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Fay squeezed the object in her hand as she felt a tidal wave of emptiness wash over her. She tried to calm herself by staring into the fisherman's kind eyes as she felt her own eyes start to water, and she thought how water, this water in front of her, had been her Granny's life. The fisherman hugged her, as he whispered into her ear, "She wanted to go, child, anyone who dies with such a sweet smile on her face wants to go."

Fay knew what was in her hand. She didn't even have to look at it. She shoved it into her pocket. She knew what she had to do, but it would have to wait until tomorrow.

The door to Marion's house was unlocked, as usual.

Everything looked as it always had. She went straight for the refrigerator and opened it. Two Joe's take-out containers, a half-empty bottle of prune juice, a head of lettuce in a bag marked "Booger." And a big empty space in the middle. No canister.

The phone rang. She picked it up without saying a word. After a minute, she said, "Jake, the head's gone."

Jake put down the phone and sat down at the kitchen dinette, stared at the canister on the table, wondered how long before they came for this one, too.

John Deal sat on the Havantur bus, thinking of how long he'd dreamed of the day he could buy a big Hatteras and live happily ever after in the Bahamas. Now that his dream had come true, he suffered from an overload of fun, sun, rum, sex, drugs, suffered from too much marination in gin-clear salt waters, his head like an olive in a martini. He felt trapped in a picture postcard, paradise-overdosed. He'd come to Havana to try to snap himself out of it, get a shot of reality. The tour guide, whose name was Dogma or Dagma, spoke English with a heavy Russian accent. Deal couldn't understand anything she said. He gave up when she pointed to a pineapple finial on a rooftop and said, "The pineapple resides on that edifice because it's the symbol of tropical fruit."

As they drove around the city, John Deal got more and more depressed. I didn't need this much reality, he thought. It was like driving through South Miami after Hurricane Andrew. Buildings, some of the most beautiful he had ever seen, were in ruins. Everyone seemed dazed, like zombies.

The bus stopped in Havana Viejo. Deal trailed the walking tour, looking into the almost empty stores. An emaciated old black woman said out of the corner of her mouth, "If you're a reporter, tell them we're starving," and kept walking. Prostitutes in spandex with badly bleached hair called out to him. Some of them looked so young, like little girls masquerading as whores for Halloween. Hustlers harassed him, asking him what he needed. Cocaine? Putas? Muchachos?He answered, "Nada, nada, nada."

Deal couldn't deal with it anymore. He craved a drink or two or three, as he stumbled on La Bodequita del Medio. The bar of the cavelike restaurant was covered with graffiti and pictures of Hemingway. He wondered if there was any bar in the world where Hemingway hadn't drunk. He read a sign that said "Home of the Mojito," so he ordered one, as a tough-looking young man dressed like Dick Tracy walked over and sat next to him at the bar. "I'm Mike Weston from Miami," he said, holding out his hand. John shook it.

"You here for the babes," Mike said, "right?" John just looked at him. "Havana is the best place for putasin the world. In Miami," Mike went on, "chicks think they're too good for you even if they're dogs. In Cuba, for five dollars you can get Claudia Schiffer. And they're pure. They don't got AIDS. Any fifteen-year-old chick can be yours for five dollars. Some only want soap."

Deal tried to imagine being desperate enough to have sex with someone who only wanted to get clean, wondered how long the embargo would last if the Miami Cubans knew what it was doing to their own people.

"Got to go now," Mike said, leaving to join a group of men who had just entered the bar. They sat at a table in the back surrounded by Cuban soldiers.

Deal rubbed his eyes. One of the guys looked like Juan Carlos Reyes, that deluded rich guy who thought he was president of Cuba in exile. He was sure the pudgy bald guy at the head of the table was Big Joey G. One other guy at the table looked familiar.

Deal tried to place him as he tossed back another mojito, and then it hit him. It was that Cuban guy, Hector, in Miami. The guy who'd forced him off the road into the bay, then followed him around when he had the head. Hector didn't look too thrilled about being with this particular group. And there was a pasty-faced Anglo-looking guy beside him who looked just as unhappy.

Deal faced dead ahead now, shaking his head, sipping his drink. He was gonna sit there till they left. He didn't want to be recognized. Time went by in slow motion. Then Deal felt a tap on his shoulder. His heart stopped. He turned around. It was Mike Weston. "Hey, man, you want to come with me and score some Schiffers?" he asked.

