don't you just hate it when you go to a fancy caviar party and a gunfight breaks out?
That's the plight of Marion "Doc" Ford as Chasing Midnight opens. This is Randy Wayne White's 19th novel about Ford, a marine biologist who plies his quiet trade out of a stilt house lab on a marina on Sanibel — and who has a second line of work as an often lethal agent for a U.S. intelligence agency so secret it can't be named.
Chasing Midnight doesn't actually begin with the gunfight but employs the "blow something up first and explain later" strategy that kicks a thriller off at top speed. Ford has ducked out of the party and slipped into his dive gear to get a closer look at the yacht belonging to the party's host and its cargo. He's under 15 feet of water "observing a dinosaurian fish" — a rare Gulf sturgeon — when a blast knocks him silly.
The blast, he soon discovers, has also knocked out all the power on Vanderbilt Island, the small private island off the Southwest Florida coast where the party is being held. That party, hosted by Russian black-market millionaire Viktor Kaslov, has a brief and unusual guest list: a handful of locals, including Ford and his friend Tomlinson, plus three men with extremely large and dubiously acquired fortunes: an Iranian called Armanie, a Turkmenian named Darius Talas and Lien Hai Bohai of China.
Kaslov, Armanie, Talas and Lien have a common interest: caviar. Beluga caviar, that is — the best and most difficult to acquire, at least legally, because the European sturgeon, the fish that produces it, is a critically endangered species. The four men aren't hungry gourmets but grand-scale poachers and smugglers who make some of their millions by selling the caviar — and pushing the fish ever closer to extinction.
Kaslov has arranged the party with his rivals ostensibly to entice them to invest in a new hybrid sturgeon, part beluga and part Gulf, that could be farmed in warmer climates than the hideously polluted Caspian Sea where the beluga is most commonly found. But that sounds (sorry) fishy to Ford, who has wangled his way into an invitation because he's intrigued both as a biologist and as an intelligence op.
That's why Tomlinson, who owns a couple of restaurants (rum bars in Sanibel and Fort Myers that will sound familiar to White's fans), is at the party — as Ford's ticket. Tomlinson has his own peculiar fish to fry, of course; the stoner Buddhist monk with the exuberant libido always dances to the beat of his own drum circle.
He didn't just get Ford into the party, it turns out; he's also the link that explains a group of crashers who are members of Third Planet Peace Force, a radical environmental organization. They've found out about the caviar conclave from Tomlinson's post on their website and muscled their way in despite the abundance of bodyguards on Vanderbilt Island.
Mix rival international gangsters and angry extremists and you get a volatile atmosphere — hence that blast, followed by gunplay. Add the two mysterious women in Lien's entourage, one a jaw-dropping beauty and the other a plain, sturdy type Ford feels an odd kinship with. Then stir in the Neinabor twins, Genesis and Exodus, raised in a desert commune and clearly the least stable members of Third Planet Peace Force. They used to be triplets until brother Abraham died — but he's still talking to them.
Ford discovers there may be a bigger bomb on the island, and that's only one of his problems. Chasing Midnight takes place in a breathless rush over the course of one night, and it's a fine example of White's trademark combination of detailed research — Ford gives us a short course in the caviar trade courtesy of his contacts at the Mote Marine Laboratory's sturgeon project in Sarasota — and high-octane action.
Ford also stays on the cutting edge of spyware, and the tech star he happens to be trying out in this book is something called the TAM-14, a thermal acquisition monocular — an eyepiece that allows its wearer to look right through walls and other cover to see people revealed by their body heat in remarkable detail.
It comes in mighty handy on a pitch-dark tropical island dotted with cottages on a violent night when no one's motives are clear, although it also reveals something so shocking about Tomlinson that even the titanium-tough Ford is shaken by it.
Chasing Midnight is a sleek and seductive fish tale — or is it? As Ford says, "one of the maxims of professionals who specialize in deceit (is) 'If you want to guard a secret, put it in a book.'"
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.