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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.
I sat in my rented Hyundai with the air-conditioning cranked and fog inching up the windshield, trying to decide how to proceed. If I left now, I might still catch my flight home. But the hook had been set, and I wasn’t breaking free without a fight.
Why had Fixico brought me all the way out into the Everglades only to stand me up? Why not just tell me over the phone that, upon further reflection, he had nothing to say about Captain Tom Wheelwright?
Because he wanted to have a look at me first.
In the rearview mirror, I noticed the man who’d seated me leaving the restaurant. He paused to tuck his white polo into his pants and put on a pair of wraparound shades before making his way toward a Chevrolet Camaro parked in the thin shade of a palm.
Careful of fire ants, I crossed the sandy lot. “Excuse me, sir!”
The bronze man lurched to a stop. “You’re still here?”
“I have a question for you.”
“When I told you I was meeting someone, you said, ‘He’s not here yet.’ How did you know I was meeting a man?”
“You said you were.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I think you’re confused. Look, I’ve got to pick up my kid.”
I watched the sports car accelerate onto the cracked highway headed back toward Miami. Then I shaded my eyes with the blade of my hand and scanned the endless flatness. I hadn’t seen the man at the counter leave, but I saw him now, not a hundred yards away.
Beyond the restaurant stood a second, smaller building with the same thatched roof—a tribal information center—and beyond that was a dirt lot that bordered a dull canal that might or might not have been the Shark River. The black man I’d noticed inside the restaurant stood on the bank, wearing a panama hat, smoking a cigar, and fishing with a cane pole unlike anything I’d ever seen in Maine.
His back stiffened, but he spoke without turning. “I was beginning to have doubts about you as an investigator, Warden Bowditch. You didn’t expect me to be black. Some of us Natives are.”
“Do you want to tell me what that stunt was about?”
He tossed the cigar butt into the greenish water. A small fish came up to snap at it. A bigger fish rose from the depths to swallow the smaller fish whole. There’s always someone bigger, someone hungrier.
When Fixico finally faced me, I saw that he had an indentation in his forehead that spoke of a head injury neither recent nor ancient. His nose was straight, his brow slanting, and his eyes were so heavily lidded he seemed half-asleep.
“I wanted to check you out before we talked,” he said, a little smile playing in the corners of his mouth.
“And you didn’t like my looks?”
“Not particularly. How did you find me?”
“It took a while.”
“That’s not what I meant. How did you find me in the first place? You said Tommy didn’t give you my name as a character witness.”
Witness. I made a mental note of the word choice.
“Maybe I’m a better investigator than I look.”
He laughed at that and gestured toward an SUV that gleamed white across the lot. “Let me get this line in, and we can talk inside my Rogue so you don’t melt any more than you already have, Mr. Snowman. I’ll tell you the truth about the great Tom Wheelwright. The whole truth and nothing but.”
* * *
The interior of the SUV smelled of his Cubanos. I observed a cigar burn in the otherwise pristine leather upholstery. He removed his straw hat and set it on the dash.
Unlike Wheelwright, who was impossibly fit in middle age, Fixico had acquired a belly since his air force days. He wore a guayabera shirt, relaxed-fit jeans, and flip-flops. A medical alert bracelet hung like a bangle from one thin wrist.
“So you’re a detective?” he said. “And your bureau flew you all the way down here to run a background check on a man applying to become a game warden? I never would’ve thought that was an actual thing.”
In fact, investigating applicants to the Maine Warden Service was one of my most important duties. Many people participated in the hiring process—including a psychologist and a polygraph operator—but ultimately, it was my responsibility to prevent an unfit candidate from acquiring a badge and gun.
“Do you mind if I record this?”
Fixico reached for an aluminum tube on the center console, unscrewed the end, and shook out a cigar. “I’d prefer we talk on ‘deep background,’ if you don’t mind.”
“Are you concerned about retribution from the air force?”
He had a laugh that seemed to scrape his vocal cords. “What’re they going to do to me that’s worse than what God dished out? You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth. I used to be brilliant. The undamaged part of my brain still is. It’s new memories I can’t retain.”
What interested me was the old stuff. “So you and Wheelwright flew EF-111A Ravens in the war?”
“Spark Varks. That’s what we called them. Technically, Tom did the flying, and my job was to fuck with Saddam’s communications, an activity at which I excelled. After I came back from the Gulf, I thought I was headed for a career at a defense contracting firm. Six-figure income, big house outside the Beltway, marry a white woman. The Native American dream.”
He smiled ironically through a cloud of cigar smoke. “None of that has anything to do with Tom Wheelwright. He wasn’t in Las Vegas when my Corvette was T-boned or when I woke from my coma to learn I was being medically retired. Why did Tommy tell you he chose to leave the air force?”
“He said he couldn’t resist the money he was promised to fly Learjets for the 1 Percent.”
“That’s partially true, I suppose. Tom’s always been good at using truthful statements to mislead. Or maybe he’s one of those people who passes polygraphs because they believe their own bullshit.”
“I have all his military records, including his honorable discharge. There’s not a blemish in his file.”
“There wouldn’t be. Pilots are held to different standards. Especially when it comes to reports of inappropriate conduct with the other sex.”
“Why is there no mention of harassment charges?”
“It’s the air force! Where have you been living for the past fifteen years? Tom was encouraged to take early retirement.” Fixico rolled down his window to relieve the fug. “Now you’re thinking, ‘Why should I take the word of a brain-damaged Injun over the United States Air Force?’ Because I can give you names is why. I can point you to the women. But I have a feeling you already believe me.”
He was right on that account.
I tried to lean forward, but my shirt adhered to the upholstery as if with paste. “Last night, you said you were willing to talk about Tom Wheelwright. Today, you gave me the slip. What made you change your mind, Captain?”
“Truth be told, I don’t recall our conversation all that well. As I said, I have a problem forming new memories. But back when Tommy and I were hotshots in the USAF—before my brain injury—I was as cocky as he was. It was the crash that humbled me. Do you know how often I overhear kids asking their moms about the man with the dent in his head? When the world looks at you and sees a freak, you no longer have the luxury of ignoring the truth.”
He absently stroked the moon crater in his forehead.
“But I still haven’t answered your question. What made me change my tune? I realized the significance of Tommy not giving you my name. He was afraid I’d acquired a conscience as a result of my misfortunes, and rightly so. People have been covering for that man his whole life—me included. I decided the time had come for someone to knock the great Wheelwright off his pedestal.”
* * *
Alone again in my car, I called the first woman whose name Fixico had given me, a former air force second lieutenant now living outside Omaha, Nebraska.
“How did you find me?” she’d asked with a flutter of panic.
And with that, my job was done.
Copyright © 2020 by Paul Doiron.