The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 20

The Russian Fisherman

Almost immediately after returning from Savannah, Popov was told about the incident at the marina.

J.K. once more drove Popov to Ivan's house.

Ivan and I were smart enough not to hang around the conservancy house. We didn't want any reminders for my parents, Lucy, or Dylan, after the last incident. With a shooting involved, Popov was going to demand answers. Trouble had hit close to home.

Ivan's house seemed like the place to meet with Popov. We didn't know when he'd return from Savannah but it was the holidays and the conservancy was closed until after New Years. I didn't leave Ivan's side. When Popov came to Ivan's, I wanted to be there.

My family was already on edge. No one felt good about the sudden spate of local crimes. No one knew who burned the Bait Shop or who set the fire at the marina and shot Taggart. The Daddy-O had been doused with gasoline. By some quirk of fate the fire never reached Ivan's boat.

It was easy to conclude Ivan was the target and Taggart was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After his reaction to the Bait Shop fire, Popov was certain to have more questions once he learned about the more recent incident. Still having no answers to his questions would mean a more distressed Popov. I didn't want his alarm to upset my family.

So Ivan and I stayed at his house the day Popov came back.

No matter how many ways Popov asked the question, the answer was the same as the last time we did this dance.

"I don't know, Popov. I'd tell you if I knew what was going on. I don't know. Obviously someone has a grudge against me, the marina, or maybe even you. I simply don't have the answer. It's got something to do with the marina."

Popov wouldn't take the fishing fleet out until mid January. He parked his fleet for a month each winter and this year he decided over the holidays made sense.

Popov went into action as soon as he left us at Ivan's. As long as he felt a threat, he intended to protect us, the marina, and everyone in it by whatever means necessary. He would head off more trouble.

Popov wasn't a man you said no to once he made up his mind.

"No one is to know the FBI are on the way, Popov. Harry said tell you to keep it to yourself, but he doesn't want you in their way."

"I not be in FBI way if they stay out of mine. This is my cove," Popov explained and there was no argument.

Popov was large and in charge. I was nervous.

Ivan and I walked back to my house once Popov left.

"Popov is calling some of his men who live nearby. He's going to keep a watch on this house and Ivan's. He'll have men around the clock to keep an eye on the marina. I hope you don't mind, because he's made up his mind," I told my family.

"Good," Mama said. "I've always liked Captain Popov. He's a good man."

No one argued. No one said anything. Dylan and Lucy took it in stride. Having someone looking out for us went over well.

There were too few facts and Popov didn't like it. He intended to keep us safe. Even once the fishing fleet went back on it's regular schedule. Popov left fishermen behind to keep an eye on the cove.

"Why does Popov need to protect us? Where's the sheriff?" Dylan asked.

"Because he loves us and you don't argue with Popov." I said.

My son still believed there was a piece we were leaving out. As long as Taggart stuck to his story, we were all on the same page and telling the only story being told about the most recent incident.

When I took Ivan lunch on Friday, Popov was on the dock talking to the Vietnamese families. Earlier that day he took two of his men to the new shop to help Ivan put on the roof. I say help with the stipulation that Ivan would help by sitting inside the shop while the fishermen put the roof on it.

Two more of his men were on the roof at the Fish warehouse when I got there. Two more of his men were working on J.K.'s Junior Kitchen. Popov kept his vow to rebuild the burned Bait Shop.

More men were replacing the burned section of dock. The cove was alive with activity from one end of the marina to the other.

Ivan told me, "When I first got on the roof, Popov came running out of J.K.'s yelling, "You are making the big target on this roof. You come down. Work inside your fine shop. The roof she is in good hands and so is Ivan. You be good boy and not argue with Popov."

I laughed.

"Popov is a man of his word," I said. "They have the mess cleaned up and are laying the foundation for J.K.'s Junior Kitchen."

"I don't know if he still had the papers on his boat," Ivan said.

"Does it matter, Ivan? He's doing what he feels is right. The funny thing about Popov, he's usually right," I said. "Harry will stay tied up until his campaign staff is in place and they go to work. i think he called in the FBI because he couldn't be here. Except for that, he'd be on the dock with Popov."

"And I'm being a good boy and doing what I'm told," Ivan said with a sigh.

