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Toros & Torsos TOROS & TORSOS

"It is not only the deceptive calm of the surroundings that is troubling but the clarity of the unreal and fraudulent character of that which is seen."
— Sidra Stich


"Can I sit with you for a time, sir?"

A silky voice — alto, but strained. The young woman said, "I think a man in this place may mean me harm."

Hector Lassiter looked up from his notebook.

She was 23, maybe 24. Pretty, poised and flustered.

Hector had seen her come in an hour or so before, when he'd looked up to check the weather, which was still strangely calm. Although Hector had at least a dozen years on her, he'd been attracted to her. Then he'd become absorbed in his writing…lost track of the young woman and of his interest in her while he wrote.

The crime novelist closed his notebook, capped his pen and slipped it into the pocket of his faded and striped fisherman's shirt. He gestured at the empty seat across from him and said, "Sit, please."

The short story he'd been trying to shape was showing every sign of being a dog, anyhow. He'd been trying to write the forecasted hurricane into the story, but it wasn't coming together.

Hector sipped his mojito, watching her. The woman sat down and Hector rose, walked behind her, and scooted in her chair. She was wearing a white dress that bared her shoulders and most of her back — more than a little sunburn there. He sat back down and gestured at his glass. Hector said, "Ever have one?"

"No," she said. "I mean, I don't think so. Not even sure what that is. Is that mint in there with the lime?"

"Mashed in, then some more as garnish." Hector raised two fingers at his bartender friend. He pointed at his nearly empty glass and then at himself and the woman. "You'll love this, trust me," he said. "Calm your nerves. Like my Daddy said, 'You've got to find what you love and let it kill you.'"

She was blond. Blue eyes and long legs. The woman was bustier than most regarded as the vogue. But Hector never bought into the flapper physique and mystique. That aesthetic bewildered him: Hector liked curves.

"I feel I know you," she said. "I mean, as if I've maybe seen you before. I'm pretty sure I have…just yesterday."

Hector winked. "Sure. And likewise. Think I saw you come in on the steamship. I was out fishing with a friend."

"The man with the black boat? I heard that is Hemingway's boat."

"That's right," Hector said. "The Pilar. Now, this man who scared you…"

She nodded and fidgeted. "He's across the bar. He keeps staring and smiling at me. He has a big knife. He's been running his finger along the blade as he smiles at me. I mean, it's not so much of a smile…more of a…." She searched for the right word.

"A 'leer'?" Hector offered.

"Perfect — a leer. And he doesn't have so many teeth." She paused as the bartender placed her drink on the table.

Hector said, "Here, Josie," and slipped a couple of bills to the man. He raised his fresh mojito and extended his arm for a toast. "To new friends," Hector said.

She nodded distractedly and they tapped glasses. She sipped her drink and said, "It's delicious." She took another sip and said, "If I leave here alone, I'm afraid he'll follow me. I'm pretty sure that he will do that."

Hector was pretty sure, too. But he said, "Well you can stop worrying about that. I'll see you safely out of here."

She smiled. "Thank you so much, Mr. Lassiter."

He narrowed his eyes. "You know my name?"

She blushed. "I've been holding out on you a bit. I do know who you are. My friend recognized you. She recognized Mr. Hemingway first, and then you. She's read his books, and yours, too. I've read you as well. She loaned me one of your novels she had along — one I seem to have missed." She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a well-thumbed copy of Rhapsody In Black. "I checked your face against the photo on the back of the jacket. You look just like your picture, Mr. Lassiter. I love it. Your novel, I mean…although your photo is certainly very nice, too. It's gripping. Your book, I mean. It cost me sleep. I'm truly afraid how it might end."

Hector shrugged. "Figure on it ending darkly. They all do. And hey, please call me Hector. Now, what do I call you?"

"Rachel Harper."

He shook her hand and gave her his best smile — strong white teeth and dimples. "Okay then, Rachel. This man — where is he?"

"Is it a good idea to point him out? I wouldn't want to provoke him."

Hector nodded at the bar. "The mirror there behind you…I have the angle. I can see the whole room. So describe him to me."

