A Britt Montero Mystery
The garbled police radio transmissions had been confusing: reports of gunfire, a fleeing car, a traffic accident, and a corpse. Were they related? It was impossible to determine from my dashboard scanner. Cops speak guardedly on the air these days, assisted by sophisticated encoding techniques that scramble their signals and permit outsiders to pick up only intermittent one-sided fragments of transmissions.
Steamy waves of heat rose off pavement that would still be hot to the touch at midnight. It was nearly dusk, the hottest day so far of Miami's hottest June on record. The temperature had shattered weather bureau records every day, all month. The heat index, taking the humidity into account, had settled at a wilting 115 degrees. The backs of my thighs had become one with the vinyl seat and my dress clung damply in unseemly places. Deadline rumbled toward me like an avalanche, and I still had work to do on two other stories.
I parked outside a little family grocery on the corner, left my press card on the dash, and separated myself from the car seat. What had happened here? I scanned the chaos of the street. Spinning emergency flashers and yellow crime-scene tape stretched for blocks into the sunset's red and purple glow, creating a hypnotic, nearly psychedelic effect. To my relief I saw Homicide Detective David Ojeda. Mercurial and savvy, he is a quick study, so sure of himself that he is not afraid to talk to a reporter. He wouldn't stonewall. And he owed me. At least I liked to think so; he probably wouldn't agree. Homicide cops always feel righteous, no matter what. He acted as though the history we shared had never happened, but I wouldn't forget. You don't forget a man who whips out his handcuffs and books you into the county jail.
Ojeda did not look happy to see me. He looked limp, from his loud tie to his usually fierce and bristly mustache. Damp half-moons ringed his armpits. His high forehead glistened. His knowing smile had given way to a scowl. Not happy at all.
A late-model Buick Riviera had slammed into a huge eight-by-ten-foot concrete planter, in what looked like the last stop on a path of destruction.
A woman sat mumbling on the curb behind the wrecked Riviera, head in her hands, so drenched in blood and gore that I thought she must be seriously hurt. Her hair and even the little pink barrette she wore in it was spattered and stained. Uh-oh. Was that a little pink barrette? Up closer it appeared to be a chunk of brain matter. But whose? The medic checking her pulse did not seem unduly concerned.
Other medics surrounded a young man lying in the street. His hair looked as though he had jammed a wet thumb into a light socket. Was it normally that wild or rearranged by whatever mishap left him sprawled on the pavement? What on earth had the not-so-good citizens of Miami been doing to each other out here?
The world is crazy, full of crazy people. Miami has more than its share. My job is to tell the public all about it. My name is Montero, Britt Montero, and I cover the police beat in this super-heated-sealevel city at the bottom of the map.
The medical examiner and two cops stepped away from the Buick just then and I glimpsed the driver, still behind the wheel. My God! I swallowed hard. Ojeda mopped his face with a handkerchief as I sidled up and murmured softly in his ear.
"Where is his head?"
"Nowhere," he replied, "and everywhere."
"Was this an accident or a shooting?" I demanded 'What happened?"
"Talk to PIO," he said.
"Nobody from public information is here."
"Jesus, will you look at that," he muttered. We stared morosely at adults in the crowd who had hoisted toddlers up high onto their shoulders so the wee ones could better view the carnage.
"Okay." The detective stashed his sodden handkerchief. "Don't tell them I talked to you," he warned. "Here's the four one-one.
"Our victim, the driver here; his gal-pal Wanda, that's her over there"--he indicated the woman on the curb, whose mumbling was rapidly coalescing into an incoherent rant--"and his brother come bopping into Overtown to buy crack. The brother is riding shotgun, literally. He's in the backseat with a sawed-off across his knees."
"That him over there? The injured guy in the street?"
"Nope. Don't get ahead a me here." Ojeda looked annoyed. "Don't jump the gun. You always do that."
I wanted to argue that he was no one to talk, but didn't.
