| Chapter One|
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The shine that emanated from Tony Carrera's white patent leather shoes ricocheted off the walls of the dingy warehouse. I hadn't planned on being at the cargo area of Miami International Airport on a Sunday night. Obviously Tony hadn't counted on my presence, either.
But I'd received a hot tip about a flight coming in from Brazil, and found myself with some time to kill. Besides, weekends at MIA are notorious. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife office is closed, so it's the perfect occasion to smuggle unlucky members of the animal kingdom in and out of Miami.
"For chrissakes, Porter! The shipment's already been cleared. What the hell else do you want?" Carrera fumed.
An exotic-animal dealer famous for trying to beat the system, Carrera had somehow finagled clearance on the paperwork for his reptile shipment sight unseen, days before it even arrived. His plan had been to sneak out of the warehouse after collecting his cargo. My surprise appearance had effectively screwed up his scheme.
"What I want is to open the boxes so that I can check what's inside," I calmly informed him.
"I don't got time for this crap," Carrera grumbled, chewing on the soggy remnants of a stogie. "Take a look at me, will ya?" He pushed out his chest as he gestured toward his apparel. "I'm not all dressed up for my health, ya know. I got a hot date right after I drop off these goods. Nice, huh?"
Carrera was the proud owner of a bad toupee which clung to his head like a poodle trying to keep its balance atop a bowling ball. Tonight he was decked out to kill in a pair of white polyester pants that highighted his huge belly. A shortsleeved paisley shirt of 100 percent nylon lay wide open, revealing a heavy gold chain nestled against a dark mat of fur, with additional chunks of jewelry adorning his wrists and his fingers. It was apparent that Tom Jones had little to worry about.
"After she catches a glimpse of you, I'm sure your date won't mind waiting the few extra minutes," I assured him.
Tony threw up his hands in frustration as I studied the documentation on the box before me. The paperwork listed its contents as "venomous snakes." Great-now I understood why it had been given clearance. Nobody liked to risk life and limb to examine a bunch of writhing, poisonous reptiles. Least of all, me. But I also knew that was exactly what dealers like Carrera counted on, which made it the perfect scam for sneaking wildlife and even drugs into the country. It's also one of the reasons why fewer than 10 percent of smuggled critters are ever caught. I was looking to up the ante.
I pried a crowbar under the wooden lip of the first crate, and the lid gave way with a creak. Then I picked up a snake hook and gloves. But Tony beat me to the punch, pulling a short-handled pair of tongs from inside his case.
"Oh, for chrissakes, Porter. These things are in bags. What the hell are you afraid of?" He pushed open the top and shoved his hand deep inside the crate, where he grabbed hold of a blue cloth bag.
A movement beneath the fabric caught my eye. "Tony, watch out! I think there's something loose on the bottom!"
Carrera twisted his head up toward me with a lewd grin. "All you chicks have the same problem with snakes-and I've finally figured out what it is. They're long and they're hard ... but they won't buy you dinner."
As Tony broke into raucous laughter, I saw a pair of lidless eyes that gazed coldly up toward the light from deep within the dark wooden confines. A shiver sped through me, but faster than I could speak, a king cobra sprang up, revitalized by the rush of fresh air, the skin on its neck flaring out in a regal hood. Carrera's laugh abruptly caught in his throat as he zoomed in on my expression, his brain already guessing what had risen behind him. The snake's bronze eyes focused on its prey as a thin layer of sweat broke out on Carrera's skin.
"Oh, God," he whispered, his eyes beseechingly locked onto mine.
"Listen to me, Tony. I'll angle around and grab the snake with the hook. Just don't turn and look," I cautioned in a soft, even tone.
"No! Don't go anywhere. It'll strike!" Tony's voice was high and tight and his face was paler than his pants.
"Okay, Tony," I tried to calm him. "I'm going to very slowly get my gun. This will all be over in less than a minute."
"Don't you dare!" Carrera. hissed, a drop of sweat slipping between his lips. "This thing cost me big time. Besides, I already got it sold. Shoot it and I'll sue you."
