Florida even looks good collapsing.
From Loggerhead Key to Amelia Island to the Flora-Bama Lounge, the Land of Flowers has natives caught in seductive headlights.
M illions of residents stayed up past midnight one evening in October of 1997 to watch the South Florida baseball team win the seventh game of the World Series in extra innings.
The next day:
A full-figured maid from Rio ran in a circle in the parking lot, crying and screaming in Portuguese. The motel manager leaned against the office doorway, weary, a thin, bald Honduran, four-foot-eleven, sixty years. Brown slacks and ocher guayabera with a pink button on the pocket: "Play the Florida Lottery." He had coppery, folded skin, and he rolled his eyes at the paroxysmal woman in the white cleaning uniform who he decided was being overcome either by religion or insects.
The 1960s-era Orbit Motel was a two-story box around a swimming pool. Its east side faced Cocoa Beach and the Atlantic Ocean, and its sign on Highway A1A was an illuminated globe circled by a mechanical space capsule. The Launch Pad Lounge next to the motel office was retro-fitted into the Launch Pad Food Mart, which the manager tended without humor. The maid's hysterics were unbroachable for fifteen minutes, so the manager ate boiled peanuts. Through sobs, the maid eventually communicated her alarm.
Two police officers in a single squad car arrived four minutes after the manager's phone call. Cocoa Beach has a genie and a bottle on the doors of its police cars. The manager led the officers around the ocean side of the motel and up the unpainted concrete stairs to the balcony. The day was hot and sticky, but the second floor brought wind and snatches of conversation from a tiki bar at the end of the Cocoa Beach Pier. As the manager sorted keys, the officers looked through mirror sunglasses at the lone surfer in a black wetsuit. A cruise ship sailed for Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas. Both cops thinking: We shouldn't have gone out drinking after the World Series last night.
The manager turned the knob of Room 214 and pushed the door open. He made a gesture into the room that said, "And you've won a brand new car!"
Inside was an evidence theme park. A six-foot Rorschach pattern of blood and bone across the wall near the bathroom. Bound securely with braided rope and sitting upright in an uncomfortable motel chair was the late, luckless John Doe, his mouth covered with duct tape and eyes wide. The end of a shotgun was tied to his throat and the exit wound in the back of his neck could hold a croquet ball. His chin rested on the shotgun barrel, the only thing keeping his head propped up, and he wore a baseball cap with the Apollo 13 emblem.
The other end of the twelve-gauge Benelli automatic shotgun was wrapped to a saw horse with more tape. A string tied the trigger to the axle of an electric motor. From the side of the deceased's chair hung a bare copper wire with a small model space shuttle dangling on the end. Circling the wire was a metal collar cut from a beer can. A wire ran from the collar to a car battery. Another wire ran from the shuttle to a solenoid switch and the motor. The television was on the NASA channel. Live video of two astronauts spacewalking during their third day in orbit. The cops looked over the room, gave each other a high five and burst out laughing. One radioed for the detectives and lab guys. The other grabbed the remote control, looking for something good on TV.
Clinton Ellrod painted white block letters in an arc across the front window of the Rapid Response convenience store. Back behind the cash register, he admired his handiwork through the glass, reading in reverse: "Congratulations Marlins!"
With the efficiency of a casino worker, Ellrod pulled down two packs of Doral menthols, tore loose five scratch-off lottery tickets (the sand dollars game), rang up a twelve-pack of ice-brewed beer and set pump seven for eighteen dollars. A crew outside was taking down the Rapid Response sign and replacing it with one that read "Addiction World"; they left early for lunch.
During lulls, Ellrod studied notes from classes at Florida International University. When fried from an all-nighter, he daydreamed out the tinted windows and watched traffic on U.S. 1 run through the asphalt badlands between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. Fast food, anemic strip malls, check-cashing parlors with steel-reinforced pylons out front. There was a desperateness to the commerce, like a Mexican border town or a remote gold-mining settlement in Brazil. Except for weeds in the cracks, the pavement sealed everything up like an icecap. But Ellrod loved sunsets, even here. Soft, warm light glinting off the cars, and the concrete orange at the end. The day people, rushing through checklists of responsibility, giving way to this other group, hustling around after dark to accomplish everything they shouldn't be doing at all.
