Gonzalez looked again at the name glaring at him from the witness list, staring at it in profound disbelief.
Frank chuckled. “I think having her as a witness for the defense might just put a wee bit of a hole in the prosecution’s murder case.” And that, Frank thought wryly, was likely the biggest understatement in legal history.
“But Rachel Carlson is dead – isn’t she?” Gonzalez mumbled, staring at Rachel’s name on the paper in his hand. Gonzalez recovered quickly from the shock and added, “Are you saying that Rachel Carlson isn’t dead?”
Frank smiled, in a very predatory way. “She was declared dead, but she’s alive and well in Australia. We’re going to arrange for you to talk to her about Bridget Bellevue, because Dirk thinks she knows more. As for Rachel being a witness, I’m thinking that having her go into a U.S. consulate, prove her identity, and make a sworn video deposition would make for a very interesting – and short – murder trial. There’s precedent for video deposition of foreign citizens overseas, but if all else fails she’ll march into the courtroom and tell the jury herself that no, Dirk didn’t kill her. And with that, needless to say but I will anyway, your case is what’s dead. That, Officer Gonzalez, takes care of the sole remaining charge against my clients.”
Henry coughed, and said uneasily, “Sorry to spring all this on you, Mike, but it had to be this way.”
“Assuming all this is true and she’s alive, why?” Gonzalez asked.
Dirk bowed his head. “About twelve years ago, we ran into trouble, big trouble. Our accountant let us know that IRS agents had been to his office looking into us, and they’d told him not to let us know. We hired a lawyer, but things got worse. They soon contacted us directly and kept pushing, and they were getting even more brazen and threatening with every passing month.”
Dirk glanced at Frank, who took over for the legalities; “The long and the short of it is the IRS was breathing down their necks. The IRS tends to have all the grace and fairness of a rabid pit bull, so although they didn’t have anything hard with which to prosecute, they went on a witch-hunt and eventually stumbled onto the creative financing tricks Rachel and Dirk had used to purchase Ares. Those were merely technical infractions, but with those in hand, they made threats about prosecuting them both for bank fraud if Rachel didn’t confess to a slew of tax crimes. In a nutshell, the Carlsons were facing multiple legal threats, and they were grave ones; they stood to lose everything, and worse yet, Rachel – who had been filing separately – was looking at years of prison time for filing numerous false tax returns, tax evasion, etcetera. This was all because she did what needed to be done. Bear in mind there was no victim in these crimes: the banks had already been paid off in full by the time this was coming to a head. Also, the income the IRS was sniffing after would have never existed had the Carlsons meekly obeyed the Jones Act and thus succumbed to financial disaster. The only reason the income was unreported is they couldn’t. Rachel and Dirk were trying everything they could think of to make the business legal – and thus pay taxes – but arcane government red tape stood in their way at every turn, starting with that nearly-hundred-year-old Jones Act.”
Dirk said, in a sad tone, “Our marriage had been under a lot of stress. Rachel and I met in our first year at the university. We became close friends, and then fell in love. We were married within six weeks of our first meeting. The problems started soon after, but we both thought them minor ones, at the time. The biggest problem was that she and I are different in too many ways. One was she’s always been a risk-taker, I’m not. We’d been married for six months and were in our second year at college when we heard about a business plus buildings and docks for sale in Ft. Pierce: the chandlery. For me, it was just a crazy, impossible thing to talk about for a while, but Rachel saw the potential. She’d been an avid sailor and loved the sea, and she knew I’d been involved with boats growing up, so she talked me into giving it a try. It was… crazy, in a way. We dropped out and used the last of my inheritance plus the remainder of her college funds for the down payment, and we did make a go of it, barely, and managed to keep up the payments on the huge loan we were carrying.”
Gonzalez interrupted to ask, “Did Rachel, or the Bellevues, know about what happened to your parents?” Gonzalez, early on, had been suspicious of Dirk’s extreme aversion to travel, which went far beyond normal seasickness. He’d found the reason easily enough: Dirk’s parents had died when he was in his late teens, killed in a boating accident. Dirk, already highly prone to seasickness, had developed a deep and abiding hatred of the sea, and by extension anything that caused him travel sickness, such as air travel. Dirk had been in counseling for over a year after his parent’s death, and once Gonzalez had learned that fact, he had accepted Dirk’s intense aversions as the truth that they were.
Dirk shuddered, old wounds opening. “Rachel did. She went with me to my parents’ graves a few times. I doubt she’d have told the Bellevues anything about it. I think what happened to my parents was what made me crave security and stability. Rachel was a polar opposite. We were still struggling financially when I let her drag me into the Ares deal – I willingly went along with it, drawn by the idea of a fast profit, so it’s my fault too. The idea was to do a fast resale and make a profit. But, we got taken by Arnold Bellevue, and ended up running charters. I hate the sea, so I loathed the idea of her being out there, and I knew she was taking a lot of risks, including some questionable deals. All of it was like a storm tearing at our marriage, and when the IRS was closing in, I guess it was the last straw. We were never enemies; we had become close friends who were no longer in love. We’d already discussed divorce a time or two – we were both aware by then of our differences. That made what was to come easier on a personal level – for us, but not for Trev. Frank is wrong in that regard; there is one victim in all this, and that’s my son. That was the hardest part; when we realized what we’d have to do to Trev: he was far too young to understand, and we couldn’t trust a young boy to keep a secret like that. We’d also be putting him at risk by making him a party to a conspiracy.”
