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Blood of Paradise
By David Corbett
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2007 David Corbett
All rights reserved.
Cocooned in a hammock at Playa El Zonte, Jude launched the siesta hour with a lusty tug from his beer, swaying beneath the thatched roof of a glorieta. Above, the sun was blistering; even the skirring wind off the ocean felt parched and hot. Below, the beach of black volcanic sand with its scatterings of smooth dark stone curled out to the point. He wondered what it would take to know—not suspect or hope or pretend but know—that the woman he spotted, out there on the rocks, was or wasn't the love of his life.
He knew her: Eileen Browning, fellow American. They'd bumped into each other here and there the past month at Santa María Mizata, Playa El Sunzal, most recently on the pier at La Libertad, browsing the fishmonger stalls. There, with the briny tang of ice-tubbed shrimp, mackerel, and boca colorada brewing all around them in the rippling heat, he'd almost convinced himself that Dr. Browning, as she hated to be called, had been coming on to him.
At this particular moment she walked the beach alone, sandals in hand, wearing a polka-dot halter and cutoffs and a wide-brimmed hat, eyes toward the water as she watched a stray dog take a crap in the shallows.
Mark that in your tourist guide, Jude thought, memorizing the spot where the dog crouched and guessing at the current so as to avoid an unpleasant step later. Meanwhile Eileen turned back and resumed her lazy march toward the glorieta, holding her hat atop her head against the scorching wind.
From their previous encounters, Jude had learned she was a marine's daughter turned scholar, down here for postdoctoral work in cultural anthropology. She was cataloging folk crafts—pottery, weaving, embroidery—before they disappeared forever. He liked that about her, the devotion to vanishing things. He liked a lot of things about her, actually. She'd grown up around strong men—raised by wolves, she put it—and was pretty in a smart-girl way, lanky and leggy with strawberry blond hair and gold-rimmed glasses. There were those, he supposed, who might find fault with her large teeth and big boyish hands, her long skinny feet, but he was at that stage when these things seemed the true test of her loveliness—the endearing flaws that made her unique. Her perfection.
As she came closer it became clear she intended to stop and visit, and his heart kicked a little. He roused himself from his torpor, thinking: Comport yourself, soldier.
It was the heart of the dry season, the beginning of Lent. The surf camp was otherwise empty of foreigners, just the two of them. The restaurant and bar remained open, though, for day-trippers like Jude, drop-ins like Eileen.
Entering the thatch shade of the glorieta, she dropped her sandals, removed her hat, and shook out her hair. Her halter was knotted at the neck, revealing bikini tan lines striping over her shoulders to her back. Jude pictured the triangles of white skin around her nipples, then nudged the thought away, not wanting to be unchivalrous.
"We meet again." She perched herself on the nearest table, took out a kerchief and mopped her face and neck, then dusted sand off her shins. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were following me."
Her voice was a raspy alto, one more thing to like. Jude said, "If I was following you, I'd be behind you."
She cocked an eyebrow. "Point taken." Nodding at his beer, she said, "Mind if I ...?"
"No. No." He handed it to her and she knocked back a swig. He tried to picture her on campus, earthy babe of the brainy set. The bohemian broad.
"I'm going to want one of these." She handed back his beer and glanced over her shoulder. "Have you eaten yet?"
Behind her, two indígena women worked the kitchen attached to the bar. It was a rustic business: wood roasting pit, propane grill, a sand floor with a hen and several chicks dithering underfoot—plus the briny dog from the shallows earlier, watching as her two pups tumbled together, chasing each other around. The fried corn fragrance of pupusas wafted toward them, mingling with the smoky aroma of a roasting chicken.
"Just." Jude patted his midriff.
"Oh well." She made a lonesome-me face. "I saw the truck when I drove up—it's yours, right?—but there was nobody around. When did you get here?"
"Dawn." The best surfing came at daybreak and late afternoon, when the doldrums smoothed the chop from the ocean, the waves glassy. He'd stayed out longer than usual this morning, though, enjoying the solitude. Gypsies would show up the next few weeks, jamming the lineups. Come the rains, the ocean swelled. So did the crowds. "I was out beyond the break."
"I got here sometime around ten, I think, and—Oh." She took her glasses off. "Excuse me." She started working a speck of sand from her eye, blinking. It took only a second, but in the moment after, sitting there with her glasses in her hand, her face transformed. Unwary eyes. A helpless smile.
Jude marveled at that sometimes—the way a woman changed when all she'd done was remove a scarf, an earring. Her glasses. Maybe it was his little fetish, but he doubted that. He suspected the French even had a word for it.
"Anyhoo," the glasses went back on, "I got here hungry, then just decided to take a long walk down the beach before lunch."
Looking for me, Jude suspected. Hoped. Pretended.
"Now I'm famished." Instead of heading off to order food, though, she picked up her hat and started fanning herself with it. Wisecracking eyes, a rag-doll smile. "I didn't figure you for the type, by the way." She nodded at his board. "Given the work you do."
