Better yet, leave me out of it. Give yourself all the credit, and if you’re like me and looking out the window at a foot or two of snow, you might want want to mention that it’s set in Key West….
I quickly wrote back and scheduled the publication of the excerpt here for mid-August, and for the next three weeks I had a strange feeling that must be something akin to what Olympic judges go through when they know that the best skating or gymnastic performance will be coming near the end of the program. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to share some great stuff with readers here over the past couple of years, and I’ve let you know what I liked. But I was aware — not to put fine a point on the analogy since fiction cannot be rated in the linear way that one might rate a performance, say, on the balance beam — that I wanted to save the 10s, because I knewThe Storm Killer was coming. Can a novel could be a 10? If so, I’d say this is a 10. It is a wonderfully ambitious novel of hard-boiled historical noir, and the author, Mike Jastrzebski, delivers on its potential in every way, with every sense, and with an astonishing ability to create, or perhaps recreate, the times and places and characters in this work of fiction.
Let me share a few reviews, and you’ll see — for whatever it’s worth — that I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness on this one.
“Time: 1935. Place: New York City. Crime beat reporter Jim Locke gets sucked into a quagmire of death, deceit, and danger when his actress sister is murdered – and he becomes the prime suspect. When he uncovers a pattern of similar murders, he is convinced that a serial killer is on the loose. But the police aren’t buying it, and it’s up to Jim to stop the madman. The hunt takes him from the grimy streets and smoke-filled bars of Manhattan to deceptively laid-back Key West, just as a killer storm bears down on the island. THE STORM KILLER has it all: hard-boiled narrative, gripping suspense, period detail, an unlikely hero battling his inner demons, and a stunning conclusion that you won’t see coming. Highly recommended!”
When I worked for my mother, Prozac was my drug of choice. Since moving to Key West I’ve discovered a slice of key lime pie works just as well. The night I found out Nick Hastings had been murdered less than two miles from where I was tending bar, I ate a whole damn pie.
Dirty Alvin’s is the kind of bar where you can get a burger at a reasonable price along with a frosty mug of beer and a slice of the best key lime pie on the island. They cater to a diverse crowd and the dozen tables manage to stay full about half of the time. The bar has eight stools squeezed into enough space for six, but it’s where most of the customers gather two or three deep to tell their stories and bemoan their days.
Customers were scarce that Thursday night and we were closing a little early. There were three of us working and I was cleaning up behind the bar. Tanya, the owner, was in the back room counting the till. When Tanya’s father, the original Dirty Alvin, died, she took over. I knew something about working for a family business and I suspected she had mixed feelings about running the place.
I took a moment to watch while Marissa, the waitress, struggled to slip into her leathers. She was a small blond with a tiny waist and large store-bought breasts, and male and female customers alike often took the time to stare at her. Outside, her girlfriend Christy was showing her impatience by revving up her Harley, which is why I didn’t hear the front door open.
When I looked up, a tall thin woman was standing in front of me. I jumped and a frown broke the deadpan look that was fixed on her pitted face. “What’s the problem?” she asked, as if she was used to having people jump at the sight of her.
Maybe she was, I thought. I shook my head. “Nothing. I didn’t know you were standing there.” I threw the towel I’d been using into the sink and met her gaze without flinching. “We’re closed.”
“That’s good for both of us.” She set one of the biggest purses I’d ever seen onto the counter and slid onto the barstool across from me.
Now it was my turn to frown. “I thought I said we were closed.”
Apparently the lady was deaf because she ignored me, opened her purse, and began rummaging around. At one point I swear her entire arm was lost in the void. When she finally finished digging into the abyss she pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a Bic lighter. She set them down and when I started to protest she interrupted me. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re closed.” She reached back into the bag and this time she drew out a badge and tossed it onto the bar. “You Wes Darling?” she asked.
I didn’t pay much attention to the badge. I’d seen them before. Instead I asked, “Did I serve a minor or something, officer…?”
She took the time to light a cigarette and drop the pack back into her purse before answering. “It’s not officer-it’s Detective Davies. I’m afraid this is a little more serious, Wes.”
I retrieved an ashtray and set it in front of her, then reached over into the cooler and took out a Miller Light for myself. I took a swig before asking, “You want one, Detective?”
Davies shook her head. “I’m working. I wouldn’t mind a diet Coke though.”
I grabbed a glass, turned my back to the cop, and filled it from the fountain. “So what did I do to warrant a visit from the Key West gendarmes?” I asked, pushing the Coke across the bar.
Davies wore a gray skirt with a matching jacket that needed a good ironing, and when she accepted the glass I noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring. She took a slow, deliberate sip of her drink, and then took a business card from her jacket pocket. She placed the card on the counter and pushed it toward me, careful to avoid the water ring from her glass. “Recognize this?” Davies asked.
It was creased and had a stain in the middle faintly resembling a four-leaf clover. I picked it up and was surprised to see my name on it. “It used to be one of mine,” I said.
“Used to be?” She reached out a thin, tapered finger and flicked the edge of the card with her nail. “It says you’re Vice-President of DDA Security and that you specialize in discreet investigations.” She tapped the card one more time, snatched it from my fingers, and held it in front of her eyes as if she were studying it.
She squinted at the fine print on the bottom of the card and added, “It also says here you’re a security expert. Pretty pretentious of you, don’t you think? How does anybody become an expert at anything at your age? You’re what, thirty years old? And what’s this shit about being founded in 1876?”
“It’s true.” A flicker of pride rushed through me, as it always did when I spoke about the history of the agency. “My great-great-great-grandfather was a Pinkerton detective, a Wells Fargo shotgun driver, and he even knew Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. When he was forty-five he moved to Detroit and started the firm. Back then it was called The Darling Detective Agency.”
“Thanks for the history lesson.” Davies stubbed out her cigarette and set the card face down on the counter. Written in my mother’s precise handwriting was the name Dirty Alvin’s, and the address to the bar.
The detective picked up the card and slipped it back into her pocket, and then leaned toward me. “What I really want to know, Wes, is are you in Key West working a case? Is the bartending gig some kind of a cover? I don’t understand how someone goes from being VP of a big firm to tending bar in Key West.”
“Oh, come on, Detective. People have been coming down here to escape for as long as my family has been in the detective business. Let’s just say I left the business six months ago for personal reasons. I don’t have a clue where that card came from-or why you’re standing here keeping me from closing up.” I finished my beer in two gulps and set the bottle onto the counter hard enough to emphasize my irritation.
“All right,” she said. “Then explain to me how your business card ended up in the pocket of a body we discovered out at Smathers Beach early this morning. Murder’s bad for the tourist trade, and makes the city fathers nervous.”
Me too, I thought. I reached beneath the counter for the bottle of antacid tablets I kept there and popped four of them into my mouth. I’d left the agency for a reason. Because my family had been in the detective business for well over a hundred years, my mother expected me to take over some day. The trouble was I never felt comfortable dealing with the deceit, the dead bodies, and the cops. It only took one screw-up on my part to convince me to quit. Still, the business was in my blood, and Davies had managed to spark my curiosity.
