Herb Miller’s blue rayon pullover stuck to his skin like tape. The shirt was a lucky charm, he believed, in that it was a Christmas present from his wife and there was a story behind it.
After a comfortable Islamorada style holiday meal several years back, Herb first donned his shirt and announced the idea of heading out to the Gulfstream in the early evening to watch the sunset across Islamorada. Everyone agreed and the party of six left soon after for the marina. While in the Gulfstream, Willy suggested they drop a line-an old term indicating there might be some fish. Janowski agreed and his niece Josie jumped up from the table to help Willy get the tackle ready. Martha said, “We are on a sunset cruise, and not a fishing trip.” Herb knew the better part of being quiet and simply stared ahead as if he hadn’t heard a word. Willy, not wanting to not take advantage of catching a fish, rigged a whole 5-pound bonito that just happened to be in the freezer to 80-pound braided line, spooled on an electric Shimano Tiagra reel that was always on the boat and dropped the bait off the stern. He sat back into the fighting chair as his girlfriend at the time, Shareen, excitedly clapped her hands while cheering with anticipation of pulling a big one from deep blue water. Within the hour, and two Mojitos later, Willy spied something shooting through the water toward the teaser. The dark torpedo shape pushed the surface water like a submarine about to breach and he could see that the roll of water was gaining on the bonito. Willy jumped from the fight chair and poised, ready to pull the rod. With the anticipation of a huge strike, he yelled, “Heads up!”
Herb jerked around from the helm and seeing the strike about to happen steadied the boat’s direction in expectation. The outrigger clip snapped and released the braided line as Willy grabbed to Shimano rig from the rocket launcher. “Fish on!” Willy screamed as the rod curled toward the strike. “He’s gotta be close to six hundred pounds!”
Janowski scrambled up the steps to the helm, grabbed the wheel, and commanded Herb to give Willy a hand with the catch. Martha showed her displeasure by storming toward the salon cabin forcefully exhibiting her disapproval in that her sunset cruise had just turned into a fishing trip.
Herb hooped and hollered and then saddled up behind Willy to give him a hand with the immense pelagic and through what would end up being three hours of exhaustion; fighting, pulling, tugging, and chasing while Janowski managed the helm. Success came as the behemoth Sailfish tired. Janowski slowed the engines to idle and climbed from the helm to open the stern access. It took all three men to slip the fish through the opening. With one last effort, the Sailfish flipped its torso and sprayed Willy and Herb with a mixture of salt water, blood, and fish slime. Martha watched the men from the salon door as they wrestled the fish into the large storage cooler and commented, “Nice job on the shirt, Herb. I’ll never be able to clean it.” Herb figured, he didn’t particularly like the shirt to begin with but apparently, it came with a little luck so he decided to wear it on all future fishing trips.
Herb smiled as he recalled the story, pulled his handkerchief from the back pocket of his plaid shorts, and wiped his face as sweat dripped from the tip of his nose and onto the fuel invoice, he was checking at the bait counter at Bud and Mary’s.
The boat topped off with over three thousand gallons of fuel—three times the normal capacity according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Most any old salt, especially Danny the Dock Master, knew that Herb’s boat would hold about a third of the invoice cost. Willy had redesigned the hull so that it provided additional fuel tanks and with the long trip ahead of them, having extra fuel only made sense. Herb was worried but was prepared with an answer—Puerto Rico he would say if asked. There were reports of large Sailfish migrations along the coast and he and Willy were heading out for some big game fishing action. Considering all they did was fish, he and Willy figured telling anyone about an extended fishing trip would resolve any suspicion. Then he thought about not having fishing tackle or bait on the boat. Shaking off the thought he would simply tell Danny that it’s all back at the house and they won’t be leaving until morning.
After he scribbled his name at the bottom of the invoice he and Willy shared, he still had to wait for the credit card machine to process.
“With that amount, the processing takes a little longer,” Danny said.
His thoughts focused on the trip they were about to embark on. He had his doubts about any of this nonsense (as he called it) but it all came to die alone in Islamorada or risk everything and do something as crazy as this. Herb figured that any way you looked at the situation, there was little to lose and with Janowski now dead, Willy needed him or it simply would not happen.
The credit card machine spit the receipt out and Danny tore it off and handed it to Herb. “Good luck,” Danny said.
The statement caught Herb by surprise and he stammered, “Yeah. Sure, thanks,” as he pushed the door open and headed toward the boat. By the time Herb was ready to cast off the ropes Willy pulled into the parking lot. He jogged over to Herb and said, “Did you get everything?” HHhhhhh
“By everything, you mean the fuel. Yeah. I told you I would. Now quit worrying about it.”
“Not worried. Did Danny say anything about all the diesel you bought.”
“It’s fine. No one noticed. At least, didn’t say nothing.”
“Really? Three-thousand gallons and he just stood there?”
“That was it. Paid and left and he said, good luck.”
“Good luck? What did that mean?”
“I guess it means what he said. Leave it alone.”
“How can you leave something like that alone?”
“Willy. It’s just something people say to people as they leave. He just thinks we’re going fishing. Quit worrying about it.”
“Alright, Herb. If you say.”
“Listen. I’ll stop by the store on the way back and meet you at home. We can finish loading there.”
Willy returned to his car smug with knowing they were about to pull off the greatest heist since D.B. Cooper. Herb climbed to the helm after tossing the dock ropes and turned the key. He guided the trawler, crowned Nilly Willy, out of the harbor and into the channel. He listened to the twin 270 horse powered Volvo TMD 120A diesel engines as they whined to a perfect pitch knowing they would push them across the Florida Straits without a problem.
He had bought the craft—pennies on the dollar—at a bank repossession sale. Big boats were a cheap commodity in Florida with the downturn in the economy. Most of the small businesses had closed and the Keys looked like a ghost town if you took the time to count the empty marinas and storefronts along the Overseas Highway. The vessel, a beat up fifty-two foot wood-hulled trawler, was a wreck. Herb’s pre-purchase inspection showed the hull was solid and the cosmetic condition didn’t matter, so it was perfect for the modifications they had planned. Herb and Willy had gutted the craft, built in a false center, added fuel tanks, and ended up with something that could hide a boat within a boat. The specifications had to be exact but the difficulty of the task wasn’t a concern. Herb was a master carpenter and Willy was a computer genius. In the beginning, he and Willy were going to use their boats for the rescue attempt, but thought it best to have one registered under a false name because of what they were going to do. Both went as far as creating a false identity and registered the boat under a fake company created by Willy and Janowski’s niece, Josie. It was a simple task considering the implication of what they were going to do, and probably a insignificant effort, but Willy thought it would protect them, somehow. Herb had the generic look of anyone around, standing about 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, brown hair, green eyes, nothing special and didn’t really look like anyone famous; Willy was a dead ringer for Ernest Hemingway.