3. BISCAYNE BLUES – Paul Levine
Just how much is a whiplash worth?" John Deal asked, twisting awkwardly in his cervical collar.
"That depends on whether Dr. Scheinblum is sober when he testifies," his lawyer, Jake Lassiter, answered.
Deal hadn't been in court since an action film star had sued him over a broken pump motor in a custom-built Jacuzzi. Lassiter had won the case, cleverly arguing that the tub hadn't been intended for a dozen persons, eleven of whom happened to be strippers from Club Plutonium, bobbing for apples and whatnot in the foamy water.
Deal had nearly been late this morning. Though a native of Miami who had built houses in virtually every neighborhood, he had become lost on a stretch of Eighth Street – Calle Ocho – recently renamed Olga Guillot Way. A few blocks to the west, the same street was called Celia Cruz Way, then Loring P. Evans Memorial Boulevard. He'd turned north on what had been a familiar avenue, now renamed General Maximo Gomez Boulevard, and followed a Porsche with the personalized plate LAWYER. Like boasting about having the clap, Deal thought.
Heading downtown, he'd vaguely wondered how he could get the street sign contract for the city, something he figured would keep him as busy as a coffin maker in a spaghetti western. The construction business was slow, and Deal was hoping for a decent settlement on his personal-injury claim, at least enough to lift the subcontractors' liens on his latest job and get his backhoe out of hock.
Once on Flagler Street, Deal had paid a shoeless guy five bucks to clean the windshield and watch over the rental Taurus in a rubble-strewn spot under the I-95 ramp. Walking two blocks to the courthouse, he'd woven through a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting conditions on a Caribbean island that Deal could not place on a map. On the courthouse steps, the Voodoo Squad, two janitors with buckets and brooms, were gathering up a dead chicken, a goat's head, and a cake with frosted icing, all intended to cast various spells on judges and juries. Overhead, the turkey vultures circled in the updrafts, while inside, their double-breasted, dark-suited cousins hustled clients at the elevators.
Now, as the day wound down, Deal sat in a fourth-floor courtroom, listening as his lawyer wrapped up his opening statement. He hoped this was a good idea. He'd let Jake talk him into it only because his debts were piling up so high, but now, listening to Jake's best over-the-top, never-overestimate-the-intelligence-of-the-jury histrionics, he was having his doubts. Well, too late now. He didn't know what strings Jake had pulled to get the case to court so fast, but here they were.
"An unprotected hazard!" Jake Lassiter thundered, moving closer to the jury box where he planted his 225 pounds like an oak among saplings. "A death trap! A terrifying plunge into darkness and fear!" Lassiter paused and studied the jury. By Miami standards, it was a typical collection of strangers: a tattooed lobster pot poacher, a nipple ring designer with a shaved head, a santerowho chanted prayers to Babalu Aye during recess, a cross-dressing doorman from a South Beach club, and two Kendall housewives who nervously clutched their purses. "Thank heavens for John Deal's extraordinary physical condition," Lassiter proclaimed reverently, "and thank heavens for his fervent will to live."
Not to mention a manatee named Booger, Deal thought. He hadn't told Lassiter he'd been saved from drowning by a barnacle-encrusted sea mammal, then nursed back to health by a 102-year-old woman who brewed medicinal potions from swamp grass. And of course, he hadn't mentioned the box.
The best he could figure, it must have been attached by the bungee lines to the manatee named Booger. Somehow Deal had gotten tangled in the bungee when he'd floated out of the Hog into the cold, wet darkness. It had all been too weird.
"The city of Miami recklessly maintained a hazard at its marina," Lassiter told the jury. "The city breached its duty of reasonable care in failing to properly light the street and failing to warn of the sheer drop-off to a watery grave."
"Objection, Your Honor!" shouted Russell B. Whittaker III. The city's insurance lawyer jumped to his feet and tugged at his suspenders. "That's closing argument, not opening statement."
"Sustained," Judge Manuel Dominguez announced gravely, then shot a look at the wall clock. He hated to miss the first game at Miami Jai-alai. "Move it along, Mr. Lassiter." Maria, the court clerk and the judge's favorite niece, held up eight fingers, alerting Lassiter to his remaining time. The judge's secretary, Ileana Josefina Dominguez-Zaldivar, slipped into the courtroom from chambers and whispered something into the judge's ear, though she probably didn't call him "Your Honor." Ileana was his older sister, and insisted on calling the judge Manuelito, even in court. Lassiter took a slow turn to gather his thoughts. Victor, the bailiff, sat in the back row of the gallery. A handsome if vapid lad, he was the judge's son-in-law, and he was happy to be in uniform after flunking the police academy entrance exam twice and the firefighters' test four times.
The courtroom door squeaked open. Britt Montero, the Miami Newsreporter with the luminous green eyes, peered in, didn't find anything worthy of a two-column headline, and left. Back when Lassiter had been in night law school, having finally been cut by the Dolphins after a few undistinguished years on special teams, he had had a date with Britt, but she'd stood him up for a three-alarm fire.
