“Ignorance really IS bliss,” Cal thought, staring into the late-day Floridian sun across Royal Harbor. He still had plenty of questions, of course, but knowing their answers carried a far higher price than he was willing to pay. Knowledge, at least in this business, meant death. Ask little, know little, and appear wholly disinterested in everything but your own small part of things. After three years of close calls and stressful dealings, he was convinced this was the only thing that kept him afloat. Any further ambition or curiosity would be an affront, he would be killed, and another, less inquisitive employee would soon take his place. Such was the nature of drug running.
Despite a strong Coast Guard presence and waves of inspections, ports remained the most laughably porous means of entry into the United States. There were simply too many craft, both large and small, and barring the impossibility of inspecting every inch, crate, and “sea can” for illegal cargo, there was no way to ensure that everything entering the country was legitimate. The confusion, shipping volume, and unlikelihood of his conduct all worked in Cal’s favor. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, including his wife and other immediate family, he was a captain of a tuna trawler, not a smuggler. In fact, he really WAS a fisher, but he just happened to make twelve times that much with some added side business – albeit one that might kill him.
It was all about appearances, really, and supply and demand. With land routes increasingly dangerous and unreliable and air travel monitored ruthlessly, cartels were shifting to maritime transportation – with great success. Yes, high-dollar cargo was still lost on a regular basis, but that usually only happened when the runners grew careless, greedy, and cut corners. Cal’s personal motto was that it had nothing to do with volume, however, and everything with being around to complete another pickup. Then he’d leave, though the details of how, where, and when remained ethereal. That, he feared, would be the hardest part.
How they found him was also a mystery, but one which he knew better than to inquire about. It made no difference. When the overweight, middle-aged man started chatting about fishing with him in a bar more than three years ago, he had assumed that he was another trawler captain, or preparing to boast about his fleet of craft to Cal’s relatively small lone one. But that never happened. As they shot pool and tried to hear each other over the jukebox playing “I Love This Bar” for the fifth time that night, the Jim, as he had introduced himself, had abruptly stopped being jovial and bluntly asked him, “have you ever considered side work?”
“You mean like chartering?”
“Yes.” Cal started laughing at that.
“What’s the point? Nobody’s going to fish off the side of a trawler. They want the seats, rods and yachts, not nets and actually working. I have to PAY people to pick nets, not them pay me.”
The fat man managed a toothy fake smile and continued. “I was referring to chartering for cargo.”
Immediately assuming he was being baited by a federal agent, he answered with a strong decline. “I’ve been doing this since I got out of college. It’s taken me fifteen years to get my own boat, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that.” It was not a world he wanted any part of. The money would certainly surpass the meager earnings of a lone tuna craft, but no. The risks were too great. Besides, it was illegal, highly so.
“Think about it, alright?” Jim gave him a card, set a bill on the edge of the pool table for the drinks and the game, and wandered off singing along with Toby Keith. Quietly taking the money and the card, Cal knocked the remainder of the balls into the pockets, and went home. He mentioned none of the conversation to his wife; she’d just panic that they were being spied on and launch into another tirade about him going to seedy bars.
But the conversation weighed heavily on him, not so much because he was worried about being arrested (he’d firmly declined after all), but because an extra income WOULD be nice, and he wouldn’t be still piloting a boat at 65, but living lavishly, and anonymously, at a much younger age. Even still, he dismissed it. He was an honest man, and if you didn’t have that these days, you didn’t have much of anything. He was a loyal husband (rare enough for men who spent time on the water), and an honest businessman. The answer was no. But he kept the Jim’s card anyway. “James Wells, Real Estate Sgent.” Aside from this, it had a number and nothing else. He put it in his wallet and attempted to forget about it. He’d try a nicer bar next time. Maybe his wife was right. That place WAS a dive.
Several weeks later, out in a restaurant with his wife for their twelfth anniversary, he thought he spotted Jim again, or at least his back, sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender. “Screw it,” he thought. “Let’s see if he remembers me.” He excused himself briefly, telling her he’d spotted a friend at the bar.
“You still looking for more charter captains?”
“Yes. You thought about it?” It suddenly occurred to Cal that Jim appeared to have been expecting him to come over.
“I’d like to learn more about it, if that answers your question.”
“Call me tomorrow and we’ll grab dinner sometime. You still have my card?” He started digging in his pocket.
“Great. I’ll talk to you then, I suppose.” Finishing his drink, he broke into his toothy grin and wandered off to the bathroom.
Finishing his dinner without much interest, Cal left with his wife. Jim, it would seem, never reemerged from the bathroom. When he called the next day, they agreed to meet that evening.
“So what exactly is it that I’m transporting?” Cal slowly asked.
“Some stuff. That’s really not important now.”
“If I’m carrying it on my boat, it’s important right now.”
“No, it’s not. I think we both know what it is already, so I’m not going to bother to articulate it.” Jim ate quickly, hardly bothering to chew his food. Cal, on the other hand, just picked at his plate and wondered why he’d agreed to this meeting. Any moment he figured he would be arrested. As if reading his mind, Jim swallowed an enormous, unchewed mouthful and filled him in.
“I already know you’ve been captain of your boat, the “Carlita” for a year now. That’s public record. I also know you HAVE no criminal record, which is not exactly public record, but I know it anyway. Additionally, you are married, have a modest income, live in the suburbs, and are by most counts white, middle class, and boring.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Cal shot back.
“It means nobody is looking. You don’t fit the profile, my friend, and as such don’t attract any attention. I’ve seen the way the inspector greets you dockside. He shakes your hand, you bullshit for a few minutes, and then he walks away. He never even sets foot on your boat. He trusts you.”
“So you’ve been spying on me?”
Jim snorted. “I took a walk one day and observed this transaction. So sue me. Want my lawyer’s number? He’s a real shark, if you’re interested. Anyway, you have a good reputation with these guys. And there’s no reason that this won’t continue. The only difference is that you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.”
“How much are you offering me for the transfer of this unknown cargo?”
“$25,000 up front, and $75,000 more on delivery.” Damnation that was a lot of money. He tried not to look visibly more interested.
“Delivery to you?”
“No, actually. To the car that will be parked next to yours in the parking lot.”
“Because nobody will be looking.”
“Oh. Where am I picking UP the cargo?”
“In the gulf, specifically at coordinates that are quite near to where you’ll be fishing anyway.”
“How do you know where I’m fishing?”
“Cal, my good friend, hundreds of boats launch from Royal Harbor, and most of the trawlers in your class go to a specific area, or at least work a specific stretch. You just happen to pass through where the coordinates are, pick up, and keep on fishing.”
“And where the hell am I supposed to put this stuff? The freezer?”
“Actually, yes. It will all be watertight. And, it’ll get buried with tuna the next time you pull in your nets.”
“I see. And is this a one-time event?”
“It’s always a one-time event, until you’re proven to be reliable, then it’s one more time, and so on. So long as you don’t get stupid, you’ll get rich. Most people get stupid, as you can see every time you turn on the news or read the papers.”
“And what if I decline at this point?”
“I don’t think you’ll see me again, and the number, should you try to call it, will be disconnected. But, you’re not going to decline, though.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you know that turning this down would be turning down free money.”
“Well, you’re correct. I’ll do it. When is the first transfer?”
“I’ll call you. But first, let’s discuss some of the details – the ones you need to know.”
To Be Continued…
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved