Everglades City, FL
Joyce was still on lockdown when Ronald offered to have her father’s cadaver tossed in a pit and burned with the corpses of the bikers and the mercenaries. She had no qualms about this particular scenario, but April insisted that her grandfather deserved a proper burial, so Joyce relented.
Everglades City was the only place that Joyce and her father ever returned to during her childhood – for reasons that remained unclear. In her mind, it’s the closest place he had to a hometown. Their second stay was far briefer than the first. It was also the first time that Joyce ever fired a gun. An ancient Webley Top-Break Revolver that her father had sourced in Gainesville two months previously. She was 13.
Her father clattered through the motel door, his fake military uniform splattered with dark blood. He was being pursued by a fat man in a leisure suit, who had a complexion like boiled meat. Joyce instinctively reached behind the bedside drawer for the gun – which had been affixed to the cheap furniture with criss-crossed carpet tape.
Her first shot splintered the door frame – something her father never tired of reminding her – but her second winged the fat man and sent him scurrying into the dank night, bloodied but still alive.
Her first kill didn’t come until her 18th birthday. On the Kuwaiti border with an M24. A high-ranking official within the Iraqi Ground Force, they later said. Like it mattered.
Joyce takes a slug of scotch from her hip-flask and lights another small cigar. She stares at the warped casket holding her father’s withered husk and feels a slight twinge where her heart used to be.
The preacher-come-gravedigger – a stooped alcoholic with a milky left eye – finishes the service and shuffles towards the rusted John Deere mini-digger without a word.
Across the other side of the grave is an old man. A fellow mourner. No obituary notices were posted in the local papers, so Joyce figures him for a kook. A ghoul. A nutjob. Ten minutes ago, he unfolded a bottle-green lawn chair and sat down, sipping at a McDonalds thick-shake.
40 feet away, in the parking lot, Ronald leans against the SUV, twirling his keys irritably. His thick beard glistens with sweat, and his tracksuit has discolored under the armpits. He is scheduled to deliver Joyce and April to Eglin Air Force Base by midday, so they can board a flight to Mogadishu, from where they will make their own way to Kampala – towards whichever bloody reckoning awaits them.
Joyce turns back to the man in the lawn-chair. His big dentures gleam in the early morning sun as he smiles at nothing in particular. Something feels off about this.
She turns back to Ronald, just in time to see his windpipe hacked apart by a monstrous-looking specimen in a zip-up coverall.
Joyce reaches into her clutch bag for the Seecamp LWS 2.
The working girls she used to talk to on motel forecourts referred to pistols this size as ‘hooker’s handguns’. Useful to scare off the kind of Johns who didn’t believe in ‘safe words’, rubbers and pricing structures. Those women – haggard lushes for the most part – supplied her with makeup, tampons and other valuable life lessons that her father was ill-equipped to deliver.
She pauses – hand on the pistol grip – when she sees the red dot of a sniper rifle skitter between the torsos of her and her daughter.
The triggerman is poised behind the John Deere. The preacher lies crumpled in the dirt, his neck snapped.
The man in the lawn chair clears his throat.
“You have my condolences, Ms. DeWitt. Your father was a … fascinating character.”
His English is precise, but heavily accented. She can detect a Balkan inflection, but can’t pinpoint his exact country of origin.
“He was very proud of you. My princess, he called you. Desert Storm. Special Forces. Purple Heart. Black Ops. Once he started talking, he never stopped. He told me you once killed 100 Africans in one day! Marvelous.”
Joyce nods tersely, face burning with shame at the unpleasant memories that refused to stay buried in Kampala.
“Unfortunately, your father owed us a lot of money, Ms. DeWitt.”
He pauses for dramatic effect, licking strawberry milkshake off his blistered lips.
“One million dollars. Or, one hundred and fourteen million Albanian Lek, if you prefer.”
Beside her, she feels April’s lithe body tense.
“Mom? Who are these people?”
Joyce says nothing.
The man with the combat knife is beside them now. He runs the blood-slick blade across April’s dress and grins nastily. He has to be at least 6’8”. He twists April’s hair in his fist and spits in the old man’s unfilled grave.