Lilia Sands sat in her house in Overtown, on her plastic-covered velvet settee, the one that no one was allowed to sit on. She was dressed in her favorite nightgown, the one with the silk and feathers and lace, the one she called her wedding dress, the one she wanted to be buried in. Light from the huge moon over Miami flowed through the window. There was something in the hot air. Lilia could feel it, could taste it. It was the tropics; it was her youth; it was Cuba. She was sure the air she was breathing had blown up from her beloved Cuba. Her fingers stroked her guitar.

Lilia drifted back, flowed with the air back to Cuba, back to the day her parents had given her to the nuns because they had no food to feed her because of Batista, back to the day the nuns had shaved her head, and taken her one dress, the one made from the train of her mother's wedding gown. She'd sat naked in front of the convent window, tears streaming down her face as she touched the luxurious pile of black hair on the floor that would soon be made into a wig, unable to make herself put on the coarse black habit. She remembered caressing her long swanlike neck, her perfect soft breasts, her hand following the flow of sweat down, caressing her belly, touching the only hair she had left. But before she could escape into herself, a cold, hard hand had clapped over her mouth. She'd tried to scream but nothing came out.

As the man in the trademark olive fatigues bounced along Miami's potholed Overtown streets in the back of the white stretch limo, he strained to remember. He wanted to get the details perfect by the time he arrived at Lilia's house: He had seen her in the moonlight, an image so beautiful that it hurt, causing a throbbing pain in his groin. She'd looked like some kind of angel, some kind of Madonna, some kind of whore sitting in the convent window. She was everything, she was nothing, she was Cuba. And as Columbus had said when he landed on the island, "No man has ever seen a land as beautiful as this." No man had ever seen a woman as beautiful as Lilia. He couldn't help himself. He'd stripped off his clothes, his body the white of sweet condensed milk, hard, trembling with anticipation. He'd climbed the statue of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, grabbed a rose trellis, not even feeling the thorns of the rosebushes cutting into his skin, and left tiny dewdrops of red blood on the white window-sill as he climbed into Lilia's room.

Now the limo was passing the vacant lot beside the small house where Lilia lay back on the settee, strumming the guitar, singing to her memories, to the moon.

Lilia remembered that at the exact moment she had felt the hand on her mouth, she had felt the lips on her bald scalp, then a warm tongue licking, licking, licking like a kitten licking cream. And with each lick she'd melted with pleasure, so much pleasure that she knew in her heart that there was nothing she wouldn't do for this nameless, faceless man. And he'd removed his hand from her face to swallow her mouth with his and he'd tasted of the brown caramel sauce on flan. Then he'd pulled away from her and held out his arms and he looked like Jesus on the cross, those same suffering eyes and the blood dripping from his rose-pricked body, and he'd said, "I, Fidel Castro, on this Good Friday in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fifty, will turn you, my queen, into a woman and will begin my destiny of turning Cuba into a real man, one that would never starve his children."

And then Lilia remembered how Fidel had taken her in his arms and laid her down on the hard little nun cot and it was like it was made out of the finest down, and then, Dios mia, sweet heart of Jesus, he entered her, the intense pleasure-pain of it, and the nuns broke out into a chorus of "Ave Maria," and birds started to sing even though it was nighttime, and all the glass in the convent shattered and the rosebushes pushed out such a rose smell that spread throughout the island, causing all the men in Cuba to grow with desire and all women to weep with satisfaction. He made love to her for three days and three nights and when he tried to leave she grabbed his hair and bit his left earlobe, taking a notch of flesh between her teeth, tasting his blood. But his strength was too great. As he finally broke free and his hair gave way, she was left with a lock in her hand and a piece of his ear in her mouth.

Lilia heard the churn of the limo's big gringoengine as it stopped in front of her house. She dropped the guitar and rose to her feet, drawn up by some unseen force. Outside, the sunroof of the limo slid open and he sprang through, like a jack-in-the-box, like a God lit up by a shaft of moonlight, and at the exact same time, the candle she was burning to Ochun flared.

