VIEWS: 9 PAGES: 40 POSTED ON: 12/10/2011
Lonesome Cove By Gary Showalter Chapter 1 Saturday, March 12 – Monday, March 14 Clearwater Sanibel Island Clearwater Cathy stepped into the wheelhouse to stand beside me at the wheel. “Oh,” she said, “I love this.” The port and starboard doors were open to permit the breeze of our passage to flow through the wheelhouse. The grin that split my face said more than any words I might have used in reply. The sky was a perfect blue with a few high cirrus clouds, the water of the Gulf of Mexico was calm, and Nina R was back in her element once again. We‟d taken the weekend off to bring my converted trawler from Rolf Craddock‟s boat yard in Tampa Bay to our marina in Clearwater. I run a personal protection agency in Orlando, and Cathy, my fiancée, is a sergeant in the Major Crimes Unit of the Orlando Police Department. Getting time off together is an unusual occurrence at best; being able to spend it on the water is pure heaven. Only minutes after we tied up along the dock in the marina my old buddy Spike showed up and stepped aboard. Spike is a Hemmingway – a six-toed, reasonably well- behaved shoe box of a black and white marina cat. Okay, he‟s a heavily armed (pawed, actually) alley cat who prefers to live in the marina, and chooses to live aboard Nina R where he‟s kept fed and warm. He‟d rather be in Cathy‟s lap than mine, but when she‟s not around, I‟ll do. Frankly, I prefer Cathy to Spike, but when she‟s not around Spike is pretty good company. For the last several months I‟d been living in an apartment hotel in Orlando while repairs to Nina R were carried out. All of my clothes, towels, kitchen stuff and other odds and ends were now back aboard , mostly in piles in the salon waiting to be put away. But instead of getting started on housekeeping chores once Nina R was tied up and shore connections for power, internet and fresh water were made, we grabbed a few cold beers from the fridge and decided to take a short break on the after deck. Which is when Spike chose to come aboard. I hadn‟t seen the old fur ball in months, but there he was. Cathy got him some food and water while he and I said hello, and after eating he jumped up into Cathy‟s lap, cleaned himself, curled up and fell asleep. Cathy and I both drifted off just then. A combination of a fine day on the water and contentment with having brought ourselves to our new home, I suppose. Whatever it was, it made for a wonderful end to a great day. Until my cell phone rang. I didn‟t even bother to open my eyes when I answered. “Sorry to bother you, Boss,” Tommy Fuchs said. Tommy was my operations manager following the murder of my old friend Charley Weeks, who‟d helped to build my company. “I know you‟re taking a few days off, but Gianni Lupo said he needs to see you.” I sighed. “Tommy, I am taking a few days off. Do me a big favor and tell Mr. Lupo I‟ll drive down to Sanibel on Monday afternoon. Not today, and not tomorrow. Monday afternoon.” “Okay, Boss. He‟ll settle for that. Whatever it is, it‟s important to him. He really wanted to see you tomorrow.” “Monday afternoon, Tommy.” He laughed. “No problem. I‟ll let him know.” “Wonder what the old mobster wants?” Cathy muttered. I opened my eyes to look at her. She was more than half asleep, though her hands kept running through Spike‟s fur. He‟d rolled onto his back, his four stocky legs spread wide, his head hanging over her thigh. “No idea,” I replied, “and right now I don‟t much care. After the last few months I‟m not inclined to do favors for any of my clients.” I glanced at Spike and muttered, “Lucky old fur ball,” I sipped my beer. Cathy chuckled, then said, “It‟s starting to cool down. You think we ought to get inside and make the bed? We still need showers, and I don‟t know about you, but I‟m getting hungry.” She gathered Spike into her arms, saying to him, “You need a bath and a flea collar, Spike, and maybe a visit to a vet to get you checked over. But right now we‟re going inside to get some work done.” I stored the deck chairs back in the locker, collected the empty beer bottles and followed Cathy and Spike into the accommodations block. We spent an hour sorting through piles of stuff in the salon and getting the bed made. Cathy took a shower while Spike and I took a short nap on the bed. He never left my side. Months before, Ed Grimes, the watchman on duty at the entrance to the marina, had watched as Spike ran across the boulevard into the palmetto planting in the four-lane median. A few minutes later the package bomb on the after deck exploded, killing or injuring all of the federal agents on board, along with two young women who had just been walking by on the floating dock. The damage to the marina and several of the vessels close to mine was extensive. Spike stayed away from the marina for months. When he returned, a few of the live-aboards took to feeding him again. He‟d go aboard and eat what they gave him, maybe find a sunny spot to clean himself afterwards and rest for a while, but he didn‟t want petting or cuddling. For some reason he was standoffish with everyone except for me and Cathy. I never claimed to understand people, much less cats. Cathy shook my arm and brought me awake. “Are you taking a shower and shaving before we go out to eat?” I nodded and climbed out of bed. Spike just yawned, rolled over and went right back to sleep. Cathy hunted for her hair dryer and began to get ready for dinner, whatever it was going to be. On the way back from dinner, we stopped at a big box store and loaded up on flea collars, heartworm medicine, a curry comb for his thick fur, a litter box and cat litter, some very expensive cat food I was sure Spike would refuse to eat, and a cat carrier. Sunday we stayed aboard, sorted stuff out and poked around to see all of the changes Rolf Craddock and his craftsmen had made to Nina R. Monday morning, Cathy was off to work at six. Spike and I slept in; I was going to drive down to speak with Gianni Lupo at his home on Sanibel Island in the afternoon. Lupo owned a four bedroom, three-bath place right at the beach line, off Gulf Pines Lane. The home was built in the 1950‟s, and enclosed by a light green, six foot tall breezeblock wall, with a wrought iron