“You hate Miami.”
“It’s not my favorite dot on the map,” Thorn said. “But I don’t hate it.”
They stood on the pine dock that rimmed the boat basin.
Sugarman set his new laptop on the seat of a canvas deck chair. He’d been showing off the computer, and Thorn had been trying hard to feign interest as Sugar flashed through dozens of digital photos of his twin daughters, zoomed in and out on their beautiful smiles, showing Thorn how to filter away messy backgrounds, crop off the edges.
Now Sugar took a swallow of his Bud and watched Thorn tug his red-and-white bobber toward the center of the basin. It was a muggy April afternoon, closing in on suppertime with the sun drifting behind the sabal palms on the western edge of Thorn’s property. A gust off the Atlantic riffled the lagoon, and for a moment the water went opaque, then a moment later the breeze died and the rocky bottom came back into focus fifteen feet below.
“You ever spent seven consecutive days in Miami?”
“Not that I recall.”
“You’ll freak, Thorn, you’ll break out in boils.”
“Oh, I’ll survive.”
“So what’s the deal? Alexandra’s quitting her job? Going to do search and rescue full-time?”
“She and Buck have to pass final certification. But yeah, Miami PD is setting up a team. She’s first in line.”
“Lost children, old people wandering off? Cadavers?”
“That’s the idea.”
“That’s why she hasn’t been down lately? This extra work?”
“Part of the reason, yeah, but I’ve been going up there. All of us slogging around the Everglades. I mind Lawton while she and Buck search for scented dummies.”
“First I heard of that.”
Thorn gave another light tug on the line.
“It’s interesting work. Puzzle solving, following clues.”
“Not just the dog sticking its nose up in the air, then taking off?”
“A little more complicated than that.”
“Well, that mutt’s smarter than I thought he was,” Sugarman said.
“He’s a Lab. Even the dumb ones are smart.”
Thorn watched his bobber drifting with the incoming tide.
“Twenty years snapping photos of corpses, working around hard-ass homicide cops, I see how she’d find search dogs more stimulating.”
Thorn was silent, focused on the bobber.
Sugar said, “Why doesn’t Lawton come down here, spend seven nights at scenic, relaxing Club Thorn?”
He gestured at the house behind them, the one-story Cape Cod where Thorn had grown up. Tucked in an insolated cove, it faced into the steady Atlantic winds.
Fifteen years ago when Kate Truman, his adoptive mother, died, Thorn shuttered the place and settled into a stilt house a few miles south on the opposite side of the island. Then last year a fire turned his stilt house to cinders, and all these months later, he still hadn’t found the heart to clean up the debris, much less rebuild. So he’d returned to the white wooden house where he’d spent his youth, opened it up, aired it out, and for the past few weeks he’d been adjusting to the ghostly echoes. Scenes from his youth replaying at odd moments, a whiff of a baseball glove, a moldering fishing rod, would set off long rambles through his teenage years.
“While she’s in Tampa taking her tests, she gave me a list of projects she needs done, a roof leak, that kind of thing. So I putter around while Lawton’s at day care, take charge of him in the evening. Seven nights, how bad is that?”
“Alex never really liked the Keys, did she?”
“She likes it fine, but all the driving back and forth gets old, an hour each way, traffic getting worse all the time. Her life is up there.”
“Yeah, Miami. The streets, the hum.”
“And your life is here, the water, the hush.”
“You trying to say something?”
Sugarman tightened his lips.
“All right. You want the barefaced truth?” He drew a wary breath. “Ever since Alex stopped coming down here, you’ve been seriously gloomy.”
“Oh, come on.”
“I’m serious. Bleak. Moodier than usual.”
“Funny, I thought I was feeling pretty bubbly.”
“Relatively speaking, I mean. Relatively bubbly.”
“Okay, so when’s the last time you tied a bonefish fly?”
Thorn tugged his line, scanned the basin.
“A month ago? Two months?”
“Two’s about right.”
“So what’ve you been doing for income?”
“I’m getting by.”
“You’re surviving on chunky peanut butter and beer. Raiding the penny jar. Can’t even afford Red Stripe, drinking Budweiser, for godsakes.”
“You volunteering to be my financial planner?”
“Tell you what I will do,” he said. “I’ll go up there myself, babysit the old man. Lawton and I get along fine. You stay here, get to work.”
“Nice try,” Thorn said. “But I need to do this.”
“What you need is to get back to what makes you sane.”
“So now I’m insane?”
“You’re mopey, Thorn. And you been hitting the longnecks hard. Starting early, a six-pack before the sun goes down. You need to get your groove back, my man.”
“Oh, jeez, now I get it.” Sugar shook his head. Something so obvious taking so long to dawn. “You’re thinking about moving up there, aren’t you? That’s what this is about. Desert the Keys, move in with Alexandra. Jesus, Thorn. That’s it, isn’t it? Live in freaking Miami.”
“Here it comes.” Thorn nodded to his left. “Ten o’clock, five yards.”
He angled to his right along the dock and tugged the bobber so it was floating a few feet ahead of the big snook’s path.
“And, hey, what’s with the bobber?” Sugar said. “Where’s your fly rod?”
