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Tourist Season

Tourist Season

Tourist Season 30


  “Pull all Wiley’s columns.”

  “Right. Big stack of ’em, and they’re full of geeks and cons and losers... shit, if you threw them all together you’d have the scariest nest of bizarros in the history of the planet Earth. Took me a week to wade through that crap, too—hey, the guy can write, I told you that. He can put the words together okay, but it’s his attitude that hacks me off. Such an arrogant hump. Anyway, out of all these columns, guess who pops up next? Your Indian, Brian, the guy with the airboat, Tommy Tigerpaws or whatever the hell it is. A fucking full-blooded gator-wrestling white-hating Seminole Indian. I got more stuff out of Wiley’s column than I’ve been able to squeeze out of the whole Seminole tribe. Turns out ole Tommy’s richer than your average Colombian snow-bird. And he’s also very bitter about all the bad shit to come down on his ancestors—for that I can’t blame him, Brian. That was your people, too. The Cubans had nothing to do with screwing the Indians out of Florida.”

  “Al, let’s.”

  “I’m almost done, amigo. So after all this I look on my desk and what have I got? I got an angry black racist football player, a crazy bomb-happy Cuban revolutionary, and a filthy-rich Indian with a bingo chip on his shoulder. Three of the four. So the rest was easy, even for a dumb cop like me—the trick was to read everything Wiley wrote for the last two years. Cristo! What a strange guy.”

  “Funny you didn’t mention all this at the press conference,” Keyes said.

  “Gee, guess I forgot.”

  Which meant García wasn’t ready to buy the chopper crash.

  “It bugs me,” he said. “I think to myself, why would El Fuego pick a stunt like this to show his face?”

  “If only they’d found some bodies,” Keyes said. The words sounded stark and bloodless, but he meant them. He said to García: “What do we do now?”

  “The smart guys in the suits say it’s all over.”

  “What do you say, Al?”

  “I say we wait till after the parade before we open the fucking champagne.”

  “Good idea. In the meantime, I’ll stick with the queen.”

  “One more thing, Brian. Since I’m nice enough not to immediately throw your ass in jail for obstruction, the least you could do is stop by later and tell me about your crazy batshit friend.”

  “Yeah,” Keyes said, “I guess I’d better.”

  28

  As Al García hung up, he chided himself for not hollering more at Brian Keyes. He didn’t know why Keyes had held back about Skip Wiley all these weeks, but he certainly would find out. The gamesmanship of trading information always irritated García, but he accepted it as essential to the job. Reporters, cops, politicians, private detectives—all gifted in the coy art of you-tell-me, I-tell-you. Afterward you felt like either an oracle or a whore.

  García assumed there was a compelling reason for what Keyes had done. There better have been. A trade-off of some sort, maybe even extortion. Wiley seemed capable of anything.

  Besides, the question had diminished in urgency since the helicopter crash. No sooner had the Sunday press conference ended than the chief had slipped García a terse note: “Consider disbanding Fuego One Task Force. We could have a press release ready by tomorrow A.M.”

  García had acknowledged the suggestion without committing to it. As all good detectives, he had learned to subsist on the bittersweet. Good guys, bad guys, you had to watch your step. He’d met crooks to whom he’d entrusted his life, and cops who’d steal crackers from the blind. García was seldom moved by the wisdom of his superiors, and more often dazzled by the cleverness of the criminal mind. The Fuego case had been a peculiar challenge; all along he had felt as if he were battling two sides, Las Noches and the Miami establishment.

  The detective was ambivalent about the mysterious helicopter crash. Part of him wanted to believe that the Nights of December was dead. It had nothing to do with the Orange Bowl or civic boosterism or preserving the tourist trade. Rather, it seemed a marvelous example of bad guys getting their due; justice in the biblical sense. And as a practical matter, there was no tidier way to solve a homicide than to have all your suspects suddenly croak. God knows the small fortune it would save the taxpayers.