It could have been funny if Popov wasn't so serious about it. Maybe he was right. Maybe it didn't hurt to be extra careful. I must admit, it made me feel better when I left Ivan at the new shop.

I could go to work and not worry about him.

Between Harry and Popov, the marina would never be the same. Nothing else was going to be burned and no one else was going to be shot once the two of them went into action..

The answers would come, eventually. The little bit of fudging we did on the facts never surfaced. When the big guns finally arrived, they would find bigger fish to fry. Once they gathered the available evidence, they found that the fish they were after was a big fish indeed.

The arson on the dock, the shooting of Taggart, and the inadvertent death of the arsonist were the gateway to one of the FBI's most wanted and Sheriff Andy's lack of an investigation meant the FBI was left a clear field that pointed right to their man.

Took them being a way of saying they got their man but they didn't get him. He was given to them. Before anything could happen, Ivan needed to tell what he knew. Who knew he knew more than he thought he knew? I believed it because I knew it too. It didn't make a lick of sense and so I never gave it a thought.

The shooting, collateral damage, became the piece of the puzzle that was key to what was actually going on.

"Where is the gun?" FBI special agent number one asked Sheriff Andy.

"The gun?" Sheriff Andy asked FBI special agent number one.

"It's usually black and it has a barrel. This would be a thirty-eight, according to the bullet taken out of the victim. Did you check the perp's pockets?" Asked FBI special agent number one.

"Pockets? He was fried to a crisp. There were no pockets to search. There was no gun."

"The victim shot himself? Where do you think he put the gun after he shot the victim? Maybe take a guess?"

"I don't know. There was no gun."

"Did you look for the gun? Someone was shot. In most cases a gun would be involved," agent one went on. "In this case, since we recovered the bullet, we know it's a thirty-eight. That brings me back to the sixty-four dollar question, 'Where's the gun."

"I don't know. The boy's going to be OK. The perp is dead. What's the point?" Sheriff Andy asked.

He had forgotten who he was talking to once might surmise.

"You are a police officer. You are here to serve your community. When there is a shooting, you collect the evidence whether or not the perp is dead," FBI special agent number one explained.

Harry retold this story whenever he had an audience. Sheriff Andy would be lucky to still be sheriff on election day. The story was spread far and wide.

Local authorities had no way to identify the barbequed gunslinger, as they dubbed him. The FBI went about gathering the evidence the sheriff left behind. It was that evidence they hoped would identified the arsonist, and once he was identified, they would have a far clearer picture of what was going on.

Harry called a few days after I watched the FBI gathering evidence behind Sea Lab. Still irate, he read the transcript of the interview with the sheriff over the phone.

Had Andy gathered the evidence properly, the questions Harry had for the sheriff might have been answered and there would have been no need for the FBI but that's not how it went.

The way Andy left the case, the shooting and the fires stood as an unsolved mystery. The arsonist and shooter was dead. Case closed. The way FBI special agent number one told it, Sheriff Andy may have been mistaken. After which the listeners always laughed.

Once the fish were fried, it turned out Ivan didn't know any more than anyone knew. The three of us there at the time of the shooting knew more than we knew we knew but we didn't know the shooter.

The piece of the puzzle that would have brought clarity to the events were lost among the many things going on at the cove.

Since Ivan came home, life ran full-tilt-boogie. Life with Ivan was hectic to say the least. One tiny detail didn't seem any more relevant than the next.

We definitely weren't the FBI but we'd met a few of them.

One afternoon while we were enjoying a mid afternoon snack at J.K.'s, Ivan ate his fried oysters one at a time.

"I've never had better oysters anywhere," he said.

"You ate seafood in Asia?" I asked.

"A lot of fish in their dishes. A lot of spice. Good, but not what I'm accustomed to, although I became accustomed to it after a while. Do you and Harry eat like that when you go to the Gulf Club?," Ivan asked.

"Yes, it's what I order there. Harry ordered it for me the first time. I don't want anything else."

"I like crabs steamed, crab cakes, crab salad, imperial crab, but I could learn to love lobster."

"The Gulf Club flies them in from Maine each morning," I said.

"No, they don't," Ivan said. "You just made that up."