He faced front. Time to crank it up again. "The evidence will show that John Deal is a building contractor of impeccable reputation who has been injured through no fault of his own," Lassiter rumbled on. "You will hear the testimony of Dr. Irwin Scheinblum, a respected physician with forty years' experience in two states."
Deal smiled to himself. Hadn't Lassiter called Scheinblum a senile, alcoholic quack who'd lost his license in Rhode Island – something about penile enlargement surgery that had resulted in a net loss – before hanging out his shingle on Coral Way? The courtroom door squeaked open again, and Deal glanced in that direction. The man who walked in looked familiar. Dark hair, short and muscular, with a mustache, a vaguely Hispanic look. Where had he seen him before?
"Yes, ladies and gentlemen," Lassiter continued. "Dr. Scheinblum will describe Mr. Deal's severe musculo-skeletal-ligamentous trauma."
In other words, whiplash.
This morning, Deal thought. I saw him this morning when I did the U-ey on Eighth Street, or whatever the hell it's called now. He was in the black Camaro right behind me. Deal turned again, stiffly, his neck flaring with pain. He squinted and envisioned the man at night, draped in a tangle of old shrimp netting, leaning on an oar on the little street running along the marina. The guy he'd almost flattened seconds before his beloved and battered Hog had plunged off the dock. What the hell was he doing here?
Jake Lassiter sipped his Grolsch and tried not to look toward the table closest to the bay. "Him?"
"Yeah," Deal said. "He's following me."
The guy sat alone near the end of the wooden deck at Scotty's Landing in the Grove. At a table next to him, two Yuppie insurance lawyers in white shirts and yellow ties were trying to score with two young women from the all-female America's Cup team.
A light breeze stirred from the east, and a three-quarter moon was rising over Key Biscayne. Jake Lassiter and John Deal were drinking beer, eating grilled dolphin, and preparing the next day's testimony.
"No, no, no! Your neck isn't simply sore," Lassiter told him. "It throbs. It aches. The pain is excruciating. Every breath is torture, every movement torment. Get it?"
"Yeah, my life is a living hell," Deal said dryly.
"That's good, John. Have you done this before?" Deal shrugged and looked toward the table nearest the bay, where the guy's face was hidden behind a copy of Diario las Americas.
"Could be an insurance investigator," Lassiter said, "making sure you're not doing the lambada at Club Taj."
Deal crumbled some crackers into his conch chowder. "No. He was there the night I went off the dock."
"There was a witness? Why the hell didn't you tell me?" He studied his client a moment. "John, I may not be the best lawyer in town, but ... "
"Don't belittle yourself, Jake."
"No, it's true. I'm one of the few lawyers in the country who wasn't asked to comment on the O. J. Simpson case, even though I'm probably the only one to have tackled him."
"For a second-string linebacker, you're not a bad lawyer, Jake, but as I recall, you usually missed tackling him."
"Thanks. But you gotta trust me now. What else have you left out?"
Now Deal told him everything. The traffic jam that turned into bedlam in Coconut Grove, then wheeling the Hog down a side street, the specterlike vision of the man draped in the shrimp net, then the plunge and crunching descent into the black, brackish water. By the time hetold about the manatee, the old woman, and the box, it was a three-beer story.
"What should we do, Jake?" Deal asked, finally.
"Shula would go with the play-action fake, get the corner to bite, then throw deep. But me, I just buckle up the chin strap, lower the head, and slog straight ahead."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
Lassiter stood and headed to the guy's table, carrying a fresh Grolsch, a sixteen-ouncer with the porcelain stopper. "Hey, buddy, I wonder if you would move."
The guy glared at him and looked around. There were no empty tables. "Move? Where?"
"Hialeah, Sopchoppy, I don't care. You're crowding my friend."
The guy stood up, barely reaching Lassiter's shoulders. He had the thick neck and sloping shoulders of a bodybuilder. A tattoo of a scorpion was visible on his right forearm. "My name is Hector," he said, without smiling, "and your friend has something I want very much."
"What, a personality?"
At the next table, one of the Yuppie lawyers was boasting about tossing out a paraplegic's lawsuit because the statute of limitations had expired.
"Your thieving friend stole something from me," Hector said angrily.
"Yeah, well, under the law of the sea, the Treaty of Versailles, and the doctrine of finders keepers, what he found belongs to him."
Hector grinned, but there was no humor in it. "No, cabron,it belongs to me."
"Look, Hector, I'm going to count to ten, and when I get there, you're gone. One ... two ... three ... C'mon, make yourself scarce. Cuatro ... cinco ... seis ...Hey, Hector, vete!Seven ... eight ... nine ... "
Suddenly, Hector slammed a size 10-EEE cowboy boot on Lassiter's instep. The pain shot through his ankle and radiated up his leg. Before Lassiter could recover, Hector threw a short right back, sinking it deep into his gut. The lawyer doubled over, retched, and an explosion of grilled dolphin, coleslaw, and beer showered the Yuppie lawyers.
