Mangrove Squeeze, page 1
"NUTTY ... SLAPSTICK ... PLENTY OF SLY, SUNNY SASS."
—New York Daily News
"Shames lines his characters up like pinballs, then takes careful aim as he knocks off first one and then the other. The result is ... a wonderful pastiche of insightful humor and human foibles."
—The Orlando Sentinel
"Shames's sense of place is unerring, but it is his people that make his books unforgettable."
"The collision of Shames's characters is an over-the-top comic thriller guaranteed to please the reader page after page."
—Abilene Reporter News
"Between Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, James W. Hall, and a handful of others, it's getting harder and harder for a Florida crime writer to stake a claim in the Sunshine State. And yet, that's exactly what Laurence Shames has done through six thoroughly entertaining novels."
Copyright 2011 Laurence Shames
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
for my mother, Helen Ruth Shames
with love and gratitude
A man who has been the indisputable favorite
of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a
conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces
While creating the character of Suki, I was repeatedly visited by images of two beautiful Key West women. M. F. and N. McC., you know who you are.
On all matters of nuclear physics and homemade explosives, my valued adviser was Dean Athanis. All technical mistakes are his fault.
Four books into a wonderful relationship, I am almost running out of ways to thank my editor, Brian DeFiore— except to say that my respect and affection for him have deepened with each project. As for Stuart Krichevsky, staunch ally for a mere fifteen years and counting, let me say that our conversations have been at least as enriching as the contracts. Well, almost. Mollie Doyle—you have been splendid.
Finally, for her endless patience, kindness, and capacity for joy, I thank my wife, Marilyn. You are, not to put too fine a point on it, the world's greatest human.
"Reservation?" said Sam Katz. "Whaddya mean, you have a reservation? This is my house."
The tourists looked unhappy and confused. It had been a long day and full of disappointments. Up north the roads were icy; they'd had to get up before dawn to make the first flight out of Lansing. Miami was not as warm as they'd hoped; they'd lied to themselves, pretending it was warmer than it was. The traffic on Key Largo was as annoying as the traffic anywhere else, and the sun had set before they reached the pretty part of the drive, south of Seven Mile Bridge. A fatiguing and deflating start to a vacation; and now the husband leaned across the counter with its registration book, its heavy silver bell. "You're telling me," he said, "this isn't a hotel?"
"Hotel?" said Sam Katz.
He was tall for an old man, with dark and soupy eyes that turned down at the outside corners, making him look sad sometimes, other times amused. His fluffy white hair, translucent at the edges, burgeoned out and back like Einstein's, and his shoulders sloped down at a steep angle from his neck. He wore a hearing aid except when he was listening to Mozart or Glenn Miller on his yellow Walkman. "Don't be ridiculous, young fella. I grew up in this house."
The wife glanced furtively around the office. There was a black metal rack stuffed with promotional brochures for snorkel trips, sunset sails. There was a cardboard stand that held applications for credit cards. Meekly she said, "But the sign outside—"
"Sign?" the old man said. "Who puts a sign? My parents built this house. They came from Russia."
The husband had a book with him, a guidebook. He put it on the counter and started riffling through it.
Sam Katz paused a moment, then continued. "Okay, Poland. The boundaries back then, who knows? A mish-mosh, Europe. They came in a wagon. I was seven, eight years old. I had no coat, they had me wrapped up in a tablecloth."
The tourist had found his page. But then he sneezed. He was wearing shorts. He'd changed into them in a men's room at Miami airport. His leg hair had been on end the whole way down the Keys.
Sam Katz said, "Gesundheit. Whaddya think, it's summer?"
The tourist turned the book around and pointed it at Sam. "Look, it says right here. Mangrove Arms, 726 Whitehead Street, corner of Rebecca. Charming Victorian, recently refurbished..."
Now Sam looked unsure, abashed, unsettled by hard evidence. He blinked at the guidebook and his skinny shoulders sagged, his shrunken neck shifted in the neatly buttoned collar of his yellowing white shirt. He bit his lip, cleared his throat.
He was greatly relieved to hear his son's voice through the open doorway near his back. "Dad? Dad, I hear someone?"
The tourists were even more relieved. They exhaled and fell silent
In a moment, Aaron Katz appeared.
He had his father's soft brown eyes, down-turned at the corners. He was smallish, wiry, and it seemed at first that he had bluish hair and some appalling skin condition that made him look like a cheap garden statue come to life. On closer examination, he proved to be totally covered in fine gray dust, a residue of plastering or of sanding or of grout. Renovation; physical labor—he was getting to love it because it wasn't what he was used to and it wasn't what he was good at. A loose staple had ripped the elbow of his shirt. He had Band-Aids on four fingers, and he wore them proudly—emblems of the awkward joy of change.
Until just a few months before, he'd been a very well-paid desk guy, a rising star in the arcane Manhattan world of mergers and acquisitions. Then a few things happened. These things did not seem obviously connected, yet in Aaron's mind they were joined by mysterious ligaments such as held together the stanzas of an Oriental poem.
