, as I was saying, the sheriff’s office paired each of us with a rescuer from the ASPCA. I’d hit the jackpot where my partner was concerned, at least in the looks department. Stacy Lorimer was a first-year veterinary student at FSU, but she had the taut body of a professional athlete. It didn’t hurt that redheads have always been my Achilles’ heel—my ex-wife is People’s Exhibit A in that department—and curls didn’t come any redder or fuller than Stacy’s.
The entire bay between Glade Estates and Sucram’s Grove is technically a no wake zone—part of a laudable effort to conserve manatees—but the rule smacked me as ludicrous with the entire coast inundated to a depth of twenty feet, so I opened the throttle on the runabout. We cruised through the murky water, intermittently swerving to avoid flotsam. Shellfish traps. Dislodged buoys. Lots of plywood. In movies, floodwaters always team with toaster ovens and tea sets, but most remnants of civilization actually sink rather quickly.
As we sliced across what had until recently been Cormorant Bay, but was now a swath of sea indistinguishable from its surroundings, we passed an enormous, tattered white blanket. Closer up, I realized the blanket was a carpet of golf balls. Literally thousands of them. The country club to which they’d once belonged had gone the way of Atlantis. In the distance, the towers of Cormorant Key’s causeway rose from the depths like the joists of a ramshackle pier. Overhead, herring gulls circled. The birds bawled raucously. They appeared disoriented.
My companion relaxed in the bow, her back against the parapet of plastic cages that formed our makeshift kennel. She ignored me. To add to my torment, she started lathering sun lotion along her pale, muscular calves.
Once we’d been on the water about twenty minutes, I unlocked the cooler and offered her a Diet Coke.
“Can we agree to disagree?” I hazarded. “I don’t plan on jettisoning any dogs— or people—in the near future.”
The girl yielded a grudging smile. “I give you credit,” she said. “At least you’re not afraid to argue with me. Lots of guys are afraid of me.”
“Who says I’m not afraid of you?” I retrieved a second Diet Coke for myself. “I’m quaking in my boots.”
“Bullshit,” said Stacy. She braced the can of pop between her knees and stretched her arms above her head. “By the way, where exactly are we?”
“The Gulf of Mexico.” If she didn’t want me to be intimidated, I wouldn’t let on that I was intimidated.
“Say, you have a boyfriend?”
Don’t get the wrong impression: I’m usually not so forward. In fact, I’m shy with women. But I guess something in the girl’s attitude provoked me to false courage. Or maybe it was that we were trapped on the runabout, that she couldn’t simply flee.
Stacy ignored my question. “Where in the Gulf of Mexico are we?”
“Was that a yes or a no?” I persisted.
“That was a ‘whether I have a boyfriend or not is irrelevant to this conversation
and to our assignment,” she answered, but she was grinning. “So are you going to tell me where we are…or am I being kidnapped?”
I checked the GPS and the depth chart.
“Believe it or not,” I replied, shocked myself at our coordinates, “You’re crossing the runway of the Cormorant Key airstrip.”
The entire island, it appeared, had submerged.
I shifted the rudder eastward and slowed the engine, afraid a hidden treetop might disembowel the runabout. Soon enough, the mansions of Sucram’s Grove approached us—their upper stories levitating above the current. A sturgeon leaped from the surf only yards off the portside prow, then vanished beneath the sea. I plugged our first destination into the GPS and followed its guidance. We wove between the tufts of coconut palms toward the second floor of a colonial-style dwelling. Sure enough, a scar of pink chalk stained the corrugated roof. The storm had peeled away a jagged portion of the metal rooftop—exposing one corner of the structure to the elements.
I moored us to the frame of a dormer window.
“Bandit,” Stacey read off a clipboard. “Siberian husky. Age five.”
I radioed our location to the sheriff’s command center. Then I hacked a path through the window and window frame with the poll of my axe.
