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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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Tourist Season 10
García ground his teeth and tried not to say something he’d regret. “Hal, this guy Bloodworth calls me out of the blue last night, okay? Says he’s talked to these two guys, these Shriners, who tell him about their missing pal, Mr. Bellamy. You ’member Bellamy, don’t you?”
Hal just scowled and waved his hand.
“Anyway,” García said, “this hump Bloodworth says he heard there’s some connection between Bellamy and Sparky Harper. Extortion letters is what he heard. Says he’s writing a story on Bellamy’s disappearance.”
“Oh, and that he did.” Hal fingered the newspaper. “Ran Mr. Bellamy’s picture, offered a five-thousand-dollar reward for any information, et cetera. Nothing wrong with that, Garcia. But you didn’t have to say what you said, especially the way you said it.”
“All I said was no comment.”
“And where’d you learn how to do that, the Meyer Lansky School of Public Relations? You made it sound like we’re hiding something.” Hal rose to his feet. “Why couldn’t you just say the case is closed? Say we caught the killer and he tragically took his own life in jail. That’s the last chapter of the Sparky Harper case. Period.”
“Then what about Bellamy?” García asked.
Hal’s face was redder than García had ever seen it, and basketball-sized sweat marks showed under the arms of his blue polyester shirt. Obviously Hal had been having a crummy day.
“Bellamy was a drunk. Fell in the ocean and drowned,” Hal said. “Forget about fucking Bellamy.”
“Then what about the Fuego letter?”
Hal folded his hands, a contrived gesture of civility. Harold Keefe was not a man who looked natural with folded hands. He said, “I’m glad you mentioned the letters. We’ve determined that they’re a hoax.”
García raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say a word. He sensed that Hal was building up to something memorable.
“We showed the Fuego letters to Dr. Remond Courtney, the famous psychiatrist. He says the letters are phony, and the boys in the lab agree. Didn’t surprise me at all, since there’s been no ransom demands, no bodies...”
“’Cept for Harper,” Garcia mumbled.
“Forget fucking Harper! I’m talking about Bellamy and the other one.”
“What other one?”
“Here. Turned up this morning.” Hal passed a Xerox copy across the desk.
The letter was identical to the others. “Who’s Mssr. Richaud?” Garcia asked, trying not to sound too interested.
“David Richaud is the male friend of one Renee LeVoux.” Hal pronounced it lay-vox. “Miss LeVoux disappeared three days ago from the parking lot of the Seaquarium. Richaud filed a missing-persons report. Yesterday this letter was delivered to his hotel on Key Biscayne.”
“What’s the guy’s story?” asked García.
“He says the lady was kidnapped. Claims the perpetrator whacked him on the head and knocked him out.”
“You don’t sound like you believe him.”
Hal laughed caustically. “This one’s got ‘domestic’ written all over it. They had a fight, she grabs a cab and heads south with the vacation money. Richaud gets furious and figures the best way to find her is to get the cops involved. Pretty obvious, I’d say.”
“Hmmm,” said Al García.
“Which brings us to the letters.” Hal opened a drawer and pulled out a file. García knew that now was a good time to start worrying.
“Had a little talk with the chief this morning,” Hal said. Al García looked unimpressed; Hal was always having little talks with the chief.
He said, “The chief seems to think these letters are being generated from within the police department.”
García snorted. “He thinks El Fuego is a cop?”
“The chief,” Hal said sternly, “is quite serious. He ordered me to start an internal investigation. He thinks someone around here is writing these phony letters in order to keep the Sparky Harper case alive.”
Hal shrugged disingenuously. “Ambition, spite, maybe even professional jealousy. Who knows? In any case, the chief’s theory makes perfect sense. Whoever’s sending these crazy letters obviously is getting the names out of Missing Persons.”
Enough is enough, Garcia thought. “Hal,” he said, “you’re full of shit. And so’s the chief.”
Hal’s face turned the color of grape juice.
“Somebody’s snatching tourists,” Garcia said, “and all you guys want to do is cover up. I got a better idea: why don’t we just go out and catch the goddamn kidnappers? Come on, Hal, it’ll be fun. Just like the old days, back when you were a cop and not a two-bit office politician.”
