7. THE LOCK KEY – Evelyn Mayerson
Britt found Fay Leonard in the back of the Fishbone Grill beside a chalkboard that announced Chilean salmon as the catch of the day. Except for a few grizzled men with creased and sunburnt necks speculating on the depths to which Pat Riley would ream out the Heat, the restaurant was empty.
Fay rapped her rugged nails on a polyurethane table. She and Britt knew each other slightly through their pioneer families. The difference between them was one of strata. While Fay's mother and father were able to trace their Miami roots respectively to a wrecker who had created his own wrecks by placing decoy lights and to a carpenter who had fashioned driftwood coffins, Britt's claim to founder status was only matrilineal.
"I thought it would be better," said Fay, "if we did this before Jake got here. He complicates things, if you know what I mean. It's all that busted cartilage. Whenever he moves, he clicks. It's distracting when you're trying to have a conversation."
Britt slung the wooden chair away from the table and sat astride it. "You sounded pretty frantic, Fay. What is it you want to tell me?" And weren't you supposed to be kidnapped? she thought to herself.
"My ex is missing."
"I'd say that's good news."
Fay looked around her, then leaned across the table. "This is serious, Britt. Before his disappearance, Phil told me that he was afraid that Cubans were coming after him."
"Tell him to stop renting leaky flotilla boats."
"It's nothing like that. Phil is afraid of Cuban Cubans. The last time I saw him, he was talking crazy about karate-trained guys in black shirts and some kind of business deal gone sour. I know what you're thinking, it sounded crazy to me, too. Except that what he did to me was even crazier."
The pieces of Fay's abduction suddenly came together like metal filings on a magnet. "Wait a minute. You mean it was your ex-husbandwho kidnapped you?"
Fay leaned back. "How did you find out that I was kidnapped?" Her eyes narrowed. "Of course. Jake. I should have figured. Look, Britt, it's a long story. Let's just say that I have this head that came out of a canister. And it resembles Castro. My grandmother's got it on ice, but it's beginning to thaw. She says she saw another one just like it, but I don't know whether to believe her. Old people get confused. On the other hand, I retrieved another canister myself. Whatever it's all about, it's big. Miami could lose half its population. And dummy Phil is somehow connected. I'm scared. I'm scared for Phil."
Britt struggled to maintain a poker face, hoping that her eyebrows had not given her away. Big Joey G. was right. There really were two canisters. But that was the least of it. Britt had seen more gore and carnage than most doctors. She had heard more startling confessions than most priests. But this one had grabbed her right in the throat. It was a minute before she could make herself say anything. She wanted it to sound as hard-boiled as possible.
"People usually want to give me a story. It looks like you're here to get one."
Fay bit open a cellophane package of oyster crackers. "I can scuba-dive to three hundred feet, Britt, but I'm over my head with this. I didn't know who else to talk to. I thought of the cops, except with Phil's rap sheet, they'll drag their feet and that could get him killed. And it all soundsso bizarre."
"Can you trust your grandmother not to talk?"
"My grandmother is very closemouthed. She's kept more secrets about Miami than a scow has barnacles."
"Exactly how do I come into this picture?"
"You're on the street, Britt. And Jake trusts you. I was hoping you would know what to do."
Britt knew only that the safest course was to play it out, see where it led, treat the whole scary series of events as a developing story. She collected her facts. Joey G. had also said there were two canisters. Britt had seen a head herself. Was it the same head, or were there two?
The evening was warm. Britt rolled the sleeves of her T-shirt, revealing slender yet well-muscled arms. "And a manatee found it, right?"
"Yes," said Fay. "Sort of a pet. We call him Booger. Poor guy got tangled up in it. He's always into one jam or another. The way we met, Booger swam west through a canal and got trapped in the Everglades. My grandmother strong-armed the water management people to slow the current of the canal. That's how he was able to retrace his swim back into Biscayne Bay." She paused. "Britt, how could there be twoheads of Castro?"
"Two heads that looklike Castro," Britt corrected. "Castro has at least two doubles."
Fay removed the rubber band from her ponytail and shook her hair free. "If you were going to kill Castro, why would you need to kill his double?"
"Maybe you didn't want his double to capitalize on his death."
"And," said Fay, "why preserve the heads in canisters?"
Britt shrugged, then stood and slung her purse over her shoulder. "Actually, when you called I was on my way to the morgue to see if there were any headless bodies."
"You think ... "
"I don't know what I think. Follow me in your car. It's easy to find, One Bob Hope Road. You can't miss it."
Britt turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and beneath the catch of the day wrote: "JAKE, MEET US AT THE MORGUE. TRY NOT TO THROW UP LIKE YOU DID LAST TIME."
Jimmy's Bronx Cafe was packed to the gills and rocking. Fidel Castro sat at the head table, threw up his hands and smiled. "Life changes," he said, and the crowd roared.
When it was over, his aides whisked him away to a stretch. He waved as the car pulled out. "I love these people," he said. "Fat cats snubbed me, true. But I took my case to the people. Angela Davis, Danny Glover, Mortimer Zuckerman, Ramsey Clark, Spike Lee, they can't all be wrong."
