The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 18

At the Cove

As I turned right onto the highway, there was a glow in the night sky toward the southeast. It was way too early and way too bright to be the sun.

I pointed my car at the marina, having no desire to hurry, as if my tarrying might change what we were going to see.

Ivan was quiet. I had nothing to say.

We were at the marina before I was ready to see what I saw.

The entire Bait Shop was gone.

I parked behind the new Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop. Out of the way of the two large bright red fire trucks. They blocked access to the Bait Shop while arcs of water sprayed under where smoke hanging in the night sky above where the shop once was. There was no longer a glow. The Bait Shop was a memory.

My heart sunk. Ivan had dedicated himself to making the Bait Shop a piece of the marina complex. The hours of work and the progress he'd made was for nothing.

We stood behind the Chevy, using a space between the fire trucks to see where the water was landing. A large black puddle stood on a charred foundation was what remained. A large black hulk that was the compressor marked the rear corner of the old shop.

I stood close to Ivan and I held his hand behind his back as I tried to comfort him. What comfort was I. He lost everything. The displays, the stock he'd invested in, and the plans. The glorious plans that inspired everyone who looked at them were gone. I hadn't taken the pictures Harry asked for to create a brochure. The one thing I'd been asked to do to help with Ivan's project and I'd failed.

Popov paced in front of the fire trucks and behind the eight firemen. He was clad in a blue and red plaid robe wrapped around his girth. He didn't immediately notice our arrival. He looked at something we couldn't see. He was beside himself with despair.

It painful to see but Ivan stood silent, watching water poured on nothing. There weren't even any flames left by the time we arrived.

I squeezed Ivan's hand to let him know I was there for him. He made no response. His eyes were glued to the emptiness of the space where the old Bait Shop once stood.

There was nothing to say.

A man who could have been the fire chief came to stand beside Popov. They leaned their heads together to be heard over the sounds of the fire trucks, the compressors, and the water.

Popov's arm hung loosely over the older man's shoulders. They finished the conversation. The fire chief patted Popov's back before walking away.

One compressor went still and then the other one. The fire trucks ran on in an almost silent status. The water dropped away. Fireman began to roll up the hoses. They removed their thick protective coats and put them away. Each looked to be soaked to the bone and it wasn't from water coming out of the hoses.

It was hot. You could cut the humidity with a knife. Even in jeans and with no shirt, I sweated profusely.

When Popov saw us, he came directly to us, dodging firemen and equipment. We stayed clear of the fire fighters who were still at work stowing the equipment and keeping an eye out for embers.

To complete the look of what the well dressed captain of the cove fishing fleet wore to a fire, Popov had on his captain's hat. Even in a bathrobe, you knew Popov was somebody.

Climbing over the final fire hose that separating us, Popov stopped in front of Ivan. I'd dropped his hand and eased a half a step away from him.

The hug was desperate.

Popov's eyes glistened as he spoke.

"I'm looking at the sky from the telescope I'm having on the bridge. Something flickers in the lens as Popov is adjusting to see the stars overhead. They're brightest after the storm. I turn the telescope around to see what are the blinks in my lens. The shop she is on fire. I call firehouse on radio. It's too late. The flames have swallowed our shop. I come quick to see what Popov can do. I am doing nothing. I am not believing the shop she is there a few hours ago and now she is gone too fast. Popov is being here twenty-five years with this shop. She is being gone just like this. The fire trucks they come fast. Popov is going to J.K.'s to be calling Ivan, my friend. How am I telling him this? The shop she is gone. You are working too hard and there aren't even ashes left."

"Not much left," Ivan said. "It was all wood and tar paper, Popov. No reason for it to catch fire. Nothing I can think of."

"Popov is sorry," Popov said. "I'm only selling this shop to my good friend Ivan for future here with us. Popov is making it good to you. No shop, no sale. We build new shop for you. This shop no burn."

Like Pop, I couldn't always be certain of what Popov was saying, but good men make certain they stay on the right side of the ledger. Of this there was no doubt. Popov would do anything for Ivan. He intended to turn the tragedy into a new beginning.

I hoped it would be enough.

Ivan didn't respond. It was the work that couldn't be replaced. It was hour after hour of labor that went up in smoke. The shop was virtually worthless except for what Ivan did to it. His imagination and creativity couldn't be replaced.

"Are you having the electricity problem? Often the fire is wiring problem. The shop she is old, Ivan."