Ominously Hal opened the file. Inside was a pink memorandum, nothing else. “Detective García,” he said, “as of today you’re on limited duty. It’s indefinite, until our investigation is completed. I.A.D. wants to talk to you, so you might think about getting a lawyer.”
“Beautiful,” García muttered.
Hal slapped the file shut. “You’ll be working the late shift,” he said, “at the motor pool.”
“Oh-oh, the combat zone.”
“It’s not so bad ... oh, by the way, there’ll be some officers coming by your house later. Just to look around.”
“Hal, they’ll be wasting their time. I don’t own a typewriter.”
“Just the same, try to cooperate.”
“You may go now,” said Harold Keefe, in his best high-school principal’s voice, “and try to stay out of trouble until this is over. Don’t talk to any more reporters ... or private eyes, for that matter.”
Garcia leaned over and loudly planted his knuckles on the desk. “Hal,” he said, “you’re too dumb to see it, but this whole thing’s gonna blow up in your fat Irish face.”
Brian Keyes drove west at a furious speed, slowing at every intersection, scouting each tacky shopping plaza. Finally he spotted a peeling sign that said “Canoe Rentals” and screeched off the highway.
The name of the place was Mel’s Bait and Tackle, and Mel himself was very busy dipping live shiners from the bait well. He told Keyes to take a seat near the soda machine and he’d get around to him in a little bit. Keyes politely mentioned that he was in a slight hurry, but he might as well have told it to the stuffed buck on the wall.
After fifteen minutes or so, Mel finally turned around, holstered his dip net, and asked Keyes what exactly he could do for him.
“I’d like to rent a canoe.”
“I’ll need a deposit,” said Mel, eyeing him. “And I’ll need to know how’n hail you gonna get that canoe on toppa yore car.”
Mel had a point. The canoe was four feet longer than the MG.
“I’ll need to borrow some rope.”
“No sir, you’ll be need’n to buy some.”
“I see,” Keyes said. “And the boat racks?”
“Those I’ll rent ya.”
By the time the negotiations ended, Keyes was out thirty-seven dollars and his American Express card, which Mel confiscated as a security deposit.
Keyes made a courageous solo attempt to tie the aluminum canoe on the MG, but the boat flopped off the roof and landed with a crash on the macadam. The noise brought Mel shuffling out of the tackle shop, cursing heatedly. He was an older fellow—late fifties, paunchy, tired-looking—but he proved to be one strong son of a bitch when it came to canoes. He told Keyes to go sit inside and read some magazines, and in five minutes the job was neatly done.
“Lemme ask you sumpthin’, if you don’t mind,” Mel said. “I don’t see no fishing rods and I don’t see no shotguns and I don’t see no bow and arrow. So just where’n hail you goin’ with this canoe, and what you gonna do when you get there?”
Keyes plucked the binocular case from the car and held it up for Mel to see. “I’m a birdwatcher,” he said brightly.
Mel nodded, but he looked skeptical. “Well,” he said after a pause, “good luck with your snipes or woodpe
ckers or whatever the hail yore after. But don’t put no more scratches on my damn boat!”
The canoe was lashed so tightly to the MG that the ropes sang on the highway. Back on the dike, Keyes had a hell of a time unraveling Mel’s knots. Finally he was able to drag the canoe off the MG and slide it down the bank into the water. He climbed in tentatively, the oar tucked under one arm. He lowered himself to his knees and gingerly rocked the canoe, testing its stability. It seemed steady.
Keyes centered himself and began to paddle down the dike canal toward Wiley’s cabin.
It was an adventurous feeling, gliding so low and alone through the Everglades. Keyes was swept away by the lushness of the scenery, a welcome distraction from his anxiety. He was no great outdoorsman but his discomfort was born of unfamiliarity, not fear. Keyes had been raised in the relentlessly civilized environs of Washington, D.C., and the only wild animals he’d ever confronted were the brazen gray squirrels of Rock Creek Park. Except for one miserable summer at a snotty boys’ camp in northern Virginia, Keyes had spent almost no time out of the city. Since moving to Florida he’d heard the hoary tales of panthers, poisonous snakes, and killer alligators, and though he dismissed most of it as cracker mythology, Keyes did not savor the idea of a chance encounter. Wiley, if indeed he was out here, would be beast enough.
