A stretched limousine sweltered in an Indian summer, a modern carriage on a rip of asphalt that terminated at a ragged border of grass and water. It would be inaccurate to call the place a beach. There was no strand to separate the saw grass from the bay beyond, no boundary of sand between the sammy earth and Pepperfish Keys.
Past the Keys beckoned the Gulf of Mexico, that place of pirates and privateers whose waters have for aeons lipped along the littoral of Florida’s northwestern coast. A molten sun swelled over that wide bowl. It was only midafternoon and already a flight of pelicans glided off open water seeking an early roost ashore. Atop a cedar tree, perhaps, or perhaps in one of the beetle-ravaged pines that rose as solitary sentinels from the saw grass’s damp pasture.
“I love this scene.” A ponytailed Latino jabbed a remote at the DVD player installed in the cushion of his limo’s rear-facing seat.
“You’ve seen it twice, for God’s sake. . . .”
This protest from the twenty-something straddled over her partner. Her belly rippled like a gymnast’s beneath a halter top. Her legs strained tight against tie-dyed shorts. A mane of chestnut hair.
“Jussa minute, baby, this part—”
The heir apparent to Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe faced his nemesis on the limo’s compact screen:
“You tell them about me? You tell them anything at all? I’ll pickle your fucking tongue—”
“‘Pickle his tongue,’ you hear that?”
“—I’ll pickle it, I’ll slice it, I’ll feed it to your kids in a fucking hamburger—”
“‘Fucking hamburger’! I love it. Man takes no shit.”
“Time for intermission?” She slid a hand inside his crotch.
He brushed her away. “Hit the rewind.”
“Jesus Christ, Eddy, why don’t we just go to a theater?”
“Not released yet. I told you.”
“You also told me they were going to call it Red Moon. Red, you said. Not Scarlet. Scarlet Moon! Totally fag.”
“Movies. They change titles alla time.”
“Lotta hype, you ask me.”
“Bullshit!” He froze the DVD. “This hombre? Randall Damone? Has got legs. He’s gonna be bigger than Brad Pitt. Bigger than Tom Cruise or that Australian. Anybody!”
She glanced to the car’s small screen.
“He’s that good, I wanta see him on something big and silver.”
“Eddy! I can’t remember the last time we saw anything in a real theater.”
“Whatchu talkin’? We got ourself a theater right here!”
“And you the marquis, baby. You the star.”
“I’m something, that’s for sure.”
“How ’bout a sneak preview? ‘Coming Attractions’? Come on, baby. Make it hot.”
She pulled the halter top over her head, licking a finger luxuriously to moisten one nipple—
Then the other.
Her breasts firm as pears.
A smile split Eddy DeLeon’s face to reveal a carcass of decayed teeth. No amount of money could renew the wreckage wrought in poorer years and poorer places to those mandibles. And Eddy would not consent to dentures or other, artificial reconstructions. He didn’t need a pretty smile to get what he wanted.
He didn’t need a pretty face.
Tokens of throwaway money could be noted at a glance. The ring binding his long ponytail of raven-black hair was bought in Mexico, beaten gold. A wide belt sported a pound of turquoise and silver. A single pierce of diamond. Rings of topaz or jade on the fingers of both hands.
Eddy bought a lot of junk at altitude. His fingernail clippers, for example. Eddy trimmed his nearly feminine nails with a silver-plated novelty bought on impulse on a flight from Mexico City to Miami. You might miss the cheap strand of cotton twine looped inside the collar of Eddy’s Brooks Brothers shirt, but you could not miss the Etruscan design on the bling acquired at thirty thousand feet from some in-flight catalog.
Purchases made on solid ground tended to be less impulsive. Eddy loved the fawning attention to be had from a tailor in New York or Chicago. He bought two or three watches a year when earthbound at those cities, always from Govberg’s. Always a Patek Phillipe. Occasionally he would pay too much for some vase or bronze at Christie’s. Anything to show that Eduardo DeLeon was a man with money to toss.
He offered a snuffbox bought over Denver to his topless playmate. She took a hit. He took her pears into his hands.
“Am I staying home with you tonight, Princess? After the party?”
“Nothing at home we can’t do here.”
A certain cloud drifted over those flat, brown eyes.
“Man likes to mount his trophy on the wall, Beth Ann.”
“I’ve never mounted on a wall.”
The intercom cut off Eddy’s reply.
“What is it?”
A partition hissed down to reveal the driver in the front seat. “Crease” might be a tourist with his loud, Hawaiian shirt and baggy trousers. But there are scars old and ugly along his forearms.
“Orlando, boss. He’s got your man.”
“Tell him we’re on our way.”
DeLeon pulled from beneath his paramour.
“You always do that. Get me tight. Make me wait!”
