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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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Tourist Season 28
“Talk to him!”
“Okay, then he wanted me to tell you something. He wanted me to tell you that it’s hopeless, that what you’re doing is sheer suicide. He wanted me to tell you that whether you know it or not, it’s all over.”
“Ho-ho-ho,” Skip Wiley said, and hung up.
Right away Cab Mulcahy put in a call to Al Garcia, but the entire Fuego One Task Force was out in the Everglades on a tip. A deer hunter had stumbled into a fresh campsite that looked promising; García wasn’t expected back in the office until morning. Mulcahy left an urgent message.
Next he tried Keyes, but Brian was gone too. There was a photo session out on the beach, Reed Shivers explained—the Orange Bowl queen at sunset. The languid look, very artsy. Keyes had tagged along to keep an eye on things; took the gun but not his beeper.
“Shit,” Mulcahy said.
Cardoza was strike three. The publisher was attending the Palm Beach premiere of a new Burt Reynolds movie. Afterward was a cookout at Generoso Pope’s.
Cab Mulcahy fixed himself a pitcher of martinis, sat down with Mozart on the stereo, and waited for the telephone to ring. It was the lousiest Saturday night of his life, and it was about to get worse.
One of Sparky Harper’s only legacies was the annual pre—Orange Bowl Friendship Cruise. Each year, on the Saturday evening before the Monday parade, a large contingent of visiting dignitaries, politicians, VIPs and wealthy tourists set sail from the Port of Miami for a two-day junket to Freeport and Key West. Sparky Harper had inaugurated the Friendship Cruise as a goodwill gimmick, and also as a secret favor to one of his ex-wives’ brothers, who ran a lucrative catering firm for the cruise lines. For the first few years, the Orange Bowl queen contestants had been invited along on the cruise, as had all the Orange Bowl football players. However, the Chamber of Commerce quietly discontinued this policy in the late 1970’s following an unseemly episode involving a lifeboat, a young beauty queen, and three University of Oklahoma sophomore linebackers. Once the beauty contestants and the football players had been banned from the ship, Sparky Harper had found himself with loads of empty chairs and four hundred pounds of surplus Gulf shrimp. It was then he had gotten the idea to invite journalists—but not just any journalists: travel writers. Sparky Harper and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce adored travel writers because travel writers never wrote stories about street crime, water pollution, fish kills, beach erosion, refugees, AIDS epidemics, nuclear accidents, cocaine smugglers, gun-runners, or race riots. Once in a while, a daring travel writer would mention one of these subjects in passing, but strictly in the context of a minor setback from which South Florida was pluckily rebounding. For instance, when huge tracts of Miami Beach began to disappear into the ocean, leaving nothing but garish hotels at water’s edge, a decision was made to hastily build a new beach out of dredged-up rock, shells, and coral grit. Once this was done, Sparky Harper mailed out hundreds of impressive aerial photographs to newspapers everywhere. Sure enough, many travel writers soon journeyed to Miami and wrote about the wondrous new beach without ever mentioning the fact that you needed logger’s boots to cross it without lacerating the veins of your feet. As a rule, travel writers wrote only about the good stuff; they were A-okay in Sparky’s book. So, with the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce, in 1980 Sparky Harper invited fifty travel writers from newspapers all across North America to come to Miami during Orange Bowl Week and sail the Friendship Cruise. Of course, 1980 was the year of the Liberty City riots and the Mariel boatlift, so only nine travel writers showed up, several of them carrying guns for protection. The following year the turnout was much better, and the year after that, better still. By the time of Sparky Harper’s death, the Friendship Cruise was widely regarded by American travel writers as one of the premier junkets in the business.
This year the Chamber of Commerce unanimously had voted to dedicate the event to Sparky Harper’s memory. On the night of December 29, four weeks after Sparky’s murder, a crowd of 750 gathered at the Port of Miami and listened as the mayor of Miami read a brief tribute to the slain public-relations wizard. Afterward the crowd streamed up the gangplank and boarded the SS Nordic Princess, where an orgy of eating and drinking and banal joke-telling commenced.