electric gate. A smaller gate in the middle of the seaward wall gave access to the beach. The plot was a generous half-acre in size, with nice landscaping installed by the original owner who was somebody in movies during the 1940‟s. Lupo had an elderly Austrian couple living on the grounds. The husband took care of the maintenance and grounds while the wife did the cooking and housekeeping. Things got done slowly but well, and that‟s all that mattered to Gianni Lupo. Banana trees, Bird-of-Paradise, ferns, palms on an artificial mound in a sunny spot on the side of the house, and a few night blooming jasmine surrounded the home and dotted the grounds. The rear of the property held two large old spreading oaks to provide shade in the heat of the day. Lupo purchased the property in the early 1980‟s and hired the Austrians while they were still living in Europe. Two years later he was arrested, tried and found guilty in a Miami court on two counts of murder for hire. Only a plea bargain and testimony against his bosses in the mob kept him off death row. The plea bargain also allowed him to keep his property and the money in his bank account, but this was never made public. One o‟clock in the afternoon saw me on the causeway to Sanibel, which meant that I should be just in time for lunch. The request for a meeting was not unusual with new clients, but I will admit that I was more than a little wary. I put those feelings down to my knowledge of the man‟s background as a gun for hire. My life in law enforcement carried with it a certain repugnance to take on the responsibility for protecting such a man, but it meant easy work for my teams, and the income wouldn‟t hurt my bottom line. But recent experience with a few of my “High Visibility” clients put me on edge. Sanibel Island is a great place to live and to visit, but it does have a few drawbacks for the residents. During the winter months the population of Sanibel jumps from six thousand to over twenty thousand. Getting around on the island can be trying when the tourists are in town. Public parking is expensive, but that only matters if you can find a place to park. Once on the island I stayed on Periwinkle Way until it turned into the Sanibel- Captiva road. Another few minutes saw me turning left onto Gulf Pines drive and the short trip to Lupo‟s front gate. A quick call to Steve Bennett, the site manager in the house, let him know I was approaching the gate. One of the many benefits to living in a place like Sanibel Island is the weather. Even during the winter months the temperature during the day can climb into the high seventies, and it rarely drops below the fifties at night. Lupo chose to eat his mid-day meal on his rear patio, surrounded by greenery, with a pleasant sea breeze ruffling the palms. He stood to greet me as I walked through the living room and stepped onto the patio. Lupo was a small man; not much over five feet, and thin, with gray hair cut short and a fringe of mustache on his lip. He was still pale from his many years behind bars. Despite the warm weather he was wearing socks with his sandals, khaki slacks, a long sleeved white shirt under a light tan jacket. Blackened grouper, Louisiana dirty rice, a garden salad sprinkled with Gorgonzola cheese and ice cold beer made for a pleasant lunch. We stayed away from any business and simply chatted, sharing pleasantries while we ate. Two of the three guards on duty patrolled the grounds while the third stayed on the patio behind the client. “I was sorry to hear that your manager was murdered, Mr. Rankin,” Lupo said. “Mr. Weeks struck me as a very competent man.” During my last lunch with Charley Weeks before his murder, we had discussed the contract proposal with Gianni Lupo. I told Charley go ahead with the deal, assuming the old mobster would want to live out the remainder of his life in peace and quiet. Charley was shot and killed later that day. He must have read my mind, because he said, “I hope they go away for a very long time.” “Thank you, Mr. Lupo. So what can I do for you?” The housekeeper came out with the coffee service, and both Lupo and I accepted cups. “My granddaughter, Nicola Gianuzzi. I haven‟t seen her since I was sent away. She was only twelve years old, then. I got letters from her while I was in prison. I still have them. Her mama, my daughter Rosa, kept me up to date on what Nikki was doing. When she reached eighteen, she joined the army. “She had some skill they wanted, I don‟t know what. Languages, maybe, or something to do with computers. They offered her a full scholarship, and she jumped at it. I told her mama I could pay Nikki‟s college fees, but the girl refused to take it; I never learned why. Maybe she just wanted to do things her way. Young people are like that today.” That was all very interesting, but it didn‟t answer my question. So I repeated it. “So what do you need from me?” “I got a call from Nikki on Thursday morning of the week I was released from prison. She was in Miami, and just called to say she was driving up to see me.” The bleak look on his face told me everything I needed to know. “She never got here, and I haven‟t heard from her since that call. Find out what happened to my granddaughter, Mr. Rankin. My wife, Isabella, died of cancer three years after I was sent up. My daughter and her husband, Angelo, died in a car accident while I was behind bars. That girl is all the family I have left.” Lupo‟s words struck a chord in me, but I was hesitant to take on his request. Call me gun shy if you want; I am, and with good reason. “When and where did that accident happen, Mr. Lupo? “December twenty-third, in 2000. Nikki was already in the army. Rosa and her husband were living in Trenton, and were driving to his family home in Queens for the holidays. They hit a patch of ice on the freeway.” “Do you have an address for your granddaughter, Mr. Lupo, or a phone number?” He dropped his head; his voice got small and quiet. He gave me the phone number, which went into the notes I was taking. He continued, “I tried calling her back later that night. I was worried she might have gotten lost, or maybe her car broke down somewhere. I‟ve tried her number nearly every day since. For the first few days her