The winter of my years could be spent in bitter regret, thinking of wasted days and lost opportunity. The kindness of old age forgetfulness brings a smile to my face as only the good is easily recalled. If I concentrate real hard I can bring up images of painful events, but they are not clear, voices are muted and colors pale. But the good times are endless, vivid in color and clarity, peopled with the characters that shaped my life.
And so then, I recount my stories here through the prism of a memory shaded and slightly bent by time and distance traveled. Those who believe that hindsight is 20/20, know not of human frailty. If these stories are not entirely accurate, they are surely how I wish to remember them. If you were there please don't try to clarify my visions of the past. These are my memories, you are entitled to yours.
* * * * *
The following column first appeared in the River Times in July 2005 and was the beginning of the Cookin' with Kip series:
To paraphrase the great philosopher Will Rogers, "I never met a bean I didn't like". In fact, I love beans. Red beans, black beans, pink, white and brown beans, striped, spotted and mottled beans. Pinto beans, lentil beans, lima and butter beans. I like them in soups, salads, chili and dips. And I like them fried, baked, boiled and mashed. I love them in pasta, casseroles, did I say dips? Well, you get the idea.
Although all cultures have used beans as a dietary staple, Americans have been prone to bean snobbery. For years beans were banned from chic restaurants, regarded as "poor people's" food. But as our society has become more health conscious, the value of beans in our diet has been recognized and bean dishes of all types are now on upscale menus from coast to coast.
The main argument against beans is they give you gas. I picture the campfire scene from the movie "Blazing Saddles" and wonder how many bean-phobics writer/director Mel Brooks has created. The truth is the list of gas-causing foods is as long as your arm. And if we eliminated all these tasty foods we would be left with only white breads and pabulums. So buy some Beano and enjoy some beans!
Kip's Black Bean Salsa
1 15oz can black beans, rinsed and drained 1 15 oz can whole kernel corn, rinsed and drained
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 cup Picante sauce salt and pepper to taste
2 to 4 sprigs fresh cilantro, minced juice from 1 lime
Combine all ingredients by stirring in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours. Serve as a dip with tortilla chips or as a side or as a topping for half an avocado. Did I say dip?
Dawn revealed a thick fog bank a half mile from the shore. He rented a sixteen foot skiff with a ten horse kicker for a half day. Two oars were tethered to the oar locks on the gunnels and floation cushions served as padding for the bow and stern seats. A live well with lid was the center console and held live bait.
He stowed a tackle box and two poles of different heft with fixed reels, an ice chest and a .357 Magnum wrapped in an OD poncho completed the cargo manifest. He pushed off from the pier on a gentle swell. The engine fired up on the first pull and he headed toward the beach for his passenger.
Paradise Cove is nestled on the California coast just north of Malibu. A restaurant and a few homes cling to the base of roadside cliffs just above a small beach. A fishing pier that changes in size at the whim of the mighty Pacific dominates. The locale has served as a backdrop for countless films and television shows and was the fictional home of Jim Rockford of TV Detective fame.
William Meyers was a bright eyed sixty-year old with a full head of gray matched by a Colonel Sanders like goatee. But this was no "chicken man". His fit physique, accented by lean guns hanging from a neon muscle shirt, still allowed him to apear in the many adult films William Myers Productions cranked out each year.
Mrs. Meyers stood barefoot in the sand next to her husband. She was a thirty something bleached blond who spent a lot of time at the gym between trips to the salons, spas and boutiques of Beverly Hills. Her stage name was Colletta Symms, first appearing in a Meyers Production when she was eighteen. Before that she was a cheerleader from Van Nuys High School majoring in Varsity Athletes.
She waved goodbye as he pointed the skiff at the fog with the head of William Meyers Productions atop the bow seat. Small talk filled the void as the skiff moved along at about seven knots. He cut the engine at a kelp bed though they were still immersed in the fog. He broke out a pole, rigged it with an anchovy from the live well and handed the baited rod to his passenger. He estimated they were about two miles from the shore, obscured by the fog that was showing signs of relenting to an ascending sun. Not wishing to waste time, he picked up an oar and used the well coifed head of Bill Meyers as a baseball.
He picked up the limp form and dumped it into the water without ceremony. He coldly watched his victim weakly thrash about amongst the kelp and finally slip beneath the surface. He wiped the blood from the oar and cast it to where William Meyers ceased to be. He removed his faux mustache and theatrical scar from his face, washed the decal tatoo from his arm and popped the tinted contacts from his eyes. He removed and neatly folded his pants and shirt and sealed them in a tote with his shoes, pancho and gun. He left a wallet with stolen ID next to the fuel tank and restarted the kicker. He pointed the skiff westward toward the vastness of the great Pacific and slid over the side with a seat cushion and tote to begin the two mile swim to shore.
When he climbed from the surf some two hours later the morning's fog had burned off. He lay on the seat cushion to let the sun warm his body, cramped from two hours of paddling in cold ocean water. He was just south of the Colony and a stone's throw from the Pacific Coast Highway. He watched two surfers kneeling on their boards as if praying for a wave. A young couple played fetch with their dog and a child built sandcastles with a plastic pail. A far different scene than the earlier violence.
Having warmed, he dressed and headed up the beach to the highway, shouldering his tote and its deadly contents. A slight sashay got him an offer of a ride. He played along with the driver's salacious advances and agreed to the proposition costing two hundred at the driver's West Hollywood destination. A gay man should know better than to flash his bankroll to a not so perfect stranger. When they entered the apartment he produced the .357 from his shouldered tote. The accommodating host wet his pants. A chintz pillow muffled the shot that took out an eye and the back of a skull.
