The Road to Hell
The four stories in this anthology have something in common in addition to the word “hell” in their titles. The heroes travel dark and dangerous paths as they confront devilish and powerful villains. The journeys are by land, by sea, and in one case, perhaps only in the mind.
“ El Valiente en el Infierno” (The Brave One in Hell) is an original short story inspired by a tale I heard in Mexicali, Mexico while researching “Illegal,” my border-crossing thriller. Several people swear the harrowing story is true. After his mother dies, a 13-year-old Mexican boy crosses the border in search of his father, a migrant worker in the United States. The boy’s courage is tested when he runs into two gun-toting American vigilantes, and the confrontation will change all of them forever.
“ Development Hell” is a well-known term in Hollywood. The phrase symbolizes the purgatory where books and screenplays are stuck while being “developed,” rather than being made into films. The story first appeared in the anthology, “On a Raven’s Wing: New Tales in Honor of Edgar Allan Poe” (2009), edited by Stuart Kaminsky. “Development Hell” imagines a “pitch session” in which a bedraggled Poe squares off with a slick Hollywood producer who wants to make a cheesy slasher flick out of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” This one provides a dose of humor with your horror.
“ A Hell of a Crime” presents a dysfunctional family of lawyers. An insecure prosecutor exists in the shadow of his more prominent parents. His father was a revered District Attorney, his mother a powerful trial lawyer in her own right. So just why does the mother interfere when her son prepares to prosecute a murder trial? And how is the prosecutor’s enigmatic wife involved in the case? It’s a mystery with a punch to the gut at the end.
“ Solomon amp; Lord: To Hell and Back ” features two of my favorite characters. The ethically-challenged Steve Solomon and the very proper Victoria Lord are mismatched Miami law partners. Steve says he’s going fishing with Manuel Cruz, a sleazy con man. Victoria knows that Cruz embezzled a bundle from Steve’s favorite client and is an unlikely fishing buddy. So just what is Steve up to now? Something between mischief and murder, Victoria figures. To protect Steve from himself — and Cruz — she hops aboard the boat, and the three of them head for deep water and dark troubles. The “Solomon and Lord” novels have been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity and International Thriller Awards, as well as the James Thurber Humor Prize. This story is an inviting introduction to the novels.
“ The Road to Hell” also contains an excerpt from one of my novels featuring Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer, a tough guy with a tender heart.
“ Mortal Sin” finds Lassiter with a dangerous conflict of interest. He’s sleeping with Nicky Florio’s wife…and defending the mob-connected millionaire in court. Florio has hatched a scheme deep in the Florida Everglades that oozes corruption, blood, and money. One false move, and Jake will be gator bait. “Recalling the work of Carl Hiaasen, this thriller races to a smashing climax.” — Library Journal. “Mortal Sin may not be better than a trip to Florida, but it’s the next best thing.” — Detroit Free Press
This warning sign is familiar to drivers in Southern California near the Mexican border.
EL VALIENTE EN EL INFIERNO
(THE BRAVE ONE IN HELL)
I am not afraid.
That is what I tell myself.
Just after midnight, five hundred meters from the border fence, I keep still, squatting on the ground beneath a mesquite tree. Buried in the sand are motion sensors and infrared cameras.
My name is Victor Castillo. I am 13 years old.
Back home, in my village, a man warned me not to do this.
You are looking for el cielo. Heaven. But you will find only el infierno. Hell.
Still, I am not afraid. In a matter of minutes, I will be in the United States. By breakfast time, I will be with my Aunt Luisa in a little California town called Ocotillo. She is a nurse, but an even better cook. The best huevos rancheros in the world. Homemade tortillas, the eggs not too runny, the red sauce spiked with jalapenos. We will have a cry about my mother, then mi tia will put me on a bus to Minnesota, where my father works in the sugar beet fields.
But first, there is the fence. It slithers down a rocky slope and disappears between distant boulders, like an endless snake. We move from the cover of the trees to a ravine filled with desert marigolds. I hope the golden flowers are a good omen. We climb out of the ravine and up to the fence, the links glowing like silver bullets in the moonlight. The man who calls himself El Leon — “The Lion” — snips at the metal with wire cutters. He wears all black and his long hair is slick with brilliantine.
In the States, they would call El Leon a coyote. In Mexico, he is a pollero, a chicken wrangler. Which makes the rest of us — Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans — the pollos. The chickens. Hopefully, not cooked chickens. If we are caught and turned back, I don’t know what I will do. All my mother’s savings are paying for my passage
The wire cutters fly from El Leon’s hands, and he curses in Spanish.
This is taking too long.
Above us, a three-quarter moon is the color of milk. Under our feet, the earth is hard as pavement. Somewhere, on the other side of the fence, La Migra, the Border Patrol, waits. I listen for the whoppeta of a helicopter or the growl of a truck.
El Leon, please hurry!
He keeps snipping and cursing. I sit on my haunches, inhaling the smell of coal tar from the creosote bushes. From a pocket in my backpack, I take out a photograph of my mother, her face pale in the moonlight.
El Leon works quickly now, the links cra-acking like bones breaking. Finally, he says, “You first, chico.”
I duck through the opening, then hold the wire for a Honduran girl. Maybe I should say a Honduran “woman,” because she is pregnant, her stomach a basketball under her turquoise blouse. But she is probably only sixteen or seventeen and is traveling alone, and she looks too young and too scared to take care of a child. On her feet, huarches, sandals made from old tire tread. I hope she can keep up with us. A selfish thought, I realize, and immediately feel ashamed. My mother taught me better.
The pregnant girl places two hands on her stomach, bends over, and squeezes through the fence. Following her are two campesinos from Oaxaca who smell like wet straw. The men wear felt Tejana hats, cowboy boots, and long-sleeve plaid work shirts. Then the rest, fourteen in all.
Ten minutes later, we are climbing a dusty path, moonbeams turning the arms of cholla cactus into the spiny wings of monsters.
Los Estados Unidos. I am here!
Do I feel different, changed in some way? I am not sure. The rocks on the ground and the stars in the sky all look the same as in Mexico. Maybe mi mami is looking down at me from those stars. Her weak lungs gave out five days ago, and I recited the oraciones por las almas over her grave.
“ Let me see her again in the joy of everlasting brightness.”
The stars have “everlasting brightness,” so yes, I pretend she watches me, even though I never believed half of what the priests said.
I travel alone to find my father. My two older brothers have been with papi for nearly a year, carrying their weeding hoes all the way from our village in Sonora to a town called Breckenridge in Minnesota. Beets, strawberries, cabbage. Melons, corn, peas. Whatever is in season and requires hands close to the ground. The work is hard, but the pay is good, at least by Mexican standards.
Now we walk along a rocky path that crawls up the side of a hill sprouting with stubby cactus like an old man who needs a shave. El Leon yells at two Mexican sisters, calls them parlanchinas — chatterboxes — tells them to keep quiet. He has a rifle slung over a shoulder. But why? Who would he shoot?
The older sister is still babbling, something about every house in California having a swimming pool, when El Leon hisses, “?Callense la boca!”
He cocks his head toward the hill. I hear something, too.
Growing louder. Horses!
A gunshot echoes off the hillside.
“ Vigilantes!” El Leon yells.
My stomach tightens. Our village priest warned me about the vigilantes. Not policemen. Or National Guard. Or Border Patrol. Private citizens, gabachos, calling themselves the Patriot Patrol. Maybe protecting their country or maybe just taking target practice with their friends. Maybe one day shooting Mexicans instead of road signs and cactus.
“ Run!” El Leon screams.
But where? On one side of the path, a steep upward slope. On the other, a creviced, dry wash.
The two campesinos leap into the wash and take off, the spines of prickly pear tearing at their pant legs. El Leon leads the others back toward the border. But I cannot follow them.?Mi papi esta en los Estados Unidos!
I scramble up the steep slope, grabbing vines, pulling myself hand-over-hand. The horses are so close now I can hear their hooves kicking up rocks on the path. “Yippee ti-yi-yo, greasers!” A gabacho’s voice. Gruff and mean.
Two men on horseback in chaps, boots, and cowboy hats. One man holds a large revolver over his head and fires into the air.
“ Git on back to Meh-ee-co! Look at ‘em run, Calvin.”
Calvin, a big man with a belly flopping over his jeans, coughs up a laugh. “Whoa, what do we got here, Woody? Looks like a pinata on Michelins.”
I see her then, too. The pregnant Honduran girl in her tire-tread huarches, trying to hide in the shadow of the hill.
” Someone aims to have herself an anchor baby,” Calvin says.
I know what the man means. Anyone born on this side of the border is automatically an American citizen. Doesn’t matter if you’re from Mexico, Guatemala, or Mars. If el Diablo himself fathered a child in Los Angeles, the unholy offspring would be an American.
