One of the many pleasures of Randy Wayne White's series about Doc Ford is the interplay between the minds of Ford and his best friend, Tomlinson.
Ford, a marine biologist and freelance black ops specialist, is a scientist and rationalist. Tomlinson, a Zen Buddhist master and boat bum with undetermined sources of income and a past almost as enigmatic as Ford's, is a mystic whose interest in other realms is magnified by his adventurous drug use.
Both men would agree that their home base, Sanibel, and the southwest coast of Florida around it are haunted ground. Ford would say it's haunted by human history, and Tomlinson would opt for full-on moaning, floating, translucent ghosts — and try to strike up a conversation with them.
Those opposing points of view about the afterlife are put to the test in Mangrove Lightning, White's 24th novel in the Ford series. There's no question that one of the darker episodes of Florida history affects the events of the plot, but there may be even more ancient evils at play.
Ford is busy with a job in Nassau when Tomlinson calls him, an assignment involving a low-level criminal in a much larger enterprise: "Child pornography was a billion-dollar international industry. Nassau was the ancillary stronghold for a Russian network that branched into Haiti, Indonesia, and the Middle East, particularly Muslim regions where daughters were treated as chattel. Children provided a steady income to jihadists who enjoyed beheading infidels."
All in a day's work for Ford, but Tomlinson needs his help with a matter closer to home. (That theme of human trafficking, though, will recur.)
Tomlinson is concerned about a friend of both men, a legendary fishing guide named Tootsie Barlow, now retired to his family's homestead out amid the sawgrass and cypress domes near Immokalee. Several of Tootsie's family members have recently met their ends in bizarre accidents — lightning strike, RV fire — and now his teenaged niece, Gracie, is missing.
On the way to visit Tootsie while he waits for Ford to return from Nassau (where he's been waylaid, and I do mean waylaid, by a sexy British aristocrat with a spot of blackmail trouble), Tomlinson goes looking for a place called Chino Hole.
It's a deep sinkhole-formed lake many miles from the gulf. Yet, because Florida is basically a plate balanced on a lacy crust of fragile limestone, the sea finds its way there — and so do schools of rolling silver tarpon. The tarpon are far from the oddest thing Tomlinson encounters. Practicing walking meditation augmented by a little smoke, he's open to the whispers of beings that guide him to a cluster of abandoned boxcars where clearly people had once lived, not pleasantly. The beings whisper, "Run. ... he'll make you scream."
The boxcars sit on land owned by the Lambeth family, who have a feud with the Barlows going back to Prohibition days, when fishing guides often moonlighted in the moonshine industry. The Lambeths were known for a sugar-based brand of moonshine that gives the book its title.
Those old families were also involved in something called the Marco Island War. (In his author's note, White mentions that the book was in part inspired by articles from the St. Petersburg Times in the 1920s.)
As Tomlinson puts it, "A bunch of heavy hitters had their fingers in the regional pie — Al Capone, probably Joe Kennedy, too, but they weren't the worst. The elite rich were stealing homesteads, and smuggling in Chinese illegals to boot."
The Lambeth patriarch, Walter, had a hand in that smuggling and enslavement of human beings, a situation that provided dreadful stimulus for his sadistic tendencies.
Walter is long dead, but the land is still inhabited by his descendants, whose relationships to him and each other are murky. And there might be something else still living there, something that shouldn't be, something ancient that goes under guises human, avian and reptilian, none of them pleasant. One of its many names is Demon Crow.
Gracie and Tootsie might be in that thing's sights, and so might Ford and Tomlinson, and even Ford's ex-lover Hannah Smith, whose ancestor of the same name is part of this story's dark history.
Or is it all just a side effect of Tomlinson's ill-advised interest in flakka? He and Ford will face the challenge of sorting out the truth on the strange banks of Chino Hole.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.