His search of the premises netted a reward of an ounce of cocaine and a little over a thousand in cash. He removed a braided gold chain from his host's neck, wiping the blood on the rug, recovered the car keys from the entry table and left, locking the door behind him. The car took him westbound on Sunset then north on Sepulveda to the Valley. He abandoned the car a block from the Van Nuys airport and walked home.
(Our story begins with chapter one. Go to www.cookingwithkip.com/blog to catch this guy!)
Writing about this little fishing excursion has put me in the mood for a nice fillet of fish, maybe rock cod or sea bass from the kelp beds off Paradise Cove. This recipe is a quick and easy dinner for two.
2- 6 oz sea bass fillets 1 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped 1 Tbsp lemon juice*
2 Tbsp butter salt & pepper to taste
A no-stick pan works well. While heating oil and butter over med-high heat season the fish. Brown the garlic in the oil/butter mix and discard. (DON"T BURN GARLIC, EVER). Fry fish golden brown, finishing with the spash of lemon juice the last minute of cooking. Serve with a starch and salad. Maybe a crisp California Reisling and candlelight will make it extra special.
*Variations make for cooking fun. In this recipe you can substitute soy sauce for the lemon juice, and make rice your starch or a shot of fruity wine and a pasta with marinara sauce. You got it?
The light falling snow turned to a fine mist on the big car's windscreen, proving no match for the rythmic sweep of the wipers. The trunk of the Packard was stuffed with gailey wrapped bottles of booze, bags of groceries and Christmas presents for people I was yet to meet. A basket of cookies tempted me from the seat to my left, huge baskets of fruit rode the jump seat in front of me, and a sugar cured ham radiated heat from a pan on the floorboard by my feet.
Mom smelled of citrus and Dad of holiday cheer. It was the night before Christmas and we were making the rounds in one of the new taxis my father had won in a dice game. We drove past Norman Rockwell Holiday scenes filled with shoppers scurrying past brightly lit storefronts and Santas galore. It was an exciting time to be an eight-year-old boy.
The year was 1948 and President Truman spoke to us from our car radio with a message of "Peace on Earth". Dad reveled in Truman's recent election victory over the common enemy, gangbuster Thomas E. Dewey. I was hushed as "The Great Man" spoke of peace and goodwill and told us all was right in the world this Christmas Eve.
We were warmly greeted at each of our stops. The booty in the Packard's huge trunk was replaced by new treasures. Hugs and kisses were also exchanged and promises of future visits were promised. As we drove, I listened to Christmas carols on the radio, hoping for news bulletins of sleigh and reindeer sightings in the general vicinity of our home. Our rounds lasted well past my bedtime and I nodded off in that big back seat, thinking of the cookies and milk we must leave by the tree for Santa.
I awoke in my bed hearing the whispers of my parents. It was not yet morning as I crept to the living room. Through the crack of the door I peeked at Mom wrapping a Hopalong Cassidy six-shooter in bright red paper and Dad putting together a Schwinn bike with plyers and screwdriver. Mom finished her task and took a drink of milk, handing a cookie to Dad. I tip-toed back to my bed, realizing what I had long suspected. The identities of Santa and Mrs. Claus were very clear. But I resolved not to disillusion my parents by sharing this insight as I drifted back to sleep.
When the Halloween costumes go back into the closet for another year, we prepare for the joys of Thanksgiving, Christmas and then the New Year. We anticipate great cooking and great eating followed by resolutions and diets, surely to be broken with gusto yet again.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember my childhood growing up in a Long Island hotel. The feasts of turkeys, hams and roasts of beef, steaming mashed potatoes, yams, carrots and turnips. Boat loads of gravy, stacks of rolls and butter, cranberry sauce and mint jellies. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and minced meat pies too.
While many restaurants closed for the holiday, my father insisted his hotel's restaurant remain open and provide traditional meals for hotel guests and the public too. This meant Mom, Dad and I would eat in the dining room, served by the staff on Thanksgiving Day. Most of the employees who couldn't talk my dad out of a day-off, dined with us, thus becoming extended family, at least for the holiday. Customers, alone for Thanksgiving or maybe, all the time, were encouraged to sit with other customers in similar states of solitude. Many were invited as guests of Dad, though only he and select staff were aware.
Today, the years have diminished the size of my table. The portions I choose are not the prodigious feasts of my youth. Nor does turkey agree with me as it once did. But no matter the entree, I will take the time to be thankful for all the bounty life has bestoyed upon me.
This article was written for the River Times September 2008, before being edited.
High school reunions, I had never been to one, so when the announcement arrived in the mail I had mixed emotions. When I graduated high school I moved on, seeking new vistas, believing, like most of my classmates, in the promise of what lay ahead. There were places to see, people to meet and a desire to experience the events destined to form my life. The future lay before me an I was bent on meeting it head on.
And so it was that fifty years would pass with little word of my classmates and what events transpired to shape their lives. I dug out my yearbook, published in 1958, and took the trip down memory lane that made the decision easy, the expense a non-concern, the time off from a busy life a no-brainer. I paid my fees, bought my tickets and set out to revisit my youth.
I entered the venue hosting the Class of '58 Reunion driven by excitement and curiosity, tempered by a nervousness associated with going to a place and time I never expected to visit. Would I recognize anyone? Would they recognize me? Part of that problem was dealt with by signing in and the issuance of preprinted name tags, but before I could get to the sign-in table two of my classmates collared me.
