* * *
Despite the delay in her primary objective, Cynthia had taken care of a secondary one by using her senior rank, plus some biased research and use of old records, to thwart Malcolm Ainslie's promotion to lieutenant. Her motives were clear enough, even to Cynthia. After a childhood of what amounted to complete and utter rejection, she was determined that no one no one would ever reject her again. But Malcolm had, and for that, she would never forget, never forgive. Eventually, after the long delay in her final reckoning with Gustav and Eleanor Ernst, Cynthia decided she had waited long enough. She conveyed her impatience to Patrick during a weekend in Nassau, Bahamas, where again they were registered at separate hotels, Cynthia at the luxurious Paradise Island Ocean Club.
After a long and satisfying morning of sex, Cynthia suddenly sat up in her bed. "You've had more than enough time. I want some action, or I'll take some." She leaned over and kissed his forehead. "And trust me, sweetheart, you won't like the kind of action I have in mind."
"I know." Jensen had been expecting this kind of ultimatum for some time and asked, "How long do I have?"
"Make it six."
"Four, beginning tomorrow."
He sighed, knowing that she meant it, aware also that for reasons of his own the time had come.
* * *
Jensen had produced one more book, which, like the two preceding it, was a failure compared with his earlier bestsellers. As a result, the publishers' advances Patrick received for all three books, which he had spent long ago, were not earned out and no more royalty payments were forthcoming. The next step was predictable. His American publishing house, which during his successful years paid him handsome advances against books not yet written, declined to do so anymore, insisting instead that he submit a finished manuscript before any contract was signed and money changed hands.
This left Jensen in a desperate situation. During the preceding few years he had not moderated his expensive living habits, and not only were his current assets nil, but he was deeply in debt. Thus the possibility of receiving two hundred thousand Dollars to hire a killer of which Jensen intended to keep half, plus a similar sum he envisaged for his own services was now urgent and attractive.
Through a series of coincidences, he moved closer to finding his man. These coincidences, initially unconnected to Patrick, involved the police, a group of disabled veterans from Vietnam and the Gulf War, and drugs. The vets, who had suffered wartime wounds that confined them to wheelchairs, were once mired in a postwar life of drugs, but had kicked the habit and were now anti-drug crusaders. In the uneasy, mixed-race area where they lived between Grand Avenue and Bird Road in Coconut Grove they had declared a private war on those who sold drugs and helped ruin the lives of so many, especially young people. The group's members were aware that others in their community were trying to fight drugs and traffickers, but mostly not succeeding. However, the vets in wheelchairs were succeeding and, in their special way, had become vigilantes and undercover police informers.
Paradoxically, their leader and inspirer was neither a military veteran nor a reformed drug user, but a former athlete and scholar. Stewart Rice, age twenty-three, sometimes known as Stewie, had suffered a fall four years earlier while climbing a sheer mountain face, leaving him permanently paralyzed below the waist and confined to a wheelchair. He, too, felt strongly about young people and drugs, and his alliance with the vets resulted from shared opinions and the camaraderie that people in wheelchairs feel instinctively for each other.
As Rice expressed it to newcomers to the group, which had begun with three Vietnam vets and expanded to a dozen, "Young people, kids, with whole bodies and active lives, are being destroyed by the drug scum who should be in jail. And we're helping put them there."
The wheelchair group's modus operandi was to collect information about who was dealing, where, when, how often, and when new supplies were expected, then pass all that information anonymously to the Police Department's anti-drug task force.
Rice again, speaking with a trusted friend: "Those of us in chairs can move around where the drug action is, and hardly anyone takes notice. If they think about us at all, they figure we're panhandling, like all those guys on Bird Road. They believe that because our legs are paralyzed or our arms don't work, we're that way, too, in our heads especially the druggies and dealers who've destroyed the few brain cells they once had."
At the police end, anti-drug task force members were skeptical when the informational phone calls began calls Rice always made himself, using a cellular phone to avoid tracing. Immediately after a tip-off, whoever answered would demand the caller's identification, but "Stewie" was the only name Rice gave before hanging up quickly. But soon, after discovering the information was usable and dependable, a call beginning, "This is Stewie," was greeted by, "Hi, buddy! What you got for us?" No tracing was attempted. Why spoil a good thing?
As a result, gang drug trafficking was increasingly disrupted by police. Arrests and convictions mounted. Parts of Coconut Grove were becoming cleaner. Then the pattern broke.
Major drug traffickers, aware that some kind of espionage must be occurring, began asking questions. At first there were no answers. Then an arrested dealer overheard one drug cop say to another, "Stewie sure came through this time."
Within hours a question was buzzing through the Grove: "Who the fuck is Stewie?"
The answer came quickly. Along with it, through neighborhood gossip, the wheelchair group's tactics were exposed.
Stewart Rice had to die, and in such a way as to warn others like him.
The contract killing was ordered for the next day, which was the point at which through coincidence Patrick Jensen became involved.