“I’ve done my part, Miss Lorimer,” I declared. “Now you do yours.”
Stacy recovered Bandit in a matter of minutes, but the majority of the animals
proved far more elusive. Of our first seven targets, only two others—a brindled St. Bernard and a mahogany Rottweiler mutt—made it onto the runabout. Three dogs couldn’t be located. I accompanied my partner through upper story windows in search for the missing creatures, but to no avail. Either the beasts had escaped or they had drowned. The last animal, an elderly retriever named Max, lay dead on his master’s bed. But steadily, as the sun glowered toward its zenith, we filled our cages. Stacy displayed considerable finesse with the tranquilizer gun—far more precision than I could possibly have mustered with the .44 Magnum that I carried on my belt.
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” I said after she’d taken down a pair canines in rapid succession across a stuffy, poorly lit parlor. “You’re good at this.”
“I know” she shot back. “You sound surprised.”
“Jesus. I was paying you a compliment.”
She eyed me warily. “In that case,” she said, “I ought to say thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I answered. “Just don’t let it go to your head.”
We’d drawn abreast of one of the high-rise condominiums the hug the Sucram’s Grove waterfront. The Blue Flamingo. Eight stories. When my ex-wife left me two years ago, she relocated to a nearly identical complex in Belleau Gardens—moved in with a fifty-four year old abdominal surgeon. The bastard had taken out my mother-in-law’s gallbladder, for Christ’s sake. But even without this personal baggage, I’d never been a fan of these outsized developments.
I counted windows: Only five of the floors remained above the waterline. Fortunately, the entire front façade of the structure had been fashioned from tinted glass, so it was easy enough to clear an entryway.
“I’ve got a dachshund in 2A and another Doberman in 6G,” said Stacy.
I replaced the batteries in the flashlight and passed it back to her. “I’d recommend against visiting 2A.”
“6G,” my partner announced. “Here I come.”
She clambered from the runabout into the third floor corridor and disappeared through the door to a nearby stairwell. I updated the sheriff’s office regarding our status and hunkered down with a fishing magazine.
Several of the canines had shaken off their tranquilizers and barked furiously. A trio of military helicopters hovered in the distance; later, a speedboat darted past and the pilot honked a greeting on his air horn. He had no business in the area, which had been quarantined to prevent looting, but that wasn’t my problem. Not today. After forty-five minutes—more to escape the yapping of the dogs than from genuine concern—I gave up on waiting and followed Stacy into the apartment complex.
None of our earlier endeavors had prepared me for the intense, toxic odor of the unventilated high rise—a brew of swamp and raw sewage. Only two days had elapsed since the storm, but the walls of the stairwell already sprouted mold. My flashlight provided a poor antidote to the darkness. I focused on breathing through my mouth; this didn’t help much. On the sixth story, I gripped an earthenware pot containing a dieffenbachia and I vomited copiously. Then I wiped my mouth with a leaf.
Almost all of the doors on the sixth floor had been propped ajar, just as the occupants had been instructed to leave them. At least, the numbskulls got that right. You shut doors for fires, open them for floods—to prevent surges in hydraulic pressure. Apartment 6G stood at the far end of the passageway, opposite the chute to the trash compacter. I entered cautiously. The windows in the living room caught the late morning sun and rendered my flashlight superfluous.
I did not find my partner in that main room, or in the kitchen, or in what appeared to be a painting studio, a chamber furnished with only one three-legged stool and an easel. I heard no barking. The calm struck me as disquieting, so I didn’t call out Stacy’s name. On guard, I advanced toward the sleeping quarters.
The waist-to-ceiling glass in the master bedroom afforded an expansive view of the coast as far north as Port Isabel. Sunlight streamed between gauze curtains, bathing the room in a pale pink glow. And there stood Stacy before the rosewood bureau, examining herself in the mirror. My partner held a pair of dazzling silver-and-gemstone earrings to her earlobes.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” I said.
