Authors: Edna Buchanan
There had been dozens of stories. Ricky was the only child of Sean Chance, a city planner, and his wife, Heather, who taught school at Millard Junior High. High school students wept and clung to one another at the boy's funeral. Hundreds filled the church, spilling into the street, as Ricky's basketball coach and his pastor delivered eulogies. The family was too distraught to speak.
The wounded girl's parents kept a hospital vigil, their daughter not expected to survive. After ten days, however, her prognosis changed, her condition up
graded from critical to serious, then from serious to fair. Police guarded her room, and as soon as she was able, she cooperated with detectives as best she could.
My phone rang while I was still reading. “Got an ID.” Burch sounded upbeat. “Andre Coney, age thirty-one.”
“His rap sheet?”
“Dates back to age eleven, mostly petty but some strong-arms, a lotta B and E's, drugs, one lewd and lascivious.”
“Was he married? Who did he live with? Parents?”
“According to Levitan, the next of kin's an aunt, one Ida Sweeting in South Miami. She helped raise him. But when he made the notification, she said she wasn't even sure where he'd been staying. Hadn't seen him in weeks.”
“Think she'll remember who he ran with fourteen years ago?”
“Hope so, but I gotta do the drill before I talk to her. The team's gonna meet in the
, eyeball the file, then vote on whether to take on the case. Only a formality. Everybody's hot to go.”
“What about Sunny, she still local?”
“Yeah, made a coupla calls. Lives over on the beach now. I'll look her up tomorrow after the meeting. Meanwhile, if you put Coney's name in the paper, don't mention a connection to this case.”
“Right. Think Sunny will talk to me too?”
“It's up to her,” he said. “Just don't jump the gun on me. Sit on it until I show her some pictures. I'm digging up Coney's old mug shots from back then.”
Biscayne Bay glinted like broken glass beneath the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun, as I drove home. No tourist would suspect that beneath its postcard-perfect surface, the bay had become a toilet that couldn't be flushed. Underwater sewer lines had ruptured and water-use restrictions had complicated matters. Power cleaning, car washing, and bubbling fountains had been outlawed. Police were enforcing the bans and Miamians had been warned to limit washing clothes and dishes and to flush only when necessary.
The future seemed grim and increasingly brown. What has happened to the world, to this city, and to me? I wondered, trying unsuccessfully to block out Kendall McDonald, who lingered in my heart and mind like a melancholy refrain. Uneasy and restless, shadowed by a vague foreboding, I yearned to flee, to roam uncharted shores and unspoiled beaches. This
story, I thought, would finance my brief escape.
There were other benefits as well. Having time to polish a magazine piece is a luxury to those of us who pound out daily news stories. My work wouldn't be mindlessly slashed by an uncaring editor under deadline pressure or forced out of the paper by late-breaking news. This project was something to look forward to in an uncertain world.
Mrs. Goldstein, my landlady, was in her garden, lugging a plastic water bucket that sloshed with each step.
“I'm watering,” she explained, “with gray water.”
Gray is the term for water discarded after bathing or washing dishes.
“Bathwater,” she panted, wisps of gray hair clinging to her neck, her cotton housedress damp with perspiration.
“You can't do this,” I protested. The woman is eighty-two years old.
“But look.” She gestured, a smile lighting up her face.
The Brunfelsia's pale lavender flowers exuded a heady fragrance. The same delicate blooms were deep purple yesterday. Tomorrow they would fade to white, then fall, like young lives cut short. The wistful beauty of the fragrant flowering shrub, common name Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, was worth any effort.
I fetched my own pail. Bitsy, my police-trained tiny mop of a dog, scampered around us as we launched a bucket brigade from the Goldstein bathtub to her garden, pausing only to curse state water managers. Our sea-level city drowned last fall. Homes and cars flooded, sewers backed up, and hapless motorists drowned, their cars submerged after they mistook overflowing canals for flooded streets. State officials reacted by reducing the water levels in Lake Okeechobeeâthe Native American word for Big Waterâfar too much. The huge freshwater lake, second largest in the lower forty-eight states, supplies South Florida's drinking water. Now this lake, the planet's most recognizable feature when viewed from outer space, was nearly dry and we faced another water crisis. This time, too little.