I stared at the man, wondering what other deadly goodies he had hidden in his crates and what he felt they were worth.
"All right," I said, working to keep my cool. "Then just move away slowly. Don't jerk and you'll be fine."
But Carrera could no longer restrain himself and swiveled around to confront the snake, which swayed in mesmerizing fashion.
"Oh, shit!" he shrieked.
My hand raced for my gun, but the cobra was faster. Lunging forward, it sank its fangs into Tony's forearm as he screamed. Just as quickly, the snake relinquished its hold with a quiver of victory. Tony jerked away and I slammed down the lid, locking the cobra back in its lair.
The critter must have packed quite a wallop. Within sixty seconds Carrera was down on the floor, jerking like a fish pulled out of water. Cobras are neurotoxic, so it was only a matter of time before Carrera's central nervous system began to shut down. He was already losing muscle coordination and his breathing had turned ragged and slow. I had to get him to Jackson Memorial as quickly as possible.
A cargo worker made me swear on my life, my mother's, and those of my unborn children, that the snake couldn't get out of its crate before he could be persuaded to come down off his forklift to help. That ate up precious minutes. By the time we'd half-carried, half-dragged Carrera. into the back of my Ford Tempo, swelling had already begun to set in. I quickly pulled off his rings and bracelets before it was too late.
"Yuur nuffin' budda thif," Carrera moaned.
Slurred speech. Bad sign.
I 'You'll get it all back, Tony," I consoled him. "I just don't want you rupturing any body parts in my car."
I tore out of the cargo area, grateful that traffic was relatively light on Sunday nights. Any other time and Tony would have been down for the count. Swinging onto the Dolphin Expressway, I dragged out my cell phone and punched in the number for Dr. Bob Samuels.
I'd met Dr. Bob soon after I'd landed in Miami. Recurring headaches and nausea had sent me galloping to Jackson Memorial Hospital. I figured it was either side effects from my last assignment in southern Nevada, or I was pregnant. Neither prospect was thrilling. Dr. Bob ran a battery of tests, cost me a minor fortune, and told me to stay away from places that cause you to glow in the dark. We'd been friends ever since.
I filled Dr. Bob in on his latest patient. I only hoped the hospital was stocked with the appropriate antivenin.
"What's your estimated time of arrival?" he asked.
I surveyed the growing traffic that had mysteriously congregated before me and then glanced in my rearview mirror. Tony had begun to drool like a slap-happy Saint Bernard.
"That depends on how much my driving scares everyone else off the road."
Dr. Bob chuckled. "That should be no problem for you, Rachel. I'll expect to see you shortly."
Miami traffic is a melting pot of the craziest drivers in the world, from confused tourists to geriatric seniors to immigrants with their own rules of the road. I veered onto the shoulder, slammed my hand on the horn in lieu of a siren, and pressed down hard on the pedal until we were flying at warp speed, counting on convincing the other drivers that the lunatic barreling along the side of the expressway was too demented for them to even attempt to challenge. A few hardy souls went so far as to cheer me on. When I pulled up in front of the emergency room, Dr. Bob was ready and waiting.
By the time we slid him out of my car and onto a stretcher, Carrera's arm was the size of a championship watermelon. His uneven breathing had stopped, as had his drooling-though a memorial pool lay on the floor of my car.
I ran ahead with Dr. Bob, leaving Tony's bloated carcass to be rolled inside by strangers.
"Is he still alive?" I asked, wondering if I'd risked life and limb only for Tony to die thinking I'd stolen his jewelry.
Dr. Bob scratched the wispy whiskers on his chin that he insisted were a beard. "It may seem he's not breathing, but your guy is alive, all right. He can hear everything that's being said. He just can't respond."
Tony lay stiff as a day-old corpse, his eyes wide open. "Are you certain he isn't dead?"
