This time I had good intentions.
Two cups into the Cuban coffee on a hot morning, ready for chores. Key West had fallen funk-deep into its humid, mid-August dog days. I smelled rot in the yard, old rainwater held by the lowest layers of dead leaves. Carmen Sosa, my sweet neighbor, always joked that this time of year you could take a bath just sitting in the car. Two nights ago her father, Hector Ayusa, said it was too hot for anything good to happen.
The yard needed work. I needed brain-free exertion. I'd pulled a trowel and shears from the fruit crate on the porch, and I'd stepped out back to attack my thirty-by-thirty rain forest and lizard preserve. Manual labor by choice, under the mango tree. Sweat penance for future misdeeds.
Then the phone rang.
Ten steps farther from the screen door, I'd have let the message tape roll. I returned to the porch, dropped the implements on my porcelain-top table, and caught the call before the machine clicked on.
"Rutledge," I said, slightly out of breath. Perfect. At eight A.M. I liked to sound confrontational. Being snappy at that hour inspired brevity and tended to discourage future early calls.
"Now, hear reveille, reveille ..."
I already knew the voice.
"Now, all hands on deck. Sweepers, man your brooms. Give the ship a clean sweepdown fore and aft. Sweep down all lower decks, ladders, and passageways. Now, sweepers."
Zack Cahill, my gregarious Navy buddy, for the past twenty years a bank executive in Chicago.
"Will the man with the keys to the ship's am-ba-lance please report to the quarterdeck with same ..."
The background noise placed my friend in a bar. "Zack ..."
"No, dipshit," he shouted, "it's Mamie Eisenhower."
"I've been out of bed since seven."
"Rutledge, you asshole. I wanted to wake you up and piss you off."
"You in church?"
"Correct. Our Lady of Sloppy Joe's."
The Problem. You live in Key West, all visitors think you're on perpetual vacation. "The morning sun," I said, "it's over the yardarm somewhere ..."
"Right again, Alex. Like, Libya. They aren't allowed to drink, so I'll make up for them. Look, I'm in town just for the day. I came in after midnight, beat all to hell. But I got up at six-thirty. You're lucky I didn't call earlier."
"No advance alert this time?"
"I forgot. Look, you need to come bend an elbow. Your amigo here is on top of the goddamned world. I'll explain when you get here. I'm on the fifth stool from the beer coolers, facing Duval, between a large Hell's Angel who smells like a wrestling meet and a chain-smoking, eighty-pound widow from Ocala. We're passing judgment on Key West and Fidel Castro. We're wondering what the hell ever happened to Bebe Rebozo. I've got an important lunch at Mangoes, then I'm out of here on a four-thirty flight. With any luck, after this lunch thing, you can join me in a celebration."
"Sounds like it's already rolling."
"Get on down here, amigo."
The financial wizard, trying to sound like an El Paso huckster.
For two months my laid-back tropical life had been too hectic. No skiff runs to Woman Key, no day sailing or kayaking the backcountry mangroves or snorkeling the reef beyond Hawk Channel. Certainly no time for trimming backyard crotons and raking out dead fronds. I'd awakened to free space on the calendar. I had two weeks until my next photo assignment. I knew from the radio that a twenty-knot east wind had chopped the ocean, so I'd ruled out any kind of offshore play. This would have been my day in the yard.
I pulled on a shirt, changed into presentable shoes, closed up the house, and unlocked my bike. I zigzagged Old Town, dodging traffic on Eaton Street, coasting the shady slope of Grunt Bone Alley, dodging coconuts, catching a diesel whiff off the marina docks, angling to the foot of Elizabeth. An eight-minute ride. By the time I'd reached Sloppy Joe's and locked the lightweight to a bicycle rack, Zack Cahill had vanished.
I felt no immediate concern. I figured Cahill had finished one too many breakfast beers and had wandered off to Duval Street's two thousand T-shirt shops to grab gifts for his twin teenaged boys and Kathryn, his younger daughter. I beckoned to Bonnie, who'd worked Sloppy's day shift since the mid-1980s. "Yuppie-looking guy in here fifteen minutes ago?"
She smiled and raised her left arm. "His watch."
Cahill's gold Rolex. "He called me at the house," I said. "Asked me to meet him here."
"I ran a mental tab on two Coronas. He ordered one more, so I asked him to settle. The place was filling up, you know ... I was afraid I'd lose track. He reached back, no wallet. He had to go back to his hotel."
I looked again at the Rolex.
"Hey, I told him I'd trust him for two beers. He didn't look like a rip-off artist. He told me to hold it. He insisted."
"He say which hotel?"
