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Authors: Tom Corcoran

Tags: #Mystery & Crime

The Mango Opera (6 page)

BOOK: The Mango Opera
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“You had a thing with this woman?” Riley sat next to me, facing away from the water. He did a good job of holding a neutral tone of voice.

“Ancient history,” I said. “I once rode in a Porsche that went a hundred and forty-five miles an hour. Being with Julia was like three times the speed limit. It didn’t last long.”

“Cuban girl?”

“Born down there, a couple years before Castro made his move.”

She had told me the background. Her mother’s family had been in wholesaling and her father had become an anti-Batista go-between, moving aircraft repair parts from the CIA to the rebels. When the Castro revolution succeeded, the mother’s clan, along with Julia and her sister, fled to Miami, while the father kept his two sons in Cuba. Later the father crossed up his Communist comrades and was thrown into prison. The sons escaped to Miami in the seventies. The old man was released a few years later. I’d forgotten the details, but somehow he’d made it to Florida by the early eighties.

“Her father’s first name Raoul?” Riley’s feet shuffled in the sand and dirt.

“Raoul Balbuena, right. Some kind of civic or political honcho in Miami.”

Riley grunted. “In the
Herald,
just last week, there was an article. Raoul’s been a hero in Miami for years, being an ex–political prisoner. But he’s speaking out against the trade embargo, so the diehards are calling him a traitor to the cause. Demonstrating whenever he appears in public.” Riley paused and blew out a puff of air. “Now his daughter turns up dead on the beach.”

It didn’t add up that someone would kill Julia to make a political statement. “Got to be a flawed connection.”

“It’s an ugly way to make a point,” he said. “You can bet the sheriff’s going to get hammered by the media.”

“Even the anti-Castro nuts, the militants, they wouldn’t bump off a man’s daughter for revenge. I mean, doesn’t Castro’s sister live in Miami?”

“How’d you hook up with her?” Riley was fishing for conversation, trying to coax me back to his Jeep so he could start home.

“In ’77 and ’78 I bartended at Lou’s on Duval. One afternoon she strutted in and ordered a ‘fucking quadruple margarita, straight up, and hold the goddamn salt,’ unquote. I mean strutted, like she’d had lessons from the hot-pants chiquitas on Collins Avenue. Instead of the margarita, I made her a Cuervo Gold with soda and a chunk of key lime. She liked it.”

“I could use one right now.”

“It was slow in the bar. I refilled her drink four or five times. We poured out our life stories until I got off at sundown. She walked home with me.” I still remembered the heavy smell of night-blooming jasmine on Caroline Street that evening. “She slept on the couch the first night. We spent the next day on my boat and after supper that night we went gangbusters. It lasted eight days.”

The breeze faltered for a moment and I felt an untempered blast of the afternoon heat. The buzzing traffic on the highway reminded me that the rest of the world was rolling along, oblivious to Julia’s death, oblivious to my loss. I saw no point in occupying the crumbling seawall for the rest of the day. I stood and followed Riley uphill toward U.S. 1. His Jeep was the only vehicle in the upper lot where the tangle of cars had been parked. Two cars and an EMS ambulance remained in the lower area. “She go running back to Lauderdale?” he said.

“She hooked up with Ray Kemp, one of the other bartenders. He wound up owning a charter boat—
Barracuda
—out at the Bight. Left town years ago.”

“I remember the boat. I don’t recall Ray Kemp.”

“They started yakking one day while he and I were working the bar. They fell in love on the spot, like a soap opera. She didn’t even wave good-bye. He quit his job a day later. I didn’t see them for a couple of years.”

Riley gave me an odd look, then pulled onto the road behind a southbound Yugo towing a homemade trailer. We drove into the late-afternoon sun. The breeze had picked up—a tail-wind, so our conversation did not have to fight the buffeting. “Doesn’t sound like you were impressed, the way they handled it,” he said. “You still upset?”

I wasn’t sure why Riley wanted to keep this going. But I hadn’t thought about it in years, and I felt more like talking than clamming up and stewing. “At first, poof, she was gone,” I said. “No explanation. I would’ve kept on with the relationship. But she’d made it clear from the start that sex was all she wanted. Plus, you know, the age difference mattered more back then. How could I get angry? She wanted real romance.”