"If someone's received a bad bite and I'm not totally sure they're still alive, I ask them to move their eyes. But trust me, this guy is fine." Dr. Bob's rail-thin body moved briskly down the hall like a greyhound in training, and ushered the stretcher into a small room where he readied an IV. "If you want, you can wait in here with your friend while I get the necessary supplies."
"What! I thought you'd have the antivenin ready and waiting!"
"Don't worry. I'll be back in plenty of time," Dr. Bob assured me.
I walked over to the stretcher and looked down at Carrera. Not a muscle moved. I felt for his pulse-it was barely there.
"God, Tony! Why didn't you just let me inspect the shipment properly? If you weren't always trying to smuggle things in, you wouldn't be in this mess."
I'd been after Carrera for the past six months, since I'd arrived in Miami. But Tony knew how to play the game too well, and had eluded me every time. This wasn't the way I'd have chosen to catch him. Then again perhaps this brush with death would make him mend his ways.
"You know, Tony," I told him, "maybe you should give some thought to what you've been doing and start showing more respect for wildlife and the law. Otherwise, tonight's surprise inspection was just the beginning of what you can expect. I'm going to make certain that from now on, your shipments are never cleared ahead of time. I swear, Tony, I'll do whatever I have to, to nail you." His face was now ashen and drawn. I touched his pulse for reassurance, and panic bells went off in my head as my fingers left his wrist and then rushed to his neck. Tony's pulse had gone from barely there to absolutely nothing.
Oh, no! "Please don't tell me you're dead! Come on, Tony, you can make it. Hang in there!" I grabbed his hand. "Move your eyes, Tony-even a little bit, to let me know you're still here."
If Carrera had been auditioning for the role of a zombie, he'd have won the part hands down.
.. "Oh, my God-he's dead! If only there'd been no trafficif only I'd driven faster!" Then I started to get mad. "How could you be such a damn idiot? What the hell were you thinking, with your macho games with poisonous snakes? Was it worth it, Carrera? You made me crazy, but I didn't want you to die!"
Dr. Bob chose this moment to reappear with vials of antivenin in his arms.
"It's too late. I finished him off!" I wailed.
"What are you talking about, Porter? He was fine just a minute ago. Exactly what did you do?" he questioned.
"I was only talking to him, trying to show him the error of his ways. But I think I may have given him a heart attack!"
Dr. Bob rolled his eyes. "Remind me to keep you away from my other patients."
"His pulse is gone-and your sure-fire method of checking a victim's eyes? Carrera can't move them," I said frantically.
"Then what would you call that?" he asked calmly.
In amazement, I followed his finger to where a tear was creeping out of the corner of Carrera's right eye.
I watched as Dr. Bob readied the antivenin and stuck the needle in Carrera's arm. My pulse pounded hard enough to revive a corpse as I waited in silence, barely daring to breath until Tony began to come to. He opened his eyes and slowly rolled his head, stopping when I came into view. His tongue snaked out from between his lips, and he carefully worked his jaw. Finally he opened his mouth, doubtless to share some pearls of wisdom from his near brush with death.
"Goddamn you, Porter," he croaked.
A bubble of relief traveled up from my toes and settled in my chest, and I could feel a giddy grin spread across my face like butter hitting a piece of toast.
At least this job is never dull.
I wriggled my way back into the conga line of traffic heading toward the airport. Rush hour in Las Vegas, my previous posting, had been a breeze compared to this. I hadn't asked to leave Nevada. The "powers that be" had decided I'd gone beyond making waves to a full tsunami, and my assignment to the "black hole" of Miami was considered the ultimate punishment.
"You'll see plenty of action," were my former boss's parting words. "Miami's a hotbed. There are not only more legal wildlife dealers per square mile in Miami than anywhere else in the world, it's also the center of the illegal live-animal trade in the entire U.S."
When you consider that the illegal-wildlife trade runs second only to drug smuggling, and that much of the merchandise for both comes from Latin America, you can see why Miami had become the smugglers' port of choice. Miami had the added distinction of having the worst wildlife law-enforcement record in the country. Careers weren't made here; they were destroyed.