phone went to voice mail and after that all I got was an out of service message. I never had an address for her.” I wondered about that last. “When did you write her last? What address did you use?” “She has a post office box in Miami. I never had an address for her,” he replied. “Where was she working, then? You could call her employer, see what they know.” “She‟s still in the Army, but she never told me where she was stationed. I don‟t know what she does, Mr. Rankin.” “Have you tried the Armed Forces Locator? Maybe she was put on an emergency deployment and sent overseas?” I was starting to wonder about this girl. Girl? His granddaughter was thirty- seven years old. She‟d been in the Army for thirteen years now, doing something her grandfather knew nothing about. Hell, he didn‟t even know where she lived. “Do you have a recent photograph of her?” He shook his head. “No, just a few baby pictures her mama sent me.” “Where was she born?” “Trenton, New Jersey, or maybe in Queens, New York. I think Rosa and Angelo were living in Trenton then, but I can‟t be sure.” “Have you reported her missing? Did you call the cops in Miami?” “The sergeant I spoke to in the Dade County police said she was a grown woman so I would have to wait forty-eight hours before I could report her as a missing person. If I haven‟t heard from her in that time they‟d send a patrol car around to her house or apartment.” He paused for a second and then added, “But I don‟t got an address for her.” Gianni Lupo wasn‟t exactly a wellspring of information about his granddaughter. “I‟ll look into this, but I have to bill you for the time and expenses. No promises, Mr. Lupo.” “I understand,” he said. “Anything is better than not knowing.” We stood and shook again. Then I left for the trip back to Clearwater. It was close to seven and growing dark before I got back to the marina. Normally, Sanibel is about a three and half hour drive from Clearwater, but I hit rush hour traffic when I got to the causeway to the mainland at the outskirts of Ft. Meyers, and in Tampa; the entire trip home was a nightmare. It put me in a foul mood. Everything about the day put me in a foul mood. Right as I slipped the Suburban into my parking place near the marina office my cell phone rang. “Yeah,” I said, none too happily. When my cell rings it can only mean more problems. “What‟s your problem, Rankin?” Cathy asked. “Sorry. Hope your day was better than mine. I should never have gone to Sanibel in the first place. Traffic was lousy the whole way back to the marina.” “Poor baby,” she said as I got out and slammed the door to the Suburban. “What did Lupo want?” “He wants me to find his granddaughter.” I was walking down to the dock, talking with Cathy and trying to slip my sunglasses into my jacket pocket at the same time. I managed it, somehow. “Why does this sound so familiar?” “Because it is. The story is much different, though. She‟s in the Army; been in the army nearly twelve years. She called the day she planned to drive up to visit him the week he was released. Only she never got there.” Then I changed the subject. “Where are you?” “At my dad‟s. He‟s got some old family friends over, and I‟m cooking dinner. Want to come?” Frankly, no, I don’t. “Sorry, I can‟t. It‟s the start of the week and I‟ve still got to touch base with Cecelia and Tommy.” She laughed. “And feed the cat and maybe trim your toenails, blah, blah, blah. I didn‟t think you would. I‟ll see you later tonight. Maybe you‟ll work your way out of that lousy mood by then.” Spike was waiting for me as I stepped aboard, wrapping himself around my ankles as I made my slow way to the accommodations hatch. I slipped the cell phone into my jacket pocket, got the hatch unlocked and damn near tripped over Spike as he slipped between my feet on his way into the galley. I managed not to curse at him, barely. While Spike ate his dinner, I took a quick shower, made up a garden salad and fried up a thin steak with banana peppers. Then I sat down at the table in the galley with a cold Heineken and ate my solitary dinner. Well, solitary except for Spike, who sat beside me on the buffet, grooming himself. Spike headed back out after dinner. I made up a pot of coffee, slipped into a light jacket and took a mug with me to the after deck, where I leaned against the portside cap rail for a few minutes. The night grew cool; the sound of traffic was only a low murmur now that everyone was home and relaxing for the night; the only sound was the slap of halyards against the masts of a few boats as they rocked at their moorings. A few seconds work had a deck chair out of the locker. I sat and stared at the night sky, picking out a few stars and constellations. Spike leapt into my lap, so we talked for a few minutes until he curled up and fell asleep, still purring. Actually, with Spike it‟s more of a quiet rumble, but I call it purring. I‟d have to speak with Le Roy Wilson in the morning and give him what I had on Nikki Gianuzzi. He‟s much better equipped to run that end of an investigation than I am. Just like every other cop (well, I used to be a cop), I hate mysteries. Mysteries soak up resources like time and money, and occasionally, lives. Part of the problem is that I don‟t have access to sources of information the way cops do; I have hire investigators for that sort of thing. Gianni Lupo was paying a princely sum for my bodyguard services, and the due diligence we run on all new clients showed that he had the wherewithal to cover the expense. So he could pay to learn what happened to his granddaughter. He might not like the answer once I gave it to him, though. I had a feeling he wasn‟t going to like it at all. My mug was empty and my eyes threatened to slam shut, so I put the deck chair back in the locker and went inside to sleep. Spike followed of course, and curled up beside me, making biscuits on my back until I threatened to roll over on him. When I woke up in the morning, Cathy was dressed and drinking coffee in the galley and Spike was finishing his breakfast. We managed a quick kiss and a short chat before she left for work. Chapter 2 Tuesday, March 15 – Friday, March 18 Orlando Clearwater I got to the office in Orlando around ten. After checking in with Cecelia