Friday, June 12, 2015

Chapter Five Ally's Gator Farm

UPDATE: Unlikely Merger is NOW available! We will offer
the book FREE on Kindle July 1-July 5, 2015!

How do you think Mercy is handling her new job? (Probably better than Mara handled all of her odd jobs, don't you think? Ha!) 

Here are links to the previous chapters, in case you're joining us for the first time.

Unlikely Merger: Chapter One
Unlikely Merger: Chapter Two
Unlikely Merger: Chapter Three
Unlikely Merger: Chapter Four

Chapter Five
Ally’s Gator Farm, Titusville, Florida

Mercy peered out the airplane window as they began their descent into Orlando International. “Wow. I’ve never seen so many lakes in one place.”
Uncle Thomas leaned over her to get a glimpse of what she saw. Thirty-five thousand feet below, lakes of all shapes and sizes dotted the earth as far as the eye could see.
“That’s why Florida’s such a great place to raise alligators. Plenty of swamp land.” He chuckled.
“You’re getting quite a kick out of this, aren’t you?” Mercy glanced at her uncle as he tried to stifle a grin.
She’d been dubious about her dad’s next assignment and was not particularly enthused with the idea of purchasing an alligator farm. Dad promised his friend, Lester Mann, that he’d evaluate the feasibility of turning it into a tourist attraction. Despite her apprehension, Mercy would do anything her dad asked. She only wished it were a dairy farm and not acreage for reptiles.
“It won’t be as bad as you think, honey. In fact, it could be quite interesting. But remember, this is a working vacation. Your dad doesn’t want you to work the whole time you’re there. Have some fun. Relax. Enjoy your respite from the freezing cold back home.”
Mercy sighed as she thanked the Lord for the non-stop flight. They’d been airborne for almost four hours. Changing planes in Atlanta would have added another three hours with the layover. Maybe Dad was right. She could use a little R & R. With fun-loving Uncle Thomas as her escort, she could have a good time—if she’d just relax.


Inside the terminal, they spotted a sign bobbling above the heads of the crowd with a University of Florida Gator logo and the word “Mercy!”
Mercy raised her brows and glanced at Uncle Thomas. A thirty-something, dark-haired man waved the sign. His eyes lit up when they landed on Mercy, and he pushed through the crowd toward them.
“Are you the Lacewells?” His grin broadened.
“Are you pleading for mercy from us? Or the Florida State Seminoles?” Mercy fought to hide her amusement.
“Ouch! That hurt.”
Uncle Thomas offered his hand. “Thomas Lacewell. And you must be Gabe.”
Gator Man pumped her uncle’s hand and nodded before turning toward Mercy.
“This is my niece, Mercy Lacewell, Lacewell Limited,” Uncle Thomas introduced.
“Happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Mann.” Mercy extended her hand and looked into the most gorgeous deep blue eyes she’d ever seen, brightened even more by his enticing smile.
Large, rough hands swallowed hers. “Please. Call me Gabe. I take it from your question, Miss Lacewell, that you’re a football fan.”
She nodded and cleared her throat. “I watch college ball with Dad quite often. And, please, call me Mercy.”
“I’ll show you to the baggage claim area, and then we can be on our way.” Gabe stepped aside and motioned toward the escalator. When they reached the bottom, Gabe cupped Mercy’s elbow in his hand. “Do you remember the carousel number for your baggage?”
Mercy smiled and led the way. Gabe retrieved the bag she pointed out, and Uncle Thomas leaned in for his. Then they followed Gabe out the door and to the elevators that led up to the garage parking.
As they approached a silver Hummer, Gabe pressed a button on his keychain. Lights flashed and the rear door rose. Gabe tucked the luggage into the back of the vehicle, and Mercy climbed into the backseat, leaving her uncle to ride in the front.
“Nice ride, Gabe,” Uncle Thomas said, running his hand over the charcoal dash.
“Thanks. Got it pre-owned but with low miles. Too bad they stopped making these workhorses. We need them at the farm.”
Leaving the airport, Gabe merged into high-speed traffic. Vehicles zigzagged in and out. After a while, the cars thinned, and the scenery before them turned into nothing but scrub and palm, tall grass, and swamp.
“The St. Johns River runs west of Titusville—if you can call it running. It’s 310 miles long but only drops a total of thirty feet from its origin in Indian River County to where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville, making it one of the slowest running rivers in the world. There’s a fish camp on just about every artery that crosses the river.” Gabe glanced in his rearview mirror. “Think you’d like to take an airboat ride, Mercy?”
She surveyed the scenery. It wasn’t as glamorous as the beachy tourism photos, but certainly subtropical and—swampy. Her eye twitched as she searched for a polite answer. “I think I’ll pass on that, but thank you just the same.”
The sooner the business part of her trip was behind her, the better she’d like it. Alligators, Dad? Really?
Gabe turned right and curved onto Interstate 95. “I’ve asked a local restaurant, Kelsey’s, to deliver Greek salads to the condo at one, so you won’t have to worry about lunch. I hope that’s okay.” His eyes locked with hers in the rearview mirror.
“That was very thoughtful, Gabe.” Uncle Thomas turned to look at her. “Wouldn’t you say so, Mercy?”
“Yes, thank you.” She dropped her eyes and examined the floor. Thoughtful, kind, and nice looking. Yes, this was going to be an interesting trip—in spite of its reptilian purpose.


