Where Is Joe Merchant?: A Novel Tale

Paperback | September 15, 2003

byJimmy Buffett

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Where is Joe Merchant? That's what his sister, Trevor Kane, the hemorrhoid-ointment heiress, wants to know. For Desdemona, Merchant is the missing link in her ongoing communications with space aliens. Tabloid journalist Rudy Breno only cares that Merchant gets bigger headlines than Elvis. And for renegade seaplane pilot Frank Bama, the mystery of the presumed-dead-but-often-sighted rock star is turning his life upside down. In his debut novel, Jimmy Buffett cooks up an irresistible gumbo of dreamers, wackos, pirates, and sharks, as he leads Trevor and Frank on a wild chase through the Caribbean Islands to a place where anything can happen . . . and everything does.

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Where is Joe Merchant? That's what his sister, Trevor Kane, the hemorrhoid-ointment heiress, wants to know. For Desdemona, Merchant is the missing link in her ongoing communications with space aliens. Tabloid journalist Rudy Breno only cares that Merchant gets bigger headlines than Elvis. And for renegade seaplane pilot Frank Bama, the...

Singer/songwriter/author Jimmy Buffett has become a legend of popular culture as the composer of such classic songs as Margaritaville" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise." He has recorded more than thirty albums, most of which have gone gold, platinum, or multiplatinum, and his sold-out concert tours are an annual rite of summer for his fan...

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Format:PaperbackPublished:September 15, 2003Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0156026996