“ Welfare and food stamps and diapers all on the taxpayer’s dime.” Woody spits out the words.
Gripping a vine at its root, I keep still. Afraid to dislodge a stone. Afraid the gabachos will see me. And ashamed of my fear.
On the path below me, the girl tries to run back toward the border, but the best she can do is a duck waddles. The two men cackle and whoop. Calvin grabs a lariat from his saddle. “Where you goin’ chica? The amnesty bus already left the station.”
He twirls the lariat and tosses it over the girl’s head, where it settles on her chest. He pulls it tight, nearly yanking her off her feet.
“ No!” she screams, clawing at the rope. “?Mi bebe!”
“ If there really is a kid…” Calvin hops off his horse. “Let’s have a look, chica.”
He struts toward her, bowlegged, his belly jiggling over his wide belt, which is studded with silver buttons.
I want to fly down the mountain and take the gun away. If they give me any trouble, I will shoot one in the kneecap and the other in his big, fat belly. Isn’t that what a valiente — a courageous man — would do? Take any risk, fight any foe, protect the weak, punish the wicked. But I am a boy. And they are grown men with guns.
“ You with that coyote calls himself ‘El Leon?’” Calvin demands
The girl’s head bobs up and down.
“ El Leon’s a narcotraficante. You carrying his cocaina instead of a kid? You a mule?”
“ No! Mi bebe!”
“ C’mon. He always uses kids and women to carry his drugs.”
“ Not me.?Te lo juro por Dios!”
Calvin slips the lariat off the girl, then yanks up her blouse.
Even from this distance, I can see her bulging stomach, creamy white in the moonlight.
“ She ain’t lying,” he says to Woody, patting the girl’s belly. “Maybe we should deliver the baby right now. Save the county some money.”
The girl screams.
“ You got a knife, Woody?”
“ You know I do. Bowie knife.”
I must do something, but what? My arms feel like they’re dipped in boiling water. I try to get a better grip on the vine, but it tears from the dry earth. I dig my sneakers into the slope.
Calvin says, “Who’s gonna operate?”
“ You do it, Woody. I can’t stand the sight of blood.”
The girl chants in Spanish. Asks God to take her own life but save her baby.
I do not expect God to answer her prayers. He did not answer mine when my mother was sick. It is up to me.
Can a valiente be afraid?
I tell myself yes. If he acts with courage, despite the fear.
I grip the vine with my left hand, pick up a rock with my right. Round and jagged, the size of a baseball. I throw the rock at Woody, the gabacho still on his horse. It sails past the man’s head, clunks into the dry wash.
“ What the hell!” Woody turns in the saddle, faces the slope, revolver in hand.
“ Up here, pendejos!” I yell.
“ It’s a kid,” Calvin says, pointing. “Right there, Woody.”
“ C’mon down here, you little jumping bean,” Woody orders.
“ Come and get me, culero! ” I throw another rock, adjusting for the downward arc. Woody never sees it coming out of the darkness, and it plunks his shoulder. He yelps and his horse does a little dance under him. He turns the revolver toward the slope and fires. A bullet pings off a boulder. Not even close. I think maybe he is not such a good shot.
“ I work for El Leon!” I yell, waving my backpack in the air. As if I’m carrying cocaine and not just a pair of jeans, three t-shirts, and a first baseman’s mitt.
“ Little greaser’s the mule!” Calvin sounds as if he’s just made a great discovery. Now, I think maybe the men are not too smart, either.
“ I may be a mule, but you’re nothing but chicken-hearted bandidos!”
I start up the slope again, clawing at rocks to make my way.
“ Stop, you little punk!”
I keep going, hoping they will try to follow.
Another gunshot ricochets off a boulder far over my head.
“ C’mon down here, you little peckerwood!” Woody shouts. “Give us the coke and we’ll let you go.”
I reach the top of the slope and look down toward the vigilantes. “So long, pendejos!”
“ Go around that way, Cal,” Woody orders, tugging the reins and pointing into the darkness. “We’ll meet up on the far side.”
The vigilantes turn their horses and take off in opposite directions. They will try to cut me off on the other side of the hill. And they may succeed. But at least, they have left the girl alone. I glance one last time down the slope. The girl waves and says something to me I cannot hear, but in my head, I think she is chanting a blessing for me. I wave back and scramble on hands and knees over the top of the hill.
Minutes later, I am stumbling in the dark, tripping over roots and trying to avoid prickly pear with spines as long and sharp as porcupine quills. The slope becomes too steep, and I slide part way down on my butt, ripping my pants, and scraping my hands. Near the bottom, I stop and listen for the sound of horses or the shouts of angry men.
But what I hear is a wail. A cry of pain.
“ Broke my damn ankle, Woody. Can’t put an ounce of weight on it.”
“ Hang in there Cal.”
I peek around a stand of organ pipe cactus. Two horses, but only one man. Woody is bent over the edge of a cliff, his hands yanking at his lariat, which is stretched taut. “Damn rope’s fouled in the rocks.”
“ Git it loose, Woody. Hurry! Jesus, ankle’s swole up and hurts like hell.”
Calvin’s voice, raw with pain, coming from over the side. The vigilantes must have stopped here and gotten off the horses. The big man never saw the cliff. Now he was over the side.
It is more than I could have hoped for. A perfect distraction. I can work my way around them in the darkness. I can get away.
Then I hear Woody moan. “Damn, it hurts like a sumbitch. I might pass out, Cal.”
“ Hang with me, man!”
“ Gonna die out here.” Woody starts to sob. Great, wracking sobs that seem to echo off the rocks and boulders.
Why don’t I just sneak past them? I don’t know. Sometimes we do things without ever knowing exactly why.
“ You can’t get the rope free that way,” I say to Calvin as I come up behind him.
Startled, he wheels around. “Ain’t your business, chico. Git out of here.”
“ I can rope down the cliff.”
“ What the hell you talking about?”
“ Rappelling. Rock climbing. I’ve done it back home.” I look over the side of the cliff. Woody sits on a ledge about 20 feet below us. The rope is stuck in a crevice maybe 15 feet from him. “I’ll work the rope out, walk it along the cliff face till I reach your friend.”
Calvin looks at me as if he thinks I might steal his wallet. “Why would you help?”
“ Because somebody has to.”
He seems to think about this a moment.
“ After you pull him up, drop the rope back to me,” I tell the man.
“ You trust me to do that, kid?”
“ Why wouldn’t you?”
“ Okay, then,” he says, just as an orange streak of the sun appears over the mountains to the east.
I rappel down the face of the cliff. Seconds later, I am working the rope out of a slot between two rocks. Once it is free, I wrap the rope around my waist, hold on with both hands, and bounce-walk along the face of the cliff until I reach the ledge.
“ Thanks. You’re a good kid.” Woody winces in pain as I hand him the rope. Up close, he looks older and not as fierce as he did from so far away. His face is slick with sweat. His puffy cheeks have a gray stubble and his breath smells of tobacco and beer.
He is able to put weight on one leg and use it against the cliff face. Huffing, puffing, and cursing, Calvin pulls him up. A few moments later, I reach the surface just as Woody painfully struggles to get back on his horse.
Calvin looks down at the ground, kicks at the dust. Seems like he wants to say something. Sorry, maybe. But he can’t quite get it out.
“ You’re not a drug mule, are you kid?” he says, finally
I shake my head. “I just didn’t want you to…”
“ We never would have hurt that girl. Just meant to scare her into going back home, tell her friends to stay put.”
“ Where you headed?” Woody asks.
“ Ocotillo. My aunt lives there.”
“ We got a truck couple miles over if you want a lift. Ocotillo’s on our way to the hospital.” He says it softly. Sounding a little embarrassed, wishing he had more to offer.
“ My Aunt Luisa’s a nurse. She can take a look at that ankle.”
Woody doesn’t take me up on the offer.
“ Mi tia can make us all breakfast,” I say, trying again. “She’s a great cook.”
The sun is an orange fireball, fully above the distant mountains now.
The men don’t look like vigilantes any more. Ordinary guys with creased, tired faces. They exchange bashful looks.
“ Do you like huevos rancheros?” I ask.
“ Love it,” Calvin says.
“ No better breakfast on either side of the border,” Woody agrees.
“ So?” I ask.
There is no more meanness in the men’s faces. “What are we waiting for?” Calvin says. “I’m hungry as hell.”
I do something I haven’t done since crossing the border. I smile.
A HELL OF A CRIME
“ Ladies and gentlemen, the state will prove that Dr. Philip Macklin intentionally drove his Mercedes sedan into the Santa Ynez canal. Why? To kill his wife and make a premeditated murder look like an accident.”
