Gene McFarlane was a born and bred Florida cracker, so called because of the place where he was born, the family he was born to, and the way he'd always lived his life.
He had an older brother, Roger, who'd had a lot to do with that life, given that he assumed responsibility for raising Gene after a boating accident had taken both their parents. Roger McFarlane spent his time growing up not only as a brother, but also as a mother and father, trying his best to be something he wasn't. Gene spent his time growing up trying his best to be like Roger. Again, something he wasn't.
It was a hard road for Roger, same as it would be for any young man his age. Barely eighteen and taking care of his ten year old brother, he had to be creative in order for the two of them to survive. There wasn't a whole lot of work on the tiny man-made scraped together piece of ground known as Everglades City, but he worked at what there was, pulling in just enough to get by.
Mostly this meant building and repairing boat docks, and going underwater to scrape barnacles from the hulls of the boats belonging to the snowbirders and other well-off Northerners with their half million dollar homes on the Barron River. Maybe six hundred people lived in Everglades City year round and most now lived off what they struggled to make during the winter.
The rest of the year, when money was harder to come by, Roger would load their small shallow water boat, the one with the 9.9 horse motor, with both supplies and his little brother and head off into the Ten Thousand Islands to do a little gator poaching. From his father, Roger had learned that country well, better than most of the rangers that worked the Everglades. He proved it by never getting caught.
But it was hard work and there was no way they could ever kill enough gators to compete with the gator farms that had popped up along the southern part of the state. They'd raise their critters in block houses until they were eighteen inches across their bellies then slaughtered and sent off to some factory somewhere.
As the years got longer and their dreams got bigger, Roger began to branch out. He'd leave Gene behind and disappear on overnight trips, never telling his brother exactly what he was doing. But Gene knew. He might not have been book smart, but there were only so many ways to make money down here.
And life did get better. The two brothers moved into a newer double-wide closer to the water and burned the old one to the ground, the home they had lived in with their parents. Gene regretted it a little after it was done but he had been too drunk to recall what had happened with any accuracy. "That's okay," Roger told him, draining the last can from another six pack, "I don't 'member it much, neither."
Roger began spending a lot more time away from the trailer and Gene suspected he was out of the country a lot, having graduated from the job of running the low-draft boats through the maze of mangrove islands and flat water between the Gulf and the mainland. There was a lot more money, too, and Gene didn't mind being by himself for a few days at a time.
"One day soon," Roger would tell him, "maybe next year, we're gonna move ourselves outta here, get us a nice house like them rich Yankees got. Some place far away from here."
"Why can't we stay where we are and get us one of those houses on the river? We wouldn't even have to leave."
"Can't get us one of these big houses down here," he said. "Wouldn't look good." Roger was talking about the law.
Things changed rather suddenly when there came a period of time where Roger never came home. The days stretched into weeks and Gene finally began to realize that after all these years of being just him and Roger, ever since their parents had died, for the first time he would be facing life by himself. All alone.
The local men, all the swamp rats and smugglers that had known Roger, weren't any help. None of them would admit to knowing anything about the affairs of the man, their one time confederate. "The trouble with this business," one of them told Gene, "is that everybody you deal with is a criminal. You cain't trust none of us."
There was some money in a shoe box under Roger's old bed but it wouldn't be enough to last more than a few months. There must have been more money somewhere. Gene tried the one bank in town but they wouldn't even talk to him. For all Gene knew, the cash could have been buried in the swamp somewhere, or stored in a locker on someone's boat. Wherever it was, Gene knew it wouldn't help him now. He'd have to do for himself.
He began to realize that all his life he had been taken care of, that the money in his pocket had come from his brother's endeavors. It had been Roger who had paid the bills and put the food on the table and beer in the fridge. Now what was he supposed to do?
There really didn't seem to be much of a choice. He hadn't the carpentry skills of his brother, and there wasn't any way he was going to be sloshing around in that gator-infested river. And without Roger's navigational skills with a boat, he knew he didn't have many options.
He decided to have another talk with his brother's friends.
This time he got lucky. There was a man they called Midge, though Gene never knew why, that used to go off with Roger on some of his earlier overnight trips. He may have known what had happened to Roger but Gene never quite worked up the nerve to ask him straight out.
Midge was an enormous bearded man who wore a string around his neck with dozens of shark, bear, and alligator teeth hanging down, making clattering noises in his gnarled chest hair when he walked. His "Glade pearls," he liked to call them. He led Gene out to the back of the bar and asked him if he knew what a mule was.
Gene nodded slowly, not sure of what was going to happen. When Midge actually told him, Gene managed a smile. He'd heard of people doing this sort of thing, and he told Midge he could do it. He'd just have to swallow and shit. Hell, he'd been doing that all his life.
Midge took his "Glade pearls" from around his neck and held them draped over one heavy palm. With his other hand he unsheathed a highly polished Bowie knife and used it to point out some of his favorite charms. After a few seconds of work, four small yellowish objects were separated from the rest. Midge flicked them with the tip of the knife and said, "Don't fail on me, boy. I won't be happy."
