Hellbent for Dismal Key
This story is fictional. Although it contains things from the world in which we live, it should be read as a work of fiction. All characters are fictional and not based on any actual living person. Any resemblance to an actual person is completely unintended and coincidental. The persons and the events in this story are entirely the product of my imagination.
Note: This is a companion story about one of the characters from my series The Sheriff of St. Thomas.
He still couldn’t believe they wanted him to make this particular run. But it was one of his jobs now, and more importantly, it was why they paid him so well. The newfound income never touched an American bank account; they all made sure of that, at least. Still, he had been surprised by how much harder it had been to keep his money “clean” than to make these midnight drops. So far anyway. And the most effective way to keep it clean was to never move any of it into an American bank account.
But there were still constant worries, even about having an offshore bank account. For now, he kept it parked where it was; the Swiss didn’t ask any questions, and that was a good thing. He would decide what to do with the money later.
He was well aware of the fact that his still relatively new opportunity could end at any moment; if he made a lazy mistake, or if he stumbled onto some crazy-ass campers where they had no business being, or if the Coast Guard finally decided to start running interdiction in his area of operations, he would have some big problems. To this point, he he’d been fortunate. Or lucky. “I’d rather be lucky than good any day,” went the old saying. But he knew in this type of endeavor he had to be as good as possible. He’d better be downright great. Hell, he needed to be like a character out of an old Jimmy Buffett song. And even then it still might not be enough.
There was another old saying: “There are no old junkies.” That often morphed into a variety of spinoffs, like, “There are no old drug dealers,” or “There are no old drug traffickers,” and so on. The idea was the junkie or the dealer or the trafficker eventually got caught or died, one way or another; sometimes they died in prison; sometimes in a flurry of gunfire or some other kind of violence. Very few lived to be old and free. The odds eventually caught up with everyone.
But Mark Toal was not a drug dealer, nor a drug trafficker, nor a user. Toal didn’t touch the stuff; he wouldn’t even go near it. He even had an extreme opinion of people who smoked marijuana. And since he was none of these things, he clung with confidence to the hope that none of the old aphorisms would ever apply to him. After all, he wasn’t naive; the average life span of someone who still tried to run drugs in planes or on boats was extremely short. Law enforcement had finally caught up with the old ways of doing things.
No, Mark Toal was no drug trafficker. That carried various extremely negative connotations with it, in addition to the severe criminal penalties that went along with it if caught. Toal was a carrier all right, but he transported something entirely different over the shallow waters of the Florida Keys and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. He moved American currency; loads of it, at times into — and at other times out of — the United States of America.
Most of the time, he didn’t even know how much he was hauling. He didn’t want to know. All he knew was that each time he delivered, a new $100,000 deposit (U.S. dollars) would magically appear weeks later in the Swiss bank account bearing the name of his business enterprise. To this point, he had made 28 such trips to various spots around the keys, the Caribbean, and the southwest coast of Florida.
The balance on the Swiss bank account now stood at 2.8 million dollars, U.S. currency, not including the interest. The larger it grew, the more anxious he became. And he had several good reasons to be anxious, because as he quickly learned, the federal government didn’t like people bringing certain amounts of money into the country or taking it out, without telling them. The federal government was jealous, and they wanted their cut. It was something his new employers must’ve forgotten to tell him when he agreed to their arrangement.
Officially and publicly, he ran fishing charters out of Key West and Marathon, along with the occasional overnight “cruise.” He was also a fishing and backcountry guide and had taken his fair share of would-be explorers well into the Florida outback, as it were, and the Glades. He even had a permit from the U.S. Park Service to do it. Most of the rangers knew him on sight and asked few, if any, questions when they ran into him.
These legitimate financial pursuits really weren’t that extraordinary in southern Florida, especially over on the southwest side of the peninsula, and they provided the perfect cover for his other enterprise. Every other guy his age seemed to be a charter boat captain or some kind of fishing or hunting guide, and the business could get pretty cutthroat, if only in the metaphorical sense. So he kept a low profile, did his work, and made certain to appear frugal around the Keys; he paid for things in equal parts debit card, credit card, or cash. If he could get away with it, he would have used cash for everything, but that would eventually attract somebody’s unwanted attention.
Like everywhere else, the Keys had its fair share of criminal types, and they would eventually notice a guy paying for everything in cash. Someone might get it in his head to rob that guy or beat him out of his cash. This was the first and most practical daily concern.
