Authors: Les Standiford
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 1994 by Les Standiford
First Trade Paperback Edition
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2003112889
ISBN-10 Print: 1-59058-106-7 Trade paperback
ISBN-13 eBook: 978-1-61595-305-9
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
This one’s for Charlie W., Dean of the Miami School,
and for Ressie Patterson, sweet lady of Cambridge—
may they waltz forever in the great dance hall.
And, as always, for Kimberley, and the Three Muskatoots.
Deal and I would like to extend special thanks to Captain Buzz O’Sullivan, Ron Magill, Nat Sobel, Dr Eric Kurzweil, Rhoda Kurzweil, and James “Independence” Hall for their invaluable help in the preparation of this manuscript.
Though I love South Florida just as it really and truly is, this is a work of fiction and I have taken occasional liberties with the landscape and place names involved. May they please the innocent and the guilty alike.
It might be possible to live in the valley,
To bury oneself among flowers,
If one could forget the mountain,
How, setting out before dawn,
Blinded with snow,
One knew what to do.
—Donald Justice, “Here in Katmandu”
What matters is not the idea that a man holds
but the depth at which he holds it.
Shortly following the 1993 publication of
, I traveled to New York to confer with my then-editor, the fabled Larry Ashmead of HarperCollins. Larry had bought
for roughly ten times what I’d been paid for
, my first novel, and since there was a third book as part of the contract, I wanted to be sure we were in agreement on what would make for a worthy successor to the Deal novel before I got too far along.
êI can remember leaning forward in my chair, earnestly spinning the pitch for that third book, one that would delve deep into the politics of the Cuban émigré community in South Florida, and snare, as seems to be my wont, another unsuspecting, ordinary citizen in life-threatening intrigue that was far beyond his ken. I’d been living in the area for about ten years by then, and had witnessed politically motivated art-gallery bombings, radio talk show host assassinations, and the machinations of a big-sugar lobbying combine that put the NRA’s to shame.
I thought there was enough material in the subject for a lifetime of thrillers, certainly enough for the book I had in mind, and I finished up my spiel to Larry with a reference to
, Douglas Fairbairn’s 1977 classic about an Anglo car dealer named Bobby Mead who paid a dear price for failing to understand how times and cultures had changed in Miami. Fairbairn laid the groundwork for all of us working the darker side of the South Florida landscape, I told Larry. But no one had focused on Cuban-American politics since, and plenty, including the infamous Mariel boatlift, had taken place in the interim. I hoped to update all that rich political intrigue that plays so vital a part in South Florida life and tell a good story at the same time.
Ashmead maintained his typical avuncular pose throughout my pitch, nodding here and there to let me know he was still awake. When I’d finished, he leaned forward on his desk and stared at me over his tented fingers. “No Deal?” he said, in his characteristically good-humored rasp.
I stared back, all my self-assurance suddenly gone. He’d meant it as a question, a simple reference to the fact that the protagonist of the book I had just described was someone other than John Deal, that of the first novel he’d picked up, but somehow I’d processed his phrase as a pronouncement.
Larry took a look at my stricken face and raised a hand to reassure me. “Of course, it’s all right if you don’t want to put John Deal in this new book,” he said. “But we like Deal. I’d just assumed your next novel was going to take advantage of what you’d started there.” He went on to explain some of the advantages of a series for a new writer—the relative ease of developing a public awareness and a continuity of interest in the work, among other things—and before long I was nodding in time to his words.
“Let me think about it,” I said, and still in a bit of a daze, I went back to my hotel room to do just that. I’d already launched into the third book, after all, and the notion of writing another book featuring the same protagonist had never occurred to me. Following a fictional character around for three or four hundred pages had always seemed to me to constitute very nearly the limit of human imagination for one thing, and the thought that someone might actually want to read
about that creation was something I could barely fathom.
But then again, I’d been taken myself with the Milo and Shugrue novels of James Crumley, the Spenser novels of Robert Parker, McBain’s 87th Precinct thrillers, Hillerman’s tribal investigator adventures, and had cut my genre teeth on the exploits of Lew Archer and Travis McGee. The more I thought about it, I realized that Larry was offering me a rare opportunity. Most novelists invest a year or more out of their lives and careers, painstakingly creating a protagonist and all the attendant friends and accouterments of the imagined existence, then must abandon that poor soul forever, as if casting a bosom friend adrift, never to be communed with again.