“You have 24 hours to get me my money. Every hour after that, I will have my son, Zygmund Jr., cut a piece off your enchanting daughter and feed it to his fucking dogs. The Dervishi Family always gets its pound of flesh – something your father failed to truly appreciate.”
Senior tosses the empty milkshake container into the grave and folds his lawn chair.
Voice cracking, Joyce shouts: “Where can I find you? When I have the money?”
The old man grins – big dentures sparkling again, and shrugs.
“Ask around. I’m well known in certain circles. But don’t believe everything you hear about me. The truth is generally far worse, young lady.”
Zygmund Jr. marches April between the gravestones and Joyce considers putting a bullet in his spine, but she has been drinking for two hours and doesn’t want to risk hitting her daughter.
He passes the girl to a masked man next to a white panel van.
The kid is far tougher than Joyce ever gave her credit for. The shit-storm in Sierra Nevada proved that. If Dervishi is true to his word, April should be able to hold out for 24 hours with these goons.
As the van rumbles out of the parking lot, Joyce considers her options. No cash. No contacts. Just an itchy funeral dress, a Lo-Jacked agency SUV and a dead handler.
Who the hell can she reach out to, down here in the ass-crack of Florida?
Barrington Paradiso was a slim, softly-spoken Jamaican who worked with Joyce and Samson for three years in the mid-1990s. He was one of Dario’s former proteges, discovered in a Kingston crack-house during a search and destroy mission. The kid – who was sat on a suitcase full of product – pulled two Uzis on Dario, threatened to wet him. He was 5.
Barrington and Joyce shared a birthday and a blood type, but very little else. Dario cultivated the boy’s sadistic tendencies and indulged the queasier aspects of his personality. As a killer, Barrington was cool and efficient. Ice water in his veins. He was an asset. Until he wasn’t. The last time Joyce saw him – in 1996 – she broke his nose with a shotgun butt after an incident with a 19-year-old Finnish girl at an amputee brothel in Kaliningrad.
During one of his rambling, drunken videocalls, Samson gurgled with laughter as he told Joyce that Barrington had reinvented himself as ‘Barry Paradise’ – a brash nightlife impresario, with three increasingly garish strip clubs in Pompano Beach.
Joyce removes the utility knife strapped to Ronald’s calf and hacks through the middle of his right index finger, careful to avoid his dead gaze. This gives her access to his cellphone and the lockbox full of guns in the trunk.
She slips into the air-conditioned interior of the SUV and taps ‘Paradise Parlour, Pompano Beach’ into the dash-mounted sat-nav with bloody fingers.
90 minutes over the I-75.
She opens the timer function on Ronald’s phone and sets it for 24 hours, before tossing the handset on the passenger seat.
24 hours to find one million dollars.
And save the only human being she has ever truly loved.
The Paradise Parlour
Pompano Beach, FL
The only thing sadder than the girls working the pole at a strip club this early in the morning are the men watching them. At least the noon crowd comes in under the guise of the buffet lunch, even if the lunch isn’t much more than reheated fried chicken and deli meats that glisten unnaturally underneath the LED lighting. Those guys, men with expense accounts, they’ll pay extra for a “dance” in back, cameras off, bouncers just far enough they can hear but they can’t see. They’ll throw out the extra green, or just hand a credit card and say to keep it coming until they…
These early-bird fuckers, though, they won’t even pay for an extra peek of asshole. They mount up in Pervert’s Row with a handful of ones and sip sodas and seem completely content getting less than what you’d get on your phone with a shitty signal. No money to be made here. So why even fucking bother?
Because it’s the perfect time for Barry Paradise to discover who the rising talent is – or who’s on the decline. New girls, you can’t put them on stage in prime time. Too many times, big tits and perky asses, think they’d be a natural, fresh meat that gets up there and freezes up. Fucking humiliating. For Barry. He guesses it’s the same for the girl, too, but he’s not losing sleep over that.