We sat sipping coffee in the shop window after returning from J.K.'s. We looked out at the cove. No one seemed to be around, but they were around. They always close by as January passed.

What a view, I thought. Why hadn't someone thought of building a shop on this spot before?

"They begin cooking the lobster when they see Harry coming. He's greeted at the door and escorted past staring patrons to his usual table. A bourbon and branch water is placed in front of him before he scoots up to the table."

"That's the way to live. One day we'll go to the Gulf Club for lobster and they'll escort us to our table next to the window," he said.

"I believe you," I said. "Are you OK, Ivan?"

"Considering I can't go out to play and there are people crawling all over this place, I guess I'm OK. I want it to end though."

"Me too," I said.

"In Asia in Thailand they have shrimp you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. I nudged them with my fork a few times before I decided they were dead and safe to eat," he said.

"What were they called?" I asked, with a marine biologist's mind. "Giant shrimp. What else would they be called?"

I laughed.

It was difficult to go anywhere without people watching us. The quiet little fishing village never had a shooting that anyone remembered. They decided there wouldn't be another one. Sheriff Andy was getting a lot of help, except he wasn't doing anything. I hadn't seen the sheriff since the day of the shooting.

Popov parked one of his trawlers fifty yards off shore between the conservancy house and Ivan's house. No one was going to get to us by water. Two men were on watch twenty-four hours a day.

When we left our driveway, a car backed out to let us leave. Once we turned on the highway, the car turned back into the driveway. I recognized J.K. at the wheel the first time this happened. I waved and he waved back.

Popov didn't have to tell us he was on the job. His men were everywhere and easy to see. Popov wanted them seen. He wanted their rifles seen. He wanted anyone who came to do bad things to understand, they wouldn't get away once the deed was done.

Most people aren't going to walk into a trap set for them.

I took the Buick to work with me. Ivan wasn't going anywhere. When the fishermen working on the roof went for coffee, they brought Ivan a cup. It left Ivan to watch and wait.

Out of the left corner of the new shop's window, you could see the top of the steps and if you leaned out a little, you could see J.K.'s Junior Kitchen going up. Popov bought brick from the same source where Ivan bought brick for the new shop.

The two buildings would look like bookends. The Jr. Kitchen was half the size as the Cove Dive, Surf,& Bait Shop, but half again as large as the old Bait shop.

They set up the wooden frames for a sidewalk that would go from the Junior Kitchen to the top of the stairs and eventually in front of the new shop. It would look classy to visitors.

Every hour, two men walked across the roof of the Fish Warehouse. When we drove to Ivan's at the end of the day, a car sat in the mouth of the driveway. It backed out to admit us or allow us to leave. The rifles were in plain sight. We waved at men we knew. They waved back, taking up their defensive post once we passed.

We didn't talk about it. It was what it was. It was part of our lives for the time being. It gave me a feeling of security. Even when I wasn't there to watch over Ivan, someone was. These were the things we saw. We figured Popov was doing things we didn't see.

Popov made it difficult for anyone to get to Ivan. He'd control the situation. One day Popov would leave an opening just big enough for someone watching for it to find it. Once he stepped into Popov's trap, the final chapter on the trouble at the cove would be written. Until then the security was tight. There was little space for someone to get to Ivan.

Leaving the new shop late one afternoon, we drove to Ivan's. The car sitting in the driveway backed out to admit us and returned to its defensive spot once we passed.

"I've seen this movie. I can't remember the title," I said, as we parked in front of Ivan's.

"The fishing fleet left the cove this morning. They replaced the trawler out back with another boat. J.K. is still directing things at the marina. They didn't take all the fishermen with them and I've seen Julian and Price at the marina recently. They retired from the fishing fleet over a year ago."

"Popov is playing all his cards," I said. "Did Popov go out with the fishing fleet?" I asked.

"No. We may not see him but he's around. He won't leave the cove until this thing is over," Ivan said. "I wouldn't want that big Russian bear waiting in the shadows for me."

There were workman posted around the marina every day. The roof was on the new shop and Ivan was working on the interior most days. He'd ordered the ten foot by eight foot window and the door for the front of the shop. Taggart was out of the sling and able to help now. He was doing the wiring a few hours during the afternoon.

