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Authors: Tom Corcoran

Tags: #Mystery & Crime

The Mango Opera (7 page)

BOOK: The Mango Opera
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Sam stopped outside the screen door. “Whatever it takes, bubba. I am sorry about Julia.”

*   *   *

I leaned against a doorjamb on the porch, sipped a beer that I didn’t need, and studied the living room. Lots of memories. It had been my hideout, my office, my reading room, and party central. Before Annie had come along I’d slept more often on the sagging couch than in the bedroom.

Annie’s sleepy voice came from the dark. “Rutledge, who are you talking to?” She walked out of the bedroom in a short T-shirt and panties.

“I guess to myself.”

“It’s nice to hear you talk.” She picked dead leaves from a philodendron and delivered them to the kitchen trash. Then she sat in the bamboo rocker and gathered her legs up to her chest. Her disheveled hair gave her beauty a spontaneity, a firmness. We looked at each other and listened to sounds in the neighborhood, air conditioners and rattling palm trees. In the dim light her eyes didn’t say much. After a minute she stood, adjusted the underwear elastic under her bottom, and walked past me to the porch.

A few moments later she leaned against me and rested her hand in the crook of my elbow. “This may not be fair,” she said, “because I wouldn’t answer a question of yours this afternoon. I’ve never heard you mention Julia. Carmen said that she’d meant a lot to you.”

“She spent seven days in this house, the first month I lived here. Then she went to live with someone else. I’ve never analyzed, deep down, how I felt about her, except I liked having her around at the time. And I missed her. She was on the boat I rode to Mariel. I saw her again ten or twelve years ago. I guess I had her filed under ‘unfinished business.’”

“Did you ever wish you could finish the business?”

“Before I met you.”

“Never since?”

“Today. When I realized it was impossible.”

Annie moved closer and rested her forehead against my chest. “Can I ask a favor? A big one?”

“I know what it is. I was going to ask the same thing.”

She took my hand in the softness of hers and led me into the bedroom. A moment later, pulling off her T-shirt, she stopped with her hands still in the armholes and hung the garment across the top of her head. “Don’t you wish that making love could bring back the dead?”

Talk like that had drawn me to Annie from the beginning.

I moved closer and reached behind her to push down her underpants. She stopped me. She wanted to remove my clothing first. She fumbled a moment with the buttons, then opened my shirt and pressed her breasts against my bare chest. Her kiss slowed us and, second by second, her mouth erased three weeks of anger. I wanted simply to hold her, to pull her closer, to lock her to me until I could forget her absence, her fading, her silence.

We held each other, hardly breathing. Her lips formed words against my shoulder. I wanted the panties off. They reminded me of Ellen Albury’s dead body. Annie pushed my hand inside the front elastic, then turned my wrist to aim my fingers into the folds. The dampness, her openness, begged a shift from distrust to the faith of love. Her warmth melted the boundary between wariness and submission. She tugged me to the bed. The underpants slipped to her ankles as she let herself fall backward.

I gazed at the soft skin of her belly and thighs and wondered for a moment if this was a fresh start or some crazy finale. I bent to kiss and nudge with my tongue the skin of one breast, from the bump of a rib upward to the nipple. A minute later, as my mouth moved down that sweet line from her neck to her navel and farther, I caught myself recalling Julia’s smooth olive skin.

Annie must have sensed my wandering. She shifted and pushed my head downward, then cried as if in pain and pulled me back toward her face. Her eyes took me away from Julia and demanded my presence. Her surrender and compliance erased everything else from my mind.

7

This piece of theater had played on my brain for twenty days.

Annie had invented a morning game. She had worked on timing, perfected her routine. She would get up first, and after her shower I would watch her dress for work. That was it. There would be no talking or eye contact, and my pillow-height point of view was wondrously exaggerated by her five-nine height. She would begin by untangling the underwear, then perform exquisite hop-steps as she looped her slingshot panties over one foot and the other. Some mornings I would get a rear view of this stage; other mornings she would face me but still no eye contact. After she had adjusted the panties for comfort, smoothing them over her upper thighs, she would choose a bra. She took her time with its positioning and snugging, taking each breast in a full handhold to ensure its exact place in the cloth cup. Then came the blouse selection, the shoes and bracelets, the flow of the sun-streaked brown hair that would go anywhere she wanted it to go. After Annie had buttoned her skirt—always the last step—and had left for work, I’d head to the kitchen for my Cuban coffee.