No, Barry Paradise knows time is money, and he’s not wasting either if he doesn’t have to, so his girls all start out here. He figures, if they can squeeze dollars from the brigade of losers who’ll darken the doorstep of an adult entertainment complex while the rest of the world is ordering Grand Slam specials, then they work their way to later shifts, and might be worth a spot during the Big Show, where the real money is.
The girl dancing right now – stage name Krystle, the fifth spelling variation on that he’s given a girl this year – she’s on her way down. She’d had potential when she started, but potential don’t mean shit when you stick a needle in your arm and track marks show up underneath black light. What she doesn’t know, as she’s shaking her shrinking ass to 2 Chainz, is this is her last dance. There is no more money to be gleaned from her. No more marquee value in that fake name on the sign outside. And once she’s gone, he can send that spelling back into the mix, distribute it to another chick with raging daddy issues looking to make untaxed cash.
Because money is the reason for every season for Barry Paradise. Ever since Dario dragged him out of that shit-hole in Kingston. Dario, who became his surrogate father, who taught him all the things a good father teaches a son, like to break down and reassemble a rifle in the dark, or how to take out four attackers unarmed, the only person walking away. Things Hallmark doesn’t have cards for.
The clusterfuck in Klaipeda – nine dead, and two months of bribes and diplomatic negotiations, with an emphasis on the bribes, before he could come home – had been the last straw for him. That’s when he decided being Barrington Paradiso wasn’t worth it anymore. That was the birth of Barry Paradise.
So, what if he isn’t the reed-thin kid he’d once been? Filling out the loud suits he sports every night. Three-piece jobs, his growing stomach straining the six-button coats, neon colors and patterns louder than the club music. He’s worked just as hard building this empire as he did killing all those people. Feels that gives him the right to sit at his bar and to drink rum and pineapple juice at 10:05 a.m., to judge the malcontents gathered around the stage and the one on it. This is his little kingdom.
The song ends and Krystle steps off the stage. He nods over to Bones, the head bouncer. Bones, who’ll escort Krystle to the dressing room, tell her to gather her personal items, to leave her costume in a plastic bag, and who’ll walk her out to the parking lot, to either her car or to the bus stop, however she got there. It’s not Barry Paradise’s problem anymore.
As the DJ calls Amethyst up on stage, Barry glances toward the security video feeds on the closed-circuit TV behind the bar. An SUV slides between yellow lines in the parking lot, and a woman gets out.
Even in the graininess of the closed-circuit feed, Barry can ID that face. He’s never forgotten it; you tend to remember people who bust your nose with a shotgun butt. He sees her coming toward the club entrance, carrying herself with a stride borne of determination. Nothing good comes from that.
Barry Paradise throws back the last of his rum and pineapple juice and heads for his office, where he’s got a gun waiting. Thinking as he walks, How’d that bitch get here from Everglades City so fast?
Whoever had calculated the drive time to Pompano Beach had never been through the Underground’s defensive driving training. Joyce also doubted the unknown programmer had ever seen his daughter in the clutches of a knife-wielding psychopath.
She parked by a box truck to give herself as much cover as possible. Ronald’s weapons cache hadn’t disappointed but this required finesse. Luckily, his trench-coat almost fit her.
Every club like this had a variant on the same smell. Decades of smoke, sweat, and lust blended into a fug of despair. The knuckle-dragger manning the front desk looked her over. Instead of the challenge she’d expected, he shrugged and said, “Office is in the back corner.”
It was nicer than she expected. Honey oak furniture that had been fashionable in the ‘80s played off a couple of decent prints. It smelled better too.
“Damn, Joyce, you got old.”
“Better than getting fat, Barrington. At least, I earned these scars.”
The tension melted a fraction with his laugh.
“It’s Barry now and a lot of work went into this fine figure. Sit down and have a drink.”
He motioned to a chair exactly in front of his desk, and flipped over a pair of glasses.
Not even on a bet, she thought.
“Mind if I take off my coat? These funeral dresses aren’t built for comfort.”
His eyebrows came together in a facsimile of genuine emotion. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”
“That makes one of us.”