At the very least, I’d have one more chance to delve into the particulars of the persona of Mr. John Deal and those within his circle, with the possibility of enriching some things, perhaps getting others right. Before long I saw that the story I had conceived could not only be changed to accommodate the figure of John Deal, but might even be improved in the process.
I got Larry on the phone before that day had ended. “I want to do it,” I told him. The result was
, and the beginning of a process I could never have presumed of before.
Eight books at this writing and counting,
. May you enjoy installment two.
And thank you, Mr. Ashmead.
July 23, 2003
…the sound echoed in Coco Morales’s ears as he swung the heavy blade again and again into the endless stand of cane before him. He was groggy from the unaccustomed exertion, from the afternoon heat, from the hypnotic sweep of the steel before his eyes. Tha-
, the brittle rush of stalks falling one after the other, his feet shuffling forward between the jutting cobs, the steel in his hand so sharp he could hardly hear the pinging at the end of his arm, sugar’s last scream before it died.
“Fock, man.” A voice behind and to the left of him. “Fock this shit.”
“Yeah, we might as well be in Camagüey.” Another voice, also in Spanish, this one on Coco’s right.
Coco stood, wiped sweat from his brow with a swipe of his already soaked shirtsleeve, glowered back at the two who’d spoken. “Shut up,” Coco said. “Someone hears you, then what?”
“I’m no focking cane cutter,” the small one from Camagüey said. Edgar. He was a mulatto, had his head shaved, had what looked like a jailhouse tattoo peeking through the blue stubble up there. He’d stripped his shirt off, tucked it into the waistband of his canvas pants. Wiry arms, shoulders puffed with muscle. He’d sheathed his machete and was rubbing his sore arm.
The other one, Manrique, a hulking creature with tiny eyes in his big, broad face, had also given up the pretense of work. His eyes flickered back and forth between Coco and little Edgar, the hint of a grin on his puffy lips.
Coco nodded thoughtfully. “It’s true, you’re no cutter.” He sighted in on the little one’s tattoo. What was it? A rose? A gnarled heart? Maybe something Edgar had hacked in there himself.
Coco heard a motor somewhere far off, glanced toward the sound. What strange things could happen in this life. Here he was, out in the middle of the Florida nowhere, with two Marielitos, all of them pretending to be cane cutters. Not exactly what he had bargained for the day his employer had taken him on.
The sky was leaden, the underside of a barge. Not even clouds, really. Just a barge full of rain up there, so heavy it could hardly move, a barge full of water steamed up from the Everglades, sliding over toward the coast a few miles, never to make it to the beaches, about to dump itself down on Coco and his men, on all this big sugar land.
Lot of money in sugar, all right, Coco thought. And this was the place to grow it if you couldn’t be in Cuba. All this flat land and rain when you needed it, and big Lake Okeechobee up there to drain onto your land if the clouds forgot to come.
“Edgar, he is tired,” Manrique offered.
Edgar nodded agreement. “How long we going to fock around this way?”
Coco had the tip of his blade at his lips, tasted sweet stickiness on the point with his tongue. Spend enough time with creatures like these, you would understand how a caste system had developed.
He noticed a tiny vein pulsing like a crooked river down Edgar’s scalp. The vein reached the odd tattoo and disappeared. Maybe it wasn’t a tattoo after all. Maybe it was some strange type of birthmark, maybe the little vein fed it. Coco was also wondering if he could accomplish what he had been sent to do with only one helper.
Edgar stared back, barely widening his eyes in question. Bored. Or was this going to come to something?
The sound of the motor was growing louder. Coco jerked his head toward the sound. “Perhaps it is him. You want to get paid, you start the cutting.”
Edgar looked away, then back at Coco. Coco watched him, watched Manrique from the corner of his eye. He listened to the motor, a sudden whine. That was surely it, the Jeep, making the sudden turn off the main levee road, climbing over the narrow arched bridge…yes, a Jeep in low gear.
Coco knew how much time before the Jeep arrived. Knew how deep was the water in the canal that ran beside them. Knew what he could do to Edgar and Manrique. But couldn’t know for certain who was coming. Just the foreman, riding by to check again on the new crew’s progress? Or maybe
too, the opportunity they had been waiting for. In which case he would need help.
He felt a stiffness growing in his shoulders. He was tired too.
