I’m still hoping to publish Dungeness and Dragons by the end of April. Here’s the first chapter:
1. The Wreck of the Johnny B. Goode
MONDAY, JANUARY 7, 2019. The first storm of January had begun in earnest. Although the sun had not appeared all week, today the roiling black clouds seemed to suck even the faint remaining light from the late afternoon sky, creating a premature twilight. In the darkness, the twelve-foot swells were liquid mountains, rushing headlong toward them, indifferent to the boat bobbing on the surface, unforgiving of any mistakes the three-man crew might make. Even with the howl of the wind and the slashing of the rain, the men could hear the whistler buoy astern, moaning like the soul of a drowned fisherman.
“Are we having fun yet?” Derek Lea shouted to his crew mate Rick Perrins over the roar of the wind. The rain smacked his bright yellow foul-weather gear with a ferocity that seemed bent on shoving him overboard. Waves thundered over the bow, drenching him with walls of water. His mouth filled with the briny taste of the sea. Even through his layered clothing, the cold was leeching the warmth from his body.
“This is nuts!” his partner yelled back. They could barely hear each other, but each knew what the other was thinking. Long familiarity with the hazards of the Pacific made them almost telepathic. Perrins shivered in the onslaught and spat onto the deck. “What are we doing out here?”
“Earning a living, numb nuts!” He drew his hood tighter over his head.
“There’s gotta be an easier way!”
“Of course there is! But everything else is boring!” With the deft hands of years of practice, Lea gaffed the line from a crab pot resting on the sea bottom in fifty feet of water. He looped it over the block, a circular winch at the end of a stainless steel arm, bent at the elbow over the side of the boat, its hydraulic muscle ready to haul the heavy pot out of the water. The pots or traps were round disks about three feet in diameter and a foot high. Metal grates were wrapped around steel frames, making cylindrical cages. One-way doors on opposite sides of the traps allowed crabs to crawl in toward the bait, but not back out.
He engaged the block. The line tightened and came thrumming in. When the three white marker buoys shaped like artillery shells reached the winch, he flipped them away from the gear and back out into the water. As the pot broke the surface, he hit the lever on the gunwale, and the arm of the block extended upward and swung toward the boat, lifting the pot within easy grasp of the two men.
“Heave ho!” Perrins opened the door on top of the trap and the fishermen spilled its contents into a trough between them. They were greeted by a mass of flailing legs and claws as the Dungeness crabs struggled to right themselves and take shelter. The men tossed the large ones into the hole that dropped into the live tank under the deck. Perrins put a gauge across the shells of the smaller ones to make sure they were of legal size, tossing those too small and any females over the side. In moments, he was attaching a new bait bucket filled with frozen squid and sardines inside the pot. Lea disengaged the line from the block, and the men heaved the trap back into the water. The entire operation took less than two minutes.
“There were some big ones in that bunch!” Lea reached for the boat hook again.
“Current’s getting stronger,” his partner complained. “It won’t be long before it pulls our buoys under and we won’t be able to find them until the tide changes.”
“We’ll fall off that bridge when we come to it. Let’s just get the next one.”
The men had been working the Johnny B. Goode for five years. It was a good ship, 48 feet long with an 18-foot beam, used to rough seas. The large wheel house at the forward end held all the living space, including bunks for the crew and a modest galley. Before launch, 250 crab pots had been carefully stacked in the stern of the craft, the lines for each in serpentine coils on top. The Johnny B. Goode was all business.
The men’s fathers and their grandfathers before them had been crab fishermen, and it was all they knew. “It’s in our DNA,” Lea was fond of saying. Neither had ever given a thought to doing anything else, despite the dangers of their chosen profession. Each was a family man, Lea with two sons, ages 12 and 14, and Perrins with three daughters, 5, 10, and 13. On the upper deck of the wheelhouse sat their skipper, Carl Hamisu, piloting the craft and minding the electronics. He spoke little, but he knew the ocean. Widowed five years before, catching crabs was his way of managing his grief.
Lea stretched over the side of the boat to gaff the line just as the ship rose high on a large swell. His feet slipped on the wet deck. He grabbed for the gunwale and caught himself.
“Don’t talk about falling off just yet, big guy!” Perrins laughed.
“Not funny, wise ass.” He drew the line in, looped it on the block, and engaged the machine. The line grew taut but stopped.
“Shit! It’s sanded!” Strong currents sometimes buried the pots in the sand, making them impossible to retrieve. Played by the gale-force winds, the tight line began to whine like the string of a violin.
“Look out!” Both men averted their faces as the nylon line snapped with a sound like a gunshot. The broken line whistled by them, barely missing Perrins’s face. He had not been so lucky last year, and he still bore a scar on his right cheek as mute testimony to the bite of the line. He gathered the loose cord and threw it on the deck until he could coil it later.
