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Thrillers & Crime
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Time News Roman
Tourist Season 25
He had already decided what he would do. As soon as he was done peeking, he’d send the package right back to García. He’d wrap it exactly the same and steam the labels—who would ever know?
Lovingly Ricky Bloodworth rubbed the smooth brown paper, fingered the frayed twine.
Then he pinched one end of the magnificent bow and pulled, pulled on it until the knot popped.
And a savage furnace swallowed him.
Tore the air from his lungs.
And the flesh from his cheeks.
Until the universe turned molten white.
It had always puzzled Cab Mulcahy that Mr. Cardoza took such an ardent personal interest in the Miami Sun. Traditionally publishers love to meddle with the news operation (because that’s the most exciting part of a newspaper, the only part worth dicking around with), but Cardoza was not a typical publisher. He had little understanding of the tenets of journalism with no paternal affection for the newspaper, for his fortunes did not singularly rise or plummet with the Sun. Rather, Cardoza was a boundless entrepreneur, a man who loved the variety of making money; a man with dozens of incongruous irons in the fire. He owned a soccer team in St. Kitts, a stock car in Darlington, a chain of family cinemas, four butcher shops, a Liberian oil tanker, three thousand coin-operated condom machines, and a phosphate mine. Any single one of those enterprises, Cab Mulcahy thought, was infinitely more amusing as a money toy than the frequently struggling Miami Sun, of which Cardoza owned fifty-one percent. Which automatically made him publisher and meddler-for-life.
On the evening of December 28, a Friday, Cab Mulcahy was summoned from an opulent pre-Orange Bowl cocktail party to explain to Mr. Cardoza why Skip Wiley’s column had not appeared in the paper since Christmas Eve.
The publisher did not particularly wish to see Mulcahy in person, and he certainly had no intention of visiting the newsroom. Cardoza preferred to do business office-to-office, by telephone—distance yields perspective, he liked to say. Also, he got- a kick out of hanging up on people.
At the appointed hour, Cardoza dialed Mulcahy’s desk. “I didn’t think much of that Christmas Eve column,” he began.
“Me neither,” Mulcahy said.
“Who gives a shit about some native fisherman who can’t swim? It seems to me Mr. Wiley can do better.”
“He’s still not himself,” Mulcahy said.
“He gets paid to be himself,” Cardoza said. “A small fortune, he gets paid. And here it’s Christmas week, tourist season, when our circulation’s supposed to shoot sky-high, and where’s our star clean-up hitter? Every day I pick up the newspaper, and nothing. No Skip Wiley. The Sun’s dead without him. Lies there like a dog turd on my front lawn.”
Mulcahy said, “Really, Mr. Cardoza, I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Oh you wouldn’t? You’d like to hear the cancellation figures, maybe. Or take a few hours to read some of the mail we’ve been getting.”
“That’s not necessary.”
For years Cab Mulcahy had tried to tell Cardoza that he overestimated Wiley’s popularity, that no single writer could pull enough support to significantly boost or bust the circulation numbers. Whether that was true or not, it was what Mulcahy chose to believe. However, as a pure businessman Cardoza felt that he appreciated the concept of a Good Product far better than some ivory-tower editor. And in Cardoza’s predominant and immutable view, what made the Miami Sun a Good Product were Skip Wiley, Ann Landers, and Dagwood Bumstead. On some days Wiley alone was worth the twenty-five cents.
“Where the hell is he?” Cardoza demanded.
“I don’t know,” Mulcahy said. “I expected him back in town on Christmas Day.”
“Send someone to Nassau,” Cardoza barked through the speaker box. “Do whatever you have to do.”
Mulcahy rubbed the back of his neck and closed his eyes. It was fortunate that Cardoza couldn’t see him. “Skip’s not in the Bahamas anymore,” he said. “Apparently he was deported from the islands on the twenty-fourth.”
“Deported!” Cardoza huffed. “For what?”
“It’s quite a long list, sir.”
“Give me the high points.”
“Attempted bribery, possession of a controlled substance, and behaving as an undesirable, whatever that means. For what it’s worth, the embassy says Wiley was set up. Apparently that column about the fisherman didn’t go over too well with the Bahamian government.”
“Now everybody’s a goddamn critic,” Cardoza said.