Toward the end of that week a big GMC pickup type truck backed up to the Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop. On the side was stenciled the name, Palmer's Marina.

I jumped up to greet Mr. Palmer. I hadn't seen him in some time. Before Ivan started filling air tanks, I got mine filled at Palmer's. I surprised him when I stepped through the window to greet him.

"How are you Mr. Palmer. It's nice to see you," I said and we shook hands in front of the windowless window. "How's Mrs. Palmer?"

"She's just fine, thank you. She's the reason I'm here. Is Mr. Aleksa around. I need to speak with him."

"Howdy," Ivan said. "I'm Ivan Aleksa. Ivan to friends."

"The Mrs. was reading in the Gulf Coast Gazette about your misfortune. Now, we just got a new air compressor, maybe six months back. The old compressor was just taking up room in my storage area. The Mrs. said for me to bring it up here to you. I know how people think, and this here compressor works fine. It's slower than the new one and you can only fill a single tank at a time. I'll leave it here for you. Use it and if you like it and want to keep it, figure what it's worth to you and we'll accept that. If you find it doesn't suit your needs, we can't use it. Dispose of it as you wish."

By now Ivan's mouth was wide open.

"I've been away for some years, Mr. Palmer. I forgot how neighborly the good people around here are. Thank you. We'll definitely use it and if I decide to buy a new one, I'll keep this for backup. When I'm able, I'll send payment for the compressor and the kindness."

"Sounds like a fine deal," he said. "This is an impressive structure. This is your new shop? What are they building over there?"

"J.K.'s Junior Kitchen. He's going to fix easy to prepare dishes we can serve to the visitors. We're going to have a beach on this side," Ivan said, pointing at the undergrowth. "As soon as I'm done with the interior on my new shop, I'll rent a grader and clear a twenty-five foot wide corridor from the boat ramp to the finger of land facing the Gulf. I'll truck in the whitest sand available, put in fire pits, and things campers might need to make a day or a week enjoyable."

"My word," Mr. Palmer said, lifting his hat and scratching his head where hair once grew. "A beach. We have a postage stamp size beach. Most of our business is boaters. This sounds like an idea someone should have had a long time ago, Ivan. My wife and I eat at J.K.'s from time to time. As seafood goes, you can't do better than J.K.'s. We do a modest business. The Mrs. has been talking about making our business more diverse. I'm about as good with trying to grow my business as I would be at rocket science. No imagination."

"Ivan came up with this idea on his own. He began planning last year after he returned home. This 100% Ivan's baby," I said.

"Ivan, call me George. I want to offer you a new deal for the compressor. When you have time, and I can see you keep busy, come down my way. Look over the marina and the property I have. See what you think. Maybe suggest something you think might enhance my business and make better use of the marina."

Ivan's hand went out and they shook on it.

"You just never know," Mr. Palmer said. "I started up here wanting to do a favor for a businessman who has had bad luck, and I end up going away with the idea that you could help me far more than this gift will be of help to you."

To show her gratitude for the security the men in the car in the driveway provided, Mama sent Dylan to the car with food and drink several times a day. Mama felt more secure and knowing her men were being protected suited her just fine.

Dylan got a kick out of the intrigue and he knew most of the fishermen from trips we'd made on Popov's trawler.

Ivan said, "Harry was here earlier. He was talking with Popov on the dock. They shook hands and Harry left."

"There's no doubt more to come," I said.

"What's Harry doing home? He just left a few weeks ago?"

"He is kicking his senatorial campaign off in Tampa," I said.

"I thought he did that in August," Ivan said.

"No. In August he announced he was running for senate. While his most loyal donors contributed to that event, starting the campaign is when most folks pony up. I'll be going with him," I said.

"You introducing him?" Ivan asked.

"Yes. You guys don't have to come if you don't want," I said.

"Wouldn't miss it. Neither will your kid," Ivan said.

"That's what I figured. Harry will offer to fly me. I'll tell him I'm going with you and Dylan."

The FBI didn't show up for another week. Men in dark suits and aviator sunglasses appeared on the dock one day. They disappeared after talking to men working on the dock. Ivan and I sat watching while we ate his lunch. They didn't come to the shop but one of Popov's men turned and pointed directly at the shop. What question was asked to get that response?

