17. The Empty Copper Sea

Hot on the heels of one small-town Florida adventure, McGee and Meyer embark on another in The Empty Copper Sea (1978). This story, like many in the McGee chronicles, is a salvage operation for the hulking boat bum and his brainy buddy. But this time around, instead of seeking to retrieve treasure or justice, or exact retribution, McGee and Meyer are out to re-inflate the bubble reputation.

It seems that an old acquaintance of the two men—a fishing charter captain named Van Harder—has been professionally disgraced and essentially put out of business. On the face of it, it appears that he got himself drunk while piloting a luxury cruiser through dangerous night-time waters; so drunk that he lost consciousness for an extended period. The boat’s owner, a friend, and two young ladies attempted to bring the cruiser safely into port without Harder’s help. The owner, Hub Lawless, in the process managed to fall overboard and vanish into the waves.

Harder is a devout Christian and near-teetotaler. He had only part of one drink on the bridge of that cruiser. It quickly made him go fuzzy and unfocussed and then knocked him out. As a former heavy drinker, he knew what a hangover was and how it felt. And this drink produced an outcome nothing like that. Moreover, a single drink shouldn’t have had such a dramatic effect. In short, he’s convinced that Hub Lawless slipped him a mickey.

Quite simply, the old captain believes that his good name was stolen from him and he wants it back.

Of course, the only man for the job is McGee. Pretty soon, he and Meyer air-drop into Timber Bay, on the opposite coast; where the incident occurred. Meanwhile, Van Harder slowly brings the Busted Flush the four-hundred miles around to join them.

Trav and Meyer start operating in Timber Bay under what’s essentially a false flag. They have cast themselves as representatives of a property speculator who’s interested in Hub Lawless’s holdings in the area.

Pretty soon they’re worming their ways into locals’ confidences—and, of course, making an enemy or two. There’s Lawless’s widow (or is she not a widow?), selling off all of hubby’s fancy toys (custom rifles and fly rods and so on). There’s the clingy piano player at the supper club, hell bent on setting her little hooks into Trav. There’s the scary-smart sheriff, who (like every lawman in the series) is awfully suspicious of the rangy visitor. There’s Lawless’s pugnacious, drug-addled former lieutenant, who promptly gets hospitalized after his instant brawl with Trav. There’s the pair of bimbos who accompanied Lawless on his ill-fated cruise.

Lawless’s number two—who had also been with him that fateful night—has suffered a major mental breakdown and is being tended by his sister, Gretel. (I don’t think I’ll spoil anything here by noting that Gretel Howard becomes one of McGee’s most important and treasured women.) This fellow admits that Lawless drugged Van Harder’s drink. In fact, Gretel and her brother are a fount of inside info on how Hub Lawless converted assets into cash and set up his escape to Mexico with his sexy Swedish girlfriend. Apart from a blip or two—a minor heart attack after Hub jumped off the boat—it all seemed to go well for the fugitive businessman. At least according to Gretel’s brother.

Hub Lawless had reason to disappear. His property developments had suffered a horrible run of plain bad luck and were in the process of taking down his other enterprises. It’s common knowledge around Timber Bay by the time Trav and Meyer arrive. And the best clue that Lawless had ducked and run is a photo that shows up in an anonymous good citizen’s color slide—depicting a man who looks a lot like Lawless, sitting in a Mexican sidewalk café some weeks after the boating “accident.” Clearly, Lawless would have wanted his death to seem accidental, so that his abandoned wife and kids could collect the substantial life insurance policy.

The final act of the drama involves a lot of sleuthing without much resolving of anything. That has to wait until the true facts of the case finally emerge from their hiding place. Still, any kind of situation that allows for ongoing McGee ruminations is worthy of our attention. Of course, this being a JDM tale, there’s a twist or two coming your way.

In the final analysis, McGee is able to reclaim the stolen “property” that Van Harder wanted back: His reputation and his honor. And the strapping boat bum gets a little something for himself, beyond his customary “salvage” fee.

So how does Copper rank in the McGee canon? For me, just bellow my top four (Blue, Gray, Lavender, Silver). It has the classic elements. Dark doings in small-town Florida—the big boat bum’s bedrock background. Social observation and cracker-barrel philosophizing occur. Meyer makes insights and provides feedback. Good-looking women are bedded. Brutal fights take place. People die violently. Local power structures are dissected. I know I’m getting repetitive here, but these are evergreen aspects of the McGee chronicles—the things that make for a classic McGee tale

From Copper you can see McGee’s ending and I’m already starting to feel morose.

Here are a few quotations:

“There was beginning to be such a subtle additive of light that I could make out the ghostly shape of a marker off to my left, where North Pass entered Timber Bay, and beyond it some shadowy tree shapes on the outcroppings that sheltered the bay. The Gulf was quiet, with a gentle lap and slap of small waves on the packed wet sand. I heard a deep-throated diesel chugging through the wet noises of the sea and soon saw the outline of a shrimper heading out. There was a pale yellow rectangle in the amidships area, with a man standing against the glow, and I saw him lift his arm and realized that he was lifting a cup of coffee to his lips. It was so vivid I could smell the coffee. ¶ “And I had a sudden wrenching urge to shed my own identity and be somebody else. Somehow I had managed to lock myself into this unlikely and unsatisfying self, this Travis McGee, shabby knight errant, fighting for small, lost, unimportant causes, deluding himself with the belief that he is in some sense freer than your average fellow, and that it is a very good thing to have escaped the customary trap of regular hours, regular pay, home and kiddies, Christmas bonus, backyard bar-B-cue, hospitalization, and family burial plot. ¶ “All we have, I thought, is a trap of a slightly different size and shape. Just as the idea of an ancient hippie is gross and ludicrous, so is the idea of an elderly beach bum. I dreaded the shape of the gray years ahead and wished to hop out of myself, maybe into the skin of the coffee drinker now far out of sight in the just-brightening morning. And he, the poor deluded bastard, would probably have changed places willingly.”

Meyer says: “Florida can never really come to grips with saving the environment because a very large percentage of the population at any given time just got here. So why should they fight to turn the clock back? It looks great to them the way it is. Two years later, as they are beginning to feel uneasy, a few thousand more people are just discovering it all for the first time and wouldn’t change a thing. And meanwhile the people who knew what it was like twenty years ago are an ever-dwindling minority, a voice too faint to be heard.”

“Slowly, slowly the whole world was suffused with that strange orange glow which happens rarely toward sunset. The clouds turned to gold as the sun moved behind them, and the reflection of the clouds colored the earth. I have never seen the Gulf so quiet. There were no ripples, no birds, no sign of feeding fish, no offshore vessels moving across the horizon. I had seen this strange coppery light in Tahiti, in Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka), and in Granada and the Grenadines. The world must have looked like that before the first creatures came crawling out of the salt water to spawn on the empty land. I turned my head and saw, beyond the shoulder of my beloved, the empty copper sea, hushed and waiting, as if the world had paused between breaths. Perhaps it was like this in the beginning, and will be like this again, after man has slain every living thing. Sand, heat, and water. And death.”