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PROLOGUE

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apoleon bonaparte hid in the darkest corner of the balcony. Hand characteristically tucked into waistcoat, he peered into the night. Suddenly one of the doors swung open, loosing sounds of a party inside. Napoleon froze, until seeing it was Moses. “Coast clear?” Moses asked. “Yeah,” Napoleon said. “Cool,” said Moses. He stepped out, the familiar pair of stone tablets tucked under an arm, and he carefully shut the door. Napoleon then withdrew his hand from his coat. In it was a joint. Moses set down the Commandments and fished a Zippo from his robe. Of note, the day was Saturday; the date August 13, 1976, and the occasion the twenty-ninth annual Costume Ball at the Shore Havens Yacht Club in Cape Bantam, Florida, about fifteen miles down the coast from Pensacola.

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Construction of Shore Havens was completed in 1924. Still, the palatial limestone clubhouse, with its vast pavilion, colonnaded portico, and topiary-sprinkled grounds, could have been dropped into the Palais de Versailles’ neighborhood and, as the architect had promised, not stood out a bit—excluding, of course, any attention drawn by an eleven million pound building being dropped. While sharing the joint, Moses and Napoleon surveyed the broad cul-de-sac two stories below. At the foot of the marble staircase that spilled down from the entrance, a diamondbedecked Queen Elizabeth I was hoisted from a Bentley by her chauffeur. “Nice touch,” Moses said. “I dunno,” Napoleon said. “She died four hundred years before they had cars.” Atop the steps the guard, clad as a British beefeater, tended to a plump rendition of Harpo Marx. “Name please, sir?” he asked. By way of response, “Harpo” pantomimed, holding forth one hand, then pointing skyward with the other. The beefeater, a Shore Havens security man forced to work overtime and sweltering beneath a two-foot-high black fur hat, regarded him blankly. Additional pantomime served only to anger Harpo’s wife, a Salem witch. “Hanson,” she explained to the beefeater. “Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Hanson.” The beefeater crossed out their names on the scrolled guest list and waved them in. “Decent concept,” Moses said. “Eh,” Napoleon said with a ribbon of smoke. The duo’s attention was drawn to the bay behind the clubhouse by a little motorboat buzzing toward the dock. In it sat a man in pirate garb. “Now that,” Napoleon said, “is clever.”

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Inside the clubhouse, in the lofty Grand Ballroom, a sixteen-piece orchestra dressed as eighteenth-century Quakers belted out a boisterous brand of swing. Dancing, drinking, and gossiping to the beat was an historically costumed crowd of some four hundred of Cape Bantam’s social and economic elite. Among them an ordinarily jovial Henry VIII glowered at his wife, who’d come as Joan of Arc. A few cocktails earlier she’d admired from afar the sturdy left pectoral muscle exposed by Zeus’s toga. Now she was squeezing it. Henry snatched her by an elbow and dragged her toward the exit. “Darling,” he hissed, “you should’ve come as Jack Daniels.” He steered her clear of the bayside terrace door, enabling the pirate to enter. Joan, meanwhile, batted her eyelashes at Harpo. In response Harpo enthusiastically honked his bicycle horn. But by then Joan was transfixed by the pirate. He was a man in his late thirties, of average height and weight, but, like a ship’s rigging, his muscles and tendons were fixed, trim, and taut. One strong forearm bore a tattoo of a dagger, the other, a three-masted barque. Yellow-blond hair peeked from beneath a black bandanna onto which was sewn a white silhouetted hourglass. His gold hoop earring, blouse, breeches, brass telescope, and sword all had a worn authenticity, but his sea blue eyes comprised the most convincing element of the ensemble. They shone from beneath his black mask and sang of the sort of spirit that relished swinging aboard an enemy barque and crossing blades with all comers. “A sailor!” Joan gushed. “I think he’s supposed to be a pirate, dear,” Henry said, attempting to tug her onward. She stayed firmly in place. The pirate stepped aside to let Queen Elizabeth I pass, then acknowledged Joan. “Good evening, madame,” he said, and, with a tilt of the head Henry’s way, he added, “Your Highness.” “A pirate!” Joan gushed. “Aye,” the pirate said.

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Joan giggled. Then, to the pirate’s surprise, she began to tickle the rounded brass pommel of his sword hilt. With a pained sigh, Henry attempted, once more, to haul her off, but she clung to the pommel, unwittingly drawing the entire sword from its scabbard. The steel blade flashed like a firecracker as she teetered beneath its unexpected heft. “Christ,” Henry yelped, leaping out of the way, “that thing’s real!” The pirate leapt to Joan’s aid, stabilizing her and reclaiming the sword. Then he said to Henry, “Of course it’s real. I’m here to plunder gold and jewels. If I run into any opposition, I’m better off with a real sword than a plastic one, right?” Joan laughed. Henry, pointedly, did not. “Well, Captain,” Joan slurred, “you certainly picked a good night for gold and jewels. I’ve seen three queens here. And it’s still early.” The pirate grinned, displaying teeth that often drew comparisons to sugar cubes. His reaction was due mostly to the fact that the diamond necklace seen seconds earlier around the neck of Queen Liz now resided in his breeches.

Shortly thereafter, in Shore Havens’ oak-paneled Tap Room, Henry was attempting to lodge a complaint to the head beefeater about this reckless pirate jerk and his lethal weapon, which surely violated a dozen house rules. Henry was stymied because the club’s complaint-lodging procedure involved first writing a letter to the Rules Committee, but he continued to whine long enough that the commodore—fittingly costumed, he felt, as Admiral Nelson—took up the case. He suggested that, for starters, they establish the pirate’s identity. “It’s definitely not Dickie Cregan,” he said. Dickie Cregan was the reigning club champ in debauchery. It wasn’t until three years after the renovation that they discovered the two-way mirror he’d bribed the contractor to install in the ladies’ changing room. “Dickie,” continued the commodore, “came as Pope Pius.” The head beefeater, who was the club’s chief of security, weighed

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in. “None of the boys or me think we seen any pirate coming in,” he said, “but it’s hard to say for sure.” His lack of certitude, he felt, vindicated his protest to the Event Planning Committee that he and his men would be encumbered by the beefeater costumes, particularly the two-foot-tall hunks of fur for hats. Taking his side, one of the committee members noted that, historically, such caps were worn not by beefeaters but, rather, by palace guardsmen. The conflict was settled when the majority of the members expressed the opinion that the hats looked neat. More importantly, they’d already been paid for. Sure enough, throughout the party the security men had battled to keep the brims from sliding over their eyes. The inquiry in the taproom took a decided turn when a flushed Queen Elizabeth I ran in, leaving a trail of tears.

A moment later the music in the ballroom ceased, and a hush seized the crowd. Spears in hand, two beefeaters charged toward the pirate, who was meandering back to the bayside terrace. As if unaware of them, the pirate stopped at the buffet table, ladled himself a cup of fruit punch from the large pewter bowl, and took a sip. He found it pleasantly tart. He was considering complementing it with an éclair when the beefeaters caught up to him. “Sir,” the head man said, “we need to ask you to step outside with us.” The pirate turned toward the beefeaters, and, finding no one standing between them and himself, he gave the appearance of surprise. “You mean me?” he said. The head beefeater nodded. “What on earth for?” “If you don’t know, then you got nothing to worry about.” The beefeaters then started out, until realizing the pirate wasn’t following. He was still at the buffet, finishing his punch. At the same time, he was sneaking a look at the service exit. It was blocked by a third beefeater. The windows? All shut. He mulled his

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options. Then, in one blazing motion, he drew his sword, leapt at the beefeaters, and slashed their spears—which were plastic—in two. “Okay now,” he said, with unusual calm, “everybody, back off.” Startled guests scurried aside. The pirate then had a clear path to the terrace—but only for a moment. The beefeaters stepped into the way. The pirate clarified, “When I said ‘everybody’—” Abruptly, he ceased clarifying, because they’d drawn guns. “Beefeaters,” he protested, “aren’t supposed to have those.” “Okay, now, lower your sword down onto the floor, pal,” the head man said. “Nice and easy now.” To his relief the pirate complied. The other beefeater then jammed his gun into the small of the pirate’s back and tried to prod him out. However, the pirate remained planted by the buffet table and laughed. “Come on now, boys, the sword thing—it was just part of the act. What do you say we have us a drink and forget all about this?” “I don’t think so,” said the head beefeater. “Well,” the pirate said, with seemingly misplaced finality, “I insist.” At once he jerked free of his captors, snared the big pewter punch bowl, and slung it at them. Its tart contents stung their eyes, momentarily blinding them. He used that moment to lunge for the silverware on the buffet table. There are martial artists who can throw everyday playing cards with such velocity that they serve as lethal weapons. Demonstrating a variation on that theme, the pirate, with a unique sidearm throwing motion, sent a pair of stainless steel spoons flying, one after the other, much, much faster than anyone else present would have imagined possible. The first spoon drilled the head beefeater in the wrist, costing him his grip on his firearm. It clattered to the floor and skipped underneath the buffet table. The second spoon nailed a waiter in the elbow, causing him to spill a tray loaded with full champagne flutes onto the other beefeater, blinding him anew. The third beefeater, who to this point had been merely standing

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by the service exit, drew his gun. For him the pirate chose a large serving fork. It whistled over the heads of dozens of guests before its thick prongs came to rest in the frilly cuff of its target’s right sleeve, pinning the fabric—and, effectively, the man’s gun—to the wall. The guests watched in amazement, every one of them at a loss for words—except for Harpo Marx, who shouted, “Holy fucking shit!” The pirate reclaimed his sword and leapt onto the buffet table. He got a running start, hurdled the éclairs, and sprung off the far end, launching himself toward a drape that had been pulled aside to reveal a two-story-tall window overlooking the bay. In midair he grabbed onto its thick draw cord, swung on it for a dozen feet or so, then crashed through the windowpane. With a comet tail of broken glass, he plummeted three stories, disappearing into the darkness. The guests collectively gasped. The beefeaters shook off their own amazement, then rushed out in pursuit. Via the door.

A mile or so down the coast stood, albeit barely, a ninety-five-yardlong wooden pier. In the nineteenth century, it had been a grand concourse through a forest of spars and rigging. In 1976, it was home to hundreds of thousands of mollusks and, above them, the Oceanside Penny Arcade, where games cost a dime. The same night as the Shore Havens Costume Ball, the arcade was the location for the ninth birthday party of one sprightly, fair-haired Morgan Baker. Amidst the din of pinball machines and an elderly popcorn machine gasping to keep up with demand, Morgan and a dozen other boys indulged in Skee-Ball. As the game was played at the Oceanside, a dime bought nine wooden balls—each about the size of a baseball— that were rolled up a six-foot rubber ramp toward a target consisting of pockets with point values relative to the difficulty of attaining them. The higher the nine-ball point total, the more tickets won. Ten good games’ worth of tickets could be redeemed at the prize counter for a comically oversized plastic comb, a rubber snake, or— very popular with the birthday partyers—stale gum. A great night of skeeing netted enough tickets for a pair of fake-fur-coated oversized

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dice, an Instamatic camera that would never actually function, or a fart cushion. It was the last prize about which the boys dreamt. Suddenly, save the corn popper, the arcade went quiet, everyone’s interest snared by the sound of fireworks outside. This was cause for particular excitement among the boys, until one of the old guys at the air hockey table informed them, “Those ain’t fireworks. Those’re gunshots.” A couple of the boys swallowed their stale gum. All studied their leader, Morgan, to determine whether it was okay to show fear. His steely blue eyes, as usual, showed none. Still, one of his friends squealed, “Morgan, where’d your dad go?” Morgan shrugged. “I don’t know. He said he was going to take a call from nature.”

