My windshield disintegrated a nanosecond after the shotgun blast. I spilled from the driver"s seat looking for the targets. The first responding uniforms were down and out. Their cruiser had blocked off the escape route of a shiny “pimped up” red Mustang. They had done something right. The two guys who had clipped the convenience store didn"t want to leave their ride - idiots. The Seven-Eleven hit was not a new act for them. They had hit five places in the last three weeks. I was looking for two of them – maybe more – one with a cut down semi-automatic 22 - the other a sawed off sixteen gauge shotgun.
They had split up to close on me when the smart thing would have been to run like hell. I caught the guy with the 22 as he rounded the rear of my car. He got three slugs into me before punching out. This didn"t look good. I had to move. The guy with the shotgun pressed for time but aware that his buddy was out of it slowed the action. Wrong move - I popped up between the fence and store and caught him under his eye as he swung around. The blast from his shotgun was deafening. I slumped against the wall and waited - my Glock held loosely in my lap.
Elapsed time five seconds – two bad guys dead – one cop – dead – two cops almost.
Crazy Things Happen In Paradise
“So you used to be a cop in Canada?”
“Yeah, in another life a long, long time ago.”
I was talking with a cute young waitress named Mia at the Clearwater Beach
International House of Pancakes – IHOP. I had started to come to IHOP regularly for my main meal of the day, and Mia was the reason. The other two places that I used to go to were nearer to my room, but the chance to see Mia had made walking the extra distance seem worthwhile. I hadn"t really said anything of consequence to her for the first week or so. I just enjoyed watching her. As the days passed, she seemed to take an increasing interest in me. I wanted to believe her attention was the result of my innate charm. More probably, her interest had grown in proportion to the generous tip I always sacrificed for her.
At first, when we finally did more than the serve and volley of ordering a meal, we made casual conversation - the weather – hurricanes and evacuation routes, Clearwater events, tourists and fishing. A week or so into that routine, she accidentally placed the wrong order in front of me. She apologized profusely claiming she had other things on her mind. Her embarrassment was evident. I teased her about being a blonde and having a mind to have other things on. And the verbal exchange started. She passed off my blonde insult with a quick wry smile and a verbal shot about single males eating alone every day at the IHOP - round one to Mia.
From that first short exchange, we began a daily ongoing banter that I thoroughly
enjoyed. It was innocent. We were having fun.
Example: Did you hear about the two blondes who decided to drive to Disney Land?
When they saw a sign that read “Disney Land left”, they turned around and went home.
Mia seemed to look forward to our verbal sparring as much as I did. Often, when I
arrived for my meal, she would have an opening quip about tourists or Canadians. I soon realized that my stock of blonde jokes was running out pretty quickly. I made a quick visit to the local library"s Internet service, and my cup overflowth. There were enough jokes to keep me going for years.
Very soon, I began to consider my meal at the IHOP as the highlight of my day. I eagerly anticipated my walk along the beach to talk with her. The meal became almost incidental. No matter, I thank God that more than pancakes and waffles were on offer. I also realized that I really missed Mia on her days off.
On one memorable late afternoon, the relationship took a turn. It was rainy - cooler than it had been for over a week. There were not as many people in the restaurant. Mia took her break and arrived at the side of my table with a mug of coffee in her hand. She asked if she could join me. This was a first. Our interaction had always been “on the fly”. We had never sat down and looked at each other while discussing anything. I could see no harm in her sitting with me. In fact, I felt a tingle of fearful excitement at the prospect. Living alone can be lonely. I nodded and mumbled that sure, she could join me. She sat down. At first, there was an awkward silence.
There were no jokes, no shots, just silence.
We just sat there like two very different beings from very different worlds considering those many differences as we looked at each other across the Formica tabletop. For whatever reason, confronted with the mental fantasy that I had created through the recent weeks, I did not know what to say. Perhaps it was the mutual awareness that we had just transcended some invisible boundary and moved into the new territory of a relationship that kept us quiet.
She was better at that game than I was. Too quickly, I began to feel even more
embarrassed and awkward. Maybe this hadn"t been a good idea after all. I didn"t know what she expected. Flip banter was one thing; intelligent and meaningful conversation was another.
Finally, just as I was about to say something about the weather, she broke our uneasy silence.
“You know that my name is Mia,” she said quietly as her sharp blue eyes found
something to intently study on the tabletop. She didn"t smoke, so she picked up her coffee cup and took a silent sip. I realized that although I knew her name, I had never said it to her.
“I know that,” I said nodding to the small plastic nametag attached to her waitress smock above her right breast. “And I"ve heard other people call you that.”
She took a quick glance down to the tag and nodded and looked back capturing my eyes,
“Oh yeah, after a while you kind of forget it"s there. So what"s your story Joe? You can"t be a tourist unless you got a lot of money and are here for the season. But if you had a lot of money, I don"t think you"d eat here as regularly as you do - unless there"s something here more than the food.”
“Probably not,” I said smiling at her and wondering how she knew my name, “but you
guys do make a very good waffle.”
“I guess, but after a while you can hardly even look at one. And the smell almost makes me gag.” She made a face, and took another quick sip from her coffee cup. Her intelligent blue eyes never released me. “So again, if you don"t mind too much, what"s your story?”
“I don"t mind at all I guess. I"ve been in Clearwater for almost three weeks now, and the only person I have had a sustained conversation with is the guy who works for the property management company that checks up on the old house where I live. The woman who owns the place, Mrs. Reilly, according to the property guy, is a bit of a flake. She still lives in the house, but I don"t usually know she"s there and even more rarely actually see her. The fishing boat owner I work for from time to time is not what you"d call a conversationalist unless fishing is the topic. I know squat about fish or fishing.”
I realized that I was rambling – a nervous habit. Still, I blabbed on, “And the security work I sometimes do on Sand Key is pretty lonely stuff. You just sign rich people in and sign rich people out. Every so often, you walk around the property. But if I tell you my story, you have to tell me yours. Agreed?”
“Well, that will be a short one sure enough, but yeah, okay, I agree.”
So I told her.
“Why Clearwater?” she asked.
“I visited here before when I was a kid. My folks brought my brothers and me to the area a few times. And I liked the place. It"s warm. I like the beach and the gulf. That"s gulf not golf.
No snow, no ice. It"s kind of a nice change from home.”
“So what kind of cop were you? Traffic, a motorcycle or cruiser cop or what?”
“No, I was a detective attached to the Major Crimes department. I was moving along
through the ranks - taking courses - that kind of stuff.”
“So why did you stop being a cop? Were you undercover and the bad guys found out you were a cop and now you have to hide out?”
She seemed to know about as much of how police forces work as someone who spent too
much time watching too much television.
I smiled. I guess I could have shown her the scars, but I shrugged that one off.
She would have made a pretty fair interrogator. Her eyes never left me. But she was way too fast to jump to wrong conclusions.
“Yeah, well, maybe I"ll save that mystery for another time. But I will tell you that I was married in another life – no kids. And here I am.”
But she was tenacious. For the next fifteen minutes she conducted a succinct Q&A. She got most of my life in a nutshell, but I held back the stuff about my brother as well as how my chosen career came to an abrupt end.
“What about your story now?” I asked.
“I got to go back to work,” she said with a quick smile as she rose from her chair with her empty coffee mug. “If you really want to hear my dreary story, I get off at nine. I"ll meet you right outside. Oh yeah, your bill is at the cash register. And I still want to know why you aren"t a cop anymore.”
I quietly finished what I could of my now cold meal – chicken strips – hot or cold, they taste about the same. It"s difficult to eat and tell your life story at the same time. I felt strangely discomfited by the abrupt ending to my meeting with Mia, but there was nothing I could do about that. Her quick smile was a warm touch. I watched her as she started serving another table.
It was as if I didn"t exist and our conversation had never happened. There was no doubt about it.
She had certainly surprised me. Then I had to ask myself - Was this a date? I didn"t know whether I would return to meet her at nine or not. Yes I did. Was she just messing with me or was she sincere? I mean I had to be at least ten or twelve years older than her - maybe more. Did she want something from me? Was she setting me up for something? And if this was a set-up, what was that all about? All the innate cop suspicions that I believed had died long ago rose up in me with cynical lone wolf wariness. I wasn"t afraid. I was curious. I dropped a generous tip on the table and went to the check-out counter.
The overweight middle-aged woman, who managed the restaurant, was usually a
naturally pleasant woman. She most often greeted me with a friendly smile. This time, there was no smile. She mutely looked at me as if part of my meal was still stuck to my face. She handed me my check. I paid; thanked her - nothing - and left.
Something to Think About
Even though it was overcast with a steady fine drizzle of rain falling, I decided to walk along the beach. The long wide strip of white sand was ripe with the warm smell of the sea salt and the partial remains of a decaying fish. There were only a few other people walking or jogging along the shoreline. Mainly tourists, I thought dismissively as I ambled quietly along the packed sand near the churning surf. A lone grey gull screamed protectively overhead and then swooped down upon the rotten fish carcass. Nature"s garbage men!
While I walked, I remembered the first time that I met Mia. She had greeted me at the entry to the restaurant, flashed that radiant smile with those brilliant blue eyes and led me to a table in her section. Mia was by nature gregarious. Our relationship had been built on those short, often humorous, verbal exchanges while I ordered my meal. To me, it seemed that she, like so many waitresses, young or old, was a natural flirt. I had watched her play with other customers in a similar manner - the Pretty Woman/ Cinderella dream of whores and waitresses everywhere – some good looking guy with more bucks than brains will come along and take her away from all this misery.
The banter between us had always been harmless and frivolous. There had not been
anything sexual or suggestive in our exchanges - no hard line come-on. I had not seriously expected or even dreamed - well, perhaps I had fantasized a little - that anything would come of it. She had become a very pleasant diversion in my otherwise pretty ordinary day. She was the all-Canadian girl next door, but maybe not so innocent – and definitely not Canadian - the stereotypical tanned, blond, blue-eyed young beauty with the firm fit petite body of a cheerleader or gymnast that every adolescent male dreams about at some time in his teens. Those days were a distant memory.
But I felt that there was something more to her - something beyond her obvious physical attractiveness. She seemed to me to be an intelligent individual with a quick wit and a neat sense of humour. It was only her eyes that tipped me to the fact that she had seen a more of life than might be guessed at first glance. Shortly after we met, I found myself wondering why someone Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
like her would have to take a job at IHOP. Now, after her invitation to meet her at nine, maybe I would find out. Or maybe I was reading more into her invitation than was actually there. If she thought I was the Richard Gere to her Julia Roberts, she was going to be disappointed.
Throughout my meander towards home, I continued to play the various scenarios in my
head. Whatever it was, I was already looking forward to meeting her again that night.