Rapid Response stood a few blocks in from Biscayne Bay. Through the front door came construction workers filling forty-four-ounce Thirst Mutilators, school kids in baggy clothes shoplifting, registered nurses grabbing Evian from the glassed-in cooler, businessmen on cell phones unfolding maps they'd never buy. Nicaraguans, Germans, Tamil rebels, Sikh separatists, scag mules, prom-queens-turned-drug-trollops, armored car guards, escaped convicts, getaway drivers, siding salesmen, rabbis and assorted non-bathers. Ten times a day he gave directions to Monkey Jungle. Ellrod, like all Florida convenience store clerks, had the Serengeti alertness of the tastiest gazelle in the herd. He studied customers for danger. He ruled out the pair at the chips rack, the tall, athletic guy and the shorter, bookish man exchanging playful punches, debating Cheetos, puffy or crunchy.
Ellrod made change for a bookie on Rollerblades. A black Mercedes S420 limousine pulled up. Three Latin men slammed three doors. They wore identical white linen suits, shirts open at the collar, no chest hair or gold chains. Thick, trimmed moustaches. They entered the store in descending order of height and in the same order filled three styrofoam cups at the soda spigot.
The athletic guy used a twenty to pay for two bags of Cheetos and a tank of regular unleaded; they drove to the edge of the convenience store lot in a white Chrysler and waited for the stoplight at the corner to hold up traffic, then rejoined U.S. 1 southbound.
The tallest Latin asked Ellrod for the servicio, and Ellrod pointed to the rear of the store. All three went inside the one-toilet restroom and closed the door. Ellrod turned to the beeping gas control panel. He pressed a button and leaned to a grape-size microphone on a gooseneck. "Pump number four is on."
"About fucking time," said the speaker on the control panel. The pickup truck at pump four sat on tractor tires. It was red, spangled metallic, with a bank of eight amber fog lights over the cab. The sticker on the left side of the bumper read, "English only in the U.S.A.!" The one on the right had a drawing of the Stars and Stripes. It said, "Will the last American out of Miami please bring the flag?"
The driver walked into the store, and Ellrod saw he came to five-nine on the robber height guide running up the doorjamb. He had a crew cut midway between Sid Vicious and John Ehrlichman, a Vandyke beard and a sunburnt face rounded out into a moon by the people at Pabst Blue Ribbon. He wore the official NFL jersey of the Dallas Cowboys.
"What took you so long, stupid!" said the driver. "That'll be nineteen dollars," Ellrod said without interest. The man pulled bills from his wallet; his face had a dense patina of perspiration. Ellrod smelled whiskey, onions and B.O.
"I asked you a question!" said the driver. He looked up from his wallet and saw Ellrod's T-shirt. "FIU? What the fuck's that? Some new shitty rap band?!"
Ellrod, African-American, picked up the drift of the conversation.
"Florida International University," he said evenly.
"Oh, you and the homeboys now stealing college laundry."
"I go to school there."
"Don't bullshit me, boy. You're so smart, how come you workin' here?" The man pointed to the employee parking space and Ellrod's two-hundred-thousand-mile Datsun with a trash bag for a back window. "That's your car, isn't it! Shit, don't go telling me you're a college boy. I didn't even graduate high school and look at my truck!"
Ellrod glanced out at pump number four and the rolling monument to pinheads everywhere. The store audio system piped in "Right Place, Wrong Time" and it was to the part about "refried confusion."
"Now give me my fucking change, you stupid fucking ..."
And he said it. The word. It hung in the air between them, an electrical cumulonimbus over the cash register.
The driver realized what he'd spoken and paused to flash back. He used the word once to criticize a bad parking job at a Wendy's, and this little four-foot guy went Tasmanian Devil on him. He received bruised ribs, a jaw wired shut and eight fog lights snapped off his truck.
He panicked. He jumped back from the counter and pulled a switchblade on Ellrod. "Don't try anything! You know you guys call each other that all the time! Don't go getting on me about slavery!"
The tallest Latin was next in line, fiddling with a point-of-purchase display, key-chain flashlights in the shape of AK-47 bullets.
"Hey!" the Latin said to the pickup driver. "Apologize!"
The driver turned the blade toward him. "Fuck off, Julio! You don't even have a dog in this fight! Go back to your guacamole farm and those tropical monkeys you call the mothers of your children!"