“Business before pleasure.”
“Who is it this time?”
“Put on your top.”
Ten minutes of blacktop later the Lincoln traded the sight of surf and sea for the breezeless shadows of the flatwoods. The hum of asphalt gave way to a sudden crunch of gravel and then a hiss of sand. Little to hear otherwise in this wilderness. Little to see. A pair of ruts snaked through bone-white loam. A monotony of pine and scrub oak and palmetto pressed in from either side, welcomed only for their meager shade of needles and moss and frond. But then a pair of headlights winked ahead. A low-slung sports car idling just off the primitive road.
The Lincoln pulled up to a Corvette glowing like kryptonite. Eddy lowered his honey’s window with the tap of a nail; Beth Ann recoiled at the bloated face swelling suddenly before her own.
“Orlando. Welcome.” Eddy leaned across the long back seat to regard the blond-haired giant in jersey and slacks who waited outside. Orlando Fuqua had to bend deeply to peer into the limo’s interior.
“And who is our guest?”
“It’s Calhoun, Mr. DeLeon.”
A black man the size of a child popped into view, his pitted face barely level with the Lincoln’s rear window. Hair growing like lichen, patches of salt and pepper on a small, round skull.
“That’s ‘Taylor’, sir—Senor. Taylor Calhoun.”
“Looks like a fucking pygmy.”
This from Beth Ann.
“Thass good,” Eddy approved. “Thass real good, baby.”
Most of Calhoun’s clothing was grubbed, stolen, or, very occasionally, donated. A family from Jacksonville left the jeans that now bagged about his bandy legs like socks on a rooster. He’d fished his jacket from a Dumpster. The only scrap of his present ensemble actually purchased was a T-shirt featuring a buxom cheerleader above a logo for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Taylor loved those Jaguars.
“I tole Orlando I watten finished with my work.” The apple in the little man’s throat bobbed like a cork. “I hatten change out the beer kegs. And Mama gave me some launderyin’, too, but Orlando, he tole me you wanted me, so I come right along.”
“I appreciate your consideration, senor.” Eddy gestured magnanimously. “Join me, por favor. For conversation.”
“And what am I ’sposed to do?” Beth Ann retreated from the window.
“Wait in Orlando’s car.”
“We’ll be late for the party.”
“No, no. This will only take—”
“A few minutes. Right.”
A pair of rubies mounted on the gold-plated clasp of her purse. She clawed out a pack of cigarettes.
“This is fucked, Eddy.”
“Help her out, Crease,” DeLeon instructed his driver.
Beth Ann slid the length of the leather bench to exit the limo. Fuqua bundled Taylor in from the other side.
“Where to?” Crease inquired.
“The yard will do,” Eddy told his driver.
The Lincoln’s tires spun briefly before finding a purchase in the white, white sand to leave Beth Ann draped lasciviously across the hood of Orlando’s ’Vette.
“So. Senor Taylor.” Eddy turned attention to his new companion. “I interrupt your chores. My apologies.”
“No problem. I just ditten expect Orlando is all.”
“What, you expect me to do everything myself?”
“Oh, no! No, sir!”
“I can be everywhere, can I? Is why I keep people.”
“Yessir. And I been a good man for you, Mr. DeLeon. Really!”
“I am glad to hear. You like Mama’s?”
“It’s not bad,” Taylor hedged. “But a whorehouse for a man—Not much opportunity for advancement!”
“A sense of humor. I like.”
“Where we goin’, Mr. DeLeon?”
“Well, I hate thinkin’ your ladyfriend’s stuck back there by herself is all.”
“Ah, well. Women, you know, they gossip.”
“They do got themselfs a mouth.” Taylor seemed relieved.
“Muy grande,” Eddy smiled encouragement. “And this will not take long. I hope there is no inconvenience.”
“Oh, no! No, sir, senor. None at all.”
A half mile later the limo emerged from the flatwood’s cover to penetrate a palisade of corrugated tin. It was a junkyard. Spools of telephone cable stacked all over like checkers recently kinged on a cluttered board. Creosote posts piled beside pallets laden with fifty-gallon drums. A museum of antiquated trucks and cars oxidized in permanent retirement. Transmissions and engine blocks.
A BlueBird schoolbus rusted nearest to DeLeon’s Lincoln. Its tires and wheels cannibalized, the bus bowed to Eddy’s vehicle on brown axles. Inside the frigid limo, Taylor Calhoun sweated buckets as Eddy DeLeon applied his silver clippers to a fingernail sharp as a claw.
“So. You watch the cash at Mama’s, don’ you, Senor Taylor? Cash in. Cash out.”
“An’ I never took a dime, neither. Not even petty cash!”
