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8. STRANGE FISH Tananarive Due

Lilia Sands worked her overpainted face into a frown. "Garcia? Which Gar-cia? Do you know how many Garcias there are in the Dade County phone book?" She studied the young messenger, who was orbiting her as though he expected a tip. I'll give you a tip, all right, kid, Jake Lassiter thought. You'd better earn that ten bucks I just gave you and go back outside to keep an eye on Fay's pickup.

"What's his first name?" she asked the boy.

He shrugged. "He said you'd know."

Lilia smiled, then delicately raised her fingertips to her temple as if to brush away imaginary perspiration.

"Ah . . ." she said, with a long, rapturous sigh. "ThatGarcia."

Jake shifted his weight from one sore leg to the other. Time out, he thought. He, Britt, and Fay had come to Lilia's for a lock of Castro's hair the realCastro's hair. So, they had what they'd come for. No need to tango here all day. Even a pit bull reporter like Britt had to know when it was time to move on.

"Look, Miss Sands," he said, surprised at his own politeness, "we can bail out of here if you need to catch up on your phone calls."

"This will interest you," Lilia said, holding up her index finger to silence Jake. (Watching, Fay and Britt both took mental note of this tactic in case it might come in handy someday.) Lilia cradled the receiver of her black novelty telephone, which was shaped like a baby grand piano. Each time she pressed a key, a tone sounded; she was dialing a laborious version of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Long-distance, Britt noticed.

Off key, Fay decided.

Damn annoying, Jake thought.

"It's me. Put him on," Lilia said abruptly, in Spanish, and then she smiled and nodded, her green-flecked brown eyes wide with pleasure as she listened to an indiscernible voice. Hanging up, she surveyed her waiting audience as though she were reliving a finale number onstage at the Nacional.

"I shouldn't tell you this ... " Lilia began.

But you will,Britt thought, perking up. Sentences that began with "I shouldn't tell you this" were verbal foreplay, and satisfaction was never far behind.

"You didn't hear this from me, and don't ask who told me but Miami is about to have an important visitor from Cuba. Believe me, when hecomes, the people's reaction will make Nelson Mandela's reception in Miami look like the papal visit. He's coming soon, within days. He didn't say exactly when."

"Give me a break," Jake said, not buying it.

"It can't be," Fay said.

"It is," Lilia said, beaming.

Britt's brain was turning somersaults. Not one head, but two, and Fidel was stillalive? And, apparently, intending to set foot in a city that nourished itself on fantasies about the day he would drop dead? Home to weekend commandos who would love to help him do just that, with a million-dollar price tag on his head?

Castro is Coming! Britt was already thinking in headlines. This was top-strip, front-page, WW II type. She'd need to get on the phone and pull some favors with her sister-in-law's bureaucrat uncle in Havana to get confirmation.

Britt's delight at the whiff of a huge story warred with her disappointment that the man who killed her father was still breathing. "I can't believe he's alive," she said.

"Si, como no,"Lilia said. "Of course he's alive. But if he's planning to come to Miami, he's obviously lost his head."

Silence. The three of them started.

"What do you mean?" Britt asked first.

Lilia circled her finger around her ear. "You know ... loco."

The proportions of this story were growing in light-years, Britt realized. They'd been fearing riots if people thought Fidel was dead?What about the riots when word got out that he was about to enjoy a big plate of arroz con polio in the glare of fluorescent lights and mirrors at La Carreta?

Did that phone call mean that this woman, a disenchanted revolutionary, was still maintaining her own special brand of diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro? And if that was the case, exactly how "inside" was her mysterious tipster on the phone?

Britt, having a hunch and her hunches were rarely wrong fixed a probing gaze on Lilia.

"Listen," Britt said, "on a scale from one to one hundred, if I ask how confident you are of that tip how close your source is to Castro himself where would it rank? Tell me that and we'll be out of your life."

Lilia smiled a wide smile. She was reliving memories that had wiped thirty years from her face; there was no mistaking that despite politics, she was in love.

"One hundred and ten."

Right again, Britt thought. Fidel had been on the phone.

Guess who's coming to dinner, Britt told herself, already writing her story's lead in her head.

"Doesn't make sense," Jake said, holding the door open for Fay and Britt as they walked outside into the liquid afternoon heat. His hulking form stood high above the two women. "If Castro comes here, Miami's welcoming committee is going to grind him into hamburger. Or picadillo anyway. He won't last two hours."

"Maybe that's what he wants," Britt said. "Think about it. Phony heads. A staged assassination. A reward for proof of his death. And where better than Miami? Everyone expectspeople to get killed in Miami."

Fay, following them to the curb, was silent. She noticed that her pickup was now tagged KING in bright orange paint across the cab, and the kid had vanished. Jake cursed loudly, but Fay wasn't worried about her truck. She had other things on her mind.

There was no mistaking that Pulitzer lust glazing Britt's eyes, so Fay figured her friend would head straight for the newspaper, where she'd be no help and Jake was content, saying something about getting a beer. Him and his damned Grolsch. It figured. He'd always been too eager to punt on fourth down instead of going for it, she recalled from their brief courtship.

