Authors: Tim Dorsey
For Charlie Wood
This world is a comedy to those that think,
a tragedy to those that feel.
he naked couple ran screaming out of the hotel, covered with fire-extinguisher foam.
Which didn’t attract much attention in Fort Lauderdale.
A window on the top floor shattered. Broken glass rained down from the high-rise, followed by a toilet-tank lid that exploded in the street.
It became quiet.
The nude pair wiped chemical-retardant foam from their eyes and stared down at the broken shards scattered at their feet.
The quiet didn’t last.
Another window shattered. Then another, and another. Toilet-tank lids flying everywhere and crashing in the street like a drumroll. More naked, foamy people dashed outside.
People began to notice. Police and fire trucks arrived. TV vans.
Two men nonchalantly strolled up the noisy sidewalk through ceramic chunks and suds.
“The key to my new life as a private detective is ultra-sensitive powers of observation,” Serge told Coleman. “You must be able to detect the tiniest out-of-place detail . . .”
A hysterical mob ran by, scratching slippery breasts and buttocks.
“Most people walk through life without ever noticing the little clues all around that something’s not right.”
Another toilet lid crashed in front of them and Serge pulled a porcelain splinter from his arm. “In Florida, you just have to filter out the background weirdness.”
The name’s Mahoney. I get lied to for a living. The sign on the door says I’m a private eye, but I mainly keep bartenders and bookies in business.
My best friends—a rumpled fedora and bottle of rye—sat silently on my desk, waiting anxiously for the next case like a weasel-beater in a peep-show booth with incorrect change.
The day began like any other, except it was a Tuesday, not the other six. One of those pleasant days, real nice, right up until it kicks you in the Adam’s apple like a transvestite in stilettos. The air coming through my window was heavy with heat, humidity and double crosses.
Down on the street, people’s lives bounce off one another like eight balls in Frankie’s billiard joint, until one of them lands in the corner pocket of my office. They pay two hundred clams up front to spill their guts about frame jobs, missing identical twins and alimony. Most of them just stink up my oxygen with alibis that are as shaky as an analogy that doesn’t fit.
But this next one was a broad. She knocked on my door like knuckles hitting wood. I told her to have a seat and gave her a hankie. She blew her nose like a British ambulance, and her sob story had more twists than a dragon parade in Chinatown. But I have a soft spot for the farmer’s-daughter types who take a wrong turn out of the dairy barn and end up in Palooka-ville. This dame didn’t know from vice cops on the take for back-alley knobbers, which meant not having that uncomfortable conversation again, and that was jake by me.
My gut said this bird was on the level. She had no priors, skeletons or known associates. A regular Betty Crocker life in the burbs. It all started simple enough with an out-of-the-blue phone call from some mug she’d never heard of. An odd kind of threat. Clearly a wrong number. And some easy green for me. I planned on dishing it for the usual kickback to an off-duty cop named McClusky who put the arm on such jokers to knock off the funny stuff, and I’d still have time to make the eighth race at Gulfstream.
The joker had other ideas . . .
rook Campanella strolled out the front steps of an office building on the Miami River. A ton of weight lifted from her shoulders. Brook had debated hiring a private eye, but she felt so much better now after her conversation with Mahoney.
Brook wasn’t concerned about herself. It was her father. The ominous phone call had been for him, and he couldn’t make sense of it either. Brook was a loving daughter with straight A’s in community college. She chose to stay at home after her mother died and take care of her dad in his retirement. They couldn’t have led more boring lives. Then this brief, electronic intrusion into their world changed everything. Her dad was too old for the stress, so Brook took the reins and flipped yellow pages.
Yes, it had to be some kind of mistake just like Mahoney said. And he promised to take care of it.
She smiled for the first time in an eternity and climbed into her VW Beetle.
Within days, her father would be dead, their house ransacked, and a cop involved in the case—as Mahoney phrased it—would “have caught a case of lead poisoning courtesy of Smith & Wesson.”
Brook’s life shattered again. Who was doing all this, and why?
She was still thinking those thoughts right up until she vanished off the face of the earth.
Not voluntarily, according to police. They found signs of a struggle and her abandoned VW.
She was in the wind.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
olice stood in a solemn circle. If they’d forgotten how much blood a human body holds, they were reminded.
State Road 60 is one of those great old Florida drives. From Tampa on the west coast to Vero Beach on the east, rolling through Mulberry and Bartow and Yeehaw Junction. Phosphate mines and orange groves and cows loitering near water holes in vast open flats dotted with sabal palms, stretching for miles, making the sky big. Here and there were the kind of occasional, isolated farmhouses that made people subconsciously think:
Do they get Internet?
In the middle of one overgrown field stood a single concrete wall, several stories high, covered with grime and mildew, the ancient ruins of a drive-in theater. The top of the wall was the last thing to catch a warm glow from the setting sun.
Standing in another field were the cops, taking notes in the waning light. Forensic cameras flashed. Two detectives glanced at each other and simultaneously raised knowing eyebrows. The extremely deceased victim lay on his back. He had been sliced wide, abdomen to throat, and none too carefully. All internal organs missing. Well, not
just not where they were supposed to be. Gloved crime-scene techs reached into the surrounding grass, collecting strewn kidneys and liver and something that would be labeled “unidentified.”
