Daiquiri Dock Murder by Dorothy Francis

Chapter 1

Choking and tasting salt spray, I clawed tendrils of hair from my face and eyes and lowered my head into the stinging wind and rain. Once I stepped onto the swaying catwalk, the world turned into a pulsing blackness. Fighting my way forward, I struggled toward the slip where our family docked The Bail Bond. I’d promised Mother and Cherie, my sis, to check on the family’s cabin cruiser every day while they vacationed in Colorado. Rafa Blue keeps her promises. Once again I lowered my head into the storm. Sometimes lines loosened. Sometimes boats slipped their moorings.

Because Dad, Mother, and Cherie, were friends of Brick and Threnody Vexton, our family had rented a slip at their marinathe week they opened their business. So far, the Vexton dockmasters posted an excellent safety record, but our family never depended entirely on them or any other service people to keep our boat safe. During the past few days, weather announcers had pinpointed a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf. Tonight around midnight the winds escalated to a class 1 hurricane heading for the Florida Keys. This made my second trip today to Daiquiri Dock Marina to check on our boat. Gritting my teeth, I inhaled the damp sea air, and balanced unsteadily against the sway of the catwalk. I took care in walking on the slippery boards underfoot. One misstep could throw me into crashing waves.

I lurched from side to side along the catwalk until at last I reached the row of tethered boats, their bow lines tight and tied to sturdy dock cleats. I read the names on some of the hulls I passed. Seaduced. Vitamin C. The Sea Witch. All the boats appeared secure and in place. After tonight’s Fantasy Festparade, a local family threw a party at their private beach home near the marina. Sometimes, unknown to their host, party-goers trespass, board any nearby boat that looks inviting and unoccupied. Dock masters can’t guard everyplace at once. Wise boaters kept an eye on their crafts.

I clutched the brine-crusted line along the side of the walkway, felt it cut into my fingers while my flashlight’s icy coldness chilled my other hand. The Bail Bond! There! It floated safely in its slip. Relief flooded through me, warming me for a moment. In spite of the storm, I’d kept my promise to Mother and Cherie—and perhaps to Dad, too. He’d always loved The Bail Bond.

Turning, I headed back to my car then stopped short. I gasped, stunned by what I glimpsed below me in the choppy water between The Bail Bond and the sailboat in the slip beside it.

Diego Casterano! Diego, our family’s long-time friend, was struggling in the chop below me. Diego, the subject of my next “You Should Get to Know—” weekly column in The Key West Citizen. Brine darkened the pale orange of his Chief Dock Master’s uniform and glistened on long strands of dark hair that escaped from his ponytail.  

How could this be! Why would Diego swim during a squall, seemingly unmindful of the seas raging around him? The boats beside him bobbed in their slips, tethered, lines taut. I watched for only a moment as his head broke the surface of the incoming tide and almost hit the port side of The Bail Bond. For a terrifying moment, I held my breath. His head disappeared, then rose into view again. Maybe he was trying to rescue someone who had fallen from one of the boats or perhaps from the catwalk. I clutched the security line more tightly. Fantasy Fest meant a week of revelry, and anything could happen on parade night. Maybe I could help Diego or at least call for help.

“Diego!” I shouted. “Diego, it’s Rafa!” The wind whipped my words into the wet blackness. “Diego!” Squatting at first, and with one hand still clutching the security line overhead for support, I knelt, leaning so close to the water I could taste the salt spray on my tongue and lips. I shouted to him again. If he answered, I couldn’t hear his words above the wind and the pounding water. Then in a flash of lightning, I saw a sight that chilled me more than the storm around me.  

Strands of Diego’s long hair now lay caught and snarled in the anchor line of The Bail Bond.

  Was he still alive? Was he dead? I knew the stupidity of jumping into the water fully clothed to rescue a drowning person. But was Diego drowning? He wasn’t waving to me or shouting for help. I refused to believe he might be dead. He might be alive. CPR might save him. Maybe he was doing the dead man’s float, gasping for breath between the times when the waves and the sea covered him.