"Kip, don't you recognize me?" asked one, "You don't remember me," said the other. We stood there, an awkward pause before my brain worked its way through years of clutter. Barbara's blue eyes hadn't changed much, the glasses were replaced by contacts, a few laugh lines around the edges.
"Hi Barbara," I said, kissing her cheek, a friendly embrace. I turned to her high school running buddy, working on the name of a face, though slightly changed by time, I knew quite well.
"It's Rose," said Barbara, saving me further embarrassment, my brain still sifting through the years. Thus began four hours of exchanging pleasantries with people who were no longer the kids I once knew, but were not strangers to me either. We laughed at fifty year old shared experiences, told of our successes, downplayed our failures, agreed to keep in touch and said our goodbyes.
My life's journey has been a self willed course seeking life's adventures. Did I miss something? Many things for sure, because life is full of choices, one over another, going here, stopping there. Where you are, in place and time, determines your perspective, your experiences determine your values. As time draws me to the abyss like the gravity of a black hole, I'm so glad I made the trip. Many couldn't
Each part of this eight part story will be published in The River Times on a monthly basis beginning in April 2009. I have agreed to post the monthly installments on my website thirty days after they first appear in print.
Part One: A Vessel in Distress
Our 32-foot sport fisher pulled away from the small dock on Marathon Key thirty minutes past dawn. A few clouds to the east did little to dim a blazing sun's ascent from the horizon. The Atlantic was unusually calm this morning, disturbed only by our wake. The still air and bright sun promised a warm day as we motored along at a leisurely ten knots.
Dolphins leapt from the surface off our bow as if racing us to our destination while gulls dove for scraps thrown by the Mate cutting bait. The Captain was enjoying the view from the flying bridge and his wife worked the galley stove, tempting our party of four with the smells of frying bacon and perking coffee. We all looked forward to a great day of fishing.
The coffee was hot, the bacon crisp and the eggs over easy. Slices of banana and mango completed the surprisingly good plate. As I mopped up the last bit of egg yoke with a crust of Cuban bread, I felt the boat accelerate. A hard turn to starboard spilled some of my topped-off coffee onto my tray. The Skipper poured more diesel to the engine as all of us in the cabin held on tight.
"There's a vessel in distress just up ahead," he announced, easing back on the throttle.
I let go of the table and went out on deck. A small sailboat slid off to our port side, barely above the water. Its mast and sail hung in the water aft of the stern like a sea anchor. As our Captain turned our craft to circle the distressed little boat, I saw them.
The man floated face down in the water, tangled in the rigging between the boat and the broken mast. The woman sat waist deep in water on the deck, lashed to the rail by a strip of canvas. She suckled an infant, held to her breast by a sling fashioned from her blouse. Her arms, bobbing in the water, gave the illusion of life. But her unseeing eyes, staring sadly at the sun, said something else.
The Captain hit reverse to stop our forward motion, then idled, signaling the Mate over the rail and into the water. A couple of strong strokes and the Mate was on the swanped deck, checking the woman and baby.
"Throw me a line," he yelled, and I did. "The baby's alive," meant the others were not. In that bittersweet moment, the Mate handed me a squirming, sun burned little girl, soaked to the skin in a soiled diaper and pink cotton top. I lifted her over the rail and held her in my arms. She started to cry.
I turned to the Captain's wife and pleaded with my eyes for her to rescue me. She did, taking my burden to the cabin and ministering to the baby's needs. Little did I know that my life had changed forever.
Part 2: The Hijacked Baby
The captain's wife insisted he return to port for the sake of the baby. She feared overexposure. The Coast Guard, however, insisted he remain with the wreck. The wife's demeanor made his decision a no-brainer and the trip that took two and a half hours out was less than 90 minutes back at full throttle.
"Life plays tricks," was a truism I lived by. "Expect the unexpected," "Don't take things for granted," and "Trust no one," were also tenets of my personal code. The Fed's Witness Protection Program had set me up with a new identity just six months ago with a condo on the Keys and a small stipend for an occasional beer. But staying low key in the Keys was proving to be tougher than a cheap steak.
Last month, my neighbor got busted for selling rock cocaine from out his back door. He believed I was the one who ratted him out to the authorities and he paid me a visit as soon as he bailed out. He fancied himself a tough guy and had to spend a week in my freezer before I fed him to the fish living beneath the mangrove roots. Another week passed before a couple of lobstermen found him tangled in one of their traps.
The month before that I visited a local watering hole to check out the action. Small talk and a couple of Tequila Sunrises had me going to a party in Key Largo where some Spring Breakers thought the old guy was paying too much attention to the gyrations of one of their honeys. I apologized to the girls and left just before the ambulance arrived to take three beered-up frat boys to the hospital in Homestead.
A couple of weeks before that, some Snow Bird dissed my car by running a shopping cart into the left-rear quarter panel of my Escalade while I was making a run for beer and smokes at the Publix. He thought flexing his biceps and pecs would somehow assuage my anger over his wanton disregard for my property. His knee didn't match his big arms and inflated chest. I assume he's still walking with a limp.
Now this. I'll play it dumb, not get involved, ask for a rain check and go fishing another day. Two of the guys with me were new friends I'd recently made at the condo complex. Marty was a retired Marine recently widowed by a doped-up stickup man who shot Marty's wife while she was working behind the counter of a convenience store. She was helping to make ends meet on his military pension.