“All I know is that they put him on a plane,” Mulcahy said. “At gunpoint.”
“Why didn’t we think of that?”
Though miserly with compliments, Cardoza privately held great admiration for Cab Mulcahy; he couldn’t imagine anyone trying to manage so many deeply disturbed individuals as there were in the newsroom. It was a disorderly place where eccentricity, torpor, petulance, even insubordination were tolerated, so Cardoza stayed far away, where it was safe. He stayed near the money.
“God knows I’d never tell you how to run that operation, Cab, but I do want to see Skip Wiley in my newspaper again. That means you’d better find him. I want a New Year’s column from that crazy sonofabitch, you understand? Don’t tell me he’s sick and don’t tell me he’s exhausted, and don’t fucking tell me that he’s not himself. Just tell me that he’s writing again, understand?”
“Yes, sir, but apparently—”
And Cardoza hung up.
All week long Cab Mulcahy had been waiting for the phone call or telegram, waiting for that familiar profane foghorn greeting. Waiting in vain. He couldn’t believe that Skip Wiley had docilely accepted the butchery of the Christmas column; he couldn’t believe that Wiley had suppressed what must have been a colossal homicidal rage.
Was Skip that far gone?
In the meantime, the Nights of December had fallen quiet and dropped off the front page, much to the relief of the men in the orange blazers. Scores of suspects had been rounded up, including a few men who might have vaguely resembled Jesus Bernal or Daniel “Viceroy” Wilson; all were released or charged with unrelated crimes. There was also talk of a summit with Seminole tribal elders to seek assistance in locating Tommy Tigertail, but the Seminoles refused to go near the police station and the cops refused to enter the reservation, so the meeting never materialized.
The morning edition of the Sun had carried four stories about the upcoming Orange Bowl festivities (including a color photograph of twenty newly arrived Shriners, jovially polishing their Harleys), but in the whole newspaper there was only one item about Las Noches de Diciembre. It was a short feature story and a cartoon, beneath a headline that said: Tennis Buff Boffs Bomb Suspect.
It was only now, rereading it in print, that Cab Mulcahy realized how trenchantly the presentation of Ricky Bloodworth’s article—me tone, the headline, the slapstick cartoon—struck at the very manhood of the Nights of December. It worried Mulcahy. Coupled with Wiley’s ominous silence, it worried him profoundly.
He looked out at the newsroom just in time to see a lean figure running toward the office, weaving through the desks and video-display terminals. It was Brian Keyes.
“He called!” Keyes said breathlessly. “Twenty minutes ago. The bastard left a message on my beeper.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he’s gonna phone here, your office. Wants to talk to both of us.”
“It’s about damn time,” Mulcahy said, feeling a little better about the prospects. He took off his black dinner jacket and hung it over a chair.
As they waited for the phone to ring, Mulcahy busied himself by brewing a fresh pot of coffee. His hands shook slightly as he poured it. Keyes scooped a handful of peppermint candies from a jar on the secretary’s desk and ate them mechanically, one by one.
“What are we going to say?” Mulcahy asked. “When he calls, what the hell are we supposed to say?”
“We’ve got to convince him it’s all over,” Keyes said. “Te
ll him we know the whole plan. Tell him if he tries anything at the parade, Las Noches are as good as dead. Tell him it’ll make Bonnie and Clyde look like Sunday at the beach.”
Mulcahy nodded neutrally. Might work, might not. With Skip, who the hell could ever tell?
“I think we ought to concede some minor points,” Mulcahy suggested. “He’ll never give up if he thinks it’s been a total loss.”
“You’re right,” Keyes said. “Congratulate him on all the ink they got. The newsmagazines, the Post, USA Today. Tell him the Nights of December made their point. They got everybody’s attention.”
“Which is true.”
“Of course it’s true.”
“But is it enough for Skip?”
Keyes and Mulcahy looked at each other with the same answer.
“What are we going to do,” Keyes asked, “when he tells us to go beat our meat?”
Mulcahy stroked his chin. “We could talk to Jenna.”
“Forget it,” Keyes said sharply. “Lost cause.”
“Then it’s over. Bloodbath or not, we go to the cops.”
“Yup.” Keyes glanced at the telephone.
