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Tourist Season

Tourist Season

Tourist Season 19


  While Jesus Bernal scurried around town with his C-4 and blasting caps, Tommy Tigertail and Viceroy Wilson (back from Nassau, still celibate) picked off three more tourists.

  “We need the stats,” Skip Wiley had urged by telegram.

  “Stats?” mumbled the Indian.

  Viceroy Wilson understood perfectly.

  The kidnappings were nothing fancy: a young surfer at the Pompano Pier, lured to a waiting Cadillac with a lid of fresh Colombian red; and a middle-aged couple from White Plains who mysteriously vanished from their front-row table during Jackie Mason’s second show at the Diplomat.

  At midweek, Tommy Tigertail delivered some grim news.

  “Pavlov is sick,” he told Viceroy Wilson at the Everglades campsite.

  “I’ll bet it was that goddamned surfer,” Wilson said.

  “No,” the Indian said, “it’s the water. He needs salt water.”

  Viceroy Wilson scanned the pond for the ominous brown log that was Pavlov’s snout. From a distance—a safe distance—the monster looked just fine.

  “This is a North American crocodile. His habitat is salt water,” Tommy explained. “He’s been out here two weeks and now he needs to go home.”

  “Fine with me,” Viceroy Wilson said.

  The second they got the ropes on Pavlov, Viceroy saw what the Indian was talking about. The big croc was listless and cloudy-eyed. Even its hiss sounded anemic.

  Hauling Pavlov from the bowels of the Glades to the shores of Biscayne Bay turned out to be a day-long endeavor. Even in a state of lethargy the crocodile was formidable cargo, and its disposition did not improve as the trip wore on. The Indian had rented a tractor-trailer for the journey, but there wasn’t enough room in the cab for all three commandos. Viceroy Wilson decided that Jesús Bernal, by virtue of his switchblade prowess, was best equipped to ride in back with the giant reptile. Every time Tommy Tigertail took a sharp corner the trailer came alive with muffled hissing and Spanish invective.

  At dusk they pulled off the Seventy-ninth Street Causeway, dragged Pavlov out of the rig, and prodded him into the salty shallows of Biscayne Bay. The croc swam east, never looking back, propelled by that massive rhythmic tail. Pavlov did not stop swimming for thirty hours. He crossed the bay, entered the Atlantic through Haulover Cut, and churned north along the Gold Coast. It was as if, Skip Wiley mused later, the great beast somehow had been imbued with the spirit of Las Noches; as if it had drawn inspiration from its captors.

  To Viceroy Wilson, the explanation was more elementary: Seminole magic. The damn Indian had worked a spell.

  Pavlov stopped swimming when he reached the famous Ft. Lauderdale beachfront. There, in darkness, he dragged his thousand pounds ashore and made for the party lights of the Barbary Coast Hotel. Later, in daylight, beachgoers would trace the crocodile’s lethal path by the trench in the sand.

  Wiley’s mystical notions aside, what probably happened was that the croc merely grew tired of fighting the ocean currents and came ashore to rest. Once on land, its nostrils got wind of the Barbary’s luxuriant saltwater swimming pool, and Pavlov had decided to enjoy himself.

  Besides being young, drunk, and stupid, Kyle Griffith (University of Georgia, Class of ’87) had no good reason to be in that swimming pool at four in the morning. A bad reason for being there—nude, save for a foam-rubber hat that said “Go Bulldawgs!”—was that Griffith’s dithering Sigma Nu brothers had dared him to jump thirty feet from the balcony of the hotel room to the warm pool, which lay in darkness so complete that even a seventeen-foot crocodile could be invisible.

  Having eaten prodigiously in recent days, Pavlov was not very hungry. A snack would have been fine, perhaps a coot or a small garfish. But once Kyle Griffith hit the water, Pavlov’s dinosaural instincts took over. The crocodile seized the bewildered Sigma Nu by the legs and submerged to the bottom of the swimming pool, where the beast lay motionless for several minutes, as if contemplating the wisdom of its own gluttony. In the end, of course, the college kid was consumed, though Pavlov regurgitated the silly rubber hat.

  This onslaught of violent and weird events destroyed Detective Harold Keefe’s hoax theory (not to mention his career) and convinced the civic leaders of Dade County that a ruthless band of psychopaths was indeed roaming the streets.

