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The Key To Murder
Author's note: This story is action-based, but borrows from hard-boiled detective dramas (a genre I've been wanting to try for a while). Almost all in-story locations are real, based on when I spent a day on the island on a trek at the Florida Sea Base. The chapters are based on word-count markers, which are how I split up the story for submission to my high-school literature competition. The first part won first place in the competition.
Déjà vu. It’s strange how the thing can pop up at the least opportune or predictable occasion. Like now. This case was ending the same way it began: killing time in an airport. And I guess it was appropriate that way. I mean, when I was about to leave Houston for that tropical oasis in a country fraught with mayhem, better known as the Florida Keys, I was at least somewhat looking for a vacation. After being force-fed an unpleasant cocktail of gunfights, drug busts, and big-city crime over the past three months, I was certainly hoping this out-of-state assignment would be a nice break from a streak of tough jobs. But now, in retrospective, this trip was anything but a break. And now I need a vacation from this vacation, if you’ll pardon the cliché.
Now, I suppose I owe you quite an explanation. You’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Well, frankly, I’m not supposed to tell you, but this case is more dead than Obama’s reelection chances, so I figure what’s the risk? I’ll start out by letting you know that it involves a good bit of blood-and-guts type stuff, so those with weak stomachs, please exit the room now. But now, onto the case. As you may have figured out already, I work in Houston. And in case I haven’t told you already, my name’s Jack West. I’m a private eye, the type who all too often doubles as security detail. But I guess that kind of stuff comes along when your company name is “Leiter Private Investigation and Security Services.” My boss, a guy named Felix, put me onto this as an off-the-books assignment. Technically, we don’t operate outside the state of Texas, but this time, the client was a personal friend. An old war buddy of Felix’s, they barely scraped out of Vietnam together. And he had nowhere else to turn.
“You know how much I owe this guy, Jack.”
“Your life, and a little bit more, right?”
“Exactly. So I’m sending you to the Keys to help him out. He said his problem was too sensitive to even tell me over the phone, but to send my best man.”
“So my name came top of the list. Might be nice, catch a little sun while I’m out there, get away from the big-city grind.”
“No, Jack. And this time I really mean it. Whatever we’re getting into, it’s big enough to demand your full attention. I don’t want you blowing this case because you confused it with a vacation.”
”Of course. No distractions until the job is done.”
“And even then. I only suspect it, but I have a sense there’s something bigger going on here. Never let your guard down, from the second you leave this office to the second you return. You know, I trust, that this is an unofficial assignment. You will be compensated as such, and will not bring the agency’s name into this.”
“Right. Off-the-records job. I can handle that.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
He handed me an envelope with an American Airlines ticket for a flight out of Hobby, direct to Miami, first-class. Several hundred-dollar bills lined up behind it. “That should be enough to cover at least a week of food and the other necessities. Your flight leaves at 3:30. There is a reservation for the next week in your name at the Key West Hilton, and a car will be waiting at the airport. Good luck, old buddy.”
“Keep the office warm for me, Felix. See you soon.”
Well, that little briefing had given me a perfect idea of what to expect on this case. But I supposed that when I had my money and was relaxing under the Florida sun on a nice beach in a few days, it wouldn’t really matter. So I was content to not ask questions. But as I checked my baggage, cleared security (kind of), and proceeded to my gate, I simply couldn’t shake a feeling that I was already getting in over my head. And it turned out that instinct was right.
My trip through the airport was uneventful, except for having to show a special ID card to the head security man when they found some questionable items in my carry-on. There was still 20 minutes left until they started boarding when I arrived at the terminal. This is where I was getting my déjà vu from, I guess. Waiting at my gate, thinking, getting ready for what was about to come, that was when the real case started. And it was also right before I got my first taste of the full course of action I was going to have to stomach.
First-class accommodations aboard a Boeing 737 are very nice, indeed. You get as many drinks as you want, a nice mid-flight snack, and a free pillow and blanket. It was the beverage service, however, that truly filled a necessity for me. And not just for quick refreshment. As a flight attendant handed me a Dr. Pepper and napkin, I noticed a strange oddity on the latter. An inscription, resembling faded writing, was prominent on its face. I unfolded it to find a sinister, cryptic message:
We are aware of your visit to our island and its purpose. We are warning you now: turn back the second you get off this plane. If you do not comply, you shall suffer quite painful consequences. Heed our advice: leave Key West!
