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Private detective Travis McGee and his friend Meyer are fishing near the Florida Keys when they see a woman with an iron boot attached to her foot being thrown from a bridge. They rescue her and take her aboard McGee's houseboat, but she is only willing to divulge her name, Vangie Bellemer. Meanwhile, Terry, one of her assailants, sadistically kills McGee's friend Burk when he refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the detective and Vangie. After the houseboat arrives in Fort Lauderdale, Vangie slips ashore to get some money from her apartment, where Terry and Griff, the other assailant, are waiting for her. They murder her and then make it appear as if she had been killed in a hit-and-run accident, but when McGee identifies the body in the city morgue, he realizes that she was murdered. McGee, who had become fond of Vangie, learns her address, goes to her apartment, and discovers Griff searching for her money. Griff forces McGee to a deserted beach to kill him, but in the ensuing struggle Griff is killed. McGee learns from black maid Noreen that Vangie and Del, one of her friends, had been used as bait to lure wealthy, middle-aged men aboard cruise ships so that Terry could rob them and dump them overboard. In Nassau, McGee convinces Del to cooperate and also enlists the aid of underwater ballerina Merrimay Lane, who looks exactly like Vangie, to impersonate the murder victim. Terry goes into a rage and kills Del when he discovers the iron boot in his bathtub; later, when he sees Merrimay waving at him from the gangway, he goes berserk. After the case is closed, Merrimay tries to seduce McGee, but he rejects her.