I fed Bitsy and Billy Boots the cat, surveyed the unappealing prospects in my refrigerator, and checked my messages. Only one.
I called her back. “You're running with the Cold Case Squad assignment, aren't you?”
“Sure thang,” Lottie said. “Any of them bad boys single and hot to go?” Despite a dispiriting string of Mr. Wrongs, she is ever optimistic.
She insisted we celebrate our magazine assignment. So Bitsy and I took a quick walk, Billy Boots trailing at a distance, so he could pretend not to know us if we did something embarrassing. Then Lottie picked me up.
We settled at an umbrella table between the pool and the docks at the Fifth Street Marina. Lottie, the paper's best breaking-news shooter, bitched bitterly about the day's assignments from Gretchen, all local politicians “presenting the plaque.”
“Isn't this premature?” I asked Lottie, as I ordered a Painkiller Number One. The sneaky concoction of rum, coconut cream, pineapple, and orange juice is smooth and guaranteed to numb the senses. It's available in various strengths, depending on the severity of your pain. “Shouldn't we finish the project, then celebrate?”
She ordered a lime margarita. “We kin party then too, and again when it's published. Didn't the President say we all should go back to our normal lives?”
“Sure. He also said, âWatch out, because we don't know when or how but somebody's trying to kill you. Now go on out there and live normally, but stay alert.'”
“Not bad advice whenever,” she said, “especially in Miami. I tell that to myself every time I get behind the wheel, especially when I drive the Palmetto Expressway. You ever been to Xochimilco, Mejico?”
“I wouldn't even try to spell it, much less find it. What is it?”
“Little town where they celebrate four hundred twenty-two official fiestas a year!” She wrinkled her freckled nose and grinned. “Them Mexicans sure know how to live.”
“Maybe there's nothing to celebrate around here.” I sighed, watching night creep along the western horizon. “Lately, Lottie, especially after what happened in New York and DC, life feels like a long winter with no Christmas.” I told her about Sunny Hartley and Ricky Chance.
She shook her head at the terrible details. “Gonna talk to the poor little gal?”
“Sure. But Burch has to break the news first, find out if the dead guy really was one of her attackers. No point in me intruding on her if he wasn't.”
“We're gonna be working with Riley on the Cold Case gig,” Lottie said cheerfully. “Still suspect she and McDonald have the hots for each other?”
I took a healthy swallow of my Painkiller and shrugged. “Nothing I can do about it if they do.” The lack of trust, the misunderstandings and regrets all came back to me. I stared in dismay at my drink. So far it wasn't doing its job. “I don't even know if he's back from New York yet,” I said. “Haven't heard a thing since he left with the contingent of Miami cops who volunteered for the assistance mission. Isn't it strange that he'd find Riley attractive? You'd think she'd be the last woman he'd lust after. We're nothing alike. She's such an obnoxious bitch.”
Lottie squinted and cupped her ear, as though she
hadn't heard right. “Sure. And you're a real little Miss Congeniality, so shy and sweet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, incredulous. “Riley is a superbitch.”
“And what are you like when some fool gets in your way on deadline?”
different,” I said. “You do what you have to on deadline. All that matters is the story. So you do things you'd never do normally. You know how it is. The job gives you tunnel vision. But I'm not really like that, am I?”
“Then why do some people swear you have a tail and horns?”
“How can you say that?” I snapped, irritated. “I'm in no moodâ”
“What I'm saying,” she said earnestly, “is that K. C. Riley is probably a whole lot like you: tiger on the job, pussycat at heart.”
“Oh, puleeze.” I rolled my eyes in exasperation.
“Why not give McDonald a call when he gets home?” she said. “He'll probably need lots of TLC after Ground Zero. Be sweet, check it out. Maybe nothing's going on there. Maybe they're buddies. You know cops. How they like to hang out with other cops, live in the same neighborhoodsâ”
“Yeah, and they tend to intermarry. I never returned his last message,” I confessed glumly.