“Perhaps it is him,” Coco repeated. “Let us do the job, okay?”
“Fock, man.” Edgar shook his head. “I’m sick of this shit.” But he appreciated being
. He dropped his gaze, went back to the cane.
They were all back to work by the time the Jeep arrived, throwing up a screen of dust from the dirt track along the canal. Coco glanced between his legs, felt his pulse quicken as the dust subsided.
All this he saw upside down: the foreman at the wheel, a beefy Anglo in stiff khaki shirt and pants, mirrored sunglasses in the middle of his fried pink face. A second man in khakis rode the jumpseat in back, a shotgun cradled between his legs. But what excited him was the third one, the white-haired man in the passenger seat.
,” Coco said, as if crooning to himself, and stood to turn. He waved and grinned and walked toward the idling Jeep, and Edgar and Manrique followed after.
Coco had his cap off, held it crossed over his chest as if he were a ballplayer waiting for the game to begin. Edgar and Manrique, on his heels, bowing and scraping too. Weren’t they all happy to be out here, slaving for
el jefe de azúcar
, king of the endless sugar fields?
The foreman leaned to say something in
’s ear as they approached.
nodded and turned to Coco, who had come to a stop near the open-sided Jeep.
“You are recently arrived from our country,”
said. Snowy-white hair, clear blue eyes, a starched white shirt with a tiny horse and rider embroidered on the breast, cotton slacks, and moccasins without socks. You might mistake him for any of the wealthy Anglos treading the sidewalks of West Palm Beach, not thirty miles from where Coco stood. But
spoke flawless Spanish, with a Castilian accent drilled into him by relentless Jesuits in Havana and polished at a university in Madrid.
Coco knew of
, as anyone from his tiny village did. The father of
and his father and his father before had held sugar plantations in Santiago de Cuba, and their bloodline was said to have found its origins in that of Queen Isabella herself. Now he sat in a Jeep in a Florida field and wore a pistol in a capped leather holster at his hip and spoke familiarly to Coco Morales, who traced his own bloodlines back to shit.
“I am.” Coco nodded. He indicated his companions with a sweep of his cap. “We are.”
regarded them as if what had washed up to Florida from his homeland was a great disappointment. In the mirrored reflection of the foreman’s glasses, Coco saw what
saw: a fat clown and a thin fool led by a cadaver with his cap in his hand. A pathetic trio, no doubt about it.
“I will give you some advice,”
said, using the tone of an impatient schoolmaster. “First, you will have to forget all those stories about the streets of gold.” Coco nodded. He was thinking about his father, who had died drunk and asleep in the middle of a muddy road outside Salazar, his head crushed beneath the wheels of a propane truck.
“You will work hard for the privilege of being here,”
continued, his nostrils flaring. “It is your duty and your privilege.” Coco saw that the guard with the shotgun had noticed his cap, bearing the likeness of a seal-like creature and the name of a professional baseball team. The identical cap was perched atop the head of the guard who stared down at him. The look on the guard’s face did not suggest that they would enjoy baseball games together.
“Save your money, learn English,”
said. “Try to make something of yourselves.”
gave him a last admonishing glare, then seemed to remember that he was paying the three of them nearly four dollars an hour to stand in the broiling heat and listen to his advice. He dismissed Coco with a nod and turned to order the foreman away.
Coco gestured to Edgar and Manrique with his chin. “Now,” he said, in case they doubted him.
Edgar had edged toward the front of the Jeep during
’s speech. At Coco’s gesture, he spidered his way back to the opposite door, raised his knife, and swung.
The foreman, who’d been wrestling with the wheel of the Jeep, glanced up in time to see the sky, reflected in a flash of steel, fall upon him. He tried to shield himself with his arm, but he was too late. The blade took him high, his mirrored sunglasses flying off in two pieces.
The guard in the jumpseat was still fumbling for his shotgun when Manrique reached him. Big Manrique braced himself against the frame of the Jeep with one hand and sent his blade at the guard in a backhanded arc. It caught the guard just beneath the chin and sent his head flying backward, lolling across his shoulders on an impossible hinge.
Coco had cautioned the others that
was his, his alone, but the foreman had fallen sideways across the seat, spraying blood, blocking Coco’s aim.
clawed at the covered holster on his hip, trying to escape the clutch of the dying man. The foreman’s foot jammed against the accelerator, his arm tangled in the wheel. The Jeep began to slew in a tight circle, its motor screaming, its rear wheels spewing sand.