Scott Gardner pasted on his solemn face and paused. Keeping quiet was the trial lawyer’s most difficult task, but he wanted his words to sink in.
“ A homicide both heinous and cruel,” he continued. “Dr. Macklin swims to safety as his wife gasps for air, black water engulfing her like a shroud of death.”
A tad melodramatic, but Channel 3 will love the sound bite, and the jurors will be moved by my passion.
Tonight, Scott Gardner, duly elected District Attorney of Santa Barbara County, spun his tale for the empty chairs of his conference room. A dry run.
“ Earlier that fateful evening,” he continued, “Dr. Philip Macklin, the man sitting right here…”
J’accuse! Pointing his index finger like a rapier at the monster.
“… placed the drug Seconal in his wife’s drink. You will hear evidence that alcohol and barbiturates were found in Mrs. Macklin’s blood, and that both substances were present in a cocktail glass in the family living room. Not only that…”
Softly but gravely. Make them lean forward, thirsting for every word.
“ Dr. Macklin’s fingerprints were found on that glass, along with those of his wife. He mixed her drink, and when she passed out, he carried her to the car, a scrap of her blue satin blouse catching on the Spanish bayonet bush in the driveway. He drove at a high rate of speed down Santa Ynez Road, veered through a guardrail, over the embankment, and into the canal. Just as he had planned.”
“ You have a motive for all this?”
Scott wheeled around. “Jesus! Mom, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“ Your father used to say I treaded softly as an angel.”
“ I think he was going deaf there at the end.” She didn’t laugh at his joke. She never laughed at his jokes. “Say, how’d you get past security?”
She smiled and gave a little shrug. “Aren’t you going to get your hair trimmed before trial?”
Reflexively, Scott ran a hand through his shaggy mop. Next, he expected his mother to straighten his tie, tuck in his shirttail, and remind him to eat his veggies.
“ No time, Mom. We pick a jury in the morning.”
She sighed her disapproval. For a moment, Scott stared at his mother, marveling at her elegance. A gold silk embroidered jacket with a matching skirt falling just below the knees. Armani or Gucci, he figured. Grey hair stylishly cut, glacial blue eyes and a still-firm chin.
“ So what’s up, Mom? I’m a little busy.”
“ I’m here to help. It’s not like you’re in court every day. Not like your father. Now there was a lawyer.”
As opposed to me?
“ And there was a man,” she added, wistfully.
Ditto, he thought.
“ So, what’s the motive, Scottie?” his mother said.
Jeez, how many times had he asked her not to call him that?
He turned to his imaginary jury. “And just why did Dr. Macklin kill his wife? Because he was deeply in debt, his psychology practice foundering. Because Mrs. Macklin planned to divorce him, and she was his cash cow.”
“ Cash cow? Dear God, what a vulgarity. Why not call her his femme de miel?”
“ If I get any Parisians on the jury, I will.”
His mother lowered herself into one of the conference chairs. She gracefully crossed her legs and reached into her handbag, some Italian number made of supple leather the color of hay and soft as butter. She tapped a cigarette out of a blue Gauloises Blondes box and said, “Sometimes, Scottie, I wonder if you’re cut out for criminal law.”
“ The voters of Santa Barbara County think I am.”
“ Oh, come dear. They didn’t know they were voting for Scott Gardner, Junior. ”
That again. In any contest with his father, he would always come in second. Scott Gardner, Sr. had been D.A. for a dozen years before going back into private practice with his wife. Gardner amp; Gardner, LLP. For all those messy problems of the monied folk with big houses in the hills of Montecito and on the cliffs above the beach.
So, sure, Scott knew that a lot of voters mistakenly thought his old man was making a comeback, even though he’d been residing in a cemetery overlooking the Pacific for the past three years.
“ God, how I miss your father,” she said, lighting a cigarette in violation of state, county, and city laws.
“ Me too, Mom.”
“ I should never have gotten remarried.”
“ After what you and Dad had, you were bound to be disappointed.”
Scott once told his mother that her marriage was a lot like the Reagans’. Husband and wife adoring each other and basically ignoring their children.
She didn’t deny the charge, saying simply that little tadpoles need to swim on their own, or something to that effect.
She tilted her head toward the ceiling and exhaled a puff of smoke. “So what’s your proof this wasn’t an accident?”
“ Seventeen minutes. The car’s clock stopped at 10:18 P.M. Macklin called 9-1-1 at 10:35. What was he doing for seventeen minutes?”
“ Maybe he was in shock.”
“ Paramedics say he was fine.” Scott smiled, letting her know he’d covered that base, just like good old Dad would have done. “Say, have you eaten? Kristin’s stopping by with cheeseburgers.”
“ Cheeseburgers?” Making the word sound like “herpes sores.”
“ And fries.”
“ Kristin never did learn to cook, did she?”
“ Don’t start, Mom.”
“ I’m amazed she’s kept her figure. Must have been all that exotic dancing.”
“ Mom, she was a Laker Girl.”
“ So she was. A regular Isadora Duncan.”
“ If you want a burger, tell me now, and I’ll catch Kristin at the In ‘n Out.”
“ I’d rather eat glass.” She tapped cigarette ash into an empty coffee cup. “What makes you think Macklin didn’t dive into the water and pound on the car windows for seventeen minutes?”
“ He never claimed he did. Not a word to the cops at the scene or in the hospital. What does that tell you?”
“ His silence is inadmissible.”
“ I’m just saying, would an innocent man keep quiet?”
“ Maybe. If he had to think things through.”
“ Why? To plan his lies for trial?”
“ To tell a painful truth that would nonetheless prove his innocence.”
“ What are you talking about?”
“ The holes in your case.”
“ Hey, Mom. It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate, but I’ve been over this a hundred times. There are no holes.”
“ Do you remember the night of the crash?”
“ Hard to forget. The sheriff called me at home. I was at the scene in fifteen minutes.”
His mother exhaled a perfect smoke ring. She’d learned the trick from his father. “Did the lovely Kristin go with you?”
He thought a second. “No. She wasn’t home.”
“ Ten-thirty at night. Where was she, donating blood at the Red Cross?”
“ It was a Thursday. Girls’ night out. Racquetball.”
“ Was she there when you got back?”
“ Of course. I didn’t get home until nearly dawn. Kristin was asleep.”
“ How was she in the morning?”
“ I don’t understand the question, Counselor.”
“ Yes, you do. I always told your father you were brighter than you appear.”
“ Gee, thanks Mom.”
“ Was Kristin stiff or sore? Was she visibly injured in any way?”
“ What’s that got to do with-”
“ The witness shall answer the question.”
Fine, he’d play along. “I wouldn’t call it an injury. She had a bruised cheekbone from getting hit with a racquetball.”
“ Easily covered, I suppose, by all that Estee Lauder foundation she trowels on.”
The intercom rasped with a woman’s voice. “Honey, can you buzz me in?”
“ Only if you’re bringing food.” Scott hit a button and heard the lock double-click open.
“ We haven’t much time,” his mother said. “Don’t make me go through this when you already know the answer.”
“ Mom, I swear I don’t even know the question.”
“ You’re in denial, Scottie.”
“ Of what?”
“ Let’s say that Mrs. Macklin was supposed to be traveling that fateful evening. But a marine layer rolled in, and the Lear couldn’t get out of the municipal airport.”
“ Okay, she’s fogged in.”
His mother laughed, the sound of church bells pealing. “Oh my, yes. Was she ever fogged in. Anyway, she comes home and finds her husband in bed with a young woman. The woman was astride the miscreant in what I believe they call the cowgirl position, and sure as shooting, her whoops and hollers would have been appropriate for a rodeo.”
Scott heard the door to the anteroom open. “Honey,” Kristin called out. “I’ll be there in a sec after I get some Cokes from the fridge.”
“ Take your time.” He turned to his mother. “Your story doesn’t make sense. If Mrs. Macklin catches her husband in flagrante delicto, no way she’s going to sit down and have a drink with him.”
“ She doesn’t.”
“ So what’s with his fingerprints on the glass?”
“ I assume she put Seconal in her whiskey, downed it, then dropped the glass. Her husband simply picked up the glass, perhaps to sniff it, or maybe he’s a neat freak.”
They could hear Kristin in the next room, the sound of ice cubes rattling out of a tray.
“ You’re saying she committed suicide,” Scott said.
“ Tried to. OD’ed into a semi-conscious state.”
“ So what’s she doing in the car with her husband?”
“ What’s down Santa Ynez Road? Three miles past the site of the accident.”
He considered the question. “The Cottage Hospital.”
