Saturday, May 9, 2009

He Likes Feet

Yesterday morning, after perhaps thirty minutes of preparation, I departed Virginia on a 1,137 mile journey for the express purpose of liberating a pair of pants held captive at Uncle Caesar’s homestead in Oklahoma. I was unsuccessful in securing a travel companion, to my great disappointment. Driving alone is boring, and I often have difficulty staying awake. Thank God for telephones. But in reality, though it may be fun to swear up and down that I undertook a half-country trip solely for a pair of favored pants, this was actually a planned event.

My old sister, who is a physicist, is scheduled to speak at a physicists’ conference (I prefer the term nerd convention) in Salt Lake City late next week. To capitalize on the free flight into the Rockies, she will be leaving early and spending a few days whirlwind touring through western slope Colorado, southern Utah, and potentially a few sights around the Four Corners area. I, driving out by car, will meet her at the airport, accompany her as I again visit Meeker, Colorado, and she sees it for the first time. A location so significant to our family history should not be overlooked. Uncle Caesar’s home in Oklahoma is merely my first stop on this trip.

I had been somewhat concerned that my travel by automobile would prove uneventful when compared with my more unique exploits of motorcycling last year. Without all the leather, the chaps, and a shiny motorcycle, I would no longer be an oddity. I’m just another guy passing through in a car. The entire drive, I feared, would be boring. To my great pleasure, however, two days of driving have yielded a plethora of interesting encounters that have convinced me that I either attract strange people, or perhaps they attract me. There were dry spells, clearly, but chance meetings and conversations have thus far served to disrupt the monotony.

Knoxville, TN will always be memorable to me, since it was where my motorcycle least year chose to break down, requiring my reliance on kindhearted strangers with low-bed trailers. Knoxville was also the place where I spent the night on a concrete stoop, shivering in the cold, while moths dropped on me from the security light overhead. Lastly, Knoxville was also the place where I came closest to being mugged in a bathroom by an insane man. Correction: it was the closest I have come as a civilian to drawing a weapon in self-defense. (Read about this event here)

Being stranded and at the mercy of strangers is probably what encouraged me to pick up the young man walking down the interstate in Knoxville, which turned out to be a memorable conversation. Joe, born in Utah in a tent to parents he described as “dirty, filthy hippies,” eventually migrated to Tennessee before a stint in the military was abbreviated further by some legal trouble. “It was probably for the better, though, since I didn’t want to go to Iraq. My unit ended up going into Fallujah, and they took a lot of casualties there. I mean, if I’m going to go to war and die, I’d prefer it be a war that I really believed in, which isn’t Iraq.”

Currently working in the construction trades and merely a year away from an electrician’s journeyman license, he’s hopeful the economy has seen its worst and will be soon improving. The building trades, perhaps more than any other, have been hard hit by consumer timidity. As is, he remains employed, but the business is nowhere near as lucrative as it was. He puts only enough gas in his ’83 Ford to get to and from work, which was probably the reason he was stranded on the side of the road – trucks don’t run on fumes. At any rate, while we chatted, he navigated me downtown to his bank, got me thoroughly lost, and I dropped him off and wished him the best of luck with repairing his truck. “It’s either just running on fumes, or maybe the fuel pump is gone.” Regardless, I hoped it would be a quick fix. Having been stranded before, I’m intimately aware how unpleasant it can be.

Several hundred miles and a dozen phone calls later, I stopped at a Waffle house for dinner, hobbling in as the older biker in the parking lot yelled something about “mind your own damn business” into his cell phone. He was pacing the curb with cell phone in one hand, and Waffle House coffee mug in the other. The food, typically Waffle House, was unimpressive, but edible. The waitress was lamenting she had made only a mere six dollars that shift. I had to wonder if it even covered gas costs to get there.

Back in the parking lot, I asked the biker how far he was riding on his ’05 Harley. Jack explained he was local, and immediately began apologizing for his language.

“I’m sorry for the words you may have heard as you walked inside. They weren’t very nice.”

“It’s life,” I assured him. No harm done.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Jack, too, had some military background, and also abbreviated. He had enlisted, lying about his age, and spent four weeks in Navy boot camp in the Great Lakes before they determined his real age and honorably discharged him. He had been fifteen.

“At least they gave you an honorable. Did you ever think about going back in?”

“Well, yeah, but I think I would have killed our drill sergeant. I hated that man’s guts so bad…”

My waitress came out and joined the conversation, plopping down on top of a newspaper stand on the curb and smoking. After lamenting the late night crowd that comes in and has pickle races down the windows, she shared the story of her friend that wrecked his motorcycle in a curve and wrapped himself around a fence.

“Did he live?” I asked.

“Yeah, but they had to graft some skin from his leg to cover the hole in his forehead. He wrecked just down the road from my house. I even heard it. It took me almost thirty minutes to find him, and when I did I just started screaming. ‘You’re hurt!’ I told him. He said no, he wasn’t, but he thought his nose was bleeding. I gave him a shirt I had in my trunk and told him to just hold it to his head.”

Jack piped up. “Is this the same guy that wrecked his bike for a second time not long ago and messed up his leg pretty bad? I just heard about it.”

