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Authors: Tom Corcoran

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The Mango Opera (5 page)

BOOK: The Mango Opera
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I chained my bike to a handrail at the Key West Police Department’s Angela Street entrance as Larry Riley, Monroe County’s medical examiner, parked his olive-drab fifties-vintage Jeep in the red zone next to the curb. A breeze tossed the shrubs that had hung in since the city’s last budget-conscious landscaping effort. Cloud shadows raced down Simonton. Birds screeched and sang in the old Peggy Mills Garden across the street.

Riley grabbed several manila file jackets full of legal pages and computer printouts, climbed out, hitched his jeans, and joined me on the sidewalk. “Got a sec?” He turned his ball cap so the brim faced forward.

“All day. Liska asked me to drop by. I don’t see this meeting as a brick in the foundation of my career.”

“Someone said you knew the deceased woman.”

“Not really. We’d met a while back. She’d been my girlfriend’s roommate for the past several weeks. Sort of a domestic upheaval at my house.”

“Sorry to hear it. I’d like to chat with your girlfriend. I knew Ellen in high school, but I need some recent background before I complete my report.”

“Her name’s Ann Minnette. She found the body.”

“Oh. I know Annie.” A puzzled expression flashed across his face, then vanished. “I never connected the two of you. I also need detail prints from your scene photos. Did you get close-ups of the wire knots around the wrists, the handcuffs on the ankles?”

“Got it all.”

“Good. This one’s a doozy. I guess Ellen was into some weird shit, at one time or other.”

“That showed in an autopsy pre-lim?”

“Old rope burn marks on her wrists and ankles. A few other things. But nothing too recent. It’s probably old news in this town. Or boring news, I mean. People still talk about that article in
The Citizen
when the police had to pull apart those two lesbians fighting on St. Paul’s steps over a rainbow-colored nine-inch dildo.”

“Key Weird earned its name the hard way.”

“Play on words,” said Larry. “You never know when this kind of stuff might be connected to a murder. In this case there are other considerations.”

“Evidence of recent sexual activity? That kind of thing?”

He wheezed a half-laugh. “You reading my mind or my mail?”

“Annie told me an hour ago that Ellen had entertained someone during the evening hours, and that he could be ruled out as a suspect. She knew that Ellen was fine when he left, and that the man hadn’t returned during the rest of the night.”

Larry thought about that for a moment. “She say much else?”

“About what?”

“I thought I’d found bruising in the pubic region. On closer inspection, it was a two-word tattoo under her muff: ‘Daddy’s Girl.’ Who knows what that means. It’s not a fresh tattoo. It could be ten years old. Her mother married Forrest Embry twelve years ago, and she said that Ellen’s father’s been in and out of town since the seventies. Let’s hope that ‘Daddy’ is an old boyfriend. Plus, I found two other tattoos and some scars from old punctures. Nipple rings, one labial ring, some body piercing here and there. All of it looks to be a few years old. Maybe a previous lifestyle.”

I wondered for a moment why the medical examiner would give this type of information to a civilian. “Annie didn’t mention that kind of stuff.”

“You think I’d be off base to suggest a forced sex act?”

“I wouldn’t tell you to destroy evidence. Who knows what happened after the boyfriend took off? But something was going on beforehand.”

“Someday, some way,” he said, “I’m going to find a way to make this job more fun.”

Inside the glass doors I waved to Marge Sayre, the youthful fortyish receptionist behind the protected enclosure. On normal days Marge radiated cheer. Today she looked harried. She stood and waved a handful of message slips. “Both of you boys need to return calls to the county. Something ugly near Bahia Honda. I think they need you up there.”

Riley and I sorted through identical rose-colored slips, “Please Call Back” notes from Sheriff Tommy Tucker at his office and Detective Billy Fernandez on a mobile prefix. There was one pay phone on the wall.

“Help yourself, Doc.”

Riley’s forehead furrowed. He punched in a number. “Gonna be a long day,” he said to the wall.

Marge Sayre sat down and returned to some kind of macrame project. “Shame about Ginny Embry’s daughter.”

I nodded. I was trying to eavesdrop on Riley, for a preview of the dilemma thirty-five miles up the road.

“She’d been doing so well the past few years.” Marge adjusted her wire-rimmed bifocals. “We would see her all the time, in and out, always busy, always happy. I don’t know what Milt Russell’s going to do without her.”

