The crackle of the camp fire sprayed the ground with a miniature shower of sparks and the group gathered around the fire pit flinched and laughed. It was a typically warm Florida Keys evening, but the retreat of the sun into the far horizon had brought some measure of relief from the day’s humid furnace. The cicadas were chirping with their usual symphonic force and their busy concert was overshadowed only by the laughter and conversation of the nine young men crouched eagerly by the small, bright camp fire. It didn’t matter if it was Florida or the Alaskan wilderness; it was never bad weather for a good camp blaze as a platform to relive the day’s events.
Doug Henderson stared intently into the depths of the fire he had built, studying the design of each flame as they licked eagerly at the dry driftwood he had collected off the beach that morning. The heat danced over his bare legs and sandaled feet and he drew them back slightly. It was another perfect Keys evening and he found it difficult to imagine that just two months ago, he had been longing for the comfortable coolness of his home in northern Minnesota. Everything here had made him miserable when he had first arrived; the sudden, violent rain, the voracious mosquitoes, the rats that had devoured the care package sent from home, and the wide variety of snakes. Now, he couldn’t picture a day without the heat. The swaying palm trees, the deep blue-green waters of the Gulf, or the sound of Jimmy Buffet and steel drum music at every turn. He had reached a reassuring comfort level with his new home.
He grinned as pieces of the conversation around him penetrated his thoughts. “And then, after all that work, the damn thing snaps!” Howie Meeker exclaimed in mock exasperation, ignoring the thunderous laughter that always accompanied his stories. He had a knack of making everything he said humorous, even when he was trying to be serious, something that exasperated him to no end, which in turn was even funnier. He was a living vicious cycle. Howie was currently pounding his fist into his hand to emphasize the finer points of his “fish that got away” story. His long neck bobbed up and down like an agitated stork and his blindingly rust-orange hair seemed like a live animal in the light of the fire.
“Howie, it was probably just a boot or some poor snorkeling tourist who wandered too close to your line,” retorted Vincent Skell, a supremely talented practitioner in the art of sarcasm. He often ignored the fact that he was only twelve when speaking to his peers and elders, something that could both ingratiate and irritate. Though he never would admit it, he and Howie were like a well-traveled comedy team, always seeming to set each other up like seasoned pros.
A loud belch ripped the night air and the youngsters laughed loudly – something boys of a certain age always do when the human body makes an obnoxious noise. Doug found himself caught up in the spirit and laughed out loud in spite of trying to set an example for his young charges.
“Hey Doug!” came a voice from across the fire. Doug looked up at Frankie Loman, whose tiny frame did not seem possible of emitting such a booming voice, much less the burping exhalation of gas that had cause such a ruckus. His smile was a constant fixture and was contagious among the group. “When do we get to here this story, man?” The others nodded and shouted their agreement.
“We’ve been hearing all week about this spooky story you know. It’s time to put up or shut up, fearless leader!” Doug grinned as the youngsters rained a chorus of mock pleading and whining upon him. He shot a glance to his right at the one person who had remained largely silent through the proceedings, and got a wicked grin in response. Goose, the other “fearless leader” of the group, had been absently stoking the fire while the boys went through their evening storytelling and belching routines; Doug suspected his gangly friend was sorting through the story in question in his head, deciding on the most effective way to deliver it.
Doug and Goose had been taking groups like these out to this quiet little island in the Keys for over two months now and their last night out was always the same. All week long, Doug would feed the boys the bait and on nights like these, Goose would reel them in, sending the boys to their tents scared and ready to go home.
Goose was a tall, lanky kid with unkempt blond hair and a constant, almost insane smile that split his lean face regularly. He was along way from his native Chicago and it showed in his sun-reddened face and arms. From day one of the summer, he had insisted that everyone call him Goose; partly because he bore some resemblance to Anthony Edwards’ character in Top Gun, but also because his given name was Sheldon. Doug and he had become fast friends, both gaining comfort in their shared famer tans and understanding that before leaving their Midwestern lives, the closest either of them had ever come to the tropics was sipping drinks with funny little umbrella decorations in them.