The SS Nordic Princess was a sleek cruise liner, and nearly brand-new. Built on a fiord in Norway, she was 527 feet long and carried a gross tonnage of 16,500. She had seven decks, four hundred cabins, two heated swimming pools, five restaurants, eight bars, a spa, a library, a bowling alley, fifty slot machines, and a video arcade. There was also a branch of Chase Manhattan on the gambling mezzanine. The Nordic Princess was served by a crew of three hundred, mostly Dominicans and Haitians, with a few obligatory white Englishmen to serve as bell captains and maître d’s.
Many of the passengers on the Friendship Cruise had never before sailed on an ocean liner. One of them was Mack Dane, the new travel writer from the Tulsa Express. Dane was a spry and earnest fellow in his mid-sixties who had spent most of his newspaper career trying to cover the oil industry. As a reward for his thirty-two years of service (and also to get him out of the way to make room for a young reporter), the Express had “promoted” him to the travel beat. The Orange Bowl was his first assignment, the Friendship Cruise his maiden voyage.
Like most of the guests aboard the Nordic Princess, Mack Dane was tickled to be in Miami in December. He had just spoken to his daughter back in Oklahoma and learned that there was three feet of fresh snow and a wind chill of forty-two below, and that the dog had frozen to the doorstep.
As the ship glided out of Government Cut, Mack Dane found his way to the top deck and strategically positioned himself near a tray of fresh stone crabs and jumbo shrimp. Christmas lights were strung festively from the ship’s smokestacks, and a live salsa band was performing a medley of Jimmy Buffett tunes in a fashion that no one had ever dreamed possible. A strong breeze blew in from the ocean, pushing clouds and a promise of light rain. Mack Dane grabbed another banana daiquiri. He was having a grand time. He wondered if any of his fellow travel writers were young and pretty.
Two tourists stood at the rail and waved at the tiny figures of snook fishermen out on the jetty. Mack Dane watched the tourists for a few minutes and decided to interview them for his story. They looked like a reasonable couple.
“The Gilberts,” they said warmly. “Montreal.”
Sam Gilbert was about forty years old. He wore pale yellow slacks and an expensive toupee that was having a rough go of it with the wind. Other than that, he was a handsome-looking gentleman with a pleasant smile. His wife appeared to be in her late thirties. She was dressed in a tasteful beige pantsuit, a sheer silk scarf tucked around her neck. Her hair was so unnaturally blond that it was attracting fireflies, but other than that Mrs. Gilbert looked like a friendly and decent person.
“This your first cruise?” Mack Dane asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Gilbert said. “We had to book four months in advance. This is a very popular trip.”
Mack Dane told them he was a travel writer, and a guest of the Chamber of Commerce.
“You didn’t have to pay?” Mrs. Gilbert said.
“What a great job,” said Sam Gilbert.
“First trip to Miami?” Mack Dane asked.
“Right,” Gilbert said. “We’re here to see the Irish stomp the Huskers.” Notre Dame was playing the University of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl football game on New Year’s Day. According to many sportswriters, the game would determine the national collegiate football championship.
“I don’t like football,” Mrs. Gilbert confided. “I’m here for the sunshine and shopping.”
“We just bought a winter home in Boca Raton,” Sam Gilbert said. “Not a home, actually, a condominium.”
“Sam’s a doctor,” Mrs. Gilbert explained.
Mack Dane felt like another drink. The Nordic Princess was out to sea, rocking ever so lightly in the northeast
chop. Behind her, the skies of Miami glowed a burnished orange from the sodium anticrime lights.
“So it’s safe to say you’re really enjoying this trip,” Mack Dane said.
“Oh yes.” Mrs. Gilbert noisily attacked a stone-crab claw. Mack Dane wondered if she’d considered removing the shell first.
“Put in your article,” she said, “that Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Gilbert of Montreal, Canada, are having the time of their lives.”
Sam Gilbert said, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Mr. Dane, could you do us a favor? Could you take our picture?”
“Sure.” Mack Dane put away his notebook and wiped his hands on a cocktail napkin that was decorated with the seal of the State of Florida. Mrs. Gilbert handed him a small thirty-five-millimeter camera with a built-in flash and built-in focus and built-in light meter.
