I guess you could call us pirates.
Ray loved to describe what we did with that coy phrase. I heard him say it so many times I immaturely started to mouth the words before he even said them whenever the subject came up.
I can’t deny it was actually a good description of our favorite activity though. More or less, we essentially were, pirates.
It seemed crazy at first. Like, okay, maybe you do it once, as a thrill, on a drunken whim, but move on after that. That’s not what Ray, a cluster of his friends, and I did. Instead, we took it to the next level. Turning it almost into a bit of a cottage industry. Stealing boats. Chopping them down and reselling them dirt cheap.
And I was much more than an accomplice. You could maybe actually say I was a catalyst. The one who poured gasoline on the fire.
The lazy trickle of islands that make up the Florida Keys are populated by more unmanned, under-secured boats than they are people. The rich and upper-middle class mostly leave their aquatic play toys tied-up to the endless docks and marinas generously sprinkled around the islands until they can get away from the modern torture of their office a few times each year to enjoy the water. They were sitting ducks and Ray knew it.
Ray started out small-time. Stealing crappy fishing boats and skiffs in high school. The cheap vessels people left the keys in all night from time to time. Naïve enough to think no one would waste their time stealing their hunks of rusty crap.
Ray would lift the boats and joyride them just for fun before ditching them somewhere nearby. Sometimes if they were nice enough (and had enough gas) he would get them up to his dad’s old shop in Homestead, alter them and then sell them on Craigslist. Dirt cheap. That’s how I met him.
I was in Boca Raton visiting my grandma with my dad, yawning through another muggy day when my dad took us on a detour to Ray’s sketchy “used boat” lot to buy a cheap little fishing boat he found on Craigslist. I dreaded the trip, but had no choice in the matter, my eyes rarely leaving the screen of my phone.
Until we pulled up and I saw Ray. I was drawn in immediately.
Ray didn’t look a day over 18, but he already had his own sizable boat sales operation, of which he stalked around shirtless, abbed, tanned and long-haired while clutching a brown Red Stripe bottle. He was like some kind of trashy, rugged, street surfer fantasy I had conjured up in my 17-year-old brain to try and rescue me from the boredom of my grandma’s planned community and my dad’s four-hour fishing trips.
I traded flirts with Ray throughout my dad’s $500 transaction, my dad never the wiser, distracted by what he later told me was a “red hot smokin deal.” Ray pulled a smooth move when I asked for the restroom and he personally directed me. He handed me his frayed business card with his cell phone number on it before he led me to haggard bathroom I ultimately decided was too gross to use.
I called Ray the next time I was down in Miami. He answered. We met at a broken down bar in Homestead where they let us drink stiff Long Island iced teas underage. He wasted no time in telling me how he was a modern day American pirate. I wasted no time in becoming obsessed with him.
We hung out almost every day of that trip. Flirted. Kissed. Got drunk on the beach during the day. Fooled around on the beach at night. Fell in embarrassing, emoji-laced modern teenage love until we decided I needed to go to Florida Atlantic University in Miami once I graduated high school in a handful of months.
That’s when it really started. We stepped up to the big game when I moved down there full-time.
Ray had gone a long ways on street savvy – growing up in a trailer park with his grandparents in Homestead. His dirty blonde, beach bum good looks and body helped as well. But I was the true spark he needed.
Dirty blonde in hair color myself, but classy blonde in everything else, raised in the stale suburbs of the Florida panhandle, I was the bait Ray needed to dangle in front of boat owners to catch that big, fat fish. The kind with vulnerable boats you can sell for real money.
Our capers started out on the beaches of The Keys. We posed as drunk siblings looking to party who were just a little bit underage. The rum-drunk, sun-scorched, blubbery boat owners always fell right into our trap.
We got friendly with the owners on the beach or on the docks or the restaurants nearby until they would invite us on their boats, trying to show off. There, we downed shots, pretended to be much drunker than we really were with our fast-acting teenage livers helping us out. Once the owner, was well lubed with too much alcohol, we would either wait for him to pass out and float him away in a dingy or request a specific kind of booze the owners didn’t have (usually Captain Morgan) and then convince them to head to the nearest liquor store and buy it for us (we weren’t 21, remember), please? We would stay and watch the boat for him. We promised.
They almost always did it. That’s when we sprung. Fired up the boats and drove them away in the ocean.
We immediately took the boat to docks near Miami where some of Ray’s friends, adept at filing away serial numbers, painting and hauling boats in the night to the lesser-regulated waters of The Bahamas took over. They would give us a lump of cash depending on how nice or new the boat was or wasn’t.
We did this for almost a year without a single, real hiccup. Until we hit Plantation Key in the middle of the balmy August heat.
“What if we have some fun with this one?”
Ray’s question started it all. He went on before I could answer.