Cell phone! Find the cell! I slid my right hand down the side of my yellow slicker feeling for a familiar lump in my jumpsuit pocket. No. No lump. No cell. I remembered leaving it in the glove box of my Prius. Bad decision. My only option now—a dash to the car to call help. 

Diego’s head still bobbed in the water, disappearing, then bobbing again. I forgot about dashing. Impossible in this storm. Gripping the catwalk line, I struggled toward my car in the parking lot. No problem finding the Prius. At this time of night and in this storm, it stood alone in front of the marina.  

Groping in my pocket for my keys, I pressed the open button, missed it, and hit the alarm button instead. In seconds the car horn began an intermittent blaring. I struggled for a moment, trying to quash the noise. But why stop it? Maybe the sound would signal help.

It took all my strength to open the car door and hold it against the gale that threatened to tear it from its hinges before I could slip inside and slam it shut. I welcomed the car’s dryness and warmth for a few seconds before I opened the glove box. Scrabbling in its contents, I breathed easier once I found the cell and punched in 911. The dispatcher’s voice, tranquil, businesslike. helped me calm down long enough to give the necessary information. 

“Your name and address please.” 

“Rafa Blue. The Blue Mermaid Hotel on Whitehead Street. In Old Town.”.

“Phone number.” 

I spieled out the number of my penthouse suite.

“Where are you now, ma’am?” she asked. “I know the place well, ma’am. You’ll have help in a few minutes.”

“Catwalk C,” I said.

“The officers will find it. You stay right there.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Where did she think I might go?

I tried to think of friends I might call for more help. Pablo? Diego’s son. Pablo lived mostly on the beach. No phone. Brick and Threnody? Yes. I’d keyed their number into my speed dial. Now I punched it and let the cell ring 5 times. Five rings. No answer. No invitation to leave a message.

Leaving the Prius and letting the horn continue its blaring, I tried to hurry to Diego. The diminishing squall allowed me to jog along the catwalk. What if I couldn’t find him again? I peered into the water near The Bail Bond. For several moments I didn’t see him. Then his head appeared again, a little deeper in the water.

“Diego! Diego! Help’s coming!” 

Peering into the water, I waited.

Again, I couldn’t see him. “I called 911!” I shouted. “Help’s on the way.”

After what seemed an eternity, I saw his dark head bobbing closer to the surface again, his hair still tangled in the anchor line. Now he appeared to float. Face down into the water. I could see his back, his hips. Good sign. No point in exhausting himself trying to swim if he could save his strength by floating for a few moments.

“Diego!” I shouted again during a short lull when the wind dropped.

He didn’t respond, but turned his head slightly and looked as if he were trying to raise an arm. Was he trying to motion for me to join him? To help him? I could do that for him, couldn’t I? And I could yank his hair free. Or, if he had a dive knife strapped to his leg, I could cut his hair loose from the anchor line.

Seeing someone near might give Diego the will to hold on until more help arrived. And what about sharks! Sharks fed at night. I couldn’t bear the thought of Diego’s body, nor mine, being ripped to bits by a hammerhead or a yellow. I forced myself to forget that thought. One could never tell about sharks. Even weathered seamen couldn’t say for sure what a shark might do.

Skinning from my slicker and the jumpsuit I’d grabbed when I left my bed, I regretted my predilection for sleeping in the altogether. I stood for a moment, shivering until I felt the sting of rain against my bareness. Then I slipped beneath the security line I’d been clutching and splashed into the sea near Diego. I told myself a shark would never notice my small splash among all of Mother Nature’s gigantic splashes.

I held my breath, yet I sucked in a mouthful of brine. I tried to stay calm and breathe with greater caution. Tread water. Tread water. Following those silent commands, I kept afloat until I caught a clear view of Diego—until I saw his face. The sea splashed into his open mouth. His eyes looked like white marbles rolled back into his head. I knew then for sure he was dead.