Read Tropical Heat Online

Authors: John Lutz

Tropical Heat (3 page)

“I do,” Carver said, “but I only think like one. It’s Desoto who fixes all his relatives’ traffic tickets.”

Edwina shifted her weight in her chair, crossing her legs the other way. Her right leg, which had been on the bottom, was pale where its circulation had been impaired by the weight of the left. For some reason the splotchy coloring beneath her light nylon panty hose intrigued Carver. Aroused him. He hadn’t thought enough about the opposite sex for a long time. His divorce from Laura had been finalized just three days before he’d been shot. Two deep wounds in one week took it out of a man.

“I’m going to make a guess, Mr. Carver,” Edwina said. “It’s true that Lieutenant Desoto probably doesn’t have the manpower to spare for an investigation into what happened to Willis. Or maybe he couldn’t justify such an investigation to his superiors. But he must see a lot of cases like this that he lets drift into official never-never land. I don’t think he’d have sent me to see you unless he thought it was worth discovering what happened to Willis, and unless he thought you were the one who could do the discovering.”

“You’re probably right,” Carver admitted.

“Which leaves us only with the question of whether you want to help me. And help yourself instead of vegetating here.”

Carver didn’t answer. Who was
she
, to talk to him this way?

“That’s what Lieutenant Desoto said you were doing out here, vegetating.”

“Piss on Lieutenant Desoto. He wouldn’t know a vegetable if it jumped up and gave him vitamin D.”

“But I suspect he knows you quite well.”

“Suspecting seems to be an obsession with you.”

“Lately it has been,” Edwina said. “I’m looking for someone to share that obsession. Shall we discuss terms?”

Carver stood up, leaned to the side, and got his cane from where he’d left it propped against the wall. He planted it firmly on the wood floor, squeezing its burnished walnut handle hard enough to whiten his knuckles.

“Where are you going?” Edwina asked.

“For another swim. I didn’t drip enough water on the floor from the last time I was interrupted.” He tap-tap-tapped to the door with his cane.

“You don’t get around so bad,” Edwina said, following him outside. The screen door slapped shut behind them and reverberated. “You’ve got a lean, strong body; be thankful for that.”

“I am,” Carver said, making for the beach. “You should see me run.” A gull wheeled in low and then soared away in an exquisite arc, screaming, as if taunting him with its limitless blue freedom.

“I’m seeing you run now,” she said. “Away from this case. But you can find Willis. I know it. I can
feel
it. Lieutenant Desoto knew what he was doing when he sent me here.”

“That’s your own unreasonable optimism you feel.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist,” Edwina said. She sounded annoyed.

“Not if you thrive on disappointment.” The tip of Carver’s cane hit a soft spot and he almost fell. He was walking too fast; he was annoyed, too.

“I was warned you were cynical,” Edwina said in disgust.

Desoto again.

Near the surf, Carver stopped walking and turned to face her. He didn’t want her to see him backcrawl into the water. She got one of her business cards from her purse and handed it to him. It was an expensive thick white card, engraved with
QUILL REALTY
and her home and office phone numbers. There was a company logo—a red feather—in the upper right corner.

“Don’t get it wet,” she said. “Consider my offer and phone me.”

“Ever think about trying to find Willis yourself?” he asked.

“I know what I’m good at, Mr. Carver. And what I’m not good at.”

When she turned and began to walk away, Carver extended his cane and used its crook to catch her elbow, gently pulling her around in the soft sand to face him.

She stared at him, seemingly more amused than angry. She was too tough to be swayed by strong-arm tactics, she was telling him with that look.

“If Willis Davis did commit suicide,” Carver said, “he was crazy.”

She removed the cane from her arm. “I know. And Willis isn’t crazy.”

Carver sat down at the edge of the surf and watched her walk away down the beach. Carrying her high-heeled shoes, she strode erectly in her tailored dark business suit among the sunbathers, among all that tanned and glistening female flesh. She was the sexiest thing on the sand. Half a dozen male heads turned in her wake to stare at her as Carver was doing.

He patted his stiff left leg. “Getting well,” he muttered to himself. “Getting well. . . .”

After carefully placing Edwina’s white business card beneath the cane, far enough up on the beach so it wouldn’t get wet, he turned again to the ocean.