The warning was not signed.
Well, at least I knew who I was dealing with: Cubans. Key West is closer to Havana than Miami, and everyone knows it is a smuggler’s heaven for cigars, drugs, and all manner of other contraband. And obviously, smuggling was a piece of the puzzle. But that, still, could mean anything. All I could do was follow the trail I had until I got more answers. I set my Dr. Pepper on the unfolded napkin, the condensation soaking down and dissolving the threat into nothing but running ink.
The rest of the flight went smoothly, as did my pick-up of BMW Z8 Roadster from an Avis store in the airport. Felix always knew my taste in cars. “A man showed up, told me he had some of your luggage to load in for you. I let him put it in the back,” the valet reported to me. Immediately sensing a possible danger, I responded urgently.
“Get out of here. I’ll take care of the rest myself.”
“Get out of here!”
I’m afraid I may have scared the valet a bit too much, because he ran faster than a Democrat in Austin. I apprehensively reached for the lever on the back of the trunk and pulled it up, uncertain of what I would find inside. As soon as I saw the door open up, I realized my suspicions were ill-founded. A black plastic case about the size of a CPU awaited me, its contents clearly not a threat. Inside were two small MAC-10 submachine guns, two matching suppressors, several clips of 9mm ammo, and a note reading “PHONE HOME” I immediately whipped out my Ericsson R380 smartphone and hit Felix’s speed-dial number.
“I see you’ve found the car, Jack.”
“Yeah, but not so clever just giving those Macs to a guy to put it in the trunk without even a code message. I thought someone had put a bomb in!”
“Hey, you have no idea how much I had to nag that guy at Miami to let me air-freight those babies to you in the first place. By the way, they’re the first part of your payment. You keep ‘em after this job, but how you get them home is your business.”
“Well, thanks, I suppose. And don’t worry, I’ll get them home. Guess who I found out is in on this?”
“Lemme guess, the Cubans? Jack, their involved in everything illegal south of the Everglades.”
“Well, they know we’re involved. I got a little note on the plane ride here. I’m apparently not a welcome guest in this part of the world.”
“Then you know what to do. Make them welcome you.”
“Right. Talk to you later.”
Getting to the hotel was no problem; the car handled perfectly. And just as Felix said, a reservation was made in my name at the Key West Hilton. Arriving around 9 that evening, I found my room on the 10th floor, with a balcony and kitchenette. I unpacked my luggage, took a quick shower, and almost immediately went to bed. But as I pulled up the sheets, a 3-by-5 cardstock greeted me. Another note. Had the Cubans figured out I hadn’t turned back? Was another party also interested in keeping me out of Key West? It turned out to be neither. It was a calling card:
CONCH REPUBLIC SEAFOOD COMPANY
So I followed the directive, showing up at this good-sized open-air sports bar by the docks. It was the lunch rush, and everyone was eager to see the latest results of the Marlins-Mets series. The environment was unpredictable: a new diner showed up every minute, another got drunk at the same rate, and hundreds shuffled by outside. I knew this was exactly why my contact had chosen the spot to meet me. But in the back of my mind lingered the possibility I had been set up. It would be all too easy for a hit-man to just wander up, shoot me in the back, then disappear into a panicked crowd. But the man who approached me didn’t want my head. He wanted my help.
“Who wants to know?”
“Paul Whitman, at your service. Barkeep, two Jack Daniels, please! I left you the message in your hotel.”
“So you’re Felix’s old war buddy, eh? What’s your issue?”
“I’m having a problem with a politician. I’m trying to develop some resort houses on the island, and he’s throwing everything at me to stop it. Last week a few thugs from Miami showed up, scared a lot my workers off. Bruised me up, too.”
“You know, there are several perfectly legal reasons someone would be opposed to the use of undeveloped land.”
“That’s just it! I’ve followed every building code, gotten every permit, the whole nine yards! There aren’t even any sort of endangered species on-site. And even if something legal was messed up, that’s no reason to send hired goons to intimidate my men and assault me!”