“Imagine the headlines, Cab.”
“God help us.”
The phone rang. Once. Twice. Mulcahy swallowed hard and answered on the third ring.
“I see,” he said after a few seconds.
Keyes excitedly pointed to the speaker box. Mulcahy shook his head unhappily. Then he hung up. His face was like gray crepe.
“That wasn’t him,” Mulcahy said. “It wasn’t Wiley.”
“Then who was it?”
“Sergeant García,” he said gravely. “Apparently the Nights of December just blew up the one and only Richard L. Bloodworth.”
The bomb that exploded in Ricky Bloodworth’s lap was powerful by Little Havana standards, but not utterly devastating. To build it, Jesús Bernal had hollowed a round Styrofoam lobster float and packed the core with generous but unmeasured amounts of Semtex-H, C-4, and old gunpowder. Then he ran a fuse through the middle and plugged the ends with gasoline-soaked Jockey shorts and two Army blasting caps. Next Bemal had meticulously embedded into the Styrofoam ball hundreds of two-penny nails (the sharp ends facing out), as well as assorted slivers of rusty cola cans and soup tins. It was not a bomb designed to wipe out embassies or armored limousines; this was, in the terrorist vernacular, an antipersonnel device. Bemal had packed the bristling lobster buoy into an empty one-gallon paint drum and threaded the fuse through a hole in the lid. The fuse became part of the magnificent bow that adorned the deadly brown box—an inspired touch of which the Cuban was especially proud.
Yet, as always, Jesus Bernal had a problem with quality control. He had envisioned a weapon that would fire shrapnel in all directions at an equal force, leaving no square centimeter of human flesh unpunctured. The paint can, Bernal had determined, would itself disintegrate into jagged fragments and become part of the lethal payload.
Fortunately for Ricky Bloodworth, that is not what happened. Fortunately, Jesus Bernal had failed to seal properly the bottom of the paint can, which blew off at the instant of explosion and gave the bomb something it was never supposed to have: rocket thrust.
In what the Metro-Dade Bomb Squad calculated was no more than two-thousandths of a second, Jesus Bernal’s prize package blasted off from Ricky Bloodworth’s lap on a nineteen-degree trajectory, passed cleanly through three plywood toilet stalls, and detonated in the men’s urinal. The rest room was gutted.
An hour later, when Cab Mulcahy and Brian Keyes arrived, men in white lab coats were balanced on stepladders, scraping what appeared to be chunks of pink bubble gum off the charred rest-room ceiling.
“Mr. Bloodworth’s fingertips,” Al García explained. “We’ve found seven out of ten, so far.”
“How is he?” Mulcahy asked.
“He’s got a nosebleed like Victoria Falls,” the detective said, “but he’ll make it.”
Luckily, the police station was only five minutes from Flagler Memorial Hospital. Ricky Bloodworth had arrived in the emergency room semiconscious and suffering from hand injuries, lacerations and second-degree burns over his face and groin.
“The tip of his cock got fried—don’t ask me how,” Garcia said. “He’s also deaf, but the doctor says that might be temporary.”
Mulcahy stepped gingerly through the smoky chamber, his shoes crunching on a carpet of broken mirror, splintered wood, and powdered tile. Pretzeled by the blast, naked water pipes sprouted from the walls and floor, dripping milky fluid.
Brian Keyes knelt next to the bomb-squad guys as they picked through the ceramic ruins of the urinal. “Look at all these damn nails,” Keyes said.
“Two hundred seven,” said one of the bomb experts, “and still counting.”
Keyes looked up and saw Mulcahy with his black tie loosened and French sleeves rolled up. He had a notebook out, and was descending on Al Garcia. Keyes had to grin: the old boy looked right at home.
Mulcahy asked Garcia: “How do you know this was the Nights of December?”
“Your Mr. Bloodworth’s been working on the story, right? That makes him a prime target.” Garcia eyed the notebook uneasily. “Besides, the boys here tell me this looks like another Jesus Bernal special.”
“What was Ricky doing down here?” Keyes said.
“Probably taking a dump,” Garcia said.
“Come on, Al, this is Traffic. Why wouldn’t he be upstairs in Homicide?”