I wanted this morning to be one of those. Along with the slow-motion lovemaking that had closed out the night, the voyeuristic ritual would affirm that our romance still had a chance. If I still wanted to take that chance. I felt Annie get out of bed. Smells of mangoes and figs drifted in the morning air. The traffic on Fleming sounded urgent but far away. I can’t recall how long she’d been out of the room.

Then she was back in the room, nudging my foot with her knee.

“You come out here and deal with him.” Her voice was a forced whisper. “I walk around bare-assed for five minutes before I realize he’s out there. It’s that goddamned detective with the smelly cigars.”

“Is he smoking one now?”

“No, but he looks like he wants to.”

Resplendent in a sky-blue guayabera shirt, navy-blue trousers, and white dress shoes, Avery Hatch had made himself at home on my porch. The Keys section of the
Miami Herald
covered the table—he’d moved the nearly empty Calvados bottle to a plant shelf—and he sipped coffee from a McDonald’s cup. Torn sugar packets and empty nondairy creamer thimbles littered the lounge-chair cushion. Light filtered through the hanging plants and reflected off a faint sheen of mousse in his mod pompadour. His right breast pocket held four large dark-colored cigars.

I stood in the doorway in my jockey shorts, scratching my stomach.

Hatch threw out the first ball. “I find out after all the rigmarole at the Olivia scene that you and the Minnette lady are friends.” He twisted his head to peer into the house, then turned to face me again. “My compliments. Then I dwell on the fact that I don’t know shit about this Albury case, which, as the pivot man for Monroe County’s Violent Crimes Task Force, I need to know.”

I refused to respond.

Avery hunched forward for a sip of coffee, taking care not to drip on his shirt. “You identify the corpse in the sand. It’s okay you didn’t take pictures. I understand you’re under a strain, the shock and all. But Forsythe, in his words, either overexposed the film or underdeveloped the film or vice versa. I know when he uses technical words it’s an excuse for a fuckup. So in his pictures the deceased looks like a Norwegian blonde instead of a Latina brunette. Like I said, it’s okay you didn’t take pictures. But I wonder could I learn more about this magnificent world by sitting here and drinking my third cup of burned coffee and listening to you talk about said deceased. You follow me?”

A verbal response would give him permission—after the fact—for helping himself to my porch.

Hatch figured out that I had no reason to speak. “Since we got the unique circumstance of you and Miss Minnette in the same house, I want to listen to both of you talk. You sure sleep late.”

Now he was going to sit there and critique my schedule. “You got big feet,” I mumbled. “I had a long day yesterday.”

He twisted his neck to look around his thigh. “Size-ten foot, size-eleven shoe. Sale at Burdines. They were out of tens. We married guys don’t have the incentive to stay in the sack much past the rooster hour. Do me a favor.”

More strategic silence.

“I killed the open speaker in the car so the two-way radio wouldn’t rile the neighborhood. I pride myself in community service, being sensitive to the populace. You mind flipping your scanner to the county freak?”

“I don’t own a scanner.”

He shot me an expression. Phony surprise. “And you work for us?”

“I try not to be on constant alert. I’m a photographer, not a groupie.”

“We can provide a beeper. We got beepers out the ying-yang.”

I stared at him with the dumbest expression I could muster.

“Go fix your coffee,” said Hatch. “I can wait. This is kinda nice out here. I had a cubbyhole like this, I’d go terminal lazyass myself. All you need is elevator music. Light jazz. A little bare-boobed Tahitian girl with a paper fan.”

He looked too comfortable. And smug, on the Monroe County time clock. In that regard, I couldn’t forget that the man authorized paychecks, though I planned to reconsider my commitment to crime photography. In this case I had no legal problems, but I wanted some information myself. I told myself to hold my tongue and keep an open mind.

Wrapped in a robe, Annie tiptoed into the kitchen as I measured out Cuban coffee. “What does he want?”

“Why are you sneaking around? He knows you’re here. Now he knows you’ve got a birthmark on your inner thigh.”

“I just want to know what he’s after.”

“He wants to hear us talk. So far he’s been sociable.”

“I think we can count on this not being a social call.”

“You afraid of something?”

She thought a second. “Him in general. Wasting my time.”

