The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 19

Barbequed Gunslinger

I couldn't watch them any longer. I backed up across the highway, stopping beside the phone at J.K.'s. Two of the cooks were coming around the side of J.K.'s Kitchen, wiping their hands on soiled aprons, they took off running toward the dock as the fire spread toward where boats hadn't been cut free.

It looked less imposing than before but more help didn't hurt.

After dialing 911, I reported the fire at the marina.

Leaving J.K.'s for Harry's, there was a gathering group of men who were releasing the closest houseboats to the dwindling fire.

No point in taking chances.

I reluctantly drove toward Harry's to have a conversation I didn't want to have. My God, Twila was recovering from a heart attack. Telling her Taggart had been shot might kill her. If he died that would kill her. He was hurt. That's all I know but Ivan was taking him to Dr. Washington's. That would work if she didn't ask too many questions.

I needed to get to her before someone called her from the clinic.

It would take ten minutes to Dr. Washington's with the way Ivan drove. I wasted five watching the activities on the dock.

Once I picked Twila up, I'd take my time and not act alarmed. She'd read my lollygagging as a sign it was nothing too serious. By the time we arrived, Dr. Washington would know how to approach Twila with the news. He was her doctor.

Twila didn't ask any questions. I told her Taggart was hurt and Ivan wanted me to bring her to make sure he got what she thought he needed. She knew his medical history better than anyone but Dr. Washington. She was concerned but I made it sound as uncomplicated as I could and in a few minutes we'd be at Dr. Washington's clinic.

As we passed the marina on the way, two fire trucks were parked beside the new shop, hoses had been stretched down the stairs and on to the dock.

There was no sign of fire. The last ten to fifteen feet of dock was full of people. It couldn't have been too bad. They stood on the burned section of the dock.

There were two men in a boat who were rounding up the free floating boats one at a time, easing each boat back into its slip.

Captain Popov had gone to Savannah over Christmas. I hoped the word didn't get to him. He'd most certainly come right back and that wouldn't do anything but ruin Christmas for him. He'd learn soon enough that the trouble at the marina hadn't gone away.

Twila went into the clinic when I stopped at the front door. Dr. Washington met Twila at the front door. He knew Twila's heart hadn't fully recovered yet. I'm sure he was there to calm her.

He sure calmed me.

Parking the car, I went inside.

Ivan was waiting in the waiting room. I sat beside the worried looking man.

"This what you've been waiting for, Ivan?" I asked. "I've seen you brooding since the Bait Shop burned? I thought it might be from the fire."

"Not Taggart being shot. If something else happened, I figured it would come at Christmas. Everyone's away. I sure didn't figure on Taggart walking into it. I should have kept him away."

"How's Taggart? Dr. Washington met Twila at the door. I figure they're prepping him for surgery," I said.

"Shoulder wound. Doesn't look like it's life threatening but bullets do funny things and he lost a lot of blood. How'd Twila take it?" Ivan asked.

"i didn't tell her he was shot. I told her he'd been hurt and he was here. She didn't raise much of a fuss."

"She's just coming back from her heart attack. Tag's been bragging about how well his mother's doing. Don't want this to set her back. I wasn't thinking someone might get hurt. We need to keep everyone away from the new shop. Until we know what's going on. That means junior."

"Who did it?" I asked. "I didn't see anyone. All I saw was the fire. I heard the shot. Taggart went down toward the end of the dock. I ducked behind the nearest piling. Then the dock was burning and moving toward Tag. There wasn't anyone else on the dock. I went to Taggart and he'd been shot. Shot! I was sure I heard a shot but no one else was around," Ivan said. "Maybe the roof of the Fish Warehouse. Why shoot Taggart? He's just a kid."

"Because he was the first one there," I said.

"The most likely scenario but where'd the shooter go?"

"We didn't see him come up. Maybe he came by boat, stayed out of our line of sight as he approached. Did what he came to do and got back in his boat and left."

"Makes sense. Tag saw him. He ran onto the dock," Ivan said.

"If not for the Vietnamese cutting the boats loose, and they ran right into the fire to do it, your boat, and my boat, and the Seaswirl would have burned if the fire reached any of the fuel tanks," I said.

"What did they do? I stopped worrying about the dock when I saw Tag bleeding," Ivan said.