“’Cause I kicked his sleazy ass out when I caught him trying to tape-record me. Had one of those little James Bond jobs tucked in his vest.”
Mulcahy frowned. “I’m sorry about that, Sergeant. That’s strictly against newsroom policy.”
“When you saw him last,” Keyes said, “did he have a package?”
“Nope,” García said. “But here’s my theory, Brian. After I chase him out of here, he goes home, finds this hinky package in the mailbox, freaks out, and comes racing back to show me. On the way upstairs he stops in the john and bang!”
“How’d he get the box past the security desk in the lobby?” asked Mulcahy. A damn good question, Keyes thought.
But García just chuckled. “You could waltz a Pershing missile by those bozos downstairs and they’d never look twice.”
At first Keyes didn’t want to believe that Bloodworth himself had been the target, or that Skip Wiley might have ordered his execution. It was something Wiley had threatened for years around the newsroom, but then so had almost every other reporter. Bloodworth was always on somebody’s shit list.
Yet Keyes couldn’t deny that the bombing made perfect sense, considering what Bloodworth had written about Las Noches, and considering what had happened to Wiley’s Christmas column. Keyes felt guilty about his role in the Bahamas scheme; Cab Mulcahy felt much worse. Across the rubble the two men exchanged anguished glances and shared the same chilling thought: Skip wasn’t kidding about a bloodbath. Imagine a bomb like this, in a crowd ....
If this was Wiley’s way of warning Keyes and Mulcahy to keep their silence, it worked.
With a gloved hand, one of the bomb-squad guys displayed a twisted scrap of tin which still bore a red-and-white soup label. “Minestrone,” he announced. “This baby was sharpened with a diamond file.”
“Cute,” Mulcahy said, pocketing the notebook. “Come on, Brian, let’s go see Ricky.”
Within minutes of the explosion, the emergency room of Flagler Memorial had been occupied by a clamorous army of journalists, each resolved to make Richard L. Bloodworth a hero of the Fourth Estate. News-wise, it would have been a better story (and certainly less work) if Ricky had been killed outright, but near-martyrdom was better than nothing. The mere fact that the Nights of December had bombed a news reporter guaranteed international headlines, and the event was sure to draw the Big Boys from New York—the networks, the Times and Sixty Minutes, all of whom would do anything to get out of Manhattan i
n the winter. The locals realized that now was the time to score the big interview, before Diane Sawyer strolled into town and scooped them all.
Two policemen escorted Brian Keyes and Cab Mulcahy through the mob and hustled them into a laundry elevator. Five minutes later they stood at the door of Bloodworth’s private tenth-floor room.
The hospital’s official press release had listed Ricky in satisfactory condition, but in no sense of the word did he seem satisfactory. He looked like he’d stuck his head into a bonfire—burnt ears curled up like fortune cookies, hairless eyelids swollen tight, the seared nose and cheeks stained burgundy with surgical antiseptic. He looked like a barbecued mole.
Cab Mulcahy quaked at the sight of his wounded reporter. Like a stricken father, he stood at the side of the bed, lightly touching Bloodworth’s arm through the sheets.
Bloodworth made a singsong noise and Keyes edged closer. It was hard to tell through the bruised slits, but Ricky’s eyes seemed to be open.
“Grunt if you can hear me,” Keyes said.
Bloodworth made no sound.
“Brian, he’s deaf, remember?”
“Oh yeah.” Keyes made an “okay” signal with his thumb and forefinger. Bloodworth smiled feebly.
“Good boy,” Mulcahy said. “You’re going to be just fine. We’ll take care of everything.”
Bloodworth raised his right hand to return the gesture, a poignant if somewhat palsied effort. Keyes noticed that each of Ricky’s fingers was bandaged to the second joint; in fact, the fingers seemed oddly stubbed. Keyes lifted the sheet and checked Bloodworth’s left hand—same thing. Al García wasn’t kidding: Jesus Bernal’s bomb had sheared all Ricky’s fingertips. Not even the thumbs had been spared. Evidently he had been holding the box at the moment of explosion.
“Oh brother,” Keyes said, replacing the sheet.
“Everything’s going to be just fine,” Mulcahy said to Bloodworth.
“He’s never gonna type again,” Keyes whispered.
“Or bite his nails, for that matter.”