THE POLYCHROME SALVAGE
by LAURA HILL
Love. Hate. Desire. A treasure. The woman I want. The pathetic rat in the way. A state set adrift by the floods of a world too warm.
Five years previously, a summer series of monster hurricanes had smashed into the southern tip of Florida, creating a surge of destruction that destroyed billions of dollars of property. Close to a million were killed or listed as missing. Millions, many retirees, remained homeless after evacuation. Lakeport, a former unincorporated town on the northwest shore of Lake Okeechobee, now served as the base for efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild a shattered state.
Walking down the commercial wharf to my converted shrimp trawler was Reddy, six feet of muscle and sinew rolling on legs bowed by venereal disease and topped by a thick thatch of red hair. From the twisted smirk, which only I ever seemed to notice, I surmised that he had made a stop in the back room of the port tavern. Needless to say, the “escorts” of Lakeport had no appeal for me.
Mary Beth, six feet of tanned, fit intelligence, qualified as both a marine archeologist and a commercial salvage diver, the apple of my eyes, the love of my life, never seemed to notice Reddy’s indiscretions, errands run too long, leering looks after women or missing money. Even after many visits to her gyno, she claimed the STD’s acquired during their relationship came from diving in contaminated water.
At those times of peaceful reflection, rare as they were in a post-apocalyptic world, I wondered if those visits to the gyno were for some reason other than Reddy’s indiscretions, but as we were both women, it seemed she would be willing to share that with me. Ironic that the naiveté she displayed was a major part of my attraction to her, as was her need to be protected from Reddy and his ilk.
We had met nearly a year ago, when she and Reddy had answered my advertisement for a boat captain and crew, following U.S. government clearance to allow commercial salvage efforts to help clean up South Florida. Most salvers rushed to the remains of banks whose locations were still set in the G.P.S. units of every American vehicle.
I was set on a project to salvage the polychrome terra cotta sculpted panels that had adorned the Art Deco buildings of Miami Beach. Although the beautiful buildings of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, built primarily in the 1930’s and refurbished at the end of the 20th century, had been damaged extensively, my crew had recovered several million dollars worth of finest art of architecture. Panels of dolphins, sea horses, pelicans, herons, sea shells and heavenly bodies would again delight discriminating buyers with neon and pastel hues.
Added to the steady accumulation of coveted art was my wish to possess the beauty, charm and courage of Mary Beth. All of my approaches, both subtle and forthright, had been rejected in as many ways. My perception was that her rejection was based on a misguided loyalty to Reddy. I had grown to loath sight, sound and smell of that ungroomed, unwashed red head.
A soul mate, hair bleached by sun and sea, sweat mingled with sea salt and dried in little rings around blond body hair, grey eyes that gleamed over recovered frescoes, friezes and panels, was what I wanted, and enough to kill for. I had to break Mary Beth free of the destructive relationship in which she was trapped.
Sargassum weed, a pale pink dead snapper, other unidentifiable dead fish or birds and assorted garbage floated on a scum of oil around my boat, the Archimedes, and her assigned berth. Not since working my way through college in a dish pit had I seen nor smelled anything like the grease trap that I was required to empty once a week.
Unfortunately, the limestone peninsula of Florida acted very much like a grease trap; all the petroleum products from service stations floated, then came a layer of salt water over a very thin layer of fresh water, all capping a layer of noxious crud that would not disperse. The smell permeated everything; food, clothing, air, with the bitter odor of a slow decay.
Still a haven region for drug and flesh trafficking, more than one body still floated in each week. Many had survived the storm surge to die in opposition to a drug or sex baron’s philosophy. Four years of martial law had little effect but to train even the most law abiding citizens in using criminal evasion techniques to survive. One more dead body would arouse little notice.
Salvage diving was still a dangerous business, even though twenty feet was probably the maximum depth anywhere in the flood scourged area from Naples to Lakeport to Fort Lauderdale. Entanglement in wire, rope, piping or other entrapment in black or milky water was a frequent occurrence. However, I did not want to have to rescue Reddy, or lose Mary Beth trying to rescue him. Commercial fishermen and evolution had given me an option.
