‘Love is desire for knowledge, the cheapest of religions.’ Pavase
‘A diamond sharp sparkle comes from a willingness to be cut.’ Student paper on What is Courage?
‘A picture is a bridge between the artist’s soul and the spectator.’ Eugene Delacroix
‘There have been times when I’ve thought of suicide but with my luck it’d probably only be a temporary solution.’ Woody Allen
‘My namesake, painter Eugene Delacroix, suggested work was his mistress, which he always brought home with him. C’est la meme chose avec moi, pardon et moi, that is to say my paramours, music and lyrics, follow me aussi. They are my lovers.’ Chaz Delacroix Interview, Variety Music
Tiny Key West International Airport (since the 50s) offered direct flights to Miami, Washington National, and Philly and Kennedy International airports. It had a single runway and a bar with half a dozen seats and a few potted palms. Since it was barely 9 am, I ordered a Sunrise Surprise—OJ, crème de Noyaux, a dash of tabasco, and 2 shots of top shelf tequila—liquid courage I sorely needed.
Dmetri, Dorian’s son, was arriving on the 9:15 am flight from National (by way of London Heathrow). The last week had been horror wrapped in rage and tied with string that resembled bloody veins. Where do I start? Sheriff ‘S’ for Stupid Stingray had the audacity to suggest Dorian, like Chaz, had committed suicide. He then said he was inclined to label the death ‘accidental drowning’ after several heated arguments by myself and a dozen of Dorian’s buddies. He agreed to conduct an inquiry. Dorian was discovered face down in the water by a passing bicyclist. Despite the egg size lump at the back of his skull, scratches on his arms, and traces of skin under a nail, the sheriff had the nerve to say murder wasn’t good for our tourist business and wasn’t likely. It was better to list his death as accidental. He’d fallen, hit his head, and drowned.
Strangely enough, in the days immediately following my old friends death, two things provided a respite from a crushing grief that sat on my chest like a Sumo wrestler. The first bit of relief came from the accented voice of Dorian’s son when I finally reached him in London. The second momentary abatement of pain emanated from songs written and arranged by Chaz ‘purveyor of pain’ Delacroix, the grand guignol of grief.
An early acid/punk rock band adapted one of Chaz songs and made it a Billboard Top Ten hit. The lead singer spoke-sang lyrics about a special ability to become invisible—to stay hidden in crowds, seek out dark rooms and inky skies devoid of clouds while a flute warbled in the background. Chimes shattered the air when the singer got to the part about invisible bonds he was irresistibly drawn to dissolving…gray lines on a charcoal wall, snowflakes crashing like cymbals amid a white void. As people I knew knocked on my door, left food, flowers, and messages on my phone, I kept thinking how much I wanted to be invisible.
The song that gutted me utterly was a ballad on the flip side of a #1 hit by a folksy blues chanteuse—called Rue Lament. It painted a haunting image of a derelict street boasting ‘jaundiced jazz’ that drew unwary, ‘innocuous passers-by’ like moths to a flame. Grey smoke and dull light issued from doorways. The only bright spot was a single lamp post light—that served as draw and guide—and inferred where there dwelt lament, there also dwelt something else—solace or a spark of comfort. However, I could see no light.
Where there were tears, there was also types—three types of tears in fact. While all tears contain enzymes, electrolytes, and lipids, sad tears may possess hormones and proteins not found in protective basal or irritant washing reflex tears, unhappy tears can excrete stress hormones. Depending on why and what makes us cry, we can literally cry a river—15-30 gallons of tears a year. Women tend to cry more than men, though I think Dorian cried more in my presence than I did in his. He said he wept for a week after he learned his ex had been killed in the earthquake. He sobbed after we rescued the pelican some local low-life’s were pelting with rotten fruit and fish bait. We nursed it back to health. He blubbered when his son agreed to meet him in London. I was good at holding back tears. Serves me right, the dyke has broken now.
Some mindless sage said grief was part of a human ritual, an initiation into a secret society of one. It’s allowed and endured so you’ll understand emotions like love and suffering better. Who wants to do that—to acquiesce to a grief that leaves one prostrate? There was another murder to be solved and questions to answer I didn’t even want to acknowledge.
My anguish was overlaid by my guilt and culpability. It almost stopped me from calling Dmetri. As sure as I was of Duval Street sunsets was how sure I was both men had been murdered. Like Papa Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, Dorian must have uncovered a whale of a truth about Chaz’ life—or death. I got my friend involved. Even York had more sense. He’d told me to mind my own business.
If it hadn’t been for a visit by Alma, I might have continued to wallow in the muck of my grief forever. She brought me hot sweet n sour soup and spoon fed it to me. When she learned I hadn’t called Dorian’s son in London, she brought the phone over to where I laid slumped and sobbing and said ‘dial.’ Alma washed my dirty dishes and combed and braided my hair. She apologized for not being able to stay longer, explaining she and her minister husband were hosting a bible retreat on Marathon Key.