I had a few hours before I had to start back over to the IHOP. I wondered about driving over in the Jaguar. That would impress her. Too Richard Gere – the Jag would stay in the garage.
I had a shower and a fresh shave, the second of the day, a personal record. I wondered what I should wear. I realized that I was more alive than I had been in more than a decade. Perhaps alive was not the word. More like curious or intrigued. Then, I as I was wondering if this was going anywhere, I also realized I was being more than just a little bit silly. I mean there had been nothing more than an invitation to meet her after work so that she could honour her side of our agreement. She would tell me her story. I would make some appropriate comment and then, thank her. She would go home. I would go home - end of story. And tomorrow the Florida sun would shine and nothing would be different in my life or hers. Boy! Was I ever wrong!
A First Date in Paradise
I reached the restaurant at ten to nine. I wondered about going inside, but then I
remembered the stone faced manager when I paid my bill earlier. I decided to wait outside. It wasn"t raining anymore although the darkening sky was still overcast with heavy cloud cover.
No starlit night tonight. As I stood there, I mentally re-played the various scenarios I had developed through the late afternoon. I actually laughed out loud at myself. I must be losing it -
becoming delusional. Maybe spending too much time alone in the sun isn"t such a good thing.
“Do you often laugh like that when there"s no one around?” she asked smiling at my
“Er - no, actually I was thinking of a joke someone told me recently.”
“Really - it must have been pretty good. Tell it to me.”
Caught again - damn. “Well, it really wasn"t a joke - er - it was more like a humorous incident.”
“I"m listening. It sounds even more interesting.” She was still smiling at me. Evidently, she had recognized my discomfort. She was enjoying herself.
“It was nothing,” I confessed. “I was actually thinking about this.”
“This? What"s this?” She was really into it now. She was laughing at me. And then I was laughing with her.
“Okay, so where do you want to go to tell me your pitiful story?” I asked. “I mean that"s what I"m here for - right?”
“That"s right, and pitiful is a pretty good word for it,” she replied lightly – almost as if somehow she had forgotten that was supposed to be why I was here. “Let"s go somewhere that"s not too noisy.”
“Well, we could go to this charming Waffle House I know about. It"s off the ground floor of the new Holiday Inn – used to be the Ramada. The food is pretty good if you like pancakes or waffles. The waitresses there are like waitresses everywhere - kind of goofy – and they often smell like syrup and waffles.”
The former Ramada Inn was about two hundred yards back in towards the loop. It was
the IHOP"s main competitor in the open twenty -four hour a day mid-priced food group.
“Goofy?” she playfully hit my arm and then did a quick sniff of her jacket. “Who was standing here laughing out loud to himself a minute ago? Do I really smell like a waffle and syrup?”
“No, you smell great,” I said as we started walking down the street towards the sound of the gentle surf washing up onto the beach. So much for romance! I had just told her she smelled great. God, I"m an idiot. “I was just kidding about going to the Waffle House. There"s a fairly quiet coffee place slash bar just along Gulfview. It"s supposed to be okay.”
The place that we went into was really about as upscale a restaurant/bar as you can find anywhere on the beach. That"s not saying much. It was called Frenchy"s South Beach Cafe.
Everybody, who had been on the beach for more than a week, just called it Frenchy"s. In some upscale urban areas, the joint would have been summarily condemned to a quick meeting with a large wrecking ball. In Clearwater Beach, Frenchy"s was considered quaint.
The interior was darkened and the red and white checked vinyl covered tables were
candle lit. There was some quiet elevator type music – Kenny G, I think - playing softly in the background. A jockey size maitre d" led us to a quiet table near the back corner of the almost empty dining area. The dinner crowd had finished and moved on. The drinkers would start arriving after ten o"clock the miniature maitre d" said haughtily, as he handed us black plastic covered menus. He was responding to my observation about the shortage of people in the restaurant.
Mia didn"t even open her menu. I did and made a mental note to return sometime in the future. “Want a dessert or something more than just coffee?”
“No, you go ahead though,” she replied with a fleeting smile. Something was on her
mind. It wasn"t romance, and it had to do with me. Still a cop I thought as I continued to do a quick scan of the menu.
The little guy returned with a Bic pen and a small spiral note pad held primly in front of him. He looked like a public school teacher about to give a spelling dictation. If he was expecting to take a nine-course meal order, he was going to be disappointed. And he certainly wouldn"t need the order pad. “What can I get for you lovely folks tonight?” he asked in a voice that oozed deep-south.
I nodded to Mia. “Just coffee for me.”
The waiter made a quick head bob and looked at me. “Diet Pepsi on ice with lime and
this dessert here - Death by Chocolate - with two forks or spoons – whichever works best.”
“Very good, Sir,” and he turned quickly and disappeared immediately in the direction of the kitchen.
“Two forks?” Mia said smiling at me again. She was relaxed. Her mind was made up.
“You must be a dreamer.”
“Not my worst sin,” I said. “Besides, when you see this dessert, you may want some and, like any good boy scout, I"ll be prepared.”
She just laughed quietly and took a quick look around.
“So,” I continued, “now you owe me your story. So let"s have it.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but I have a few more questions for you.”
“Cheater,” I said shaking my head. I was starting to feel more comfortable with her. “You can ask me your questions after I hear your story. But only if I can ask you some more questions as well. Agreed?”
“Well, my story is pretty short. I"m not that old you know?”
“I was a cop. What are you - about twelve?”
“Right,” she smiled sweetly and went on. “Up front - I am twenty seven. I was born in Tampa, so in a way, this is my home area. I quit school and left home when I was fifteen. Even though I have taken some night courses, I haven"t graduated from high school, and that"s why I can only get work as a waitress. My folks still live in the area. Well, my Mom and step Dad do. I don"t know where my biological father is. He left my Mom, and my sister and me when I was Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
about eight or nine. I came back here two and a half years ago when my sister died. And that"s about it.”
“Whoa! Fifteen to twenty seven – that"s a few years unexplained there Round Eyes. Why did you quit school and leave home at fifteen? What happened then? And how did your sister die? Come on. I was a cop - remember? I need details - just the facts ma"am.”
Just at that moment, the waiter arrived with our drinks and a large white ceramic bowl filled with chocolate ice cream, covered with chocolate syrup and teaspoon size chunks of brownies. Hershey chocolate bar pieces were generously sprinkled on top of three dollops of thick whipped cream. He placed the calorie packed dessert on the table mid-way between the two of us with two long handled silver spoons.
“Enjoy!” he said with a quick smile and left us alone - my kind of waiter.
“You"re going to eat that?” Mia asked leaning back from the table her eyes wide open.
She pointed at the large chocolate concoction. “It"s a heart attack in a bowl.”
“No, we"re going eat that,” I said reaching for one of the two silver spoons. “Dig in and fill in the rather large gaps in your life while you"re at it.”
“How do you stay so fit looking eating something like that? If I had even a small bit of it
- I mean a person could get fat just looking at it. You must have some great metabolism Joe!”
“I won"t eat anything tomorrow. Or I"ll jog longer. This is really good.” I said licking my lips and rolling my eyes. “You"re missing a once in a lifetime!”
“Well, maybe I could try a little - but just a bit.”
“Good eh - now fill in the blanks.”
“I left home cause I couldn"t get along with my step dad. He is not a very nice man. To this day, he still frightens me. Anyway, I drifted up to Ocala and worked at a horse place for around six months during the winter. A lot of wealthy farms from up north send their horses to the Ocala area for the winter. There were a number of spreads from Canada wintering there.
Anyway, there"s always lots of work to pick up then. From there I moved to Orlando and worked for a few months at Disney and Sea World for minimum wage. Then, a guy saw me and hired me Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
to work in his club. Things kind of went from there. I started to drink too much. I worked as a dancer in clubs up there and then moved up into Georgia. I lived with a guy there for a few years.
Just stuff like that.”
Mia stopped talking and took another spoonful of calories.
“And…?” I said prodding her to continue.
“And about three years ago, just around Christmas, I phoned home. I talked with my
Mom and my sister for the first time in about eight years. My sister was almost fifteen years old by then. She was six when I skipped out. After that, I would phone once every two or three weeks mainly to talk with Vickie. That was my sister"s name. She wasn"t really bright, you know. I felt sorry for her. She always had trouble in school – special classes – but not like really retarded. Do you know what I mean?
I nodded. It was enough. Mia continued.
“And she was a really nice kid too. I felt bad that I had left her there with my step dad.
When we talked, she didn"t actually say it; she"d be afraid to, but it sounded like she was having a lot of problems living at home. I really felt for the poor kid. So, in my head, I kind of made her my project. But before I could help her, I had to get myself straight. I stopped drinking and started to save some money. Sometime in the late spring that year when I phoned, Vickie told me that she really had to get away. She wanted to visit me. I said that was cool cause I had been trying to get up the nerve to come home to visit her. We set up a time. I was going to meet her at the bus terminal in Orlando, and she was supposed to stay with me for a week or so. She never showed up. When I phoned home the next day to see what had happened, my Mom told me that she didn"t know anything about Vickie coming to visit me.”
“Did you believe her?”
“I had no reason not to. I figured that Vickie must have been afraid to tell her.”
“So, in a sense, Vickie was planning on running away.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, my mom told me that Vic was missing. A few days later,
maybe a week, she was found dead off to the side of a dirt road that leads to the local make out Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
spot. She"d been strangled with her own panty hose. I came home for her funeral, and I ended up staying. But in a weird way, you see, Vickie actually saved my life. And that"s it - end of story.”
Mia looked up at me. Her eyes had started to brim, but she was almost defying me to ask for more. When I said nothing, she scooped the last spoonful of our dessert.
“What happened to the guy who killed her?” I asked. Cop curiosity. There were still all kinds of gaps, but that one seemed the easiest to fill.
“Nothing, they never caught him - if it was a him.” I could see the hook. It was baited very nicely. But still I went on.
“When we were talking earlier, you knew that I had been a cop. Do you remember? I
don"t think I"ve ever mentioned that to you. How did you happen to find out about that bit of my history?”
Just a little hesitation - a bit of color - maybe more if the light in the bar had been better.
“I must have heard it from someone.”
“I see,” I replied knowing that she had just lied to me - waiting. Watching her face reflect the mental calculations she must have been doing. I had not taken the hook – yet - still waiting.
The Kenny G recording had been replaced with a string of Jimmy Buffet songs. I think the one playing was called Why Don’t We Get Drunk? Or maybe it was Cheeseburger in Paradise. It didn"t matter. After a while, most of them sound like Margaritaville.
“Okay,” Mia said, “so I asked around after you came in to eat a few times. You looked like a nice guy, and I was curious. I"m not dating anyone right now, so I asked around a bit okay.