The Gilberts posed arm-in-arm against the rail of the ship. Sam Gilbert wore his doctor face while Mrs. Gilbert kept reaching up and fiddling with his toupee, which, in the strong wind, had begun to resemble a dead starling.
Mack Dane squinted through the viewfinder and tried to frame the Gilberts romantically, with the lights of Miami shining over their shoulders. At first it was a perfect picture—if only there’d been a full moon! Then something went wrong. Suddenly Mack Dane couldn’t see the Gilberts anymore; he couldn’t see anything through the camera except a white light. He figured something broke on the focus.
But when he took the camera away from his face, Mack Dane realized that the white light was real: a beam piercing down from the heavens. Or from something in the heavens. Something that hovered like a dragonfly high above the SS Nordic Princess.
“A helicopter,” Mack Dane said. “A big one.” He knew the sound of a chopper. He’d flown them lots of times out to the oil rigs.
The Gilberts craned their necks and stared into the sky, shielding their eyes from the powerful search beam. The other partiers crowded together, pointing. The salsa band took a break.
Mack Dane said, “It’s coming down.”
The helicopter did seem to be descending slowly, but it was no longer in a hover, it was flying in a slow arc. Trailing behind the chopper was a long advertising banner.
“This is really tacky,” Sam Gilbert said.
Mack Dane put on eyeglasses and turned in circles, trying to read the streamer. In four-foot letters it said: “AVAST AND AHOY: WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTI—”
“Revoluti?” puzzled Sam Gilbert.
“Maybe it’s a new perfume,” said his wife.
Mack Dane wondered if some letters had fallen off the advertisement.
The helicopter dropped lower and lower, and soon the partiers aboard the Friendship Cruise found themselves drowned to silence by the rotor noise. When the chopper was no more than one hundred feet above the deck, the banner was cut loose. It fluttered into the sea like an enormous confetti. The crowd ooooohhhed, and a few even applauded.
Mack Dane noticed that the top deck—the Royal Sun Deck, according to the ship’s guide—was filling with tourists and VIPs and travel writers who had come up from below to investigate the commotion. Before long, people were packed elbow to elbow. In the meantime, the captain of the SS Nordic Princess had grown concerned about the reckless helicopter and cut his speed to eight knots.
“Hello, folks!” said a brassy male voice. Somebody on the helicopter had an electric bullhorn.
“Having a good time in Florida?” the voice called.
“Yeaaaah!” shouted the partiers, their faces upturned brightly. Some of the stuffy civic-leader types—the mayor, the Orange Bowl committeemen, the Chamber of Commerce life members—were miffed at the interruption of the cruise but, not wanting to spoil anyone’s fun, said nothing.
The loud voice in the helicopter said: “How would all of you like some genuine Florida souvenirs?”
“Yeaaaaah!” shouted the partiers.
“Well, here you go!” the voice said.
A door on the side of the helicopter opened and a white parcel plummeted toward the deck of the Nordic Princess. It was followed by another and another. At first Mack Dane thought the objects might be miniature parachutes or beach towels, but when one landed near his feet he saw that it was only a shopping bag from Neiman-Marcus. Soon the deck was being rained with shopping bags from all the finest department stores—Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Burdine’s, Jordan Marsh, Saks. Once the travelers realized what was happening, the Friendship Cruise quickly dissolved into a frenzied scrabble for the goodies.
Mack Dane thought: This is some advertising gimmick.
To her credit, Mrs Gilbert held her own against stiff competition. She outmuscled a jewelry dealer from Brooklyn and the vicious wife of a Miami city commissioner to capture three of the prized shopping bags.
“Really,” Sam Gilbert muttered.
“What did you win?” Mack Dane asked.
“I’m not sure,” Mrs. Gilbert said. The shopping bags were stapled shut. She ripped one open and fished inside.
Her hand came out with a bracelet. The bracelet had a pattern of pale yellow chain, and looked like rubber. The odd thing was, it appeared to be moving.
It was a live snake.
Mrs. Gilbert was speechless. Her eyelids fluttered as the snake coiled around her creamy wrist. Its strawberry tongue flicked in and out, tasting her heat.
“Jesus Christ,” said her husband.
It was not a big snake, maybe three feet long, but it was dark brown and fat as a kitchen pipe. The snake was every bit as bewildered as the Gilberts.
