Authors: Jonathon King
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction, #ebook
He’d been good in class. One of the smart ones who would sit back and listen, watch the others offer up wrong or incomplete answers, and then just when he could tell the instructor was going to give in and enlighten us all, O’Shea’s hand would fly up and he would have the answer down pat. He was a good athlete. Finished high in P.T. In team drills he would give a hand and encouragement to the stumblers and overweight guys, the ones who were no threat to him. But when it came to competition he would hang back just off the leaders, drafting, and then try to surprise and outsprint them at the end. It wasn’t cheating. It was calculating. The better guys would still beat him, but he would still seem pleased with himself, like he’d pulled something off, had changed the finish and in his way won. I watched him, like I watched all the others, but stayed clear of his game. When he tried to use our connection to the South Philly neighborhood to buddy up, I just acknowledged him and moved away and stayed on my own path, whatever the hell I thought that path might have been.
I finally shoved the photo aside, got up and selected a book from the shuffled stack on the top rack of my bunk bed. They were mostly history and travel books—Billy’s contribution to my derelict education. I spent the rest of the daylight reading a collection of stories by Ernie Pyle called
out on the staircase landing, my back against the door. Between pages I looked out into the canopy when a quiver of leaves shook under the weight of a green heron. While Pyle described the Drought Bowl of 1936 in the Dakotas, my ears listened to the low croak of a wood stork working the shallows to scissor a snake or baby gator in its long, drooping bill. After dark I warmed soup on the propane stove and ate it with the fresh bread I’d brought back from the coast. Later I sat in the pool of light from my kerosene lamp and listened to rain gather in the trees and then patter down on my tin roof. The irregular beat was not unpleasant. Finally I undressed and lay down on my bunk. It was just cool enough to use a thin cotton sheet as a cover. I left the lamp burning on the table. For some reason, lately, I did not want to sleep in the dark.
On Thursday I went back into the city. Billy and I had talked about work now that he was back. I knew from experience that his high energy level had him fidgeting to get plugged back in. I was bringing Rodrigo Colon into the office for a joint interview. I picked up the young Filipino down the street and around the corner from the hotel where he and the other injured workers were staying. The small man climbed into the passenger seat of my truck, pulling his right leg up after him.
“Hey, Rodrigo,” I said.
It was the extent of my Tagalog, but Rodrigo dipped his head at my effort. He was used to being spoken to in English on his job. He took my offered hand in greeting and then glanced nervously out the back window. When he turned I could see the wrinkled purple scar that covered the right side of his face. It was like a dark birthmark that spread from his now nonexistent eyebrow down over his cheek and disappeared into the collar of his shirt. Treatment of the burn from the escaping steam had left the skin the mottled color of a dark grape. Angry-looking stretch marks pulled at the corner of his mouth and eye when he smiled. I pulled away from the curb.
As I drove to Billy’s office, Rodrigo watched the world roll by through his passenger window. Though he’d been a cruise ship worker for five years, his station as a maintenance-grade utility man kept him belowdecks most of the time. In the many ports of call, rarely did employees like him have the time to see the landscape. I asked if he’d heard from his wife in the Philippines. He nodded. Rodrigo and the others I’d interviewed through an interpreter said the company that signed workers up in Manila would pay for wives or husbands to visit, but only on the promise that they would both return home.
“Yes. She is sick for me,” he said. “She is to come here, but has no money.”
I pulled into a parking lot on Clematis Street and got a warm greeting from the operator who knew me. I took a ticket and we walked the four blocks through downtown West Palm Beach to Billy’s office building. I caught our reflection in the plate glass of a clothing store: a tall and tanned white guy dressed like a weekend boat captain and a five-foot Southeast Asian with a limp and a tic that caused him to turn his face from each person he passed. It was South Florida. No one blinked. But when we reached the lobby, a familiar security man stopped us.
“Hello, Mr. Freeman,” he said, talking to me but looking at Rodrigo.
“He’s OK, Rich. One of Mr. Manchester’s clients,” I said.
“Sure, Mr. Freeman. But you’re still going to have to go through the metal detectors.”