Joyce scanned the room. The obligatory ‘80s fake brass coat tree would do nicely. Keeping her body angled from him, she slipped off the trench-coat. In one smooth move, she swept it over the top-heavy rack and sent it crashing to the floor. His momentary distraction was all she needed to get to the side of his desk. When he turned toward her, he was looking down the 12-gauge barrel of the bullpup she’d slung under her arm.
“Okay Barry, the shotgun you have mounted under your desk is useless now. Even if you have it on a swivel, I’m out of the arc of fire. Mine, on the other hand, is ready to go.”
He was cool, she had to admit. Keeping both hands in plain sight, he poured himself a drink. After throwing it back, he said, “Nice piece. You and your damn shotguns. I thought you were more of a Benelli girl. That’s what you clocked me with.”
“I didn’t have time to shop. But this is the Kel-Tech KSG. A steel-polymer hybrid that’s less than ten pounds fully loaded. And it is fully loaded. Double-aught in the left mag and Bernanke slugs in the right. Fifteen total including the one in the chamber. We need to talk.”
Another drink, but his hand wasn’t quite as steady this time. “We’re good, Joyce. I know why you’re here.”
That surprised her but her aim didn’t waver. “Go on.”
“Everybody knows your old man was crosswise with the Russians.”
“What the fuck ever. They’re all Russians as far as I’m concerned. They come in here and don’t pay for their vodka and they’re rough on the girls. Nothing empties the club faster. I hate them.”
“So, you’ll help me?” It was hard to keep the note of hope out of her voice.
“Oh, hell no.”
At that, she jammed the muzzle into his temple. The spiked bezel dug into his skin and drew blood. “Then I might as well shoot. It could be the highlight of my day.”
“Calm your tits, Joyce. I can’t help you directly. First, I don’t have that kind of cash on hand. It’s tied up in real estate. Second, Dervishi made it clear that anyone who gave you money would owe him twice as much. However, I have a proposition for you if you’ll take that gun outta my face. I know I can depend on your trigger discipline, but I don’t want to bleed on my favorite shirt.”
Joyce stepped back and dropped her weapon to waist level. He didn’t speak as he dabbed at the wound with a chartreuse silk handkerchief. When he was finished, he poured two short shots of whiskey.
As he sipped his drink, her last bit of patience fled the building. “Talk, Barry. Now.”
His crooked smile and sly expression puzzled her. “I can’t help you. But there is someone with the juice to get you what you need and they hate the Russians even more than I do.”
Silence and a few more dabs with his hankie. She shouldered the shotgun and said, “Who?”
She hoped she’d kept her shock hidden. His smile told her she’d failed.
“Yeah. Here’s my proposition. I do some business with them on the side. I act as a, shall we say, clearinghouse for certain merchandise. Xu’s people come and go with packages and I mind my own fucking business and pocket my fee. However, a courier got himself shitfaced, thought he was in love with a dancer, and she pulled a switchblade on him. He’s in the hospital and Mr. Xu expects me to make it right. I’ll give you ten grand for walking-around money and arrange an introduction with one of Xu’s captains if you’ll deliver the package.”
“I’ll take that drink now. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Another smile, this one is triumph, as he handed her the glass.
“It’s your only chance, Joyce. Dervishi has pinched off every resource you might have in this part of the state.”
The whiskey was the good stuff and she relished the mellow burn.
“Seriously, Barry, why are you doing this?”
“I wasn’t lying about the courier. I’m in a bind. Also, you and me have history. That broken nose was the beginning of the end of my career as a thug. Yeah, even I can grow up. Second, Dervishi’s son used that knife of his on one of my girls. She was a sweetie. Not like the others. I wanted to find her a good rich daddy who’d treat her like a china doll. Junior ruined all that. After the bandages came off and she saw her face, she ate a bottle of pills. Not even a whore deserves that. You might be just the stick of dynamite I can shove up his ass. So, do I make the call?”
Joyce held out the glass for another splash and said, “Make the call.”
Barry refilled them both and said, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
To be continued…