Edge of Your Seat Novel.
Terrorism Strikes Again.
In Bradley L. Campbell’s The Death Blow to America, there is one question that runs razor-sharp through the novel: When the next terrorist attack reaches our shores, who will save our country?
Captain Jack has turned his marketing company over to his children and is ready to live the long-dreamed life of retirement. A great wife, loving family, good friends, and a new career as a charter boat operator running tours for dolphin watchers—what could go wrong? The answer is everything. A young friend dies under mysterious circumstances, accusations are made about smuggling from Cuba, and our once-complacent Jack finds himself tangled in chaos: murder, terrorism, threats to body and country. When his life is commandeered by Homeland Security, all bets are off for his safety and survival.
Traveling from Ft. Myers Beach to Cuba, to Brazil, from Jamaica to the Florida Everglades, always in a race against time and terrorists, Jack rediscovers his inner strength and, while unwittingly answering the call of his country, soon understands that its very existence rests on his shoulders.
A story of bravery and patriotism, The Death Blow to America is a chilling reminder that America is the prime target for terrorists both domestic and foreign.
The Death Blow To America
It was June which is the slow tourist season down in southwest Florida. This time of the year Captain Mike the Captain of Estero Hyatt Hotel’s big pontoon boat only had to take the boat from their dock to the Fish Tail Marina on Fort Myers Beach once a day to gas it up.
As the boat pulled into the channel and headed north the sun had just risen and a very slight fog was coming off the bay. The Captain had no passengers aboard but still was very cautious because at this time in the morning quite a few fishermen in their small flats boats were out and about.
Also, he wanted to be careful that he didn’t run into any floating debris that might be in the bay and not easily seen with the morning fog.
As the Captain made the turn west following the channel markers, Mound Key was to his starboard side.
Sure enough, several backwater fishermen were out casting their nets for bait. Today, for a change, he decided to take the back channel route to Fish Tail Marina where you could see none of the high-rise condos, only the red mangroves that were on either side of the narrow channel.
He heard a loud splash to his starboard and slowed down to see what caused it. As he had guessed there were two dolphins chasing fish as they circled around and around in the shallow water near the mangroves. But something else caught his eye. What the hell is that?
It only took the Coast Guard 15 minutes to arrive responding to the Captain’s frantic call for assistance.
The story began one evening when I drove my 22-ft. deck boat to “Skippers on the Water.” one of Kelly’s and my favorite spots on the Estero Bay. My wife Kelly and I moved down to Florida from New Jersey four years ago and we love to hang out at Skippers. The food and drinks are great. Skippers is really different, with its outdoor atmosphere overlooking the bay and a great group of young fun-loving people who work there. Skippers is attached to Estero Bay Resort, a condo hotel located south of Fort Myers Beach just over the Big Carlos Pass Bridge. Skippers’ customers are often treated to fantastic views of dolphin and manatee playing in the bay right next to the restaurant.
That evening, as I anchored my boat on the beach in front of Skippers, I could hear “Margaritaville” being sung by Skippers’ one’ man band-Bill. Bill was great. He nailed Jimmy Buffet’s sound and knew how to get the crowd going. It was a Thursday in late June, the season was long over, but you’d never know it at Skippers; the locals love this place.
As I bellied up to the bar, I asked Jimmy the bartender, “Hey Jimmy, where is Charlie?” Before I asked the question, I knew something was wrong. The look in Jimmy’s eyes was one I’d never seen before his eyes were always smiling ... not tonight. Before Jimmy could say anything, Tammy, one of my favorite servers at Skippers, gently grabbed my arm and looked intently into my eyes. “Charlie’s gone, Jack.” The words did not register in my mind. “Oh no. He quit?” I said. Tammy squeezed my arm tighter and said, “No Jack, Charlie’s gone. There was some kind of explosion on his boat three days ago.”
As Tammy and I embraced, I felt the tears streaming down my face. Not Charlie for God’s sake.
Why Charlie? He had just turned 32 last month. If I knew anyone who loved life and lived it to its fullest, it was Charlie.
One by one other Skippers’ employees-Tara, Nick, Fred, Joan-came over as we all shared our grief and disbelief that Charlie was gone.
As I sat slumped at the bar, without me asking, Jimmy made me my favorite drink, a Rum Runner with a 151 floater. It was stronger than usual.
Charlie and Jimmy … Mutt and Jeff … Jimmy was a good-looking, tall and slender guy in his mid-twenties. Charlie was good - looking, stocky and much shorter than Jimmy. I called them the dynamic duo. They made the best fresh tropical drinks on the island, and even better than their drinks, was how they goofed on customers-especially new ones who didn’t know their act. The last time I was here sitting at the bar it was busy as hell and a new customer asked Charlie, “Can I have a Bud when you get time?” Charlie smiled at him and said, “Do you really want to wait till I have the time or would you like one now?” The guy got a pissed off look on his face. Jimmy was cracking up and he told the customer; “Hey Man don’t get mad. He’s only serious.”