"No, Popov. Tag is a whiz with anything electric. He replace the wiring in the Bait Shop for me first thing. He put in a 220 line for the cooking appliances we'll need... would need once we made it into a quick stop for J.K.'s food. None of the original wiring was left after Tag was done."

"We are building this J.K.'s for you. Popov is making good on this sale of the Bait Shop."

"You're a good friend, Popov," Ivan said, patting Popov's back. "You sold it in good faith and I bought it as is. I knew it was old. Neither of us could have foreseen this."

Popov thought a minute before giving his reply.

"The thing is being, I am still having the papers on my boat. The Russian fishing captain is not signing the papers properly. I'm knowing I should go to bank, but I tried to do it myself. This sale she is not gone through. Popov be owner ...Bait Shop. Nothing to sell now," Popov said laughing. "We are building new kitchen for Ivan's new cove, but after so long, what is causing the fire? You are having everything clean. When new the Bait Shop not looking so good."

I didn't believe him either but Popov wasn't a man you argued with once he made up his mind and he made his mind up on the spot. It may well have saved Ivan's vision and kept him in the game. I'd have built him the shop if I knew it would make him feel better.

In a way Ivan perked up some. Watching so much of his labor going up in smoke wasn't easy on him. It was hard for me to accept that so much planning was erased in an instant.

The fire chief ducked under the hose coming off the back of the truck closest to us. He walked to where Popov stood.

"Total loss, Captain Popov. You are insured?"

"I am insurance man, chief," Popov said.

"Sorry, Popov. We got here as quick as we could. No way to save it. I'm sorry. We did what we could. I have men at the Fish Warehouse to be on the safe side. It's down wind but no sign any embers reached it. I'll leave two men on the roof until after sunrise to be sure. Wouldn't do to have your fish warehouse burn down too."

"What is causing fire, chief?" Popov asked.

"Too early to tell, Popov. I'll be back as soon as it cools down. Then I'll be able to give you a probable cause," the fire chief said.

We couldn't hear the rest of the conversation. The fire chief walked away with his arm across Popov's shoulder. He looked like a serious man. Popov lost contact with us as they walked away. Popov had owned most of the structures at the cove. The fire chief knew nothing of the sale of the Bait Shop and the marina to Ivan.

"I'm sorry, Ivan," I said. "You put your heart and soul into your project. Tell me what I can do and it's done," I said.

"I'm glad I didn't buy any more merchandise. I had plans to order more and stock it in the Bait Shop until the new shop had its roof in place. Never got around to it. The new shop is ready to go as soon as we put the roof on it. Then we can start working on the inside. Brick and concrete doesn't feed a fire the way wood does. The way we've built the new shop, it should last a hundred years."

An hour later we were sitting at the kitchen table. Mama kept pouring our cups full of coffee. No one said anything. Pop sat watching our despair. I was so incredibly lucky to have these people in my life. Even in hard times, they stood by me wanting to help.

It was too early to know anything. The fire chief said they'd stay until after daylight and he'd check the site for the likely cause. He didn't want anyone walking around the site until he did his inspection. Dylan and Lucy slept in on Sundays.

The four of us drank coffee and waited.

For what I didn't know. I didn't have the energy to move.

We walked up to Ivan's about eight. He made a pot of coffee. It lacked the taste that would identify it as coffee but it was strong. We went up to sit on the deck and watch the clear crisp day take hold. The air was fresher, saltier than usual. A good breeze blew in off the Gulf. The sky was royal blue. The water was a delicate shade of turquoise.

We did live in paradise. It was some consolation.

Bad weather always gives way to clear skies and fair seas.

"How can you be so calm after what happened?" I asked. "All your plans."

"Falls under the rubric of things I can do nothing about. The future is what I make it. I'll be moving into the new shop in a few months. Now I've got nothing to leave and nothing to moved. I admit it's a setback. No one was hurt and I have you and Dylan to prove how lucky I am. I survived Southeast Asia. I can survive this."

"I've been watching you work on your plans for months. Adding details almost every day. The loss of it has to be heart breaking. You'd begun to build your empire by the sea."

"I guess the loss of it would qualify as tragic, Clay. We need to look forward. We're together. We've got a son to raise. Everything else is gravy. I lost stuff. Stuff can be replaced. Popov is going to build another shop there. For now things are on hold but after the first of the year it will be full speed ahead. All we've lost is time."

"You lost the plans," I said. "You spent so much time on them."

"You doubt my massive memory's ability to recreate it?"

"You still scare me Ivan. You still think you can fly," I said.

"Maybe I can," he said. "Come with me. I'll show you something that will help you see the light. It's always darkest before dawn."

