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A Pirate Too Late
D. A Ratliff
Jackson Payne was a legendary figure, a free spirit, a proud citizen of the Conch Republic, a purveyor of tales, and a hunter of treasure. He was my uncle, and he was dead.
I flew into Miami and rented a car to drive to Key West. One should never fly onto the island, as the culture shock is staggering. As you travel south along US 1, you must abandon any concern of time and layers of your life with each mile marker passed. To enjoy the Keys is to become the Keys where time is measured twice a day—sunrise and sunset. Endless sun and salty air, endless glittering night sky, and an endless party, but the party had ended for Uncle Jack.
It was one in the afternoon on a muggy August day when I arrived. I parked in the garage on the waterfront and walked three blocks to the bar my uncle owned. It was hot and humid, my cotton shirt clinging to my skin, and I never felt more alive or sad.
Uncle Jack was the black sheep of the family. He turned his back on his father’s prestigious law firm in DC, the same one where my father’s name was on the door. I went to law school but chose to serve as a prosecutor. I suppose I was the gray sheep of the family, tolerated but not approved.
I turned the corner onto Duval and laughed as I saw the infamous Sloppy Joe’s bar. Uncle Jack owned a bar on Duval, right across the street, which he named Tidy Jack’s. He opened the bar every morning by flipping the bird toward his rival. But it was all good-natured, and the rivalry was fun for tourists and locals alike.
The bar was open, but a black wreath hung above the door. I stepped out of the sunlight into the darkened bar and, within seconds, collected into a bearhug by Toby Marks, my uncle’s best friend. He swung me around for a few twirls and let me down. Several other folks in the bar rushed up with greetings.
“Okay, okay, give the little gal some room.” Toby bellowed, and everyone backed off. Toby’s longtime companion, Lena, threw her arm around me and walked me to a table in the back. Toby joined us in a couple of minutes, carrying a margarita—a Pink Cadillac Margarita, the bar’s signature drink.
“Olivia Payne, I know you love these. Jack added the raspberry liquor because you love raspberries.”
I took a sip, and what little of my life in DC I was holding onto slipped away. I was formally in paradise. “You know me well. Thanks.” I took another sip. “Tell me what happened?”
Lena bobbed her head. “Jack was never the same after Bella died. He put up a good front but was dying from the inside. We didn’t know until the last days before he died that he was so ill. He had lymphoma, the fast-moving kind, and went down without a fight. He was ready to go.”
“He didn’t tell anyone?”
With her answer, Toby shot out of the chair and walked outside. Lena sighed. “Don’t mind him. He’s grieving, but he’ll be okay.”
“The service is what time tomorrow morning?”
“Eleven in the morning, then back here for the wake.” She bit her lip. “You can stay with us if you want, Liv. That is if you don’t want to stay at his place.”
“No, I want to stay there.”
“Maggie Soto is his attorney. She said she’d come by after the funeral, and we’d read the will.”
“Okay.” I might have said okay, but I didn’t want to hear the will—too final. But he was gone, and I had to face that.
I spent the afternoon at Uncle Jack’s, working on a pending case and trying not to react to every noise, thinking he was coming in the door. Toby and Lena had dinner at their house and invited Jack’s closest friends. We sat on the deck as the sky turned crimson, then inky black, and traded stories about him and his treasure-hunting pastime.
Miles Murphy had been hunting for treasure with Uncle Jack for years. One summer, when Uncle Jack and Bella first married, my parents allowed my brother Mason and me to visit. We spent a great deal of our two weeks on The Betsy Lane, Miles’s forty-two-foot research vessel that he leased out to schools and research centers, but on days the boat was free, he and Jack searched for treasure.
Miles was nursing his fourth beer, sprawled across a lounge chair. I asked him what Jack had been looking for lately.
“Liv, he kept telling me he was on to something. Got a genuine interest in old Captain Henry Morgan—not just the rum talking. I was on an assignment with Scripps for a month, and Howard Brewer took him out a few times. By the time I got back in, he was too sick. Howard told me Jack did some diving around Marquesas’ and found something. Said Jack swore him and his mate Ronnie to secrecy. Haven’t spoken to him since Jack died.” He sighed.
“The night before Jack went to the hospital for the last time, I went to see him. He fell asleep, and, I admit, I did a bit of snooping around Jack’s house but found nothing. He had a room full of charts and items he had discovered. He’d sold most of the valuable items he collected over the years, coins, and artifacts to collectors or donated them to museums. If he had discovered something valuable or historical, we’ll likely never know what that was.”
If it could be called that, Jack’s funeral, held at a funeral home, was a lively affair, complete with the Los Margaritas, a Jimmy Buffet cover band, playing. He was a Key Wester, through and through, and his friends celebrated his life. Jack chose cremation and requested that we scatter his ashes over the ocean he loved. I had to catch a plane that evening, as I had a trial that began the following morning, and we decided to carry out his wishes at a later date.