By 2020, it was obvious that efforts to save Florida’s reefs were doomed by climate change and over fishing. Pollution and warm water broke the food chain by destroying the coral. Most reef fish were grazers and died off without the backbone of the reef to feed on. Even the best of predators, sharks, could only survive so much. What small sharks could not survive, big sharks could thrive in, and Carcharodon Megalodon, the biggest of them all, bigger than the Great White or the Tiger, had spread from an ancestral breeding ground in the Gulf of Mexico and now dominated the Gulf Stream.
Most salvage activities were in water too shallow for the train engine sized monsters, but recovery on the edge of the Gulf Stream was definitely likely to result in a monster visit. I provided my crew with EMF Shark Repellers. Born whilst monitoring the last shark caller of Papua New Guinea and based on the assumption that since some electromagnetic frequencies attracted sharks, others would repel them, the EMFiSiSoR units had saved many lives from ferry, plane and other accidents. Where there is a will, there is a way.
“Hola Reddy”, I said over my shoulder as I secured dive gear. “Como esta?”
Reddy started a little. Perhaps I was being too friendly.
“Hey Sandy, muy bien, bien, and you?” He was as obsequious as always.
I replied, “Well too. Planning on a wedding there Reddy?” A pre-fab multi-denominational church had risen next to the port tavern on land once occupied by a family house burned to the ground by arson. I had joined the volunteers to help douse the flames. Mary Beth was checking the engine just below and listening.
From the dock, Reddy looked down at her while a strange succession of emotions played across his face, confusion, anger then humor.
“No, no, just visiting, visiting”, was all he said. It was not a stammer, but Reddy used the duplication as part of his harmless old boy facade. Sadly, it worked on most.
Without looking up, Mary Beth called up, “We don’t have to, we already have the same last name. “Come on down, Reddy, give me a hand to check these engines out.”
While that light baritone of hers shivered my spine, Reddy’s grin of dirty teeth and wink on the way down to her had me grinding my teeth.
Mundane tasks that were essential to financial success and survival had to be performed well. Like re-calibrating Reddy’s Shark Repeller, the EMFiSiSoR. I was still working when they had completed their checks and had come up to leave for dinner and an early night to prepare for first light start of the two day trip to Miami Beach.
When Mary Beth stepped off the boat onto the dock, Reddy dropped the hand that he had held on the golden hairs above her waist, and she drew in a large breath, followed by a sigh, of relief I was sure. Her toes caressed her sandals as she walked lightly across the dock. Scrambling to catch up but still filling the need to scratch his crotch was Reddy and his splayed out Yeti like feet, oozing out of the straps of his sandals. Mary Beth started when he touched her again, but they walked together into the twilight and street lamps of a hastily pre-fabricated town.
With mosquitoes buzzing my insect repellant coated body, I finished my equipment check and checked all of my locks before going to the tavern for a quick dinner. An armed security guard thumped by on the dock behind me. Behind him, a couple of shadows ducked behind barrels on the wharf. I touched my shoulder holster and shifted the contents of my khaki cargo pants.
The guards paid special attention to the security of the Archimedes after I had rescued the granddaughter of their chief from a vicious mugging. The poor girl still needed surgery in Maine. Sadly, I could not do more than drop the assailant off the dock into harbor sludge, from where police were unable to recover him. Taking care of business was an essential part of survival in the salvage world of Florida.
Just off the still coquina main street was the five year old Lakeport Tavern. Assorted all-terrain vehicles and trucks parked outside but most customers were salvage crews from the docks. With the thump of some unknown live musician pervading, I took my usual stool at the bar and began with a traditional beer and lemon. Mary Beth and Reddy were still there, talking with intertwined hair at a table near the band stand.
I chatted with other captains and crews as they came up to the bar; one diver dead tangled in a gas station that sold fishing gear, another hospitalized after inhaling petroleum, two shot by pirates that were chased off by the navy, pretty much a standard week of salvage in Florida.
Thinking that I had three days before Mary Beth was set free, I enjoyed my sirloin steak and potatoes while comparing my love intellectually, physically and emotionally to every woman in the bar. Needless to say, I found her matchless. I had added her to my sister in my will not long ago and included her as beneficiary of a life insurance policy, which did not cover diving or working accidents.