Frank took his cue and addressed the legalities. “A conspiracy dates from the last overt act of the conspiracy. In this case, Rachel and Dirk had no further interaction on anything that might be considered a conspiracy after she left Florida on that final charter.” Frank took another sip of milkshake, and with a pointed glance at Gonzalez, added, “Allow me to play Devil’s advocate by stating this from your side, officer.” Frank consulted his notes, reading from ones he’d made before first summing up the case for Jim and Dirk. “Statute of limitation clocks usually begin to run when the crime is complete, which is when the last element of the crime has been completed. However, for conspiracy it’s a little different. The Federal conspiracy statute has two parts: an agreement to commit a federal crime or to defraud the U.S. Government, and an overt act committed in furtherance of the agreement. Both parts are required, and a further commission of either one re-starts the clock. All statute of limitations clocks have now expired, some long ago, such as Florida felonies, which are three years in the applicable statutes. Now, we do have Federal offenses, the most serious is 18 U.S.C. 1031 – major fraud against the United States Government – in this case via means of fraudulent tax returns and a false report of death – carries a seven-year statute of limitations. That expired just a few days ago, if you count from the last possible act – the memorial service Dirk had for Rachel. Another, 8 U.S.C. 1005 – fraud concerning bank entries, reports, and transactions – began ten years from the last occurrence, and also expired, even if you stretch it and count paying off the loans as the last overt act. The last of the loans and mortgages were officially recorded as cleared on December 16th, 1996, which makes yesterday the last possible date – and a highly questionable one at that – regarding the statutes of limitations.” Frank consulted another page, and added, “The major fraud against the U.S. government is based in large part on violations of section 6501(e) of the tax code and section 301.6501(e)-1 of the tax regulations; omitting gross income in excess of twenty-five percent of the gross income stated in the filed tax return. Rachel last filed well before she left. Dirk last filed on behalf of Rachel’s estate on November 23rd, 2000. The clocks have run out. The long and the short of it is that my clients are free and clear, and so is Rachel Carlson. The statutes of limitations for Rachel could not be extended based on Dirk and Jim leaving Cocoa Beach for several reasons, first amongst them being that she had no knowledge of that.”
Gonzalez scowled. Frank Tittle’s desultory and abrasive demeanor, plus the strange revelations and apparent crimes, were getting to his temper, exactly as Frank had planned. “Hold on a damn minute. The statute of limitations doesn’t clear Rachel at all; she faked her own death and went on the run. When you become a fugitive for any crime, the statutes of limitations stop for all crimes,” Gonzalez said.
Frank grinned. “Ah, yes, but you have it wrong yet again. Dirk didn’t actually say Rachel faked her death, now did he? Back to you, Dirk, it’s your story to tell.”
Dirk gave Gonzalez an awkward shrug. “It was all me, every bit of it, with some help from my former attorney, Mr. Hardcastle. We carefully set it up. The idea was that her ‘death’ would get the IRS to go away – it was her they were mainly after – and as an added layer, frame me for her murder, but not enough to allow for a conviction. Anyone looking into her death and finding that it looked too convenient would see clues pointing at me as the likely killer, to distract from what we were really hiding. It worked, until recently anyway. So, in May of 1997, Rachel left from Nassau, heading home for Australia. She didn’t do anything illegal in that regard, not a thing, except not getting tax clearance to leave the country.”
Gonzalez clenched his fists. “Then who filed her sail plan from Nassau, and who made that damn radio mayday call?”
Henry coughed, and with an apologetic glance, said, “Uh, Mike, you were wondering about that yourself not long ago, thinking it might be Bridget. I couldn’t say then, but it wasn’t. Rachel couldn’t do it from the reported location; there was no way she could have reached that location off Bimini in time after sailing from Nassau when she did, which was a couple of hours later than her sail plan called for. That was set up to give Dirk some extra reasonable doubt should he ever need it. Mr. Hardcastle used a tape to make the transmission, but he was west of Bimini, not east. They knew the transmission was too short to triangulate; at most the Coast Guard would just get a general bearing.”
Gonzalez turned his gaze from Henry to glare at Frank Tittle’s smug face, but before Gonzalez could say a word, Frank said, “Let’s not forget jurisdictional issues. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that a crime was committed out there, whose jurisdiction would it be in? Do any of the relevant criminal statutes even apply? If not, it’s not a crime at all. The reported location was within Bahamian waters, sort of. At that time, it was a legal gray area as to what the exact limit of Bahamian waters was. So, even if Rachel did take some active role in her disappearance – mere knowledge of what was planned wouldn’t count – you’d have to prove it, and then you’d face a jurisdictional nightmare; any overt actions by Rachel would have occurred either in Bahamian waters or international waters, which puts her out of U.S. jurisdiction – she’s not a U.S. citizen, which complicates things further. Also, Rachel’s last illegal action other than any conspiracy was false tax returns, and the statutes of limitations on that has run out. Furthermore, there was never any official notice of an investigation into anything other than the financing, and any reasonable person would have grounds for assuming that the matter became moot once the loans were paid off. She was hardly obligated to stick around for an IRS investigation that they hadn’t bothered to legally notify her of. Another point: the IRS was looking into Rachel and Dirk, due to apparently thinking that Rachel had a large unreported income. Rachel and Dirk were covered by community property laws, so in spite of filing separately, legally they were one entity in that regard, at least to a degree. Mr. Hardcastle set things up very carefully: Dirk was here the whole time, until his recent jaunt, so they can’t say they couldn’t find him. You can’t make the case that Rachel became a fugitive, not beyond a reasonable doubt, because of these issues. For all you can prove, she had a troubled marriage and just decided to sail home to Australia.”