“That is good,” Eddy nodded. “That is very good. But I have something I want you to see.”
Eddy palmed his clippers into his trousers and popped open an armrest to reveal a storage bin and video camera.
“I make videos. A hobby. These digital ones—so easy. See for yourself.”
He displayed the viewfinder for Calhoun’s inspection. A long lens captureed two African American men between a pair of columns on a terrace of marble steps. One man stode up the steps. The other edged painfully down.
“You know these two, amigo?”
“I . . . I doan think so.”
“I can freeze the image. Now . . . Now you can see.”
A pair of caryatids supported the entablature rising massively above the two videoed gentlemen. One of the actors on the stage beneath was easy to identify, a pygmy with patches of salt and pepper crabbing down the steps on arthritic knees.
“That is you, Senor Taylor? Is it not?”
“Mr. DeLeon, I can explain!”
“Do not insult my intelligence, senor.”
Eddy punched “Play.” The second player easily ascended the sloping steps. Long, powerful legs in pleated tans. The kind of physique that might have belonged to a professional athlete, a large-boned frame, powerful torso straining the limits of a navy blue blazer. A boulder-sized head. Clean shaven. Hair cut to the scalp. A black hand extended to accept Taylor Calhoun’s limply offered grasp.
Eddy DeLeon froze the frame once again. Forced the viewfinder to Calhoun’s reluctant attention.
“This nigger shaking your hand? Is Barrett Raines, is he not? I should say, Special Agent Barrett Raines. Florida Department of fucking Law Enforcement!”
“But Mr. DeLeon, I known Bear awl my life! We used to fish when he was little. He lives on Deacon Beach, for God’s sake. You know that!”
“I know that a courthouse is a curious place to fish. And the Suwannee County courthouse is sixty miles at least from Pepperfish Keys, senor. Sixty miles inland. What kind of fishing you doing over there?”
“I vote in Suwannee County.”
“Right there in Live Oak. Always have, you can check and see.”
“Election is not until November.”
“Yes, sir, but they said they had to verify all the absentee voters; you know how it’s been, all the problems they been havin’.”
“And was there nothing else? No other—Opportunity?”
“No, sir! None. Nada!”
Calhoun now squirming on the limo’s slick seat.
Orlando Fuqua laid a pale paw across the small man’s chest.
“Don’t make a problem.”
“But Jesus, ain’ a black man on the Keys don’t know Bear Raines! I got cousins still sees him at church. We used to talk awl the time!”
“How ’bout movies, Taylor? You talk with this negro about my interest in le cinema?”
“I doan know nuthin’ bout no movies, Mr. DeLeon. All I do is what Mama tells me; change out kegs, mop restrooms, that’s all. Swear to God!”
DeLeon dropped the videocam back into its plush bin.
“Let him out.”
“Thank you, Mr. DeLeon!”
Taylor’s knees seemed uncertain as he followed Fuqua in a spill from the auto’s interior.
“I been a good man for you, Mr. DeLeon! I always will!”
“Nevertheless, senor, I don’ think I employ you any longer.”
“No problem. I understand.”
“I do. Gracias.”
“De nada,” Eddy replied and Orlando Fuqua shot the runt through the knee.
Taylor Calhoun’s scream cut the heavy air like a knife. They came over and over, his screamed imprecations. Agonized. Gut wrenching. Eddy DeLeon pocketed his nailclippers before stepping out of the car.
“Jesus!” Taylor screamed still. “Jesus God!”
Calhoun now clutching splinters of bone in a fetal collapse beside the schoolbus. DeLeon slipped his thumb beneath the loop of cotton twine disguised beneath the other necklace on his slender neck. Taylor struggling then to crawl beneath the rusting schoolbus.
“You don’t need to do that, Mr. DeLeon! God! This here’s enough! Oh God!”
A flick of the wrist. The string snapped, a pleasant “pop.” A straight blade appeared, opened from the pearl handle in Eddy’s hand.
“You Doan’ Need To! You Doan’—!”
Eddy cut that squawk short. Ear to ear. The carotids sprayed the bus’s yellow flank with an undeniable graffiti. The larnyx gaped open. A sucking sound, then. Like a baby gasping for wind.
“He still trying,” Orlando grunted reluctant respect.
But then the head lolled obscenely to one side. The body relaxed. The legs twitched. A later examination would reveal the patched jeans to have been soiled.
Eddy repaired his blade on the dead man’s trousers.
“Crease—” he spoke to his driver.
“Before morning I want some other tires on the limo. Use Michelins, get rid of these others.”
“An’ what about Taylor?”
“Take him off the road someplace. Put on some dirt. And hurry. I don’ wanta be late for the party.”
Copyright © 2007 by Darryl Wimberley. All rights reserved.