Alphonso lived on the other side of the highway in an old two-story block house that had survived a dozen hurricanes and two fires. Sicilian by birth, he grew up working his father's orange groves , close to where Disney built his dream. He inherited the property and sold it for a pretty penny, using most of the money to buy houses for various wives in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. He also put four kids through college and they visit each year with spouses and grandchildren in tow.
Dean was a retired cop and hardnosed buddy of Marty's, who occasionally filled out our foursome. He told great stories of his time on the job, but my background kept me from laughing at many of the punch lines. He did his best to be one of the guys, though.
We spent a lot of time playing pinochle, drinking beer and lying about who and what we did, never questioning each other's veracity, nor prying too deeply. I liked them all and they were probably the best friends I've ever had. We had gone on the fishing trip two days ago but bad weather caused us to reschedule. But today there would be no fish, nor would we hit the seas again for a long time to come.
A small crowd had gathered on the dock when we got back, including an ambulance and a TV reporter all the way from Miami. Local sheriff's deputies showed up and grabbed our ID's. This was definitely one of the circumstances my Fed handler had told me to avoid, so I stayed on the boat, hiding behind my shades and pulled down hat.
The interest was in the rescued baby and the captain and his wife mugged for the TV camera. The ambulance fled the scene with the baby in tow in spite of the wife's objections while we we were told to await the Coast Guard.
About ten minutes later the TV crew suddenly jumped in their van and sped off. One of the deputies ran over and told us they were leaving too but were keeping our IDs to ensure we remianed on the dock until their return.
They took off with red lights and sirens after the news van. One of the locals with a scanner came over and told us the ambulance taking the rescued baby to the hospital had been carjacked in Key Largo. The diriver was shot and the baby taken.
The little girl had been on the Keys for less than an hour and was already a crime victim!
The Fishing Trip, part three: Where's the Baby?
Coast Guard Search & Rescue took three days to locate the wreck. Fish and birds had done their thing, making remains unidentifiable. It's not everyday an ambulance gets carjacked, the driver shot dead, the vehicle taken with a rescued baby inside, while a paramedic stands in line at a pharmacy checkout buying diapers.
The lone carjacker was fleeing a bank robbery after being wounded in an exchange of fire with bank security. In fact he sped right past responding police units, red lights flashing and sirens wailing in both directions. Forensics matched the bullets from the two crime scenes, but there were no hits on blood DNA and fingerprints from the recovered ambulance. Bank surveillance photos showed a twenty something male Hispanic of medium height and weight, wearing a Marlins cap and a mustache too big to be real.
Resulting media frenzy was incredible. Starting with 'RESCUE AT SEA', 'AMBULANCEJACKING', 'AMBER ALERT', 'COAST GUARD SEARCH CONTINUES', 'REMAINS DISCOVERED', 'ESCAPE FROM CUBA', 'CUBA BLAMES U.S. FOR DEATHS AT SEA', 'BUSH ASSIGNS FBI TO FIND RESCUED BABY', 'CUBA WANTS BODIES BACK'.
Fox News sent Greta, Bill O'Rielly railed aganst the Castros, Nancy Grace dedicated two weeks to making the Captain and his wife famous across America. Even the Mate's DUI arrest was national news. But after a month new crimes against children shifted the focus of press outrage from the Florida Keys. However the south Florida Cuban community kept pressing the Monroe County Sheriff, held rallies and raised over a hundred grand "Reward Money".
Since the fishing trip our regular pinochle games and weekly cookouts revolved around the little girl, the crime and the media storm it produced. We were soon speculating on what we would do with the reward money and how we could solve the case. Three weeks of this resulted in our collective decision to get involved.
It's tough to hide in America. Geraldo Rivera recognized Dean from his days as a beat reporter in New York when Dean was a NYPD Homicide Dick on the Lower East Side. When Dean showed up at our weekly cookout with Geraldo in tow I wanted to deck him. Dean made the introductions, Alphonso passed out some beers and Marty asked how each of us would like his steak, like it made a difference.
Like the pro he was, Geraldo eased into the background questions as part of casual conversation. My exposure to various interrogation techiques while in 'the life' let me slip and slide. I was a bachelor, living in the Keys on a small disability pension, I liked to fish, go to the track and play cards. After dinner he approached me on the side and apologized for prying and making me uncomfortsable. I told him I didn't know what he was talking about. He was good, for sure.
Then Dean announced that the producers of 'Geraldo at Large' had agreed to help with expenses in return for an exclusive. Geraldo then made his pitch, he told of his contacts, the doors he could open and the help he could provide. My compadres buzzed with excitement. That this went against my code meant very little when I thought of that sunburned baby squirming in my arms. So what if this was going to make my FBI handlers nuts.
The excitement lasted longer than the beer, so I made a run to the Circle K. Geraldo tagged along, glad to pony up for twelve cold long necks. He continued to ask and I continued to slip and slide until saved by the ringing of his cell. His end consisted of "Who? When? Where?" and finally, "I'll be there in two hours." Turning to me he said, "The baby's been found!"
Part four: The Hoax
It was a huge story again, now bigger than the original event, because America loves a happy ending. A Haitian refugee couple, here illegally, came forward with a tale of intrigue worthy of a Tom Clancy novel. Working as migrant field hands, they were living in a squalid work camp the week of the abduction. According to them, they were visited in the middle of the night by a gun wielding Mexican seeking food and shelter for his "daughter". He had a gunshot wound to his lower back and said immigration officials were chasing him to send him and his daughter back to Mexico. During the night he fled the camp, leaving the baby and a note behind. The note said he was a bank robber and didn't intend to steal the baby. The couple feared to come forward because of their immigration status, but three weeks of caring for the baby exhausted their resources and they went to Miami's Little Havana to seek the aid of the Free Cuba group. Of course the reward had nothing to do with it. The Free Cuba people did their best to conceal the identity of the couple, demanded the Florida Department of Family Services place the recovered child with a family of Cuban decent and pressured the Feds to not return the child to Cuba.
