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Authors: Sterling Watson

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Suitcase City

BOOK: Suitcase City

Table of Contents


Part One



















Part Two

















Part Three














E-Book Extra: excerpt from
Fighting in the Shade

About Sterling Watson

Copyright & Credits

About Akashic Books

To Mike, the best brother a guy could ever have


My thanks to Jamie Gill for library research, to Judd McKean and Suzy Johnson for help with boats, and to Tom DiSalvo and Margarita Lezcano for correcting Spanish. I am indebted to Margot Hill, Dean Jollay, Bill Kelly, Dennis Lehane, Ann McArdle, Peter Meinke, Bill Miles, and Jay Nicorvo for criticism and commentary. Your insights made this book better. Thanks to Jerry Witucki for one very good line. Thanks again to the marvelous crew at Akashic Books, especially Ibrahim Ahmad, who guided me through some difficult revisions with patience, good humor, and keen intelligence. And, as always, a loving thank you to Kathy, the best reader of all.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm . . .

—“Lullaby,” W.H. Auden



1978, Cedar Key, Florida

Jimmy Teach left professional football at the age of twenty-four, and his life went into a fast fall. He squandered money on bad friends and foolish business deals and the drink and drugs that went with them. He lived hard and the months passed and it became a slow suicide. He woke up one morning in a car he didn’t own in the driveway of a fashionable house in Atlanta with a policeman at his window. Teach had no idea who owned the house or why he had come to it. He had passed out with the engine running. A half-open window and an empty fuel tank had probably saved him from a blue-lipped death.

Teach went home broke to Cedar Key, Florida. To start over in the old place. To remember who he had been, build a man again. One he could stand to be. People in the little towns were used to their sons and daughters coming home. The little places sent out a strong call to their own. The call was,
Come back. Come back and be small again.
And many did.

Teach looked for jobs in the local fishery, but the crabbing, oystering, and gillnetting had fallen on hard times. He worked in kitchens, then as a bartender. At first it was hard because people asked questions. As simple as: what are you doing back here? As difficult as: what happened to all that football money? But it wasn’t long before Teach was one of them again. Before he was nothing special.

One night, Teach was serving a party of sun bunnies who had arrived on a big motor sailer. He was dropping the paper umbrella into a banana daiquiri when a black man said, “Hey, what you doing back here?” The question was old, the man was vaguely familiar.

The man looked over at the people he was with. They were the easy, pretty people who stopped in at the Cedar Key docks and ate in the restaurants and then sailed on to the next piña colada or planter’s punch. Teach called them the Whatever People.
was an attitude, a place where people had enough time and money to let things happen to them, things that felt good. Teach said, “Do I know you?”

“Hey, Jimmy, come on.” The man’s accent was local, the black version of it anyway, but the attitude was from Whatever. Teach still couldn’t place him. The guy laughed, leaned close, and said, “
Delia B.,
man. Remember?”

It all came back. The
Delia B.
was a trawler Teach had piloted when he was fifteen years old. An accomplished kid with a boat, he had coasted the
Delia B.
into a secluded canal bank where she would meet a rented truck. When her cargo was off-loaded, he would take her back out again, jump into a skiff tied to her stern, and wave goodbye to his friends who would clean her out and run her back around through Key Largo and up to Homestead. The black man’s name was Bloodworth Naylor. Nine years ago they had been business associates.

“Naylor,” Teach said, “how you doing, man? It’s been a long time.”

Teach remembered it all now, the nights he’d brought the boat in, the fat envelopes of cash, the things he’d bought for his widowed mother, the secrets. Bloodworth Naylor glanced over at the Whatever People, lowered his voice. “Ah, you know. I get along one way and another. Right now I’m babysitting tourists for ten bucks an hour.”

After Teach closed up that night, he let Naylor in the back door and they sat in the dark bar. Naylor was crewing on the motor sailer, running tourists up and down the coast for a couple of New Age gurus who had them meditating in string bikinis and Speedos and contemplating the Tao. “Bunch of mantra-mumbling fools,” Naylor said over his third rum and lime. He stared at Teach. “You probably think it’s a coincidence us running into each other like this.”

Teach raised his Wild Turkey and sipped. He was supposed to smile, say yeah, he thought it was a coincidence. He glanced around the bar. A table of waitresses over in the corner counting tips and telling evil-tourist stories. The cleanup crew coming on with mops and buckets. This was Teach’s life after football. Apparently, the man he had come home to build was a bartender. Bartenders know the past always comes looking for you.

Teach said, “You’re doing it again, Naylor. You’re back in the import business.”

Blood Naylor smiled. “Not yet, but I’m thinking about it. Now that you’re back in town.”

