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Authors: Tom Corcoran

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BOOK: The Mango Opera
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“When Ellen was about fifteen, she moved out of her mother’s home and into his. At that time there were two domestic dispute calls over a period of weeks with no complaints filed. Then she moved back into her mother’s house. A short while later he got nailed again with a minor. This time the judge plain fixed him. He didn’t get out of prison until three weeks ago.”

Annie’s eyes had dampened. She took a seat at the end of the chaise, put her elbows on her knees, and rested her forehead on her hands. It took her a moment to speak again. She sat up straight. “I have a huge caseload. I missed an entire day’s work yesterday, and you allow that I am not a suspect. Can we meet later in the day, in my office, to discuss all this?”

“That’d be fine,” said Hatch, “but one more thing. I got a call from Mrs. Embry last night. She and her husband had gone to the Olivia Street house to pack up her daughter’s belongings. She said that she found a few things that belonged to you—surprisingly few things for someone who had lived there. And she said that an expensive bicycle is missing. It had been a gift from them to Annie … Ellen, sorry. They suggested if we could find the bike, it might help us find the murderer.”

Annie showed me a frozen expression of disgust, then spoke to Hatch with forced civility. “I borrowed the bike. It’s safe, and I’ll make sure that it’s returned to the Embrys. How about one-thirty this afternoon?”

“Okay.”

She ducked into the house and reemerged with freshened lipstick and her briefcase in hand. She leaned to kiss my cheek, caught my eye for an instant, but looked downward. “Hang in with me, Alex,” she whispered. “This is a tough one. I’m glad to be back.”

She went out the porch door. Hatch and I sat listening to the VW speed through the stop sign and accelerate up Fleming.

“I take it you’ve got a problem with Michael Anselmo,” said Hatch.

“I knew I had a problem. I didn’t know it was another lawyer.”

“Sometimes I think the women on this island are affected by sea air,” he said. “Been a mystery since my first piece, they all want to sneak around, give it away to geeks. Pisses me off bad. Only way to get even, lemme tell you, you knock down strange and bang it regular. Only goddamn thing that works.”

I wanted another cup of Bustelo. I went into the kitchen and came out with a bottle of beer. Twelve ounces of self-indulgence to fend off stupidity.

Hatch sneaked a glance at his watch. “Starting early?”

“Not my usual routine.”

“You don’t have a scanner.”

“Never will.”

“Nobody down at the city contacted you yesterday. I know because I just called and asked. With no scanner, how is it you happened to show up at Olivia Street, camera in hand, ready for work? How’d you know?”

“She told me.”

“She called you from Anselmo’s?”

“She showed up right here on the doorstep with her suitcases. She was afraid you’d quarantine the Olivia Street house and keep her clothes. She put her stuff in her car before she made the first emergency call. I guess she decided to leave it all here instead of Anselmo’s. She said you were waiting for her back on Olivia. Why is this a surprise to you?”

Hatch smiled and shook his head. “Loaded her car. That explains the delayed call to 911. Before I could start taking her statement, she had to go to the bathroom. I told her she couldn’t use the one in her house, so she said she’d be right back.”

“She came here. But she didn’t use the bathroom.”

“If I ever need a lawyer, I want her number.”

Five sips into my beer, I caught myself wishing for elevator music, too.

“Speakin’ of the bathroom, mind if I drain the dragon?”

“All yours.”

While I waited for Hatch, I looked again at the photograph of Julia. It could have taken me into an all-day daydream, except that a headline on the same page caught my eye:
COP RISKS LIFE FOR YEARS, STATE SAYS NO THANKS.
The opening lines described the revocation of Monty Aghajanian’s badge and his original problem with the car thieves. Perhaps this would shake some action out of Tallahassee. Three cheers for Sam Wheeler.

Hatch eased himself back into the chair. He pretended to clear his throat and attempted a sympathetic approach. “Tell me about Julia.” He tapped the paper next to her picture. “I want to get a feel for the woman, to understand her personality, her views … enough to consider theories and reject impossibles.”

“You want the two-hour version?”

“Five minutes or less.”

