Prologue | FAMILY DUNNE ALIVE
EASING THROUGH the marina's sapphire-blue water at a leisurely three-knot clip, Captain Stephen Preston took a long pull off his Marlboro Red, casually flicking the ash into the cool island breeze. Then, after waiting for just the perfect moment, he punched the horn of his forty-six-foot Bertram Sport Fisherman until everyone on the dock stopped to look.
Yeah, that's right, boys and girls, take a gander at what Captain Steve reeled in!
It was a quarter past eleven in the morning. His charter, the Bahama Mama, wasn't due back to shore until that afternoon at two, the same time as always.
But today was different.
Fuckin' A it's different, thought Captain Jack, hitting the horn another time. When you spear the biggest, baddest giant bluefin tuna ever seen around the Bahama islands, you're done fishing for the day. Hell, you might as well be done fishing for the year!
"What do you think she's worth?" asked Dillon, the Mama's first mate and Steve's brother. He'd been with the boat for eleven years. Never took a sick day. And rarely ever smiled, before that morning anyway.
"I dunno," replied Captain Steve, pulling on the rim of a Boston Red Sox cap. "I'd guess she's worth somewhere between a boatload of money and a shitload."
Jeffrey continued to smile widely beneath the brim of the tattered green visor he always wore. He knew a tuna this size could fetch upwards of $20,000, cash money, maybe even more if the sushi bidders at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo liked what they saw. And why wouldn't they?
Whatever the amount, he was in line to get a very healthy cut. The captain was good that way, a fair man in every sense.
"Are you sure those bozos signed the contract, Jeff?" Captain Steve asked.
Jeffrey glanced toward the stern at the six-man bachelor party from the island of Manhattan. They'd been drinking since sunrise, when the trip began, and were already so stinking drunk they could barely high-five each other without falling overboard.
"Yeah, they signed the contract, all right," said Jeffrey with a slow nod. "Though I doubt they ever read the fine print."
If they had read the contract carefully, they'd have known that no binge-drinking, sunburned tourists would ever pocket a dime off a giant bluefin tuna. No way, not on the Bahama Mama. One hundred percent of the proceeds went directly to the captain and the crew. Period, end of Big Fish story.
"Well, then," said Captain Steve, cutting the boat's twin engines as they approached the dock, "let's go cause a scene."
Prologue | FAMILY DUNNE ALIVE
SURE ENOUGH, even in the ultra-laid-back Bahamas it took less than a New York minute for a large and curious throng to gather around the fishing boat, the buzz swelling as a forklift carried the humongous tuna toward the marina's official scale. Christ, was that scale even big enough?
Captain Preston beamed, giving a hearty slap to the back of the groom-to-be and announcing that he'd never met a finer bunch of anglers in all his life. "You guys are the best," he said. "And you proved it today."
"Rather be good than lucky!" one guy shouted back.
Of course, the truth would stay strictly between him and Jeff. These big-city misfits had no clue what they were doing. They couldn't catch a cold, let alone a fish.
Yet here they all were, basking in the relentless click, click, click of digital cameras --- the crowd, the excitement, the anticipation of the weigh-in growing bigger by the second.
"Tie her up good!" urged Captain Steve as the tail of the tuna was wrapped with double-braided rope, the strongest on hand.
On the count of three, she was hoisted high into the air. The crowd oohed and ahed appreciatively. This was some fish.
Six hundred...seven hundred...eight hundred pounds!
The arm of the scale shot up like a rocket. When it finally settled at a record-busting 912 pounds, the entire marina let out a tremendous roar, the bachelor-party guys loudest of all.
And that's when it happened.
Something very strange fell out of the tuna's mouth.
Prologue | FAMILY DUNNE ALIVE
THE MYSTERIOUS STOWAWAY landed on the dock and rolled right up to Captain Stephen Preston's knee-high black rubber boots.
"What the hell is that?" someone asked from the back. "Let us in on the joke."
But everyone else could see plain as day what it was. A Coke bottle. The old-fashioned kind, with real glass.
"That's some funny-lookin' bait you used, Steve," joked a captain from another boat.
The crowd laughed as Steve bent and scooped up the bottle. He held it up to the bright morning sun and immediately scratched his head of curly blond hair. There was something inside. What the hell was it?
Quickly he removed the makeshift seal of a plastic baggie held tight by a knot made of vines. This was getting stranger by the minute. With two shakes he was able to reach the edge of the contents with his pinkie.
He pulled it out.
It wasn't paper --- more like some kind of fabric. And there was writing on it.