and Tommy, spending an hour wading through logs from the teams, and a call to my accountant, I finally spoke with Le Roy Wilson. Hal Petty, one of Wilson‟s investigators, was in my office drinking coffee fifteen minutes later. “So from what your client said, he expected his granddaughter to show up the same day she called, right?” “Yes, and when she didn‟t show he called her cell.” “Which went straight to voice mail and a few days later all he got was an out of service message.” “Which freaked him out.” “And that‟s when he asked you for help.” “Yes.” “So this girl‟s in the army for thirteen years doing who knows what, and she calls from Miami to say she‟s driving up to Sanibel Island to see him. Your client has no idea what unit she‟s in, where she‟s stationed, where she lives, or anything.” “Only that she uses a p.o. box in Miami for her mail, and her cell phone number.” “You‟re not giving me a lot to go on, Mr. Rankin.” “Do the best you can, Mr. Petty.” I‟d given him copies of my notes, so after saying he‟d get back to me when he had anything, he left for lunch with his wife. Which got me to thinking along the same lines. I hadn‟t stopped for breakfast on the way in to work and my stomach was growling. Cathy said she was wrapped up in an investigation, so I tried her boss, my old friend Mike Banks. He said yes, provided we met at the steak house on I-Drive in an hour. I spent most of that hour in heavy cross-town traffic. When we were finally seated, I asked, “You hear anything about Fatima al Natsche? The DA hasn‟t contacted me about my testimony.” Fatima al Natsche and her daughter plotted her ex-husband‟s murder, preferably at my hands. In the end his daughter convinced three of his bodyguards to kill him on her orders. “Won‟t be a trial, son,” Mike replied. “She pled guilty and accepted a life sentence. Since she was responsible for several murders and the sentences will run consecutively, she‟ll never see the light of day.” Those murder convictions resulted from a conspiracy between her and her daughter. Under the law she is held to be guilty of each murder as if she committed them herself. “Good riddance. I‟m glad it‟s over.” That woman cost me plenty, including the life of my business partner and operations manager, Charley Weeks, who died on the orders of Samir al Qadari, al Natsche‟s ex-husband. Not to mention all of the man- hours I would probably have to cover out of my own pocket, unless my attorney could convince the Court to issue an order of payment out of al Natsche‟s bank account. Fat chance of that happening. Her lawyer would fight that tooth and nail. That was his money. “Cathy says you might have stepped into it again, yesterday,” Mike said with a smile. “What is it this time?” “She didn‟t give you the juicy details?” “Don‟t think she had any.” So I told him Gianni Lupo‟s story about his granddaughter and what he wanted from me. When I finished, Mike just shrugged and said, “I know you do all right as far as an income goes, but you‟d be able to keep more of it in your pocket if you opened a pizza shop. I hope you realize that.” I smiled and shook my head. “Not all my clients are blood-thirsty murderers.” “No,” he laughed. “But some of them are.” I thought of Gianni Lupo‟s history. He‟d been sentenced for two murders only because he was never found guilty of any of the other murders he was suspected of committing during his years as a mob enforcer. Mike‟s humor hit all too close to home. I got back to the marina around nine that night. Cathy was below decks on the couch in the salon, watching TV with Spike on her lap. His fur was suspiciously shiny, and he was sporting a brand new flea collar. As I leaned over to give Cathy a kiss, he glared at me. “What‟s his problem?” I asked. Cathy‟s hand was laid protectively over Spike‟s back as she said, “The poor baby went to the vet this afternoon. He had a bath, a check up, got his ears cleaned and his claws trimmed and got his shots.” She lifted up his head to show Spike‟s shiny new ID tag dangling from his collar. “He‟s legal now. All shiny and clean and healthy and legal.” “And humiliated,” I quipped. Cathy giggled. “That, too, but he‟ll get over it. I bought him some fresh calves‟ liver on the way home and fried it up for him when we got back.” She stroked his fur as she said, “He got over his grumps in a hurry when he smelled it cooking. He put on quite a song and dance for me until I had it all cut up and in his bowl. Just like a guy; feed him well and he‟ll do anything you want.” I had no trouble imagining that particular scene. I didn‟t tell her that Spike would do the same for a Vienna sausage right out of the can. After a quick shower and shave I joined them and spent the evening spacing out in front of the idiot box. Wednesday morning was cool, with a light mist over the water. I was up early and dressed in my jogging togs; ratty shorts with my Colt Commander strapped to my belt, t-shirt and running shoes. I warmed up on the short walk to the jogging track around the park and then put in three lazy, no-stress miles. The West Wind Marina is just south of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway on the east coast of the bay. Just a mile or so to the north is the Clearwater Marina. To the north and south of us it‟s all private homes with bay frontage and their own private docks. It‟s been around under one name or another for nearly eighty years, and was built long before the private homes that now enclosed it. The original owner invested close to a million dollars building the breakwater, the docks and the structures that still served their original purposes (with lots of rebuilding and improvements over the years). Taxes had always been high, but the different owners all managed to keep the bills current so nobody ever had to sell out and shut the marina down. A few real estate speculators were very upset about that. Now it was my turn to run the place. We still had the stone breakwater, with floating docks now and slips and moorings to handle nearly eighty vessels up to sixty feet, a large turning basin, and power, water, telephone and internet hookups for the slips. There was a pumping station for waste, a fuel dock, chandlery and grocery store, regular garbage