“Agreed. So you suspected some foul play, and called us in to investigate.”
“What else could I do? This guy’s got hooks in the police, utility services, and almost every major business on the island. I had nowhere else to turn.”
“Alright. That’s OK. We’ll need to talk some more about this. Somewhere else. Too many open ears here.”
“I know just the spot. Hemingway House. The crowd is almost always tourists. Tomorrow?”
“Sure. Meet me there at noon. Let’s finish these and get out. Don’t talk to anyone until then.”
I promptly downed the rest of my Jack Daniels bottle; Paul had already emptied his. I personally prefer vodka, but who was I to refuse local hospitality?
The night passed without event, as I familiarized myself with the area. Every evening they held a small carnival on the boardwalk. Plenty of performers. Easy to blend into a crowd. I’d have to remember that. A place called Guy Harvey’s served a nice dinner, and also would work for a meeting spot. But Hemingway House was truly a nice place. Spacious rooms, a pool, and a huge yard. It’s easy to see why Ernst Hemingway chose this place for a home. After buying a ticket, I jumped into a forming tour group, hoping not to be noticed. As we wandered about the house, I spotted Paul waiting out on the balcony. The group progressed on and I walked toward my contact, hoping to get more of an idea about what I was dealing with. I leaned on the rail next to him and got right to business.
“Glad to see you’re here on time. Did anyone try to get to you after we last met?”
“No. I finally got some good sleep last night. You?”
“Me neither. That worries me. Whoever’s behind this probably knows I didn’t turn back, so they’ll probably give me some “final warning”, then get serious. That warning should come soon.”
“Then we’d better hurry. My men have said if I can guarantee their safety, they’ll come back.”
“Then tell them to get to work. I’ll guarantee their safety.’
Paul pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number.
“Hey, Joe. Tell the guys to get back to work. I’ve hired a private security man. OK. Great. Bye. They’re on their way to the site now.”
“Alright. I’ll be there in case your politician’s gorillas show up again.”
“The site is called Seabreak Cove. The man you’re dealing with is named Michael Santana…”
At that moment, a staccato of gunpowder explosions rang out from a few blocks away, high up. Simultaneously, four holes exploded on the deck, one after another, in a line leading straight to Paul’s leg. He crumpled to the ground, blood slowly seeping from his jeans. I dove to the green-painted wood behind a wall of the house, then reached back to pull Paul away from the kill zone. As soon as his feet fell into the shadow of the house, I unsheathed one of my MAC-10s from its shoulder holster and popped around the corner, trying to return fire. Thankfully, the shooter was still standing up on the balcony of the Key West Lighthouse, in plain sight. Two quick bursts put him on the floor. I ran back to Paul, who was lying in a puddle of his own blood. Startled onlookers were beginning to collect in the doorway.
“Someone call an ambulance! He’s bleeding out!”
But as I tended to my wounded friend, I found that the final warning had come sooner than I thought.
A light red balloon caught my eye as it drifted up into a tree adjacent to the balcony. On it was Sharpie writing, its sloppiness indicating the writer had a poor grip on English.
You have not heeded our first warning
This is your final one: Leave Key West Now!
Otherwise you will suffer a similar fate
This one wasn’t signed, either. And the second I got a chance to read it, the damn thing popped.
I was getting annoyed by these lousy Cubans trying to tell me how to enjoy my vacation. Swinging over the railing and landing down in a bush, I turned around to search for whoever sent me that very ugly note. But all I could find was scared tourists. And dripping blood from my former lead.
But I had a name. Michael Santana. And as soon as I saw Paul off to the hospital, I decided to make his death particularly unpleasant. I would get to him at the end of this. Paul told his men I would watch out for them, and I figured that would be the best way to draw these cowards out. Once they saw work had resumed, they would swoop right in to try and stop it again. And I would get my best chance at stopping them.