“ Exactly. If I were defending the case, I’d say Dr. Macklin felt enormous guilt over causing his wife’s suicide attempt. He picked her up, carried her to his car, her blouse catching on that damn thorny bush. He’s driving to the hospital at 70 miles an hour when he lost control on a curve and plunged into the canal.”
“ So why didn’t he pull her out of the water?”
“ Because he only had time to rescue one person, and no matter how heavy his guilt, he was in love with someone else. Stated another way, his wife was second on his triage list.”
“ Wrong. There was no else in the car.”
“ You mean there was no one else there when paramedics arrived. Dr. Macklin didn’t call 9-1-1 until his paramour — a lovely term, is it not? — left the scene. There’s your seventeen minutes.”
“ So who’d he rescue? Who’s this paramour?”
“ How about a woman who hit her cheekbone on the dashboard when the car went into the water?”
He shook his head and his shoulders sagged. Of course, he knew. He just couldn’t accept it. Not that or the knowledge of his own cowardice. He’d never challenged Kristin, and he’d never confronted his own unethical conduct. He wanted to punish Macklin. Not for homicide, because the man wasn’t a killer. No, he wanted to punish Macklin for cuckolding him.
“ So what do I do now?” he said.
“ Scott, who are you talking to?” With a dancer’s graceful gait, Kristin waltzed into the conference room in black yoga pants and a florescent orange sleeveless sports top. She carried a tray of food and drinks.
“ Tell me!” he yelled.
“ Tell you what?” Kristin asked. “What are you upset about?”
“ Mom, what do I do?”
“ Oh Christ.” Kristin dropped the tray on the table, spilling a soda. “Not this again.”
He could still see Gayle Gardner Macklin, but her image was fading.
“ Mom, don’t leave me. Please!”
Trembling, Kristin said, “Scott, you know your mother drowned in that car.”
“ No! She’s here now.”
“ Honey, you spoke at her funeral and bawled your eyes out.”
Scott propped one hand on the conference table and struggled to his feet. He brushed past his wife without even seeing her.
“ The judge should never have allowed you to handle the case,” Kristin said. “I knew something weird would happen.”
His legs felt rubbery as he staggered out, leaving behind his trial bag, the pleadings, the exhibits. His wife.
“ Scott, where are you going?”
She sniffed the air. “Did you start smoking again?”
No answer. He was gone.
A moment later, Kristin dropped into a chair. She examined a coffee cup on the table. Inside, a half-smoked cigarette. The tip still glowing.
French. Just like her bitch mother-in-law used to smoke. Before she went straight to hell. A shudder went through Kristin, and she crushed the cigarette into the bottom of the cup. From the doorway, she heard a melodious voice.
“ Kristin, dear. You look just darling in your workout gear.”
She spun around in her chair.
“ Last time we met, you were au naturel and grunting like a sow in heat.”
Kristin steadied herself against the fear. Her words came in forced breaths. “What have you become? What do you want?”
“ At long last, I am my true self. And all I want is justice.”
Paralyzed, Kristin watched as Scott, wearing a woman’s grey wig, his cheeks rouged and lips glossed, raised a handgun and pointed it at her chest.
Marvin Beazle slipped off his tinted shades, tugged at his ponytail and studied the emaciated writer sitting across from him. Skin the texture of paraffin. Stained trousers, moth-eaten frock coat, and a silk cravat dangling like an tattered curtain.
“ Love the Johnny Depp look,” Beazle said. “But why the long face?”
The writer stared back with rheumy eyes. “Like absinthe with its cork askew, I do not travel well.”
A scarecrow in a wool coat, Beazle thought. One of those writers who could use a tanning salon, a tailor, and some Zoloft. “Okay if I call you Eddie? Or do you prefer Al?”
“ I prefer Edgar. Or Mr. Poe.” The writer wheezed an unhealthy cough. “But if you insist, you may call me Eddie. I have never stood on ceremony.”
“ My man!” Beazle beamed, a tiger dreaming of tasting a lamb.
They were in the executive offices of Diablo Pictures on Sunset Boulevard, and Beazle had a rights deal to close. In his experience — and he’d been doing this forever — writers were worms. Drowning in doubt, strangling on self-loathing. A little money, a little flattery, and most scribblers would sell their souls along with their scripts.
Beazle vaulted from his ergonomically correct swivel chair and pointed toward the floor-to-ceiling window. “What do you see out there, Eddie?”
The writer squinted into the afternoon sun. “Houses on a precipitous hillside. A hideous white sign. ‘Hollywood.’ As if the inhabitants need assistance recalling their whereabouts.”
That snooty East Coast attitude, Beazle thought. Like Baltimore is the Garden of Eden. “It can all be yours, Eddie.”
“ All of what, sir?”
“ Okay, not my digs on Mulholland. But a big chunk of this burg is yours for the taking.”
Beazle peeled off his black silk Armani suitcoat and tossed it onto his leather sofa. He plopped back into his chair and swung his five-hundred dollar Matteo sneakers onto the desk. The sneakers — alligator hide dyed red and gold — made Beazle recognizable to everyone who counted, especially the maitre d’s of Prime, Maestro’s, and The Grill, where he ate his steaks bloody.
“ Gotta hand it to you, Eddie. You’re a helluva wordmeister.”
“ So you have read my story?”
“‘ The Pit and the Pendulum.’ Devoured it. The coverage, I mean. Not the whole story.” Beazle picked up three-page synopsis and skimmed through it: “Condemned prisoner wakes up in a dungeon. Nearly tumbles into a deep pit. Falls asleep, wakes up strapped to a board, a pendulum above his head with a razor-sharp scythe, swinging lower and lower.” Beazle looked up from the document, sniffed the air. “I smell franchise, Eddie.”
“ I beg your pardon.”
“ Slasher flicks keep on trucking. Sequels, prequels, spinoffs.”
“ Slasher? What a macabre word.”
Beazle returned his gaze to the document. “Then you throw in some moving walls for a second act complication, and finally the guy’s rescued by the French army. A little deus ex machina, but we can fix that. Our reader — a top film student who happens to be my niece — says you’ve got a bold voice and a literary style. Don’t worry about that ‘literary’ part. We can fix that, too.”
“ I am not certain I take your meaning.”
“ Forget it. Let’s talk money, Eddie. How much you making now?”
“ The Southern Literary Review pays me fifty dollars a month. Occasionally, there is extra remuneration. I was paid ten dollars for ‘The Raven.’”
Like a fisherman with a woolly bugger, Beazle baited the hook. “Diablo Pictures wants to option your story, Eddie. A quarter million bucks for one year against a cool million pick-up price.”
“ The devil you say!”
“ I shit you not, Eddie. Plus three points of the net, which of course is zilch, seeing how ‘Gone With the Wind” still hasn’t turned a profit. But you’ll get the usual boilerplate regarding sequels and merchandising.”
“ If McDonald’s wants to license the ‘Pit Burger,’ you get some dough. If Gillette markets the ‘Double Bladed Pendulum,’ you get a slice of the pie. Assuming we don’t change the title.”
“ Is this really happening, Mr. Beazle, or is this some phantasm of my imagination?”
“ It’s real, pal. You’re talking to the guy who greenlit three of the top ten grossing pictures of all time. Adjusted for inflation, of course. And here’s the foam on the latte. We want you, Eddie Poe, to write the script. In fact, we insist. Half a mill for a first draft, a re-write and a polish. Whadaya say?”
“ I fear I might swoon.”
“ As long as you don’t piss yourself. Fitzgerald did, right in that chair.”
The writer’s forehead beaded with sweat. Either it was the excitement or the heavy wool coat on an August day.
“ You look a little dry, Eddie. You want something to drink?”
“ Laudanum, perchance?”
“ What a kidder! Okay, let’s do some business.” Beazle pulled out a thick sheath of papers stapled to luxurious blue backing. “All I need is your signature, and it’s a done deal. Check’s already written. A quarter mill up front.”
He brandished the check, waving it like a pennant in a breeze. Handing a pen to the writer, Beazle said, “Before you know it, Eddie, you’ll be sitting in a director’s chair with your name on it, eating craft service omelettes, and banging the script girl.”
The writer searched for an inkwell before figuring out that the pen had its own supply. His hand poised over the contract, he said, “What did you mean a moment ago? About changing the title.”
“ The jury’s still out, Eddie. But we may have to lose ‘Pendulum.’ It’s three syllables.”
“ And that presents a conundrum?”
“ Titles need punch. There. Will. Be. Blood. Get it? Too bad ‘Saw’ is already taken.”
“ But the pendulum is essential to the predicament. The scimitar swings ever closer, magnifying the horror.”
“ So who wants to see a circumcision? It’s a movie, not a bris.”
Confusion clouded the writer’s face like fog over Malibu. “But I thought you liked my story.”
