“No Lil. I’m not sure how long I’m going to leave her here. It may only be for a couple of days, but I need to get back home and there is something else that has come up that I need to take care of.”
I had walked right over to Ace Hardware from the phone booth and Lil didn’t seem surprised when I told her I was leaving Le Esperance at Banana Bay for a few days to head back up the road. She told me not to worry about the money until I got back but to make sure I “un-plugged” and stashed my extension cord and adapter out of sight. She told me she would tell Harry in the motel office.
Within the hour, I was out on the curb of US #1. There are only two Greyhounds scheduled to and from Homestead and Key West on week days. Both are mornings down and afternoons and evenings back up. Most of their riders are day workers in the Keys and the first northbound bus doesn’t come back up through Marathon until 4:15 PM. I had my duffel bag, Panama Jack, dark tee-shirt, natural/white bell-bottoms, a big smile, and my thumb out. If I don’t get a ride, I’ll just flag the bus down when it gets here later today.
I didn’t have to wait long.
“Well, you’re either off a boat or just got out of prison. Hopefully the boat.”
Her name was Maria or Marianna or, whatever? Young, pretty, Latina, and with an infant loosely strapped down in the back seat of a late-model Ford convertible. She was on her way back to Hialeah from some family outing on Big Pine and was talkative from the word go.
As we headed north, my chauffeur was telling me about the pig they had roasted underground in charcoal and how the big competition centered around “who got to eat the lips and ears.” She told me how a friend of one of her male cousins had “played grab-ass” with her the whole day and had only backed off when she told him to “fuck off” or she would kick him in his huevos! At this point, I came to the conclusion that there was no reason to ask about her marital status … if there was one, it was obviously in flux and best described as “fluid”. I pretended to listen but my mind drifted. I couldn’t help making a mental comparison between this ride and another I had recently experienced.
Soon after I had hired Adnan, it became evident that he would prove to be one of the most productive members of our foodservice sales team and I didn’t want to lose him. He was Pakistani and worked long hours in an up-scale, but semi-rural, route fifty or sixty miles north of our warehouse. It was to our home, located in this same sales area, that my wife and I had invited him and his wife to dinner one evening. Since Adnan lived a number of miles south of, and in the opposite direction from, the warehouse and he was on the road working when the day came; it was only natural that I offer to pick his wife up at their rental apartment when the workday ended. It would have been silly for him to go down and back and it would probably have resulted in a very late dinner. It was obviously the best plan but, little did I know what consternation it would cause, and on two continents.
Adnan Assad and his wife Isha were strict Muslims and when I did pick her up, she appeared totally distraught and no conversational effort on my part could muster more than the most per functionary response. Our one hour drive transpired in almost total silence. Once we arrived at home, joined my wife and her husband, and settled in at the dinner table–everything was peaches and cream. She was a different person, so different that I was reluctant to mention anything to Adnan. A day or two later at the warehouse, he approached me with a “thank you note” for my wife from both he and Isha. Handing it to me, he said he probably needed to give me “a little rundown” about his wife’s and my automobile ride. Turns out, her time with me in the car was her first ever alone with a man who was not her husband or blood kin. Her parents in Pakistan, when called on the phone, had forbidden her from doing so but, because her husband feared offending me, she had agreed to be picked up.
What a difference there was between this chatty Cuban chica from Hialeah and a terrified young bride from Islamabad. Different strokes for different folks and this little mental diversion couldn’t keep my mind off where I was headed and what I needed to get done. Maria … , I guess, told me she would just pull into the Caribbean Club parking lot when we got to Key Largo and see if I wanted to get out or not. This was a real sweetheart … over the loud stick-clattering rumbas on the radio, she had told me I was “welcome to keep on truck ‘n” and that it wasn’t out of her way and she could drop me off at the Greyhound Station in downtown Miami. The baby on the back seat appeared to sleep through it all–a little dreaming smile and maybe even rocking a little with the Latin beat.
Frank’s Chevy was still where I had left it. This was no surprise, but I had a decision to make that, if wrong, might have major unintended consequences. I could just get back in the convertible and, after being dropped off, catch a bus out of Miami that would get me back home sometime shortly after dark and nothing in my life would ever change … or …
“What do you mean … we’re keeping his car in our garage? Where’s Frank?”
“What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”–Yes, the words came back to me but there was no other way. I couldn’t tell my wife, Diane, anything that even resembled the truth. I couldn’t tell her that I wasn’t sure I knew the answer to the question myself. I couldn’t tell her anything about any of the guys named Carlos or that the only way the, de facto, stolen Chevy in our garage could ever be traced was by a, much hoped for, response to the short message I had left on a note with the manager at the Caribbean Club: “I’ve got your car”, … (signed) Jose.
