One by one, about a hundred gulls appeared in the sky from the east, circling the paint-chipped dinghy that bobbed like a homemade fishing lure about 100 yards off the Clearwater Beach coast. Making worse noise than an English new wave band, the man duct-taped to the mast couldn’t get away from the mad cacophony of gull calls or the threat of their attack.
The first bird dive bombed like a sushi-fueled Kamikaze pilot. But instead of exploding on impact, the gull hit and ran, snagging awful fish offal stuck to the man’s shoulder with edible glue normally used to decorate cakes. The second bird hit the target in the forehead, leaving a cut where its beak seared skin when the winged raider skimmed a piece of fish gut off the victim’s head. Countless fish entrails stuck to the fat man’s naked body as dozens of gulls struck, starving for the gutsy gull delicacies.
Ivan Popov grunted helplessly as his eyes bugged out like flashing red buoys in the sea. Duct tape across his mouth muffled his pleas. Like a buffet table at a St. Petersburg funeral lunch all he could do was provide sustenance for the hungry crowd.
Coming in at 12 o’clock high the next gull nosedived into Ivan’s chest, right above his Vladimir Putin tattoo, fluttered in a spray of feathers, rolled like a Messerschmitt in a dog fight and banked to the left, screaming high into the glare with the zeal of a Luftwaffe ace. Attacking in a swarm now, more gulls bombarded Ivan from every angle, ripping skin with beaks and claws, slapping him sillier than ever with webbed feet as they tore at hunks of fish organs pasted to their prey’s body and then flew into spacious cerulean sky.
Slipping in and out of consciousness after hours of serving as the main course, Ivan finally heard the whipping blades of a Coast Guard chopper hovering overhead.
Sam Bennett watched from the shore.
“That’ll teach him,” he said. “Mess with my birds and see where it gets you.”
Sam found Ivan drunk and asleep on the beach at 4 a.m. that morning as Sam walked alone trying and failing to coax anger from his mind, clearing his head of mean, vengeful thoughts. The Russian slob stank of vodka and curdled sour cream, snoring through his mouth with exhalations that sounded like the beginning gusts of a Siberian storm.
Hightailing it home, Sam returned 15 minutes later carrying a pillowcase stuffed with fish guts he collected earlier from his buddies cleaning grouper and snapper by the Intracoastal and kept in the alley behind his apartment to feed his gull friends later in the day. He also brought a few jars of the edible sugar paste he bought on sale on a whim at the Albertsons supermarket two years earlier when he thought about baking gull-shaped cakes to give away as gifts on special occasions. And he always carried silver duct tape in his knapsack because you never knew when you might need silver duct tape.
Sam, stronger than he looked, undressed the unconscious intoxicated goof and pulled, pushed and lugged Ivan’s nude body into the abandoned wooden rowboat that sat moored in the same place for the past two years, equipped with a broken teetering mast that nonetheless remained firmly bolted to the floor. A faded and tattered Jolly Roger skull and crossbones flag still hung from the makeshift crow’s nest. Hauling the skiff into the water Sam watched waves gently lift the craft and carry it off into the distance.
Now he watched as two rescue swimmers stuffed Ivan into a wire basket and hoisted him up and into the helicopter.
After a restless night in the hospital, a bandaged and aloe-laden Ivan Popov took a cab home to the grubby penthouse in the otherwise empty, crumbling condominium complex he managed on behalf of his billionaire brother Boris, who sat in a sticky leather Barcalounger recliner in the living room awaiting his numbskull brother’s arrival.
Ivan spit out his words like bad beef stroganoff.
“You couldn’t pick me up at hospital?”
“No,” Boris spit back. “You are embarrassment.”
“Police asked who did this to me.”
“CIA plot like you always claim when you find trouble in America?”
“I told evil government agents I went fishing.”
“With duct tape?”
Ivan Popov hobbled to his brother’s side, trying to ignore the sunburn and bird nips, bites and scratches all over his hairy body. Looking down he sneered like a fat Russian Elvis impersonator at an embassy cocktail party.
“I need raise,” Ivan said. “My international management skills in great demand in free country.”
Boris tightened the Windsor knot on his black silk necktie decorated with red double-headed eagles and straightened the matching silk puff stuffed into the pocket of his $5,000 custom-tailored white linen suit jacket.
“No raise for you,” Boris said. “Raise for me. I raise highest Clearwater Beach hotel tower ever built right here on beach.”
The oligarch’s plan puzzled Ivan.
“How you make new building at place where old building exists?”
“Blow up one. Make room for other,” Boris said.
“What about me?”
“You move to seedy Spyglass Apartments. Only one tenant lives there. We deal with him later to build Russian Mafia mistresses’ fancy bachelorette pads. I implode this property tomorrow.”
Despite months of secret government service in Ukraine torturing civilians and calling in air strikes on dairy cows, Ivan flinched.
“Boom,” Boris said.
At that very moment Sam Bennett was nosing around outside the condo parking garage, knowing Ivan lived there and already plotting how to get even more even with the Russian goon who dared insult Ruby and his precious avian pets. Building contractors had been on site all week preparing for the blast and left a variety of equipment and supplies in preparation for the implosion.
The boxes they unloaded that morning caught Sam’s eye. That night he made four trips, carrying three loads each time, storing them in the spare apartment where he carved his beloved driftwood gulls. When he opened the first box he felt his heart pick up speed and sensed his blood pressure rise. Tearing at each box he soon discovered they all contained the same item.
Sam now owned hundreds of stolen explosive blasting caps.
This time when Sam Bennett walked away flapping his arms, he felt his muscles gain strength. Goose bumps appeared amid thin hairs of his forearm, making him imagine the beginning of fluffy down taking root inside the genomes of his body to one day cover his wings in luxurious plume, a coat of many feathers that would sparkle in heavenly rays white as soft sand when he finally took flight and ascended, climbing, climbing, climbing into the wild, blue yonder.
No doubt about it.
One day Sam Bennett would fly.