We walked out to Ivan's car. I followed him around to the trunk.

"Sometimes you fly without realizing you've left the ground," Ivan said, popping open the trunk.

Flat on the floor of that gigantic trunk was the black sheet of crepe paper Ivan kept over his plans for the cove.

"Go ahead, lift it up," he said confidently.

I lifted the paper to look at the plan for the cove.

"How? ...Why?"

"I thought I'd have time to work on it over the weekend. I'd have time to add the trail from the cove beach to the Gulf. I knew I'd have time between story telling and meals at Mama's table."

"Maybe you can fly," I said. hugging Ivan as a car made its way down the driveway toward us.

It was J.K.'s car and Captain Popov was sitting beside him.

Ivan shut the trunk and we stood waiting to find out what had brought Popov to the Aleksa house.

Popov was dressed as always in navy blue slacks finely creased, a lighter blue long sleeve button up shirt. It was topped with his captain's hat. He got out of the passenger side of the car and he marched toward us with determination.

"I'm wanting you to tell Popov who is causing you the trouble."

"Trouble?" Ivan said. "No one, Popov. I haven't been home long enough to step on any toes."

The two men stared at each other. Ivan serious and Popov concerned.

"I don't understand," Ivan said.

"Fire chief is calling Popov to come to station. He is showing me boards that are being burned. He is saying acceleration was used to burn Bait Shop. Someone is burning Bait Shop. Gasoline, Kerosene, something burns fast. His nose tells him gasoline."

"It is many years ago Popov is telling your Pop Pop, he'd be looking after you and Nicky. Now Popov is wanting to know who is causing the trouble," Popov said as terse as I'd ever seen him.

"Popov, I haven't had trouble with anyone. I've done nothing but work on the plans for the cove and build the new shop. Nothing comes to mind. No one is mad at me that I know of. Not mad enough to try to burn me out."

"Popov is watching. You are to tell me if there is trouble. Popov take care of it. We are not having the trouble in Popov's cove."

"Do you want some coffee, Popov? I'll drive you back to the marina," Ivan said. "I don't know what to tell you."

J.K. waved and backed out of the driveway when Popov waved back. Popov came into the kitchen with us. Ivan went about pouring Popov a cup of that coffee. I cringed. If there was going to be trouble in the cove, that coffee could start it.

I was quick to cover my cup so he couldn't pour me any more.

I knew when I'd had enough.

Popov wasn't a man who missed much. He sniffed at his cup and looked at where my hand was. This was enough to have a smart fisherman asking question.

"Your Pop Pop is teaching you to make this coffee?"

"I was eight when Pop Pop died, Popov. He gave me a sip of his coffee from time to time but he never got around to showing me how to make it. I fill the basket with coffee, adding what water I want."

"You drink your own coffee?"

"Only in emergencies. Mama Olson usually takes care of my coffee needs when I'm on the beach. When I'm at the cove, I drink J.K.'s coffee. We aren't usually here in the morning so maybe I make a pot once a month."

"Smart move," Popov said, gently placing the cup against his lips to take a tiny sip. "Ugh. Where are you keeping your coffee?"

Ivan turned and took out the Hills Bros. can from the cabinet.

"Where's your coffee scoop?"

"The plastic job that came inside the can?" Ivan asked.

"What are you thinking it's for? It's in the can to be measuring the scoops of coffee you are needing."

"I just fill the basket with coffee," Ivan said.

"How much of the water are you using?"

"I fill it half full if I'm the only one drinking it, Popov. Even when someone is here, I'm usually the only one to have two cups."

"That is because you aren't making the coffee. You're making paint remover," Popov said.

"That's what it tastes like. I couldn't put my finger on what it reminded me of," Ivan said .

"I am teaching you how to be making the coffee. Where's the scoop?" Popov asked, looking into the can.

"The scoop?"

"I have a drawer full of plastic jobs. Too small for an ice cream scoop. Who thought the Hills Bros. would be clever enough to give you a scoop to measure their coffee?"

Ivan opened the drawer to take out a green and a yellow scoop.

"What color do you want, Popov?"

Popov took the closest scoop to him. He dug it into the coffee.

"You are watching Popov?"

"Sure," Ivan said, moving to stand beside him.

"You are having measuring cup?"

"Popov what's this got to do with coffee? I'm confused already."

"Glass. Numbers are being on side in red."

"Oh, that's what that thing is. It makes a lousy coffee cup."

