Bud Schwartz didn't have to open his eyes to know where he was; the scent of jasmine room freshener assailed his nostrils. He was in Molly McNamara's place, lying on the living-room sofa. He could feel her stare, unblinking, like a stuffed owl.
"I know you're awake," she said.
He elected not to open his eyes right away.
"Son, I know you're there."
It was the same tone she had used the first time they met, at one of the low points in Bud Schwartz's burglary career; he had been arrested after his 1979 Chrysler Cordoba stalled in the middle of 163rd Street, less than a block from the duplex apartment he had just burglarized with his new partner, Danny Pogue. The victim of the crime had been driving home when he saw the stalled car, stopped to help and immediately recognized the Sony television, Panasonic clock radio, Amana microwave and Tandy laptop computer stacked neatly in the Cordoba's back seat. The reason the stuff was lying in the back seat was because the trunk was full of stolen Neil Diamond cassettes that the burglars could not, literally, give away.
Bud Schwartz had been smoking in a holding cell of the Dade County Jail when Molly McNamara arrived.
At the time, she was a volunteer worker for Jackson Memorial Hospital and the University of Miami Medical School; her job was recruiting jail inmates as subjects for medical testing, a task that suited her talent for maternal prodding. She had entered the holding cell wearing white rubber-soled shoes, a polyester nurse's uniform and latex gloves.
"I'm insulted," Bud Schwartz had said.
Molly McNamara had eyed him over the top of her glasses and said, "I understand you're looking at eighteen months."
"Twelve, tops," Bud Schwartz had said.
"Well, I'm here to offer you a splendid opportunity."
"And I'm here to listen."
Molly had asked if Bud Schwartz was interested in testing a new ulcer drug for the medical school.
"I don't have no ulcers."
"It doesn't matter," Molly had said. "You'd be in the control group." A pill a day for three months, she had explained. Sign up now, the prosecutor asks the judge to chop your time in half.
"Your friend's already agreed to it."
"That figures," Bud Schwartz had said. "I end up with ulcers, he'll be the cause of it."
When he'd asked about possible side effects, Molly read from a printed page: headaches, high blood pressure, urinary-tract infections.
"Run that last one by me again."
"It's unlikely you'll experience any problems," Molly had assured him. They've been testing this medication for almost two years."
"Thanks, just the same."
"I know you're smarter than this," Molly had told him in a chiding tone.
"If I was really smart," Bud Schwartz had said, "I'd a put new plugs in the car."
A week later she had returned, this time without the rubber gloves. Pulled his rap sheet out of her purse, held it up like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"I've been looking for a burglar," she had said.
"Ten thousand dollars."
"Very funny," Bud Schwartz had said.
"Call me when you get out. You and your friend."
"It's not what you think," Molly had said.
"I can't think of anything. Except maybe you're some kinda snitch for the cops."
"Be serious, young man." Again with the needle in her voice, worse than his mother. "Don't mention this to anyone."
"Who the hell would believe it? Ten grand, I swear."
"Call me when you get out."
"Be a while," he said. "Hey, is it too late to get me in on that ulcer deal?"
That was six months ago.
Bud Schwartz touched the place on his brow where the rent-a-cop's flashlight had clobbered him. He could feel a scabby eruption the size of a golf ball. "Damn," he said, opening his eyes slowly.
Molly McNamara moved closer and stood over him. She was wearing her reading glasses with the pink roses on the frames. She said, "Your friend is in the bedroom."
"I was on my way here when I spotted him at the Farm Stores. He tried to get away, but – "
"You didn't shoot him again?" Bud Schwartz was asking more out of curiosity than concern.
"No need to," said Molly. "I had the Cadillac. I think your friend realized there's no point in getting run over."
With a wheeze, Bud Schwartz sat up. His ears pounded and stomach juices bubbled up sourly in his throat. As always, Molly was prompt with the first aid. She handed him a towel filled with chipped ice and told him to pack it against his wound.
Danny Pogue clumped into the living room and sat on the other end of the sofa. "You look like shit," he said to Bud Schwartz.
