Authors: Tom Corcoran
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Heartfelt thanks must go to Franette Ansel Abercrombie, Carolyn Ferguson, David Sayre, Sandie Herron, Richard Badolato, Cherie Binger, Wendy L. Nelson, Teresa Murphy Clark, Jay Gewin, Marty Corcoran, and Dinah George.
Again I thank all the booksellers who “hand sell” my Alex Rutledge novels. And special thanks to all the book reviewers who don’t spoil readers’ surprises by revealing plot twists.
As the circle of light increases,
so does its circumference of darkness.
Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth
and whatever you feed it is never enough.
—the commissaris, in
Just a Corpse at Twilight
by Janwillem van de Wetering
HE AIR INSIDE THE
taxi could have fertilized a Glades County cane field. Secondhand curry and clove gum fought the driver’s sour odor, and a thick nicotine haze on the windows gave the sky a sickly mustard tint, blurring the five electric towers south of us. I wished I was back in Key West, inhaling salt breezes through screens, packing for my photo job on Grand Cayman Island. My southbound flight was forty-eight hours away. I had let too many pre-trip details slide.
My wish to be elsewhere passed quickly. Sam Wheeler had done me a lifetime of favors in recent years, favors hard to pay back. This was a chance to chip away at my debt. I needed to be right where I was, in the backseat of a taxi in a stamp-sized parking lot near Fort Lauderdale. Sam, too, was doing what he had to do. In the room where he stood, it was fifty degrees colder than anywhere else in South Florida just before noon.
Unnerved by our proximity to the morgue, the cabbie kept checking his mirrors, twisting to scout the upscale mobile homes across the street. After a county van departed, he moved his taxi from open sunlight to the shade of a bottlebrush tree. He left his engine running and turned up a small orange radio he had taped to the dashboard. The box was tuned to a talk show, a meeting ground for people whose opinions and mouths outran their smarts. He had stuck an old religious icon, a feathered crucifix, to the dash below the radio. I wanted to invoke its powers to make my day end better than it had begun. I doubted that I was tuned to its wavelength.
After several minutes of stale air and radio talk, the man tapped his finger on a gauge. “We lose this cold air, mon, or I got to go.”
He was wise to worry on a hot April day. Most cars that old, idling with the air conditioner cranked full blast, would boil radiators in ten minutes. I leaned forward, checked his temp needle. It rested a hair above normal.
Engine heat was not his problem.
Sam had been inside the innocuous, sand-colored building for only seven minutes. I had no idea how long he would be in there. I slid the man twenty bucks—a third of it tip. I would rather sweat in ninety-degree open air than be force-fed drivel while I stuck to cheap vinyl seat covers. We could call another cab when Sam was free.
Harsh brightness hit me as I walked from the taxi. The driver backed, spun his steering wheel, and launched forward at full throttle. He fishtailed, braked for an instant, and almost hit a sheriff’s cruiser at the apron. The deputy shook his head and drove to the vacated shady slot as if near misses happened all the time. He got out, gazed up the road, kick-closed the county car’s door. He was about five-eight, with a crewcut, huge muscles, a thick neck, and broad chest. He wore a red polo shirt, had a gold badge clipped to his belt, a weapon in a hip holster. He ignored me as he strode to the building. He was a lawman on a mission. I could’ve been dancing on stilts, juggling kittens and hand grenades. He would have ignored me.
Broward County’s a tough beat.
* * *
Sam had shown up on Dredgers Lane at seven-thirty that morning. My head was half under a pillow, but I recognized the single knock, his soft two-note whistle through the porch screen door. Strange way to start a Monday. It was too early for a social call, and Sam never came by without phoning first.
Sam looked whipped and puzzled. He fixed his eyes on the kitchen wall and skipped the salutations. “You got a busy day?”
I thought about the legal-pad list, chores I had put off, bills I hadn’t paid, quotes I should have mailed days ago. I pictured my last-minute scramble, from the house to the airport, two days away. Then I thought about everything Sam had done for me.
“I mean, if you’re busy, Alex…”
“Nothing I can’t ignore,” I said.
“I need to be in Broward for a couple hours. I bought two tickets for a turnaround. I’ll buy us a good lunch. We’ll be back here by five.”
With the constant easterlies, the past couple weeks of twenty- to twenty-five-knot winds abating, I’d have guessed that Sam would want to spend his day on the water, catching up with regular customers. He was dressed for work. He’d become sensitive to sunlight in recent years, and always wore lightweight long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. But I noticed that he wore sneakers instead of his leather boat shoes. I couldn’t imagine a fishing guide and Vietnam vet needing a traveling companion. I decided to let him explain when he was ready.
Teresa walked out of the bathroom, wrapped in a large towel with a smaller towel around her head. She nodded hello, but looked displeased to find Sam in the house.
“Is there time to brush my teeth?” I said.
“Take a shower. The flight’s not till eight-twenty. I’ll make coffee.”
* * *
Sam spoke softly as he drove his old Ford Bronco to the airport. “Not really my business, but is Teresa that unpleasant every morning?”
“She does her major thinking when she wakes up. That brain whips up to speed before the coffee hits. Plus, she worked late last night.”
We crossed Garrison Bight. Sam didn’t glance at his boat slip or check which guides were still at the dock. He moved his cup to his left hand so he could shift gears. “She doesn’t like dawn distractions?”
