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Before I left for Florida, my old friend and mentor Charley Stevens gave me a puzzling piece of advice. “Never trust a man without secrets.”
I thought he’d misspoken. “Don’t you mean a man with secrets?”
But the retired game warden only winked as if to suggest he’d said exactly what he’d intended to say. It would be up to me to figure out the meaning of his cryptic remark.
I went to Miami to do a background check on an Air Force vet who had applied for a job with the Maine Warden Service and about whose character I had vague yet creeping doubts. On paper and in a series of face-to-face interviews, Tom Wheelwright had appeared to be the ideal candidate to become our next chief pilot. A Maine native currently residing in Key Biscayne, he was a decorated combat veteran with more than enough air hours to qualify him for the position. He was quick on his toes, clear-eyed, and a family man with a presentable wife and three presentable children. When I’d asked him why he wanted to trade the salary of a Learjet pilot for that of a Maine State employee, he said he hoped to raise his kids somewhere that “still felt like a real place.”
It was a good answer.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Wheelwright was not the paragon everyone swore he was.
For the past week, I had been interrogating every aspect of the man’s life. I had started with the list of references he had provided. I spoke with his wife and parents, his brothers and sisters, his commanding officers in the Air Force, the management of the charter airline that employed him, former coworkers, neighbors, friends. I had reviewed multiple credit reports, paused over a criminal history that consisted of nothing but (frequent) speeding tickets, and found no red flags.
Everything checked out except for the familiar voice inside my head.
Never trust a man without secrets.
It was Charley’s dictum that had prompted me to keep digging until I unearthed a name conspicuous by its absence from any of the files I’d been given. Captain Joe Fixico now worked part-time running airboat tours out of Shark Valley in the Everglades, but during the first Gulf War, he had flown multiple sorties over Iraq as Wheelwright’s electronic warfare officer.
Captain Fixico had, coincidentally, also retired from the Air Force to South Florida. The two flyboys lived less than thirty miles from each other. And yet Wheelwright hadn’t included on his disclosure list the one man who could best speak to his coolness at the stick and his courage under fire.
Fixico himself seemed surprised when I finally reached him by phone. “Tommy listed me as a reference?”
“As a matter of fact, he didn’t.”
“Well, that’s understandable, I guess. We’re not as close as we were during the war.” He had a rough, rasping voice that made me imagine he possessed a fondness for tobacco. “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was again?”
“Mike Bowditch. Would you be available to get together tomorrow, Captain?”
“Of course,” he’d said. “And please, call me Joe.”
Then my new friend had invited me to his house in the outermost ring of the Miami suburbs.
The next morning, however, Fixico called back twice: the first time to push our appointment to late afternoon, the second time to change the location to a restaurant owned by the Miccosukee Tribe of Native Americans, out in the Glades.
“You can’t miss it,” he said in a voice that sounded even scratchier than it had the night before. “It’s across the highway from the national park entrance. Look for the sign advertising fried gator tail and all-you-can-eat frogs’ legs.”
When I’d laughed at what I’d assumed to be hyperbole, the line went quiet.
“Do you think I’m proud of it?” he’d finally said. “That I don’t know it’s a caricature? Just be glad I’m willing to meet with you at all, Warden Bowditch.”
I hadn’t realized until that moment that Joe Fixico was himself a Miccosukee. Nor did I understand why the formerly cooperative Air Force captain was now playing hard to get.
* * *
The temperature was eighty-eight degrees. The relative humidity was 90 percent. The swollen canal behind my airport motel smelled rank and diseased, like a mouthful of rotten teeth.
I was overdressed in a navy linen suit, a sky-blue cotton shirt, suede chukka boots, and a SIG P239 handgun holstered on my belt. I also carried a badge identifying me as a Maine game warden investigator. When traveling on duty out of state, I was required to present myself as a law enforcement officer. People assumed I was a plainclothes police detective, which in a sense I was, the difference being that most of the crimes I investigated back home were perpetrated against wildlife.
Not having anything else to do with my unanticipated free time, I decided to play tourist. I had never visited Florida. In thirty-one years on earth, I had rarely even left the state of Maine.
I was parochial enough, for instance, to think the name of the four-lane highway that carried me across the flooded saw grass prairie had an aboriginal music to it. The Tamiami Trail. Later I learned it was just a mashup of the highway’s starting and ending points: Tampa and Miami. The contraction was cooked up by a cynical developer to entice émigrés from Middle America to buy bulldozed swampland.
Florida had been built on a foundation of fraud and false promises as much as on a bedrock of limestone, riddled with holes and prone to devastating collapses.
In the lot outside the Shark Valley Visitor Center, I spotted dozens of cars and RVs, and I wondered, What kind of fool chooses to go wildlife watching in the heat of a late-June day when every breath feels like being waterboarded?
Then I caught sight of my sweating reflection in the glass booth where I paid my admission, and I knew what kind of fool.
The birds, though! Great and snowy egrets, blue and tricolored herons, anhingas posed cruciform in the mangroves, drying their wings, glossy and white ibises, roseate spoonbills, and purple gallinules walking across water lilies with their grotesquely oversized feet. Alligators lolled ridge-backed in the canals or sprawled in the verges between the paved walk and the stream. Enormous catfish, gar, and tilapia floated with a flutter of fins beneath the tea-colored surface. Never had I encountered nature in such glorious, riotous abundance. An eye-popping, caterwauling carnival of life.
I had probably lost ten pounds in water weight when, remembering my appointment, I returned to my rented sedan, buckled on my sidearm, pulled on my suit jacket, and drove across the street to the restaurant that served deep-fried reptiles.
When I stepped through the door, a blast of air-conditioning hit me in the face with the force of a meat freezer thrown open.
“I’m supposed to meet someone,” I told the host. His skin was the color of bronze, and he wore his black hair long and parted straight down the center.
“He’s not here yet.”
“I’ll sit down.”
“I think you’d better.”
The interior was festively decorated in bright colors and Native American motifs. The only customers were two white families—clearly foreign, clearly tourists—and a black man with gray hair seated at the lunch counter, reading a fishing magazine.
My waitress was so concerned that I might collapse of dehydration that she left a filled water pitcher on the table. She brought another five minutes later when I’d drained the first.
Half an hour passed. The families ate and left and were replaced by more families and an elderly couple and some college-age boys who were loud even before they ordered Budweisers all around. The man at the counter had managed to disappear without my seeing him leave. My server asked if I wanted to order some food while I could.
“We’ll be closing soon. We close at four o’clock.”
“Why so early?”
“We close when the park closes.”
I tried Fixico’s phone number but got an automated reply. I left a curt message for him to call me. As the restaurant emptied, I could feel the host watching me, willing me to get up and leave the way a cat wills you to feed it. I put down a ten-dollar bill for the water and the trouble.
Copyright © 2020 by Paul Doiron