There had been whispers that in the past, Fish and Wildlife agents and inspectors had been paid off by dealers to look the other way as shipments came in. It wouldn't have been hard to do. In a perfect world, every box and crate would have been opened and thoroughly checked. But more than 300 shipments of wildlife come in here every week, each shipment running anywhere up to 200 boxes. Stack that against six measly inspectors and you begin to get an idea of the odds. If you liked being a Fish and Wildlife inspector, every day could be considered Christmas in Miami.
I got into the airport just as the flight from Brazil finally landed. Miami International goes through a remarkable transformation with the setting of the subtropical sun. During the day, the terminal bustles with wholesome-looking families intent on enjoying a fun-filled vacation. With nightfall, Mom and Dad and the brood are replaced by a cast of characters straight out of a Fellini flick. It's Disneyland one minute and then Satyricon until dawn.
I waited for the Brazil flight to disembark, and soon saw my quarry, Willy Weed, limping toward me up the hall. A small-time breeder of cougars, Willy sold them to those longing to own a pet that could rip you in two. But Willy's love for wildlife didn't stop there. He was an equal-opportunity exploiter, selling whatever form of wildlife he could get his grimy hands on.
I routinely caught him smuggling in one or two reptiles at a time. Willy would simply pay his pittance of a fine, promise never to do it again, then go right back to business as usual. Our most recent encounter had taken place just a month ago, when Willy had gotten off a plane only to fall to the floor of the terminal screaming in pain. It seemed that the one-and-ahalf-foot boa constrictor he'd hidden inside his boxer shorts hadn't been fed in a while. Not surprisingly, it proceeded to wrap itself tightly around the closest thing it could find.
Willy's ex-wife had passed on today's tip. He had foolishly let his alimony payments slide. In return, Bambi had decided to dish out some payback-and true to her word, here he was. Willy made a unique fashion statement, wearing a long winter coat that looked like something out of a bad spaghetti western, complete with a cowboy hat slapped on top of his head. Not exactly seasonal wear for your typical flesh-melting Miami summer.
Just then Willy caught my eye and took off, hobbling like an out-of-control Chester from an ancient episode of Gunsmoke. For a man with a limp, Willy slipped in and out of the crowd with remarkable ease. Every time I thought I had him cornered, he disappeared, until I again caught sight of his long greasy hair flying in a different direction. The crowd seemed to work like a wave, breaking apart to let Willy through and then closing ranks as soon as I came near. I called upon my old New York habit of jabbing to the left and pushing hard to the right. While it wasn't making me any new friends, it worked.
The cowboy hat was a recent affectation for Weed, in deference to a local sport. Willy was infamous for running down deer in the Everglades with his airboat. After that, he'd jump onto the frantic animal's back, grab its head, and slit its throat. The event had been dubbed the Homestead Rodeo, in homage to his hometown. Weed had proudly taken to calling himself "The Swamp Cowboy."
I preferred to refer to him as "Swamp Thing." If there was ever a walking, talking definition for the term "cracker," Willy had to be it.
It was due to such high-flying antics that Willy was saddled with a limp. He'd recently been balanced on the front of his airboat, preparing to leap for the kill, when his craft hit a rock. Weed was thrown head over heels and landed straight in the mud along with his rifle, which went off, shooting him clear through the knee.
I caught a whiff of Willy now-the smell half wet dog, half dead snake-and turned to see him entangled within a group of tourists. He bumped up against a hefty blonde sporting a head full of Bo Derek cornrows, who turned on Willy with a snarl and pummeled him to the ground. I seized the moment, but the airport gods weren't flying with me. As I sprinted forward, I knocked over a suitcase as I tripped on someone's foot, and came perilously close to being run down by a luggage cart, only to lose sight of Weed. I finally caught a glimpse of his cowboy hat and made a beeline for it, but the body beneath the hat no longer belonged to Weed. In its place was a geezer who gleefully cackled, pleased with the trick. He flashed me a rack of empty gums where his teeth should have been.
"Dat boy ain't here," he giggled. "He done disappeared."