At the end of the Shore Havens Club dock, the pirate stood in his wobbly motorboat, yanking the starter cord without result. “Cripes,” he muttered. He tried once more. This time, it sounded as if the motor had fired. In fact, the sound was more gunfire. Its source, he realized, was the trio of beefeaters clambering down the cedar-slatted gangway to the dock. He decided to abandon motorboat. The beefeaters heard his body crack the water. Then they heard nothing, and saw no sign of him. They swept the surface of the bay with flashlights awhile longer, until it occurred to them that, unless the pirate either had drowned or possessed Guinness Book–caliber lung capacity, he’d somehow made it out of the water. They swung their flashlight beams back toward the gangway. Sure enough, watery footprints led up toward the clubhouse. The beefeaters raced that way. The footprints disappeared into a row of topiary bushes. Seeing movement in one (a skillfully carved hippopotamus), the beefeaters took aim, but before they could order the pirate to come out with hands up, they heard from within the bush, “Don’t shoot! We surrender!”

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The voice belonged not to the pirate, but to Joan of Arc. The puzzled beefeaters brushed aside a bough and found her lying on the grass beneath the hippo’s hindquarters. She was now in the costume more often associated with Lady Godiva. Also, she was in the embrace of Pope Pius, naked himself but for his miter (or, as it’s more commonly known, “pope hat”). Other guests, having lost the battle against curiosity, assembled on the terrace just above. Joan turned red with embarrassment. Pius (that mischievous Dickie Cregan) simply smoothed his hair. This was one of his career highlights, and he wanted to look his best. Not far from the hippo was a hedge shaved into a whale, including a cleverly rendered leafy spout. Wedged beneath the whale’s belly, the pirate thanked his stars for this turn of events. He then extricated himself from the hedge, scurried through shadows around the clubhouse and portico, and happened upon the parking lot, which was packed with cars. The pirate had never stolen a car and had no idea how to do it, but as the stars would have it, Queen Elizabeth’s Bentley was sitting right there, motor idling and windows down. The pirate reached through the front window on the left side, unlocked the door, and climbed in, disbelieving his lucky stars all the while. For good reason. Upon sitting, he recalled that the driver’s seat in a British car was on the other side. His principal reminder: the Bentley’s chauffeur, slumped there, snoring lightly. The pirate reached across the chauffeur’s lap, opened his door, and attempted to shove him out of the car, but the stout fellow was seat-belted in, tight. Then things, as far as the pirate was concerned, got worse. He heard men running into the parking lot. Evidently hearing them, too, the chauffeur woke up. “Drive,” the pirate barked. The chauffeur rubbed sleep from his eyes. The pirate added, “Now!” Still drowsy, the chauffeur said, “Sorry, chief, you’re in the wrong car.”

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“This is my car now,” the pirate declared, and for emphasis he wound his sword back through the open window and swung it, hacking the headrest clean off the chauffeur’s seat. The chauffeur was now quite awake. Also eager to please. “Where to, sir?” “Anywhere.” The chauffeur grabbed at the clutch to shift into first gear. In his fright he placed it in reverse. The Bentley flew back a carlength, crunching into an Oldsmobile and activating its shrill horn. “Anywhere forward,” the pirate clarified. Before the chauffeur could comply, an odd tapping diverted his attention. Both he and the pirate looked up to find the head beefeater knocking on the windshield with the surviving half of his plastic spear. He was accompanied by the other beefeaters, as well as four Cape Bantam policemen. The pirate slid down his seat. “This,” he sighed, “is why I don’t do land jobs.”

Two hours later, the Oceanside Penny Arcade was dark and shuttered. The last of Morgan’s birthday party guests was stationwagoned away by the last of the moms. She’d offered to drive Morgan home to Pensacola. He’d declined. His dad, he’d said, would return any second. His confidence had reassured her. Morgan spent the next twenty minutes tightrope-walking the parking space lines in the empty lot, perking up with each pair of approaching headlights, only to be disappointed as they buzzed past. He began to wonder what on earth prompted his father to leave the arcade in the first place. Another half hour and another dozen pairs of wrong headlights later, the boy wrapped his arms around himself to counter the damp gusts off the gulf, and, weighted by sadness, he took a seat on the curb. Unwittingly he activated the fart cushion he’d won. It provided him no solace.

I

AN ACCOUNTANT

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wenty-seven summers later found Morgan hurrying to work. He’d grown into a man considered handsome by those who could overlook the pallidness, the circles beneath his eyes, and the slight hunch—the results of far too much time spent beneath a fluorescent desk lamp, and far too little having fun. Moreover, the sadness from his vigil on the Oceanside Penny Arcade curb appeared to have been permanently etched into his features. He was driving a Buick Skylark, a boxy model generally favored by men twice his age. Another relative anachronism, pomade, ensured that not a single one of his close-cropped hairs would deviate from its station on either side of his ruler-straight part. Although no one would have disputed that he was still a young man, it wasn’t hard to imagine Morgan waking up one morning suddenly transformed into a senior citizen. He wore a conservative tie and a proper dark gray business suit of moderate quality. Still burdened by huge tuition loan payments and other debts incurred from four years at Forbischer College of

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Accounting, Morgan was forced to shop at the sort of men’s stores called Buddy’s or Chick’s or the possessive of some other name befitting a bookie. At those establishments much of the merchandise was, inexplicably, water stained, and were a casting agent assigned to a Three Stooges re-make to have happened in, the salesmen would have been the answer to his prayers. Nonetheless, garmentally speaking, Morgan did the best he could. He spared no expense on dry cleaning, and it showed. His white oxford cloth collars were starched to a shine. As he drove, he was craning his neck through one such collar, which scratched him, in order to peer over the Skylark’s boxcarsized hood. He was searching for a clearing in the thick Route 85 traffic. Damnably, he found none. On the radio the morning show guy wrapped up an interview with a local man known, according to himself, as “the Carpet Cleaner to the Stars.” Then he delivered the weather report. “A sunny, sunny, sunny seventy-three degrees in downtown Miami . . . ” Having long ago ceased regretting spending storybook summer days inside an office, Morgan listened without emotion. Then the morning show guy added the following more pertinent piece of news: “ . . . at 8:46.” The most important meeting Morgan had ever had was at nine sharp, eleven-and-a-half traffic-clotted miles away, including a drawbridge that he took for granted, given his luck, would be raised. His fury at not having left home earlier manifested itself in a display that those who knew him would have considered the outermost limit of his emotional range. “Cripes,” he muttered.

Vail & Company employed over two thousand worldwide, most of them at the import-export concern’s Miami headquarters. A boldly wrought shaft of tempered steel and mirrored glass, the building evoked a sleek ocean liner. At 9:17, the Skylark took the entrance to the parking lot as if it

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were the final turn at Indy. As Morgan had feared, all of the parking spaces within a quarter mile of the building—other than the handicapped spots—were filled. At 9:20, he finally found a free spot at the far end of the lot. He parked his car and shot toward the nearest building entrance. At 9:23, out of breath from both the run and repeated cripeses, Morgan produced his wallet from his suit coat and fished out his magnetic-stripped ID card. He swiped it through the wall-mounted reader beside the door. The lock disengaged with a hiss. Meetings started ten to fifteen minutes late. Coffee and small talk took, Morgan calculated, another eight or nine. He might still be in the safety zone. If he ran. He yanked open the door and tensed his knees to spring inside. Then he saw, reflected in the chrome frame, seventy-eight-year-old Isabel Vail tottering up from the parking lot. Morgan contemplated pretending not to have noticed her. Yes, he would enter nonchalantly, then, once clear of the doorway, sprint down the corridor—he desperately needed to stop in the men’s room, but would forego it—and make it to the meeting. He found himself holding the door open. Aside from a few trappings of wealth (a designer poplin dress, a strand of pearls, and, in spite of the temperature, a cashmere sweater), Isabel Vail was the very portrait of wholesome American grandmotherliness, from her wee orthopedic shoes up—four feet and nine inches—to her soft, round head and fine, snowy hair tied back in a bun. She even wore the half-moon glasses listed in the optician’s catalogue as “Grannies.” It was said that in her younger days Isabel was an exceptional beauty and actively involved in steering the family business. Now her seat on the board of directors was viewed as an activity intended to keep her life from consisting solely of her weekly bridge game. Seventy-four excruciating ticks of Morgan’s watch later, Isabel reached the entrance. “How are you today, Mrs. Vail?” he asked pleasantly. “Why, just fine. Just fine, thank you.” She stopped a foot shy of

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the threshold and squinted up at him. “You’re Joseph from Frozen Seafood, right?” “No, ma’am. I’m Morgan. Morgan Baker, from Accounting.” To his chagrin she remained outside and gazed skyward. “Morgan, dear,” she said, “do you think it’s going to rain today?” Morgan looked at the sky. It was not just cloudless, but no-waythere’s-even-a-wisp-of-one-in-the-entire-hemisphere cloudless. “The weatherman said it’s supposed to be sunny,” he said. Isabel reflected upon this for a moment, which seemed to Morgan to last a hundred moments. Then she said, “I never trust them. So I brought an umbrella. I thought I’d bring my violet one, to match my dress, you know, but I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. So I brought the one with daffodils on it.” With herculean effort Morgan smiled. “Sounds pretty.” “It is. Very pretty. But I left it in the car. In the backseat. And my driver just left. With the car.” “Well, then, why don’t you come inside before it starts raining?” “Good thinking.” Morgan waited, impatience stabbing at his intestines, as she inched her way in. At that moment, a sporty new Porsche hummed off Route 85 and into one of the handicapped spots. A fit, linensuit-and-power-tie-clad young exec popped out. He kicked the car door shut with a loafer worth more than the entire calf from which it was crafted, then fired his remote, engaging the locks and security system as he breezed toward the building’s entrance. There he slalomed around Isabel and, as if oblivious to Morgan, nudged past him and inside. Morgan stood and watched, dismayed to once again find himself the victim of this sort of a situation, but he eased his mind, as he had many times in the past, with a reminder that life came with no guarantee of being fair.

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he smattering of Floridian pastel notwithstanding, Vail & Company projected an old-world corporate might. The wide, teak-paneled corridors were adorned with paintings visitors recognized from art history classes. Morgan’s wing tips beat a hasty path down a long stretch of Oriental carpet. He pulled up outside the boardroom, allowing himself to the count of five to regain some of his breath and mop both his brow and the pool of perspiration welling at the base of his neck. Through the glass wall he saw the power-tie-clad Porsche driver now ensconced at the long mahogany table alongside a dozen similarly dressed executives. Though they were mostly strangers to Morgan, he could tell that these men and women were cut from a different cloth than he—and not just in terms of business suit quality and posture, or because they belonged to pricey fitness clubs and were getting their money’s worth. Unlike him, they exuded self-confidence. And most of them actually had it. They were poised, brassy—smug even. There was no circumstance short of life or death in which one of them would want to be seen in a Buick Skylark, let alone with Morgan. He tried to shake his insecurities by reciting to himself an aphorism taught him by his mentor, Vail’s director of accounting, Herb Flick. Something about all people being equal. He was too nervous to remember so much as the first word. The Porsche driver had the floor. “ . . . If McMenamin doesn’t accept our offer,” he was saying, “then, hell yeah, a raid’s the way to go.” He was pleased by the gleams in the eyes around the table. “And if that doesn’t work, I say we hire a private dick to find out who McMenamin’s been fucking, get us some steamy snapshots, then invite Mrs. McMenamin to the bargaining table.”