“That’s the fourth one this trip. It’s starting to cost us.”
“What?” shouted Lea. “My teeth are chattering so loud I can’t hear you!”
“You crazy sonofabitch! I’m telling the skipper we need to haul ass back to port. It’ll be pitch dark soon and I hate going over the bar at night.”
“We’ve done it a hundred times. What are you scared of?”
“Not scared. Just trying to be smart. This storm has only just begun. It’s gonna get a whole lot worse before it’s over.”
“Hurry back, buddy. Duty calls.”
Perrins made his way forward to the wheelhouse, slowing down through the worst of the swells to maintain his balance. He climbed the stairs and entered the enclosure, pulling the door closed behind him, relishing the sudden warmth now that he was out of the wind.
Carl Hamisu sat in his chair, his signature captain’s cap perched far back on his head, his eyes riveted to the array of instruments before him. His features were a mixture of Asian and Native American.
“Skipper, we need to beat feet outta here. It won’t be long before we can’t see our buoys anymore, and the storm is only growing stronger.”
Hamisu looked up, nodding his head. “Agreed. New weather report says this howler may reach 65 mile per hour gusts in the next couple of hours. I say we head home and come back out tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Carl. I’ll let Derek know. We’ll stow our gear and batten down the hatches.”
He stepped outside. The frigid cold struck him like an icy slap as he made his way back to his friend. The boat pitched as another wave surged into its bow, and he grabbed the gunwale. The spray soaked him.
“Skipper says we’re going home,” he yelled. “Shut it down.”
“Fine by me. I could use a cigarette and a drink.”
When the deck was secure, the two men went forward into the galley. Once out of the roar of the wind, they could hear each other again. They sat on opposite sides of the small wooden table.
“Your lips are the color of the blueberries my little Dakota picked last summer from our garden.”
“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Let’s goose this heater.”
As the temperature rose, they shed their hooded coats but left on the rubberized pants and boots. Lea grabbed two cigarettes from the pack in the overhead cabinet, lit them both, and handed one to his partner.
“Let’s think warm Hawaiian thoughts.”
Perrins exhaled a large plume of fragrant tobacco smoke as the boat heaved hard to port. “He’s gotta turn this baby fast. Glad he’s so good at it.”
“You and me both.” Lea pulled at the long black beard on his face, wringing water from it. “What I wouldn’t give for three fingers of Irish whiskey right about now.”
“Skipper runs a tight ship. No alcohol while we’re working.”
“I know. Just saying.” He relished the kick of the nicotine after hours without it. “Sure am looking forward to my warm bed tonight. Holly will make me all toasty.”
Perrins smiled and nodded his head. Heidi would do the same for him. Friends often asked them if it was strange being married to sisters, but each had always denied it. Instead, it seemed to make their own friendship stronger. “A hot shower first. Wash this ocean off of me.”
Suddenly, Perrins leaped from his bench. “What was that?”
And then Lea heard it, too. The absence of the constant drone of the diesel engine, the sound to which each had grown so accustomed that it only drew attention to itself when it stopped.
“The goddamn engine quit! Christ almighty!”
They ran from the galley to the upper deck. They found Hamisu frantically scrambling over the electronics, searching for the cause of the failure, trying to get the diesel restarted. “Get on the horn to the Coast Guard! Now!”
Perrins picked up the radio. “May Day! May Day! Johnny B. Goode. Engine died.” He looked toward the Skipper. “Where are we at?”
“Just outside the Driftwood Bar.”
“We’re just off the Driftwood Bar,” he called into the radio. “Need help fast.”
“Johnny B. Goode, this is Coast Guard Cutter Thomas Jefferson. We are just off your stern. Get you pronto. Hang tight.”
Perrins put the radio down. “Hang tight, he says? Hang tight? If we turn broadside in this shit, we can kiss our sorry asses goodbye!”
Aboard the Thomas Jefferson, Captain John Hartford was barking orders. He ran his hand over the charts spread before him. His face screwed into a frown. “Regents, get outside with the lights and see what we’ve got. Brady, keep your eyes on the radar. If their engine is down, they have only minutes.”
“Skipper, what are those damn fools doing out on a night like this? Jesus!”
“I know Carl Hamisu. He’s a good man. He must have his reasons. But he’s too careful to let his engine die on him. That’s what I don’t understand. He’s been around this ocean a lot more years than I have.”
On the deck, Regents tried to peer through the wind-swept curtain of rain, made dazzling by the bright glare of the search lights. He could just make out the fishing boat ahead, a dark shape bobbing helplessly in the onslaught. He held tight to the rail as the cutter crashed through the waves toward the crippled vessel. The wind and the waves and the rain shrieked in protest.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Regents shouted. In the glow of the lights, he caught the shadow of a massive wave bearing down on the Johnny B. Goode. The mountain of moving water pounced over the bow of the hapless boat, flipping it broadside like a toy. With an animal roar, it rolled the boat over and swallowed it.
