Read Powder Burn Online

Authors: Carl Hiaasen

Powder Burn (10 page)

“Let me make you another drink,” Nelson said. “It will soothe the nerves. You’ve been through a terrible thing.”

Nelson dawdled over the rum bottle, back turned to Meadows. He made a great production of adding ice cubes to his glass, one at a time, slowly, allowing Meadows to collect himself.

“Who is he?” Meadows asked. The voice was cold and ugly now. Nelson did not turn around.

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll show you who he is.” Meadows seemed full of nervous energy. He bounded up the porch steps and rushed to a table near the bar. Nelson heard a drawer protest as Meadows yanked it open. Then Meadows was beside him waving a single sheet of paper.

“This is him—the man responsible for Sandy and the girl, the one who shot me. I drew it last night. Now you can arrest him, can’t you?”

Nelson laid down his rum and took the paper carefully, holding it at the edges. From the corner of his eye he watched Meadows pour a stiff shot of bourbon.

“God, that is well drawn,” Nelson said. “You do have talent, don’t you?”

“Do you know him?”

“Too well. Everybody calls him Mono. The nickname suits both his intelligence and temperament. He’s a torpedo, an enforcer.”

“In other words, your friend the monkey is a killer.”

Nelson nodded.

“Why isn’t he in jail?”

“He has been, and maybe will be again someday.”

“Why not now?”

“We have lots of suspicions, but until this instant we have had nothing solid. Mono usually works on contract—so much a hit when it looks as though things are getting out of hand. Mono
es muy macho.
He killed his first man as a teenager in Havana. Everybody in the
barrio
is afraid of Mono. It’s impossible to get a Latin to testify against him.”

“But that’s wrong,” Meadows insisted.

Nelson exploded. “Wrong? Of course it’s wrong. But you know something? It is also right. The people in the
barrio,
most of them don’t have fancy educations like you have. But they are smart people, just the same. And they know the two laws of the dope business as well as they know the Ave Maria. They don’t teach that kind of thing at college, do they?”

Nelson drained his glass and filled it again. The once-robust Mount Gay bottle was dying. He must have drunk eight ounces already.

“Two simple rules,
amigo,
the new commandments. Rule number one: Always get even. Rule number two: Never talk to the cops. People like Mono are better at enforcing those rules than most judges are at enforcing the law. What do you think about that?”

Nelson drank again, more slowly, wincing as the sharp, bittersweet rum ignited in his gullet.

“Do you have any cigars?”

Meadows motioned toward a humidor.

“H. Upmann! Well, I’ll be damned. Are you sure you’re not a doper,
amigo?
I thought only dopers had enough money to smoke Upmanns.”

Intuition told Meadows it was not the time to say he bought the cigars on a trip to Cuba. In Miami it never paid to say that one had visited Cuba. A lot of people thought that was treason. No, he could not tell a Cuban exile cop that he had gone to Fidel Castro’s Havana to lecture on architecture, not when the cop was getting progressively drunker in his living room. Not when he himself was wobbly and disoriented by a second encounter with a barbaric subculture he’d never known existed. It would not do at all to argue that architecture, like art, was universal and ought to be unfettered by ideology. That was a topic to explore subtly around a fire, with friends who had been trained to think and to debate. And what would such friends say of the new commandments? Always Get Even. “Really, Chris, how atavistic.” Meadows could almost hear Geoffrey Brown’s professorial voice. “A ridiculous throwback to Old Testament morality: an eye for an eye.” And Scott Hansen, the painter whose bright canvases masked a morbid conservatism. Did he know that the second commandment was Never Talk to the Cops? “One more evidence of the decline of the society, the unraveling of the social fabric. A straw in the hurricane of dissolution. Military rule will come to this country. Wait and see.” That is what Scott Hansen would say.

Meadows himself said nothing as the lean and angry policeman lit the Cuban cigar. He listened in silence as Nelson, like a frenzied teacher who has been cursed to be heard but not heeded, delivered a chilling, staccato homily on the cocaine commandments. What he heard through a bouillabaisse of Jack Daniel’s-Mount Gay-H. Upmann dismayed Meadows. And sickened him.