Gonzalez scowled, feeling challenged and infuriated thanks to Frank’s abrasive and patronizing manner. He reacted by looking for a way to poke a hole in their case. “We could force Dirk to testify against Rachel, and imprison him for contempt of court if he refused–”
“Ah, ah, ah,” Frank said, wagging his finger. “Even if that was true, a man cannot be forced to testify against his wife. They are still legally married.”
Gonzalez’s eyes narrowed. “Fine, maybe they are safe from criminal prosecution, but not civil. Insurance fraud, to be exact. I know Dirk got settlements from the insurance company after Rachel was declared dead. They can go after him for recovery, plus a ton of interest, and that’s not covered by any statute of limitations.”
Frank nodded. “Ah, well yes, good point, indeed they could.” He retrieved two checks from his briefcase and handed them to Gonzalez. “By cashing those, he would clearly have inflicted fraudulent harm upon that insurance company. Except, as you might note, they are in your hand. Why? Because they were never cashed, so the harm never actually occurred. Therefore, the tortious amount is precisely zero. The insurance company was hardly going to remind Dirk to cash them, though I must admit surprise that you didn’t discover this discrepancy yourself.”
Gonzalez shot a withering glare at Frank, and then looked away, massaging his temples, trying to ease the headache he was getting. “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard.” He looked at Dirk. “You framed yourself for murder. That’s one for the books.” Gonzalez glanced at Jim. “What’s your role in all this, counselor? Why are you involved?”
Jim smiled, and took Dirk’s hand. “We met after all this happened, and I became his lawyer, and then his boyfriend. That doesn’t invalidate lawyer-client privilege, but I let you mislead yourself just to play it safe. You asked me if he was gay and I said no, which is the truth. It was your assumption that not being gay equaled straight. That’s wrong, he’s bi, but I was under no obligation to correct your misconceptions. I also felt that disclosing it might cast suspicions on Dirk regarding a motive for killing Rachel, which could have worsened the suspicion of him.”
“Lawyers,” Gonzalez said, rolling his eyes. Then, a memory of something Trevor had said caused his eyes to narrow, but he kept quiet on that issue for now. “Okay, this is way above my pay grade. I’m a cop, not a lawyer, so you’re going to have to tell your story to the State Attorney and see if he buys it – and from where I sit, so far it’s only a convoluted story. I’ve heard nothing that could count as proof of anything. However, for the moment, let’s say hypothetically that Dirk has gotten away with the tax crimes, conspiracy, and fraud, and so has his wife, who I’ll assume for the moment is actually alive. I guess that means the State Attorney will have no option but to drop all current charges.”
Dirk shook his head. “No, we don’t want that, not yet, not for me anyway. I want to remain on the run with the charges in force, or if it comes to it, put me in jail pending trial. If charges are dropped, we think it might spook Bridget, George, and whoever they’re working with. Those bastards tried to kill my son!”
“Same goes for the charges against me,” Jim said, over Dirk’s unspoken objections.
Gonzalez sighed, and ignored Jim to address Dirk. “So, you’ve finally beat the rap on the crimes you committed as well as the ones you didn’t, you’re totally off the hook, and so of course you want the charges to remain, and even go to jail. It’s not like this day can get any more insane.” Gonzalez let out a long breath, and added, “I hope I don’t have to be the one to try explaining all this to the State Attorney.”
Frank smiled. “Nope, that’s my job. I’ve crossed swords with him a few times, and I’m looking forward to seeing his face. I’ll need to get an extension on that turn-in deal, of course, but that should be a formality once we’ve proven that Rachel is alive and well. That deal, by the way, was the one thing we needed; it specifies that they aren’t fugitives, so the clock kept ticking. It’s now all behind us.”
Gonzalez knew they’d have some excuse, but he made a final try anyway. “Interstate flight to avoid prosecution is a federal crime, so that deal might not apply in that regard.”
Frank chuckled. “That’s highly arguable, but the point is moot. They haven’t left the state.”
“So all those damn excuses about getting this set up were just a stall for time,” Gonzalez muttered, shaking his head. “Okay, I’m starting to see why you wouldn’t let me interview Dirk before. I don’t approve, but that’s water under the bridge.”
Henry smiled apologetically. “Sorry Mike, they couldn’t. They’d have had to lie, and that would’ve hurt the investigation into Bridget and George. I told you the truth when I said they’ve ordered me to make getting whoever tried to kill Trevor my number one priority.”
Gonzalez sighed, shaking his head. After a few moments’ thought, he gave a single nod. “What we all seem to have in common is a desire to see justice done to Bridget and George, so let’s work on that. I still think Dirk might know things – things he’s unaware of the importance of. One is Atlantis: do you have any idea why Bridget might want to destroy her? There was an attempt to do so a few days ago, but Trevor is being kept far away, he was never in danger. Could something be amiss with her registration, or maybe something about her that would put Bridget at risk?”
A flurry of confused glances spread around the room, before Dirk answered, “Nothing that I know of.”
Frank scratched his chin. “That’s been puzzling me as well. The statute of limitations protects her, were the sale fraudulent in some particular. The only things I can think of would be something relating to a murder, or perhaps some kind of ongoing criminal enterprise. Dirk has mentioned that the engines on both Ares and Atlantis showed highly excessive wear, far more than normal use would entail. They are also more powerful than normal for a sailing yacht. The only theory – basically a wild guess – that I’ve come up with would be they were used for smuggling.”