To her, something just didn't add up. Even if those creepy Castro heads were part of some fake assassination scheme, how had one of them found its way into her grandmother's hands by way of Booger, the manatee? And they still weren't any closer to figuring out what had happened to Phil, her ex-husband, who'd been mixed up in bringing the heads in the first place.

It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic, Fay thought. She could have told whoever had hired Phil that the guy couldn't be trusted to bring back the change from the grocery store, or even the groceries, much less deliver valuable cargo.

The poor jerk had already tried to kidnap her to get the heads back once he lost them, and now they'd somehow led to his disappearance. He was a loser, but he was herloser, and it had touched her to see him so shaken. Her stupid mothering instinct had drawn her to Phil in the first place, like a moth to a burning stick of dynamite. She should have listened to her grandmother and gotten a puppy instead, and she wouldn't be in this mess now.


A thought made Fay shiver slightly, despite the hostile midafternoon sun: If Castro's heads had put Phil in danger, wasn't her grandmother in danger too?

Granny had tucked the lone metal canister with Castro's head on the bottom shelf of her refrigerator "Just in case it starts to thaw," she'd said, patting it like a leftover pot roast. "I'm not too fond of dead flesh at room temperature, Fay. Even a head of state."

Fay wasn't crazy about dead flesh at any temperature, especially disembodied flesh. As soon as she got to a phone, Fay decided, she would give her grandmother a call, just to hear her voice. That way, maybe she could shake off the feeling, which had snaked its way around her middle, that something was terribly wrong.

It was a body.

Fishing off the bay at Peacock Park in Coconut Grove on Sundays, all day on Sunday, standing on the same spot of fine white sand beside his favorite clump of sea grape trees, Vernon Sawyer had seen enough floaters over the years to know one from a distance. And this one was bobbing only fifteen yards out, just beyond his plastic red and white cork, a patch of unexpected shade for a school of minnows that had just vanished underneath it.

That was the thing about this park, which seemed to Vernon like a tiny strip of paradise for the common man. There was more to it than the neatly planted rows of coconut palms, or the view of the legion of rich folks' sailboats docked across the way. You never knew what you would find here, whether it was a squatters' campsite built from plastic wrapped around a trio of palm trees or an unforgettable conversation with a vagrant who'd seen the world and who understood its workings, inside his unkempt head, better than any coiffed, overfed politician he might ever meet.

That was why Vernon came here, for the surprises. It sure wasn't for the fish.

Today's surprise, the body, was fairly fresh, hardly any swelling, not puffed the way bodies get when they've been in the water for days. Once, Vernon had seen a brother who'd ballooned so big that his skin had peeled off white, except in spots.

Not this one. Not her.

It was a woman, a white lady, he could see that. She looked almost serene, bobbing facedown in the rust-colored water as though she were embracing it. Her white hair fanned around her head like a lace wedding veil. Her lifeless body was clothed in a pair of soaked khakis and a dark shirt, maybe plaid.

Shame, Vernon thought. She'd preserved a quiet dignity like this, floating undisturbed, never mind the empty water jug and plastic bag drifting beside her. Soon, with all of the flashing sirens and strangers' hands pulling on her, probing her, she'd be just another corpse. Her spirit might be at rest, but her body's work for the day had just begun.

The current was lulling her and her entourage of trash toward him, so Vernon decided to fish her out himself. He was a fisherman, after all, even if all he used was a cane pole baited with bread, and even if he couldn't remember the last time he'd caught anything living. He wasn't afraid to touch bodies; they were just vessels, more or less, like the empty Coke bottles and crushed cigarette packages strewn across the water's edge.

Vernon yanked his line out of the water, and his suspicion was confirmed. The bait was long gone. Some crafty little bugger had taken it without so much as a ripple. Anyone who doesn't think fish are as smart as people don't know many fish, Vernon thought.

He cast the line out as far as he could, aiming for the back of the dead woman's shirt collar, then gently pulled on it to see if something would catch.

Something did. He must have snagged her skin or clothing, because the line went completely taut when Vernon pulled. He'd have to stand up for this one, he decided. Even an old woman's body, waterlogged, weighed much more than he'd counted on.

By the time the cane pole snapped in half, the body was close enough for Vernon to wade out and grab the pudgy, lifeless fingers. "Thatta girl," Vernon mumbled, gripping her tight to guide her from her floating grave.

Rolling the corpse over, breathing just a bit hard from the ordeal, Vernon almost didn't recognize her at first.

She was more bloated than he'd thought, her face roundish and smoothed nearly free of the most familiar wrinkles. And the eyes he'd known had always flickered and danced; he'd never seen these cloud-gray dead eyes on this particular face before.

Strange as it was, the first thing he recognized was the smile. It was the same one he'd seen nearly every Sunday for ten years; the ready, thin-lipped smile that had brought them from being strangers to damn near being friends who shared only a love for the park. Friends enough that he'd warned her time and again about swimming out here by herself, a woman her age, old enough to be his mother. And friends enough that he had to swallow back hard and clamp his teeth shut when he realized that even though the smile was still there, his friend was long gone.