“This body got a name?” I asked.
Davies turned her head slightly, watching me like a wild animal getting ready to pounce. “The guy had your card on him,” she said. “I was hoping you could tell me his name.”
“Look, Davies,” I said. “I’m not a psychic. Why don’t you tell me what you’ve got, and I’ll help if I can. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Davies sat there for a few seconds, then took a small notebook from her purse and laid it in front of me. “There was a driver’s license on the body, along with your card, and this.”
I recognized the notebook and my hand began to tremble when I picked it up and flipped it open. On the front page he’d written: stop and see Wes. Now I knew why Davies wanted to talk to me.
My mouth went dry and I had to work up a little spit before I could get the words out. “Nick Hastings?”
Davies nodded. “You know him?”
“He worked for our agency.”
“So you are a P.I.?”
I barely heard the question. Not only had Nick been my mentor when I started in the business, but for over twenty years he’d been involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with my mother. I wasn’t looking forward to being the one to break the news to her.
“You all right?” I thought I detected a touch of sympathy in her voice, but when I looked up her eyes were cold and unwavering.
No, I wasn’t all right. My eyes started to water and I fought to blink back the tears. I’d been raised to believe crying was a sign of weakness. The last thing I was going to do was shed tears in front of a cop, especially a woman cop. I took a deep breath, gnawed at the inside of my cheek until it felt raw, and then said, “Sorry, but I didn’t hear the question.”
“You said he worked for your agency.”
“It’s actually my mother’s agency. I used to work for her, but like I told you, I quit six months ago. How’d Nick die?”
“Shot. Twice at close range.”
“No. At least nobody’s come forward. You have any idea what he was working on?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t even know he was in town.”
“Are you telling me he was working for a business your family owns and you don’t know why he’s in Key West? I find that hard to believe.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I quit the business-all right? Wasn’t cut out for it.” I started to reach for another beer, but thought better of it. “As far as I knew he was still in Detroit. I wish he had stopped in last night. Maybe we would have had a drink instead of him going off and getting himself killed.”
Davies looked down at the counter and used the thumbnail of her right hand to pick at something only she could see.
“Maybe you knew he was in town, maybe you didn’t.” She raised her eyes and they were hard and unyielding. “If I find out you’re holding something back from me that will affect the outcome of my investigation, I’ll toss you in jail myself.”
“Do you mind if I call and break the news to my mother?”
Davies reached back into her purse and pulled out a daily planner, accompanied by a business card which she handed to me. “If you think of anything, give me a call and let me know. I’ll need your mother’s name and phone number so I can call her and find out if Hastings was working on a case down here.”
After writing down the information I rattled off, she tossed the planner back into her purse, grabbed the bag and slid off the stool in one easy move. “Do you know who Hastings’ next of kin was? Someone will have to make arrangements for the body.”
I shook my head. “I know his mother and father are dead. He never spoke to me of anyone else. My mother might know.”
“If you could stop by tomorrow and identify the body it would help. You can’t tell shit from the driver’s license picture.”
“Where do I go?”
“His body’s still at the hospital if you want to see it. Otherwise, you can stop by the station and I’ll show you some pictures.”
“I’d rather see the pictures,” I said, not sure I could handle viewing Nick’s body.
Davies turned to leave. She proceeded to the door and pausing with it half open glanced over her shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said. “I’ll be expecting you tomorrow.”
It was 2:30 a.m. when I stepped out of the front door of Dirty Alvin’s and started jogging west along Caroline Street. Most nights, the flick of palm fronds brushing against tree trunks and the smell of the salty air blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico have a soothing effect on me. That night, I was only aware of the grating sounds. I heard a baby crying through an open window, a man and woman shouting at each other, and a silent mantra playing over and over in my head-Nick’s dead, Nick’s dead.
I never knew my father. According to my mother, I was the result of a wild weekend in Acapulco with a Vietnam vet who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know where he was from. I didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. At this stage of my life I didn’t really care.
Nick was the father figure in my life. He came to work for the agency when I was six years old. He once told me that was the day he fell in love. It took my mother a little longer, but by the time I was eight Nick had moved in with us.
My mother and Nick had a troubled relationship. When I was sixteen Nick moved out for good, but it didn’t end the relationship. He continued to work for the agency and he would often spend two or three nights at a time at our place. As far as I knew my mother never dated another man, although I suspected that when the relationship was in an off again phase, Nick went out other women.
It took me ten minutes to jog to the city marina dinghy docks. I was living aboard a thirty-six foot sailboat, which I had purchased when I moved to Key West. Rough Draft was moored in the Garrison Bight mooring field, a large permanent anchorage surrounded on three sides by land. It offers good protection from most Atlantic storms. Its only downfall is that a good northern wind strikes at least two or three days a month during the winter, tossing the boat around so badly I’m unable to sleep. That night the breeze was kicking up some whitecaps, an omen of things to come, I thought.
Slowing my pace when I turned into the parking lot, I walked past the over-flowing trash container to my van. After exchanging my running shoes for a pair of Crocs I headed across the lot, dreading the call I was about to make.
I stumbled down the ramp and along the dock to where my dinghy was locked, and sat on the pier with my feet resting in the seat of the boat. When I took out my phone I wanted to throw it as far out into the channel as I could, or better yet, fling it against the concrete break wall. Instead, I opened it, blocked my number, and called my mother.
Even though I knew she must be sleeping, she answered on the third ring. “Hello, mother,” I said, holding the phone away from my ear. My mother has a deep, raspy voice. It’s the product of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and years of living by the philosophy that the loudest voice wins any argument. When she’s angry or excited, she sounds like a man and she can swear like a sailor doused in rum.
“This is a surprise. Don’t tell me Nick knocked some sense into you and you’re ready to go back to work.”
I bit back a retort. It was obvious she knew Nick was in Key West, and just as obvious she didn’t know what had happened to him. I choked back a sob, took a deep breath, and because I couldn’t think of an easy way to put it, I said, “Nick’s dead, Mom.”
There was a moment’s silence, and I could almost see her sitting up in bed and reaching for her cigarettes. It was her way of handling stress, and had been for as long as I could remember. When she finally spoke her voice quivered. “Are you sure?”
“The cop I talked to, a woman by the name of Davies, had Nick’s driver’s license, but I haven’t seen the body. I’m supposed to stop in tomorrow and make the ID. Hopefully, they’ll have a little more information by then.”
There was another pause. “I can’t believe he’s gone, Wes.” I could hear her sobbing on the other end of the line and I almost broke down myself.
“You going to be all right?” I asked.
Her sobs died off as she reined in her feelings, and a moment later she was in control again, the mother I remembered. “I need you to do me a favor, Wes.”
“I want you to wrap up the investigation Nick was working on.”