The girl’s shoulder’s jerked. “You scared the shit out of me.”
She thrust the earrings into a jewelry box on the dresser.
“I couldn’t find the Doberman,” she stammered. “I got distracted….”
“I’m sure you did,” I replied. “Don’t stop playing dress up on my account.”
The girl’s expression tightened. “I wasn’t….”
“It’s okay. They look good on you.”
Stacy slammed shut the jewelry box. “Whatever,” she snapped. “Let’s get away
from here before I pass out.”
She retreated as far as the cusp of the passageway, where a pantry opened onto the foyer, then stopped abruptly and inched her way back into the room. At the far end of the corridor stood a colossal raccoon. Sunlight glinted off his onyx eyes. Foam spumed between his perilous jaws. The creature staggered forward—two steps—as though drunk. I’d never seen a mad animal before, but I instantly sensed this beast suffered far more than dehydration.
“Shoot it,” ordered Stacy—her soft voice as authoritative as a scream.
“Are you sure?”
“Shoot it, dammit,” she commanded again. “Now!”
I drew my weapon and glanced toward her for reassurance. Every muscle in her tense face urged me to immediate action. And suddenly, as my shoulder jolted from the recoil, a series of angry pops ricocheted through the apartment—like bottles of warm champagne uncorking—and the raccoon collapsed onto its side. For several seconds, we both stared at the dead animal in mute shock. My entire body was shaking.
“Nice job,” Stacy finally said. “You’re good at this.”
That broke the tension. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said.
The girl approached the raccoon’s corpse, prodded it with her boot. “Keep alert for bats,” she cautioned. “Rabies doesn’t come from nowhere.”
“I didn’t think you believed in killing animals,” I ventured.
The girl shook her head. “I’m opposed to speciesism,” she said—with no hint of
irony. “That doesn’t mean I’m a martyr.”
“I see,” I said. Frankly, I didn’t.
My partner stepped around the raccoon’s remains and I trailed her out of the apartment. In the corridor, we switched places, and I led the way with the flashlight. “So now will you tell me if you have a boyfriend?” I asked.
“Maybe you have a boyfriend?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you,” she said, laughing. “Maybe not.”
Our encounter with the mad raccoon left me on edge, but Stacy actually seemed more at ease after the shooting. She told me about her ongoing conflict with her parents, how she’d transferred from medical school to veterinary school over their objections. “I’ve got nothing against people,” she elaborated. “Okay, that’s not exactly true. I have lots of problems with human beings, but that’s not why I quit med school. It’s just that I love working with animals in the clinic…and I never felt that way in the hospital.” Since her parents were refusing to pay to educate a vet, she’d had to work fulltime as a cocktail waitress in Tallahassee—on top of her school schedule—to pay for tuition. While the girl spoke, she served beef kibble to our boisterous menagerie. She’d perspired straight through her cotton top.
I discovered that Stacy’s family, like mine, had settled in Hager County long before the influx of snowbirds. Her great-grandfather had been the official state naturalist in the 1920s. Her father practiced dentistry in Fort Francis. Except for my time at Yale, and a brief summer gig in Alaska, I’d lived in jogging distance of Port Isabel my entire life. I also learned that her mother’s baby sister had been murdered by the Red Ribbon Stranger in the 1960s, that this tragedy had colored every aspect of Stacy’s childhood. I still didn’t know for sure that she was single.
We tied up for lunch outside a residence on Nautilus Avenue where the owners had abandoned three mastiffs puppies. They’d also freed their bright-green military macaw, but the creature remained perched atop a window gable. Stacy made an admirable attempt to retrieve the bird. She even considered a tranquilizer dart, before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk.