Bonnie shook her head. "I didn't even see what direction. Don't worry. He'll walk back in any minute." She smiled to placate me. "He doesn't show, you want to buy a nice watch?" She winked and hurried away to refill a trio of draft mugs.
I found a vacant spot between two stools near the end of the bar. Sid, the owner, offered to spring for a beer. He thought he remembered Cahill from years ago, but hadn't noticed him in the bar, hadn't seen him leave. Smoky haze drifted, pushed by ceiling fans, never moving out the four open doors. A minute later Bonnie placed a tall cup of orange juice on a cardboard coaster in front of me. Hemingway's face in the bar logo, a line drawing based on the Karsh portrait that made the author look dumb as a wedge. Six feet away the expansive biker and the widow from Ocala discussed antilock brakes and deactivated air bags. A table of rowdy drunks celebrated a friend's successful return from the men's room. A woman on the sidewalk called into the bar, demanding that Morris leave and go shopping. The jukebox volume jumped a couple levels, a country song best suited to night listening. The widow and biker moved their debate to megavitamins, then endangered species. Sid ducked into his office to catch a telephone call. After ten more minutes of cacophony and no Cahill, I escaped to the relative quiet of Duval. Mopeds whanging like yard trimmers, guttural tour buses, straight-pipe Harleys, the clang of the Conch Train's bell.
Summer-morning calm in a sleepy town at the end of U.S. 1.
Zack and his wife, Claire, had stayed at the Pier House several times over the years, so I headed northward, fighting upstream through a throng of milk-skinned tourists in stupid hats who had disembarked a cruise ship at Mallory Dock. Key West that morning radiated the plastic ambience of a theme park. I looked forward to seeing Zack Cahill, as always, but wished I were somewhere other than fighting foot traffic in the shell-ashtraydistrict. One saving grace: that close to the Gulf, even on the island's lee side, the twenty-knot wind took the edge off the heat.
The desk clerk in the Pier House lobby recognized me as a longtime Key West resident. After waiting for two women to check out, I made a discreet request. Without expression, the clerk turned to a computer monitor, scrolled through the guest register, made a sad face, then shook his head. I called my machine from a house phone and punched in my code. No messages.
Of all my friends, Zack had best adopted a sane and productive lifestyle. He'd been a conscientious father, a good husband to a great woman. In spite of his telephone blustering--an old ritual between us--his level approach to life had boosted my sanity many times. He made more money in a month than I'd ever made in a year. It had never made a difference in our friendship. We always had treated his Key West visits as celebrations--of good friendship, if a calendar occasion wasn't handy. But at this point in our lives, the idea of carousing in Sloppy Joe's at eight-thirty in the morning didn't fit. I could have blown it off to a flash of lunatic behavior, to Zack's letting off steam to compensate for his high-pressure occupation. But Cahill never had forgotten anything. Now he'd failed to warn me ahead of a visit and had neglected to put his wallet in his pocket. It made no sense. The idea of his handing over the Rolex to secure a twobeer bar tab made the least sense of all.
The sun popped quickly from treetop level to full-boogie. Too hot to go home, too late in the morning to confront yard work. So I worked up a sweat downtown, dropping coins into phones, calling the motels and guest houses, wishing I had worn sun block. Zack had not been registered at the Ocean Key House, the Reach, the Casa Marina, the Hyatt, the Hilton, or the motels at the south end of Simonton. I called places by the airport and checked back with Bonnie at Sloppy's three times. I tried two time-share resorts and a few B&Bs. I finally rode home. Zackhad a key to the house. I wanted to find him waiting on my porch, beer in hand, or sound asleep on the living room sofa.
No Zack, no messages.
I pedaled back down to Duval, stopping to look into Mangoes, where Zack would take his important lunch, then rode back up Whitehead and inquired at the cruise-ship gangway to see if he might have boarded the Hispaniola Star. His name did not show on the passenger or official guest lists. Without prior arrangement, they wouldn't have let him aboard.
I rode to Mangoes, found a shady seat at the patio bar with a view of the corner entrance, and ordered lunch. My ball cap and shirt were drenched. The bartender, Jesse Spence, another longtime local, handed me a beer. It went down like water. I didn't have to ask. Spence opened another.
With so many tourists and transients on the streets, it's wise to ignore people you don't know in Key West. But a couple of minutes after I arrived, a man with the high cheekbones of a northern plains Native strode into the restaurant. His jitters drew my curiosity. He scanned faces, surveyed the restaurant like a man compelled to do so. His face gave away nothing except his intent to do exactly that. I surmised that he didn't miss a thing. Our eyes caught for an instant, his stare a glint off a cold chunk of steel. He'd jammed his weightlifter's shoulders, neck, pectorals, and upper arms into a starched white, long-sleeved collarless shirt, which he'd buttoned to the top. The hair above his ears, medium length, groomed, trailed down to a nine-inch ponytail from the base of his neck. He wore dark brown trousers, narrow brown shoes. His face reminded me of Jimmy Smits, the actor, but with a hundred thousand more miles on his clock and ample potential for nasty business. Not a tourist. A salesman, perhaps. But not particularly legit, and not on the island to deal with your average consumer.
