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Retired government agents cling to a decades-old secret that could wreak havoc on the United States political system. When a stroke victim related to a high-profile mobster dies mysteriously at a Chicago rehabilitation facility, a fellow rehab patient and former detective launches his own investigation. But when his wife tries to help him, she is kidnapped, and soon other victims emerge. The mob, family legacies, health-care scams, a troubled environment, crooked politics, and ...
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Retired government agents cling to a decades-old secret that could wreak havoc on the United States political system. When a stroke victim related to a high-profile mobster dies mysteriously at a Chicago rehabilitation facility, a fellow rehab patient and former detective launches his own investigation. But when his wife tries to help him, she is kidnapped, and soon other victims emerge. The mob, family legacies, health-care scams, a troubled environment, crooked politics, and federal agents are all linked to the escalating violence surrounding Saint Mel in the Woods Rehabilitation Facility.
Jan Babe Stroke Family Support Group Saint Mel in the Woods Rehabilitation Facility Chicago, Illinois
In March, damage from the previous hurricane season was still obvious. Recovery was taking longer than expected and memories of that season would linger for a while, which meant at least until the next hurricane season. The March heat, plus the fact that no political campaigns were in progress, acted like a sedative to both tourists and natives. In Dade County the breeze was off the Everglades, the mugginess making folks feel faint and disconnected from their bodies. But on the west coast, in Collier County, the breeze off the Gulf made for a perfect evening. Here on the Gulf Coast it was a different kind of warmth. A sleepy warmth as two white-haired men sat on the porch of a sprawling Naples, Florida, home that, although situated on a rise in the topography, sat low on its prime real estate like a bunker.
The two men watched as the red ball of sun headed down into the Gulf. Optical illusion created a sun grown in size as if it were going into nova and would toast the folks heading out on the fishing pier to get the best view. The folks on the pier stepped gingerly around pelican shit, the pelicans flew back in to feast on fish heads, and the fishermen who had provided the fish heads stared out into the Gulf where their lines glistened like red-hot filaments.
Both Valdez and Hanley were natives who understood south Florida's weather better than any Chicagoan would. Hanley had been a native almost five years since his move from Virginia. Valdez was a born native, having held a post at the Miami office for forty years. Although Valdez was younger than Hanley, both men were obviously past their prime. Valdez wore dress slacks, a short sleeve shirt, and black shoes. Hanley wore shorts, a tank top, and sneakers. Sunglasses hid their eyes.
"Never could see the point in it," said Valdez.
"What?" asked Hanley.
"Fishing. You must not see any point in it either," said Valdez. "Living next to the pier and I've never seen you out there."
"Right," said Hanley, adjusting his dark wraparound sunglasses. "But I'd wager it's more relaxing than what we do."
"That's for sure," said Valdez. "Why are we still in this business at our age?"
"We're in it because we can't get out," said Hanley. "But get back to this Chicago dick named Babe. How did he get that name anyhow?"
"Apparently it comes from a longer Hungarian name," said Valdez. "An ancestor shortened it. A great name when you think about it. I'm told the stroke made him a happy guy. Even though I've never met him, I kind of like him."
"Why is that?"
"Because people who have strokes mix words around in humorous ways and sound like they don't know what they're talking about. They think they're talking about one thing when they're really talking about something else." Valdez laughed.
"It's not funny," said Hanley. "We might be there some day."
"You're right," said Valdez. "Except I heard about this drug on talk radio the other night. They say if you get it right after you have a stroke, your memory loss can be minimized. Apparently hospitals down here are well stocked being that we live in heaven's waiting room."
"I'm glad the hospitals are prepared," said Hanley. "The only problem is the drug they give us when we have a stroke won't be the one they give other people."
"You really think the director put that into effect?"
"A lot of things went into effect after the Patriot Act. But please, get back to Babe. Did you confirm his stroke?"
"We double-checked the medical records," said Valdez. "Our man sat in on rehab sessions. Babe definitely had a stroke."
"Is our contact up there a young man?" asked Hanley.
"Yes, but he knows what he's doing. He's gotten himself into the place as an aide."
"Did he make sure no one else was trying to get to the widow? Because if anyone does, you know what's got to be done."
"I know," said Valdez. "For now we should simply continue watching her. No need to do anything just yet."
"Why do you say, just yet?"
"Because she's becoming more lucid and she's getting visitors."
"Family?" asked Hanley.
"Yes, family. Somebody's probably looking for buried treasure. Our man has ears in her room. So far her words have been meaningless, but that could change."
"Anybody named Lamberti been around?"
"Yes, the nephew. The son's also been there. But the two never visit together. Bad blood in the family, I guess."
"This young man you've got watching her, has he been there since she's been in the place?"
"Besides visitors, anything else going on?"
"The usual health care scams," said Valdez. "Rip offs run by the workers. So far, nothing involving the old lady and her family."
"Does our contact think she knows anything about what happened in the past?"
"He can't say. But spouses talk to one another and she spent a lot of years with the old man before he died. Even though she's had a stroke there's bound to be something buried in her head."
"That's been the problem all along," said Hanley. "We can't confirm she's a blank slate."
"Perhaps in this world people with strokes are the lucky ones," said Valdez.
"You mean because they get a chance to start fresh?"
"Like children," said Valdez. "Except because stroke victims also have trouble comprehending things, their brains stay fresh longer. Instead of being bombarded with media garbage, they have the freedom to ruminate. Instead of being told what to think by pundits, they make up their own minds."