  On the other hand was the tug of professional pride: García didn’t like the Chamber of Commerce opening and closing his murder cases. The self-congratulatory tone of the TV press conference had been farcical; the truth was, García’s crack squad never had come close to finding, much less capturing, Las Noches de Diciembre. It had been a frustrating assignment for a cop unaccustomed to being outwitted, and García didn’t like the taste of it. To see Skip Wiley and his weird crew vanquished by a sputtering old Army helicopter seemed mundane and anticlimactic. From García’s view, it would have been immensely more satisfying to have tracked the bastards to their Everglades hideout and smoked them in a blazing firefight.

  Which is why he wasn’t ready to call it quits.

  Intuition told García that the ending didn’t fit. A bunch of crazy Cubans or Nicaraguans?—sure, that’s the sort of fuck-up you’d expect, running a chopper clean out of fuel. But from the very first victim, the Nights of December had been different. They had approached each act of violence with a certain selectivity and élan. Choking Sparky Harper with a toy alligator was more than murder; it was terrorism with imagination. It was the stamp of a blade like Wiley.

  Wiley—who, in Al García’s opinion, was too damn smart to flame out over the deep blue sea. It’d be just like that cagey sonofabitch to fake his own death, lull everyone to sleep, then swoop down on the Orange Bowl parade and snatch the queen—just like he’d planned all along.

  The detective crumpled the chief’s directive and dropped it into a trashcan. He flipped through a stack of clippings until he came to the infamous hurricane column:What South Florida needs most is a killer hurricane, sudden and furious, an implacable tempest that would raze the concrete shorelines and rake away the scum and corruption ...

  As he read it for the second time, Garcia felt the hairs prickle on the back of his neck.

  The tidal surge, a swollen gargoyle of a wave, is born beyond the Gulf Stream. Gaining size and thunder by the minute, it races under a deafening wind toward Florida’s sleeping coastline. In purple darkness it pulverizes Miami Beach with a twenty-foot wall of water, flooding Carl Fisher’s billion-dollar island of muck. Picture it: corpses upon corpses, clogging the flooded lobbies of once-majestic condominiums; dead dreamers, swollen, blue-veined, carplike.

  They will die in bewilderment, in the fierce arms of the beloved ocean that brought them here in the first place. Fools! the wind will scream, fools all.

  Garcia thought: These are the words of a pathologically bitter man, if not a certified fruitcake. He was dying to hear what Keyes could tell him about the guy.

  Somebody rapped lightly on the door.

  “Come on in, Brian,” Garcia said.

  The door flew open with a crash.

  García’s left hand found the butt of his revolver but he changed his mind. Nothing like a sawed-off shotgun to argue for prudence.

  “Buenas noches,” the detective said to the man in the soiled undershirt.

  “Hello, maggot,” said Jesus Bernal. “Let’s go for a ride, just you and me.”

  Since spurning the Nights of December, Jesus Bernal had slipped into a desperate and harried state. He had pinned his grandiose hope of redemption on his last homemade bomb, only to see it claim the wrong victim, some goofball news reporter. Once again serendipity had taunted Bernal, reducing his most passionate and calculated crimes to slapstick. His long career as a terrorist had been marred by such misfortune, and he had come to fear that he might be forever cheated of his place in radical history, that he had blown his last big chance. That morning’s press conference had pitched the little Cuban into an orgy of self-pity—he had screeched at the television screen, pummeled the walls, kicked holes in the doors of his motel room. He knew that the helicopter stunt was a frivolous id
ea, that the first plan had been the best. He had tried to teach the others about discipline and efficiency, about the fatal dangers of impetuosity. But that fuckhead Wiley was beyond reason, and the dope-wasted nigger and the creepy Seminole Indian had trailed along like zombies. They were babies playing a man’s game. Now they were dead, and so for all practical purposes was Las Noches de Diciembre, leaving Jesús Bernal an orphan of the cause. Wretchedly he wondered what his ex-comrades in the First Weekend in July Movement were saying about him; he could hear the comandante’s sneering laughter. Who could blame the old fart? For all the fanfare about Las Noches, nothing historic had been proven, nothing of permanence achieved. So there was no point calling the old man to beg again for readmission.

  Bernal knew his options were limited. Strategically, it would be futile to revive the name of the organization—as far as the world was concerned, the Nights of December no longer existed. Even the fucking stationery was useless.