"Thank you, Tom Selleck." From under the towel Bud Schwartz glared with one crimson eye.
Molly McNamara said, "That's enough, the both of you. I can't begin to tell you how much trouble you've caused."
"We was trying to get out of your hair is all," said Danny Pogue. "Why're you keeping us prisoners?"
Molly said, "Aren't we being a bit melodramatic? You are not prisoners. You're simply two young men in my employ until I decide otherwise."
"In case you didn't hear," said Bud Schwartz, "Lincoln freed the slaves a long time ago."
Molly McNamara ignored the remark. "At the gatehouse I had to tell Officer Andrews a lie. I told him you were my nephews visiting from Georgia. I told him we'd had a fight and that's why you were trying to sneak out of Eagle Ridge. I told him your parents died in a plane crash when you were little, and I was left responsible for taking care of you."
"Pitiful," said Bud Schwartz.
"I told him you both had emotional problems."
"We're heading that direction," Bud Schwartz said.
"I don't like to lie," Molly added sternly. "Normally I don't believe in it."
"But shooting people is okay?" Danny Pogue cackled bitterly. "Lady, pardon me for saying, but I think you're goddamn fucking nutso."
Molly's eyes flickered. In a frozen voice she said, "Please don't use that word in my presence."
Danny Pogue mumbled that he was sorry. He wasn't sure which word she meant.
"I'm not certain Officer Andrews believed any of it," Molly went on. "I wouldn't be surprised if he reported the entire episode to the condominium association. You think you've got problems now! Oh, brother, just wait."
Bud Schwartz removed the towel from his forehead and examined it for bloodstains. Molly said, "Are you listening to me?"
"Hanging on every word."
"Because I've got some very bad news. For all of us."
Bud Schwartz grunted wearily. What now? What the hell now?
"It was on the television tonight," Molly McNamara said. "The mango voles are dead. Killed on the highway."
Nervously Danny Pogue glanced at his partner, whose eyes were fixed hard on the old woman. Waiting, no doubt, to see if she pulled that damn pistol from her sweater.
Molly said, "I don't know all the details, but I suppose it's not important. I feel absolutely sick about this."
Good, thought Bud Schwartz, maybe she's not blaming us.
But she was. "If only I'd known how careless and irresponsible you were, I would never have recruited you for this job." Molly took off her rose-framed glasses and folded them meticulously. Her gray eyes were misting.
"The blue-tongued mango voles are extinct because of me," she said, blinking, "and because of you."
Bud Schwartz said, "We're real sorry."
"Yeah," agreed Danny Pogue. "It's too bad they died."
Molly was downcast. "This is an unspeakable sin against Nature. The death of these dear animals, I can't tell you – it goes against everything I've worked for, everything I believe in. I was so stupid to entrust this project to a couple of reckless, clumsy criminals."
"That's us," said Bud Schwartz.
Danny Pogue didn't like his partner's casual tone. He said to Molly, "We didn't know they was so important. They looked like regular old rats."
The old woman absently fondled the buttons of her sweater. "There's no point belaboring it. The damage is done. Now we've got to atone."
"Atone," said Bud Schwartz suspiciously.
"What does that mean?" asked Danny Pogue. "I don't know that word."
Molly said, "Tell him, Bud."
"It means we gotta do something to make up for all this."
Molly nodded. "That's right. Somehow we must redeem ourselves."
Bud Schwartz sighed. He wondered what crazy lie she'd told the rent-a-cop about their gunshot wounds.
And this condo association – what's she so worried about?
"Have you ever heard of the Mothers of Wilderness?" asked Molly McNamara.
"No," said Bud Schwartz, "can't say that I have." Danny Pogue said he'd never heard of them, either.
"No matter," said Molly, brightening, "because as of tonight, you're our newest members. Congratulations, gentlemen!"
Restlessly Danny Pogue squeezed a pimple on his neck. "Is it like a nature club?" he said. "Do we get T-shirts and stuff?"