* * *
Jensen had become a regular at the Brass Doubloon, a noisy, smoky bar and lounge well known as a hangout for drug dealers, and that night when he walked in, a voice from a table called across, "Hey, Pat! You writin' somethin' new, man? Come tell us!" The voice belonged to a narrow-faced, pockmarked ex-con with a long rap sheet, named Arlie. He was with several others, also part of the scene that Jensen had come to know during his search for a crime story. One in the group whom Jensen had not seen before was a huge, hard-featured man with wide shoulders, powerful arms, close-cropped hair, and a mulatto's complexion. The stranger, dwarfing the others, was scowling. He growled a question, which another at the table answered.
"Pat's okay, Virgilio. He writes books, see. You tell him shit, he makes a story. Just a story nothing real, don't do us no harm."
Someone else added, "Yeah, Pat keeps his mouth shut. He knows he'd better. Right, Pat?"
Jensen nodded. "Absolutely."
A space was opened for him and a chair pulled in. Facing the huge newcomer, he said easily, "No need to tell me anything, Virgilio, and I just forgot your name. I'll ask one question, though." Everyone stared. "Can I buy you a drink?"
The huge man, still scowling, looked at Jensen steadily. Then he said, in a heavily accented voice, "I buy drinks."
"Fine." Jensen did not look away, either. "A double Black Label."
A barman behind them called, "Coming up!"
Virgilio stood. Looming even larger on his feet, he announced tersely, "First I piss." He turned away.
When he had gone, the second man who had spoken, whose name was Dutch, told Patrick, "He's sizin' you up. Better hope he likes you."
"Why should I care?"
"Because nobody messes with Virgilio. He's Colombian; comes and goes here. On his home turf, four finks double-crossed their boss, talked to Colombian cops. Virgilio got the job of showin' 'em they did bad. Know what he did?"
Jensen shook his head.
"He found them, tied 'em to trees, their arms stretched out. Then he used a chain saw on every one cut off their right arms."
Jensen took a hasty sip of Scotch.
Arlie whispered, "Do you some good to know Virgilio. Be some action tonight. You interested?"
"Yes." Even as he spoke, a new thought occurred to Jensen.
"When he gets back," Dutch said, "wait for a bit, then go to the can and take your time. We'll ask Virgilio if it's okay to let you in.''
Jensen did as he was told. Soon afterward, a nod.
* * *
"Keep on following the jeep," Dutch instructed Jensen. "And when they stop and turn off their lights, do the same."
It was almost 3:00 A.M. They were in Jensen's Volvo, having driven thirty-five miles south on Florida's Turnpike, led by a Jeep Cherokee ahead, with Arlie driving and Virgilio his passenger. Then, just past Florida City, an entrance to the Everglades, they turned onto Card Sound Road, a desolate byway leading to Key Largo. By the light of a half moon, Jensen could make out the tidewater and broken-down houseboats nestled along mudbanks on either side. There were no homes or villages to provide ambient light, nor was there any sign of other cars. Motorists shunned this route at night, preferring the more traveled and safer U.S.1 Highway.
"I sure as hell couldn't live in one of those shitheaps," Dutch said. "Could you?" Their headlights had revealed a pile of debris that was once a boat, with a crude sign reading, Blue Crabbs for Sale. Jensen, wondering by now why he was here at all, didn't answer.
At that moment the jeep in front swung off the road onto a gravelly area, stopped, and its lights went out. Jensen followed, turned off the Volvo's lights, and got out. The two from the jeep stood waiting. Nothing was said.
The big Colombian walked to the water's edge, peering out into the darkness.
Suddenly, headlights appeared. A tradesman's van, with a "Plumber's Pal" logo on its side panel, pulled off the road and stopped next to Virgilio and Arlie's jeep. Immediately two male figures left the van; Patrick noticed they were wearing gloves. The newcomers went to the van's rear doors, where the others joined them. Jensen hung back.
Inside the van, a shape was visible. As the object was pulled to the rear, Patrick saw it was a mechanical-type wheelchair that had been transported on its back. A figure was in the chair and, though secured by ropes, appeared to be struggling. Virgilio moved forward; he, too, had slipped on gloves. Then, as if the heavy chair were weightless, Virgilio lifted it out and stood it upright. Patrick, who now faced the chair, could see that the seated figure was a young male, gagged and bound. He could see the captive's eyes moving desperately from side to side, and the mouth working, too, trying to eject the gag. Somehow, for a moment, the man in the chair succeeded and spat part of the gag loose. Looking at Jensen, who was separate from the others, he blurted, "I've been kidnapped! My name's Stewie Rice. These people will kill me! Please help "
The words had barely finished when Virgilio smashed an enormous hand against Stewie's face. A spurt of blood emerged from his mouth along with a sharp cry, stifled as Dutch reached out and readjusted the gag. Still the captive's eyes roved, frantically pleading. Jensen had to look away.
"We move quick," Virgilio pronounced, propelling the wheelchair toward the water, again lifting it easily when it stuck. The pair who had arrived in the van followed, one carrying a chain, the other a cement block. Dutch joined them and beckoned Jensen to follow. Reluctantly, he did so. Arlie remained on shore.