"Two Vietnamese men ran into the fire to save the boats. They cut them loose and shoved them away from the slips. After I called 911, they had taken the main feeder hose for the houseboats, disconnected the boats from the hose, and they were knocking the fire down. After I picked up Twila, two fire trucks and the sheriff's car were there and the fire was out," I said.

"Those Vietnamese just became honorary family, Clay. They'll never pay slip rent again. When I find out what they need most, and I'll put Boris on that job, I'll provide that too," Ivan said.

He sounding like a man who knew he owed a debt to the men who may have saved the marina.

"The boats they cut free were floating a few feet beyond the slips. They should be safe until they are rounded up," I said.

"Twila is with Tag," Dr. Washington said at the opening to the waiting room. "He's stable. We're giving him a pint of blood and I've called Dr. Isaacson. Luckily he was home. He'll operate to get the bullet out and I'll assist. I think he'll be OK. He's a bit disoriented and you'll be able to see him a couple of hours after the operation."

When the sheriff arrived, the story got very strange.

"Who's gunning for you, cowboy?" he asked Ivan. "First the old Bait Shop and now the marina? I hope you're well insured. Are you insured?"

"No, Who expects a marina to burn down?" Ivan said.

"That takes any suspicion off you," the sheriff said.

The sheriff pushed his hat back on his forehead, scratching the front of his head.

"Who's the stiff. Did you recognize him?"

"What stiff?" Ivan asked.

"Stiff as in dead guy?" I asked. "He was the biggest casualty in that little weenie roast. Too hot to get near him at the moment. Will not be easy to identify. Gives new meaning to well done. The fire chief says the fire was fueled with gasoline. Same as the Bait Shop. You don't know who's trying to burn you out?"

"No idea."

"Your boy will be OK. Don't suppose you know who put the bullet in him? He's too out of it to answer my questions. You think the stiff on the dock put the bullet in that boy?"

"No. I heard a shot and I ducked behind a piling," Ivan said. "Then I went to take care of Tag. I saw no one else."

"You there, Olson?"

"I was behind where the action took place. I saw Taggart on the dock and a sudden fireball shot up from the end of the dock. I didn't see anyone but Taggart and Ivan," I said.

"Well, once you get back to the marina and take a nose count, let me know if someone is missing. With no other evidence, I'd say our shooter is our firebug and he burned up in the fire he set. If he wasn't dead, I'd tell him to find a new profession. Must have been over confident after he burned the Bait Shop," the sheriff said, waving one big hand as he strolled out still scratching his head.

I could see Ivan thinking and I added nothing he didn't say.

"What's up?" I asked, after the sheriff was gone.

"You didn't hear what he said?" Ivan asked.

"I heard what you heard. What do you have on your mind?"

"Tag and I ran onto the dock together. I'll continue to say I didn't see the firebug. I won't say Tag was in front of me. If we've got a dead white man, we don't want Taggart anywhere near him. I ran up the dock in front of Taggart. The shot was meant for me but it hit Tag. That way Tag's just an innocent employee trying to help me."

"You think it's necessary, Ivan? Lying to a cop isn't a good idea."

"I've been all over this country, Clay. Take it from me, you don't want a black man anywhere close to a dead white man. That's the kind of thing that can get out of hand. It doesn't matter which one of us was in front or behind. I was in front of Taggart and that's the only story we tell," Ivan said.

"What about Taggart?" I asked.

"We'll talk to Dr. Washington and make sure he doesn't let the sheriff in to see Tag, until we speak to him first. I'll tell him why. He'll understand. We want to avoid Twila knowing we've altered the story. The fewer people who know the truth, the better off we are."

Ivan talked to Dr. Washington after the operation. He told him we needed to speak with Taggart before the sheriff talked to him.

"Enough said, Ivan. I will keep the sheriff out until you give me the OK. Won't do to have any trouble," he said.

It was dark by the time we went in to see Taggart. Twila sat by his bed holding his hand.

"Is he awake, Twila?" Ivan asked.

"Yes, sir. He be a bit disoriented but he be doin' better."

"I hear you, Ivan," Taggart said clearly. "What is it?"

"Twila, you might want to step out a minute," Ivan said. "I need to get things straight with Tag."

"It's OK, Ivan. I won't go against anything that needs doin'. You go ahead. I'm fine," Twila said.

"Tag, did you see the man on the dock setting the fire?" Ivan asked.

"I did, Ivan. It's why I ran down there to stop him. I'm a bit hazy on what happened once I got to the dock," Taggart said.