Someone told me that they had seen you over by the docks working for one of the fishing charters. I know a few guys from over there - customers who come in for early breakfast, so I asked a few of those guys. One of them said you sometimes went out with the Frankie Donner boat. He said you were an ex-cop from Canada named Joe Holiday.”
Mia looked over to the door and stopped talking. It seemed that the colour drained from her face. She mumbled something that I couldn"t hear. I became vaguely aware of a minor disturbance somewhere behind me near the bar"s entrance.
We Have Visitors
Wondering if I was falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book, death by distraction, I took a quick glance over my shoulder. Two guys who looked as if they had already spent too much time in bars today were uncertainly making their way towards our table. I didn"t recognize either one of them, so I turned back to Mia.
“I see,” I said again. There was more to her explanation. I could be patient.
“Mia! I thought that was you. Long time no see babe. You"re lookin hotter than ever.” It was one of the young drunks. “How ya doin babe?”
The two guys stopped at our table and one of them - a guy who looked like he could do stand in stunt work for Arnold Swartzenegger in his prime - leaned heavily on the edge of our table. His beery breath was enough to make me edge back in my chair. “I heard you were working somewhere out here. They got a strip club on the Beach now for all the old farts?” He laughed loudly and looked back over his shoulder to see if his buddy was enjoying his incredible wit. His buddy smiled weakly but looked around nervously. This wasn"t the kind of bar he was used to – no country music, pool tables or any other stumbling drunks.
“I don"t do that anymore Billy Ray,” Mia said anxiously. “I told you that before. I
haven"t done it for a few years now.”
“Maybe you could do a little private show for Sammy and me? Show us what you got.
We won"t tell no-one. What you say to that babe?” he asked as he pushed hard in over Mia. She shrank back in her chair while looking over at me for help.
“Maybe you"ve had a little bit too much to drink there buddy, eh? And you"ve forgotten your manners too - yeah?” I said quietly while slipping my hand over the long handled silver spoon that still had a bit of melting whipped cream dripping from its tip.
“And who the fuck are you?”
“Just a friend of Mia"s - I really don"t think she wants to talk with you anymore right now.”
“Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in ...
That was about as far as he got. I swept his arms and kicked the table out from under him hoping that Mia would react fast enough to get her legs out from under the collapsing table.
Gravity took over, and Billy Ray crashed to the floor in an awkward drunken sprawl of legs and arms. His friend, Sammy, made a sudden lurching move towards me. As he did, I wheeled around and rammed the spoon up under his chin. He hadn"t seen my weapon, so he was probably wondering if I was about to cut him a new mouth. Billy Ray was working awkwardly to get his legs under him when I kicked him in the face - hard. He went out like a cheap light bulb in a power surge.
The diminutive waiter arrived on the run anxiously trying to make sense of the scene in front of him.
“We"ll be leaving now,” I said to a stunned Sammy. “You and Billy Ray here can look
after the rest of the damages.” I quickly peeled off three twenties from my money clip and handed them to the waiter.
When we were outside and moving quickly back towards the IHOP, Mia grabbed my
hand. “I"m parked at the back of the lot. Are you okay Joe?”
“Yeah,” I replied looking back to see if anyone was following us. There was no one.
When we reached the back of the IHOP parking lot, Mia led me to an older model dark
coloured Honda Civic that had definitely seen better days. The relic looked as if it might have been in a few recent fender benders – maybe more than a few. Even in my adrenaline driven rush, I remember thinking, “This woman might not be a great driver.” Mia unlocked the doors, and we got in.
“Why did you have to kick him?” she screamed as she fumbled to get her keys into the ignition.
“Did you see the size of the guy? He had to be six three or four - maybe two-forty to two-sixty - and drunk to boot - and with a friend almost as big!” I replied incredulously. My voice was too loud. The adrenaline pump was just starting to ease off. I made an effort to lower my volume hoping that she would follow suit. “Me - I"m six one - maybe one ninety - one ninety-Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
five if I eat too many Death by Chocolates. You really don"t believe that I should have fought fair – Marquis of Queensbury shit? Drunk or not, hat big mother would"ve killed me.”
“I guess so,” Mia replied quickly as she fired up the reluctant Honda.
“What was that all about anyway? The one guy, Billy Ray, obviously knew you.” She
started to pull the car out of the parking space without checking her mirror or anything else.
“I went out with Billy Ray once or twice just after I came back here to live. He"s a friend of my brother, Terry. They hang out at the same gym. At first, he was kind of nice to me. I didn"t know too many people around here anymore, so I thought – what the hell! On the second date, I found out what a jerk he is. He said he wanted to take me shopping which sounded kind of nice.
And then he took me to a porn joint out by the dog track. He wanted me to pick out a few sex toys and then sleep with him and his friend. He"s a pig. He also thought it might be a great idea for me to hook for him – maybe make some home fuck and suck movies. I told him to get lost. I haven"t seen him in months. If I ever do see him coming, I usually take a quick hike in the other direction real fast.
The End of My First Date in Paradise
We pulled away from the almost empty parking lot heading back towards the loop and
the Memorial Causeway. The streets were quiet, not much traffic of any kind, and no sign of Billy Ray or his buddy, Sammy. Mia drove by Crabby Bill"s restaurant and the marina docks and continued north along Mandalay Avenue past about ninety-four souvenir shops selling
everything from suntan oil and bathing suits to jewellery and assorted sizes of hollowed out alligator skulls. We had not talked. Mia seemed to have become absorbed in her own thoughts which might have explained her reckless driving - but probably not. It was as if I wasn"t there.
Finally, she snapped out of her trance and cleared her throat. She made a wide right hand turn and another left and stopped on Poinsietta in front of what was once a Tru-Value hardware store – now an empty space for rent. The whole friggin coast of the Gulf of Mexico to park, and she picks the front of a former Tru-Value hardware store. I knew there wasn"t any romance in the air tonight.
Mia turned off the Honda"s ignition. The old car chugged a few times and died noisily.
Before the car"s last wheeze, she had pivoted in her seat to face me. There was no light from the hardware store shell and the streetlight on the lamppost across the road made it relatively difficult for us to see each other. Maybe Mia wanted it that way.
“Do you still want to hear the rest of my fucking pathetic life story?” she asked quietly.
There was a sense of urgency in her voice that had not been there before. Her frustration was almost palpable.
“Sure,” I replied. I knew that I was soon going to have to make a decision. The
information about her murdered sister that she left out for me earlier was the reason I was sitting here now.
“In the time that I kind of skipped over,” she smiled weakly, took a deep breath, and started uncertainly, “I did some pretty trashy stuff and a lot of stupid things. Things I"m not proud of. I am not a good or even a nice person. Even as a kid, I did things, and things were done Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
to me, that should never have happened. I"m not going there, so please don"t ask me to. But you have to know, right from the get go, that I"m not a nice person.”
“I usually make those kind of judgments for myself,” I interrupted. “And I don"t usually judge too harshly. Life sometimes bites you and you bite back. Even as a cop there were things I did then I might not do now. You have to learn to forgive yourself – and as a sideline I write for a Chinese fortune cookie company.”
Mia laughed lightly, and that was a good sign. “Okay, to me you are a good guy, and I don"t want to see you get hurt. I don"t like seeing anyone get hurt. Anyway, when I contacted my family – that was maybe just a bit more than three years ago - I was about to bottom out. The dancing that I had started out doing in strip clubs had gone to escorting and then, finally, just outright hooking. I was drinking and partying too hard. I wasn"t happy. In fact, I couldn"t even remember what happy felt like. Killing myself seemed like a reasonable solution – the only solution. I even had enough pills to do it I think. But when I talked with my sister, Vickie, she sounded like I did when I was her age. I decided that I wanted to come back here when I was feeling better and help her to avoid the mess that I had fallen into. Maybe even get her to move in with me and I could take care of her. I felt that if I could do that, my life would have served some purpose. Does that sound weird?”
I shook my head - no. To tell me these things was not easy for her. The inner conflicts, the fears and memories could be read on her shadowed face. Her blue eyes were dark and shiny as they looked quickly at me and then hastily strayed back down towards the floor.
“Okay, so when she was found dead, I came back home for the funeral. I talked with the police a lot. At first, I felt like it would only be a few days before her killer was caught. Now, here it is three years later, and they"re not even trying anymore. The head detective in the investigation, a gruff old cop named Langdon, has retired. No one cares about what happened back then except for me – and maybe my mother. Everyone else has gone on as if nothing ever happened – as if Vickie had never been on this earth. That"s not right. My sister was a real person. She may not have been real smart, but she had dreams and hopes. She deserved to have a Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
real life. I can"t just throw her out with yesterday"s garbage. So when I found out you were an ex-cop, I kind of developed this plan in my head to seduce you into helping me find whoever murdered Vickie.” Mia stopped abruptly and raised her eyes to look at me. “Does that make any sense to you?”
“I guess,” I said, “but I must have slept through the seduction part unless you thought the encounter with Billy Ray and his bud, what"s his name, took care of that.”
She laughed again. That sounded good. “No,” she smiled at me and captured my eyes.
“The Billy Ray thing was an unforeseen and unfortunate accident. In my original plan, I allowed a couple of weeks to find out if you were smart enough to be able to help me. I wanted to get to know you. I thought that maybe after you fell for me a bit, I"d ask you to help me find Vickie"s killer.”
“Pretty sure of yourself around the falling for you stuff there Sweet Cakes. What if it turned out that I was a gay caballero and not turned on by your clever little seduction slash manipulation plot?”
“It never crossed my mind,” she said as she dropped her small tanned hand onto my
thigh. “But I guess I might have asked someone like Billy Ray to seduce you then. Are you?”
“Are I what?” I was suddenly having trouble concentrating on our conversation as her hand moved softly toward my knee and then gently back up my inner thigh.
“Certainly not - who told you that?” I said finding my deepest voice.
Mia laughed and her eyes lit up. She took her hand away. I tried to get focused again on her proposal about what I thought she expected me to be able to do. It wasn"t easy getting that directed.
“So you think, because I got away with my life when we met Billy Ray, that I am the ex-cop for the job – and that is ex-cop? Mia, you don"t need muscle; you need brain. Three years after the fact with no co-operation coming from the local cops and no status to approach anyone Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
for information, you"ll also need an incredible amount of luck - which from the sounds of it, neither of us has in any quantity.”
In spite of my effort to keep it light and yet sound reasonable, Mia cowered back into the driver"s seat of the Honda as if each of my words was a stick hitting her. Her blue eyes had started to brim when I had started my reply. Now, they were flowing freely. I silently cursed myself for always having been a sucker for tears. I sat there and watched her. I didn"t know what she would do if I reached out to comfort her, so I did nothing. I waited.