“Yeah, we understand,” I said.
It was a new world in America. One where no one simply vouched for another.
When we went through the security point, Rodrigo walked through without a beep but was still swept by a guard with a metal- detecting wand. It took me three passes, dumping everything I had in my pockets into a plastic box, until I finally found the offending foil chewing gum wrapper I’d stuck in my back pocket instead of tossing it out in the street. We rode the elevator to one of the top floors and entered a set of double doors that was unmarked. In the outer office we were greeted by Billy’s assistant, whose usual charm and social ease seemed oddly strained.
“Hello, Mr. Freeman, so nice to see you.”
“Allie,” I said. “This is Mr. Colon.”
They shook hands and Allie looked directly into Rodrigo’s face without flinching or showing in any manner that she had noticed the burn pattern.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Freeman. He’s running a bit late with an unexpected appointment,” she said, looking back over her shoulder at Billy’s closed door like she didn’t know what might come out of it.
“I do have your coffee waiting, though,” she said and asked Rodrigo if he would join me.
He declined and followed my lead and sat in one of the high- backed leather chairs, just on the front edge, his hands clasped in front of him as though he were afraid of getting something dirty. Allie brought the coffee and while I drank I watched Rodrigo cut his eyes at the paintings and artwork strategically spotlighted in the room.
In a low voice I asked him about his children at home to try to relax him and he turned and smiled, but before he had a chance to form a word the door handle to Billy’s office snapped down and the door opened too quickly. A man marched out with a face like Rushmore, a stern look set in stone. He was white-haired and impeccably dressed in a blue business suit, stiff-collared white shirt and politically correct red-patterned tie. His shoes were freshly polished.
He did not acknowledge our presence or even offer a civilized response to Allie when she said: “May I call down for your car, Mr. Guswaite?” He walked directly out, leaving a silence and a slight movement of air behind.
“One moment,” Allie said and slipped quietly into Billy’s office. Rodrigo was studying his own shoe tops. He’d seen men of power pissed before. A few minutes passed and Allie returned with a professional face.
“Mr. Manchester is ready for you, gentlemen.”
Billy was standing inside the door, his own impeccable suit jacket on, tie cinched up and his face showing nothing but amiability.
“M-Max. Mr. Colon,
Magandang hapon! Ikinagagalak kong makilala kayo,”
Billy said, greeting Rodrigo in his own native language. The kid from the North Philly ghetto, I thought.
Billy steered us to the angled couches that faced the floor-to- ceiling windows. The view was extraordinary, looking east out over the lake and then the Spanish-tiled roofs of the mansions on the island of Palm Beach and the blue-gray Atlantic beyond.
“I kn-know you have t-talked with Mr. Freeman s-several times and answered m-many of these questions, Mr. Colon,” Billy began, switching back to English. “But I n-need to hear them myself.”
Rodrigo nodded, maybe understanding half of what Billy was saying. But his eyes were intent on the lawyer’s face so I sat listening for a few minutes and then took my coffee to another part of the room, giving Billy the authority and control he needed to have.
While they talked I stepped around, reacquainting myself with the paintings Billy had hung in this, the space where he spent most of his time. All were originals done with such talent that you could not help but find a new angle or texture or blend of color that you had not noticed before. I roamed over to his bookcase, which was stacked only with Florida statues and lawyerly tomes that held no interest for me.
As I rounded his desk I saw a splayed-out collection of eight-by- ten photos of Diane McIntyre. They were cropped from the shoulders up and a warm but professional smile was fixed on her face. The white blouse under her blue business jacket was buttoned at the neck. Her hair was perfect. Among the shuffled papers were layout sheets I recognized as campaign posters and I recalled from Billy’s discussion before leaving for Europe that Diane was considering a run for a county court judgeship. The stone-faced Mr. Guswaite, I thought, political animal of some sort.
Movement at the couches got my attention and I joined the others. Billy had put Rodrigo at ease and they were clasping hands, the lawyer saying something again in Tagalog and adding: “Please have Allie take down that phone number and Mr. Avino’s contacts.
