It is one of the sorry human habits to play the game of: What was I doing when it happened?
After I heard that Helena Pearson had died on Thursday, the third day of October, I had no trouble reconstructing the immediate past.
That Thursday had been the fourth and ﬁnal day of a legitimate little job of marine salvage. Meyer made a lot of small jokes about Travis McGee, salvage expert, actually doing some straight-arrow salvage. He kept saying it almost made my cover story believable. But he did not say such things for any ears but mine own.
Actually it was not my ball game. Meyer gets himself involved in strange little projects. Somewhere, somehow he had gotten interested in the ideas of a refugee Cuban chemist named Joe Palacio. So he had talked a mutual friend of ours, Bobby Guthrie, a damned good man with pumps and pressures and hydraulics, into listening to Joe’s ideas and going to Joe’s rooming house in Miami where Joe had set up a miniaturized demonstration in an old bathtub he had scrounged somewhere.
When Bobby got high enough on the idea to quit his regular job, Meyer put in the money and they formed a little partnership and named it Floatation Associates.
Then Meyer, in one of his mother hen moods, sweet-talked me into donating my services, plus my houseboat, The Busted Flush, plus my swift little Muñequita boat to the ﬁrst actual salvage operation. So I had to take the Flush down to a Miami yard where they winched aboard a big ugly diesel pump with special attachments rigged by Bobby Guthrie, some great lengths of what appeared to be reinforced ﬁre hose, and several ﬁfty-ﬁvegallon drums of special gunk mixed up by Joe Palacio, plus scuba tanks, air compressor, tools, torches, and so on. Once I had topped off the water and fuel tanks and laid aboard the provisions and booze, the old Flush was as low in the water as I cared to see her. Even with all her beam, and that big old bargetype hull, she had to react to what Bobby estimated as seven thousand pounds of extra cargo. She seemed a little discouraged about it.
“If she founders,” Meyer said pleasantly, “we’ll see if we can raise her with Palacio’s magic gunk.”
So we took off down Biscayne Bay with the Muñequita in tow, heading for the lower Keys. We got an early start and kept waddling along, and by last light we were far enough down Big Spanish Channel to edge cautiously over into the shallows off Annette Key, in the lee of a southwest breeze, and drop a couple of hooks.
The immediate forecast was good, but there was an area of suspicion over near the Leeward Islands, and there was an official half month of the whirly-girl season left. Also the girls are known to come screaming up through hurricane alley after the season is over.
Later I learned that Helena Pearson had written the letter to me that same Saturday, September 28th, the day after she guessed she wasn’t going to make it, the letter the attorney mailed, still sealed, with his cover letter. And with the certiﬁed check.
That evening at anchor aboard The Busted Flush the three Floatation associates were edgy. For Meyer it was simple empathy. He knew the risks they were taking. Joe Palacio had a chance to make a new career in his adopted land. Bobby Guthrie had a wife and ﬁve kids to worry about. The three of them had periods of contagious enthusiasm, and then they would get the doubts and the glooms and the hollow laughter. If it worked on a very small scale in the scavenged bathtub, that didn’t mean it was going to work out in Hawk Channel, in the Straits of Florida, in seventy-ﬁve feet of ocean.
In the morning we went south down Big Spanish, past No Name Key, and under the ﬁxed bridge between Bahia Honda Key and Spanish Harbor Key. Then the overladen Flush was out in the deeps, and we had a nine-mile run at about 220 degrees to lonely little Looe Key, across a slow heave of greasy swell. Soon I was able to pick up the red marker on Looe with the glasses. On the way, while on automatic pilot, I had ﬁgured out the quickest and best way to run if things blew up too suddenly. I would pour on all the coal and run just a shade east of magnetic north, perhaps 8 degrees, and if I could manage to make eight knots, I could tuck the Flush into Newfound Harbor Channel in maybe forty minutes, and ﬁnd a protected pocket depending on the wind, maybe in Coupon Bight or close offshore by Little Torch Key.
Bobby Guthrie had the coordinates on the sunken pleasure boat. She lay a half mile southwest of Looe Key. She’d been down there for two months. She was the ’Bama Gal, owned by a Tampa hotelman, about ninety thousand dollars’ worth of cabin cruiser, only six months old. Forty-six feet, ﬁberglass hull, twin diesels. The hotelman and his wife and another couple had been out ﬁshing and the hotelman had keeled over with a heart attack while ﬁghting a billﬁsh. Nobody else aboard knew how to run the ship-to-shore radio. They barely knew how to run the boat. There was a tug with a tow of three barges about a half mile farther out, so they ﬁgured that the tug would have a radio they could use to call a Coast Guard helicopter and get the man to a hospital. The guest ran the boat over toward the tug and cut the engines and they all started waving their arms. Maybe they thought that tugs and barges have some kind of braking system. The tug captain tried evasive tactics, but mass and momentum were too much. The forward port corner of the lead barge put a big ugly hole in the cruiser, but the crew launched a skiff and got the people off in good order before she went down. By the time the Coast Guard arrived, the owner was as dead as the other ﬁsh they had caught, which had gone down with the cruiser.