Finally, she stopped crying. Well, not quite, but the odd sniffle can"t be counted against her. She slowly reached towards the car key still in the ignition. “So you won"t help,” she stated quietly. It wasn"t a question; it was a statement of fact. “I"m sorry I bothered you Joe. I"ll take you home.”
I sat there feeling like a total waste of skin. She had bet on me, and I had failed her.
Mia must have found out more than my name and where I sometimes worked. She drove
unerringly towards my rooming house. As she pulled to a stop at the curb in front of the old bungalow I share with my crazy landlady, I gave up.
“Mia, I didn"t say I wouldn"t help you. I said to be successful, to even stand a chance of finding out who killed Vickie, we would have to have an incredible amount of luck. Up front and to be honest with you, I don"t think we"ll be able find the killer. But if you want to try, I guess I could help – for a little while. I mean it isn"t as if my social calendar is crammed with events.
But, and I"m telling you this right now, if this gets too hairy – you know – dangerous – we go directly to the cops. Pass go; do not collect two hundred dollars. Do you agree?”
She turned towards me and said nothing. She stared at me with glassy eyes that were
penetratingly sharp. I guess the deep stare was her form of bullshit detection. I knew right then that her life had taught Mia the importance of cynicism. How many times had men lied to her to get what they wanted from her? Had I just capitulated because I wanted this relationship to develop? Yes! I tried to hold her stare. I wondered if I there was a chance in hell that I could do something here - probably not. She must have sensed my self-doubt.
“Okay,” she said quietly and leaned forward to kiss me gently on the cheek. “Thank you.
What do we do now?”
“We do nothing just yet. It"s late, and I have to catch up on my beauty rest,” I replied.
She smiled and then laughed. I was beginning to love that laugh. “I go to the library tomorrow and do a search on the Internet and the stacks. I"ll put together a list of the information we"ll have to find. I"ll also create a whole batch of the questions that we"ll need answers for. Once that"s done, and as soon as you can get free from work, we"ll sit down and figure out where we go from there. Does that sound fair?”
“Yes. And thank you,” Mia said simply.
“No problem,” I said. Who was I kidding? There was nothing but problems. “Are you
okay to get home on your own?” I added as I reached for my door handle.
“I do it every night Bub,” she replied lightly. “Tell me tomorrow at the restaurant when you want to meet again.”
“Yeah, okay, but listen – don"t tell anyone about what we"re doing just yet. It could be dangerous, and we don"t know who the good guys and who the bad guys are.” Prophetic me.
Mia looked a bit confused. But she promised that she would keep this whole plan our
little secret. Then, she put her junker in gear and drove off leaving me beside the curb watching her taillights flicker from view. “I must be nuts,” I said as I turned to go to my room. I believe I may have had a big smile on my face.
I’m A Cop Again – Well, In A Way
My arrangement with the Donner Fishing Charter was pretty loose. Frankie Jr. could call me if he needed an extra body to keep the charter guys in beer, chips and bait. As well, I was expected to fill dead air with friendly chatter about the trivia of Clearwater and Gulf of Mexico. I knew where Hulk Hogan lived and where John Travolta had built his mansion. I could talk about the value of local real estate but not Scientology – or Tom Cruise. Stuff like that. I was free to accept or reject the offer of the day"s work without any hard feelings. Frank had the same arrangement with five or six other retired guys who would go along on the excursion for bare minimum wage. When I entered my room after watching Mia drive away, I checked my
answering machine. Although I could have used the money, there were no requests for my services. I could go to the library the next morning and do what I had promised Mia.
The next morning was classic Clearwater Beach for me. The sun was bright and hot. The sky was incredible iridescent shades of blue with not a cloud in sight. There was only a puff of wind, and the fresh morning air around my head was a fine salty blend of gulf water, tropical vegetation and my coconut butter tanning oil. Six or seven screeching Wild Parakeets were squabbling over the nesting rights in the Foxtail Palm behind the garage. That palm, that anchors Mrs. Reilly"s little backyard garden, and her garage are right across from my bedroom window.
Damn, I love Clearwater Beach. Every morning, I wake up glad to be alive. Most mornings like this, I"d grab a book and my breakfast and sit in one of the two blue and white striped lawn chairs in the small yard doing little more than working on my tan. Not this morning though.
Today, I had to start my investigation for Mia.
The Clearwater Beach library is on Mandalay Avenue just up the street and across the road from the Hilton Hotel. It shares a small pink strip mall with an ice cream joint, a souvenir shop, a gym and the headquarters for the Jolly Trolley. For a buck twenty five you can ride the entire beach from north to south as well as the Island Estates, Clearwater and Sand Key. You want to ride all day on the trolley? It"s the same price – a buck twenty five. One of the drivers, a young guy on a disability pension from the army named Sam Langford, told me about a woman Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
on her honeymoon. She had had a fight with her new husband at the Hilton Hotel. The angry young lady got on the trolley with a picnic hamper and two library books and rode the open bus all day. Her husband had thought that she had been mugged and called the cops.
Because there are not a large number of actual permanent residents on the beach, the library is minor league by any standard. It is a satellite of the new main, very large and very expensive, City of Clearwater Public Library. Most of its lending business is done in the prime season – February to May. As it is has only limited shelf space, it is minimally staffed and supplied. The available space is divided into a small office for the librarian on duty, tiny - his and her - washrooms, and the main floor where the books are shelved. There is a bank of four older computers with Internet connection. As well, there is a smaller bank of in house computers used to maintain the accounts of its borrowers. On these computers, you can check the availability of the various titles stocked on the shelves and reserve new books just out. There are two substantial worktables with four chairs at each table. Near the washrooms along the back wall, there is a single row of four study carrels each with its own hard wood armchair. The operation was a pretty standard and simple and almost never busy.
One of the two things that made this library distinctive from others I have visited was the display of “on sale” art painted by local artists. Almost all of the framed pieces were done in the airy pastel shades popular with the west coast Florida painters. One of the best artists is a very talented woman named Helen West. She and her husband can be found, on almost any evening, selling copies of her work on Pier 60. I have one of her prints hanging over the headboard of my bed. Almost all of the canvases on the library walls were for sale at reasonable prices.
The other distinctive feature was the prevalent aroma of incense. When I visited the library the first time to take out a membership, I had asked about the pungent scent. The librarian smiled at me and admitted with a soft chuckle that she regularly listened to the Beatles and burned sandalwood incense in her office. She claimed it helped her to concentrate. I wondered if she sometimes she used it to disguise the odor of marijuana. It"s the way a cop is taught to think.
During my most recent visit, I had been looking for more blonde jokes. The on-duty
librarian, on that occasion, had been an older, gray haired lady who was tanned to the shade of an over ripe banana. My impression of her then had been that she regarded all libraries as sacred places where only incredibly reputable and scholarly people toiled in total silence. She, in turn, took her few responsibilities in the small library seriously.
This time when I entered, the same gray haired lady did a quick take on me and bit her upper lip. Maybe she remembered that I was the guy who had been looking for all the blonde jokes that he could find. This time I realized immediately that she did not like what she saw.
Maybe my appearance led her to believe that I was there to be a pain in the ass again. I had the feeling that rubber flip flops, ragged blue jeans, and a decaled rust coloured T-shirt declaring my love for Clearwater Beach were not, in her opinion, the attire suitable for serious scholarly work.
When she had been on duty that cool rainy afternoon that I had spent looking up blonde jokes, she had had to remind me four times that laughing was not permitted in the library. She had forcefully asked me to leave on that occasion. Now I was back.
This time out, I figured it might be a good idea to have her on my side. I quietly claimed a place at a vacant worktable. I pulled out one of the hard wooden chairs neatly spaced around it and placed my worn backpack on another. I slowly approached the elder lady with feigned trepidation. I tried to imagine how a slightly retarded grade ten high school student might ask his brilliant mathematics teacher for help doing quadratic equations. It didn"t matter; the old doll was reserved in her response.
“Can I help you sir?” she asked professionally.
I explained what I was looking for. She gradually became interested and then warmed to my genuine request for her assistance.
Maybe she was bored or maybe she believed that she could get me out of there faster if she helped me. Whatever her motive was, after I explained to her what I needed, we were soon talking like old friends.
The librarian"s name was Ida May Thornberry. She was from a small town in upstate
New York where she had been the local public school librarian. Her husband, a former fireman named Eugene, “his friends called him Guy”, had gone to fight his big fire in the sky - cancer.
But, during the course of his life, he and Ida May had put aside enough money for the two of them to fulfill their adult dream of living in Florida. Her two daughters now visited her with their families once every winter. She lived in a small apartment building in the City of Clearwater –
“not the beach, far too expensive”. She rode the local bus to her job every day that she had library duty. I guess she was lonely. I got all that information without even asking.
As soon as I told her that I was looking for anything and everything that I could find on the murder of a teenage girl in Pinellas County three years ago, Ida May hit the computer like Sherlock Holmes on “crank”. If she had believed that I was demented from our first meeting, her assessment of me was probably confirmed when I could not even tell her the last name of Mia"s sister. I had forgotten to ask. So much for all those finely honed police skills flooding back. I"d not even managed to get the dead girl"s full name.
Mrs. Thornberry was not in the least deterred by my lack of information. She started with obituaries in the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune. She then hit the smaller weekly papers like the Belleaire Blabber. In a very short time, we were building a fairly comprehensive file on the murder of Mia"s sister - Victoria Anne Doulton.
From the obituaries, Ida May and I tracked back through the newspaper reports. We
generated a time line from the moment Vickie was reported as an unidentified body found partially clad in a small field to a final statement offered by one of the investigating officers. One of the more dedicated reporters had come up with a standard yearbook thumbprint photo of Victoria Doulton. The grainy picture was of a thin blonde youngster with vacant eyes and a weak smile. Ida May enlarged the photograph on her computer"s Canon three in one printer, scanner and copier. I studied it carefully and then added it to my growing file. The final article that we found was dated just over three weeks later when Sergeant Stuart Langdon, the detective in charge of the case, announced that while the investigation would remain open, there were no new Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
leads to pursue. He assured the reporter that it would be only a matter of time before the guilty party or parties were brought to justice. Translation - the investigation was at a dead end.
Nothing else could be done until the killer hit again – if he killed again.
The date on the final newspaper report was three years earlier. There was nothing further.
We had the when, what, where and the first part of the - who – the victim. We were missing the -
who"s - second part – the killer - and also the why. I thought that if we were able to figure out why Vickie Doulton was murdered, we might be able to determine who the killer was. Of course, the assumption I was making was that the victim knew her killer. A random killer with no real motive but his own self-serving agenda would be impossible to apprehend now. I wondered if the Sergeant Langdon had finally concluded that Vickie Doulton had met up with a modern day Jack the Ripper whose method of killing was strangulation. If this was a wrong place – wrong time murder, our chances of finding the killer were non-existent.