Above all else, Goose was a master story teller, a true bard if there was such a thing in this day and age. He had a story for everything and he never hesitated to share. It wasn’t like the annoying, self-absorbed stories about personal sports heroics or landing a Moby Dick-sized fish in your bird bath. He seemed to pull the topics at random out of things he saw in passing. The end result always left his audience rolling in laughter, scared shitless, or slightly confused. Either way, he always left them wanting more. The boys gathered around the fire knew this from the strange and humorous tales he had shared with them over the past week; “The Man With Fishing Line for Hair,” The Guy I Met Who Could Use the Force,” and “I Have a Car That Runs on Syrup.” Goose was a living, breathing National Enquirer.
Goose stood to his full, lanky height, his long arms and legs unfolding dramatically. He cracked his knuckles with loud, precise pops. Doug smirked, an image forming of a maestro stepping to the podium for the performance of his life. The tall narrator studied each member of his audience briefly, an exaggerated frown etching his features. The silence dragged on for endless seconds and even the insects had ceased their chatter, hoping to hear what it was Goose had to say.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” he began with all the garvity of Lincoln at Gettysburg. Groans and catcalls poured forth from the fire lit peanut gallery and kernels of popcorn, small sticks and even a sandal flew up to bounce from Goose’s frame. He ignored the derision and calmly smoothed the wrinkles from his ripped and stained Neil Young t-shirt.
“C’mon Goose, this ain’t no Snoopy cartoon,” moaned Sean Cussler, the youngest of the group at eleven. “Are you gonna tell us anything good?” A chorus of “yeahs” and “c’mons” rippled through the anxious group in agreement and Doug wondered if there was going to be a mutiny on this tiny island.
“Eight mangled bodies were found floating in the waters off this island,” Goose continued suddenly and seven pairs of young eyes went wide, seven jaws dropping in mute shock. Goose seemed to ignore his restored audience and stepped slowly to the wood pile, carefully selecting a large chunk and setting it on the blaze. Flames leapt high to claim the new sacrifice. Goose turned from the renewed heat and looked out across the beach and the gently lapping waters of the Gulf. Out beyond the reach of the firelight, something splashed loudly and the boys jumped in unison.
“They found the first two right out there, tangled in the mangroves at the edge of the bay,” he continued, still facing the moonlit ocean, hands crammed in the pockets of his cut-offs. The cicadas had continued chirping, but they almost seemed hesitant and expectant.
“That was almost ten years ago, before they started letting anybody camp out here,” Goose said in a hushed voice, almost to himself. Eyes still wide and mouths still gaping, the boys leaned unconsciously forward as one; they were trying to hear what Goose was staying while trying to remain within the safety net of the fire light.
“The next three were found bloated and bobbing up and down right out here in the bay,” Goose proceeded, turning to face the small group. He took a step towards the fire pit and the boys shrank back slightly. “That was back in the summer of ’88, at the height of the season and it was impossible for the police of Coast Guard to keep it quiet.” He squatted in front of the blaze and lowered his voice even further, sharing the dark secret with his captive group of conspirators.
“It was pretty quiet for a couple of years and people forgot about what happened. The Keys are a great place to go when you want to forget something.” He paused and ran his long fingers absently through his hair. “But some things just won’t go away,” he finished.
Doug quickly glanced around the group and was fascinated by the transformation. Only minutes before they had been laughing and joking with all he noise and bluster of young boys on a great expedition. Now, they sat hunched, shoulder to shoulder, trying to remain inconspicuous from the night and whatever might be lurking beyond the fire light. Goose stood abruptly and they flinched.
“The last two were found buried up to their necks about twenty yards down the beach from us,” he said, gesturing casually to the south where the groups’ kayaks were stored for the night. “When the authorities dug them up, they discovered that their hands and feet were ….missing.” He tailed off and looked at Doug, who nodded solemnly, backing up Goose’s claim. “That was last July, right after the big Independence Day festival in Key West.”
“Wait a minute!” a voice popped up from the audience. “Do you have any proof or is this just something you made up to scare us?” Charles Grover demanded. He was skeptical by nature and was trying to instill bravery in himself and his comrades. Doug couldn’t miss the quavering in his voice or the way his eyes darted nervously to the shadows in the tree line. No one else ventured questions but they looked hopefully at the narrator and Doug thought they wanted Goose to just tell them it was all a lie so they could go back to laughing at burps and farts. But Goose only shook his head and met each pair of eyes flatly.
“You’ve all been to the radio shed down the path from the campsite.” It was not a question, but they all nodded anyway.