“Probably. He drives too fast. Oh GOD!” She buried her head in her hands.

I started looking around, startled.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s him, over there.” She pointed to a pickup truck pulling up to the diner.

“You know him?”

“It’s the foot licker.”

“You mean, like, he licks windows or something?”

“Oh no. He likes to lick feet. He was on Jerry Springer not long ago. He offers women twenty dollars to let him put mayonnaise on their feet and lick them.”

Apparently Jack knew about him, too. “Actually, he offered one girl $150.”

As the older man stepped out of his truck, Jack announced suddenly that he needed to leave. My waitress did as well, and I, too, chose to make my exit. As I backed up the car, I observed the man immediately approach the waitress and grab her necklace, which was a large brass knuckle pendant.

“I like your necklace, girl” he said, too loudly. One of the line cooks, a towering man well over 6ft, 5in stepped in between her and the old man. Confident the situation was under control, I left. Later, I checked on the internet to see if I could find a photo of this foot licker on Jerry Springer. I think I was successful, but the image is too small and grainy to be worth linking to here. I apologize for my lack of evidence. I am simply amazed that such people actually do exist. I have been told that Wise county, VA, also has a number of repeat Jerry Springer “stars.” We live in a strange world, I suppose.

By the time I stopped yesterday evening, I had driven 840 miles, which put me ahead of schedule for today. Now, back in familiar territory, after driving over 1,000 miles without referring to maps, I am again holed up with Uncle Caesar for a night before continuing. I am pleased to find things as they were last August. This is my home away from home, and I like it here. The gas station still stocks Yoohoo’s – perhaps I am the only one that drinks them.

The entire countryside is flush with armadillos in their natural habitat, which as far as I can tell is dramatically and decidedly dead along the roadsides. Some things never change.

Tomorrow: "We Won't Kill You."

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Another Haul, Part IV

*If you have not done so already, please read the following before continuing:
"Another Haul, Part I"
"Another Haul, Part II"
"Another Haul, Part III"

“Can I help you?” The man behind at the package counter looked slightly amused with the size of the box Cal was lugging through the door.

“Actually, yes. I need to forward these books to my address in Belize.”

“It’s gonna be a big shipping charge with it weighing so much.”

“That’s fine. I’ve been saving for this trip for years.”

“Going on vacation?”

“Actually, moving to my summer home.”

“Perfect time to leave, I’d say. We’re looking at a long, hot summer.”

The fact was, all Cal’s payments had been in hundred dollar bills, and with just over a staggering seven million in cash, the number of bills in his possession far exceeded those he could smuggle south in a fake leg cast. He could carry a million or so, along with Dale’s as well, but the other six million would be waiting when he arrived – carefully concealed inside a box of hollowed-out travel guides, histories of Central America, and Spanish phrase books. The box, weighing in at 70 lbs, cost over $200 to send. Feigning astonishment, Cal paid in cash and departed. Hopefully a good cover of a routine doctor’s visit (which he was currently missing) had dissuaded anybody from following him. He was confident that Jim kept him under close surveillance.

When they had discussed how they would get their profits south, Cal had played dumb. Dale didn’t need to know about the extra cash (since it implied he was grievously underpaid). It was exceedingly dangerous to trust it all to an overseas shipping company, but better that that lose it in customs, misplaced luggage, or run the great risk of drawing attention to himself as he negotiated a wire transfer. It needed to stay in cash, and with nobody but him knowing about it. He trusted Dale implicitly, but to broadcast the fact he’d been taking in nearly three times the profit when they both faced the same risks was unnecessary. What Dale didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

They would depart early the following morning, head out for another shipment, but diverting south then east instead for a long sail around to Miami. When there, they would dock, pay Carlos and Mike, and disappear. It would be assumed they’d been arrested. Cal and Dale had agreed to tell them they were doing a special shipment which would entail them stay the night in Miami. They would also be paid extra for it. They were enthusiastic despite the long, 200 mile trip through the Keys. Miami had plenty of bars, which was to their liking.

They would be flying into Guatemala, grabbing their luggage, and immediately boarding a bus into Belize. The less anybody knew of their final destination, the better. Using public computers, Cal had researched a beach resort in Belize, reserved two adjacent condos, and advised the staff to hold his mail for his arrival. Assuming him to be a typical, big-spending American, they eagerly agreed.

When Jim called that evening, Cal asked him the standard question: “Are we on for this weekend?” Indeed, they were. Everything, at least to all but the most scrutinizing observer, was completely normal. Do a shipment, deliver it, get paid. Same as it had been for three years.

In the morning, he kissed his wife and walked out. He was startled with how easy it was. Lifeless marriage or not, they’d been together for fifteen years, and he had anticipated it would be harder. But it was not. Whistling, he picked up

“You all set? You got everything? We’re not coming back for anything, you know.” Cal wanted this to go off flawlessly. He was nervous enough as is.

“I got it all. Just a few sets of clothes and a lot of cash. Whatever else I need, I’ll buy. You?”

“Same thing. My leg’s gonna fall asleep wrapped right in money and an air cast, but whatever. It’s a labor of love, I guess.”

“Well then, let’s do this.”

As the sun rose in the brackish water of Royal Harbor, they departed for the last time. Luxury awaited.