I recalled the good advice given to me years ago in the thick Scottish brogue of my
training officer, Detective Sergeant Ian McGregor, “Aye, watch where the pennies go and answer your five ws laddie, and you"ll solve yer crime every time.” I was teamed with McGregor during the last two months of his career on the force. I had just made detective and been transferred to major crimes. I learned more about police work in those two months with that old curmudgeon, McGregor, than I did in all of the police courses I ever took. Given the lack of scientific and technological resources available to him that exist today, the guy"s solve rate was incredible. Ian McGregor “ate his gun” three months after he was compelled to take mandatory retirement.
Okay, I had some of the ws, so I knew where to start. I thanked Mrs. Ida May Thornberry for her help and gathered up the copies of the news articles she had printed for me. I placed the news items, arranged chronologically, in a manila folder. I then stuffed everything into my backpack. The kindly librarian almost seemed disappointed that our search had ended.
“Probably just enjoys doing research and talking with people,” I thought as I securely fastened the zipper and straps of the pack.
Just as I was about to leave, I remembered to ask her to say nothing to anyone about the research we had done. I tried to make it seem like it was pretty mysterious stuff a la James Bond or Jason Bourne. Let her feel that she was part of a big mystery.
“Mrs. Thornberry, if anyone should ask you about the murder of Vickie Doulton or even about me,” I said to her in hushed tones, which was kind of silly as there was no one else within twenty feet of us, “see if you can find out who they are and let me know. I"d really appreciate it.
And thank you again for all the help you have been to me. I"ll be back here soon enough – but no more blonde jokes - I promise.”
“I"ll do that Joe,” she said with a friendly smile. She was taking her own quick survey of the library - checking to see if the enemy was close at hand. “Mum is the word - you try to look after yourself Joseph Holiday.”
I didn"t feel like going back to my room, and I was getting hungry. I checked my watch. I had been in the library for almost five hours. Time sure flies when you"re having fun. No wonder I was hungry. Death by Chocolate can only take you so far. I walked back towards the loop and ducked into a Subway sandwich shop. For the next half hour, I sat and worked my way through a sandwich and a Diet Pepsi. As I munched and sipped, I worked methodically through the material that Ida May had copied for me. As I had expected, I had background. I still had far more questions than I did answers. I sat quietly and tried to figure out the best way to go about doing the impossible. The scene of the crime was as good a place as any. Yeah right, like three years later I was going to find out all kinds of things. What was I thinking? And I should have checked to see if similar crimes, done in the same manner, had been committed subsequently. I continued writing down the things that I needed to find the answers for. As I was jotting down the things that I should do, the kid behind the sub counter asked if I wanted anything else. When I replied – No thanks – he gave me a hard look. I got the message. Scram Mac. I gathered my papers and left.
As I walked past the Hilton Hotel, I checked my watch again and realized that I had a few hours before my meeting with Mia. I decided to head over to the marina fishing docks just along from Crabby Bill"s restaurant. Some of the all-day charter boats would have returned with their catch. That would mean that there would be a lot of people and activity. I needed to be a part of that for a while, but at a distance. Some hard wooden public benches had been set out along the edge of the sidewalk back from the docks. The marina benches were only one of a number of favourite basking in the sun locations the three or four Clearwater homeless guys frequented before the cops found them and drove them back across the causeway. Surely, I could find a seat somewhere there where a sandwich making kid with a rotten attitude wouldn"t bother me. I found the bench I wanted about three quarters of the way up the main dock.
Hungry Brown Pelicans and Herring Gulls swooped around or sat on their perches
waiting for fish guts and heads to be dumped from the anchored boats and cleaning tables. A Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
number of Ring Billed Gulls strutted on the cement pier pan handling crumbs from the tourists.
Their efforts resulted in limited success. There were signs posted asking people not to feed the birds. The afternoon sky had been invaded with small, elongated puffs of white cloud. A gentle warm breeze wafted the fishing and ocean smells. I closed my eyes and listened in case the gods wanted to share any insights about how I might manage the impossible task of helping Mia get closure on the death of her sister. Apparently, the gods were out to lunch. No inspiration at all.
And then for no particular reason at all, I wondered about Mia leaving home when she did and the attitude she had towards her stepfather. Before my promotion to the elite major crimes squad, I had made a number of fact gathering trips, usually with a female officer, to the Metro Children"s Aid Society. Invariably, as I sat listening to a crying child divulge the sordid details of an abuse done by some twisted perpetrator, I had felt sick. It was inconceivable to me how callous these guys could be in their behaviour. In many instances, the victims were their own children. The story Mia had told me of her life from the time before she left home at fifteen sounded sadly similar. Her fear of and disgust for her stepfather was the stereotypical attitude of the abused kid who becomes a runaway. I was almost certain that her concern for Vickie had been based upon her fears that her not so bright sister had become the target of similar abuse. It was something to think about anyway. Could I open a discussion about sexual abuse with Mia? I didn"t think so. Not yet. She had been very clear last night – “don"t ask me to go there”.
For the next two hours, I mentally played with the problem of Mia"s history and what I should do next and how. Once again, I went over the information I had. While a few possible avenues had opened up for me, my sense of hope had not really increased at all. If the prospects for any resolution of this case were slim and nil, I would have given odds on nil.
As I walked back along the length of the marina main dock, I exchanged a few friendly words with some of the charter owners I recognized. Then I spotted Papa Smurf and Kickstart sitting outside the marina store doing some subtle panhandling. These two guys were two thirds of the homeless contingent that I called the three stooges or the three blind mice depending upon their state of sobriety. They occasionally drifted over from the mainland to scam tourists. You Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
could generally recognize one of them because they carried all their worldly possessions in a backpack. I carry a backpack as well. When we first met, they took me for one of them. They were well known by most of the locals and all of the police. I had talked with them a number of times before. I hadn"t seen Papa for a week or so. He had been nailed with an open container and got jail time.
“Hi guys, where"s Larry?” I asked. Larry was the youngest and sneakiest of the three. He was also the one most prone to violent behaviour.
“Foodguy, how ya doin?” I was Foodguy because I gave them food instead of money.
“Good Papa. What"s with Kickstart?”
Kickstart looked pretty rough. He was holding his jaw. When he took his hand away to answer, I saw that he either had a Spaulding Three golf ball in his mouth or one hell of an abscessed tooth.
Kickstart uttered gibberish for twenty seconds. I looked at Papa for a translation.
“Larry beat the shit out of him cause he said Kick fucked him over on the money we got.
Kick thinks his jaw is maybe busted.”
“Not nice eh - you should maybe get that looked at Kick. You guys going to be here for a bit?” Duh, silly question - their backpacks were stuffed under the bench they were sitting on.
They were here until someone in authority told them to bugger off.
Papa just nodded. I ducked into the marina"s small souvenir store and bought two packs of nuts, two Cokes and an Almond Joy and Snickers bar as well as a small tin container of Extra Strength Tylenol. At least they would have something solid in them.
After I wished the guys good luck, I checked to see if the Frankie Donner charter had returned. It hadn"t. I was starting to feel like a Clearwater native in spite of my clearly tourist “I Love Clearwater Beach” T-shirt. I wandered down through the park with its small playground and its tribute statue for the first Greek to land in the area. I was heading to Pier Sixty. When I reached the loose warm white sand, I scuffed off my flip-flops and crossed the hundred and fifty feet of loose beach sand to get to firmer cooler surface close to the surf. I then headed off south Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
towards IHOP and Mia. I wanted to go over what I thought we should do. Give up was the best option. I could never tell her that. Maybe she wouldn"t want to spend any more time with me.
I entered the IHOP wondering what my reception would be like from the woman who
managed the place. When I had left there yesterday, she had definitely been as chilly as a penguin with frostbite. I didn"t have to worry; she wasn"t there. Neither was Mia. At least, I couldn"t spot her right away.
A short, chubby, black waitress named Janille ambled over to the checkout counter where I was standing doing my impression of a stork with its head out of the sand.
I quickly checked behind me. There was only me. I smiled – black humour – I get it.
“Perhaps none - I"m looking for Mia.”
“She"s on her break – probably out back in the parking lot in that piece of trash she calls a car,” Janille said in her syrupy southern drawl. She turned her broad back on me and waddled off in the direction of the kitchen.
“Thanks,” I said to her retreating swinging backside. She just waved a stubby hand over her thick shoulder and continued waddling.
I turned and left the restaurant heading for the parking lot. As I turned the corner at the back of the building, I spotted Mia in her white blouse, black slacks IHOP outfit walking slowly back from her car. She saw me at about the same time and flashed me a wide smile as she hurried over.
“Hi,” she said, “How are you doing after all the adventure of last night?”
“Just fine - and you?”
“I"m good. Did you get anywhere at the library this morning?”
“Yeah,” I replied uncertainly, “For the first little while, I got really hung up in the section on erotic lesbian literature of the Victorian Era – just for a few hours really - quite stimulating actually.”
“You what?” Mia asked as she came to a full stop and looked up at me. There was anger and surprise in her tone, but her blue eyes sparkled. We were playing. It was fun.
“Well, maybe not for hours, maybe just long enough to make me look at English
cucumbers in an entirely different light.”
She laughed. “You may very well be the weirdest guy I"ve ever known.”
“Weird is good.” I love it when she laughs. “And then I read all the reports from a few of the newspapers that covered the story. A nice old lady – not a lesbian but maybe a Victorian -
helped me out. I have a few ideas, but I think I have to tell you all over again – this may really be almost impossible. Don"t get your hopes up too high.”
Her lingering smile vanished and the light went out in her bright blue eyes. There was a bite when she said, “Now, are you saying that you won"t help me?” Her disappointment and anger were clear.
“Not at all,” I replied quickly. We had started to walk to the IHOP again and then we stopped. “I"m just saying – I don"t want you to get your hopes too high. When are you off? We should sit down together. I can go over some of the stuff with you that I think we might consider.
There are also a lot of questions that we need to find answers for.”
Mia gave me another weak smile and then took a quick peek at the slim gold digital
watch that she wore on the inside of her left wrist. “I work another two hours. Why don"t you come in and eat, then go for a walk and come back for me. We can sit on the beach then and watch the sun set.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. I really wanted to just stand there and perhaps hold her, or hear her laugh again. Instead, I fell into step beside her. “What"s good on the menu today?”
“Same old, same old - knock yourself out Hon,” she replied slipping her slim hand into mine. Her touch was electric. It came as such a surprise to me that I looked down to do a quick reality check. She looked up at me, smiled and then gently squeezed my hand. “You don"t have to leave me a tip, but try to be cool in there. I don"t want you drooling all over the menus.”