Of course none of this happened. The Monroe County Sheriff got a court order to force the organization to identify the couple. INS got involved by delving into the couple's immigration status, Florida's two U.S. Senators and half of its Congressional Delegation railed against the INS, Cuba and the Brothers Castro. And all the talking heads returned to South Florida. Two weeks of this was brought to an end when the Monroe County Sheriff announced to the world that the child was not the little girl taken in the ambulance jacking. Good police work and DNA proved it was a hoax. Cubans for a Free Cuba was out $112,000 and the Haitian couple was not Haitian at all. They were California cons now wanted in connection with the kidnapping of a little girl in Los Angeles, Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution and about twenty other charges filed by local authorities. The good Senators and vociferous members of Congress could not be reached for comment.
Our little group had followed these events closely, elated at the news of recovery and crushed by the news of hoax. We thought up ways to punish the hoaxers, but ultimately our conversations returned to the missing baby, casting a pall on our gatherings. It was in this period of darkest gloom Dean's good buddy Geraldo Rivera returned to the scene, this time with the president of Cubans for a Free Cuba in tow. That Esteban Calderon was a man of importance was demonstrated by his Armani silk suit, Rolex watch and diamonds on both hands. Introductions were made and beers passed around as our ritual welcome. I was the only one who laughed when Alfy asked him if he brought his guitar. Estaban Calderon was also a serious man.
He questioned us about our seriousness in wanting to find the child and catch the man who took her. He wanted to know how we would undertake such a task and, if we did, would we also seek the couple who swindled his organiation out of the reward money. It appeared to me we were entering into serious negotiations and I brought up the question of moneyj.
Esteban said the embarrassment suffered by his organization had no price tag. They were willing to post another hundred grand reward, give us half of all the swindled money recovered; Geraldo's producers would pony up for expenses and both organizations would place all their resources at our disposal. The clincher for me was the promise to keep us below the radar, our identity and mission secret, our methods unquestioned.
I was sure our little group of middle-aged beer guzzlers could do this. That Witness Protection was coming to an end for me only meant I could go back to The Life and press a few more buttons, this time for a little girl who already suffered enough bad breaks for a lifetime.
Part Five: The Gangster
Another month had passed and we were nowhere close to finding a viable clue, let alone the little girl. We had used up about $4,000 of Geraldo money, had worn out our welcome at the Monroe County Sheriff's Office and lost all credibility with the Cuban community. My handlers from the U.S. Marshall's office in Miami cut off my beer money and my backup stash of dirty money was in need of further laundering before I could spend it. The thought of a real job gave me heartburn. My predicament was to be dealt with by opportunity's knock on my front door.
Tracie Black was her stage name, Barbara Rosario was the name she was born with. Light brown hair with a few grey highlights had replaced the jet black hair that used to go halfway down her back and whipped around when she worked the pole at Guido's Girls, a gentlemen's club not far from New York's La Guardia airport.
"Yo Danny, ya gonna ask me in?"
"I don't use that handle here, Barb," I said, stepping back to let her enter. "What are you doing on the Keys?"
"Vinnie sent me, said to say 'You can run but you can't hide', or something like that. Nice place you got here," checking the comfort of my couch. "He saw you on Geraldo's show, wanted to know what you were doin' with a Homicide Dick. So what do I call my old boyfriend, Danny Boy?"
"Ray, Ray Coleman, but you can call me Baby, baby," and gave her a wet one for oldtimes sake. We talked until supper time, she told me what the haps were since I ran out on her and The Life, and I told her of retirement. I took her to the Quay Restaurant for dinner and wine and we watched the sunset on the manfroves and tranquil waters of the bay. That I was exzpected to be in New York sometime tomorrow for an audience with Vinnie wasn't going to interfere with tonight.
We were met at Kennedy by two of Vinnie's crew. She had a carryon, I hadn't seen a need to pack a bag. We got in the Lincoln and headed out the Island to Fort Salonga. I wondered if this was going to be a one-way trip, you never knew with Vinnie. It was now up to him. The old road house still served as his HQ. A few beer signs decorated the windows, a couple of pickups and Vinnie's pride and joy, a '32 Ford Roadster was all that was in the parking lot. We entered to the jukebox playing some Johnny Winter blues, the staccato of pool balls being raked by some hotshot, and two construction workers laughed it up with the barmaid.
"Hey Danny Boy," Vinnie's voice boomed from his end of the bar, stopping the music, pool game and laughter. "How was your Florida vacation?"
"It's called retirement Vinnie, America's Island Paradise, cold beer, palm trees and plenty of fishing," I said, taking the stool next to him. "Barbara says you wanted to see me, Big Guy."
"Word was goin' around you went over to the "Dark Side" Danny Boy, I didn't want to believe it, then I see you on TV with some old detective that used to bust my father's chops, God rest his soul."
