Alex Rutledge, freelance and part-time Key West crime scene photographer, awakes to his first day off in months. Late August, the off-season, the dog days. Everything's okay until his phone rings. His old navy buddy, Zack Cahill, now a successful Chicago banker, is in town and, at 8:00 a.m., drunk in Sloppy Joe's. Zack demands that Rutledge join him for a celebratory beer. When Alex arrives at the bar, eight minutes later, Cahill is gone.
The day continues downhill. A high-noon murder in the tourist district, the ransacked apartment of a local bartender, and the chance encounter of Abby Womack, Cahill's ex-mistress, combine to convince Alex that Zach Cahill's disappearance may be linked to all of these events. An overnight fire and a drive-by shooting the next morning amplify the strangeness and danger.
By calling in favors from a crew of Key West characters, stepping aside of law enforcement, and traveling to New Orleans in an attempt to help his friend, Rutledge will fall deep into a mysterious range war, a fight for the profits from a twenty-year-old smuggling deal.
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November 01, 2000
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Excerpt from Gumbo Limbo by Tom Corcoran
This time I had good intentions.
Two cups into the Cuban coffee on a hot morning, ready for chores. Key West had fallen funk-deep into its humid, mid-August dog days. I smelled rot in the yard, old rainwater held by the lowest layers of dead leaves. Carmen Sosa, my sweet neighbor, always joked that this time of year you could take a bath just sitting in the car. Two nights ago her father, Hector Ayusa, said it was too hot for anything good to happen.
The yard needed work. I needed brain-free exertion. I'd pulled a trowel and shears from the fruit crate on the porch, and I'd stepped out back to attack my thirty-by-thirty rain forest and lizard preserve. Manual labor by choice, under the mango tree. Sweat penance for future misdeeds.
Then the phone rang.
Ten steps farther from the screen door, I'd have let the message tape roll. I returned to the porch, dropped the implements on my porcelain-top table, and caught the call before the machine clicked on.
"Rutledge," I said, slightly out of breath. Perfect. At eight A.M. I liked to sound confrontational. Being snappy at that hour inspired brevity and tended to discourage future early calls.
"Now, hear reveille, reveille ..."
I already knew the voice.
"Now, all hands on deck. Sweepers, man your brooms. Give the ship a clean sweepdown fore and aft. Sweep down all lower decks, ladders, and passageways. Now, sweepers."
Zack Cahill, my gregarious Navy buddy, for the past twenty years a bank executive in Chicago.
"Will the man with the keys to the ship's am-ba-lance please report to the quarterdeck with same ..."
The background noise placed my friend in a bar. "Zack ..."
"No, dipshit," he shouted, "it's Mamie Eisenhower."
"I've been out of bed since seven."
"Rutledge, you asshole. I wanted to wake you up and piss you off."
"You in church?"
"Correct. Our Lady of Sloppy Joe's."
The Problem. You live in Key West, all visitors think you're on perpetual vacation. "The morning sun," I said, "it's over the yardarm somewhere ..."
"Right again, Alex. Like, Libya. They aren't allowed to drink, so I'll make up for them. Look, I'm in town just for the day. I came in after midnight, beat all to hell. But I got up at six-thirty. You're lucky I didn't call earlier."
"No advance alert this time?"
"I forgot. Look, you need to come bend an elbow. Your amigo here is on top of the goddamned world. I'll explain when you get here. I'm on the fifth stool from the beer coolers, facing Duval, between a large Hell's Angel who smells like a wrestling meet and a chain-smoking, eighty-pound widow from Ocala. We're passing judgment on Key West and Fidel Castro. We're wondering what the hell ever happened to Bebe Rebozo. I've got an important lunch at Mangoes, then I'm out of here on a four-thirty flight. With any luck, after this lunch thing, you can join me in a celebration."
"Sounds like it's already rolling."
"Get on down here, amigo."
The financial wizard, trying to sound like an El Paso huckster.
For two months my laid-back tropical life had been too hectic. No skiff runs to Woman Key, no day sailing or kayaking the backcountry mangroves or snorkeling the reef beyond Hawk Channel. Certainly no time for trimming backyard crotons and raking out dead fronds. I'd awakened to free space on the calendar. I had two weeks until my next photo assignment. I knew from the radio that a twenty-knot east wind had chopped the ocean, so I'd ruled out any kind of offshore play. This would have been my day in the yard.
I pulled on a shirt, changed into presentable shoes, closed up the house, and unlocked my bike. I zigzagged Old Town, dodging traffic on Eaton Street, coasting the shady slope of Grunt Bone Alley, dodging coconuts, catching a diesel whiff off the marina docks, angling to the foot of Elizabeth. An eight-minute ride. By the time I'd reached Sloppy Joe's and locked the lightweight to a bicycle rack, Zack Cahill had vanished.