I cringed at her words. I wanted to be a good son, but I couldn’t risk being sucked back into that life, so I had to disappoint her-again. “It’s not going to happen, Mother,” I said. “I’m out of the business for good. I’m happy doing exactly what I’m doing.”
“You’re too fucking old to run away, Wes. You can’t be a boat bum and a bartender for the rest of your life.”
I thought about what she said. Although the nightmares still troubled my dreams, they came less frequently since I’d moved to Key West. I wasn’t kidding when I’d told her I was happy playing the role of beach bum.
“At least I can’t kill anyone working behind a bar,” I said.
“You didn’t kill the girl, Wes. The F.B.I. screwed up, not you.”
“Mother, we’ve had this conversation a dozen times. Nothing you say is going to convince me to get back into the business.”
“Well, I don’t have anyone else I can send down there right now,” she said. “When you ran off it left me short-handed.”
“I gave you two months notice.”
“Right. Like I can hire a licensed operative in that short a time. Why do you think Nick was down there? He was too old to be in the field. If his death was a result of this case, you can blame yourself.”
“That’s a shitty thing to say, mother.” I knew she was upset, but her words still stung.
I thought I heard her crying again, but I didn’t know if the tears were real or if she was playing me; she was capable of it. I felt bad and I knew it was what she was aiming for. When she finally spoke she dug the dagger in a little deeper.
“I’m going to have to come down and claim Nick’s body. That’s going to take awhile, not to mention the hoops I’m going to have to jump through. There is no next of kin. Still, I guess I can find time to wrap up the case while I’m down there.”
She thought she had me, but I wasn’t biting. “Nick was working in the field because he liked it,” I reminded her. “And we both know that either Sam Jackson or Will Harris can fly down and take over the case. Stop laying a guilt trip on me.” I gave her my new e-mail address and added, “Let me know what flight you’ll be on and I’ll pick you up at the airport.”
“Don’t you think you should give me your phone number?”
I hesitated. I’d changed my number after seventeen days in a row of her calling and demanding that I grow up and get back home to the office. With a sigh I gave it to her and added, “This is not an invitation for you to harass me, mother.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
“Of course you would,” I said aloud after I hung up. “Of course you would.”
Since I work nights, my normal routine is to sleep until noon and then do boat chores for a couple of hours. The night I found out about Nick, I was awake most of the night and up before seven. I dressed in my usual shorts and t-shirt, put on a pot of coffee, and stepped out into the cockpit. There was a chill in the air, but the sky was cloudless. The wind had died and the water was as still as the Detroit river after a week-long cold snap.
When I began to shiver I moved down below. Slipping on a sweatshirt, I poured my first cup of coffee, and headed back outside. I sat sipping coffee, listening to the quiet, and thinking about Nick until the calm was shattered by first one boater, and then another, starting their dinghy motors and heading to shore. I returned a wave from a couple on the next sailboat over, and then stood and went below to refill my cup and grab my computer.
I don’t get TV reception on the boat; or rather I get three Spanish speaking stations and a local one that plays the same old movies and 1940′s era serials over and over. But thanks to my cell phone provider I have a card for my computer that gives me broadband speed Internet access.
I read a couple of newspapers online and then went to my e-mail account. The only message I had was from my mother. It was short and to the point, and infuriated the hell out of me. Wes, hon. I really do need your help on this one. I don’t have anyone free to handle this. I’ve attached a copy of the file in case you change your mind. I’ll call and let you know when I’m arriving in Key West.
I couldn’t count the number of times I’d made it clear to her I was through with the business. I knew what she was doing. She’d once told me I was a good detective because I had the curiosity of a six-hundred pound cat. Well curiosity be damned, I thought, just before shutting down the computer without opening the attachment.
I didn’t want to go down and identify Nick’s body. Instead, I spent the next several hours doing boat chores. I hooked up a hose to the wash down pump and sprayed off some bird droppings. Once the deck dried, I taped, sanded and varnished a section of handrail that was beginning to weather under the harsh tropical sunlight.
When I finished, I put on my swimsuit, dove off the bow, and did thirty laps around the perimeter of the boat before taking a quick shower. Of course it’s the only kind of shower you can take when your tanks only hold sixty gallons and you have to haul water from shore in five gallon cans.
It was eleven by the time I sat back down at the computer. I played a couple of games of solitaire, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept going over in my mind what had happened to Nick, and I wondered if his death had anything to do with the case he was working on. Finally, after getting up several times and wandering out to the cockpit and back again, I gave in and downloaded the file my mother had sent me. There were actually two files, one document file and one picture file. I opened the document file first.
There wasn’t a whole lot there. The client’s name was Frank Szymanski. He hired the firm to find an ex-girlfriend. He claimed they had an argument, she ran off, and he was heartbroken. Her name was Gail Bernard and she was a stripper who used the stage name ‘Destiny’. He also provided the information indicating she was originally from Key West, and had gone to school at Michigan State University. According to the client, he met the girl at a party in Detroit and fell in love.
The file listed Szymanski’s address in Grosse Pointe and his cell phone number. Nick had placed a note in the file referring to him as ‘that Frankie Szymanski.’
It wasn’t much to go on, so I went hunting on the Internet. Under Destiny I found reference to a comic book character, several nightclubs, and even a church, but no stripper. Under Gail Bernard, I hit the jackpot.
The articles in the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press were four years old. Both stories stated that as a freshman Bernard had been expelled from Michigan State University for running an escort service out of her dorm room. The cops found out about her enterprise when one of her girls, a fellow student, filed a complaint against a school football player. The courts went easy on the girl and Gail was given two years probation.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Frank had been one of her customers and maybe read a little too much into what would have been a business transaction. Maybe the girl had even led him on a little in hopes of having a few extra bills tucked into her g-string.
Any thought of Frank Szymanski being a victim ended when I Googled his name. What I discovered was enough to have me reach for my bottle of Tums. It appeared our client was the same Frankie Szymanski who had started his career as a hit man for the mob. The same Frankie Szymanski once linked to the nineteen seventy-five disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The same Frankie Szymanski who had been brought up on racketeering charges in nineteen eighty-five.
Damn, I thought. If my mother was serious about handling this case by herself I was going to have to step in. She was right, it had been a long time since she’d been in the field and I didn’t want to lose her too.
I was swearing under my breath by the time I opened the picture file. The blonde looking up at me wore stylish glasses, loose fitting beige shorts, and a white top that showed just a hint of skin. It took me a couple of minutes, but then I realized that I knew the girl, or more precisely, I knew her boyfriend. She’d changed the color of her hair from blonde to red and had her breasts enlarged, but I was pretty sure it was Billy Bodine’s girlfriend. I wondered if this was why Nick was planning to stop by and see me the night he was killed.
Billy was a Jimmy Buffet wannabe who played a fair guitar, and sang weekend nights at Dirty Alvin’s. Destiny usually came in on Friday nights, and a six-foot tall red-headed Amazon was someone I wasn’t going to forget, even if she had a boyfriend. She usually hung around until close, and then she would leave with Billy.