Seabreak Cove was all Paul made me think it was. The beach was pristine, and I doubt I’ve ever seen such healthy tropical grasslands. Totally untouched real estate on the east coast of Key West. The workers were a tough bunch of guys, but each one had a family to support. They were plenty grateful I had shown up so they could keep food on the table. Work went smooth, until just after lunch. 2:30, if I remember. Two Chevy Silverado pickups pulled up, a hefty bunch of muscle armed with baseball bats and crowbars waiting in the beds. As they hopped down from the trucks, I noticed a man stepping out of the passenger door of one. He was a little better dressed than the rest of his crew, presumably the leader. He immediately approached me as the workers got up from their labors, hammers and hacksaws in hand, to form a line behind me. We were looking at a brawl unless I took action.
“You’re the new foreman, eh? Well, I guess no one told you. This site’s been closed.” The sharp guy had that dominant tone in his voice that I had gotten used to hearing from racketeers.
“On whose orders?” I coolly replied.
“Mine, wise guy.”
“And on what grounds?”
“That I don’t like it.”
“Neither of those work as answers for me.”
“Oh, they don’t, now do they? Well maybe this will.”
He nodded at one of the bat-wielding meatsacks leaning against a Silverado. The oversized monkey strolled casually over to our permit board and took it down with one Louisville swing.
“That wasn’t very nice.”
“Well I’m about to get a lot less nice!”
The leader threw a gut punch at me, but I grabbed his fist before it came anywhere near making contact. Pulling him in, I returned with a nice elbow to the nose. Recoiling, then extending my right palm onto the side of his head, I quickly slammed his head into my waiting knee. Falling to the ground as I released my grip, the stunned belligerent slowly pulled himself to his feet and croaked out to his gang.
“Big mistake. Get ‘em, guys.”
The goon squad behind him, already antsy since he went down, jumped at the order. But my trigger hand was faster, reaching into my coat and pulling out a MAC-10. It was a magic wand to these fools, who were too stupid to respond to anything but fear, an element I now controlled.
“Now nobody move. Drop your weapons.”
They complied. I immediately took over the situation, frisking the leader for concealed guns. He was wearing a hip holster, a nice little M1911 lying ready for use. I confiscated it without a second thought.
“Now, these guys behind me would like very much to smash your heads in. And I’m tempted to let them. But I’m not going to. Instead, I’ve got a message for your real boss.” Submachine gun in my right hand, pistol in my left, I unleashed a volley of hard lead into the engine block of one of their trucks. Those nearby dove away as the chasis caught fire. Two seconds later, an explosion completely incinerated the remaining body.
“Now you tell Santana and his friends that their trying to close down our site is really burning me up. Now scram!”
I fired a short burst of automatic fire into the air, and the thugs scrambled to the remaining Silverado, those farther behind chasing after it as it sped away. I received a round of cheers and victorious shouts from the crew, feelings of triumph running high among us. Only the assistant foreman, Joe, seemed apprehensive.
“But Jack, you know they’ll just come back, and stronger next time?”
“I know, Joe. But don’t worry. They’ll take a day to lick their wounds. You guys work tomorrow, but the day after, everyone stay home. I’m going to make a preemptive strike.”
More cheering and celebration followed.
My prediction was right. There were no problems for the rest of the day. I slept peacefully for the first time that night. Now, I had a day to figure out who to hit, where to hit them, and when they would be most vulnerable. After snagging some more ammunition from a gun store on Islamorada, I started hitting up the local sources. Walking over to Guy Harvey’s, I ordered a $5 mojito. When the bartender came for payment, I gave him a 20.
“The rest is for some information.”
“I’ll try to oblige.”
“Good. Have you heard of a man named Michael Santana?”
“Have I heard of him? He’s the D.A. for the whole county! The guy has his fingers in quite a few pies, some of them spoiled.”
“So he’s a politician with a price.”
“Any reason he would want to stop the development of Seabreak Cove?”
“I wouldn’t know. The guy you want would be across the street, at Sloppy Joe’s. Their bartender would probably know. He’s half-Cuban.”
So I was going from the high class informant to the low in a matter of minutes. Sloppy Joe’s was a less-than-reputable establishment, but for this purpose, that was just what I needed. Corrupt politicians were less likely to have ears in a ramshackle bar than they would a high-society seafood grill. So I grabbed a stool at the corner and waited for my mark.