“We’ll get it done quickly.” I called out to Hatch: “You want cup number four? It’s high-test. Like they used to make at El Cacique.”

“I’d spend the rest of the morning in the john.”

“Lovely man,” said Annie. She spun and headed back to the bedroom.

“Mind if I use your phone? I gotta call in.” I heard Hatch shuffle on the porch, then step onto the hardwood living room floor.

“It’s on a long cord,” I said. “Could be anywhere.”

“Sounds like the people who work for me.”

Audible punctuation from Annie: the bedroom door slammed shut.

I carried my Bustelo out to the morning breeze while Hatch made his call. The close-up of Julia in the
Herald
looked recent. She looked like an executive being promoted, a real estate broker joining the Million Dollar Club. The headline went for the sensational, calling the murder
TWIN PEAKS–STYLED.
No photo accompanied the two-column
LOCAL LEGAL WORKER FOUND SLAIN
article about Ellen Albury.

Hatch returned to the porch, fumbling with his pocketful of cigars. Annie walked out behind him, dressed for the office. She’d pulled back her hair with an antique silver barrette. She looked great.

“This going to take long, Detective?” Her words had that courtroom ring, the resonance that made her sound like a different Annie.

“A minute or two. You and I kept missing each other yesterday.”

“I hadn’t realized that. I recall a Q and A session in the backyard on Olivia.”

He pushed the newspaper aside and pulled a three-by-five card out of his shirt pocket. “You’d been gone less than two minutes when I stopped at the Embry house. And your car was leaving the Federal Building when I arrived to speak with the assistant federal prosecutor. I grabbed your parking space, and I thank you for that. You’d been to his office, too.”

Hatch’s attitude and words were crowding the edge of accusatory. Worse, he had referred to Michael Anselmo, Monty Aghajanian’s nemesis. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Annie might know Anselmo, but I didn’t like where this was going.

“I had a number of appointments yesterday,” said Annie. “As you know, I got a late start.”

“Yes, ma’am. We all got a rough start yesterday. My timetable was screwed from the time I got up.”

“So what do you mean, missing each other?” she said.

Hatch glanced at me, then looked off through the screening. “I had a few more questions for you, that’s all.”

I didn’t want to butt in, but I didn’t like his tone. “What are we trying to nail down here?” I said. “You’re talking about a murder inside the city limits, you’re talking about Bahia Honda, which is in Monroe County, and you’re talking about a federal prosecutor. That’s three separate jurisdictions.”

Hatch checked the bottom of his Styrofoam cup, grimaced, and decided against a last sip. He fumbled again with his cigars, then turned to Annie. “I need to double-check the timetable, for one thing. We know you discovered the body at 7:08—according to your statement—but the 911 call didn’t come through till 7:25. Also, according to our tracing system, the call didn’t originate at the Olivia Street house. You called from the home phone of Michael Anselmo.”

Annie nodded in agreement.

I felt tall walls crumbling around me. I knew what she had been afraid of.

“So, what the hell?” Hatch’s eyes locked on her.

“That’s your question?” snapped Annie. “‘What the hell?’”

“We’re not stupid people, Miss Minnette.”

I had to agree.

Annie turned red but maintained a poker face.

Hatch splayed out his hands as if to calm things. “Let me make myself clear. You are not a suspect, Miss Minnette. You’ve got an alibi. I’m sorry if I offended either of you. I’m just digging for information. Here’s another question, Miss Minnette. Did you know that Miss Albury’s biological father, Pepper Neice of Riviera Beach, was convicted of the sexual abuse of young girls?”

“Oh, Jesus.” She exhaled, disgusted.

Hatch checked another three-by-five card. “According to the court’s records, neither conviction involved his daughter. Some people in City Hall recall that he skated in that regard at least twice. Once when she was in grade school, and again later. He was a gentleman of the shrimping trade. A deckhand and a real late-sixties dock bum. Mrs. Embry—the former Mrs. Neice—met him in Captain Tony’s Saloon. She married him a week later and divorced him a year after that. Out came Ellen. Daddy was in and out of town until he got busted with a naked nine-year-old playmate of Ellen’s in ’75. He did a scoot in Raiford, then moved to Shallotte, North Carolina, to resume his career in the shrimp business. Seven years later he was back.

BOOK: The Mango Opera
3.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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