Our next stop was a bungalow inside a gated retirement community, yet when we arrived, we found another harbor patrol officer and his ASPCA partner already on the scene. Some idiot had included the same address on both our lists. But the encounter proved educational: I found out how lucky I was that I’d been paired with Stacy Lorimer, and not Chet Picardo’s assistant, a grizzled fifty-something battleaxe as burly as an ox who criticized his every blink. We traded Chet a pair of cheese sandwiches for a bag of pretzels, then left him to his misery.
“That was easy enough,” declared my partner. “Only nine addresses to go.”
I was starting to feel more confident about my prospects with Stacy. I even dropped my ex-wife’s name into the conversation—letting the girl know that I was only thirty-three, and unattached. My mind had already advanced to the practical aspects of romance, such as where I might take her for dinner, when Stacy climbed onto the runabout with her bare arms full of fur. Ten flawlessly round eyes gazed up at me.
“What on earth are those?”
“Opossums,” Stacy replied, matter-of-fact. “Cubs. Aren’t they adorable?”
To me, they looked like obese guinea pigs. I watched in alarm as she set them
down on the aluminum floor of the runabout. It dawned on me that my partner actually planned to keep these creatures.
“I do hope you realize we can’t bring those back with us.”
She appeared genuinely surprised. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to get fired,” I answered. “What if those things carry
disease and someone’s dog gets infected? Or if they turn out to be an endangered subspecies that we’ve plucked from its habitat? No way. I have strict orders from the sheriff’s department: Domesticated animals only.”
“You can’t mean that,” cried Stacy. “They’ll die.”
I felt like a jerk. Truly, I did. But two years ago, Alan Steinhoff helped a pair of fisherman bring in a wounded dolphin for first aid—and he got suspended six months on charges of “interfering with protected wilderness.” So I’m not taking risks. Certainly not for glorified hamsters. “I do mean that,” I said. “I’m sorry. But there’s a good chance they’ll send a television crew to cover our return, and the last thing I need is some angry pet owner asking why we couldn’t find his schnauzer, but we managed to pick up a sack full of rodents.”
“They’re not rodents,” retorted Stacy. “They’re marsupials.”
She had pushed the wrong button. “I’m well aware of that,” I said in my driest tone. “The Virginia opossum. Didelphis virginiana. Order: Didelphimorphia. Family: Didelphidae. I know an awful lot about opossums, since you ask. Including one more thing than you do. Do you want to know what that is?”
“That they’re not welcome on our boat.”
Her nostrils flared. “Says who?”
“Says me. Your captain. I hate to pull rank, but I am in charge here, and as much as I genuinely like you, I like working for the harbor patrol more.”
The words sounded more domineering than I’d intended. Stacey sat with her arms folded across her heaving chest and glared at me. The sun-black beneath her eyes menaced like war paint. “Why can’t we hide them? Nobody will ever know.”
“And get caught smuggling? Because they would catch us,” I said. “Look, I have no choice in the matter. Please don’t make me out to be the bad guy here. I’m all for breaking rules, when you can away with it, but trust me on this one: My boss will go through the ceiling if we bring those things back.” I sensed my explanation wasn’t gaining traction, so I added, “Maybe they’ll do okay on their own.”
“They’re going to die out here. Of starvation. Or dehydration. Or some predator will carve them up before that—if they’re lucky. I wish I had more nerve, so I could drown them right now to save them from the torment.”
“We could leave them some food and water,” I offered.
“Fuck that. We could leave you some food and water.”
Stacy stood up abruptly. “They’re not things, by the way. They’re very much alive.” She scooped up the first cub and pushed it back through the broken window, into the dark interior of the decaying house. “And you’re a total asshole.”
Any camaraderie between us was lost after that. We navigated from house to house, rescuing animals—and Stacy uttered not one syllable more that was absolutely essential to complete our mission. At one point, I even suggested cutting short the workday, that I’d return on my own the next morning to pick up the final few dogs. She didn’t acknowledge my offer. Never—not even in the bitterest days of my divorce saga—had I ever been the object of such hostility. I started second-guessing myself: Was my refusal so unforgivable? Had I gone too far with all that bullshit about pulling rank? I regretted the way I’d handled things, although not the underlying decision to abandon the opossums. What I regretted most of all was that Stacy had found the damn creatures in the first place. How many relationships—how many potentially happy marriages—got slaughtered at birth by a dash of bad luck?