"He's the street-corner dealer our happy little group in the car is making a buy from when a dispute arises. Our man in the street there is leaning in the car window, negotiating, when our driver apparently tries to take off with both the drugs and the money. Don't know if they planned a rip or if it was some spur-a-the- moment brainstorm. The seller refuses to let go the goods; he's half in and half outa the window, getting dragged. The brother in the backseat starts brandishing the shotgun, the seller grabs it and hangs on for dear life, getting dragged farther into the car as they wrestle over the gun. Then ba-boom! It goes off, taking off the driver's head, which explodes onto his girlfriend's lap. The dead guy's foot punches the accelerator and the car peels out, leaving a hundred-and-fifty-foot traila blood back on Second Avenue."
He stopped to glare at the flies already buzzing the car.
"He slumps, his chest on the horn, foot on the accelerator. They wind up here about a mile later. From what I hear, his passengers were screaming louder than the horn. The dealer's legs are still hanging out the back window, kicking and thrashing. One of our unmarked cars had to swerve up on the sidewalk to get outa their way. They do a U-turn and are following as the car sideswipes a light pole and a buncha parked vehicles, mows down those meters, runs over some news-vending machines, and slams into the planter. The air bag deploys, shoves the driver back into an upright position, and the horn stops."
Somebody should invent air bags activated by gunfire, I thought, to shield against bullets and shotgun blasts. They could market them in Miami.
"Where's the brother?" I asked, looking around.
"Our guys following 'em see the backseat passenger crawl outa the wreckage and sprint off into the twilight," he Said. 'Wanda's still sitting in front, trying to put her boyfriend's skull back together; mosta the pieces were in her lap. His foot's still frozen on the accelerator, engine revving, tires spinning. The dealer, he got flung free, into the street, on impact.
Ojeda squinted into the fading glow of the dying day. As I scribbled notes, Dr. Vernon Duffy, an assistant Miami Dade County medical examiner, picked up his padded aluminum equipment case and joined us. Slightly stooped and pale, he spends too much time in the morgue.
"Think we'll ever see rain again?" A New Hampshire native, Duffy looked wilted in the merciless heat. Ocean winds from the east usually keep Miami's summertime highs below the century mark. But no rain or breezes had come this month, normally our wettest. The entire state had withered beneath brittle blue skies and a scorching sun that seared lawns and shrubbery a crispy brown that crunched underfoot.
"Nope, we're doomed. Must be global warming, doc."
He nodded and looked pleased at my gloomy prognosis. "The ERs are full of heatstroke victims. Joggers are dropping like flies."
"What about him?" I indicated the Buick.
"Can't blame this one on the heat," Ojeda said, "unless it made his head explode."
"What kind of shotgun pellets did that?" I asked.
"It's not pellets or bullets," Duffy said patiently, "it's the gas, the high-pressure combustion, tens of thousands of PSIs."
"Well, the pellets sure didn't help," I said. "Why did the car continued to travel for so long after he was shot?"
"Evidently his spinal cord continued to function, responding to his fatal injury with a reflex that slammed his foot down hard on the accelerator."
"Like I said." Ojeda nodded. "Foot froze on the gas."
The sinking sun projected a rosy glow onto palm fronds silhouetted against the sky. No breeze disturbed the blast furnace radiating around us. I felt my sandals melting into the pavement. Yet something was astir, a shift in the crowd. Instead of being lulled, like me, into a sleepy stupor by the heat, there were ominous murmurs and rumblings.
The atmosphere suddenly seemed supercharged, tempers short.
Ojeda and the uniforms on the police line picked up on it too. 'Work the crowd," he told two patrolmen. "See who's running their mouth."
"When are you going to move the body?" I asked.
"We're not," the doctor replied. 'We're leaving him in the car."
Made sense. The Buick and its grisly contents, along with the little glassine bags of crack strewn across the backseat and the twelve-gauge sawed-off Remington 870, its stock ducttaped, its short barrel crookedly hacksawed by some amateur, would be delivered as is, a not-so-tidy little package, to the most efficiently designed building in South Florida--our medical examiner's office.
Boats that crash, planes that plummet, and corpse-crammed cars are scooped up intact and taken by flatbed truck to Number 1 Bob Hope Road, where forensic scientists examine them in the privacy of a large, well-lit, and air-conditioned hangarlike enclosure far from bad weather, insects and alligators, curious crowds, and reporters.