“I want to catch this fish, not play with it.”
Sugarman leaned out and watched the snook swim past the finger mullet that dangled below the bobber.
He and Sugar went back to grade school. Though it felt like they went back further than that. Brother yin and brother yang. Sugar was the only guy on earth who could give Thorn the level of shit he did. Tell that kind of truth.
He’d been a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy, now a security consultant, a term he liked better than private eye. Half Jamaican, half Norwegian. Pale blond mother, Rasta father. A lucky blend. Inherited the laid-back genes of the ganja man and the chiseled cheekbones and long limbs and elegant moves of his lovely mom. Her cold focus. After those two abandoned him when he was still a toddler, his scruples were shaped by a foster mom who raised him in the tropical poverty of Hibiscus Park, Key Largo’s ghetto. Crack houses and heroin dens, rusty cars up on blocks; the only lawful neighborhood business was a hubcap stand along the overseas highway. After a childhood like that, Sugarman had developed an indestructible gristle at his core. He grew up quiet and clear-minded, a man so strictly principled, so secure in his humane convictions, that on countless occasions he’d served as Thorn’s true north, hauling him back onto the proper path just as Thorn was about to lurch over some fatal precipice.
Sugar peered into the lagoon.
“Damn, that’s no snook. It’s Orca, the killer whale.”
Thorn watched the snook glide across the basin to the mangrove roots that curved into the basin like the bars of an underwater cage.
“It’s checking an escape route. It’ll try to cut me off on those roots.”
Sugar said, “Did I see that right? All those leaders streaming off her mouth? There must be a dozen hooks in her lip.”
“What do you figure? Fish that size, it’s got to be ten, twelve years old?”
“Closer to twenty-one,” said Thorn.
“Twenty-one? And how’d you arrive at that?”
“One of those leaders is mine.”
“Same snook? Oh, give me a break.”
“I was standing right here when she broke it off. Kate and I were fishing together. That fly was one of my first attempts at a ghost streamer.”
“So that’s what this is about, fixing some youthful error?”
“I saw it a couple of weeks ago, all those leaders dangling. I figured I should clean her up. Been out here every night since. Sort of a project.”
“Well, that’s a first. Thorn getting emotional about a fish.”
“A creature like that, it’s entitled to a decent old age without dragging around a nest of monofilament.”
“Maybe those are her medals. An old warrior, she might be proud of them. Shows ’em off to her snook friends.”
The snook curved away from the mangroves and made another pass at the finger mullet, checking it over, then once again coasting off.
“You might be about to add one more hook to the collection.”
“I’m a better fisherman than I was twenty years ago.”
“She could be a better fish.”
Thorn stepped out on the dock and towed the bobber closer to a rotting piling. Trying to reassure the fish, make it feel secure with structure nearby.
A second later the snook reappeared and in a flicker it crashed the bait, then ran so fast that it almost snatched the rod from Thorn’s grip.
Instead of charging to the mangrove roots like she should’ve done, the fish headed for the mouth of the basin and the flats beyond. But hauling all that heavy line wore her down fast. The drag was set light, reel shrieking as the big fish tore toward open water.
“Not a smart move,” Sugarman said. “For an old warhorse like her.”
“Gotten lazy. Cutting corners. She didn’t do that twenty years ago.”
Thorn tightened the drag, then pumped the rod, reeling on the down stroke. As the hook dug in, the fish broke from the water, jumped high into the rosy evening air, twisting and trying to buck loose. She flopped hard on her side and startled a school of baitfish into a flurry of pirouettes.
That one jump was all she had.
As the snook reached the entrance of the basin, Thorn leaned back on the rod and turned her around. The snook made a couple of halfhearted zigzag runs, but as Thorn worked her back toward the dock, it was clear the old girl’s iron will had melted. As he cranked her the last few feet, she was docile.
“Getting old is hell.”
“Tell me about it,” Sugar said.
Thorn hauled the fish to the dock and handed the rod to Sugarman. He knelt and found a safe grip on her lower jaw, then heaved her up onto a wet towel he’d laid out and began to work with his pliers, clipping, prying, snapping the barbed ends off the hooks, curling them free.
Half a minute later when he was done and the snook’s lip was clear, he lowered the fish back into the water and stroked it back and forth until it recovered and glided forward and was on its way without a backward glance or nod of gratitude. Left behind in the water was a faint cloud of blood.
“Sometimes you have to hurt them to fix them.”
“Words to live by,” Sugar said.
“She’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“Your good deed for the year.” Sugarman knelt to the basin and washed the slime off his hands. “You’re hereby absolved, my son, and are now free to return to your dissolute ways.”
Thorn watched the satin gloss of the sunset water, gold and pink ripples spreading out in perfect V’s behind the departing snook.
“You’re right about Miami.”
“That I’m considering a move.”
Sugarman was silent, staring at the darkening horizon.
“I’m trying it out, is all. An audition. Driving up tonight; Alexandra leaves first thing tomorrow. I’ll give it a week, see how it feels, if I can cope. Maybe stay a little longer after she gets back. But even if it works, Sugar, I’ll always have one foot here. I’ll never leave the Keys, not really.”