At nearly midnight, they docked and Cal handed $20,000 each to Carlos and Mike. “DO NOT be drunk tomorrow, got it?” He attempted to look stern. “If we mess this one up, they’ll come for ALL of us.”

Nodding their heads severely, the brothers hailed a cab and departed for seedy bars where they would undoubtedly lose their money to absurd generosity and celebratory rounds for everybody.

“They’re gonna wish they’d saved some more of their money here.”

“Yes. Not our problem though.”


Cal and Dale, sporting but one carry-on bag each, took a cab to the airport and were in flight to Guatemala by dawn the following morning. With Cal limping dramatically in his fake cast, the two negotiated customs, picked up their bags, and began searching for bus lines. To their great pleasure, a number of the airport employees spoke English. As they paid for the tickets, Cal thought, “this is too easy.” Within two days, after a bumpy ride across the border into Belize, they would be residents in paradise, lavishly rich, and probably bored.

The resort they had chosen was a coastal one. Residents could elect to stay short-term or long term, in a spectrum of accommodations that ranged from simple hotel-style rooms to luxurious, multi-room suites overlooking the water. Even the luxurious ones were affordable. $3,000 a month secured not only all housing, but also meals – which they could take either in their rooms, or in the elaborate dining room in the resort’s central area. Cal, having spent his first night drunk in celebration, then spent the next two alone trying to recover from hangover-complicated jet lag. He missed his wife, even though she probably didn’t miss him. Dale remained scarce, spending most days exploring either the resort, or the surrounding coastline and town. He updated Cal in the evenings.

“There’s TONS to do here, between constant hot chicks on the beach, bars everywhere, scuba diving, sailing… you name it. Actually, I’m going to see what I have to do to get a sailboat here. This place even has its own marina.”

Cal’s books and cash arrived on the fourth day, much to his relief. When the lobby called, he dressed and wandered out to pick them up. Dale was gone, having departed early that morning for more exploration. Clearly he liked Belize.

Lugging the box back to the room and struggling through the door, he set them down on the bed. Dale was sitting in the corner, pointing a silenced pistol at him.

“What the…”

“Open the box. I already know what’s in it.”

“What the hell… What are you doing, Dale!? ”

“I’m getting paid, finally.”

“I’ve BEEN paying you!”

“A mere pittance of what you’ve been getting.”

Cal, shaking now, started bargaining. He missed his wife again. “Look, we’ve made it out, we’re safe, and we’re off the radar. I’ll split it with you, alright? 50:50.”

“No. It still leaves one problem.”

“How! We’re OUT! Don’t you get it?”

“The problem is you. You still know too much.”

“So do you, Dale!”

“Yeah, but I still work for them. You jumped ship.”

“You WORK for them?”

“You think you’re the only one that talks to Jim? Oh no. I’ve been keeping tabs since our first shipment. My job has been to make sure you don’t become a liability. Now you have.”

“And what the hell are you? An asset?”

“Still employed, and my paycheck is in your box.” Raising the pistol, he fired twice. Stepping over Cal’s body, he scooped up the box, tossed the gun on the bed, and left.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Another Haul, Part III

*If you have not done so already, please read the following before continuing:
Another Haul, Part I
Another Haul, Part II

“You ready man?” Dale’s question brought Cal out of his introspection. They were readying for another three-day trip out to fish, but also a pickup. Much had changed over the course of three years, but the practice was still the same. They were drug runners.

Three months after their initial haul, Mike and Carlos started showing up dockside still very much intoxicated. Infuriated, Cal had told them that if it continued, he’d fire them outright and hire somebody else willing to work hard and act more responsible. Their response was cocky, and insinuated that they’d go to the police about Cal’s side work. Even more enraged, he amplified his threats. He knew where they lived, who their friends were, and if they so much as farted suspiciously, he’d ensure they talked to nobody. Though their English was limited, they got the picture. Cal was implying he’d silence them permanently. This was not a gentleman’s trade. One wrong move, and either the law was after you, or some higher-up who wanted to make sure you never squealed. Their behavior improved, and Cal regretted his threats for some time before determining they were necessary. Dale, equally concerned, sided with Cal – at least in theory.

“Would you actually follow through if they sang?”

“I doubt it. I’m not a killer. But I sure as hell can burn down their houses and scare the hell out of them.”

“That might scare them right to the police though.”

“I’m trying not to think about it. If they keep on the straight and narrow, I’ll give them both a raise here soon; keep them coming back for more. Everybody gets greedy. Shit, I know I have.”

The greatest nuisance was the matter of what to DO with their money. Mike and Carlos clearly blew it on booze, probably some sort of narcotics, and God knows what else. Women, maybe. Dale just sat on his, as did Cal. Dale was unmarried, so had no complications about sharing his profit with his wife, but Cal’s situation was more difficult. He’d thought about it for some time and eventually reached the conclusion that his wife would either leave him in horror (and go to the police), or be thrilled with their newfound wealth and quickly change her lifestyle to match – but they couldn’t do that. He opted not to tell her, and just kept generally silent about it. She knew something was amiss, but he was able to fairly blame it on smaller catches, less income, and barely making ends meet along the way. To the best of his knowledge, she bought it.