By the time we’d crossed the final missing pet off the list, a Bernese mountain dog with a broken paw encased in a soiled fiberglass cast, the sun was already dipping toward the mangroves. Even our live cargo had been silenced by that relentless combination of heat and exhaustion. In the cloudless sky, a lone turkey buzzard glided in ominous circles.
“All done,” I announced—recording the final animal’s capture in the log. “Fourteen out of twenty-seven. Not bad for a day’s work.”
Stacy wore a stark frown. “We can still go back for the possum cubs,” she suggested. “It’s not too late. If we’re lucky.”
“We’re returning to port,” I answered.
She turned away. “I don’t know how you live with yourself.”
I drew the rudder starboard and the runabout circled toward land. I recognized that one more unpleasant task still lay ahead of me before the journey was done—but I despised myself for having to do it. For the first time in years, since I’d quit in my twenties, I found myself craving a cigarette.
“I have to ask you to do one more thing,” I said. “I’m sorry about this too.” Her gaze locked on mine, but she didn’t speak.
“Please empty your pockets.”
The poor girl looked as though I’d stabbed her. “What the fuck?”
“It’s nothing personal,” I said. “Just do it.”
Now her expression grew as ferocious as the rabid raccoon’s, but I also detected a hint of fear in her eyes. “Not in ten million years.”
I stood up and crossed the deck.
“You touch me,” she threatened, “I’ll have your ass in jail for rape.”
The smart choice would have been to wait until we reached port—to have a female officer search her in the presence of witnesses. But I genuinely liked the girl— enough to venture a senseless risk. Besides, I felt awful about the opossums.
The entire maneuver took under a second: I wrapped one hand around her waist and thrust the other into her shorts, turning the pocket inside out and grasping its contents all in one violent motion. The girl screamed. A smattering of rings and chains clattered to the floor of the runabout. Also a billfold of hundred dollar bills.
I showed her what remained in my palm: ruby earrings, pearls, a gold watch attached to a chain. She flashed me a look of sheer hatred. I deposited the booty on the lid of the cooler and waited for her to speak.
“Okay, now what?” she asked. “Are you going to turn me in?”
“Don’t be stupid. But I am going to make us take those back. I do hope you know what came from where,” I explained. “Don’t you think people would notice when they came home and their valuables were missing? And that the only people with missing valuables were the ones who’d left behind dogs?” I sat down opposite the girl on a wooden storage crate, our bodies only inches apart. I let the runabout drift aimlessly on the tide. “You’re just lucky the sheriff’s dispatcher is an old buddy of mine. I’ll tell him I accidentally left behind my lucky rabbit’s foot. He’ll know that I’m up to something— but he’s not going to ask any questions.”
“I guess I’m supposed to thank you now.” Stacy didn’t look the slightest bit appreciative. “For keeping me out of jail.”
“No need,” I answered. “But what you can do is come by my apartment tomorrow morning at three am….”
“Like hell I will.”
“Three o’clock, sharp,” I continued. “That’s what time I’m going to have to leave to pick up those damn rodents of yours. If I get out and back before dawn, I might just not get noticed.”
She looked puzzled at first, then doubtful. “For real?”
“For real,” I answered. “I like my job with the harbor patrol…but I honestly think I might like you more. Good enough?”
“Maybe,” she said.
Her face was close to mine now—her lips chapped yet perfect. “That’s all I get. Maybe?”
“It’s better than maybe not, isn’t it?” she asked.
I admitted that it was. A lot better.
“Three o’clock, sharp,” she agreed. “Good enough.”
Then she leaned forward and we sealed the bargain.