Lilia felt her feet start to move before she could even think, and she was out the door, in the street, and she entered and he was there, her love was there and beautiful and the years had been kind to him and she could hardly breathe as he said, "I told you I would come and get you in a giant white chariot." Then somehow her nightgown melted off her body, the feathers detaching and fluttering around her. The only thing she could do was say his name, the most beautiful word in the world to her, "Fidelito!" Her whole body trembled as he brought his lips to hers and took her in his arms. And then, nothing. Something was wrong. No taste of caramel. She stroked his hair, started to cry for their lost youth. As she cried, she reached out to touch his left ear, then to caress it. It was smooth, whole, unscarred.

Lilia jerked up wildly, shoving with animal fury, shrinking from him as if he had opened his mouth and revealed a serpent's tongue.

When she finally found her voice she screamed, "Fraud! Where's my Fidel?"

Britt was going to give her lunch appointment with Dash Brandon two chances: minuscule and infinitesimal. If she couldn't find a parking space on Ocean Drive, she would drive right by Brandon without a glance in the rearview. She'd come up with some excuse later. Her computer crashed on deadline. The causeway bridge got stuck open. Her cats ate her homework.

But just as she passed the corner of Ninth Street, a pink and white '56 Chevy convertible glided out from the parking spot it had occupied since the Reagan administration, forcing Britt to slam on her brakes less than a block from the News Cafe, where Dash awaited. She glanced suspiciously at the gaping vacancy on the curb directly opposite her. She hadn't seen that much real estate by a parking meter in South Beach in months.

"What the hell," she sighed, and pulled in. From a table on the terrace, Dash and a plump man wearing a dog collar, tight leather pants, and a T-shirt that said "SOBE, where the girls are strong and the men are pretty," watched South Beach's human smorgasbord parade past the News Cafe: models and more models, male and female, the greatest concentration of beauty that had ever occurred in the history of the planet; old retirees and young ultratrendies dressed in the same "vintage" outfits; struggling artists splattered in paint; real estate agents frothing at the mouth; tattooed Mariel refugees smoking cigars; punks with red hair, old ladies with blue hair; European backpackers; Eurotrash; topless-G-string beauties baking brown almost all over; greased muscle-bound depilated gay boys; Hasids in fur hats and black coats; Miami gangbangers; pimps; whores; celebutantes; dominatrices. The parade was framed by blowing coconut palms, warm white sand, sparkling sea. Windsurfers, Hobies, Cigarettes, yachts, cruise ships, and sun-bleached surfers skimmed by on the ocean. Pelicans, Frisbees, wild parrots, seagulls, blimps, kites, and airplanes pulling advertisements flew by in the sky.

As the remnants of last night's Special K drug dripped from his brain, Dash swallowed down big spoonfuls of Special K cereal. He licked his lips, could not keep his eyes from the bouncing breasts. His companion inhaled his coffee and cigarettes, stared transfixed at the bulging men's baskets. Britt walked up to their table; Dash jumped up, kissed her on both cheeks, and pulled a chair for her.

"This," Dash said, introducing her to Ziff Bodine, "is the best special-effects man in the business."

Ziff, Britt noted, either was wearing black nail polish or had recently slammed both hands in a car door.

"The most valuable prop for his film is missing, stolen," Ziff blurted. "It would take me weeks to reproduce," he whined. "If we're going to stay on schedule "

"What is it?"

"Fidel Castro, his head actually."

Britt spit up her coffee and stared at the man.

"Is it ... very lifelike?"

Ziff leaned back in his chair, mouth open in surprise. Then he smirked.

"Lifelike?" His eyes shifted to Dash. "She wants to know if it's lifelike." He leaned forward. "Did you see Alien Autopsy?That was my work. I did that."

"It betterbe lifelike," Dash sneered. "It cost enough."

Somehow these clowns had gotten wind of her situation, Britt thought. Had to be some elaborate joke. But Dash leaned across the table, his big hand on her slender arm. The man gave her the creeps. She'd always hated to watch him on the screen and he wasn't revising her thinking much in the flesh.

"I had a call on my answering machine this morning. A woman's voice. She said if I 'wanted my head' I better show at Paulo Muschino's house tonight for dinner. I want you to go there with me."

Britt wasn't sure she believed Dash had really gotten any message like that, and even if he had, it might be some kind of lame publicity stunt. And the last place she wanted to be was at some trendoid South Beach party on Dash's arm. But at this point, mention the word "head" and Britt was there.

"I'll come, Dash," Britt said. "But this better not be some sicko come-on."