Damn! Then I saw the sign for the men's room. I shoved
my way inside, where I was confronted by a guy making good use of the urinal. A
"Hey, babe. Something I can help you with?" he asked, turning slightly to show off his wares.
"Police business," I growled, keeping my eyes straight ahead. Somehow, I didn't think that "Fish and Wildlife" would have had the desired effect.
Presto! My bathroom Lothario quickly tucked himself in, zipped up his fly and fled.
Whoosh! A toilet roared as it flushed. I quickly checked under the row of stalls, pounding on each one that sported a pair of feet.
"Willy?" I called, knocking on one of the doors. "Let me in!"
"Get away from here, you crazy bitch," came the reply. Unfortunately, it wasn't Weed's voice.
The flush of another toilet brought my attention to the stall at the end of the row. A pair of snakeskin boots clearly screamed, "Willy."
"I know you're in there, Weed. Come out nowl" I ordered, ramming my shoulder hard against the metal barrier. I shoved once more against the door, then dropped to all fours. Sure enough, there was Willy, intent as a bombardier on a mission, poised to drop five eggs into the toilet. Any eggs coming out of Brazil were most likely those of parrots, which were as illegal as a smuggler could get.
Plonk! The eggs plopped one by one into the water as I squirmed under the stall door, cursing the hired help for not cleaning more often. I reached the toilet just as it gulped all five eggs in a victorious flush.
Willy stood smirking like a half-witted hyena. "Hey there, Porter. What's the matter? Don't they allow you in the ladies' room no more?"
His coat was lying next to the toilet, along with his T-shirt and a vest. As if the bathroom floor hadn't been disgusting enough, I was now confronted with the sight of Willy's naked flesh at very close quarters. A chest tattoo proudly proclaimed, 100% REDNECK. His rack of ribs gave him the appearance of a skeleton, and every inch of his skin was coated in sweat.
Willy dunked his hands into the toilet and slapped the bona fide eau de toilet under his arms and over his chest. Then, holding his breath, he immersed his entire head in the bowl. He came up for air shaking his wet hair like a coon dog after a hard chase, and droplets of liquid grease splattered against the tile wall. Weed was the living, breathing poster boy of what not to bring home to mother.
"Done freshening up?" I asked.
Willy grabbed his T-shirt off the floor and rammed it over his head, where its neck caught on the cougar's-tooth earring that dangled from his lobe. The black T-shirt was unfurled to reveal a white skull along with the Motto, BAD TO THE BONE. I gingerly picked his wet vest up off the floor, and held it at arm's length as I examined it. Made of spandex, it resembled a large Ace bandage except that rows of pockets had been sewn in to its interior. They were just the right size for carrying eggs. Worn close to his body, the vest had functioned as a portable incubator.
"How long have you been dealing in birds, Willy?" I wondered which endangered species had just been flushed down the toilet.
"What you talking about, Porter?" he sneered. "I don't see no birds in here. You see birds in here? Course, if you like, I'll be glad to show you my cockatoo."
Willy flashed me a grin, exposing a gold tooth with a ruby lodged in its center. I wondered if he'd sprung for the bucks to have it implanted, or if he'd just superglued it himself. His fingers tickled the metal teeth of his fly. I'd already seen more of Weed than I ever wanted; one more inch of exposed flesh and I'd scream.
"Save it, Willy, or you'll spend the night in jail," I warned.
Weed didn't have the funds for a trip to Brazil, which meant that he was working as a mule for someone else-someone with enough money and smarts not to get caught smuggling parrot eggs himself. Pinpricks of anticipation raced through my veins. So far, my time in Miami had been filled with too many Willy Weeds and Tony Carreras. I was itching to hit something big.
I carefully probed each pocket of the vest, searching for a piece of eggshell. What I came up with was a minuscule dab of yolk. While it wasn't much, I played the speck for all it was worth.
"I don't need the eggs, Willy. I've got all the necessary proof right here." I pointed to the yolk, giving him a "gotcha" look, hoping to con him through the sheer force of my will. "You know what DNA is, Willy?"