pickup, pest control (who always managed to ignore Spike‟s presence in the marina despite the few live-aboards who expressed outrage about his wandering freely without a collar) our very own restaurant and plenty of parking along with private security. That last was now run by yours truly, of course. The West Wind Marina was a gold mine. Or it would be just as soon as I could fill up all the slips and make the improvements we had laid out in our business plan. It the meantime we were not exactly running in the black. Those were the thoughts that ran through my mind during my morning run. When I got back to the marina, Ed Grimes, my old buddy, was on duty at the guard shack. I stopped to chat for a few minutes before heading down the dock to Nina R. Cathy was at her canary yellow pickup, headed off to work in Orlando. I gave her a kiss and said hello to Spike, who was sticking as close to her as he could. Then I finally got aboard and into the shower. After a quick breakfast and a few minutes with a cup of coffee on the afterdeck with Spike in my lap, I climbed into my Suburban and headed for Orlando and the office on Colonial Drive. Tax season was upon us. Cecelia, Tommy and I spent much of the day getting stuff ready for an afternoon meeting with our accountant. When I got home that night I was beat. Mostly because I knew that I had to go through the same thing with the accountants for the marina early next week. I‟m a cowboy; I admit it with more than a little pride. I‟m the Lone Ranger in the flesh. Give me a white horse, pearl handled .44‟s in my holsters and leave me alone to do my job. On the drive home from Orlando that night I gave serious thought to my options. I could keep what I had and continue to drown in business details and meetings with accountants and lawyers, or throw it all over and convert Nina R into a charter fisherman and put up with drunks and partiers aboard. It was a tempting thought. Except for that last bit about drunks and partiers on my boat. Well, as my daddy said, „You made your bed, son. Now lie in it‟. Cathy and I talked about it that night over dinner on the after deck. The day had warmed up nicely and the evening was still warm enough to eat outside. “I think I bit off more than I can chew,” I said. “You mean about running two businesses in two cities? And you think you bit off more than you can chew?” She smiled as she said that. Spike was in her lap, cleaning himself after eating the last of the calves liver she had cooked for him yesterday. “Yes, that.” I poured the coffee and handed her cup across the table. “Any ideas? You‟re not thinking of selling Rankin Protective Services, are you?” “No. But I think we need someone to handle the details here, though.” “You mean someone with experience in actually managing a money-making operation dealing with boats and boat owners?” “Yeah, I guess.” She chuckled. “This is too funny for words. Rolf called about an hour ago. He wants you to call him at home.” She handed me a notepad with his home number on it. I took it. “What‟s up with this? Do I still owe him money?” She shook her head. “No. Just call him.” So I picked up my cell phone and did just that. “Hi, Rolf. How you doing?” “Just fine, Mr. Rankin. Had a nice talk with Miss Cathy earlier.” “She told me you called. What can I do for you?” “Well, I‟m not too sure how to go about this, and I‟m sorry to bother you with my problems, but maybe we could do each other some good, here. My oldest boy is getting married next month, and Margie‟s after me to get out of their way.” “Congratulations, Rolf. He‟s a fine young man. But what do you mean, get out of their way?” “Well, she‟s been after me to slow down, you see. Climbing over boats all day, doing all that physical work, you know. She keeps telling me I‟m not a kid any more. And now she wants Keith and his bride to run the boat yard, and she wants them to have our home.” Oops. “What are you supposed to do, Rolf, retire and move to Florida?” He laughed. “Something like that, Mr. Rankin. Keith and the other boys won‟t have any trouble running the yard. Work is hard to come by right now, but there‟s enough for them to scrape by until the economy picks up again. “Margie and I have managed to put some money aside over the years, even when times were tough. We could buy a small place in Tampa, but I‟m pretty sure I‟d drop dead without a job to go to every day, and I‟d probably drive her crazy hanging around the house. I been talking the problem over with a few friends who run marinas here in the Bay, trying to figure out what my options are, and they told me I should talk to you.” That caught me off guard. “I‟m flattered, Rolf, but why talk to me?” “What they said was, „Go talk to that crazy security guy who got stuck with Eddy Watkins‟ white elephant up in Clearwater. He‟s got no idea how to run a marina.‟” Blunt, but accurate. And sobering. “I‟ve been thinking the same thing, Rolf. Especially over the last few days. Especially today, since we‟re getting ready for tax season. If I provide the back room support, accountants and lawyers and security, and we all get together on budgets and billing, can you and your wife take care of the day- to-day business end of things?” “No problem. Margie and I work together pretty good. I‟m used to doing what she tells me. And those friends of mine I mentioned who run marinas hereabouts? They said if you and I do get together, they‟ll give me all the help we need to make it work. There‟s an organization of local marina operators we can join, too.” What a deal. “You understand the job comes with housing on the property, right? I haven‟t been inside the apartment since the Watkins left, but if you and Margie want to come up in the next day or so we‟ll walk through and see what needs to be done to get it looking good for you.” “How about we do that tomorrow morning?” he asked. And that‟s what we did. It meant another day spent with accountants and lawyers and money issues and budgeting, but at the end of the day we had the big picture ironed out. Margie and Rolf would be living on the property within a month. In the meantime they would be packing and turning the boatyard over to their sons. Rolf and Margie wouldn‟t have to spend their life