Driving back to Miami for a late evening flight, I replayed the meeting with Maggie Soto, Jack’s attorney. I wasn’t surprised that he left everything to me, the bar, the house, and considerably more money than I expected. The stipulations that Toby and Lena continue to run the bar suited me. It is what I would have done anyway. Now, I needed time to decide what to do with the house. Uncle Jack, wish you were still here.
I treaded through Friday night DC traffic, rain pelting on the windshield harder than the wipers could wipe it away. Exhaustion from an eight-day trial washed over me, but we were victorious, the bad guy guilty, and we celebrated with dinner and drinks. All I wanted to do was get home, get out of my suit, and relax.
I parked and dashed up the front steps to my condo, realizing only seconds before I tripped over it that a large box blocked the door. I stepped over it, unlocked the door, and dragged the slightly soggy box into the house.
Who sent the package? The label said Chester and Soto Attorneys at Law. Maggie Soto never told me about a package when she read the will. I decided to change, pour a glass of wine, and then open the box.
Styrofoam and non-acid tissue paper lined the inside. Underneath the top lid was a legal-sized envelope from Soto clipped to a larger manila one. I opened her note.
I was under instructions from my client, Jackson Payne, not to reveal the existence of the items contained in the package to you at the reading of the will. I was to wait one week and ship them to your home in Washington, D. C. Mr. Payne included a letter for you that will explain the contents of the box.
It has been an honor serving Jack as his legal counsel. Should you need my services in the future, please contact me.
I ripped open the thick legal-sized envelope to find a small leather journal secured with a leather tie and a letter from Uncle Jack. My fingers trembled as I unfolded it.
I have very little time, so I must keep this short and to the point. The items I have sent you are the most important items I could leave to you. I found something big but have no time to recover it
Bella found the map ten years ago, framed it, and hung it on our wall. Two years ago, in a little shop in Istanbul, I found this diary, and inside is the same illustration of a ship and name that appears on the map. After a bit of digging, I connected the ship on the map to the Pirate Captain Morgan. Howard Brewer took me to where I thought the ship might have sunk, and I found the items in the box.
Find Dr. Zane Lewis at the Grice Marine Laboratory in Charleston, SC. He knows of my suspicions but not of my findings. There are notes stuck inside the journal. Show him, let him help—you can trust him.
Maggie will ship this box to you after I’m gone. Do not mourn me, always remember the fun and joy we shared. Bella was my soul, and you were my glory. I die a better man for having both of you in my life.
Love you always, Jack.
I wiped away tears as I thumbed through the journal, loaded with sticky notes covered in Jack’s scribble. Putting the journal away, I sorted through the contents of the box. There was a long leather canister—a map holder? I unbuckled the strap and reached in to pull out the rolled-up parchment. It was a map, faded, but the ink was mainly legible. There was a polished wooden box, and I gasped when I lifted the lid. There were several gold coins and a gold brooch within the velvet-lined box. My attention, however, was drawn to a crude plywood box lying beneath the other objects.
Prying up the lid, I exposed two bales of cotton batting. I lifted one bundle and unwrapped it, anticipation rising as I realized what it was—a sword. A scimitar, to be exact, with a three-foot curved blade, gold hand guard, and trim. One edge of the blade nicked badly from use, but the sharpened edge of the blade was almost pristine. Its mate wrapped in the other batting.
I sat on the floor, back against the wall, and finished my wine as I pondered what to do. I chuckled. There was no question—I knew what I had to do.
Dr. Lewis agreed to meet me. I parked in front of the white clapboard buildings of the Grice Marine Laboratory and found his lab.
“Ms. Payne,” Lewis rose and walked toward me. “It’s nice to meet you. My condolences. Jack was a good friend.”
“You knew him well?”
“I did. Met him some twenty years ago when I was on a research boat out of Key West. I was a thirsty college grad student, and he had a great bar. We became friends due to our mutual interest in sunken treasure.”
“That is why I’m here. To talk about treasure ships.”
I told him about the information I had, which wasn’t much. He listened before asking questions.
“Do you have the artifacts with you?”
“Yes, in my car.”
“I’d like to see them.”
I opened the back hatch and then the box. Lewis removed a sword, a low whistle escaping his lips. “Jack suspected he had found a connection between a Turkish pirate, Dragut Reis, and his ship, the Gece Yildizi or the Night Star, and Captain Henry Morgan. Morgan’s pirate fleet consisted of about thirty ships. From what he learned of Rais in the journal that he found, Rais was a fleet captain and a successful one. I did some digging myself after speaking with Jack a few months ago. Dragut was said to have a scimitar like this. There are coins as well?”
