Darkness brought a cool breeze to the beach along the Strip. The sun disappeared quickly, and there was no moon to replace it. A distant ceiling of harmless dark clouds covered the sky, and the water was black.
Darkness brought fishermen to the Dan Russell Pier in the center of the Strip. They gathered in groups of three and four along the concrete structure and stared silently as their lines ran into the black water twenty feet below. They leaned motionless on the railing, occasionally spitting or talking to a friend. They enjoyed the breeze and the quietness and the still water much more than they enjoyed the occasional fish that ventured by and hit a hook. They were vacationers from the North who spent the same week each year at the same motel and came to the pier each night in the darkness to fish and marvel at the sea. Between them sat buckets full of bait and small coolers full of beer.
From time to time throughout the night, a nonfisherman or a pair of lovebirds would venture onto the pier and walk a hundred yards to the end of it. They would gaze at the black, gentle water for a few minutes, then turn and admire the glow of a million flickering lights along the Strip. They would watch the inert, huddled fishermen leaning on their elbows. The fishermen did not notice them.
The fishermen did not notice Aaron Rimmer as he casually walked behind them around eleven. He smoked a cigarette at the end of the pier and tossed the butt into the ocean. He gazed along the beach and thought of the thousands of motel rooms and condos.
The Dan Russell Pier was the westernmost of the three at Panama City Beach. It was the newest, the longest and the only one built with nothing but concrete. The other two were older and wooden. In the center there was a small brick building containing a tackle shop, a snack bar and rest rooms. Only the rest rooms were open at night.
It was probably a half mile east of the Sea Gull's Rest. At eleven-thirty, Abby left Room 39, eased by the dirty pool and began walking east along the beach. She wore shorts, a white straw hat and a windbreaker with the collar turned up around her ears. She walked slowly, with her hands thrust deep in the pockets like an experienced, contemplative beachcomber. Five minutes later, Mitch left the room, eased by the dirty pool and followed her footsteps. He gazed at the ocean as he walked. Two joggers approached, splashing in the water and talking between breaths. On a string around his neck and tucked under his black cotton shirt was a whistle, just in case. In all four pockets he had crammed sixty thousand in cash. He looked at the ocean and nervously watched Abby ahead of him. When he was two hundred yards down the beach, Ray left Room 39 for the last time. He locked it and kept a key. Wrapped around his waist was a forty-foot piece of black nylon rope. The gun was stuck under it. A bulky windbreaker covered it all nicely. Andy had charged another two thousand for the clothing and items.
Ray eased onto the beach. He watched Mitch and could barely see Abby. The beach was deserted.
It was almost midnight, Saturday, and most of the fishermen had left the pier for another night. Abby saw three in a small cluster near the rest rooms. She slipped past them and nonchalantly strolled to the end of the pier, where she leaned on the concrete railing and stared at the vast blackness of the Gulf. Red buoy lights were scattered as far as she could see. Blue and white channel lights formed a neat line to the east. A blinking yellow light on some vessel inched away on the horizon. She was alone at the end of the pier.
Mitch hid in a beach chair under a folded umbrella near the entrance to the pier. He could not see her, but had a good view of the ocean. Fifty feet away, Ray sat in the darkness on a brick ledge. His feet dangled in the sand. They waited. They checked their watches.
At precisely midnight, Abby nervously unzipped her windbreaker and untied a heavy flashlight. She glanced at the water below and gripped it fiercely. She shoved it into her stomach, shielded it with the windbreaker, aimed at the sea and pushed the switch three times. On and off. On and off. On and off. The green bulb flashed three times. She held it tightly and stared at the ocean.
No response. She waited an eternity and two minutes later flashed again. Three times. No response. She breathed deeply and spoke to herself. "Be calm, Abby, be calm. He's out there somewhere." She flashed three more times. Then waited. No response.
Mitch sat on the edge of the beach chair and anxiously surveyed the sea. From the corner of an eye, he saw a figure walking, almost running from the west. It jumped onto the steps of the pier. It was the Nordic. Mitch bolted across the beach after him.
Aaron Rimmer walked behind the fishermen, around the small building, and watched the woman in the white hat at the end of the pier. She was bent over clutching something. It flashed again, three times. He walked silently up to her.
She jerked around and tried to scream. Rimmer lunged at her and shoved her into the railing. From the darkness, Mitch dived head first into the Nordic's legs, and all three went down hard on the slick concrete. Mitch felt the gun at the Nordic's back. He swung wildly with a forearm and missed. Rimmer whirled and landed a wicked smash to Mitch's left eye. Abby kicked and crawled away. Mitch was blind and dazed. Rimmer stood quickly and reached for the gun, but never found it. Ray charged like a battering ram and sent the Nordic crashing into the railing. He landed four bulletlike jabs to the eyes and nose, each one drawing blood. Skills learned in prison. The Nordic fell to all fours, and Ray snapped his head with four powerful kicks. He groaned pitifully and fell, face first.
Ray removed the gun and handed it to Mitch, who was standing now and trying to focus with his good eye. Abby watched the pier. No one.
