Wrecker needs to deal with smugglers, grave robbers, and pooping iguanas—just as soon as he finishes Zoom school. Welcome to another wild adventure in Carl Hiaasen's Florida!
Valdez Jones VIII calls himself Wrecker because his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather salvaged shipwrecks for a living.
So is it destiny, irony, or just bad luck when Wrecker comes across a speedboat that has run hard aground on a sand flat? The men in the boat don't want Wrecker to call for help—in fact, they'll pay him to forget he ever saw them.
Wrecker would be happy to forget, but he keeps seeing these men all over Key West—at the marina, in the cemetery, even right outside his own door. And now they want more than his silence—they want a lookout.
He'll have to dive deep into their shady dealings to figure out a way to escape this tangled net. . . .
An Excerpt fromWrecker
Wrecker rides a heavy swell through the Northwest Channel. Halfway across he’s already thinking about the return trip and hoping the wind doesn’t kick up. Broccoli soup probably wasn’t the smartest idea for lunch.
But fishing is good on the patch reef. Wrecker fills the cooler with yellowtails and mangrove snappers. Shrimp-pink clouds along the horizon promise another hour of daylight, plenty of time to get back to Key West.
As he pulls up the anchor, he hears another boat--a high-powered outboard, judging from the sound. His eyes track a silver rooster tail of spray, recklessly wide of the navigation markers.
Boneheads, he thinks.
With a roar, the outboard’s props slam into a shoal. The monster engines grind to a stop, and agitated voices rise across the water. Wrecker could pretend he’s out of earshot, but the code of the sea says you don’t leave fellow mariners stranded. So he motors the half mile or so to the shallow flat where the speedboat is mired.
It’s a sleek forty-footer, maybe forty-two, with grape-purple glitter wrap, twin lightning bolts painted along the pointy bow, and four mammoth Yamaha 300s mounted on the stern.
Pure Miami, thinks Wrecker. Twelve hundred horses, stuck in the mud.
He’s never seen this boat before. The three men aboard are waving him closer. He eases his skiff to the edge of the flat and eyes the ugly trench gouged by the wayward craft, which rests tilted to one side in a cloud of roiled silt.
One of the guys--stocky, shirtless, thick gray hair, and a silver mustache--tries throwing a rope to Wrecker.
“Can you tow us off the flat, kid?” he calls out. “We’ll pay you good money.”
The rope splashes a few yards shy of Wrecker’s skiff. The man hauls it in and makes another throw that also lands short.
“My boat’s not big enough to move yours,” Wrecker says extra loud, so that they hear him over the wind.
“Aw, come on, dude.”
First he was “kid,” now he’s “dude.” Wrecker guesses “bro” will be next.
He gestures at his motor, an old Evinrude 40. “That’s all I got for power. You better call Sea Tug.”
The man consults with his companions. Wrecker suspects they don’t want to ask the Sea Tug company for help because the tow captain would be required by law to notify the Coast Guard what happened. Since the Florida Keys are a national marine sanctuary, the damage caused by the grounding could cost the speedboat’s owner big bucks.
Wrecker is careful to keep his skiff clear of the shallows.
“Is the tide coming in or out?” Silver Mustache yells.
“Rising,” Wrecker calls back.
“How long till it’s deep enough for us to float off?”
Wrecker says, “Three hours, maybe four.”
The man curses before huddling again with his friends. Wrecker can’t see their faces or hear what they’re saying. There’s no name painted on the go-fast, which is weird. Most guys put colorful names on their speedboats, unless they’re professional offshore racers.
And professional racers usually don’t run aground.
“I gotta go,” Wrecker tells the men, “before it gets dark.”
“Yo, hang on.” Silver Mustache lobs something underhand into Wrecker’s skiff.
It’s a half-empty beer can with a wad of cash folded into the pop-tab opening.
Is this a trap? Wrecker thinks.
The towrope comes flying again. This time Wrecker catches it and ties it to a steel eye on his transom. Silver Mustache knots the other end to the bow of the no-name go-fast.
Wrecker shifts the Evinrude into gear and guns it--nothing happens but noise, smoke, and churning bubbles. The purple speedboat, which weighs ten times more than Wrecker’s skiff, doesn’t budge an inch. Wrecker isn’t surprised. He twists the tiller handle back to the neutral position.
“I told you!” he shouts to the men. “Your boat’s too heavy.”
“Try again,” Silver Mustache barks. “Come on, bro!”
Wrecker shakes his head. “I don’t wanna blow up my motor.”
He unhitches the speedboat’s towrope and lets the current sweep it clear of his propeller.
“So, three hours and we can get outta here?” Silver Mustache asks.
“Maybe four. Depends on if the wind switches.” Wrecker cocks his arm to toss back the beer can crammed with cash.