"Oh, you'll enjoy it," said Molly. "I've got some pamphlets in my briefcase."
Bud Schwartz clutched at the damp towel. This time he pressed it against his face. "Cut to the chase," he muttered irritably. "What the hell is it you want us to do?"
"I'm coming to that," said Molly McNamara. "By the way, did I mention that Mr. Kingsbury is offering a reward to anyone who turns in the vole robbers?"
"Oh, no," said Danny Pogue.
"Quite an enormous reward, according to the papers."
"How nice," said Bud Schwartz, his voice cold.
"Oh, don't worry," Molly said. "I wouldn't dream of saying anything to the authorities."
"How could you?" Danny Pogue exclaimed. "You're the one asked us to rob the place!"
Molly's face crinkled in thought. "That'd be awfully hard to swallow, that an old retired woman like myself would get involved in such a distasteful crime. I suppose the FBI would have to decide whom to believe – two young fellows with your extensive criminal pasts, or an older woman like myself who's never even had a parking ticket."
Danny Pogue angrily pounded the floor with one of his crutches. "For someone who don't like to lie, you sure do make a sport of it."
Bud Schwartz stretched out on the sofa, closed his eyes and smiled in resignation. "You're a piece a work," he said to Molly McNamara. "I gotta admit."
The Card Sound Bridge is a steep two-lane span that connects the northern tip of Key Largo with the South Florida mainland. Joe Winder got there two hours early, at ten o'clock. He parked half a mile down the road and walked the rest of the way. He staked out a spot on some limestone boulders, which formed a jetty under the eastern incline of the bridge. From there Winder could watch for the car that would bring the mystery caller to this meeting.
He knew it wouldn't be Dr. Will Koocher; Nina was never wrong about phone voices. Joe Winder had no intention of confronting the impostor, but at least he wanted to get a good look, maybe even a tag number.
Not much was biting under the bridge. Effortlessly Winder cast the same pink wiggle-jig he'd been using on the bonefish flats. He let it sink into the fringe of the sea grass, then reeled in slowly, bouncing the lure with the tip of his rod. In this fashion he picked up a couple of blue runners and a large spiny pinfish, which he tossed back. The other fishermen were using dead shrimp with similar unexciting results. By eleven most of them had packed up their buckets and rods and gone home, leaving the jetty deserted except for Joe Winder and two other diehards.
The other men stood side by side, conversing quietly in Spanish. As Joe Winder watched them more closely, it seemed that the men were doing more serious talking than fishing. They were using Cuban yo-yo rigs, twirling the lines overhead and launching the baits with a loud plop into the water. Once in a while they'd pull in the lines and cast out again, usually without even checking the hooks.
One of the men was a husky no-neck in long canvas pants. The other was short and wiry, and as dark as coffee. Both wore baseball caps and light jackets, which was odd, considering the heat. Every few minutes a pair of headlights would appear down Card Sound Road, and Joe Winder would check to see if the car stopped at the foot of the bridge. After a while, he noticed that the two other fishermen were doing the same. This was not a good sign.
As midnight approached, the other men stopped pretending to fish and concentrated on the road. Joe Winder realized that he was stranded on the jetty with two goons who probably were waiting to ambush him. Worse, they stood squarely between Winder and the relative safety of the island. The most obvious means of escape would be jumping into Card Sound; while exceptionally dramatic, such a dive would prove both stupid and futile. The bay was shallow and provided no cover; if the goons had guns, they could simply shoot him like a turtle.
Joe Winder's only hope was that they wouldn't recognize him in the dark with his hair hacked off. It was a gray overcast night, and he was doing a creditable impersonation of a preoccupied angler. Most likely the goons would be expecting him at twelve sharp, some dumb shmuck hollering Koocher's name under the bridge.
The strategy of staying invisible might have worked if only a powerful fish had not seized Joe Winder's lure. The strike jolted his arms, and reflexively he yanked back hard to set the hook. The fish streaked toward the rock, then back out again toward open water. The buzz of Winder's reel cut like a saw through the stillness of the bay. The two goons stopped talking and looked up to see what was happening.