"Not hard to spot," she said. "He's swarthy…maybe Mexican, or Cuban. He has a patch over his left eye. Very few teeth. He is perhaps six-feet tall, although I haven't seen him standing. But to me he looks rather tall. He's thin. There is a scar on his forehead above the eyepatch and also below it."

"He is a nasty looking piece of work," Hector said. "Any reason you can think of as to why he might be after you, Rachel?"

"None at all, Mr. Lassiter."

"Hector. Well, you're a very pretty young woman. That's too often reason enough in these sorry parts."

"Do you know him, Hector?"

He hesitated, then shrugged. "What makes you think I might?"

"Key West is so small, and you live here."

"Me and twelve thousand others. And God only knows how many tourists. Scads of sightseers. Boatloads of 'em, in and out, every day. They come in like you and your pal, on steamships and on ferries or on private yachts. They ride in on that damned crazy over-ocean train. This friend of yours, by the way — you indicated this friend is a woman?"

"Her name is Beverly."

Hector nodded, pleased. "You and Bev — there are hundreds like you two through here every day, bound from Miami or headed back there," Hector said. "Or they're headed for Cuba, intent on slumming in Havana."

Rachel's cheeks reddened. "Funny you say that. Beverly — Bev, as you call her — she met a man last evening. She's gone on to Cuba with him for a day or so. She left me here alone." She shook her head at her abandonment by her friend. "She left me here, alone," she said again.

Better and better. Hector sipped some more light rum and lime juice. He licked his lip and said. "Well, for now at least, you're not alone, Rachel."

"No." She half-smiled. "I was a fool to let Bev talk me into this trip. And we weren't keeping up with the news. Never occurred to us, either, that August and September are hurricane months in the Atlantic. We didn't know about the big storm headed this way."

Hector frowned. "'Storm,' even 'big storm,' is understating it more than a bit. It's almost certainly a damn hurricane — maybe the worst we'll ever see."

She sipped her mojito…a savoring sip. Hector smiled. She seemed to like it fine. But her hand was trembling. "I'm terrified of this storm," she said. "I hear, only now of course, that if it hits Key West directly, everything here could be laid waste."

Hector reached across the table and squeezed her hand. She squeezed briefly back, so he was emboldened to leave his big and callused hand there, closed over hers. "Key West has never taken a direct hit from a tropical storm like the one you're fretting over," he said. "Many of these homes here on Bone Key pre-date the Civil War. The old Islanders believe Key West's position makes it impossible for a tropical storm to strike it directly. But that's not to say it can't still be very nasty." Hector felt Rachel's hand flutter under his own. But she didn't move to withdraw her hand.

Encouraged, Hector leaned in, smiling. "With precautions, we can ride these things out, please believe me. I've been through several hurricanes and tropical storms since I moved here years ago. I'm still standing, and so is my house."

"I suppose," Rachel said. "I mean, here you are to prove it, right? But I have no experience with these things, Mr. Lassiter. And alone and with that man watching me? It's almost too much to cope with. I really don't know what to do, Mr. Lassiter."

"Hector. Where are you staying, Rachel?"

"We're in the Colonial Hotel." At seven stories, it was the tallest structure on the island — Key West's lone "skyscraper." Approaching the island by boat from a certain angle, with the lighthouse and the three wireless towers at the naval base hidden behind, the hotel made the island look like it had a hard-on.

"Swanky digs," Hector said. "The island's best rooms and view. It's pretty solid, too. 'Cept for all those damned windows. How high up are you?"

"Fifth floor, facing east."

"Then I'd urge you to consider checking out of there in the next few hours. Speaking just for myself, I wouldn't try to ride out a hurricane in that joint. And certainly not on that side."

Rachel stared at her hands, flexing her fingers…she was feeling the alcohol numbing them, Hector figured. She said, "If I check out of the hotel, where would I go?" He could hear the strain in her voice.

Hector said, "Well…I have a second bedroom. You could take refuge at my place until the danger is passed. I boarded up the windows this morning. I laid in my own provisions, and early. We'll probably be without phones and electricity for a few days, if not a week here on the island. And fresh water will maybe be scarce, too. But I've seen to that at my place. Just have some last minute shopping to do — makings for big fresh sandwiches and some more candles for late-night writing. More batteries for the short-wave. And the fixings for more of these." Hector hefted his mojito, grinning.