"What's it say?" asked Jeffrey.
The entire dock was silent as Steve Preston read the note to himself. The words were written in a deep crimson color, smudged but still legible. Could that be blood? he was wondering now. And whose blood is it?
"C'mon, what's it say?" asked Jeffrey again. "You're killin' us with suspense."
Captain Steve slowly turned the note so that those around him could see for themselves. The collective gasp that followed was instantaneous.
"That family --- they're alive!" he managed. "The Dunne family."
In a flash, a vacationing reporter from the Washington Post reached for his cell phone to call his newsroom. He was back on the job.
Meanwhile, Captain Stephen Preston just stood before the crowd and smiled. All he could think about was how the note in the bottle ended, the part about the reward.
The dollar sign.
The number one.
And all those amazingly beautiful zeroes after it.
"Jeff," he said slowly, "This tuna's worth a hell of a lot more than we thought."
Part One | THE FAMILY (UN)DUNNE
"I'M CRAZY, right? I mean, I have to be absolutely, certifiably mad to take this trip! This sailboat extravaganza with my family! And Jake!"
I've had this same thought for weeks, but today is the first time I'm saying it out loud. Screaming it, actually, at the top of my lungs. Thankfully, Mona's Upper West Side office used to be a recording studio for a talk-show host. The walls are soundproof, or so Mona tells me.
The way I'm acting, they should also be padded.
"No, you're not crazy," says Mona, being her usual calm self. "On the other hand, are you biting off more than you can chew? Perhaps?"
"But don't I always?"
"Yes," she says, "for as long as I've known you, anyway. Don't say the number."
Twenty-seven years, to be exact --- ever since Mona and I met during our freshman orientation at Yale and discovered we were both closet General Hospital fans and harbored ridiculous crushes on Blackie, the character played by a very young --- and incredibly cute --- John Stamos.
Wow, did I just date myself, or what?
Anyway, for the past two months Mona has been more than my best friend and the sister I never had. She's also been Dr. Mona Elien, my psychiatrist.
Yes. I know. On paper, that arrangement might not be a good idea. But who lives on paper?
I live on caffeine, adrenaline, and relentless sixteen-hour shifts at Lexington Hospital, where I'm a heart surgeon. I just didn't have the time or patience for the get-to-know you phase of therapy. Besides, there's no one's opinion I trust more than Mona's. There's no one I trust more, period.
"It's not that I'm weighing in against the sailboat trip, Katherine. In fact, I think it's a great idea," she says. "My only concern is how much hope you're pinning on it, the pressure you seem to be putting on yourself and the kids. What if it doesn't work?"
"That's easy," I say. "I'll just kill them and myself and put us all out of our collective misery."
"Well," says Mona, straight-faced as always, "it's good to know you have a Plan B."
The two of us crack up. How many other shrinks could I do that with?
Mona's right, though. I am pinning a lot of hope on this sailing trip, maybe too much.
Only I can't help it.
That's what can happen when your family is falling to pieces before your eyes and you believe that it's all your fault.
Part One | THE FAMILY (UN)DUNNE
LONG STORY SHORT --- boring personal story made palatable --- the problems really kicked in four years ago when my husband, Stuart, suddenly died. It was a devastating shock. Even though Stuart had strayed on me, and more than once, I blamed my career and work schedule at least as much as I blamed him.
At any rate, Stuart's death was even worse for our three children. I just didn't realize it at first. Maybe I was too self-centered.
For some reason I thought our family would all rally around, that we'd pull through by pulling together.
I was fooling myself.
Stuart was the family's anchor; he was almost always there, while I was more often than not at the hospital, or at least on call. Without him around, the kids became their own little islands. They were angry, confused, and, worse, they wanted little to do with me. Not that I could blame them. In all candor, I've never been in danger of winning any Mother of the Year award. I'm living proof --- like so many other women, I suppose --- of how hard it is to have both a successful career and time for a great relationship with your kids. Not impossible, just very hard.
But that's all about to change. At least, I hope so. Desperately.
Starting this Friday, I'm taking a two-month leave of absence from Lexington Hospital. Dr. Katherine Dunne is officially checking out.
The kids and I are setting sail for the bulk of the summer on The Family Dunne, the boat that always used to bring us together when Stuart was alive. It was his pride and joy --- and that's probably why I could never bring myself to sell it. I couldn't do that to the kids.
Of course, Carrie, Mark, and Ernie hate this whole idea, but I don't care. Even if I have to drag them kicking and screaming, they're getting on that boat!