At the gate to Harbor Pointe, Gabe punched in the access code, pulled into the designated parking space, and released the Hummer’s hatchback. A young man with sun-bleached hair approached with a cart and began offloading their luggage. Without a word, he headed toward the building’s entrance.
Once inside the top floor apartment, Mercy scanned the large living area and admired the carved Victorian mahogany sofa and matching wing-back chairs. She ran her hand over the soft maroon, button-back upholstery of one of the chairs. A pair of round mahogany pedestal tables with white marble tops flanked the sofa and a matching oval coffee table completed the ensemble. Since Titusville was a small town, she hadn’t expected such grandiose accommodations.
“Your lunch is in the dining room, and your rental car is in the parking garage below, two spaces to the left of the entrance as you go out.” Gabe handed the keys to both the car and condo to Uncle Thomas. “Oh, and there’s cheese, fruit, and beverages in the fridge. Coffee and fixin’s in the cupboard.”
“Will you join us for lunch, Gabe?” Uncle Thomas asked.
“No. Sorry. I have a meeting in an hour. Thank you just the same. I’ll leave you two to settle in and rest up. Is nine o’clock all right for breakfast?” Gabe flashed her a smile.
Mercy hesitated. “Oh, you don’t have to do that. We have the rental car.”
“It would be my pleasure. Then we can go on over to the farm and have a look around.”
“Okay, then. Thanks for everything, Mr. uh, Gabe.”
After the door closed, Mercy stepped out onto the balcony and motioned for Uncle Thomas to join her. A large thermometer on the wall registered seventy-four degrees. A most welcome change from the cold days and freezing nights of Denver.
Mercy gazed across the river. “What’s that building over there?” She pointed at a large structure.
“That’s the Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building. Nice man, Gabe. Don’t you think so, Mercy?” Uncle Thomas nudged her with his elbow.
“Yeah. But we’re here on business.”
“And a little fun, too, your dad said … remember?”
Mercy chuckled. The tour of the farm and discussion of the financial aspects should take only a day. Maybe they could fit in some time for a little fun. She’d heard fishing for redfish in the area was a favorite pastime of the locals. Uncle Thomas would be on board for that. If he couldn’t catch a redfish, a few nice trout would make him very happy.