Gonzalez nodded. “I suspect them of that, as I’m sure Henry has told you. Now, another question: Dirk, did Bridget make any attempt to get those boats back?”
Dirk stared into thin air for a few moments, lost in thought. “Sort of, maybe. I remember Rachel mentioning that Bridget made an offer for Ares, but by that time we already knew that Rachel was going to head for Australia. I don’t know much that went on between Rachel and Bridget: you’ll need to ask Rachel about that.”
“Ares? Not Atlantis?” Gonzalez asked.
Dirk shrugged. “I think it was Ares, but I’m not really sure if I heard that or just assumed it. It was a long time ago. Rachel would know for sure.”
“Dirk, have you had any contact with Rachel since she left?” Gonzalez asked.
Dirk shot a questioning glance at Frank, who nodded his approval, so Dirk replied, “Yes. Nothing that would further the conspiracy – we were very careful in that regard – but I have a blog. I’d post pictures of Trevor, news about him, that sort of thing. On rare occasions, we’d exchange e-mails via her sister. We kept it strictly personal, never a mention of the illegal stuff. That’s how we made arrangements for the original plan to have Trevor fly to Western Australia for Christmas, and also how I let her know that he was coming by sea, heading for Fremantle. We had to keep him in the dark, he couldn’t know until after today, not without risking all we’d done and putting him at risk too.”
Frank took care of the explanation. “He’d have become party to a conspiracy, one he’s a financial beneficiary of. Also, the IRS would have seized all assets if they’d ever found out, including his Atlantis. He’s safe from all that now, thanks to the emancipation plus the statute of limitations, and of course having no knowledge of any of this.”
“Has she contacted Trevor yet?” Gonzalez asked.
Dirk shook his head. “I don’t think so. We both wanted someone close to him to be there with him; it’ll be one hell of a shock and he’ll need someone to lean on. I sent word to her about Joel’s trip, and told her they are very close, so my guess is she’ll wait a few days until Joel and Lisa are there.”
Over the next hour, Gonzalez asked many questions about their dealings with Bridget, mainly running into blank walls, because as Dirk had said, he knew very little. However, one question sparked Gonzalez’s investigative instincts, so he asked, “Dirk, Jim, I need to know; how did you know to run from Cocoa Beach?”
Dirk shook his head. “I’m not answering that.”
Gonzalez’s eyes narrowed. “The agreement you were given covers it. You can’t be charged.”
Dirk crossed his arms and shook his head. “No, and that’s final.”
Gonzalez knew he’d have to give something to get something, so he said, “This may be critical. George Alfred called the Cocoa Beach cops who were watching you, and alerted them that you might run. That resulted in a change of procedural and deployment orders to that stakeout, and that was what allowed you to escape, because the two cars both took off after the pizza delivery guy. They were sure it was you running. George made his call before you ran. Anything involving him is of grave concern, and could be a key to the case.”
Frank saw that Dirk was about to reply and coughed to interrupt. “Okay, that sounds important, and Dirk, the agreement we have precludes any actions against you or Jim for that,” Frank said.
Dirk shook his head and glared at Frank. “That’s not what I’m worried about and you know it.”
Frank waved his hand dismissively. “That’s not a concern, Dirk. They’d be nuts to pursue it due to jurisdictional grounds. Even if he’d done it from within Florida, he’d have a solid First Amendment freedom-of-speech defense, but he did it from overseas where our laws in this regard cannot apply. If they ever do make an issue of it, I’ll be delighted to take his case pro bono, just for the sheer fun of making a fool of the prosecution. And that is the first time in my entire career I’ve offered to take a case for free, so you should believe me when I say that I see nothing bad coming of this. Also, based on what Officer Gonzalez said, I think it might be important to tell him.”
Dirk glanced at Jim, who nodded, and Dirk took a deep breath before saying, “I’ve heard some of what happened via Henry, enough to fill in the gaps. The long and the short of it is my son will do damn near anything if you ask him, but if you order him, he won’t do it and will probably do the opposite. He probably didn’t like being ordered to leave Atlantis behind and go back to Egypt, and I can’t see him going along with that no matter who told him to.”
Jim took over to tell his part; “Trevor called me, right after you ordered him to have no contact with us. He was smart enough to figure out what that could mean. The news that you were looking into Dirk and me to that extent told me that an arrest was very possible, so I used a back channel – don’t bother asking what, it isn’t relevant – and found out about the warrants. We’d found that GPS tracker on Dirk’s car quite some time before, so I had him come up to my house in it. I ordered pizza and slapped the tracker on the delivery car. The cops went roaring by chasing it, so we just headed off in the other direction.”
Gonzalez thought about that for a few moments. “Okay, the thing that keeps bugging me is George tipped off the Cocoa Beach police before you ran. Is there any way your back channel could have let him know too?”
Jim shook his head. “None. Those warrants were in the system statewide, so all I had to do was have an old friend check. I won’t say who because he could lose his job, but there’s zero chance he even knew George Alfred, and wouldn’t have had any reason to tip him if he did; all he did was confirm the warrants. Also, no one but me and Dirk knew we were going to leave. That decision occurred after I got the information.”