“If I wasn’t standing here, I’d swear this was staged with fake props.” The detective bent down for closer inspection. “Like a horror movie.”
“One thing’s for sure,” said the second detective. “We’ve got ourselves a case of severe overkill, which means it was a crime of passion.”
The first detective stood up again. “I can’t even begin to think what kind of weapon did this.”
“Weapon? Singular?” replied his partner. “I’d say we’ve got everything from a machete to spiked clubs and concrete saws.”
They both looked back across several hundred yards of grazing land, toward where they had pulled off State Road 60 near the drive-in. Sparse traffic began turning on headlights. “What kind of sick—”
An out-of-breath corporal ran over. “Sir, I think we have an ID on the victim.” He pointed over his shoulder. “Found his wallet behind that palm.” A shaking hand held out the driver’s license.
The first detective grabbed it and squinted. Then his eyes widened. “Roscoe Nash? Not from the newspaper articles.”
“The same,” said the corporal.
The detective made a two-fingered whistle to get everyone’s attention. “Listen up. I just learned who our special guest is here. Roscoe Nash. And I’ve changed my assessment of the attack. The killer didn’t go far enough.”
They all formed a circle and looked down again, laughing heartily.
THE PREVIOUS MORNING
A jet-black 1978 Firebird Trans Am drove past the state fairgrounds east of Tampa. The original Phoenix bird design that covered the hood had been painted over with a winged skull. The wings were in the shape of Florida.
Coleman pulled deeply from a bong he’d fashioned out of colorful hamster tubes.
Serge glanced over from the driver’s seat. “You realize there’s a hamster out there not getting his exercise.”
Coleman raised his head and exhaled. “No, he’s still in there.”
Serge’s neck jerked back. “You left the hamster in your bong? Why on earth would you do something so disturbing?”
“So the little fella can get righteously baked!” Coleman twisted apart the tubing and tapped his furry little friend out into his lap. “Ow! He bit me!”
“Serves you right.”
“Naw, he’s just got a mondo case of the munchies.” Coleman reached in a bag of Doritos and held out a chip. “See how fast he snatched it from my hand?”
“What next for the poor animal? LSD?”
“I considered it,” said Coleman. “But he’d need to be around others of his kind who are more experienced for a soothing environment to avoid a bad trip. And of course I’d have to take the running wheel out of his cage because no good can ever come from that on acid.”
“I got a crazy thought,” said Serge. “How about not giving drugs to rodents in the first place?”
“Then what’s the point?”
“What do you mean, what— Just forget it.” Serge looked this way and that. “Where’d he go?”
“Under my seat. I set him free to explore.” Coleman packed the bowl again. “If I was that small, that’s where I’d like to be.”
Serge momentarily closed his eyes with a deep sigh.
“Explain to me again about our new job.”
“Okay, listen carefully for the fifth time.” Serge took his hands off the wheel and rubbed his palms together. “I’ve decided to totally rededicate my entire life to being a private eye. Your life, too.”
“Is this like all your other rededications?”
“No!” Serge pounded his fist on the dash. “Those were all spur-of-the-moment impulsive flights of silliness. Like my last idiotic idea of becoming a house hunter. Where’s the challenge?”
“You don’t even need a very accurate gun.”
“But this is completely different. This time it’s bone-deep, the whole reason I was placed on earth. I’ve been putting a tremendous amount of contemplation into it.”
“For how long?”
“About a half hour since we finished watching that detective movie back at the motel.”
“Coleman, it was the highest-grossing detective movie ever filmed in Florida.”
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Serge winced and hit the dash again. “That’s why we must become private eyes. Maybe they’ll make a movie about our dashing exploits and fix that blasphemy.”
“Where are we going to get our cases?”
“I’m thinking Mahoney.” Serge ran a red light and waved “sorry” to honking drivers. “Now that he’s opened his own detective agency in Miami, our timing couldn’t be more perfect.”
Coleman took the bong from his mouth. “Mahoney talks funny.”
“I can’t get enough of his Spillane-Mitchum-Hammett patter,” said Serge. “And he’s carved out a nice little niche for himself: helping the victims of scam artists. There are thousands of dupes out there who are either too embarrassed to go to the police, or if they do report the cons, they find out no laws were broken because they did something stupid and gullible.”
“Coleman, did you know the word
is not in the dictionary?”
“Jesus, Coleman. It
in the dictionary, right next to your picture.”
Serge shook his head to clear the dumbness in the car. “Anyway, word’s starting to get out about Mahoney. When there’s no place else for victims to go, they go to Mahoney. He’s been able to make a number of impressive asset recoveries for his clients, but I’m sure I can amp that success rate by persuading the less cooperative miscreants who won’t listen to reason. Because I’m a people person.”
“You said thousands of victims?”