As the limo cruised through the South Beach evening, Britt thought how much she hated it; drecko sandbar turned vulgar freak show, excreter of endless hype, festering petri dish of sexual disease and perversion, a sure sign of the apocalypse. "What do you think," Britt said snarkily, "they're going to serve the head as a main course?"

Dash ignored her. "Isn't South Beach the coolest?" Dash said, as the limo pulled onto Ocean, a honky-tonk on XTC, and stopped at Maison Marzipan.

"Isn't Muschino the coolest?" Dash said, as they walked into the fake Italian palazzo owned by the real Italian. Britt remembered when it had been a low-rent apartment building filled with friends of hers, struggling writers and artists.

"His clothes are the coolest," Britt said sarcastically, thinking they only looked good on call boys.

A butler, naked except for white gloves and a Muschino scarf wrapped around his waist, led them through rooms that looked like a vulgar Hollywood version of Pompeii. They passed through a walkway filled with fake Greek urns, into the dining room filled with fake Chinese silks. Everyone stopped talking, looked up. Paulo air-kissed Dash on both cheeks, ignored Britt. "You're here just in time for dessert," Paulo said, sitting Dash next to him, motioning at Britt with a flick of his hand. She was seated at the other end in table Siberia, between a sexless, no-talent writer and that lesbian fox Antonia Cesare. Next to Antonia was Madonna, who was in a liplock with that vapid bitters heir Chris Angostura.

Paulo was talking to Claudia Schiffer. "I don't understand," he said, waving his wineglass dismissively. "What it is you date? A magician? What he do? Pull rabbits out of hat?"

"So what was for dinner?" Britt asked, picking up the engraved menu. " 'Boiled loggerhead turtle eggs,' " she read aloud. " 'Florida panther steaks with bearnaise. Manatee mousse.' "

"It was a Florida theme dinner in honor of Marion McAlister Williams," Madonna said. "She just died, or something."

A gong rang and Paulo stood up. "Now for dessert, the most endangered species of all, the South Beach virgin." A flawless naked black girl, covered in melted white chocolate and surrounded by fresh fruit, was rolled out on a silver tray at one end of the table, while at the same time a flawless naked white boy covered in dark chocolate and surrounded with fruit was pushed out at the other end. Dash picked up a peeled banana from next to the girl, giggled, and asked, "Where should I dip it?"

The white-chocolate confection opened her mouth, the icing cracking as she said, "If you want head, go to Hell."

Thousands of people holding VIP invitations to the grand opening of a new nightclub named Hell were frenzied; screaming, begging, crying, rushing the velvet ropes. Hundreds of oversteroided bouncers held them back. Dash and Britt got out of the limo to the cry of "Dash! Dash!" Cameras flashed. The crowd parted, like the Red Sea for Moses. The velvet ropes lowered and they walked up the red carpet into Hell.

Britt felt the darkness devour, the heat hit, the beat throb. Fog filled the room. Red and blue spotlights spun and twisted as green lasers pierced and wiggled the darkness, then turned into wheels and spun. Dash led her through the sea of flesh, torsos and trunks, heads and tails, which rose in tiers from the dance floor. Everyone was in a different stage of undress, showing off tattoos and body piercing. Some were completely naked. Every variety and possible combination of sex was taking place. A woman wearing an Astroturf dress grabbed on to a speaker as she was mounted from behind by a man covered from head to toe in leather.

Britt felt faint, like she was swimming. Then she looked down and saw sharks, big ones, gliding in a floodlit subterranean aquarium under the glass dance floor beneath her feet. Just then a woman pushed up to them, held open her coat, a walking drugstore, and asked if they wanted speed, XTC, LSD, GHB, smack, crystal mesh, poppers, barbs, coke, rock, Chat, 'shrooms, peyote, opium.

"You got any sugarless gum?" Britt asked.

Outside the ropes the crowd was getting more and more unruly, as Juan Carlos Reyes arrived with two dozen members of the First of April anti-Castro paramilitary group, tipped off by an anonymous phone call that an extremely high official of the Cuban government was going to be at the opening.

Inside, the main stage of Hell was flooded with light. Shelley Novak led a chorus line of drag queens. In her hands she held a silver platter, sauteed in blood, topped with an extremely lifelike head of Fidel Castro.

"There's my damn prop!" Dash said, pointing to the head, pulling Britt in his direction. As they lurched forward in the throng, machines started pumping foam all over the club as the revelers cried out in unison.