Gonzalez studied Jim for a moment, and then replied, “From the sound of it, Trevor probably guessed. When he was on the phone to me he became argumentative and basically said he didn’t want to see you two ambushed by legal charges. He wanted to know if you knew, which is when I forbade him to contact you. So, did he tell anyone else? My guess is George knew you were going to run, and that’s why he gave the Cocoa Beach guys a heads up. He couldn’t say why without tipping his hand, but it looks like he knew. We need to find out how. I think I already know the why: you two being caught attempting to escape would have made for a firmer case. This was before the indictments were handed down, so at that point in time, he couldn’t be certain they would be. That could explain the why, but not the how.”
Frank glanced at Dirk before replying to Gonzalez, “That does sound like it might be important. If you need me to give Trevor clearance to speak with you on the matter, let me know. It might help if you tell him that he was out of your jurisdiction and the jurisdiction of any applicable U.S. law when you ordered him not to call, but if he wants me to verify that, have him call me.”
Gonzalez chewed on his lip for a moment, and made a decision to share another piece of the puzzle. “I know about the IRS investigation. I gained access to their case file once we began investigating Dirk, so I know why they were looking at the Carlsons. They received an anonymous tip: that Rachel was earning a lot of money in the Bahamas and not declaring it. The tip specified charters, and was made by a woman. They never knew who, but she gave some specific times, dates, and amounts, enough for the IRS to believe her after a cursory check. Paying off all your loans in short order raised further red flags, and convinced them they had you cold.”
Dirk nodded. “We blew it there, and Mr. Hardcastle read us the riot act for doing that without checking with him first. We thought we were making the one thing they had us on – the bank fraud – go away, but instead it made them come after us harder. That’s what got us to tell Mr. Hardcastle the whole truth. We’d kept him in the dark on some of it until then.”
Gonzalez angled his head, feeling a twinge of empathy for the long-dead Mr. Hardcastle. “The IRS suspected a large illegal offshore income from charters, as you suspected, but now you know why they were so sure and wouldn’t back off. They only let it drop because they thought Rachel, who they believed to be the only one involved, was dead. Your being suspected of her murder sent the IRS case to their cold-files, so that part of your ploy worked. I’ve been wondering who made that anonymous call, and Bridget comes to mind, but I couldn’t see a motive. Not until right now. If she wanted Ares or Atlantis back, one way to get them would be for them to be seized and auctioned off, or just wait until you were in a big enough financial bind with the IRS to need a fast sale. If that’s what she was after, the critical issue is why. I’ve asked that Atlantis be examined in minute detail, but so far nothing. However, it’s now quite apparent that Ares isn’t sitting on the sea floor off Bimini, so that gives us another avenue to investigate. I need to know, what became of Ares?”
Dirk shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. Rachel would though.”
Frank, his obnoxious smirk gone, told Gonzalez, “Officer Gonzalez, until now I’ve been trying to get on your bad side. I did so to make you angry, so you’d argue your side of the issue with vigor. I regret the subterfuge, but I felt it best for all concerned to get the issues behind us. I’ll ask you to please bear in mind that this,” he said, pulling a postcard in a Zip-lock bag from his briefcase and handing it to Gonzalez, “is a handwritten postcard, from Rachel to Mr. Hardcastle, postmarked in Brazil a couple of months after her reported death. It would have provided everything I needed to prove ample reasonable doubt to exonerate Dirk. You can verify the writing, and she licked the stamp, so you have the means to do a DNA match. As a practical matter, this alone would destroy the case against Dirk, and indeed my advice was to use it and say nothing else when I learned of its existence. However, at my client’s insistence, we have told you everything anyway and will from here on out cooperate fully, in the hope that it will help the cases against Bridget Bellevue and Officer George Alfred.”
Gonzalez got the message, loud and clear. The stain on his department that George had caused was something that had to be dealt with, and against that, any long-ago victimless crimes by Rachel and Dirk paled into insignificance. It didn’t hurt that the issue of the anonymous tip to the IRS now had Gonzalez suspecting that the Carlsons had been Bridget’s victims too. He was correct in that regard: it had indeed been Bridget who had tipped the IRS.
Gonzalez glanced at the postcard, which bore a picture of an old church. He flipped it over, seeing that it was postmarked in São João de Pirabas, and the dated postmark was over the stamp. The message was brief, ‘Dear Mr. Hardcastle, Brazil is lovely. Much nicer than Bimini or Nassau. Wish you were here, RC.’
Gonzalez sighed. “I’d need Trevor’s DNA to do a maternal match; we don’t have a sample of Rachel’s DNA.”
Frank handed over two plastic-wrapped hairbrushes, each of which contained a few strands of hair. “The blue one is Trevor’s, the other is Rachel’s, both with fingerprints, and you have Rachel’s on file. However, we’ll have you in direct contact with Rachel before you get any lab results back.” Hardcastle had known that, should the day ever come that proof was required, they'd need Rachel's DNA. Without known DNA on file, the postcard would prove nothing at all; you can't do a match unless you have a known sample. So, Hardcastle had Dirk save the hairbrush. Trevor’s had been retrieved from Dirk’s house by Henry.
Gonzalez set the plastic bags down and scratched his head. “Okay, assuming this is all real, I guess that’s it for the moment. I’ll call the State Attorney, and… Hell, I’ll do what Frank said all along; recommend that they stay on the run for now. Frank, I’m glad you’re coming with me; he’s likely to think I’ve lost my mind if I try explaining this mess. I also have a hunch that we’ll end up having to go to Tallahassee at some point.”