When Ponce de Leon allegedly discovered the 113 mile long coral and limestone keys in the early 1500s, he called them Los Martires, Martyrs keys because he thought the land masses resembled hunched over, suffering men. The central section of the keys, where Alma was headed, is pocked with visible portions of an ancient coral reef. I reminded her treasure was still buried in the keys and recent storms might have exposed new finds. She reminded me to be careful, to drive my car, not my scooter at night, and have someone walk me to my car if I was out late. I promised her I’d stop my blubbering and be careful. As soon as she left, I began preparing for Dorian’s memorial.
Did Dorian provide an answer or at least a clue on my answering machine? Or had his answers been swallowed by the sea or drowned by the killer? Knowing I now had another murder to solve was what really rallied me. Irene Penn, a retired teacher that substituted occasionally, agreed to teach my classes for the next week. I had an article due to Gregori in less than two weeks. It would have to wait.
With pen and paper I front of me, I played Dorian’s longer message. ‘Cara mia,’ he said, rushing his words and intermingling Italian with English. ‘Potresti aver avuto ragione (you may have been right). I should have followed your womanly instinct. Now we must go to the police and make them listen, reopen an investigation. You were also right about Lydia. She was his musa, though more in the sense of one of your ancestors, a Leannan Si. He wrote that she favored red. What did I tell you? She may be la Strega (witch) or la Mambo—since this is the Keys. Something even more disquieting. I found, what’s the term, another…No, not on the phone. E necessario, amico mio, as soon as you can, meet me at the houseboat. Arrivederci, a presto.’
### *** ### *** ###
How strange for Dorian to mention witches, Leannan Si’s, and Mambo’s. I always confused hoodoo with voodoo until I actually taught a sociology course last year, incorporating local legends with spirits of the Keys. Hoodoo is a set of passed down practices that don’t require any particular religious beliefs or worship. Practitioners implore ancestors and powerful spirits to aid their endeavors. Voodoo’s of African origin, folk magic mixed with Christian and other traditions. There are many gods (loas) channeled, worshiped, supplicated. To prepare, I’d read the classic books—Go Tell My Horse, Drum & Candle, Voodoo in Haiti…and researched records at the Historical Society. Most helpful were interviews I taped with a few old timers. I meant to do more research. I needed a few powerful loas in my corner.
When I arrived at Dorian’s berth after the fact, I was both furious and relieved. There was no police tape surrounding the area where he was pulled from the water. Nor was there any tape cordoning off his house boat. Hayes didn’t consider this a crime scene. I knew where Dorian hid an extra key to his house boat and I had to get inside. There was a tin sign firmly screwed between two wooden ledges at the back deck of the boat. The sign said: Casa Capitano in black cursive script. It was awkward to reach and even more difficult to access the deck from outside the boat. Somehow I managed it with a Spiderwoman dexterity that surprised me. Behind one of the screws hung a key wrapped in plastic.
I’d brought a screwdriver, and lacking a can of WD40, had soaked a paper towel with olive oil to loosen the salt and sea crusted screws on the sign. I freed one screw but there was no key underneath. It was on the other side and harder to reach. My forehead beaded with sweat and cordoned down my cleavage before I got the screw loose. Before I could catch it, the key dropped onto the bottom ledge. If it fell into the oily, turgid waters of the marina, I’d never find it.
To my right was a wooden box with painting supplies. Dorian was always touching up parts of his boat the sea wanted to reclaim. In the box I found a tube of caulking. A conch republic flag waved above me. Standing on the balcony railing, I was able to grab the flag pole and smear one end with caulking. I used the pole to grab the key. It worked.
Once inside, floodgates of tears released. His death hit me with full force. The interior had been tossed, not I suspected, by the sheriff and his hands off men. Did the killer do it, trying to find Chaz’ notebooks and music or were they looking for something else? The room, the walls became to pitch. Had I not sat down and put my head between my legs, I would have passed out. Had I not sat down I wouldn’t have noticed the tiny edge of paper that peeked from the bottom of the box springs of the sofa, which doubled as seating area and spare bed.
After drinking some Italian fizzy water and forcing myself to eat a few saltines, I felt better, and took inventory. In typical maritime houseboat style, if there was such a thing, Dorian’s living quarters reflected the sea. Interior walls were painted navy blue, the floor and ceiling were painted white, and navy and white striped grass mats covered designated areas. Treasure maps and nautical charts papered the walls, and sea worthy built in shelves and cupboards (painted kelly green) displayed books, shell collections, and ship models. Five or six chests of various sizes served as extra storage, coffee or side table, or did double duty as chair and keeper of the tools he’d used while serving as shipmate or captain.