It was time to get back in the water.

CHAPTER 3

C
ARVER WAS AWAKE
at five-thirty the next morning, lying in bed in the dimness, turning over in his mind the day six months before when he’d been injured. The kid had taken careful aim and shot him in the knee for the perverse thrill of it. Probably he’d heard about the Irish Republican Army punishing informers by shattering their kneecaps with gunfire, and thought now that he had a cop cornered it might be fun to try this imaginative and permanent imposition of his will. The kid was doing ten to twenty years now in Raiford Prison for armed robbery and assault. Sometimes Carver wished another con would stick a knife in the kid; other times, more and more often now, he didn’t much care and had to remind himself that he should lust for vengeance.

He did wish he hadn’t dropped his revolver as commanded when the second holdup man had stepped out of the back room of the all-night grocery store.

Carver had been off duty that evening and stopped at the store for a pound of ground beef, when he realized a robbery was going down. Realized it by the studied nonchalance of the only other customer, a young Latino with his right hand in his jacket pocket. Realized it by the rubbery features and scent of fear of the old man behind the counter. The Latino youth had sensed cop, panicked, and begun to run, and Carver drew his revolver, yelled that he was police, and ordered the fleeing suspect to halt. All by the book. And the book worked. The suspect stopped abruptly and raised his hands.

That’s when the book failed Carver. A soft voice behind him said, “Drop the piece, Wyatt Earp, and nobody gets their guts shot out.” It was the kind of voice Carver had heard a few times before, not scared when it should have been scared, and with a touch of gloating, sadistic humor. Carver let the comforting weight of his revolver drop to the floor. His heart fell with it.

The second gunman had been in the back room. He was a skinny black kid about twenty, with a scraggly
bandito
mustache and a frantically active protruding Adam’s apple. When he walked around Carver on his way to the door, gripping a grocery sack full of money in one hand and a cheap oversized revolver in the other, he lowered the aim of the pistol, and blasted away Carver’s kneecap. It was as if he’d done that sort of thing almost every day of his life; as natural as zipping up his pants.

Carver was on the floor before he knew what had happened, aware of nothing but a numbness in his leg. And within a few seconds came the pain that was to be Carver’s close companion—the blinding, encompassing pain. Pain that absorbed him and shut out the rest of the world. He was unaware that the woman who had been knocked unconscious in the back room had come to and phoned the police, unaware that both youthful holdup men, including the skinny black one with the gun stuck in his belt, had been stopped in the parking lot and arrested. Unaware of anything but the searing everything of the pain, sickening him, sending him in a terrifying plunge down a black well that was bored to the center of the earth.

Then the hospital room. White. Everything white. Clean.

Safe.

And the infuriating news about his leg.

For a moment Carver thought he was back in the hospital. Then he realized he was in his own bed at home, squeezing the beaded edges of the mattress so hard that his fingers ached. The sea made soothing whispering sounds outside his open windows, telling him to relax, the pain had ended. Maybe that was why he’d really moved there, for the mothering, comforting sound of the sea.

Carver swiveled to sit on the edge of the mattress, then reached for his cane and stood up. He was dizzy for a few seconds, and sweating heavily, though the morning hadn’t begun to heat up. Nude, he limped across the room to the bathroom, hung his cane on the doorknob, and stepped into the shower stall.

The blast of cold water jolted him awake cruelly and lodged his mind firmly in the present. When he was chilled and began to shiver, he turned on the hot tap. He was spending too much time alone since the injury, that was for sure. Planted in the past.

Vegetating.

When he’d finished showering, Carver shaved for the first time in three days. After rinsing the lather from his face, he liked what he saw in the fogged mirror a little better. But only a little. He had never been a handsome man, but now his face had taken on a new, predatory gauntness. He was dark, almost swarthy, except for his sun-bleached eyebrows and pale blue eyes. And he was practically out of hair now, gleamingly bald on top but with thick grayish curls around his ears and growing well down the back of his neck. The line of his nose was long and straight; his mouth was full-lipped and resolute, turned down slightly at one corner by a thin, boyhood scar. Ugly dude. Mean dude. The best you could say about his features was that they were strong.