“ Exactly. Liked it. Didn’t love it. That’s why we gotta make some changes.”
The dark bags under the writer’s eyes seemed to grow heavier. “Am I not free to write the script as I see fit?”
“ Sure you are. When hell freezes over.” Beazle drummed a manicured fingernail on his desktop. “Look, Eddie. Do you want the deal or not? I got Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley dying to get their projects out of turnaround.”
“ I daresay some cautious editing might be appropriate,” the writer ventured.
Like taking a biscotti from a baby, Beazle thought. “That’s the spirit, Eddie. So I gotta ask you. Where’s the girl?”
“ What girl?”
“ You got a guy strapped to a board. Talking to himself. Bor-ing! Maybe Tom Hanks can schmooze with a volleyball for two hours, but he had the beach, the ocean, the great outdoors. You got a dark hole in the ground.”
“ The solitude represents man’s existence.”
“ Deal-breaker, pal. If you’re gonna ask Leo or Cuba or Russell to spend the entire shoot in a hole, at least give ‘em Scarlett Johansson for eye candy.”
“ In a torn blouse. And instead of those rats chewing off the guy’s straps, she unties him.”
“ The rats represent our primal fears.”
“ Box office poison, Eddie. A one-way ticket straight-to-video.”
“ But a woman…” The writer’s voice trailed off and he scratched at his mustache as if it had fleas. “Writing from the distaff point of view is hardly my forte.”
“ No problema, Eduardo. We’ll bring in Nora Ephron to punch up the he-said, she-said dialogue.”
“ Another writer?”
“ Read me your first sentence, Eddie.”
The writer recited by heart. “‘I was sick-sick to death with that long agony.’”
“ Downer. Maybe we get Judd Apatow to lighten the mood, toss in some fart jokes.”
“ But that would dilute the horror.”
“ Hold the phone, Eddie! Just got a brainstorm. The prisoner falls in love with Scarlett, but she’s got a fatal disease.”
“ Good heavens. What would that accomplish?
“‘ Halloween’ meets ‘Love Story.’ Boffo B.O.”
The writer’s face took on the pallor of a drowning victim. “Perhaps the theme of the story is unclear to you.”
“ Hey, you want to send a message, use e-mail. You want foreign box office, you need stars, action, sex.”
“ I assure you my work is quite popular in France.”
“ Sure, you and Jerry Lewis. The point is, we’re going after the masses, not the art-house crowd.”
The writer still held the pen in a death grip. He stared at the check. Picking up sunlight from the window, the paper seemed to be made of burnished gold. He exhaled a long sigh and said, “I suppose you know best, Mr. Beazle. So if there are no other changes…”
Beazle smiled, his double row of porcelain crowns gleaming. He loved breaking a writer. It was better than sex. Maybe not sex-on-coke, but straight sex. “One more thing, Eddie. What’s the setting? Where the hell’s this prison?”
“ Spain, of course.”
“ Fine. We’ll shoot in Vancouver. But no subtitles and we gotta update.”
“ How? It’s the Spanish Inquisition.”
“ Period piece? No can do. With all respect, Eddie, you’re no Jane Austen. And as for the ending, we gotta lose the French Army. Who’s gonna believe they win a battle? I’m picturing a SEAL team, maybe the Rock in a cameo.”
The writer’s alabaster hand trembled as he fiddled with a loose button on his heavy coat. Beazle made a mental note to send the guy to Melrose Avenue for some new threads before letting him on the set.
“ That is it, then?” the writer asked. “A new title. Another writer. A naked woman. No rats. A SEAL team. And Canada.”
“ Almost there. But tell me. Who’s the hell’s the heavy?”
“ A faceless evil. The horror is intensified by the anonymity of its source.”
“ Muddled storytelling, Eddie.”
The writer’s shoulders sagged. “I suppose you could say the villain is the unseen executioner.”
“ Unseen? It’s motion pictures, not radio. How about Anthony Hopkins? Those creepy eyes will pucker your orifice.”
The writer’s forehead knotted like burls on pine. “Putting a face to the evil is unnecessary. The man in the pit believes he is going to die. True horror is not physical pain. It is the anticipation of pain, the realization that death is a certainty, whether by falling into the pit or being eviscerated by the pendulum. Do you understand, sir?”
“ Sure. You don’t like Anthony Hopkins. You want to go younger? My daughter says Clive Owen makes her panties wet. Whadaya say?”
“ Mr. Beazle, I cannot surrender my integrity.”
“ Not surrender. Sell! I’ll get you a suite at the Peninsula. Room service. Blow. You want a hooker? I got a chippie you’ll love. Name’s Lenore.”
The writer pulled himself up, knees wobbling. “If I agreed to your terms, it would indeed be a midnight dreary.”
“ Sit down, Eddie!”
“ I think not.” He took a step toward the door.
“ You’re saying no to money, pussy and drugs? What the hell kind of a writer are you!”
But he was already out the door.
Beazle couldn’t believe it. A moment earlier, the bastard was perched on the edge of the abyss. Beazle grabbed his suit coat and hurried into the corridor, alligator sneakers clomping on the tile. He caught up with the writer at the elevator bank.
“ Eddie! Is it the dough? I’ll double it.”
Two elevator doors opened simultaneously. One attendant, a smoking hot redhead in a black leotard festooned with orange flames, winked and said, “Down?”
The writer recoiled as waves of heat rolled from the open car.
In the other car, the attendant, a petite blonde in a white leotard with snowy wings, smiled angelically and said, “Up?”
“ Last chance Eddie!” Beazle implored.
“ Never more,” the writer whispered, soft as a lover’s lament.
Beazle sighed in surrender. He didn’t lose often, but when he did, it hurt. “He’s going up.”
The writer stepped into the blonde’s elevator, the door closing with a quiet whoosh.
Beazle grabbed a fat cigar from his suit pocket. A Cohiba, a gift from Fidel himself at the Havana Film Festival. Beazle ran the wrapper paper under his nose and inhaled deeply. Not even burning sulphur smelled this good.
Beazle took a double guillotine cutter from his pants pocket and snipped off the cap of the Cohiba. He snapped his thumb and middle finger together, setting off a spark that engulfed the tip in flame. He drew smoke — his mother’s milk — into his lungs, and held it there.
“ There’ll be others,” he said, exhaling a cloud as black as coal dust.
There were always others, drying to sell their souls. Writers who dream of starlets and red carpets and their own insignificant names flickering across the screen. Vainglorious fools, every one, all destined to spend eternity in development hell.
SOLOMON AND LORD: TO HELL AND BACK
“ What aren’t you telling me?” Victoria Lord demanded.
Jeez. Her grand jury tone.
“ Nothing to tell,” Steve Solomon said. “I’m going deep-sea fishing.”
“ You? The guy who got seasick in a paddle boat at Disney World.”
“ That boat was defective. I’m gonna sue.” Steve hauled an Igloo cooler onto the kitchen counter. “You may not know it, but I come from a long line of anglers.”
“ A long line of liars, you mean.”
The partners of Solomon amp; Lord, Attorneys-at-Law, stood in the kitchen of Steve’s bungalow on Kumquat Avenue in Coconut Grove. The place was a square stucco pillbox the color of a rotting avocado, but it had withstood hurricanes, termites, and countless keg parties.
Unshaven and hair mussed, wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt, Steve looked like a beach bum. Lips glossed and cheekbones highlighted, wearing a glen plaid suit with an ivory silk blouse, Victoria looked sexy, smart, and successful.
“ C’mon, Steve. What are you really up to?” Her voice drizzled with suspicion like mango glaze over sauteed snapper.
Steve wanted to tell his lover and law partner the truth. Or at least, the partial truth. But he knew how Ms. Propriety would react:
“ You can’t do that. It’s unethical.”
And if he told her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? “You’ll be disbarred! Jailed. Maybe even killed.”
No, he’d have to fly solo. Or swim solo, as the case may be.
Steve pulled two six packs of Heineken out of the refrigerator and tossed them into the cooler. “Okay, it’s really a business meeting.”
Victoria cocked her head and pursed her lips in cross-exam mode. “Which is it, Pinocchio? Fishing or business? Were you lying then or are you lying now?”
For a tall, lanky blonde with a dazzling smile, she could fire accusations the way Dan Marino once threw the football.
“ I’m going fishing with Manuel Cruz.”
“ What! I thought you were going to sue him.”
“ Which is what makes it business. Cruz wants to make an offer before we file suit. I suggested we go fishing, keep it relaxed. He loved the idea and invited me on his boat.”
So far, Steve hadn’t told an outright fib and it was almost 8 A.M. Not quite a personal best, but still, he was proud of himself.