Ivan reached into the cabinet over the fridge and he brought out the measuring cup.

"Wash the cup," Popov said.

"No wonder I didn't learn to cook. You are sure picky," Ivan said.

"Now you are watching," Popov said, ignoring Ivan's antics.

"There are three for coffee. I'm making two cups for each of us. You take two level scoops," Popov said, measuring the scoops and using his fat index finger to push any coffee above the scoop back into the pan. OK, we are putting three level scoops into basket. We are now filling up the measuring cup with one measuring cup full of water for each scoops. One, two, three, and you are turning heat to medium. Allow fifteen to twenty minutes. If the coffee she is too weak, try five minutes longer. If it is being too strong, you using a little less coffee or a little more water. That way you are fixing the coffee to how you like it," Popov said, looking at the flame under the coffee pot and adjusting it to a medium flame.

"You are not cooking at all?" Popov asked. "You are living in this house for how long and you are not cooking the food?"

"He can fry stuff. Eggs, bacon, fish, but mostly it's cereal and hot dogs or hamburgers," I said. "Things that come in cans."

"I make a wicked bowl of popcorn," Ivan said.

"You never fixed popcorn for me," I said.

"Ran out when I was ten. Haven't thought to pick up any until now," Ivan said. "I really like popcorn. Haven't had any in awhile."

Popov laughed, shaking his head.

"Remind me to never depend on you to go for groceries," I said.

As Ivan and I talked popcorn, Popov collected our cups, pouring the liquid inside down the sink. He carefully washed each cup, inspecting them to be certain there was no residue left inside.

Once the clock clicked out fifteen minutes, Popov took the pot off the stove and filled the cups, placing one in front of me, handing one to Ivan, and taking one for himself.

I stirred in sugar and some milk and put it to my lips. I'd been on Popov's trawler and Popov made the coffee. I knew it would be smooth and loaded with flavor. I savored the first swallow.

"Why haven't you taught me how to make coffee before, Popov?" Ivan asked, taking a mouthful and then gulping some more.

"You are knowing how now. What I'm wanting to know is who you are having the trouble with. You tell me and Popov is seeing there is no more trouble in my cove. I am serious, Ivan."

"No one," Ivan said. "I've been too busy to piss anyone off."

It took a week for the fire chief to allow us to pick up the pieces. There was no desire to sit on Ivan's deck to listen to the second half of the story about his years away. He'd stopped before he went over there and the goings on at the cove were far more compelling than the goings on that covered Ivan's last five years away.

I spent an abbreviated amount of time at the conservancy. I spent more time than necessary keeping Ivan company. We sat in the new shop on the directors' chairs Ivan bought to give us a place to sit. We sat facing the cove and the entrance to the cove.

Taggart came in the afternoon and took over for me. Even though we spent each day together into the middle of December, there wasn't a lot to talk about.

Ivan postponed the delivery of the roofing material until after the first of the year. The parking lot was a mess and it needed to be attended to before two thousand dollars worth of roofing could be set out there. After a week the parking lot remained untouched.

One afternoon Taggart came past the window with no glass in it. He had something in his hand. He stopped mid window and held it up.


It was the word cove from the Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop sign.

"Lean it outside, Tag. It'll be a reminder of the Bait Shop," Ivan said.

On the 10th of December I took a dive on the freighter and I began taking pictures from the three locations that gave me the most cover. It was good to get away from the wake at the new shop. I wasn't as excited to take this dive but until Ivan began moving forward again, my life would be partially on hold.

Ivan began picking Dylan up at school at three and this meant they were both home when I got home. Nothing had changed. The watch went on, only I didn't know what we were watching for.

I didn't believe we were watching for anything in particular. We sat in the chairs in front of the window each day. I went into the conservancy each morning and when I went home for lunch, I went to sit with Ivan in the afternoon. I didn't want him to be alone.

If Ivan was waiting for something, he didn't say. He sat in front of the window that wasn't there each day. In the afternoon I sat beside him. After three Taggart got out of school and came to sit with us.

The week before Christmas, we got the answer to what we were waiting for. Had I known the danger we were in, I'd have been a lot more uptight.

Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. When the second shoe fell, I realized how little I knew, and no one knew any more than I did.

We were the mice and the cat came too close for comfort.

I didn't know if it was what Ivan had been waiting for but the wait ended three days before Christmas and the smell of gasoline was in the air.

The fishing fleet was at anchor until after New Years. Popov was visiting his Russian friends in Savannah, where they settled once they escaped the Soviet Union.