Mr. Colon for your courage.” When Rodrigo stepped out to Allie’s desk Billy turned to me.
“Thanks for b-bringing him in, M-Max. I think w-we can work this without too much t-trouble. That part about the lower rung of workers getting p-paid by the cabin boys to handle some of their w-work so they can impress their supervisors by increasing their own n-numbers. It’s amazing. The hungry ones work twenty-hour days just to g-get ahead. It’s like an entire s-social crab pot on each sh- ship with race and color and p-payoffs all tossed into the mix and all invisible to the American customers around them.”
“Nothing a good union couldn’t fix,” I said, only half joking.
“There’s a p-political land mine,” Billy said. “How about if we just try to get some of these m-men compensated for having their faces b-burned off?”
“Sounds fair to me. So how come the rest of them won’t join up?”
“They’re scared, M-Max. He says the Filipino job brokers have long arms. They make money by providing cheap labor, not on workers who have to get paid for injuries. He says the p-pipeline from Manila to Miami is short enough to send an enforcer to shut down dissent. They’re all looking over their shoulders.”
I told him I’d watch out. I’d already given Rodrigo my pager and cell number. We were already setting up prearranged sites off the street. But I didn’t want to tell him that I couldn’t afford to be the guy’s twenty-four-hour bodyguard when we had other cases to work. My own acceptance of Richards’s request had just put another pinch on time and I wasn’t going to bring it up. I changed the subject.
“Speaking of politics,” I said, motioning toward his desk and the photos and layouts.
Billy did not bother to look back.
“She w-wants to be a judge. I t-told her I would help in any way I could.”
I stayed quiet. I knew Billy. His face said more was coming.
“But it s-seems that the good ole boy p-political cabal th-thought, when they heard her fiancé was a r-respected attorney, I’d be an asset.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “They didn’t know you were black?”
“How w-would they? I’m never in the courtroom. N-not much for their f-fund-raisers or cocktail circuit.”
“Jesus, Billy,” I said. “You think that’s going to make a big difference?”
He looked past me for a few moments. I could see something working behind his eyes, a twinge of pain he rarely ever showed. I wondered if he’d misconstrued my question, thought I’d pointed it at his and Diane’s personal relationship.
“In love and politics, M-Max, everything m-makes a difference,” he said, manufacturing a wry grin. “When you mentioned the paparazzi the other night, you weren’t far off. We’ve caught people taking photographs of us together before, on the street, coming out of the courthouse, leaving one another’s apartments.”
“Campaign sludge?” I said. “I doubt an interracial marriage would cause a second look in South Florida.”
Billy was still watching out over the skyline.
“State p-politics doesn’t get run by the residents in South Florida, M-Max. The power is still in Tallahassee where the real South still runs d-deep.”
His knowledge of law and languages aside, Billy had not left his ghetto beginnings and real-life taste of racism behind. I did not want to get into a discussion of his paranoia, or my naïveté, and left him at the window.
I drove Rodrigo to the block where he took treatments at a small walk-in medical clinic. Once again, around the corner and out of sight, we had lunch at a whitewashed lunch counter that opened out onto the street, with a row of worn swivel stools that sat on the sidewalk concrete. The place bragged on its original Cuban sandwiches and Colombian
After my first mouthful I decided they were justified. If you can back it up, brag on.
While we ate, Rodrigo introduced me to three other cruise workers who had obviously come at his urging. One man wore a bandage from his wrist to his shoulder. Another covered his head with a large-brimmed hat, but I could make out the signs of singed hair and burn scars at the nape of his neck. I took down names and promised only to pass them along to Billy. I paid the bill and shook Rodrigo’s hand and climbed back into my truck and headed south to the Flamingo where I might swim and sit in a sea breeze and forget about changing the world for a while.
I did ten blocks in the ocean, swimming parallel with the beach and looking up every twenty strokes to catch a familiar condo face or clump of palms or open street-end to mark my progress. Five blocks of freestyle south, against the current, five slow ones back, even with the push. Then I sat in my sand chair and let the sun and breeze dry the salt into a fine film on my skin, which seemed to crackle and pulled at the creases when I finally stood and went inside.