Luis Garces, said Nelson, ah, yes, now there was an instructive example of getting even. Tough, cunning Luis. Poor Luis. He was an unlettered boy from the Colombian countryside with quick wits and quick hands. He came up to cocaine from picking pockets. Some of the best pickpockets in the world came from Colombia. There has been a university for pickpockets in Bogotá for more than three hundred years. Meadows didn’t know that, did he? And Luis, good pickpocket though he was, was smart enough to realize that there were more pesos in one kilo of coke than there were in a thousand pockets. He stole enough to buy some travel documents and made his way to Miami. Could have retired to a condominium on Miami Beach and lifted an occasional bangled pocketbook from blue-haired ladies. But not Luis. He was young, and he was ambitious. Not long after reaching Miami he found himself a partner. Luis and his partner went shopping for coke, and one day they found it. Luis got all dressed up and passed himself off as a buyer from New York. Came the night to make the buy, and they didn’t buy the stuff; they stole it. A sweet little sleight of hand, Luis being so good with his hands. They got away with the coke, OK,
amigo,
about a pound, but they made a big mistake: They didn’t kill the guys they stole it from. Luis and his friend, playing in the big league with little-league pickpocket rules. If you’re going to steal coke, Meadows, you have to make sure nobody chases you afterward. Because they will chase you. They chased Luis and what’s-his-name. Caught them one night on the street downtown, near one of those banks that’s always changing their name. Luis and his friend, they never even got a chance to pull their guns. Bam. Down they go. Hurt bad. But not dead, not by a long shot. So we bundle them off to Flagler Memorial, where it would cost you and me a couple of hundred bucks a day but dopers get fixed free. Luis and the other guy, they don’t know nothin’. Was I shot, Officer? Are you sure I didn’t walk in front of a truck? After a few days it looks like they’re both going to be OK. Anyway, one day Luis and this other scumbag are resting up in their nice soft taxpayer beds when what happens? The guys who shot them come back to finish the job. How about that, huh? Persistence. These scumbags burst in with automatic weapons and blaze away. Luis gets hit a couple of times. His partner gets made into Swiss cheese. There are doctors fainting and nurses screaming and patients having heart attacks and every cop in the city running around the hospital with enough firepower to retake Havana. One of the shitheads gets away; we never could figure out where he went. The other one gets as far as the roof. There is a big fight up there with SWAT and helicopters and the whole goddamn cavalry. Well, the guy gets blown away finally, but a cop gets hit, and so his buddies rush him back downstairs. If you got to get shot, a hospital is not a bad place to have it happen, right? Wrong. They get back down with the cop, and there’s nobody to take care of him. You know why? They are all working over pickpocket Luis. Hurt so bad he was. Poor Luis. Well, the lieutenant of the cop that’s shot goes bananas. He jams his pistol down the throat of the head doctor and says, “You treat my cop first, motherfucker, because if you don’t, I’m going to shoot you first and then the scumbag Colombian lying there on the table.” Boy, was there hell to pay after that. But in the end the cop survived, and even Luis survived, and all that happened was that the lieutenant was transferred someplace where he didn’t command troops anymore. The brass have shat on him ever since, but there’s not a cop in the county who wouldn’t lay himself down for that guy. Everybody’s dead, everybody’s even.

But that’s not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning because you know where poor twice-shot-but-not-dead Luis the pickpocket is right now,
amigo?
He’s on death row up at the state prison in Raiford. One day they are going to fry Luis, and do you know why? He got out of the hospital, went back to Colombia courtesy of his sucker Uncle Sam, and then he turned right around and came back to Miami. And one night Luis walked into the living room of the asshole that shot him and blasted him to kingdom come. Murder One, and Fingers Luis is down the tube. But you got to admire the little sucker. He got even.

And
that,
everybody understands, is really the most important thing of all. Oh, of course they are all in it for the money. But you can make lots of money pimping, too. The
machismo
is even more important. The dumb Anglos hanging around the fringes don’t understand that, and sometimes that’s what gets them killed. If you want to run dope, you got to be
macho.
That’s the long and the short of it. Fancy clothes, big cars, foxy
chicas
—that’s all window dressing. If you are not a tough
hombre,
none of the rest of it counts. If your
compadre
gets shot by some other assholes, you go out and shoot them. If you don’t, you might as well go back to picking pockets. Nobody will deal with you. Ever wonder why little girls and their mothers get killed in the Grove and ritzy suburban dames get cut down in shopping centers by animals with bad teeth and no English?
Machismo,
that’s why. Why think when you can shoot?