Weed caressed the stubble that covered his chin and washed down his throat. "Hmm. Let's see. That must stand for Dumb New York Asshole." Willy cupped his hand to his ear. "What? No winning bell? So, where's my Jeopardy prize?"
"Very cute, Willy. But if it turns out that you were carrying endangered parrot eggs, you'll be watching Jeopardy from behind bars for a long time to come."
Weed wasn't intimidated by the threat-but then, there was no reason to be. The majority of wildlife crimes are hard to prove, which explains why endangered critters have exploded into the latest rage in the criminal world. Trade in illegal wildlife is nearly as lucrative as dealing in drugs. But that's where the similarity ends. Get caught with a kilo of coke and it's off to jail you go. Get caught with a hot bird and you get a slap on the wrist and a $500 fine, at worst.
Weed held his wrists out toward me. "Go ahead, Porter. Cuff me. Take me to the big house, why doncha?" He laughed maniacally.
I tried my best to act like I had some leverage. "Listen, Willy. I know you're working for someone, so why take the fall? Just tell me who it is and it'll be as if I never caught you.' 9
"That's a good one, Porter," Willy said. "Right now all I'd need is a half-assed lawyer to prove that you haven't got me. I believe what I have here is a win-win situation." A smirk plastered itself across his face.
But I refused to give in. "I hear you haven't been to see Bambi in a while. What say we take a trip over to her place right now and let the two of you have an intimate little tete-a-tete?"
Willy's smirk instantly vanished. According to a police report, his last visit home hadn't been exceptionally cozy. What had begun as a dispute over alimony payments had ended up with Willy on the floor and Bambi straddling him, threatening to "Bobbittize" him, adding substance to her vow by waving a large, sharp butcher's knife in her right hand. Fortunately for Willy, his screams had alerted a neighbor who had called the police.
His hands strayed toward his groin now. "For chrissakes, all right! If I puke up the information, you promise to keep that bitch away from me?"
"Sure, Willy." I'd already given Bambi the name of a lawyer who had a reputation as a homicidal psychopath armed with a law degree. With two kids, a stack of bills, and a mortgage, Bambi needed all the help she could get.
"So, who were you supposed to deliver the eggs to Willy?"
"Alberto Dominguez," he hissed from between clenched teeth.
The name caught me by surprise. "Is that also who hired you?" I pressed.
"For chrissakes, lady," swore a gruff voice from the neighboring stall. "You wanna tell me where a guy has to go in order to crap in peace around here?"
"Try the ladies' room," I snapped. "All right, Willy. Give it UP."
Weed's eyes were hard. "I don't know who I was hired by.
I shook my head. "How could you have no idea who's paying you to do the job? You'll have to do better than that."
"Yeah? Well, how is it that you were hired by Fish and Wildlife to slow down the trade, but have yet to make a good case?" Willy retorted.
The guy was beginning to get on my nerves.
Weed sneered at me. "Fuck you, Porter. I've told you what I know. I'm outta here."
"Whatever you say, Willy. Want to pick up some flowers for Bambi here, or should we stop on the way to her place?" I reminded him.
A vein began to throb in Willy's forehead like a metronome keeping time to a silent beat. "I ain't going to Bambi's," he sulked.
I rattled the handcuffs clipped to my belt suggestively.
Willy scratched under both armpits. "Listen, Porter. All I know is I got a call from some guy telling me there'd be a plane ticket in my name at the Avianca counter. The only other information I cared about was who'd be shelling out the bucks once the job was done."
Weed's hands left his armpits to ferociously scratch at his back and his sides. I took a step away.
"And that was?" I began to feel itchy myself as I watched Willy rub his back against the tile wall.
"Dominguez." Willy's fingertips were now on a search and destroy mission along the top of his head. "Cash on delivery."
I figured there was a good chance that Weed was leaving out some vital information, but I also knew that was all I'd get from him for now. I let myself out of the stall before Willy's vermin could spread.