“Drool – me? I think not. Drooling doesn"t run in my family. You wrong me.” My heart just pounded twice as fast when she took my hand. And I started babbling.
I followed our plan to the letter – some plan. I think I recall tasting the food, but I can"t recall what it was. I tried not to stare at Mia for any longer than thirty seconds at a stretch. That was difficult to do. I dropped a generous tip, paid my bill and left casually. Mr. Cool; No drool!
I walked at a leisurely pace along the beach towards Pier 60 where the buskers and
artisans would be plying their trades for the tourists. The gulf waves were almost non-existent. I skipped a smooth shell eleven times across the water"s surface before it sank quietly. Not my personal best record, but not bad.
When I got up to the pier, I sat down on a vacant public bench overlooking the beach and the gulf. I wanted to clear my mind. Sometimes, by switching my focus away from a problem to something innocuous – like the number of times I can skip a stone or shell across a relatively flat surface – I can return to whatever the conundrum is puzzling me with a fresh perspective.
Near the pier on the north side, I watched a few little kids laughing and flying multi coloured kites. On the south side, some teenagers were playing a loud game of pick up beach volleyball. There was lots of arguing, but they were having a good time. I wandered out onto the pier and watched as an oriental artist drew a caricature of a little girl in a pink bathing suit. He was quite good. For fifteen bucks, mom and dad had a memory. I checked Helen West"s work and chatted with her husband. We watched as Helen discussed technique with an art teacher from Michigan. I wanted to get another of her prints for my room, but I"d have to wait for a while.
After a few minutes of quietly doing nothing, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and headed back down the surf line towards Mia.
At the parking lot, I sat carefully on the rusted trunk of Mia"s old Honda Civic. As I sat waiting for her to get off work, I thought about what I had gotten myself into. I realized that my life had changed in a matter of a little more than a day. And then I knew that I felt great. Better by far, at that moment, than I had in a very long time.
After a short wait, Mia emerged from the back entrance to IHOP and started walking
slowly towards her car. Her head was down as she was desperately probing the innards of her large straw bag. She was looking for something hidden in there – a full-grown German shepherd Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
perhaps. She had changed from her standard IHOP get-up into a casual outfit consisting of faded, form fitting, hip hugger blue jeans, a loose white cotton peasant blouse and white and baby blue thong flip flops. She was a Florida native. No way would she be caught wearing an I Love Clearwater Beach logo T-shirt. There was a delicious gap between the bottom of her blouse and the top of her low-slung jeans. At a distance, she looked like a kid. Hell, she was a kid. Her tight tanned midriff was punctuated with a diamond butterfly inserted in her belly button. When the sun hit the diamond just right, her stomach was a blinding sight to behold. I guessed that the piercing was a hangover from when she was working the strip clubs. Mia and I were very definitely of different generations and life styles.
With her shoulder length blond hair done up in a ponytail, secured by a soft pink cotton band, her soft even tan and her trim athletic build, she looked like the petite version of the all American dream girl. Well, maybe without the piercing. I guess the only thing missing in that picture was the All American Dream life that she had most certainly not enjoyed.
I had started walking towards her when I saw her leave the restaurant. When she finally found what she was looking for in her bag – her keys - she looked up and spotted me. We met about half way across the parking lot.
“Hi,” I said. “You look pretty spiffy this evening even though you are really quite
fetching in your knock out IHOP outfit.”
“Oh yeah?” she said.
“That black and white IHOP get up is quite a sensual turn on for me if you want to know the truth,” I whispered as I bent towards her ear.
“You really are nuts Joe,” she laughed. “Even Angelina Jolie would look like crap in one of those IHOP costumes. But thank you for saying so. Now, are we going to walk along the beach or do you want me to drive us somewhere? Where do you want to go? I really want to hear what you found out today.”
“The beach sounds good. We can find a quiet place to sit with no people close by. I need maybe about a half hour to go through what I"ve been able to come up with.”
We started north back up Gulfview Boulevard to the public parking lot adjacent to the beach. I left my hand unmoving at my side. She didn"t take it. She was telling me about some customer who had sent back a waffle twice saying it wasn"t done right – a waffle. Can you believe it?
“Talk about being a jerk eh?” she said huffily as she finished her story.
“Yeah, as my grandmother used to say though – it takes all kinds. I could understand it if it was a pancake, but a waffle – geez, that"s pretty hard to comprehend. Oh, by the way, do you only interdigitate once a day?”
She stopped and looked up at me. She was mentally replaying what I had just said to her.
“What did you say?” Indignant - wondering if I just had been incredibly rude to her. She was getting ready to be really ticked off. Short fuse was a side to Mia I had only guessed at.
“I asked you if you only interdigitate once a day?” I replied innocently working hard to keep the grin off my face. She obviously did not know what the hell I was talking about, but she was not ready to let me know it. I started walking again. She stood still for a moment and then scurried up beside me. We walked for another few yards before I asked again.
She hesitated and then grudgingly – as if she had committed some major sin - quietly replied, “No, I"ve not set any limit on that. Should I?”
“Oh no,” I replied, “I kind of enjoyed holding your hand earlier, but when you didn"t take mine a minute or so ago, I wasn"t sure if you had set some sort of personal daily limit.”
She started to giggle and then punched my shoulder - hard. “You are truly nuts – one of your oars is clearly out of the water – and that"s a fact.” And she took my hand. “Where did you get that word? What was it?”
“Interdigitate,” I replied. “The first time I heard the word was when a kid in my sex ed.
class – his name was Jerry Piels, I think - asked our female sex ed teacher if she thought interdigitation before marriage was morally wrong. The teacher, Mrs. Smedley, – an older British woman who talked as if she had about twelve plums in her mouth, and truly did believe sex was only for procreation, was shocked. None of us knew what the hell Piels was talking Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
about but guessed that it probably had to do with some form of deviant sex act. The entire class went silent. I mean - you really could have heard a pin drop. Like the rest of us, and you just now, old Mrs. Smedley didn"t have a clue what the hell the word meant. She hemmed and hawed. She talked about the Latin derivation of the words “inter” and “digit” and then did a rationalization quick step about the sanctity of marriage and the consensual nature of adult couples. Finally, after a lot of verbiage, she admitted that she had never heard of the word. She asked Piels what it meant. When he told her it meant holding hands, the whole class broke out laughing. And she gave him a detention. It was one of the highlights of my grade ten year.”
By the time I finished my explanation, we were walking along the beach beside the
incoming waves in full interdigitation mode. I was happier than I could remember for years.
“Did I say that you had one oar out of the water?” Mia said holding my hand tightly,
“Joe, your whole fucking boat is out of the water.”
“Nice of you to say so - though I"m curious; what did you think interdigitate meant when I asked?”
Mia went silent. I looked down at her as we walked. I imagined that she was trying to figure out how to answer my question without being crude.
“As you say – some deviant sex act.” And Mia actually blushed. It was nice to see that her earlier life had not totally robbed her of modestly or some kind of innocence.
I laughed too. “Here"s a good place. Let"s sit here.”
Although the beach had been pretty crowded earlier, most of the sun worshippers had
headed home. There were still some last minute tourists walking and waiting for another incredible Clearwater Beach sunset. And there were the regular fitness freaks running along the beach, but there was no one sitting within twenty or thirty feet of where we flopped to the ground. The sun had tightened into a hazy orange ball as it prepared for its descent below the gulf"s western horizon. Its fingers of heat and light slid over us as we settled onto the warm white sand. There would be some gradually fading light for the next half hour or so. We sat still Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
beside each other and took in the view. I experienced an overall sensation of complete happiness.
I was catching yet another glimpse of paradise.
Another First and Options
Finally, I slipped my legal pad and the manila folder holding the newspaper reprints out of my backpack. I looked over to where Mia was sitting. Her eyes were closed and her face was turned to the sun. I wasn"t certain that presenting the graphic details of Victoria"s murder would serve any useful purpose. I slid the folder and its contents back into the bag. I could get by using the scratched notes that I had made on my yellow newsprint legal pad.
“Beautiful evening, eh Joe?” Mia sighed whimsically. “Red sky at night: sailor"s delight -
red sky in the morning; sailors take warning.”
Mai had shifted so that her arms were wrapped around her legs. We watched as the
excursion boat, Little Toot, returned to the inland waterway from its last dolphin- viewing excursion. My legs were stretched out in front of me. I rested the legal pad and my pen on my lap. I sat leaning slightly back supporting myself with my arms extended behind me. I had burrowed my hands into the still warm sand. I turned my face to catch the warmth of the sun"s last fading rays. I didn"t want to break the spell with the ugliness of a murder. I waited. After a few quiet moments, Mia slowly turned her face to look at me. I became aware of her attention. I turned to look her. My heart went to jelly. I couldn"t help it, and she didn"t want me to. We kissed. Her lips were soft and yielding. She reclined slowly onto the warm sand beside me. We kissed again - this time more deeply.
“Okay Bub, enough already,” Mia said pushing me away suddenly. “We"ll have time for
that later – without an audience.”
I rolled away from Mia. Four feet away, gawking at us, were two little red headed,
sunburned, four and five-year old sisters with blue plastic pails and yellow shovels. They were giggling like we were the funniest things they had seen since Spongebob Squarepants tried to get Gary the Snail to take a bath. Both kids were wearing floppy white sun hats, about three sizes too big for them, and matching pink and blue polka dot bikinis. The girls" parents were calling out to them to hurry and catch up. Mom and dad were fifteen feet farther along the beach and had just realized that their daughters had lagged behind.
“Sorry,” their father called back to us – far more embarrassed than his kids.
“You should be,” I thought uncharitably. I just waved at him – the universal signal that all is okay. His two little kids turned and scampered away. They were still giggling. Maybe we did look kind of funny if you"re only five years old.
Mia and I exchanged glances and laughed as we watched the family dynamic play out
along the surf line. Mom had run back to retrieve her kids. She swept up the younger one and grabbed the hand of the other. We watched her trying to explain to the two little girls that it wasn"t nice to point and giggle at people kissing on the beach.
I thought about picking up where we"d left off, but that was wishful thinking. The spell was broken for Mia.
“Okay, so what are your ideas about how we can do something to find out who killed my sister?” Right down to business.
“Well, I"m not certain it serves much purpose, but I guess we should try to visit the crime scene at least twice. We should get to it once around the time of the crime and another time during the daylight hours. I don"t really mean crime scene. I mean where Vickie"s body was found. From what I read in the reports, the police believe that she was dumped at this location late at night. Honestly, I don"t expect to find anything, but at least there will be a context to the crime. Ideally, we should try to get there before the estimated time of death and stay for a while.