Ojeda instructed the uniforms to duct-tape two yellow plastic body blankets over the Buick and its contents for the trip.
"Now I gotta go talk a lady outa her clothes," he announced, turning on his heel.
"The lab wants to try out some new blood-spatter techniques," Duffy explained.
The detective's swagger implied a history of success in talking ladies out of their clothes. I trailed along to watch, perspiration oozing from every pore, my sunglasses skidding down my nose. Ojeda asked Wanda, still seated on the curb, if she happened to have a change of clothes handy. He explained that he needed what she was wearing for evidence.
"I tol' Frankie not to wave that gun around," she said. The detective repeated his request. She didn't seem* to hear. The keys to the Riviera, she said. She needed them. The Buick was her mother's.
"If she's the registered owner, she can talk to our VIP representative about releasing it," Ojeda said politely.
Uh-oh, I thought. Using the Vehicle Impoundment Program, police seize the cars used in crimes involving drugs, prostitution, or drunk driving. A man caught soliciting a prostitute can lose his car, even if it's registered to his wife. Try explaining that to a spouse.
"I got to get that car back home before nine," Wanda insisted and stood up. Her stained T-shirt read REHAB IS FOR QUITTERS. "My mama needs it to git to work." Her mother, she said, worked midnights at the county hospital.
Did she plan to visit Busy Bee Car Wash first? Then there was the crash damage. The Buick was history.
Ojeda answered his cell phone, then covered the mouthpiece to mutter an obscenity. "Word travels fast. It's somebody from the community relations board's crisis-response team."
He then greeted the caller warmly. Miami cops had been instructed by the chief to deal directly with board members to try to keep the peace in this not-so-peaceful place on the planet. it makes me think of our publisher, who insists that we respond personally and with warmth to every call and letter from readers, no matter how threatening or insane.
"That's incorrect, ma'am," Ojeda responded affably to the caller. "No police officer fired a weapon." He rolled his eyes in my direction. "No, this was not a pursuit situation."
He paced as he spoke, his darting eyes seeking out the uniforms dispatched to canvass for troublemakers. I heard only one side, but the conversation was obvious.
"Well," Ojeda said pleasantly, signaling a sergeant with an index finger s slash to his throat, "if somebody witnessed something we don't know about, we'd welcome the opportunity to take their statement. We'd appreciate them coming in, No, it's ... but ... but ... the victim's vehicle passed two of our people at high speed, nearly ran them off the road, they followed. That's why they arrived so quickly at the accident scene.... He was already deceas-no. No pursuit." His fingers ran raggedly through his damp dark hair. "The man at the wheel was already ... I agree. Dead men don't drive as a rule. But in this sit-No, the shooter is not .... We have a tentative .... During a struggle. Drug deal .... We don't know that yet .... I don't know, ma'am. We'll certainly check into it. Thank you for the information. I'm sure the chief and internal affairs will be glad to.... If someone knows something differ- . - . Bring them in by all means ... Why wouldn't they want to talk to us? It's the right thing to do. . . . Well, I'm sorry to hear that.... Feel free. . . . Ojeda, O-J-E-D-A. Badge number fourteen-ten. Thank you so much."
He snapped the, small phone shut and summoned the patrolmen sent to check the crowd. "Okay, anybody who tells you or somebody else that they saw something, heard something, or think they know somebody who mighta saw or heard, or dreamed they saw or heard something, get 'em down to the station and take their statements. The community relations board is already on our backs. Check with the guys at the initial scene, see what kinda witnesses they have, and if they found the piston from the shotgun shell. The wad is probably still in the car."
He returned to Wanda and offered a new ensemble for her consideration, curling his wrists as he unfurled it, like a highfashion designer pitching an original: a plastic-and-paper sunshine-yellow biohazard suit. Every patrol car. is equipped with one.
As he awaited her approval, the driver from Double Eagle Towing arrived, waved cheerfully, strolled up to the Buick, and peered inside.