* * *

The trawlers didn’t come from Homestead anymore, and they didn’t cross to Freeport for the product. Teach and Bloodworth Naylor were subcontractors for a consortium of Guatemalan importers. The Guatemalans owned a mother ship designed to transport yachts across the world. Its huge bow doors opened, boats were floated aboard and secured, then the seawater was pumped out. They brought the mother ship up the Florida coast at night, floated an eighty-ton shrimper named the
Santa Maria
out of her bow, and three Guatemalans named Julio, Carlos, and Esteban piloted the shrimper inside the twenty-mile limit. The shrimper’s steel booms had been removed to give her a smaller radar signature and more deck space. The
Santa Maria
was loaded to the gunwales with bales of marijuana, the Guatemalans were armed to the teeth, and the night skies were full of cops.

Teach did the job he had done as kid. He ran out in a twenty-one-foot Boston Whaler, met the
Santa Maria
and the three surly Latino gangsters, brought the shrimper in, weaving her through a maze of mangrove canals to the place in the Steinhatchee game preserve where Naylor met them with a rented truck. Teach and Naylor off-loaded the bales while the three
stood around smoking caporal cigarettes and stroking their mustaches. Once, Teach said to the ranking Guatemalan, “Hey, Esteban, why don’t you guys help us with the heavy work here? We get this done sooner, you get out quicker. It’s better for everybody.” Teach looked up at the sky, reminding Esteban of the DEA aircraft that patrolled this coast.

Esteban looked at Teach the way he would at a guy who’d just asked for spare change. “
Soy soldado. No soy peón

Teach knew enough Spanish to get the drift. A soldier, not a laborer. “Yeah, well, we get caught here you’ll be somebody’s pom-pom girl up at Raiford. They like the little brown ones up there.” Teach squared himself, wiped the sweat from his eyes with his shirt sleeve, waited to see what Esteban would do. Maybe he had gone too far this time. He didn’t like the guy, didn’t care for any of the Guatemalans. They were Indians who had worn gaudy suits only long enough to learn how to sneer. Their eyes said they would kill without remorse, and their hands always hovered near the weapons they carried in shoulder rigs or in their waistbands.

Esteban opened his coat and showed Teach the gleaming stainless steel nine-millimeter automatic pistol. He smiled and showed some smoke-stained teeth. His eyes were not touched by the smile. He said, “Quickly, quickly,” pointing a manicured finger at the work still to be done.

Teach did the work, took the cut Blood Naylor gave him, and buried his money deep in the woods. He knew enough about bank examiners, Internal Revenue Service inspectors, and human curiosity to realize that he’d better keep living on a bartender’s wage until he had saved enough to leave town. He’d figure out later what a man did with half a million dollars in cash, a man who did not have paycheck stubs or Aunt Lizzie’s last will and testament to show for it.

Going in, Teach and Naylor had agreed on two things. One: they would do only as many trips as it took to get each of them started in something legitimate. Two: the day either man decided to quit, they were both out of the business.

Blood Naylor took care of distribution in the university city. He knew the black community there, where the white kids went to buy. He promised Teach that no one in Gainesville would ever hear Teach’s name. Teach told himself that he was just a pilot, a man who operated a boat for a couple of hours, a man who carried some harmless agricultural product to a waiting truck. When his conscience came calling late at night before he fell asleep, he called himself a maritime consultant. When he was awake, he called himself a bartender.

The day Teach had the money he needed to start a new life, he told Naylor the next trip would be his last.

They were sitting in Teach’s locked-up, darkened barroom after midnight, drinking Tequila Sunrises and watching the cleanup crew mop the floors. Naylor drew hard on his cigarette, lighting his dark eyes with a red glow. “Old Esteban ain’t gonna like it.”

Teach thought about it. He didn’t like what he’d seen in Naylor’s eyes when the cigarette made them visible. He said, “Old Esteban can find two new humps. We’re sticking to our deal, all right?”

Naylor raised the glass of fruit and alcohol. The next drag on the cigarette confirmed what Teach had seen. Greed.

“A deal’s a deal,” Naylor said. “But what if old Esteban decides he like the two humps he got? Wants to keep them. What we do then?” Naylor put out the cigarette in the sunrise.

Teach wanted to say,
That’s up to you, my friend. You made the deal with Old Esteban. You promised me I’d be the ship-to-shore connection, tote a few bales, and that was all.
But Teach didn’t say it. Instead: “I got what I want out of this. Next trip’s our last. Cool?”

“Cool . . . cool,” Naylor said. Teach was glad he could not see the man’s eyes now. The voice, the regret in it, was bad enough.

* * *

Naylor came by the bar, middle of the noon rush. He drank a beer, paid for it, and wrote the loran coordinates on a bar napkin. At midnight, Teach took the Boston Whaler from a rented slip behind the house of an old woman who had known his parents. She was eighty, nearly blind, and had no idea when Teach came and went. It was late September, still hot, and there was a bright harvest moon in the sky. Teach wove the Whaler through the maze of canals with high green mangrove walls, following the pathways he had memorized from boyhood fishing in a handmade plywood boat with a three-horse kicker. He smelled the open Gulf before he saw it, punching the Whaler out through a little delta of white sand and driftwood into a low line of breakers.

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