If you don"t want to go with me, that"s okay, but you"ll have to give me pretty specific directions on how to get to the exact location. Once I"m away from the Clearwater Beach and Sand Key area, and even with the GPS, I don"t think I can locate – dirt path leading to make-out area –
somewhere in Tampa.”
“No, I"m okay with that. I"ll go with you. Sergeant Langdon was absolutely certain that Vicki was killed somewhere else and then left there. If I recall right, he said they were thinking she had been killed an hour or so before she was actually dumped where they found her. I don"t remember him telling me how they figured that out.”
“I"m not positive about how they might have done that either – the forensic guys have a whole bag of tricks and charts – lividity, decomposition – that sort of thing. Doesn"t matter, where her body was found is still important. You have to ask yourself - Why was it found? And then, why was it found there? With all the swamps and accesses to water, there"s lots of ways to make a body just disappear. Did the killer want it found for some reason? If so, what reason? Or did the killer panic and just went for what was expedient? We may never really figure that out.
But I guess we have to start somewhere – and that"s as good a place as any.”
“I understand,” Mia said, and I believed that she did. It was all business now. She was totally focused.
“Also, it would be a good thing if I could chat with Langdon. He has no reason to want to talk with me, but if we could get anything from him, it wouldn"t be time wasted. We should try to find out if there were any other similar crimes before or after Vickie was killed. Then, I should talk with her friends from school. Find out if she had a regular boyfriend. I need to meet with your Mom and step dad and anybody else who might be able to help us get an idea of what happened during that last day. If she went to a church or youth club or dance club, I should talk with the people there. If her doctor will see me, I should visit him or her. If I could, I"d love to review the police reports, because most of that stuff I just mentioned would be in the notes made by the investigating officer. And it would have been recorded when recollections were fresh. If I could review those reports, we would save days and days. That"s another good reason to talk with this Langdon guy if we can. Realistically, that probably isn"t going to happen in this lifetime. And maybe it"s good to go back to ground zero - sort of the fresh perspective approach.”
We Make a Connection
“I could contact Langdon for you. He seemed to be a sweet old guy in a grumpy old fart sort of way. He was always nice to me. Maybe, he could get you copies of those reports,” Mia stated quietly. She was processing what I had just suggested and suddenly seemed a little distracted. Something was bothering her.
“What"s not to be nice to you?” I commented idly. “The old cop probably thought he was in love, but I still don"t think he"ll help us too much. Helping us might put his pension at risk –
depending on the agreement his bargaining group has with the city. But I guess it"s worth a try.
What about the others I mentioned. Do you know many of those people?”
“Here"s the thing Joe,” Mia said looking down at the sand in front of her, “my Mom – no problem. I think she"s still hurting and needs to get this thing behind her. I mean she kind of let herself go during the year after Vickie died. In some weird way, I think she blames herself. My stepfather, Ted, and step-brother, Terry, – I don"t think you"ll get anything there.”
“I"m not sure. It"s like it never happened. They don"t even want to talk about it. Both of them have told me more than once, and told my mom a lot more than that, that it"s done. Get over it; get on with your life. I don"t understand why, but it"s like they don"t care anymore.”
For the second time, a red flag went up in my mind about Mia"s father - and now her
step-brother. This was the same guy who was friendly with Billy Ray. Maybe step father and brother want it to go away because somehow one or both of them were involved. Mia was perceptive. She must have heard the same little voices I did. De Nile – a river in Egypt. I wasn"t ready to go there with her yet. I wondered briefly if Mia had ever gone to a therapist - probably not. Maybe at some point in the future, she would trust me enough to open up that particular area of her life. For now, she was still dealing with those demons alone.
“Okay, Mia, so let"s not bother telling your Mom and step-dad about what we"re doing. It would probably just piss them off and create more problems for us than we already have. Let"s concentrate on finding this retired cop, Langdon. We can see where it goes from there.”
“Alright, let"s get a phone book,” Mia said. She ascended gracefully to an upright
position. She looked down at me as I struggled to get my feet under me. Graceful is an adjective seldom used to describe anything I do.
“So much for a quiet romantic evening viewing a perfectly beautiful sunset with this incredible woman,” I thought as I finally managed upright. “Instead, I have to go find a phone book.”
“What are you – some kind of acrobat? How did you get up like that?” I asked looking at her as she stood waiting.
“Just cross your legs at the ankle and stand up. It"s not hard at all. Remember I used to be a dancer of sorts. I still do yoga sometimes.”
“Great. Mia the elastic lady,” I grumbled. “You"ll have to show me that trick again
sometime. Who knows when I might be sprawled out on some forgiving surface – like a bed -
with a beautiful woman at my side and want to stand up in under a nanosecond?”
Mia ignored my beautiful woman and bed compliment, laughed, grabbed my hand and
dragged me back towards the street. “I think there"s an old public phone booth in the parking lot of that Surf and Sand souvenir shop. Let"s go.”
An open phone booth lit by a single fluorescent light sat at the front corner of the small parking lot. Large moths and other flying insects, big and small, attracted to the light, had claimed the area as theirs. I flailed my arms crazily in a futile attempt to drive the little buggers away. They weren"t going anywhere.
We scrunched over and quickly moved in to get to the ravaged phone book inside its hard gray plastic cover. The book and cover were hanging from the booth"s scratched aluminum corner shelf at the end of a six-inch plastic covered link chain. We did a quick search for Langdon, S. in the uncertain light. There were three in Tampa, two each in Largo and St.
Petersburg and one in Clearwater. We agreed to try the Clearwater Langdon first.
“I need your cell,” she said.
“Good luck – I don"t have one.”
“I don"t believe it. I hook up with the one guy left in the world who doesn"t have a cell,”
Mia exclaimed. “How do you survive?”
“Who am I going to call?” I asked reasonably. “And where is your cell if you are so
twenty first century?”
“I don"t have any minutes left.”
We huddled together in the limited space with all the nasty flying creatures. Mia did the talking. She knew the guy – or at least had met him. I jammed in as close as I could to her when she had an answer. Her perfume was intoxicating. I wanted to kiss her neck. I didn"t. I continued unsuccessfully to beat away the random attack of the flying night stalkers.
“Is this the residence of the retired police officer, Stuart Langdon?” There was a nervous quaver in Mia"s voice. Maybe it was excitement.
“Who wants to know?” the replying voice was deep, female and grated on the ears like a slightly rusty rasp going over a hollow metal bar.
“Sergeant Langdon investigated the murder of my little sister almost three years ago. Her name was Victoria. It"s really important that I talk with him if this is his home.”
“It is – but he"s er drunk. Just a sec; I"ll see if he wants to speak with you.”
There was the sound of a telephone receiver hitting something solid and then nothing.
Mia waited. After a minute, she looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. I realized that she had started to shiver.
“Give it another minute,” I said.
We waited and just as Mia started to make a move to hang up, there was that raspy,
grating voice again. “He"ll be right with you.” Thunk – the receiver banged the wall one more time.
“Pleasant woman,” I commented idly, “probably a big fan of midget wrestling and the
Mia giggled. We waited. Two minutes passed. Finally, “What do you wan?” said as only a guy with a massive load on could say.
“Is this Sergeant Langdon?” Mia asked quietly.
“No – it"s Mr. Langdon. I ain"t a cop no more. What do you wan lady?”
“It"s me – Vicki Doulton"s sister, Mia. We met and talked a few times when you were
following up on her death. How are you?”
“I think I"m between drunk and hung over, and I don"t know since when – maybe Viet
Nam. I repeat - what do you wan?”
“I wondered if a friend of mine and me could meet you and talk about your investigation into the death of my sister.”
“I toll ya, I ain"t a cop no more. There"s nothing to talk about. I didn"t get the guy that did it. So fuckin sue me.”
“I know that, but I wondered if we could talk with you anyway. Maybe take you to lunch somewhere. It wouldn"t take long.”
“Listen Missy, I did everything I could to find your sister"s killer. It"s not my business no more.”
“Okay, I understand that, but could you at least meet me and my friend? Have lunch with us? My treat - bring your lady friend if you want.”
“That would be the frosty fuckin Friday in August,” the cop muttered followed by a
goofy kind of chuckle. Then, for no apparent reason, he relented. “Yeah, okay, if you leave me alone now – Crabby Bill"s in Clearwater Beach – you know the place - just at the end of the Memorial causeway?”
“Yeah, I do,” Mia replied - excitement creeping into the edge of her voice.
“You and your friend – noon tomorrow - your treat.” Thunk. He missed the phone base.
“Shit!” Picked it up and dropped it again. This time it landed in the right place and the connection was broken.
“He"ll meet us,” Mia said to me.
I nodded. “Yeah, I heard. Tomorrow, noon, Crabby Bills, your treat! Do you think he"ll remember? He sounded like he was kind of out of it. He also didn"t sound like he"d win too Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
many Mr. Nice Guy contests if you know what I mean. I don"t think I"d be counting on too much support from this guy. But at least, if he shows up, I can get a read on how competent he was in conducting the investigation.”
“Yeah, well, he was always a bit of a diamond in the rough - even when he was a
working cop - maybe because he was a cop. Retirement hasn"t mellowed him out any I guess. So what do we do now?”
I looked over my left shoulder to where the sun had crashed below the Gulf of Mexico"s horizon ten minutes earlier. “Well, we"ll follow up and meet him tomorrow. For now, it seems that we missed the last of the sunset. I guess we could go back to the beach, and you could show me that speed rise levitation thing you do. Or you could take me home and introduce me to your mother, or we could drive over to where your sister was found. Maybe we could get something to eat if you"re hungry - any or all of the above.”
“How about checking out where they found Victoria, and then, if we still feel like it, getting a bite to eat someplace. But no more Death by Chocolate! Jeez it"s got cold all of a sudden eh?”
It was true. When the sun goes down at this time of year in Florida, the night air can cool off pretty quickly. Tonight, with a gentle wind coming in off the Gulf, there was an unexpected chill factor. I thought I was finished with that term - wind chill. Like when the weather guy in Ontario says, “It"s zero degrees outside folks, but with the wind chill factor it will feel like minus twenty five.” I realized that I didn"t miss Canada at all.
As Mia turned to look at the Surf and Sand, a sleek black Mercedes slowed to a crawl on Gulfview Blvd. in front of us. The car"s windows were darkly tinted. I couldn"t be certain, but somehow I felt the driver was studying us. Then he rocketed away. I looked at Mia, but she seemed not to have noticed.
Mia and the Jaguar
“Okay,” I said. “We"ll check out the location where Vickie"s body was found, and then I can always come back to the spot later during daylight hours if I still need to. Right now though, let"s explore this Surf and Sand. Maybe get you a cute little alligator skull and something warm for you to put on.”