The driver never saw it. A second Latin came from behind, holding a bottle of honey-mustard barbecue sauce the size of a bowling pin. He had it by the neck and swung it around into the driver's nose, which exploded. Blood squirted everywhere like someone had stomped the heel of a boot down on a packet of ketchup.
Ellrod witnessed an entirely new league of violence. Everything in his experience up to now, even murder, was amateur softball. The driver was swarmed as he fell, and the Latins came up with makeshift convenience store weapons. Dry cell battery, meat tenderizer, Parrot Gardens car deodorizer. In ten seconds, they pulverized both elbows, both kneecaps and both testicles.
The tallest Latin walked to the rotisserie next to the soda machine. A dozen hot dogs had turned on a circle of spits for six hours, and they were leathery and resistent to conventional forks and knives. He grabbed two of the spits and held one in each fist, pointing down, like daggers. The others saw him and cleared away from the pickup driver, now on his back. The tall one pounced and drove the spits into the driver's chest, a bullfight banderillero setting the decorative spears. One spit pierced the right lung, and the other blew a ventricle. The driver torqued and shimmied on the floor and then fell into the death rattle, two shrivelled-up hot dogs quivering on rabbit-ear antennas sticking out of his chest.
The tall Latin stepped over the driver and up to the cash register. He pulled a ten from an eelskin wallet and handed it to Ellrod. "Three Cokes and two Jumbo Meaty Dogs."
Ellrod's legs vibrated under the counter, but he managed to make change. After a half minute, he ran to the window and watched the limousine merge into southbound traffic on U.S. 1. The windows were down and he could see three men sucking soda straws.
S ean Breen ran his finger down the triple-A map on his lap, a steady flow of crunchy Cheetos going to his mouth with the free hand. In the driver's seat, David Klein had a thing going with a bag of the puffies.
Fifteen miles south of Miami. Sean said, "Cutler Ridge." He looked up from the map and out the window. "Can hardly tell Hurricane Andrew came through. You should have been here five years ago. That business tower there. You could see in all the offices. The east face was gone."
Twelve more miles they hit Florida City. The Turnpike came in from the northeast and dumped onto U.S. 1. The end of civilization on the mainland. The peninsula had twenty more miles until the bridge to the Florida Keys, but the only thing left was a two-lane road south through the mangroves. The final building before the wilderness, the Last Chance Saloon, had a "Go Marlins!" banner over the door between the wagon wheels.
Sean and David thought professional wrestling in Florida wasn't what it used to be.
"Jack Brisco was my favorite," said Sean. "His trademark was the Figure-Four Leg-Lock."
"Those were the days, when the fundamentals meant something."
"Like the sleeper hold."
"Remember you had to apply an antidote hold after the sleeper knocked the guy unconscious?"
"Yeah, and one time this masked wrestler wouldn't let anyone in the ring to apply the antidote to his opponent, and Gordon Solie was going crazy in the announcer's booth, yelling, 'Brain damage is setting in!' The guy went into a coma and came out of it the following week to win the battle royal."
David's face turned serious. Ahead, a dark lump sat in the lane. David winced as it passed under the car, and relaxed when it cleared the undercarriage.
He looked in the rearview. "Gopher tortoise," he said. "Ain't gonna make it."
David pulled over and walked back toward the tortoise, which had reached the center line. He stood on the shoulder, waiting for opportunity. Heavy traffic blowing by, but a break coming up. One more car to go and he could run out and carry the tortoise to the other side.
S erge leaned forward in the passenger seat and tuned the radio in the canary-yellow '72 Corvette. His yellow beach shirt matched the car and was covered with palm trees; his two-dollar sunglasses had ruby frames and alligators at the corners. The first four radio stations were Spanish, then blues from Miami, then Serge found the frequency he wanted as they passed the Last Chance Saloon.
"I just want to celebrate ... another day of living ..."
Serge talked over the radio. "And what was the deal with Coral Key State Park? The place was a death-trap. If it wasn't for Flipper, someone would have died there every week. Can't believe nobody sued."
"Dolphins like to wear hats," said Coleman, a joint dangling from his lips as he drove. On his head was one of those afro wigs painted in a rainbow. He was wearing novelty sunglasses with slinky eyeballs, and they swung and clacked together when he turned to face Serge.