Joe Winder knew. It was a snook, a damn big one. Any other night he would have been thrilled to hook such a fish, but not now. From the corner of his eye he could see the goons rock-hopping down the jetty so they could better view the battle. Near a piling the fish broke to the surface, shaking its gills furiously before diving in a frothy silver gash. The goons pointed excitedly at the commotion, and Winder couldn't blame them; it was a grand fish.
Joe Winder knew what to do, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Palm the spool. Break the damn thing off, before the two guys got any closer. Instead Joe Winder was playing the fish like a pro, horsing it away from the rocks and pilings, letting it spend itself in short hard bursts. What am I, crazy? Winder thought. From up here I could never land this fish alone. The goons would want to help, sure they would, and then they'd see who I was and that would be it. One dead snook and one dead flack.
Again the fish thrust its underslung snout from the water and splashed. Even in the tea-colored water the black lateral stripe was visible along its side. Twelve pounds easy, thought Winder. A fine one.
One of the goons clapped his hands and Joe Winder looked up. "Nize goying," the man said. "Dat's some fugging fish." It was the short wiry one.
"Thanks," said Winder. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe these weren't the bad guys, after all. Or maybe they hadn't come to hurt him; maybe they just wanted to talk. Maybe they had Koocher and were scheming for a ransom.
After five minutes of back-and-forth, the snook was tiring. Twenty yards from the jetty it glided to the surface and flopped its tail once, twice. Not yet, Winder thought; don't give up yet, you marvelous bastard.
He heard their heavy footsteps on the rocks. Now they were behind him. He heard their breathing. One of them was chewing gum. Joe Winder smelled hot spearmint and beer.
"What're you waiting for?" asked the big one.
"He's not ready," Winder said, afraid to turn and give them a look at his face. "He's still got some gas."
"No, look at the fugging thin," said the little one. "He juice about dead, mang."
The snook was dogging it on top, barely putting a bend in Joe Winder's fishing rod.
"That's some good eating," the big no-neck goon remarked.
Winder swallowed dryly and said, "Too bad they're out of season."
He heard both of the men laugh. "Hey, you don't want him, we'll take it off your hands. Fry his ass up in a minute. Right, Angel?"
The little one, Angel, said, "Yeah, I go down and grab hole the fugging thin." He took off his baseball cap and scrabbled noisily down the rocks.
Joe Winder got a mental picture of these two submorons in yellowed undershirts – swilling beer, watching "Wheel" on the tube – cooking up the snook on a cheap gas stove in some rathole Hialeah duplex. The thought of it was more than he could stand. He placed his hand on the spool of the reel and pulled once, savagely.
The snook had one good powerful surge left in its heart, and the fishing line snapped like a rifle shot. Joe Winder fell back, then steadied himself. "Goddammit," he said, trying to sound disappointed.
"That was really stupid," said the big goon. "You don't know shit about fighting a fish."
"I guess not."
The wiry one had been waiting by the water when the fish got off. Cursing in Spanish, he monkeyed back up the rocks. To guide himself, he held a small flashlight in one hand. The beam caught Joe Winder flush in the face; there was nothing he could do.
Instantly the big goon grabbed him by the shoulder. "Hey! You work at the park."
The wiry one said, "Doan tell me he's the guy."
"Yup," said the big one, tightening his grip.
The men edged closer. Joe Winder could sense they were angry about not recognizing him sooner.
"Mr. Fisherman," said the big one acidly.
"That's me," said Winder. "You must be the one who wanted to talk about Dr. Koocher."
The goon named Angel turned off the flashlight and buried it in his jacket. "Two hours with these damn mosquitoes and you standing right here, the whole fugging tine!" He punched Joe Winder ferociously in the kidney.
As Winder fell, he thought: So they're not here to chat.
His head bounced against limestone and he began to lose consciousness. Then he felt himself being lifted by the armpits, which hurt like hell. They were carrying him somewhere in a hurry.
