World's Richest Lobsters
"Forget it, Steve. I'm not having sex in the ocean."
"C'mon," he pleaded. "Be adventurous."
"It's undignified and unsanitary. Maybe even illegal."
"It's the Keys, Vic. Nothing's illegal."
Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord waded in the shallow water just off Sunset Key. At the horizon, the sun sizzled just above the Gulf.
"In this light, you're really magnificent," he said.
"Nice try, hotshot, but the bikini stays on."
Still, she had to admit that there was something erotic about the warm water, the salty breeze, the glow of the setting sun. And Steve looked totally hot, his complexion tinged a reddish bronze, his dark hair slick and lustrous.
If only I didn't have to drop a bombshell on him tonight.
"It'll be great." He slipped his arms around her waist. "A saltwater hump-a-rama."
Dear God. Did the man I think I love really say "Hump-a-rama?"
"We can't. There are people around."
Twenty yards away, a young couple with that honeymoon look - satiated and clueless - peddled by on a water bike. On the beach, hotel guests carried drinks in plastic cups along the shoreline. Music floated across the water from the hotel's Tiki-hut bar, André Toussaint singing Island Woman.
Why couldn't Steve see she wasn't in the mood? How can someone so good at picking a jury be so oblivious to the ebb and flow of his lover's emotions?
She pried his hands off her hips. "There's seaweed. And sea lice. And sea urchins." She'd run out of sea-things. "We can do it later in the room."
"So you find our sex life a big yawn?"
"I didn't say that."
She sharpened her voice into cross-exam mode. "Isn't it true that after a few months, all your girlfriends start to bore you?"
"Not the ones who dumped me."
"Do you realize you have relationship attention disorder?"
"Whatever that is, I deny it." He pulled her close, and she could feel the bulge in his swim trunks. "I love our sex life. And the room's fine. Clean sheets. A/C. Nice view. Why don't we go in now and get started?"
Get started? Making it sound like cleaning the kitchen.
"You go. Start without me."
"C'mon. We can catch the sunset from the balcony."
She looked toward the horizon where thin ribbons of clouds were streaked the color of a bruised plum. "We won't make it in time."
No way she was going to miss the orange fireball dip into the sea. She loved the eternal rhythm of day into night, the sun rising from the Atlantic, setting in the Gulf. Day after day, year after year. What dependability. She doubted Steve understood that. If he had his way, the sun would zig-zag across the peninsula, stopping for a beer in Islamorada.
She had another reason to postpone the lovemaking.
She'd been thinking about it all the way to Key West. A pesky mosquito of a thought, buzzing in her brain. She hated to ruin the evening, but she had to tell him soon.
"Okay, I give up," Steve said. "Coitus postponus. What time do we meet your uncle?"
She brought her legs up and floated on her back. Looking toward the horizon upside down, the sun floated at the waterline, connected to its reflection by a fiery rope. "Nine o'clock. And I told you, he's not really my uncle."
"I know. Good old Hal Griffin. Your father's partner, the guy who bought you fancy presents when you were a spoiled brat."
"Privileged, not spoiled. Uncle Grif's the one who named my mother 'The Queen.'"
"And you 'The Princess.'"
So Steve had been listening after all, she thought. "You think the name fits?"
"Like your Manolo Blahniks."
She started swimming, heading out to sea, toward the setting sun. Smooth strokes knifing through the water, now glazed a boiling orange. Steve swam alongside, struggling to keep up. "What I don't get is why Hal Griffin calls you after all these years."
The same question had been puzzling Victoria. She hadn't seen Uncle Grif since her father's funeral when she was twelve. Now, suddenly, a phone call. "All I know he has some legal work for me."
"You mean for us."
"He didn't know about you."
"But you told him, right? Solomon and Lord."
Is this how it begins? A little white lie, followed by bigger, darker ones.
God, she hated this. She had to tell Steve and quickly. But how?
He was flailing away, kicking up a storm, trying to catch her. Except for swimming - all splash, no speed - Steve was an accomplished athlete. He'd run track in high school and played baseball at the University of Miami, where he was a mediocre hitter but a terrific baserunner.
"Solomon takes off...and steals second!"
A good primer for lawyering, Victoria figured. Conning the pitcher, pilfering the catcher's signs, then stealing a base. Even the word would appeal to Steve. He had been particularly adept at spiking opposing fielders and kicking the ball out of their gloves. But like a lot of athletes, he didn't know his limitations. He thought he was good at everything. Poker. Auto repair. Sex. Okay, he was good in bed, very good once she taught him to slow down and stop trying to score from first on a single.
A hundred yards offshore, she started treading water, waiting for him to catch up.
"So where are we eating?" he asked, breathing hard.
So very Steve. He would plan dinner while still eating lunch. "Uncle Grif made reservations at Louie's Backyard."
He made an appreciative hmming sound. "Love their cracked conch. Maybe go with the black grouper for an entree, mango mousse for dessert."
Sex and food, she thought. Did he ever think about anything else?
"And we'll be back in the room in time for Sports Center," he continued.