savings on a home just yet, and Cathy and I could rest easy knowing we had two fine people in our corner. Friday morning I was back on the jogging trail when the sun climbed over the horizon, and in the office in Orlando by nine. At ten I got a call from Hal Petty in Le Roy Wilson‟s office down the hall. He was seated in my visitor‟s chair drinking coffee ten minutes later. “On that young woman, Nicola Gianuzzi; she joined the Army right out of high school. They sent her to MIT on an ROTC scholarship where she majored in computer science. Her personnel file is sealed, Mr. Rankin, but I was able to contact a few people who were willing to talk off the record. She graduated in three years. Then she went into the Intelligence shop in the Pentagon for two years. “She volunteered for Ranger School and after that, helicopter training. That‟s as much as I could get on background. That lady has impressed a lot of people, but nobody who knows where she is or what she does is willing to say anything.” “Is she listed as missing, Hal?” He shrugged. “If she is, nobody‟s talking about it. But I think she is.” “Why?” “I looked for utility bills in her name. Those bills gave me an address in south Miami. I had a local investigator take a look at the place a few times. Nice apartment in an upscale complex, no car in her parking slot, nobody home. Power‟s on, security lights working on a timer, nobody coming or going. But the local paper says the Dade County police have a metaflake bronze Corvette in their impound lot. They say it was found way out on the Tamiami Trail Friday morning, two weeks ago. Passenger side window was blown in, two .223 caliber rounds buried in the upholstery. The vehicle was parked on a dirt trail off the highway. “I don‟t know for sure there‟s a connection between the disappearance of your client‟s granddaughter and this car, but the timing‟s right, and the Tamiami Trail is the logical route for anyone from south Miami to get to Sanibel Island. It‟s either that or drive up through Miami and take I-75 across the State.” Well, damn. “Can you get anything on the car‟s registration, verify who owns it?” “I‟ll look into it.” Chapter 3 Thursday, March 17 – Saturday, March 19 Orlando Clearwater Miami I asked Hal a few more questions, but he didn‟t have any answers. I was beginning to think Nikki Gianuzzi might have been seconded to DEA as a part of their drug interdiction program and the bad guys had tracked her down. Then, when she left the relative safety of her home for the drive across Florida to Tampa, they had run her off the road and taken her out of her car. If that was her car. If that was the case, she would have been better off if those .223 rounds had ended her life. I got the address of her apartment in south Miami and the contact information for the local cops Hal had spoken with, and told him I‟d drive to Miami the next day to speak with them. Then I told Hal to press his contacts for more information on Nikki. I wanted to know who her bosses were and where she was stationed. He told me that could bring the wrath of the US Army down on him and refused, point blank, to continue on that path. “Let me see if I can find some leads around where she lived. Find out who her friends were, where she hung out, stuff like that. If what you think happened to her is even close to what really happened, somebody might remember strangers asking questions about her.” I gave him the okay on that, made sure he had my cell phone number and told him to get back to me whenever he had any new information. After he left I thought for a few minutes. I wouldn't hear from him for several days, and I didn‟t want to wait. I was going to Miami tomorrow. From Clearwater it would take nearly five hours each way if I drove, plus whatever driving I had to do in the city itself. Ten years ago it wouldn‟t have bothered me. But I was closing on fifty, not forty. So I asked Cecelia to book me on an early morning flight to Miami with a return flight late Sunday afternoon, have a car waiting for me at the airport and book a room in a decent hotel in south Miami for tomorrow night. Then I called Cathy and told her what I‟d be doing with my weekend, and why. The rest of the day went slowly, but it finally came to an end around seven. I called Cathy and told her I planned to get back to the marina around eight-thirty. She said that would be early enough to join her and Spike for a late dinner, provided I was willing to grill lobster tails and shrimp for them. I made it back by eight. She had a garden salad waiting and a few bottles of white wine chilling in the fridge. Drinking wine on a school night? “You don‟t work tomorrow?” I asked. “No, but I will be on Sunday,” she said. “What time do you have to be at the airport?” “Six. The flight leaves at eight.” I answered. “No sense in driving you to the airport. I have no idea where I‟ll be Sunday afternoon so I can‟t be sure I‟ll be able to pick you up.” She tapped me on the chest as she said, “Just stay out of trouble in Miami. There should be at least one city in Florida where the cops like you,” she said. “I‟m going there to speak with them and take a look at that car they impounded; maybe drive out to where it was found on the Tamiami Trial, speak with some of her neighbors.” I thought of adding, „What‟s the harm in that?