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The others cackled, until interrupted by the groan of the door. Morgan entered, and, sheepishly, pushed the door shut behind him. Full of apprehension, he looked to the head of the table. There Skip Vail, a sturdy, athletic young man wearing a custom suit and hand-stitched bow tie, considered him with coal black eyes that were anything but warm. The others in the room appeared less friendly. Morgan, feeling beads of sweat wrestling with one another to get through his pores, toweled his face with his sleeve. “Baker?” Skip asked, as if hoping otherwise. Although they’d been in meetings together twice before, Morgan had guessed Skip wouldn’t remember him. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. Skip pretended, though not too well, to be glad to see him. “No problem, old man, so long as you’ve brought your homework.” Morgan knew the “old man” was meaningless prep-school-speak. Still, it made him painfully aware that Skip, the director of acquisitions, was six years his junior. Certain people attributed Skip’s rapid rise to nepotism. Those people hadn’t worked with him. Those who had worked with him often compared him to a pit viper—high praise in corporate raider circles. The sole reason Skip hadn’t climbed higher on the company ladder was that his cousins already occupied the next rungs. By “homework” Skip meant the numbers Morgan had been crunching day, night, and in his dreams for the past week in order to analyze the viability of a hostile takeover of a canned cat food company. So intimidated was he by Skip, Morgan failed to find words to reply to the question of whether he’d brought it— “Yes” would have sufficed. Instead, he displayed his briefcase and nodded—overeagerly, he feared, and the looks around the table confirmed it. Nevertheless, Skip waved, as a prince might, granting Morgan the lone available chair. “Ladies and gents,” Skip announced to his team, “Morgan Baker, from down in Accounting.” Their welcome consisted of a lukewarm nod or two. To them

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the Accounting Department had all the appeal a library carrel had to mountain climbers.

Morgan had wanted to be an accountant since he was nine years old. Before that, he’d juggled baseball player, astronaut, and sea captain. The shift followed an informal survey he conducted of his classmates’ fathers. No matter that the job sounded, at its most exciting, tedious, Andy Flick’s dad, a CPA, swayed Morgan with the information that, “There is and always will be a steady demand for accounting.” The profession offered unrivaled safety and security. “Even if there’s another Great Depression,” Herb Flick boasted, “folks’ll still need accountants because somebody’ll have to tabulate all the losses.” Herb Flick not only believed in the American Work Ethic, he zealously avoided deviating from it. Monday through Friday, he never failed to wear a crisply creased, proper gray suit, a tightly knotted conservative tie, and shiny black wing tips laced in symmetrical loops. His close-cropped hair was kept that way by a standing weekly appointment at the barbershop at the top of Main Street. He never entered a meeting without first freshening his breath with a wintergreen Lifesaver. His temperance, carefully maintained congeniality, and eager smile told bosses and clients, “I will never, ever, even under circumstances that would halt postal delivery, let you down.” He was a loving family man and a good provider. He owned an all-American four-bedroom-and-a-fireplace white colonial house with a tidy lawn and a pristine white picket fence. He belonged to a good country club. He bought a brand-new Buick every other year. Herb Flick’s life became young Morgan Baker’s wish list. Herb’s alma mater, Forbischer College of Accounting, in tiny, sedate Forbischer, Georgia, was one of a small handful of institutions of higher learning in the United States in the mid-1980s that still required students to wear coat and tie to class. There were no sports there, and no social life to speak of. One never heard students or alumni mention Forbischer in the same sentence as “fun.”

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(The exception would be: “We had fun at Forbischer the weekend we drove up to the U. of Georgia to go to a fraternity party.”) The closest thing to a fraternity party at Forbischer was the Order of Mathematicians’ Coffee Night. Nevertheless, because Herb Flick proudly wore a Forbischer sweater, Morgan spent his high school years dreaming of going there. Morgan lived, during those years, with a foster couple, the Banes. They were paid by the state of Florida to house him, a fact that they kept secret from Morgan, though he guessed as much. His place in the pecking order was well south of that held by the dog, an incontinent schnauzer forced upon the Banes when their twenty-seven-year-old daughter went to live at a commune that only allowed cats. “Only way I’d write any checks for your college is if you gimme the money in cash first,” Morgan’s foster father, Ralph Bane, told him. It was one of their more tender moments. Forbischer’s tuition perennially ranked in the nation’s top twenty-five. Despite the impracticality of actually attending, Morgan mailed off his application the first day Forbischer accepted them, and, five months later, he was ecstatic upon receiving a letter inviting him to be part of the Class of 1989. Amazingly, he managed to piece together—via financial aid, three separate higher-education loans, and a Pensacola Adding Machine Club grant—funds sufficient for tuition and scant board. The effort required more fiscal resourcefulness than he would ever use as an actual accountant. At Forbischer the Tax Club was Morgan’s only joy—“joy” being a relative term. Morgan once jokingly suggested they recruit a cheerleading squad to exhort the club members as they raced to fill out federal income tax forms. The club’s faculty advisor replied that this was “not a good idea as cheers would most likely distract the students.” Morgan’s time there was made palatable by the brass ring represented by the diploma, and by Forbischer’s fantastic job placement record. As it turned out, the latter proved superfluous. At the end of Morgan’s freshman year, Herb Flick was lured from his

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small accounting firm in Pensacola by a serendipitous offer to run the entire Accounting Department at Vail & Company in Miami. During the subsequent summer vacation, as well as his sophomore and junior summers, Morgan interned there. Upon graduation from Forbischer, he stood an excellent chance of landing a training slot at a Big Four firm. His résumé was exactly what they were looking for, from the high grade point average to the personal interests—math, stamp collecting, and astronomy. Still, Morgan accepted an offer to work full-time at Vail & Company, in part out of loyalty to Herb, but mostly because the firm offered him the one-of-a-kind security of a three-year contract. Morgan contentedly crunched numbers for those three years, and several more after that. Although cognizant that his greatest high at the office came from getting a new calculator, he never once contemplated that there might be something better. Then one day he learned that in Vail & Company’s Acquisitions Department he could earn end-of-the-year bonuses two to three times his annual salary as an accountant. Just one such bonus would be a down payment on one of the white colonial houses he not only dreamed of, but spent weekends scouting up and down Florida. In his dream it was in a neighborhood of similar—but not too similar—homes a comfortable distance apart from one another, each surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and a sparkling white picket fence. It was a place with wide walnut floorboards handhewn a century before dirt was broken on the first Home Depot. It had a worn sofa and rocking chairs and a pleasant scent of pine. It had walls brimming with books, which would be read each night by Morgan and his bride, entangled on the braided woolen rug by the wood-burning hearth, wearing only Forbischer sweatshirts. Not long thereafter, it would have a playpen. The only element of the dream Morgan had managed to attain was the worn sofa. It, however, needed to be thrown out. Morgan spent the ensuing year trying to maneuver his way onto a takeover as an analyst, a customary first step toward a full-time job in the Acquisitions Department. As his strategy evidenced, he

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wasn’t the aggressive sort. Not once did he articulate his desire to anyone with the power to effect it. Instead, he mentioned it to Herb. Despite the utter lack of entertainment value, and despite the fact that his childhood friend Andy Flick had long ago moved to Colorado, Morgan ate dinner with Herb and Mary Alice Flick at least once a week, usually Saturday. One such night, when a pair of scotches had supplied him with the requisite gumption, Morgan told Herb, “I’d think it’d be a good challenge to be part of a takeover team.” “Probably,” Herb said, then reverted to one of his two preferred topics of conversation: golf and accounting. More than a year later, a financial analyst at Vail & Company was stricken with hepatitis, creating an immediate need for someone to crunch numbers. Morgan leapt at the opportunity. Vail & Company’s then director of acquisitions (and, not long thereafter, chairman), Avery Vail, wanted the company to have its own cardboard box manufacturer so as to avoid having to pay others to package its burgeoning line of frozen fish products. Having read profit-and-loss statements for two weeks and, in the process, having all but worn the characters off his adding machine’s keys, Morgan recommended the venerable Sturdevant Paper Products Company, which, he believed, could be acquired at a share price that would be a good deal for both parties. Avery had no interest in that sort of deal. Days later, he successfully raided box maker Mintz & Sons at half the cost Morgan had estimated. Once at the helm, Avery sacked old man Mintz and his four sons. Morgan had advised against such a move because the Mintzes were beloved by their employees. Within a month, however, the company showed profits exceeding the space atop Morgan’s most optimistic forecast chart. Upon Morgan’s dispirited descent back to Accounting, Herb said, by way of consolation, “There comes a point in life where a fellow has to accept who he is, and if he’s an accountant, then he’s a lucky fellow.” As he often did, Herb added a pertinent aphorism:

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“The longer you wait on line, the greater the likelihood is that you’re on the wrong line.” Although he thanked his mentor for the advice and returned in earnest to his tabulations, Morgan—his fiscal appetite whetted— continued to wait on the proverbial line. Two years later an analyst at Vail & Company gave notice unexpectedly, creating an immediate need for someone to number-crunch on the potential McMenamin deal.

At 9:27, Morgan sat down at the conference table and tried to keep his hands from shaking as he removed the spreadsheets from his briefcase. “Um, okay,” he stammered, despite having rehearsed his presentation so well that he could have sung it. “Assuming that our fish stick factory will continue to produce excess fish parts at the same rate it has for the past five years, thirty-five dollars a share for McMenamin would be not just a good deal, but a steal. The problem is, it’s not a question of if, but, rather, when a recession will hit. Canned pet foods exhibit a tendency to swoon in recessionary times, because pet owners looking to economize will shift to less-expensive dry food.” He saw that everyone at the table was sobered by this very real and theretofore unconsidered concern. Not only had he captured their interest, he had won their gratitude. He continued with greater assurance. “In that case the numbers become really alarming. . . . ” He rifled through his pile of carefully crafted spreadsheets for the one forecasting profits and losses. A moment later he found it. When he looked up, however, he realized everyone’s focus had shifted to Skip’s older and higher-runged cousin, Avery. Unlike Morgan, Avery had somehow managed to open the heavy door without so much as ruffling a carpet fiber. As he entered the boardroom, Morgan, like everyone else, watched with a reverence bordering on awe. At forty-seven, Avery Vail weighed just four pounds more (and all of it muscle) than he did in his strapping days of lacrosse stardom at

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Princeton. He shared Skip’s dark features, but if the Vail gene pool recipe was for tall, dignified, artfully chiseled, square-jawed progeny frequently mistaken on the street for soap opera leading men, Skip had come out of the oven too soon, whereas Avery was baked to perfection. Society columns had for so long preceded his name with “the debonair” that it had practically become his title. Even more incredible, he had the mental acuity to match his physical attributes. In sum, his very existence instructed even the most elitely schooled, healthiest, and most happily married of the wildly successful men and women at the table that life was a lottery and that they simply did not hold the winning ticket. As Avery strode toward the conference table, wearing his habitual expression of guilty whimsy, which seemed to say, “Sorry, this is all just too easy for me,” it crossed Morgan’s mind that the soles of his loafers came into contact with the floor only out of modesty. Skip popped up, offering his cousin his chair. Avery waved him off, instead taking a lean against a column in a manner that conjured ads in men’s fashion magazines. “We talking McMenamin?” he asked. His baritone had a rasp that, Morgan mused, had resulted from constantly having to spurn women’s advances. “Yes,” Skip said. “Mr. Baker here is telling us a raid is too risky.” Avery scoffed. “That’s why Mr. Baker is an accountant.” Morgan suddenly became the target of a couple of forestalled snickers and a roomful of haughty looks. Feeling as though his heart had tumbled into his stomach, he quietly gathered his spreadsheets and dropped them back into his briefcase.