"And that lawyer woman. Don't forget her," said the aide beside him.
"Is she still here?"
"We can't get her to leave."
"Charm can be a burden. What about the other matter?"
"There are difficulties, Jefe.The cargo is missing."
"Missing? You mean like Che's hands?"
"Something like that."
"Don't talk missing! Don't use that word. It's been thirty years since Che was captured and killed. I will never forget the photograph of that beautiful, restless Argentine, the bloody desecrated stumps of his hands."
The aide felt sweat running down his shirt. "The situation of the misdirected items is temporary, Fidel. Let me assure you that we expect immediate retrieval."
"Must I do everything myself?" Fidel pounded his chest with a sharp rap. It hurt. He reminded himself of what the doctor had said, that now that he was close to seventy, chest pounding could lead to arrhythmia. Life changes, he thought.
He remembered that The New York Timeshad called him a Cold War apparition, and he sulked while the limo snaked its way through gridlock. Then he said, "I'm going to Miami."
The man next to him turned in surprise. "Fidel, Comandante en jefe,with all due respect, are you crazy? To Miami? How would you go?"
"The way I went before. Incognito."
"You mean the Lubavitch rabbi suit?"
"Don't be stupid. You expect me to wear that long black coat in the tropics? And you can forget about the fur hat."
"That's precisely my point. So what does that leave?"
Fidel's eyes shone. "It leaves the people. We'll do as we just did in the Big Manzana.By day, we'll stay in Overtown, or in Liberty City. Whatever. I'll shave my beard. By night, we'll blend. Find out the name of that Chinese restaurant I heard about in South Beach, the one with the transvestite waiters. I particularly want to see the one they call Shelley Novak. I always admired Kim Novak. For a gringa,she was very Cuban. You couldn't see the mustache, but you knew it was there."
Fidel Castro waved his hand. "But the most important thing is, what shall I tell El Maniz about the missing cargo? Save me from these gringoswith their missions. If Senor Peanut wants to get away from his wife, tell him to get a divorce. Involving himself in complicated matters of state ... " He reached for a cigar. "If we could somehow put him together with the one who won't leave me in peace, what a pair, no?"
Jake Lassiter entered the windowless, brightly lit morgue. His swollen knee hurt. He tried not to limp. Overhead, a buzzing fluorescent was starting to go. Jake didn't know how Britt did it. He could never get used to the smell of formaldehyde or the partially masked odor of rotting flesh.
In the center of the room, Britt and Fay stood beside a metal table where a waxen cadaver lay over a trough. The women were talking to a medical examiner wearing steel mesh gloves, who was weighing a liver on a scale.
Jake brightened; the pain in his knee subsided. Attractive women and the pursuit of truth were not mutually exclusive and it was good to hone one's skills.
Fay heard him first. "Jake is coming," she said. "He's like the crocodile in Peter Pan. "
"Inever saw the movie," said Britt. "I was too busy hating my mother."
Jake strode toward the women, then stopped abruptly, legs spread apart like the Colossus of Rhodes. He averted his eyes from the fluids running down the trough of the metal table, looked up instead at the buzzing neon light. "That's the second time you stood me up, Britt." Getting no response, he dropped his voice. It was low and husky. Women liked its sound. "You here to find a match for the head?"
Fay turned away from the medical examiner, spoke into her chest. "Heads," she mumbled. "At least there appear to be two."
Jake turned on his high-voltage Jake Lassiter laser beam stare. "No kidding?"
"But that's not why we're here. There's more."
Fay's eyes glistened. "This is no time to kid around. Phil is missing."
"I hope you'd worry about me if I was missing."
"It's a human rights thing, Jake. It isn't a contest. As far as I'm concerned, you and Phil are both ancient history, so don't ask me the question you always ask, the one-to-ten scale. The answer is, as I've told you before, even when it's bad it's good."
They left the morgue after they had been assured by the medical examiner that although there were hip joints and quarter rounds washing up daily on the shores of Baker Haulover, so far there were no bodies without heads.
Jake decided on a positive approach. "We don't need the bodies. Let's work with what we have. And what we have is a couple of heads that look like Castro. Are they really Castro? Who knows? We need an ID on at least one of the heads. You can do it with photographs or dental records if you can get them, but a positive nail takes DNA."
Fay nodded her head. "We need to get an expert. Does anyone know Barry Scheck?"
"I met him once," said Jake. "At a Bar convention. It was at a plenary session on prokaryotes and nucleopeptides. But I doubt he'd remember me."
Britt fished something out of her memory. "You know Pupi Alvarez, the TV anchor? Pupi has a cousin by marriage, her name is Lilia something. According to Pupi, Lilia had a thing with Castro when she was young. She was a singer, played the Nacional Hotel before the Revolution. She met up with some of Castro's people, they took her into the mountains. Lilia didn't come down for two years. And get this, they said she kept a lock of Castro's hair."
Fay wrinkled her nose. "I thought only santerosdid that. Why would she keep his hair?"
"It's a trophy thing."
Jake hooked his thumb into his belt. "You think she still has it?"
"Only way to find out," said Britt. "I'll put in a call to Pupi. Find out where she lives."