“Oh yeah!” Howie exclaimed. “I went there with Doug to call in supplies and we were chased out of there by a rat the size of a cow!” Nervous laughter followed, but without much heart. Doug didn’t laugh either, because for once, Howie had actually been pretty close to the truth. The rats had claimed ownership of the radio shed at the beginning of summer and they hated unannounced visitors.
“No one knows who originally built that shed or what it was for,” Goose said. “It’s always just been there, since before this program started. It just seemed like a good place to keep the radio dry.” He paused meaningfully. “The last two victims’ hands and feet were found hanging from the ceiling in an old potato sack. They also found their clothes, a lot of heavy rope and some shovels. Due to the condition of the bodies and the abrasions on the wrists, the police came to the conclusion that the victims were held captive in that shed for awhile before they died.”
Goose was back by the fire now, an almost regretful look on his face for having to share such news. Half of the boys were looking over their shoulders into the dense trees that hid the trail to the radio shed. The rest inched closer to the fire’s protective heat.
“Howie, didn’t you ever wonder why Doug or I asked one of you to always come with us when we needed to make a radio call while the other stayed with the group?” Howie looked stunned at the use of his name and the revelation that Goose had shared. Goose nodded in silent agreement to the understanding he saw spreading on Howie’s face.
“Didn’t any of you ever wonder why you weren’t allowed to go to the latrine tower without one of us or a buddy. It surely wasn’t because we enjoyed it.” Goose glanced around, his tone almost accusatory. The latrine tower was nearly as foul as the radio shed. It was built up off the ground about ten feet like some disgusting jungle gym. Like the radio shed, it had been co-opted by island wildlife, a rotating menagerie of raccoons and spiders. Swiss Family Robinson it was not.
“Who….who is it, Goose?” Jason Wertz stammered. He was the quiet one of the bunch whose questions usually got lost in the wave of competing characters around him. But no one was interrupting now. Goose shrugged and scratched at the week-old stubble on his chin. Doug nearly laughed aloud at Goose’s many unsuccessful attempts to grow a beard with his patch-work peach fuzz.
“No one’s really sure, Jason,” he admitted.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” Vincent muttered, though his tone was far less sarcastic and cocky now. Goose and the others ignored him.
“The most logical guess is smugglers or treasure hunters. Even pirates,” Goose went on. “The Keys have been a haven for smugglers since colonial days and before. Deserters from ships or runaway slaves would hide out on these islands until they could join up with others. There were so many ships crammed with loot going between here and Europe that it was a turkey shoot when it came to pirating. Remember the museum we visited the first day?” Heads bobbed up and down excitedly as the boys recalled the pirate treasure museum in downtown Key West.
“That place is full of accounts of pirate and smuggler activity in this area for over four hundred years. It also said that many treasures were lost by their owners, washed overboard in a storm and taken to the bottom of the sea. Some were even stolen away and buried in a location that pirates took to the grave with them.”
“Here? You mean here, Goose? No way!” Charles exclaimed, clearly intrigued by the whole idea of pirates roaming the island. The other gasped and whistled as they imagined huge wooden ships crammed with treasure anchored in the bay they had snorkeled in this morning.
“So what does this have to do with the eight dead bodies, Goose?” Vincent demanded, his cocky self-assurance returning. “You’re talking about ancient history and pirate ships!” Goose stood and brushed sand from his shorts and legs, a small smile creasing his lips as if he had been expecting the question.
“Ancient history, Vincent?” he said quietly. “Are you sure? How do you know this is all ancient history? How do you know that people aren’t still looking for some of the treasure on the very sand you’re sitting on? Why would they ever give up? Times change, but human nature doesn’t. There are still some very bad people out there.” Vincent opened his mouth to protest, but Goose cut him off with a wave of his hand. Vincent closed his mouth, something Doug had never seen him do during the last week.
“It’s not ancient history,” Goose said emphatically. With a flourish he reached into his pocket and pulled something out, extending his palm open into the fire light for all to see. More gasps and exclamations burst forth as they saw what he held. It was a coin, plain in appearance, but well worn and tarnished. It gleamed dully in the fire light and Doug could see its simple shape reflected clearly in the saucer-round eyes of the boys.