Behind Mack Dane a woman shrieked. And across the deck, another. A man yelled out, “Oh my God!” and fainted with his eyes open. As if jarred from a trance, Mrs. Gilbert dropped the brown snake and back-pedaled; her jaw was going up and down, but nothing was coming out.
By now each of the shopping bags (exactly two hundred in all) had been opened with the same startling results.
The sundeck of the Nordic Princess was crawling with snakes. King snakes, black snakes, blue runners, garter snakes, green snakes, banded water snakes, ring-necked snakes, yellow rat snakes, corn snakes, indigo snakes, scarlet king snakes. Most of the snakes were harmless, except for a handful of Eastern diamondback rattlers and cottonmouth water moccasins, like the one in Mrs. Gilbert’s prize bag. Skip Wiley had not planned on dropping any poisonous snakes—he didn’t think it necessary—but he’d neglected to tell Tommy Tigertail and his crew of Indian snake-catchers. The Seminoles made no distinction, spiritual or taxonomical, between venomous and nonvenomous snakes; all were holy.
As the reptiles squirmed across the teakwood, the crowd panicked. Several men tried to stomp on the snakes; others rushed forward brandishing deck chairs and fire extinguishers. Many of the snakes became agitated and began snapping in all directions.
Mrs. Gilbert, among others, was bitten on the ankle.
Her husband the doctor stood there helplessly.
“I’m just a radiologist,” he said to Mack Dane.
The captain of the Nordic Princess looked down from the wheelroom and saw bedlam on his ship. To restore order, he blew the ship’s tremendous horn three times.
“What does that mean?” cried Sam Gilbert, who was carrying his wife around on his back.
Mack Dane did not care to admit that although he was a travel writer, he knew nothing about ocean liners. So he said: “I think it means we abandon ship.”
“Abandon ship!” screamed Mrs. Gilbert.
And they did. They formed a flying wedge, hundreds of them, and crashed through the rails and ropes of the upper deck. The Gilberts were among the first to go, plunging seventy feet into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the ship to the damnable snakes.
As soon as he hit the water, Mack Dane was sorry he’d said anything about jumping overboard. The water was chilly and rough, and he wondered how long he could stay afloat. It also occurred to him, in hindsight, that sharks might be infinitely worse tha
n a bunch of frightened snakes.
The Nordic Princess came dead in the water, towering like a gray wall above the frantic swimmers. Fire bells rang at both ends of the ship. Mack Dane could see crew members on every deck throwing life preservers and lowering the dinghies. The ocean seemed full of shrieking people, their heads bobbing like so many coconuts.
Mack Dane noticed that the mystery helicopter was circling again, firing its hot-white spotlight into the water. Occasionally the beam would fix on the befuddled face of a dog-paddling tourist.
From the helicopter drifted a melody, muted by the engines and warped by the wind. It was not a soothing song, either. It was Pat Boone sounding like Brenda Lee. It was the theme from the motion picture Exodus.
A good-looking man in a business suit who was treading water near Mack Dane raised up a fist and hollered at the helicopter: “You sick bastards!”
Mack Dane recognized the man as the mayor of Miami.
“Who are those guys up there?” Mack Dane asked. He was thinking about the story he’d have to write, if he survived.
“Fucking Nachos,” the mayor said. He kicked hard and swam off toward the SS Nordic Princess.
Mack Dane watched the chopper climb sharply and bank east, against the wind. The white spotlight vanished and the cabin door closed. In a few moments all that was visible were three pinpoints of light—red, green, and white—on the fuselage, although the racket of the propellers remained audible, dicing the night air.
An empty lifeboat drifted toward Mack Dane and he pulled himself aboard. He peeled off his blazer and laid it on his lap. As he was helping a young couple from Lansing, Michigan, climb in, Mack Dane saw a diamondback rattle-snake swim by. It looked miserable and helpless.
“What a night,” said the man from Lansing.
Something about the sound of the helicopter changed. Mack Dane looked for the lights and spotted them about a mile east of the ship, and low to the purple horizon. The rotor engines sounded rough, the pitch rising.
“Something’s not right,” Mack Dane said.