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3

H

ad it not been for the neon Bud signs in the windows, passersby would have taken Ib’s Pub for a storm-battered boathouse. The interior called to mind that of a tugboat. This was neither intentional nor in any way charming. Needless to say, the glam factor at Ib’s was not high. The regular clientele consisted of older dockworkers—most of whom smelled like fish—and Morgan. Eight hours removed from his boardroom misadventure, collar unbuttoned, knot of his tie loosed halfway down his shirtfront, Morgan was hunched at Ib’s eroding bar over a half-empty pint of light beer. Making a concerted effort to avoid thinking about all aspects of his life, he was unaware that Phyllis, the bartender, had her eye on him. Phyllis was in her early forties. She was pretty. Once. The milepost where the job perks (read: free tequila) took a toll—she’d passed it a couple miles ago. She’d been watching Morgan—gazing at him, really—for the better part of an hour, envisioning them on her couch later in the evening. Meanwhile, in the dart pit, an old salt, a visitor from another port, executed a schooled rendition of the traditional overhand toss. His Union Jack–winged graphite dart reached the peak of its arc midway to the target, then dipped gracefully, enabling the steel tip to ease into the outer ring of the eighteen-point pie slice. Two others sat in the fifteen. The salt smiled, displaying two incomplete rows of teeth. Morgan, mentally replaying Avery’s pronouncement for something like the seventy-third time, didn’t react. It was by rote that he gulped back the remainder of his pint, lumbered over to the pit, and took the salt’s place at the throwing line. He scooped one of the grimy, wooden-shafted house darts from

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the dented Sanka can nailed to the wall. Not in the mood to aim, he simply threw—with an unorthodox sidearm motion. The dart left his fingertips like a laser beam and bored into the innermost circle of the bull’s-eye with such force that bits of cork popped out. The old salt’s eyes bulged. Morgan, craving a return to the bar and another beer, hastily flung the second dart. It gouged into the bull’s-eye, right beside the first. A moment later a third dart joined them. The salt retreated to the bar as if in a trance. “Three double bulls,” he said numbly. “I’d sooner believe I’d seen the Virgin Mother walk in and buy me a Bloody Mary.” “He’s got quite a gift, Morgan does,” Phyllis purred. “Not really,” Morgan said. “I’ve just spent too much time in this place.” Having thus called to mind the depressing fact that escapism at Ib’s filled the better part of his social calendar, Morgan realized that, ironically, he could no longer expect to achieve any significant measure of escapism there that night. He had just one more pint and left.

Around ten, Morgan drove into Pelican Acres. As usual he waved to Ivan in the tiny gatehouse. Either distracted by a ballgame on his portable TV or, more likely, asleep, the guard didn’t wave back. As the Pelican Acres housing complex was thirty-six miles inland, it was doubtful a real pelican had ever set webbed foot there. Morgan had concluded that it had been named for the three painted plaster pelicans who stood in the central fountain, which, regrettably, appeared not to have been cleaned since the compound was built in 1962. Morgan moved there in 1992 with his then girlfriend Bonnie, who convinced him to split the rent with her on a lizard green onebedroom condo. Though the rent exceeded their budget, Morgan

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was swayed by the fact that Pelican Acres had uniformed gate guards. (He later learned, then chose to overlook, that they were supplied by a security guard company that, apparently, only employed boozers.) Ironically, just a week after they moved in, Bonnie took up with one of the gate guards and split. She didn’t leave Morgan entirely in the lurch. She used a bunch of his Band-Aids to stick a brief note of explanation and five ten-dollar bills to the bathroom mirror. At the time, the rent was six hundred a month. Morgan wanted to punch the mirror. Being the more reserved sort, he crumpled the note. He suffered a severe paper cut, for which he didn’t have a Band-Aid. He decided to incur more debt to remain at Pelican Acres—his gaunt credit card could, barely, compensate for Bonnie. The uniform reptilian hue notwithstanding, he was taken by the wholesome American ranch-style units and the bright-eyed young professionals therein, many with toddlers. Although he seldom used them, he enjoyed the swimming pool and two tennis courts and the Game Room, which consisted of a warped Ping-Pong table. Morgan liked to think it had gotten that way from constant use by happy kids. Had a young Herb Flick begun his career in the Miami area, Morgan ventured, he surely would have lived at Pelican Acres. After Bonnie left, Morgan lived alone. Eleven years passed, and the surrounding neighborhood went to pot. Literally. Among other drugs. Now, at just $665 monthly, the rent was so good that Morgan couldn’t afford to leave—particularly if he wanted to continue paying the dues at the Grapefruit Cove Golf Club. Despite several clinics and dozens of lessons with each of the three pros, Morgan had never gotten the hang of the game, nor did he ever enjoy it. But Herb Flick belonged to Grapefruit Cove. Morgan parked the Skylark outside his unit and carried in a grease-speckled bag from Taco World, where, for the past few months, he’d effectively been on the meal plan. His New Year’s resolution had been to eat healthily. And he had—well into January.

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Inside the unit, the furnishing was about as lavish as that of a fraternity house, a function of economics more than bachelorhood—a classic six-piece living room set topped Morgan’s immediate wish list. The decorating consisted only of an antique model ship on the mantel and a few framed sayings like: PEOPLE WHO DON’T HAVE NIGHTMARES DON’T HAVE DREAMS, which the Flicks had given him. Herb was a fan of such maxims and kept plenty in view both at home and in the office. “They keep a fellow balanced,” Herb said. Morgan tossed his suit coat onto the hook by the door. It being that sort of day, he missed. It being that sort of day, he put off retrieving it from the floor in order to get a drink. His plan was to enter his immaculate kitchenette and reach into the refrigerator. Without having to look, he would grab the lone remaining bottle of light beer from the six-pack. He would pop it open, revel for a moment in the rush of cold beery effervescence, then flick the bottle cap into the recycling bin and retreat to the living room, where, after brushing off and hanging his suit coat, he would sink into the sofa for his customary several hours of whatever escapist fare happened to be on the free movie channels. As he happily recalled, there was something special on one of them tonight. Suddenly he froze. Someone was on the back porch, lurking in the shadows. The intensity of the pounding of Morgan’s heart made it a challenge to stay afoot. The figure stepped into the light. It was the man last seen (outside prison walls) at the Shore Havens Yacht Club Costume Ball, in a pirate costume. His face was still angular, but softer, his frame still wiry, but withered—like that of a wild tiger long ago stuck in a minor-league zoo. His smart, sunny hair had been transformed into a turbulent sea of white; his face was a road map of wrinkles and creases—mostly from scowling. His eyes, formerly sparkling blue advertisements of audacity, were now set deeper, shaded by a thicker, chalkier brow, and offering as much warmth and allure as a back alley. Morgan struggled to find his voice. “Dad?” he croaked.

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“I almost didn’t recognize you,” the man said. “I was looking for a boy.” Indeed, they’d last seen one another through a three-inch-thick slab of Plexiglas at the Northern Florida State Correctional Facility, in 1977. Their final contact, a year or so later, was a letter from Morgan that contained a newspaper account of a Little League baseball game, complete with a grainy team photo. Morgan never received a response. Morgan’s shock was supplanted by wariness. “What happened?” he asked. “Did you bust out of jail?” “They finally sprung me. Can you believe it?” Morgan stood at the door without opening it. “If someone else were to verify it . . . ” If Isaac Baker had hoped for a more effusive greeting, he didn’t show it. Then again, Isaac had never worn his heart on his sleeve. In fact, Morgan recalled, the sonofabitch wore a dagger—the tattoo on his forearm. For that reason, when Isaac turned, visibly apprehensive, to scan the street, Morgan scrutinized it, too. Anything that worried Isaac to the extent it actually showed, Morgan thought, would likely stop his own heart. The street, though, was empty. Uneasy nonetheless, Isaac said, “Could I come inside?” Morgan could think of no scenario whereby that would help matters or in any way be good. “What do you want?” he asked. “Bit of a story there.” “Just tell me the part about why you’re here.” “When I was released this morning, outside the prison gate, there were two men waiting for me. They were waiting in ambush.” “Other sons of yours?” “Pirates, probably.” Morgan didn’t believe this, to put it mildly. “In prison,” he asked, “did you participate in one of those programs where they give you experimental drugs?” Isaac squinted, which Morgan recognized as indignation. “One of them,” Isaac said, “had a hook for a hand.”

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“A lot of people do. We have a guy at work with one.” “They’re after my treasure,” Isaac said. Reading Morgan’s skepticism, he conceded, “I know it’s hard to believe.” “I believe that the prison had a gate.” “If you let me in, just for a bit, I’ll explain. . . . ” Finding Morgan’s face as soft as granite, he scanned the street again. Not a vehicle or creature was stirring. Still, his anxiety remained. “There ain’t much time. Please, lad.” Morgan reviewed an extensive mental list of reasons not to, yet, for reasons unknown to him, he opened the door. Isaac bounded into the kitchen. He wore a stiff white shirt and blue suit pants that looked to Morgan to have been sewn from industrial carpet fibers. Parting gifts, no doubt, from the state of Florida. To Morgan’s annoyance, Isaac flung open the refrigerator. “Just help yourself,” Morgan said. Isaac eyed the lone remaining bottle of light beer. “Don’t you got any real beer?” “Terribly sorry, no.” Isaac grabbed it anyway, an instant before Morgan snapped the refrigerator shut. “Ain’t had a beer for twenty-seven years,” Isaac said. Yet, with one finally in his grasp, he exhibited no trace of what Morgan, recalling Isaac’s affinity for the beverage, imagined would be unadulterated bliss. Prison, Morgan suspected, had made him even harder than he was before. Although Morgan had seen firsthand just how far the Northern Florida State Correctional Facility was from cushy, he’d always thought that his indomitable father would soften it. He’d imagined choruses of sea chanties warming cold cell blocks. By the looks of him, though, Isaac had had few such moments there, if any. Which was good. He deserved it. Isaac tried to open the bottle by whacking the cap against the edge of Morgan’s lovingly pine-scent-polished Formica countertop. “It’s a twist-off,” Morgan shrieked. He found, fortunately, no damage to the counter. His anger