  Toeless and sullen, Keefe was spared the shame of a demotion and allowed to take a generous disability leave from the police department.

  On the morning of December 20, while Brian Keyes was on the phone to the U.S. State Department, three uniformed police officers arrived at his office and politely requested his company downtown. Keyes had been expecting the visit, and was in no mood to argue. He had spent the week dodging Ricky Bloodworth and trying to negotiate the release of the two Shriners from a Bahamian prison, where they were being held on vague charges of espionage and lobster poaching. Keyes sent word to Skip Wiley that enough was enough, the joke was over, but all he got back was a cable that said: “Don’t you have work to do?” Eventually Burt and James were fined five thousand dollars each and placed on a nonstop Nassau-to-Chicago flight. Keyes had been playing dumb with the State Department when the cops showed up.

  At police headquarters Keyes was led to a soundproof conference room and told to wait. The windowless suite was newly carpeted and smelled like paint. On the wall hung a blackboard on which someone had chalked the words: “Las Noches de Diciembre? Nights of December?” After a few minutes A1 garcía strolled in, grinning like a whale.

  “No more motor pool!” he chortled. “Welcome to the big time.”

  “Big time, Al?”

  “My very own task force. Can you believe it, Brian, they put me in charge.”

  “In charge of what?”

  “In charge of solving the Las Noches murders.”

  “No offense, A1,” Keyes said, “but why you?”

  “Well, the gang has a Spanish name. I’m a Spanish cop.” garcía laughed until he turned red. He sat down at the head of a long table and lit a cigarette. “It’s all top secret, this task force, and let’s keep it thataway. We don’t want to cause a panic, close the hotels, God forbid. It’s the season, y’know.”

  garcía was still chuckling. Keyes knew he didn’t give a shit about the hotels.

  “How big is your task force?”

  “Four detectives, including me, plus a guy at the FBI if we need him. We got a real code name and everything Fuego One.”

  “I like it,” Keyes said. Almost time for the big decision. García was finished circling.

  “So, my friend, you’ve had quite a time of it, eh?”

  “Quite a time,” Keyes agreed.

  “Let’s talk about it.” García fished a spiral notebook from his rumpled jacket. “What do you know about this outfit?”

  “I know they set up Ernesto Cabal for a fall. The poor putz had nothing to do with Sparky Harper’s death, just like I tried to tell you weeks ago.”

  García frowned. “I’m sorry, man. Really. He looked hot and he was all we had at the time.”

  “And that’s it? Adiós, Ernesto.”

  “What do you want, five Hail Marys? Isaid I was fucking sorry, and I am. Don’t forget I didn’t kill Cabal, Brian, he killed himself. A little more patience and the hijo de puta mighta walked out of jail a free man.”

  Keyes said, “He was scared, that’s all.”

  “Yeah, man, well, I’m kinda scared too. I’m scared these nuts are gonna murder more innocent people. And I’m scared that I’m going to have to look at more legless dead bloated bodies. But most of all I’m scared of what my wife’s going to do when I tell her I have to work through Christmas! So, rest in peace and forgive me, Emesto”—García made a perfunctory sign of the cross—“but I got to get busy.”

  “I’ll try to help, Al.”

  “Excellent. You can start by telling me who you saw out there in the Glades. Anybody interesting?”

  “Guy named Jesus Bernal.”

  “Hey, our b
omber! Sloppy fucker, too. Left his fingerprints all over the piping. Buys the wire in Hialeah.” García jotted in his notepad. “He the one who jammed the shiv in your ribs?”

  “I think so,” Keyes said.

  “What about your pal from Pauly’s joint, the football nero?”

  “Viceroy Wilson. Yeah, him too.”

  “He must be El Fuego.”

  Keyes thought: There it is. Time to shut up or throw in Wiley. Once it was done, there’d be no going back.

  “AI, I’m not sure.”

  “About what?”

  “El Fuego. See, there were four of them, and they never mentioned it.”

  García’s cigarette toggled excitedly. “Four of them! Who were the other two?”

  “There was an Indian.”

  “A raghead Indian or a Tonto Indian?”

  “A Seminole. Tommy Tigertail, they call him.”

  “The man with the Cadillac,” Garcia said. He jotted down Tommy’s name and asked, “How about number four?”