My thoughts came back to reality as I looked at Jimmy and felt really bad for him. Charlie and Jimmy were very close. He looked lost behind the bar without Charlie. As I sat there, I was expecting to see Charlie come around the corner any minute with his big smile. I could just picture him and hear him say, “Hey Captain Jack where’s Kelly tonight?” I dreaded calling Kelly, but decided I should call her so she wouldn’t hear about Charlie on the news.
“Kelly, I’m over at Skippers and I’ve got some really bad news. “Capt. Charlie” …. I choked and tried my best to speak clearly but couldn’t. “Charlie is gone.” On the other end I could hear Kelly gasping in disbelief.
As I navigated my boat back from Skippers to its boat slip at Weeks’ Fish Camp in Estero next to the Hyatt, I was remembering that Charlie had told me how he wanted to get his captain’s license and start a little fishing guide/tour business. He joked about us being in competition with each other, and I reminded him I didn’t do fishing tours. So we agreed to throw each other business. And we did. Charlie turned out to be a great captain, not only because of his years of experience boating and fishing in the Gulf and Flats on Estero Bay, but because of his fun-loving and terrific personality. He was the rare kind of person who made you feel good every time you saw him.
Earlier the same day, Kelly and I had flown back from Jersey where we attended our niece Susie’s wedding and had not heard about the boat explosion. We later learned they closed Skippers down for two days. Everyone was too upset and could not work because of Charlie.
Kelly has to be the best wife and friend any guy could have. She has the greatest smile and personality. People always tell her she looks like Sally Fields. Kelly doesn’t always agree with me, but she always supports what I do, stands behind me and helps me make it happen. She’s my partner. I’ll give an example of what I mean. Back in October 2000, when I first came down to the Fort Myers Beach area from New Jersey on a business trip, I had just taken our boat out of the water and put in dry storage. That was a tough thing to do because Kelly and I love boating and we were literally on the water everyday the weather permitted between May and September.
My business trip had me flying into Orlando to meet clients, take some photos, rent a car and then drive to St. Petersburg where I met another client and took more photos.
I was driving on I75 south from St. Pete’s to Miami for my next shoot. I was going over the I 75 bridge coming through the Fort Myers area … I looked down from the high bridge and gasped at what I saw - the beautiful green water, the palm trees and all those boaters enjoying a wonderful day. I thought, wow, look at this and it’s almost November. I called Kelly from the car and asked her, “Hey Kelly, tell me again, I forget, why do we live in New Jersey?” I described the scene to her.
After I finished my business in Miami I drove back to Fort Myers Beach. Kelly flew in to see the paradise I ad described for herself. She liked it– a lot! The first thing we did was find a dock on Bonita Beach for our boat, then we found a condo to lease close by.
Moving down from Jersey was no easy task. We had a marketing business to run and four teenagers living at home with us. I always like to tell people “Kelly and I had four kids in five years”… I wait for their ‘Oh wow’ reaction, then I would add …”but then we got cable TV and we haven’t had any since.” I like to make people laugh.
At first I started flying down one week a month. Kelly couldn’t come with me because our daughter Christine was pregnant with my youngest granddaughter, Martha, and Kelly wanted to be with her.
I’m not a bad salesman and with a little luck I was able to quickly open a couple accounts in Southwest Florida and also on the East Coast in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Soon I was flying down two weeks a month.
Once my granddaughter Martha was born and a couple months old Kelly would come down with me. We were in heaven on the boat just about everyday. They say in this area there are 300 days a year that the weather is ideal for boating. Believe it.
I remember one great day on the water in particular. We had spent a fantastic day, fishing and boating, listening to Jimmy Buffet CDs. At day’s end, we pulled up on shore at one of our favorite isolated islands. It was a magical day, the sun was starting to set, it was just the two of us, we were sipping wine and pelicans were skimming across the water. Man, it doesn’t get any better than that. I looked over at Kelly and saw tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong Kelly?” I asked. “I don’t want to go back to Jersey tomorrow.” She sighed and hugged me as we left the island and headed back in.
It took about three years to transition most of our business down to Florida. That was great but the best part was when my son Johnny, then my daughter Christine and granddaughter Martha, then my son Scott and his girlfriend Becky all eventually moved down too. My daughter Stephanie is still in college at Rutgers and is engaged. We’re hoping she and her fiancé George will move down eventually. My oldest daughter Vicky, from my first marriage and her husband Daniel and my grandkids Alexandra and Robert live in Chicago … it’s our fantasy that some day they will come and join us down here in paradise.
Paradise-that brings me back to the point of how Kelly goes along with my crazy ideas. I decided to start a small cruise business called Paradise Dolphin Watch Charters. At the time I had just turned 60. My idea was to build a little retirement business for me doing something I love to do. The marketing business would be turned over to and run by my kids, since they helped us build it and knew it well.