ISBN - 13:9780156026994

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1 ~ When My Ship Comes In,I'll Be at the AirportI was watching the Cubs game and eating a fried shrimp platter at Bobalou's when Rudy Breno burst through the door like Geraldo Rivera on a drug raid. I had met Rudy at the Chart Room Bar in Key West, and I wasn't a fan. I had no fondness for him or the accusing, fabricated stories he published in his father's paper, a yellow-journalism rag called the National Lighthouse. Rudy Breno was one of those middle-aged men who looked into the mirror and refused to buy the hard truth of the aging process. His squatty frame carried about forty extra pounds above his "fighting weight" in the form of love handles and a pot belly that spilled over the waist of his Sansabelt slacks. He insisted his pants still fit perfectly although the fly would never zip up all the way. Rudy had no ass at all, and from the side it looked as if somebody had flattened his butt with a two by four. Yet when Rudy looked at his physique in the morning, he saw himself as a Tom Selleck look-alike. He strutted up to me as if he were Marshal Dillon. "Frank Bama, I need to talk to you in the bathroom, now." In the fabulous Florida Keys, words like that either announce your sexual preference or your line of work. I waited until Harry Carey finished his unrivaled rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" before my curiosity got the best of me, and I followed Rudy into the bathroom. "I need to charter your plane. I've got to get to Havana. Do you know how to get to Cuba?" "Yeah, take a left at the southernmost point of Florida and keep going till you run into something. That'll be Cuba." "This is serious business, Bama. I've gotten permission from the Cuban government to make this trip, but I have to let them know the name of the pilot and the serial number of the plane." He leaned over to me and whispered, "Captain Bama, Joe Merchant was spotted yesterday at a baseball game in Havana. There's a man who has pictures. This is the story of the century." "Right up there with landing on the moon, I'd say." Rudy wasn't listening. "Joe Merchant not dead at all but alive and well, an expatriate rock star living in a communist country-wow. Well, I need to know-can you take me?" "Why did we have to come into the bathroom to have this conversation?" I asked. "It's part of the story. I like the intrigue of taking a seaplane to Cuba and meeting the blond, handsome, maverick pilot-that's you-in a place like this." "My shrimp's getting cold, Rudy." "Well, Bama? Are you in?" "It's two hundred dollars an hour flight time, and forty dollars an hour on the ground." Rudy nodded his approval. I took a pen out of my pocket and wrote down my phone number at the hangar. "The serial number is N40SB. I'll call flight service and file a flight plan to Havana. You call me at that number by five and let me know that we do, in fact, have clearance to enter Cuban airspace." "Right-o, Captain." Rudy dropped two quarters in the rubber machine and slipped the aluminum-foil packets into his pocket. "Can't be too careful these days, you know. Say, you went out with Joe Merchant's sister for a while when she lived down here, didn't you?" The words oozed out of Rudy's fat mouth like sludge, and all of a sudden I felt dirty and began to wash my hands. I yanked on the towel machine. "That's old business, and none of yours. There's weather moving in tomorrow, so I want to leave early and be back as soon as we can. Understood?" "Aye, aye, Captain." "And bring cash. Five-hundred-dollar deposit, and I'll expect the rest when we get home."Rudy Breno rushed out of the restaurant, leaving a trail of bad will behind him. I finished my shrimp and thought about what had just happened. Rudy was about as pleasant as a root canal, but the job couldn't have come at a better time. I'd been wanting to hightail it out of Key West and escape to a new, debt-free life in the Alaskan wilderness, but I'd been too broke to do it. I figured the trip to Cuba would bring me at least a thousand bucks, and I knew Rudy was good for the money. His old man was loaded and ran the paper as a hobby. His real source of income was hazardous-waste disposal. I was smiling when I left Bobalou's, and I checked the sky as I headed for my Jeep. A low-pressure trough was moving into the area, and the air was getting thicker as the moisture built up. Squalls out on the Gulf Stream lit the distant horizon, and there wasn't a breath of air stirring. "We have work!" I shouted to Hoagy, my golden retriever, who sat in the front seat. He sniffed the air and eyed the small brown bag in my hand. "Oh, it's the noble dog look. What a champion," I said. I opened the bag and tossed a hushpuppy into the air. Hoagy caught it, chewed it once, licked his mouth with his long pink tongue, and waited for the second launch. "It's a high pop-up," I yelled and tossed the second hushpuppy high into the sky. Hoagy bolted from the seat into the parking lot and ran under the hushpuppy, positioning himself for the catch like a confident outfielder. He opened his mouth a split second before the ball of fried cornmeal fell directly down his throat. "Load up," I called, and Hoagy sprang across the driver's seat to the passenger's side. I tossed him the last hushpuppy and patted his head, and Hoagy barked and gave me a big lick. I pulled out onto U.S. 1 and drove north, listening to "Time Loves a Hero" by Little Feat. The air was filled with bugs of every description, and they were cannon fodder for the passing cars. I hummed along with Lowell George but made up