Then the wheels caught and the vehicle shot forward. It sped fifty feet down the narrow track, slewing back and forth, finally crashed into the framework of an irrigation gate jutting from the canal bank. The impact tossed the bodies of the guard and the foreman out into the murky water. The Jeep teetered at the edge, then plunged in after them with a roar.
Coco stared for a moment, watching the steam rise from the roiling water, trying to collect his thoughts. Jeep, foreman, guard—none of that mattered in the slightest. For what he realized was that
had escaped. The white-haired man was tumbling through the dust—shoulders, knees, shoulders again—now staggering upright, running, disappearing into the waving stalks of cane.
It had happened so quickly that Coco felt as if he were awakening from a dream. He turned and motioned the others forward. “Go!” he shouted, waving his machete toward the crackling cane.
Coco led the way, pushing the rough stalks aside, pausing now and then to listen to the path of
. Edgar moved more quickly, slipping sideways through the tangle like a greyhound bred for thickets, while Manrique crashed along without bothering to clear a path, flattening the cane stalks as if they were grass. A buffalo, Coco thought. A human rhinoceros.
Coco stopped again, held up his arms to halt the others. He listened, but heard nothing.
’s thrashing had stopped. Coco remembered the polished leather holster that hung at the old man’s hip, imagined the soft clasp sliding open, a trembling hand on the pistol’s steel.
Still, what could he do? Run away? Assuming he’d ever get out of these fields, where would he go? Slink back to Miami and explain to his employer that there had been an error, he had lost their prey in a cane thicket? He would prefer the bullet of
’s pistol to what would happen to him then.
Coco’s eyes were fixed on a dense clump of cane and stray pepperbush a few feet ahead. He stared hard at it, willing his eyes to disregard the green patchwork of leaves, to penetrate the tiny lattice-work of shadows. A mosquito whined through the silence near his ear. Was that a fleck of white behind a fluttering leaf? The heat seemed to urge itself up a notch and Coco felt sweat rolling down his brow. He didn’t try to wipe it away.
A vision overlaid itself on Coco’s sight, a boy standing on a crate, peering through the shutters of a shack into a tiny bedroom, a sheet ripping away inside like a sail shorn in a windstorm. Coco watches a man’s glistening buttocks rising and falling, his mother’s bare legs waving skyward. Her sounds sharp, shrill, as if she was being hurt, as if this strange man was hurting her. “
,” the boy calls, and the woman lunges up on her elbow, outraged.
“Get away,” she shrieks, though the man is pumping still. “I am working. Get away.” And Coco does.
Coco felt a mosquito pierce the flesh of his cheek, felt another settle on the sweaty nape of his neck—fat, healthy mosquitoes, nourished on the dark blood of cane workers—but he had not moved his gaze from the tangle of brush in front of him. He saw another fluttering movement there, thought he caught a glimpse of dull steel. But it might have been a trick of his eyes. If he could see the past in a tangle of brush, he might see anything.
He turned to Manrique, who was standing nearer the spot, and motioned the big man forward with the slightest motion of his chin. Manrique hesitated, then started forward.
Manrique reached out to part the brush, his machete raised. Coco tightened his grip on his own blade. Manrique took another step…
…and staggered backward as a gunshot blew away the silence. Manrique tottered, gave a spinning little half-step, a black dot sprung up on one of his doughy cheeks, a patch of bone and scarlet red opened up by his opposite ear. His eyes were aimed at Coco, but they were seeing something far away.
Coco was already running forward. He saw the brush moving, glimpsed a hand, then the same flash of dull steel, pointing at him now. He lunged forward and lashed out with his machete, swinging blindly into the labyrinth of green and shadow. His feet tangled in the pepperbush’s roots as he swung and he went down, his ears ringing with the sound of another blast.
He lay with his cheek in the cool muck, his head still ringing from the explosion, which must have gone off at his ear. He was vaguely aware of movements through the cane, sensing only that they were moving away from him as he blinked his eyes into focus.
He was trying to push himself up when he realized what was lying on the ground before him. He hesitated, his face inches above the musty-smelling earth. He closed his eyes, thinking that perhaps he was dying and this was another vision. When he opened his eyes, it was still there.