He arrived sooner than I expected. I ordered a Bloody Mary, and attempted the same tactic as before. But unfortunately, this fellow wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about a bribe.
“Sorry, cabron. You’re money just ain’t enough ‘round here.”
“I’ll double it.”
“Not what I meant, amigo. Around here, you have to know people to make a payoff work. Or prove yourself.”
The guy obviously had some sick type of fear or respect for Santana. He wasn’t about to squeal so easily as the last one. I had to play by his rules.
“And how would I do that, per se?”
“Take me down one-on-one. And don’t get too cocky. Many have tried, none have succeeded.”
“Well, there’s a first for everything, right? I’ll have a go.”
Now, I wasn’t expecting a barroom brawl, but I had packed my Macs just in case. But for these guys, that wouldn’t work. So I took off my jacket, set it on my seatback, and watched as this gorilla stepped around the bar, to approach me. He was certainly no pushover, and looked like he could (and had before) handle himself. So I took a ready stance and braced for an onslaught.
The brute was a heavy hitter, as I found out the hard way. He slugged me right in the gut, making contact where his friend had missed yesterday. I stumbled back in recoil, but he wasn’t done. Next thing I knew his oversized right hand was plastered on the side of my face, and I had made my way onto a booth table, head against the wall. Sliding off, I decided to go on the offense.
“Congratulations, amigo. Most are unconscious by that last hit.”
“Well, I’m not most people.”
Unleashing a salvo of punches to his chest, I found him as tough as he was strong. He never even flinched. He just stood there until I finished, then grabbed me by the head and shoved me into a table. Picking myself up as I found a new temptation, I reminded myself that no matter what, the Macs were not an option. I would have to finish this hand-to-hand. But then I realized that though he was twice as strong as me, that had no bearing on his height; we were roughly equal. Maybe I had just been aiming for the wrong area.
I brought myself square to him as he gloated to his patrons. I was finished playing nice. Leaving my right foot implanted in the ground, I swung my left heel high around my back and straight into his cheek. This time I saw results. The bartender was visibly stunned by the roundhouse kick. But this time, I wasn’t done. As my left foot came back to the ground, I shifted my balance, bringing my right foot toward his groin. A hit where he was certainly not expecting one sent him back, wincing in pain. And still I kept up, setting my right foot back down in his direction. I shifted balance again, bringing the left foot up into his gut. This process repeated itself, right kick, left kick, for about three times, until overwhelmed, the Cuban slumped to the ground in defeat.
“A friend in the Rangers taught me that one.”
Out of the shadows, a small, beady-eyed Cuban approached me, but I could tell his intentions were friendly.
“Congratulations, señor. You have done the impossible. What would you like?”
“Keep your money. You put on quite a display for us. This one’s on the house.”
“Gracias, I believe is the term. I’m looking for a guy named Michael Santana.”
“Ah, your business involves Señor Santana? You are in a dangerous spot, amigo.”
“I know. What can you tell me about his less-than-reputable partnerships?”
“He has hundreds of them. Illegal gambling, alcohol sales, but smuggling tops them all.”
“Just as I figured. Who is his main partner?”
“Los Habanos. A Cuban gang who’s recently been trying to extend further inland. When one of them’s caught, he turns a blind eye.”
“And gets a nice little monthly check for it. Do they happen to have any interest in Seabreak Cove?”
“Seabreak Cove? That’s where they land their smuggling boats. But they’ve had to stop the shipments because of this Señor Whitman’s development project.”
“So that’s why they want it closed down! Does Los Habanos have any other sort of meeting points?”
“They will meet on Bahia Honda any time they have a large shipment to bring in, and they pay Santana there. In Bahia Honda State Park, usually in the back of the gift shop. I believe they’re meeting tomorrow, and given the time of the month, they’ll probably pay him there.”
“Thank you. You have no idea how much help you’ve been.”
“Glad to help, amigo. You’ll always have friends at Sloppy Joe’s.”
“See you around.”