Rachel smiled, propping her head up on her hand, clearly a little drunk now. "You sound like a boy planning an adventure."

Hector smiled. "It's my way of coping with this damned blow," he said. "It's the strategy that has seen me through storms before. We can be scared, Rachel. We can be depressed, or fatalistic. Or, when it comes to us and this storm, we can be well-fed and pleasantly lit. I can spend my time writing to make some money and taking breaks to warm my belly with rum and my big Cuban sandwiches and good talk with you." He smiled again. "So, are you willing to share this 'boy's' adventure?"

"You know, you really didn't answer my question," she said.

"What question is that?"

"Whether you know that man who keeps looking at me while he plays with his knife."

Hesitation: "I do."

"So he is a local."

"Kind of."

"And you know him?"

"Kind of."

"Are you going to tell me more, Hector?"

"I don't want to upset you any more than you already are, Rachel."

"I want to know about him. You tell stories for a living. Do that now. Skip the worst parts of it if you have to, but let me know this man's story. Why would he be after me?"

Hector held up fingers for two more drinks. Hector had finished his mojito. Rachel was two or three sips from polishing off hers. "This man you've identified is an island character…or I suppose you'd call him that in a charitable mood," Hector said. "He's part Cuban. He goes by the name of Tito Castillo. He's reputedly linked to a revolutionary cell based in Havana. The Cuban revolutionaries have lately taken to grabbing gringo tourists for hostages. They release them in exchange for ransom money they use to fund their guerilla operations. They rob banks and businesses across the Keys to generate more money to buy guns and explosives — that sort of thing. Tito has a small boat and allegedly smuggles guns and rum and revolutionists between here and Cuba and back. But he's also got a reputation as a lady-killer. I mean that literally."

Rachel was ashen. "And the police have done nothing to stop him? I mean, if you know, and if the whole island knows…?"

"Proof, Rachel." Hector nodded at Josie as the bartender placed their fresh drinks on cardboard mats. "Gotta have proof, and Old Tito is a careful one. He may not look like much other than a one-eyed, gangly rummy with bad teeth and skin, but he's probably one of the five most dangerous men on Bone Key."

Rachel said, "So what do we do, Hector? Do I sneak out the back and you meet me somewhere, or…?"

"Nothing so cloak-and-dagger," Hector said. "Please remember, I'm a crime novelist, not a mystery writer. So I tend toward the direct approach. You just wait here, sweetheart."

Hector rose and walked over to the table where the tall, swarthy man with the eye patch sat. As Rachel had said, he had a Bowie knife out, and he was dragging his callused thumb across the blade.

Hector pulled out a chair across from the man and smiling, plopped down. Hector winked and said, "Hola, Tito."

The man scowled and said, "I don't know you, do I? No, I don't think I do. Maybe have seen you around. But I don't truly know you." He held up his knife and grinned — most of the teeth on the left side of his mouth were missing. "I no looking for company, my pretty boy."

Smiling, Hector said, "Me either." Then he brought the heel of his work boot down on the top of the swarthy man's sandaled foot. The one-eyed man screamed and reflexively raised his wounded foot, his knee smacking the underside of the table. As Tito groaned at that second impact, Hector reached across the table, grabbed the man by both ears and slammed his head down against the tabletop.

Hector stood and stepped back from the table, surveying the results. He smiled at a slack-jawed Rachel and stern-looking Josie. "Out cold," Hector said. He took Rachel's shaking hand. "Now we go."

Looking flustered, Rachel stood and smoothed out the pleats in her dress and grabbed her purse and copy of Hector's novel. Then she paused and drained her mojito and set it back down, the ice cubes tinkling in the now empty glass.

"He'll come looking for you, won't he," Rachel said, scowling, "I mean, come looking for you for revenge? You know what they say about 'no good deed going unpunished.'"

