The gin clear waters off Key Largo were the last place I expected to find the dark side of paradise, but there it was, bobbing on the gentle waves. I pointed it out to Leroy, the captain of the LunaSea. He did a double take. “Looks like we got us a square grouper.”

I was intrigued. Even though I’m currently working for a dive shop, I’m a marine scientist and I’d never heard of that particular species of grouper. I asked if it was indigenous to the Florida Keys.

Leroy rolled his eyes at me, as he often does. “How can someone as smart as you act like a calf at a new gate?”

The way he acted, you’d think I was the only person in the Keys who didn’t know that square grouper was the slang term for a bale of drugs, but it wasn’t exactly a topic covered in grad school.

The current pushed the bale toward the boat. When it was close enough, Leroy hooked it and pulled it to the swim platform. Together we dragged the sodden bale aboard the LunaSea to give to the Coast Guard when we returned to the dock. The gaff had torn a small hole in the bale’s outer wrapping, and my Pandora-level curiosity got the best of me. I peeked inside. Between what looked to be a bunch of duct-taped bricks, I glimpsed the corner of a clear plastic freezer bag. I don’t know what I expected to find, but it certainly wasn’t a three-hundred-year-old Spanish coin and a list of names scrawled across a brittle sheet of paper.

Then I found one more thing hidden in the bale. A GPS tracker. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out we were about to have company.

Events unfolded rather quickly after that, but two things stuck out in my mind:

  1. A dive boat can’t outrun a low-profile cigarette boat—even with a head start.
  2. A doctorate doesn’t deflect bullets.

Leroy coaxed every bit of speed from the boat he could, and it bumped and slammed across the waves. Our only chance of escape required me to push the bale off the back of the boat and hope the smugglers were more interested in recovering their inventory than pursuing us.

The bale sat in the open on the stern. I slid behind it and wedged my feet against the water-soaked bale and pushed. It barely moved.

The driver raised his arm again and aimed. Another bullet zinged past and I scrunched lower. The open transom of the boat left me exposed and the only thing shielding me from a bullet was the bale of drugsthe very thing I needed to get off the boat. Finally it teetered on the edge and splashed into the churning whitewater behind the LunaSea. It disappeared under the wake and for a horrible moment I thought it had sunk, but then it resurfaced, and the captain of the other boat throttled back to retrieve it.

The distance between the smugglers and our boat grew. My entire body shook as the adrenaline ebbed. I drew a deep, steadying breath, but blew it out in huff of renewed fear.

What if it wasn’t the bale they were willing to kill for?


You can read more about Mer in Beached, the second in the “Mer Cavallo” Mystery series.

Marine biologist Meredith Cavallo uncovers clues to a mysterious Spanish galleon—and quickly discovers the ship may be legendary, but the danger surrounding it is real.

Mer’s life unravels after she finds a plastic-wrapped bundle floating on the waves off Key Largo. Curious, she pulls it aboard her dive boat and lands in the middle of a storm of intrigue involving an obscure legend, an 18th century shipwreck and a modern pirate who’ll resort to murder to claim the booty first.

Thrust into the hunt for a ship with no historical record, Mer plunges into the world of nautical archaeology. But for a woman accustomed to dealing with facts, deciphering secrets proves difficult—and everyone she encounters harbors their own skeletons. A sinister betrayal sends her reeling, and even with the help of a crusty former marine salvager, a fiery professor, and her friends on the island, Mer realizes she’s in over her head. Determined to outwit the man who wants her dead, she’s certain of only one thing—treasure is trouble.

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About the author
An FBI National Academy graduate, Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades, retiring as a division commander. Now a full-time writer, she won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for her debut mystery, Adrift.

Micki also writes short stories and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks. She resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.”

Learn more at mickibrowning.com.

All comments are welcomed.

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