Yes, of course he did.
Was it his imagination, or was something bothering Victoria? Steve couldn't tell. She'd been quiet on the drive down the Overseas Highway, occasionally glancing toward the Gulf, where red coral heads peeked through the shallow turquoise water. He'd asked how her cases were going - they divided up the workload as his, hers and theirs - but she didn't want to talk shop. He sang some old Jimmy Buffet songs. But she didn't join his search for a lost shaker of salt.
Now he told himself that nothing was wrong. After all, he was holding Victoria in his arms as they treaded water. When he'd complimented her, he'd been sincere in his own lusty-hearted way. In the glow of the twilight, she was stunning, her skin blushed, her butterscotched hair pulled back in a pony-tail, highlighting her cheekbones. Small breasts, long legs, a firm, trim body. He felt a pleasurable stirring inside his trunks. The air was rich with salt and coconut oil, and he was with the woman he loved, a woman who for reasons inexplicable, seemed to love him, too.
By his calculations, they still had time to hit the room, make love, and meet Griffin at Louie's. Maybe do it in the shower as they cleaned up for dinner, the Solomon method of multi-tasking. He just wished the sun would hurry the hell up and call it a day.
Nearby, two windsurfers caught a final ride, the wind shutting down for the night with the setting sun. Overhead, seabirds dipped and cawed. From the beach, he heard the sound of salsa coming from the bar's speakers, Celia Cruz singing Vida Es un Carnaval.
Damn straight. Steve felt his life was a carnival, a sun-filled, beach-breezed, beer commercial of a life. This was better than knocking off State Farm for a seven-figure verdict. Not that he ever had, but he could imagine. Better, too, than stealing home in a college baseball game. That he'd done, against Florida State. Of course, his team lost. But still, a helluva moment.
"Steve, we need to talk," Victoria said.
"Absolutely." He watched a pink sash of clouds at the horizon turn to gray. A slice of the sun nestled into the water. On the beach, the tourists yelped and cheered, as if they had something to do with this nightly feat. "What do we need to talk about?"
In Steve's experience, when a woman wanted to talk about us, the carnival was about to fold its tent. He quickly ran through his possible misdemeanors. He hadn't been rude to her mother, even though Her Highness hated him. He hadn't left the toilet seat up for two weeks, at least. He hadn't flirted with other women, not even the exotic dancer he was representing in a prickly lewd and lascivious trial.
"So what'd I do now?" Sounding defensive.
Victoria put her hands around his neck, twining her fingers, as they treaded water in unison. "You treat me like a law clerk."
Oh, that. At least it wasn't something that would toss him out of bed.
"No I don't. But I am the senior partner."
"That's what I mean. You don't treat me as an equal."
"Cut me a break, Vic. Before you came along, it was my firm."
"What firm? Solomon and Associates was false advertising. Solomon and Lord is a firm."
"Okay, okay. I'll be more sensitive to..." What? He'd picked up the phrase from Dr. Phil, or Oprah, or one of the women's magazines at his dentist's office.
"I'll be more sensitive to... "
You toss around the words when your girlfriend is upset. But it's best to know what the hell you're talking about. "Your needs," he announced triumphantly. "I'll be more sensitive to your needs."
"I'll never grow as an attorney until I have autonomy."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't get all crazy. It's not going to affect our relationship, but I want to go out on my own."
"Your own what?"
"I want to open my own shop."
"Break up the firm?" Stunned, he stopped bicycling and slipped under the water. She grabbed him by his hair and pulled him up. "But we're great partners," he sputtered, spewing water like a cherub on a fountain
He couldn't believe it. Why would she want to trash a winning team?
"We're so different. I do things by the book. You burn the book."
"That's our strength, Vic. Our synergy. You kiss 'em on the cheek, I kick 'em in the nuts." Peddling to stay afloat, he took her by the shoulders and pulled her closer. "If you want, I'll change my style."
"You can't change who you are. As long as it's Solomon and Lord, I'll always be second chair. I need to make a name for myself."
He almost said it then: "How about the name, Mrs. Victoria Solomon? "
But he would have sounded desperate. Besides, neither one was ready for that kind of commitment.
"I'm not going to beg you to stay," he said, brusquely. "If it makes you happy, go fly solo."
"Are you pouting?"
"No, I'm giving you space." Another phrase he'd picked up somewhere. "I'm giving you respect and..."
A rumbling, grumbling growl in the distance.
What the hell's that noise?
Jet skis? They ought to ban the damn things. But even as he turned to face the open sea, he realized this sound was different. The roar of giant diesels.
A powerboat roared toward the beach. And unless it turned, right toward them.
From the waterline, it was impossible to judge the size of the boat or its speed. But from the sound - the rolling thunder of an avalanche - Steve knew it was huge and fast. A bruiser of a boat good for chasing marlin or sailfish in the deep blue sea. Not for cruising toward a beach of swimmers and paddlers and waders.
Steve told himself to stay calm. The jerk would turn away at the piling with the no-wake sign. The boat would whip a four-foot mini-tsunami toward the beach, everyone on board having a big laugh and a bigger drink.