At work, his department shrank, and Aaron, himself secure, was told to do the firing of his junior colleagues. At home—over takeout Thai, as he vividly remembered—he came one evening to the simple and sickening realization that he and his wife were not working toward the same life, after all. And his father—a widower for six years and a man with one son only—started running stop signs, losing the keys to the house in Merrick, confusing one decade with another. Either Aaron took him in or he would soon end up in a pale green room playing Colorforms among demented strangers.
Somehow these strands wound together in a noose, and quite suddenly it had seemed to Aaron that his only choice—not the decent choice or the honorable choice but the only choice—was to fire himself as others had been fired, to leave his marriage and bundle up his father and try to build a different life from the soggy boards and salt- rusted nails of an old compound in the tropics.
This wild and abrupt upheaval—did it make any sense at all? Any less than staying where he was? Aaron had always been a rather sober fellow; by temperament and education, he was a man who thought things through. So he analyzed; he agonized; he bolted.
And now he was smiling at practically the only guests in his tumble- down guest house. He sneaked a look at the brief r
The tourists nodded eagerly, extravagantly grateful at being recognized, confirmed.
Aaron started reaching out a hand, then pulled it back when he remembered it was filthy. He was forty-one years old and the clean-hands, clean-shirt part of his working life was over. He was doing something on his own. He said, "Welcome to the Mangrove Arms. I'll show you to your room."
Six miles north, in the big glassed-in dining room of a modern waterfront house on Key Haven, Gennady Petrovich Markov crammed a hunk of rare roast beef into his broad and floppy mouth, bit down with enough gusto to shake the arc of blubber beneath his chin, and said with appreciation, "Keppitalism. Is werry good seestem."
His friend and business partner, Ivan Fyodorovich Cherkassky, visiting from a somewhat less grand dwelling on the next canal, sipped his Clos de Vougeot and agreed enthusiastically. "With brain," he said, "with nerve, you can improve your seetooation."
Markov put down his knife and fork just long enough to emphasize a point with the raising of a fat and dimpled finger. "Not improve it only, but control it. To control it—is key to everything."
He turned to a young man sitting on his right, a handsome fellow in blue jeans and with a hairdo from the fifties, a little bit Elvis, a little bit James Dean. He stroked the young man's wrist and said, "Remember this, Lazslo. Control. Is key."
Lazslo Kalynin stared briefly out the window at moonlight on the waters of the Gulf, then gave a bored and noncommittal nod. He was Markov's nephew and his ward; he owed his uncle his very existence in America. He owed him his job; all his jobs. He owed him his classic Cadillac convertible, Fleetwood '59, red with white interior. He owed him his Old Town bachelor pad, decorated with posters of gangster movies and Harley-Davidsons; the half-dozen Gibson guitars that he could barely play; the large amounts of folding cash he always carried in his cowboy-style wallet.
But gratitude was not in his nature—he'd never learned it, didn't see the point—and he hated giving up an evening of his downtown life for the shut-in, suburban dullness of Key Haven. He had even less patience for the endless and obsessive political musings of these old men with their embarrassing accents, their stretched-out vowels and phlegmy hs and rs with too much tongue.
Communism. Capitalism. Who cared? Why couldn't they just forget about Russia? Why couldn't they just grab and squeeze the promise of America like he had—without looking back, without comparing it to something else?
Markov had paused in his eating, expecting a reply; Lazslo had to say something. He glanced at his uncle's monumental stomach, which had been stuffed and prosperous for as long as anyone could remember. He said, "You controlled things pretty well in the old days."
His uncle, flattered, smiled but disagreed. "Enjoyed, yes," he said, as the housekeeper silently refilled their glasses. "Controlled, no. For scientist in Soviet Union, life was comfortable, true. Caviar. Trips to Asia, trips to Cuba. Women. Good. But problem? Any time they can take away. Why? Because never is it really yours, never you really own it. In America, you own. You pay money and you own."
Happy in his certainty, he went back to his red and bleeding roast beef. Juice glistened on his chin.
Lazslo, drawn despite himself into the discussion, said, "But even here, plenty of people, the money runs out, they lose everything, just as easy."
Ivan Cherkassky, the family friend, leaned forward in his chair, propped himself on sharp skinny elbows. He had a doleful scooped-out face, pockmarked and lumpy, like what was left when a wedge of melon had been spooned, with scrunched-together features arrayed between a pointy chin and a high but narrow forehead. He wagged a finger and said, "Is not the same. Here, when people they are losing things, is because they have been stupid."
"Exectly," Markov concurred. "Stupid. Which is why," he added gravely, "we must always plen."
Lazslo could not quite stifle a cockeyed smile nor keep a needling tone out of his voice. "Plan?" he said. "That's a tactful way of putting it."
The comment worried Ivan Cherkassky. Everything did. His slippery eyes flashed left and right, he glanced behind himself. He chided in a whisper, "Lazslo, please, be careful how you say."