The sun blazed in the cloudless azure sky as Mercy, Uncle Thomas, and Gabe sped down the highway toward Ally’s Gator Farm. They turned down a winding dirt road in the middle of marshland, and pulled up in front of a series of concrete buildings.
Uncle Thomas pointed at one of them. “What’s the roofing made of, Gabe?”
“It’s a fiber cement material. When Dad started this place, he had all the barns reroofed. I remember coming out with him to work on the job and Mother having a fit. She worried I would fall into the gator pond.” He laughed.
Once parked and out of the truck, Mercy surveyed the area. Six ponds spread over the south end of the property where hundreds of gators lounged in the sun.
“They look very intimidating.” She hugged herself, folding her clammy hands beneath her arms.
“They’re actually only aggressive during mating season or if they’re hungry or feel cornered. Would you like to meet one up close?” Gabe grinned.
“You’ll have a hard time convincing me that they’re the least bit docile.” She shuddered.
A worker sauntered out on the deck carrying a bag of food. When he dumped raw meat out into the pond, a flurry of activity ensued. Gators crawled over each other to catch a morsel. A breeze pushed the malodorous scent her way. She wrinkled her nose. “Shoo!”
Gabe touched her elbow. Mercy flinched and let out a shriek.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He ran his hand through his thick wavy hair.
She shuddered. “I don’t know if I could get used to this.”
“You don’t have to. The workers are well-trained, and the foreman is very capable of handling all the day-to-day operations. This is the cleanest and most efficient operation of its kind in the state. People come from all over to find out how our alligators grow to an average of five to six feet size in such a short time.” Gabe smiled.
“Why do you want to expand into a tourist attraction in addition to selling the meat and hides, Gabe?” Uncle Thomas piped in.
“Well, since the price of hides is at an all-time low, we want to evaluate if a tourist attraction with a visitor observation deck and gift shop would be worth the investment. I’d also like to provide an opportunity for people to learn about the species. While we do raise them for profit just like farmers raise cattle, pigs, and chickens, we have a certain respect for them. They are protected wildlife, and we often accept nuisance gators that have been caught in neighborhoods, as long as they haven’t attacked humans or animals.” Gabe took a deep breath. “We use the most humane method of killing them, which I can explain later. We also return a percentage of them into the wild to aid in the conservation of these crocodilians.”
Uncle Thomas nodded. Gabe turned and motioned for them to follow him to the barn. Mercy’s reluctance eased a bit, and she followed Uncle Thomas through the door.
“In here, we incubate the eggs for fifty-two days before they begin to hatch. The hatchlings are transferred to the barn, and then after they’re a few weeks old, we transfer them to the tanks. When they’re big enough to survive, they go into the ponds so they can get sun.”
“Sounds like an awful lot of work to me.” Mercy unfolded her arms.
“It is, but we have it down to a science.” Gabe led the way to the tanks.
She peered into a chamber where hundreds of baby gators lay, a few frolicking about with each other.
Gabe leaned in and picked up a little fellow. “Most reptiles have three-chambered hearts, but crocodilians have four. How could something with such a big heart be considered so mean?” Gabe grinned.
Mercy laughed at this joke. “So, are you looking for another investor or an outright sale of the business?”
“I’d like to stay involved since we’ve been here so long. A fresh perspective and possibly an investor. I just want to be reasonably sure we wouldn’t be operating in the red for long.”
“Location’s good, near Orlando, Titusville, and Cocoa Beach. I think a look at similar attractions in the state will give us an idea of its viability. Long as I don’t have to feed the gators.” Mercy shuddered.
Gabe smiled. “We can discuss this more on the way back. Then, how ’bout we take tomorrow off from work and take in a little fishing?”
“I’m all for that.” Uncle Thomas said.