But second and just as worrisome was the government. The presence of a criminal element always meant the presence of what were colloquially called “confidential informants,” or “CIs.” People who ran afoul of the law and got caught often turned into a confidential informant for the police to either avoid prosecution or “work off” their jail time. There was really no telling who was working as a CI because the reality didn’t always fit the TV show stereotype.
A CI could just as easily be the clerk at the convenience store or the maintenance guy at the boat dock as some sketchy-looking thug. One never really knew. And so the point was, if you got too reckless throwing cash around every time you paid for something, some CI would eventually notice and call it in to the cop handling him. This, in turn, would invite surveillance of your daily movements, as the cops would assume you were some kind of drug dealer or similar type of criminal who was trying to keep his profits out of a bank and off the proverbial books.
Toal didn’t want attention from any of these people. But even still, sometimes he had no choice and using cash was just inevitable. The trick was knowing when and where to do it.
Based on his background, he knew all the federal financial reporting requirements, and he was very careful to not raise any red flags. Most people had no idea how far and deep into their personal finances the federal government really was. Sure, the “Big G” — as Toal called it — forced everyone to pay income tax every year, but your average citizen was foolish to believe that annual federal taxes were all the IRS cared about or watched.
Indeed, it wasn’t just the IRS watching, although the agency more than any other federal organization was everyone’s favorite and most hated scapegoat. No, there were a multitude of obscure and unknown laws on the books that enabled the G and its myriad of agencies to watch much of what a citizen did with his or her money without them even knowing they were watching. Toal had gathered this knowledge over his career, and he knew the financial net cast out by the G was almost impossible to evade. It didn’t matter whether you were dealing with hard cash or an electronic transaction; the G was into every move you made with your money.
For instance, federal law mandated that any time a person engaged in a cash transaction through any financial institution in an amount greater than $10,000 — a deposit or withdrawal, even into or out of your own bank account — the bank had to report said transaction to the federal government’s “Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.” The rationale for this rule was that it was designed to “combat” domestic and international money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes.
The reality was that investigations into this activity never really uncovered much in the way of these types of crimes, but it certainly invaded the privacy of millions of citizens’ financial activity, which they thought was private. Say you wanted to withdraw $12,000 to buy your kid a used, but reliable car for his or her 16th or 18th birthday? The government found out about it. Maybe a few years later you sold that same car, and you wanted to deposit the $10,500 you got for selling it? The government found out about it. That check in some amount over $10,000 you got as a Christmas gift or surprise inheritance from Grandma? The government found out about it when you deposited it. (Or cashed it for that matter.)
And depending on the whim of the bank teller who conducted the transaction for you, they might or might not send the government something called a “Suspicious Activity Report,” or “SAR.” The SAR would say your deposit or withdrawal was suspicious in some way, and would land on the desk of any number of government agents, like the IRS’s criminal division, the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security, FBI, or even federal prosecutors. The criteria for the bank to send out such a report was very amorphous, and amounted to the bank employee’s personal, subjective suspicion that a transaction “does not make sense to the financial institution,” or “is unusual for that particular client.”
Indeed, the entire arrangement was a strange one; the bank — not some government officer or agent — was responsible for reporting one of their own account holders to the government when the bank thought the account holder had done something “suspicious.” Toal always thought this was very ironic, since banks and bankers themselves were often the targets of government surveillance in financial criminal investigations, and there were bank fraud cases where investigators really couldn’t tell when a banker had been duped by some white collar criminal or actually been in on the fraudulent deal himself.
To Toal, the whole thing was just another version of the confidential informant, writ large; the bank acted as the CI for the government and reported what it observed to law enforcement. And on top of all of this, the kicker was the account holder never knew it; they were never informed.
The government covered all their bases. Say you got wise to the $10,000 cash transaction reporting law and thought you might be able to avoid being reported, and so you started engaging in transactions under the $10,000 threshold to prevent the bank from sending out that report. Well then, the big G had another law for you; it was called “structuring.”
Structuring involved the splitting of an amount of cash greater than $10,000 into smaller individual increments to avoid the $10,000 reporting requirements. For example, imagine a person had $25,000 they wanted to deposit, but they didn’t want to trigger the reporting rules. Let’s say they went to three different branches of their bank in one day and deposited $8,000 at one branch in the morning, $9,000 at a different branch around noon, and then deposited $8,000 at yet another branch in the late afternoon. The account holder thought they were being smart, but in fact this activity would almost certainly result in a suspicious activity report being generated by the bank, and would make a solid case that the person making the deposits was guilty of “structuring” the entire $25,000 amount to avoid the reporting requirements. Structuring bank deposits could not only result in forfeiting the entire amount structured, but could send the account holder to prison.