Nothing was where it was supposed to be now. Trunks had been emptied, pillows slashed, and cupboards riffled through. A Murano bowl that once held bits of colored sea glass and other beachy finds, and a drinking glass were the only things shattered. About a dozen books had pages ripped out; covers were torn from several paperbacks. Dorian’s broom and dustpan were put to good use. Undamaged books were returned to galley shelves, framed pictures were righted. The killer hadn’t found Chaz’ papers or Dorian’s notes but I did.
His houseboat would need a deep cleaning, hours of brass polishing, repainting, sewing, sweeping. Dmetri would decide what to do with Dorian’s belongings. I pried Chaz’ papers and Dorian’s notes from the underside of the sofa and threw them in my bag. The shades needed to be pulled down; the window fan switched to low. I took the spare key with me. There was just enough time for a quick swim before starting a bartending shift I’d reluctantly agreed to honor because no one else was available. The sea was calling me, I could feel its pull. I needed its warm, salty, amniotic embrace.
### *** ### *** ###
Dmetri looked exactly as Dorian had described him. He was a handsome man, about 5’11, with broad shoulders, and dark, sleep smudged eyes. Dorian must have described me to him, for he bounded right over. Within seconds I was airborne, locked in a fierce embrace. “Il suo migliore amico, and now you are my best friend as well.”
I couldn’t help smiling hearing Dorian’s Italian spoken with Dmetri’s London accent. I wouldn’t recite niceties to this grieving man—how was your flight; I’m sorry for your loss…? Instead I sputtered, “I’m nobody’s friend; I got your dad killed. What do you want to do—strangle me right now with your bare hands or deck our lazy assed sheriff first for his reluctance to investigate your dad’s death?”
His rough hand cupped my chin. Mi padre agreed with you 100%. “I almost want to, how you say, strangle myself, for putting off talking with him for so long.”
“Let’s get your baggage. I hope you’ll stay at my bungalow for a few nights. The killer ransacked Dorian’s houseboat. I wasn’t able to get it spic and span.”
“If it’s not too inconvenience, I would like that Nora. Otherwise….”
“There’s no otherwise,” I told him, insisting Dmetri take my bedroom, though my bed sported frilly, freshly washed, madly floral Laura Ashley sheets. He gripped the arm rest as I navigated from the airport to my bungalow in serpentine fashion. I pointed out Hemingway’s house, with its 6-toed cats; Pier House where Truman Capote stayed during his first visit; and the best place to net fat little shrimp at night. He confided his nervousness was a result of my driving on the wrong side of the road, and admitted he didn’t own a car.
The outside of my humble abode got a thumbs up symbol from Dmetri. He beamed at the mad riot of fragrant flowers that surrounded the cottage. I had to give credit to my neighbor, who joyfully maintained my small yard. In exchange, he never paid for his drinks at any bar where I worked. My neighbor and I also shared the bounty from our orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees, banana plants, and a year round veggie patch.
Dmetri threw his leather duffel bag on a bench at the foot of the bed. When I pointed out the bathroom, he said a shower might revive him, and rifled through his bag for a change of clothes. Exactly 5 minutes later, he was seated at the kitchen table, wearing crisply pressed jeans and a powder blue silk shirt with sleeves rolled up. The watch on his dark, hairy wrist looked expensive, and what resembled a small, gold astrolabe hung from a thick gold chain round his neck. On his feet, tooled Italian sandals. His dark hair was combed straight back, and the 5 o’clock shadow gave him a sexy, rather rakish look. However, the pain his eyes revealed made me doubly aware of my own.
I’d stocked the fridge with gourmet items from Alma’s parents store—runny, ripe cheeses and a wedge of Stilton; smoked salmon, cured salami, prosciutto di parma, capicola ham; marinated veggies and brined Kalamata olives… On the counter sat a collection of Cuban and Rustic breads, Amaretto cookies individually wrapped, and Ferrero Rocher and Baci Perugina chocolates. He wasn’t hungry. He did accept a double expresso, and confided the best way to ward off jet lag was to resist napping and embrace the time zone you were in.
We decided to visit Sheriff Hayes first, then swing by Dorian’s houseboat. I told him about my friend Rod and the files he’d copied for me, adding I still owed him a mermaid tale. Dmetri asked if his padre had told me mermaid stories and if he still claimed to have seen them in his travels. I winced, but had to tell him no. The tall tales I knew had been passed down in my family and embellished by my research and natural proclivities.