Deal got painfully to his feet and hobbled over, but Hector was already halfway to the dock, where a Boston Whaler sat idling, a young man at the wheel. Hector leapt into the boat, which took off, engine roaring in the no-wake zone.
Deal knelt down next to Lassiter, who was on one knee. "You look worse than I do, counselor."
"On the other hand," Lassiter said, wheezing, "there issomething to be said for the play-action fake."
The moonlight streaked across the dark water, a highway reaching toward the horizon. A light breeze blew from the southeast, and the dive boat rocked gently at anchor. The twinkling lights of Key Biscayne condos were visible to the west. Jake Lassiter sat in the captain's chair, his bandaged foot resting inside an open cooler filled with beer and ice. John Deal removed his cervical collar and kneaded the muscles of his aching neck, then popped three Advil. It had been a long day.
"I can't believe you didn't even open it," Lassiter said.
"The old woman told me not to, said I'd be better off just to get rid of it."
"It could be jewels, drugs."
"Ebola virus," Deal added.
Lassiter shook his head. "No. It's gotta be something valuable. Why else would Hector want it so much?"
Deal shrugged and looked over the rail into the water. Seventy feet below, a Boeing 727 sat on the sandy bottom, an artificial reef for the fishermen and divers. "If the storms last month haven't stirred up everything, we'll know soon enough." In the dark water below, a light was growing brighter. "Can you trust her?" Deal asked.
"I've known Fay Leonard since she was a kid catching lobsters bare-handed off Islamorada. She's a good diver and a good friend."
"So the two of you aren't ... "
He let it hang there.
"Ancient history, John. Ancient history."
There was a splash, and suddenly Fay was behind the boat. She spit out the regulator and slid her face mask on top of her head, and once again Deal had the powerful sense that he knew her from somewhere. It had been itching at him since they'd first met, but ... well, it'd come to him. With her free hand, she slung a net onto the dive platform. Inside the net was a round metal canister wrapped in plastic. Lassiter hobbled toward the stern, his foot throbbing, and Deal walked stiffly to meet him. Fay came halfway up the dive ladder. "It was just where you said it would be, John, in three feet of sand just under the cockpit."
Fay pulled herself onto the dive platform, removed her tank, mask and flippers, then, without a word, peeled off her one-piece suit. She was a lithe, tanned, athletic woman in her early thirties, with sun-bleached hair tied back in a ponytail. "Jake, I'm going to take a swim," Fay said. "The water's beautiful."
"Don't you want to see what's – "
"No, you boys play treasure salvors. There's a big old manatee out there who wants some company. Just yell when you want to head back in."
She slipped gracefully into the water, the moonlight reflecting off her long limbs as she swam into the darkness. "I must be getting old," Lassiter said, " 'cause I'd rather see what's in that box than go skinny-dipping with Fay Leonard."
"As I recall, she didn't exactly invite you."
"Sure she did, John, in a woman's roundabout way."
"The way I heard it, she'd rather swim naked with a manatee."
Lassiter thought about it a moment and said, "Fay was always partial to linemen."
"C'mon," Deal said. "Let's do it."
They huddled over their prize,, Deal unwrapping the plastic, Lassiter holding a flashlight. It took less than a minute. Underneath the plastic, a shiny steel canister the size of a hatbox. A wheel lock secured a door built into the top. Deal strained to turn the wheel counterclockwise. "It's stuck," he said, his face reddening.
Together they pulled, and after a moment, the wheel turned and the small door opened with a whoosh. Inside, a circle of tiny green lights immediately flashed red, and a blast of frigid air escaped. In the center of the lights, a second door with a simple slide latch led to another compartment.
"Well, counselor, here goes," Deal said.
They both held their breath. They were unaware of Fay Leonard swimming fifty yards away in the darkness, the giant manatee Booger alongside. They were unaware of the Boston Whaler with two men aboard, anchored directly in Fay's path. They were unaware of anything and everything in the whole wide world and the deep blue sea, except what treasure might rest in front of them.
Deal slid the latch and opened the interior door as Lassiter shone the flashlight inside.
"Uh-oh," Lassiter said.
"Oh Lord," Deal said.
Lassiter exhaled a tense breath. "Turn it over."
"C'mon. It's not alive."
"You're the ambulance chaser, Jake. You've seen stuff like this before."
"No I haven't."
Wincing, Lassiter reached into the compartment and grabbed the human head by its thick, graying hair. "It's cold," Lassiter said. "Like it's being preserved."
He turned the head over, faceup, then dropped it back into the canister.
And there it was.
Bushy beard and all.
Staring at them with wide-open eyes, a startled look on that familiar face.
The face of Fidel Castro.