An Excerpt from Fever
SOME GUYS DON'T KNOW when to quit. That's your problem."
It was Fontana's voice. I heard the voice before I felt the hand on my shoulder. When I looked up he was standing behind me, hazy in the smoked glass of the mirror on the back bar, out of prison three years early.
"You think you've seen it all," he said, the hand gone. "You think you've run your course, but you can't quite bring yourself to cash it in. So on you go: another day, another drink. What you really need is to find some noble exit. Some way of going out in a big blaze of glory."
The kid behind the bar had been filling sample glasses and letting me taste each one. The place made its own beer: raspberry, India pale ale, one that tasted like molasses. You could see big copper vats behind a glass wall.
"Let's grab a table outside," Fontana said. "You have to get out in the sun, or what's the point? This is Miami."
When I got up he was already walking out to the patio, wind catching his jacket. I couldn't see if he was carrying.
"Check it out," he said when we were sitting down.
I thought he meant the girl on the Jet Ski, but he was looking at a rust-bucket freighter coming toward us down Government Cut. The harbor pilot went on ahead. A tug stayed behind the pilot boat, slaloming through the chop, dragging the freighter backward out the ship channel.
Fontana put on a pair of sunglasses. He had binoculars with him: civilian ones, out of a sporting goods store.
"You could drop that baby in the mouth of the channel and shut down this whole city for a week," he said, looking at the freighter. "Three days, anyway. The cargo port. The river. Half the cruise ships in North America."
I didn't know if we were bumping into each other or it was something else. He picked up the field glasses, and I caught a flash of holster leather underneath his jacket.
"You'd have to make sure it swung sideways," I offered. "Before you blew it."
"Or after." He put down the binoculars. "How you liking retirement, Matthew? Or I guess it's semiretirement?"
"Fine. Same as you, right?"
"I don't think so. Anyway, that's not what I hear."
The freighter was passing us now, about sixty yards from the patio. A woman at a table nearby was showing a little boy how to wave. There was a man on the freighter's bridge in a white shirt with blue epaulettes on the shoulders. The man dragged on a cigarette. I got one out myself.
"So you're living down here again?"
"It's a great town," he replied, not exactly an answer.
I looked at him the way you do with people, trying to get a good, full look when you think they won't catch you doing it. He was thinner, and I could understand why he wanted to be outside: he was very pale. I noticed caps on a couple of teeth.
"How long you been out?"
"Three weeks and three days," he said, taking off his sunglasses and cleaning them with a napkin.
"How was it?"
He blew on his glasses and kept rubbing. "How was it? That's a great question, Matt. Well, let me see: how was it. Do you know what a blanket party is?"
"I've heard the term. What do you say we just drop it?"
"They bring you down the cell block the first day, all the way down and back up the other side, their version of a perp walk. Then they open the door of a holding cell and in you go. All the cons are waiting to meet you. It's the neighborhood welcoming committee. A couple guys stand up, taking their time. They hold a blanket in front of the bars, and the next thing you know, another one of 'em gets around behind you and hits you with something sneaky, maybe a soup can stuck in a sock. You go down, and that's when the fun begins. They take turns with you, Matt, that's what they do, three or four guys holding you down with a towel stuck in your mouth, everyone else helping out and taking turns. That's a blanket party."
He finished with his glasses and put them back on. "I'm trying to think what else I can tell you about being a defrocked drug agent in a state penitentiary. I caught up on my knitting?"
"I'm going to order a drink," I said, and I did. I thought about the bottle of Advil in my desk drawer at work. My hand ached, worse than it had in weeks.
"One hell of a current in there at the change of tide," Fontana was saying. "Especially an autumn tide. Mix it up with a new moon, you got a doozy. That's why that tug's straining like it is."
I looked, and he was right.
"The way to do it is wait till the freighter's right between the jetties, the narrowest point. You do it with some dynamite in the bow, say fifteen pounds. Nothing fancy. Dynamite and sandbags, a directed charge. You blow a hole in the port bow; it swings the whole ship around. Kid stuff."
"You need a hobby."
He laughed. "What I hear is you like to drink a fifth of Maker's Mark a day and hang out in titty bars. Is that a hobby?"
I shrugged. "It's a free country."
"Yeah? You should turn on CNN sometime. You got survivalist militias, you got whacked-out religious cults, you got kids with purple hair running around calling themselves antiglobalists. They don't think it's a free country. The whole thing makes me glad I'm out of law enforcement. Maybe you should get out too."
He couldn't leave the binoculars alone. He had picked them up again, taking off his glasses to squint through them. He said, "You could get some serious action in this town, come to think of it. Your old buddies at the Bureau are scared shitless these Cubans are going to get serious someday, actually do something instead of screaming at each other on AM radio and shaking their fists at Castro."
"I wouldn't know."
"I thought you out-to-pasture FBI guys all stayed in touch, had cocktail parties."
I let it slide. It was a nice afternoon, cool for October and a little windy. Fishing boats were scattered all over the channel, a regular traffic jam. I felt sorry for the harbor pilot. Not too sorry, of course; those guys have a hell of a union. I could see the stern of the freighter now. In a few minutes the ship would be heading out to sea. The waitress brought my drink.
"I been playing with this thing," Fontana said. He had slipped on a pair of calfskin gloves. I looked down, and there was a little black gizmo on the table. "Try it out. You'll get addicted. A friend of mine, his sister's kid turned me on to it."
There was a screen, like on a pager. The thing was the size of a cigarette pack, with a dull metal casing, and when I picked it up, it was heavier than I had thought it would be. I wasn't big on games.
"You push the button on the side to start it up," he said.
I did. Nothing happened. Then the screen lit up and displayed little green letters. The little green letters said, Bang!
Right then I knew what was going to happen next but I didn't even have time to breathe.
The explosion ripped through the patio like a gust of wind. Someone in one of the fishing boats was yelling, "¡Coño! ¡Coño! ¡Coño!" Everyone was screaming. On the wooden deck, on my stomach, I looked out from between two balusters and saw the freighter in flames. It had swung sideways in the channel, nose down and sinking fast. A guy on the tugboat was going nuts, trying to get the lines loose. He gave up and dove overboard, and the tug capsized.
Fontana was still sitting in his chair. He was laughing, sipping my drink. "This is great," he said. He got up, giving his jacket a little hitch.
"You owe me one," he added, "and this is it, some of it, anyway. Let's not forget who could have been sitting in that eight-by-twelve up at Raiford the last three years instead of me. I'm at the Delano. You feel like it, give me a call. I got something going on I'd like to include you in."
He gave the gizmo a glance. It was under the table next to my foot, or had been; now I didn't see it. "You know, Matthew, a man can go his whole life in this country and never know if he's a coward. You want a blaze of glory? I'm going to serve it to you on a silver fucking platter."
He laughed again and walked inside. No one paid attention to him. After another minute I got up and sat in the chair and finished my drink, thinking to slip the black box in my pocket.
I reached down for it and froze. I shoved the table aside. The deck underneath was empty.
"The Vanishing Jack" was Fontana's favorite card trick from years ago. He would do it so fast you hardly saw his hands move.
Copyright © 2005 by Sean Rowe