“I"m okay. I have a jacket back at the car,” Mia said.
“Okay, then let me go inside and get an alligator skull and something warm for me to put on. You never know when you might need one of those cute little skull things.”
Ten minutes later, we were back on the street. We took a pass on the alligator skulls, but we were both wearing new sweatshirts, and Mia was carrying her new red thong bikini in a very tiny bag. I looked around wondering if I might spot the black Mercedes again. I didn"t, but I did see a Jolly Trolley moving towards us from the south. I stepped onto the road to flag it down.
Incredibly, the driver pulled over. I found two loose one-dollar bills in with my change and paid the two fifty fare.
“Cool night eh?” the driver said as we sat in the seats behind and to the right of him.
There was no one else on the trolley.
“Yeah, and getting colder. Thanks for stopping,” I replied.
“No problem,” he replied, “company policy. Help the tourists spend their money. Where are you going?”
“Just getting warmed up and enjoying the sights.”
Mia slipped her hand into mine, leaned close and whispered, “You do know we"re going in the wrong direction - right Joe?”
“Really?” I responded as if I had not a clue. I do thoroughly confused quite well
“Some boy scout you are. Be prepared, my eye. Get a compass is more like it,” Mia
muttered angrily. I wondered briefly just how short her fuse was.
“It must have been seeing you in that tiny red bikini. You got me all discombobulated.” I said as if I was still thoroughly lost. Then I smiled. I wasn"t prepared to find out about fuse length on such a lovely night. “Actually, I thought we could go and get my car for the drive to the crime scene. Then if you"re hungry, we can get something to eat. After that, I"ll take you home to your place, and then pick you up tomorrow morning in time to get back to Crabby Bill"s. We meet Langdon at noon right? What about your job?”
“Look at this guy!” the driver said loudly. “That the third time he"s swung along here like that. And there"s a white Escalade doin the same thing. I hope the cops nail em soon before they kill someone – or each other – although that might serve them right.”
I looked out the open window to catch sight of the black Mercedes heading north.
“I don"t start tomorrow until two in the afternoon.”
“What?” I said.
“You asked about when I work tomorrow. I start at two,” Mia said.
“Oh, okay, so that works. Are you okay with leaving your car at the IHOP parking lot?” I was still thinking about black Mercedes and white Caddy Escalades.
Mia nodded and snuggled into my side. “I don"t think anyone will steal it. I wouldn"t be that lucky. I didn"t even know you had a car.”
“I keep it a secret. Sort of like the Batmobile.”
“You"re a bit messed up aren"t you Joe?"
I thanked the trolley driver again when we got off at the library stop. The walk to my rooming house was a quick one. It seemed to have become even cooler. I opened the garage and started the Jag. Mia had to wait for me on the narrow, gravel driveway. There was not enough room inside the garage for her to get into the passenger side of the car. I slowly backed out.
When I was clear, Mia pulled down the garage door, hurried back and slid through the door onto the passenger"s side tan leather seat. I had already turned on the heater, but, from experience, I knew that it would take a while for the vehicle to warm up. I turned on the car"s sound system, and the CD, Moby Music, pounded loudly from the eight speakers. I turned down the volume.
“Nice wheels,” Mia said as she did a quick visual survey and then settled. “Are they yours, or did we just commit a grand theft auto?”
“Mine – all mine,” I said proudly. “It used to belong to my Dad before he died. He left the car to me because he knew how much I liked it, and I think he wanted to piss off my younger brother. So what"s the fastest way to get to where we"re going?”
“Cross the causeway. I"ll give you directions from there. Why did he want to piss off your brother?”
In the dim light of the XJR"s interior, I shot a quick glance over to where Mia was
comfortably sitting. She was watching me intently. She really wanted to know. “My brother didn"t visit my mother once from the time she had to go into a nursing home with Alzheimer"s until the day she died. He said he couldn"t stand to see her that way, but my Dad wasn"t buying it. So the old man gave the car to me for a buck about three weeks before he died of prostate cancer. That way, it wouldn"t be part of the estate. My brother doesn"t talk to me too much anymore – but we stay in touch from time to time.”
“Families eh?” Mia muttered quietly.
“I guess,” was all I could say. I was still checking my rear-view mirror for any sign of that black Mercedes or white Escalade. Call me paranoid.
We Visit the Scene of the Crime
For the next thirty minutes Mia gave me directions that took me on major roads that I recognized. The next few minutes after that, I spent on back streets that I did not even know existed. I was no longer certain which municipal district I was in, but I guessed that we were somewhere within Tampa. It was closing in on 11:30. That was alright, because it was around that time Vickie"s body was dumped according to the newspaper reports. Finally, we turned from a darkened stretch of road onto a narrow gravel lane. It was barely wide enough for two cars to pass going in opposite directions. We crept along very slowly for about a minute before Mia told me to stop.
The place was eerie. If there had not been very meagre ambient light, we would have
been in absolute darkness. Just sitting there - the Jag"s engine and CD player off and the windows up - was disquieting. There was no traffic. There were no buildings or streetlights.
Nothing! It seemed to me that we could well have been in the middle of the fifteenth fairway of a Louisiana golf course or at the very bottom of a South African diamond mine. I cracked the front windows a fraction. The cool night air seeped into the car"s warmth. I shivered. Maybe I"m back in Canada, I thought before I closed the window. Mia and I sat and listened carefully. Slowly, I became attuned to the night noises of insects and frogs and then, the very faint sound of the night traffic that we had left minutes behind.
“This stretch of road is where Vic was found,” Mia said quietly. “Do you want to get out?”
“No,” I answered quickly. “Let"s sit here for a few minutes, but I don"t think that I"m going to get any sense of this place. It"s too dark. I"m going to have to come back here in the daylight. I didn"t even bring a flashlight.”
“So much for the context of the crime,” I mumbled as I sat there. “I might just as well put a blindfold over my eyes and listened to a “sounds of the everglades CD.”
At that moment, a vehicle approached from up ahead. Its high beams were on. For a brief few seconds both sides of the roadway were brightly illuminated. The oncoming car slowed Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
appreciably and then, politely, dimmed its lights. The road seemed barely wide enough for two cars to pass even though I had pulled as far off to my side as I guessed was safe. The oncoming vehicle had to slow almost to a stop as it passed by us. As soon as the driver was clear of my car, his high beams were back on, and he quickly accelerated away.
“That may have answered one question,” I said to Mia as I re-started the Jag and turned on its headlights. “Where does this road lead? What"s up ahead?”
“About a half mile along, the road just ends, and there is this fairly big open field. Some people call it a park, but really it"s been the local “make out” site for the area high school kids and lots of others for years – as long as I can remember anyway. You would be a wealthy man if you had a buck for every kid who lost her cherry in there. The road was originally going to be developed into some sort of a by-pass with access to the Inter-state, but that idea got bogged down in a red tape legal action at city hall. That was probably twelve to fifteen years or more ago. So here it sits. What question did it answer?”
“Well, it"s dark, no real traffic to speak of. I bet this cop, Langdon, really dug into this parking area looking for his guilty party.”
“That"s what the cops told me. They figured that Vic went in there with some guy,
something went wrong, very wrong, and he killed her. As he was driving out, he dumped her here because there was no traffic. The cops thought the guy wouldn"t want to risk getting back onto the streets with a body in the car, so this was convenient.”
“That"s a pretty fair guess,” I said as I thought about the possibilities. “Maybe, he planned on getting her body into that thicket over there.” I said pointing vaguely across to my left. I"d spotted a small growth of trees and brush on that side of the lane when the high beams of the car leaving the area had passed us. “Maybe he thought that no one would find her there. Then maybe, a car came along, and it spooked him enough to just drop her where he was and take off.”
Just then another car came toward us from the direction of the field ahead. We sat quietly as it too slowed down. It was a white Cadillac Escalade. It passed carefully and then quickly accelerated away. It looked as if the only way I"d be able to turn around to get back out was to Rennie/CLEARWATER JOURNALS
drive forward into the park. I didn"t want to take the risk of getting stuck on what appeared to be a non-existent shoulder. It would be a good idea to see the field anyway. I could do my U turn there. I put the Jag in gear and edged back toward the middle of the gravel lane. Mia"s guess of a half mile ahead had not been accurate. The distance was barely a quarter of a mile. As I completed a wide U turn in the field, my headlights briefly illuminated the foggy windows of at least fifteen or sixteen other vehicles. Some salacious thoughts about Mia darted through my little mind.
“Mia, unless I"m missing something, this case should have been a slam-dunk. Whatever the reason, Vicky pisses off Mr. X, the boyfriend, who then, accidentally or not, kills her and then dumps the body on his way out of lover"s lane here.”
“How can you say accidentally?” Mia scoffed mildly.
“Well… I began.
Then that short fuse thing cut in and something snapped. She got angry. Her voice grew harsh, and she went on the attack. “What the fuck are you thinking about Joe? She was found with her own goddamn panty hose wrapped around her neck. How can that be some fuckin accident? She was murdered and her body left to rot. That"s not an accident.”
Mia’s Short Fuse
“Easy Mia - cool your jets okay. Jeez! I didn"t say it was an accident. It probably wasn"t.
But when I was a cop, I investigated a case with my training officer where a guy strangled his wife. He claimed it was by accident - a mistake - like I didn"t know the gun was loaded. Hell of a story, bad alibi though. But then it came out in court that she and her husband had found out about this sexual asphyxia on some documentary channel on cable – maybe Sex TV - and thought they"d give it a try. The deal was that the wife would get her rocks off by having her oxygen deprived as she was getting screwed. The lack of oxygen to her brain was supposed to heighten her orgasm. Or, at least that was the theory. When the case was over and the details of the defence hit the press, some of her less sensitive friends said that she got screwed to death.”
“You"re kidding me right?” Mia said incredulously. She was still angry, but the fire was controlled.
“No, swear to God. Do you remember that Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery movie
called Rising Sun from quite a few years back now?
“Yeah, I think I saw it on video or maybe a part of it. Why?” There was still a trace of anger in her voice but curiosity was winning the race.
“Sexual asphyxia was the key to the crime committed in that film. There were a lot of pretty dumb kids trying that stuff out – even in Canada for quite a few years after that movie was in the theatres – maybe more after the video was released. Anyway, I"m not saying that Vicky was into that, but maybe Mr. X thought he"d like to try it. Maybe, somehow he convinced Vickie to go along – or maybe he surprised her. Maybe the guy panicked and couldn"t get the panty hose free – particularly if he had tied it. It doesn"t really matter. This case should have been a relatively easy solve. If you can find out who she had been with during that evening, you"re looking at a pretty good suspect. Did she ever tell you about a boyfriend because he would be at the top of my list of people to talk with?”