"You didn't see that man. We so a flash that looked like fire. I ran down the dock first and you were behind me. You don't remember anything after that no matter what the sheriff says. We clear on that?" Ivan asked.

"Don't remember much. I'm a bit fuzzy on it, Ivan," Taggart said.

"That's what you tell the sheriff. Just what I told you. There's a body at the end of the pier. Apparently the guy burned up in his fire."

"How hard can it be to set a fire?" Taggart said. "He burned himself up? Doesn't speak very highly of his intelligence."

Ivan laughed.

Taggart started to laugh and stopped very fast.

"Oh, man. It only hurts when I laugh," Taggart said.

"You be listening to Mr. Ivan, Tag. He's looking after you. You say what he told you to say. That's best in this here situation," Twila said.

"I will, Mama."

"We need to keep Tag out of this. He's an innocent bystander. We don't want to have a black man anywhere near a dead white man in these parts," Ivan said.

"That's why I'd never do well under pressure. I'd never think of a cover story to protect Taggart. Thanks for thinking of it," I told Ivan on our way out.

Outside, we stood next to our cars. Ivan looked forlorn.

"Ride with me. I want you where I can see you," Ivan said.

I hugged him. He was shaking.

Christmas came on schedule in spite of the trouble at the cove. With a ten year old, you didn't want to get in Santa Clause's way. Dylan was a bit distracted, wanting to be sure Taggart was OK.

"He's home and coming over with Twila this evening for eggnog," I told him.

Taggart left the clinic in time to be home Christmas morning. His arm was in a sling but otherwise, he was all smiles.

"Stay off the roof until I get this rig off," Taggart told Ivan.

We were all glad to see him look so fit.

That wouldn't be the only warning Ivan got that Christmas. Staying off the roof became a theme.

"I've got to get the new shop finished. I want to be open by spring," Ivan protested without impacting those instructions.

You don't see the people who care about you until something goes wrong. Then they're there for you, doing what needs doing in spite of the protests.

It was like that at the cove. Men we had long and casual relationships with stepped up to see the trouble stopped with the incident at the end of the dock.

No one knew what to expect, especially Ivan. They kept their eyes open and they kept Ivan out of the line of fire. Ivan didn't like it but he understood it. I think he was surprised that so many still cared so much about him. He was sure, after ten years away, he'd faded into a distant memory for most folks. He hadn't.

Dylan didn't spend much time at the cove. His world was between home and school. We took entertainment jaunts a couple of evenings a week. We were both with him on most weekends and we tried to fit in at least one dive into weekends.

We were cautious everywhere we went. We didn't know if the trouble could expand away from the cove. It was where it was focused so far.

Ivan bought Dylan a 35mm camera for Christmas. It was a Nikon and Ivan told me it was one of the best.

"You think he needs the best to start out. How do you know he'll like taking pictures?" I asked.

"He's observant. He'll take good pictures," Ivan said.

By New Years Eve we had to go to the store to buy film. The ten rolls Ivan put in with the camera were used to photograph the people, the presents, and scenery around the conservancy house the week between Christmas and New Years. He took a roll of film at Goofy Golf. As usual, Ivan had given his son the perfect gift.

The results were rough in places but his ability to compose a shot was good enough to tell you a lot about his photographs.

"Can I take pictures underwater, Daddy?" he asked me.

"You put that camera in water and we're going to war. That's not a toy."

As soon as I said it I could see him laughing at my reaction. He didn't need to say, 'I'm not stupid.' The jury was still out on his daddy.

I did take most things seriously. I lived in a serious world and I did serious work for a serious man. I wanted to laugh more and see the humor in things I took too seriously.

With the trouble at the cove, i found it difficult to see humor under the circumstances. No one needed to tell me that I took life too seriously. My son wanted me to lighten up and so he said things to get a reaction that even I could see was overreaction. I would laugh more when we could write, '...and they lived happily ever after' on the trouble in the cove.

I still got that niggle at the back of my neck when I parked at the cove. Like Ivan had been waiting for something to happen around Christmas, I waited for what came next. There were a lot of eyes on us. Eyes staying out of sight. Eyes that didn't close.

Everyone who came to the conservancy house was immortalized on film. Dylan had become a shutterbug. I hadn't considered a camera for our son. I didn't have Ivan's imagination or Dylan's.

Twila and Taggart came over for turkey sandwiches and eggnog Christmas evening. Taggart was all smiles. He seemed fine. If anyone can be fine after being shot. It was still nice to see him.