Serge nodded hard. “Florida is the scam capital of the nation, a perpetual daisy chain of old and fresh schemes that boggle the imagination. Ponzis, odometer fraud, counterfeit paintings, foreign lotteries, priceless costume jewelry, bodies stacked in single graves that are resold, repair your credit, learn to dance better, stuff envelopes at home for three hundred dollars an hour, get that new-look cosmetic surgery by a doctor who blows town when the job is only half done, leaving your face with that new ‘Picasso’ look. One dude mass-mailed fake dry-cleaning bills to restaurants for soup that was never spilled. But the amounts were so small, a bunch of them just paid, and the guy made a killing. Other brazen crooks waltz into low-end mortgage offices with fake ID and documents to take out equity loans on homes they don’t own. Someone else sold hole-in-one insurance.”
“Charities are always holding fund-raisers with fantastic contests like sinking a basketball from half court for fifty thousand dollars. Of course they can’t pay because they’re charities and it would dampen the fund-raiser. So it’s very common in the insurance industry to offer single-day policies against potential long-shot winners. In Florida, with all the golf courses, it’s holes-in-one. So this grifter exclusively sold such insurance, undercutting all the legit companies, and whenever someone hit a hole-in-one, he’d dissolve the company and move on. The scams never end in this state, and that’s why there’s gold in them thar streets for us and Mahoney.”
Coleman inspected a fingertip for something that had come out of his nose. “Does this mean you’re not going to have any more Secret Master Plans?”
said Serge. “This detective business is part of the biggest Secret Master Plan yet. That’s why we’ve driven back to Tampa. We have to attend the Republican National Convention.”
“Except it’s anything but,” said Serge. “Especially with Tropical Storm Isaac bearing down with gale-force situation comedy. And if I’m really lucky, I might run into Sarah Palin so I can help her out.”
“Because the woman of my dreams has fallen on hard times,” said Serge. “Last time I saw her, it was at a distance on TV in a department store, and she apparently has been reduced to working behind the counter at a Chick-fil-A.”
“But how does the convention fit in with your private-detective Master Plan?”
“If you’re going to do something, do it big! Be the best in your field!” said Serge. “And some of the highest-paid private eyes are political investigators. They come in two types: campaign detectives that dig up dirt on candidates, and stock-market detectives who try to figure out how an upcoming congressional vote is going to swing before it’s cast.”
“So you’re just in it for the money?”
“That’s gravy,” said Serge, sticking a CD in the stereo. “People in this country are at one another’s throats like no time since the Vietnam War. Which brings up the main objective of my new Master Plan: to reunite the country.”
“ . . . O beautiful for spacious skies . . .”
“I don’t know about that.” Coleman exhaled another hit. “People are getting pretty crazy out there.”
“Only because they haven’t heard my solutions.” Serge waved his left hand around like he was writing on an invisible blackboard. “The current political climate has become psychotically polarized and nobody can figure it out . . .”
“ . . . God shed his grace on thee . . .”
“. . . But it’s as simple as choosing up teams in a school yard. You want to be on the side with your friends. It’s the most basic human emotion, to be accepted and loved. I just have to convince the country we’re all on the same side, then we all hug and begin spreading brotherhood . . .”
“And sisterhood,” said Coleman.
“Right. I need to watch more
” said Serge. “And spread sisterhood . . .”
“ . . . From sea to shining sea! . . .”
“But how do you plan to convince everyone we’re on the same side?”
“Instead of being slaves to our toxic emotional times, we harness that outrage,” said Serge. “So we just change the national slogan from ‘Land of the Free’ to ‘Fuck Canada.’ ”
Coleman nodded. “I think everyone can get behind that.”
“Because it’s the American way.”
Coleman cracked a beer, then inserted an eyedropper and drew ale up into the bulb. “What gave you this whole idea?”
“TV.” The Trans Am turned sharply onto Orient Road. “I was watching the Tea Party and the Occupiers on the news and I said to myself, ‘Serge, you can bring these people together, no problem.’ ”
Coleman held the eyedropper down toward the floor. “They hate each other’s guts.”
“That’s just frustration talking.” Serge pulled the Firebird up to a compound of buildings with vertical slit windows and spooled razor wire. “Take the Tea Party. I get it. They’re a playground team with staunch work ethics and sincere values, and they’re sick of watching all these lazy, political clowns throw away their hard-earned tax dollars. On the other hand are the Occupiers, the other playground team who’s furious that the top one percent hire a bunch of lobbyists to bribe those same clowns and tilt the chessboard.”
Coleman squeezed drops into the hamster’s mouth. “Please continue.”
“The two groups should be ultimate allies.” Serge raised binoculars toward a back gate where an electric signal snapped a sequence of locks open. “It just gets lost in the slight nuance between how the two groups deliver their respective messages.”
“The Tea Party draws Hitler mustaches on pictures of the president.”
“And the Occupiers?”
“They shit in public parks,” said Serge. “It’s such a fine line.”
“I could join that last group,” said Coleman.
“You’re already an honorary member.”
Serge continued his surveillance. A just-released prisoner signed some paperwork at the gates and began walking away from the Hillsborough Correctional Center.
Coleman leaned out the window. “Is this the county jail?”
“Yes, next question.”
“Can we leave?” Coleman placed the hamster on his shoulder and glanced around. “I’m getting paranoid parked outside this place.”