Only the Vietnamese families stayed at the marina. That proved to be the difference between losing ten feet of dock and losing the entire marina, but at three in the afternoon, the last day of school, everything was quiet until Taggart arrived.

He was all smiles and ready for Christmas. He'd brought garland to hang around the inside of the window in the new shop. Ivan and I drank coffee on a coolish afternoon. Taggart brought in a foot high Christmas tree and set it on the floor. A few feet in front of where we were sitting.

"You're determined to get a smile out of us, Taggart," I said.

"It would be nice to see Ivan smile. We've got to be thinking about moving on and leaving the bad stuff behind. A lot of work to do here abouts," Taggart said.

Taggart pulled a chair over to where we were sitting.

"Tell you what," Taggart said, jumping up. "I'm going to get me a cup of that coffee. I'll bring more back for you two and some sweet rolls. I smelled sweet rolls when I got out of the car and I'll be right back."

Taggart was there for all of five minutes before he was on the move. That was longer than usual on days when there was no work. Sitting still wasn't Taggart's bag.

Our coffee was cold and about finished, so it was an offer that perked us up. Not much had perked Ivan up since the fire. I'd stayed close to him but not annoyingly close.

He was more quiet than usual. It was like we were waiting for something but Taggart was all there was. No one else came by and as long as I was at the shop, we sat in front of that window and the view hadn't changed and almost everyone was away for Christmas.

A few seconds later Ivan stood up. He was looking at the dock.

"What's that boy up to?" Ivan asked, standing to look at something I didn't see.


As soon as Ivan yelled his name, he leaped out of the window without glass and darted off the hill toward the dock. I caught a glimpse of Taggart red shirt moving down the dock. I went through the window to follow Ivan, not knowing where we were going.

When i came to the six steps, coffee cups, sweet rolls, and a white J.K.'s bag was on the top step. I moved down them them three at a time, looking down the dock. I saw Taggart, followed by Ivan. Both were heading toward the end of the dock. I saw something bright, like a flash.

That's when i heard a gunshot, an explosion, and fire moved above the dock in a ball.

Who was shooting? Who were they shooting at?

I'd lost sight of Ivan and Taggart was down on the dock. Beyond where Taggart fell was a fire. The flames and smoke made it difficult to see anything but the last three slips, the Seaswirl, Sea Lab, and Daddy-O were in danger of going up in smoke. If one of the fuel tanks blew, the entire marina was in danger, and if the marina burned with all those fuel tanks on the boats, that meant the Fish Warehouse could burn.

I eased out of my hiding place behind a piling and Ivan was dragging Taggart toward me and away from the burning dock. I ran to assist him.

"Help me get him on my shoulders. I'll take him to Dr. Washington's clinic. Get Twila and bring her," Ivan said.

"We're about to lose the marina," I said. "It's moving toward Sea Lab."

"Tag's been shot, Clay. We'll worry about the marina after we take care of him."

"OK. I'll call 911. I'll get Twila," I said, fighting my urge to panic.

"Not much I can do. I need to get Taggart taking care of."

"Who was shooting, Ivan?" I asked.

"I don't know. I was behind Taggart when he went down. There was nothing but fire at the end of the dock," Ivan said.

As we were moving Taggart toward your car, two shirtless and shoeless Vietnamese men passed us. They were running into the fire, using the edge of the dock where the fire wasn't as bad.

With the top down on the Buick we put Taggart across the backseat. Ivan opened the driver's door and stepped into the backseat. I fed Taggart's feet over the side of the car and Ivan backed out the other door, leaving Taggart face up on the seat. The wound was three inches down from his left shoulder. There was a lot of blood. His heart was still pumping at a fast rate.

"Get Twila. Dr. Washington's clinic," Ivan yelled, backing onto the highway and taking off.

I would have much rather have taken Taggart and let Ivan tell Twila her son had been shot. When I started my car and looked down the dock. My heart leaped in my chest. I couldn't believe what I saw.

The two Vietnamese men were coming out of the water and running back toward the fire. One man unfastened water hoses from the main hose that fed the houseboat's water. They turned the end of the hose toward the fire with an impressive pressure driving water onto flames that died quickly.

That's when I noticed Sea Lab floating ten feet in front of her slip. The Seaswirl floated aimlessly twenty feet from Sea Lab and the Daddy-O was twenty or more feet beyond the end of the dock.

The Vietnamese fire fighters had cut the endangered boats free.

I wanted to run down the dock and kiss them, but I had other fish to fry.

Who shot Taggart and why?

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