“What? No more rum!” Nelson was standing with his back to the empty fireplace. His cigar had gone out again, and he relit it tenderly.

“There’s another bottle. And I could use another one, too,” Meadows replied quietly. He felt like a little boy who has heard his first ghost story. Clammy and prickly. He did not want Nelson to leave. He did not want to be alone.

Then Nelson told him about people who talk to the cops. Angel Arellano.

He was a Cuban, a nice guy, really; we went to the same high school in Havana. Angel was a hanger-on. No big deals, probably because he had no balls. But he was always around, always ready to drive a truck or run a boat. Just enough to be useful, enough so they’d throw him a bone. Angel made a nice living out of it, too. He had a sexy little wife and a daughter who was as cute as could be. They bought a house out in the suburbs. Man, he was proud of that house. It had natural ceiling beams, you know, like the house of some big shot architect. Angel, he loved those beams. He sanded them and varnished them and did whatever else you do to beams if you are a rich architect or a Cuban hustler on the make. Everything was swell for Angel until we caught him one night with a kilo of uncut coke—eighty-seven point nine percent—the genuine article. There was no chance in the world it belonged to Angelito. He was just baby-sitting it for somebody else, and we knew that, but we sure as hell never let on to Angel. By the time we got finished with Angel he believed he would never see his wife, his daughter or his precious beams again. So we turned him, made him into a snitch. We let the first batch go through smooth as silk, as though nothing had happened. Nobody ever knew we nabbed Angel cold and had let him go. But he belonged to us.

If you pick up a doper,
amigo,
and then let him go without any charges, that’s the kiss of death. Everybody knows he has turned.

His own mother wouldn’t write insurance on him then. But we were real careful with Angel, reeled him in a little bit at a time. We made some pretty good busts out of it and always in such a way that there was never any connection with Angel. Then it went sour. Hell, who knows how or why things like that go sour? But it went real bad. Angel went home one night, and there were his wife and his daughter, hanging from those ceiling beams he loved so much. Poor bastard.

Meadows was shell-shocked. “Are you powerless to control these people?”

“You are looking at the first line of defense,
amigo,”
Nelson replied with a short laugh at what was not meant to be funny. “Powerless, no. Hamstrung, yes. Frustrated, totally. It’s too big, too hard, too complicated. What seems so important for you—what
is
a matter of life and death for you—is really only a sidelight to the big show.” Nelson gestured toward the oak and mahogany chess set. “You are being pursued by a knight. And you are barely a pawn. I’m after the king, and I would give my soul to get him.”

Nelson’s teeth gleamed wolfishly. He was feeling the rum.

“You see,
amigo,
I am a pioneer of a new branch of police science. Not homicide, not narcotics, but narcocide. Maybe pioneer is wrong. More a gypsy. I pitch my tent at one drug murder after another. Sooner or later one of them will lead me to the king.”

“Who is he?” Meadows ventured.

“A Latin, certainly, probably a Cuban. He works out of Miami, and I think he is in trouble. I think the king and his Cubans had the local distribution and transshipment of coke locked up until a few months ago. About seventy percent of the shit that leaves Colombia comes through here, right? Well, from what we hear, a couple of months ago the king began to lose control. The Cubans got hit from two sides: too many Anglo amateurs pissing in the pond, running around like little kids in a schoolyard; too many Colombians getting off the boat to deal in Miami. Right now things are so confused out there you wouldn’t know what you were buying if it was your brother who was selling it.

“So the king is wounded, and that’s when I want to hit him. On the street they call him
el Jefe,
and every snitch in town knows that I want him, that I’ll deal with the devil to get him. It looks like
el Jefe
is trying to clean up his act, and I think maybe Mono is his cleanup hitter. So I stay close to Mono. Sooner or later he’ll take me to
el Jefe.”

Nelson dragged on Meadows’s cigar.

“When I find out who he is, I will track him, and when I find him, I will shoot him.” It was a promise.

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