Riley turned around, his expression pure disgust. “You want to ride up there with me? Bunch of volunteers working Coastal Cleanup found a fresh one near the south end of the old bridge. Another young woman, killed elsewhere and dropped during the night. They want you to document.”

“I’ll need to stop at the house and get my satchelful of gear.”

“Where do you live?”

“Off Fleming, up near White.”

“No way I can put off a couple things here.” He waved his bundle of files. “Ride your bike home and I’ll pick you up in ten minutes. Unless you’d rather not get beat to all get-out in that Jeep.”

“I don’t mind open air.” Sometimes business required the qualified lie. I loved open air, but I hated Jeeps. They made me feel vulnerable, as if I were sitting on a barstool traveling at highway velocity. But I wanted a chance to pick Riley’s brain regarding the murder. I also saw the ride as an excuse to postpone my meeting with Chicken Neck Liska. “I’m at 422 Dredgers Lane.”

“Next door to Carmen Sosa?”

“Two houses down, same side. My favorite neighbor.”

“Carmen Ayusa, my high-school girlfriend. Married Johnny Sosa during my freshman year at USF and that was that.”

Carmen had never mentioned Larry Riley. Over the years she and I had developed a wonderful friendship. We’d tried once to be lovers, not long after her second divorce, but we couldn’t get it to feel right. It might have been my reluctance to become an instant daddy. Maria Rolley, Carmen’s young daughter from that second marriage, was the darling of the block. With Carmen’s work hours, the child divided her time between her own home and that of Carmen’s parents across the lane at 413. Even in the years since Annie’s arrival, Carmen and I had continued to be each other’s confidant and morale booster.

Twice he’d mentioned the high school. I’d never realized that Riley was a Conch. Not many had lost their Conch accents. Fewer still had become doctors.

As usual, the ride up through Cudjoe and Summerland and Big Pine Keys provided culture shock. Living in Key West you become lulled into the idea that you are removed from the real world, in both a philosophical and geographical sense. You live in the Gulf of Mexico and are part of the nation only in that your money is decorated with Presidents’ faces and you dial long distance direct. But once you get about ten miles up U.S. 1, where the wildlife and vegetation are doing their damnedest to survive the whirlpool of civilization, you realize again that true isolation means no other humans. You wonder how the pioneers survived the Everglades and the Keys, how anyone managed to live here in 1850 or build that railroad almost a century ago. Beyond problems of food and water and shelter, those people sure as hell couldn’t drop into a 7-Eleven to buy bug repellent, or gather supper when the ocean was snarling with a tropical wave. Or make a quick appointment with the dentist.

There was little traffic on the highway. I balanced my satchel on top of my feet so the Jeep’s vibrating floor pan would not rattle my equipment into a scrap heap of minuscule camera parts. With his long-brimmed ball cap facing backward, Riley drove under the limit and said little. A moderate head wind buffeted the open car, so a conversation would have been difficult. On Big Coppitt a sedan with a yellow county license eag passed us, honked, then raced on ahead. Riley yelled something about his assistants becoming the next two victims of the Overseas Highway. “They can’t do diddly till I get there, anyway.”

Mangroves baked in the heat and gulls coasted above tiny peninsulas. Sunlight reflected vibrant lime and pale purples off bottom sand in shallow basins on either side of the road. In the back country the wind had churned the water to a milky pea-green. We would get an occasional rank whiff of beached seaweed—then a draft of cooler air on a maverick breeze. For a while I kept my eyes upward, hoping to spot an osprey or spoonbill. Offshore in Hawk Channel, two commercialmen dieseled toward Key West. Beyond the reef, east of the Western Sambos, the superstructure of a northbound freighter poked above the horizon. Crossing a bridge in the Saddlebunch Keys, I spotted the orange-and-blue sail of a Windsurfer hammering across wave tops a mile to the southeast.

A small pull-off area remained on the Atlantic side of the highway where the road used to angle down to the old trestle-style Bahia Honda Bridge. It was hard to spot. The occasional sharp-eyed tourist would park and amble down the rocky slope to photograph the twin palms near the tide line, or wonder about the stubbed end of the bridge that went fifty feet and stopped midair. We arrived to a snarl of vehicles, marked and unmarked, parked haphazardly in the upper lot. The small slab of broken pavement at the lower level was blocked by a half dozen more cars and a Ford ambulance. The tops of nearby palms clattered in the breeze that had shifted slightly to the southeast.

