Authors: Tom Corcoran
Tags: #Mystery & Crime
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Special thanks to Norman and Shirley Wood for sparking my fascination with Key West lore, and to David Wolkowsky. Also thanks to Carolyn and Jim Inglis, Diane and Rich Roca, Carol and Harold York, Nathan Eden, Benjamin “Dink” Bruce, Kim Works, Cherie Binger, Richard Badolato, Mary Jo Melone, Rick Hayward, Sterling Watson, John Boisonault, John Leslie, P.J. O’Rourke, Marty Corcoran, Sebastian Corcoran, and especially to Dinah George.
There is a trigger that makes the day begin and all life end and it breaks like a glass rod. It lies at the middle of everything that breathes or dreams. It will bend and break, and when it breaks it is night.
“Rutledge, I have to move back in.”
I was barely awake.
Annie Minnette stood at the screen door in shorts and a blouse that looked slept in. She blew upward to dislodge a damp strand of hair that hung across her forehead like a scratch in a picture, but the hair didn’t move. She held two crumpled paper sacks full of clothing, and her left hand clutched the neck of our antique balalaika. Her dark brown leather tote, stuffed with cooking equipment, hung from her right elbow.
I was lost for words. Birds chirped and spring morning light played through the porch screens. Annie’s car idled loudly in the lane. Her pale green eyes held all the sorrow in the world.
“I don’t have time to explain,” she said. “Ellen is dead. A man from the county who smells like cigars is waiting back there to talk to me.”
“My roommate.” She clenched her teeth. “She’s dead now. Take this stuff. I’ve got more in the car.”
Annie jammed the bags toward my hands. She hurried to her VW Beetle convertible, pried a suitcase out of the rear seat, and jumped backward as it fell over the side. It gouged a dent in the rear fender and landed hard in the gravel.
“Shit.” She stared down at the suitcase and shook her head as if the fallen bag symbolized her life to this moment. “Alex, would you get this?”
She didn’t look up or wait for an answer. She flung two pillows onto the suitcase, got in, popped the brake lever, cut a U-turn, and sped away with her head mashed against the seat back, the wind tossing her long brown hair. Someone had painted an underwater scene all over the car. Coral, sea fans, blue water above grassy sand. I fetched her suitcase and wondered if I should deliver it directly to the bedroom that we had shared for almost three years.
Annie had been out of the house for twenty days. So far she had explained nothing, though I hadn’t begged for an explanation. The day after she left I decided to ride out the storm in silence. My nights had been liquid, with an adamant departure from light beer and a renewed allegiance to Mount Gay rum and soda. It’s not like me to slog in the muck of self-pity. Dirtying the plight rarely draws sympathy from the person responsible for the gloom. I held no affection for the cynics and rummies of the bar scene, but I couldn’t concentrate on work and couldn’t stand being alone in my own house.
The thermometer, the only dependable gauge of life in Key West, headed back up the scale. The sun glared through the pine trees across the lane. Its rich yellow light angled into the porch and spread a glow over the philodendron, the asparagus fern, the aloe and bougainvillea, her pet dracaena. Annie had given her plants names and had thought of them as first-string companions. I believe she’d engaged them in discussion groups on leaf fullness and the combat of root rot. The plants were the only part of her that had not vanished that Thursday afternoon. Each night since then, on returning from the downtown saloons, I had expected to find the plants gone, too. Now she wanted to return, under emergency conditions. The cynic in me warned that her return could simply be a temporary comfort stop. There also was the chance that she’d come back to the plants rather than to me. I dropped her bags on the living room floor. She had packed them. The next step was hers. The balalaika went back to its hooks above the kitchen door.
I needed to force daylight into the tunnel. Eight o’clock was too early to focus without three minutes in the outdoor shower and my morning slug of Cuban coffee. One thing for sure, I felt short on information. “She’s dead now,” hadn’t revealed much. Had Ellen suffered a heart attack, a drug overdose, or an accident? The presence of the police indicated something sudden. Drive-by shootings had never caught on in Key West. Traditional crimes of passion and revenge were seldom fatal, due to assailant drunkenness and inexpertise.
My bet went to suicide. If a crime had taken place in a shared apartment, the police would not have allowed Annie to depart with four bags of personal belongings. With suicide there would be formalities, but not urgent ones.
As if anything might be urgent in Key West.
As if anything might be formal.
I had constructed a four-by-four-foot rain forest outside my back door. Here the plants were mine. Like the exposed plumbing, they were not exotic. I let my brain ramble as I soaped, and mulled the dead woman’s name. Years ago at a party I had met an attractive, dark-haired woman named Ellen Albury who had managed the Public Defender’s office. Her name had appeared several times since then in newspaper articles. A recent piece in the
had lauded Ms. Albury as a champion of the wrongly accused. Something about street people being picked up for crimes that plainly required boats and trucks. Logic held that Annie, who was on track to a law partnership at Pinder, Curry, and Sawyer, had met Ellen Albury through that maze of legal maneuvering and hourly rates that fed on the island’s insanity.