Wanda yelped in indignation. "What they doing with that tow truck? Git that outa heah! They can't take that car. My mama ain't got nothin' to do with this! I tol' you I needed to git it back to her by nine." She squinted impatiently at her watch, then stared at it for a long moment. So did 1. Both the timepiece and her arm were encrusted with blood and what appeared to be bone splinters. Her head swiveled, eyes darting wildly at the people conducting the routine tasks sudden death generates. Her shriek, a bloodcurdling, god-awful cry, momentarily froze them in their tracks. Frantically, she tried to wipe her arm clean with the other hand, then saw that it, too, was bloody. She peered down at her clothes, then lunged as if trying to shake off the mess. She whirled, howling and writhing, into a horrible dance, as though trying to escape her own skin.
The detective's cell phone rang again, at the precise moment that a bottle, hurled from the crowd, exploded against the pavement.
The crowd surged forward. Cops held the line as the sounds of screams and breaking glass galvanized the dealer still lying in the street. Despite an IV in one arm and a splint on the other, he suddenly bucked, kicked, and fought. A medic tumbled back, striking his head on the pavement. Others struggled to subdue the patient.
Above the growing din came an eerie wail. Another joined it: two wails, unearthly yet human sounds, working their way ever closer through the crowd. Ojeda's eyes took on the haunted look of a hunted man.
"You know what that is," he said flatly.
I had a pretty good idea.
"Our backseat passenger accidentally blows away his big brother, then runs," the detective said. 'Where?"
"Home to Mama," I said. "To tell his version of the bad news."
"And what happens next?"
"Mama and the rest of the family rush to the scene to see if it's true."
"Our eyes caught. The detective trotted back to the Buick. "rake it, take it, take it! Go, go, go! Geditouta here!" He kicked at a back tire.
The tow truck operator moved faster than I have ever seen him glancing over his shoulder as the wails drew closer.
"Don't tape those blankets anywhere we could find prints," Ojeda barked. "Okay, roll it, roll it, roll it! Before we have a major cha-cha here."
The truck's motorized flatbed slid back at a 30-degree angle. The ramp dropped, the cable grew taut, the motor groaned and up, up, and away, just as the crowd parted for heavyset middle-aged woman and a younger heavyset clone leading a Pack of family members loping toward us, their wails a mournful tremolo as they ran.
Time to return to the office. I retreated to my T-Bird and drove into the soft and moist early evening as pink clouds drifted in a sapphire sky and the neon of South Beach glowed rosy across the bay. My neck felt stiff and my right eye twitched uncontrollably. This was the third story I had worked on in a long and troubled day, but the first exclusively my own.
Dead Dominican stowaways, three of them, had been discovered shortly before dawn, their voyage of hope ended in a dark and airless cargo hold deep in the bowels of a freighter off Government Cut. At noon, two customs agents routinely boarded a rickety vessel docked on the Miami River. As they did, more than one hundred and fifty panic-stricken illegal Haitian immigrants burst out and fled in all directions. Some leaped over the side into the water, others pounded through a dockside restaurant, snatching food from the plates of startled diners as they ran, scattering to the four winds. Overwhelmed, caught by surprise, police and customs captured only a few. The city and the river swallowed the rest.
So many people on the run, risking their lives to reach Miami. What would readers think, I wondered, as they perused their papers over their morning coffee? Would they think at all? Or would they be too busy getting the kids off to school, gearing up for torturous commutes or morning sales conferences?
The desk had overreacted as usual and overstaffed both stories, with News reporters bumping into each other at the scenes. it's not that I mind sharing bylines, I just like to work alone. Steeling myself against the arctic blast, I stepped into the News building's deserted air-conditioned lobby. The effect was as if I had plunged my overheated and sweaty body into a Deepfreeze. This cannot be healthy, I thought, as the elevator rose sluggishly to the fifth floor. My mind raced with all I still had to do. Check the Dominicans' cause of death. More Haitians captured? Did any drown? Any smuggling arrests? And I wanted more information on Wanda, the driver, his brother, and the dealer. The city directory might help me track witnesses who had seen the Buick's wild ride or suffered property damage from it.