“Yes.” I handed him the wooden box, and he examined the coins.
“Ms. Payne, I need to do more testing, but my gut says these are the real deal. Do you have the journal?”
I retrieved the journal from the car’s front seat. He glanced through it, then looked me in the eye. “What are your plans?”
“First, call me Liv, and I was hoping you could tell me. I had a month’s vacation saved, so I arranged to take it. I’m going to Key West and look for the treasure.”
Lewis smiled. “Call me Zane, please. I’m on sabbatical, conducting private research. How about I get my team together and join you on the treasure hunt?”
Relief rushed through me. “Jack said I could trust you. I’d love to have you along.”
The drive to Key West from South Carolina took three days. Zane said he would have his team there in five days, so I decided not to push the trip. When I arrived, I stopped at the bar first.
“You’re back?” Lena hugged me, “I know it’s only been a few weeks since you were here, but we have missed you.”
“I missed you too.”
“What brought you back so soon?”
“I got a package from Jack after I got home. I had to come back. I need to talk to you and Toby.”
We planned dinner together, and I headed to Jack’s house—my house. Not used to that yet. I pulled into the drive and started to enter the side door when I heard the crunch of glass underneath my foot. Shards of glass lay scattered across the stoop, and I realized the glass storm door had been shattered. I reached for the door handle and saw the lock popped.
I retreated to the car and called 9-1-1. After the police arrived, I called Toby and Lena, who rushed over. After searching the house, a police officer asked us inside to determine what was missing.
Lena shook her head. “Nothing appears missing. Jack kept a safe at the bar, not here. Even the artifacts that he recovered over the years are still here. I don’t understand.”
Toby shrugged. “Druggies, petty thieves.”
The officer shook his head. “TVs, cameras, laptops, jewelry still here. Whoever broke in was looking for something specific. Any idea what?”
We said no, and after taking photos and fingerprints, the police left. I turned to my friends.
“I know what.”
Toby, Lena, and I returned to the bar, too stunned to eat. I told them about the box and its contents and my conversation with Zane.
“Where are the artifacts?” Toby’s eyes narrowed.
“Zane and I agreed better that he had the swords and gold with his team should anyone ask questions.”
“You trust him, Liv?” Lean shared Toby’s look of concern.
“Uncle Jack did, so I do.”
“Good, but for now, you stay with us. Jack hated security systems, but you need to install one, then you can go to the house.”
Zane and his crew of three salvage divers, all former Navy SEALS, arrived two days later. He asked me to arrange for Miles Murphy to meet with us. We were going to need a ship.
We met at Toby and Lena’s house. Zane and Miles met when Uncle Jack found a Spanish Galleon off Belize’s coast ten years ago. Jack had told Zane enough about Toby to gain his and Lena’s trust.
Over dinner, Zane laid out the plan. “On the trip down, I read the notes Jack left in the journal. Finding the journal and putting what he found on the map he already had together was sheer genius or some serious luck. Dragut Reis was meticulous in recording his exploits. He recorded that his ship, the Night Star capsized in a raging storm, possibly a hurricane. A handful of his crew survived, picked up by another of Morgan’s ships heading back to Belize. From there, he hoped to search for the treasure aboard his ship but couldn’t get enough money to mount a search and two years later returned to Turkey. The journal entries ended there.”
Lena cocked her head to the side. “Jack thought he knew where the ship sank?”
“Yes, based on the artifacts he found.”
I smiled. “Let’s go find his treasure.”
Before dawn, we loaded the equipment Zane’s crew brought onto Miles’ research ship, The Betsy Lane. Toby and Lena brought food and beverages, and by daybreak, we headed to the coordinates Jack left in the diary. We were lucky as no storms were predicted, so we would have a few days to explore.
As Miles called her, Betsy was a research vessel with state-of-the-art sonar and scanners. The salvage team—Brent, Emilio, and Marty—brought two commercial underwater metal detectors and had underwater communication devices. After anchoring at the initial coordinates, Brent and Emilio dove with the gear, alternating with Zane and Marty. On one trip to forty-five feet, Brent found two gold doubloons.
We begin to follow the path the pirate Reis had noted in his journal—the likely course the shipwreck was along. Not foolproof, but worth a shot. On the second day, sonar found something. Zane and Brent dove, and the chatter on the underwater mics became excited. They found a section of the hull of an old wooden ship. When the divers surfaced, they were grinning. Zane held out a mesh dive bag full of gold and silver coins.
“This isn’t the main wreck, but there is a lot of gold down there.” Zane turned toward me. “If the manifest in the journal Is real, then there is a lot of gold and jewelry on the ship. The rest of the hull should be close by here. We need security, more divers, and more equipment, but that will cost money. We have proof we have a potential find here. Are you okay with bringing more people on so we can recover this wreck, Liv?”