"Oh, here's some good news," I tell Mona as we wrap up our session. "The kids have finally stopped referring to this as ‘the dysfunctional Dunne family vacation.'"
"That is good news," says Mona with the tinkly laugh I love.
"Yeah," I say. "Now they're just calling it ‘Mom's guilt trip from hell.'"
Mona laughs again and I join her this time. It's either that or start crying and maybe do a swan dive out her window.
What have I gotten myself into? And how can our family survive?
Two very good questions that I can't answer right now.
Part One | THE FAMILY (UN)DUNNE
AFTER A LIGHT DRIZZLE that persisted all through Friday morning, a noontime fog settled over the Goat Island Marina in exclusive and very tony Newport, Rhode Island.
How fitting, thought Jake Dunne, stretching his lean sixfoot-one frame as he stood on the teakwood deck of his late brother's boat. Maybe that was because he still wasn't clear about this trip --- what to expect, how it would play out. Would he live to regret it?
All he knew was how his former sister-in-law, Katherine, sounded on the phone when she called him a few weeks back. Desperate. Compelling. The way she talked about wanting --- no, needing --- to take this trip with the kids, you'd think it was her last hope in the world.
So how could he say no to her when she asked if he would be their captain? He couldn't, of course. He always said yes to Katherine.
Jake was about to resume his final inspection of the boat, admiring all the new lines and canvas, when he heard a familiar voice call out to him.
"How ya doin' there, J.D.? Good to see you." Steve turned to see Darcy Hammerman, the launch skipper for the marina. Darcy was standing directly below him on the dock. She was dressed in the same blue polo shirt with the Goat Island logo that everyone on the staff was required to wear. Only Darcy's shirt was a lot more faded, a subtle sign of her seniority. And why not? She and her brother Robert owned the place.
"Hey, Darcy, what's happening?" said Jake in his usual laid-back tone.
"Not too much," Darcy answered, flashing an easy grin. She was in her late thirties, slender, attractive, and always very tan. "Just another day of shuttling rich people to boats that cost more than my house."
Jake chuckled, watching as Darcy turned her attention to The Family Dunne.
"So how's she looking to you?" Darcy asked. "Is she ready to set sail?"
"She's a little rusty, maybe, but definitely seaworthy," said Jake, who would know as well as anybody.
Growing up in Newport as the youngest in a family of devout sailors, Jake found boating a lot like breathing --- it just came naturally. In fact, of all the Dunnes, Jake had become the most accomplished sailor. Twice he won the Cruising Division of the prestigious --- and extremely arduous --- Newport Bermuda sailing race.
Still, Darcy didn't look entirely convinced by his breezy appraisal. As she continued to eye the boat, she actually seemed a little concerned.
"What is it?" asked Jake. "You see something I didn't? Something come up in your overhaul?"
"Nothing --- nothing at all."
"How long have I known you --- about ten years? It's obviously something. So tell me."
Darcy's eyes narrowed into a squint. "No, it's just a stupid superstition, that's all."
Jake nodded and didn't press her on it. He didn't need to. He knew exactly what Darcy was talking about. Among sailors worth spit, the superstition was widely known. What's more, Jake believed in it. Sort of, anyway. It had been weighing on his mind as well. Like a two-ton anchor. A boat that loses its captain at sea is forever a ghost ship.
Stuart had died while scuba diving off The Family Dunne. His tank had malfunctioned, cutting off his air. Stuart went down and never came up --- that is, until his body was recovered. So to Jake, superstition or not, his older brother's boat was a haunting reminder of a tragedy he'd just as soon forget. If only he could. Had it been up to him, he would've sold the damn thing before the dirt even settled on Stuart's grave.
But Katherine absolutely insisted on keeping it, presumably for sentimental reasons. Christ! A wedding band or a watch --- those made for good keepsakes. Not a sixty-twofoot luxury Morris yacht!
Worse, the boat had done nothing but sit in some warehouse for the past four years. Katherine and the kids hadn't sailed it once. She hadn't even laid eyes on it.
Darcy grimaced. "I'm sorry, Jake. Stupid of me. I didn't mean to spook you with my typical bullshit. I'll shut my big mouth now. Better late than never."
"No worries, Darcy. Everything's going to be fine."
"Course it is. You're going to have an outstanding trip," said Darcy, smiling as best she could. "Do you need my help with anything before you head off?"
"I'm good. Give my best to Robert," said Jake, glancing at the Tag Heuer strapped to his wrist. The Manhattan Dunnes were late. Of course. "The only thing I need now is for my crew to show up."