There had been complications in the drops a few times. More than once no coordinates had been issued, and fishing was continued with no pickup. Those weeks were skinny, obviously, and the anger registered on Mike and Carlos’ faces quickly. They were growing accustomed to their extra income. Not only were they coming to expect it, but they may also have been relying on it to continue their opulent lifestyles. They always presumed it was Cal’s fault, which was not at all the case.

When shipments resumed, they were always greeted by a different boat, and Cal had to assume that the last one had been apprehended by some law enforcement agency. The people changed, too, but never got any friendlier. Exchanges remained silent, tense affairs.

Over drinks after the latest haul, Dale and Cal discussed what they would eventually do with their profits.

“How long you plan on doing this, Cal? I mean, I know you gave me, Mike and Carlos raises, but I know you still take a big cut. When do you plan to cash out?”

“I haven’t decided, actually. Almost every time we go out, I think, ‘this is the last one. I have enough now.’ But then Jim calls and we do it again next time we’re out. Yeah, I got a fair bit stored away, but Ellie isn’t going to understand at all if I just quit, and I’m sure not staying around here either. I don’t think I’d be safe. Jim’s come to expect a shipment from us, and I really don’t know how to tell him I’m about ready to quit.”

“You think he’d come after us if we cashed out?”

“Unfortunately, yes. From what I gather, we’re his best suppliers. For what we take in, we’re being overpaid a LOT. The only thing that justifies that is our reliability. Just changing hands from the barrels to our boat more than doubles the price of the cargo. It’s all shipping costs, I guess. Hell, you can buy a kilo from the farms in Columbia for only about $900. By the time it’s in New York, though, it can go for about $23,000. A whole lot of assholes are getting rich along the way here, and that includes us, and no doubt Jim, too. If we bail, he loses his income. He’ll be pissed, I’m sure.”

“So how do we get out of this?”

“I don’t know, really. The best conclusion I can reach is just leave one day and not come back. Ellie won’t really miss me, but I’d be sure to leave her a huge chunk. We haven’t really been talking for more than a year now. She thinks I’m depressed, and shit, maybe she’s right. But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s having an affair either. She’s tells me I’m distant all the time.”

“You saying you’d just leave her behind?”

“Yeah. I’m rich, Dale. I’ll buy a new wife somewhere; well, at least a mistress. Wives cost too much.”

“That’s awfully shitty.”

“So is drug running” he shot back quietly.

“So let me get this straight, you plan to just leave one day and not come back? You talking on the boat, or flying, or what?”

“I mean just heading out one day and taking a long haul to another port, tying up, finding an airport, and leaving the country.”

“What about your money? It’s still in cash though, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s the only problem. And I’m not sure where to go, anyway.”

“There’s always a Swiss numbered account.”

“That’s bullshit. They still know who you are and if you show up with over a million dollars in cash, they’re going to raise their eyebrows, and probably also make inquiries. I’ve already researched that. As far as I can tell, it has to stay cash, and it has to stay with me. I can’t even wire it anywhere without catching unwanted attention. Everybody’s big into stomping out money laundering, which pisses me off.”

“So we’re stuck with a shitload of cash and no way to transport it.”

“Yup. And if you declare it at the airport, they’ll detain you for sure. A middle aged white guy hauling a bag full of money? Yeah right. TSA will commence with a body cavity search immediately.”

“What about smuggling it on your person? Like in a fake arm cast or something?”

“Yeah, I guess that would work. There’s not enough metal in the money to set off the machines. Question is, can I fit it all, or do I have to use a leg cast.”

“Either way, you’re out of the country, right?”

“Yeah, without a visa. Dammit, every scenario has me talking to some governmental authority at some point, either for a travel visa, citizenship, buying land, a house, etc. And if I try to avoid all that, I’m stuck living in a shit third world country, which isn’t how I want to retire. I’m 38, Dale. I can’t just hack it in the jungle anymore. And besides, that’s not what I got rich to do this for anyway.”

“So basically we’re screwed.” Dale looked irritated.

“Maybe. I dunno. Your fake cast idea sounds pretty good. When do you want to get out?”

“Any damn day is fine with me. I’m getting paranoid. I don’t hardly have any friends anymore, I can’t spend this money here, and all I do is fish for tuna and sit on a huge heap of cash that’s not doing me any good.”

“Wanna shoot for three months from now? That’s enough time to tie up some loose ends, figure out a destination, and hopefully do it all without attracting Jim’s attention. I’m sure that asshole has us tailed 24/7. We’re his retirement, too, I imagine.”

“That works. What port we going to head to, and what’re we going to tell Mike and Carlos?”

“We’ll tell them we have a special assignment and they’ll get paid double. Then I pay them, they go drinking or something, and we just walk. I figure we sail for Miami. That place is busy, which I want. Sound good?”

“I guess so. I’ll start looking at resorts where I can live forever.”

“Yeah, me too. I’m thinking Belize. You?”

“I have no idea. I’ll go with you and check it out, if you don’t mind. No promises I’ll stay though.”

“I’d love to have you. We can troll for mistresses together.”