The din was so great nobody even heard the commotion at the door when the bouncers refused to let Juan Carlos and his men in. At Reyes's signal, they butted the bouncers with their guns and stormed in. The crowd of thousands still waiting outside the velvet ropes saw their opportunity and rushed behind them, screaming, into the club, into the darkness, the heat, the smoke, the foam, onto the dance floor all at once. Onstage, a conga line of fifty Castros in tutus kicked in unison. Juan and his men stood there pointing their guns, not knowing which one to shoot, as a thirty-foot-high red devil's head was lowered from the ceiling. Its mouth opened wide and a deep bass voice said, "Welcome to South Beach. Welcome to Hell." As if on cue, the glass dance floor splintered, then gave way, and squirming partygoers tumbled into the shark-filled pool.

The Miami morning sun shone brightly, cheerfully, mocking Fay's sadness. She wished for some gray, some overcast. Remnants of last night's sleeping pills scuba-dived in her brain as she checked the black, late-model Acura following her in the rearview mirror. She'd easily shaken the other two cars that were following her, but this bastard seemed stuck to her. So much to do, so little energy, she thought. Planning her Granny's funeral in her head, worrying about Phil. And these damn reporters, worse than no-see-ums.

She headed on 395 east toward Biscayne Bay, driving fast, faster, watching the speedometer, seventy, eighty, ninety. She hit a bump, her truck bounced, the scuba tanks in the back banging against each other, metal scraping metal. She knew she should have unloaded them.

The Acura followed her as she screeched down the expressway ramp. This asshole wasn't just another reporter, she thought, or he would have given up by now. She headed up Biscayne Boulevard, the truck trembling as she swerved onto the Venetian Causeway.

Fay saw the lights of the bridge gate, and then heard the bells of the bridge start to ring, the signal almost drowned out by the raucous strains of "Disco, Disco, Duck!" coming from a party boat, all lit up like Christmas, approaching from the south.

Granny, she thought, help me, save me. She hit the brakes instinctively and then realized that flooring it was her only chance. She stomped on the pedal. The scuba tanks, which had slid violently forward when she hit the brakes, now shot back as the truck screeched forward. When they slammed into the tailgate, they leapt up, and out into the air, in a perfect arch.

The bridge tender saw Fay's truck racing toward him on one side, the disco boat cruising toward him underneath on the other, scuba tanks flying above him, and almost directly below him, floating in the water, a big brown blob that looked like a booger.

He jammed his finger on the red stop button, and the ancient spans that had just begun to rumble upward jerked to a halt. As soon as the truck hopped over the slightly inclined span, airborne for a split second, then slamming back down on the other side with a bump and a shimmy, he threw the drawbridge lift all the way to the right, full speed, hoping it would raise up high enough to allow the disco boat under it.

But that was the least of his problems. The black Acura, apparently intent on leaping across the opening span, crashed through the blinking gate. But before it reached the center, the airborne scuba tanks crashed into the windshield at a relative velocity in excess of a hundred miles per hour.

The explosion lit up the sky behind her, but Fay just kept right on driving until she pulled into the Barnett Bank on Alton Road. She grabbed an empty grocery bag and walked into the bank. If that fisherman hadn't handed her the key in Peacock Park, she might not have remembered this for weeks, remembered that years before, Granny had given her the duplicate key to her safe deposit box, "just in case anything happens to me."

"But Granny," she'd protested. "Why should anything happen to you? You're only ninety-nine."

Fay was led into the vault. She removed the box and carried it into the cubicle and shut the door. She took a deep breath, took out her key, took out the identical key the fisherman had given her, and opened the box. She couldn't believe her eyes. The box was jammed with money, piles and piles of neatly stacked hundred-dollar bills. Fay had never seen so much money in her life. Resting on top of it was a sealed envelope with her name printed neatly in her Granny's handwriting. Fay opened it.

Dearest Fay,

I could not die happily as long as I knew my lover, my friend, my life, my bay was in danger. When the bay gave me the head, I realized what I had to do. I knew the head would be worth a lot of money to the right people. There's dose to a million dollars in this box. Use it to save Biscayne Bay. But don't ask any questions about where I got this money. These are bad people.

I love you with all my heart, my special Angelfish, Granny Marion

8. STRANGE FISH Tananarive Due | Naked Came The Manatee | 10. DANCE OF THE MANATEE Vicki Hendricks