Gene assured him he wouldn't and Midge closed his fingers over the human canines then put his knife away. The very next night he handed Gene a plane ticket and a list of instructions as he again advised the young man against the circumstances of failure. Gene told him that he'd handle it and took the ticket.
A week later, after obtaining a passport over in Naples, he left for Colombia. It was the first time Gene had been on an airplane and the first time he had been to another country. Both of these experiences were unsettling.
He began to question just what the hell he was planning on doing. He was supposed to meet a man in a hotel room who would hand over eight sealed condoms filled with uncut cocaine. He would then roll them in oil and swallow them whole, one at a time. After that, it would be back on the plane for home, induce vomiting or diarrhea, whatever it took, and get those damned things out of his system. Once he delivered them to Midge, he would collect his fee and appreciate the retention of his dental work.
But what would happen if they broke? He couldn't keep himself from worrying about it. All it would take was one, the latex rupturing in his stomach or his intestines, releasing who knew how many ounces or grams of that snow-white shit directly into his body. He'd die, he knew. He'd burn up fast, overdosing as his body temperature rose to 110 degrees, cooking his brain. He didn't want to die like that. Gene could still hear the wicked little chuckle of the man in the hotel room when he'd clapped Gene on the back and told him in his accented Spanish, "Get home queek."
The plane ride back to Miami had been sheer hell. Before they had even taken off from the airport in Bogota there was a delay on the tarmac, nearly three and a half hours for what they called a "mechanical failure." Gene's shirt was soaked through with sweat when they finally started their take off roll. He could almost feel the acids in his stomach eating away at the thin translucent tubes he'd somehow managed to swallow. Once in the air, when his ears popped due to the pressure change, he'd wondered if the condoms would do the same thing.
All this had been a mistake, he thought, mopping his forehead repeatedly with his sleeve, trying consciously to slow his breathing. He was smuggling killer drugs inside his own body, for Christ's sake. This wasn't a normal thing to do.
Aside from the vision of his veins and arteries choking themselves on the sudden influx of narcotic powder, his heart bursting and exploding inside his chest, Gene vividly recalled the polished knife lovingly caressing the human teeth on Midge's pearl necklace. In a constant state of near panic, Gene kept himself rooted to his seat for the entire length of the three hour flight. Afraid to move, he didn't want to add any ingredient to the possible disaster he carried inside himself.
When they finally touched down in Miami, Gene could have passed out in relief. In a superhuman test of will, he forced himself to remain calm as he worked through the cattle call of customs without drawing attention to himself. He told the agent he'd been ill for three days and they let him through. From there he almost ran to the nearest rest room and claimed the first open toilet as his own. He had pains in his gut now, in his lower abdomen, and he swallowed four Ex-Lax tablets as he lowered himself onto the toilet.
It was a very unpleasant feeling when the first one came out, goosebumps breaking out across the skin of his thighs and arms. Gene almost cried he was so thankful. He counted them all carefully, not wanting to get up until every last one of those damned things was pushed through his body, never relaxing, afraid that any one of them might rupture, catch on something on the way out, just before they cleared his asshole. Never again, he thought. His days as a mule were over.
Finally, the last condom exited his spent body and Gene slumped forward, exhausted. He had to spend some more time waiting for the cramping from the laxatives to subside, but he was past caring. The ordeal was over and he had made it. He was tired and he stunk of dried sweat and public bathroom, but he had succeeded in bringing the drugs in. All he had to do now was pick those little white torpedoes out of the toilet and boogie on back to Everglades City. To Midge and his knife and that damned spooky necklace.
Gene finally stood up, feeling the numbness in his legs. He looked over his shoulder. It was hard to imagine how much money was floating around in that ugly mess. He took a half step forward, stumbling as he reached for his pants and fell against the door of the tiny cubicle. Behind him the sudden whoosh of water from the flushing toilet sent a jolt of electrified panic down his spine.
On his knees he turned and dove towards the toilet bowl in time to see the last wad of crumpled tissue get sucked into the hole at the bottom. Everything else was gone. In a futile gesture he reached forward, jamming his hand up to the wrist into the opening, trying to grab something.
Oh my fucking lord, Gene thought as he looked up at the piping coming out of the wall. What the fuck happened? What the fuck happened? There weren't even any levers to push to flush the damned thing. Christ! he swore, working his hand out of the toilet and running it through his hair. He hadn't done anything! He didn't deserve this!
Slowly he worked his way to his feet, still staring at the toilet in disbelief. He finished fastening his pants as he took a step back toward the door when the toilet whooshed again.
The damned thing was like the automatic doors to the terminal! It flushed itself when he moved away from it! How the hell was he supposed to know, God damn it? They didn't have these fucking things back home.
Now the coke was gone because Gene didn't know how to take a shit in the city. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
He stood in the stall for another half hour, trying to comprehend all the ways that his life had just changed. Things had looked so good just a few minutes ago, and now.…