"... I just want to celebrate ... yeah! yeah! ..."
"What's that in the road?" asked Serge.
"Don't know," said Coleman. "Looks like something fell out of a car and that guy's trying to retrieve it. Some kind of case. ... Well not today, fella!"
Coleman swerved over the center line, like Jerry Lewis running over Spencer Tracy's hat in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
"... I just want to celebrate another day of living! ..."
And Coleman popped the turtle.
The pair turned around and saw a guy jumping up and down in the road, shaking his fists in the air.
"You sick fuck! Why'd you do that?!" Serge shouted. "You killed a living thing!"
"I thought it was a helmet," Coleman said.
"A helmet? We're in the Keys! This ain't fuckin' Rat Patrol!"
Serge plucked the joint from Coleman's lips - "Gimme that!" - and flicked it out the window. He ripped the slinky-eyeball glasses off Coleman's face and tossed them in the open gym bag at his feet. The glasses landed on the packs of hundred-dollar bills and next to the Smith and Wesson thirty-eight.
"Pull over," said Serge. "I'm driving."
T wenty miles west of Key West, mangrove islets scattered across jade shallows. Toward the Gulf Stream, the green gave way at once to a cold, ultramarine blue that ran to the horizon. It was noon, a soundless, cloudless day, and the sun broiled.
At the far end of the silence began a buzz, like a mosquito. It stayed low for a long time and then suddenly swelled into a high-precision, motorized thunder that prevented any train of thought, and a forty-foot cigarette boat slapped and crashed across the swells far closer to the flats than was smart.
Orange and aqua stripes ran the length of the speedboat, which had the logo of the Miami Dolphins on one side and a big number 13 on the other.
Behind the wheel was twenty-two-year-old Johnny Vegas, bronzed, built and smelling like a whorehouse. Because he was wearing Whorehouse Cologne, one-hundred dollars an ounce on South Beach. Long black hair straight back in the wind, herringbone gold chain around his neck. His work-out T-shirt had the sleeves cut off and a cartoon on the front that made a joke about his shlong being big. On the back was a drawing of a woman in a bikini with a bull's-eye on her crotch. He wore the curved sunglasses of a downhill skier.
Johnny's mouth alternated between a thousand-candle-power shit-eating grin and running his tongue over his gums with cocaine jitters. He kept the coke in a twenty-four-karat gold shark amulet he bought in a head shop on Key West, Southernmost Bong and Hookah. It now hung from the gold chain. He threw two toggles near the ignition and "Smoke on the Water" shook from sixteen waterproof speakers.
Johnny lived off a trust fund generated by a life-insurance-for-the-elderly program targeting anyone who had ever been, known, seen or heard about a military veteran. He exercised daily in his Bal Harbor condo and it showed - not muscle-bound but defined at six feet, one-ninety. On weekends he cruised for chicks in the boat, and he had the tan of a professional beach volleyball player.
Other people bought jerseys with the numbers of their favorite Miami Dolphins players. Johnny customized the cigarette boat for his favorite, future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. He soon found that people assumed it actually was Marino's boat, and that Johnny was a tight friend. Johnny often said, yes, it was Marino's boat. Would you like to come aboard, little girl?
In romance, Johnny was a selective man. He wouldn't just go for anyone. He was attracted to a very specific type: horny, young, binge-drinking women in T-backs. Any event with a hint of spring-break attitude, Johnny's boat was there.
He ranged from Fort Lauderdale to Islamorada in the Keys, where fast boats held effective parties on an offshore sandbar. That was as far as Vegas would take the cigarette. The cocaine he bought for the World Series the night before had taken him the rest of the way down the Keys.
No sooner had he arrived, he was on the business side of Key West, heading out to sea. As the propeller cavitated, Johnny unconsciously fingered the coke talisman hanging at his sternum. At sixty miles an hour, he strained to see as the air pressure flattened his eyeballs, but he had to keep up appearances for the woman clinging to her white leather seat. She didn't really mind, with a tight belly full of Captain Morgan.