But that wasn’t all. The government was even into your business when and if you either brought more than $10,000 into the country or took it out. Most people who had traveled out of the country — by air or even on a cruise ship — knew that upon their return to the United States they had to fill out a customs form upon reentry through Customs. The form specifically asked whether the reentering person was bringing any amount of American currency greater than $10,000 into the country. Well, the same rule applied to persons taking more than $10,000 out of the country with them.
And let’s say you just got tired of all this federal government secretive oversight of your finances and you moved all of your money off-shore. Sounds like a solid idea, right? You see it in the movies all the time, all these people with off-shore bank accounts. Well, the big G was all over that too. Federal law also mandated that U.S. citizens and residents with a “financial interest in or authority over foreign bank accounts” or “foreign financial accounts” with an aggregate value of $10,000 were required to file a Foreign Bank Account Report (FBAR) with the U.S. Treasury. This law aimed to prevent U.S. citizens from hiding their money or assets outside the U.S. in order to avoid paying taxes on that money.
So in Toals’s mind and in the mind of any intelligent person with knowledge of the aforementioned legal scheme, the big G basically had you “bracketed” when it came to your money; they knew about it any time you moved more than $10,000 anywhere in the world. And if you either did not report that fact or the G didn’t like what you were doing, they could and would come after you and your money.
Now, in real terms and in daily practice, the people who got caught got lazy with all these rules. A violation of any of the above was a federal crime that could land a person in prison. The government could also seize and keep the money at issue. So the key was to not violate any of these laws. But this was a very difficult prospect for anyone who actually wanted to use their money.
This entire government legal scheme made it very difficult indeed for the enterprising Mark Toal to do anything with that 2.8 million he had squirreled away in his secret Swiss bank account. He was already in violation of the FBAR law for not disclosing his Swiss bank account. He had started to wonder how long he was going to be able to just leave it all sitting there before the G found out. More fundamentally, he wondered if he really would ever be able to use any of the money, in the United States, anyway.
He had recently started to contemplate if it might be possible to just leave the United States and go to Switzerland, cash out the bank account, and live somewhere overseas for the rest of his life in some little country close the equator that was friendly to American expats like him with a lot of disposable income and that did not have any extradition treaty with the United States. But even conducting this research made him extremely nervous. Could he even do it on the internet without the big G knowing what he was up to? A Google search with terms like “no extradition treaty with U.S.” might draw some attention.
He was on the verge of getting a little bit paranoid. But he was in too deep at this point to really do anything. His employers said he could terminate the arrangement at any time with no strings attached. Their willingness to honor this agreement was likely based on the fact that he’d never seen anybody face to face except the first two guys who had approached him at the inception. He doubted the names they gave him were their real ones, and he had never seen them again. And beyond that, all he could ever tell investigators was minimal; all he knew was he picked up the “loads” in various storage facilities scattered around the Keys, loaded it into his boat, transported it to the “drop site,” and returned back to the marina. He never saw who left it at the pick up site, and he never stayed around at the drop site to see who picked it up. He would’ve made a very poor witness.
But although he was getting ready to quit, he simply wasn’t ready to make some drastic new change that involved moving out of the country. Maybe the best thing to do was just do nothing. He had plenty of time and he was in no hurry. Maybe after two more drops he’d quit and let the three million dollars just sit there and draw interest. It would be a nice retirement sum one day, and he had a lot of time to figure out how he would be able to use it.
Tonight, the run was what he called a removal. The employer wanted the load moved from the United States out of the country, destination unknown to him, as usual. This involved him picking up the load at the storage facility, driving it to his boat, loading it, then sailing out to wherever the drop site was, which was typically some small, uninhabited island. Once there, he’d cut the engine and run right up to the beach — the Cobia was excellent in the shallows — run the bags off the front of the boat, put them where he was told to hide them, then push the boat back off the sand, turn on the engine, and quietly idle away into open water until he felt like he was in the clear. At some point later, someone else would show up to retrieve the load.