Suddenly, the air between them felt charged. "Figure me for what type?"
"You know." She affected dope-eyed hipdom and a blasted voice. "Jude McDude."
"Oh. Right. Me all over."
She nudged him with her foot. "I'm teasing." A new smile, half-impish, half-contrite. "My dad surfs. Big-time. So I'll grant you there isn't a type. And if an old leatherneck like Pop can hang with the waterheads, I don't see why a bodyguard can't."
He cringed. Bodyguard. It called to mind steroids for breakfast and cream corn for brains, all stuffed in a bad suit. But he guessed that if he reminded her the term of art was "executive protection specialist"—EP for short—it would hardly redeem her opinion of what he did. Or of him.
His cell phone trilled inside his ruck.
"I'll let you grab that," she said, getting up.
"No, it's okay." He reached down, pulled the phone out, and read the number on the digital display. He didn't recognize it. And he'd just begun his furlough, ten days off after twenty on, his usual work schedule. He was on his own time and didn't want intrusions. Especially now. "I can let it go."
"It's okay. I'll just grab some lunch and a cold one." She shot him another mischievous smile. "Let you deal with the captains of industry."
It's a wrong number, he wanted to say, but she was already ambling off. Jude stared at her back, exposed by her halter and crisscrossed with its misfit tan lines, and doubted he'd ever hated his cell phone more—at which point the ringer chirped again, the same numerals reappeared. He picked up simply to cut short the bother: "¿Quién es?"
It took a second for the voice on the other end to emerge from the static. "Hello? Yeah. Hello, Jude? ... My name's Bill. I was a friend of your dad's."
Ten years collapsed at the sound of the voice. And yet, in a way, Jude had been expecting this call. There were rumors.
The voice said: "Bill Malvasio. Not sure you remember me."
"Of course I remember."
"Kinda outta the blue, I realize."
"No. I mean, yeah, but it's not that. I was just ..." His voice trailed away. The static of the phone connection swelled then ebbed, a sound like sandpaper against skin. "I was just talking to somebody else. The shift, from that to this. To you, I mean. I dunno. Just sudden."
Jude had spent a good part of his boyhood watching his dad and Bill Malvasio head off together—cop weddings, cop funerals, drinking parties, poker marathons, or just another shift in the Eighteenth District. To call them best friends missed the thing by half. Malvasio was like family, but not the kind the women wanted around—more like a black sheep uncle, the fun uncle, the one with the wily mean streak. Jude hated admitting it, but he'd competed most of his life against Wild Bill, vying for his father's respect. And despised not Malvasio but himself for that.
"Listen, Jude. I realize this is a little late but, about your dad's passing, I'm sorry. Ray was still young."
Jude wrestled with a number of things to say, none of them particularly astute. His dad had drowned on Rend Lake—accident or suicide, no one knew for sure. A bad end to a lot of bad business.
"Proud man, your father. None of us were what they made us out to be. Certainly not Ray. I've got some stories in that regard, if you'd like to hear them."
Jude sat up in the hammock finally. Planting his feet in the rocky sand, he checked the incoming number again. Sure enough, Malvasio was in-country. "Run that by me again."
"We could get together. I mean, if you're up for it."
"When do you mean?"
"Now, you want."
Jude felt stunned by the offer, but refusing was out of the question. Hear a few stories about my dad? Sure. Add a few more collectibles to the museum of bullshit. But it wasn't just that. There were about a thousand questions he wanted to ask, starting with: "If you don't mind my asking, how'd you get my cell number?"
"I've got friends down here," Malvasio said. "If I didn't, I couldn't survive."
Jude was still sitting there, holding his phone, when Eileen walked back, a plate of chicken with pupusas and curtido de repollo in one hand, two cold beers in the other.
"Get whatever it was sorted out?" She sat down in the same spot as before, handing him one of the beers. Wiggling her hips to settle in, she set her plate in her lap and picked up a chicken thigh.
"I have to go," he told her.
Almost imperceptibly, her face fell. Then, recovering: "Anything wrong?"
"No, no. Just ... an old family friend." Not knowing what to do with the beer, he just sat there, holding it like he was trying to figure it out. "He's over on the Costa del Sol. Wants to get together." It seemed unwise to say more.
"He's down here on vacation?"
She bit into the greasy crackling skin of the chicken. He caught himself staring at her mouth.
"Not exactly," he said.CHAPTER 2
Every kid grows up knowing there's a line between the life he wants and the life he gets. Jude walked that line as long as he could, then crossed over for good one August afternoon before his senior year in high school.
He was sitting on his bed in the basement, icing an ankle he'd torn up during tackling drills the day before, when he heard a sudden clamor of men and cars just outside. The front door had a buzzer, not a bell, and someone jabbed the button hard three times. Jude listened as his mother droned "I'll get it" and clopped in her flats down the wood-floored hall. Then he heard her voice turn shrill and afraid as she argued with a man in the doorway.