"Start flashing," Ray said as he unwound the rope from his waist. Abby faced the water, shielded the flashlight, found the switch and began flashing like crazy.
"What're you gonna do?" Mitch whispered, watching Ray and the rope.
"Two choices. We can either blow his brains out or drown him."
"Oh my god!" Abby said as she flashed.
"Don't fire the gun," Mitch whispered.
"Thank you," Ray said. He grabbed a short section of rope, twisted it tightly around the Nordic's neck and pulled. Mitch turned his back and stepped between the body and Abby. She did not try to watch. "I'm sorry. We have no choice," Ray mumbled almost to himself.
There was no resistance, no movement from the unconscious man. After three minutes, Ray exhaled loudly and announced, "He's dead." He tied the other end of the rope to a post, slid the body under the railing and lowered it quietly into the water.
"I'm going down first," Ray said as he crawled through the railing and slid down the rope. Eight feet under the deck of the pier, an iron cross brace was attached to two of the thick concrete columns that disappeared into the water. It made a nice hideout. Abby was next. Ray grabbed her legs as she clutched the rope and eased downward. Mitch, with his one eye, lost his equilibrium and almost went for a swim.
But they made it. They sat on the cross brace, ten feet above the cold, dark water. Ten feet above the fish and the barnacles and the body of the Nordic. Ray cut the rope so the corpse could fall to the bottom properly before it made its ascent in a day or two.
They sat like three owls on a limb, watching the buoy lights and channel lights and waiting for the messiah to come walking across the water. The only sounds were the soft splashing of the waves below and the steady clicking of the flashlight.
And then voices from the deck above. Nervous, anxious, panicked voices, searching for someone. Then they were gone.
"Well, little brother, what do we do now?" Ray whispered.
"Plan B," Mitch said.
"And what's that?"
"Very funny," Abby said, clicking away.
An hour passed. The iron brace, though perfectly located, was not comfortable.
"Have you noticed those two boats out there?" Ray asked quietly.
The boats were small, about a mile oifshore, and for the past hour had been cruising slowly and suspiciously back and forth in sight of the beach. "I think they're fishing boats," Mitch said.
"Who fishes at one o'clock in the morning?" Ray asked.
The three of them thought about this. There was no explanation.
Abby saw it first, and hoped and prayed it was not the body now floating toward them. "Over there," she said, pointing fifty yards out to sea. It was a black object, resting on the water and moving slowly in their direction. They watched intently. Then the sound, like that of a sewing machine.
"Keep flashing," Mitch said. It grew closer.
It was a man in a small boat.
"Abanks!" Mitch whispered loudly. The humming noise died.
"Abanks!" he said again.
"Where the hell are you?" came the reply.
"Over here. Under the pier. Hurry, dammit!"
The hum grew louder, and Abanks parked an eight-foot rubber raft under the pier. They swung from the brace and landed in one joyous pile. They quietly hugged each other, then hugged Abanks. He revved up the five-horsepower electric trolling motor and headed for open water.
"Where have you been?" Mitch asked.
"Cruising," Abanks answered nonchalantly.
"Why are you late?"
"I'm late because I've been dodging these fishing boats filled with idiots in tourist clothes posing as fishermen."
"You think they're Moroltos or Fibbies?" Abby asked.
"Well, if they're idiots, they could be either one."
"What happened to your green light?"
Abanks pointed to a flashlight next to the motor. "Battery went dead."
The boat was a forty-foot schooner that Abanks had found in Jamaica for only two hundred thousand. A friend waited by the ladder and helped them aboard. His name was George, just George, and he spoke English with a quick accent. Abanks said he could be trusted.
"There's whiskey if you like. In the cabinet," Abanks said. Ray found the whiskey. Abby found a blanket and lay down on a small couch. Mitch stood on the deck and admired his new boat. When Abanks and George had the raft aboard, Mitch said, "Let's get out of here. Can we leave now?"
"As you wish," George snapped properly.
Mitch gazed at the lights along the beach and said farewell. He went below and poured a cup of scotch.
* * *
Wayne Tarrance slept across the bed in his clothes. He had not moved since the last call, six hours earlier. The phone rang beside him. After four rings, he found it.
"Hello." His voice was slow and scratchy.
"Wayne baby. Did I wake you?"
"You can have the documents now. Room 39, Sea Gull's Rest Motel, Highway 98, Panama City Beach. The desk clerk is a guy named Andy, and he'll let you in the room. Be careful with them. Our friend has them all marked real nice and precise, and he's got sixteen hours of videotape. So be gentle."
"I have a question," Tarrance said.
"Sure, big boy. Anything."
"Where did he find you? This would've been impossible without you."
"Gee, thanks, Wayne. He found me in Memphis. We got to be friends, and he offered me a bunch of money."
"Why is that important, Wayne? I'll never have to work again. Gotta run, baby. It's been real fun."
"Where is he?"
"As we speak, he's on a plane to South America. But please don't waste your time trying to catch him. Wayne, baby, I love you, but you couldn't even catch him in Memphis. Bye now." She was gone.