“No, keep it!” Silver Mustache shouts.
“For what? I didn’t do anything.”
“Big deal,” says Wrecker.
“Keep the money. Seriously,” Silver Mustache tells him. “But, yo, just remember: you never saw us, okay, ’cause we were never here. Got it?”
Wrecker nods uneasily. One of the other guys on the speedboat says something to Silver Mustache, who scowls and tells him to shut the bleep up. Wrecker is pretty good at reading lips.
“What’s your name, kid?” Silver Mustache asks.
“Good luck with the tide.” Wrecker twists the throttle out of neutral and aims his skiff across the channel, toward Key West.
The ride back isn’t rough, though the sun is down by the time he reaches the dock. Fortunately, there’s a lightbulb that stays on all night over the fish table. Wrecker quickly sharpens his knife and starts cleaning his catch, tossing the heads, bones, and guts in the water, where the jacks and baby tarpon are waiting. A stray cat watches the feeding frenzy from on top of a wooden piling.
Afterward, Wrecker seals the fillets in sandwich bags and rinses down his fishing rods with fresh water. Before getting on his bike, he pulls the soggy cash out of the beer can and counts it. Then, just to be sure, he counts it again.
What the bleep? he thinks.
He’d lied to the men about his name. It’s not Charles. He’s not sure where he came up with that one. Charles Barkley? Charles Darwin?
His real name is Valdez Jones.
Actually, Valdez Jones VIII.
He calls himself Wrecker because his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather salvaged shipwrecks for a living. So did his great-great-great-great-grandfather and his great-great-great-grandfather. Unluckily, his great-great-grandfather was born too late for the wrecking trade--by then there were lighthouses along the reefs and the ships were powered by steam, no longer at the mercy of the wind--so he smuggled rum and pineapples from Havana to Key West on motor yachts.
The bootlegger’s only son--Wrecker’s great-grandfather--owned a head boat called the Maiden of Matecumbe, which took platoons of sun-seeking northerners fishing for groupers and amberjacks on the reefs. The fishing captain’s only son, Wrecker’s grandfather, grew up in Key West but was prone to seasickness and seldom ventured out on the water; instead, he drove tourists around town on the Conch Train and chain-smoked himself to death at age fifty-two.
And his only son, who is Wrecker’s dad, played guitar, sang in the bars on Duval Street, and told anyone who’d listen that he was destined to become the next Jimmy Buffett. One day he packed a suitcase and moved to Nashville, where he changed his name to Austin Breakwater and basically lost connection to the family. Wrecker was barely three years old on the morning that Valdez Jones VII drove away; he has no strong memories of the man, good or bad, only a few photos.
Later that night, before leaving for the cemetery, Wrecker tells his stepsister, Suzanne, about the grape-purple speedboat.
“Well, that’s ironic,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“You call yourself Wrecker, even though you’re not one--and tonight you find a boat crashed on a reef, just like in the olden times.”
“They didn’t hit a reef. They ran up on the flats,” he says. “And the only reason I’m not a wrecker is because that job doesn’t exist anymore.”
Suzanne rolls her eyes. “You’re missing the point.”
Wrecker inserts a pair of new batteries into his flashlight, which is small enough to carry in a pocket.
His stepsister says, “What do you think those jokers were doing out there?”
“Partying, I guess. Probably drank too much and got lost.” Wrecker doesn’t tell her about the cash in the beer can, or why they gave it to him. The money has already been hidden.
“What time will you be home?” Suzanne asks.
It’s not really my home, Wrecker thinks. But it’s nice of her to say that. For more than a year he’s been living at her house on Elizabeth Street.
“Not too late,” he says.
“Just be careful.”
The old Key West cemetery is a weirdly popular tourist attraction. It’s only nineteen acres, but as many as one hundred thousand souls are laid to rest there--if you happen to believe in souls. Wrecker’s not sure he does. The graveyard was hastily created in 1847, after the city’s original cemetery got flooded by a ferocious hurricane, scattering waterlogged coffins all over the island.
Solares Hill, the highest point on the island, was chosen to be the new burial site. Some of the dead are buried underground, and some lie in elevated tombs or family vaults. At night the cemetery gate is locked.
Wrecker leans his bicycle against a tree and walks along Frances Street to the lavender house. The ladder he always borrows is lying right where he left it. He doesn’t know who lives in the house, but the people always go to bed early; Wrecker never sees any lights on.
The ladder is necessary to avoid the sharp points on the cemetery’s wrought-iron fence. Once Wrecker tried to scale it by hand and snagged a belt loop on one of the spear-like shafts, literally yanking off his pants. Fortunately, nobody was around to witness him running in his boxer shorts among the tombstones.