The husky one, Spearmint Breath, was talking in Joe Winder's ear. "What'd he say on the phone?"
"The rat doctor."
"Nothing." Winder was panting.
"I swear. He left a message, that's all." Winder tried to walk but felt his legs pedaling air, being swept along. "Just a message was all," he said again. "He wanted to see me but he didn't say why."
In his other ear, Joe Winder heard the wiry one call him a stinken fugging liar.
"No, I swear."
They had him up against the side of a truck. Bronco. White. Rusty as hell. Ford Bronco, Winder thought. In case I live through this.
In case anybody might be interested.
The big goon spun Joe Winder around and pinned his arms while the one named Angel slugged him on the point of the jaw. Then he hit him once in each eye. Winder felt his face start to bloat and soften, like a melon going bad. With any luck, total numbness would soon follow.
Angel was working up a sweat. Every time he threw a punch, he let out a sharp yip, like a poodle. It would have been hilarious except for the pain that went with it.
Finally, Spearmint Breath said, "I don't think he knows jack shit." Then he said something in Spanish.
Angel said, "Chur he does, the cokesucker." This time he hit Joe Winder in the gut.
Perfect. Can't breathe. Can't see. Can't talk.
The big goon let go, and Winder fell limp across the hood of the truck.
The man named Angel said, "Hey, what the fug." There was something new in his voice; he sounded very confused. Even in a fog, Joe Winder could tell that the little creep wasn't talking to him – or to Spearmint Breath, either.
Suddenly a great turmoil erupted around the truck, and the man named Angel gave out a scream that didn't sound anything like a little dog. The scream made Joe Winder raise his head off the fender and open what was left of his eyelids.
Through misty slits he saw the husky no-neck goon running toward the bridge. Running away as fast as he could.
Where was Angel?
Something lifted Joe Winder off the truck and laid him on the gravel. He struggled to focus on the face. Face? Naw, had to be a mask. A silvery beard of biblical proportions. Mismatched eyes: one as green as mountain pines, the other brown and dead. Above that, a halo of pink flowers. Weird. The mask leaned closer and whispered in Joe Winder's ear.
The words tumbled around like dice in his brainpan. Made no damn sense. The stranger bent down and said it again.
"I'll get the other one later."
Joe Winder tried to speak but all that came out was a gulping noise. He heard a car coming down the old road and turned his head to see. Soon he became mesmerized by the twin beams of yellow light, growing larger and larger; lasers shooting out of the mangroves. Or was it a spaceship?
When Winder turned back, he was alone. The man who had saved his life was gone.
The car went by in a rush of noise. Joe Winder watched the taillights vanish over the crest of the bridge. It was an hour before he could get to his feet, another twenty minutes before he could make them move in any sensible way.
As he staggered along the pavement, he counted the cars to keep his mind off the pain. Seven sped past without stopping to help. Winder was thinking, Maybe I feel worse than I look. Maybe the blood doesn't show up so well in the dark. Two or three drivers actually touched the brakes. One honked and hurled a Heineken bottle at him.
The eighth car went by doing seventy at least, heading eastbound to the island. Joe Winder saw the brake lights wink and heard the tires squeal. Slowly the car backed up. The door on the passenger side swung open.
A voice said: "My God, are you all right?"
"Not really," said Joe Winder. Half-blind, he was trying to fit himself into the car when he encountered something large and fuzzy on the upholstery.
It was an animal head. He hoped it was not real.
Carrie Lanier picked it up by the snout and tossed it into the back seat. She took Joe Winder's elbow and helped him sit down. Reaching across his lap, she slammed the car door and locked it. "I can't believe this," she said, and stepped on the accelerator.
To Joe Winder it felt as if they were going five hundred miles an hour, straight for the ocean.
Carrie Lanier kept glancing over at him, probably to make sure he was still breathing. After a while she said, "I'm sorry, what was your name again?"
"Joe. Joe Winder."
"Joe, I can't believe they did this to you."
Winder raised his head. "Who?" he said. "Who did this to me?"