Surrounded by sea cucumber and spider crabs, Booger fed among the swaying, strap-bladed turtle grass. Earlier, a marine biologist had tried to entice the manatee with lettuce in order to attach a radio transmitter and a yellow float to the creature's tail. Weary of impediments, and translating the event as danger, Booger rolled out of her grasp. Now, having forgone the lettuce, he was hungry.
Booger ate his fill, including the narrow-bladed shoal grass, then swam toward shore to wait for the one in the diving mask to swim beside him and stroke his neck. He lay in the mud flats listening for outboard motors. A human with a familiar scent drifted toward him. Booger raised his snout, then wallowed toward the floating figure, discovering with a few playful taps that it was all wrong. The scent he'd known had turned, been tainted with death.
After a while, he began to toy idly with the floating thing, a bloating body whose blood had settled in the extremities and whose limbs flopped lifelessly. Weary of having to push the corpse into the currents, Booger nudged it away and continued his vigil.
The crumbling neighborhood, long since severed from its purpose by a cloverleaf expressway, lay baking in the sun. A gray mockingbird darted after a spill of corn flakes from a thicket of hubcaps and vines. Even in the late afternoon, heat shimmered from the asphalt like a mirage, while an empty Metrorail car glided silently above. Over the boarded-up storefronts and empty lots strewn with torn mattresses and rusted, red-tagged chassis, hung the smell of car fumes and jasmine.
They pulled up in Fay's pickup truck in front of a sun-silvered frame bungalow. A boy in a Marlins baseball cap and high-top Air Jordans stood on a cinder block spray-painting a wall with a $2.99 can of orange Krylon.
Watching the tagger were a knot of children of varying sizes. All movement ceased as Britt, Fay, and Jake stepped down from the cab of the truck.
"Something must be gonna happen," said one child.
"Jump-outs!" yelled another.
The boy in the Marlins cap looked down in disdain from his surreal abstraction of hypodermics and coffins. "They look like undercover to you? Since when do undercover swivel they heads? More like they came to get a bump to keep them awake."
"Watch the truck," said Jake, pitching a five-dollar bill.
"Five is for the cab," said the boy in the baseball cap. "The flatbed and the aerial is gonna cost you ten."
Lilia Sands's skin was the color of vanilla. Tight black, gray-streaked ringlets molded the curve of her well-shaped skull. Wrapped in a flowered silk kimono, she had clearly once been beautiful. Now she was comely, or handsome, or whatever euphemism people assign to women who are over the hill.
Lilia Sands regarded Jake in frank assessment. "Didn't you used to play ball?"
"You look more like a tight end to me," she said.
Britt smiled, glad that Jake was getting his comeuppance, then decided to cut to the chase. "Pupi Alvarez told us that you once knew Castro."
"Yes, I knew him. It was a long time ago. I was with him in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Hiding out from Batista's planes in ferns higher than your head, with the smell of coffee blossom coming from somewhere below."
Fay jumped in the way she dove. "Forgive the question, but we heard ... someone said that you and Castro were intimate."
Lilia laughed. "Did you ever sleep with a man on a cot? For two years? You, him, and his hobnailed combat boots? That's more than intimate. You have to be into revolution to do that."
Fay imagined the permutations of bedding on an army cot. Jake was doing the same, while Britt maintained the ferret's focus that was her stock-in-trade.
"We heard you saved a lock of hair," said Britt. "If you have it, it's very important."
Jake intercepted the ball. "We need it," he said. "It could be evidence."
"What kind of evidence are you talking about?"
The throb of a pumping bass rumbled from a cruising car. Britt glanced outside, then stepped away from the window. "We can't tell you. We're asking you to trust us."
Lilia continued to regard her visitors with a jaundiced eye.
Britt played the Latin connection card. "Trust me."
Lilia Sands evaluated the young woman before her, especially the tawny skin that hinted of the Caribbean. She remembered that the crime reporter had gone to bat for a former player for the L.A. Raiders by the name of D. Wayne Hudson, a friend of Lilia's son.
"I might have what you're looking for. Somewhere back here."
Britt followed Lilia behind a tinkling beaded curtain to a bedroom with a chest of drawers. In the second drawer was a cigar box that smelled of patchouli. Lilia opened the box. Nestled in tissue paper were locks of hair of varying lengths and colors.
Lilia smiled. "I got around," she said. She raked the locks with long, well-manicured fingernails and fished out a strand bound in a red and gold Montecristo wrapper.
There was a knock at the front door.
Lilia called through the beaded curtain, "Somebody see who it is."
Jake and Fay exchanged glances. Could Hector or whoever he worked for have followed them? The rap was sharp and insistent.
"I'll get it." Tensing his body for a straight buck up the middle, Jake threw open the door.
The boy in the Marlins baseball cap and high-top Air Jordans stood on the threshold. "Where's Miss Lilia at?"
Lilia swished her way past Jake. "What's happening?"
The boy handed her a crumpled slip of paper. "Old man in cutoffs and sandals say to call this number."
Lilia turned from the boy and slipped the paper in the folds of her kimono. "It's a message," she said.
"Who from?" asked Jake.
"Garcia," she replied.