As they walked to the car, they discussed their ideal mistress, down to the color of her eyes. They had money now, and potentially a way out.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Another Haul, Part II

*If you have not done so already, please first read the following before continuing:
"Another Haul, Part I"

Even after three years, Cal’s first pickup still struck him as the most miserable day of his of his 38 years. Between extreme paranoia that he was entering a criminal world he never dreamed he would ever encounter, the stress of avoiding arrest, appearing normal, and lastly, not screwing up the transfer itself, he was unbelievably morose.

Jim had advised him that the secret to his success would be to change nothing at all. Don’t alter routines, don’t stop hauling in tuna, and make no indication that this departure into the gulf was any different from the fifteen years prior. As always, this would be a three day venture. Cal and his crew would pilot “The Aspiration” out to their standard waters, fish the whole day, and at 6:15PM he would switch to a prearranged frequency for exactly five minutes, during which time coordinates would be radioed to him – encoded. To prevent any triangulation of his position or indication that he was the intended recipient, he would not even respond to the call. They would trust he received them, and he would have to trust they sent them. If there was nothing, the delivery had been cancelled. If coordinates were in fact transmitted, he would slowly pilot his “Aspiration” in that direction and at 2AM, would be anchored in the designated location, with his nets out - fishing.

“What happens then?” he’d asked.

Jim was vague. “A boat will pull by you, drop some stuff in the water, and you haul it aboard when you haul in your nets. That is the extent of your interaction with them.”

Cal opted to ask no further questions. Payment would be waiting in the parking lot when he returned – if there was a delivery.

After further thought, the $100,000 figure didn’t go as far as he had originally thought it might. His crew of two would need a payoff for their silence and to maintain their lack of curiosity, his first mate would need an even handsomer sum for his extra assistance, and the rest would be simply tucked away for safe keeping in a location he had not yet determined. As they were motoring out that morning, he had explained to them that they would be doing pickup that night and would be paid superbly for it. Carlos and his brother, Mike, broke into grins and knew better than to ask about it. Dale, his first mate, gave him a strange look, said nothing, and didn’t speak to him for several hours. When he did, Cal had already prepared his response. Midday, Dale wandered into the cabin and leaned against the map table.

“Cal, what the hell are we doing?

“Pursuing side work.”

“Is this what I think it is?”



“Why not? Nothing is changing, Dale. We’re still fishing. You’re just going to make an extra ten grand on this trip for helping out.”

“Did it occur to you to consult your crew prior to embarking on such a lawless endeavor?”

“Yes, and I figured it would be easier to tell you out here. If you want out, it’s fine. I’ll still pay you for this trip.”

“I don’t want ‘out,’ Cal, I just want to be in the loop.”

“I know very little myself, and I believe it’s better that way. I’ll tell you what I know, though.” He explained his encounters with Jim, what few details of the shipment he knew, and the delivery in the parking lot when they returned in three days. “That’s where I’m going to need your help.”

“And how is that?”

“I’ve been told that this is approximately a 300 pound parcel, and it will need to be divided between your luggage and mine.”

“Shit, man! So you’re telling me we’re just going to walk across the whole damn harbor to your car with our bags stuffed with cocaine, pass it off to a waiting car, and drive out of there?”

“Basically yes.”

“You realize that we face life in prison if we’re caught once?”

“Yes, though I ‘m trying not to think about it.” Cal didn’t even like SAYING it.

“God help us.”

“Something like that. But, we’ll be able to retire early. If ‘they’ like our business, I have been told there will be more of it. If you want out, that’s fine.”

“Let’s just do it, alright? The more we talk about it, the less I want to do it.”

At 6:17PM, the radio squawked their coordinates, which when decoded, placed them 15 miles south of their present location. It wasn’t far, really, but they got started early lest something go awry. Dale stayed unusually quiet, and Cal really couldn’t blame him. He was nervous, too, unsure if they would be met by a Coast Guard vessel, gunned down by whomever showed up, or perhaps nobody would be waiting at all. Cal had asked Jim about that, over another hurriedly-eaten dinner.

“If nobody shows, give them thirty minutes, and keep on fishing. There is always the possibility that they get delayed or stopped. Such is the nature of this business. In fact, we’ll know about it before you do, actually, so it’s not like we’re doing to be dockside waiting or anything. We’ll just try again next time.”

At midnight, the crew had the nets out, and would keep them out for the next two hours, which was somewhat longer than normal (especially while anchored). By 1:30, Cal was wishing he was broke, struggling to make ends meet, yet at least honest. He regretted agreeing to this. He regretted not bringing a gun, and he regretted trusting his freedom to the silence of his crew, Jim, and some unknown number of people that undoubtedly had planted around him. This was a dumbshit idea, and it would probably land him in jail. But it was too late now…

At precisely 2AM, the spotted the navigation light for a distance craft, which, judging by the engine racket, was not only old, but also small. As it entered the dim illumination of the “Aspiration” deck work lights, its age was confirmed. Rusty, rickety, and no more than forty feet in length, it was a pathetically small boat, and probably sailed an outrageous distance from some unknown coast to be here at this time. If they were caught in a hurricane, they’d sink without a doubt. The only clean part of the hull was where the ships titling and numbers should have been. They were taped over with duct tape, preventing any sort of identification. Three Latino males with hostilely blank faces stood at the bow, their hands at their sides – no doubt waiting to draw weapons. Two more leaned against the starboard side rear, balancing two blue, 55 gallon drums on the railing. As they passed within shouting distance of “The Aspiration,” they dropped their barrels into the water, gunned the engines, and left. With no other lighting but their navigation marker visible, they were quickly lost in the dark.