We did some beer and pretzes and for the next two hours I told him about avoiding the heat when my boss got popped. I explained the circumstances of my involvement with the retired cop, Dean Stines, and how Geraldo talked us into looking for the missing baby girl. I thought I might have to offer him a cut of the reward money, but he bought my story, getting indignant about the kidnapping of the little girl. So instead of whacking me, Vinnie offered to help. I didn't think the other guys would go for it, but you don't say no to Vinnie. He said I should return to the Keys and meet up with some of his Jamaican associates. He thought it best that Barb would tag along so I wouldn't get lonely. Big Vinnie Costello would also do what he could to get a line on the California cons. It was settled, sort of. God only knew what he would want from me in return for all his generosity.
The evening crowd started rolling in to rub shoulders with Big Vinnie. I put a buck in the jukebox and twirled the floor with Barb in my arms as Solomon Burke sang his great rendition of "Soul Searchin'", just like the old days. Ah, The Life!
Part six: The Rastafarians
A few years back, my crew did business with a bunch of Jamaican Rastafarians involved in the Ganja trade. The selling of "happy weed" is a profitable business but frought with danger. The "Rasta" loved smoking dope, listening to Regae music, and shooting big handguns. They all claimed kinship to Haile Selassie and believed this Ethiopian king the second coming of Christ and, as an immortal, still living in legendary Zion.
"Big Vinnie" Costello had inherited the east coast marijuana trade when my boss got sent away on Federal RICO charges. The Rastafarians import enough weed to supply all the pot-heads from Miami to Boston.
And that is how I found myself in South Beach, sitting in a grungy Jamaican restaurant, asking for help from two guys with orange dreadlocks that flowed past the shoulders of their white silk suits.
"Say, mon," the small one said as the big one nodded, "tell Big Vinnie we glad to help find that baby."
That settled, I finnished my plate of delicious jerk chicken, beans and rice, thanked them, and dropped a twenty on the table.
"Your money no good here, Danny Boy,"the little one said, sticking the bill back in my pocket as they walked me out. I got in the car and waved goodbye.
"How'd it go?" Barb asked as she pulled from the curb.
"They'll help us out," I told her.
The Rastas can go places to ask questions where my white face or a cop's wouldn't be welcome. Our new allies would be in Key Largo tomorrow, figuring the bank robbing kidnapper had a connection to the area near the crime scene, probably just waiting on a chance to leave America's Paradise with a little cash in his pocket. The Rastas would also canvas the neighborhood where the stolen ambulance was recovered, locales where law enforcement turned up nothing.
We got back to my condo, which Barb was now calling home, to find two New York 'suits' waiting in the courtyard, sipping Sprites. Though the U.S. Marshals ran my Witness Protection Program, I was given my cover at the request of the U.S. Attorney for New York and these two visitors were from him.
"We need to talk, Danny Boy," the tall one said, "Alone."
I gave Barb money for a beer-and-chips for tonight's planned pinochle game, and took my guests inside. " What do I owe and to whom for this honor?" I asked.
"Tell us wht you were doing meeting with Big Vinnie in New York last week," the tall suit said.
"Do I need a lawyer or is this a friendly visit?" I stalled, running through the possible ways they found out. Stoolie? Electronic surveillance? Was I tailed? I told them Vinnie had seen me on TV during coverage of the ambulance jacking in Key Largo. They were taken aback by that, so I laid it on.
"He sent for me and I had to go," I told them. "I knew I'd be a dead man if I didn't show up and tell him why I left New York so fast back when. As it was, I didn't know if I'd walk out of his place or wind up feeding ants in his dumpster."
I avoided any mention of my search for the missing baby, my comrades in arms, or our sponsor, Geraldo Rivera. They informed me my Witness Protection was no longer an option as my cover was clearly blown, but I could continue collecting my monthly stipend if I agreed to feed them information on Big Vinnie.
I was saved from making that decision by Barb's return and the suits got up to leave as I helped her with the groceries.
"We'll be in touch," was their goodbye as they went out the door and my pinochle playing pals came in. Nothing like a relaxing card game with friends.
Part seven: On the Trail
It didn't take long, just about a week. I don't know if it was the orange-tinted dreadlocks, the green eyes, the gold teeth, the diamond studs, or just the big handguns. But these Rastafarians put big fear in a lot of Key Largo and parts of Homestead too.
I got their call a little after lunch and they told me they had found the bank-robbing, ambulance-jacking, paramedic-murdering baby theif. That was more than the local sheriffs, state police and FBI could do in three months.
My new friends requested my presence in a Homestead swamp, less than a mile from where the police had originally recovered the ambulance. My buddy Dean and I got there in less than an hour. But the poor SOB wasn't talking. His decaying remains were wrapped in plastic, and stuffed inside a 55-gallon drum.
The Rastas took us to the open trunk of their car where we found a small man lying bug-eyed, gagged and trussed like a turkey. They said he was the dead man's cousin and had been living with his sister and brother-in-law in a Key Largo trailer park. He claimed his cousin also had been living with them and had returned home the night of the robbery, only to die before dawn, of gunshot wounds inflicted by the bank guard. He and his brother-in-law disposed of the body after splitting the $2,800 in robbery money.
I reached into the trunk and pulled the gag from our prisoner's mouth.
"Where's the baby?" I asked.
"My sister take baby, run away," he replied. "Go Jersey. Please no kill me." He told us a sad story that was true because we all knew his life was counting on it.
His brother-in-law used part of the robbery money to buy booze and spent the next day drinking, toasting their dearly departed cousin. After they had dumped the body, they returned to the trailer but Sis and the baby were gone, along with the rest of the money.
"Why New Jersey?" Dean asked.
"Mamasita live Jersey City," the poor sap replied.