The attachment to Reddy confused me. Sometimes they were as intimate as now, heads together, as if siblings sharing secrets. And at others, she recoiled at his touch and would not look at him. I could not see that she gained anything in the way of emotional support or security from him. Even if she left with him to go to their trailer out in the pine barrens, he would still come back and spend his money on booze and whores. Fortunately, he left her with a Rottweiler guard dog.
As the crowd and volume grew, I sucked back my third beer, paid with a good tip and made my way out. A rat the size of a raccoon rambled towards the garbage dumpster. With my hands in my pockets, I strolled past fluorescent bug zappers, pinging and crackling away, back to the Archimedes. My only thought was that Reddy was an insect parasite that needed to be zapped.
For now, I had to be content with Pugnacious, a Persian/Siamese cross rescued from a raft of floating debris, as my company for the night. His buzz saw purr put me into deep sleep until my alarm woke me before dawn.
“Good morning, ma’am, como esta?” I smiled up at Mary Beth just as an orange ball broached the eastern horizon.
With a confused blink, she giggled and blushed before going forward. Reddy glared at me, something that he had been doing more frequently lately.
“Mornin’ Sandy. Have a good night? No prowlers visit?” His voice was a rough, pre-coffee growl as he stepped onboard.
“No, unless you saw one from the ‘church’.” I did enjoy watching him squirm. “Nothing? Thought that you had visited again.” He gritted his teeth and followed Mary Beth. Below I heard him mutter to her about ‘cat scratches’.
Below me, first one, then the other of my big twin diesels fired up. Reddy came out with the maintenance check list and moved around making a final inspection. Early summer weather was forecast, mild trade winds blowing the stench away, thunder storms possible in the afternoon and evening. With our course and destination filed with the Harbor Master and the Navy, we were good to leave port.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a narrow, well-marked channel that led South and East through the former Lake Okeechobee, Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades, entering the Gulf Stream at Old Miami. With only dead reefs to protect the coastline, the swamp and limestone of Florida had no chance of survival. Few trees had withstood the consecutive onslaught of monster hurricanes. The area had been as scoured as if by a rasp on soft wood. Only the buoys stood above water. Even hardy alligators, evolutionary survivors, had fled to the north, away from the worst of the oil and slime, leaving a carrion feeder’s banquet behind to rot.
The sensitive river ecosystem was devastated again by contamination from cities washed away by the surge. Chaos had reigned as five storms slammed across in one month and the magnitude of the destruction became apparent. Yet even in the worst of the devastation, some people still had money and could and did make money. I did ensure that I rescued what I could, like Pugnacious and Mary Beth, even if I was one of those people.
It would be a slow, almost two day creep down the channel with an overnight anchor at an embayment. With all three of us certified Captains, one navigated, one watched the channel for obstructions and one rested, or in my case, researched.
On the lunch table below, I was targeting the Cavalier Hotel, built just less than a hundred years ago in 1936: architect Roy F. France, at 1320 Ocean Drive. A relatively small building, its three part front facade had decorative friezes and spandrel panels which were possibly worth at least ten million.
Unlike some of the buildings of South Miami Beach, the windows of the Cavalier had no eyebrows, a distinctive feature of many of the hotels. Now on the eighth trip in less than a year, experience had taught me that buildings with eyebrows, shelter ledges above the windows, were more heavily damaged than those without. The logical assumption was that wind and surge had caught on the surface area of the eyebrows, resulting in greater building damage.
There was no trauma on the legs that walked past the port holes. Always a light and graceful step. A wish and a sigh from me. Above, Reddy was barking on the radio at an approaching vessel. Archimedes was rocked by the sloppy wake of a vessel moving too fast.
One of Mary Beth’s bags fell off of her bunk and reams of paper work fell out. The mundane undergrad papers by Michael B. Gonzalez were mixed with Mary Beth’s thesis and prep work, by M. B. Gonzalez. I stared and wondered, why have someone else’s undergrad papers? Was Michael a brother or a husband? Mary Beth talked little about herself, just Reddy and work. And she was good, very good. A competent captain, good diver, excellent historian, a professional marine archeologist in every way. I put it all back in the bag and put the bag back on the bunk.