“Take it for ourselves over to The Bahamas for the weekend. Sell it there to my guys. Take a little bit of that money and pay for the guys to take us back. I know guys who do it all the time. Like a vacation.”
I went for it. Drunken, teenage judgment.
It started out fine. Pretty typical. Fat, old, stock broker or lawyer or some kind of well-paid professional asshole who probably had it coming with a non-descript, middle-of-the-road yacht. We sent him for flavored vodka less than two hours into meeting him and he left us on the boat with the keys. We booked it into the Atlantic as soon as we saw the last of his shiny, bald head walking away into town.
We made it about halfway to The Bahamas before we decided to anchor up for the night in the safety of international waters. The thrill of the score, the silence of the open ocean and our mark’s $1,500 bottle of champagne set the mood.
We were down in the bowels of the boat, the master suite, our swimsuits removed up on the deck, long ago, our bodies sweating, entwined and recovering when the devil knocked upon our door. The sound of footsteps thudded above us in the galley before we had even finished our refractory periods.
“What the hell was that?”
Ray didn’t reply at first. His face flushed. I could tell the sounds instantly got to him as well, even if he didn’t want to show it.
“It was probably just something falling over up there. The boat rocking.”
Ray’s half-hearted, rationalizing excuse couldn’t have sounded less convincing.
“Bullshit. That only thing that rocked this boat in hours was us.”
More footsteps groaned out from up above.
“What the fuck Ray?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I know, but what do we do? You got us into this.”
No answer from Ray. Again, steps up top.
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think of something. Our clothes are up there. Our IDs and stuff,” I pleaded.
“I KNOW. No need to get mad at me about it,” Ray fumed.
“Don’t you have a gun?”
“Didn’t bring it today.”
“Well what do we do?”
“Asking that twenty times isn’t helping me think of anything. In fact, it’s probably doing the opposite.”
“Don’t get an attitude. We have to think of something.”
“Fine. I’ll go up there,” Ray shot out.
Ray stormed off. I followed.
“I’ll go too. Maybe someone saw us floating out here and just wanted to check and see if we were okay.”
We stopped at the bedroom door. Thank God we had locked it out of habit earlier.
“There’s an axe in the fire safety kit out in the hall. I’ll grab it,” Ray whispered in my ear.
I watched Ray sneak naked out of the door through the door, open just a crack.
A few steps into the hall. He stopped.
He quickly hurried back, pulled the door open a little wider and slipped back in.
“The axe is gone,” he spat and shut the door behind him, locked it.
“It’s not in the case where I saw it earlier.”
I looked at Ray’s hand in the soft light. Something was off about his right hand.
“What’s on your hand?”
I grabbed Ray’s hand and felt something thick and wet transfer onto mine.
I looked down at it. Deep, red, blood.
“You have blood all over your hand.”
Ray’s eyes shot open wide. He flipped the master suite door back open, examined the door handle on the other side.
The soft light the galley shot into the hallway outside the door gave the outside door handle of the room we were in a slick shine. Greased with the unmistakable slick of blood.
Ray slammed the door back shut. Threw us back into the candlelight of our nightmare den.
More footsteps from up top greeted our return to the near darkness.
“What do we do?” I asked yet again.
Ray held a deep breath for a cluster of tense seconds.
“We have to go up there?”
Ray didn’t even sound very confident in his situation.
“No. Whoever or whatever is up there already tried to get into this room. Who knows what the hell is going on up there?” I pleaded.
“Maybe it’s just the guy we ripped off. He could have had a tracker on the boat or something. We can apologize to him, maybe say it was a mistake and we can go,”Ray tried to rationalize.
“Or he is going to kill us. Why is there blood out there? Why is the axe gone?”
Ray shuffled back into the heart of the room. Went to the main closet.
“Fine. This fucker should have a gun. I’ll shoot him with his own fucking gun,” Ray snorted.
Ray opened up the closet and starting tossing Tommy Bahama shirts, flip flops and khaki shorts all around the room.
“Help me out.”
I jumped into the closet with Ray and started digging through the pile of dirty clothes at the bottom of the closet before I realized we were ignoring what we really should have been paying attention to.
Resting on a stubby, little tripod on top of a dresser was a video camera.
“Ray,” I whispered.
I jumped up and grabbed the camera.
A quick look at the thing revealed it was recording.
“Shit, the red light is on,” I whispered again before clicking off the light.
Ray was ignoring me. Digging through dresser drawers even though I had found the best clue in the crime scene already.
“Found it. Knew it. Motherfucker,” Ray proudly yelled into the wooden dresser as if I wasn’t there and wasn’t holding a freshly-discovered video camera.
I looked over to see Ray marveling at a small pistol. Almost as if the sight of the power the gun gave him made him forget the monster bleeding at our door.
“Did you forget the situation we are in right now?”
I rewound the video on the camera until it reached the beginning of the recorded footage.