Coiled on the back wall of the lavender house is the garden hose that Wrecker always uses. He turns on the water and walks the hose across the street. He props the ladder against the fence and climbs up. Balancing on the crossbars, he lifts the ladder to the other side and hops down.
The grave of Sarah Chillingwood is only a few steps away. She was born on March 15, 1949, and died on March 15, 1978, her twenty-ninth birthday. Wrecker has no idea what happened to her, though who wouldn’t be curious?
An old British man who lives on Pearl Street pays Wrecker the ridiculous sum of fifty dollars a week to take care of the young woman’s marker. Wrecker doesn’t even know the old man’s name. One day he approached Wrecker in the checkout line at CVS and said he was looking for someone who wasn’t afraid of working in a graveyard. At first Wrecker thought the man was nuts, or maybe some kind of predator, until he stopped him again in the parking lot and handed him a map of the cemetery, with Sarah’s burial site marked with a wiggly X. There were tears in his eyes when he talked about the mess he’d found that morning.
The problem is iguanas, which invaded South Florida a long time ago. The gnarly green lizards love to sun themselves on the stone markers in the cemetery, and they’re not bashful about where they poop (which is why Wrecker requires a hose). Chickens also roam the cemetery and disrespectfully deposit their droppings on the departed.
Because the man on Pearl Street visits Sarah Chillingwood’s grave almost every morning, Wrecker comes to do the poop-cleaning at night, after the chickens are roosting in the trees and the iguanas have retreated into the crevices beneath the broken grave vaults.
Sarah Chillingwood’s flat head marker is made of smooth gray marble. Etched in smaller letters beneath her name are these words: the rumor was true.
Wrecker wouldn’t feel right asking the old man for the story behind the inscription. Many of the memorial stones have unusual epitaphs, which is a big reason tourists are drawn to the cemetery. A top attraction is the grave marker of a woman named Pearl Roberts, which says: i told you i was sick.
Mrs. Roberts was only fifty when she died. Wrecker doesn’t know her story, but obviously she had a sense of humor. Maybe young Sarah Chillingwood did, too.
He grimaces as he sprays away the foul brown chunks that the iguanas contributed during another lazy day of basking. Still, if he’s being honest, there are worse jobs that a teenager could have. And fifty dollars cash? Seriously.
Wrecker hears a sound that doesn’t belong. He turns off the flashlight and kneels to conceal himself among the tombs.
Something is moving in the cemetery, something larger than a rooster or a lizard. Wrecker pinches the borrowed hose to cut the flow of water splashing on the marble. He got busted here once--some guy walking a pit bull saw him go over the fence and dialed the cops, who grabbed him on his way out. At the police station they let him call his stepsister, who went to the house on Pearl Street and woke up the old British man, who came downtown and confirmed Wrecker’s story about why he was at Sarah Chillingwood’s burial plot.
The cops let him go but warned him not to come back at night or he’d get charged with trespassing. Whatever. They weren’t interested to hear about the iguanas lurking under the cracked tombs, or why the best time to clean a headstone is after dark.
Wrecker listens for footsteps in the graveyard and considers making a run for the ladder. Mosquitoes are draining his arms, but slapping them would make noise, so he lets them fill up on his blood.
What’s that sound? Wrecker peers into the moonless night.
Maybe it’s a tomcat moaning, or a dog whining. . . .
Or a person crying.
Wrecker puts down the hose and silently creeps through the acres of dead, following the sorrowful sound toward the Olivia Street side of the cemetery. There he spots a figure standing in front of a simple grave.
It’s a girl, weeping. She looks about the same age as he is. Her head is bowed, and her shoulders are shaking. Her long hair is glossy black and straight.
Wrecker crouches in the shadows. After a while the mysterious mourner grows quiet. She lights a candle and holds it above the stone marker. With her other hand she’s arranging some roses--red, white, pink--in a Mason jar.
Wrecker feels like he’s spying. He doesn’t belong at this place in this moment, a stranger’s private grief. He wants to run away, but what if she hears him and gets scared? Or calls the police?
Unexpectedly, the girl begins to sing.
El dolor nunca tuvo la intencion de quedarse
Pero un dolor tan profundo dura anos
La tragedia, la verguenza
Los corazones llorosos deben preguntarse por que
Y espero que los arcoiris iluminen el cielo
Wrecker doesn’t know much Spanish, but the melody is sad and the girl’s voice wavers with emotion. Silently he slips away, weaving between the tombstones.
Using the flashlight would give away his position, so he runs in the dark. Many of the old gravesites are crumbled and caved, creating an eerie obstacle course. Twice he stumbles hard, and the third time he goes down--landing, luckily, on a soft patch of grass in a neat family plot. Behind him is the unmistakable sound of chasing footsteps.