Mike was trying very hard not to get angry. "Sir, I understand that you're out of the hotel business. I can even understand you being unhappy with tourists. But I've got my wife and daughter with me and we need someplace to put our heads down."
The man behind the counter was in his fifties, his long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. He stared down his nose at the short, massively built soldier and wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Look, buddy, you're right. I'm out of the hotel business. There ain't any tourists anymore. How the hell did you get leave when everybody else is locked up on a base or working their ass off?"
Mike threw his hands up in despair. "I pulled every string in the book. Is that what you wanted to hear?" In fact, every string in the book had been pulled behind his back. But that would take more explanation than it was worth.
The proprietor's face worked. "Look . . ."
"Harry," said a female voice from the office at the rear. "Calm down."
The No-Name-Key Fish Camp consisted of eight ancient, wooden bungalows bleached gray by a half century of sun, a few rickety docks surrounding a small but deep embayment, a brand new cinder-block icehouse about thirty yards long and the office, a single-story wooden building protruding over the small harbor. The buildings all surrounded an oyster-shell parking lot. The parking lot had a motley assortment of vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, parked at every angle. Most of the trucks appeared to have been abandoned where they sat, palm fronds and dirt encrusting their hoods. The racket of a large diesel generator sounded from somewhere behind the icehouse and an overwhelming scent of fish and rotting weeds was being carried away on the strong southwest wind.
The office was a "T"-shaped building that doubled as a general store. The front area was normally devoted to food and sundries while the back area was devoted to tackle and live bait. On one side of the crossbar was the cash register and an empty cooler. The other side had a door with a sign over it that said "Keep Out." It was from beyond this door that the voice had issued.
Both areas were barren. The live bait tanks were uniformly empty and the tackle shelves were bare while the food and sundries area was nearly empty. There were a few jars of peanut butter and some quart Mason jars for sale. Other than that the store had been picked clean. For all it was nearly abandoned, it had been well cared for. The empty shelves had been covered with plastic sheets, to keep flies and their specks off, and the floor was freshly scrubbed.
The proprietor, propped beside his antique cash register, rolled his eyes and looked out the window as the source of the voice walked into the main area. The woman was fortyish and reminded O'Neal of Sergeant Bogdanovich. She had long, blonde hair tied in a ponytail which hung down her back and wore faded jeans and a peasant blouse. She had one of the darkest tans Mike had ever seen in his life and a nice smile.
"Forgive my husband, sir," she said, sliding behind the counter and knocking that worthy aside with a casual bump of her hip. "He's best suited as a hermit."
"I'm sorry to impose on you . . ." said Mike.
"It is not an imposition," the proprietress said, with another smile. "Harry has a lot on his mind is all. But one of them is the condition of the cabins and about that I've got to be frank—"
"They're a wreck," said Harry with a slight snarl. "We haven't had a visitor for nearly a year. There's only one that the roof doesn't have a leak!" He thought about the admission. "Well, two."
"And those we offer," stated the proprietress with a tight smile.
"We've used up most of our linens for other things!" said Harry.
"We'll improvise," said the proprietress.
"There's no electricity!" the proprietor thundered.
"There's the generator." The blonde smiled.
"It's for the ice!"
"These are guests," said the proprietress, reasonably, but with a hint of teeth.
"No! We don't get a gas ration for guests!"
"There's no food!"
"Oh, pish. There's fish, lobster, crab . . ." She turned to Mike, who was watching the familial argument with amusement. "No one in your family is allergic to shellfish, are they?"
"No," said Mike with a smile at the play. "Look, let me get a word in edgewise." He started ticking things off on his fingers. "One, we don't need electricity. We came prepared to camp out, so we have our own lanterns." He thought about the argument. "Two, we have our own sleeping bags, so we don't need linens. Having a bed, any bed, is better than the floor and a roof is better than a tent. We just want to spend a few days in the Keys and maybe get a little snorkeling and fishing in."
Mike turned to the proprietor as he opened his mouth to argue. "Look, I understand where you're coming from. But let me say a few things. We're prepared to pay and pay handsomely. But if you don't take FedCreds, we brought stuff that people said was in short supply down here. I'm sorry to point it out, but I notice your cupboards are bare. I've got fifty- and twenty-five-pound monofilament, sling-spear rubber, five diving masks and two cases of large hooks."
Mike raised an eyebrow as Harry's mouth closed with an audible clop. When he did not say anything Mike went on. "We've also got some other 'comfort rations.' So we'll be okay without all the usual amenities." He looked from proprietor to proprietress. The two exchanged a look and then Harry shrugged his shoulders.
"Sir," said the proprietress with a smile, "welcome to No-Name-Key Fish Camp."
O'Neal smiled back. "Call me Mike."
* * *
The cabin was small, old and smelled heavily of the mildew as common in the Keys as mosquitoes. A chameleon had broken off its pursuit of a large antlike insect as Mike opened the door. The cabin had two beds for the adults and another had been prepared for Cally. It was divided into two rooms, the side towards the parking lot being a combination living room/kitchen/dining room, while the rear side towards the bay was the bedroom and bath.
The furniture must have dated from the 1960s. The chairs, gleaming yellow in the fading light from a window, were all tube steel and cracked plastic padding. The countertops and floor were cracked linoleum, the patterns so worn as to be indecipherable. Mike glanced at the nonfunctional stove, television and refrigerator. The bedroom window showed signs of once sporting an air conditioner, but here under the spreading palms and salt-tolerant oaks the wind was relatively cool. There was running water but the proprietress, whose name was Karen, pointed out that it was strictly rationed and not to be trusted for drinking. There was a certain amount of imported bottled water, but the main source for drinking water was the distiller attached to the icehouse.