She frowned. “You need a blood test,” she said, “to see if any is getting to your brain. I thought you and him wereâ”
“So did I, Lottie.” I sighed impatiently. “So did I.”
“What about Fitzgerald?” she asked. Dennis Fitzger
ald is an investigator for the Volusia County state attorney's office, and we had hit it off when an old case brought him to Miami.
“A great guy,” I said, “but in Daytona Beach, three hundred miles away.”
“He'd be here in a heartbeat if you'd show a little interest.”
“My heart just isn't in it, Lottie.”
Mercifully, she changed the subject. “So this gal Sunny survived, but did she recover? Living a normal life?”
“I guess so,” I said uncertainly. “As if anybody could after what happened to her. You remember what sixteen was like. Everything was a big deal. A date for the school dance was a matter of life or death. She's grown up now, must be twenty-nine or so. I wonder if she has a life, or just therapy three or four times a week.”
“People are resilient,” Lottie said quietly, “especially kids. We see it all the time. Even close to home, look at little Darryl.”
“Right.” I couldn't help smiling. “He couldn't be better. In fact, Onnie gave me one of his new crayon drawings the other day. It's on my refrigerator; I love it. I think he's got a real talent, even though he's only six.” I lifted my glass. “I hope Sunny's life is happy. Maybe she's married, with kids of her own. Strange, isn't it, for us to be here, talking about her like this, knowing something she doesn't?”
“That even if she has put that terrible night behind
her, it's back. Nobody outlives the past.” We watched a quarter moon emerge in the darkening sky. “Wherever she is, whatever she's doing, I wonder if she feels something in the air, senses that her life is about to change.”
“If that barbecued bandido was one of 'em, she'll be happy to hear he's on an elevator ride straight to hell and the rest of 'em may soon git what's coming to 'em.” She smiled sweetly and winked back at a hunk at the bar.
An apprehensive chill rippled up my spine. What was Sunny's life really like? I wondered. How would she react to the news?
The man at the bar, a smiling sun-bronzed yachtsman named Brad, zeroed in on Lottie like a heat-seeking missile. He was eager to buy us drinks, dance with us to the island music, and whisk us away on a moonlight cruise. She was ready to go, but I wanted an early start in the morning.
Lottie gave Brad her phone number as he walked us back to her company car, still cajoling us to stay. As we rolled out of the parking lot, her dashboard police scanner crackled to life. Typical Miami night: shots fired in Wynnwood, a hit-run driver fleeing east in the westbound lanes of I-95, and an out-of-control fire at 224 Northwest 14th Street.
My heart sank. I wanted another Painkiller. “Hear that, Lottie? Fourteenth Street. Let's go.” I fastened my seat belt.
“Only one engine company so far,” she protested. “Don't sound big to me.”
“It's big,” I said, a bitter taste in my mouth.
She shrugged, stomped the gas, burned rubber in a U-turn, and we streaked west.
“Dammit.” I locked the scanner onto Miami's fire frequency. “Hear that? Fully involved, out of control.” I groped in my purse for a notebook. “You got your camera gear?”
“'Course, in the trunk.” The eight-cylinder engine whined as she swerved around a slow-moving jitney and floored it. She pouted. “Thought you was dead set on gettin' to bed early.”
“I was,” I said somberly, “but now I need to get back over there.”
“Gomez Watch Repair.”
Hoses snaked through the streets and alarms howled like wounded animals. Flames savaged the night sky until firefighters knocked down the blaze, too late for the shop or its contents. Crucial time had been lost initially because illegally parked cars blocked all the nearest fire hydrants. Stolen cars, I was willing to bet. Certain people didn't care about Andre Coney's long rap sheet or that he was a thief who probably preyed upon them as well. They wanted Gomez ruined, run out of their neighborhood with nothing to salvage. My Aunt Odalys says it best:
Las calles estan duras, hija.
