Tom Applewaite and his younger brother Willie Boy drove south toward Stumpy Point in their five-year old Nissan. They didn’t talk much. At least Tom didn’t. Willie Boy came up with sporadic chatter every few miles, commenting on the flat marshy landscape with stands of pines on both sides of Highway 264 out of Manteo. They passed a sign that cautioned black bears might be nearby, and Willie Boy said, “I wish we could see a black bear. I’d like to see one of them things.” Tom nodded solemnly and concentrated on his driving.
Tom’s thoughts were about negotiating with John Livermore to rent his boat for twenty-four hours. It had already been tentatively settled but Tom knew there was reluctance on Livermore’s part. He would be paying Livermore twenty-five thousand dollars for the use of the boat. With his right hand, Tom touched the bulge of bills in the side pocket of his faded jeans, just to reassure himself. It was a lot of money that he had been entrusted with. He and Willie Boy could simply continue driving and keep the twenty-five thousand dollars. It would last them a good while. However, they wouldn’t last as long as the money would. The people in charge would have them killed. He and Willie Boy wouldn’t survive more than a few days.
Tom was excited and proud about being part of the operation, to be in charge of bargaining for the use of Livermore’s boat for twenty-four hours, and to offer him the big wad of money, acting the big shot. He was pleased with himself.
John Livermore’s house was on the left and was set back about fifty yards from the narrow paved road, the edges of which cracked and buckled each winter with freezing and with heavy downpours of rain. Although there hadn’t been any hard freezes so far this unusually mild December, cold weather was bound to come, and more asphalt would be needed to patch the road. To avoid the crumbly edges, Tom drove mostly in the middle of the road. There was virtually no traffic, and he didn’t even bother to engage his turn signal as he pulled into the sandy driveway that served John Livermore’s house. The frame house itself appeared to have been built in stages, and with different materials, and with varying design thoughts in mind with each stage. The house backed up to the deepwater canal, and Livermore’s twenty-five foot Ranger boat was tied to a sun-bleached wooden dock. The boat was glowing and pristine in the midmorning sun and didn’t look like it could belong to the owner of the house, but it did.
Tom cut the ignition on the Nissan and he and Willie Boy stepped out of the car into the sunlight. Willie Boy stretched, looked around at their surroundings, and grinned. “Don’t see any black bears,” he chuckled.
Tom didn’t say anything but kept his eyes on the front porch. John Livermore opened his wooden front door and then pushed the screen door and stood on the edge of the low porch. He wore a brown windbreaker not zipped, and a baseball cap pulled on tight. The sun was warm. More mild December weather was promised for the next several days. That’s the way it often was along the coastal area of North Carolina. Tom and Willie Boy lived on the Outer Banks, a narrow ribbon of barrier islands between the mainland and the Atlantic Ocean. The Outer Banks stretched for more than a hundred miles from the Virginia-North Carolina border southward. The islands were shaped like a rather skinny right arm, with the hand up toward Virginia and the elbow—Cape Hatteras—sticking out into the Atlantic.
John Livermore didn’t say anything before stepping off the porch and coming toward Tom. Willie Boy stopped grinning and stood quietly beside Tom. As he approached, his face blank, John Livermore nodded once at Tom, but still didn’t speak. Tom smiled and extended his hand, then let it drop to his side as Livermore made no effort to shake hands. Tom maintained his smile, showing a lot of teeth but otherwise his face remained almost expressionless. Willie Boy frowned at Livermore and shifted his stance.
John Livermore’s wife, a faded blue sweater over her housedress, came to the front door, eyed them a moment, and without speaking went back inside.
John Livermore was a tall, big boned man, weathered, and in his fifties. Tom was almost as tall, and close to thirty years younger than Livermore.
Livermore stood in front of Tom and Willie Boy, still not speaking. With his faded gray eyes, he appeared to be appraising Tom. He ignored Willie Boy. Then he said, “Boat’s around back.”
The three of them walked toward the canal and the boat. A large storage shed stood on the right side of the house, about fifteen yards from the far corner of the house. From the edge of the shed they stood near the canal and the boat. “It’s all gassed up. Full,” John Livermore said. “Keys in the ignition.” Then he turned to Tom. He eyed Tom as if he were looking completely through his skull. “You got the money?”
“Right here,” Tom said, and patted his right pocket. Tom shifted his posture, ready to talk business with John Livermore, give him the instructions he had down pat. “Okay, Mr. Livermore. Tomorrow night you and your wife need to be gone.”
John Livermore nodded. “We will be.”
“Go to Raleigh or some place inland, spend the night at a motel, eat a nice meal or two—and be sure to always use a credit card. Establish that you’re not here and have no idea that your boat was stolen overnight.” Tom saw the expression on John Livermore’s face. “But that’s just if something should go wrong, and I certainly don’t expect anything to go wrong. If it should, though, you’ve got proof that you were nowhere around here.” Tom tried a reassuring half-smile.