She was maybe twenty, a student at Key West Community College, majoring in flirting her way onto expensive boats with powder parties. She was thin with a deep tan, sun-lightened brown hair and a cute Georgia face. And she learned nothing in life is free when she got thrown overboard by an Argentinean tycoon on whose yacht she had been partying and whose knee she'd been grabbing before she said, "Sorry, I have a boyfriend back at school."
That morning Johnny had been idling the boat past Mallory Square when he spotted her sitting in a bikini with legs hanging over the seawall, having shown up ten hours early for the sunset celebration.
He tapped his left nostril; she nodded eagerly and boarded. They did two lines at the docks and slugged rumrunners as they passed Sand Key lighthouse.
Johnny's plan was to head south from Key West, pick up deeper water and chart west. The uninhabited Marquesas Atoll sat twenty-five miles further with a sandy beach, perfect for scoring.
Which would be a first. Because, despite the boat and the exercising and the cocaine and cologne and money, he never got a babe in the sack. Not once. It was always something. Boat fire, water spout, sand crabs, Coast Guard search, language barrier, drug overdose and, with rampant frequency, the sudden and complete change-of-heart. There was even the can't-miss time a statuesque brunette model came right up to him on the dock and said, "I fuck guys with fast boats." They were three miles offshore and she's topless, taking off her bottom, when she hears something. A hydroplane pulls up, a man opens the cockpit, and she gets in and leaves.
This time would be different. This time with - what was her name? One of those double, singsong deals. Something-Sue. Betty Sue? Peggy Sue? Ah, to hell with it: more cocaine for everyone!
Indications to the contrary, Johnny wasn't obnoxious, just immature, and the older residents of his condominium regarded him as a loveable, goofy pet. They also had no faith in his seamanship. They worried that someday he'd hit an awash coral head and there would go Johnny, cartwheeling across the Gulf Stream at eighty miles an hour until he was embedded head-first in the sand like a javelin. So they broke it down for him. Stay in the blue water and out of the green water. Over and over: blue water good, green water bad.
Johnny and 'Sue raced due south of the Marquesas in solid-green water and skirting closer to yellow and white. The water was clear as a swimming pool, and patches of sand and coral ran starboard. Between two islands was a channel that cut across the flats as if someone had poured a river of lime jello. He looked down and saw the shadow of his boat racing next to him on the sea floor, and he pretended he was the Flying Dutchman.
The bottom was soft, and Johnny's boat plowed a hundred-yard trench that bled off the violence of the grounding. The stop catapulted 'Sue onto the deck on her hands and knees.
"Are we stuck?" she asked, the boat's deck as solid and unmoving as Nebraska.
"Oh, no no no!" said Johnny. He tossed a mushroom anchor over the bow with forty feet of line, which was thirty-nine too many, and the excess coils of rope floated by where 'Sue was sitting.
"How 'bout some more cocaine!" said Johnny, creating a diversion. He tapped the amulet on the fiberglass console. 'Sue poured another rumrunner out of Johnny's titanium tactical party Thermos, having spilled the last one down the left side of her bikini top. Johnny took off his shirt.
The stereo blared "Funky Cold Medina." They climbed up on the bow. Dancing sloppy, not holding each other, rubbing chests. Johnny thought of his buzz and 'Sue and the music and how he was gonna finally get laid. He closed his eyes and saw an infomercial for Veterans' Health and Life on the inside of the eyelids, and he smiled.
The water exploded off the port side, and Johnny and 'Sue tumbled back together on the bow.
"Jesus, Harry and Joseph!" he yelled.
They looked overboard, out in the blue water, where their boat should have been. They expected to see a bale of dope or an airplane wing, but instead saw a large blob covered with seaweed and algae and gunk, a long-dead manatee or Kemp's ridley turtle.
They stared a half minute, and their crunched-up faces released at the same time with recognition. Out in the water was a man, bloated and distended, chain around his neck. 'Sue gave a prolonged, blood-clotting scream, which Johnny took to mean she was no longer in the mood.
It took a few minutes but 'Sue had started to calm down, just sniffling and her chest heaving a little. Johnny thought, yeah, there's a blown-up old dead guy all putrid and shit a few feet away, but I got the smooth moves! He put his arm around her shoulder, to console her, and began sliding his hand toward her breast.
A procession of sports cars and rv's was making the grunion run down from Florida City to the drawbridge onto Key Largo. Because of speeding, reckless driving and head-on crashes, the Florida Department of Transportation erected a bunch of warning signs and built special passing lanes.
