Many years ago and far, far away, (southwest Florida in 1982, to be exact), I was living and working in a marina fifteen miles up the Caloosahatchee River. It was a bareboat charter business I half-owned and managed, the kind where boat owners could make some money by renting out their boats to vacationers who were skilled enough to not need a paid captain. Sounds easy, but the person in the middle (me) ends up fixing a lot of broken stuff and unclogging boat toilets at inconvenient hours.
A man called wanting to charter the best boat in the fleet, a gorgeous Cabo Rico 38, for a whole month. I’ll just call him Bugsy. He wanted to take the boat to the Florida Keys 125 miles away, so I told him he’d need to prove his qualifications for offshore sailing. The next day a flashy Cadillac Eldorado pulled up and a flashy-looking man got out of it and came into the office flashing his cash. Bugsy gave me the instant creeps. “How much do you need?” he said, and I told him a $200 deposit would hold the boat. He peeled off ten $100 bills and tossed them on my desk. “I know how to sail,” he said, “Don’t worry about it,” and turned and left.
Oh my. The biggest thing that had happened to me before this was being accepted for membership in the Caloosahatchee Marching and Chowder Society. Besides being creepy, there was something about the man that triggered my sleuthy genes, so I made a few calls and found out that, one, he was a known drug dealer/smuggler with a long prison record, and two, I was now scared to rent to him but had $1,000 of his money.
I called the local police, who put me in touch with the Drug Enforcement Agency, a branch of the Treasury Department. An agent named John Something (I forget his last name) asked, “How can I help you?” He then said, “Yes, we know about Bugsy the Shut-Up-and-Shovelhead, he’s a bad actor. Are you going to let him use the boat?”
Now it wasn’t just my sleuthy genes twitching, it was hippopotamus-sized goosebumps. “Um, can we talk in a place where I might not be overheard?”
“How about out on the river?”
We met in the middle of the widest part of the Caloosahatchee and held onto the gunnels of our Boston whalers as we talked. “This guy is a medium-sized fish in a big pond,” he said, “and we’d like for you to let him use the boat. We think it could lead to a much bigger capture.”
“I need to get the owner’s permission first,” I said. “If this boat is used for smuggling drugs, they’ll probably tear the interior apart. Would the owner be reimbursed for damages?”
“I’m afraid we can’t offer that,” he said.
Yikes. “It’s an expensive boat, and I know the owner loves it,” I said, “so let me talk with him before I let you know.”
“Here’s my card. Just give me a call. We’d sure like to catch not only this guy, but also the guy above him.”
Wow, I thought, here I am in a clandestine meeting in the middle of a river with an agent who’s asking for a lot.
“One more thing,” he said, “Why don’t we use a pseudonym for you–a code name. What do you want it to be?”
HOLY CANNOLI, A SECRET CODE NAME! I thought, THIS IS NUTS BUT ALSO WEIRDLY FUN. “How about Maguinness?” I said. This was the nickname I’d given to a thick brown horse I rode for miles outside Dingle, Ireland after having a beer in a pub–a Guinness, of course.
“How do you spell that?” he said.
I went home thinking wow, wow, wow, I’m like, a secret agent now! Maybe I can help be their eyes and ears on all sorts of crime! Not everyone has a secret code name registered with the DEA!
Back at the office, I called the owner, who lived in Michigan. He was a super nice person, and I told him the whole story. We talked for a long time, weighing the pros and cons. He appreciated the chance to help get a couple of dangerous criminals off the streets, but when I asked him if his insurance would cover damages or even a complete loss after knowingly renting his boat to a smuggling/sting operation, he didn’t know. It turned out they wouldn’t, and on a subsequent call he said, “I can’t afford to lose my boat.” I told him I understood.
I called Agent Something’s office and left a message from Maguinness. “Who?” said an assistant.
“Maguinness. It’s my code name,” I said.
“I don’t know any code names,” he said. “What’s your real name?” I gave it to him.
An hour later, the phone, it was Agent Something. “Hi Karen!” he said.
“You’re supposed to use my code name,” I whined.
“Oh, that. Well, what’s up? Are you going to let them use the boat?”
I told him no, but he didn’t sound too surprised. Then I called Bugsy and made up a story about the owner needing to use it during that time. I asked for his address so I could return the thousand-dollar deposit. “Keep it,” he said.
“I’d really rather not,” I said.
“Keep it.” This was an order. Yikes again! That evening a small helicopter flew over the marina and hovered above the boat. Were they casing the joint to steal it, or were they just going to hoover the boat right up? Was the thousand dollars a down payment on some future cooperation? Should I go into the Witness Protection Program? I called Agent Something.
“Well, if they steal it,” he said, “let us know.”
“If they steal it they won’t get far, because they’ll probably run aground in the channel just outside the marina,” I said. And that was that. The drug smugglers didn’t steal it, probably because they knew the channel was too twisty. Happily, I never heard from Bugsy again. I kept the thousand dollars in a separate account until a couple years later when I sold my half of the business, at which point I gave it to the new owner as his problem.
About a week after the helicopter incident, a huge black cigarette-style boat docked next to my boat, and the two guys aboard started pulling everything off it, even the running lights. They were friendly and loud. “That’s quite a fast-looking boat,” I said, and one of them answered, “Yeah, she does sixty knots and can carry a big load.” Wink, wink. Seeing me glance at the holes where the running lights had been, he added, “We don’t need running lights where we’re going!” I couldn’t believe a smuggler would be dumb enough to, one, remove the running lights, and two, admit to a stranger what they were up to. They left just as darkness was falling.
I called Agent Something. “It’s Maguinness.”
“Karen,” I said. “It’s Karen. There’s a suspicious looking fast boat that just left the marina without running lights, and…”
“We know. Our guys are stationed up and down the river waiting for them,” he said. “Thanks for being our eyes and ears.”