Hector shrugged, draining his own drink. "Not so sure sucker-punching some son of a bitch qualifies as a 'good deed,' Rachel. And Tito lives on that boat of his I told you about. He's famous — or infamous — for riding out storms on that sorry crate. If this blow is half as bad as it looks to be, bastard'll likely be drowned before end of Labor Day weekend. So don't sweat it on my account, honey. If Tito survives the hurricane, I'll see to him myself. 'Retaliate first,' that's my motto. But now let's get out of here."

He took her arm and said to Josie, "Sorry pal." Hector smiled and shrugged. "But at least no damages this time, yeah?"

"Sure," the bartender said with a frown. "Those'll likely come when that son of a bitch comes to."

Looking contrite, Hector bit his lip and steered Rachel out into the muggy sun. They walked a few yards, then Hector said, "I feel bad about that — for Josie I mean. And I forgot to arrange delivery of our provisions."

Rachel frowned. "You mean that we're going back?"

"Just me," Hector said. "Just to arrange delivery of the liquor to my place, and to give Josie some money to have his boy, Carlos, maybe drag old Tito to the other side of the island. Likely best to let Tito wake up far from the scene of my crime and Josie's joint. You wait here, Rachel. You'll be safe, I swear. I'll be back in a jiffy."

Hector ducked back into the shade of the saloon, his eyes slow to adjust from the harsh sunlight. He blinked a few times and looked back over his shoulder to make certain that Rachel hadn't followed.

Josie was patting the swarthy man on the back and handing him a drink and a wet towel for his swollen lip as Hector sidled up beside him. The one-eyed man grinned with bloodied gums and a swollen lip. He said:

"It worked, Mr. Lassiter?"

"It worked so fine, Tito. You okay?"

"Yeah…hell yeah, Mr. Lassiter. Thanks for putting the damage on the left side. I'm trying to save what teeths left on the right so I have something to chaw with."

"I promised you I would make it the left side, Tito." It was the least Hector could do: their little scam to score tail for Hector was tried and true, and it had cost Tito several of those teeth now missing along the left side of his mouth.

Hector dug down into his pocket and pulled out his roll. He tugged off two tens and handed them to Tito. "There you go, as promised, old pal." Hector smiled at Tito, thinking, Poor toothless goddamn rummy. But Hector said aloud, "We're going to hunker down at my place until this storm passes, then she'll likely be getting back on the boat for Miami. Think you could stay to the other end of the island until after the Big Blow, Tito? Wouldn't want to send her off to the mainland thinking you're still stalking her, Teet."

"Can do, Mr. Lassiter." That terrible smile.

Hector smiled back and clapped the one-eyed man on the back and handed some more cash to Josie. "A fresh bottle for Tito here, Josie. Then, say in an hour, can you send Carlos to my place with some ice and makings for mojitos?"

Josie nodded, holding out his hand for more cash. "Sure. Gonna nail this skirt, you figure? She's sure enough a looker, Hector, that's for certain."

"Time will tell," Hector said with a shrug and a smile.

"Hell of a soothing way to ride out a storm," Josie said.

"The only way to do it," Hector said. Then he frowned and stripped off two more bills. "And send Carlos around to the jewelers. Have him pick me up a locket, or brooch. Maybe a bracelet. Something old looking would be best…something I could say belonged to my mother."

Josie shook his head. "Jesus but you're going to go to hell, Hec."

The crime novelist smiled, then squared his shoulders, set his mouth in a frown and stepped back out into the harsh sunlight.

Rachel was standing on the corner, her bare and proud shoulders squared, silhouetted against the sun…the outline of her thighs visible under the backlit cotton of her dress and sheer silk of her slip. Rachel held her purse in front of her and she nodded at Hector as she saw him step out of Sloppy Joe's. There was a worried look on her pretty face and she said:

"That man, Tito, he's still out cold?"

"Still is." Hector said. "Now let's get over to that hotel and collect your stuff and get you settled in."

"I can't thank you enough for all you've done, Hector," Rachel said. "Not that you ever want to confuse authors with their books or with their characters, but I have to confess, I didn't expect you to be so gallant, Hector. I never expected you to be such a gentleman."

"That's me all over," Hector said, wrapping an arm around Rachel's waist as they crossed the street. "I'm a regular Boy Scout."

© Craig McDonald