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subsided as he witnessed the fascination with which Isaac experienced what, for him, was a technological advance: the twist-off bottle cap. When Isaac flicked the cap off a wall, Morgan reheated. It ricocheted, nicking a cabinet, before lodging into the bar of Ivory in the soap caddy by the sink. Morgan plucked it out, and, making no effort to veil his irritation, fired it into the recycling bin. Ambling out, Isaac exhibited no sign of having noticed. Morgan found Isaac in the living room. He was inspecting the décor—or lack thereof. Morgan read his pursed lips as disappointment. At the same time Morgan recalled that, unless it was part of a bamboozle, the range of emotions Isaac made plain to others was only slightly greater than that of a fish. Where another man might cry or holler for an hour, all the while smashing dishes and television sets, Isaac would show a trace of red in his cheeks, and that’d be it. Accordingly, Morgan wondered what the bamboozle was tonight. “You still counting beans for the fish stick company?” Isaac asked. The contempt in his voice struck Morgan like a blow, and led him to rule it foolish to continue harboring a potentially dangerous criminal, not to mention an insolent one. Then it struck him as curious that Isaac knew about his job. “Fish sticks,” Morgan said defensively, in spite of himself, “is just one of twenty-two divisions. Vail & Company is a major international conglomerate.” Isaac took a slug of beer as if to treat his disappointment. “Lad,” he said, “how’d you wind up working as a bean counter at a conglomerate?” “With a little luck, I could make VP in a couple of years.” “VP,” Isaac said, unimpressed. “Impressive.” He then plopped onto the sofa with a satisfied sigh, and, to Morgan’s irritation, he hoisted his dusty shoes onto the freshly pine-scent-waxed coffee table. “Know what your problem is, lad?” Isaac asked. Then, without

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giving Morgan a chance to respond, he told him. “You got the sea— you got pirate—in your blood. It’s just been misdirected, that’s all.” So, Morgan thought, he really believes the pirate crap! “My problem,” Morgan said, “is that I’ve got a wackjob, with his filthy feet on my coffee table, telling me what my problem is.” To remedy this he marched across the room and tore a phone book from a shelf. “Okay, okay,” Isaac said, extra nice, “how about we start over?” “I’m calling you a cab. Unless you’ve ‘acquired’ a car.” Isaac shook his head from side to side. Morgan copied AAAA Taxi’s phone number from the yellow pages onto a notepad. “Where’s it taking you?” “Actually, I could use a place. Just for the night.” “No problem. I’ll recommend a hotel.” He flipped the yellow pages to H. “Just listen to this first,” Isaac begged. “How’d you be interested in a third-share of $42.7 million worth of gold ingots?” The thought of $14,233,333.33 struck Morgan’s fancy. Then again, at least once a week he received an envelope notifying him, in big gold letters, that he was the lucky winner of more than five times that amount. He estimated the junk mail exponentially more likely than Isaac to yield a penny. Furthermore, even in the wildly unlikely scenario that Isaac’s millions in gold did exist, Morgan figured he could trust him as far as he could throw him. Prone to such estimates, Morgan calculated that distance, accounting for his own poor physical condition, at about three-and-a-half feet. Sum total: He scribbled the number and address of a hotel onto the notepad. Isaac watched, seemingly stunned at Morgan’s lack of interest. “That’s at yesterday’s rate,” he said. “Could be up to forty-five million today.” “Let me guess. You made it selling Amway products from jail?” “No. I pirated it. Thirty-six years ago. From smugglers in the Caribbean.” “Back when you were a pirate?”

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“Aye,” Isaac said, for effect. It had the wrong effect. Morgan glanced at the yellow pages and said, “I should be looking under M.” “Motels?” “Mental institutions.” Isaac appeared stung. Morgan regretted having been too harsh on an old man who was very likely a victim of mental illness. “Listen, Isaac,” he said, “this is what happened. Twenty-seven years ago, you went to a costume party—let’s set aside the reason why for the moment. You were dressed as a pirate.” “Where do you think I got the outfit?” “A store?” “Nope. I already owned it.” “Oh. Well then, that clinches it. You’re a pirate.” Isaac acknowledged, with a chuckle, that that wasn’t the best substantiation he could have provided. “Know how I always told you how, when you were a baby, we moved to Pensacola from Cleveland?” he asked. “Yes.” “Well, I lied.” “There’s a change of pace.” Isaac ignored the barb. “We came from the Sugar Islands,” he said. He saw that the name meant nothing to Morgan. “It’s a small range in the Caribbean that doesn’t make it onto even the big maps. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t tell you about it. Had to keep it a secret to protect our true identity. Our last name’s not really Baker. It’s Cooke. As in the great Pirates Cooke.” This, too, held no significance for Morgan, which seemed to dismay Isaac. It did, however, remind Morgan of something he considered relevant. “This woman I work with,” he said, “she went to visit her father in his nursing home last week. He told her that from 1961 to 1978 he had secretly been Santa.” “Difference is Santa doesn’t really exist.” “I knew that way before the other kids,” Morgan snapped.

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Spurred by a rush of Christmas memories he wished he didn’t have, he snatched up the phone to call the cab. Isaac, though, clung to the point, asking, “You never thought it strange that we had no relatives come around?” “Not at all. I figured they’d gotten to know you.” “What about all the stories of sailors your mother used to tell?” “The difference between you and me—one of the differences— is that I knew they were just stories.” “You know ships still get raided in some parts of the world, yes?” As he dialed, Morgan replied, “By crooks in fast boats, sure. I’ve read about it.” “Why’s it so hard to believe I’d’ve done it?” Morgan stopped dialing. Isaac had a point there. Plus, the guy did have a tattoo of a ship on his arm, an affinity for sailing, and an extensive knowledge of maritime lore likely acquired outside of Cleveland. Also, he was a crook. “Piracy’s especially big down in the Sugar Islands,” Isaac explained. “Or at least it was forty years back. A lot of the small commonwealths there couldn’t afford to build or maintain navies, so they turned a blind eye to their own native pirates in the hope they’d keep the local waters free of smugglers and such.” Intrigued, Morgan placed the phone back on the cradle. For the moment. Isaac happily continued. “I did some crewing on pirate boats, had a few decent scores as captain of my own. And one big one. It came the year you were born, 1967. Off the coast of Bermuda— a brig called the Lady Gertrude, bound for Brazil, sailed by the Hoods.” “Which hoods?” “Hood is a family name. And couldn’t be a more fitting one. Historically, they were two-bit pirates and slave traders. In the sixties, they were running dope for the what’s-their-names . . . the Gaxzoncas.” With the last name Isaac mentioned, Morgan’s skepticism

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returned full-bore. “I think you read about them in a men’s magazine,” he said. Out of necessity Isaac spelled out the name, then explained, “They’re Brazilian drug dealers. Carved their niche in the high school market. Lord knows to what new depths of mire the Hoods’ve sunk since. But it was their men that tried to get me this morning.” “Why?” “I’m telling you. I took their gold.” “So you’re saying you’ve had forty-some million worth of gold all these years?” “Right after plundering the Lady Gertrude—the Hood brig—I stowed the gold in a cave on a tiny, completely uncharted isle down in the Lower Sugars. Next day, when I got home to Plantayne, the island where we lived, I got wind that a cutter from the Brazilian navy was looking for me. To arrest me. Obviously, the cutter’s captain was on the Hoods’ payroll. But you don’t want to be scrapping with the Brazilian navy under any circumstance. So I decided you, me, and your mom—Lord rest her—had best lam it north at once, and wait ’til the heat died before going back for the gold. But once we were here . . . ” “You ran into an unexpected delay,” Morgan said. He meant the unexpected twenty-seven-year delay. “Pretty much so, yes. But now, that major international conglomerate you work for—their yacht’d be perfect.” So that, Morgan realized, was what this was about. Isaac somehow had learned about the company yacht, and he had shown up because, for some reason, he wanted it. Although he’d expected no less, Morgan felt as though he’d eaten something rotten. “It’d get us down into the Sugars without drawing notice,” Isaac continued, “then let us access the treasure island, which is in the middle of nowhere planes go. . . . ” “First, it’s not mine,” Morgan said. He thought it pitiful how poorly Isaac had thought this through. “The Accounting

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Department doesn’t exactly have yacht privileges. And, even if we did, you think I’d let you take her to the Caribbean?” Evidently, this was not the response Isaac had anticipated. He proceeded to get up and pace the room, as if trying to formulate a new tactic. Reading the framed SMILE AND THE WORLD WILL SMILE WITH YOU! didn’t help. He looked like he might gag. He continued pacing until coming to the model ship on the mantelpiece. She was a complete sloop—as opposed to a half-model— replete with sails, rigging, and gear. The fastenings, the planking, the lines—even the blocks and sheaves—were all meticulously handcrafted. The wheel actually spun, the rudder turned, and the portholes snapped open, enabling Isaac to peer inside, where, per tradition of the finest model makers, the hold was stowed with drums, ballast, and spare gear and the galley fitted with tiny utensils and mess implements. Isaac whistled. “She musta cost you.” “Not the most intelligent purchase,” Morgan said. It seemed to provide Isaac inspiration. “Another reason for us sailing down together,” he told Morgan, “is it’d be nice if me and you spent some, what do they call it, ‘quality time.’ ” Morgan responded with a roll of his eyes, which was an understatement. Isaac proceeded undaunted. “Before I went upriver, you know what was my greatest joy?” Morgan took a halfhearted guess. “Beer?” Isaac laughed. “No. The times out in the boat. Just us two lopers. You were a natural for the sea.” “I liked it,” Morgan admitted. The boat indeed provided him some warm recollections. He had looked forward to going out all week long. The first thing he did upon arriving home from school on Friday afternoons was prepare the “biscuit and hardtack” (a Pensacola variation more commonly known as salami sandwiches) to take along the next day. Finally Saturday morning would arrive. They would fish, sing sea chanties, have sword fights with boughs of seaweed. In his own

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crusty way, Isaac was quite loving—or so Morgan thought. But then . . . “But then,” Morgan snarled, “the boat became State’s Exhibit B.” “And so now what’s become of you?” Isaac asked. “You want to be a VP?” He dragged out “V” and “P” so as to fill them with disdain. “Yes,” Morgan replied. “That, and the things it makes possible. A nice house, financial stability, family—things I’ve never had.” Isaac scoffed. “You’d be bored with that malarkey by the end of the first day.” “Look, maybe it isn’t as fulfilling as jail. . . . ” “I know those VPs. Knew ’em back in Pensacola. Drones! Every morning, year in, year out, they lace up their uncomfortable shoes, stuff ’emselves into their starched shirts and suits and choking ties, then lug their briefcases, catch the same bus or sit in the same traffic jam—all to go to a job that wastes away the sunshine, never really pays enough, and gives ’em little or no joy. Then, at night, poor swabs do the same cruise in reverse, only to come home to the predictable problems of family life—the house needing repairs, the lawn needing mowing, the neighbor needing killing. . . . ” Some of this rang true to Morgan. Upon further reflection, he attributed it merely to his frustrations of that day. Reason managed to prevail, and he declared, “After you went upriver, when I was stuck in the state homes, I would’ve given anything for those problems, let alone one of those drones.”

A few minutes later, having asked Isaac never to return and to lose the address, Morgan watched him slide into the backseat of a yellow cab bound for the Acme Motor Lodge. Inexplicably, Isaac was whistling a happy tune.