The pictures of Twila and Taggart turned out particularly well. I'd ask Dylan if he wanted to have a few of those blown up. There were other people who photographed well. Dylan caught Ivan unaware in two shots. They both came out like portraits. One he took of me, catching me by surprise, I liked.

Mama, Pop, and Lucy were caught while they least expected it. Dylan managed to get candid shots of the people he loved most.

I didn't see the camera as the key to our son's future right away. As time passed, his passion for taking pictures at the perfect instant separated him from most amateur photographers.

Within weeks of taking his first picture, he'd developed a style all his own.

The body of the man who flunked out of arson school was left on the dock until the medical examiner got around to him the afternoon after the shooting. The sheriff left a deputy to guard him. The deputy covered the remains with a tarp.

I didn't think the body was going anywhere.

He was removed before he could become a tourist attraction and the medical examiner was sure of the cause of death but he wasn't sure how he'd identify the firebug.

It was the first shooting in the vicinity anyone could remember.

The sheriff expressed his feelings by saying, 'That boy will be OK. Not much investigating to do on this case."

Enter Harry.

Harry returned from D.C. on Christmas Eve. He came over Christmas evening. He was subdued. They hadn't done anything in congress for two weeks and weren't due back until the week after New Years, but Harry was running for the senate and he wanted to have all his political ducks in a row before campaign season started.

He was appraised of the shooting as soon as he got home. As with Popov, we tried not to upset him and put a crimp in his plans. He couldn't do anything. He'd know what we know when he got home.

Harry not being able to do anything was our opinion. It wasn't Harry's. Once he talked to Sheriff Andy, he made another call. We'd be living with that call for months to come. Harry waited until after joining us for eggnog and turkey sandwiches Christmas evening. It was Christmas and nothing would get done for a few days.

Under Harry's arm was a complete leather bound collection of Robert Louis Stevenson's novels. He held them out to Dylan.

Dylan took Harry's photograph as he held out the present.

"Someone got a camera for Christmas," Harry said. "These will keep your reading time interesting for a month or two."

Harry drank eggnog and he ate half a turkey sandwich. Pop invited him to take brandy in the study. Ivan and I joined them.

Harry invited Ivan and me to lunch at the Gulf Club on the Monday before he returned to D.C. He'd be back later in January and I'd introduce him at the next Tampa function, where he announced he'd run for the senate in August. This Tampa stop would kick off Harry's campaign.

He'd visit major cities in Florida over the next ten days. He'd fly me to and from the southern Florida events. Campaign stops in Jacksonville and Tallahassee would require an overnight stay.

"I've heard the story from the sheriff and the fire chief. The medical examiner doesn't know where to start in identifying the man consumed by the fire. Needless to say, to find out the answers to our question, we need to know his identity. Now I want to hear your version of the events that took place the day Taggart was shot."

Harry wanted the story directly from the horse's mouth.

I could tell when Harry had something on his mind. It wasn't typical for him to let his anger show. He wanted the truth and he wanted it now. He was a politician and he knew when he was being handed a pile of crap.

"That's the story we agreed we'd tell Sheriff Andy and anyone else who asked. I don't need to explain why. The part of the story we changed, Tag went to get coffee and sweet rolls. He was gone maybe five minutes. We were sitting in the new shop's window. We can see the entire cove from there. Next thing I know, Tag is running onto the dock. I yelled at him, jumped up, and I went after him, not sure why he'd be running onto the dock. He was half way down the dock when I hit the dock. I couldn't see what he saw but I saw flames. I don't know how far I'd run. There was a shot. I know a shot when I hear one. I ducked behind the closest piling. I thought the shot was from ahead of me on the dock. When I looked for Tag, he was face down on the dock. He wasn't moving. Flames were shooting into the air on the left side at the end of the dock. I did no more than glance that way. I got to Tag, Clay came, we carried him to my car. I drove him to Dr. Washington's. It was the next day before I could talk to him. I told him the new story and the reason why he shouldn't have been the closest person to the dead guy. He immediately said, 'I don't remember anything after I got to the dock. Twila is the only other person who knows the change. Popov, like you, won't take anything but the truth. Besides us, no one else knows."

Ivan sat back.

"Wise move, Ivan. It's 1980 and we can't allow a black man to go where he wants when he wants for fear of him being accused if anything happens."

"It's mild here, Harry," Ivan said. "The places I've been the hatred is palpable but I wanted to protect Tag."