I e-mailed my mother to tell her that I knew when and where the girl could be found. I told her I’d give her the information when she arrived, and added that I was going to leave the boat within the hour and would be meeting with Davies to identify Nick’s body.
Once I let my mother know what I’d found out she would have no reason to drag me further into her case. Of course I still had to put up with her visit, and I had no doubt she was going to hassle me about coming back to work for the agency. It was in her nature and I figured I might as well accept it, but I didn’t have to like it.
I needed some time off to deal with my mother and with my grief. I called the bar and explained my situation to Tanya. I accepted her condolences and when she suggested I take the week off, I thanked her and told her I’d stop by that evening. What I didn’t tell her was that I wanted her to introduce me to Destiny. Finally, I changed my clothes and washed down a ham sandwich with another cup of coffee before climbing into my dinghy and heading into shore.
Even by Key West standards, the two men standing at the end of the dinghy dock looked out of place. It wasn’t the floppy straw hats, or their extraordinary height, or the matching faces on twin skeletal frames. No, it was the array of identical prison tattoos running up and down their skinny white arms and legs.
My first thought was that they were going to get one hell of a sunburn if they didn’t watch themselves. My second thought was they were looking for someone, and I figured by the way they watched me pull in, I was that someone. By the time I locked my dinghy to the dock, they had made their way over to me.
“You Wes Darling?” the one on my left asked.
The other brother snickered and asked, “What the fuck kind a name is that for a detective?”
“I’m not a detective,” I said. I stood and they moved in unison to block me from stepping onto the dock. “Now you want to move aside and let me up onto the dock?”
“You look like the picture your mother sent us,” the first man said. “She said you could tell us where we can find Destiny.”
I groaned inwardly. “She sent you a picture?” I asked, but I knew the answer before he said it.
“She told our boss, Frankie, that you knew where Destiny was. Frankie sent us to see you.” He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, unfolded it and showed me the print.
It was a copy of the promotional picture I had taken when my mother made me vice-president of the agency. She could have sent it, or it could have been copied from the business section of the Detroit Free Press, where it once ran with an article on the firm. One thing was for sure though, it was my picture. “Yup,” I said. “It looks like me so I must be Wes Darling. Now who the hell are you?”
“I’m Bob,” the man holding the picture said. “And this is my brother, Willie. Like I said, we work for Frankie. We just want to know where we can find the broad, and you can go about your business.”
“I don’t know you,” I said. “And I don’t know that you work for the person who hired us. Tell you what-I’ll fill my mother in and she can tell your boss.”
“We could make you tell us,” Willie smiled as if the idea appealed to him, then he added, “Or we could just kill you.”
“You could try,” I said. While we stood there talking, three dinghies had come and gone. There was also a small sailboat gliding back and forth along the canal that had passed us twice not thirty feet from the dock. I nodded toward the sailboat. “Of course there would be a lot of witnesses.”
Bob followed my gaze, and then said, “Go ahead and call her. We’ll wait.”
I shook my head. “Not with you guys standing over me. You guys leave-I call my mother.”
“This is bullshit.” Willie turned to his brother. “Give me five minutes with this clown, and he’ll tell us anything we want to know.”
“Shut up, Willie.” Bob stooped down and we were looking at each other, eye to eye. “I got a feeling there ain’t so many people around here at night. If you’re playing games with us, we’ll be back. You understand what I’m saying?”
“I understand,” I said. Up close I could smell his cologne, something fruity I didn’t recognize. When he stood back up, the collar of his shirt spread open and I caught a glimpse of a teardrop tattoo he had stenciled just below the neckline. Unfortunately, the tattoo added a little weight to the threat. In many prisons, a teardrop warned the other inmates the wearer had killed a man.
I watched the two men meander back along the dock and noticed Willie walked with a slight stoop and was bow-legged. It wasn’t much, but it might help me identify them should the need ever arise. I waited until they were out of sight, and then sat back down in the boat. It looked like I was going to have to call my mother before I headed off to see Davies.
Detective Davies was standing in front of the police station smoking a cigarette when I walked up. From the back, she was damn good-looking; too bad we had to talk face-to-face. She seemed lost in thought and didn’t notice me until I stepped in front of her. She lifted her eyes, blew smoke in my face, and gave me an unfriendly look. It took me by surprise; I thought we had been on reasonably good terms when she walked out the previous evening.
“I was just getting ready to send out an all points for you. I thought maybe you weren’t going to show up.”
“Well here I am.”
“Ain’t I lucky.” Davies took a final drag from her cigarette, flicked the butt into the street and turned away from me. “Come on in.”
I hadn’t realized how hot it was outside until the cool interior air of the station hit me. I followed Davies past the duty officer, through a door and down a hall. She opened the door to a small room and invited me in with a toss of her head.
There was a table, several chairs, and not much else. She waited until I took a seat, then said, “I’ve got to get my notes and I’ll be right back.”
When she walked out I sat looking at the back of the door and thinking that Detective Davies was never going to win the most congenial cop award. I expected her to keep me waiting just for the hell of it, but she was back in less than two minutes.
She walked in carrying a file folder and two bottles of water. After placing the file on the table, she took the seat across from me and held out one of the waters. “I thought you might be thirsty.”
“Thanks.” I opened the bottle, took a sip to be polite, and set it down in front of me. “So, do you know what happened to Nick?”
“First things first.” Davies opened the file, took out an eight-by-ten photo and slid it across the table to me. As I’d walked to the station I had tried to prepare myself for the worst. I hesitated, picked up the picture, and glanced at it. My stomach began to churn and my heart fluttered.
It was Nick all right. He was lying on his back with his eyes open, and there was a jagged hole near his left ear. This wasn’t the way I wanted to remember Nick. I couldn’t help but wonder if his death was connected to the case, and I swore if it turned out the two brothers who had confronted me at the dock had anything to do with his death, they’d pay for it.
“It’s him,” I said. I drew a deep breath, forced my eyes away from the photo, and stood. “My mother is coming down to Key West to handle everything. Will they release the body to her?”
“She’s not next of kin-right?”
“No,” I said. “But when I spoke with her last night she said Nick doesn’t have any living relatives.”
“We don’t have a morgue here in town; we have to use the hospital. They’re going to be anxious to have the body picked up as soon as possible. Since I’ve still got to call your mother, I’ll see what the situation is and we’ll go from there. In the meantime why don’t you give me your phone number in case I have any further questions.”
“You have any suspects?” I asked.
“Not unless we include you,” she said.
I hoped she was joking, but I’d never known a cop to show much of a sense of humor when it came to murder.
I arrived at Dirty Alvin’s around eleven. The place was filled to capacity, Billy was taking a break, and ‘Redneck Woman’ played on the Jukebox. Billy sat at the table next to the small stage, smoking and chatting with Destiny.