my own lyrics. "When my ship comes in," I sang, "I'll be at the airport."The next morning, Rudy Breno paraded into the Lone Palm Airport dressed in camouflage fatigues, a green beret, and a bandolier stuffed alternately with Slim Jims and Bic pens. On his wrist he sported a diving watch that looked as if it could tell time in every world time zone, do his banking, and split the atom. A Polaroid camera hung around his stumpy neck, and a wad of Florida lottery tickets protruded from the pocket of his flak jacket. "What the hell are the lottery tickets for?" I asked. "Bait," he said proudly. "Bait?" "These people have been living in the Stone Age. A little capitalism will go a long way to get the information I need." Hoagy bounded up the runway with a Frisbee dangling from the side of his mouth, and when he saw Rudy, he dropped it and started barking furiously. I called him to my side and bent down to calm him. That's when I saw the .25-caliber Beretta pistol stuck in Rudy's pants. "Let's go, Captain. We're hounds on the scent. Joe Merchant is alive and breathing somewhere over there." He pointed at the horizon. "That's north. Cuba is over there," I said, pointing the opposite direction. "You're the pilot." Rudy squinted down at his watch and pressed several buttons. "It's exactly 11:30 Zulu. What's our proposed time off and time en route, Captain?" "I'm not goin' anywhere with you, Clambo. First the gun, and then the money." "Shit," Rudy muttered as he handed over the gun. I pulled out the clip and checked the chamber. I felt like Sheriff Andy Taylor taking away Barney Fife's one bullet.2 ~ See You In C-U-B-AI'd been to Cuba a number of times with Billy Cruiser during the Mariel boat lift, and just last year I'd flown there and brought Darryl Lemma back to Key West. Darryl was a sleazy charter-boat captain who had been hijacked to Havana, and Rudy Breno had thrown in the Devil's Triangle and made headlines out of it. Flying into Cuba is always a mystery. Sometimes it's easy, and other times it's a nightmare of paperwork and bullshit. This time we took off into a hefty breeze and bounced along in a steady, moderate chop. I'd expected to spend the trip fighting an onslaught of irritating questions about Joe Merchant and Trevor, but the weather solved that problem. Rudy sat in the copilot's seat as stiff as a mannequin, staring straight ahead and getting paler with each jolt. I hadn't seen Trevor in five years, so I couldn't have told him much anyway, but I still didn't like to talk about her. Miami Center handed us off to Havana, and all seemed to be going well. If they hadn't been expecting us, they would have let us know right away. The controller cleared me to land at José Marti Airport, and I studied my approach plate since the weather had us landing IFR. We were in the pattern, descending to landing altitude, but when I went to crank down the handle for the landing gear, it came off in my hand. "Shit," I said, and tossed the gear handle into the bow compartment. "Do we have parachutes?" Rudy asked in a high-pitched voice. I was enjoying this. "Don't need 'em. At worst, we might have to get the hell out of Cuban waters. If we run out of fuel, we'll put her down in the Gulf Stream and wait for the Coast Guard." I reported my problem to Havana control, and they directed me out over the shoreline and told me to hold there. Rudy got busy reciting every childhood prayer he could think of, but I ignored him and reluctantly plotted a course back to Lone Palm. The trip was a bust. Not only would I not get paid, but I would also have to eat the fuel expense. And I did not look forward to explaining the situation to Rudy. To my astonishment, a controller told me I had been given permission for a water landing in Havana Harbor if I chose to do it, and I was told to continue holding until my escort arrived. I was just below the cloud deck, flying around in circles at about three thousand feet, and I wondered why they were being so cooperative. There probably hadn't been a seaplane landing in Havana Harbor since around the time of the revolution, and it was like trying to figure out if the Big Bad Wolf was honestly being nice or if he really wanted to eat your lunch. Billy had taught me to be a gas hog when flying over water in the Caribbean. Thunderstorms could materialize out of nowhere, forcing you to fly far off your intended course, but these days I had a cashflow problem and only had enough fuel for the round-trip and a legal reserve. Any long delays over Havana would be a major problem. I did not share this tidbit with my passenger, who was now vomiting into an Orville Redenbacher popcorn bag. "We're going in the water," I announced. Rudy stopped heaving and stared wide-eyed at me. The color of his face matched the milky whites of his eyes, and he screamed, "Holy Mother of God!" I looked up at the St. Christopher medal and rubbed it for luck. "Rudy, we're not going to crash. We're going to land in the water. The gear won't work, but I can fix it when we get down." "How can we land in the water?" "Because this is a seaplane, Rudy."I could feel the two MiGs before I saw them. They crept up on each side of the Hemisphere Dancer like motorcycle cops, and then Havana Center gave me a heading. We all turned together toward the harbor, which was barely visible in the distance. I don't know what got into me, but I decided to fuck with them a little and slowed down to about seventy knots, knowing they would have a hard time staying in the sky at that speed. I guess it was just my way of letting them know I wasn't some yo-yo on a joyride, and I hoped they'd see