The insurance company had paid off on the cruiser, and Meyer had gotten a release from them, so any recovery was going to be proﬁt—if we could bring it up, tow it in, and ﬁnd something worth money.
So on that Sunday I worked the Flush into the most protected water that Looe provides. It is shaped like a backward “J” that has fallen onto its back, and I put the hooks out in shoal water, as close as I could get without risking being hard aground at low tide. We took the Muñequita out and located the ’Bama Gal after about forty minutes of skin diving and looking. We made a bright red buoy fast to her, and then I ran the Muñequita upcurrent, put the anchor down in about seventy feet, and let her come back to the buoy before snubbing her down, almost at the end of my four hundred feet of anchor line. Not enough scope to be sure of holding.
We had just the two sets of tanks aboard the Muñequita, so I went down with Joe Palacio to get a good look at what condition she was in. She lay on a little slope, bow higher than the stern, and she was on about a ﬁfteen-degree list to port, making the hole in the starboard side, a little aft of amidships, easy to see. She was picking up new grass and weed and green slime, but it wasn’t too bad yet. We had expected to ﬁnd her picked clean of everything the skin-diver kids could lift, but by some freak of chance they hadn’t found her. The big rods with their Finor reels were still in the rod holders. Binoculars, booze, cameras, tackle boxes, riﬂe, sunglasses—all the toys and gear and gadgets that people take to sea were either stowed or lay on the cockpit, cabin, or ﬂy-bridge decking. While Joe busied himself with studying the hatches and the interior layout, and measuring interior spaces, I kept assembling bundles of goodies and, with a couple of pulls on the dangling line, sending them up into the sunlight.
When we went up, I found that all the stuff had looked better down in the depths, green and shadowy, than up on the deck of my runabout, all sodden, leaking, and corroded.
Monday we took the Flush out and anchored her over the wreck and worked all day, in shifts, beeﬁng up those places where Palacio thought the ﬂoatation might come busting out, and also cutting through some interior bulkheads to make a free
ﬂow of water through all the belowdecks areas, and fastening some plywood against the inside of the hull where the big hole was. Whenever we came across anything we could tie a line to and lift to the surface, we did so.
The weather held on Tuesday and by noon Joe was satisﬁed that we were ready to try. We took the reinforced hose down and clamped it securely in place, leading it through the hole we’d cut into the damaged side above the waterline. We had made no attempt to make her watertight. That was the last thing Palacio wanted.
Bobby Guthrie got his funny-looking pump going. It throbbed, smoked, and stank, but it pulled water up through the intake hose dangling over the side and pumped it down and into the wreck and out through dozens of small openings here and there. Palacio was very nervous. His hands shook as he clamped the small hoses that led from three drums of separate kinds of gunk to the brass nipples on a ﬁtting on the big hose that led down to the wreck. He had ﬂow gauges and hand pumps on each drum. As Meyer had explained it to me, Gunk One reacted with the water, raising its temperature. Then Gunk Two and Gunk Three interacted with the heated water as they went swirling down, and when they were released inside the hull down below, they separated into big blobs and, in the cooler water, solidiﬁed into a very lightweight plastic full of millions of little bubbles full of the gases released through their interaction on each other and the heated water. Palacio had the three of us manning the hand pumps and he hopped back and forth from one ﬂow gauge to the other, speeding one man up, slowing another down. There was, after about ten minutes, a sudden eruption about forty feet down-current, and a batch of irregular yellow-white chunks the size of cantaloupe appeared and, ﬂoating very high on the water, went moving swiftly away in the slight breeze.
Palacio stopped us and cut the ﬂow. Guthrie turned off the big pump. We went down and found that the ventilator on the forward deck had blown out. By the time it was secure, it was time to quit. All day Wednesday there was pump trouble of one kind or another. We thought Palacio would break down and start sobbing.