"Where's your brother-in-law?"
"He dead. Truck crash in Suicide Alley. Policia say he drive drunk."
I untied the little man, discovered his name was Ramon and sat him in the back seat of my ride. Dean got the location of the trailer from my Jamaican friends. Before they disappered back into the underworld, the big Rasta took me aside for a little talk.
"Tell Big Vinnie, we glad to help, anytime," he said. I shook his hand and we drove off as I filled Dean in on our new colleagues.
I was ready to drive to Jersey City with Ramon in the back seat but Dean insisted on dialing the Monroe County homicide detectives. After ten minutes on hold he realized we had used up all our juice with local law enforcement. He gave them an address for the trailer and directions to the robber's remains. I got on I 95 and gunned it, heading for the Jersey suburbs of NYC.
Part 8: A Day Late, $25,000 Short
We drove the Interstate north with one sleep stop at a cheap motel without security cameras. Dean got three calls from the Monroe County Homicide dicks before we were out of Florida, putting the first two on hold, payback for their rudeness. I was liking this guy more and more. The third time he told them where their suspect had been living, where he died and how he got to the swamp afterward.
The threat of riding in the trunk kept Ramon in line, along with the handcuffs Dean had been carrying in his back pocket. I asked and he spooked me out by saying he always carried them, along with a .32 Auto in his other back pocket. We phoned the other members of our posse the morning of our second day and told them to fly up to meet us. We didn't tell why or what was going on, other than following up on a lead. Barb called up a couple of times, why hadn't I come home for dinner, why did I miss breakfast, where was I and what was I doing. I forgot playing house came with obligations. I told her I'd be back in a few days. Her next call was a directive to call my new Capo, Big Vinnie, at a secure number.
No sense waiting. I pulled into the next rest stop, got a handful of quarters and called the Big Guy. "Your favorite Irishman here."
"Danny Boy, it does my heart good to hear your voice. My Island friends tell me they were able to help you out....said you might be going to Jersey City."
"About four hours out with a lead on our Little Girl. Your favorite detective is with me."
"You need to come see me Danny Boy, I got a nice surprise for you....we located your favorite scammers. By the way, why didn't you fly?"
"Too much baggage. Where did you find them?" I asked.
"Come see me," he said, " and I hope you're being nice to Barbara, she didn't sound too happy when I talked to her." he said and hung up.
It was dark when Ramon directed us to a neighborhood in Jersey City that would make a third world slum proud. All that was wrong with America played out on these streets, hookers standing under street lights as Johns drove slowly by to check their wares. Gangbangers glared at our passing car while crack salesmen competed with pot venders for sidewalk space. We drove through and Ramon pointed out his mother's second floor apartment in a four-story that looked no better or worse than the other identical buildings lining the block.
We met Marty and Alphonso at a Holiday Inn by Newark Airport. Our plan was simple: drive back to the mother's apartment at 4:00 AM, Marty and Alfie would stay with the car, Dean and I would go in with Ramon, grab the baby and drive back to Miami. Just turn the baby over to the Free Cuba group, divvy up the reward money and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Easy money, no?
We got there at five to four. A van was on the street, across from where I parked. As we got out Geraldo Rivera and his cameraman exited the van and came toward us. I grabbed Dean by the arm. "Sorry about that," he said, ducking my punch. Marty grabbed me as Alfie went in with Dean and Ramon. Geraldo and his cameraman followed, recording the event for history. Dean had sold us out and I wanted to brain him, but the tire iron in my trunk was no match for the pistol in his pocket.
Five minutes passed and they all came out, a cuffed Ramon in Alfies' grasp, Dean and Geraldo going nose to nose. "This is like going into Capone's cellar all over again," I heard Rivera say, while Dean said the info was good, just bad timing. Sister had left with the baby just yesterday, and Mamasita wasn't giving her up, not even for the fame and fortune an appearance on television with the Great Geraldo Rivera promised.
Part Nine: Coast to Coast, and Back Again.
I turned my back on everything Jersey City, took the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan, crossed a bridge to Brooklyn and drove out the Island to Big Vinnie's Fort Solanga Hideaway. Johnny 'Two Shoes' was opening up the joint as I pulled in, a few minutes before 7:00 AM.
"Hey, Danny Boy, Boss says you give him a call, you get in," handing me his cell and I did as told. Big Vinnie was probably sleeping but his voice mail was not. I said I was waiting to hear from him and would catch a few winks in his office. A little after ten he shook me awake.
"Get outta' my chair Danny Boy," he said as I stretched and yawned. "You get our Little Girl?" he asked, getting hot under the collar when I told him of Dean's duplicity. "I told you that cop was a bum." I could see the wheeles turning behind his eyes. "Okay, I'll take care of it. Our friends the Rastas owe me big time. I'll send them to Jersey and run down the sister, grab the kid. In the meantime, I want you to go to L.A. There's a P.I. out there named Rollo Michaels, the Ruskies swear by him, he'll help you handle those phoney Haitians."
He told me this P.I. located the two cons in "San someplace" and would take me to them, but first I would have to pick up Barb in Florida. I started to argue but he held up his big hand and I knew he didn't want to hear it. "What about my car?" I asked.
"Leave it with Johnny Two Shoes," he said. "He can drive you to the airport in it. Better get movin', Barb's picking you up at Miami airport at 3:20," handing me a bunch of airline tickets and repeating his admonishin to 'treat Barb right'.