Riley angled into a narrow slot between two highway patrol Crown Vics, shut off the Jeep, and turned his ball cap frontward. “When I was a kid there was a tollbooth on Big Pine,” he said, as if the remark fit a conversation he’d been having in his head. “You had a special taxpayer decal on your windshield, you didn’t pay a buck. Goddamned skeeters ate up toll collectors, but those guys knew everyone from Marathon to Mile Zero.”

I trailed Riley down the gravel path toward the waterline. Detective Avery Hatch, accompanied by an occluding gust of cigar smoke, fought his way up the rocky trail. “Stogie fix, boys,” he barked. “You’re in charge till I get back. We got a dead Hispanic this time, kind of a
Twin Peaks
job. Remember that goofy-ass TV show? This darling puts a new meaning to ‘all tied up.’”

Riley winced. “How long’s she been in the water, Avery?”

“She was never in the water. She’s high and dry. Somebody dropped her off and she never caught the bus.”

I stopped Hatch. “Why am I here?”

Larry Riley looked at each of us, then continued walking downhill.

Hatch pushed his cigar off to leeward. “What you said about Monroe County being cheap, about Forsythe not being very professional? The detectives are aware of his shortcomings. But his scrawny salary makes room in the budget for Kevlar vests. Meanwhile, we got two dead females in one day. If the two are connected and we got a nut killing women in the Keys, it’ll make national news sure as shit. I don’t want to look like a butthole by blowing the case. I consider you high-priced insurance.”

I’d been called worse. I continued down to level ground, through sparse grass to a thin strip of dirty sand, then crossed a high-tide weed patch littered with weather-beaten four-by-fours and white plastic bleach bottles. I found it easier going on the wide rocky ledge.

Thirty yards to the southwest and fifty feet from the waterline, Larry Riley peered into a huddle of reporters and EMS people and deputies in a hammock of mangroves and spindly pine saplings. As I approached, Larry walked toward me and set his briefcase on a boulder of brain coral. “Damned if it doesn’t look like that TV show. Plastic wrap, blue face, and everything. All we need is fluttery music and a station break.”

I dropped my camera bag next to Riley’s clipboard. I was in no rush to join the viewing. I grabbed two cameras, a battery pack, and a flash unit, then set the exposure and f-stop dials on my equipment and checked my film settings. After taking a moment or two to scan the horizon beyond the reef, I approached the group surrounding the corpse, slipped between two glum deputies, and glanced down.

Oh, damn, Julia. Don’t do this to me, goddammit.

There are times when you want everything to go blank. But your mind shoots off in its own directions, making the moment and the whole world more intense. She had been so full of sense and spirit, so fluid, graceful, so hard to please. She could be erotic one minute and cinnamon-sweet the next. Then she would go tomboyish and pretend not to understand her own allure, not to believe in her own beauty or wit. She did it all as if flipping a switch, as if she did not care.

On the second day I knew her, in 1977, she had cooked paella to help celebrate the purchase of my new home on Dredgers Lane. She had told me, “I’ll sleep in your bed tonight if you promise three things: Never tell me you love me, never ask me to live here, and never ask me to marry you.” In spite of the strong cooking vapors, she’d smelled of a delicate rose perfume. Her green-gray eyes had watered from singed spices. I told her I would promise her anything. “Then,” she replied, “you must promise not to forget this conversation in the morning.”

Spoken as they were, I should have recognized the standard rules for a union of convenience.

Detective Billy Fernandez nudged me. “You gonna get these snapshots, bubba, you gonna stare at the net buoys all afternoon?”

“Is that Forsythe over there?” I asked.

Fernandez scratched at his dead-caterpillar mustache. “That’s our boy,” he said. “Wearing his street shoes in a puddle of water. He’s a dumb fuck. Those shoes are forty-nine bucks at Upton’s.”

“I’m going to need a minute or two. Let’s let Forsythe finish his work.”

I looped my camera-bag strap over my head and walked up the beach.

6

So I’d flaked on the photo job. I knew I couldn’t press the button, sure as hell couldn’t focus. I’d deferred to Forsythe and his budget lenses and waterlogged wing tips. Larry Riley showed concern as well as curiosity. He found me on the concrete seawall beneath the blunt stub of the old Bahia Honda trestle bridge. I was dangling my legs, watching the choppy turquoise sea scramble itself into a blur. My thoughts had bounced back to Annie at the property-line hedge in Ellen Albury’s yard, her eyes pissed and confused. I wasn’t ready to envision Julia’s face or wonder how she had died, or whom she had last seen with her sweet green-gray eyes.

BOOK: The Mango Opera
2.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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