"Britt, you weren't out in that heat all afternoon, were you?" Ryan Battle asked softly, his brown eyes registering shock and concern.
Ryan has the face and gentle soul of a poet, too kind and compassionate to be a reporter, which he is. He works general assignment and features at the desk behind mine.
"Yes, I was." I swept aside the mail and messages on my desk.
"How come?" He looked and sounded so innocent.
"What do you mean, how come?" I snapped impatiently. "Covering the news, doing my job. How was your day?"
"Way too hot to be out there, Britt," he said seriously. "I've been working on stories I could cover by phone. His snowy white shirt looked immaculate, his grooming perfect. "They released the new tourism statistics today, and the state candidates filed their financial reports."
"Silly me." I slapped a palm to my forehead. "Now why didn't I think of that? I could have asked everybody to fax me press releases. But, oh, that's right, I forgot, I'm a journalist."
No answer. I resisted the impulse to turn and face the wounded expression in those soft spaniel eyes. In my mind's eye I saw the scar on his forehead left by a brick hurled through the windshield when we covered the riot.
Bobby Tubbs, the assistant city editor in the slot, was impatiently waving me in his direction.
"Where the hell have you been all this time?" His chubby cheeks puckered with annoyance. "Howie's already gone, and we need new leads on the Haitian and Dominican stories for the state."
"I was at that other scene. I called you," I said.
"An accident?" He looked exasperated.
"Yes ... involving a headless driver who careened a mile through the city with three live passengers, if you count the guy dangling out the back window."
Tubbs frowned. "We're really tight for space. We've got Ryan's tourism piece, and Miriam's out on a breaking story, a nursing home being evacuated because the air-conditioning died."
"People lived in Miami before air-conditioning," I groused. "Didn't anybody ever hear of fans?"
Tubbs scrutinized my sweat-stained visage, wary, as though-maddened by the heat-I might be dangerous. "That was when everybody who could afford it left for the summer, before they paved all the green space and made it hotter."
He pulled up the local page layout, studied his computer screen, and shook his head. God forbid that breaking news should interfere with the layout for his pages.
"Maybe we can fit something in, but keep it tight, tight, tight. There's no space."
I stalked back to my desk, head aching, feeling weary and unappreciated. I finished everything else, then called Ojeda at headquarters.
Between us we put it together. The love story of Wanda and Bucky began when they met in rehab. Their relationship, short though it was, had obviously outlived any rehabilitative effects of the program. When Wanda borrowed her mother's new car to drive to a "doctor's appointment," she had neglected to mention Bucky, his brother-or the shotgun. Wanda's mother, a nice lady, Ojeda reported sadly, was raising Wanda's two toddlers. That was why she worked midnights. And her limited auto insurance covered only immediate family members with valid licenses. Bucky did not qualify on either count; his license had been revoked after his last arrest. The younger heavyset woman who had arrived at the scene with Bucky's mother was not the dead man's sister, as I had thought. She was his wife, mother of his five children, and Wanda's bitter rival.
"Shoulda seen 'em go at each other," Ojeda said. "It was bad."
Frankie, Bucky's brother, had been spotted downtown, on line at the Greyhound bus station. He ran again but cops tackled him on Northwest Second Avenue, though not before he darted through four lanes of traffic, causing a three-car crash.
I trotted up to the city desk to report the new information. "Okay." Bobby barely glanced up from his editing screen. "I found a hole for it. But make it brief. Two grafs tops. No more than seven lines."
As I stomped off in a snit, he called after me.
"Britt, there's a bulletin, a wire story outa Shelby County, upstate. I'm sending it to your mailbox. You might be interested."
I ignored him.
Trimmed to bare bones, my story still came in at three times his specified length It's harder to write short than long, especially with so much information. As he edited it, I peered over Bobby's shoulder, arguing as he eliminated every human, ironic, or -remotely interesting detail.
I called my friend Lottie Dane, who was back in photo after shooting the nursing home evacuation. "Thanks a lot," I said, "You and Miriam managed to push my story off local and into the brieflys."