the humor in it. But humor seemed to be in short supply in Castro's Cuba; Havana Center ordered me to speed up. These guys were armed to the teeth-a 23-mm cannon and a couple of ATOLLs hung under each wing. I shoved the throttles forward. The MiGs stayed with us not more than twenty feet on each side of the floats. I looked over at one of the pilots just as he snapped a picture of us with his camera. I'm sure he'd never seen a Goose this close before, and I had never been this close to a MiG that wasn't shooting at me. A little color returned to Rudy's face, and he fumbled with a film cartridge, trying to put it into his camera. He loaded the Polaroid Spectra and fired it as fast as he could. It spit out film like a broken parking-ticket machine. The MiGs escorted us to the harbor entrance and then hit the afterburners and raced ahead, disappearing into the clouds. I lined up with Morro Castle on the point, and I was told by Havana Center not to fly over the old fort. They directed me to the west side of the harbor, where a patrol boat was waiting for us to land and would direct us to customs. Those little Cuban patrol boats I had seen during the boat lift always made me nervous. They were all manned by teenagers with big automatic weapons, and the teenagers didn't smile. The entrance to the ancient port opened into a sheltered bay, and the city sprawled out toward the foothills to the southwest. "Looks like the whole place could use a couple of coats of white paint," Rudy said. I spotted the ship channel and set up my approach between the starboard channel markers and the waterfront. I dropped down until we were barely ten feet above the water and reduced power. The water looked clear of debris, and I kept the patrol boat in sight. I recited my checklist aloud as I always did. It was a good way of not being too casual. "Fuel tanks to both. Mixtures rich. Horn switch on for water landing. Gear up." Before the handle had broken off, the gear lever had barely let the tail wheel down. Landing wouldn't be a problem. I scanned the visual inspection ports behind my seat to reconfirm that the gear was up. "Boost pumps on. Bilge pump on auto. Flaps thirty degrees. Props full." I dropped below Morro Castle, with its aged towers, modern signal staffs, and black cannons guarding the harbor entrance like a row of teeth. I felt as if I were flying into a time warp. Giant container vessels were lined up at the piers, and tiny wooden fishing boats with patched sails tacked back and forth against the tide and wind. I could see people on the road stopping their cars and running to the rock wall as they waved and pointed in my direction. I ran the final landing check and told Rudy to fasten his seat belt, then eased the Hemisphere Dancer over to the touchdown spot I had picked out. I brought in a little power until I heard the whsshhhh sound of the water under the hull and felt her settle on the step. I taxied on the water until we were within a hundred yards of the patrol boat, and then I cut the power and pulled the steering yoke into my lap. Now we were a boat. I took off my headset, rubbed my numb ears, and opened the window to let the sea breeze fill the cockpit. It brought in the scent of the sea; the fragrance of the shore; the smell of engine oil; and the universal bouquet of garlic, beans, and rice that surely came from a pot simmering somewhere within the confines of old Havana. The breeze felt wonderful, and I inhaled heavily. Rudy was busy taking pictures of the teenagers on the gunboat with AK-47s draped across their chests. "You should have let me keep my gun, Frank," he said bravely. "We might need it." He was panting so hard he was almost hyperventilating. "I'll tell you one goddamn thing. I saw Salvador three times, Die Hard four times, and Rambo ten times, but this is tits above any movie. I think I have a hard-on," he moaned. "I know when I have a hard-on," I said. "No, this is the real thing," Rudy said. "You sound like a fucking Coke commercial." A huge crowd had gathered beyond the fence that surrounded the customs dock, and the dock itself was filled with official-looking Communists. He lowered his voice. "Hey Frank, don't forget to keep the Joe Merchant thing a secret," he said and winked. "A secret? What the hell do you mean by that?" "I told them I was doing a documentary on Hemingway. Didn't I tell you?" "This is one fuck of a time to be announcing that you're on a secret mission," I hissed. I wanted to throttle him, but this was hardly the time and place. "Stay here until I tell you it's okay to move." I angrily dropped through the companionway down to the anchor locker, opened the bow hatch, and tossed the dock line to a young soldier who caught it and held it tight. Putting a measured strain on my end, I eased the nose of the plane within inches of the dock. "Buenos dios, mis amigos Cubano!" I looked behind me, and Rudy was standing in the hatch opening. He looked like a jack-in-the-box. A cigar was lodged in the corner of his mouth, and he waved the lottery tickets with both hands. I was still pissed off, but when I took the time to look around I had to smile. If it hadn't been for Rudy Breno and his half-baked idea to come looking for Joe Merchant, I wouldn't have been able to splash down in Havana Harbor-and make the landing of a lifetime.Copyright © 1992 by Jimmy BuffettAll rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproducedor transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the workshould be mailed to: Permissions Department, Harcourt Inc.,6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Table of Contents