Joe Fleming was working behind the bar and it was all I could do to bite back a smile. Joe works construction during the week and helps out at the bar whenever he’s needed. At forty-three years old, he was movie star handsome and built like a boxer, with a muscular chest and large biceps. He was wearing a pair of too tight white jeans along with a flamboyant lime-green shirt he wore with the top three buttons undone to reveal his shaved chest. To top off his ensemble, he sported a lime-green baseball cap that read; don’t ask I’m gay.
I waited until Joe looked my way, held up a finger, and walked toward the bar while he pulled out a Miller Lite. I worked my way through the crowd, picked up the beer, and said, “Thanks for covering for me.”
“Sorry to hear about your friend.”
I nodded, turned to face the room, and leaned back against the bar. Tanya and Marissa were running around taking orders, but when Tanya looked up and saw me she excused herself and walked over.
Tanya’s skin was cocoa-colored, and her large green eyes worked to accentuate her mixed heritage. I found her attractive despite the fact I hated her short spiked hair. She wore a Dirty Alvin’s t-shirt tied off below her breasts, a pair of low-riding jean shorts, and I thought she was a hell of a lot hotter than the Amazon I’d just located for Frankie Szymanski.
The problem was, every time I made an effort to show a little interest Tanya backed away. I figured part of the problem was that her father died from cancer only two weeks before I came to work for her. She was still grieving. Beyond that I didn’t know much about her personal life. I’d learned through a conversation with Marissa that Tanya lived alone, and I never saw her out with a guy. Hell, for all I knew she could be gay, which might explain her aloofness toward me.
“How ya doing?” she asked.
“I’ll get by.”
“I didn’t think you’d stop by tonight. You said your mother was coming into town?”
“She’s not here yet.”
“So you stopped in why-because you’re lonely?”
“Actually,” I said, choosing my words with care. ”I told my mother I’d wrap up the case my friend Nick was working on before he died.”
Tanya looked confused. ”I don’t understand.”
“In my past life, before I came to work for you, I was a private investigator. I worked for my mother too, just like Nick did.”
“I still don’t understand what that has to do with your being here tonight.”
The jukebox went dead and I looked up to see Billy pick up his guitar and step up to the microphone. When he started to sing an off-key version of Jimmy Buffett’s ’Come Monday’, I glanced over to where he’d been seated and said, “I stopped by to ask you about her.”
She followed my gaze and her voice turned cool when she said, “What’s Gail done now?”
“Far as I know she hasn’t done anything. I think it’s a case of unrequited love.”
Tanya let out a little snort. ”I’ve watched a lot of guys fall in love with Gail, but I’ve never seen her return it. Tell your client he’s wasting his time. What are you supposed to do, bring her a proposal or something?”
I shook my head. ”We were hired to find her and let the client know where she is.”
“Look-Gail’s had enough problems in her life. Why don’t you tell your client you couldn’t find her? She doesn’t need some lovesick guy chasing her all over the place.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. ”Besides, she’s a stripper for Christ’s sake. She’s paid to have men chase after her.”
“She wasn’t always a stripper,” Tanya said. ”She’s put up with a lot in her life, and I’m asking this as a favor. Gail and I were good friends at one time, almost like sisters.”
“I promised my mother I’d do this.”
“I never pegged you for a momma’s boy,” Tanya said, before she turned and walked away.
I wanted to run after her. I wanted to explain it was too late to do what she asked. Instead, I turned my attention to Destiny. She was now standing in front of the stage, swaying to the music and looking more like a college girl on vacation than a stripper.
Destiny’s blue jeans were stylishly ragged and her white heels added to the impression that her legs went on forever. She wore little or no makeup and her red hair flowed across her shoulders as she danced.
While I stood there watching, three different guys came up and hit on her. She dismissed each of them. She seemed totally into Billy and I figured Tanya was right; Frankie Szymanski was wasting his time chasing this girl.
After I finished my beer I set the bottle on the counter and looked around for Tanya. She was behind the bar working the register. I was about to head over to apologize when my phone rang.
I wanted to ignore the call, but I’d been trained by the best. In the detective business information is everything and I was on a case. When I answered, a thick demanding voice on the other end asked, “Is she there?”
“Who the hell is this?” I asked.
“Who do you think it is asshole, George W. fuckin’ Bush? You made a big mistake pissing my boys off. They were ready to break both your legs after the incident this afternoon. Your mother said Destiny would be at this Dirty Alvin’s place tonight. Is she there?”
“How am I supposed to know?” I asked.
“Don’t be a smart ass. You think I trust you after this morning? I sent one of the boys to watch the place and he saw you go in. Now is she there or not?”
I didn’t like Frankie Szymanski any more than I liked the brothers who worked for him. If I hadn’t promised my mother I would have hung up on him. Instead, I reigned in my irritation and said, “She’s here all right.”
“Good. Keep an eye on her and if she leaves, call me. I’m in town and either me, or one of my associates, will be there to talk to her before close.”
He hung up before I could reply, so I slid the phone back into my pocket, turned back to the bar, and ordered another beer.
I never did get a chance to talk to Tanya; she spent the night avoiding me. I stuck around, helped behind the bar, and waited for my client to appear. He never showed, and a little before two, I left Dirty Alvin’s.
When I stepped outside into the humid night, I nearly collided with one of the brothers. He was dressed in black, and I suspected he was high on something. He shifted around on his feet and moved his shoulders, almost as if he were slow dancing to a beat only he could hear. His black jeans and t-shirt looked like they were brand new, and the black leather jacket hanging unzipped from his lanky frame was out of place on the warm Key West night, as his earlier outfit had been out of place on the docks.
“She still in there?” he asked
“Where’s your doppelganger?” I asked.
“What are you talking about asshole?”
“Let me make it simple for you. Where’s Willie?”
“You don’t need to know where Willie is. All you need to remember, is he’s always got my back.”
I glanced around and didn’t spot Willie. “I’ve got to tell you,” I said. ”You and your brother need to hire yourselves a fashion consultant. You’re way overdressed for Key West.”
He popped something into his mouth, and pulling a handkerchief from his jacket pocket he mopped a trickle of sweat from his brow. His head was shaved and he was a couple of inches taller than me; six-three, maybe even six-four, it was hard to tell for sure with the way he slouched.
“It’s fucking February. It’s not natural for it to be this hot.” He leaned a little closer and his breath was mint fresh. ”Besides, I’m not dressed to impress you. Now shut up and take this.”
He held out an envelope to me. “Frankie says there’s a nice bonus in there for you. He says forget you ever heard a Destiny or Frank Szymanski.”
I took the envelope and counted out twenty-five hundred dollar bills. ”We usually bill our clients,” I said as I folded the envelope and tucked it into my front pocket. ”And I was expecting Frankie.”
“Frankie’s administration. He doesn’t get out much anymore. I guess you could call me the field rep. I’m going to have a little talk with this Destiny chick, get what she took from the boss, and then I can go back to Detroit where fags don’t walk around holding hands and cats don’t do tricks for idiots who come in on cruise ships.”