Things at the warehouse were pretty much as I expected. The refrigeration problem turned out to be limited to a single valve and had only shut down one compressor for a matter of hours. None of the drivers or floor crew had quit and if any of the salesmen had any bitches, they kept them to themselves. By 10:30 in the morning, I had put in four hours of work, drank six cups of coffee, and was asking myself … “what am I doing here”? If it hadn’t been for that damn Chevy in my garage–I’d be in an Avis rental car and headed back to Marathon. What could I do?
“Jimmy, Jimmy Parnell … I do remember you.”
I don’t think she really did but Terry Booth’s mother was as sweet as she could be when she answered the phone. I was really surprised when she told me that her son was actually in town visiting her and his sister. I had only called her to get Terry’s phone number in Washington, DC. I wasn’t sure what questions I wanted to ask my old high school classmate over the phone and I certainly didn’t know what his reaction to my queries would be. It isn’t everyday that you place a call where you know the switchboard operator will greet you with … “Federal Bureau of Investigation, how may I direct your call?”
“I’m not assigned to the case. If I was, I wouldn’t be free to talk about any actions on the Bureau’s part. Jim, you have to understand how uncomfortable it is for me to even be having this conversation. I hope you didn’t call me just to talk about my work.”
Terry had agreed to meet me at a downtown deli for lunch and, for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, we rehashed the usual school-boy reunion fodder–but the direction in which I soon steered our chit-chat was definitely not old school. I didn’t mention Frank Matheson and explained my interest as being only casual and the result of a breakfast conversation I had overheard among Coast Guardsmen in the Stuffed Pig. I knew that, if I got too inquisitive, he would be reluctant to give me any information at all.
Terry continued … “This guy Carlos Lehder is no secret. He’s been around for years but it’s only been over the last couple that he’s become numero uno on the FBI’s hit list. He’s half German, was raised in New York City, and spent some time in Federal Prison eight or ten years ago. Most of his affiliations are back in his mother’s country, Columbia, and by all accounts, he’s one of the king-pins of a gang they call the “Medellin Cartel”. This information I’m giving you is common knowledge but what has the Bureau and all local law enforcement so frustrated is that he and his “other Carlos” side-kicks are responsible for eighty percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States and there’s nothing we can do to stop him. Just last week, we find out that some guy took delivery of a brand new Piper Lance II at Piper’s plant up in Vero Beach and paid cash. Before any of the yahoos on the ground could figure out something might be wrong … they were holding two briefcases full of hundred-dollar bills and two guys, both named Carlos, had fueled up and were flying out over the Atlantic in a twenty-eight foot, single-engine, six-seater.”
I could tell that Terry was genuinely frustrated and had decided to step a little over the FBI’s confidentiality line–I did nothing but listen.
“Carlos has all of his gang, even the Cuban drug dealers he works with in Miami, use the same name because he has this phobia about wire-taps and radio transmission interceptions. He actually prefers to be called “Joe”, but only by his closest friends. He has virtually taken over an island in the Bahamas and has Government officials in Nassau paid off all the way up, including Lynden Pindling, the Prime Minister. From what I hear, every time the Justice Department and the Attorney General express concern about the flood of drugs and associated crime that accompany it, they don’t get very far. When the State Department approaches Bahamian officials about the situation on Norman’s Cay, that’s the one Lehder is camped out on, they hit a stone wall. The whole affair is complicated by the lease on our AUTEC station on Andros. We need that facility to track everything we send up and to keep tabs on everything that’s already up there–both ours and the Ruskie’s. We don’t kick-back to the crooks on Bay Street in Nassau and, to quote my favorite Bahamian taxi driver … ‘in this land of fun ‘n sun, the Yankee dollar is number one’.”
I hated to interrupt him but … “You mentioned Norman’s Cay. What’s the story about the island. Isn’t it down south of New Providence and on the back side of Andros?”
Terry answered … “Yeah, it’s technically in the Exumas but pretty much sits by itself. Lehder has extended the airstrip so as to cover virtually the whole island and he’s bought out, or run off, all but one of the other residents. The only one left is some college prof that can, like Carlos, speak German. He studies hammer-head sharks, and seems to hit it off with drug dealer just fine. This is no short-term project. We have photos of, up to, fourteen airplanes parked by the runway at one time. Some of them are cargo carriers we tracked all the way up from Columbia but most are smaller single engine jobbers. Until very recently, he was smuggling most of his “powder” into the States with small boats, or cruise ship mules through Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. But, judging from what’s going on on Norman’s, he’s turned the page and decided to “fly low” and under our radar. We even hear he’s starting to shut down some of his old gateways because of over-supply. He’s flying so much cocaine out of the Bahamas into Florida and Georgia that he’s flooded his own market.”
“But I’ve told you too much already. I hope you’re not planning on cruising anywhere near that island but if you really want to find out what’s going down on Norman’s Cay or anywhere else in the Bahamas, you’re wasting your time talking with me. I spend most of my days reading reports, sitting behind a desk back in the Hoover Building in D.C. Why don’t you ask someone who would really know? The only trick … may be getting him to tell you.”
Smiling, leaning across the table, and almost in a whisper … “ask Avon Knowles”