The man declined the hostess's first offer of a table, choosing instead a deuce in direct sunlight nearer the Duval sidewalk. Atsome point--when he'd scoped his watch for about the sixth time--I wondered if he might have been waiting for Zack. But I couldn't imagine a circumstance where straight old Zack Cahill would do business with someone that flavor.
The bartender hovered nearby. I asked if he recognized the man. Spence eased to the waitress station for a better view. He made a production of it, standing there in his perennial polo shirt and khakis, squinting like a golfer judging distance to the green, begging his facial muscles to jog his memory. He raised his upper lip, Elvis-style, then shook his head. As I finished my grouper sandwich, the man slipped out of the restaurant and headed north on Duval. He quick-glanced the opposite sidewalk and behind himself. A beat of street bop in his stride. I finished my third beer and dropped a twenty.
Spence delivered my change and said, "New York accent. Credit card and we'd know his name. An hour from now, on the right computer, you'd have his life history. He paid with a fifty from a thick roll."
"Thanks for trying."
My shirt had dried while I ate. No matter. It'd soak through the minute I stepped back into direct sunlight. Standard for the summer months. I called home again for messages. One blip--a job query from an Orlando ad agency notorious for general quibbling and penny-pinching. A perfect reason to hit "delete," to keep my cameras in their case.
I rode once more past Sloppy Joe's and caught Bonnie's eye. She ran to the curb on the Greene Street side and shaded her eyes. She didn't have to ask. She pulled Zack Cahill's watch from her arm. "I might get off work early. I don't want to leave this thing here."
"I'll make sure he gets it. Sooner or later. Thanks." I pulled out my wallet. "Let me cover those Coronas."
"I already comped them. Your friend must have been more fucked up than he looked. Good luck." She kissed her left hand,slapped my knee with it, and winked over her shoulder as she hurried back into the bar.
On my way home I stopped to see Chicken Neck Liska, the head detective at the Key West Police Department. Our relationship resembled a Middle East peace pact. He acted the grumpy boss. I shot freelance evidence and crime-scene work between higher-paying but less regular ad-agency and magazine jobs. In a business sense we needed each other, but not often. On a personal level, we trusted each other. Aside from that, in conversation at least, Liska took comfort in an adversarial relationship. I played along by returning his volleys and lending an ear.
The police station smelled of fried bollos. Someone had treated the office to traditional island gut bombs. Deep-fat-fried black-eye-pea flour, full of salt, onions, garlic, and green pepper. Grease city. An alternative to photography: I could make a week's pay in two hours selling Rolaids.
I knocked and walked into Liska's private office. He sat rigid behind his desk. He pulled a fresh sheet of typing paper from a drawer and folded it in half. "You get your money? Your invoice on that B and E up to Von Phister?"
"Paid, spent, regretted," I said. "I've come back begging for bones."
"Ah, you children." Liska rubbed his jowls with the back of his hand as if to wipe perspiration, though the room was cool and I saw no signs of sweat. He smelled of a recently smoked cigarette. Liska possessed a fetish--out of nostalgia and poor taste--for seventies fashions. He wore a white suit with cranberry stitching along the edges of the suit-coat lapels. The jacket hung loose on his slender frame. Chicken Neck's thinning, dark, swept-back hair looked disheveled. His eyes looked tired, the skin around them dark and wrinkled. His fingers turned two corners toward the paper's center fold.
"Liska, I'm only four years younger than you."
"Shows in your outlook, boy. Why you wear that watch in this town? You wanna get mugged or you wanna get laid?"
I looked down and studied the Oyster. "The name Zachary Cahill come across your desk today? Zack Cahill?"
He'd created a low-tech airplane, non-streamlined, with wings shaped like rectangles. "Name Abe Lincoln wouldn't mean squat, day like today."
Liska stood and sighted down the fuselage of his creation. "We got somebody stealing from the cemetery. Not grave robbers, filching heirlooms and shit. They're taking hardware off caskets, iron grillework. The Conch families are up in arms. Top of that, the ex-wife claims she isn't all that ready to marry me again. Got this idea about counseling sessions ..."
"Sounds like an adventure." I sat in an old gray militarysurplus chair. The city had bought hundreds when the Navy closed its base a decade earlier.
"A whole new ball game," he said. "One level or another, I don't talk about it, but I put myself in danger on a weekly basis for years. Big deal. I don't have the guts to face counseling. What do you know about this crapola, Rutledge? You act like you're a man with insight."