My stomach began to churn a little at what I was hearing. ”I thought this was all about locating a lost love,” I said.
“Yeah-right. Like Frankie is going to waste all this time and money looking for a hundred dollar whore. She took something and the boss wants it back.”
“And if she doesn’t want to give back what she took?” I asked.
He shook his head. ”Oh, she’ll give it back all right. I always collect. It’s why Frankie sent me.” To further accentuate the point he straightened himself up, snapped his head to the side and smiled when his neck made a popping sound. ”Now get out of here. I see they’re locking up the place and I don’t want to miss my Destiny now, do I?” He laughed aloud at his own joke and took a step away from me.
An uneasy feeling crept over me and I reached out and caught his arm. ”Maybe I should talk to her for you.”
Everything I’d read about Frankie Szymanski indicated he had a propensity for violence. Despite the assurances, I didn’t trust Frankie, or his henchman. The last thing I needed was to be responsible for another girl getting hurt or killed.
With exaggerated care he shook my hand off his arm and turned back to face me. ”Don’t never touch me like that, Darling.”
When he realized what he’d said his eyes narrowed and his face took on a red glow. With a quick flick of his fingers he reached for the edge of his jacket and drew it aside enough for me to see the revolver hanging in a holster beneath his left arm.
“I don’t plan to hurt the girl if get what I want. Frankie, he also told me not to hurt you if you followed instructions and did what you were told. Now like I said, get the hell out of my sight.”
I considered my options. My great-great-great grandfather, Dusty, would not have hesitated. He’d have drawn his gun and shot first. There were two problems with that scenario. First, I didn’t have a gun on me, and second, the last thing I needed in the middle of Key West was to reenact the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Especially when there was only one gun and it wasn’t mine. I figured if I moved quickly I could probably disarm him, but then again, someone might get shot. Since I was the likely recipient of the bullet, I decided on a tactical retreat.
“Sure,” I said. ”It’s not really any of my business.” I glanced over at the bar and started walking toward Duval.
“Now you’re thinking,” he said. ”I ain’t gonna hurt the broad.” He cleared his throat and added, “Unless of course she makes me. Truth is, most people see me, take one look at the gun, and it’s all over.”
I didn’t say anything, but forced myself to continue walking away from him. When I turned the corner I stepped out of sight behind a store that billed itself as ‘The Topless Bikini Shop’.
Duval was starting to wind down. Traffic was light and a few late night drinkers wandered the streets in small groups. If I’d seen a cop I would have flagged him down, but it appeared that if I wanted to help the girl I was on my own.
Every instinct told me to keep going, but I already felt responsible for the death of one girl in the line of business. Because of that girl, I wasn’t about to leave Destiny to the clown with the gun. Instead, I edged back and peered around the wall in time to see the man in black slide behind a gumbo-limbo tree and disappear into the shadows.
The first one out the door was Billy. He carried a backpack and strolled over to a red motor scooter parked next to the bike rack. He sat down, fumbled in his pack, and when he lit a cigarette a flash of light lit up his face. I figured he was waiting for Destiny, and I wondered how Bob would handle the situation.
Marissa and Joe were next. Joe climbed into a pink cab that pulled up to the curb, and half a minute later a motorcycle roared up. Marissa ran to it, hopped on, and wrapped her arms around Christy. As they pulled away, the door opened and Destiny followed Tanya out of the bar.
Destiny carried a purse slung over her shoulder, and Tanya carried a sweater. In her heels Destiny was over six-feet tall and was a stunning woman, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Tanya. She gave the door handle a good shake to make sure it was secure, and then the two of them walked arm in arm over to the bike rack.
“Hey, hurry up will ya,” Billy called out. ”I want to get the hell out of here.”
Destiny shot Billy the finger, and stood waiting while Tanya bent over and unlocked the only remaining bike in the rack. Finally, Tanya threw her sweater into the basket and when she rode off, Destiny strolled over to stand beside the scooter.
Her jeans were tight, and while she struggled to climb onto the back of the scooter the man in black stepped out from behind the tree. His right arm rested along his body and the weight of the gun in his hand caused him to list slightly.
“Hey Destiny,” he called out. ”Frankie wants his diamonds back.” While Bob’s attention was focused on the girl, I crept along the edge of the building. Keeping in the shadows of the trees and shrubs, I began to make my way back towards the bar.
“What the…” Billy jumped at the sudden appearance of the stranger and would have knocked over the scooter if Destiny hadn’t been straddling it. ”Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“You can call me Bob,” the man said. ”In fact, why don’t you call me Mister Bob? Now scat.”
“Come on Gail,” Billy said, reaching for the throttle. ”Let’s get out of here.”
“Leave the broad,” Bob said.
“What are you, nuts?” Billy asked. ”I’m not gonna leave her.”
Bob raised his arm and his voice hardened. ”Look here, pretty boy.” He waited until Billy looked over and saw the gun before adding, “I can shoot your ass off the bike, or you can be on your way by yourself. It’s your choice.”
While Bob waited for Billy to decide what he was going to do, I inched my way along the sidewalk while searching for a branch or rock to use as a weapon. All I found was a lone coconut. It lay next to the sidewalk and was about the size of a softball. When I picked it up I was disappointed at how light it felt, but it was all I had. I tightened my hand around the coconut and continued on.
Billy made up his mind, dropped his cigarette butt, and said, “Get off.”
“You can’t be serious,” Destiny’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
“I said get off, now.” Billy’s voice trembled, and he couldn’t take his eyes off the gun.
“Good thinking.” Bob waved the gun in front of him. ”There’s something else you need to consider.”
“You need to remember-I know where you work. If you even think about going to the cops I’m gonna come down here just like now when there’s no one around, and I’m going to break both your kneecaps-understand?”
“Yes sir,” Billy said.
“Good.” Bob stepped toward the scooter. ”You don’t have to worry about the girl; I don’t want to hurt her. We’re gonna have us a nice little chat, that’s all. I’ll make sure she gets back home all right. Now why don’t you get the hell out of here?”
“Yes sir,” Billy repeated. At the same time he pushed back with his butt, forcing Destiny off the scooter.
“You son of a bitch,” she shouted when Billy started the bike. Sliding the purse off her shoulder she grasped it by the straps and swung it toward Billy’s head.
He ducked, cursed when it glanced off his arm, and once again nearly tipped the scooter. With a quick glare over his shoulder, Billy took off down the street as fast as the bike would carry him.
I used the distraction to edge up behind Bob. When Destiny turned to face him she saw me. She opened her mouth and I gave my head a quick shake, holding a finger to my lips.
She hesitated, but only for a moment. ”How’s Frankie doing anyway?” she asked Bob. I admired the girl’s spunk.
“He wants his diamonds back,” Bob said.
“I don’t have ‘em.”