Reddy went neutral and the anchors splashed forward. There was an obstruction in the channel, perhaps created by the last boat. I went on deck to have a look. On the port side, Mary Beth and Reddy had the boat hooks out, clearing a rat’s nest of driftwood, old rope and wire. Little flying saucer jelly fish floated just under the surface oil. The water was now nearly as salt as the sea.
While slapping at bugs too near her eye, Mary Beth stumbled and nearly fell in. Reddy yanked her back and she smiled gratefully, even batting her eyes. I wished upon every star hidden by the light of day and the building cumulus to have seen something different.
There was no independence there, yet Mary Beth had made her way to a doctorate without him. As they simpered to each other and glanced back at me, I decided to mull over my questions to starboard while pushing more debris out of the channel. The nagging feeling that I had was that I was watching a script play out. This made no sense to me. Paradoxically, I was sure that all the unknown elements of being in love with an enigma were why I was in love with her.
We were anchored, as planned, for the night. Even with regular naval patrols, I still posted watch. Too many vultures still circled. For dinner, made magnificently by Mary Beth, we had roast chicken, stuffing and potatoes. I had a “no booze on the boat” rule, which tonight I regretted as I wanted more information.
“So, Mary Beth, now that you are living the dream,” I slapped an intruding mosquito. “Did you always want to be a marine archeologist and travel the world with Reddy? Fame and fortune are your prize.”
I had willed my face to be open and candid, but Mary Beth was, as always when conversation strayed to her past, a little tense. Not one question had I found from any college or previous employment to explain her concern.
“Well, I never expected that my future would include Reddy,” she touched his arm with her fingertips and circled the thick red hair. “I’m so glad that it has though.” She raised another fork full of chicken and stuffing.
“Then you have always wanted to be an archeologist, or you got here accidently on a side track from another interest?” Funny the information that failed to add up about a person that I had known for a year. I munched on a thigh while she was swallowing and dabbing with her napkin. But Reddy answered.
“Yeah, yeah, she loved history in school, loved history, needed a major, a major and it grew, it grew from there. Me, me, I’m just the muscle, the muscle.” Reddy grinned, displaying pieces of chicken caught in his teeth, and Mary Beth smiled at her plate, perhaps because of this display of gross by Reddy.
Always the same vague generalizations, the same tag team evasion. Most people had something that was the big motivator. For me, the first was seeing an old man dig a gold coin out of a river bank when I was eleven. Then my high school history teacher and mentor ensured that I had a partial scholarship to a college otherwise out of my financial range. The lure of finding the lost and beautiful grew every day. I think that I told them that during their interview. In fact, I think that they gained more information about me than I did about them.
Yet I floundered on again.
“And how does your family, Mary Beth, feel about diving dangerous waters with only Reddy to protect you?” I gazed candidly at her and knew that Reddy would answer.
“The old man is a nasty piece of work, nasty piece of work, and we, I mean she won’t have anything more to do with him, anything,” he said, face suddenly red as his hair.
As I turned my head to question this odd slip of the tongue, Mary Beth piped up.
“My father has been so obsessed with me over the years, I’ve pretty much had to keep a low profile, change my name, stay out of the public eye and Reddy has truly helped in that. I know that you and Reddy don’t always see eye to eye, but were it not for him, I would not be alive.”
And she batted her eyes at me. How could anyone think straight with lashes and eyes flapping like that?
Discomfited but smiling, I moved on to my plans for the polychrome terra cotta of the Cavalier Hotel. Weather permitting, we were pretty certain to retrieve a couple of friezes and several of the more valuable panels. We discussed the iron fittings that probably secured them as well as damage to the building, walls that might have to be lifted from the Cavalier or neighboring hotels. The forecast was clear mornings for a week, everything was set in my favor. Except Mary Beth.
If, for whatever reason, she had no one else in her life but Reddy, and a control freak for a father, then with him gone, I could be her muscle. Had I not dealt with my own father? And without chicken flakes in my teeth, of course. There seemed to be no reason why I could not fill a gap left by Reddy. Failure was not a consideration.
That evening, water spouts danced in the orange haze over the Gulf Stream. I viewed their sinuous tango between cloud and sea as a fortuitous omen.