I felt no immediate concern. I figured Cahill had finished one too many breakfast beers and had wandered off to Duval Street's two thousand T-shirt shops to grab gifts for his twin teenaged boys and Kathryn, his younger daughter. I beckoned to Bonnie, who'd worked Sloppy's day shift since the mid-1980s. "Yuppie-looking guy in here fifteen minutes ago?"
She smiled and raised her left arm. "His watch."
Cahill's gold Rolex. "He called me at the house," I said. "Asked me to meet him here."
"I ran a mental tab on two Coronas. He ordered one more, so I asked him to settle. The place was filling up, you know ... I was afraid I'd lose track. He reached back, no wallet. He had to go back to his hotel."
I looked again at the Rolex.
"Hey, I told him I'd trust him for two beers. He didn't look like a rip-off artist. He told me to hold it. He insisted."
"He say which hotel?"
Bonnie shook her head. "I didn't even see what direction. Don't worry. He'll walk back in any minute." She smiled to placate me. "He doesn't show, you want to buy a nice watch?" She winked and hurried away to refill a trio of draft mugs.
I found a vacant spot between two stools near the end of the bar. Sid, the owner, offered to spring for a beer. He thought he remembered Cahill from years ago, but hadn't noticed him in the bar, hadn't seen him leave. Smoky haze drifted, pushed by ceiling fans, never moving out the four open doors. A minute later Bonnie placed a tall cup of orange juice on a cardboard coaster in front of me. Hemingway's face in the bar logo, a line drawing based on the Karsh portrait that made the author look dumb as a wedge. Six feet away the expansive biker and the widow from Ocala discussed antilock brakes and deactivated air bags. A table of rowdy drunks celebrated a friend's successful return from the men's room. A woman on the sidewalk called into the bar, demanding that Morris leave and go shopping. The jukebox volume jumped a couple levels, a country song best suited to night listening. The widow and biker moved their debate to megavitamins, then endangered species. Sid ducked into his office to catch a telephone call. After ten more minutes of cacophony and no Cahill, I escaped to the relative quiet of Duval. Mopeds whanging like yard trimmers, guttural tour buses, straight-pipe Harleys, the clang of the Conch Train's bell.
Summer-morning calm in a sleepy town at the end of U.S. 1.
Zack and his wife, Claire, had stayed at the Pier House several times over the years, so I headed northward, fighting upstream through a throng of milk-skinned tourists in stupid hats who had disembarked a cruise ship at Mallory Dock. Key West that morning radiated the plastic ambience of a theme park. I looked forward to seeing Zack Cahill, as always, but wished I were somewhere other than fighting foot traffic in the shell-ashtraydistrict. One saving grace: that close to the Gulf, even on the island's lee side, the twenty-knot wind took the edge off the heat.
The desk clerk in the Pier House lobby recognized me as a longtime Key West resident. After waiting for two women to check out, I made a discreet request. Without expression, the clerk turned to a computer monitor, scrolled through the guest register, made a sad face, then shook his head. I called my machine from a house phone and punched in my code. No messages.
Of all my friends, Zack had best adopted a sane and productive lifestyle. He'd been a conscientious father, a good husband to a great woman. In spite of his telephone blustering--an old ritual between us--his level approach to life had boosted my sanity many times. He made more money in a month than I'd ever made in a year. It had never made a difference in our friendship. We always had treated his Key West visits as celebrations--of good friendship, if a calendar occasion wasn't handy. But at this point in our lives, the idea of carousing in Sloppy Joe's at eight-thirty in the morning didn't fit. I could have blown it off to a flash of lunatic behavior, to Zack's letting off steam to compensate for his high-pressure occupation. But Cahill never had forgotten anything. Now he'd failed to warn me ahead of a visit and had neglected to put his wallet in his pocket. It made no sense. The idea of his handing over the Rolex to secure a twobeer bar tab made the least sense of all.
The sun popped quickly from treetop level to full-boogie. Too hot to go home, too late in the morning to confront yard work. So I worked up a sweat downtown, dropping coins into phones, calling the motels and guest houses, wishing I had worn sun block. Zack had not been registered at the Ocean Key House, the Reach, the Casa Marina, the Hyatt, the Hilton, or the motels at the south end of Simonton. I called places by the airport and checked back with Bonnie at Sloppy's three times. I tried two time-share resorts and a few B&Bs. I finally rode home. Zackhad a key to the house. I wanted to find him waiting on my porch, beer in hand, or sound asleep on the living room sofa.
No Zack, no messages.