Carver evened his sideburns and said the hell with it. He didn’t want to pose for calendars. He was forty-five and liked fortyish women who had a few nicks and scars themselves. Stretch marks were kind of sexy; they indicated that the mind had been stretched, too.

He dressed in a blue-and-gray-striped pullover shirt that had some kind of animal embroidered above the pocket, clean navy blue dress slacks, dark socks, and well-worn loafers. The Paris hoodlum look. Then he walked outside to his car.

It was a 1973 Oldsmobile convertible, and Carver had left the top down when it rained. But that was okay; the car had been rusty already and the rain that had gone in the top had run out the bottom. The leather interior was dry and warm and purified by the sun. Carver got in and the Olds started on the first try, as if to confirm that appearances deceived and it could still do its stuff.

He drove down the narrow road to the coast highway, then headed south. The Olds was large, with plenty of room for his stiff leg, and driving was no problem with the automatic transmission.

A mile down the highway was a slow-food restaurant where Carver intended to stop for a big breakfast of hotcakes, sausage, and coffee. He would have a second cup of coffee, and maybe smoke a Swisher Sweet cigar if there was nobody around who looked like they might complain.

Then he’d drive the rest of the way into Del Moray and talk to Edwina Talbot.

Her house was small, like his, only it was worth about three times as much. Carver drove up the winding driveway and parked beneath three tall date palms planted in a perfect triangle marked off by fancy red stones. The house was constructed of brownish brick with a red front door and a low red tile roof. Beyond it Carver could see the blue Atlantic merge with a paler blue sky. When he switched off the engine, the sea muttered incomprehensible secrets to him.

A gate opened in a stone wall that joined the north side of the house, and Edwina walked out. She was wearing a dark blue one-piece bathing suit, Mexican sandals, and was carrying a drink in her right hand. In her left hand was a pair of sunglasses with very dark oversized lenses. Her tanned, slender body was superb but for legs that were slightly bowed. That was the only thing wrong with her legs.

Mustn’t grade women like cattle, Carver admonished himself, as he gripped his cane and got out of the car.

“I heard you drive up,” Edwina said, walking closer, looking better, worth the blue ribbon. She didn’t seem surprised to see him; probably not much surprised her. Her dark hair was pulled back and bobby-pinned, emphasizing angular cheekbones and a graceful jawline. The patient intentness was still in her eyes; they were the eyes of a stalking cat. “Have you decided to search for Willis?”

“Yes.”

She smiled; the cat had cornered a mouse. “It’s a long drive here from your place. How did you know I’d be home?”

“I didn’t. I was prepared to wait for you.”

“You could have simply phoned, Mr. Carver. Or did you want to see me again?”

“I wanted to see your house. To see how much you might be worth so I’ll know how much to charge you.”

Edwina laughed low and melodiously. Carver liked the way the tendons in her throat tightened and moved.

“You’re toying with me, Edwina,” he said. “Checking to see where you might attach strings to me.”

She sobered. The laugh went silent and became a smile. “I’ll do whatever I have to in order to get somebody with ability to search for Willis.” She dangled the sunglasses, looking down at them. Then she put them on, as if suddenly deciding to effect a disguise. “Come on back by the pool, Mr. Carver. We’ll sit in the shade and talk.”

She turned and strode through stark shadows back toward the open gate, not waiting for him. Carver limped behind her, watching the switch of her trim hips. He was feeling stronger, getting more competent with the cane.

They sat opposite each other on wrought-iron white chairs at a metal table with an umbrella sprouting like a mutant tropical flower from its center. Edwina set her glass down on a plastic coaster. Carver guessed that the glass contained grapefruit juice. Or maybe it was a Margarita sans salt.

“Would you like something cool to drink?” she asked. “Or coffee?”

Carver declined. He was looking across the small round swimming pool at a brick veranda where another, larger table, with a fringed blue umbrella, was surrounded by four webbed aluminum chairs. Beyond the table was a low, curved brick wall with a long redwood planter on top. There were a lot of colorful flowers in the planter, and something green and viny draped out of one end. On the other side of the low wall the ground sloped gradually to what must have been the drop Edwina had described. They were up high, on a point of land jutting out from the coast. From where they sat, the sea and sky looked incredibly blue and vast.

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