“Well, I guess we bring in the nets now.”

An hour later, they had stowed the barrels under a growing heap of tuna, electing to pack the barrels into their bags when they were much closer to harbor. This way, should a snap inspection be conducted, there would be evidence aside from that buried under a few tons of fish. No federal employee wanted to dig in fish guts, which worked to their advantage.

“Where we going to put the barrels, Cal?”

“Overboard, but later. Our routine isn’t changing, remember?”

“Yeah. Right.”

For the remainder of the night, and throughout the next day and a half, they dragged their nets like they always had before, and came away with a fairly decent haul, all things considered. It was definitely better than the week before, which was nice. But all their efforts, the normal excitement that would feel with such a good catch was diminished. The greatest profit lay buried under the fish. The fish, suddenly, were nothing but a cover. It was a strange feeling for Cal, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.

Thirty miles from Royal Harbor, Carlos and Mike jumped into the freezer and tossed fish until they came to the barrels, handing them up with difficulty, Dale and Cal rolled them into the pilot house and shut the door. Unscrewing the band clamp seals, Dale sucked in his breath. Both barrels were half full of brick-shaped packages of white powder.

“Shit. I’ve never actually seen this stuff, you know?”

“Neither have I, except on TV. And I really don’t want to see it now, either. Let’s throw it in the bags.”

In short order, their three rolling luggage bags, normally almost empty save for some spare clothing and snacks, were packed with packaged white power and nearly full. They were all exceedingly heavy.

“I’m not sure how well these things are going to roll. These plastic wheels look like they’re not made for this sort of weight.”

“Let’s just hope they work for now. When we get to the parking lot, we’re just going to hand them the bags and they’ll hand us back some of the same kind. Jim already arranged to do that. If we change, we need to let Jim know.”

“We’re gonna need to change. If they make it to your car once, I’ll be surprised. I don’t want to risk using them again.”

“That’s fine. Jim seems relatively flexible about this stuff. It’s pretty minor all things considered.”

“I still can’t believe we’re doing this.” Dale shook his head. “I mean, what if we get caught?”

“I’m avoiding thinking about that. And we’re not going to anyway, alright? Todd doesn’t even come on the boat anymore, and what’s he going to find anyway? Nothing. Just fish, and for cranky guys who want to unload, go home, and drink a beer. Same as usual.”


“Let’s just do this, alright?”


As he always did, Todd walked up to their dock, chatted with Cal about the weather, how the mosquitoes were particularly bad that year, and asked about his wife. Devoting every bit of his concentration to looking and acting normal, Cal patiently answered his questions, asked a few of his own, and Todd eventually wandered off. Some inspection. But that’s what he always did. Until today, there was nothing at all to find.

When the fish were unloaded, Cal handed $5,000 in cash to Mike and Carlos, who were both still grinning and saying nothing, and told them repeatedly to not do something stupid. If they were arrested, he’d claim he had no idea what they were talking about.

“No problem, boss. We keep quiet.” They practically skipped off, chattering back and forth in Spanish.

“They’re the weakest link here, you know.” Dale looked miserable.

“I know this, but I also don’t know what else to do about it.”

“Neither do I. You ready?”

They heaved their bags ashore, double checked the moorings, locked down, and headed for the car.

Parked next to Cal’s Chrysler was a sad looking Buick, well over fifteen years old.

“I don’t like this.”

“Just keep walking.”

As the approached, three more Latino men stepped out, two of whom kept their hands out of sight. The third opened the rear driver’s door, revealing the dummy luggage. Opening his own rear passenger door casually, Cal rolled the bags between the two cars and grabbed the three inside the Buick, throwing them into his car. The nearest Latino quickly threw Cal’s into back seat of the Buick, and handed him an envelope. In a moment, they had climbed in and driven away, leaving Cal and Dale still standing there.

“Did you look at their license plates?”

“No, I was trying NOT to look.”

“Same here.”

Cal sighed hard, clutching the envelope in his hands. “You wanna grab a beer before I drop you off?”

“Yes. I’d like to grab several, actually.”

They drove towards Naples, not talking. The mosquitoes WERE bad this year.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Another Haul, Part I

“Ignorance really IS bliss,” Cal thought, staring into the late-day Floridian sun across Royal Harbor. He still had plenty of questions, of course, but knowing their answers carried a far higher price than he was willing to pay. Knowledge, at least in this business, meant death. Ask little, know little, and appear wholly disinterested in everything but your own small part of things. After three years of close calls and stressful dealings, he was convinced this was the only thing that kept him afloat. Any further ambition or curiosity would be an affront, he would be killed, and another, less inquisitive employee would soon take his place. Such was the nature of drug running.