‟ but if I did, Cathy would have a snarky answer I didn‟t want to hear. She sighed, decidedly not happy with having her plans for the day ruined. “Damn. I can‟t get out of working on Sunday. You do what you have to do. I‟ll see if my dad wants to drive over and spend the day with me and Spike.” I kissed her and said, “I‟m sorry.” Lobster and shrimp don‟t take a lot of time to cook, and it is criminally easy to cook them to perfection on a propane grill. I‟ll never go back to charcoal. Later that night, with Cathy and Spike snoring quietly beside me, I spent a few minutes thinking about Nikki Gianuzzi. I didn‟t even have a photograph of her; not even a description. Gianni Lupo hadn‟t seen his granddaughter in twenty-five years. I had no idea where she was stationed or what she did. I had no idea who her friends – or enemies – were. So after talking with the cops – if they‟d talk to me, and checking out her car, if the allowed me anywhere near it, I‟d take a look at where she lived. I could speak with her neighbors. I could track down whoever sold her that Corvette, if it was her car and it was registered in her name. Which would tell me what, exactly? Not a hell of a lot. But she had to have a bank account, she had to buy groceries, frequent a pharmacy, buy gas, get her hair cut and her car serviced. Somebody, somewhere, had to know something about Nikki Gianuzzi. I was in Miami by nine-thirty the next morning, driving a rental to the Dade County Police Department office on northwest Twelfth Street. It was a short trip from the airport, but that was still longer than the time I spent in the police department. After I introduced myself and explained why I was there the clerk excused herself only to return a few minutes later and tell me they had no information on a Corvette of any color found on the Trail in the last few weeks, and a DMV search returned no information on anyone named Nicola or Nikki Gianuzzi. I thanked her and left. There was a breakfast place half a mile down the road, so I headed there for something to eat. I hate airplane food, and their coffee is even worse. After placing my order I sat and sipped my coffee for a few minutes while I calmed down. Then I called Hal Petty. “I‟m surprised by that, Mr. Rankin,” he said after I told him the Dade County police had no record of the Corvette and no record of Lupo‟s granddaughter ever having a driver‟s license from the State of Florida. “That report of the car being found was in the Miami Herald. Let me call the reporter and see if he‟ll talk with you. And I‟ll check with New Jersey and see if the girl had a license in that state. I‟ll get back to you shortly.” After breakfast I drove to the address of the apartment complex where Nikki Gianuzzi lived. Five minutes later I was at the entrance to a very well landscaped upscale apartment complex just northwest of Southern Command, and only a short walk from a nice shopping mall. In other words, Nicola Gianuzzi lived a very short drive from the US Army Southern Command Headquarters, which was a very short drive from Miami International Airport. In fact SOCOM was only separated from the airport by a large and sophisticated railroad switching yard and container storage facility. Nicola Gianuzzi worked at Southern Command. I spent some minutes walking around looking lost before a nicely dressed young woman with shoulder length blond hair pulled up in a club cart. “Can I help you?” she asked. I gave her my very best smile and said, “I‟m looking for my cousin, Nicola Gianuzzi. She lives in 54C, but her car‟s not here. She said she‟d be here this morning. We haven‟t seen each other in years.” She smiled right back at me. “I‟m Gloria Mintz, the manager of the complex. Hang on just a second.” She took her cell phone from her belt and made a call. “Katy, who has 54C?” A few seconds later, she said, “No, we‟re looking for someone else. Do we have a Nicola Gianuzzi in residence?” A few seconds after that she ended the call. “I‟m sorry, but there‟s nobody with that name on the property. Even if she was sharing an apartment with someone else we‟d have her name on the lease. Are you sure you have the right complex? We have three others close by. I can give them a call and see if your cousin is living in any of our complexes.” I said yes, please. Several minutes later she ended her last call and gave me the same answer for all of their complexes. No Nicola Gianuzzi in residence. On a hunch I described the deep bronze metaflake Corvette. She said she remembered seeing the car, but not in the complex. It had been parked several times at the shopping mall, though. She‟d love to own a car like that, which is why she could recall seeing it. I thanked her for her time and help, said I‟d call Nikki‟s family and get the right address this time. Then I climbed into my rental and drove over to the shopping mall. A karate school, FedEx and UPS offices, hair cuttery, grocery store, several banks, a large gas station, a few boutiques, a dentist; a gold mine, in fact. Nikki‟s car had been seen in the shopping center, which meant she either lived or worked in the area. Somebody knew something about her. Roxie‟s Hair Cuttery was on the left wing of the shopping center. They weren‟t doing much business, and I needed a haircut. An older black woman escorted me to a chair and got right to work. “You got a fine head of hair,” she said. “I just love black curly hair.” I laughed. “All I do is wash it.” “Well, whatever you‟re using on it is working. Nice and thick, too,” she said as she snipped and trimmed. “Tell me, I‟ve seen a real pretty bronze Corvette here a few times. I dinged the driver‟s side rear panel a few weeks ago. I couldn‟t find the owner, so I left a message on the windshield with my name and number. Those fiberglass bodies are a bear to fix, but the owner never called me about it. Have you ever seen him in here?” She laughed a deep, rich laugh. “Her. And her name is Tammy O‟Shea, or so she says. She claims to be black Irish, but if she‟s not Italian right down to her socks, then I‟m a white girl. Got a beautiful head of black hair. She keeps it too short to my mind, but she likes it that way, I suppose. Easier to care for, anyway. I wouldn‟t worry about that car was I you, Mister. That girl makes so much money she probably bought herself a new one the very next day.” She went right on clipping and trimming. I chuckled, saying, “Nobody makes that much money. That‟s an eighty- thousand dollar car.” “Don‟t matter none to folks like her. That one‟s a party girl, if you know what I mean, and she wouldn‟t bat an eye at replacing that pretty car of hers. I done her hair a dozen times over the last few years, and alls she talks about is this party or that john. Me, I ever had a car like that I‟d be afraid to drive it.” “Well, I‟d like to talk to her about it, anyway. It‟s been bothering me that she never called. Any idea where she lives, or how I can contact her?” She turned the chair around and looked at me. “I haven‟t seen her or that car in about a month, come to think of it. Mister, you seem like good people. You just stay away from women like that.” She started trimming my