I now had a time and place, and that was all I needed. Hurrying back to my hotel room, I decided to find out a little about my target. A quick Google search turned up more news articles and political commentaries than there were illegal cigars in Miami. I logged on to a secret e-mail account I used only for sensitive work, and forwarded an article observing Santana’s tendency to let the Los Habanos gang off easy in court to Felix. I knew he’d get the message. Noticing it was 6 at night, I strolled across the street to a sandwich shop for dinner. I went back up to my room immediately afterward, resolved to get some rest that night. I had a very important day ahead of me.
Bahia Honda was an off-the-beaten-path beauty of a national park. After examining the lovely expanse of beach, I knew I needed to come back here more often. But my real favorite part of the park was a massive bridge between the park and Islamorada. The thing was named “Flagler’s Folly,” and quite appropriately so. This Flagler guy, an early 20th-century Howard Hughes, throws all of his money into a bridge system between all of the islands in the keys and the mainland, but it only lasts 23 years until a hurricane blows through and tears it up. But it makes for good tourism. Heck, they filmed some of True Lies here. But I wasn’t visiting to sightsee.
After examining a bit of the park, as well as the layout of the area from a map in the tourism center, I felt ready to face the man who had put a death warrant on my client. Weaving into the gift shop, some of my more refined skills came into play as I saw the girl at the register.
“Ma’am, my name is Colonel Harold Davidson, FBI Counterterrorism Unit. We believe a group of ecoterrorists has planted a bomb in the park. We need you to get all the staff and visitors out of the area.” I waved around my driver’s license like an ID.
“Oh my God…”
“Time is of the essence, ma’am! That bomb is set to go off in…”
I raised my watch and put my hands on the counter for dramatic effect.
“…five minutes! I need you to get every single person out of this park or we’re looking at the next Oklahoma City!”
The mention of Oklahoma City brought her right to attention.
She dashed back into the kitchen, screaming at her staff to get off the island. I absolutely loved playing Colonel Davidson. It let me yell at people condescendingly whenever I want. But now that the scam was over, I had serious business to get to. With that lady spreading the alarm left and right, it wouldn’t be long until these guys figured out something was screwy. Maybe Colonel Davidson wasn’t quite the right choice…
Any experienced sleuth will tell you a detective’s best tools are his senses. I personally ranked a bottle of Smirnoff higher, but the adage was holding true now. With no one left in the shop, several accent-heavy voices were very clearly echoing from the back. A sign plainly told me they were in the loading dock. As I followed the hall, it quickly became apparent that these guys didn’t really fear much: all that stood between me and them was a locked door. Pulling out one of my Macs, with the silencer attached, I readied myself for whatever was on the other side. Charging ahead, I kicked in the door, lock smashing as my heel powered into it.
As you can imagine, such a kick made a lot of noise, and the men inside clearly heard it. All conversation died the second the door opened, and once again, I was regretting not taking a more subtle approach. I inched to the end of the wall that obscured my view of them, trigger finger itchy as ever. But as I turned my head around the corner, a stream of sparks flew by me and exploded into the tin sheets on the opposite wall. These guys were playing with fire. I needed a better aim before I could try anything, so I ripped off my watch and held it up, barely around the corner. Angling the faceplate to a good reflection, I got a nice idea of what was going on. Two men were lifting up a dock door. To their left was a tall man in sunglasses. And he was holding an AK-47. But I knew exactly where he was, though he couldn’t say the same of me. Tilting my Mac around the wall with my right hand, I spat out a nice few grams of lead in a message that really hit this guy. Right in the stomach, to be precise.
Seeing the guard fall, I dashed into the meeting room, but I was too late. Both of the other men had slid out through the bay door, and the man I killed was definitely a Cuban; not Santana. Hopping out into the loading dock, I saw the second man turn the corner to my left, and pursued immediately. As I followed around, I got a clear aim on the second man and put him down with two shots. But as I kneeled down to see his face, I found exactly what I hated myself for expecting: this one was a Cuban, too. That left Santana.
Hurrying back up to a full sprint as I reached the footpath the men were running for, I saw only one person on the path, running to the right, higher up. He was mine. Following the same route, I took off after him, ready to finish off this piece of sea scum. But as the path wound through the park, I noticed an abrupt change in scenery. The trees were replaced by aluminum railing, and the dirt trailed off into concrete. And as I saw the path dead-end, I found there was nothing beyond it but steel and the Gulf of Mexico. Christ, I had caught this guy at the end of the Overseas Highway. On Flagler’s Folly.