“I’m doing this for Uncle Jack. Any money is secondary. Let’s get what we need.”
Brent called for two of their salvage boats and crew, along with a security team. Coming out of Ft. Lauderdale, the boats should arrive the following day. Toby suggested asking Howard Brewer to join the group as he already knew about the treasure, and Miles radioed him.
That evening we enjoyed calm Gulf waters and a dazzling show of lightning jumping across thunderheads in the distance. Toby caught several gray snappers and prepared them in the galley. We spent the evening drawing up a tentative contract for the division of any treasure we discovered, then bedded down wherever we could find a bunk.
The eastern sky was alight with gold and red as the sun broke through the clouds on the horizon. After a light breakfast, Emilio and Marty decided to dive to have one more look at the piece of hull they found while we were waiting for Howard to arrive.
The divers had been in the water for only a few minutes when we spotted Howard’s boat. Brent let the divers know via coms that a vessel was approaching and would dock on the starboard side. The look on Howard’s face was the first hint something was wrong. His mate, Ronnie, was standing close to him at the helm. Two other guys were standing on the deck. Lena and I exchanged nervous glances as Miles threw a rope at one of the men to tie off. He called out to Howard.
“Howard, I didn’t realize you had any crew but Ronnie. Well, we can use the help.” Miles turned to Toby, fear on his face as well. “Know these guys, Toby. Never saw ‘em before.”
The loud crack of a gunshot startled everyone. Ronnie stood behind Howard with a gun pressed to the back of Howard’s head. “If you don’t do as I say, I’ll kill him and all of you.” He pointed to Miles. “You tie the boats together. The rest of you sit down on that box and don’t try nothing.”
As we sat down, Zane nudged Brent and dropped his eyes to the comm in the diver’s hands. Brent nodded slightly, and I saw him press the send button so the divers could hear.
Ronnie and his cohorts stepped onto The Betsy Lane. Ronnie shoved Howard hard to the deck. “Now we can do this the easy way or the hard way. We know you found some treasure. This fool,” he kicked Howard, “wouldn’t tell me what he and Jack talked about when we went out, so got him drunk, and he spilled the beans.”
I blurted out. “You broke into Jack’s house.”
“Yeah. But couldn’t find nothing.” He grinned. “Then Miles here just invited us in.” He jerked his head to the men with him. “Tie ‘em up and then go looking for the treasure map and that book Jack had… it’s time we got rich.”
One of the goons grabbed rope lying on the deck and headed toward us. A huge thud sounded, startling everyone. A scuba tank had hit the deck, followed by Emilio and Marty jumping from the upper level onto the aft deck. With one kick, Emilio knocked the gun from Ronnie’s hands and took him out. Marty tackled one guy and Brent the other.
In less than a minute, we went from hostages to free. Zane hugged me. “You okay?”
“Yes, thanks to your crew.”
He laughed. “Why do you think I hire only former Navy SEALS?”
“I do believe you are a pretty sharp man.”
“I try. Let’s call the Coast Guard and get these guys taken to jail.”
Two months later, we sat at Tidy Jack’s, a pitcher of Pink Cadillac Margaritas in front of us. Toby, Lena, Zane, and I left the wreck site where salvage was taking place under the watchful eye of Zane’s salvage crew and a large security team. We were back in Key West for a press conference the following day, where we would announce finding the main wreck of the Gece Yildizi, the Night Star. Between the meticulous details in Dragut Reis’s journal and Uncle Jack’s extensive research, we found the shipwreck sooner than we expected. We planned to take Jack’s ashes back to the site to scatter them after the press conference.
Toby poured another round and held the pitcher up for the bartender to bring another. He then raised his glass. “Here’s to the best friend I ever had and while finding that treasure is a wonderful thing, I’d trade it all to have him back. To Jack, a pirate too late!” A chorus of “hear, hears” followed.
Lena grinned. “I still can’t believe we don’t have to share the treasure with the state of Florida. I figured they would take it all since we were in Florida waters.”
I grinned back. “You can thank Mel Fisher and the Atocha. Florida tried to take his treasure, but he sued and won. Paved the way for us.”
“And I still can’t believe you want me to set up the museum and work with all the research people and curators.”
“Lena, it’s the perfect job for you.”
Zane leaned in. “You happy you left the law firm?”
“I am. Are you happy you left the university?”
“Good.” He placed the journal on the table. “Been reading this. Reis mentioned other ships that went down in the area. Wanna go look for them?”
I was beginning to like this man a lot. “I think that is exactly what we should do.”
We clinked glasses, and I remembered what Uncle Jack always said. “Key West is an endless party.”
Here’s to you, Uncle Jack.
Please visit Deborah on her blog:https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com/