For the last five years, Manuel Cruz worked as controller of Torano Chevrolet in Hialeah where he managed to steal three million dollars before anyone noticed. Teresa Torano, a Cuban exilado in her seventies, was nearly bankrupt, and Steve was determined to get her money back, but it wouldn’t be easy. All the computer records had been erased, leaving no electronic trail. Cruz had no visible assets other than his sportfishing boat. The guy didn’t even own a house. And the juiciest piece of evidence — Cruz fled Cuba years ago after embezzling money from a government food program — wasn’t even admissible.
“ Just you and Cruz, alone at sea.” she said. “Sounds dangerous.”
“ I’m not afraid of him.”
“ It’s not you I’m worried about.”
Victoria punched the RECORD button on her pocket Dictaphone. “Memo to the Torano file. Make certain our malpractice premiums are paid.”
“ You and your damned Dictaphone,” Steve complained. “Drives me nuts.”
“ I don’t know. It’s so…”
Victoria pulled her Mini-Cooper into the Matheson Hammock marina, swerving to avoid a land-crab, clip-clopping across the asphalt. The sun was already baking the pavement, the air sponge-thick with humidity. Just above a stand of sea lavender trees, a pair of turkey buzzards flew surveillance.
Victoria sneaked a look at Steve as he hauled the cooler out of the car’s tiny trunk. Dark, unruly hair, a slight, sly grin as if he were one joke ahead of the rest of the world. The deep brown eyes, usually filled with mischief, were hidden behind dark Ray Bans.
Dammit, why won’t he level with me?
Why did he always take the serpentine path instead of the expressway? Why did he always treat laws and rules, cases and precedents as mere suggestions?
Because he has more fun making it up as he goes along.
Steve drove her crazy with his courtroom antics and his high-wire ethics. If he believed in a client, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to win. Which was exactly what frightened her now.
Just what would Steve do for Teresa Torano?
They headed toward the dock, the morning sun beating down so ferociously Victoria felt her blouse sticking to her shoulder blades. The only sounds were the groans of boats in their moorings and the caws of gulls overhead. The air smelled of the marshy hammock, salt and iodine and fermenting seaweed. The fronds of thatch palms hung limp in the still air.
“ Gimme a kiss. I gotta go,” Steve said, as they stepped onto the concrete dock. In front of them were expensive toys, gleaming white in the morning sun. Rows of powerful sportfishermen, large as houses. Dozens of sleek sailing craft, ketches and sloops and schooners.
“ Sure, Mr. Romance.” She kissed him lightly on the lips. Something seemed off-kilter, but what? And what was that pressing against her through his shorts?
Hadn’t last night been enough? Twice before SportsCenter, once after Letterman.
She sneaked a hand into his pocket and came out with a pair of handcuffs. “What’s this, the latest in fishing tackle?”
“ Ah. Well. Er…” Gasping like a beached grouper. “You know that store, Only Sexy Things? ” He grabbed the handcuffs and slipped them back into his pocket. “Thought I’d spice up the bedroom.”
“ Stick to cinnamon incense. Last chance, lover boy. What’s going on?”
“ You’re fucking late, hombre!” Manuel Cruz yelled from the fly bridge of a power boat tied up at the dock. He was a muscular man in his late thirties, wearing canvas shorts and a white shirt with epaulets. A Marlins’ cap was pulled low over his eyes, and his sunglasses hung on a chain.
The boat was a sportfisherman in the sixty-foot range, all polished teak and gleaming chrome. A fly bridge, a glass enclosed salon, and a pair of fighting chairs in the cockpit for serious deep-sea fishing. The name on the stern read: “ Wet Dream. ”
Men, Victoria thought. Men were so one-dimensional.
“ Buenos dias, Ms. Lord.”
She gave him a nod and a tight smile.
“ Let’s go, Solomon,” Cruz urged. “Fish are hungry.”
Steve hoisted the cooler onto the deck. “Toss the lines for us, hon?”
She leveled a gaze at him. “Sure, hon. ”
Victoria untied the bow line from its cleat and tossed it aboard. She moved quickly to the stern, untied the line, propped a hand on a piling crusted with bird dung, and leapt aboard.
“ Vic! Whadaya think you’re you doing?”
“ Going fishing.”
“ Get back on the dock.”
She smiled and pointed toward the increasing body of water that separated them from land.
“ You’re not dressed for fishing,” Steve told her.
“ I’m dressed for your bail hearing.” She kicked off her velvet-toed pumps and peeled off her panty hose, distracting Steve with her muscular calves, honed on the tennis courts of La Gorce Country Club. “Now, what’s with the handcuffs?”
Steve lowered his voice so she could barely hear him above the roaring diesels. “You remember Solomon’s Law number one?”
Oh, that. Steve’s personal code for rule breaking.
“ How could I forget? ‘If the law doesn’t work…work the law.’”
“ In the matter of Manuel Cruz, the law isn’t working.”
“ What’s that?” Cruz asked, eying the cooler on the deck.
“ Brought beer and bait,” Steve said.
“ What for? I got a case of La Tropical and a hundred pounds of shiners and wiggles.”
All three of them stood on the fly bridge. Twin diesels throbbing, the Wet Dream cruised down Hawk Channel inside the barrier reefs. The water was green felt, smooth as a billiard table, the boat riding on a plane at thirty knots.
Cruz ran a hand over the polished teak steering wheel. “I come to this country with nothing but the clothes on my back and look at me now.”
“ Very impressive,” Steve said, thinking it would be even more impressive if Cruz hadn’t stolen the money to buy the damn boat.
Cruz winked at Victoria, his smile more of a leer. “You two want to fool around, I got clean sheets in the master stateroom.”
“ Sounds lovely,” Victoria cooed. “Want to fool around, Steve?” Her smile was as sweet as fresh-squeezed guarapo, but Steve caught the sarcastic tone.
“ Maybe after we catch something,” he said, pointedly.
“ Heads and A/C work, faucets don’t,” Cruz said. “Water tank’s fouled.”
Steve studied the man, standing legs spread at the wheel, a macho pose. A green tattoo of a scorpion crawled up one ankle. On the other ankle, in a leather sheaf, was a foot-long Marine combat knife. It looked like the weapon Sylvester Stallone used in those “Rambo” movies. Out here, it could be used to cut lines or clean fish.
Or gut a lawyer planning to do him harm.
They had just passed Sombrero Light when Cruz said, “So here’s my offer, hombre. The Torano bitch gives me a release with a promise never to sue. And vice versa. I won’t sue her ass.”
“ I don’t like the way you talk about my client,” Steve said.
“ Tough shit. I don’t like Fidel Castro, but what am I gonna do about it?”
“ Your offer stinks like week-old snapper.”
“ You sue me, what do you get? A piece of paper you can wipe your ass with. I got nothing in my own name, including the boat.”
Steve looked right and left to get his bearings. Off to port, in the direction of the reef, he spotted the fins of two sharks heading toward strands of yellow sargasso weed, home to countless fish. Red coral just below the surface cast a rusty glow on the shallow water. To the starboard was the archipelago of the Florida Keys. From here, the island chain was strung out like an emerald necklace. “Let Vic take the wheel a minute,” Steve said. “I want you to see something.”
Cruz allowed as how even a woman lawyer could keep a boat on 180 degrees, due south, and followed Steve down the ladder to the cockpit. Just off the stern, the props dug at the water like a plow digging at a field. Steve opened the cooler, reached underneath the ice and pulled out a two foot-long greenish-blue fish, frozen solid. A horse-eyed jack.
“ Great bait, huh?” Steve held the fish by its tail and let it swing free. It had a fine heft, like a small sledgehammer.
“ Already told you. I got shiners and wiggles.”
“ Then I better use this for something else.” Steve swung the frozen fish at Cruz’ head. The man stutter-stepped sideways and the blow glanced off his shoulder and sideswiped an ear. Steve swung again, and Cruz ducked, the fish flying free and shattering the glass door of the salon. Cruz reached for his knife in the ankle sheath and Steve barreled into him, knocking them both to the deck.
On the fly bridge, Victoria screamed. “Stop! Both of you!”
The two men rolled over each other, scraping elbows and knees on the planked deck. Cruz was heavier, and his breath smelled of tobacco. Steve was wiry and quicker, but ended up underneath when they skidded to a stop. Cruz grabbed Steve’s t-shirt at the neck and slammed his head into the deck. Once, twice, three times. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp.
Steve balled a fist and landed a short right that caught Cruz squarely on the Adam’s apple. The man gagged, clutched his throat, and fell backward. Steve squirmed out from under, but Cruz tripped him. Steve tumbled into the gunwale, smacking his head, sparks flashing behind his eyes. He had the sensation of being dragged across a hard floor. On his back, he opened his eyes and saw something glistening in the sun.