Keyes found a steady rhythm for the oar, and his confidence grew with each stroke. Even against the wind he made good time down the canal. By now it was an hour past noon and the gray clouds had dissipated; the sun quickly burned off the last of the morning’s chill. The wetlands stirred under the heat. The cicadas and grasshoppers brassily came to life in the sawgrass, and once an old mossback terrapin clambered off the dike like a rolling helmet, plop-ping into the water three feet from the canoe. High overhead Keyes spotted a line of turkey vultures gliding in the thermals, scouting for carrion.
Somehow the dike sealed the Glades from the clamor of suburban Broward County; though Keyes was only a solid four-iron away from civilization, he could neither see it nor hear it. He felt himself distant, and growing tranquil.
After more than an hour he located the cabin. Keyes paddled faster, the bow of the canoe swishing through the ragged grass and pickerel weed. At fifty yards he slowed and let the canoe glide while he raised the binoculars one last time.
The western boots still lay beneath the outhouse, and the cabin still looked empty.
Brian Keyes didn’t notice that the snowy egrets had flown away.
As he tied up to a rotted piling, a green chameleon scampered off the porch to munch a palmetto bug in the shadows. Keyes climbed lightly from the canoe, but the planks still shuddered under his weight. He took each step as if walking on ice, thinking: There’s no way Skip Wiley could be hiding here, not the way he bangs around.
Keyes tested the padlock with a hard yank, and the rusty hasp gave way with a snap. He opened the cabin door with the toe of his sneaker and peered inside.
It looked like a dungeon for Boy Scouts.
Spiderwebs streeled from the ceiling, and a crisp snakeskin fluttered from the pine beam where it had long ago been shed. A shaky card table, once used for dining, buckled under unopened tins of Spam and sausage, the labels faded and curled. In the rear of the cabin was a bunk bed with two plastic air mattresses, each flattened and stained by mildew. In a corner two sleeping bags were rolled up tight, flecked with papery dead moths. A stack of heat-puckered magazines lay nearby; the most recent was a Playboy from December 1978.
In the kitchen area he found a sixty-gallon Igloo cooler; inside was a six-pack of flat Budweisers and three plastic jugs of drinking water. Keyes was about to open one of the jugs when he noticed a sediment of dubious origin suspended near the bottom. The water, he decided without tasting, had also been there a very long time.
The cabin was no larger than fifteen by thirty feet, but Keyes found plenty of crannies to explore. He was actually enjoying himself, poking through drawers and dusty cupboards, looking for signs of Wiley. He felt a little like an archaeologist over a new dig.
What finally persuaded him to retreat was the killer leaf.
Keyes had been using a whippy length of cane to clear out the spider nests, and he flicked it casually at a wrinkled gray-veined leaf beneath the card table. Suddenly the leaf sprang off the floor and, teeth bared, whistled past Keyes’s ear. He stumbled out the door, shouting and brandishing the cane stick impotently. The angry bat followed him, diving in tight arcs, breaking off the attack only when hit by sunlight.
Keyes was not sure where the creature went, but he warily scanned the stratosphere from a protective crouch. He decided the bat was welcome to the solitude of the cabin; he’d wait outside for Skip Wiley or whoever owned those cowboy boots.
The afternoon passed slowly through the binoculars. Keyes didn’t lay eyes on another human being, and he found himself living up to his lie, watching the birds of the Everglades: cormorants, ospreys, grackles, red-shouldered hawks, even a pair of roseate spoonbills. Finding the birds was an amusing challenge but, once spotted, they did not exactly put on a breathtaking show. The fact was, most of the birds seemed to be watching him.
Keyes finally was forced to avail himself of the outhouse—an act of sheer courage—and he stopped on the way out to study the mysterious cowboy boots. They were Tony Lamas, size eleven, with no name inside. Keyes was careful not to move them.