He preferred the removal missions to the other way around — when he did everything in reverse and had to bring the load into the country and deliver it to the storage facility — something he called a bring-in. Sure, it was a made up phrase, but he hated calling it anything else — introduction, importation, delivery, distribution — because those words were used to describe drug trafficking, and he was no drug trafficker. He kept telling himself that anyway. The bring-in missions were nerve racking, mostly because once he was on shore he had no way to dump the load if he got caught.
Toal’s drop site tonight was the island of Dismal Key, a place he had been to once before to make a pick up. It sat in the middle of the 10,000 island archipelago, and was as close as one could get to the perfect spot for such a transaction; even in broad daylight the place was humid and sweltering, and full of blue crabs, mosquitoes, and sand fleas that relentlessly snapped and bit at every square inch of exposed flesh. In fact, the entire area — sitting off the southeastern Florida coast — was home to much more dangerous species of animals; venomous snakes of various kinds, Burmese pythons, alligators, and even the American crocodile, could all be found in its waters and on its shifting conglomeration of sandy, low-slung islands. No human being in his or her right mind spent any amount of time there. Dismal Key itself belonged to the crabs and the mosquitoes, and they defended it with a vengeance.
For these runs, Toal used his swift and nimble Cobia 217, 21 footer. It was perfect for movement out on open water, slowed on a dime to navigate the intricate back channels of the 10,000 islands, could move quickly into very shallow water without getting hung up or grounding, and could outrun many other vessels in the area. It was easy to load and unload, wouldn’t appear on most radar systems due to its small size, and was absent any serial or other identification numbers and wouldn’t be traceable back to Toal anyway. There were literally thousands of them up and down the western, southern and eastern coastlines of Florida.
The other thing that made these runs pretty easy was the weight of the cash loads, which he could carry by himself. You could pack a vast amount of currency into a relatively small space, depending on the denomination used. Although Toal made it his policy to never count the money, lest he become tempted to do something very stupid, he did open every duffel bag at the storage facility to ensure that the load was indeed cash and not something else. It was always stacked and packed together tightly in shrink-wrapped plastic, thick enough to weather and water proof it if Toal had to dump it for some reason at a place other than the drop site.
All he knew from his quick inspection of the loads was that the denomination of the bills was always $100-dollars, bunches of Ben Franklins staring back at him from under the plastic packing. He had done a calculation one time — something he later wished he had never done — and based on his math, his typical load was usually somewhere between 3 and 5 million dollars, packed into two duffels weighing about fifty pounds apiece. Indeed, the most difficult part of every mission was just getting the duffel bags onto his boat without drawing suspicion. But you just never knew and you could never relax for one minute. The cops patrolled up and down the coast close in, and once out on the open water, the Coast Guard might have a boat or plane with night vision capability snooping around.
These unpleasant thoughts weighed on Toal as he slowly made his way into the approach to the target island at about 0230. The sky was black, without a glimmer of ambient light from the towns in the distance. The only real illumination he could see was the glow of the city lights from Marco Island off his port bow now at 11 o’clock.
Just as he started to execute the next turn into the labyrinth of the 10,000 islands on his circuitous route into Dismal Key, a piercing sound suddenly rang out that sent a shock wave through his body from head to toe and back again, like a jolt of electricity. It was the shrieking blare of siren, striking him from across the water like the tearing sound of horizontal bolt of lightning. And then the spotlights came on, pointed in his direction, searching for him.
A voice came over a loud speaker. “This is the United States Coast Guard! Stop your vessel! Now! I repeat! Stop your vessel now!”
For an instant he froze, in shock. And then instinct took over.
He jammed the throttle forward to the hilt and felt the the Cobia lurch up under him like a willing thoroughbred. He shot out of the open water and into the nearest channel he could find. From there, he would just sprint until he either lost them or had to take more drastic steps. There was no way they could chase him into that this primeval back country of mangrove roots, rivers, canals, streams, creeks, and little branches of each that twisted and turned in all directions. The water was too shallow for their vessel for them to follow.
He was now hellbent for Dismal Key. And if he couldn’t outrun them there, he figured he had a backup plan or two. He had two-dozen places he could drop the cargo; it was his own version of military “pre-registering” of targets. If he had to use one of them, he’d send his bosses the GPS coordinates so they could execute the pickup. But right now, he was on the clock and he had to put distance between them and him. They would no doubt scramble some more boats and aircraft. He had to deliver the goods and get the hell away, somehow.
The only certainty in his mind was they would not take him tonight. No way. One way or another, he would not allow that to happen.
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