“It’s a doubloon, boys,” Goose, whispered. “I found it my first day out here this summer. It was wedged between the floor boards of the radio shed.” The group cringed at the mention of that evil shack. “My guess is that somewhere on this island lies a fortune of this stuff and someone out there knows it and is looking for it. I also think that whoever it is has been taking careful steps to make sure anyone else who comes looking for it doesn’t find it.” His sentence wound down to a whisper again as he gestured toward the mangroves where his story had begun. With a small flick of his thumb, he shot the coin into Vincent’s hand. The boy was buried under a mob of his inquisitive friends, shoving and jostling to see the doubloon.
Doug didn’t bother looking because he had seen the coin many times at many camp fire gatherings. In fact, he had helped Goose wear it down by rubbing it on rock and sand after Goose had bought it from a street vendor in Key West. The entire story came together early in the season over a game of pool and several pitchers of beer. It had been perfected on groups of wide-eyed, self-assured boys over the hot summer and Goose had gotten better with each recitation. Doug glanced at his watch and stood; his back and knees popped in harmony. Time to play bad cop.
“Alright guys, time to hit the sack. We’re going home tomorrow and it’s going to be an early day. I want lights out in ten minutes. Vincent, you’re on breakfast tomorrow at six.” Vincent didn’t protest, nodding absently as he continued to study the coin. Goose stepped over and plucked it from his hands, returning it to his pocket.
“Smugglers? Pirates? Oh man, I ain’t gonna sleep until I’m back on the plane,” moaned Howie. The others murmured agreement and huddled into a bunch for the short hike inland to their waiting tents. Seven flashlights scanned the darkness in seven different directions as they went. Goose began to follow and Doug called out to him.
“I’ll be right up. I just want to make sure the boats are secure for the night.” Goose waved and disappeared into the trees behind the strobing group of flashlight beams. Doug shook his head and walked down to the water’s edge, his own flashlight searching for the two dive boats they left anchored in the bay each night. He found them rocking gently side by side in the rising tide about ten yards out. Satisfied they weren’t going anywhere being moored with two heavy anchors each, Doug turned for the trail. He was tired from a day of sun and seven energized pre-teen boys. He stopped at the fire and dumped the waiting bucket of sand over the flames. He brushed aside the moment of anxiety that gripped him as the fire winked out and left him alone on the darkened beach. Damn you , Goose, he thought.
Doug was awakened from an exhausted, dreamless slumber by Goose tugging at his arm urgently. He lurched upright, groggily hopeful it wasn’t already morning.
“What is it?” he slurred, his mind and eyes still trying to focus. The tent was still dark and he realized it was still late. He saw moonlight streaming through the open tent screen, revealing Goose getting dressed.
“Howie and Jason are outside,” he responded with a jerk of his head. “They say they heard a noise.” Doug groaned and flopped back onto his sleeping bag.
“Thanks a lot, Goose. You scared the hell out of them last night and now nobody is going to get any sleep. They probably woke everyone else up, too.”
Goose shrugged. “Hey, I’m a camp counselor. It’s my job to scare kids. Didn’t you read the memo?” Doug could hear the grin in his friend’s voice and he shook his head, swearing mightily.
“I heard that,” Howie chimed in from outside the tent. Doug swore again, this time under his breath, and pulled on his jeans.
“Don’t worry, man,” Goose continued. “Remember what happened last time they heard a noise in the dark?” Doug chuckled, forgetting his foul mood. The first night on the island, a large snake had taken up residence under Frank and Vincent’s tent, causing considerable alarm to the two boys and the snake. Doug pulled on a t-shirt, grabbed his flashlight and followed Goose into the night.
Howie and Jason stood close by under a tree, each clutching a flashlight and glancing around nervously. Relief flooded over them visibly at the sight of their two fearless leaders.
“What’s up, guys?” Doug asked. He hoped it wasn’t another snake.
“We heard a noise from the beach,” Howie replied in a nervous whisper and Jason nodded his firm agreement.
“What kind of noise?” Goose asked, stifling a yawn. Howie shrugged.
“Dunno, a loud one. Kind of a crashing, I guess.” He shuffled his feet and looked almost embarrassed for not having a more detailed answer. Doug nodded and headed for the beach trail.
“Let’s have a look,” he said over his shoulder, anxious to get back to his sleeping bag as soon as possible. Goose followed and the boys, after a brief pause, rushed to catch up.