"Sorry, Britt, but you shoulda seen all the pore old folks, poor thangs. Hell-all-Friday, they are us someday. I jist saw what we have to look forward to. It ain't purty."
I always count on Lottie, the best friend I have, to cheer me up. Despite all she has covered, wars and famine, earthquakes and volcanoes--even Jonestown-she is indefatigably positive, always up. Tonight she did not sound like her usual high-spirited self.
"What's wrong, Lottie? What is it?"
She sighed. "Jist somethin' I married."
Long divorced, she never discusses her ex. "Look," I said, "I'm too tired and disgusted to go right home. Let's go for a drink when you get off." Something tall and cold with a twist of lime shimmered miragelike in my mind. 'We can talk."
"Okay," she said, "but I've still gotta soup the film for that Sunday special section."
"I'll go through my mail and messages till you're ready. Hurry up," I said.
I sorted the mail. Why are people with the least legible handwriting the most prone to scribble lengthy letters?
To be perfectly honest with you, a piece of jail mail began, confirming my theory that this phrase almost always precedes a lie, I was always threatening to kill Charlene-but I never, ever, really seriously meant it.
I knew the case. Charlene had dialed nine-one-one, screaming that her ex-husband had a gun and was breaking into the house. Shots, screams, and the line went dead. Police arrived and found her rolled up in a rug he was trying to fold into the trunk of his Toyota-more proof that restraining orders are only paper and don't stop bullets.
Despite his guilty plea, he now claimed in a spidery hand that he'd been framed. I tossed it aside. A mauve envelope, good vellum stock, was addressed in an attractive and legible feminine hand.
Please! You have to help me, the letter began- Somebody is trying to kill me. I have nowhere to turn. The police won't listen. No one will. There have been several attempts. I fear they'll succeed next time.
I'm frightened and alone. I don't want them to get away with my murder.
She signed it Althea A. Moran.
Her name had never appeared in the newspaper, according to our library data base. I reread the note. Another paranoid reader? A lonely senior craving attention? The address was Coral Gables, an upscale bedroom community. I reached for the phone, then hesitated. It was after midnight, when calls are usually bad news or emergencies. One's upcoming murder should qualify, I thought, and punched in the number.
I hoped the bleat of a busy signal meant she was alive and well.
The next letter was also brief and to the point.
I have a friend who is writing, or rewriting, the Bible. You can help him do it. He also needs a wife. You are it. Send me your home address as soon as possible.
Lottie called to say she was on her way out to the newsroom. "Listen to this," I said, and read it. 'Wouldn't hurt to meet the fella," she drawled. "For Pete's sake, Lottie, he's rewriting the Bible!"' "I know men with hobbies a whole lot worse than that." I tidied my desk, snatched up my purse, then noticed a nagging signal flashing in the comer of my computer screen, a message, the wire story Tubbs had sent. I hit the key and scrolled through it.
FLA. LAWMAN KILLED, SUSPECT AT LARGE
Veteran Sheriff T. Rupert "Buddy" Brascom, 54, top lawman in this rural citrus and farming county for more than 21 years, was shot to death Thursday, apparently by a prisoner who escaped from the sheriff's office in the small county jail annex in Live Oak.
Brascom (nay have been slain with his own service revolver, according to Deputy S. L. Weech, who discovered the body. The sheriffs weapon was missing, along with his wallet, badge and his Chevrolet Blazer. In his last communication with a dispatcher, the sheriff had indicated he had a woman in custody and was proceeding to the annex.
The prisoner has not been identified. A trucker who knew Brascom later reported seeing the sheriff's white Blazer southbound on 1-95, driven by a young woman in her late teens or early twenties. The Florida Bureau of Law Enforcement and deputies set up roadblocks and launched an immediate manhunt.
Sheriff Brascom is survived by his wife, Lugene, four adult children and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete. He is the fifth Florida police officer killed in the l
I read it twice, questions flooding my mind. Was he wearing a vest? Where was he hit, and why was her identity unknown if he had arrested her? Cop killers are rarely female. When they are, they rarely get away. Who are you? I wondered. Where are you? What's your story?
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