  One possibility was to start his own underground terrorist movement. To hell with the crazy Wileys and the feeble old Bay of Piggers; it was time for daring new blood. Yet there was still the problem of credibility, and shedding the stigma of recent failures.

  Which was why Jesus Bernal sneaked into Metro-Dade police headquarters on Sunday evening, December 30.

  If all went as planned, Jesus figured he’d never again have to worry about his future; he would be the Reggie Jackson of South Florida terrorism, a free-agent superstar-assassin. The First Weekend in July, Omega Seven, Alpha 66—they’d all be knocking down his door. Then maybe he would form his own gang, recruiting only the best from the others and leaving the faggots and doddering old men to their Eighth Street parades.

  Even before the helicopter accident, Jesus Bernal had unilaterally decided to select a new victim. To impress the comandante, the target would have to be a person of prominence and formidable authority. And most important, the chosen prey must represent an abhorrence to The Cause—either compromise, complicity, or total apathy.

  Bernal’s brightest hope was Sergeant Al García.

  The chubby turncoat had invited trouble during the press conference by noting there was no evidence of Jesus being aboard the ill-fated Huey. In his emotionally bruised and paranoid state, Bernal perceived this remark as a slur, something meant to portray him as a sniveling coward who cringed in the background while his brethren risked their lives. In fact, García had mentioned Jesus Bernal only to annoy the guys in the orange blazers; he never thought it would precipitate this kind of visit.

  “Take the back stairs,” Bernal commanded.

  The police station was all but empty on a Sunday night and they saw no one on the stairwell. The two men emerged from a doorway on the northwest side and crossed the jail parking lot, concealed by a tall hedge. Bernal walked stiffly, the shotgun pointed down and held close to his right leg; from a distance he looked like a man with a slight limp.

  García’s unmarked police car was parked on Fourteenth Street. “You drive,” Bernal said. “And stay off the freeways.”

  They headed south, crossed the Miami River drawbridge, and stopped at the busy traffic light at Northwest Seventh Street.

  “Which way?” García asked.

  Jesus Bernal hesitated. “Just a second.” Across his lap lay the shotgun, its barrel gaping from the crook of his arm. The gun was an over-and-under model, cut back to fourteen inches. Al García didn’t need the training manual to figure out what a sawed-off could do. It was pointed at his kidneys.

  “Turn right,” Bernal said hoarsely. García could make out the faint cross-hatch imprint of the tennis racket on his abductor’s face. He also noticed that Bernal’s nose was badly broken, though his teeth were straight and gleaming.

  They spoke Spanish to each other.

  “Where we going?” García asked.

  “Why, you worried?” Bernal said tautly. “You think a badge and a gun makes you a hero! Makes you a genuine American! I beg your pardon, Mr. Policía. You are no hero, you’re a coward. You turned your back on your true country.”

  “What do you mean?” García asked, biting back anger.

  “Do you not have family in Cuba?”

  “An uncle,” the detective replied. “And a sister.”

  Bernal poked the shotgun into García’s neck. The barrel was cold and sharp. “You abandoned your own sister! You are a shit-eating worm and I should kill you right now.”

  “She chose to stay behind, my sister did.”

  “No creo—”

  “It’s true,” García said. “She married a man in the army.”

  “Such shit! And your uncle—what lie have you invented for him?”

  “He is a doctor in Camaguey, with a family. Four children. This is not a lie.”

  “Such shit!”

  “Put the gun down before somebody sees it,” Garcia warned.

  Reluctantly Jesus Bernal lowered the sawed-off. He held it across his knees, below the dashboard.

  “You think it was easy for me?” Garcia said. “You think it was easy to leave, to start over? I came here with nothing.”

  Jesus Bernal was unmoved. “Why are you not fighting for your family’s liberation?” he demanded.

  Rather than say something he might eternally regret, Garcia said nothing. Psychology was not his strong suit; he was a firm believer of the fist-in-the-face school of criminal therapy.

  Jesus Bernal was a mangy bundle of nerves. He smelled like he hadn’t bathed for a month and his black hair was a dull curly mat. His high-topped sneakers tapped the floorboard, while his free hand knotted and reknotted the tail of his threadbare undershirt. He fidgeted like a little kid whose bladder was about to burst.