Regardless of the dramatic endpoint, I was pretty sure the chase was over. I raised my Mac, and prepared to deliver Michael Santana a permanent impeachment, to the tune of 9 millimeters. But imagine my surprise when instead of the sputter of suppressed rounds I had come to expect from my MAC-10, all I hear is a light, repetitive click. For the love of God, it would jam now. And to make things worse, the sound that followed was the high-pitched whine of a police siren. Santana climbed over the end rail of the bridge, and I knew he was either desperate or stupid. And as a pair of officers pulled the Mac out of my hands and pulled me back to their car, it turned out to be both.
I thought he had decided to take the easy way out and jump, but not so. Santana was instead pulling himself up onto the lower deck of the opposing expanse. He still wanted to escape. Another police car and a motorcycle pulled up, and the car drove to the edge, scanning for him. The police had almost no way to get to the other side, but I knew I had to find one. Slammed against the hood of the first car, I noticed to my left the motorcycle was still running, rider dismounted. I moved fast, pressing myself against the hood and kicking back into the officer trying to handcuff me.
I spun off the car, diving toward the bike. As I jumped on and gunned the throttle, I held the brakes for a few seconds. The wheels screeched against the pavement, a dust cloud exploded behind me, and the scent of scorched rubber permeated the scene as the motorcycle peeled out. I released the handbrake, and shot off towards the second car. Popping a wheelie, I set the front back down on the trunk of the car, and launched off the roof as officers gazed on in awe.
Those split-seconds in midair felt like hours, and I pushed the bike down as I reached out for a grip on the metal. My hands caught a support girder, and I dangled there as the motorcycle smashed into the side of the first pier, exploding upon impact. I slowly mustered the strength to pull myself up to the deck, the girder audibly straining with each move. Finally, as I brought my left foot up to the deck, it gave out, plummeting to the waves below. My right leg dropped with it, pulling me off balance until I slung it up to pave. Taking no time to rest, I sprung to my feet, already sprinting after Santana. He was pretty far ahead, but no bridge like this one ends on solid ground. In the case of this bridge, a large hole was quite plainly gaping in the middle of the steel pathway. Santana had reached that point already, and he undoubtedly knew it was too far to jump again. So he had turned around and was coming back, ready to confront me. The feeling was entirely mutual.
I walked towards him, wary of any sort of trick he might have ready. But all I found him to have was a switchblade, which he was making no attempt to conceal. It was certainly an advantage to him, but I always play against the odds. He was grinning, obviously pleased with himself.
“You’re trapped, amigo. The water is too shallow out here; you dive, you die. And I have the knife.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means I’m going to kill you first.”
“Of course it does. Give a guy a sharp piece of metal, he thinks he’s Achilles.”
“The only difference here is that I have no heel, as he does.”
“That’s what they all think. Yet here I stand.”
His smile had dissolved into a snarl, and he rushed at me, hatred a rusty, corrupted gleam in his eyes. But he was doing exactly what I wanted. He was so pissed off by my wit he had gotten angry, and angry men are careless men. As he slashed at my head, I grabbed his fist with my hand, and did the same as he attempted a left hook. It was two converging forces; he and I were pushing against each other with nearly equal force. Nearly equal, that is, and I slowly began to push him into a metal column. But this, as I found, was a tactical error. He slipped his right foot against the pillar, gaining additional force to throw me back onto the ground. Landing on top of me, he slowly began to bring the knife to my chest as I tightened my death grip on his hands. The cold steel inched nearer and nearer, and I knew it was the do-or-die moment. I threw every bit of force left in me into my left arm, rolling Santana off and me on. Positions switched, the field was a little more level.