Traffic had snugged bumper-to-bumper in the double-yellow sections. We finally hit an open straightaway, and Riley pulled to the right so a stake truck full of crab traps could go around. “So they stayed to themselves?” he said.

“Maybe she was ashamed of herself. I kept expecting to look up one day and see them pushing a baby stroller down Duval Street. He went to work on
Barracuda,
then quit and earned some quick money offshore. He came back to Garrison Bight with a bagful of dollars and bought the boat and made himself captain. I hooked up with him during the Mariel Boatlift.”

“Nineteen-eighty. I was in med school, in Gainesville.”

“I was in the thick of it, trying to be the ultimate photojournalist. When the rush to Cuba began, Julia talked Ray into using
Barracuda
to go after her father. I went to take pictures for
Newsweek.
I made an enemy of Kemp, and I almost bought the farm.”

Riley was surprised. “She went to Mariel, too?”

I nodded.

“How come suddenly you were back in touch?”

“A
Newsweek
editor showed up on the dock and hired Sam Wheeler’s
Fancy Fool
—that old Bertram Sam used to charter.
Barracuda
was out of the water getting prepped at Steadman’s for Ray and Julia’s trip. But the editor met Ray on the dock just before
Fancy Fool
left. The guy wrote Ray a check for five grand and told him to hire a professional photographer and bring him to Mariel. Ray was going anyway, so the money was a sweet little bonus. They asked me to come, to be
Newsweek
’s man with the camera. I don’t know why. Maybe to heal the old wound, a peace offering. I don’t know. We wound up getting stuck down there ten days, anchored in Mariel Harbor. Ray and Julia had a falling-out during the trip, but I made two grand.”

The highway widened to four lanes in the section that fronts Boca Chica Naval Air Station. A half mile later the carful of ME staffers passed us, then the Ford ambulance in a quiet, unlit transit mode. I forced myself not to dwell on what the ambulance carried. Neither of us spoke until it was out of sight.

“Her father come back on
Barracuda?

“No. We brought in twelve refugees, but not him.”

Riley tilted his head toward me. “You have anything to do with their falling-out? Or am I being too nosy?”

“From what I saw, the split was inevitable. Ray’s bullshit on the trip pushed it over the edge. I didn’t get in the middle.”

Riley crossed the bridge above the charter-boat docks, zipped a yellow light at Eaton, made a couple of lefts, and stopped on Fleming at the top of Dredgers Lane. Sam Wheeler’s truck and Annie’s convertible were up the lane in front of my house.

Riley pointed at the Jeep’s door, to help me find the handle. “When was the last time you saw her?”

I thought back. “Late ’85. She came down with a boy she’d been living with in Boca Raton. College-jock type, at least six-six. Hell, she was five-two. Jesus, Larry. I’ve talked myself hoarse.”

“No problem. Stories like yours help to humanize my job. I get to be a hard case, fighting depression, looking for the bright side of life. It gets ridiculous. I almost named my sailboat
Aw Topsy Tipsy.
Say hello to Carmen for me.”

The Jeep’s transmission whined through the gears as Riley drove up to White Street. I stood on Fleming, jiggling my camera bag, watching a drunken bicyclist fight to keep his balance as a raucous motorcycle sped past. Something nagged at me, and after a moment’s thought I decided that it had been Riley’s tone of voice when he asked me when I’d last seen Julia.

The yellow lights in the windows of my house were beacons of comfort. I wanted to crawl into my cave and stop all the craziness.

*   *   *

Sam, Annie, and Carmen sat in the glow of the oil lamp on the screened porch, the porch no wider than the deck of a small boat. The first thing I noticed was the liter bottle, my stash of Calvados, on the porcelain tabletop. Annie, in her office clothes minus shoes, her pale green eyes red and puffed, cradled a snifter in one hand. Sam sipped from a can of beer. Carmen sat in the old redwood chaise, her legs crossed at the ankles, her eyes focused straight ahead. She, too, had been crying.

Sam handed me an open beer. He must have taken it from the fridge when he heard the Jeep pull up. “Monty called,” he said softly. “Said you’d identified the body.”

“A nasty day. Is this what I missed by being too young for Vietnam?”

“Carmen went to high school with Ellen.” Annie’s voice sounded thin. “They knew each other in twelfth grade.”

“I just rode down the Keys with Larry Riley.”

Carmen also held a snifter. She looked up and I caught her eye. “You never told me about him,” I said.