He gave me a curious look, then shook his head and asked to see the collected evidence, including the papers and notes I’d rescued yesterday. I paced the floor as I filled in bits Dorian hadn’t told his son. The fridge became a murder board again, holding dozens of magnet pinned papers and crime photos. The evidence seemed to point to the mysterious Lydia, though I’d added a few more suspects. Dorian’s notes said Chaz was crazy loco in love with her. She’d accepted his gifts, but spurned his attention.
Dmetri jotted notes in a battered brown journal that had a likeness of Vitruvian Man etched into its cover. So intense was our discussion during the next half hour that the loud banging on the door startled both of us. Without looking I opened the door.
“Well if it isn’t the little sperm-maid and who’s this—your latest drown rat sailor from the sea?” York sauntered in and headed towards the living room. Dmetri jumped to his feet and clenched a silver ball point pen in his left hand. Ironically, York was untypically wearing a black and white striped sailor shirt, the kind Italian gondolier’s wear, as well as his pointiest shit kicking boots.
It got ugly quickly. York claimed I was still holding onto stuff that belonged to him; he was going to take it back. I reminded him I’d returned everything weeks ago. He needn’t bother returning my key, I added, as I’d changed the locks. I spread out my arms in Vitruvian Man fashion, trying to block him advancing any further. I was yelling at him to get out of my house.
“You’re in my way, Nora. Move or I swear I’ll…” He lunged for me and I ducked.
Dmetri stepped in front of me. In a quiet, menacing voice, he told York to leave and pointed at the door. York darted into the living room, headed for the bedroom. Dmetri chased after him. The door to the bedroom was closed. Dmetri pole vaulted over the sofa. He grabbed York by his shirt and spun him round. His right hand formed a bear claw as he raised his left leg in classic crane stance.
York made a fist and a few guttural sounds and punched the air. Dmetri turned sideways, and kicked York square in his solar plexus before he could land a punch. York flew across the room until he connected with a wall. He crumpled to the floor and lay still.
Dmetri looked at me, right arm fully extended, left arm bent and still holding the pen. By way of explanation he said “Enter the Dragon—I’m a big Bruce Lee fan.”
“Okkkay,” I replied, shaking my head in wonderment, “as long as it wasn’t Game of Death, cause I think Lee died making that movie. I’m so sorry Dmetri. I’ve no idea what he’s really doing here, but this is a small island. News of your arrival has likely spread. I kicked the guitar playing dead beat out after a disagreement got—physical. He thought he was a rock god. I didn’t. York and I were lobster snorkeling the day I found Chaz’ body. Ever since, he’s been insisting I forget what I saw.”
York moaned, jerked to a sitting position, and crab scooted backwards to the door. “This ain’t over sperm-maid.” He used the door frame to pull himself upright. “Here, I had some news for you about Delacroix. Guess I’ll just keep it to myself.” He glanced back at Dmetri, “You got my sloppy seconds kung fu’eee. Her obsession’s gonna get both of you killed. Good riddance.” York stumbled through the door and down the steps.
My voice quavered as I thanked Dmetri. “Amazing, you bested him without drawing a drop of blood. You did what I’ve been wanting to do for such a long time to that bully…” I had more to say, but only managed to get out “these are happy tears,” before the floodgates opened.
Dmetri’s thumb swabbed my face and he tasted my tears. “Definitely not wolf or crocodile tears. I detect a trace of milk—spilled milk? You know what they say about that.” He held me tightly until I was empty. When I pulled away, his face and neck was damp. There was redness round his eyes.
“I guess Frankie Valle got it wrong, ‘Big Girls Do Cry.’ The next time you see moisture on my face, it’ll be from the rain or the sea, I promise. We’ve got work to do—a memorial to plan, murders to solve.”
The son had his father’s gift for language. While I fixed him a hero sandwich, he thumbed through one of Chaz’ journals; parts were in Italian, which I didn’t understand unless it pertained to food or cussing. He read aloud and translated passages, amazed at this man’s insightfulness. The last one he read with a voice that cracked with tension and tenderness.
Chaz Journal (Italian translation, with lapses into French): ‘Mais no, the reporter got it wrong again. It’s incredible, alors. s’il s’imagine que…Rock music is solitude, not loneliness, entirely danceable without a partner, equally as enjoyed in an empty room as in a crowd. Its roots are ancient, yet it is part of modern technology. Viva la transistor radio, le boom box. I write for the solitary soul, not les masses. My story, the stings and pleasures of loving and being left, aussi their story. Monsieur Pavese knew ‘life is pain…love an anesthetic. Who wants to wake midway through the operation that is life?’ No more interviews. Hugo must deal with them, written statements only from now on.’ In the margin, in red ink, Chaz had written ‘Who listens? It is only those that know their silent attention is an act of love.’
Next up, Chapter 7, An Act of Parliament, and more Grave Goddess and Remains to be Seen…