One of the signs read, "Be patient. Passing lane one mile." Next to it, an Isuzu Rodeo towing a Carolina Skiff jackknifed trying to pass a Ranchero. The Rodeo slid upright to a stop on the left shoulder, but the skiff rolled, sending four cases of Bud and Bud Lite clattering across the road. The rigid column of high-speed traffic became unorganized, like a line of ants hit with bug spray. A Mustang swerved left, flipped and landed half-submerged in the water next to the causeway; a Mercury spun out to the right and slid down the embankment sideways, taking out thirty feet of endangered plants. Motorists ran to check on the people in the Isuzu but retreated when the Mercury's driver pulled a nickel forty-five out of the glove compartment. He opened fire on the Rodeo, across the street, which returned fire with an SKS Chinese military rifle. The Rodeo's bumper sticker said, "Hang up and drive!"
Behind the firefight, people got out of cars crouched behind bumpers or ran for cover in the mangroves. Some jumped in Barnes and Blackwater Sounds and swam away.
Twenty cars back from the accident, Sean Breen and David Klein opened their doors for shields and prepared to run. Ten cars back, three Latin men sat in a bullet-proof Mercedes limousine, playing three Nintendo GameBoys.
One car back was a yellow Corvette. Coleman and Serge stared at the boat in the middle of the road and the foam shooting into the air from the Budweisers.
As they had approached Key Largo, breaks in the roadside brush gave first glimpses of the Keys. Hundreds of yards of tangled branches blurring by, and then a two-foot opening, a subliminal view across the sounds. Unnamed mangrove islands in that unmistakable profile, long and low. Serge thought it was the same profile that in 1513 prompted Ponce de Leon's sailors to name them Los Martires, the martyrs, because they looked like dead guys lying down. No they don't, thought Serge, but he was naturally high anyway as he sat in the parked Corvette. The sniper fire was making a racket and it snapped Serge out of it.
"Beer me," he said, looking straight ahead.
"Right," said Coleman. He waited a few seconds for a break in the gunfire and ran out in the road in front of the car, grabbing one of the few cans that wasn't blowing suds from the seams.
He jumped back in the car and handed it to Serge.
Serge stared at him. "I meant from the cooler."
T he Coast Guard petty officer, a serious young man with a galvanized clipboard, recent haircut and pressed uniform, stood on the back deck of Johnny Vegas' boat and said no unnecessary words as he took down Johnny's version.
Johnny eyed the man's wedding ring, which he noted was quite small and without diamonds. The petty officer hadn't mentioned Dan Marino. Johnny had been noticing for some time that people in authority weren't giving him enough respect. It wasn't that they were rude or patronizing. Worse, he was irrelevant. Maybe I need to work on my image, he thought, and planned to buy a fighter pilot's jacket.
Coast Guard and Marine Patrol boats had arrived. A four-man dive team was in the water. The body had been pulled from the gulf and lay on a stainless steel table at the stern of the Coast Guard boat. A man with surgical gloves probed the remains; another took photos with a Nikon.
Johnny sat forlorn with elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands and a rotting buzz in his head, thinking about all the drugs he dumped in the ocean after radioing the authorities on the VHF. 'Sue hunched over in fetal position on the port side with a towel wrapped around her, shivering, occasionally lunging for the gunwales to toss up more of her breakfast of cold pizza. She turned to Johnny with a sad, pleading look, not feeling so attractive any more. He shook his head with impatience and opened a water-tight compartment. "Here," he said, holding something out to her, "have a mint."
Johnny put his chin back in his hands and stared at the flotilla of partially digested pizza being ravaged by tropical fish. Another boat approached from the east, a forty-foot tri-hull catamaran. A reporter from Florida Cable News stood on the tip of the middle bow holding a microphone, facing back toward the cabin and his cameraman. Behind him, hidden under his suit, was a brace and safety harness, like a barnstorming wing-walker. He raced at top speed toward news.
The upstart Florida Cable News network had to compensate for lack of money, experience and reputation with raw daring. The coin of the realm was the scoop, and they regularly beat all major Florida affiliates by going on the air immediately with a ground-breaking series of premature, unconfirmed, flat-wrong stories.