Despite a strong Coast Guard presence and waves of inspections, ports remained the most laughably porous means of entry into the United States. There were simply too many craft, both large and small, and barring the impossibility of inspecting every inch, crate, and “sea can” for illegal cargo, there was no way to ensure that everything entering the country was legitimate. The confusion, shipping volume, and unlikelihood of his conduct all worked in Cal’s favor. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, including his wife and other immediate family, he was a captain of a tuna trawler, not a smuggler. In fact, he really WAS a fisher, but he just happened to make twelve times that much with some added side business – albeit one that might kill him.

It was all about appearances, really, and supply and demand. With land routes increasingly dangerous and unreliable and air travel monitored ruthlessly, cartels were shifting to maritime transportation – with great success. Yes, high-dollar cargo was still lost on a regular basis, but that usually only happened when the runners grew careless, greedy, and cut corners. Cal’s personal motto was that it had nothing to do with volume, however, and everything with being around to complete another pickup. Then he’d leave, though the details of how, where, and when remained ethereal. That, he feared, would be the hardest part.

How they found him was also a mystery, but one which he knew better than to inquire about. It made no difference. When the overweight, middle-aged man started chatting about fishing with him in a bar more than three years ago, he had assumed that he was another trawler captain, or preparing to boast about his fleet of craft to Cal’s relatively small lone one. But that never happened. As they shot pool and tried to hear each other over the jukebox playing “I Love This Bar” for the fifth time that night, the Jim, as he had introduced himself, had abruptly stopped being jovial and bluntly asked him, “have you ever considered side work?”

“You mean like chartering?”

“Yes.” Cal started laughing at that.

“What’s the point? Nobody’s going to fish off the side of a trawler. They want the seats, rods and yachts, not nets and actually working. I have to PAY people to pick nets, not them pay me.”

The fat man managed a toothy fake smile and continued. “I was referring to chartering for cargo.”

Immediately assuming he was being baited by a federal agent, he answered with a strong decline. “I’ve been doing this since I got out of college. It’s taken me fifteen years to get my own boat, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that.” It was not a world he wanted any part of. The money would certainly surpass the meager earnings of a lone tuna craft, but no. The risks were too great. Besides, it was illegal, highly so.

“Think about it, alright?” Jim gave him a card, set a bill on the edge of the pool table for the drinks and the game, and wandered off singing along with Toby Keith. Quietly taking the money and the card, Cal knocked the remainder of the balls into the pockets, and went home. He mentioned none of the conversation to his wife; she’d just panic that they were being spied on and launch into another tirade about him going to seedy bars.

But the conversation weighed heavily on him, not so much because he was worried about being arrested (he’d firmly declined after all), but because an extra income WOULD be nice, and he wouldn’t be still piloting a boat at 65, but living lavishly, and anonymously, at a much younger age. Even still, he dismissed it. He was an honest man, and if you didn’t have that these days, you didn’t have much of anything. He was a loyal husband (rare enough for men who spent time on the water), and an honest businessman. The answer was no. But he kept the Jim’s card anyway. “James Wells, Real Estate Sgent.” Aside from this, it had a number and nothing else. He put it in his wallet and attempted to forget about it. He’d try a nicer bar next time. Maybe his wife was right. That place WAS a dive.

Several weeks later, out in a restaurant with his wife for their twelfth anniversary, he thought he spotted Jim again, or at least his back, sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender. “Screw it,” he thought. “Let’s see if he remembers me.” He excused himself briefly, telling her he’d spotted a friend at the bar.

“You still looking for more charter captains?”
“Yes. You thought about it?” It suddenly occurred to Cal that Jim appeared to have been expecting him to come over.

“I’d like to learn more about it, if that answers your question.”

“Call me tomorrow and we’ll grab dinner sometime. You still have my card?” He started digging in his pocket.

“I do.”

“Great. I’ll talk to you then, I suppose.” Finishing his drink, he broke into his toothy grin and wandered off to the bathroom.

Finishing his dinner without much interest, Cal left with his wife. Jim, it would seem, never reemerged from the bathroom. When he called the next day, they agreed to meet that evening.

“So what exactly is it that I’m transporting?” Cal slowly asked.

“Some stuff. That’s really not important now.”

“If I’m carrying it on my boat, it’s important right now.”

“No, it’s not. I think we both know what it is already, so I’m not going to bother to articulate it.” Jim ate quickly, hardly bothering to chew his food. Cal, on the other hand, just picked at his plate and wondered why he’d agreed to this meeting. Any moment he figured he would be arrested. As if reading his mind, Jim swallowed an enormous, unchewed mouthful and filled him in.

“I already know you’ve been captain of your boat, the “Carlita” for a year now. That’s public record. I also know you HAVE no criminal record, which is not exactly public record, but I know it anyway. Additionally, you are married, have a modest income, live in the suburbs, and are by most counts white, middle class, and boring.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Cal shot back.

“It means nobody is looking. You don’t fit the profile, my friend, and as such don’t attract any attention. I’ve seen the way the inspector greets you dockside. He shakes your hand, you bullshit for a few minutes, and then he walks away. He never even sets foot on your boat. He trusts you.”

“So you’ve been spying on me?”

Jim snorted. “I took a walk one day and observed this transaction. So sue me. Want my lawyer’s number? He’s a real shark, if you’re interested. Anyway, you have a good reputation with these guys. And there’s no reason that this won’t continue. The only difference is that you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.”