The knife blade!
Cruz was on his knees, knife in hand. “ Pendejo! I oughta make chum out of you.”
“ No!” Victoria’s voice, closer than it should have been.
Steve heard the clunk, saw Cruz topple over, felt him bounce off his own chest. Straddling both of them was Victoria, a three-foot steel tarpon gaff in her right hand. “Omigod,” she said. “I didn’t kill him, did I?”
“ Not unless a dead man grunts and farts at the same time,” Steve said, listening to sounds coming from both ends of the semi-conscious man.
He shoved Cruz off and stood up, wrapping his arms around Victoria, who was trembling. “You were terrific, Vic. We work great together.”
“ Really? What did you do?”
“ Come on. Help me get him up the ladder.” Steve pulled the handcuffs from his pocket. “I want him on the bridge.”
“ What now? What insanity now?”
“ Relax Vic. In a few hours, Cruz will be dying to give back Teresa’s money.”
Steve had played fast and loose with the rules before, Victoria thought, but nothing like this.
This is scary. And in the eyes of the law, she was dirty, too.
This could mean trading the couture outfits and Italian footwear for orange jumpsuits and shower shoes.
With one wrist handcuffed to the rail at the rear of the bridge, Cruz had been berating Steve for the past twenty minutes. “Know what, Solomon? She hits harder than you do.”
“ Mr. Cruz,” Victoria said, “if you begin to feel dizzy or nauseous, let me know. Head trauma can be very dangerous.”
“ What about my head?” Steve demanded.
“ It’s impervious to trauma. Or reason.”
The Wet Dream was planing across the tops of small whitecaps when Steve said: “Take the wheel, Vic. Keep it on two-zero-two.”
“ Please,” she said, irritated.
“‘ Keep it on two-zero-two, please.’”
“ A captain doesn’t say ‘please.’”
“ Maybe not Captain Bligh.” Victoria slid behind the wheel, thinking maybe she’d hit the wrong man with the gaff. She still didn’t know where they were headed, and Steve’s behavior was becoming increasingly bizarre. He had the beginning of a lump on his head, and blood trickled from his skinned elbows and knees.
“ Kidnaping,” Cruz said. “Assault. Boat theft. You two are gonna be busy little shysters.”
“ Shut up,” Steve said. “Under the law of the sea, I’m master of this craft.”
“ What law? You stole my fucking boat.”
Once past Key West, they entered the Florida Straits, the water growing deeper, the color turning from light green to aquamarine to cobalt blue. No reefs here, and a five-foot chop slapped at the hull of the boat. The wavecaps sparkled, as if studded with diamonds in the late afternoon sun.
“ Gonna tell you a story, Cruz,” Steve said, “and when I’m done, you’re gonna cry and beg forgiveness and give back all the money you stole.’”
“ Yeah, right.”
“ Story starts forty-some years ago in Havana. A beautiful lady named Teresa Torano lost her husband who was brave enough to oppose Fidel Castro.”
“ Tough shit,” Cruz said. “Happened to a lot of people.”
“ Teresa came to Miami with nothing. Worked minimum wage, mopped floors in a car dealership, ended up owning Torano Chevrolet.”
“ My papi always told me hard work pays off,” Cruz said, smirking. “Too bad he never got out of the cane fields.”
“ A few years ago, she hires a new controller. A fellow exilado. This guy’s got a fancy computer system that will revolutionize their books. It also lets him steal three million bucks before anybody knows what hit them. Now, the banks have pulled Teresa’s line of credit, and she could go under.”
“ I’m not crying, Solomon.”
“ Not done yet. See, this lady is damn important to me. If it hadn’t been for Teresa giving me work my first year out of school, I’d have gone broke.”
“ Lo unico que logro la dama fue posponer lo inevitable,” Cruz said. “She only postponed the inevitable.”
Victoria knew there was more to it than just a financial relationship. Teresa had virtually adopted Steve and his nephew Bobby, and the Solomon Boys loved her in return. After Victoria entered the picture, she was added to the extended Torano family. Now, each year at Christmas, they all gathered at Teresa’s estate in Coral Gables for her homemade crema de vie, an anise drink so rich it made eggnog seem like diet soda. All of which meant that Steve would do anything for Teresa. One of Steve’s self-proclaimed laws expressed the principle:
“ I won’t break the law, breach legal ethics, or risk jail time…unless it’s for someone I love. ”
Now that Victoria thought about it, the question wasn’t: Just what would Steve do for Teresa Torano? It was: What wouldn’t he do?
“ That sleazy accountant,” Steve said. “In Cuba, he kept the books for the student worker program, the students who cut sugar cane. Ran the whole food services division. But he had a nasty habit of cutting the pineapple juice with water and selling the meat off the back of trucks. The kids went hungry and he got fat. When the authorities found out, he stole a boat and got the hell out of the worker’s paradise.”
“ Old news, hombre.”
“ Vic, still on two-zero-two?” Steve asked.
“ I know how to read a compass,” she said, sharply.
“ Where you taking me?” Cruz demanded.
“ Jeez, how’d you ever get from Havana to Key West?” Steve said.
“ Everybody in Havana knows the heading to the States. You want Key West, you keep it at twenty-two degrees.”
“ A bit east of due north. So what’s two-zero-two?”
“ A little west of due south.”
“ Keep going, Cruz. I think you’re catching the drift, no pun intended.”
Steve waited a moment for the bulb to pop on. When it didn’t, he continued, “Two hundred two minus twenty-two is one hundred eighty. What happens when you make a hundred eighty degree turn, philosophically or geographically speaking?”
“ Fuck!” Cruz jerked the handcuff so hard the rail shuddered. “We’re going to Havana!”
“ You’re taking me straight to hell!”
“ Precisely. We’re repatriating you.”
“ You crazy? Cuban patrol boats will sink us. You remember that tugboat. Trece de Marzo. Forty people dead. ”
“ The Marzo was trying to leave the island. We’re coming in, and we’re bringing a fugitive to justice. They should give us a reward, or at least a bottle of Club Havana rum.”
“ They’ll kill me.”
“ Not without a trial. A speedy trial. Of course, if you tell us where you’ve stashed Teresa’s money, we’ll turn this tub around.”
“ Dammit, Steve,” Victoria said. “We have to talk.”
Steve put the boat on auto — two hundred two degrees — and took Victoria down to the salon.
“ You could get us killed,” she said. “Or jailed. Right now, the best case scenario would be disbarment.”
“ That’s why I didn’t want you along.”
Steve walked to the galley sink and turned on the faucet, intending to rinse the dried blood from a scraped elbow. The plumbing rattled and thumped, but nothing came out. He opened the ice maker. Empty, too.
“ Cruz is a lousy host,” Steve said.
“ Are you listening to me? Let’s go back to Miami. I’ll see if we can talk Cruz out of filing charges.”
They both heard the sound, but it took a second to identify it. A scream from the bridge. “Sol-o-mon!”
Followed a second later by machine gun fire.
Steve and Victoria ran back up the ladder to the bridge. Cruz was tugging against the rail, his wrist bleeding where the handcuff sawed into his skin. Three hundred yards off their starboard, a Cuban patrol boat fired a short burst from a machine gun mounted on its bow. Dead ahead, the silhouette of the Cuban island rose from the sea, misty in the late afternoon light.
“ Warning shots,” Steve said. “Everybody relax.”
Steve eased back on the throttles, tooted the horn, and waved both arms at the approaching boat. “C’mon Cruz. It’s now or never. When they pull alongside, I’m handing you over.”
“ Do what you got to do, asshole.”
“ Steve, turn the boat around,” Victoria ordered. “Now!”
The patrol boat slowed. Two men in uniform at the machine gun, a third man holding a bullhorn.
“ I’m not fucking with you, Cruz,” Steve said. “You’ve got thirty seconds. Where’s Teresa’s money?”
“ Chingate!” Cruz snarled.
“ Senores del barco de pesca!” The tinny sound of the bullhorn carried across the water.
“ Last chance,” Steve said.
“ Se han adentrado en las aguas territoriales de la Republica de Cuba.”
“ Steve, we’re in Cuban waters,” Victoria said.
“ I know. I passed Spanish 101.”
“ Den la vuelta y salgan inmediatamente de aqui, o los vamos a abordar.”
“ They’re going to board us if we don’t turn around,” she said.
“ I kind of figured that out, too.” Steve turned to Cruz. “Absolutely, positively last chance, pal. I’m handing you over.”
“ I’m betting you don’t,” Cruz said.
The patrol boat was fifty yards away. One of the men in uniform pointed an AK-47 their way.
“ Steve…?” Victoria’s voice was a plea.