“Especially when she clocks out at midnight. I keep my distance.”
“The woman in the bubble?”
“With me outside, looking in,” I said.
“Tell me again that apartment deal.”
“Her landlord went to monthly rentals, on short notice. He jacked up the rent and drove out four different tenants. It’s gone from an apartment to a condo, then a residential atrium. They never trim that dime-sized yard. They’ll probably advertise it as a two-bed, two-bath estate with mature foliage.”
“So, you got a roomie?”
“Hell, the past eight months we’ve lived together in two different places. This cuts our commute by ten blocks.”
“Okay so far?”
“Three days. She has her moods. It’s too soon to decide.”
Sam drove across to Flagler. “I got a call at six from a deputy medical examiner in Broward. They found a dead woman up there, beat up bad, dumped on a tree lawn in a ritzy subdivision. They say it’s my sister, Lorie. They want me to do the formalities, sign the piece of paper.”
“The sister you’d lost track of?”
“Since the mid-Eighties.” Sam paused, then said, “The same month the Challenger blew up, Lorie went poof, too. She’d sent me a photograph; she was holding a snook she’d caught in Chokoloskee. I called a few days later, but the phone was disconnected. I never heard from her again. My sisters up north, Flora and Ida, they never did either.” Sam went silent a moment, then added, “Lorie had a few problems back then with abusive boyfriends. Strange, she was still in Lauderdale.”
“How did they track you down?”
“An old picture of me in her wallet. I mailed one to each sister from Fort Benning during Jump School. Lorie probably couldn’t read yet. Flora was about to start school. Little Ida, come to think of it, I don’t know if she was born. I signed the backs of the photos, ‘Love, Brother Sam,’ with my service number under my name. I was one gung ho son of a bitch.”
Sam was quiet on the flight. It’s not easy to talk on a droning commuter plane, anyway. This one was full of sunburned spring breakers, leaving the party, flying back to reality. We’d bought the
Key West Citizen
before boarding and swapped sections during the flight. Several front-section articles normally would have drawn comment from Sam. He’d had nothing to say. Not even a wisecrack about toasted college kids. Our friendship had endured because we could survive silence in each other’s company. This deflated mood was not reflective or pissed-off quiet. In the years I had known Sam, I had never seen a silence of absolute sadness.
He nudged me, pointed as we descended over the Everglades on final glide into Lauderdale. Months ago he’d described the huge highway cloverleaf below us. The Interstate had wiped out Andytown, the crossroad where Sam had been a teenager. He still could claim Muncie, Indiana, as his real hometown. But his sisters, born in Florida, at home, had lost their roots to road planners, graders, and cement mixers. The interchange was larger than the town that preceded it.
After we touched down, Sam said, “Lorie was so damned stubborn, like my old man. She and the old man were going at it in the car one time, back when 441 was in the Everglades. He was snarling and she was snapping, arguing over nothing. He pulled to the shoulder and told her he wasn’t going to have her damned sass. She could change her tone or walk home. She got out and closed the door. A mile down the highway I realized he wasn’t going to stop. He was going to let a nine-year-old girl hike ten miles on a rural two-lane. I told him to let me out, too. He did, and drove away. I’d walked maybe two minutes back in her direction. The next thing I knew a big Oldsmobile sedan pulled over to pick me up. Lorie had thumbed herself a ride. We damn near beat the old man home.”
“How did he react to that?”
“He never said a thing. She never did, either.”
“Tough little girl.”
“I guess not tough enough.”
* * *
The sun stared down as if I were on trial. I looked away as if guilty, stood next to a drainage culvert under a tree hung with flaming crimson blossoms. I checked my watch, then told myself to quit checking my watch. The cabbie was halfway back to the airport hack line. I still smelled of clove gum and curry.
The Broward Medical Examiner Lab looked like thousands of other single-story Florida office buildings. I had to think that some county architect in a hurry to start happy hour had whipped out the plans on a Friday afternoon. A landscaper had tried to save his ass with sweet viburnum, live oak, dwarf poinciana, and wax myrtle. I found it strange that Broward had set the laboratory in a Dania Beach section of upscale mobile-home parks and midscale condos. A trump of all flags at half-mast, an empty flagpole, stood near the entrance. Its ropes fluttered in the breeze, and heavy hooks slapped the hollow pole. The setting brought to mind the conflict in my career, the extremes of beautiful and gruesome, of fulfilling jobs and those that were draining and dangerous.
Three years ago I had thought that part-time forensic work would boost my cash flow and fill slack time. I had started with the Key West Police, jobs that didn’t require science or complex procedures. My name got talked up. Within months, Monroe County’s detectives were calling when their full-timers were overworked or on vacation. The only good thing about my sideline was extra bucks toward my bills. The bad part was how close I came to tragedy, how crime jobs had dragged me into a realm I’d avoided most of my life. I still worked regularly, mostly out of town, doing light journalism, ad-agency shoots, and magazine features. But those gigs promised me no great future. Within the past few months, two ad clients had been bought out. Their choice assignments had vanished along with their corporate names. Even with the Grand Cayman job, my fiscal year could be as hollow as the empty flagpole. Unless I hit a surprise jackpot, a windfall out of the blue, I faced seven more years of mortgage payments. My short-notice, one-shot forensic jobs could make the difference between eating and going hungry.