When I ran the idea by Kelly she immediately loved it ... “That sounds like you Jack. Hey, you’re going to have to get a Coast Guard captain’s license; I hear it’s not an easy test … but I know you can do it.”
She was right. It wasn’t easy for me. My captain’s class had 10 guys in it. Most of them were in their thirties, a couple in their forties. I asked the instructor how old the oldest person was to come through the school. He said one guy was 82, but he died halfway through the program. Everyone in the class laughed except me.
But I did it. My six–year-old granddaughter, Martha, would help me study by holding up flash cards with the different flags and symbols I was required to know and she would encourage me with a big smile when I named which symbol was the correct one.
The toughest part of the course for me was the plotting segment of the program. I got lucky, because one of my classmates, Bob, was a former commercial fisherman. Bob took the time to help me understand how to read and plot the charts. After I passed the basic captain’s test I decided to go forward and take the Merchant Marine Masters Test. Again Martha helped me study. I passed that also.
Kelly was so proud of me it was kind of embarrassing. For weeks she would tell everyone she met: “Did you know Jack’s a captain now?”
By the time I docked my boat at Weeks Fish Camp it was dark, but not as dark as I felt about Charlie. The drive from Weeks Fish Camp to our condo in Estero is only five minutes.
When Kelly greeted me at the door we embraced and cried together. Although we really only knew Charlie from Skippers and by seeing him on the water now and then, losing him felt like losing a very close friend.
The next morning when I awoke I couldn’t shake that heavy feeling and decided to take my boat for a ride to the Fort Myers Beach Coast Guard station where they had towed Charlie’s boat. It was a beautiful morning in Paradise, as I cruised along in the manatee idle-only zones; I took in the amazing views, pelicans, dolphins and I even spotted a manatee’s coconut-like nose sticking out of the water. Suddenly I swore I saw Charlie fishing on his boat. I excitedly approached the boat and saw it was obviously not Charlie, my heart sank! The guy fishing got a little pissed because when I approached his boat, it spooked the redfish he’d been going for. I told him I was sorry and that I thought he was a friend of mine who had the same kind of boat.
Charlie had worked at just about every fine club on the island. He was an accomplished bartender who loved to interact with people so bartending was a natural occupation for him, but his real love was being on the water and fishing. I would often see him, his brother and his niece and nephew fishing. He’d always give me that big Charlie smile and “Hey Capt. Jack, what’s up?”
When I pulled up to the Coast Guard dock I saw Charlie’s charred boat hoisted up on a barge … the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I got a sick feeling in my stomach, almost losing my breakfast. Oh, my God, how could that have happened? The newspapers said Charlie’s boat did not hit anything … they said the accident was still under investigation. Now that I saw the boat I could understand why they didn’t find Charlie’s body. But what in the world could do that kind of damage and why didn’t anyone see or hear the explosion?
It was early the morning of the explosion, about 7:30 a.m., when one of those big pontoon tour boats was heading from the Hyatt Hotel in Estero to the Fish Tail Marine on Fort Myers Beach to fuel up for the day. The captain spotted Charlie’s boat out of the channel and back among the mangroves. The boat was so badly charred that the Coast Guard couldn’t read the numbers to identify the boat. It wasn’t until they got the boat to the station that they discovered Charlie’s wallet in with his mangled and scorched fishing tackle box.
I had met the Commander of the Coast Guard station, Warrant Officer Hillaroy. When I applied for my captain’s licenses he signed my application, not that he would remember me, but it helped me get into the meeting because I knew his name. To my surprise, he did remember me, and laughingly commented. “Not too many guys in their sixties apply for captain’s licenses.”
Of course he knew Charlie too, almost everybody on Fort Myers Beach knew Charlie.
In Hillaroy’s office we were reminiscing about Charlie; everybody who knew him had at least one Charlie story to tell. Hillaroy told me about the time last summer when Charlie had found an injured manatee and helped save it by jumping in the water. He and couple of fishing buddies held the massive mammal upright so it could breathe until the Fish and Game Department folks arrived. The phone rang and Hillaroy took the call, “Yes sir, I did. Oh okay. Yes sir, I will.” I noticed a change in Hillaroy’s demeanor as he hung up the phone.
“Capt. Jack, I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to take you to see the boat.” “Okay”, I said, “can I stop by later? Will you have time? I want to take a closer look at it.” “I’m afraid not, I’m not authorized to show anyone the boat while the accident investigation is underway.” “But I thought you said you would.” “I’m sorry my orders have changed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some other visitors I must attend to.”
I was boarding my boat to leave the Coast Guard station when I noticed several Lee County Sheriff vehicles driving into the station; the one that got my attention had a “Crime Scene” emblem on it. I thought, hmmm ... that makes sense; it was hard to imagine how a small boat could be so totally destroyed in an accident in which it didn’t hit something or involve another vessel.
But why would anyone want to hurt Charlie; I couldn’t imagine he had anyone who even disliked him let alone who would want to harm him. I wasn’t prepared for the headlines in the next morning’s Fort Myers News-Press.