Just before daybreak the next morning, Gabe, Mercy, and Thomas set out to catch the big one. As they pulled off the pavement, Mercy scanned the area. On one side, she could see the high bridge they’d driven over. On the other, nothing but scrubby strips of land amidst water. The road of packed light-beige stone had room only for one vehicle at a time, though occasional wide spots allowed for a second vehicle to pass. Some parked in turnouts to fish from the bank. The sun had barely risen above the horizon when Gabe pulled into one of the wide spaces. He and Thomas unloaded a cooler, the tackle box, and three fishing poles. Moments later, Gabe cast a net into the waterway. “We’ll net some finger mullet for bait.”
“Mullet?” Mercy breathed in the fishy smell that reminded her of weekends at her uncle’s stock pond.
“A vegetarian fish. Plenteous in these waters. You’ll see them jump from time to time. Great bait fish and the locals love it. Some folks even eat it for breakfast with eggs. It’s good with grits and stewed tomatoes for dinner as well.” Gabe ran his hand over his stomach. Mercy couldn’t help but stare. Not an ounce of fat there.
“Does this place have a name?” She forced her gaze away.
“Gator Creek.” Gabe tried unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle, and Thomas exploded into laughter.
“Okay, enough with the teasing, you guys.” Mercy stuck out her bottom lip. “I presume there’s a reason for the name? Are we expecting company?”
“Don’t worry. They’re not aggressive this time of year. In fact, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” Gabe pulled his net in, deposited the baby mullet into a bucket, and added water from the river.
“I doubt that.” Mercy surveyed the area close to the vehicle.
Gabe handed her a fishing stool. She pulled it open, found a stable piece of ground near the water to set it on, and baited her hook. Once her hook was cast, she lowered herself onto the stool, still perusing the immediate area for critters. What she wouldn’t do for her uncle.
Uncle Thomas perched on a coquina rock and cast his hook into the water. After a few minutes, Gabe waded into the water a few yards until it reached above his knees.
Mercy shot to her feet. “Are you crazy? There are gators in there.”
Gabe laughed, waved her off, and cast his hook back into the water. She lowered herself down to her stool again, shaking her head.
They fished for awhile, the only sounds a faint lapping of water and an occasional bird cry. Gabe’s pole arched, and he yanked it. Snap! The pole sprung upright. Whatever was on the end had broken the line and escaped. He turned and started back out of the water toward the bait bucket.
“Yeow!” Gabe yelled. His arms flailed.
His ashen face had her moving toward him without conscious intent. Her heart skipped a beat then went from zero to sixty as she felt the cold water on her feet. She stopped, horrified by the thought that one of the area’s namesakes had taken a chomp out of Gabe. No sign of a disturbance. Was he teasing her again?
Uncle Thomas sprang from his seat, dropping his pole. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Gabe grimaced as he hobbled toward the bank. “I stepped on something, probably a catfish.” He made his way to the bank and clambered out of the water, grabbing Uncle Thomas’s hand to steady him. Watching his contorted face, Mercy could almost feel his pain.
Gabe lowered himself to a sitting position and stretched out his leg. A piece of fin protruded from the thick sole of his brown Crocs sports clog.
Uncle Thomas eased Gabe’s shoe off, revealing the nasty wound.
“We need to get you to the emergency room. That or a walk-in clinic. You need a doctor to remove the spine.” She’d encountered this type of wound in the emergency department while she was doing her practicum and knew of the potential consequences if not treated properly. “Do you have a first aid kit?”
“In the back of my truck,” Gabe said between gritted teeth. “Get the needle-nosed pliers out of my tackle box too.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to try to take that out yourself.” Mercy arched a brow.
“No. I’m going to ask you to do it for me … that is, if you don’t mind.”
Returning with the requested items, she asked, “You sure you want me to do this? There’s a chance a piece could break off in your foot.”
Gabe tried to speak through his clenched teeth. “Yes. The longer it stays in there, the more catfish venom is released.”
Careful to grip as much of the spine between the pliers as she could, Mercy tugged the fin free. A liberal dose of peroxide had the wound boiling through several applications. Satisfied she could do no more, Mercy wrapped gauze around Gabe’s foot.
One hand on Uncle Thomas’s shoulder, Gabe made his way to the passenger side of the Hummer, climbed in, and handed him the keys.
Mercy reclaimed her place in the back and leaned forward over the front seat. “Gabe, you need to have your foot X-rayed to make sure we got all of the fin out.” She touched his shoulder. “I’m sure you know this, being the veteran fisherman you are.”
He turned his head and offered her a sheepish grin. “They’ll probably give me an antibiotic, too. I love the Indian River, but it isn’t the cleanest place around.”
“When was the last time you had a tetanus shot?” She prodded.
“I don’t know. Nine or ten years ago when I went to South America, I think.”
“The doctor will order one for you then.”
“Great. More pain.” Gabe let his head fall back against the seat with a rueful chuckle.