Okay, so turn now.
"Don't worry. Just some cowboy showing off."
But the boat didn't turn and didn't slow down. It muscled toward them, riding on a plane, its bowsprit angled toward the sky like a thin patrician nose.
Now Steve was worried.
Five hundred yards away. The boat leapt the small chop, splatted down, leapt again. He could see white water cascading high along the hull, streaming over the deck. The roar grew louder, a throaty baritone, like a dozen Ferraris racing their engines. The son-of-a-bitch must be doing forty knots.
Still it came, its bow seemingly aimed straight at them. In twenty seconds, it would be on them. Windsurfers scattered. Swimmers kicked and splashed toward shore. On the beach, people in chaise lounges leapt to their feet and backpedaled. A lifeguard tooted his whistle, nearly drowned out by the bellow of the diesels.
Squinting into the glare of the sinking sun, Steve could see there was no one on the fly bridge. A boat without a driver.
"C'mon!" Victoria cried out, starting to swim parallel to the beach.
Steve grabbed her by an ankle and pulled her back. They didn't have the speed or maneuverability. What they had were five seconds.
"Dive!" Steve ordered.
Wide-eyed, Victoria took a breath.
They dived straight down, kicking hard.
Underwater, Steve heard the props, a high-pitched whine that drowned out the roar of the diesels. Then, a bizarre sensation, a banging in his chest. Like someone smashing his sternum with a balpeen hammer. A split-second later, he heard the click-click-click of a bottlenose dolphin, but he knew it was the boat's sonar, bombarding him with invisible waves. Suddenly, the wash of the props tore at him, dragging him up then pushing him down. He tumbled head-over-ass, smacked the sandy bottom with a shoulder and felt his neck twist at a painful angle. Eyes open, he swung around, looking for Victoria, seeing only the cloudy swirl of bottom sand. Then a glimpse of her feet headed for the surface. He kicked off the bottom and followed her, surfacing a second after she did.
They both turned toward the shore just as the boat ramped off the sandy incline, going airborne, props churning. Steve could hear screams from the beach, could see people scattering as the boat flew over the first row of beach chairs, grazed the palm frond roof of the Tiki-hut bar, and crashed through a canvas-topped cabana. The wooden hull split amidships with the sound of a thousand baseball bats splintering, its two halves separating as neatly as a cleanly cracked walnut.
"Vic! You okay?"
But she was already swimming toward shore.
Victoria knew she would reach the beach before him. Her stroke was long and powerful, her kicks deep and fast as a hummingbird's wings.
She ignored Steve's shouts to wait. No, the senior partner would have to catch up on his own. She had seen the lettering on the stern as the boat lifted out of the water: FORCE MAJEURE IV. She recognized the name, remembered the first FORCE MAJEURE, even after all these years.
How could it be?
In a place where most boats were christened with prosaic puns - QUEASY RIDER, WET DREAM - this craft could only be owned by one man. In the law, a force majeure was something that couldn't be controlled. A superior, irresistible force. Like a powerful yacht...or its powerful owner.
Steve was still yelling to wait up as she scrambled onto the sand and ran toward the fractured boat. The bridge had separated and was laying on its side in the sand, the chrome wheel pretzled out of shape. Detritus was scattered in an elliptical pattern around the two halves of the boat. Shards of glass, torn cushions, twisted grab rails, the arm of a radar antenna. The fighting chair, separated from its base, sat upright in the sand, as if waiting for a missing fisherman.
Half-a-dozen Florida lobsters crawled across the sand, a shattered plastic fish box nearby. Something was impaled on one lobster's antenna. It took a second for the bizarre sight to register
A hundred dollar bill. The lobster's spiny antenna was sticking right through Ben Franklin's nose.
Then she saw the other bills. A flutter of greenbacks, blowing across the beach, like seabirds in a squall.
"This one's breathing, but he's messed up bad."
The hotel lifeguard talking, bent over a thin man in cargo shorts and polo shirt. The man lay on his side, motionless, his limbs splayed at grotesque angles, a broken doll. The lifeguard gently turned the man onto his back, then gasped. A metal spear protruded from the man's chest.
Victoria got a look at the man's face.
Thank God. It's not him.
"Another one, over here!" A woman's voice.
Victoria navigated around a thicket of splintered teak decking. A female bartender was crouched in the sand over a thick-bodied man in a white guayabera. Rivulets of blood ran down the man's face from a gash on his forehead. "Don't move," the bartender ordered. "We're gonna get you to the hospital."
The man grunted. He appeared to be in his sixties with a thick neck and thinning gray hair. His eyes were closed, either from pain or the blood running into his eyes.
Victoria came closer, trying to see if it was him. "You should put a compress over the wound."
The man opened his eyes, and Victoria recognized him at once. "Uncle Grif!"
"Hello, Princess." Grimacing through the pain, Hal Griffin tried to push the bartender aside. "Leave me alone, dammit. I need to talk to my lawyer."