I summoned the daydream. “Where to start? A moral version of the whore with a heart of gold. I mean, she played it tough, streetwise, but she was normal under the facade. Better educated than most of the women who show up in this town. I was around her for a week in ’77 and eleven days’ worth of Mariel Boatlift bullshit in May of 1980. We fell in lust, she went for another guy named Ray Kemp, she lived with him until Mariel, and she went back to Miami. In the mid-eighties she came here with a boyfriend and looked me up. We had rum drinks down at Louie’s on the Afterdeck, said good-bye, and I never heard from her again.”

“She ever talk about her father’s politics?”

“Just that he’d been one of Fidel’s boys until the Commies decided that he wasn’t so faithful and put him in the clink. I don’t think we talked about him the last time she was here.”

Hatch stared off in thought for about fifteen seconds, then heaved himself to his feet, smoothed the wrinkles in his trousers, and readied the cigar he would light the instant he left the porch.

“Bad things happen in threes,” I said. “You waiting for the third shoe to drop?”

“You count the dead girl on Stock Island five days ago, you got your three. Or you could count three in one day with that attempted car-jacking yesterday afternoon. You hear about that?”

I shook my head.

“Story’s been told fifty times down to the city, and all the deputies got it memorized. Lady at Key Plaza walks out of the pet store. A guy grabs her, he’s waving a big fillet knife, wants her keys and wants her in the car. Cool lady ignores the knife. She unbuttons her blouse to show him her titties. The idiot’s drooling through his fake beard, she nails him with a tear-gas zapper on her key ring.”

“Catch the guy?”

“He ran off. Nobody around to chase or identify him except the lady. But like I said, he’s wearing the false beard. She buttons up, walks back in the pet store, and asks them to call the police. Like there was nothin’ to it at all. She’s been in town for years. You know Shelly Standish?”

I knew Shelly Standish. But I didn’t say so.

Hatch handed me the cellophane cigar wrapper. “So I won’t litter your yard.” He stepped outside and let the porch door slam.

He’d walked about fifteen feet when I said, “You recall the victim’s name on Stock Island?”

Hatch stopped but he was facing downwind, so he didn’t turn. “Sally Ann Guthery. Another one in her late thirties.” He finally fired up his cigar.

I knew how old she was. Exactly how old she was. A small coincidence we’d discovered. She and I had shared the same birthday. Same date, same year.

The tall walls that had been crumbling began to fall down on me.

8

Sam Wheeler swore he would never allow a cellular phone near his skiff unless a client had health problems. “Contrary to bad lyrics and old movie scripts,” he’d said, “you can run
and
you can hide. Imagine some natty angler on the flats, whispering to his colleagues about rate of return while fifteen permit tail by…”

To stay in touch with customers and his darling companions—Sam’s term—he kept an old rotary style on the dock, plugged into a jack he’d installed next to his shore power box. When he was on the water he’d stash the phone in a dock locker, and an answering machine did the dirty work.

I got the machine: “Gone fishing. I’ll be back when I return.”

“Rutledge. Call me.”

I called Monty Aghajanian. He was in.

“Saw your name in the paper,” I said.

He breathed out a false chuckle. “Once in a while my problem comes up. It’s because I’ve gotten to know the media people.”

“Anything helps.” I decided not to mention Wheeler’s mission with the newspaper reporters.

“Nothing ever comes of it. Bernier—my buddy in the FBI—saw the article. He called to say that the door was still open if I get recertified for my badge. It gets to be a vicious circle. I’ve been around four times already, like penalty laps in gym class. I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.”

“Gotta keep plugging.”

“Always. Chicken Neck asked me did I see you.”

“I had to run to Bahia Honda for that one, so I missed him.”

“Man, I was sorry to hear. I saw her name, I knew you’d hit it head-on.”

“Thanks. I floated some anguish over that woman.”

“Goddamn shame. They’re saying Cubans.”

“Oh, I hope not. I mean, I don’t much care who did it beyond I want him caught. But such a waste. What do you know about this Shelly Standish thing? I heard a story from Hatch, first thing this morning…”

“The insensitive rumor here at the city is that she’s going to be the new spokesperson for Hooters.”

A knock at my screen door. Carmen Sosa, in her post-office uniform. I motioned her in. “Has this fake beard struck before?” I said to Monty.

“No, but he must be an Einstein. An ’81 Buick on its last legs, held together by primer paint and duct tape. Carjacking doesn’t make sense when there’s only one road off the island.”