Introduction xxi

Fly Boats

Squalls Out on the Gulf Stream
1 When My Ship Comes In, I'll Be at the Airport
2 See You in C-U-B-A
3 The Blind Leading the Blind
4 Under the Lone Palm
5 Let's Blame It All on the Weather

Doin' the Hemisphere Dance
6 That's My Story, and I'm Stickin' to It
7 Fins to the Left, Fins to the Right
8 The Lady I Can't Explain
9 Want What You Have

You Can't Hide Your Mayan Eyes
10 Desdemona's Building a Rocket Ship
11 Fruitcakes in the Galley, Fruitcakes on the Street
12 Where Has All the Time Gone?

Anchovies and Antonyms
13 I'll Be Your Pizza Tonight
14 You've Got the Wrong Man
15 Shelter in the Storm

The Wind Is in from Africa
16 Beyond the Low-Water Mark
17 Housekeeping
18 I'm Clean
19 Colonel Cairo
20 Who's Eating Who?
21 Skating with the Devil
22 It's Better in the Bahamas
23 The Day Cain Slew Abel
24 Suntans and Percodans

Tickets to Ride
25 Stand by Your Passenger
26 What Has Four Eyes and Two Barrels?
27 The Ferry of the Dead

Livin' on Island Time
28 Friday Was the Coolest
29 No Plane on Sunday
30 Paradise Lost
31 Tell It Like It Is
32 I'm a Mayan
33 Raw, Naked Fear
34 Bless Me, Father

Where's the Party?
35 It's Time
36 We Do Have a History
37 I Must Confess, I Could Use Some Rest
38 Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect Two Hundred Dollars
39 I'd Rather Watch Paint Dry
40 No Bird Flies by My Window

Rolling with the Punches
41 Somebody Else's Troubles
42 Where Is Joe Merchant?
43 The Price of Tea in China
44 Old Habits Die Hard
45 The Things We Do for Love

Beach Music, Beach Music, Beach Music Just Plays On
46 The Skeleton in the Closet
47 Time to Come Home, Cowboy
48 Revenge Is a Volatile Fuel

Quietly Making Noise
49 That Time-Bomb Look
50 No Ticky, No Laundry, No Mechanics
51 Changing Channels
52 Blame It on the Stones
53 You're a Mayan
54 Fly-Boy in the Ointment

Cabbages and Kings
55 Mambo on the Wind
56 At Arm's Length
57 Jalapeno Hollywood
58 Is There Anybody out There?
59 Matador in the Broken Mirror
60 Feeding Frenzy
61 Save the Last Dance for Me

Commander's Moon
62 Que Pasa?
63 Propeller Talk
64 Quail Talk
65 An Appointment with the Moon
66 Who Are You?
67 Out of the Picture
68 Mermaids in the Night
69 Bones on the Beach

Don't Touch That Dial
70 The Snakes Are Talking
71 Back to the Drawing Board
72 So You Want to Play Pirate?
Waiting for the Sails to Fill
73 Happily Ever After, Now and Then
74 The World Is My Oyster
75 Changes in Latitudes
76 Store in a Cool, Safe Place

Further Adventures in Restless Behavior

Editorial Reviews

PRAISE FOR WHERE IS JOE MERCHANT?A roisterous romp, a novel Elmore Leonard might have written if he made Key West and the Caribbean his home . . . Part soap opera, part Saturday morning cliffhanger and all fun."-The Philadelphia Inquirer"A high-jinks lark and a breezy read . . . An oddball combination of a wild adventure story and a wacky whodunit."-The Boston Globe "