As the sun dropped and a lemon twilight settled on the shack, Keyes knew it was decision time. Once darkness came, there was no getting out of the Glades without a beacon. He’d have to spend the night with no food, no water and, most critically, no bug repellent. December wasn’t a prime mosquito season, but a horsefly already had extracted a chunk of Keyes’s ankle to remind him that billions of other starving insects were waiting their turns.
And then there was Mel, who had warned him to have the canoe back at dusk, or else. Keyes imagined all the random damage that a man like Mel could do with his American Express card, and decided to call it a day.
He fitted the binoculars into the case and climbed into the canoe. He slipped the half-hitch over the piling and pushed off with both hands. As the canoe skimmed away from the cabin, Keyes rose to his knees and reached for the oar.
But the oar was gone.
It couldn’t be. But it was.
Fore and aft, the bottom of the canoe was empty.
Keyes carefully turned around so he could see the cabin-it couldn’t be more than twenty yards away. He needed to get back there, to get his feet on something solid. Then he’d try to figure out what the hell was going on.
He inched to the prow and found a comfortable position. With both hands Keyes began to paddle vigorously, fracturing the calm of the pond. Yet the canoe scarcely moved.
The boat was nestled firmly in a patch of hyacinth weeds. The fat green bulbs and fibrous stems clung to the hull and made it impossible to get up a head of steam. Keyes desperately needed something to hack the boat free.
The uneasiness in his gut started to feel a little like panic. He feared that he was being watched; that whoever owned the western boots had stolen the oar from the canoe, and that whoever had stolen the oar didn’t want him to go.
“Skip!” Keyes shouted. “Skip, are you there?”
But the marsh swallowed his voice, and only the shrill cicadas replied.
Keyes decided it was vital not to abandon the canoe. He regarded himself a competent swimmer, but realized that this was not Lake Louise at scenic Camp Trailblazer—this was serious swamp. With no buddy system, unless you counted eels.
Keyes couldn’t be sure how deep the tea-colored water was, but he knew the weeds would make swimming treacherous. He was scared of getting tangled underwater, or sucked down by the muck. True, it was only twenty yards to the cabin, but it was a nasty goddamn twenty yards.
He leaned across the bow and began ripping up the hyacinths and tossing them aside in sodden stringy slumps. Painstakingly Keyes labored to clear a channel for the
stymied canoe, but night came too quickly. He tried again to paddle by hand; this time the canoe moved six, seven, maybe eight feet before the knotted lilies seized it.
Brian Keyes was stuck. Robbed of detail, the cabin became a blocky shape in the darkness; to the east, the dike formed a perfectly linear horizon. Keyes sat back on his heels, his hands dripping water down the gunwales. His face was damp, and gnats were starting to buzz in his ears and eyes. He wasn’t thinking about Mel anymore. He was thinking that this could be the worst night of his life.
Overhead, nighthawks sliced the sky, gulping bugs, and a big owl hooted twice from a faraway oak. The wind was dead now, so Keyes could hear every secret rustling in the swamp, though he could see almost nothing. After an hour he stopped trying to see at all, and just imagined—imagined that the sharp splash near the dike was only a heron spearing a minnow; imagined that the creaking plank was just a wood rat exploring the empty cabin; imagined that the piercing wail that seemed to float forever across the Glades was only a bobcat ending a hunt.
Keyes lay down in the canoe and propped his head on the leather binocular case. Even the sky was blank, held starless by the high clouds. With some effort he managed to close his eyes and tune out the traffic of the wilderness.
He thought of Jenna and felt stupid: she’d done it to him again, with one lousy dinner. He was marooned out here because he’d listened to her, and because he’d enjoyed the improbable notion that she needed him. He should have known there’d be trouble; with Jenna, you could bank on it. Keyes imagined her at that moment, puttering around the kitchen making dinner, or doing those damn Jane Fonda leg-lifts on the living-room rug. If she were worried at all, it was about Skip Wiley, not him.
Wiley. Stealing the oar from the canoe was the sort of stunt Wiley would pull, Keyes thought. But why didn’t I hear anything? Where could he be hiding? And what was he waiting for? For Christ’s sake, the joke was over.
Keyes sat up slowly in the canoe, suddenly aware that the crickets and the nighthawks had fallen silent. The Everglades had become perfectly still.