Florida was divided into twenty judicial circuits, each with a State Attorney and a circuit court. Gonzalez’s mention of the state capital was an allusion to the offices of the state police: the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That agency included the Florida Capitol Police, and also Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agents, whose duties include identifying and investigating organized and multi-jurisdictional crimes, investigating official corruption, and dismantling drug trafficking organizations. It was they who Gonzalez believed would have to, at some point, take over the case against George Alfred.
Frank Tittle harbored a fleeting hope that Gonzalez wouldn’t hold a grudge for the trap Frank planned to use him to spring when talking to the State Attorney, though in his heart, Frank really didn’t care; it was his job, and he’d do what was needed to protect his clients, all of them.
All it took was a brief call with the State Attorney to set up a private meeting. Jim and Dirk remained at the hotel at Frank's insistence, and twenty minutes later, Gonzalez ushered Frank Tittle and Henry Wesson into the State Attorney’s living room, to begin a meeting that none of them would ever forget.
“Trev,” she said again, her voice breaking, staggering slightly from emotion.
Shane glanced down in concern, seeing the tears and obvious distress. He was about to leap down to the dock when he glanced at Trevor, and his concern turned to fear.
For Trevor, it was her voice that removed any doubt, save for his own sanity. Trevor stared down at their visitor, his hands clutching the wire safety rail like two cold vices, his arms covered with goosebumps, intense pressure gripping his chest. “Shane, help,” he gasped, unable to take his eyes from his mother’s face.
Shane enveloped Trevor in a protective hug, cradling him, feeling him tremble. “It’s a panic attack, you’ll be okay, Trev,” he guessed, knowing the signs all too well.
Trevor struggled to breathe, managing to whisper, “Not like before, I’m hallucinating. I see… my mom.”
Shane had never experienced hallucinations with his panic attacks, so he was at a loss for what to do. “That’s Mrs. Blake, Trev. You’re going to be okay, it’s just a panic attack.” Shane glanced down at the dock, at his obviously distraught employer. Confused, at a loss to understand her distress, he said, “Trev is having a panic attack.”
The woman once known as Rachel Carlson, with tears steaming down her face, replied haltingly, “He’s not hallucinating, Shane. I’m his mother.”
“What?” Shane replied, beginning to doubt his own grasp of reality. “Trev’s mum died nearly ten years ago.”
“I – I didn’t, though Trev has been led to believe I did,” she replied.
Trevor’s mind, battered by the panic attack, was awhirl, and he broke his grasp on the rail to wrap his arms around Shane. “Tell me what’s real,” he gasped, his legs failing him.
Shane cradled Trevor, easing him into a seat in the cockpit, and said softly, “You’re having a panic attack, but the woman I know as Mrs. Blake just said she’s your mum. I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t think you’re hallucinating.”
Rachel struggled to climb aboard, no easy task with her injury and the seashell in her hand. Tentatively, she said, “Trev, I’m so sorry it had to be like this. I had no choice, I had to leave and you had to think me dead. You’re not having a panic attack, you’ll be okay.”
Shane shook his head. “No, he’s having a panic attack, for real. Trev, you’ll be okay, just keep breathing, it’ll pass.”
Trevor, gripping Shane tightly, looked at his mother and said, his voice weak, “How… how can this… you can’t be… unless I’m dead too? Did I die out there?” as the reality he’d known for most of his life began to shatter around him, lost amid the raging storm of emotion and disbelief.
Rachel sat beside her son, reaching out to caress his cheek. “I hurt you terribly, I know I did, and I’m so sorry.” She glanced at Shane, and said, “Shane, could you please go talk to Martin? He’s in the parking lot.”
“No!” Trevor gasped, shaking his head and holding on tight. “Don’t go, I need you.”
Rachel, who now went by the name of Sarah Blake, reached out to take Trevor’s hand, finding no resistance. She felt the need to speak, to explain herself and her actions, to try to breach the anguish she knew she had caused. “I’ve waited so long for this, but I couldn’t reveal myself before today, not without putting you, your father, and myself in peril. Had I not left, you’d have lost me anyway; the government would have put me in prison, and stolen everything your father and I had worked so hard for. The chandlery, the house, Ares and Atlantis, everything, and they’d have burdened your father with judgments he could never hope to repay. I had no choice, Trev; they were closing in. The day before I sailed from Nassau, our lawyer scattered a few scraps from Ares up-current of the position of the radio call I’d taped. The hope was that they’d make it appear at first that Ares had been shattered by a bomb, though a closer look would make it look like she’d been run under by a freighter in that busy shipping lane.”
Not even Rachel remembered all the details, which Mr. Hardcastle had planned with exquisite care. A low-order explosion – such as a detonation of a fuel tank, or some forms of incendiary bomb – would not leave micropitting; the telltale sign of microscopic high velocity impacts on debris from an explosion. A lack of micropitting would mean three possible scenarios; either it was a small, low-order bomb, such as in a fuel tank, that caused a massive fire, or a high explosive located elsewhere aboard caused only fire damage to those parts, or, it wasn’t a bomb but something else that could cause scorch marks. A fire could do that, but so could being run under by a huge ship if it ignited a fire, such as via rupturing the propane tanks. The position given for Ares was in a busy shipping lane for this reason. What had been intended was the creation of evidence that pointed at Dirk, to a degree, though at the same time incorporating strong reasonable doubt. As is so often the case in an intricate plan, this one had run into the unforeseen: Bridget being first on the scene and removing the prepared debris, in attempt to conceal what she believed to be the final resting place of Rachel and Ares.