"Maybe so, but I've never been married."
"Anyway, I plain forgot the first shrink appointment. This female doctor convinces the old lady that it's a sign of my inner desire to punish her for past transgressions." He pitched the paper airplane toward the doorway. It flew in a tight loop, slapped into a filing cabinet, nose-dived to the floor.
I reached over and pushed his telephone toward him. "Call the doctor and ask her what she had for lunch two days ago. When she tells you she can't recall, tell her you fucking forgot, too.
Chicken Neck snorted but I could see calculations in his eyes."There's one other thing. I filed this morning to run for Tucker's job."
That one took me by surprise. Tommy Tucker had been Monroe County's sheriff, essentially the top enforcement job in the county, for eleven years. I could understand any career officer wanting the job, the prestige, the power. But Liska had taken aim on an elective office. Catching crooks and running political campaigns were two different things. "I figured you'd ride out your longevity here in your own little empire. Where you make all the rules."
"Not as many as you think." He sat and went back into the drawer for another sheet of paper.
"You've survived what, fourteen years? You forget you live in paradise?"
"Who says survived? I pay dues. I got enough trouble, my colon, without this city shit." He paused to scowl. I waited for him to continue. He squinted, flattened the center crease of the paper, and tried a new design. "As you well know, the sheriffs office lost two detectives a few months ago through what's being called 'unorthodox attrition.' I applied for one of the jobs. In so many words, Tommy Tucker told me to stuff it."
"He must hold you to blame for the morals of his scumbag and murdering detectives. Because you were the arresting officer. Modern logic."
"Jerk-off logic." Liska ran a fingernail down the top folds. The man could concentrate on several subjects at once. He'd designed this paper airplane more like a jet, with its surfaces converging to a sharp point. "The city found out I'd applied ..."
"Makes sense, Tucker'd let that gem be known."
" ... so my name is mud. City hasn't been much fun, anyway. Salesberry's been kissing the city commission's ass for seven years. They see him as the ideal chief, a great administrator, a man of the people. He's glued to the job, I'll never sit in that seat. So I'll go take Tucker's job. Anyway, that short time the ex-wifewas married to Avery Hatch, she liked the sheriffs department health plan better than my old one."
"Maybe that's where she got the idea you could afford counseling."
Liska finally chuckled. He flung the airplane and it flew through his door, out of sight down the hallway.
"It's going to change your life dramatically," I said.
Liska went in for a third sheet of paper. "Working and campaigning at the same time?"
"You'll be up against Tucker's clout. People are always scared to buck an incumbent. They know the guy could win and whip out retaliations. Plus, if you lose, you'll be unemployed."
"You'll be there right with me." His phone rang. He grabbed the receiver. He was right, either way. If I campaigned on Liska's behalf, I could lose my crime-scene gigs at the county. If I didn't help him, I'd probably lose my city job anyway. Politics in the Keys resembled minimal-rules games with sudden-death overtimes. Outside his office window the torn fronds of a tall palm fluttered. I imagined dollar bills blowing away through the trees.
Liska grunted and looked disgusted. "Incoming emergency call and the doofus puts me on hold." My face must have broadcast concern. He looked downward to create a perfect bisecting fold. "I meant what I said, bubba."
"I heard you twice the first time. You really think you can win?"
"Only one way to find out." He perked up, pressed the receiver tighter against his ear, then hung up. "Mother of Christ. Next thing, the Southernmost Point'll fall into the ocean. Get this. The Conch Train pulls out of the fuckin' depot and a guy keels into the intersection, Front and Duval, dead as your chair. Some guy not dressed like a tourist. Officer on the scene says fatal stab wound."
The Conch Tour Trains--re--modeled Jeeps towing stringsof trailers made to look like passenger-train cars--carried tourists throughout the island.
I said, "Was the victim wearing a watch?"
"What the fuck kind of question is that?" Liska crumpled his unfinished airplane and chucked it into the trash can. "You beg for bones, bubba, I just put you to work. Go home and get a camera.
"What about Cootie Ortega?" The city's full-time crime photographer had earned a broad reputation for blowing assignments. As the mayor's wife's first cousin, however, he could claim solid job security.
"Cootie's got the flu."
"I saw him downstairs when I came in the building."
"Cootie doesn't know he's got the flu."
"I'm on my bicycle."
Liska hit the intercom. He asked Teresa Barga, the police department's new media liaison director, to take me home for my cameras. He then asked her to deliver me and herself to the Conch Train Depot as fast as she could move it.
Copyright © 1999 by Tom Corcoran. Excerpt from Bone Island Mambo copyright © 2000 by Tom Concoran