The icehouse turned out to be the center of the little community, as Mike found out when he left the cabin at dusk. The rising clouds of Keys mosquitoes drove him quickly across the parking lot to the knot of men gathered in the screened porch of the large building. It turned out that they were preparing the day's catch.
With the exception of the baseball caps, sputtering incandescent lantern and modern clothing, the scene could have been from any time in the last thousand years. The men and women were arranged along tables, talking and laughing quietly as they expertly processed the harvest of the seas.
How they kept up with whose was whose was a mystery to Mike as rubber tubs of fish were dumped on the communal table. The piscines would slither outward, some of them still faintly thumping, until they reached an available preparer. There they would be filleted or simply gutted.
Mike was amazed at the speed and technique of the workers. The gutting was different from what he was used to. When he gutted fish he generally inserted the knife into the anus and cut towards the gills. Then the head could be cut off and the guts dragged out with it or the guts could be pulled out by hand and the head left on.
The fish that were being gutted here, mainly yellowtail grunt and mangrove snappers, were being done in the opposite direction. The knife was drawn across the fish's throat just forward of the gills then the belly was slit back to the anus. A twist of the hand brought out gills and guts in a smooth motion and the fish was flipped away and the next one expertly snatched up.
The filleting was, if anything, faster. A cut would be made across the meat of the fish, just behind the pectoral fins down to the backbone. Then a cut would be made along the backbone itself. A third sweeping motion lifted the meat off, leaving a flap of skin attached to the tail. A swift slice along this flap lifted away a clean fillet. Then the fish was flipped over and the same motions cleared its other side. The remains of the fish were going into a bucket; they were useful in traps and for trolling lures. The filleters would stop after every couple of jobs and run the knives over a sharpener, then get back to work.
Once prepared, the harvest slid down the steel table to the tubs at the end. At that point a group of children under the direction of a young teen female sorted them by type, washed them and iced them down. Whenever a tub got full it would be covered and wheeled into the icehouse, only to be replaced by another.
After watching quietly for a few minutes Mike picked up an abandoned knife and gloves and joined in. He chose only the types to be gutted, recognizing that his filleting technique was not up to par. He tried his own gutting technique and quickly found that not only did it require more motions, it left more junk in the body cavity. So he started experimenting with the new technique.
The conversation went on around him, much of it in such a thick cracker accent as to be nearly incomprehensible. The conversation, whether it was the norm or censored for the visitor in their midst, centered around the weather to be expected for the next few days, fair, and the fishing, fair, and the price the fish might fetch when the buyer came through in a few days, poor. Despite price stabilization supports and general inflation the price per pound of all the major fish types, even the prized black grouper and red snapper, had been going consistently down.
Mike kept his face in its habitual frown when Harry and a fisherman called Bob got into another argument about power. Bob was of the opinion that Harry was being stingy in not providing electricity for the regular Saturday-night party at the No-Name-Key Pub. Harry pointed out the consequences of overusing fuel in a way that was so oblique as to be opaque to an outsider. Thereafter the conversation slid to less ominous topics, leaving Mike metaphorically scratching his head.
Finally the last fish was gutted and Mike stripped off the chain mail gloves. The fisherman called Bob looked him up and down and tossed over a cut lime. "Let's get washed up and head to the pub," he said in general. There was a chorus of muttered agreement which Mike decided to take as invitation. The worst that would happen was that someone would try to throw him out.
Harsh, homemade soap and the strong Key limes took away the worst of the fish smell and the crowd headed out of the screening to brave the mosquitoes. The distant pub was lit by kerosene lanterns hung over the doorway, but the path to it was pitch-black darkness. Mike found himself walking between Harry and Bob and decided that he was more or less being escorted.
"It was good of you to help with the cleaning," said Harry, somewhat stiffly.
"Fleet Strike," said Mike and heard a faint snort.
"Really," said Harry in a sarcastic tone. "I bet you've been off-planet and everything, huh? Got a chest full of medals from Barwhon. Pull the other one."
"We had a guy down here a couple of times," said Bob in explanation. "He was a SEAL based at Homestead Airforce Base, or so he said. The cops finally caught up with him. He was a deserter from a Guard unit in Missouri."
"He sure could talk the talk, though," said Harry, bitterly.
"He stiffed Harry for a goodly bill. And ate us out of house and home," Bob commented.
Mike's nod was unseen in the darkness but they stopped when he did. He reached into the depths of his jacket and extracted a card from his wallet. It was easily discerned by the faintly glowing purple stripe around the edges.
"You forgot to ask for my ID," Mike noted, handing it to Bob instead of Harry. As he did he tapped a control on the lower face of the electronic ID.
A full-length hologram of Mike at parade rest in combat silks sprung up as an electronic voice intoned the appropriate statistics. Name, rank, service, Galactic ID number, height, weight, sex and age were all recited by the combination ID and dog tag. The IDs were made of the same refractory material as the suits, designed to take damage and still be able to identify their users. In a pinch they made a dandy weapon in trained hands.
The group had stopped when the hologram blossomed. When the recording ended the only thing that could be heard was the buzz of mosquitoes and the occasional idle swat. Bob handed the ID back.
"Hmmph," said Harry, noncommitally. "Okay, you're really in Fleet Strike. Big deal."
"And my wife's an XO of a frigate in Fleet," said Mike mildly. "And if you give her the same ration of shit I've gotten I'll feed you your left arm."
There was a general chuckle from the group in the darkness and a movement towards the pub. "I think he means it," said Bob, chuckling at the store owner's discomfiture.
"Yeah, well," said the aging hippie. "It's been so long since I had any red meat, it might not be all that bad."
"Things are getting a tad complicated," admitted Mike.