Regents clambered back inside as quick as a cat. “She’s capsized, Sir! Took one amidships and went over!”
“Sweet Mother!” The Captain wiped the sweat from his brow and took the measure of his men. “OK, every man we can spare, get out there now. Get all our lights on her. Find those men! Carlson, you hold us steady.”
The men scrambled out into the storm. Hartford did a quick mental calculation of how long a man could survive in 49-degree water before lethal hypothermia snatched his life. And that didn’t take into account waves that could gobble a man whole. He cursed under his breath. How long before they could no longer call this a “rescue” operation?
Sometimes he hated his job.
The next day, the sun briefly peeked through the cloud cover at the horizon before disappearing again, but the sky remained an eggshell white, nothing like the inky black of the day before. As ferocious as the storm had been, it was gone by morning, leaving only its unquiet sea behind. Ten-foot swells rolled toward the shore in a lazy, regular rhythm. The wind had died to a mere breeze, barely able to keep the scrounging seagulls aloft. Their cries were a welcome greeting after the howling crescendo of yesterday. The beaches were swept clean, with the exception of a few great logs half-buried in the sand.
Alongside the bay, a bearded cameraman and a young female reporter in a hooded red overcoat were setting up shop. A 4:00 A.M. tip to the newsroom in Portland had sent them scrambling to the little seaside town for the story.
“Hurry, Barry. It’s almost time. How do I look?”
“Laurel, you look little red riding hood, only cuter. Now let me concentrate on this equipment.”
The woman touched her earpiece. “Here they come. Are we ready?” She saw the red light on the camera and looked into the lens. “Good morning, Julie. I’m standing here by the bay in Driftwood, in front of two rows of upright pylons, all that’s left of the Driftwood boardwalk after it was destroyed by the famous fire of 1967. Now look behind me. Just look what yesterday’s storm did.”
The camera panned around behind the reporter. A small group of early morning beachcombers were staring upwards.
Impaled like a giant insect on one of the stanchions of the burned-out boardwalk was the Johnny B. Goode. A pillar had pierced its hull and protruded above the main deck, just aft of the wheelhouse.
“The Coast Guard reports that this commercial crabbing boat, the Johnny B. Goode, capsized last night in heavy seas and was hurled up here into the bay by the storm surge. The rescue boat Thomas Jefferson was unable to reach them in time. The body of the fishing boat captain, Carl Hamisu, was found on the beach this morning by a woman walking her dog. The crewmen, Derek Lea and Rick Perrins, have not been found, but are presumed dead.”
The camera returned to the reporter’s face.
“The tight-knit community of Driftwood is mourning the tragic loss of favorite sons, heads of families who had made their livelihoods here over several generations. They were well-known and well-liked, and two of the men leave behind grieving widows and young children. If you’ll come with me now, we’ll speak with some of the people who are beginning to gather here.”
She turned and walked toward the group near the water’s edge, her cameraman following dutifully behind. As she approached, two men separated themselves from the group and began to walk away. Both were wearing knit caps pulled over their ears against the cold. She found it difficult to determine their ages, since the faces of both looked leathery, etched by long exposure to wind and weather. One had a long black beard beginning to show streaks of gray. The other was clean-shaven. She thought they might be brothers.
“Excuse me,” she called, as she extended the microphone before her. “Please wait. Did you know these men?”
Both looked uncomfortable, unwilling to speak. After a moment of silence, the bearded one said, “Yes, we knew them. Good men. Tragic. Tragic what’s happened. They shouldn’t have gone out in that storm.” He swung his head in both directions, reminding her of an animal in a live trap, looking for an escape. As other people from the small crowd drew near, the two men slipped away.
“We knew them,” a woman hollered, raising her hand to be seen above the others. “Good men. Good families. Terrible loss.”
The newswoman returned to the camera. “I’ve been told that Darby Gallaway, owner of the local Reef Coffee Shop, will be starting a GoFundMe page to benefit the stricken families. Memorial services are being planned for later in the week.
“Now back to you, Julie.”
As he turned off the camera and lowered it, Barry said, “Nice job, hon. Shall we interview some of the others for the evening spot tonight?”
Laurel pulled some gloves from her pocket and put them on. “Good idea. That woman in the crowd seemed pretty eager to talk. Then we’ll walk around the town and take a look. Driftwood’s been out of the news since that club fire last year. What was it? Chaos? Anyway, let’s see if there’s been any changes.” As she turned back to the onlookers, she whispered, “Let’s milk this story for all it’s worth.”