Mercy and Uncle Thomas walked to Cracker Jacks on the Titusville Pier for dinner that night. Afterward, Mercy tackled the 3,200-foot bridge, a brisk walk on such a balmy night, while Uncle Thomas found a spot on the waterfront where he could watch people shrimp from the fishing pier. Not something they’d see in Colorado.
“Next time I’ll jog it.” Mercy said, sidling up to her uncle. “There’s a great view from the top.”
Mercy’s cell phone chortled. She pulled it out of her pocket. Gabe. “How’s our wounded fisherman feeling?”
“Sore, but I think I’ll live. The doc said to stay off of it for a day, but I have a commitment tomorrow. I was wondering if you’d like to join me. Doc surely won’t scold me if he knows I’ll have a nurse by my side.” The joviality in his voice assured her he was feeling better.
“Oh? What sort of commitment?”
“Something fun. I give little concerts for the residents at Royal Oaks Nursing Home every Wednesday.”
She smiled. There was more to this man than she’d ever imagined. In just two short days, she found herself wanting to spend more time with him. Get to know him better.
“Really? Hold on a second, okay?” Mercy placed her hand over the phone.
“Uncle Thomas, would you like to go with Gabe to the nursing home tomorrow?”
“Nope. You think I’m ready for one?” A mischievous grin covered his face.
“Far from it. Gabe’s going there to entertain the residents.”
“No, honey. You two kids go ahead. I think I’ll just rest up a bit. Maybe go back to the pier and try my hand at catching one of those reds everyone’s talking about.”
Mercy placed the phone back to her ear. Between caring for her dad and her nursing, she found a soft spot for the elderly. “Okay. What time? How long will we be there?”
“Not much over an hour. They really love the music, and I think it puts a little joy in their day. Pick you up at one o’clock?”
“Fine. Thanks for the invite.”


Mercy joined in with the residents singing “You Are My Sunshine.” One elderly lady plunked the piano keys while Gabe twanged out the melody on an acoustic guitar. Some of the seniors sat slumped in their wheelchairs, while the others bellowed out the words, a few very much off key. Smatterings of applause filled the air at the end of the song, and Mercy noted smiles on some of those she’d thought unresponsive.
Nurses and aides popped in from time to time, checking on residents. Some stayed a few minutes and sang along with the group.
Gabe kneeled in front of a white-haired slip of a woman whose hands and head shook. She smiled and lifted one trembling hand to touch his cheek. He chose to share his time with these folks. What an unselfish gift.
Tears welled in Mercy’s eyes, blurring her vision. She swallowed hard and forced a smile, seeing him in a new light. Now she realized his teasing hid real compassion.
On their way to the car, she asked, “How did you get started doing this, Gabe?”
“Actually, I fell in love with these folks when my dad was here recuperating from his heart attack. The activities director happened to come by to see Dad one day when I was there, and we got to talking. When I discovered there was a need, I knew I could help.”
He looked at Mercy with pleading eyes. “I usually go by a group home after this. If you’d like to join me there, I’d be delighted. The seniors loved you.”
Mercy couldn’t hide her smile. “I’m sure Uncle Thomas is having a great time on the pier right now, so another hour will be fine. Besides, I totally enjoyed the people here.”


“Thank you for accompanying me today, Mercy.” Gabe glanced at her as he turned the Hummer onto Garden Street.
“It was truly my pleasure. That sweet little lady with Alzheimer’s clung to my hand the entire time and captured my heart.”
“That’s because she senses the pureness of your heart. So, you ready to return to Colorado?”
It’d only been a week, but she’d made a new friend, one she hoped to know better. “And leave this lovely weather? No, but duty calls. Perhaps Dad will come back with me if we decide to go forward with the farm project.”
They pulled into the parking area at Harbor Pointe.
Gabe turned to face her. “Will you forgive me for all the teasing about the alligators?”
“Um … well, as long as you take me to the nursing home with you if we come back.”
“That’s a promise.”
“Would you like to walk out to the pier with me?” Mercy asked.
“Sure,” Gabe said without hesitation.
The two crossed the street and strode over to the pier. Uncle Thomas struggled with his pole. When he pulled in a large trout and grabbed the line, onlookers cheered. A huge smile spread across his face as Mercy and Gabe joined in the hurrahs.
“Whether we back the farm or not, I’m sure Uncle Thomas will want to return for the elusive Red Fish. He’s not one to give up, and I might just come back with him.”

From the Authors of Unlikely Merger

A Dozen ApologiesAvailable on Kindle

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