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hat night Morgan slept fitfully when he slept at all. In the morning, a long shower failed to revive him. Then he noticed, on his dresser, the Dale Carnegie quote Herb had xeroxed for him. Morgan had been meaning to tape it to the mirror. Enthusiasm, it asserted, is the quality that most frequently makes for success. With that in mind, Morgan stood straighter, chose an especially crisp white shirt, donned a pair of gray suit pants fresh from the dry cleaner’s, and hoisted them aloft with smart suspenders. Then he laced on his favorite tie—the one the Flicks had given him the previous Christmas, with golf clubs crossed like swords—and knotted it with a bold dimple. Strangely, no matter how much he fiddled with it, the tie felt tight. In his kitchenette Morgan unenthusiastically munched his way through his usual bowl of cereal. He decided it would be healthiest to write off last night’s encounter as no more than a bad movie he’d seen on TV. He then recalled that, ironically, it had been Captain Blood, the old Errol Flynn pirate flick, that he’d been meaning to watch. Next he drove to work, though “drove” would not have been his choice of words as it implies motion. As usual, traffic on 85 was bumper to fender. As the perky morning show guy forecast “a sunny, sunny, sunny day,” Morgan, despite having repeatedly reminded himself that doing so would be counterproductive, wondered what would become of Isaac. He supposed another botched crime would land him back “upriver.” Lost in such thoughts, he failed to see that an entire carlength’s worth of asphalt had opened ahead of him. The observant trucker behind him, however, did notice, and set things right by

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pounding his horn—which was loud enough to wake the clients in the nearby mortuary—eight times.

At the entrance to Vail & Company nearest the parking lot, Morgan produced his wallet from his suit coat, fished for his ID card, and, oddly, came up empty. He rifled through the rest of his pockets to similar exasperating result. Though he couldn’t imagine how the card could have wound up there, he looked in his briefcase, too. It hadn’t wound up there. As Morgan girded himself for the perspiration-inducing quartermile walk around the building to the main entrance, where the receptionists would wave him in, Herb Flick bounded up, holding forth his own ID card as if it were the key to the gates of heaven. “Lucky thing I came, no?” Herb chirped. Morgan, comforted by the familiar gust of wintergreen and the cream with which Herb regimented his hair, offered a chipper, “Sure is.” His underlying melancholy, however, wasn’t lost on his mentor. “I heard about the Acquisitions meeting yesterday, champ,” Herb said, clapping a supportive hand on Morgan’s shoulder and propelling him inside. “Just remember, a frown takes forty-three muscles, but a smile takes only seventeen.” An appreciative Morgan deployed his muscles accordingly as he and Herb walked into the Accounting Department and its fanfare of chatter, snapping keyboards, and quacking phones. Morgan thought the sounds soothing. Still, once he sat down to work, for some reason he couldn’t concentrate. Not enough sleep, he guessed. At the simulated wood desk in the small, plastic-walled cubicle he considered a second home, he found himself, for the however-many-eth time that morning, staring at his computer screen without having read more than a word or two. He leaned back and kicked up his feet to take a break. Just then Herb popped his head through the doorway. Herb

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may have been a friend, but he was also the boss, and one who liked to recite eight different maxims on the evils of sloth. Morgan shot bolt upright in his chair, as if that might, in Herb’s mind, relegate his previous posture to a momentary trick of the eye. It didn’t. Regardless, per a note taken in a management seminar, Herb affected a warm smile and said, “Sorry to interrupt your toil, junior.” “No problem, Herb. How’s it going?” “Great, great, great. Except for this call I just got from Mackey Reade—you know, head of Marketing. I told him it must just be some sort of misunderstanding, as, certainly, you’re well aware you don’t have the authorization. He’d just called Dolphin Cove to reserve for this evening and was told that you had already signed for the keys to the Big Fish! ” Morgan recalled that that was the name of the company yacht. Then, all of a sudden, he realized what had happened to his ID card.

The Big Fish was a sleek white fiberglass fifty-four-foot Heinziger low-profile cruising yacht powered by twin-inboard ten-cylinder diesel engines. Her sprawling stern deck featured plush lounge seating, a freestanding dining table with six chairs, and a wet bar. For many years she saw repeated action as the site of Avery Vail’s sundown daiquiri soirées. The captain and mate stood a few steps up, on the bridge, where the controls were nestled behind a highframed glass windshield replete with wipers. Below, Haiki, Avery’s personal French-Vietnamese chef, prepared sumptuous meals in a galley with amenities more deluxe than those in 95 percent of American homes. If not under the stars, dinner was served at the mahogany dining room table, which comfortably accommodated eight. The Big Fish also boasted three heads, two cabins appointed with rich teak cabinetry, and a master stateroom with a fully equipped entertainment center and a king-sized bed. The last saw repeated action during Avery’s postsundown soirées. The invitees were, invariably, models. This came to an end in 1998. That’s when Avery

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upgraded to a custom-built Heinziger 196-footer, which, relatively speaking, enabled one to avoid roughing it so much. The Big Fish was left to other Vail executives. Now, as she bobbed alongside the Dolphin Cove Marina’s floating dock, Isaac heaved a battered, battleship gray sea chest over the stern railing. It landed on the deck with a thunk Morgan felt a hundred yards away as he sprang out of the Skylark. Catching sight of him, Isaac hurried aboard and released the lines. Boiling to begin with, Morgan was further riled by the saltwater that splashed between the bouncing duckboards onto his freshly dry-cleaned pants. Before he was even halfway to the Big Fish, Isaac ascended the bridge. Morgan feared he was too late. Once at the helm, though, Isaac appeared to experience the shocking realization that there had been a radical change in piloting technology since he had last been aboard a motorized yacht. The digital fathometer and radar unit plainly mystified him, and he seemed to have even less idea what the hell the Loran and satellite navigational aids were. Finding the ignition was more than enough trouble. By the time he finally managed to do so and had brought the engines bubbling to life, Morgan had leapt onto the stern. Isaac looked down from the bridge as if pleasantly surprised to see him. “Oh, good,” he said, “I was just about to call you.” Morgan screamed, “You stole my ID card and—” “I didn’t steal it,” Isaac interrupted with indignation. “Why would anyone steal an ID card? You can’t fence an ID card. I borrowed it.” “—and now you’re stealing my company’s yacht!” “It’s not as if I didn’t invite you along.” “I’m going to invite the police along, too. Hope you don’t mind.” Isaac stood for a moment and stroked his chin. Then, appearing remorseful, he cut the engines, removed the key from the ignition, and tossed it down to Morgan. “Listen, lad,” he said, full of contrition, “tell you the truth, I’ve been so caught up in getting down to the Sugar Islands, I didn’t consider, ’til now, how this might affect you. I don’t expect any forgiveness, but, for what it’s worth, know that I’m sorry.”

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If Isaac had expected this would soften Morgan, he was disappointed. Dismissing the penitence as part of a new bamboozle, Morgan’s response was a steely, “Good.” “I’ll find me some other way down there.” “Good.” “And I’ll get out of your life.” Morgan began to say, “Good” once more, but ruled it too harsh. “Tell you what,” Isaac said, “just so’s we don’t part like this, what say you, we find us a pub and I buy you a nice, cold light beer?” “It’s ten in the morning,” Morgan said.

Half an hour later Morgan and Isaac were sitting across from one another in the ample corner booth at the Compass Rose, the small coffee shop overlooking the marina. The waitress cleared the remains of Isaac’s scrambled eggs, onto which he’d dumped more hot sauce than any five customers she’d ever seen. Morgan had ordered only a mug of decaffeinated coffee. Still lingering over it, he was charmed, despite himself, by Isaac’s narration—Morgan was sure most of it was delusional—of “days spent sailing beneath the warm sun, and nights spent on coral islands fringed with coconut palms, the sounds and smell of the jungle, the taste of salt in the air, and us pirates sprawled out on soft, silvery sand lapped by golden surf, a jug of rum in one hand, beautiful girl in the other.” “Sounds slightly nicer than my cubicle,” Morgan said. “I tell you, lad, you’d love it down there.” Morgan didn’t consider it. His own mention of work had prompted him to eye the clock on the wall above the fryer hood. It told him that he needed to hurry back to reality and give Mackey Reade’s secretary the boat keys. “Well, maybe some other time,” he said, gulping down the remainder of his coffee.

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faint cry of seabirds woke Morgan. He was sprawled, he realized, on the stern of the Big Fish, his face stuck to the deck by his own sweat. Once he’d managed to pry it free, he saw, through cobwebs, that there were no other boats in sight, nor anything else for that matter, except for blue water and sky. Gradually, Isaac came into focus on the bridge. He’d changed from his state-of-Florida-issued suit into a pair of sailor’s knickers, rid himself of his state-issued shirt—likely, overboard—and reinserted the gold hoop earring last worn at the party in 1976. As the yacht flew at her top speed of twenty-five knots, his hair flapped like a white cape, and his face and body glistened in the sea spray. An even greater change in his appearance was attributable to the bliss, the thrill, the whirl, of once again sitting in a captain’s chair, bounding over whitecaps and breathing deeply of hot, salty air as he provided distance between himself and gray terra firma. Morgan, in contrast, felt as if someone had inserted a cinder block into his skull—through an ear. He combated a seemingly saltcaked windpipe to croak, “Where are we?” “Passed Havana about two bells ago.” Morgan struggled to his feet, then leaned over the starboard rail and threw up. “Weak stomach, ey?” Isaac chuckled. “No. What was in that coffee?” “Nothing that won’t do you good.” Seeking to turn off the shower of perspiration he was giving himself, Morgan tried to remove his suit coat, but couldn’t because his wrists had been bound together, in front of him, by thick, braided nylon cord. His resulting groan drew no notice from Isaac.

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The warmth Isaac had displayed at the marina and, subsequently, at the coffee shop had vanished altogether. It had merely been tactical, Morgan realized. He was enraged with himself for having failed to realize it sooner. At the same time, additional rage, directed toward Isaac, swelled within him at a rate and volume he’d never before experienced. Ultimately it drowned out the rest of his thoughts, and, next thing he knew, he was rushing the bridge. Or trying to. After just a few strides he was snapped back toward the railing. His right ankle had been bound to it by a strong, waxed cotton life-preserver strap, which had been padlocked into place. Morgan slumped against the bulwark and said, “Poisoning, theft, kidnapping—these things are not good.” Isaac nodded his agreement. “But I couldn’t have you ringing the cops.” “You have to at least let me call in to the office.” “Can’t do that.” “Do you want me to lose my job?” “It’s not that. The ship’s radio had a tracking system. I had to toss it.” Morgan crumpled the rest of the way to the deck. “Well,” he said, “I guess the good news is I would’ve had no idea what to say to my boss if I did call. ‘I’m really sorry, Herb, but I was abducted by my father, who thinks he’s a pirate.’ And what would he say? ‘Oh, no problem, that’s been happening a lot.’ ” “I’ll give you your liberty soon as we land in Plantayne.” “At least untie me,” Morgan said. He wasn’t sure how he might gain control of the yacht, but figured being free of the padlock would be a good start. “Maybe I can take a turn at the helm or something—anything to help us get there quicker.” Isaac clearly smelled the rat—his response consisted of a laugh. He then rummaged through his sea chest and produced a ukulele. Morgan jettisoned the cooperative act and shouted, “You have got to turn this boat around! Now!”