The streets are hard, girl.
“It wasn't enough to see him in jail,” I told Lottie. “They had to destroy him. I bet the torch is a face in that crowd.”
She discreetly photographed the jeering, hooting
spectators while I asked questions. None of the strangers enjoying the flames reflected in their eyes admitted to knowing anything. A fire captain said the presence of an accelerant was suspected and pronounced the blaze one of “suspicious origin.” Surprise.
We returned to the
parked under the building, and scrambled through a rear door into the deserted lobby and onto the elevator. We split up on the fifth floor, Lottie to process her film while I inserted the fire into a new top on my Gomez story for the final.
Later, at home, I took Bitsy out for a last look at the quarter moon sailing like a pirate schooner through a dark sea of night. Good things do happen on my beat, I thought, I just hadn't seen any for a long time. After we returned and I went to bed, Billy Boots purring beside me and Bitsy curled up at my feet, I prayed not to see the woman again.
But there she was in my dreams, among hundreds of terrified people fleeing a towering all-consuming tornado of debris and smoke from a collapsing tower. They ran for their lives, the hellish billowing blackness in pursuit. As always, since I first saw it live in my living room, I focused on one face in the crowd: a young woman in a blue sweater, her flowing brown hair pulled back. Despite the people streaming around her, she did not run. Instead, she walked, more and more slowly, until she finally stopped and turned to face the rapidly advancing darkness. “Run! Run!” I cried from my living room. But to my horror, as the surging humanity parted around her in flight, she slowly began to walk into the oncoming blackness.
I searched all the footage that followed but never saw her again. Why did she go back? Did she survive? Who was she?
My eyes ached and my sinuses felt scorched when I awoke. I blamed the dream on last night's fire scene, but it was something else, something real in the air. I pulled on shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers, snatched up my Walkman, plugged in the earphones, and trotted the two blocks to the beach.
The morning tasted acrid. Smoke stung my nostrils and the horizon shimmered in a hazy blur. I didn't need news radio to know the Everglades was burning again. Wildfires were raging up and down the state, three hundred thousand acres blackened so far this year.
I jogged the boardwalk at a labored pace, gasping in the polluted air as my footsteps thudded on the weathered boards, the news of a surreal war washing over me. Sword-swinging soldiers on horseback, backed up by Stealth bombers and spy satellites. Unfriendly skies, airport lockdowns, and bad mailâreally bad mail.
Locally, lightning had sparked dozens of new blazes in Dade and Palm Beach overnight. Smoke from two thousand acres of burning saw grass was threatening posh Boca Raton neighborhoods. “And locally, fire destroyedâ¦” The newscaster read the first few graphs from my Gomez story almost verbatim. A few callers reacted to it on the talk show that followed. Most sympathized with the jailed shop owner.
Like a good omen, a treat waited on my doorstep when I returned, a plump grapefruit freshly picked
from one of Mrs. Goldstein's three trees. So far, they had escaped the chain saws of the canker police, state agricultural inspectors on a search-and-destroy mission to protect Florida's commercial citrus groves. They cut down both infected trees and every healthy tree within a third of a mile as well. Backyard citrus, another joy of life in South Florida, would soon be just a memory. I cut the grapefruit while my English muffin toasted. Yes! My favorite, ruby red, sweet and bursting with juice. I devoured half with my muffin and tea, planning to save the rest, but couldn't resist and ate that too.
I set out on my beat feeling better. Despite the roller-coaster ride that is my job, I love being a journalist. There is something noble and exciting about venturing out each day to seek the truth. And my beat has it all, comedy and tragedy, sex and violence. Shakespeare in the rawâMacbeth, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and JulietâI meet them all on Miami's steamy streets.
I kept an eye out for Sergeant Craig Burch during my usual rounds but had no sightings. He did not respond to a phone message or calls to his beeper. A good sign, I thought. I imagined him seated across from Sunny, dealing out mug shots like playing cards in front of her. Her features were a blur in my fantasy but I saw Burch clearly, poker-faced, alert, sharply observing her reactions.