Willie Boy spoke up with a grin, “Yeah, you and your wife were away enjoying a second honeymoon.”
John Livermore glared at Willie Boy a moment, not speaking, and then turned back to Tom. “The money?”
Tom tugged the bills from his pocket. He handed them to Livermore. “Twenty-five thousand,” he said. “You can count it.”
John Livermore gave the slightest shake of his head. “No need,” he said. He clutched the bills in his big hand, squeezing the bills tight; he stuffed them deep into the pocket of the heavy twill pants he wore. Then, “We’ll be gone from here before noon tomorrow.”
Tom said, “We’ll be here late tomorrow afternoon, just before dark.” He glanced at the shed. “Park back here, out of sight?”
John Livermore nodded and turned to walk back toward the front of the house. He stopped and turned toward Tom. “Just don’t get my boat shot up or nothing. Wanna see it setting right back there tied up to my dock when we get home Sunday evening, good as new.”
“Yes, sir, it’ll be here,” Tom said. “Don’t worry.”
* * *
Late the next afternoon Tom and Willie Boy Applewaite drove down again toward Stumpy Point to John Livermore’s to park their car behind the shed and board Livermore’s boat. They wore hip-length pea coats and knit caps that could be pulled down over their ears for warmth. They had gloves stuffed in the pockets of the pea coats that they would don once out on the water. The weather was still unseasonably mild for mid-December but it would be cold in the middle of the night off shore on the ocean rendezvousing with the boat they were to meet after midnight.
Tom knew the waters well. He held a captain’s license and Willie Boy had often served as first mate when they went out on fishing charters. This was not a fishing expedition. They were to meet an ocean going fifty-foot shrimp trawler. It would not be loaded with shrimp but with compacted bales of marijuana.
Tom got aboard Livermore’s boat and started the twin 250-hp Yamahas, set them to idle. The engines made a comfortable, low-throated throbbing. Tom could smell the clean exhaust. He was pleased with the way the engines sounded and responded to the lightest touch of the throttle. Willie Boy untied the lines, tossed them over the gunwale and hopped aboard. Tom stood at the controls, Willie Boy at the starboard gunwale, watching carefully as they eased out of the canal and headed slightly southward before swinging around about thirty degrees with a northeast heading toward Oregon Inlet.
Willie Boy smiled big. “Nice boat,” Willie Boy said. Tom nodded and stared forward.
They had a long way to go and it was already dark, with only a sliver of moon coming up over the ocean. Getting through Oregon Inlet was always tricky because of shoaling and often conflicting tides or currents. But Tom was good at it. He glanced at his watch, using the glow of the instrument panel. It would take them the better part of three hours to get to the designated coordinates in the Atlantic. With a full tank, they had plenty of fuel for the trip, but out of habit, every few minutes Tom eyed the fuel gauge, the tachometer, depth finder, and compass. Once they reached the coordinates, they would have to wait and hope that the trawler showed up and there were no problems.
At midnight they were at their spot in the Atlantic, bobbing gently with the bow meeting the low waves, rocking them. Tom kept the engine idling, and from time to time he would bump the boat back in place against the flow of the Labrador Current. They were right at the edge of the Gulf Stream and warmer water. They shared a thermos of coffee that Tom had prepared. Willie Boy shivered, flexed his shoulders as if to warm his muscles, then stepped to the side and took a leak over the gunwale.
“Maybe they won’t show,” Willie Boy said.
“They’ll show,” Tom said. He squinted toward the southeast. The boat’s bow rose and fell gently, as the swells increased a tad. On one of the rises of the bow, Tom was sure he saw the faint light of a boat approaching them in the darkness. The other boat’s white light showed intermittently, as if it were clicked on and off.
“I think they’re coming,” Tom said just loud enough to be heard over the engine and the waves lapping against the hull.
Willie Boy leaned forward, putting his hands on the gunwale, straining to see. “Yeah,” he said.
Minute by minute the little white light blinked on and off, closer and closer. Then rising out of the darkness the big trawler took shape, heading toward them. Tom had his running lights on. He clicked them off and then on again three times. The trawler slowed to a crawl, and responded by turning its running lights on and off three times. The trawler got closer and Tom and Willie Boy could see two men standing near the bow, a lone person in the cabin at the wheel. The two men held automatic carbines. They held them in a relaxed manner, but ready to go into action if they had to, and do it quickly.
The captain of the trawler began to maneuver closer to Livermore’s boat, coming alongside. The two men slung their weapons across their shoulders and each picked up boat hooks as the gap between the two boats closed.
Tom told Willie Boy to help get the boats secured together. His voice tinged with nervousness, Tom said, “I’ve got to go aboard their boat and speak to the captain. I wanna make sure he knows who we are . . . and that we know who he is.”