Anchored in milky aquamarine chop under fluffy morning clouds, I double checked the G.P.S. coordinates. The concrete and iron rubble that just broke the surface due west of us should be the Cavalier Hotel. Oil streaked the gently breaking waves. Any of the fragile treasures that I could rescue would benefit society, even if they did my pocket and ego as well.
Maximum depth was near sixty feet, which we would dive and explore first. Sonar, with which I had mapped the shoreline nearly a year ago, displayed a tangle, a jig saw puzzle in which salvageable pieces were not always visible. The sea, a fickle but charming lady, might even give polychrome panels from three or four buildings away, or even Collins Avenue.
With dive plans set, we finished a light breakfast. While Reddy and I completed equipment set up, Mary Beth set out in a dinghy to drop marker buoys for the first search area.
My crew always used full face masks and contamination proof dry suits, for comfort, communication and hygiene. (I never had the gyno problems that Mary Beth had.) The EMFiSiSoR units were always strapped to individual tanks and I ensured that Reddy had the correctly adapted unit. Umbilicals were an entanglement hazard in a debris field washed by surge, though I did carry a compressor with air hose that was prepped if required.
I did not think that Reddy would need any more equipment after today. I hoped that he would not. And I wondered if steel scuba tanks would give Carcharodon Megalodon indigestion. Perhaps a donation to a conservation society after. Now I was really hopeful, but there was no guarantee of success the first time out.
With Mary Beth back at the Archimedes, it was time to zip into dry suits. As always, busting out of my bikini top, before I donned light dry suit underwear, had Reddy panting and red in the face. And Mary Beth ignored him as he draped his “assistance” all over me, needlessly helping me to insert my head and hands into powdered cuffs and zip up across my breasts, finally fastening my buoyancy compensator buckles.
I repeatedly had allowed that display to show her what he was like. Now I was left again to mentally scratch my head at the stern while I watched the caress Mary Beth gave Reddy as she helped him dress. While she gave less assistance, there was no sexuality in his response to her. Like siblings. As I spat and rinsed my mask, I noticed a barely increased pulse. I was about to attempt to murder someone without raising a sweat.
Fins on, I stepped off the stern into a storm of bubbles, light and water that never failed to thrill me. Briefly, I popped up to hold the trail line and wait for Reddy. Mary Beth checked that his air and EMFiSiSoR were on before he joined me. All OK, we followed the first marker buoy line down. Visibility was an adequate ten feet and we ran a search pattern to the next buoy. From above, Mary Beth would watch and monitor our bubble track.
On only the second leg of the search, a sand covered hump was fanned away to reveal a spandrel panel. With only a little storm and ocean damage, the panel was a beautiful, decorative rendition of what appeared to be a sea horse. Reddy went up to get lift bags and an air line to fill them while I cleared sand to insert support straps. It would be a tragedy to break it now.
I felt no fear working next to Reddy, no concern that megalodon would take me too. Justice would be served.
Perhaps it was the elevated partial pressure of oxygen at fifty-five feet that set me on the way to answering my riddle of Mary Beth and Reddy. The undergrad papers in her bag were by Michael B. Gonzalez, yet all of the post-grad and doctoral work was by M. B. Gonzalez. And her light baritone and height. Her lack of concern about Reddy’s frolicking at the tavern. Her visits to the gynecologist. A flash bulb fired in my brain. I should have ended the dive then. The lift was ready to go and I was about to murder the transgender love of my life’s brother.
Reddy gave the thumbs up and we rose, bags periodically venting in a controlled ascent while I sent to heaven above the first prayer since childhood. Almost half-way. I felt before I saw the white freight train flash by with wide jaws and end Reddy’s life.
The pressure wave from the monster pushed me up with the lift bags. I looked up to see Mary Beth looking down from the stern and remembered too late to exhale. I let go of the guide line. My lungs were ruptured by expanding air. Now air bubbles were spreading through my body, blocking circulation.
I had killed myself along with my love’s brother. A stream of air vents from my mouth. Red froth in my mask. A mistake. Failure. Damn. Fool.
Laura Hill’s poetry has been published in Scifaikuest,Haiga Online, the Fib Review and other zines. A drabble was recently published on Luna Station Quarterly.
The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.