“Ah, Larry. The first of many missed opportunities in this life. Painful, we were so innocent. Sweet Jesus, we were innocent.”

“He sent his regards.”

Carmen swirled the brandy with her forefinger, raised the glass in salute to the memory, and tilted back for a big gulp.

“I’m sorry about your friend Julia.” Fatigue and defeat weakened Annie’s voice. “I’m sorry about our friend Ellen. And I’m sorry but I have to go lie down. Thank you for taking care of my plants.” She lifted her hand so I could help her from her chair.

“My mama watched the news on the cable.” When sober, Carmen did a better job of masking her nasal Conch accent. “They sayin’ Julia’s murder could start a civil war in South Florida. Her daddy vowed to avenge her death.”

Sam’s eyes followed a lizard up the screen. I sat, exhausted, on the cushion still warm from Annie.

“I was born in Key West,” Carmen continued. “I speak English and Spanish every day, even at work in the post office. Three of my grandparents were born in Tampa, and some of my great-grandparents were born in Key West or Tampa. I’ve always been a Cuban, other Cubans treat me like one of them. Still, I don’t know what’s going on in Miami.”

My two cents: “The Hong Kong of the hemisphere.”

She agreed. “Those people wave a flag, it belongs to another country. They made their big money in Florida while they argued over that property Fidel took thirty-five years ago. He didn’t make that land into some private estate. What are the rich people in Miami going to do, fly down there on jets and take it back from the farmers and their children? Anyway, I have to get up at four-thirty so I can stuff mail in the boxes at six-fifteen. But I’m going to buy a dog, even if it barks all night and wakes up my neighbors and its shit smells up the lane. And I’m buying a gun.”

Carmen stood and carefully placed her snifter on the table. “Now I can be like every Cuban housewife in Key West. I will carry a little pistol in my purse on the pretext that it will protect me from hippies stealing my jewelry. Of course, you boys know, the real reason the housewives keep their weapons is so they can threaten to shoot their cheating husbands where it hurts the most.” She wobbled when she started for the porch door.

I reached to steady her. “Let me walk you home, sweet woman. We can’t be too careful.”

I was back in a minute and a half. Sam hadn’t moved a hair. “Two damn murders in one day, and no suspects in sight,” he said.

“Two murders close to home, as they say.”

“Right in your lap. You got a certain look in your eye.”

“I’d like to have a few words with the fucker who did Julia.”

Sam held his arms as if holding a machine gun, making his empty beer can the pistol grip. “Crazies with the fervor of patriots. Nasty people with automatic weapons. Times in Miami have changed, amigo. We Anglos wouldn’t stand a chance. How about the Albury murder? You want to get snoopy, you could make more headway with that one. Even though you didn’t know her.”

“My schedule is not bursting with alternatives.”

“Think with care, friend.”

“Don’t I always?”

Sam hesitated. “I’m too busy fishing to keep score.”

We sat for a minute and Sam cleared his throat. “Another subject. You will be proud of me. Hearing your story at lunch got me riled, as did the two extra beers I drank with a foul conscience. So I hustled my butt down to the
Citizen
and found a lady who listened to a few choice questions. Like where does someone who doesn’t work for the state of Florida, an assistant federal prosecutor, get the traction to convene a special session of the Florida Board of Training and Professional Standards? And where does that board get the balls to decertify an officer who’s risked his life undercover for three years? Those questions, in a more diplomatic format, are going to show up in print. I also went to the
Herald
’s news office and did the same dance.”

“You can’t be sure what’s going to show up in print,” I said. “They make promises they don’t keep.”

Sam shifted his eyes to the ceiling. “I got a dinner date tomorrow night.”

Wheeler and his women. He won their hearts, and they came back to him again and again, but not one had inspired his settling down.

“You sleazeball. I’m going to offer you another beer and I’m going to have one myself.”

“I’ll pass.” His broad shoulders slumped slightly as he pulled the empty out of its foam insulator. “I need to drive up to Sugarloaf to see an old client who’s in town, but not fishing this time. He’s dying of some disease. Cancer, I suppose, but he won’t talk about it. He started fishing with me in the early eighties, and it took him only two years to stop being a patronizing prick. Ever since then we’ve had great times, three trips a year. He turned into a kickass light-tackle angler.”

“Well, I’m going to have at least one more.”

BOOK: The Mango Opera
12.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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