* * *
Lines were slung from the trawler to cleats on Livermore’s boat. Tom stepped across. Neither of the two men offered a hand. Willie Boy looked at them. The men were dark skinned and spoke to each other in what Willie Boy assumed was Spanish. Willie Boy kept his eyes on his brother, who stood inside the cabin of the trawler talking to the captain. He realized his breathing came faster and he could feel his heart beating in his chest. His brother’s conversation with the boat captain appeared even and straightforward. From inside his pea coat, Tom removed a thick, sealed envelope and handed it to the captain. Tom and the captain both nodded. They didn’t shake hands, and Tom left the cabin and went past the two guys. The captain said something to the two men and they began to get the bales of marijuana ready to transfer to Livermore’s boat.
There were ten bales of the marijuana, compacted to about two-by-three feet each. By the time the two men grappled the bales over to Tom and Willie Boy and they had them stowed away, they were all four sweating. Tom and Willie Boy pulled a tarp loosely over the last two bales. The two men on the trawler never returned any of Willie Boy’s smiles until they finished. Then the older of the two gave a quick smile, showing a gold tooth that caught a glow from the Livermore’s running lights. The lines were quickly untied, tossed back to the trawler, which was already gunned and speeding away as the lines landed on its deck.
* * *
By five o’clock that morning, Tom had motored Livermore’s boat inbound beyond Oregon Inlet and into a deep creek on the west side of Roanoke Island, north of Wanchese. He cut the engine and waited. He and Willie Boy scanned the brush and undergrowth on each side of the creek. Within two minutes, a flashlight beam blinked on three times, and two men stepped out of the underbrush to the lip of the creek. Willie Boy recognized them and they exchanged grins.
“All okay?” Tom said.
Barely above a whisper, one of the two young men said, “Yep.” He displayed a cell phone. “I’ve already called. Two trucks be here in no more’n five minutes. Want a get unloading that stuff?”
“We’ll wait a couple minutes,” Tom said. “But help us get over to the bank there.” Tom trimmed the engines up almost out of the water.
Willie Boy tossed two lines to the men and they pulled the boat flush against the bank, the keel brushing lightly against the sandy bottom of the creek.
One of the young men, giving Tom what passed for a friendly smile, said, “Before we get started, you got something for us. Been here all night you know.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tom said. “Let’s get this stuff off the boat and ready for the trucks, and then I’ll settle with you.”
To Tom, Willie Boy whispered, “How much they getting?”
“Five thousand each.”
“Jesus,” Will Boy breathed.
“I don’t set the prices,” Tom said. “They keep a lookout. Gotta have ’em.”
Willie Boy heard the two panel trucks approaching before they came into view. No headlights were on and the trucks moved slowly across more of a sandy path than a road. The trucks stopped a few yards from where they stood. The drivers got out without speaking and they helped unload the marijuana, putting half in one truck, half in the other. Willie Boy didn’t ask Tom, but he assumed the truck drivers would be paid when they made their delivery because Tom didn’t offer any money and they didn’t ask for any.
It was the last bale of marijuana, the first one loaded from the trawler to Livermore’s boat, and the one on the bottom of the pile that had split open.
Tom bent over it and said, “Oh, shit.” To the others he called, “Let me tie this one back up. Came undone.”
Willie Boy looked over Tom’s shoulder. The other four stood on the bank waiting for the final bale. Willie Boy narrowed his eyes and nudged Tom and pointed. “Yeah,” Tom whispered. “I see it. Don’t say anything.”
What Willie Boy saw were bricks of cocaine hidden inside the bale of marijuana. Tom slipped one of the bricks inside his pea coat. “Little insurance,” he whispered to Willie Boy.
Willie Boy and Tom got the bale retied and passed it over to the others without comment. The retied bale was loaded into one of the trucks. The other truck was already pulling away. Neither of the drivers had said a word. The two men who served as lookouts, came to the edge of the boat, and Tom handed each of the lookouts a bundle of tightly rolled bills. The two men grinned and they waved to Willie Boy as they pushed Livermore’s boat away from the bank. Tom eased it in reverse and back out into open waters. He glanced at his watch. It was six-thirty and beginning to get light. In another hour and a half they’d have John Livermore’s boat docked at his place and be through.
As he pushed the throttle forward and the boat got to plane, speeding along, Tom smiled big. Like Willie Boy, he had a great smile, but just didn’t use it as often as Willie Boy did. Tom turned to Willie Boy who stood beside him at the wheel. “We made good money tonight,” he said, “but we’re delivering cocaine. Worth a whole whale of a lot more’n pot, so I’m going to say we get more money for our deliveries.”
“They gonna agree?” Willie Boy said.
“They’ll have to,” Tom said. “They’ll have to.”
Willie Boy looked at the side of Tom’s face, at the set of his jaw. He felt a great love for his brother.