“Too bad, Destiny. In that case I’m gonna have to…”
At that moment I twisted my ankle on the uneven concrete. A flash of pain shot up my leg causing me to let out a sharp breath. Bob’s reaction was instantaneous. He swung around, dropped to one knee, and pointed the revolver at my stomach.
Destiny may have saved my life. She jumped forward without hesitation and swinging her purse like a mace she brought it down on Bob’s wrist. Whatever she was carrying in her bag made a dull thump when it hit and the revolver flew from his hand.
At the same time I threw the coconut. Bob ducked and the coconut zipped past his ear. When he started to reach for the gun I launched myself at him. My shoulder slammed into his face and I heard the cartilage snap in his nose. Bob let out a whoosh of air as I landed on top of his chest and then he lay still beneath me.
“Did we kill him?” Destiny’s face was flushed. Her voice rose an octave and her eyes opened wide with excitement. “He looks like hell.”
I rolled off Bob, pushed to my knees, and studied his face. She was right, he did look like hell. I looked around and made sure Willie wasn’t anywhere to be seen. When we were on the phone, Frankie made it clear the brothers wanted to break my legs because of what I had done down at the docks earlier. That was nothing compared to this.
Blood dripped from Bob’s smashed nose and there was a wide cut over his left eye. Reaching out, I touched his neck, searching for his pulse. I felt the throbbing, let out a sigh of relief, and jumped back when he coughed and opened his eyes.
His eyelids fluttered while he tried to focus on my face. He said something in a low whisper and I leaned forward in time to hear, “You’re a dead man, Darling.” He closed his eyes and groaned. “Fuckin’ lousy name.”
“Yeah, well I’ve gotten used to it.” I pushed myself to my feet and added, “I couldn’t let you hurt the girl.”
Bob felt his nose and let out a hiss. “You broke it.”
I’m not sure how he could tell. His nose was flat and looked like it had been broken before, maybe more than once. Up close, I could see that several of his teeth were capped with gold crowns. I suspected Mister Bob had done a lot of fighting in his life, and it appeared he hadn’t always come out on top.
“You didn’t leave me a choice,” I said.
“I told you I wasn’t gonna hurt the broad.” Bob moved his hand from his nose, wiped the blood on his pants leg, and tried to sit up. “All I wanted was to get Frankie’s diamonds back. It didn’t even concern you-and now you went and made it personal between us.”
I used my foot to push him back down. “Don’t get up.”
Bob reached out, but I moved back out of the way before he could grab me. He shot me an ugly look. “You’re a dead man. And your girlfriend there is gonna join you if she don’t cough up those diamonds.”
“Maybe I should hit him again.” Destiny moved up alongside me, kicked out with her right foot and caught Bob in the ribs with the tip of her shoe.
Bob grunted and grabbed for her ankle, but I was faster.
“What are you, nuts?” I snatched her arm and dragged her away from him. “Didn’t you hear him threaten to kill you? I don’t think the man’s joking.”
“Fine.” Destiny pulled free of my grip, turned, and started off down the street. “I suppose I should thank you for your help, Mister Tough Guy,” she called out over her shoulder. “Of course you’d already be dead if I hadn’t stepped in to save your sorry ass. I’m out of here.”
“Hey, Destiny,” Bob tried to sit up again, and this time he succeeded. “I’m coming after those stones.”
Her body slumped, but she kept walking, calling out in the dark, “My name is Gail, not Destiny. You made a mistake, Mister Bob. I don’t have your diamonds.”
Bob turned his gaze to me and something about his stare told me I’d better stay out of his reach. “She looks like the picture Frankie showed me. Is she or ain’t she Destiny?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Keeping an eye on Bob I moved over to where the revolver lay. “I’m sure Frankie gave the same picture to my mother he gave to you.”
“Frankie is not going to be happy about this,” Bob said.
“I don’t really care at the moment.” I picked up the gun and pointed it at him. “Take off your belt.”
“You don’t want to do this.” His voice held an edge, and he spoke so quietly it took an effort to hear what he was saying.
I transferred the gun into my other hand and repeated, “Take off your belt.”
Bob shifted his gaze from my face to the gun and back to my face. I could almost see the gears grinding in his mind while he debated with himself, trying to decide if I was capable of shooting him. He must have read something in my eyes, because he reached down and started unbuckling his belt. Once he’d slipped it out of the loops, he held it out in front of him.
“Now toss it here,” I said. “And lay down on your stomach with your hands behind your back.”
Bob followed my orders and I formed the thin black belt into a loop. Holding the gun in my left hand I shoved the barrel into his back. With my right hand I slid the loop around his wrists, cinched the belt, and took off my own belt which I used to bind his feet.
I tucked the pistol into the back of my shorts. “You should be able to work your way free in a little while,” I said.
“Hey man.” Bob started to struggle with his bonds. “Don’t take my gun.”
“What am I supposed to do, Bob? You told me you were going to kill me. I’m not about to leave the gun with you.”
“I can maybe get over what happened between us today. That ain’t gonna happen if you take my gun. You might as well shoot me right now; because I swear I’m gonna get it back. And when I do, I’m gonna pistol whip you until you wish you’d never met me. After that, I’m gonna shoot you dead. That’s a promise.”
“I already wish I’d never met you, Bob. But I couldn’t stand by and watch you hurt the girl. Not after I found her for you. Tell you what, why don’t you go home, and I’ll ship the gun back to Frankie.”
Bob started struggling again, and the effort caused him to groan. “Don’t do that man-the boss’ll think I’m incontinent.”
“I think you mean incompetent,” I said.
“What, you an English teacher now? Like I said, Darling, you’re a dead man.”
I adjusted the gun to a more comfortable position, and was thankful the area around the bar was not very well lit. It also helped that there was no traffic at this time. I cast a final glance in Bob’s direction, pulled my shirt out to cover the pistol, and headed after Destiny at a slow jog.
While I ran, I wondered if I my attacking Bob might have been a little irrational. After all, he said he wasn’t going to hurt Destiny. But I knew, deep in the hidden regions of my mind, if Bob hurt or killed the girl I might never recover. I was still shaken by the death of the young girl, Celine Stewart, on my last case.
The neighborhood around me quickly turned residential. The narrow street consisted of a mix of small houses, a few retail stores and several larger houses that had been converted into guest homes. I’m sure at any other time it would have been picturesque, but on this night it possessed the charm of a ghetto.
I glanced back to make sure Bob hadn’t managed to get free, and then picked up my speed. I’d seen Destiny turn on to Caroline Street and that’s where I headed. Those belts weren’t going to hold Bob for long, and when he got free he was going to be as pissed off as an angry boar.
I spotted Destiny walking about a block ahead of me and pushed to catch up with her. If she was trying to get away, she wasn’t moving very fast. She walked with a slight limp, and I suspected her feet were hurting her. Considering the height of the heels on the shoes she was wearing, I wasn’t surprised.
