The Search for
CHAPTER 1 © 2017 Ernie Lee
“No shrimp here,” Binh Gnu told his crew as an assortment of trash fish, and useless litter spilled from the dripping net.
Binh looked out across the calm waters of Laguna Madre just north of Brownsville, Texas. In years past, Binh had been successful on this stretch of the deserted lagoon. The fishing in these waters was usually excellent in the interval between the mandatory evacuation of thousands of spring breakers and the invasion of winter Texans. Not this year. This year they would have to go deeper for the shrimp. He ordered his three-man crew to pull the nets and secure the outriggers.
Gnu studied the maps to find fishing spots where he might try next. His fishing permit gave him rights to a specific area in south Texas, but this time he might have to bend the rules a little. The State wouldn’t know so long as none of his competitors complained. He studied an area just off the Brownsville coast that was permitted to his cousin Quang. The water was deeper and colder there. He marked a circle on his map in pencil so he could erase it later if necessary. Quang’s boat was up on blocks in his backyard, so nothing but eighty miles of Texas Gulf water prevented Binh from fishing in his cousin’s quadrant.
A disturbance on the deck caught his attention as he slid aside the window to peer down at the crew pulling the nets.
“It is hung on something!”
“Careful!” Binh shouted. “Don’t tear the net. What is it hung on?” he asked.
“We can’t tell!” his nephew Phue yelled back. “Too deep!”
“Well, go in and free it!”
“Uncle, I’m not going into the water. I can’t swim.”
“You don’t need to swim. Just pull yourself down the net to the bottom and free it. We’ll pull you in with the net once you free the net.”
Phue made a crude gesture at Binh and mumbled some profanity beneath his breath.
“That boy is just like his father,” Binh mused as he shook his head. He knew from experience no amount of argument was going to get his nephew into the water. He should have left the boy at home to paint Quang’s boat. The other two boys were no better. They got paid to fish, they said, not to swim.
“What kind of sailor doesn’t know how to swim?” Binh grumbled as he peeled off his pants and shirt. “What the hell is this younger generation coming to?” Binh recited a steady stream of complaints about the state of Asian millennials as he stomped down the steel ladder and across the wet steel deck in his underwear. Pushing past his young nephew, Binh flung himself into the briny waters of lower Laguna Madre.
Surfacing, he shook water from his head and swam toward where the fishing net disappeared beneath the surface. He gingerly tugged the lines, but it was stuck fast to something on the bottom. Binh knew that the lagoon was only ten or fifteen feet deep at the most; so he took a deep breath, grabbed the netting, and pulled himself beneath the surface. There was no telling what it was snagged on in this aquatic garbage dump.
On the bottom, Binh found they had netted a nice antique Sears washing machine that some previous boater probably shoved overboard. Freeing his fishing net from the rusted appliance, Binh swam for the surface. Bobbing in the small swells, he was tempted to scold his young crew for being too soft; but he simply ordered, “All right! Pull it in!”
Not wanting to be netted himself, Binh swam a few yards to starboard and floated on the surface until the crew hauled the net past him. He floated on his back and watched the clear blue sky as he enjoyed the cool salty water lapping across his chest.
“Drop a ladder!” he yelled to Phue.
Suddenly, the net stopped moving toward the boat. Now what?, Binh thought to himself.
“Come on! Get that net aboard! We don’t have all day! And, drop me a ladder!”
He looked up at his crew standing along the edge of the bulkhead. The net lay slumped across the gunwale as the boy’s stood with eyes and mouths held wide open.
Binh had reached the end of his patience and ready to explode. It was bad enough these slackers would not go into the water to free a hung net, but now they were not even going to pull it on board. He was about to unleash a string of profanities when his nephew raised a shaking hand and pointed to an area just behind Binh.
“What?!!!” Binh shouted as he used his arms to turn himself around in the warm water and came eye-to-eye with the largest crocodile he had ever seen.
“It’s him,” thought Binh. “It’s that escaped crocodile – the one they call Aquasaurus. The one that has been attacking people on the coast for the last three months. It has to be him; no other crocodile is even half that large. Good Lord, look at the size of his head. What’s he doing here? Crocodiles were not even supposed to be in these waters.”
Binh hollered over his shoulder, “Phue, get the rifle and shoot it! Hurry! And, don’t shoot me!”
Binh decided to stay as still as possible. “He’s trying to figure out if I’m food. Maybe he thinks I’m a dolphin or something to eat. Don’t panic,” he told himself. The crocodile floated motionlessly only a few yards away. All Binh could see of it was an enormous bulbous snout and two unblinking yellow eyes above the water. Binh calculated how fast he could swim to the boat and decided he would not make it if the crocodile wanted him. Binh slowly reached for the knife at his waist before realizing he was swimming in his underwear. “Why didn’t they shoot it yet?” he wondered.
A small, red, light flashed on an off inside the crocodile’s snout. Binh could not understand what it was. “Maybe it is part of the last guy he ate.”
The croc’s slowly blinked. A lens like a cataract slid downward over its eyes. Binh could see little frothy bubbles in the corners of the croc’s eyes.
“Well, what do you know?” Binh thought. “They really do cry.”
The television was on in the waiting room, as Katie settled into a soft leather chair.
“… Texas Attorney General is suing the EPA over the rejection of the Texas clean air program. The lawsuit is the state’s second battle against the EPA in two months. We will be following this story for you as it develops out of Austin. Stay tuned to News 12 for more details.”
The camera switched to the news anchor. “Thank you, Hannah. We are following another continuing story this day. That large crocodile, dubbed Aquasaurus, surfaced again off South Padre Island this morning. A local fisherman was snatched from the water by the huge beast. The body of thirty-nine-year-old Binh Gnu of Port Isabel has not been recovered as of air time.”
The camera pulled back to reveal both newscasters sitting at a desk. A photo of a massive crocodile and the word ‘Aquasaurus’ showed behind them. “Is it just me, Larry, or is that thing moving south?”
“Indeed it is, Hannah. The last reports of it were in the northern tip of South Padre Island; now, it’s at the southern tip of the island in Laguna Madre. Coast Guard officials have been trying to track the creature for the past three months without much success. Its location is marked each time there is a sighting, and it does appear to be moving south. You remember, Hannah, this monster crocodile first appeared during the earthquake and flood that hit San Antonio. How a gigantic crocodile worked its way into the Gulf of Mexico without being detected is remarkable.”
“Yes, Larry. Those poor spring-break kids on South Padre last April – what a tragedy that was …”
Katie turned her attention away from the television and looked around the waiting room. The outer office of Bruner, Bartholomew, and Zackery was professional, comfortable, and designed for intimidation. The lighting was subdued, lit only by shaded lamps in a Texas ranch motif. The entire waiting room looked like the spacious living room of a large ranch house – exactly what you would expect an oil magnate’s attorney to own.
Katie Marshall sat on the luxurious leather couch and hoped the back of her legs would not stick to it when she got up to greet Mr. Bruner. Katie reminded herself for the hundredth time that Mr. Bruner was on her side; there was no need to worry. Since her father, Clint, was dead, Katie guessed Mr. Bruner was her attorney now. Thank goodness for Hootie Johnson, without his advice and guidance she would have been entirely lost. Hootie had been her father’s right-hand man. She had not even known who her father’s attorney was – much less all of the assets Clint owned. She wished for the umpteenth time that Hootie had come with her to this meeting.
“Don’t like lawyers” was all he would say. Then he pulled down his cowboy hat and jutted out his jaw in such a way that made his dimples even more pronounced. The man had no clue how handsome he was. Katie wished again that Hootie was fifteen years younger.
Katie did not like lawyers either. They had far too much power. They knew things – things no one else was supposed to know. Their knowing made the powerful. Mr. Bruner had filed paperwork with the court to declare Clint Marshall officially dead, as was required by law. Clint’s body was not in the charred, twisted wreckage of Dilley Chalk #1, but there was no doubt he was deceased. His truck was found still running, and gasoline was still in the tank when they pulled the vehicle away from the fire. It was still drivable even though the paint had bubbled and cracked in the heat. Not much remained inside that burned-out pickup. The bare metal springs protruded through the charred seat covers. Clint had disappeared within the enormous fireball that soared high above the fiery wreckage of the oil rig. Trying in his awkward way to give her comfort, Hootie said Clint had probably vaporized in the inferno. It wasn’t much comfort.
The past three months had flown by, and Katie had struggled to understand it all. Most of her father’s business dealings were beyond her knowledge; and without Hootie, she could never have figured it out. Overwhelmed by the wealth her father had accrued, Katie had no idea how to handle his assets. She had no clue where it all was, but Hootie had been immensely valuable locating it all down. Thanks to her father’s personal assistant Darla Dunn and Mr. Bruner, it made quite a list. There was the condo in Houston, a villa in La Pesca in Mexico somewhere below Brownsville, a boat named Miss Katie, two airplanes, a couple of motorcycles, a Mercedes, and one burned-out truck. The lawyers could not transfer anything to Katie until the law declared Clint officially dead. Without a corpse, complications stalled the transfer of ownership. She had no idea what she would do with everything, except she planned to put the condominium on the market. She had no intention of living in Houston. The rest she would decide later.
A well-dressed woman entered the waiting room and greeted Katie warmly. She introduced herself as Lisa and escorted Katie into Mr. Bruner’s office. Mr. Bruner rose immediately and came around his large wooden desk. He took Katie’s hand and placed one arm around her shoulder. The model of a typical Texas attorney, Charles had perfectly styled silver hair which gleamed in the light. He could have stepped right out of central casting. Katie wished her hair would shine that way.
“My dear, Miss Marshall,” he cooed. “It is so nice to see you. Your late father always bragged of your beauty, but I’m afraid he missed the mark. He said you were beautiful, but he never said you were a living angel!”