"Darn you, Marion," he whispered, brushing a glistening gum wrapper from her matted hair. "What've you gone and done now?"

Fay didn't want Britt to hug her too long, because then the comforting numbness of the shock might wear off, and she wasn't ready for that yet. Right now, she felt like she was in the middle of an elaborate movie scene at the edge of the bay, and the stunt double for her grandmother, entombed in a black body bag inside of the ambulance beside her, was the victim of some freak accident on the set. That fantasy was almost keeping her from shaking at all.

"Kid, I'm so sorry," Britt said. Then, instinctively, Britt knew she had to snap out of human mode and let her machinery take over. Poor Fay wouldn't be any good to her if she crumbled into an emotional wreck. Marion McAlister Williams had been much more than Fay's grandmother; she was the whole city's surrogate guardian, its conscience, and now she'd been found dead as if she'd been choked by the trash she'd decried for so long. Everyone would want answers, and Britt had to find some fast.

Britt paused, her pen in midstroke from scribbling wildly in her notebook. Between the impending Castro visit and Marion McAlister Williams's sudden death, she was juggling two huge stories, possibly three, depending on what was going on with those heads. Should she phone her editor for backup?

Yeah, right, she thought. "What did the police say to you?" Britt asked Fay, regaining her senses.

"They aren't saying much," Fay answered in a hollow voice. "All I know is, a fisherman pulled her out of the water about an hour ago. That guy over there. He's giving a statement."

"Do you think she went swimming?"

"Not with her clothes on. No way. She's the one who taught me, 'It's naked or nothing.' Britt, I'm thinking ... "

Britt nodded. "I know. It's connected to the Castro heads. I'm thinking the same thing. So's Jake. He's already headed for her house. We're all over this. Don't worry."

Suddenly, something broke through Fay's frozen thoughts to bring her attention to the water. She'd seen something moving out there, something big. Another body? Had her grandmother's murderers killed Phil, too?

But when she saw the dark gray head pop out of a wake, she realized it was only Booger. He was everywhere, like a swimming spirit guide. Booger had probably been witness to the whole horrible business from beginning to end. All of the answers were right there behind those doleful, dull black eyes. If only manatees could talk ... At least Flipper could splash and make frantic chattering sounds, Fay thought. Eventually, the kid and his dad had always figured it out: Danger. This way. Hurry.

With Booger, nothing.

Then Fay felt the shock thinning. Her grandmother was gone. "Britt," she said, barely a whisper. "I've lost her."

Britt stared at her friend's wide, wondering eyes, framed by strands of blond hair blown across her forehead. For the first time in a long time, Britt couldn't think of a snappy comeback.

"Um ... excuse me. Miss, are you Marion's granddaughter?"

It was the black fisherman, shading his eyes from the glare of the sunset with one hand as he stood before them, his features grim. Gazing at the dark, tallish man with salt-and-pepper hair, Fay realized she'd seen him around, fishing with a bamboo pole.

Fay could only nod.

"You're the one who found her," Britt said. "Boy, do we need to talk to you. Hope you don't mind."

"Don't mind a'tall," the man said, smiling sadly. "Marion was a fine, fine lady. I'm just so sick about the circumstances. Always told her to be careful, but I never in a million years expected her to drown. Not Marion."

"She didn't just drown," Fay said with certainty.

"That's why we have to ask you questions. We're sure she had some help."

The man's face went slack with surprise. "You don't say? Well, I'll be damned. The police didn't say anything like that, about a murder. In that case, I hope I haven't made a mistake. I guess I've been holding on to something you might call evidence."

"What do you mean?" Britt asked.

The fisherman looked nervous, glancing back toward the police officers crowded around the open ambulance door. "Well ... I didn't think it was right to give it to them. I wanted to wait for someone from the family. Thought that would be the proper thing."

"What?" Fay asked.

"You see, miss ... I know Marion was dead when I pulled her out of the water. I took her pulse to be sure, but I knew. Even the police say she'd probably been in there some time, maybe a full day. But when I found her, she had the tiniest smile on her face. You can't see it now. It was gone, last I checked. But we were friends, your grandmother and I. This might sound funny, but it was like she'd saved that smile for me. And after I pulled her out, I was sitting beside her, looking at her, sorry she was gone, when I felt something land on my hand."

Seeing their rapt faces, the fisherman looked slightly embarrassed. He averted his glassy eyes. "I figured the police would lock me in a nuthouse if I told them this next part. Your grandmother's hand had moved, dropped on top of mine. And she was still dead as could be. That's the gospel truth. I looked down, and her palm was wide open. I don't know how she did it, but she'd been holding on to something, and it was right there in her hand. It was like she wanted to make sure I would find it. I knew it must be important."

With that, the fisherman gently reached for Fay's wrist, holding her palm upright, and pressed his hand into it. As Britt leaned over to stare with unbridled curiosity, Fay felt something tiny, sharp, and slightly cold pass from the fisherman's callused hand to the soft of her palm.

"Take it," he said. "I'm sure it must be for you."

7. THE LOCK KEY Evelyn Mayerson | Naked Came The Manatee | 9. SOUTH BEACH SERENADE Brian Antoni