The roof was on by mid January. The glass for the window and the door were scheduled to arrive and be installed later in the week.

I took the Sea Lab out a few days after watching the FBI types talking the men on the dock. New boards replaced the burned ones. About half the pilings had been painted white and I passed buckets of paint waiting to be applied.

This was also the day the glass was scheduled to arrive. It would take most of the day to unload and install it. Ivan had his hands full for the entire day.

I arrived back at the cove around one after a nearby dive. Four men were working on the window of Ivan's shop as I positioned Sea Lab to back into her slip.

There were three guys near the end of the dock. I didn't see them until I was cutting my engines to let the boat drift back the last few feet. They were in blue jackets with FBI written in yellow letters on the back.

I stayed on the bridge where I got a birds eye view of the three men who were staring into the water on the inside of the dock. No more than a minute passed when a man in SCUBA gear surfaced with a piece of wood. It was green and charred and if I wasn't mistaken, it was a piece of a wooden boat.

I reached that conclusion from the three other pieces of wood that came up and were put on the dock. Palmer's Marina rents wooden boat with oars, or for an extra fee, a five horsepower engine. They were extremely quiet engines and if your cut that engine in the middle of the cove and let the boat drift forward, you would hear it approaching the dock and that's why we heard no sound.

It wasn't the remains of one of Mr. Palmer's boats that startled me most. The fourth or fifth time the diver surfaced, he put a pistol on the dock at the feet of the other three FBI men.

I wondered, did fingerprints wash off.

The FBI men gave careful attention to that gun. One agent stuck a yellow pencil in the barrel, lifting the .38, and placing it in a plastic bag another agent held open. The second man immediately walked down the dock, up the six steps, and got into one of two dark sedans and he drove away.

It was obvious they'd found what they were looking for. More pieces of burned boat came up in the next few minutes. If anything else of value came up, I didn't see it.

If I was quicker on my feet, I'd have done a dive at that spot on the dock, but I treated the spot as a crime scene. The sheriff treated it as if it was a nuisance. Top flight police work if you ask me.

It was later in January, while Ivan was putting the interior of the shop together. He was preparing a different display than the one at the old shop. You could stand outside the window and see the many facets of Ivan's diverse product line.

After the man came to paint Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop on the window, you could still sit in one of the directors chairs and get the full impact of the view of the cove. We did it often while eating Ivan's lunch or while having our morning coffee. It was inspiring.

With Taggart back at work, I felt better about leaving Ivan alone. I did what I could to help in Taggart's absence. Ivan left the wiring for his able hands.

After leaving work, I went to give Ivan a hand at the shop. He was putting shelves together for the clothing line. It wasn't hard but it took hours to get them assembled. I'd stayed until that was done. It was a long week, a longer day, and I was hungry and tired.

Ivan was ready to dig into the boxes and put the clothing out.

Harry made a deal with a local contractor and the grader would be delivered the following weekend if the weather was right.

Popov talked to a man in charge of dredging a nearby river entrance, and he would give us all the sand we could carry away.

The contractor agreed to supply two dump trucks to haul the sand from the barge next to the river to the cove beach. It added eight miles to the trucks route each way. The two trucks would make one extra trip a day to furnish the beach with sand.

Rain put a crimp in the plan and the dump trucks didn't run at all in the rain. There was plenty to do inside the shop, so Ivan kept busy.

Excitement was building but not enough to keep me there after eight Friday evening. I went home to dinner and a hot shower. I lay on my bed to rest my eyes with predictable results.

When I closed my eyes, I was reminded of my college days. I went to school and worked too. It made me feel just like I felt.

The shop was looking very good and whatever time Ivan called it quits, he'd not made it to my house. I only knew that because he wasn't in my bed when I woke up Saturday morning after eight.

He'd been in my bed every night for a solid month. Now the days were lengthening, and he had lights in the shop, he was there from dawn until he got whatever job done he was doing that night.

After breakfast I decided to walk to Ivan's house.

Since the incident at Christmas I'd stayed close to Ivan. Being the first night we hadn't been together since then, I wanted to see him. As late as he worked, I figured he'd sleep in this morning.

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