“How much are you offering me for the transfer of this unknown cargo?”

“$25,000 up front, and $75,000 more on delivery.” Damnation that was a lot of money. He tried not to look visibly more interested.

“Delivery to you?”

“No, actually. To the car that will be parked next to yours in the parking lot.”

“Why there?”

“Because nobody will be looking.”

“Oh. Where am I picking UP the cargo?”

“In the gulf, specifically at coordinates that are quite near to where you’ll be fishing anyway.”

“How do you know where I’m fishing?”

“Cal, my good friend, hundreds of boats launch from Royal Harbor, and most of the trawlers in your class go to a specific area, or at least work a specific stretch. You just happen to pass through where the coordinates are, pick up, and keep on fishing.”

“And where the hell am I supposed to put this stuff? The freezer?”

“Actually, yes. It will all be watertight. And, it’ll get buried with tuna the next time you pull in your nets.”

“I see. And is this a one-time event?”

“It’s always a one-time event, until you’re proven to be reliable, then it’s one more time, and so on. So long as you don’t get stupid, you’ll get rich. Most people get stupid, as you can see every time you turn on the news or read the papers.”

“And what if I decline at this point?”

“I don’t think you’ll see me again, and the number, should you try to call it, will be disconnected. But, you’re not going to decline, though.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because you know that turning this down would be turning down free money.”

“Well, you’re correct. I’ll do it. When is the first transfer?”

“I’ll call you. But first, let’s discuss some of the details – the ones you need to know.”

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Coming Soon...

"Another Haul"

After nearly all day on and off the road (and in rainy weather at that), my brain is sufficiently fried to prevent any well-crafted writing (it's questionable if it's EVER well-crafted, actually).

Posting shall continue on the morrow.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 3, 2009


When they told us the mobile PX was coming to our base, we were thrilled. Most of us were running low in cigarettes and tobacco, and equally low on junk food. All I really wanted was some good potato chips more than anything. Now, finally, for the first time since we’d come to that base, we would be getting a chance to get some of these things. As it was, we relied on missions taking us to other bases and hopefully having some time to stop by their PX to pick up snacks and things. And that wasn’t going very well. Last time we’d done that, I’d gotten yelled at for chewing gum and wearing my helmet inside the PX (it was right inside the gate and we were on our way out). Apparently the Marine in there (not even a Marine in my opinion) was upset that we disrespected his store by wearing our “covers” inside. And chewing gun. And wearing radios, too. I highly doubt he’d ever been on a mission in his life. Even our platoon commander was angry at him (and at me for not telling him about it).

The mobile PX really wasn’t that impressive, though. It’s just a half-sized tractor trailer painted green, and filled with shelves of crap that most of us don’t need, but we really wanted. Some of the guys needed razor blades and new socks, but between care packages and a little decent planning, we were doing okay on that stuff. I just wanted chips.

As we were waiting in the stupid long line (ahead of all the other guys that never even left base), a handful of humvees pulled up and some filthy Marines piled out. They were from one of the infantry companies that spent nearly all their time on small combat outposts and in the city running patrols day and night. They were just lucky enough to be driving through base on the one day the PX was there. Knowing that any other day it could have been us, I let them all in front of me. They needed junk food, too, and probably more than we did.

Their squad leader, a really fun guy I’d known for awhile, stepped in line in front of me and said hello. Pedro was one of those guys that could shoot like a sniper, run like a marathoner, and fight like a beast, but he smiled the whole time doing it. He was just happy about things, and oddly happy about Iraq. It didn’t hurt that he’d just become a dad, either. Back in the states, his wife had just given birth to their first son, and he was looking forward to seeing him when we sailed in a couple of months. As Pedro stood in back of all his Marines (lowest ranks always go first), he told me, beaming, about his son, his gorgeous wife, and what sort of missions they’d been running in the city. Like us, they were busy, he said, but it wasn’t too bad. He sort of liked it. In fact, he was seriously considering reenlisting. He never stopped smiling the whole time we talked; nor did he even take off his helmet. They were truly just passing through on their way back out on another mission.

As he finally got inside and bought some stuff (mostly for his Marines still stuck at the outpost; not even for himself), I told him to be safe out there, and I’d stop and say hello now that I knew which outpost he was assigned to. Still grinning, he agreed; they all piled back into the humvees, and roared out.

A week later, during a night operation in the city, an IED buried in the road went off directly below Pedro’s humvee, killing him and two others. Before the debris had even fully landed, another Marine was on the radio calling in a medevac. The others were running to check for survivors, or to at least recover the bodies. Digging through the wreckage of the now-totally destroyed humvee, they couldn’t find Pedro anywhere. One guy was slightly alive, but he wasn’t going to make it and everybody knew it. Pedro, however, was nowhere to be found.

After frantically searching the ditches and the surrounding alleys and courtyards, they eventually started searching the buildings as well. Some distance away, on a flat roof, they found him, or what was left of him. Back on base, they didn’t tell anybody about the casualties for more than a day.

When a friend recounted this story to me, he never showed any emotion at all. After nearly eight years in the infantry, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Nor, in his mind, would it be the last. And I still haven’t figured out where they buried Pedro.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved