Armed with little more than a sense of humour and a 9mm Browning, Florida private eye Rex Fowler and on-again off-again love interest police officer Lara Travis set off in search of crooks, conmen, and buried treasure.
Sharkey Drysdale had the three Australians hanging on his every word.
"Look at the quality of this piece," he said, passing around a color photograph of a centuries-old Indian necklace that he'd carefully razored from a public library copy of Treasures of the Maya.
"Genuine Aztec. I took this picture myself. The gold alone is worth thousands. And there's tons of the stuff down there."
"Where?" the Aussies asked in unison.
"Right here," Sharkey said, holding up another photo, this one showing three huge stone pyramids. "Gentlemen, feast your eyes on the ancient Aztec capital of Palenque, deep in the heart of modern Mexico."
Wide-eyed, the Aussies gasped. If it is at all possible to sweat greed, the stuff seemed to be pouring out of these guys. Until then, I'd always thought "goldlust" was the stuff of cheesy pirate movies and juvenile adventure novels. Not any more. The three men on my boat were drowning in it.
I didn't have the heart to tell them that the Aztecs made their capital at Tenochtitlan, not Palenque. Nor did I bother to mention that Sharkey's lovely photograph of Palenque was actually the Mayan city of Tikal, which sits, not in Mexico, but deep in the heart of modern Guatemala.
When Sharkey's on a roll, the truth gets left behind.
I've known Sharkey Drysdale for nearly four years now. When I moved out here and set myself up in the sailboat cruising business, he was my first customer. It was a day cruise. Nothing fancy, but it went well enough, which is to say I didn't actually run the boat aground. And Sharkey seemed pleased, though that likely had less to do with my sailing prowess and more to do with his ability to convince two French millionaires to buy a controlling interest in the Statue of Liberty.
Since then, nothing much has changed. I'm still trying to eke out a living as owner, operator and jack-of-all-trades aboard NewsHound, the sleekest forty-footer outside of the America's Cup. And Sharkey's still the Florida Panhandle's most lovable con-man and one of my most loyal customers.
He's not a handsome fellow. Can't be more than five foot zip in heels with a tailwind. And with his Herb Tarlek wardrobe, beady black eyes and car salesman hairdo, he doesn't exactly inspire confidence. But when Sharkey opens his mouth and launches into an impassioned description of his scam-of-the-month, his eyes light up like the Kohinoor diamond, his voice turns lounge singer-soft and a gentle warmth settles over the air around him.
I'm as cynical as the next guy, but put me in a room with Sharkey for half an hour and, pretty soon, I'm reaching for my check book.
Every three or four months, Sharkey turns up on my boat with a fresh batch of fools for fleecing. I have no idea where he finds them. There must be a tiny village somewhere filled with gullible millionaires. How else does one explain the four Italians who each paid him $250,000 for the rights to develop Dante's Inferno as a made-for-TV movie? Or the two guys from California who forked over $300,000 for what they believed to be the source code for Windows 98, but turned out to be three floppy disks worth of pornographic downloads from the Playboy website?
But for sheer idiocy, nothing beats the Texas oilman who paid nearly half a million bucks for what purported to be North Korea's secret war plans. The guy was halfway to Asia, hoping to sell them to the South Koreans, when a friendly airline stewardess translated the documents and suggested that the Republic of Korea's department of defense was probably not going to be interested in a carefully copied edition of the House of Seoul Restaurant's dinner menu.
Today's group were no dumber, but certainly no brighter, than Sharkey's usual crowd. Three beefy guys dressed (oddly for a day on a sailboat) in nearly identical shiny black suits, they spent most of the voyage holding on for dear life whenever NewsHound keeled more than four degrees over. Landlubbers the lot of them, they didn't seem capable of taking three steps without tripping over each other or the green canvas duffel bag they'd brought aboard, but never opened.
They didn't look like Aussies at all. I'd first figured them for New Jersey mobsters or Sly Stallone's bodyguards. But from the first "Giddoy moyt," it was clear they weren't long out of kangaroo and koala country. That plus the fact that they pronounced my name "Fahhlur" when they weren't calling me "sport", said "cheers" instead of "thank you" and referred to NewsHound as a "soil-bout", left little doubt where they were from.
Right now, they were drooling like dogs in heat over Sharkey's scheme to make them rich beyond dreams of avarice. The little grifter had them well and truly hooked and was now pulling back a bit to give the suckers time to sell themselves on the deal.
"So how do we get inside those pyramids, eh?" said the Aussie with the widest shoulders and the least neck. "And how do you figure we get the stuff out?"
"All in good time," Sharkey said, with a wry grin. "All in good time. Right now, I'm more interested in seeing what Captain Fowler has prepared for our lunch."
Sharkey only ever calls me Captain Fowler in front of his victims. He reckons it adds a jaunty nautical air to the proceedings. The rest of the time he calls me Rex, like everybody else (except my mother back in Montana who generally refers to me as "he who rarely visits"). Still, at $350 a day plus tax and fuel, Sharkey can call me whatever the hell he likes.
"Won't be more than a few minutes now, Sharkey," I said, turning down the flame on the small propane barbecue fastened to the quarter-deck. "Why don't you crack open fresh beers for our guests? Plenty of cold Heineken in the cooler."
"Go easy on the Sharkeys, will ya Rex," Sharkey said, sidling over out of the Australians' earshot.
"Your name no good anymore?"
"I'm using my middle name today," he said. "Ricardo."
"Since when is Ricardo your middle name?" I asked.
"Since today. And it's not 'Rick-are-doe'. You sound like a white man."
"I am a white man. And in case you've forgotten, so are you."
"Just give it a bit of a Spanish twist," he said. "Reek-aahh-doe. Say it like that. Reek-aahh-doe. Roll the 'R' a bit, okay?"
"Yeah," Sharkey said. "Gotta get that Mayan feeling happening."
"Mayan?" I said. "You mean Aztec, don't you, Sharkey?"