Katie blushed. “Thank you, Mr. Bruner. He never told me his attorney was a matinee idol!”
“My dear! You age me!” Mr. Bruner waved her off but was flattered. “I much prefer ‘rock star,” he laughed.
“Call me Charles, dear,” he continued. “Your father said you were quick-minded. I’m afraid he did not do you justice in that quality either, Miss Marshall.”
“You can call me Katie, sir. I am honored to meet you. My father spoke so highly of you and your firm.”
Mr. Bruner patted her on the shoulder and gave her another hug.
“Our entire firm extends its solemn condolences, Katie. Please have a seat. May I offer you anything: coffee, tea, or ice water?”
“That depends on what you are about to tell me, Mr. Charles. I take it as a good sign you did not offer me bourbon.”
Laughter bubbled out of Charles’ face as his large belly jiggled up and down behind his expensive suit jacket.
“Bourbon!” he repeated several times until he could get his breath. “Just exactly what your father would say! Oh, my! How we are going to miss his sense of humor. I’m sure you do, too, my dear.”
Using the southern custom of putting a “mister” in front of an elder’s first name, Katie smiled at Mr. Bruner. “Very much, Mr. Charles. I just can’t believe he is gone.”
Charles extended his palm, indicating that Katie was to use one of the plush leather chairs that sat beside a richly carved coffee table. Everything in this office was designed to impress.
“Tea,” Katie requested as she nestled into the lavish leather, “iced, please.”
“Lisa, please bring us a couple of iced teas.” Then, he turned back to Katie. “We can always spike it if the need arises,” he laughed again.
Once he settled into the matching armchair, Charles got down to business.
“Well, Katie. I have some good news and some even better news for you.”
Katie breathed a sigh of relief.
“That is good to hear, Mr. Charles. Am I right in assuming that since you were my father’s attorney, you represent me as well?”
“Indeed, dear. You inherited everything, including me – as long as you want us, that is.”
“I wouldn’t dream of making a change.”
“Thank you, hon. Your father was a brilliant man. A few years ago, we advised him to place everything in a trust to protect his assets from personal liability, and I am happy to say that he followed our advice. Since you are his only beneficiary, you stand to benefit greatly from that decision. As trustee, we manage your father’s entire holdings, The Marshall Family Trust; and since he is deceased, that means – you. Young lady, you are a very wealthy woman.”
“Thank you, Mr. Charles. But, I don’t know how to manage that kind of wealth.”
“Never mind about that, dear. That is what we do. We are specialists in asset management. Your father put us in charge of everything – however, you are free to make changes if you wish. If not, things will continue under the same terms we gave your father years ago. If you care to make any changes, all you need do is call me. Here is my private number.” He handed her a card. “Meanwhile, I can tell you that you will draw a monthly stipend; and if you need more, you call that number. Would $10,000 monthly be sufficient to start?”
Katie’s head swam as she realized that money would no longer be a problem in her life. The big challenge now would be how to hang on to it.
“Yes, sir,” she mumbled. “What about the will?”
“The will,” Charles laced his fingers together. “As I told you earlier, you inherit everything. With no siblings and with your dear mother deceased as well, there should not be any reason to expect anyone to contest. Probate will go through without a hitch. Besides, the trust is not subject to probate. There are a few cash accounts, a retirement IRA, personal property and real estate, and some assets from a couple of oil companies – let’s see …”
Charles reached over, pulled a file from his desk, and opened it. “I see a preliminary application for transfer of 25% of Rio Frio Oil Company, who your father worked for along with HNH Oil. We will execute a change notice listing you as the owner. I will keep checking on that and keep you informed. In all likelihood, the transfer will go through without a hitch.”
He flipped through some additional pages, “Here is what I wanted to discuss with you about Rio Frio Oil Company. The transfer was recent, but it will get included in Clint’s trust. Rio Frio is not making any money, and it looks inactive. It does have substantial losses for the year. The fire that killed your father also destroyed one of your well sites. And, you have an employee in that company, but I am sure that will pose no problem if you want to divest your ownership in Rio Frio.”
“Yes, as I said, you only own a quarter of Rio Frio shares. The other three-quarters belong to Mr. T.J. Howlett of HNH. Mr. Johnson seems to have employed along with your father by HNH Oil Company who was managing a project for Rio Frio, but the company recently transferred Mr. Johnson to Rio Frio. I don’t know all the details, but the division of assets is final. Mr. Johnson is your employee, but we handle payroll for you from your assets. Do you know Mr. Johnson?”
“I do know him. He’s waiting downstairs. Should I call him in?” Katie asked, amazed.
“I’d love to meet Mr. Johnson, but it may not be appropriate at this meeting concerning your father’s will. Let’s bring him in on our next meeting when we discuss what you want to do with Rio Frio. You have several options, not the least of which is to sell it outright.”
Katie did not even have to think. “I don’t want to sell it,” she announced.