"The KGB is listening? The commissars, the generals? They come with Geiger counters maybe? Still looking for certain missing state property when there isn't even a state?"
"This is funny?" said Cherkassky. "No."
"Luzhka," said Gennady Petrovich, using his favorite diminutive. "Soviet Union—you make jokes but you really don't remember, do you?"
Lazslo pecked at the French wine that he did not enjoy. He liked American beer. He liked American cars and American music, American cigarettes and American cheese, and he wanted to be down on Duval Street, chasing some American tail. He was twenty-six. He'd been seventeen when he got out of Moscow. With the facility of the young, he'd shed his accent and his beginnings almost perfectly. He said, "I can remember. But why bother?"
"Why bother," said Ivan Fyodorovich wistfully. The eyes went distant in his hollow face. "The cupolas, the snow on fur hats, so fresh you can see each flake—these you never miss?"
"Cut me a break," said Lazslo.
"And your parents?" said his uncle. "You think about your mother, your father?"
Lazslo thought it over, not for long. His parents, still troweling potatoes and knocking worms off cabbage on the other side of the world, were frightened round-faced peasants wearing coarse wool scarves. He said, "Only when you ask me if I do."
Markov put down his knife and fork, and patted his nephew's hand. He turned with pride toward Ivan Fyodorovich. "You see, Ivan," he said, "is solid, this boy. No reason to worry about this boy."
Softly but immovably, Cherkassky said, "I wish he is more careful—"
The doorbell rang, and Cherkassky fell silent before a single indiscreet syllable might perhaps be uttered. A moment later the housekeeper approached the table. "It is the mayor," she announced.
Markov frowned, produced a napkin, wiped his greasy chin. "Barbarian," he muttered, pushing back with effort from the table. "A man cannot enjoy his dinner?"
The handsome Lazslo could not hold back a smirk. "Be nice, Uncle," he whispered. "Smile at the dog turd."
The fat man rose, motioned to the others to keep on eating. "I come back," he said, "as little time it takes to reach into my pocket."
They weren't bums, exactly, and they weren't exactly homeless. Their names were Pineapple and Fred, and they lived inside a giant hot dog.
They didn't own or rent the hot dog, but for all practical purposes it was theirs. It used to be a vending wagon, a novelty item that plied the trade on Smathers Beach. When the former owner got sick of selling wieners, he unhitched the wagon from his truck and abandoned it in the no-man's-land just east of the airport, in an expanse of mangroves that had been closely guarded military property back when Key West was a more important, more strategic place. Now they were simply unimportant mangroves, and in the mangroves the rule was finders-keepers.
Fred and Piney had lived in the fiberglass frank for three years now, and had made it rather homey. Below the curving sausage, the bulbous yellow roll was roomier than it looked, with a big window that had been the service counter, and an unlikely little door between the twin swellings of the bun. Fred could lay his sleeping mat full-length along the side of the roll that held the sink and the sauerkraut steamer. Pineapple's bedding fit neatly against the little propane fridge and underneath the rotisserie where the pronged wieners had gone round and round, getting redder, sweating as they went. Lying on their backs, the two men, by candlelight, could trace out squiggles of mustard molded in the ceiling. It was not a bad place to live.
On this particular January evening, they were lying there, when Pineapple broke a long silence. "Ya know what I sometimes wonder about?" he said.
Fred sucked his beer. Then, in a here-we-go-again sort of tone, he said, "No, Pine
Pineapple scratched at the sparse and scraggly beard that made a ragged frame for his long thin face. It was an archaic face, medieval, with an ascetic slot for a mouth, and nervous simmering eyes sunk deep in bony sockets. "I sometimes wonder," he announced, "if I was invited to the White House, would I go?"
Fred guffawed so that he sprayed a little beer and had to wipe his nicotine-stained walrus moustache on the back of his hand. "Piney," he said, "why would you be invited to the White House? You're a fuckin' dirtbag."
Pineapple squirmed against the scratched chrome door of the little fridge. He said, "Let's leave that on the side for now. My question is this. I'm invited, do I go?"
Fred stared up at the ceiling. The ceiling was rough from the mold of the fiberglass, he could see fabric on the inside of the frank. "And whaddya wear?" he asked. "Shorts with the ass out and no shoes on your stinking feet?"
Piney said, "What's the difference what I wear? Besides, don't call me a dirt-bag. I got a job."
His job, which he went to fairly often, was holding a sign downtown, on the corner of Whitehead and Rebecca.
There was an ordinance against billboards for parking lots, but there was no law saying a person couldn't sit on the curb, holding a sign on a stick. The sign said parking, painted inside an arrow. The only hard part of the job was making sure the arrow pointed in the right direction. Piney sat in the shifting shade and looked around. Sometimes, if people gave him paperbacks, he read. Mostly he watched the town go by and framed questions to consider.
Fred said, "Plenty a dirt-bags got jobs. And if you're talking White House, it does matter what you wear. Fancy place, it matters."
"Okay, okay," said Piney. "But what I wear, that comes after. First question is, I'm invited, do I go?"