Rachel looked at Trevor, wrapped in Shane’s protective embrace, as Shane stroked Trevor’s hair. Then, she glanced down at Trevor’s trembling hand, wrapped in her own, and gave it a gentle squeeze before continuing, “Right before I sailed from Nassau, I bought you a seashell because you’d asked for one for your birthday. I could only hope that one day I’d be able to give it to you. I set sail from Nassau and later heard the hail attempts for Ares from the Coast Guard. I sailed out into the Atlantic, then turned south, eventually making port in a small town in Brazil. On my way, I put a new name on Ares and changed her hull number. After leaving Brazil, I rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, and made my way home to Australia.”
Trevor, reeling in shock and still doubting his sanity, reached out to touch his mother’s face. “Either I’m insane, or it’s you. Is it really you?” Trevor asked, his voice shaking, though his breathing was coming easier.
Rachel reached out, pulling Trevor into a hug, saying softly, “It’s me, and I’ve missed you so much. I’m so sorry.”
Trevor put one arm around his mother, hugging her tight, though his other hand was still firmly clutched to Shane’s. Words failed, and mother and son, so long apart, held each other, tears flowing freely.
A couple of minutes later, Trevor eased back to look at his mother’s face. “Mom, you don’t know how many times I’ve wished... you were alive. I hurt so bad, I never thought…”
Rachel stroked her son’s hair. “Oh Trev, I’m so sorry. We didn’t think you’d take it as badly as you did. Had there been any other way…”
“Why didn’t you take me with you?” Trevor asked.
Rachel dabbed at her tears. “It was a long voyage to a very uncertain future, and you’d have been involved in a conspiracy. How could we ask one so young to keep such a secret for so many years? We felt you’d be better off with your father, until you could learn the truth. This is why your father wanted to fly you to Australia for Christmas.”
Confusion, pain, and now a new emotion warred for Trevor’s mind, and he griped his mother’s hand, anger in his tear-streaked eyes. “If this is real… half my life has been a lie, and he fucking knew?” Trevor took a deep breath, and shook his head, trying to clear it. “The worst thing that ever happened to me, and it was all a lie? How could you do that to me?” Trevor sobbed, pulling away from his mother.
Shane saw the horror on Rachel’s face, and though he understood Trevor’s rage, he understood something else as well. “Trev,” he said, softly, hugging him tight, “You know about my mum. I’d do anything to have the chance you’ve got right now. I know you’re angry, but be mad later. Don’t turn away from something I’d kill for, or you’ll never forgive yourself.”
Trevor pulled Shane tight, and shuddered. He turned his head to face his mother, and said, his voice still breaking, “I’m angry, but I’m glad you’re alive – if this is real. I’ve missed you so much – Mom,” he said, still clutching Shane’s hand. After a few moments, Trevor muttered, “I’m still confused, or dreaming. How… so much doesn’t make sense. Dad went nuts when he caught me out looking for Ares, but if Ares never sank… I’ve been looking for her, and you, for years, but if she never sank, how, what–”
Rachel caressed her son’s cheek, before giving him a wistful, tentative smile and saying, “What happened to Ares? Like you, my Indian Ocean crossing resulted in bow damage, though unlike you, mine was due to a drunken tourist in a powerboat in the harbor on Rodrigues Island, not a collision in the Southern Ocean,” Rachel said, and Trevor took his mother’s hand again, feeling her shudder. “The port bow was damaged, so I had it temporarily patched up and set sail, staying further north to keep in better weather. I wanted to arrive unobserved, and I’d picked a place I knew well: Kalbarri. I came in late at night and took Ares far upriver, to Goat Island, though that’s not as far as you took her the other day.”
Trevor jolted, his eyes opening wide at yet another shock. “You mean… Kookaburra is – but she’s a 57 and Ares was a 55, like Atlantis.”
“She isn’t, but I’ll get to that. I know you’ve been planning to go to Northam to look for our family, but Aussies often shorten names, like we do Fremantle to Freo. In my case, I’ve always called my hometown, Northhampton, Northhampt,” she said, with the last syllable sounding very softly, in the Australian way. “You must have remembered it as Northam. When I arrived, I took the skiff to Kalbarri the next morning and called my sister. She came and got me, and we spent the day figuring out what to do. Her best friend from school is married to Ned Kelly, and he came up with the plan for disguising Ares as a 57 by making bows for a 57 and building them in, then putting a cooked-up registration on her. The new bows added a couple of feet, and made her handle better as well. My sister – your Auntie Shelly – had become engaged to a wonderful man while I’d been away, Greg Fowler, who’s now your Uncle Greg. She couldn’t tell him all of it without putting him in an awful bind, so she told him part of the truth; that her sister was in serious trouble for a tax matter in America and needed her help. So, I assumed Shelly’s legal identity, at least as far as paperwork issues were concerned. Her birth name was Sarah Shelly Smith, and mine was Rachel Shelly Smith – my grandmother’s name was Rachel, but she went by its shortened version ‘Shelly’. When we were little, my sister started going by our middle name.” Rachel dabbed at her tears, the wind blowing in her hair, and gave Trevor a sad smile.