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As if not having heard him, Isaac strummed a few chords. Then he began to sing, something he did so far off tune that Morgan questioned whether Isaac was trying to torture him on top of everything else. To the mast, raise our flag. It is dark as the grave. On the dread which it bears, sweeping o’er the wave . . . Morgan recognized “The Pirate Song” and added it to the list of once-fanciful memories of their Saturday morning fishing trips now relegated to “disturbing.” In addition, he suspected that if Isaac were to have delivered this rendition aboard an actual pirate ship, the crew would have deboned him. “Do you have any aspirin?” Morgan asked. Isaac lowered a bottle of rum to the deck and rolled it toward him. Then he returned to singing: I strike f or the memory of long-vanished years. I only shed blood where another sheds tears. I come, as the lightning comes, red from above, o’er the seamen I loathe, to the battle I love. Morgan was resigned to the fact that he was this lunatic’s prisoner, at least for the time being. Trying to avert his thoughts from his situation, he noted the rhythmic patting of the waves against the bow and the touch of violet materializing in the western sky. There was an old poem that had stuck with Morgan since he

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read it in an anthology in tenth grade. Its author, somewhat more contemplative than that of “The Pirate Song,” had asked: What man has not desired to lie upon a barque and admire the clouds flying across the heavens? What man has not f elt a longing to stretch out on a deck and contemplate the f eatures of the Universal Mother? What man has not wanted to relax atop the waves and f eel the slow beat of her eternal heart? What man has not wanted to thus f orget his woes, and let his identity be swallowed in the vast imperceptibly moving energy of her of whom we are, from whom we came, and with whom we shall again be mingled? Morgan realized that he, Morgan Arthur Baker, was that man. Whereas another might have been enthralled by the spectacle of the waning sun setting the western horizon aglow, Morgan watched the shadows appearing over the face of the waves, and they led his thoughts to the boundlessness and unknown depths of the sea, which were, he felt, singular in the feelings of loneliness, of foreboding, and of dread that they inspired. All he wanted was to be in his cubicle.

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hat night, as cooling trade winds sighed across Morgan’s detention area, Isaac swung the Big Fish west along the Twenty-fourth Parallel, rounding Cuba. The circuitous route added considerably to what would have been a six-hundred-mile journey, and risked

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depleting their sixteen-hundred-gallon fuel supply. Although puzzled, Morgan didn’t bother asking about it. His previous queries regarding their plans had all been met with a terse, “Get the gold.” Isaac, Morgan had concluded, was intent on the gold with a singlemindedness that made Midas seem well-rounded—and, along those lines, Ahab carefree, and Quixote sane. Gradually, Morgan discerned that Isaac had chosen this route for the simple reason that there was no civilized land in the immediate western vicinity of Cuba, hence less traffic, hence less chance of being spotted. Over the ensuing thirty-two hours, the Big Fish raced through the Lesser Antilles region without once sighting land. Only twice did they see another vessel—a cruise ship off Jamaica and an oil tanker west of Haiti (which Isaac annoyingly referred to as Hispaniola, as it had been called during pirate days). Neither craft came close enough for Morgan to even consider shouting or otherwise signaling for help. His communication with Isaac during that time consisted of only one exchange of any significance, on the subject of the “mess.” On the first day of their journey, dinner had consisted of nacho cheese-flavored taco chips. When the second day brought a salt-and-vinegar-flavored taco chips supper and a dinner of chililime-salsa-flavored taco chips, Morgan entreated Isaac to take inventory of the galley, which was likely stocked with more fine food and wine than many restaurants. To no avail. Isaac’s twin necessities of nonstop piloting and keeping a close eye on Morgan precluded either of them from going below. Furthermore, prior to his imprisonment, Isaac had never tasted even taco-flavored taco chips. Now infatuated with them, he was more than fine with the mess as it was.

Morgan awoke the third morning as the stars were fading from an amber sky. Based on the passage of time and his scant knowledge of geography, he figured the Big Fish was about seventy-five miles

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south of the Antilles. He felt haggard, wrinkled, and hollow eyed, and, as the starboard rail reflected, he looked worse. Isaac, in contrast, appeared as if he’d had a good night’s sleep in a feather bed. The heavy sprinkling of salt constituting his beard growth was the only evidence that he’d spent nearly forty-eight straight hours at the helm—and at the helm he remained, like a pillar. He was staring ahead, at what appeared to Morgan to be a bluish cloud hovering above the sea. As they drew closer, its color became sharper and greener, and Morgan could see gaps and protrusions upon its surface. Soon he could distinguish trees and rocks. Then, as the sun rose, he could fully make out a small island enshrouded by mist—a function of skyscraping waterfalls pounding a coral bay. A light westerly breeze brought the pleasing scent of fertile soil and tropical verdure. Then the falls’ source, the majestic Mount Plantayne, emerged from the vapor, its leeward face shimmering in every imaginable shade of green and dotted with fiery oranges, lemons, limes, mangoes, and myriad flowers. About a thousand feet up, its peak disappeared into the clouds. This was why, entirely independent of the hit record of several hundred years later, the English settlers who first occupied the island called the mountain “Staircase to Heaven.” So Isaac explained, with a sudden chattiness. He was as happy, Morgan guessed, as he’d been in decades. “Plantayne,” Isaac all but sang. “Isn’t she beautiful?” At the moment, Morgan wasn’t interested in waterfalls and fruit. “Where’s the airport?” he asked.

Isaac smoothly maneuvered the Big Fish into the tiny harbor at the mountain’s base, then parked against the landing piles at a rickety pier that was equal parts mollusks and dried bamboo. Shoots of live bamboo lined the shore in clusters thirty feet high, red at the base before morphing into brilliant green. A few yards inland, they yielded to a rain forest comprised, principally, of palms and banana trees with leaves large enough to serve as sails. Once the yacht was docked, Morgan was slow to follow Isaac

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onto the pier. Though Isaac had untied him, his body seemed unwilling to believe that after more than three steps it wouldn’t be snapped back into the starboard rail. Also, he was arrested by the display overhead. Dozens of orange monkeys—lemurs, maybe?— were swinging from branch to branch. Hundreds of brightly colored little birds ducked out of the monkeys’ way while improbably circumnavigating the maze of shoots and boughs. All warbled, chirped, or bleated with such frequency that it seemed as if the island itself were one big super-amped flute. Carved into the base of the forest was the entrance to the island’s largest thoroughfare, a narrow, packed-sand path called Plantayne Avenue—according to the hand-painted sign tacked eye-high to the trunk of a seventy-foot-tall coconut palm. Morgan noticed an older Plantayne Avenue sign halfway up the tree. The path led, Isaac claimed, to town. Weary and slow to recover his land legs, Morgan struggled to keep pace. Fortunately, the shade provided a welcome respite from the heat, already considerable despite the early hour. A rush of jasmine filled his nostrils. Under other circumstances, he might have appreciated it. A quarter mile later, they came to “town.” Winded from the walk, Morgan surveyed the two-dozen small structures. The sturdiest were built of whitewashed mud. Most, in Robinson Crusoe fashion, were constructed of bamboo, with roofs of thatched palm fronds. The “Supermarket,” still shuttered at this early hour, was no larger than a typical American two-car garage. It was the largest building in Plantayne, edging out the neighboring “School/Nightclub” by a dozen cubic feet. Just up the block was the Plantayne Power & Electricity Authority, a glorified shed that channeled the stream trickling down from Mount Plantayne through a slow-spinning wooden waterwheel. Morgan doubted it manufactured enough electricity to power an average central-air-conditioned house in Miami. Traffic that morning consisted of a circa 1875 four-wheeled cart hauled by an elderly donkey. And nothing else. Isaac was stunned. “It’s really been built up,” he said.

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Morgan was unnerved by a different observation. “There are no phone lines here.” Isaac nodded. “There’s no phones on Plantayne. All they got here’s b-mail.” “Fine,” Morgan said, relieved. “I’ll book a flight online.” “Book a flight on what?” “Online.” “What’s that?” “I’ll e-mail the travel service.” “E-mail?” “Yeah.” “The hell’s that?” “You just said they had it.” “Not e-mail. B -mail.” “The hell is that? ” “Mail delivered by birds.” “Birds?!” “We’ll send one cross-island when the post office opens up,” Isaac said matter-of-factly. “Book you on the ferry to the Sugar City Aeroport. Get you on your way fast.” “Sounds great,” Morgan said. By “great” he meant “better than nothing.” They passed a tiny barbershop. That this decaying bamboo structure still managed to stand must have rankled Gravity. Due to the hour it, too, was still closed—but not empty. Hidden from Isaac’s view were two sets of beady eyes studying him through the shop’s spiderweb-draped window. All Morgan saw in the glass was his chaotic reflection. Once he booked a flight, he would try to secure some pomade. A dry cleaner’s, he lamented, would likely not find its way to this island for centuries. At the sight of Burnie’s Diner at the top of the avenue, Isaac’s step added a bounce. “What do you say we get us some breakfast first?” he said. “Burnie’s the last surviving member of my crew—besides myself of course. Whale of a gunner. Doubled as ship’s cook. We call him Burnie ’cause a what he does to chow. Still, I been

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looking forward to one of his conch-salad sandwiches for thirty-five years. How’s one sound to you?” “Are we out of taco chips?” replied Morgan. Isaac’s brow knitted, as if in appraisal of Morgan’s ingratitude. Nevertheless, he dug into his knickers, fished around his expansive pocket, and, along with his telescope, produced a rolled-up bag with a few remaining chips. He turned to toss the bag to Morgan. Inexplicably, Morgan was no longer there. The surrounding stores had yet to open and so were ruled out as places he might have gone. Adding to the mystery, Isaac was the only person on the avenue. He looked at the donkey, as if hoping for an account of what had happened. The donkey proved no help. In fact, Morgan was just a few feet away, in a narrow alleyway, unconscious. The pair of beady-eyed men from the barbershop were stuffing him into a large canvas sack. Then they dragged him away.

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organ came to inside the barbershop, in a rusty, crackedleather-cushioned barber’s chair that, now pumped to its highest, stood about four feet off the sandy plank floor. He tried to grasp his throbbing head for fear it might split apart, but his hands, along with much of the rest of him, had been bound to the seat by thick rawhide straps—the sort used to scrape clean straight-edged razors. As it happened, the shop could have served as a museum of objects used to cut oneself free. Hundreds of rusty scissors, razors, knives, swords, daggers, and other blades dangled by hooks and nails from the warped walls and grimy bamboo rafters. All, unfortunately, were beyond Morgan’s reach.

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As he took in more of his surroundings, he could discern no apparent organization or order whatsoever, leading him to the conclusion that the items were not a display but, rather, the effect of multiple generations of barbers who were simply bad at throwing stuff out. Lending credence to that theory, the cabinets and shelves were in chaos, overflowing with barbering products, including wig powder, mustache wax, and a corroded can of hair tonic endorsed by Rudolph Valentino. There was even a bottle of a baldness remedy bearing the boast 100% PURE SNAKE OIL! Morgan then became aware of the men who’d kidnapped him. One of them yanked storm curtains across the windows. The other rammed home the door bolt. Despite the hot, limpid air, icy fear flooded Morgan’s veins. “Yeh know who we are, aye?” the first man asked him. He spoke with a wheeze, as well as an unusual patois that sounded as if it were a blend of Brighton, England, and Brighton Beach. Morgan looked the men over. Each was in his forties, of average size—though on the lean side, in a hungry sort of way—and, unusual for the Caribbean, quite pale. They sported nattily coifed, jetblack hair, which would have fallen to their shoulders had it not curlicued at the neck. Their long, finely waxed mustaches stuck out like fishhooks. Even from across the shop their dark, closely set eyes managed to communicate hard times and resulting resentment. Not unrelated, perhaps, their white uniforms, the likes of which Morgan had seen only in old film clips of barbershop quartets, were stained and patched many times over. Morgan figured he was being asked some sort of trick question, but for lack of a better answer, he replied, “Barbers?” “Well, aye, tha’, o’course,” the man said. Then he added, proudly, “Our name’s Lafitte. I’m Emildeau Lafitte, an’ this ’ere’s Faldeau Lafitte.” The name Lafitte was familiar. A French wine, no? Morgan chewed it over, the necessity of which seemed to irk Emildeau. “Name means naught ter yeh?” “I know it should,” Morgan said respectfully.