Destiny must have heard the slap of my shoes on the pavement because she picked up her pace. When she realized her heels would not let her move fast enough to get away from me, she spun around, let her weight rest on her left hip, and began to swing her purse in front of her. “What do you want?” she asked.
I pulled up in front of her. “We’ve got to talk.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate you getting me out of this mess. But if you think by playing hero you get the girl, you’re wrong. Right now all I want is to go home, grab a stiff drink, and climb into bed.” She put her hands on her hips and added, “Alone. I think I’m leaving Key West tomorrow.”
“Bob wants those diamonds back, and now he’s pissed at both of us. The belts I tied him up with aren’t going to hold him for long. He could be out there looking for us right now.”
Destiny glanced behind her. “He’s got the wrong woman.” She spoke without a hint of hesitation, and I suspected she was used to lying.
I shook my head. “No, he doesn’t, and he knows it. Bob’s seen your picture. I have too. I’m a private investigator. Frankie hired my firm to find you. I didn’t know he was going to have someone meet you with a gun. He said he wanted to talk to you.”
“You son of a bitch. You could have gotten me killed.” She started to swing her purse in front of her. I’d seen how she’d used it for a weapon, so I timed the arc of her swing, moved forward, grabbed her arm, and held her. Her breath was tinged with the scent of tobacco and alcohol, and a faint flowery perfume clung to her hair.
“We need to talk,” I said again.
She looked back down the street and I could almost read her mind, Bob or me. She hesitated, turned on her smile, and licked her lips.
“All right.” She moved closer to me, brushing my chest with hers. “But if you’re going to protect me from Bob, who’s going to protect you from me?”
“What do you mean?”
Destiny brought her hands up to my shoulders and leaned in, kissing me on the cheek. I felt myself turn red when she moved her mouth up next to my ear and touched it with her lips.
I’ve always been a sucker for strong, exotic women, and the feel and touch of this woman was making me dizzy. She was aware of the effect she was having on me, and she smiled before moving back half a step. “What I mean,” she turned the smile into a smirk and drew out her words. “Is that I can take care of myself.”
“I want to help,” I said.
This seemed to amuse her. She blew me a kiss, said, “I don’t need your help,” and brought her knee up between my legs.
I yelped, let out a groan, and when I began to collapse, she shoved me backwards. While I fought to control my fall, Destiny kicked off her heels and began running down the street.
I lay on the sidewalk fighting the pain and cursing my stupidity. I knew she was a fighter but I’d still let down my guard. I grunted, and forced myself to take several slow deep breaths before climbing back to my feet. Somehow, I didn’t think she’d get far running in her bare feet, and I took a perverse pleasure in the knowledge that if she kept running on the pavement, she would soon be in as much pain as I was.
I hesitated, grabbed her shoes, and started off at a slow walk, increasing my speed as the throbbing eased. Soon I was jogging along Elizabeth Street at a quick enough pace that I was sure I would intercept her before long.
I run almost every day, but the sharp burning feeling in my groin was working against me. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath and I was pleased to discover that running made me forget my discomfort. Three blocks later, in front of The Church of God of Prophecy, I caught up with Destiny.
She let out a loud sigh when I pulled up alongside her. “Why don’t you leave me alone?” she asked.
I held the shoes out to her as a peace offering. “I got you into this so I’d like to help get you out of it. Besides, you can’t go home.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Frankie seems pretty set on locating you. Believe me, it’s not hard finding out where someone lives if you have an idea where to look. They know you’re in Key West for sure now. It’s only a matter of time until they dig up your address.”
Destiny put her heels back on while I watched. “You know you’re like a migraine headache. Just when I think I’ve gotten rid of you, there you are again. And each time you appear the pain gets a little more intense.”
She clenched her hands into fists, and her eyes looked wild and angry. At that moment, I was overcome with a ridiculous vision of her gouging my eyes out. I took two quick steps back. I was still walking funny, and I suspected that this woman might really be crazy enough to try and whip my ass.
“I was only doing my job,” I said. “You can’t go home though. You can’t take the chance Bob will be waiting there.”
She took several deep breaths, the anger melted from her face, and she let out a hoarse laugh. “This is the first time I ever kneed anyone in the balls. You went down like you’d been shot. You’re one of Tanya’s bartenders-Les something or other.”
“That’s Wes. Wes Darling.”
“Cute. So is this where you offer to take me up to your room and protect me? Because to tell you the truth, since I was fourteen every boy who’s offered to help me had one thought in mind. They wanted to help me all right. Out of my clothes and into bed. Is that the kind of help you have in mind, Wes?”
“A bit cynical, aren’t we?” I asked.
“A little trait my mother instilled in me at a young age.”
“Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t have a room. I live on a boat. I guess going there is an option.”
“No it’s not.” Destiny’s voice faltered, and for the first time I saw fear in her eyes. “I don’t do boats. Understand? I mean, this is great. I’ve got about a hundred bucks in my purse, the clothes on my back, and I don’t have a credit card. For some reason banks don’t consider strippers a good risk.”
I nodded, and I did understand. The boat was out. There are plenty of people who fear boats and the water, so I tried to soothe her worries. “We’ll find some place to hole up and…” My cell phone rang and I reached for it, but I thought I knew who was on the other end.
“I talked to Frankie,” Bob said, “and he’s not happy. Now that makes two of us. We’re the wrong two people to have pissed at you. So here’s the offer. Tell the broad to give me the diamonds and you give me back my gun and we forget all the bullshit. You live, she lives, and Frankie and I go home, done deal.”
I was pretty sure no matter what I did, Bob would be thinking about how much pain he could inflict upon Destiny and me before killing us. All I could hope to do was buy a little time, get the diamonds from Destiny, and deliver them to Frankie. If we were lucky, he’d be willing to trade the stones for our lives.
“You calling from a cell phone?” I asked.
“Yeah, a course. You think you can find a telephone on every corner anymore?”
“All right, I’ll call you back in a few minutes. I’ve got to talk to the girl.”
There was a moment’s silence. “You got fifteen minutes,” he said. “I don’t hear back from you, I come a huntin’. By the way, Frankie has arrived in town and my brother’s still around. You cross me, you cross them. It’s not just me you got to worry about.”
“I’ll get back to you,” I said, and hung up the phone.
“What does he want?” Destiny asked.
“You know what he wants.”
“I don’t have ‘em.”
“Frankie seems pretty sure you took them,” I said.
“So maybe I did. The bastard thought because he was paying for my services, he could rough me up anytime he wanted to. I figured the diamonds were my way out. The thing is-I don’t have them anymore.”
I raised an eyebrow and gave her a disbelieving look. “Are you telling me you lost Frankie’s diamonds?”
She shook her head. “No. I didn’t know how to get rid of a bag of diamonds so I found someone who could help me.”
“And how does a girl go about locating a fence to sell stolen diamonds in Key West?”
“I asked Elvis.”
She laughed. “You’re going to love this,” she said. “He’s my psychic.”
… continued ….