  “What do you think about this, Mr. Policía? Me catching you, instead of the other way around!” Jesús flashed his new dentures. “Cut over to the Trail and we’ll head for the Turnpike.”

  “But you said no freeways.”

  “Shut up and do as I say.” Bernal reached over and ripped the microphone from García’s police radio. He threw it out the window. “You get lonely, you talk to me.”

  Garcia shrugged. “Nice night for a drive.”

  “Hope you got plenty of gas,” Bemal said. “García, I want to ask you something, okay? How does a scum like you sleep at night? What kind of lullabies does a buitre sing? When you close your eyes, do you see your sister and your uncle in Cuba, eh? Do you feel their torture and suffering, while you get fat on American ice cream and go to jai-alai with your Anglo pals? I have often wondered about traitors like you, Garcia.

  “When I was very young, my job was to visit the businessmen and collect contributions for La Causa. I had four blocks on Calle Ocho, three more on Flagler Street downtown. A man named Miguel—he owned a small laundry—once gave three thousand dollars. And old Roberto, he ran bolita from a café. Zorro rojo, the red fox, we called him; Roberto could well afford to be a generous patriot. Not all these businessmen were happy to see me at their door, but they understood the importance of my request. They hated Fidel, with their hearts they hated him, and so they managed to find the money. This is how we survived, while traitors like you ignored us.”

  “Chickenshit shakedowns,” García muttered.

  “Shut up!”

  García picked up the turnpike at the Tamiami Trail and drove south. Traffic thinned out and, on both sides of the highway, chintzy eggshell apartments and tacky tract-house developments gave way to pastures, farmland, and patches of dense glades. García now had no doubt that Bernal planned to kill him. He guessed, cynically, that it would probably be a simple execution; kneeling on the gravel of some dirt road, mosquitoes buzzing in his ears, the shotgun blast devoured by the empty night. The fucking turkey buzzards would find him first. The buitres.

  Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to piss the little runt off. Maybe he’d get excited, maybe a little careless.

  “So what about your pals?”

  “Idiots!” Bernal said.

  “Oh,
I’m not so sure,” García said. “Some of that stuff was ingenious.”

  “That was mine,” Bernal said. “The best stuff was mine. The kennel club bombing—I thought it up myself.”

  “A pile of dead dogs. What the hell did that prove?”

  “Quiet, coño. It proved that no place was safe, that’s what it proved. No place was safe for tourists and traitors and carpetbaggers. Any idiot could see the point.”

  García shook his head. Carpetbaggers—definitely a Skip Wiley word.

  “Dead greyhounds,” García said mockingly. “I’m sure Castro couldn’t sleep for days.”

  “Just drive, goddammit.”

  “I never understood your stake in the group,” garcía went on. “I think, what the hell does a hardcore like Jesús care about tourists and condos? I think, maybe he just wants his name in the papers. Maybe he’s got nowhere else to go.”

  Bernal made a fist and pounded the dash. “See, this is why you’re such a dumb cop! Figure it out, Garcia. What really happened to the movement? Everyone in Miami got fat and happy, like you. Half a million Cubans—they could stampede Havana anytime they wanted, but they won’t because most of them are just like you. Greedy and prosperous. Prosperity is killing anticommunism, García. If our people here were starving or freezing or dying, don’t you think they’d want to go back to Cuba? Don’t you think they’d sign up for the next invasion? Of course they would, by the thousands. But not now. Oh, they are careful to wave flags and pledge money and say Death to the bearded one! But they don’t mean it. You see, they’ve got their IRAs and their Chevrolets and their season tickets to the Dolphins, and they don’t give a shit about Cuba anymore. They’ll never leave Florida as long as life is better here, so the only thing for us to do is make life worse. That’s exactly what the Nights of December had in mind. It was a good plan, before the great Señor Fuego cracked up, a good plan based on sound dialectic. If it came to pass that all the snowbirds fled north—chasing their precious money—then Florida’s economy would disintegrate and finally our people would be forced into action. And Cuba is the only place for us to go.”