But the worse FCN's accuracy got, the higher the ratings. An cult developed and tuned in to see how factually mangled the coverage had become. The closest thing FCN had to a recognizable personality was correspondent Blaine Crease, a former stunt man who was becoming recognized for exclusively reporting incorrect stories while suspended in a harness. Bouncing on a boat in a harness. Standing atop a fire engine in a harness. Bungee jumping into precedent-setting slander.
On the Coast Guard boat the early bets favored a gangland hit, like the mobsters that occasionally popped up in fifty-five gallon drums in the Miami River and off the Rickenbacker Causeway. Others leaned toward lunacy, remembering the psychopath who dumped three women in Tampa Bay in '89.
They wondered about the single cement block attached to the chain around the victim's neck. After the oil drums, you'd think every professional button-man would know what it takes to keep a body down when it bloats during decomposition.
A diver broke the surface behind the boat and spit out his regulator. "We got another one!"
S ean and David were stiff, sweaty and tense from sitting in the car so long. When they arrived in Key West, they skipped checking in at a hotel and drove to a bar on Duval Street.
They arrived in the purple interlude between sunset and night and parked on a side street by the Expatriate Cafe. The bar nurtured a sinister, desperado atmosphere that could be purchased on the way out in a variety of T-shirts and knickknacks. The tables nestled among fishtail palms, and mature traveler's trees fanned out at each end of the patio. The tables had tiny, dim lamps with white shades. Over the bar was a world map from the 1930s, an antique sign for Pan Am, and a row of black-and-white celebrity photographs: Ernest Hemingway in Spain, Gertrude Stein in Paris, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Roman Polanski in Switzerland, Howard Hughes in the Bahamas, Eldridge Cleaver making Tim Leary wash the dishes in Algeria.
Sean and David grabbed stools at the bar and ordered drafts. A hit-and-run afternoon cloudburst left puddles in the street that reflected pink and green neon. The opening guitar chords of "Whole Lotta Love" pounded out the open door of the bar across the street.
The two sat with their beers watching the pedestrians and mopeds and cars cruising Duval. They looked up at the TV, hanging on the wall between Bogart and Polanski.
"Good evening, this is Florida Cable News. Our top story tonight ..."
Serge pointed up at the TV over the espresso machine.
"... Our top story tonight is tragedy in the waters off Key West, where two bodies were recovered ..."
Serge and Coleman sat in a cramped Cuban lunch counter on two stools next to the window. The restaurant was a block off Duval Street on Fleming. A blue awning hung over the door, flanked by U.S. and Cuban flags.
They ordered cheese toast. Coleman had cafe con leche and beer; Serge ice water. They watched TV and chewed.
"... We take you to correspondent Blaine Crease with this exclusive report. Blaine? ..."
Blaine Crease bobbed against the horizon as his catamaran sailed toward the Marquesas.
"Thank you Natalie. A grisly discovery about twenty miles from Key West today as divers recovered two unrecognizable bodies involved in some kind of incident with Miami quarterback Dan Marino's speedboat. ..."
A large photograph of Marino's smiling face filled the screen.
"It is not known whether Marino himself was aboard. But we have been unable to reach him by phone, and his boat captain refused to be interviewed ..."
The TV showed a depressed Johnny Vegas staring at tufts of pizza in the water, then looking up at the camera and angrily waving it away.
Blaine Crease's voice narrated over the video: "... Heaven only knows what that poor young man is thinking ..."
Johnny was thinking, if she would only stop upchucking, I can still score.
"... Back to you Natalie ..."
"Thank you Blaine. And in other tragic news ..." said the smiling anchorwoman, who swung to another camera and switched to frown. "We take you to the Space Coast ..."
A skinny, baby-faced reporter walked backward on the beach with a microphone. "As the space shuttle orbits overhead, police face a down-to-earth murder mystery in the space capital of the United States. I'm here in Cocoa Beach, where police have discovered a crime scene almost as puzzling as it is macabre. Officially, authorities are saying nothing except the deceased is male, but sources tell me he was the victim of the world's most dangerous Rube Goldberg device. ..."
Coleman gave Serge a worried glance but didn't speak. Serge threw three fives on the counter, individually, dealing cards, and they walked into the Key West night.
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