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“Our ancestor, Jean Lafitte,” Emildeau proclaimed, “was the finest pirate e’er ter set keel in the Caribbean.” “Oh,” Morgan said. Then, sensing his captors were underwhelmed by his response, he added, “Wow!” “ ’Til ’e was crippled,” Emildeau continued, “cheated, was ’e, in a duel wi’ yer great-great-granfather, ’Enry Morgan Cooke. Yer namesake, innit?” Morgan recalled Isaac saying something about the family name originally having been Cooke. These Lafitte boys must have attended the same pirate fantasy camp. “I always figured,” he replied, truthfully, “that I was named after the guy on the rum bottle.” “No, no, no, tho’ tha’ rotter’s in yer line as well,” Emildeau clarified kindly. Then his outrage resurfaced. “After the duel, the only work Jean could git was cuttin’ ’air. An’ fer two cent’ries, while yeh Cookes, was a’capturin’ prize ’pon prize, we Lafittes a’bin barbers. Not the best line o’ work in these waters . . . ” To illustrate his point he waved at the far wall. Morgan turned and saw dozens of framed portraits—most with the oil paint cracking—of the barbershop’s customers, just about all of whom were pirates with long, scraggly hair and beards. Several shared the same features—particularly the sugar-cube toothy grin—as the yellow-maned young man in one of the more recently painted portraits. According to the tin placard nailed to its base, this was CAPTAIN ISAAC COOKE—and, unmistakably, it was Isaac, in his early twenties or thereabouts. A chill from the sort of astonishment that comes once in every hundred lifetimes shot from Morgan’s toes to his head. Everything Isaac had been saying, he realized at once—every syllable of it—was not crazy at all, but true as the seven o’clock news, if not truer. It occurred to Morgan that he was merely dreaming, but, reminded of the presence of the Lafittes by their hot, angry breath, he determined he was, in fact, awake. He also determined that the Lafittes had eaten anchovies for breakfast. “But today,” roared Emildeau, having become increasingly heated by the recounting of his family’s misfortunes, “all tha’

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changes! Generations o’ wrong shall be righted. Startin’ wi’ the treasure taken by yer father from the Hoods.” Morgan muttered his new realization: “So there is one.” If he hadn’t been numbed so, he would have shouted it. “No bleedin’ shite,” Emildeau said. “Now, gettin’ down ter b’iness, where is it?” Morgan wished he knew. “I have no clue.” Emildeau turned to his brother. “Faldeau, ’e can’t possibly be this cracked.” Faldeau, theretofore silent, agreed, scoffing at the notion that, “ ’is auld man ne’er mentioned ’im the biggest pirate prize o’ the past ’alf a cent’ry!” “Honestly,” Morgan said, “I don’t have the slightest idea where it is.” Emildeau wheezed in such a way as to say that he didn’t believe a word. Then, upper lip twitching in the angry fashion of the Very Psychotic, he said, “Well, best get yeh one, quick, swab, or me brother’ll shave yeh so close, yeh’ll never sprout a whisker again.” Taking this as a cue, Faldeau plucked a straight-edged razor from the wall. Too frightened to contemplate a way to negotiate with these men or otherwise extricate himself from his predicament, Morgan simply spouted the truth. “Sirs, you’re not going to like this, but until a few moments ago I truly thought this whole treasure story was the result of my father’s going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride one too many times.” Emildeau shifted his focus to the razor in his brother’s hand. “Faldeau, tha’s the rustiest blade in the shop, innit?” “Aye.” The corners of Emildeau’s lips curled upward. “Good,” he said. With a similar countenance Faldeau opened the blade and laid it across the base of Morgan’s throat. He applied pressure, then more pressure. Morgan calculated that, at the rate the razor was going, his

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throat would be slit in approximately three seconds. “Stop,” he whispered, careful not to startle Faldeau in any way. “Please?” Faldeau eased up. “Suddenly rememberin’ sumpin’?” he chuckled. “Listen,” Morgan begged, “the fact of the matter is that if I were walking past this shop, and it was on fire, and my father were stuck inside with the treasure, I’d go in and rescue the treasure. And my only other concern would be that your nice barber towels might get smoke damage.” Faldeau turned to Emildeau. They shared a knowing look, and softened. Morgan suspected it was because their experience with Isaac wasn’t dissimilar to his. “If I knew where the treasure was,” Morgan continued, “I’d gladly go in on it with you. I could finally pay off my student loans, finally get rid of my old car, finally get a classic six-piece living room set and a house to put it in. I could do everything I’ve ever wanted with even a small fraction of 42.7 million—” He stopped abruptly, realizing his misstep. Too late. Faldeau trumpeted, “So ’e do know sumpin’ ’bout it, don’t ’e?” “That’s the only part I know,” Morgan said, squirming. “You have to believe me.” They didn’t. Per a nod from Emildeau, Faldeau reared back with the rusty razor. Then, abruptly, he pocketed it. The manicurist had unexpectedly appeared from the back of the shop. A few years earlier, the slender, young, starfish blond Polly Teach was crowned Miss Canoe, but, on Plantayne that day, someone not up on the results of neighboring island beauty pageants would never have guessed it. In the Lafitte Barbershop’s manicurist uniform—a shapeless white tunic, a matching pillbox cap, and chalky stockings of the sort seldom seen on a woman without great-grandchildren— she looked like an oversized saltshaker. “Would the customer be wantin’ a manicure?” she asked. “Yes!” Morgan exclaimed. “In fact, I’ve never wanted a manicure as badly as I do right now.”

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No sooner did he say this than he felt Faldeau’s razor blade press into the inner part of his thigh. Emphatically. “On second thought,” Morgan told Polly, “no thanks.” “Yeh can shove off early today, Polly,” Emildeau said. “How early?” she asked. “Now,” Emildeau said. “Right now,” Faldeau added, as if providing additional information. Given Polly’s look of bewilderment, and the evidence Morgan already had of the Lafittes’ frugality, he guessed that they didn’t let her off early during monsoons. In fact, they probably sent her out on house calls. As if expecting to be called back all the while, she proceeded to the door. Having reached it, she slid open the bolt—tentative still— and looked to her employers once more. Impatient, Emildeau waved her out. At the same time, Morgan contorted his face, hoping to somehow telegraph his plight to her. It resulted only in her eyeing him all the more strangely. Then she left. When the door fell shut behind her, Morgan’s heart sank. Worse, Faldeau again produced the razor as he and Emildeau reassumed their interrogation positions. Suddenly the door reopened, and there stood Isaac, boldly silhouetted in the morning sun. For the first time in twenty-seven years, Morgan was glad to see him. “Lad, if I’d known you wanted a haircut, I’d’ve recommended better,” Isaac said. Faldeau, having missed the point, protested, “We’re the only barbers on the island.” “Oh, no,” Isaac said, feigning grief. “Don’t tell me something happened to those headhunters who used to paddle over from Maraca.” Emildeau reddened. Following his example, so did Faldeau. “Isaac, please don’t piss these guys off,” Morgan pleaded. Noting Isaac grabbing a rusty broadsword from the wall and advancing

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on the Lafittes, he added, “Like, for example, by grabbing one of their swords off the wall and advancing on them.” Isaac sped toward the Lafittes, who quickly perused the wall and made selections of their own. Better selections. Morgan watched, again willing to believe this was all part of some strange reverie, as Faldeau charged Isaac with an antique threering-handled rapier. Isaac’s blade met it with a thunderous peal. Then, with a slithering of steel, he flung Faldeau back. Faldeau retreated, shaken. Only for a moment, though. Encouraged by Emildeau’s assertion that Isaac had “simply bin lucky,” he recovered his deportment and positioned himself for a swifter go. However, before he could take a single step, Isaac, with sword resembling a cyclone, drove him backward, until he could go no farther—his path was blocked by the barber chair in which Morgan sat, stupefied. So Faldeau simply swung. Again Isaac parried effortlessly. It seemed he could have done so blindfolded. This sequence repeated itself several times. Morgan crouched, a compacted block of fright, directly beneath the crossing blades, his head ringing with each clash. Isaac swatted aside Faldeau’s best shots as if he were seeing them in slow motion. Rapidly, Faldeau tired. Then Emildeau joined in, charging at Isaac with a freshly sharpened–looking long-sword of the sort wielded by the Knights of the Round Table. His participation shifted the tide. Suddenly it was Isaac who was backed against the barber chair. This turn of events frightened Morgan all the more. Then, from each side of his periphery, the Lafittes lunged at Isaac. Isaac might have attempted to parry one of their swords, or to retreat. Instead, he dropped to his knees, leaving Morgan the likely landing point for both Lafitte sword points, as well as apoplectic. Before the points landed, Isaac pounced onto the barber chair’s floor pedal. Morgan felt himself plummet, along with the seat. The tip of Emildeau’s sword flew just an inch above Morgan’s head, trimming a few of the hairs standing on end, and landed in

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Faldeau’s gut. Faldeau’s tip, in turn, disappeared into Emildeau’s sword arm. “Both of you get a tip today,” Isaac chuckled. Then, turning to Morgan, who was utterly agog, he added, “I guarantee you that’s a first.” The barbers, both writhing, collapsed to the floor, raising a cloud of hair clippings. Faldeau lost consciousness. Emildeau clung to his in order to declare, albeit with a weak wheeze, “Cookes, t’will not be the last yeh shall ’ear o’ the Lafittes. ’Pon me word an’ honor, we shall ’ave our vengeance!” Isaac paid no attention to him. He was intent instead on Morgan. “You tell them anything?” he asked. “No,” Morgan said. He was a bit miffed—though far from shocked—that this was Isaac’s primary concern, as opposed to, say, whether he’d been stabbed with a sword. “Good,” Isaac said. With a flick of his blade, he sliced away the straps binding Morgan. “Now step lively. You’ll miss your ferry.” Just a few minutes earlier nothing could have kept Morgan from sprinting to that ferry. A few minutes earlier, though, he didn’t know that the treasure was real. The notion of joining in Isaac’s pursuit of it didn’t come to Morgan as any sort of clarion call or epiphany. It wasn’t as if any latent pirate blood suddenly surged into his veins, nor did he suddenly feel a wild stirring in his heart for adventure and romance—at least not as far as he knew. Instead, he thought it was simply too much cash not to take a crack at. “Actually, I’ve decided you were right,” he told Isaac. “I think it would be good for us to spend some ‘quality time’ together.”

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Excerpted from Pirates of Pensacola by Keith Thomson. Copyright © 2005, 2011 by Keith Thomson.First published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Excerpted by permission of Keith Thomson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted in any format without permission in writing from the author. For information, contact the author at KeithThomsonBooks.com.

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