Two days later I'm munching Maple Glazed French donuts with some very strong coffee at the desk of P.I. Rollo Michaels. A girl named Linda poured us more of the powerful brew and left us alone. "I'm not fingering this couple so you can whack 'em, am I?" he asked.
I told him who they were and what they had done. "I just want to recover the reward money they swindled from the Free Cuba group and turn them over to the local police." I just smiled when he asked how I was going to do that. He handed me a piece of paper with an address in a town called San Fernando and I handed him an envelope containing ten Big Ones. "I'll call you when it's time to call in the police."
I met up with two "cousins" of my Miami Rastafarian friends. We waited an hour after the lights went out to kick the door and take down the couple as they struggled to get out of their bed. A little before dawn they decided to give it up. The two bags of money, counted out at $59,800, looked impressive stacked on the kitchen table. I gave my helpers $1,800 and put the rest back in the bags. I phoned Rollo Michaels and told him we were leaving the couple tied up to kitchen chairs. We could hear the approaching sirens as we drove from a neighborhood just awakening to another sunny day in La La Land.
Barb and I slept for most of the flight to New York. The four hour flight became seven with the time change and it was well past dinner when we landed at Kennedy The same two guys, in the same Lincoln that made up Big Vinnie's limo service, met us. The Halloween party was in full swing when we got to Vinnie's Hideaway. The place was packed, but I spotted Vinnie in his Captain Hook getup. Two Shoes was decked out as Quasimodo and Bruno was tending bar in drag. I put Barb's suitcase in the office along with my bag of laundry and 16 pounds of money, and we joined the party dressed as ourselves.
The costumed band played Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 50's hit, "I Cast a Spell on You" like the Credence cover of the 70's. Barb was on me before I could get a drink. I closed my eyes and swayed to the flow. "You better watch out, I ain't lyin'," I sang in her ear.
* * * *
Part Ten: The Finale
The house was filled with wonderful smells wafting from the kitchen. Barb was going all out with a feast of turkey and honey-baked ham with all the trimmings. Lasagna baked in the oven to keep her father and his brother in touch with their Italian heritage. Her mom brought homemade Canolli and Spingi, her dad a case of sparkling Asti Spumonte and bottles of Strega for the men, Galliano for the ladies and Sambuca Molinari to toast our good fortune. His liquor store front provided s good cover for his other enterprises while putting nothing but the best on our table.
My new brother and sister-in-law sat on the couch, scolding their four-year old twins for chasing Barb's Scardy Cat up our Christmas tree. A light snow had just begun falling as Big Vinnie's motorcade pulled up in front of the house he bought me and his niece as a wedding present. Vinnie drove his vintage '32 Ford Roadster, this being a a holiday and all, two of his men followed in the black Lincoln Town Car.
I went to the door to welcome our guests, who were now standing by their cars, ogling the 10,000 light display that I had just spent a week puttin up. "Ya' like it?" I asked.
"I wouldn't want to pay your light bill," Vinnie said, his two guys dutifully laughing. His wife Angie gave me a kiss and handed me a dozen red roses to be put in water, while Vinnie told his guys to unload the cars. Hellos and hugs all around as Bruno and Johnny Two Shoes carried in armloads of gaily wrapped gifts for under the tree.
"Where's our little baby girl?" Big Vinnie boomed. Barb came from the nursery on cue, carrying Little Angelina, named in honor of our benefactor's wife, Aunt Angie. Barb certainly new how to work Uncle Vinnie.
Last month, when I was in Los Angeles recovering the reward money, Vinnie had the Miami Rastas fly up to Jersey City to give me a hand. They sat on the apartment building where I had walked away from fame, fortune, Geraldo Rivera and the three guys I had befriended while on the lamb in the Keys. I met them there on the forth day and. on the fifth. Mamasita led us to her daughter. That the daughter was doing crack when we broke in allowed the taking of the baby without qualms. It was then, as I held the little girl iin my arms for the second time in our lives, I resolved no one would ever take her again.
Big Vinnie bought us a birth certificate, marriage license and the house in Queens and my new in-laws popped for a Catholic Church wedding with a reception right after. Vinnie and Angie stood as Godparents at Angelina's christening the week after, by the same priest who performed our wedding. Surprisingly, Dean tracked us down like the retired cop that he was. He became part of the conspiracy, sealing the deal with a kiss of my bride and a nice wedding present of cash from him and the rest of my Florida pinochle crew, now "Uncles" all.
Rollo Michaels, the L.A. PI, made it to the reception too. He had Vinnie and the guys laughing to tears with his story of getting arrested by the LAPD for cutting off three fingers from the hand of a local con wanted for kidnapping and extortion. The detectives couldn't quite figure out how Michaels disguised himself as a Jamaican Rastafarian and finally had to let him go.
So here I sit with my new bride and our new daughter, whose young life of just seven months has been filled with events we hoped she would never remember. It's a fine Christmas Day, snow in the air, a fire ablaze in the hearth of our new home, friends and family surround us. How did I get so lucky?
Big Vinnie rises up at the head of the table and Aunt Angelina places glasses of Sambuca Molinari before each of us. Three coffee beans float in each glass. Vinnie raises his glass and offers a toast, "Sambuca con la mosca," he says. "That's 'Sambuca with flies' for you Irishmen," he says to me. "Three is a lucky number for Italians. In this case the three flies stand for health, happiness and prosperity. Our Little Angel has had a tough journey to get to us. Her first mother and father died trying to give her a future in America. May God grant her new parents the strength to give our Angelina these three things on this, her very first Christmas. BOUN NATALE !"