1 Key West: 2004. October 30

He was small and wiry, and dressed like a street bum. He could have been any of those who eke out a living in Key West by scrubbing the boats of the idle rich or working at other odd jobs around the harbor.

“Got a light?” he asked.

“Sure,” I answered, taking a good look at him.

“Got a cigarette, too?”

I pulled the smokes from my pocket and shook one out. He dropped his bag to the ground beside mine and leaning forward, put the cigarette in his mouth and cupped his hands around the end of it. His weather-beaten face showed more clearly in the flickering light of the match.

“Is everything there?” I asked.

“Mister,” he said, “I’m doing this for a friend. A close friend. I already got paid and whatever’s in that bag was in it when I took the money. I didn’t look, and I don’t want to know.”

He picked up my seabag and headed toward the harbor. I turned back to the Gulf, waiting a few minutes before flicking my cigarette into the water and picking up the bag he’d left behind. I casually wandered up Duvall Street toward the hotel. 

I was counting on the darkness and the nature of the annual Fantasy Fest as much as on the change in my appearance over the last year to avoid being recognized. The loss of fifteen pounds had little effect compared to the change in my physique due to the new layer of hard-earned muscle. Gone were the long hair and beard and the wasted look in my eyes and face. My hair was quite short now, not much more than stubble, and the sun had stolen most of the color; the same sun that had darkened my skin. It was a darkness that couldn’t be confused with the tan that spells long hours on a golf course or lying by a pool, but the deep, underlying hue that comes only from day after day of hard labor in ocean-reflected sunlight. It was a darkness that contrasted sharply with the still-pink scar over my right eye. And it was a darkness that matched the malice I held for the man I’d come to kill.

The party flowed out of the bars and fully onto the street, the typical mix of Fantasy Fest participants roughly grouped into those in costumes and those who were there to watch those in costumes. Most were high on something; alcohol, drugs or both. Mood altering substances were in plentiful supply; inhibitions were not. A year ago I was the host with the most and what amused me then served as little more than cover for me now.

I wouldn’t have noticed them if the blond hadn’t run right into me. She and the brunette were laughing, chased by a big guy in a biker costume. They were young, nineteen or early twenties, and he looked to be about forty. The blond stopped laughing as he grabbed her by the arm, and I realized his biker outfit wasn’t a costume.

 Twelve months ago I would have walked on.

“Let her go.” I slung my bag over my shoulder, behind my back where it was safe.

“Fuck off,” he spat.

If appearances alone could intimidate, the biker would have been the clear winner but he saw something in me that perhaps even I didn’t recognize; killing two men will do that. He stared at me eye to eye and then moved on, cursing me under his foul-smelling breath.

The girls withered a little under my stare and their defiant looks took on a trace of doubt. Just a trace, and momentary at that. I shook my head and walked on but didn’t get far when the blond darted around in front of me.

“Wait,” she said. “Thanks, but we were okay.”

“Right little girl. Don’t tease big bad men. They bite.”

“We’re not little girls, mister,” chimed in the brunette, “and if anybody bites, we do.”

These weren’t innocents out to play on the edge. Attractive in a blatant, animalistic way, both had wide, sensuous mouths and a knowing look about them that guaranteed they’d be as hard as nails in a few more years. Curiously, their chains, bracelets and earrings weren’t costume pieces; they were real. Wanton little rich girls. Tough, wanton little rich girls. Their eyes glittered with the effect of whatever chemical was de rigueur now. I stepped on past them without saying any more and made my way around to the service entrance at the back of the hotel.

The staff was far too busy to pay any attention as I went through to the service elevator and none of them would have recognized me anyway. I used to own this hotel, but I’d never spent any time in it. I stepped into the elevator and punched the button for the top floor, checking inside the bag on the way up and taking out the key to the suite.

It must have been close to 3:00 a.m. when the tension and stress of the last weeks – hell, months – gave way to exhaustion and I collapsed into a troubled sleep.

 

II

 

The droning sound flirted with the edges of my subconscious until it gained a foothold, insinuating itself into the background of my dream. As irritating as the sound was, the dream was still foremost in my mind, a cacophony of screams, cries and pleadings stronger than the droning. Then the shrill ring of the telephone accomplished what the droning of the alarm clock alone couldn’t. I jolted fully awake.

Silencing the alarm was easy. A sweep of my right arm knocked the clock to the floor as I jumped up and started across the suite to the phone. The phone scared me.

It was well past noon. I grabbed the handset, shoved the French doors open and stepped out onto the balcony. My stark nakedness didn’t even cross my mind. This was, after all, Key West.

I punched the answer button as I looked down on Duvall Street. The evidence of the previous night’s drunken debauchery was gone, the street made ready for the next onslaught of transient, moneyed people. And money, more than anything, is what Key West has always been about. Scratch the skin of Key West and the city bleeds money. Scratch deep enough and you’ll find the dirty money. It motivates some and contributes to the ruin of others.

“Yeah” I said into the telephone, still looking down at the street and trying to quell the anxiety that threatened to overwhelm me.

“You’re here,” came the slow reply.

It was a man’s voice, one I recognized immediately. One long year since I’d heard that voice over anything but long distance, and the fact it was a local call unsettled me. The fact there was any call at all unsettled me. I was supposed to be dead, and this man knew it.

“Yes, I’m here. I came in last night.”

A deep throated, menacing, controlled rumble that passed as a laugh came over the phone. I used to find it amusing when other people heard it for the first time and mistook it for something else. It didn’t sound like a laugh to me anymore either.

“I didn’t fall for that death thing and nobody sneaks into Key West without me findin’ out. Last night made sense - nice touch.”

“The room is registered under another name. How did you find me?”

“You kiddin’? Fact is I knew you were here before you even went to the hotel. That’s one reason we got along so well, remember?”

Remember? How could I forget? Well over six feet tall and blacker than the ace of spades, Shando was many things. But forgotten was not one of them. He knew, or knew somebody who knew, everything that went on from Miami to Key West. And the closer you got to Key West, the more personally knowledgeable he became. Drugs, sex, gambling, smuggling, payoffs and bribes – the underside of Key West – were an open book to Shando. I kicked myself for believing I could surprise him.

“Yes, I remember,” I said, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt, “and I knew you’d find me, but not this quickly. I need to see you later tonight.”

There was no hesitation, and no change in his voice.

“11:30 – use the back stairs,” and then he hung up. I knew where, without being told.

I took another quick look down Duvall toward the pier, and as I turned to go back into the suite I saw the couple on the balcony next door. They were watching me in that sly way people do when they don’t want you to know they’re watching. Pretending they’re looking at something past you, something off in the distance. I turned fully toward them, smiled and said ‘hi’ while I casually scratched my balls with the telephone handset. I heard the woman’s shocked intake of breath and the sharp crack of her coffee cup smashing on the concrete of the balcony floor as I turned back and went inside.

 

J P Roszell
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