Harry was not a happy camper. He spent some time talking with Taggart and Twila before excusing himself Christmas evening. We assumed, but didn't know, Taggart told Harry the truth.

There was small talk. Harry asked about Jack and Randi. He asked Ivan how the readjustment was going. It was cordial but Harry was playing his cards close to his vest. First he wanted to calm down.

I waited for him to say what was on his mind. Ivan and I drank soda and Harry had branch water and bourbon. The chit chat became light as we enjoyed the lobster. It was delicate and delightful. I wondered if there were lobster addicts.

"I want you to think about this before you answer me," Harry said once the lobster was gone. "Could this be some residue of your time in Asia, Ivan?"

"I have no reason to believe so. I left my work behind before going to get Boris. No loose ends left untied. I left on good terms with my handlers. They guided me to Boris. I can think of anything or anyone who even knew I was an asset. Harry, those guys have a problem with someone, they step up behind you and put a bullet in your brain. They don't play with fire. They don't fire warning shots. I wasn't on that end of the business. I listened and reported to my handler."

"I don't mind telling you, I'm not pleased about Tag. He's been coming to my house since he was a new born. Twila has been with my family since I was a boy and her mother worked for my father before that. The thought that he could have been killed doesn't set well with me and I plan to do something about it. From this point forward I want to know what's going on. I don't care how trivial it sounds. I want you two to tell me everything. There could be a clue you aren't picking up on and I've got people who know what clues mean."

Harry drank his bourbon and Ivan and I drank soda. Harry watched the seagulls frolicking at the end of the pier behind the restaurant. A busboy threw scraps for them to fight over. There must have been a hundred.

"What I'm about to tell you, you keep to yourself," Harry said, looking back at us. "If I want someone to know, I'll tell them. You keep it to yourself. I'm getting something done about this situation. I hate to speak ill of our law enforcement, but our sheriff is less like Andy and more like Barney when it comes to our black citizenry. He may not be a bigot but he gives a good impression of one. I can't fire him but I can assure you he will not be reelected," Harry said, slpping the last of his bourbon and holding his glass up to be refill.

I was relieved. He wasn't pissed at us but I'd known Harry forever, and I'd never seen him wound as tight as he was on Monday.

"I've been in touch with the director of the FBI. I'll call him after we finish lunch. Be forewarned, the FBI will be coming to investigate this entire affair. Ivan, you are to keep a low profile. They can't guard you and it's obvious you are the target. If you must be at the cove, be inside the new structure. It faces the cove and no one can take a shot at you from the front. Clayton, you go out on Sea Lab, you don't stop to chat or to mull around. Go down the stairs, up the dock, untie Sea Lab and don't come back on deck until you leave the cove. It's probably not necessary, but it's what I want you to do."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"I've got roofing coming the first week in January," Ivan said.

"That roof will be out in the weather for the next hundred years. Sitting in the weather a few weeks won't hurt it. Low profile means, low profile," Harry stressed. "What did Popov say?"

"He doesn't know yet," Ivan said. "I told J.K. to let him have his vacation. There was no point in ruining Christmas with his family. He'd have come straight back here. He's been in Savannah since before Christmas. Now I can tell him Harry's on the job,"

"Tell that old pirate about the FBI. I don't want him making waves while they're trying to investigate. Tell him it is being handled by the most reliable police presence it's possible to have. He's to stand down and let them do their work."

"I'll tell him," Ivan said. "You know how well Popov listens."

"You're like a son to him. Tell him to restrict himself to keeping an eye on you and the marina. I'll tell the director there will be an old Russian fisherman who will be keeping an eye on the cove. That way they'll look out for him and not lock horns with him. He'll know the special agents. They all look alike. Aviator sunglasses, crew cuts, dark suits and narrow ties."

"I'll tell him that, Harry."

"I wouldn't want to be you," Harry said. "Popov does not like trouble and when there is trouble, he'll stop trouble in its tracks. He's got to let the FBI do its job though. Tell him Harry said that and I won't take his phone calls."

Ivan laughed.

I was less than fond of the FBI. I remember being tailed after Teddy became a draft resister. Teddy gave me his 1956 Chevy. Every time I left the driveway for a long time, a car parked on the shoulder up toward Ivan's driveway would fall in behind me. I never saw them but with the top down on the Chevy they couldn't miss me.

If they came to keep Ivan safe, I could live with that.

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