“This her idea or yours?”
“Mine. Alex wouldn’t ask me to do it.”
“She means that much to you.”
“She does. Yeah.”
“We’re talking marriage here? Picket fence, weekend barbecues?”
“I’m talking about seven days in Miami. See how it feels.”
Sugarman nodded and looked up at the dying blush in the sky.
“Well, promise me one thing.”
“It’s a big bad city, and you’re an island boy, Thorn, spent your entire life on this damn rock, which makes you just one notch above a country bumpkin. Promise me you’ll keep your head down, okay? Stay cool.”
Thorn smiled. He’d been dreading this conversation, the effect it would have on Sugar—and on him, too—speaking the words out loud.
“I’ll be good,” Thorn said. “Flowers in my hair, peace and love.”
Sugarman lifted an eyebrow and gave him a dubious smile.
“Weird shit goes on up there, Thorn. And I do mean weird.”
Sunday afternoon on South Beach. Across Ocean Drive the art deco hotels stood like a row of sno-cones drizzled with tropical syrups and speckled with peppermint.
She was there to shoot a man.
Her only requirements: He had to be Hispanic, tall and slinky. The slinkier, the better. Tall and slinky. Like him.
Cloudless sky, surf splashing, ocean spangled with white diamonds. Nearby a radio thumped with rap music, loud enough to cover the percussion of her Walther Red Hawk.
Men strutted the strand, where sheets of surf unfurled before them. Gusts scented with sea foam and baking sand, coconut oil. The riotous screech of gulls.
An electric buzz inside her head. A buzz. A buzz.
She had no schedule. Only came to shoot when the dark column of static rose up her spinal cord and the drone began around her head, the hateful buzz.
She sat in her aluminum beach chair. A floppy straw hat shading her face, hair tucked under. Hiding behind sunglasses with white square frames. A brown towel lay across her lap, concealing the sleek black pistol with its smooth molded edges, lustrous black frame, eight-shot rotary magazine.
Loaded with pellets. Lead lumps with cinched waists and pointy tips. Shaped like minarets. Twice the weight of BBs. Sent flying by spurts of pressurized gas.
Lethal, oh yes, if the muzzle was snug against an ear, fired into the soft interior channels, one after the other, or into an eyeball. That could bring death or leave them pleading for it.
From the distance she was shooting, no, not fatal. Oh, but at five hundred feet per second, what a beautiful, vicious sting.
Her days of killing were finished. All done. No more guns and blasts of gore. This was more fitting. Sting, not kill. More fitting for a woman her age, her station. Her twisted history.
So many targets on parade today. So many men in their cocky Speedos, the bulge of crotch. The flaunting display. They swaggered by. A mouth like his. Like his.
An unbroken pageant of nearly naked men. So many, many Hispanics. The dark hair, insolent smiles, long lashes. Sensual macho lips.
She saw one coming. Red clingy suit. Head high, dark wraparounds.
Tightened her finger. Tensing to a pound of pressure, two, then backing off. Letting this Speedo pass. This bulge of prideful meat. She wasn’t ready yet. Too quick. Too early. No reason to rush.
Drew her hand from beneath the towel, wiped her palm dry. Slid it back inside, fitted her fingers to the molded stock. The molded stock.
She waited, watched them pass. Looked down the beach. The crowd around her drowsing, talking, reading paperback novels and magazines. She was simply one of them, a lady in late middle age, basking in the sun. No one knew. No one ever knew.
Five minutes passed before she spotted an even better one. Forty yards off, ambling the hard-packed sand, with gold around his neck; long, loose limbs; a gaudy lump in his black thong. Watching him approach, that smug stride. Deciding, yes, this was the target for today. To hush the drone, the nagging hum inside her skull, the buzz buzz buzz.
Curling the finger.
Fifty feet, forty, coming into range. She aimed for the crotch, the tender thighs. Navel to knees, that was her zone.
He slowed, then halted, stooped for something in the retreating surf. A white chip of shell. He stood, holding it. Examining. A sensitive fellow. A willing target.
She squeezed and squeezed again, then once more. Three quiet plonks lost amid the noise around her.
He dropped his shell, slapped a hand to his thigh, looked down to see the blood drooling from a tiny hole. He crumpled to his knees, a husky roar.
“I’m shot! Someone shot me!”
At the brim of his thong, a second puncture in the flesh. Then she saw the ragged slash in the nylon crotch.
Three for three, a notable day. Sting, sting, sting.
As once she was stung.
Shrieking women ripped up their towels and blankets, fled.
A panicked exodus, which she joined. Simply another woman padding up the hill of sand toward Ocean Drive. A Jeep roared up. Beach patrol. It had been happening for years. Blamed on gangs, soulless teens. A dangerous prank. Police were on alert but always came too late.
She mounted the dune. The buzz had toggled off. Sweet silence swimming up her spine. Brain quiet. Buzz gone. Just the ocean, the restless sea.
While on his knees on the hard-packed sand, the man, the random man, screamed and screamed and screamed.
Copyright © 2007 by James W. Hall. All rights reserved.