By midday Thursday everything seemed to be working well for about forty minutes. My arm began to feel leaden. Palacio was gnawing his knuckles. Suddenly Guthrie gave a roar of surprise. The hose began to stand up out of the water like a snake and a moment later the big cruiser came porpoising up, so fast and so close that it threw a big wave aboard, drenching us and killing the pump. She rocked back and forth, streaming water, riding high and handsome. We stomped and yelled and laughed like idiots. She was packed full of those lightweight brittle blobs of foam, and I tried not to think of how damned foolish I had been to never even think of what could have happened if she had come up that fast and directly under the Flush.
We wasted no time rigging for towing. We were getting more swell and I did not like the feel of the wind. Between periods of dead calm there would come a hot, moist huff, like a gigantic exhalation. I set it up with short towlines, the Flush in the lead, of course, the salvaged ’Bama Gal in the middle, and Bobby Guthrie aboard the Muñequita in the rear. I broke out the pair of walkie-talkies because the bulk of the ’Bama Gal made hand signals to Bobby back there impossible. The system was for him to keep the Muñequita’s pair of OMC 120’s idling in neutral, and if our tow started to swing, he could give the engines a little touch of reverse and pull it back into line. I knew the inboard-outboards could idle all day without overheating. Also, when I had to stop the Flush down for traffic, Bobby could keep it from riding up on our stern.
It was early Saturday afternoon before we got her to MerrillStevens at Dinner Key, and we had to work her in during a ﬂat squall, in a hard gray driving rain, the wind gusting and whistling. I’d phoned a friend via the Miami marine operator earlier in the day, so they were waiting for us. We shoved the ’Bama Gal into the slings and they picked her out of the water and put her on a cradle and ran her along the rails and into one of the big sheds. Palacio wore a permanent, broad, dreaming grin.
The dockmaster assigned me a slip for the Flush and space in the small boat area for the Muñequita. By the time we were properly moored, hooked into shoreside power, and had showered and shaved and changed, heavy rain was drumming down, and it was very snug in the lounge aboard The Busted Flush, lights on, music on, ice in the glasses, Meyer threatening to make his famous beef stew with chili, beans, and eggs, never the same way twice running. Guthrie had phoned his wife and she was going to drive down from Lauderdale to pick him up Sunday morning. They were tapping the Wild Turkey bourbon we’d found aboard the Gal, and I was sticking to Plymouth on ice. Meyer kept everybody from going too far overboard in estimating proﬁt. He kept demanding we come up with “the minimum expectation, gentlemen.”
So we kept going over what would probably have to be done and came up with a maximum ﬁfteen thousand to put her in shape, and a minimum forty-ﬁve thousand return after brokerage commission.
That is the best kind of argument, trying to ﬁgure out how much you’ve made. It is good to hear the thunder of tropic rain, to feel the muscle soreness of hard manual labor when you move, to have a chill glass in your hand, know the beginnings of ravenous hunger, realize that in a few hours even a bunk made of cobblestones would feel deep and soft and inviting.
They wanted me to come into the ﬂedgling partnership, with twenty-ﬁve percent of the action. But struggling ventures should not be cut too many ways. Nor did I want the responsibility, that ever-present awareness of people depending on me permanently to make something work. They were too proud— Guthrie and Palacio—to accept my efforts as a straight donation, so after some inverted haggling we agreed that I would take two thousand in the form of a note at six percent, payable in six months. They wanted to put their take back into improved equipment and go after a steel barge sunk in about ﬁfty feet of water just outside Boca Grande Pass.
I was sprawled and daydreaming, no longer hearing their words as they talked excitedly of plans and projects, hearing only the blur of their voices through the music.
“Didn’t we make it that time in an hour and a half ? Hey! Trav!”
Meyer was snapping his ﬁngers at me. “Make what?” I asked. “That run from Lauderdale to Bimini.”
They had stopped talking business. I could remember that ride all too well. “Just under an hour and a half from the sea buoy at Lauderdale to the ﬁrst channel marker at Bimini.”
“In what?” Guthrie asked.
I told him what it had been, a Bertram 25 rigged for ocean racing with a pair of big hairy three hundreds in it, and enough chop in the Stream so that I had to work the throttles and the wheel every moment, so that when she went off a crest and was airborne, she would come down ﬂat. Time it wrong and hit wrong, and you can trip them over.
“What was the rush?” Bobby asked.
“We were meeting a plane,” Meyer said.
And I knew at that moment he too was thinking of Helena Pearson and a very quick and dirty salvage job of several years back. We were both thinking of her, with no way of knowing she had been dead two days, no way of knowing her letter was at Bahia Mar waiting for me.
Even without the knowledge of her death, Helena was a disturbing memory . . .
Excerpted from The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper by John D. MacDonald. Copyright © 2013 by John D. MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.