  “White male, late thirties.” Keyes shrugged. “It was dark, like I said.” So that was the decision: to get Skip Wiley himself. Keyes knew he stood a better chance of finding him quietly, with no police sirens. Most of all he was worried about Wiley’s threat of a bloodbath; what had seemed unthinkable three weeks ago seemed imminent now.

  García sat back and folded his puffy hands. “Something’s bothering me, amigo. I think to myself, why the hell would these maniacs snatch mild-mannered Brian Keyes, of all people? I mean, if they weren’t gonna kill you, then why take the risk? They just want to chat or what?”

  “They wanted me to witness a murder,” Keyes said.

  “And did you?”

  “Yes, I think so. Ida Kimmelman was the woman’s name.”

  “The Broward condo queen,” Garcia muttered, writing intently.

  “They fed her to a crocodile,” Keyes said.

  “Who?”

  “Wilson and Bernal. They threw her in a pond—why are you looking at me like that?”

  Al García capped his pen. “Go on, Brian.”

  “I’m not making this up. They threw her in the water and a crocodile ate her.”

  Lost in thought, Garcia gnawed on a thumbnail. He’d heard about the college kid who got gobbled up in Lauderdale and pondered the connection—after all, how many crocodiles could there be?

  Keyes said: “They did it for effect. For headlines, that’s all.”

  “Why didn’t you report this a week ago?”

  “And read about it on the front page? No way, that’s exactly what they wanted. I wasn’t about to let them use me.”

  “Very noble,” Garcia said caustica1ly. “Really showed ’em who’s boss. By the way, hotshot, you been reading the fucking newspaper this week? Your pals out there in the swamp make Richard Speck look like Soupy Sales.”

  “For God’s sake, Al, it’s not like I’ve been on vacation What do you think I’ve been working on?”

  “Tell me more.”

  “I’d like to.”

  “Excellent.” Garcia tapped his pen on the table.

  “Al, they’re planning something big.” Without naming Skip Wiley, Keyes recounted the enigmatic threat to “violate the most sacred virgin in all Miami.”

  “Sounds like Rape City.”

  “I think it’s worse than that.”

  “Maybe you could find that camp again.”

  “Not in a million years,” Keyes said. He was telling the truth.

  “I’ll get a chopper and we’ll take a SWAT team.”

  “How about the National Guard?”

  “Don’t laugh,” Garcia said. “They’ve promised whatev er I need.”

  “Find the Cuban and the football player,” Keyes advised, “and that’ll be the end of it. No more kidnappings.”

  “Brian, I get the feeling you’re holding back.” García peered over the top of his reading glasses. “Tell me you’re not holding back.”

  “Al, I don’t remember much. I was busy losing three units of blood.”

  “Yeah, well, maybe something’ll come back to you.” García waved good-bye with the cigarette. “We’ll talk again. Sanchez will give you a lift downtown. ”

  Keyes started to get up from the table.

  “By the way,” García said, “that was a helluva funny piece in the Sun today. D’you see it?”

  “My paper was in a puddle.”

  “Well, I got it in my coat somewhere. Clipped it out. Here it is ... I hate to admit it, but I actually started to miss this asshole’s column while he was out sick.”

  “May I?” Keyes asked. Apprehensively he lifted the folded newspaper clipping from García’s brown paw. He opened it at arm’s length, as if it were radioactive.

  “Go ahead, read it,” Al García said. “It’s funny as hell. All about his vacation in the Bahamas. The guy’s got a regular way with words.”

  “So he does,” said Brian Keyes, trying not to appear dumbfounded by what he saw.

  In print.

  With a studio photo.

  Under a headline that said:

  Wiley Returns.

  18

  Nassau—The worst thing about visiting the Bahamas is Americans like me. The hotels are lousy with us.

  Americans with terrible manners.

  Americans who talk like the rest of the world is deaf.

  And dress like the rest of the world is blind.

  I come here seeking solitude, an oasis for recuperation, and all I get is a jackhammer sinus headache that won’t go away. From Bay Street to the baccarat salons, there’s no escaping this foul plague of tourists.

  In Florida we’ve grown accustomed to their noisome behavior (and tolerate it, as avarice dictates we must), but there is something obscene about witnessing its infliction upon the people of a foreign country.