This wasn’t the way he’d planned it. By this time, Cruz should have been spouting numbers and accounts from banks in the Caymans or Switzerland or the Isle of Man. But the bastard was toughing it out. Calling Steve’s bluff.
Is that what it is? An empty threat.
Steve wanted to hand Cruz over, wanted him to rot in a Cuban prison.
But dammit, I’m a lawyer, not a vigilante.
He wished he could turn his conscience on and off with the flick of a switch. He wished he could end a man’s life with cold calculations and no remorse. But the rats that would gnaw at Cruz at Isla de Pinos would visit the house on Kumquat Avenue in Steve’s nightmares.
“ Take the wheel, Vic.” Filled with self-loathing, wishing he could be someone he was not. “Twenty-two degrees. Key West.”
“ Say ‘please,’” Cruz laughed, mocking him.
Just before midnight, the lights of Key West off the port, the Wet Dream cruised north through Hawk Channel, headed toward Miami. The sky was clear and sparkled with stars. The wind whipped across the bridge, bringing a night chill. Victoria slipped into her glen-plaid jacket. Hair messed, clothes rumpled, emotionally drained, she was trying to figure out how to salvage the situation.
I came aboard to save Steve from himself and I’m doing a lousy job.
Steve stood at the wheel, draining a La Tropical beer, maybe listening, maybe not, as Cruz berated him.
“ You fucking loser,” Cruz said. “Every minute I’m tied up is gonna cost you.” Cruz rubbed his arm where the cuff was biting into his wrist. “I got nerve damage. Gonna add that to my lawsuit. When this is over, you’ll wish the Cubans had taken you prisoner.”
“ Steve, I need a moment with you,” Victoria said.
Steve put the boat on auto — Cruz complaining that it was a damn reckless way to cruise at night — then headed down the ladder, joining Victoria in the salon.
“ You can’t keep him locked up,” she said.
“ I need more time.”
“ For what?”
“ To think.” He walked to the galley sink and turned the faucet, intending to toss cold water on his face. Same rattle, same thump. “Damn, I forgot. Cruz put all that money into his boat and still can’t get the water to work.”
“ A fancy boat like this and you can’t wash your hands.”
“ No. What you said before. ‘Cruz put all that money into his boat.’”
“ It’s just a figure of speech.”
“ Think about it, Steve. He doesn’t own a house. He leases a car. No brokerage accounts, no bank accounts. Everything he has, he puts into his boat. If he ever has to leave town quickly…”
“ Like he left Cuba,” Steve said, picking up the beat. “With nothing but the clothes on his back.”
“ This time it would be different because…”
“ The money’s here! On the boat.”
In sync now, she thought.
A man and a woman running stride for stride.
“ Vic, why don’t you go back up to the bridge and make sure we don’t crash into any cruise ships?”
“ And what are you doing?”
“ I’m gonna fix the plumbing.”
Steve opened the hatch in the salon floor and climbed down a ladder to the engine compartment, wincing at the noise from the twin diesels. He found the black water tank first, tucked up under the bow. Sewage and waste water. Nothing unusual about it, and Cruz wouldn’t want to dirty his hands with that, anyway. Then Steve found the freshwater tank, a custom job built into one of the bulkheads. Made of fiberglass, it looked capable of holding 500 gallons or more. The boat had desalinization equipment, so why did Cruz need such a big tank?
A big tank that wasn’t working.
Steve grabbed a flashlight mounted on a pole and took a closer look. He peered into an inspection port and could see the tank was three quarters full. On top of the tank was a metal plate with a built-in handle. He turned the plate counter-clockwise and removed it. Then he aimed the flashlight into the opening.
Water. Well, what did you expect?
He grabbed a mop that was attached by velcro to a stringer and poked the handle into the tank. The end of the handle clanked off the walls.
Clank. Clank. Clank. Thud.
Thud? What the hell?
Steve pushed the mop handle around the bottom of the tank as if he were stirring a giant vat of paella. It snagged on something soft. He worked the handle under the object and lifted.
Something as long as a man’s body but much thinner.
Thin enough to fit into the opening of the custom-built tank. The object was a transparent, plasticized pouch, and when the end peeked out of the opening, Steve saw Ben Franklin’s tight-lipped face. A hundred dollar bill. Stacked on others. Dozens of stacks. As he pulled the pouch out of the tank, he saw even more. Hundreds of stacks, thousands of bills.
Damn heavy, Steve thought, lugging the pouch up the ladder from the engine compartment. Then he dragged the load out the salon door and into the cockpit. “Now you’ve done it,” Cruz sounded almost mournful. He stood on the bridge, aiming a double-barrel shotgun at Steve. The rail where he had been cuffed hung loose. “I didn’t want this. But it’s your own damn fault.”
“ I’m sorry, Steve,” Victoria said. “When I came up here, he’d gotten out.”
“ Not your fault,” Steve said. He dragged the pouch to the starboard gunwale.
“ Stop right there!” Cruz ordered. “Step away from the money.”
“ Nope. Don’t think so.”
Cruz pumped the shotgun, an unmistakable click-clack that Steve felt in the pit of his stomach. “I’ll blow your head off.”
“ And leave blood and bone and tissue embedded in the planking? Nah. You may kill us, but you won’t do it on your boat.” Steve hoisted the pouch onto the rail.
“ If I can’t take this to Teresa, I’m sure as hell not gonna let you have it. Your treasure, pal, is strictly Sierra Madre.’”
The shotgun blast roared over Steve’s head, and he flinched. The pouch balanced on the rail, halfway between the deck and the deep blue sea.
“ Put the money down, asshole.”
“ Okay, okay.” Steve shoved the pouch over the rail and it splashed into the water. ”It’s down.”
“ Asshole!” Cruz grabbed both throttles, slowed the boat, and swung her around. He turned a spotlight on the water.
Nothing but a black sea and foamy whitecaps.
He swung the spotlight left and right. Still nothing, until…the beam picked up the pouch floating with the current. Cruz eased the boat close to the pouch at idle speed, slipped the engine out of gear, then dashed down the ladder. Grabbing a tarpon gaff, he moved quickly to the gunwale. Shotgun in one hand, gaff in the other, he motioned toward Steve. “Back up. All the way to the chair.”
“ Do what he says, Steve,” Victoria called from the bridge.
“ Only because you said so.” Steve moved toward one of the fighting chairs.
Cruz leaned over the side and snagged the pouch with the gaff. He struggled to lift it with one arm, still aiming the shotgun at Steve.
Suddenly, the boat shot forward, and Cruz tumbled into the water, the shotgun blasting into space as it fell onto the deck. On the bridge, Victoria had one hand on the throttles, the other on the wheel.
“ Cono!” Cruz shouted from the darkness.
“ Do sharks feed at night?” Steve leaned over the side. “ Or should I just drop some wiggles on your head and find out?”
“ Get me out of here!” His voice more fearful than demanding.
“ No me jodas!”
“ I’m not fucking with you. Just don’t feel like giving you a lift.”
Victoria raced down the ladder and joined Steve in the cockpit. “Testing, testing,” she said, punching a button on her pocket Dictaphone.
“ What are you doing?” Steve said.
“ Mr. Cruz,” Victoria called out. “We’ll bring you on board once you answer a few questions.”
Cruz was splashing just off the starboard side. “What fucking questions!”
“ Do you admit stealing three million dollars from Teresa Torano?” Victoria said.
Pink slivers of sky lit up the horizon and seabirds squawked overhead as Steve steered the boat into the channel at Matheson Hammock. He had one hand on the wheel and one draped on Victoria’s shoulder. A shivering Cruz, his arms and legs bound with quarter-inch line, was laced into a fighting chair in the cockpit. His taped confession would be in the hands of the State Attorney by noon. The pouch of money lay at his feet, taunting him.
“ What are you thinking about?” Victoria asked.
“ I was just imagining the look on Teresa’s face when we give her the money.”
“ She’ll be delighted. But it was never about the money, Steve.”
“ Whadaya mean?”
“ When you were a baby lawyer, Teresa believed in you and nobody else did. You needed to prove to her that she was right. And maybe you needed to prove it to yourself, too.”
Steve shrugged. “If you say so.”
She wrapped both arms around his neck. “But remember this, Steve. You never have to prove anything to me.” They kissed, at first softly, and then deeper and slower. The kiss lasted a long time, and when they each opened their eyes, the sun was peeking above the horizon in the eastern sky.
Their bodies pressed together, Victoria felt something digging into her hip. “Are you carrying another pair of handcuffs?”
“ Then what…?” She jammed a hand into one of his pocket. “Oh. That!”
Steve smiled. “Like I said, no cuffs.”
“ That’s okay, sailor.” She brushed her lips against his cheek. “You won’t need them.”