On the beach, the fire was long gone under the sand that Doug had applied. Upon first glance, nothing seemed out of place; the water was still lapping peacefully and a slight breeze rustled through the mangroves. Despite his tiredness, Doug still appreciated the warm quiet Keys evening. Something in the moonlight caught his eye and he paused. Two large objects were just down the beach to the south and they had not been there when Doug had left earlier. With a start, he realized they were the two dive boats. Doug swore again and kicked at the sand. Somehow, the anchors had come loose and the boats had drifted ashore. At staff training, they’d been lectured about damaging the expensive boats and he cringed at the possibility of garnisheed wages. Hoping for the best, he headed down the beach, thankful this was his last trip of the season. Goose and the boys followed silently, listening to the low oaths that streamed from Doug’s mouth. Howie didn’t comment.
Doug saw what was wrong as he got closer to the first boat and halted, his flashlight tracking a line from stem to stern. The boats were battered and beaten all about their hulls as if they had been thrown about in a storm. Long black scars ran the length of the boats and the heavy fiberglass was holed in multiple places. Worst of all, Doug discovered that both boats were missing their heavy outboard motors.
Sprinting the last few feet, Doug hauled himself aboard the nearest boat and took in what he saw in shocked silence. They were both bare, stripped of anything and everything, regardless of if it had been bolted down or not. The fishing gear, canopies, radios, life vests, coolers, running lights, flares and even the first aid kits had all been removed. All that remained were floating hulks. The anchor cables and anchors had been removed, leaving the stripped vessels to drift ashore. The group’s kayaks were gone as well.
“What the…” Goose trailed off as he reached the boats and followed Doug’s flashlight beam. Doug turned to the two boys cowering behind Goose.
“What exactly did you hear?” he asked quietly.
“Like I said, a crashing. Kind of like construction,” Howie said, his voice shaking as he took in the damage. He shrugged feebly and looked at Jason. “It was awhile ago but I was too scared to get out of the tent. I thought it might be smugglers or pirates.” Doug shot Goose a withering glare.
“It’s alright, Howie,” Doug said. He was amazed at how calm his voice sounded. “Goose, we’ve got to radio the base and let them know.” Goose nodded and cast a wary eye at the moonlit bay. Nothing moved.
“I’ll get on the horn if you go check on the boys,” Goose said. Doug nodded, jumping to the wet said. It felt cold and uncomfortable on his bare feet and he shivered. Flashlights probing the night, the small group sprinted back up the beach to the camp site.
The next day was searing ho and the sun burned down without any relief from the breeze. Doug crouched silently under a palm tree and sipped warm water from a canteen. He was tired and hadn’t slept since being awakened the night before. He shook his head and sighed heavily. With the rush of activity going on around him he hadn’t had a moment to himself until now.
It had taken two hours for the boats from the main base to arrive, followed by the Coast Guard. While they went over the stripped, vandalized boats, he and Goose had done what they could to soothe the boys back to sleep, though it had been no small task. It had come as no surprise when the Coast Guard informed them that they suspected smugglers had robbed their boats; apparently the occurrence was quite common. An investigation was being conducted but Doug suspected there was little to investigate. He kept to himself the comment the Coast Guard Fireman had shared with him earlier; “Lucky you guys didn’t go down to the beach when you heard the noise.”
The sound of flip-flops on sand broke him from his gloom and he turned to see Goose striding towards him, his red skin shining with sun screen. He plopped down next to Doug and smiled crookedly. He was rubbing the “doubloon” absently between his thumb and forefinger.
“Alright Goose, who’d you hire to back up your story? Some cartel? You can tell me,” Doug demanded. Goose puffed out his cheeks and laughed, the noise sounding relieved more than humorous. He tossed the coin in the air, catching it in his open palm. He shook his head.
“Lucky we didn’t go check out the noise earlier,” Goose said, echoing what the Fireman had told Doug previously. “I guess some things are better left alone.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent the coin flying into the water where it skipped three times before sinking to rest on the coral below. Then, without a word, he headed back down the beach to where the boys were gratefully packing their gear onto a new boat for the trip back to base.
Doug smiled as he watched his friend go, his hands shoved into his favorite cut-offs, his Neil Young t-shirt looking a little more ragged than yesterday. He bobbed and weaved over the hot sand like some sun-burned ostrich. Even now, Doug suspected that Goose secretly enjoyed how someone -even a group of hardened criminals – had put an exclamation point on his favorite story and his summer. Doug stood and hurried after Goose, knowing that strangely enough, he did too.