sideburns and forehead. “I‟m engaged to a very nice lady cop up in Orlando. We‟re due to get married at the end of June. I just want to square things about the damage to her car, is all.” “Orlando? So what you doing bumping into expensive cars way down here in south Miami?” I laughed again. “Business. I run a protective service. We have jobs all over the State.” “Protective? You mean you‟re like a bodyguard or something?” “Like that. I own the company, so I don‟t have to stand posts or anything. You got any idea how I can contact that girl?” “She‟s no girl, I‟m telling you. She‟s a hard woman who‟s been around the block a few times in her life, if you know what I mean. No, I got no idea „bout how to contact her.” She turned the chair around, cleaned up the back of my neck and removed the sheet. “That‟ll be thirty dollars.” I paid her and added another twenty for the aggravation I caused her. She thanked me and said, “I know she lives close by. I see that car around here two or three times a week. But you mind me and stay away from her.” She took a brush and cleaned the loose hair off my shirt and neck. “You take good care of yourself, and you mind that girl you‟re marrying, you hear me?” “Yes, Ma‟am,” I said. My next stop was the karate school, where the owner of the pretty bronze Corvette was also known as Tammy O‟Shea. She was a lovely lady with a nice laugh, and a frequent visitor over the last few years. She was also a long-standing black belt in Korean-style karate. They hadn‟t seen her in the last month, which was unusual because she normally came in at least once a week to spar with the teachers. A bored stock clerk smoking a cigarette behind the pharmacy was more forthcoming. “Yeah, you‟re talking about Tammy. Real pretty lady, but we never hit it off. I haven‟t seen her in a couple weeks.” He stopped talking and held out his hand. I couldn‟t imagine why they hadn‟t hit it off. A young man of nineteen, maybe twenty, skinny, with a bad haircut and a worse case of dandruff. And he smoked. What else could a beautiful woman in her thirties with an expensive car want in a fellow? I placed a twenty in his hand. He stared at me, so I pulled out another. “You‟ll get it, if what you have to say is worth it to me.” “You a cop?” I shook my head and kept my arms folded across my chest. “No. Describe her.” “About my height, five – four, maybe a hundred twenty-five pounds, short black hair, olive skin, nice chest, brown eyes. Like that.” “How did you get to know her?” “Well, I helped her out a few times. She had prescriptions for her regular meds, but once in a while she‟d need something special, if you know what I mean. I could lose my job if my bosses ever found out about it and she knew that. She made it worth my while, though.” “Like what?” “‟Ludes and uppers sometimes, and those morning after pills women use to avoid pregnancies. She never asked for morphine or anything like that, but I could have gotten them for her if she asked.” “She picked the stuff up here?” “No, man, I delivered it to her apartment.” “Where?” He shrugged. “Just up the street, man. 54C, in the complex right over there.” I gave him the twenty, walked back to my car and headed over to a steak house for lunch. Tammy O‟Shea, black Irish, living in apartment 54C just a few blocks away. But it was really odd that the local cop shop didn‟t have a record of a bronze Corvette being impounded. As far as the DMV goes, Nikki Gianuzzi never had a driver‟s license in the State of Florida. But I was willing to bet Tammy O‟Shea did. And Tammy O‟Shea probably did have a lease on apartment 54C just a few blocks away. But I couldn‟t go back there and apologize for not knowing my „cousin‟ had leased the apartment using a false identity. That wouldn‟t go over very well at all. But if she did live in that apartment, why did Gloria Mintz say she‟d never seen the Corvette parked at that apartment? Did Tammy O‟Shea drive the „Vette as a „flash‟ car but use another for her private life? And where did she park the car she wasn‟t driving? I ordered a rib-eye, baked potato and garden salad, along with a Heineken for lunch. Then I called Hal Petty. “Sorry, Mr. Rankin, I haven‟t been able to reach that reporter at the Herald for you. Oh, and about that girl having a driver‟s license in New Jersey, the answer is no, she never applied for one.” “Hal, run a DMV search for a young woman named Tammy O‟Shea. See if you can link that name to the Corvette. You might also check to see if she has a concealed carry license. If that name does show up anywhere, trace her history back as far as you can. See if Tammy O‟Shea has any AKA‟s” Also Known As. “If Tammy O‟Shea is registered in the DMV here in Florida, run a background check on her. Finances, bank accounts, credit card statements, everything you can find. I need it as you get it.” I was getting a little miffed at Gianni Lupo‟s granddaughter. The steak, baked potato and garden salad arrived. As I ate I began to rethink my feelings about the young woman. If she was working in any intelligence function, living under a false identity might be a good way to avoid scrutiny. I wondered how deep her cover went, and why she bothered with an assumed identity when she owned and drove such an eye-catching ride. If she owned it. If she was working for the DEA or some other alphabet soup agency maybe they gave her the car as part of a cover identity. I also wondered if her bosses were aware of her behavior while off-duty. I wondered who her bosses were, and how much they paid her. If she was a government employee – namely an officer in the US Army as her grandfather thought, she damn sure didn‟t earn enough to afford the lifestyle she was enjoying. But what if she didn‟t work for the government; what if she wasn‟t in the army at all? If that was the case, she was dirty. And disappeared. Just like her car. The local newspaper had reported the car as being found off the Tamiami Trail with a few high-powered bullet holes in the upholstery and stated that the car had been towed to a police impound lot in Miami. But Miami-Dade police had no record of the vehicle. Which meant that someone was busy trying to cover up her disappearance.
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