I pulled on a clean shirt and shorts, checked the phone book, and found an address for E. Albury in the 800 block of Olivia. Twice in the past week, short-cutting from downtown to the Overseas Market, I had seen Annie’s VW parked in that stretch west of Frances and adjacent to the cemetery. Now I knew where Annie had been living. I hated the thought that Ellen Albury had died.
I wear several hats to earn a living taking pictures. The only photographer worth a damn in the Lower Keys is an underwater ace, so I refer open ocean work to him while I go for anything above mean high tide that promises a profit. Anything except babies and weddings. Too many mothers of babies and brides are photography experts. My best jobs, while sporadic, are for magazines and ad agencies. Lower in my preferences is police evidence work. To ensure that the mortgage is paid, I back up the full-time photographers for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Key West Police Department. Hour by hour, there isn’t much difference between taking pictures of restaurant place settings and documenting crime scenes. Each is an “f-8 and be there.” Show up and press the button. There’s no glamour, but I don’t have to coax anyone to pose or smile. Some gigs get weird, but that’s part of living in crazy-ass South Florida. I’ve always suspected that my photos have leveraged insurance claims more often than they’ve solved crimes or helped to win convictions.
I know all the detectives in both departments. The county sheriff employs a diverse crowd. From week to week I deal with Peter Falk imitators, cowboys in black T-shirts and Tony Lama boots, intense military personalities, and a few slow-motion lifers. The city tends to hire less qualified but more motivated cops. Avery Hatch, a senior investigator with the Sheriff’s Department, always smells of cigars. He carries large Palmas in his shirt pockets, expensive Dominican Republic numbers as big around as a baby’s arm. I’d heard that it had taken an official reprimand to stop his lighting up on the job.
The idea of Annie’s grieving alone did not sit well. Nor did the image of her fielding Avery Hatch’s usual barrage of intimidating crap. If Ellen Albury was the deceased and Annie was dealing with Hatch, it made sense to check it out. It had nothing to do with instinct. It definitely didn’t promise a paycheck, and I have no stomach for the faces and ceremonies of death. Chalk it up to chauvinism and nosiness. I hate bullies, I wanted to be there, and it beat sitting around the house wondering what the hell had happened.
My old Mustang fastback comes out of its garage only for trips off the Keys. That left a choice between the lightweight bike and the 500cc motorcycle. Factoring in the law-enforcement mind-set, my choice went to the authority of a motor. If the Albury woman had taken herself out, the Olivia Street house would be swarming with relatives. I would pass quickly and keep on going. If the place was a crime scene, my duffel full of camera gear would get me inside the door. At that point, I would have to script my moves on the fly.
Around back, I pulled the blue tarp off the motorcycle and shook the yard bugs out of my helmet. The neighbor’s brown-and-white spaniel poked her nose and sad eyes through the fence and whimpered for attention. As I scratched her forehead her eyes became more alert and twitchy. After a half minute of revival she got antsy and raced off to chase lizards.
To avoid traffic on Eaton I cut over to Southard and joined ten or twelve bicyclists headed downtown to begin the workday. Through my helmet I heard birds high in the trees, pet macaws and Quaker parakeets that had escaped or been abandoned. The sun’s angle, the dust-free air, the vibrant foliage begged a photographer to remain outdoors. Cumulus clouds were spaced apart in a rich blue sky. Even the island grass was more lush, the streets washed cleaner by recent rains. A morning far too pleasant for death, I thought, then wondered what sense that made. Death comes every day and gives no one a choice. Unless, of course, someone exits by her own hand. A low palm frond whacked my shoulder as I dodged broken pavement closer to the cemetery.
I coasted to the stop just past Poorhouse Lane. Indeed, someone wanted to talk to Annie. Six official-looking sedans sat along the curb two hundred yards up Olivia in the stretch of old cigar rollers’ homes called Roberts Row. Annie’s VW was among them. I eased up the narrow one-way street. Years ago when the city had widened this section of Olivia, they chopped back the sidewalk on the south side and left the utility poles in the roadway, two feet from the curb. Three cars could fit between each pair of poles. There wasn’t a space for the motorcycle. I parked on the sidewalk a couple of houses down and approached on foot.
The gods of red tape must have been smiling. The first face I spotted was Monty Aghajanian’s. A few other men and women, most of them city officers, stood alongside a white picket fence. One comes to recognize the routine, the long faces and occasional smirks, the wait for the coroner’s team.
Aghajanian had been a neighbor on Dredgers Lane before he became a cop, back when he was selling used cars. We’d shared a lawn-mower shed, a set of jumper cables, a dented Weber grill, and volumes of self-glorifying “This-One’s-True” adventure yarns. His promotions through the Key West Police Department ranks came in the late 1980s. Five years ago he’d made detective. A year ago he was accepted by the FBI. But suddenly the state of Florida yanked his badge, and to Monty’s utter disappointment the FBI backed off. The deal had reeked of fix and politics. The chief of police, to challenge the state-level power brokers, had rehired Monty to be the department’s public-relations liaison. More than disliking his new posting at the city, Monty missed the street action. But a wife and new baby and large mortgage had him wedged in. In civilian clothes he looked neat and athletic. At five-ten he was a powerful piece of work, as squared away as the uniformed officers, and more fit.
“Morning, Monty,” I said quietly.