  Frankly, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

  Perhaps it’s basic pioneer spirit that compels Americans each vacation season to evacuate their hometowns and explore new lands. Fine. But how do you justify fiuorescent Bermuda shorts? Or E.T. beach sandals? What gives us the right to so offend the rest of civilization?

  Ah, but look who’s talking.

  The other day I tried windsurfing, an absurd sport that requires one to balance perilously on a bananashaped piece of fiberglass while steering the seas with a flimsy canvas sheet.

  Windsurfing lessons in the Bahamas cost $45, a bargain for vacationing yahoos who firmly believe that the more dangerous an enterprise, the more you should pay for it. And for a thirty-seven-year-old degenerate in my addled condition, windsurfing is fraught with exciting little dangers: lacerations, compound fractures, groin pulls, spinal paralysis-not to mention toxic jellyfish, killer sharks, sea urchins, and sting rays.

  Windsurfing probably is not as dangerous as, say, flying a slow U-2 over Cuba, but there isn’t a jock pilot in the whole damn Air Force who’s ever had to worry about losing his swimtrunks (and self esteem) before a beachload of gawking, tittering, shrimp-skinned tourists,.

  Which is what happened to me at high noon yesterday when I was blindsided by a thunderous breaker.

  My Bahamian windsurfing instructor, Rudy, had every right to laugh; it was a stupendous moon job.

  After my spill (and near-drowning), I loudly accused him of supplying faulty equipment. Replied Rudy: “De only’ quipment datfawlty, mon, is you drunken old body.”

  He was right. You can’t surf with a bottle of Myers’s under your arm. Stupid bloody tourist.

  Wiley Returns.

  “How could you print that crap?” Brian Keyes demanded.

  “Calm down,” said Cab Mulcahy, “and close the door.”

  But Keyes could not be calm, not with Wiley’s elongated face leering from the pages of the Miami Sun. That the newspaper would revive his column was beyond belief, a monstrous gag. Wiley had the gun, and Mulcahy had just handed him the bullets, gift-wrapped.

  “Cab, you don’t know what you’re get
ting into.”

  “I’m afraid I do.” Mulcahy looked chagrined. “Skip’s involved with these terrorists, isn’t he?”

  “He’s not just involved, Cab, he’s running the whole damn show. He’s the Number One Nacho.”

  “You’re certain, Brian?”

  “Absolutely.”

  The editor closed his eyes. “How bad?”

  “Imagine General Patton on acid.”

  “I see. ”

  They sat in morose silence, pretending to gaze out Mulcahy’s office window. On Biscayne Bay the waves had turned to slate under pickets of bruised thunderclouds, advancing from the east. It was probably raining like hell in the Bahamas.

  “He called yesterday from Nassau,” Mulcahy began. “Said he was feeling better. No more visceral rage, he said; back to big-league journalism. He sent the column by telex—totally harmless, no preaching, no politics. You’ve got to admit, it’s good for a chuckle. I told Skip we’d run it after he came back to Florida and we had a long talk, to which he replied: ‘In due time.’ ”

  “So you published the damn thing anyway.”

  “I was outvoted,” Mulcahy said.

  “By whom?”

  “By the only one who matters.”

  “Cardoza?” Keyes asked.

  Cardoza was the publisher.

  “The prince himself,” Mulcahy said. “Two weeks is a long time without your clean-up hitter, Brian. I told him Skip was still under the weather, suffering from exhaustion, the whole nine yards. But Cardoza read the column and said Skip sure didn’t write like he was exhausted so we might as well print the column. And that was it, end of argument. Listen, we were getting a lot of mail, a lot, including some cancellations. You would’ve thought we yanked Doonesbury or Peanuts. ”

  Keyes said, “Did you tell Cardoza everything?”

  “About as much as you told the cops.”

  Keyes shrugged. Touché.

  “This is grand,” Mulcahy said sardonically. “Here we are, two truth-seekers who for once actually get hold of the truth. So what do we do? We hide it. Swallow it. Smother it. You should be telling the police, and I should be telling my readers, but look at us—the original chickenshit twins. We’re both worried about that crazy sonofabitcb—as if he deserves our concern—and we’re both telling ourselves that there’s got to be another way. Except there isn’t, is there? It’s gone too damn far. People are dead, the cops are rabid, and the city’s in an uproar. Meanwhile our old pal Wiley is hiding somewhere out there, dreaming up a punch line for this hideous joke.”