A two o'clock bond hearing had been scheduled for Hector Gomez, but I didn't cover it. Andy Maguire, the courthouse reporter, was as territorial about his beat as
I am about mine. Just as well, as it turned out, since breaking news intervened.
Jerry, an intern who monitored police radios in a cubbyhole niche off the newsroom, called me to report that something unusual seemed to be happening deep in south Dade farm country.
“I don't know if it's anything,” he said hesitantly. “I can't get a handle on it, Britt.”
“What does it sound like?” I said.
“I dunno, but there's a lot of radio transmissions.”
“Such as?” I gazed at the murky haze beyond the newsroom's big picture windows. The horizon was white with a yellow cast.
“Sounds like a scene in a farm field.”
An image flashed through my mind: Richard Chance's sprawled body; Sunny, covered with blood, staggering to her feet.
“I checked the map,” Jerry was saying. “Looks like the middle of nowhere. The call went to police, then fire rescue dispatched on a three, and now they're asking for drilling equipmentâ”
“Oh, no!” I blurted.
I told him what it was, exited what I had on the computer, and gathered my things.
He called back less than a minute later. “You were right,” he said breathlessly. “There's a baby down a well!”
Four toddlers had tumbled into uncapped irrigation wells in U-pick-'em farm fields in the past two years. Each frantic rescue attempt had ended the same way, with the recovery of a small lifeless body.
The field, southwest of the old Homestead Air Force Base, was forty-five minutes away if I was lucky. I told Tubbs on the city desk and rushed for the elevator.
“Britt!” My instinct was to make a run for it, but the slow-moving elevator hadn't arrived. Too late. I was trapped. Gretchen had seen me.
“Wait,” she said. “We'll want two people on this.”
“I can handle it.” Fidgeting like a racehorse at the starting gate, I willed the elevator doors to open. They didn't.
“No. Too many angles here for one reporter.” She positioned herself between me and the elevator, her gleaming blood-red fingernails resting lightly on her crossed arms, her stance confrontational. “Take Ryan,” she said, cocking her head in her detestably perky way.
“I don't need help, Gretchen. It's a long drive. I need to get down there ASAP.”
Ryan Battle works general assignment and is my friend, but I didn't want help.
“You two can go together.” Gretchen's take-charge attitude would impress anyone who didn't know she was clueless, mean-spirited, and homicidally ambitious.
She hailed Ryan, as though he were a cab, from across the huge newsroom. He sprang from his desk at her summons, eager to please, soft brown eyes alight. I sighed and tried to zone Gretchen out, focusing on her chunky gold earrings, winking cheerily beneath the newsroom's fluorescent lights. I always lose mine when using telephones somewhere on deadline. I save the singles, in the futile hope of one day finding their
missing mates, or a deserving one-eared person, or that I will someday take up crafts and convert them to meaningful pieces of art in my spare time. But like me, I thought glumly, they will probably remain single, without a mate. Forever. Perhaps I could pierce my belly button and wear the orphans like ornaments, I thought, dangling from my navel.
Ryan is a gentle soul, sweet, handsome, and impossible to resent. But I tried my damnedest. I hate too many reporters on a story.
We descended to the lobby in silence.
The white-hot light was blinding and the heat took my breath away as I charged out onto the pavement, three strides ahead of him.
“Let's take my car,” Ryan offered.
What did he mean by that? Was he referring to past events, the times my cars and Lottie's were totaled?
“It was never our fault,” I said, with a sharp look.
“What?” He blinked, as though puzzled. “My car's in the west lot.”
“You must be joking,” I said. “You almost got us killed last time.” The jagged scar across his forehead was barely noticeable now.
“But that was a riot,” he protested. “A brick through the windshield. But if you want to drive, Britt, that's okay. I'll ride shotgun.”
He held on without comment as I blew an amber light to escape a stampede of aggressive window washers at the Dolphin Expressway ramp, where the winos were in bloom and the bums in season. We hurtled west, then south to the Don Shula. Local street names leave no doubt as to what takes priority in Miami.