“That murder on Stock Island the other day, I missed it in the news. Any suspects, witnesses?”

Carmen went straight for the coffee. I covered the microphone end of the phone. “I’m out of cream. Why aren’t you at work?”

“Split day,” she said.

“You sound like you got the Hatch disease,” said Monty.

I uncovered the phone. “I hope not. What do you mean?”

“It’s either a conspiracy or a serial killer. Down here at the city we’re not buying the theory.”

“Well, shit. It’s strange enough when Annie’s roommate and my ex-lover are killed on the same day. But I know Shelly and I knew Sally Ann. I mean, I dated both of them way back when. I slept in both of their beds. I didn’t offer those facts to Hatch, but this is getting too close to home.”

Carmen rolled her eyes at my admission, as if I were tallying my macho conquests. She carried her espresso to the bamboo rocker and settled in.

“You live in a small town, Rutledge,” said Monty. “You could drive yourself crazy thinking like that.”

“How can I ignore it? Three direct hits and a near miss.”

“Logic tells us you’re the prime suspect.”

“Let’s rule me out for the moment and discuss the real possibilities.”

“Okay, how many people would connect you with Julia? That was how many years ago, fifteen, twenty? Before you answer, figure how many people know about you and Shelly or you and Sally Ann. Bear in mind, this is Key West. Everybody’s too screwed up to remember that far back. Including, I hate to tell you, Shelly and Sally Ann. Second, there’s so much wild thing going on, who keeps track? Third, why would anyone pay that much attention to your love life? I mean, who cares?”

Monty had a point. Take everyone who ever knew all three women and find who in that group might connect them to me. It came down to me. And maybe Annie, though I could not recall what I had told her during our truth sessions.

“Monty, it’s not going to stop bothering me. Let’s say there’s a connection, direct or remote. What comes next?”

“Where does Ellen Albury fit in? You barely knew her.”

“Mistaken identity. You said it yourself. They could have been sisters. If the wrong person got killed, Annie’s in trouble right now.”

“Remember Merle Williams, the chief when I was first hired?”

“Yeah. How could I forget?”

“His favorite saying was, ‘Stack up the ifs.’
If
there’s a conspiracy or any connection.
If
there’s a serial killer lurking out there.
If
anyone knows about the connection to you.
If
Ellen was the wrong person.
If
he’s still in town and he’s going to strike again. Then, yes, you’re right, Annie’s in danger. In my judgment, to put it bluntly, five ifs don’t mean squat.”

“That’s what I needed to hear.” I said it like I meant it, but I didn’t feel any easier. Just the “in-town”
if
was enough to worry about. “Thanks for putting up with my paranoia,” I said.

“No problem, bubba.”

“One more thing, Monty. Any idea what Chicken Neck wants?”

“No. He’s got Milt Russell in his office right now. I heard them saying how the Public Defender’s office gets threats all the time. People they represented, cases they lost. The old routine, ‘When I get out of prison, I’ll get you for this…’ or ‘I know where you live…’ Could be they want to dig out all those files, check out those old threats one by one.”

“Tell Chicken Neck I’ll come by after lunch.”

“You get paranoid for any new reasons, bubba, you call me.”

I hung up and sat on the sofa, opposite Carmen. She looked as content as a human could be, stroked out, shoes off, her Latin loveliness compressed into her five-four height. Though she would not escape the spread of middle age, she would always carry an erotic grace and an intelligent, playful spirit. She wanted more out of life, every day, than most of the women who had grown up in Key West. She knew that there was a larger world beyond Stock Island, outside the island social scene.

“Aghajanian misses his job,” I said.

“The guy who got screwed out of his badge?”

I nodded. “And the guy behind the shafting is the one who’s been slipping Annie his hard bargain.”

Carmen’s jaw dropped. Her eyes slitted in a grimace of disbelief. “She knows he’s the guy?”

I shrugged and nodded again. “What’s a split day?”

“Five of us share shifts with Richie Mooney. He’s in a wheelchair and he can’t get the county van until seven-thirty. So he can’t load PO boxes in the mornings. I do it once a week. It gives me almost a whole day off, and I make up my lost hours on Saturday. Richie gets enough hours to be considered full time, for the benefits and all.”

BOOK: The Mango Opera
3.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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