For several long moments, they sat, and then Rachel felt compelled to carry on, to fill the painful silence with words “As for me, it’s far easier and much less suspicious to change a first name than a surname, and every bit as effective, so I’ve gone by Sarah since arriving. When Shelly married, she took Greg’s surname and changed her first name as well, to legally become Shelly Fowler. Later, when I fell in love with my childhood sweetheart, Martin, someone helped me with the paperwork to change my last name from Smith to Blake – I’d never gotten around to changing my name to Carlson on my passport – so I’m now known as Sarah Shelly Blake, on paper at least. Martin and I are married in every way that matters, just not in the eyes of the law. It all came to a head when Greg told Shelly about a pirate-hit yacht he’d intercepted off Carnarvon. Shelly knew your full name, so she told Greg he’d just met his nephew, who he never knew he had.”
Trevor hesitated, mind awhirl, still not yet convinced that he wasn’t psychotic or dreaming. “It doesn’t sound… real. Even if you’re alive, it’d be a one in a million chance for me to blunder into Western Australia and just end up on Ares.”
Rachel hugged her son. “We thought that at first too, and it floored Martin and me when Shelly rang and told us who was in port, and horrified us when we learnt the circumstances that put you there. Kookaburra – we probably need to keep calling her that – couldn’t be sold; she has a faked registration and also, she’s not mine to sell. So, we ran her as a charter a few months a year, and the best place for that in Western Australia is Carnarvon – because of Shark Bay, and it’s close enough to our farm in Northhampt to be practical. That’s why Kookaburra was there. As for you, from what I’ve read of you in the news, that Equation of Time navigational problem and the prevailing winds pretty much guaranteed that you’d hit the coast, if at all, somewhere near Shark Bay. You were being tracked by radar thanks to that reflector you made, and if you’d been found anywhere within hundreds of kilometers of there, you’d have been taken to Carnarvon – and your Uncle Greg – because it’s the only customs point of entry for nearly a thousand kilometers of sparsely populated coast. It’s really just a few small towns scattered over a vast region. And, now you know why there happened to be another big Lagoon catamaran in Carnarvon. Shane played an unwitting role in all this; he had no idea of my past. You’ve probably noticed that you two look almost enough alike to be brothers, and that’s no accident.”
“We’re related?” Trevor asked, blinking in confusion.
“No, no worries there, Trev,” Rachel said, with a wistful smile. “Shane showed up, wet and hungry, desperate for a meal. He reminded me so much of you, and… I thought of you, and how I’d want someone to look after you if you were alone and in need. I couldn’t turn him away, so we fed him, then let him do some odd jobs. He’d shown up not long after I’d been injured in the sheep paddock and it was becoming obvious that I had a long recovery ahead of me. The stairs on Kookaburra were a major issue; I couldn’t do much aboard anymore, so we took Shane in long term, and he’s proven that a sound choice ever since,” she said, and then glanced at Shane before saying, “and by the way, Shane, it’s for that reason – and not because you look like my son – that we’ve always refused attempts to have us fire you.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Blake,” Shane replied numbly, his own mind in turmoil from the shocking revelations.
Trevor’s troubled mind began to calm. “It’s real, you’re alive,” he said, believing at last and holding her tight.
For nearly an hour, they sat, barely moving, and there were many tears as mother and son engaged in a halting conversation, seeking to take the first steps to bridge the gap of time and trust. It was small things, catching up, snippets of each other’s lives they’d missed, a hesitant first step in healing the wounds.
Then Trevor’s words began to slur, more with every sentence, and Shane quietly interjected, “He has the same after-effects of panic attacks as I did, including getting very sleepy.”
Trevor tried to stay awake, but a few minutes later, Rachel ran her fingers through his hair as his eyes rolled back, closing as he lapsed into a deep sleep, nestled up against Shane. Rachel smiled, reluctantly letting go of her son’s hand. “It would have been a terrible shock even without the condition the pirates put him in. I think it may be best if we call it a day. I know you two need to go to Perth, so I’d like it very much if you would return here afterwards and come to the farm for Christmas, both of you. The whole family will be there, including Trev’s grandparents. In the meantime, call me anytime, I’ll be waiting. Take good care of my son, Shane, though I know you will.” Rachel stood, and leaned on her cane. “Before I go, there’s one other matter, and it concerns you, Shane. We couldn’t tell you before, but you’re welcome to a job living and working on our farm once Kookaburra’s gone. However, unless I miss my guess, you’ve other plans now,” Rachel said, giving Shane a knowing smile.
Shane cradled Trevor, who was leaning back against Shane, asleep. “I’m going with Trev, wherever he goes. I was going to tell you soon.”
“Take care of him, Shane. He’ll need you more than ever in the coming days.”
Shane helped Mrs. Blake back onto the dock, and then, feeling shell-shocked, he carried a slumbering Trevor to bed.
After leaving Kookaburra, Rachel made her way back to the truck, where Martin was pacing. He rushed to her side, taking her by the arm, and asking, “How’d it go?”
Rachel embraced her husband. “Wonderful, confusing, painful, a lot of things all at once, but as well as could be expected. He’s in shock, I think. Seeing me brought on a panic attack, and he’s asleep now. It was… very emotional for both of us. I saw the pain I’ve caused him, though I explained as best I could, and I think he’ll understand, given time. I think he needs a few days to get over the shock. I hope he’ll call soon, I know I shan’t sleep until he does.”
“Rachel,” Martin said, calling her by a name he only used when they were alone or with family, “Are you okay?”
Rachel let Martin help her into the truck, and as soon as he climbed into the driver’s seat, she hugged him and said, “I think so, for the first time in a very long time.”
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