Traffic resembled a presidential motorcade, with flags mounted on nearly every vehicle.
“Makes you feel good to see that, doesn't it?” Ryan said.
“Sure,” I said. “if you think it makes sense to fly American flags from huge gas-guzzling SUVs.”
I thought of the two-year-old girl whose mother had decided to surprise her husband with a shortcake dessert that night. Their toddler stumbled into an uncapped well in a strawberry field and suffocated before rescuers reached her.
After that tragedy, the county ordered that wells in fields open to the public be capped and marked with red flags.
They must have missed one.
After farmers' commercial harvests, entrepreneurs lease farm fields and open them to the public. Families on outings or tight budgets pay to pick their own produce.
“It must be fun,” Ryan was saying dreamily. “I've always wanted to go down there and spend a day picking fruits and vegetables. You can really experience what it's like to be a migrant worker. Like Cesar Chavezâ”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “It must be so enlightening when you go home to your air-conditioned condo to relax in the Jacuzzi with a glass of wine.”
Ryan gazed at me fondly, all soft eyes and long lashes. “Are you in a bad mood, Britt?”
“Who wouldn't be?”
“Want to talk about it?”
“No.” How could he remain so together, so relaxed, on deadline, when my every pore oozed adrenaline? I
hit the gas to pass a lumbering cement truck, then apologized for being so snotty.
“That's okay,” he said. “It's healthy to vent.”
I told him about the squad, the old cold case they were hot to pursue, and my lackluster love life.
Farm fields stretched as far as the eye could see as we neared our destination. Was this the route the killers took with their captives that Christmas Eve? I wondered aloud. Did Richard Chance die here? Over there? Or had the crime scene been lost forever, obliterated by one of the new subdivisions we had passed?
“The maps are all different now,” Ryan said.
“Right.” I sighed. “The middle of nowhere is a lot farther south and west than it used to be.”
Luckily my scanner picked up police transmissions from the scene, radioing directions to incoming emergency crews. Soon we were trailing a convoy of flashing red, blue, and yellow lights.
Badges and sunglasses glinted amid precise rows of tomato plants. Florida Power and Light and Bell South drilling equipment arrived when we did. Far from the wildfires, there was no haze here, only brittle blue sky and an unforgiving sun.
My stomach clenched like a fist as a distraught young woman in a cotton blouse and blue jeans struggled with a fireman and another man who were trying to lead her away from a small opening in the ground.
“Look,” I told Ryan, “I don't need any help. I can handle it. I like working solo.”
“Sure,” he said. “I don't feel so good anyway. I think I'm coming down with something. I'll go find a cold drink. Want one?”
The man's becoming a hypochondriac, I thought, as I stumbled through stubble and loose dirt.
The weeping woman was in her twenties, with honey-colored hair and little makeup on a face ruddy with emotion. “It's Justin!” Her voice teetered on the edge of hysteria. “He's only sixteen months old! He was right behind us.”
She turned, sobbing, against her husband's chest. Tourists from Findlay, Ohio, they had stopped to see the farm and buy fresh vegetables.
“He was tagging along about three rows behind us,” the father said, eyes wet behind the lenses of his glasses, “sort of talking to himself and singing like he always does. All of a sudden, we didn't hear him.”
When they turned, Justin had vanished, leaving only his strangely muffled wails, as though from an echo chamber.
“He's scared,” his mother sobbed. “He's so little.” She clenched her fists helplessly. “It was covered by grass. You couldn't even see it!”
Rescue crews moved in heavy equipment, wheels spinning in the dirt. “They're the best,” I assured them. I didn't mention that, so far, the best had never been good enough.
Reggie Handleman, the fire department's information officer, took off his orange hard hat and steered me away from the parents. “It's an irrigation well,” he said, “about twenty-five-feet deep. The hole is nine inches across. The kid slid down feet first and got wedged about ten feet down, in water up to his chest.”