"And," said Hanley, "instead of having their minds occupied by the latest celebrity trial or conspiracy theory, they might also have the freedom to piece things together that we don't want them to piece together."
After the sun disappeared into the Gulf, the crowd gathered at the end of the pier began to make its way back, sidestepping fishermen and pelican shit. A flock of seagulls moved in and two of the gulls fighting over fish guts screamed at one another like belligerent children. Now that the sun had set, the porch on which the two men sat was swathed in darkness.
Valdez took off his sunglasses and put on his regular glasses. "Some day maybe you'll tell me what this whole thing is about?"
"Maybe," said Hanley. "But for now you'll simply have to tell our young aide back there to keep tabs on the widow and be ready to make a move if necessary. However, I do think it's time to assign a backup in case things heat up in a hurry."
After a pause, during which he frowned as he rubbed an aching shoulder, Valdez said, "A backup ... sure, I'll get on it. By the way, I know this thing goes way back. But at our age, who gives a damn what happens after we're gone? Do you really care what happens after you're gone? Come on, be truthful about it."
Hanley took off his wraparounds and stared at Valdez in the dark.
"Well, do you?" repeated Valdez.
"Yes," said Hanley. "I care very much what happens after I'm gone."
Cars began starting up in the parking lot at the foot of the pier. But because of the stone wall lining the edge of Hanley's property, the men could not see the cars driving off into the hot dusk. After a while Valdez got up slowly, went into the house, used the facilities, then headed out to his own car and the long drive in the dark across the Everglades Parkway.
As Valdez drove he tuned in the satellite radio weather for the central northern states. The Midwest was rainy and cold, especially in Chicago and suburbs where an easterly wind swept off Lake Michigan. Unlike here in south Florida, there had been no sunset in Chicago, no sun visible all day long according to the weather channel.
Valdez could occasionally see a pair of eyes reflected in his headlights. The eyes were behind the safety fence bordering the highway. Sometimes the eyes would disappear as the creature either turned back into the safety of the Everglades, or as it sank back down into the swamp. In a way, thought Valdez, we are all creatures living in a swamp with boundaries beyond which we have no control, beyond which we have no knowledge.
Valdez took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Although he'd gotten the glasses less than a year earlier, he had a feeling his prescription had changed yet again. He didn't like this night driving, especially when oncoming vehicles rushed past in a blur. Next time Hanley wanted to see him he'd be sure to arrange their meeting earlier in the day. Driving all this way at night was risky. Sometimes, when he glanced at the rearview mirror and saw nothing but the black night, he had the feeling death was catching up to him. Maybe a one-car accident wouldn't be such a bad way to go compared to having a stroke.
Valdez switched from the weather to a Latin Rhythms music channel. What the hell, too late now to worry about how he'd lived his life. At least he'd made it this far with all his body parts intact. And only one scar after all these years. One knife wound from that crazy bastard Mexican turned terrorist.
As he listened to the music channel, Valdez heard a momentary dropout, probably a plane or a flock of birds or something between him and the satellite, perhaps even another satellite. The momentary blip in the otherwise uninterrupted digital signal reminded him of the old days of amateur radio. All analog back then. First code when he was a boy of sixteen and received his novice license, then voice, first on AM, then SSB. From deep inside his brain the Morse code dots and dashes for the number seventy-three played out. Dah-dah-dit-dit-dit, dit-dit-dit-dah-dah. Seventy-three, the traditional amateur radio end-of-contact signoff, meant good luck.
Valdez had been an amateur radio operator (a ham) when he was recruited by the agency. He and Tom Christensen and George Skinner had all three been hams when they were in training. Upon graduation, Christensen and Skinner had stayed at Langley while Valdez was assigned back to his native Miami. For years he and Christensen and Skinner had communicated on the high frequency bands, a weekly schedule on whatever band was open. But the good old days of ham radio were long gone. Skinner was his current contact at Langley and their only contact was via scrambled landline. Christensen was retired in Arizona and Valdez hadn't spoken with him in years.
Earlier today, back at his apartment on the scrambled line, Skinner had reminisced with Valdez about the old days. He had mentioned Tom Christensen and spoken of the three of them "chewing the rag" with one another and any other ham from any part of the world who could contact them.
"It was so unlike now," Skinner had said earlier that day. "Communication today is viewed as a right. Everyone needs his or her own personal phone. Everyone needs instant communication. It's really too bad when you think about it. Back then it was a nice hobby, and what we could do, talking to the other side of the world, was something only we could do."
The conversation with Skinner, and the mention of Tom Christensen retired somewhere in Arizona, had made Valdez feel his age. It had set him up for this entire day. Aches and pains and having to visit Hanley, who was also retired. The conversation with Hanley about a detective with a stroke and an old widow in a nursing home. And now, after all that, and at his age, he's got to drive back to Miami in the dark.
The rhythm of the music matched the pounding of his tires on the highway expansion joints. It was hypnotic. It was cerebral. He felt at peace with himself. What's done is done. He'd lived the way he wanted and with any luck he'd make it to retirement and his pension bonus and then, like Hanley, build himself a fortress down here designed to withstand hurricanes, and maybe build another place up north for use during hurricane season. He imagined sitting on his own porch watching the sun set into the Gulf each evening. Not a care in the world.
Excerpted from Final Stroke by Michael Beres Copyright © 2007 by Michael Beres. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 4, 2007