I still had to kill this guy, though. Santana was still pushing the knife towards me, but with gravity on my side, I slammed his arm into the ground, and the blade clattered away. Snapping his knuckle with my right hand, I released my grip and released a volley of punches to his head. His head bloody and bruised, I stood up, prepared to deliver the killing blow. But I failed to watch his legs, and he slid them into my feet, bringing me back down as quickly as I was up. This time he stood up, brushed himself off, and began kicking me in the gut. I rolled on to my back in pain, and slowly began to get up, surprised he’d let me. But then I found out why: as soon as I was on my feet, he shoved me hard in the side. I stumbled back, right off the edge. Barely clinging to a strand of rebar, I heard that familiar old strain of metal fatigue as the bridge took new stress. Santana came to the edge, smiling maliciously.
“This is what happens when you screw with Michael Santana, amigo! You die! I’m going to reach down there, knock each of your fingers off one by one, then watch you plunge into the Atlantic!”
His monologue was interrupted by the hum of boat engines, a fact we both noticed. A small Glastron powerboat had docked under the hole. Another sound followed: the snapping of one side of the rebar I was hanging on to. I was now hanging by one hand, above maybe 15ft of water, on a bent piece of rusted metal, suspended from a century-old bridge which hadn’t been used in a century. Crap, I was screwed.
“On second thought, amigo, this bridge is going to take care of you for me. I’ve got a fast boat to Havana waiting, ready to whisk me off on ‘medical leave.’ Adios, carbon!”
He walked over towards the boat, supremely confident in his success, But Santana had forgotten one thing: the rebar I was dangling from was built like a net, interweaving every foot. All I had to do was swing my left hand up, then climb back like a ladder. And that’s exactly what I did. But apparently not fast enough, for Santana was mere feet from a quick jump to freedom. I wasn’t going to let him have that. Picking up his switchblade by the tip, I focused every bit of experience and training with knives I had received over the years into this one throw. I drew back, came forward, and released my throw. The steel flew straight and true, rotating through the air with utmost precision. Fifteen yards and one second later, metal and flesh became one, knife landing directly in his right shoulder. Santana bit the deck only feet from the opening, and thankfully hadn’t been seen. His escape route was now mine.
Picking up his body, hiding behind it, I hobbled to the edge. The crew was yelling at me to jump, unaware Santana’s body was no more than my puppet. I made the leap, corpse acting as a crash pad. I hit the floor with a noisy thud, and nobody was quite sure what was happening by the time I was up. Leaping around the boat with a series of kicks and punches, the vessel was cleared in fifteen seconds, Santana included. I revved the throttle and sped off, heading for Key West. If I made good time, I just might make it to the Sundown Festival.
A day later, I visited Paul. He was staying in the ICU at Mel Fisher Memorial Hospital, still unconscious. Fortunately, a nurse was at hand to meet with me.
“He’ll be OK, right?”
“We think so. The wounds he took were pretty serious. We’re moving him to a trauma unit in Miami. If he stabilizes there, he’ll be just fine. The only risk is in transit.”
“What are the chances of that?”
“Slim, but not nonexistent. Especially on these island roads, there’s always a chance of something happening. For him, I’d say 15%.”
“Thank you. If you don’t mind, have you heard about any big deaths in the area? We heard a local politician died, but no obituary. I’m afraid it might be a friend of the family.”
“You mean Mr. Santana, the D.A.? He isn’t dead, but very badly wounded. Knifed in the back, then left to drift ashore on Bahia Honda. We fear it may be gang-related.”
“Oh, God. Michael…”
“You may want to know, sir, we’ve been doing some checks, and after the operations we’ve already done, we expect him to make a full recovery. He’s in Room 117, if you want to see him.”
“Oh my God, thank you. I had better go see him now… thank you ever so much, ma’am.”
I started sniffling, adding to the pitiful element of the act. I hated these tear-jerkers, but the results spoke for themselves. Room 117. Pulling out my Swiss Army Knife, I got through the lock with a flathead screwdriver. There lie the body of Michael Santana, face as mangled as it had been when I thought him about to kill me the day before. Unsheathing the M1911 from what seemed to be ages ago, I placed a bullet into each monitor, IV bag and life support system hooked into him. Each exploded as it was hit, some screaming shrilly, others just lying in puddles of fluid on the floor. Three more went into him. I set the gun at his bedside, whispering into his cold, dead, lifeless ears.
“I believe this belonged to you. Courtesy of Paul Whitman.”