It was just the two of them in the house. His sister, Colleen, had trundled off to her flute lesson. His dad had reported for duty.
He rose from the bed, tested his ankle, and hobbled upstairs. Turning the corner at the top, he came up behind his mother and found a half dozen FBI agents in their blue raid jackets clustered on the sunlit porch, with backup from Chicago PD. The lead agent loomed in the doorway, so eerily tall he had to stoop to make eye contact. The eyes were a milky green.
Holding out an envelope, he said, "We didn't come here to talk it over, Mrs. McManus. Here's your copy of the warrant. Now step aside, please."
They planted Jude and his mother in the living room and turned on the TV. There was breaking news, reported by a chesty moonfaced Asian woman in a bright red summer suit who'd chosen the Cabrini Green projects for her backdrop. Behind her, the skels were mobbing tall, draped in bling and pimped out in skullies or hats kicked right, Gangster Disciples, some of them throwing signs, stacking the Cobra Stones in contempt, the whole hand business, others crowing out, "All in one," or just bellowing names—Raymont, Stocker, Girl Dog, D.T.—like everybody was missing the show.
Jude noticed how the Asian newscaster pursed her lipsticked mouth around her vowels and cagily moved her microphone first to expose, then conceal, her cleavage. Looking back on it now, all these years later, he realized he'd focused on such things as a way to divert his attention from what she was saying. Regardless, whenever he dredged up the scene from memory, that's how he pictured it: sitting there next to his tight-lipped mother in the muggy August heat, watching as the plump Asian woman in her brassy red suit unmasked Sergeant Ray McManus as a rogue cop, complete with footage of him taken off in handcuffs from the Eighteenth District station house.
Jude's dad wasn't the only one named. His two best friends on the force, Bill Malvasio and Phil Strock, faced the same charges: jacking drug dealers, basically. Jude remembered thinking at the time (and on and off in the years since) that thousands if not millions in the greater Chicago area would shrug off such behavior as proof of a go-getter attitude, not guilt. And the accused seemed to know that only too well. According to the reports, they'd nicknamed themselves the Laugh Masters, mimicking rappers—Laugh Master Ray, Laugh Master Phil—to make it all sound like some crazy prank. Except the stories of street dealers dragged off, pummeled with batons, boot-stomped till they lay unconscious in their own blood—then robbed of cash, drugs, jewelry, weapons—didn't seem like such a stitch to the powers-that-be.
Strock, on disability leave, got arrested at his north-side flat. Malvasio, the reputed ringleader, was never found. He'd fled, rumors went, to El Salvador, where he had contacts from taking part in a police training program. And that, for those who cared, added the final ironic twist to the whole business: The man who got away vanished down a path paved with good intentions.
* * *
Jude drove in his pickup to San Marcelino, a fishing village at the western, shabbier limits of the Costa del Sol, barreling down the long dusty lane from the highway as he headed for the restaurant on the beach where Malvasio said he'd be waiting.
It was late afternoon, Jude delayed by a herd of intractable oxen on the road between La Libertad and Comalapa. He parked his truck in an alley beside the restaurant, hoisted his spare from the truck bed, and checked it with the bartender to make sure thieves didn't walk away with it. Finding only staff downstairs, gathered around a boom box playing a jaunty two-beat cumbia, he climbed to the second floor. No one was there except a lone American sitting at a wood-plank table along the outer wall. Beyond him, the beach extended eastward for miles, rimmed with Miami palms and broad-leaf almond trees. Fishing boats—lanchas—dotted the surf, heading out for a night of work as a hazy red sun perched low above the horizon.
Seeing Jude approach, the lone man rose and stuck out his hand. "My God. For a moment there I would've sworn it was Ray."
It wasn't the wisest opening but Jude let it go. Besides, Malvasio wasn't the only one startled by appearances. He was much thinner, still fit but wiry. The heat could do that. His once-handsome face looked drawn and weathered, rimmed with hair cut short and patched with gray, his skin tanned to the point he could pass for a local. Be a trick to match him with an old picture, Jude thought, wondering if that wasn't the point. Mostly, though, the change was in the eyes. They had a lifeless density to them now, like he'd walked back the long way from the worst imaginable.
"Sit," Malvasio said. "You want something to eat? Drink?"
Jude noticed that Malvasio was working on a bowl of crema de camarones, a cream chowder made with shrimp, and washing it down with Pilsener, the local lager. Pilsener, the ads went, Es Cosa de Cheros. It's a guy thing.
"Beer'd be nice," Jude said, taking a seat.
Malvasio turned his head and cupped a hand to his mouth, yelling to be heard over the boom box: "¡Paulo, otra fría por favor!" Turning back, he said, "Ironic, our both being here. In El Salvador, I mean."
Excerpted from Blood of Paradise by David Corbett. Copyright © 2007 David Corbett. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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